Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!

 

Kemi Badenoch bowls a Maiden

I first came across Kemi Badenoch shortly after the recent British General Election when I saw a Twitter trend on the subject of this new Member of Parliament. It seemed that many wrongly assumed that she was a Labour Party member. Like her I am trying to work out what gave them that idea.

Her maiden speech in the House of Commons has been widely lauded. Shall we make our own judgement?

A quarter of a minute in and she starts giving us a rundown of some of the hardships she experienced when growing up in Nigeria. I know why she’s doing it; I don’t blame her for doing it; but I suspect she would join with my lamenting that she needs to. Ethos is important, but this veers towards pandering to the identity politics and ‘privilege checking’ that is all the rage at the moment. Nevertheless if that is the game people are playing and you can beat them at it so dramatically, you’d be foolish not to. And she’s smart enough to get a partisan argument into it.

Nor do I blame her for reading a script. A maiden speech is a rite of passage that you simply have to get past, and I suspect that using a script is conventionally required. Not to do so might make you look like a smart-Alec. If the eye misses out a line (at 3:09) causing the sort of stumble that you don’t get when you are shooting from the hip then your best course is simply to laugh it off. Badenoch simply laughs it off.

She throws in a lovely Woody Allen quote, beginning at 4:16. I have heard it before, but not for a time and certainly not put in this context; so I laugh as readily as the MPs in the house. At 5 minutes she does even better: she makes me want to cheer.

I don’t know enough about the genre to tell whether just under five and a half minutes is a conventional length for a maiden speech but, convention aside, I found its length pretty well perfect. It said enough, yet met the oldest and best showbiz maxim of all – leave ’em wanting more.

I am sure we will hear more of Kemi Badenoch.

Charles Moore is prescient

On 3 October, 2016, the Bruges Group held a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. One of their speakers was Charles Moore.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre…” It’s one of the oldest openings in the book, but as sound as a poun… er … well, it’s sound anyway.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, continental Brexit, full English Brexit: it’s got to be divorce, as the man said.

We are eavesdropping on a meeting, the video camera is incidental and marginal. Thus we are getting less than perfect sound quality, and also a sideways view of the speaker. I actually prefer this for my purposes, because I get a warts-and-all view of what is going on. You may find Moore’s left hand distracting, gesturing as it does between his face and the camera, but I like the way he manifestly is not playing to the camera but applying his focus to his audience in the room. I also like the way those gestures are spontaneous, natural and unconscious.

Moore is clearly familiar and comfortable with the speaking platform. He hasn’t saddled himself with a bloody script, because he knows and trusts his capacity to find the right words spontaneously at any moment during the speech’s journey. All of this I like.

What makes me wince is that he is holding a route-map for that journey. He has an index card with, no doubt, bullet points to guide him on his way.

Why does that bother me? I cannot deny that this is a widespread practice among those who who are good enough to spurn scripts. His periodic consultations of that card do not hamper the pace or rhythm of his speech at all. So what’s my problem?

He is the fountainhead of the information, the views, and arguments he is imparting. If even he can’t remember what he has planned to tell us, what chance that we will remember what he told us?

When working with trainees, I introduce them to structures that are designed to make such notes redundant because the route-map is absurdly easy to memorise. And they work even for hour-long, data-stuffed, keynote speeches to annual conferences. This is not just for their benefit but also for their audiences. Clarity of the route makes the speech not just easy to deliver but also to digest.

Watch the speech, and then see how much of the information, views, and arguments you can subsequently remember. Spooling back any of the video is not allowed for this exercise, because the audience in the room couldn’t do that. However much you can’t remember is how much this speech failed in its purpose.

Moore is good, but he could very easily be better.

So much for his skill as a speaker. Here’s a bouquet to his skill in prescience. This speech was delivered eight months ago. Watch from 19:35, and then consider positions on migration recently adopted by Poland and Hungary in defiance of Brussels. With such a strong grasp of future events, I might suggest that Moore should publish an almanac.

But only if I were feeling particularly childish.

 

 

Tony Blair and Bregzit

On 17 February Open Britain hosted a highly publicised speech by a past British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Open Britain is an organisation which deplores the result of the EU Referendum in June 2016 or, to be fair, as True Democrats they accept the result of the referendum but

Good, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

The media had warned informed us that this speech was coming, and I think most of us found the prospect interesting.

My interest was quickened for two reasons. Blair has an impressive record as a public speaker, and I was keen to see if that was still justified. My other reason, having yearned in vain during the referendum campaign for the remain side to come up with a really strong argument to give me something substantial to chew on, was the hope that he might at last produce something of interest. Shall we see?

The warm-up acts being less than riveting let us turn to Blair himself, beginning at 5:30.

Do you see him plonking paper on that lectern? I remember when he used to speak without script or notes. Has senility set in? Why does he have to consult his script to tell us how nice it is to be with us? And he’s taking no chances with that script. Not only does he have that paper, but also autocue: you can see a perspex screen in front of his right elbow, and he consults it.

Blair always did have some weird pronunciations, and now a new one enters his repertoire. We are repeatedly treated to “Bregzit”. Bless him!

Whoever wrote this script has no notion of the difference between written and spoken English. Or if they have, they are too idle to have learnt how to script the latter. This stuff is ghastly! It’s stiff and stilted. Who, when writing for speaking, churns out pompous rubbish like “rancorous verdict from future generations”? Rancorous is a word I might write, but wouldn’t dream of speaking – except possibly in jest. (Actually I might adopt it for a while to see if it gets laughs. Perhaps I could affect rhotacism – that’s the Jonathan Ross speech impediment.)

My hope of fresh arguments around Bregzit quickly fades. He’s revisiting the same weary avenues, or perhaps I should say culs de sac. He even tries to rub the rust from the ‘reform from within’ line. Let us not forget that this is the man who, when Prime Minister and the EU was clamouring for a reduction in the British rebate, assured us that he would negotiate it only against fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. In the event he came home with no CAP reform and greatly reduced rebate, thus demonstrating that the EU is not to be reformed and that he is the weakest negotiator since Eve caved in against the serpent.

Speaking of stiff and stilted, take a gander at this doozy at 9:54

“…thus leaving us with no locus on the terrain where the bridge must be constructed.”

That gem should be put in a glass case in a museum somewhere. We know that ‘locus’ is the Latin for ‘place’, but you justifiably break into a foreign language only if it’s a technical term, if doing so uses a nuance not available in English, or you plan to style yourself a prize pillock. Which do you suppose this has contrived?

If you think I am merely exercising a dislike of the man I would point out that he was on this blog four years ago, at which time I defended him against a shoddy sound engineer whose ineptness bordered on sabotage.

Didn’t I read somewhere that he is paid huge amounts to speak? I honestly would pay a fee to not hear him speak. I’d rather stay at home with a good book – or even a bad one.

Leaving aside all of the above I fear that this leaden weasel-fest is an entrenchment speech. It has not the quality to sway anyone; it will merely cause each side to dig in.

Bregzit means Bregzit.

Theresa May be a Good thing.

On 17 January Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, delivered a speech which had been eagerly awaited by many. Since the people of the United Kingdom, on 23 June 2016, had decisively voted to leave the European Union the country had seemed to be stuck in limbo. For the benefit of non-British readers, allow me to outline the background.

Mrs May’s predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron, had called the Referendum. He had announced, in a highly publicised speech in January 2013, that he intended to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, and then put this expected new dispensation to the British people in a referendum during 2017. In 2015 there was a General Election in which this promise of an EU Referendum was a central plank of his campaign. He won the election, launched this renegotiation in a fanfare of trumpets while many of us marvelled at how radically he had watered down his promised demands, went off to Brussels, and came back with essentially nothing. The little he claimed to have been agreed was not remotely binding, and even that was disputed by many European politicians. He rushed into the referendum, rather earlier than originally promised, on a platform that we should vote to remain ruled by this ‘reformed’ regime. Nevertheless he undertook that in the event of the British people voting to leave he would immediately trigger Article 50, the EU exit door, and lead the exit negotiations.

The referendum took place, the people voted for Brexit, and Cameron immediately vanished. He simply welshed on all assurances and left everything for someone else to sort out. That someone turned out to be Mrs Theresa May. Her principal problem was that incredibly the British governing establishment had put no contingency plans in place against the vote going for Brexit, so she had to start from scratch. Thus for six months the country was in limbo, with several establishment figures openly attempting to thwart the expressed democratic will of the British people who in turn were supported by little more than periodic assurances from Mrs May and her cabinet that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March.

This speech had been loudly heralded as a key piece of progress report.

An opening pause. Immediately I am encouraged.

This video, originally a live, streamed feed, occasionally shows live tweets commenting in a separate window. At 11:07 there is one which expresses the hope that the speech gets more interesting. I can understand this up to a point, because in laying out her stall Mrs May has needed to cover very many bases. I however am in possession of information not then available to that tweeter: there is half-an-hour still to come.

Do you have more than 40 minutes to listen to the whole thing? If not I can recommend two short excerpts that summarise effectively. This is so much better than my cherry-picking quotes. It’s safer too, because of being less susceptible to my confirmation bias.

Between 31:08 and 31:43 she very clearly summarises all that she has thus far covered. If you want to stick with it to 32:58 you will hear how she intends to keep her cards face-down,

 “because this is not a game, or a time for opposition for opposition’s sake.”

You may find that this satisfies your curiosity or that it excites your appetite to hear more. Either way, I whole-heartedly commend all this speech.

The other excerpt is her ending. I recommend that you pick it up at 38:55 with the words, “I don’t believe…” I have heard worse perorations, and didn’t care that it had no auxesis, because the content and the occasion did not call for it.

Only a few days later she delivered another big speech, this time in the USA. In it she was busy massaging the ego of a huge ally, but still I felt that she meant what she said. It is this quality that I like. Even if I don’t always agree with everything she says and stands for, I don’t feel embarrassed that she is representing my country. That speech did call for an auxesis to herald the peroration, and it got it. If you don’t listen to the whole thing you can pick up the peroration at 33:00.

Like or loathe her political position, she does not beat around its bush. More and more I sense that this woman is a WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – and I find that hugely refreshing after the dismal succession of duplicitous twits that have been representing us for a quarter of a century. (The word ‘twits’ was a slight edit from the first word there.)

She makes me feel strangely optimistic.