Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Patrick Moore – The Sensible Environmentalist

At a TEDx gathering in Vancouver in November 2009, Patrick Moore was one of the speakers. If you have clicked the link on his name, or looked at the picture below, you will know that we are dealing here not with the late, English, wonderfully eccentric, amateur astronomer and xylophone player, but with the Canadian environmentalist, the co-founder of Greenpeace who left that organisation in disgust when it conspicuously lost its way a few years ago. He now calls himself The Sensible Environmentalist, and spends much of his time campaigning on behalf of Golden Rice.

I am not an environmentalist but I have read a few books on the subject, been around the block a few times, and watched enough speakers to have developed a nose for, and allergy to, bullshit. The field of environmental activism tends to be so deep in the steaming stuff that in order to critique most speeches I’d need to be equipped with a JCB. So I usually don’t. Let’s see whether I was justified in hoping that Moore would be worth my making an exception in his case.

There’s something that bothers me about his voice and the manner of his speaking. The urgency he conveys is not a problem for me because it indicates a willingness to get into the driving seat. It’s not exactly the speed with which he speaks, because it doesn’t feel like undue nervousness. It is as if he were driving in too low a gear: the voice is working too hard. I bet he gets sore throats after big presentations. If so, it’s absurdly easy to prevent it.

At 2:35 there’s a lovely catalogue of names. If you don’t understand why I like it, you have neither had a course with me nor read The Face & Tripod.

There are a few occasions when he stumbles and momentarily loses his place. Some might blame this on his shooting the speech from the hip, but a couple of small stumbles are a tiny price to pay for the audience engagement that goes with being paper-free. The stumbles don’t bother me, and I’d lay money that they don’t bother his audience; but if they trouble him, there are a few improvements that could be made to his structure to make the mind-mapping easier.

I enjoy his summary dismissal of fallacy after fallacy connected to the global warming scam. At the time of writing we have just been treated (if that’s the word) to mounds of garbage in a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Proper scientists having over the years deserted the IPCC in disgust over being misquoted, it is now mainly a nest of political activists still trying to masquerade as scientists. The main-stream media, either too idle to check or in politico/economic thrall to the alarmist nonsense, make up an eager team of cheer-leaders. I’m old enough to remember when the BBC, for instance, was a respectable organisation employing proper journalists. Others of a similar age who seem to swallow this tripe show themselves too trusting or too busy to check any details. At least I hope that’s the case: the alternative is too depressing.

The most depressing thing is when people start clamouring for ‘deniers’ to be silenced, sectioned, or imprisoned. They might as well burn books like they did in Berlin in 1933. People behave like this only when they know their own argument to be weak. It is weak because its scientific basis is flimsy, and was always actually political rather than scientific.

If you want one reason why I believe this, just go and see how many attempts by sceptical scientists to join in public debate with warmists have had the warmists scurrying for cover. Christopher Monckton has repeatedly challenged Al Gore. Gore has made increasingly pathetic excuses; and who’s to blame him? He’d be slaughtered.

Watching this speech, I find myself wanting to endorse Patrick Moore’s description of himself as The Sensible Environmentalist. He could easily be a better speaker, but meanwhile he’s quite good enough for most markets. And what he says is suitably coloured with doubt as to persuade me that he is a genuine seeker after truth.

President Obama talks the talk

On 10 December, 2013, politicians past and present gathered to join thousands of South Africans in the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, for a service in memory of Nelson Mandela. Many speeches were delivered, not all praised by the British media. I was too busy to see any of it at the time, but the most frequent criticism I subsequently read and heard was that some politicians had (ab)used the high profile occasion to deliver self-serving political messages. The exception, according to the BBC, was President Obama; but then, to the BBC, POTUS can do no wrong. Let’s see what we think.

Obama has a power-pose which comes from the angle of his head. He tips it up a little. I assume it to to be a pose, though it may come naturally from habit. Is he accustomed to having to look up? Is he short in stature? I have no personal knowledge of this because he hasn’t met me, but it has always struck me as a pose. As poses go, if you must pose, it’s quite a good pose.

Why is he shouting? With that battery of microphones, and speakers all over the stadium, he could be heard if he whispered. I know there’s a great amount of crowd noise, but if that noise drowned his whisper it would also drown his shout. Also, if you want your audience to be quieter the secret is not to speak louder but softer. That will make them go quiet. He knows that: he knows the power of quiet intensity. He briefly used it at 08:40 in this speech. He knows he doesn’t need to shout to be heardTherefore I repeat the question: why is he shouting?

There is a simple answer: he does not want the audience quieter. He wants that noise! Please do not misinterpret my pointing this out, but another very effective and skilled speaker used the same technique at Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s. I draw no parallels between the men; I merely observe that using a noisy audience as part of your stage management is not a new technique. It wasn’t new in the 1930s: Shakespeare had Mark Anthony doing it in Julius Caesar.

The British media complained of politicians using this stage to promote themselves. What did they expect of politicians? Obama is a politician: he did it too. He may have done it covertly, more subtly, … perhaps better (I haven’t seen the others yet) but he did it. This speech is littered with weasel implications, claiming co-ownership of Mandela’s personality, principles, and policy. He is careful to be ‘umble about it, but from his repeated use of Mandela’s Xhosa name, Madiba, to introducing the grievance card with a spurious comparison of the race struggles in their two countries he’s playing the world’s adoring media for all he’s worth.

Obama’s strongest words are not his but Mandela’s, quoted from his speech to the court at his trial in June 1964…

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve; but if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

These are wonderful words; and it is to Obama’s credit that he quoted them. The whole speech could so easily have been wonderful if stripped of its self-serving opportunism. The peroration which he launches at 18:04 with the words, “Let us search for his strength” is magnificent. As a speaker he is so talented! What a pity he leaves me with a taste made sour by his having uttered, with a straight face, the following…

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.

Quite so.

Osborne and Balls. Stuff and nonsense.

There are times when the limitation I imposed upon myself for this blog –

discuss how they state their case and possibly how they might have stated it better, but do not get involved with the case itself

– is sorely tried. In fact today I’m going to breach it for one paragraph.

Watching footage of yesterday’s exchange in parliament between George Osborne and Ed Balls I just wanted to wade in, slap both their silly little faces, tell them to stop behaving like imbecilic juveniles, and actually start applying some serious new thought to the parlous state of the country’s economy. If you sweep aside the spin (which actually doesn’t need much sweeping since it is already pathetically flimsy) you realise that there is essentially no difference in the economic strategies of the last administration and this. Both are wedded to weary, discredited, bastardised  Keynesian principles, both are determined to do nothing more creative than firehose artificial money at real problems, both are hell-bent on steering the paddle-less craft further and further up the creek. And all to the accompaniment of puerile, tribal name-calling. And the preposterous BBC compounds the problem by acting as cheerleaders. Did you hear the Today programme this morning?  I had to leave the room in disgust. That programme used to be quite good, but your memory has to go back a few years.

Right! Back to my brief.

Sorry, Eddie dear. I both sympathise with you over your stammer and congratulate you on the success you have so far had in battling it. Nevertheless a stammer can do all sorts of things, but does not make you say the opposite of what you intended to say. I know that little Georgie had a script and therefore an advantage over you, but if either of you were any good at speaking you neither would need scripts. What you’d need is command of the subject, conviction and cool heads.

But you appear to have none of those things.

 

Blair – bad, not so bad, and splashing.

Today I am once again on the subject of talking heads . It’s a term I use rather disparagingly to refer to the speaker being merely a voice-conduit for a piece of literature. When a speaker just reads a script it will usually be a huge turn-off for the audience, and the ‘better’ the writing the bigger the turn-off.

You may wrestle with that, so let me explain. I put the word ‘better’ in quotes, because good literature has a tendency towards formality. Speaking, because of today’s fashion for a more casual style of conversational sincerity, tends the opposite way so better writing makes for worse speaking. On those occasions when a script becomes necessary we have to write it with speaking in mind. Remove its tie: loosen its collar!  There are guidelines for this which I don’t usually cover in a course unless specifically requested, but I did in the book.

I bet your experiences as an audience member confirm this; and if you have ever read transcripts of great speeches you have probably met with the converse – great speeches don’t make good reading. You needed to be there. Lord Roseberry said in his Life of Pitt,

“Few speeches which have produced an electrical effect on an audience can bear the colourless photography of a printed record.”

Let’s look at a debate held in Canada between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether Religion is a Force for Good. To watch the whole thing you would need an hour and three quarters, but I should like to refer you merely to small sections.

Blair’s first offering goes from 14:00 – 21:02. It is scripted and, though Blair handles a script better than most, he is being a Talking Head – even down to the occasional piece of smart-alec writing that just doesn’t work in this medium!  Later he and Hitchens each have two four-minute rebuttal slots, and those of Blair can be found here –

  • 26:40 – 31:13
  • 36:05 – 40:13.

Now he is shooting from the hip, and the improvement in delivery is huge.

I shan’t comment on what either of them is saying, because that’s not my brief today. Blair in his rebuttals may be reverting to the old touchy-feely, schmaltzy stuff that we remember so vividly from him; but even in the guise that so many find emetic he relates much better with his audience when unhampered by paper.

That’s why I don’t like Talking Heads: that’s why I metaphorically tear paper from out of the hands of trainees: that’s why I show trainees how to structure and prepare their material so that they can securely ‘shoot it from the hip’: that’s why I go to lengths to show them that they are – often to their amazement – perfectly able to do it: that’s why I wrote the book . This paragraph was anaphora, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I am also today returning to the subject of microphone problems. Usually I am castigating the speaker for bad microphone technique, but Blair in that recording was blameless. When a speaker is working so hard on what emerges from his mouth, it enrages me when the technology fails to deliver it properly. Blair in that debate had a lapel microphone attached to his shirt. With those things you are entirely in the hands of the sound engineer. The sound system disgracefully distorted and ‘splashed’ all his sibilant consonants. That sound engineer needs to take up an occupation better suited to his talents. Like sweeping streets.

[added in 2017: the video embedded in this posting was since taken off line and replaced with one that appears to have had its sound quality cleaned up.]

Rudyard Griffiths, the chairman of that debate was wearing an earset mic – one of those things that they try to blend in with your skin-colour. If you stick a ball of foam over the end – and they usually do – the colouring doesn’t hide it and it looks as if you have a boil on your cheek. The advantage of earsets is that if you turn your head you don’t go off-mic. They don’t need that foam-ball. It is theoretically there as a wind-break to lessen popping, but if you fit the thing right you won’t get popping and if you fit it wrong that foam won’t save you. He’s slightly sibilant, but he’s not splashing like Blair.

Two paragraphs ago it may not have escaped your notice that I suggested rather forcibly that the sound engineer was incompetent. There may be another less charitable explanation for Blair’s terrible sound quality. I have sometimes idly speculated that most audience members might not even notice these aberrations, because their brains filter them out.   Just for a moment suppose that this little theory is right, and that most listeners just vaguely register is that one speaker makes for more pleasant listening.

Listen closely to Hitchens.  Do you hear the same scale of sound problems from him? This was a debate on a matter which polarizes people.  If the organisation staging the debate favoured one side of the argument, what a sneaky way that could be of subliminally handicapping the opposition. Am I being too fanciful?  Perhaps, but it’s a thought.

As a matter of interest, who was it that staged this debate in Canada?  There may be a clue in the introduction spoken by Rudyard Griffiths.

2011 Party Conferences, Part 1: Farage & Clegg. October ’11 Auracle Newsletter

September customarily sees the political parties holding their conferences; and the chattering classes get wildly exercised over the trading of insults and the peddling of policies.  I on the other hand have a reason to look at the speeches through different eyes; and I thought I’d share some analysis with you.  I had intended today to trawl through four leaders’ speeches – Farage, Clegg, Miliband and Cameron – but then realised how long that would make the newsletter.  I have therefore taken pity on you, and will look this month only at Farage and Clegg, saving Miliband and Cameron for November.
In recent years leaders have taken to topping and tailing the conferences: delivering a businesslike keynote at the beginning and then a high-profile closing speech (the latter tending to be judged on the basis of the length of its standing ovation).  You might think that fairness dictates that I should compare like with like, but I am not treating this as a competition: I just want to analyse the most technically interesting speech from each.
 
Taken chronologically, this was the first of the four.  He chooses to buck the trend by making his opening keynote speech the main course, using the closing speech as a “go-out-and-tell-the-world” rallying cry lasting less than six minutes.  Therefore I shall address the keynote.
Even this, at less than eighteen minutes, is an admirably concise offering.  He declines to monkey around to soften up the audience as I have seen him do in previous years. Instead he goes straight for the jugular. He conforms to the first cardinal rule in The Face & Tripod, jumps into the driving seat, and certainly has something to say. The wealth of passion and energy that he pours into his pronouncements is what you’d usually expect from a grass-roots firebrand rather than a polished parliamentarian. Many might find this regrettable, hankering after the smooth manners and scrupulous courtesy that you find from, for instance, Daniel Hannan; and unquestionably Farage’s bull-in-a-china-shop manner is a gift to the mainstream media, from the BBC upwards, who seek to paint him as a loony extremist. But look closely and you realise that he is far from merely a bluster merchant.
On a technical level he has learnt the claptrap technique of marrying heavy-duty triads with corresponding hand gestures – and it works every time.  Not one opportunity for a round of applause goes AWOL.  He juggles all those esoteric rhetorical devices like epistrophe and anaphora and even paralipsis.  He embodies my favourite quote from W.B.Yeats: “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”.  This is one smart cookie!
One reservation: though he never begs laughs, he does have a tiresome habit of signalling his humour by making a weird face.
I search in vain for weasel words.  What you see is what you get: look at the unequivocal policy statement at 08:25.  Yes, I know that the lower your chances of getting elected the easier it is to be frank, but still…
The speech needs a Face, but in every other respect I come away from it admiring the skill of the speaker.
  
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat – 21/9/11    
[This was originally posted on YouTube in three parts.  Since then some copyright issue has caused Part 3 to be blocked in the UK.  However the remaining two parts are quite long enough!}
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3 – for those who might be able to view it and have the patience to do so.
Clegg’s closing speech from the Lib-Dem conference totals nearly three quarters of an hour.  He starts with two or three long pauses – a tried and tested technique for setting a measured pace, slowing down your own pulse and getting on top of your nerves.  Having done that he turns his attention immediately to getting his audience on his side by indulging in a schmaltzy tribute to them.  It’s easy to be cynical about that; but he and his parliamentary colleagues have been under the cosh from their own side, and he is conforming to the second cardinal in The Face & Tripod: having analysed his audience he is stroking their egos.  The stroking concludes with a simple “Thank you” followed by a nano-pause for applause which never comes, so he skilfully leaps straight back in to hide the silence.  He has a more emphatic claptrap just around the corner, drives harder for it, brings in some rather more positive gestures – and gets the applause.  [N.B. the word, “claptrap” has for centuries meant a rhetorical device for getting an audience to applaud whereas today it also tends to mean “rubbish”. I use it in the traditional sense.]
Applause is a powerful drug, and this dose seems to put fire in Clegg’s belly.  At 03:05 he employs a clever use of political Left and Right, describing how the two wings view his party in their respective ways – the implication being that the Lib-Dems are slap in the middle.  Just after the 4-minute mark he throws up a possible Face for the speech, “Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing” and as the speech goes on he reinforces it.  The whole thing seems to be going pretty well, but – 
Weasel Words Alert!  Suddenly he wheels out some words and phrases that sound good and noble till you look more closely.
 
  • “People before Politics”.  If there’s a conflict, what does that say about your politics?
  • “Nation before Party”.  Similarly, if you imply a conflict, what does that say about your party?
  • “Populism.”  This is a favoured buzzword in political circles.  It is a stealth device to express contempt for the electorate, and get away with it.
(I have been asked about my attitude to weasel words as a rhetorical device.  It can best be summarised by the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.)  He speaks of the party having to move from, “the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government”.  It seems mature of him to admit that there have previously been easy promises.
So much for the first of the three parts; and already I’ve used up a lot of space.  But the second section can be quickly characterised as a catalogue (albeit sometimes passionately listed) of facts and figures.  Notice how he keeps naming names through all of them, and look at my Chapter on Proper Nouns in The Face & Tripod.
 
The third section seems to take a leaf from Farage’s book.  He gets worked up and passionate; and anyone who has done a course with me knows how I commend that as a device (so long as you keep it under control).  The rhetoric gets rather hollow – a bit along the lines of declaring that everyone should be made happier, without really engaging with the tiresome detail of explaining how – but my brief is with the quality of the speech and not the validity of the message.  This passion is centred on his explaining why he’s in politics, and as such it has the weakness of self-justification, of pleading.  It would have been stronger had he invited his audience to reflect on why they were in politics, and then invited them to share in his vision.  
I would have cut at least twenty minutes from that speech. I don’t care where: it just needed to be shorter. Aside from that, and subject to my comments above, I felt he did a pretty good job. He is saddled with an image of being young and effete: bright but immature: driven but naive. Given all of that, and given the position in which he finds himself, with his party’s support haemorrhaging since the formation of the coalition, he had a very difficult brief. In the main I felt he distinguished himself a lot better than some of the familiar faces in his audience would have done.