Julia Gillard rants

As I write, Australia is enjoying – if that’s the word – its first day with a new prime minister. Kevin Rudd should perhaps be more accurately described as a discredited old prime minister that they dragged out to try to salvage the wreckage from policies that he initiated and Julia Gillard exacerbated. That at least is my understanding from a long way away, and it could very easily be wrong. This morning in Britain, on the BBC Today programme, Alastair Campbell, newly returned from a book-promotion visit to Australia, summarised the happenings with all the balance you would expect from Tony Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief. In the process he mentioned Gillard’s famous ‘misogynist’ speech, which he described as brilliant. Shall we see?

The background, as I understand it, to this speech is that the Speaker, Peter Slipper, has committed a gaffe in the form of an extremely off-colour sexist text message. Mechanisms for disciplining and possibly removing him are in motion, but Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, has demanded his instant removal. Slipper and Abbott are old friends and former parliamentary allies, but Slipper has changed political allegiance and is now part of Gillard’s minuscule majority. Abbott’s haste therefore appears to be opportunistic.

Not for the first time I find myself watching a political speech with incredulity. My niche is business speaking, where every second costs money. Every political second costs money also, but it’s other people’s so it doesn’t matter. Here we have fifteen minutes of ranting, a self-indulgent grievance-fest, that could easily have been wrapped up in two – and been far more effective for it.

Should I be impressed that she shot it all from the hip, referring to paper only for the quotations? No: any politician should be able to do that. Should I luxuriate in the anaphora that begins at 7:00 and then morphs into an extended polysyndeton? No: it merely adds to the turgid verbosity. There’s another anaphora at 11:00 and yet another at 12:20 – ho-hum!

This is school playground stuff, couched in parliamentary language; and politicians wonder why the electorate is more and more holding them in contempt. Alastair Campbell is easily pleased.

Mark Steyn – brilliant, but he must tend to the spoke not to the wrote.

Mark Steyn is a Canadian journalist. He is a contrarian that actually believes in freedom and democracy, rather than the cushioned cages offered by the world’s fashionable western bureaucracies.

On 29 February, 2012 he was speaking at a meeting of the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

English as she is spoke and English as she is wrote are subtly different languages. One of these days I shall write a full-scale essay on the subject; but for now I’d just like to return to a theme that I have oft – that’s apocope, if you’re interested – oft explored concerning a speaker being a talking head.

Steyn is reading his speech. He doesn’t read all of it: now and then his face addresses the room and he goes off on one. When he does, the speech comes alive. The rest of the time it comparatively lacks oomph.

On other occasions in this blog I’ve highlighted a range of advantages to constructing your speech in such a fashion that you have a clear enough mind-map for you to shoot the whole thing from the hip –

  • Audiences love it
  • It frees you to adjust the material on the hoof
  • If your face isn’t forever looking down, you are less likely to pop your microphone
  • It says all the right things about your command of the subject, confidence, sincerity, spontaneity,
  • It forces you to structure the material in a format that you can remember, and as a byproduct you make it easier for your audience to digest.
  • etc.

This speech is only 35 minutes long, and if he had been taught how to do it Steyn could easily have shot it all from the hip.

I’d like to add to that list of bullet-points another factor that comes into play here. It amounts to a challenge. I suggested earlier that there was a lingual difference between written and spoken English. I contend that you can close your eyes, listen to Steyn, and know when he is speaking and when he is reading. There’s a difference in the rhythm, the intensity, the sheer energy that comes out of the words. There’s even a difference in the words. This is where those who have been taught, or taught themselves, skilfully to handle paper too often fail.

Mark Steyn handles paper better than Brendan O’Neill and less well than Boris; but till he finds himself having to make a range of different speeches, day after day, it’s a wasted, indeed counter-productive skill. The skill he needs is learning to do without, and it continues to amaze me how few have it. In nearly fifty postings on this blog barely a handful of speakers have delivered without paper.

He writes brilliantly. He speaks very well, but less brilliantly. If he would only learn how to speak without paper, and trust himself to do it, his speaking would rise to the quality of his writing.

I will admit that there are occasions where it is appropriate, in fact better, to read the material. If you are quoting someone else at length, then by all means unashamedly do that from paper. I mention this because there is just such an example in this speech. At 9:35 Steyn quotes David Icke in an hilarious section that I would not have missed for anything.

In fact, I would not have missed the whole speech. It is brilliant; but particularly when he shoots from the hip.

P.S. [added 14/3/13] Since posting this, I have seen several instances of Steyn speaking without paper. He can do it. So why did he not do it here? I can only assume that he felt this high-profile event required greater security. That’s a mistake: paperless speaking, properly prepared, is actually more secure than its scripted equivalent.

Donna Laframboise – surrendered her focus to slides

Donna Laframboise is a Canadian investigative journalist who has a blog called No Frakking Consensus. She is also the author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert. She says that the blog began as notes for the book which is an expose of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’ve read her blog, and she writes well: how does she speak?

In July 2012 she was invited to speak at a meeting of Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs.

She seems not to bother with ethos. We seem not to be told anything about her credentials for standing there, speaking to us. Then again we don’t see her introduction. I have a suspicion that all her credentials were aired before we joined the party. The first we see and hear is about a minute’s worth of humble thanks and tributes to the host organisation – and this gives me an opportunity briefly to ride one of my hobby-horses.

In my experience this is a mistake. However sincerely we mean it – and I have no doubt she does – sticking a thank-fest on the front of a speech is mildly counter-productive. I hold this opinion not through firm knowledge as to why it should be (though you will see I have theories), but through studying audiences. It switches them off.

It could be that it smacks of smarmy Oscar award ceremonies; it could be that the audience is thinking that thou dost protest too much; it could be impatience – “yeah, yeah, just cut to the chase!”. I suspect there’s an element of much of that, but my favoured theory is that you belittle yourself at just the time you should be establishing your authority. Watch the start of this speech and she is thanking them for having bothered to leave their comfortable homes to listen to little old her.

I am certainly not saying that it is wrong to pay these tributes, merely that you should not do it at the beginning. You need to find another way to fill that audience-settling minute, and another place to put the tributes. It isn’t even good for hump-busting because you have yet to seize control of the proceedings. Look at how the first thing she does at the end of the thank-fest is to grab a drink of water. She still has a dry mouth! The audience is eagerly hear-hearing what she said, but they are not yet her audience.

Immediately afterwards she hits them between the eyes with a wonderful opening sentence, delivered with all the authority I could wish. That switches them on. Now they are her audience.

Within seconds she appears to commit an error which I bet any trainee of mine, or reader of my book, will have spotted. She refers to “a professor at the University of Colarado…” without naming him. I seize my notepad. A minute or so later it emerges that she merely deferred naming him until she could display him up on the screen. It was Roger Pielke jr.

Sadly that screen is off-camera, so we cannot tell how Pielke is represented. Is there a handsome portrait, together with a brief list of his accomplishments? Who knows? But this brings me to another of my hobby horses.

Visuals require very careful handling. They very easily break the rhythm of your speech, rob you of your audience’s focus, turn the thing into a slide-show-with-commentary. For us here, the one thing it doesn’t do is rob our focus because we can’t see the slides; but we can see to what extent her flow is impeded by suddenly playing second-fiddle to a bunch of pictures. Also she is surrendering her focus by looking at the big screen rather than at a slave screen in front of her. Were the slides worth it? I can understand why she used them: she wanted a rogues’ gallery. Maybe it worked: I don’t know. I listen in vain for sound clues from the audience, but without seeing the slides themselves I am unable to pass further judgement.

Concerning the speech as a whole, I have essentially one more observation. When referring to Roger Pielke (above) she concedes with respect that though she is sceptical he sincerely believes in the theory of man-made climate change. That sort of intellectual honesty is sadly too often lacking in the climate change debate. That makes her worth listening to. It also makes her worth reading.

When I posted here some weeks ago a critique of a speech by Matt Ridley, I held back on reading his book, The Rational Optimisttill after I’d published my critique. Likewise I have not yet read Laframboise’s book, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate ExpertI note that on its page at Amazon there is a rave review for it from the same Matt Ridley. I really enjoyed Ridley’s book: I’m looking forward to Laframboise’s.

Jo Nova – sabotaging herself with paper stripes

Joanne Nova is an Australian who describes herself as “a greenie who grew up”. The blog on her website attracts two million hits a year. The website is subtitled “tackling tribal groupthink”.That makes her a maverick. I like mavericks. On YouTube I found this speech where it is described by whoever uploaded it as ‘Joanne Nova’s Most Convincing Speech Yet’. With a testimonial like that, how could I resist?

When we join the video she is being introduced at a Perth election rally in September 2011, in the windy open air on a makeshift stage. My interest quickens: this is proper, raw, unsterilised speaking terrain! Her introduction takes 57 seconds, That’s something I always note, because of my wanting to time her hump.

If you’ll forgive the cliché she hits the ground running. What a relief! In this environment there’s no room for suave, pretty, urbane openings. You have to grab your audience hard and quick and by the throat. She does just that with three-quarters of a minute’s barrage of uncompromising statements and statistics, shot from the hip. What hump? It’s there all right but she isn’t merely busting it, she’s beating it into submission. This is very impressive. Is she self-taught or trained? Who cares? It’s working.

And then at 1:40 her eyes go down to her script and immediately she becomes a talking head. The spontaneity instantly diminishes and gets replaced by carefully written, stilted sentences. Pauses appear where pauses shouldn’t when her eyes having lifted to the crowd then have to search for her place again. At 2:11 she reads out a statistic with which she is so familiar that her head rises and for a time stays risen with only occasional glances at her script, and immediately that opening impetus returns.

And so a fascinating pattern forms which continues throughout the whole speech. The speech is stripey!  Now compelling and captivating through being shot from the hip: now limp and emasculated through being script-driven. It is a very dramatic illustration of the effect of paper on the quality of delivery.

Luckily she is so steeped in her subject, and so fiercely driven by it, that the paper-driven stripes are relatively few and narrow; but they devastate her momentum when they appear. Not for the first time in this blog I just want to tear that paper away.  All she needs is the ability to create simple mind-map structures that would enable her to look the audience permanently in the eye and shoot from the hip. When she does that her impact is fantastic! And those structures are so easy, both to create and to use.

A few paragraphs ago I mused whether she was self-taught or trained. I think I have the answer. She’s got a long way already: now she just needs a little extra help. F&T would help.

N.B. Her closing passage is the one bit I would permit her to read.