Keir Starmer: competing with paint

On 13 December, 2016, Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech at Bloomberg in London. He is the Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union.

I read a Tweet from someone who, on the basis of a speech one day, described him as the most boring speaker he had ever heard. Naturally, though suspecting that partisan bias might have been at play, I had to investigate further. Sadly I have thus far failed to find that speech on line, but I have found this one. Why don’t you and I make up our own minds on the basis of what we find.

Well it isn’t about to set the world on fire, though I have known considerably worse. The main problem is that it has been scripted, and the scripting has hallmarks of the civil service. Let us look at some specifics.

He takes far too long to get going. From that opening Starmer stammer, which I am sure is not real but an affectation, up to 2:40 could beneficially be binned. It fails to contribute anything. He has in there a faintly humorous observation about his job-title. I have no problem with that, or the faint humour, but I do have a problem with his pause inviting audience response which doesn’t materialise. As throw-away humour it would have worked, but that pause made it lame.

At 2:23 he utters the words, “My speech today will be…” Did you get that? “Will be..” He is acknowledging that he hasn’t started yet, even though he is nearly two and a half minutes in. Two and a half minutes is actually an optimum length for an inconsequential opening (for technical reasons that I’ll spare you), but it needs to be a better two and a half minutes than that.

2:40 sees the beginning of a good epistrophe. As a bald opening that would have been powerful.

At 10:40 there’s a strong anaphora, and at 12:50 there’s another. There may have been more but the tediousness of the delivery makes it difficult to concentrate.

All these suggest professional speechwriting; and the even-handed balance of much of the message supports that view. The speech is relatively weasel-free for a politician.

I appreciate that balance, because not enough remainers have publicly made the point that if the referendum had gone the other way, and leavers had protested and obstructed as aggressively as remainers have, it would have been considered a scandal.

He is also right about the Cameron government’s disgraceful dereliction of duty that absolutely no plans were in place against a Brexit vote.

Yes, I am sure that professional speechwriter(s) were involved here, and it’s a quality job. But to be a good speaker, Starmer needs to learn how to dispense with his script and permit his personality to show. Reading causes him to scatter the speech with reading-stumbles, which are quite different from (and lamer than) speaking stumbles. Worst of all, reading makes his delivery tedious.

I became fascinated by the tangerine paint behind him.

John Bird is magnificent

In October 2015, the founder of The Big Issue was elevated to the House of Peers.  He is John Bird, and in February 2016 he made his maiden speech.

In future, if anyone asks me what I do, I think I might refer them to this speech. Acquaintances, relatives, even quite close friends seem to have a vague notion that I earn my crust by polishing up people’s accents, or getting them to stand ‘correctly’ and orate. Anyone with whom I have worked on public speaking will greet such thoughts with the same wry smile, because actually I bully people into being themselves. There’s a little more to it, for instance in terms of structuring your material for optimum digestibility for your audience and optimum memorability for yourself etc., but the foundation is always being yourself.

I tear scripts out of their hands because that bloody paper is a screen between them and their audience, but also because it is a screen between them and themselves.

I repeatedly tell my trainees that the most engaging, compelling and persuasive they can be is when they are being themselves, warts and all, and speaking spontaneously.

Yes, there is such a thing as appropriateness; but once a speaker has learnt to come out from behind one of those ghastly but ubiquitous self-imposed masks, they are better equipped to steer an appropriate course while still being themselves.

Watch this speech, and see what I am talking about. For a start there’s no paper: the words he speaks are always the words that come to him at the time – genuinely spontaneous. He pushes the boundary of appropriateness by describing someone (affectionately) as a bugger; but he doesn’t sleep-walk into it because a little earlier he  correctly referred to a fellow Peer as “the noble Lady”. He knows what he is doing, makes his own policy decisions, and trusts himself to speak spontaneously.

I have had people challenging my position by stating that pre-scripting a speech enables a better choice of words and phrasing. My reply tends to refer to round objects.

Listen to Bird, shooting from the hip from his bald opening to his courteous close, and you will hear for instance an elegant and lengthy anaphora (“when I was…”) beginning at 3:40, and there are more such. You will hear very accomplished comedy timing. You will hear a wide variety of rhythm, pacing and vocal tone. You will, in short, hear an exemplary piece of public speaking: well conceived, well structured, well delivered.

Yes you will also hear stumbles, slips of the tongue, and other mistakes – but who cares? Listen to someone reading a script and you will likewise hear all those things, but they have a different, lamer, more toe-curling quality than from spontaneous speech.

The most important people at any speech are in the audience. We can hear their appreciation from time to time, but there is one who is almost constantly in view. I refer to the Noble Lady we can see over his right shoulder. I wish I knew who she was because she has a wonderfully expressive face. He can’t see her, but he has her in the palm of his proverbial hand. Never once does she doubt his sincerity.

What a magnificent speaker!

Ian Plimer: anti-Green environmentalist

On 22 July, 2014, the Institute of Public Affairs held a book-launch in Melbourne, Australia. The book in question was Not For Greens. The speaker was the author, Professor Ian Plimer.

The book’s cover shows a picture of a stainless steel spoon. Is this because the book’s subtitle is He Who Sups with the Devil Should Have a Long Spoon? Or is it because he illustrates some of his points by describing the manufacture of a stainless steel spoon? The answer to both these questions is apparently yes.

It’s very nearly a bald opening and, as I sympathise with any speaker who finds it impossible to begin a speech without at least paying the audience the courtesy of thanking them for being there, I’ll forgive him. The bald opening has two essential purposes: drama and the suppression of nerves. To launch straight in without any preamble is strong and dramatic; and bald-openings are counter-intuitively good for nerves for the same reason as plunging into cold water is easier than creeping in slowly. Plimer is quite blunt enough not to need any added drama and he also gives little impression of needing help with nerves. Nerves will be there, but completely under control – or, to quote Laurence Olivier’s metaphor, the butterflies are made to fly in formation. Plimer is a very good speaker, laying out his arguments clearly, driving his message with authority, and shooting it all from the hip. Could I help to make him any better? Possibly, marginally, but why should he care?

It’s a clever opening inasmuch as he delivers a ferocious back-hander to the hypocrisy of the Green establishment, while simultaneously acknowledging with glee how much they hate him. And they do: you need to do only a little research to find oceans of bile being fire-hosed in his direction.

The speech, and the book it launches, seek systematically to debunk the entire climate-change creed.

Is he right? Is he wrong? I cannot say with the authority of a scientist, but all my experience, in those life skills I have, tells me he needs to be heard.

Given that Fascism, Socialism, Communism, all authoritarian “isms” thrive upon crises persuading the populace that they need saving and therefore need more of the State, and given that I detest authoritarianism in all its guises, I am instinctively wary when crises could be synthetic. And when the high-priesthood of any supposed crisis goes to huge lengths to silence dissent then I, passionate for free speech, am immediately suspicious. Contrariness to the climate “orthodoxy” is severely persecuted, and when dissent is persecuted consent is suspect.

That caused me to examine closely the oft-quoted “97% consensus”, and I found it to be the product of shameless data manipulation. The science community if anything seems to veer towards a consensus that AGW is negligible and certainly not dangerous, particularly among those like Ian Plimer who are retired and therefore do not need to toe any political line for their research funding, mortgage or pension. I actually don’t care about any consensus: I care only that the scientific conversation continues without political pressure in either direction because the environment matters, and if things are going wrong proper investigation needs to happen without political bias getting in the way. But back to Professor Plimer.

At 11:10 he begins an interesting section. I have long been deeply uneasy about wind turbines. They produce absurdly small and inefficient amounts of energy and could not exist without taxpayer contribution, so there are those in energy poverty who nevertheless subsidise the very rich turbine owners. Their output is so sporadic that they have to have fossil fuel backup. They kill birds and bats.  I understand that these statements are not disputed, yet green and wildlife NGOs protest that this is a small price to pay for saving the planet. Professor Plimer nevertheless appears to have done the necessary calculations to show that a wind turbine emits more CO2 in being built and installed than it will save in its lifetime. I look forward to someone publishing detailed calculations to dispute Plimer’s assertion, failing which these wretched things look like an even bigger scam than I suspected.

At 18:05 he points out that his book has been denied publicity. It’s almost as if someone is determined to prove the truth of what Voltaire said…

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established authorities are wrong.

Nate Staniforth – wonderful!

Magician Nate Staniforth recently gave a talk at the Oxford Union. The title of the talk was Wonder. He spoke for a little more than ten minutes during which he did not perform a single illusion.

When I saw this talk listed I was keen to watch it.

I have been known to describe myself as an ‘audiencologist’. It’s an absurdly trite little made-up word, but it does say what I want. I have a lifelong obsession with audiences and what makes them tick. Consequently I have enormous admiration for magicians. Other types of entertainer can make audiences laugh, cry, think and more. They can cause a wide range of feelings and emotions. Only magicians, however, also make audiences see what they did not see and believe what they know to be unbelievable. They are the ultimate manipulators of audiences. So how well does this one speak? I was sure I already knew the answer.

I was right: he is excellent.

Bald opening, and provocative enough to grab you.

The opening leads clearly into a narrative thread to which anyone can relate. He picks you up and sweeps you along his ordained path, talking about wonder and mystery. His structure seems at the outset to be just chronological, a sort of potted life-history, but he has decided that would not quite make his point concerning wonder; so there is a little jumping around to strengthen it. He leaves the narrative thread hanging while he digresses for a while, returning to reclaim it at just the right moment and in the right way. It is good: very good.

As for his delivery, well what did we expect? Any idiot with a cheap book can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it is the performance surrounding the illusion that singles out the star. Watch how Staniforth varies the decorum to hold our interest and add definition to the points he is making. One minute he is animated, the next he slows right down, varying the tone of his voice accordingly. Many people could do that, but there’s more. There’s the intended laugh that never came when he mentioned a couple of people that seem to mean little to this British audience. In less than a heartbeat, he’s thrown it away and moved on. It happened at 2:50, and I guess barely a single person in that hall noticed. I don’t suppose any regular reader of this blog will be surprised that he shot the whole speech from the hip. I should have been devastated had he not.

He is very skilled at disguising how skilled he is. He puts across supreme relaxation, but watch the intensity with which he is constantly scanning his audience. He misses nothing. A short while ago in a posting on this blog I argued a distinction I choose to make between perfection and excellence. Staniforth epitomizes excellence.


Matt Ridley and optimistic greenery

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, has appeared in this blog before. Last year we looked at his TED Talk entitled When Ideas have Sex. In February 2013 he delivered a short talk at Reason TV with the provocative title How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet. I rather like being provoked in this way, so I thought I’d watch.

This has a very informal, almost chummy opening. It’s possible that Reason TV have chopped off the opening seconds, in the manner that TED does, and that there were in fact lots of dreary preambles (though I doubt it). But even if it wasn’t actually a bald opening it looked like one and I invite aspiring speakers to see how appealing and audience-friendly a bald opening is. My trainees, when they try it, invariably find it liberating.

Ridley’s chummy informality continues. He is dealing with serious stuff, but putting it across as if chatting over a lunch table. His open-necked shirt suggests that the decorum of the occasion is already informal, but again I invite you to see that this detracts not a jot from the impact of the message.

Ridley is very good and expressive. In fact I have really only one problem with his speaking. Having started off brilliantly, he comes to a grinding halt at 2:55. His eyes go down to a card in his hand in order to see what comes next. The pit-stop continues for just a few seconds, and then off he goes again shooting from the hip. That is probably the most egregious of his pit-stops, but it is not the only one: his eyes regularly seek refuelling from that card.

Of course I concede that this is infinitely preferable to talking heads who read their speeches; but when I see a speaker as good as Ridley, it is so frustrating that this small detail is between him and excellence. What he needs is a better structure, a mind-map which will render those pit-stops redundant. It is the creation and use of such structures that take up most of the theory part of my training courses, and indeed my book, The Face & Tripod.

I regularly refer to ‘shooting from the hip’ in this blog, and the casual reader might interpret that as my advocating a speaker merely ‘winging’ a speech. No! Absolutely not so. The speeches delivered by my trainees are far too critical to risk anything so foolish. When my trainee goes out in front of an audience, paperless, without notes and sometimes without slides, and speaks for twenty, thirty or more minutes, delivering an important data-rich speech, he or she can perform this apparent miracle in absolute safety because the speech is under-pinned by a rock-solid structure that enables them to know, at any moment, exactly where they are and where they are going. And then they can say what needs to be said, speaking spontaneously the words that come to mind as they go.

Ridley does all of that except for those wretched pit-stops!

Sermon over. Enjoy the speech. It’s fascinating and – characteristically for Ridley – wonderfully optimistic.

Jamie Oliver had a good teacher.

In February 2010 Jamie Oliver delivered a TED talk in Long Beach, California, on a theme that has obsessed him for many years, healthy eating.

Bald opening! It’s just a single sentence, so – although arresting – it hardly qualifies as a James Bond film opening, but who cares? His opening sentence preceded his introduction of himself. In a sense he grabbed our hand before shaking it. This is an excellent start, and sets the bar high for this talk.

He carries a sheaf of cards in his hand. He gestures with them, fiddles with them, slaps them occasionally, and does everything except read from them. I suspect that they contain a few prompts and are there purely for their presence to reduce his stress. I can’t fault this. He shoots everything from the hip.

Oliver has been presenting TV programmes for many years, and the nature of those programmes is such that he has had a lot of practice at shooting from the hip. There are plenty of people for whom that sentence is just as true, but who – when placed on a speaking platform – stick a script on the lectern, their thumb in their mouth, and wear an invisible but unmistakeable caption that says “prat”. There is a reason: a camera lens is not the same as an auditorium full of people; and making the transition requires the application or more effort than they could be bothered to spare.

At 1:20 he plays the audience by requesting a show of hands. The exercise has essentially no value other than making them feel involved. He does nothing with the information, but it was a good thing to do. This keeps getting better.

He produces a graph that shows that obesity kills several times as many people as guns, yet we all know that it generates a fraction of the media outrage. He plays the Brit-lecturing-the-yanks card well, and with enough charm to harvest laughs with it. He works a good visual episode in which he tips a wheelbarrow full of sugar onto the stage. It represents, for the average American child’s five year education period, the sugar consumption from flavoured milk alone. He deploys periodic claptraps, gets the required applause for most of them; and for the few that fail to bring forth fruit he doesn’t dwell but pushes on. He presents gratifyingly short video clips that pithily illustrate points he is making. This whole thing is beautifully put together, and skilfully delivered.

We may quarrel with some of his assertions: we may sit and think, “yes, but…” and many probably will. That is what discourse is for. For my part I have moments when I wince a little, because I have developed an allergy to busybody social policing in all its guises. But I am relieved that he never quite calls for the cold, dead hand of official bureaucracy to get involved. He seems less anti-bad-habits than pro-good-habits, and that is a saving grace – urging people to put pressure on industry, the retail sector, educators and themselves to learn to do better. Consumer power is preferable to social police.

Now I must replace my rhetor hat…

Whoever taught Jamie Oliver to speak this well, I salute them. Could it have been Jamie Oliver?

Jim Cook … retains more than data

In June 2013 in Las Vegas, the IBM Edge conference for 2013 was entitled Cloud Storage for a Virtualized World. One of the speakers was Jim Cook, CEO of Arkivum.

At this point I think it is appropriate for me to declare an interest. Jim is a trainee of mine. I asked him at the time to let me know how well it went. This is from his email –

Just finished. Numbers around the 500 mark I would guess. Went well thanks, particularly pleased with the opening, could have done better with the coherent story but was pretty good.

Shall we see what we think?

Probably the most widely recognised symptom of nervousness in a speaker is talking too fast, so I urge my trainees to set themselves a measured pace from the start; and for the very start I point out that the slowest thing they can do is… nothing. I can cite numerous excellent examples of speakers starting with a long pause: I seem to remember William Hague doing it when he was Conservative leader, with his ‘Commonsense Revolution’ speech in October 1999. Jim here pauses for six whole seconds! That is brave and, under the circumstances, would have felt like a week. He had evidently listened to that part of his course with me. He followed the pause with a bald opening.

He was also listening when I said that going in through the front door of the topic is intrinsically boring, and that opening by outflanking the subject in order to enter through a side-door, thus having the audience wondering where this is leading, is a good way to get their attention. Yes, Jim is right to be pleased with the opening.

Thanks to this speech I have learnt that a petabyte is a thousand terabytes; therefore 1,000,000,000 megabytes. The petabyte seems to be Jim’s basic unit of currency.

A couple of blog postings ago I deplored the practice of looking over your shoulder at the slide on the big screen because it surrenders and redirects some of your audience’s focus. You see Jim change a slide, and he’s looking at a slave screen near his feet. From the pause involved in this process I think he’s using the slide as a signpost, and ideally I’d like his structure to be so clear in his mind that signposts are unnecessary, but I’ll forgive him this small transgression. I am less forgiving of all that verbiage on his slides. While the audience are reading that, they are not paying full attention to his voice. Actually it appears that we don’t see all his slides: there seems to be one of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley that doesn’t make it to the video…

All my trainees shoot their speeches from the hip, so it comes as no surprise that Jim uses no paper; and listen to how expressive his voice is as a consequence! This could so easily be a dry and tedious subject, yet without a script or notes to drag him down he makes it lively and absorbing. And every word is heard.

His parting shot was to thank and congratulate IBM on an excellent conference.  I am persuaded to return to it to examine other speeches.  Meanwhile …