Vicky Ford paints herself phony

I always stress to my public speaking trainees the importance of first impressions.

Yes I know the concept is hardly apocalyptic; yet today we examine a speaker who should have known better, but destroyed her first impression with an elementary error.

In order to make my point I’d like you to consider the following short list of hypothetical first meetings –

  • Your beloved teenage child has brought the latest amour to your house to meet you.
  • An interviewee for a job has just sat down in the chair opposite.
  • Upon answering your front door bell you are confronted by a canvassing politician.

Suppose the other party opens the conversation with a compliment on your house/office/garden. That would seem a reasonable way to begin but suppose, before doing so, he or she pulls a sheaf of paper from a pocket, carefully unfolds it and then reads from it, “Golly, what a nice house/office/garden you have!” How much do you suppose that paper, and the reading from it, will take the shine off the compliment? The point I am clumsily trying to make, in case you haven’t spotted it, is that there are some things that just have to be seen to be uttered spontaneously, and an opening congratulatory compliment is one of the foremost.

Vicky Ford was the fourth speaker in a debate at the Cambridge Union in November 2014. The motion was This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics and we have already examined the previous speeches from Patrick O’FlynnRupert Myers and Peter Bone. Vicky Ford begins at 51:21.

She opens with thanks to Mr President, appending a short impenetrable joke concerning Movember. Then her eyes descend to her script in order that she might read out, “It’s great to see the Chamber so full.”

I find it difficult to conceive of an opening more demonstrably phony – not the words, but the obvious reading of them. She warbles on for ten more minutes, but as I can no longer find a reason to believe a word I can’t be bothered with it.

To be fair, the audience seems to lap it all up, so good luck to her, but what really bothers me is why? WHY do audiences put up with speakers who couldn’t be bothered to learn to speak spontaneously?

If you ask people about those they regard as brilliant speakers they nearly always bring up the ability to speak without referring to notes, as if this was somehow magical. The skill is so easily taught that it should correctly be regarded as an elementary sine qua non. Audiences should not be impressed by speakers who do, but be prepared to boo off the platform any speakers who don’t. The trouble is that they have been lulled into accepting mediocrity.

I am not idly boasting when I say the skill is easily taught. Six senior executives from a household-name British company were last week the latest in several hundred trainees who after a single day with me were effortlessly shooting their speeches from the hip. Though I told them that speaking without paper says all the right things about the speaker in terms of sincerity, command of the subject, etc, I should have added that it follows that speaking with paper paints you phony.

Peter Bone gets the point.

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion,

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

The debate was opened by Patrick O’Flynn for the proposition. He was followed by Rupert Myers for the opposition. We examined both those speeches in December, and today I want to look at a speech in proposition by Peter Bone. Between the end of Rupert Myers and the beginning of Peter Bone there are twelve minutes of floor speeches. They vary enormously, in quality of both content and delivery, and some time I look forward to examining all those.

Peter Bone begins at 37:46 and ends at 50:40.

No notes! He shoots his speech from the hip. It could be argued that he semi-wings it, but the winging happens only when answering his many interjections.

His most important contribution to the debate thus far is actually to address the motion. Neither of the previous speakers did. O’Flynn set off to do so, but tended then merely to give us an advertisement for UKIP. Myers barely pretended to address the motion, merely hurling tribal brickbats. The motion does not concern itself with whether UKIP’s policies are good or bad but whether the party’s emergence has been a healthy addition to overall political discourse. It would appear from an interjection that even when Bone has highlighted what the motion actually is Myers has not the wit to grasp the distinction.

The time slots in this debate appear to be twelve minutes. Bone receives so many interjections, only one of them remotely relevant, that sitting down, getting up again and answering the points consumes so many minutes that he receives time warnings when he has been actually speaking for a fraction of his allotted span. But that is the nature of the game, and he remains courteous and good humoured.

He made his point and drew attention to the actual motion, but I fear most of the audience were too focused on straw men to understand.

Rupert Myers needs to learn

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion –

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

The debate was opened by Patrick O’Flynn for the proposition. He was followed by Rupert Myers for the opposition. In this video Myers begins at 13:30 and finishes at 24:55.

Myers opens with a harmless little stunt involving sipping from a glass of beer – “This is to demonstrate that I understand UKIP”. A member of the audience points out that for it to represent UKIP it should be bitter not rather insipid-looking lager. Myers’ rejoinder is along the lines of, “if you want to be bitter, wait till after the debate”. Not brilliant but quick, and the audience enjoys it. He is personable, and good with his audience.

Thereafter he buries himself in his script and my heart sinks. He is a talking head. He is a barrister, a man who earns his living speaking in Court, yet gives every impression that he’d want the support of a script before giving you his date of birth.

Ye gods man, get a grip! Lift your face and simply speak! It really isn’t so sophisticated a process, and you will find that what emerges is a lot more engaging and compelling than this tedious regurgitation of something you thought of earlier.

There are a few reasons and occasions that compel a speaker to use a script. One such is a need to fit a very precise time slot. These debate time slots are not very precise: you have ten minutes, but do not have to use it all, and can get away with over-running a little. This is a big and forgiving target which he contrives to miss. Myers gets repeatedly warned about over-running and still adds 15% to his allotted time. Furthermore his warnings make him gabble ridiculously. So having a script fails him for that too.

And that is really all I have to say about the delivery of this offering.

As to the content, I’d rather not comment because in a debate it is the other side’s job to do that. I am not only critiquing these speeches one at a time I am deliberately only watching them individually. At this stage I have no idea what is coming next from the proposition, but there could be straw on the carpet.

Patrick O’Flynn depletes his effectiveness

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion –

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

Opening for the motion was Patrick O’Flynn MEP, economic spokesman and Director of Communications for UKIP. A Director of Communications should be a very good communicator. Shall we see how he managed? He begins at 2:45 and ends at 13:07

It is well-established that if you plan to use any humour at all during a speech you should get your first bit in as early as possible. O’Flynn throws away a tiny bit in the first ten seconds, and then at 3:05 he embarks on more humour which he chooses not to throw away. There are old gags, very old gags, pitifully senile gags, and there is this one. He gets away with it via a well-established device of being seen to quote someone else, and even commenting on what a poor joke it is. Incredibly, he actually harvests a chuckle.

O’Flynn proceeds to spend ten minutes reading something he (or someone) wrote some time previously, and thereby delivers a speech which could and should have been many times more effective.

It is examples like this that are making this blog sound like a cracked gramophone record. In nearly 200 postings probably more than 70% of them have involved my castigating speakers who use paper. For more than twenty years I have been tearing paper out of the hands of speaking trainees, teaching them how to do without and proving to them that they can deliver long, data-rich speeches easily, safely and thereby far more effectively than those sad souls that are dependent upon a script or notes. It is not rocket science: in a single morning I could have O’Flynn binning his paper for ever.

Without paper, shooting from the hip, he would shed that emasculated, listless delivery. He would really drive that message with inspiration, fervour and energy. And probably, even without my having specifically to focus on it, that dreadful right arm moving up and down aimlessly like Andy Pandy’s would actually start gesturing in a manner that would mean something.

There are six speakers in this debate. I haven’t watched any of the others yet, but I think I shall return. What are the chances of any of them having graduated beyond paper?

Alan Mendoza can speak, but doesn’t

The Cambridge Union Society, in June 2013, held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Two State Solution is the Only Solution. In case there be any doubt, let me make it clear now that the two intended states to which the motion refers are Israel and Palestine. One of the speakers for the proposition was Alan Mendoza.

If you follow the hyperlink which I attached to Mendoza’s name you will see that he is “a frequent speaker at high-profile national and international events and conferences”. Yet, he can’t speak (or at least he almost doesn’t). He writes well, and reads his writing back reasonably well, but that is not speaking. Granted he is at least as good as most people who deliver speeches at “high profile national and international events and conferences”, but that merely supports what I have frequently observed, namely that when it comes to public speaking the world sets its bar pathetically low.

Close your eyes, and just listen to a little more than the first minute of his delivery, and you will hear him obviously shooting from the hip some jokey comments concerning the debate thus far; and then unmistakably you will hear him begin reading his script.  You can hear the change, because spoken English is quite different from written English. The content certainly becomes more meaty at that point, but the audience-engagement deflates appallingly.

It might be tempting to conclude from this that hip-shooting is fine for ribald dross, but when you get to the serious stuff you need to read it, even at the expense of a little audience-engagement. It is a widespread, almost universally held, fallacy. I have friends and acquaintances who – bless them – have solemnly made this assertion to me; but my trainees never do, because they have had it proved to them that this is nonsense.

As it happens, Mendoza elsewhere in this speech makes my point for me. He proves to us that he can shoot strong, meaty, data-rich stuff from the hip with more fluency, more conviction and much better audience-engagement than when he reads a script. That is why I chose this speech for this posting.

At 4:02, someone in the hall asks to intervene and Mendoza allows him. Afterwards, from 4:56 to 5:34, Mendoza clinically and compellingly unpicks the argument in the intervention – shooting entirely from the hip. Those 38 seconds show us how good this speech could have been had he learnt how to structure his material in order to shoot all of it from the hip.

He could do it, without losing any of the essential elegance of the wording. There is a pleasing little tricolon at 7:30 which could just as easily have been there. Sadly though, at 5:34 he returns to his wretched script and his audience engagement falls off a cliff.

I called it a wretched script. It is actually well written and would make a good read. But as a piece of speaking it is lousy. It is comparable in lousiness to most of the offerings you get at “high profile national and international events and conferences” with successions of ‘speakers’ reading drearily to each other.

We need to raise the bar.

Douglas Murray is formidable.

It is brought home to you how international and friendly the Internet is when a reader from overseas is kind enough to write to you with links to speeches that she thinks would be worth examining in your blog. She recommended two speakers: both are countrymen of mine, both are men whose writing I have read and whom I have seen being interviewed; but I had previously heard neither speak. With sincere thanks to Chun Chan from the USA, today we shall be looking at a contribution made by Douglas Murray to a Cambridge Union debate on the subject of Israel and a nuclear Iran. I selected this having watched speeches from three links that Chun sent me, so already I know that Murray is no less assertive on his feet than he is on the page. He doesn’t take prisoners.

Murray is speaking against the desirability of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and begins with irony, upholding his opponents as distinguished men in their field who demonstrate why Britain is a second-, currently slipping to a third-, rate power. The only one he names is Sir Richard Dalton who, having been British Ambassador to Iran, is packing some serious ethos. Murray shows himself to be unimpressed.

He cleverly uses references to Sir Richard’s speech to introduce an examination of Iran’s supposed intentions, dividing his focus two ways – what they say and what they do. This neat little bipartite section is very clearly signposted and delivered.

One of the items on his list of “what they do” concerns the rape of students. It emerges that one of the earlier speakers had referred to “mass-rape”, and Sir Richard had objected to the term. Murray indulges himself by witheringly speculating on the Diplomatic Service’s level of toleration of rape, and what sort of numbers constitute “mass” in its lexicon.

He is also pretty dismissive of the premise on which the debate is being conducted. He points out that whatever view is expressed by this house – or even by Britain itself – will make no difference. [This debate was back in 2011 and, as we know, there has recently been an international agreement made with Iran. The agreement is variously heralded as a diplomatic triumph or condemned as a spineless and catastrophic climb-down. Time alone will decide the correct description.]

Murray turns to Israel. His tone doesn’t change: neither his volume nor his pitch rise. But you sense a growing intensity. The audience likewise senses it, and goes very quiet.

While trying (largely unsuccessfully) to find some background to this debate I learned that though this speech had previously passed me by it had been described in some circles as ‘having gone viral’. If this is the case, you may have seen it before. Just in case you haven’t, I shall not spoil any more but leave you to watch it. He is formidable.

Nevertheless I have one thing to add. I personally have been told, by some who are definitely in a position to know, that the people of Iran are the nicest, kindest, most generous and welcoming people imaginable. It is their wretched theocratic dictatorship that is the problem. Listen to Murray to the very end and I am pleased to tell you that you will hear this point fleetingly yet firmly made.

Danny Dorling – a fish out of water

In October 2012 The Cambridge Union Society held a debate with the motion This House Believes Class Runs BritainIn passing, I’d like to say that the CUS has a better organised online presence than the Oxford Union.  With the former there is a web page dedicated to the debate details; with the latter you have to try to hunt them down. Danny Dorling opened the case for the motion, and I’d like to thank fellow bloggist, Geoff Chambers, for drawing my attention to it.

My instant reaction was, why? The excellent CUS web page, mentioned above, tells me that also speaking for the motion is Ken Livingstone. What possessed them to put Dorling on first? I’m sure he’s a charming man, but he’s a fish out of water. The answer is that they were holding Livingstone back to field questions and summarise at the end. In the above video Dorling’s speech runs from 3:00 to 13:25.

Did I say a fish out of water? He says it too, though not quite in those words. But even before he admits being new to this environment his body language is screaming it. Look how his hands are all around his mouth in his first seconds of speaking. This is a classic terror symptom. Throughout the speech his hands periodically worry themselves behind his ears, which is likewise a stress symptom that we met before towards the end of this posting. (You can see another type of stress here, where a well-known sportsman is repeatedly worrying behind his ear and showing us that he’d rather be in the shower than doing this dumb interview.)

Take the environment out of the frame and Dorling is actually expressing himself quite well: there’s a neat anaphora that starts at 3:17 – “you worry about…”.

More than once in articles on this blog I have protested that your accent is part of you so you should honour it. I’m therefore disappointed by his assertion at 5:20 that if you live for any time in Newcastle without adopting the Geordie accent you are a ‘complete idiot’ and ‘very arrogant’. I’m sorry but I classify going native as a mark of insecurity.

At 5:30 he says that he’s not going to shower us with statistics, because they could be challenged by subsequent speakers. That looks like insecurity again (I’m trying to be charitable). The class issue, he says, is more of a gut feeling. Ah yes! Assertions backed up by essentially nothing are suitably unverifiable: don’t we love arguments like that – particularly from professors?

At 7:07 he tells us that he’s never spoken in a debate before (I told you so!). All right, there’s a first time for everything. I don’t suppose he’s ever dived off a 10-metre board either, but it might occur to him to learn something before trying.

What is it about public speaking that, although it is widely recognised as one of the most stressful things you can do, it doesn’t dawn on most people to seek help? How many seriously bright, knowledgeable and insightful people have been featured in this blog and been seen to fail dramatically to do themselves justice? The right guidance can turn a terrifying minefield into a pussy-cat playground.

When will they ever learn?