Fareed Zakaria – so nearly excellent that it’s frustrating!

When a man has been editing for more than a decade serious international periodicals like Newsweek and Time,  all the while writing articles in a range of other distinguished organs, when he has published several books including two best-sellers, and when moreover he has hosted two TV shows and been a regular contributor to others, you could be forgiven for thinking that he must have a skill like public speaking completely cracked. You’d be nearly right. Fareed Zakaria comes close, but he could very easily be closer. I found this speech by him at the 2010 Forum 2000 conference.

Whatever possessed him to utter that first sentence that way round? I can’t believe it was deliberate, so I put it down to Hump. In fact I rushed to add to my glossary an expression of mine that I haven’t used for some time. It’s a “Neil Armstrong moment“! In fact he is seriously hump-ridden for about a minute.  I say it in courses: I say it in my book: you should always have the hump-period completely nailed, so that if the ceiling fell in you’d still cope under auto-pilot.

There are in the video footage a few small edit-points that puzzle me. In each case what is said seems to flow on smoothly enough (though any competent editor should achieve that). What did they cut out? There’s one at 1:25, another at 2:27, and several more, and they make me wonder whether he had something like a paroxysm of coughing that they decided posterity didn’t need to see, or whether he just got even more boring for a bit.

One day I shall devote an entire posting on this blog to the differences between the written and spoken word. I’ve touched briefly on the subject before, but never enough fully to cover an area that is not well enough understood by too many people that absolutely should understand it. Zakaria, it seems to me, well-used to expressing himself brilliantly on paper or speaking to camera with that particular glassy stare that typifies TV presenters when they are using Autocue, has not bothered to explore the matter further. Autocue eyes somehow absolve their owners from the sin of uttering stilted speech; but utter the same stilted speech from a speaking platform and you do yourself no favours. Writing natural-sounding speech is so enormously difficult that I teach people the simplest of shortcuts. It’s simple: but at first it takes courage. You learn to create structures: you follow your structures: you trust yourself to speak spontaneously through your structures. And that sentence was epistrophe.

Dip into this speech for instance just after the 2-minute point and what you get is stilted, halting and – frankly – tedious. Suspicious that you might be looking at the remnants of a hump you might look again shortly after 4:00 and very much the same greets you – and there’s an edit point at 4:18.  Almost slap in between, at 3:20, he briefly gets seized by the urge to talk about inflation.  For that short period he is fulfilling Cardinal 1.  He has something to say and Real Speech comes flowing eloquently out of him. The contrast between this section and its neighbours is very marked.

Overall this young man, with a meteoric track record as a communicator simply seems to lack speaking-platform-savvy.  And this extends even to his repeated popping on that damned microphone. If I’d trained him he’d be a hell of a lot better, and he’d not be popping. After a while I became so frustrated that I went searching for another example of his speaking.  I found this. He is speaking at an IBM Think Forum.

What a contrast! Here we have the best part of 17 minutes of Zakaria shooting brilliantly from the hip. He is able to do it because now he has a rock-solid mind-map structure. It’s chronology. He merely relates and discusses the economic fortunes of the globe in general and USA in particular over a series of decades. There’s even a parallel to die for at 9:45! In technical speaking terms it is fabulous stuff.

If ever there was an argument for understanding the importance, both for you and for the audience, of knowing how to create and use structures, here it is in the comparison between two speeches from the same man.  The second one appears to have been delivered a few months later than the first. Had he learnt the skill in the interim, or is he still today playing hit-and-miss Russian Roulette?

If the latter he should contact me.

Michael Sandel owns his audience.

My godson, a psychologist and himself a university lecturer, posted on Facebook a link to this TED talk by Michael Sandel; so I had to go and look.  A Harvard professor should be comfortable on the speaking platform; and a political philosopher should fulfil Cardinal 1 – have something to say.

Though we don’t see his introduction, so cannot guarantee to catch the very beginning of his talk, we do see someone (presumably his introducer) exiting downstage right. My eagerness to see the very beginning of any talk is because of my keenness on what I call the bald opening – going straight in without lame preambles.  I think he has a bald opening. He also has adopted one of my favoured default hand-strategies – one hand in pocket, the other gesturing.   He is comfortable with it: I know because the pocket hand, of its own subconscious volition, emerges in seconds .This is promising well.

As a university professor he should be comfortable on his feet in front of an audience, but still there are tiny symptoms of hump if you look for them.  So let’s not.  His hump-busting tactic is to have this opening well-prepared. He gives us a Contents Page by setting his agenda. At 0.25 he says, “We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate”. There’s the Face!  Has he read my book?  This is straight down the middle of the fairway of my orthodoxy.  There’s a pleasing anaphora sequence at 0.50, using the word ‘over’ as the repetition key. To round off his agenda-setting he announces a discussion on the validity of applying Aristotelian principles to the issues at stake. At precisely the 2-minute point he seems to have shrugged off the hump, has set the scene and is well set.

Lovely clear structure – I’m enjoying myself! So will you. It’s excellent.

Having announced a discussion, he is as good as his word. Almost immediately he is working his audience. He calls for opinions, discusses opinions, stages differences of opinions between members of the audience, generates laughter, gets people thinking. He owns that audience right up to his closing; and the reasons are simple.

I’d like to refer you to two things. In my book I discuss the importance of using a judicious mixture of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know; and I give various reasons that I will spare you here. In my critique a few days ago of Matt Ridley’s TED talk, I discussed the value of causing the audience to apply their own critical faculties to issues being covered. The way Sandel structures this discussion fulfils all of that. While audience members are throwing up opinions in a relatively light-hearted fashion the diet cannot get too rich. Therefore they are very receptive when Sandel then piles in with something quite meaty. Furthermore, while he is inviting their opinions they get drawn deeper into the issues at hand; and that means their increased attention.

Suppose you are addressing department heads in your company on the importance of their getting their new fiscal year’s budgetary requirements submitted on time (I have deliberately recalled a scenario with which a Finance Director once challenged me on the basis that it was impossible to make such a talk interesting). I suggest you could use Sandel’s template quite effectively in that situation.

By the way, did you spot asyndeton three paragraphs ago?  Check the glossary if you don’t know what the hell I’m on about.  The third sentence in that paragraph is a list of items with never a conjunction. It makes the list cleaner somehow.

Brendan O’Neill – should shed the paper.

This is from the Auracle newsletter of July ’12

As I sometimes do I was browsing one evening in a desultory fashion through YouTube, wondering whether I might happen upon interesting material.  I did.  What caught my eye was the name Brendan O’Neill. He is the editor of Spiked, one of the online newspapers that I sometimes read; and though I don’t always agree with what he and his paper say I enjoy the maverick muscularity with which it is argued.

I was eager to discover whether he carried that characteristic through into his speaking. I like mavericks. I came across two speeches that he made in the past year.  Firstly let’s look at one he delivered at St Stephen’s Club in Westminster on 7 September.

He’s a talking head. He’s reading a script. His natural medium is writing so he has written this speech as a script, enjoyed turning some well-crafted sentences, and now he’s regurgitating it orally. Anyone who has done a course with me, read The Face & Tripod, or just read this blog knows how ferociously eager I am to tear paper props away from speakers. This speech contains some pleasing bits of writing and I would have enjoyed reading it, but I absolutely don’t want to hear it.  I want him shooting from the hip.  He wants it too, though he doesn’t know it.  Look how uncomfortable he is. He never stops fidgeting; and it’s that particular brand of fidgeting that indicates a want of inner calm. You may remember I pointed to Boris Johnson’s unwittingly displaying stress by rubbing the back of his head. O’Neill does it at 1.55, and again later several times.

Shortly after the 8-minute mark he begins lifting his eyes for longer periods from his script, and every time the quality of his speaking lifts also. As he passes 10 minutes there’s very little dependence on the script, and the delivery becomes immeasurably better. Look how well he narrates the Notting Hill Carnival incident. He is following Cardinal 1: he has ‘something to say’ and he is shooting it from the hip. He could not be illustrating more clearly the case that I repeatedly make to trainees, and also made in The Face & Tripod, for throwing away your paper.

Now let us examine a speech he made in a debate at last year’s Wilderness Festival. The motion is “New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving”, and O’Neill is speaking for it. My comments are largely the same as for the previous, except this time with added microphone popping. This last point is not entirely his fault. As he begins, someone is still crouching in front of him adjusting the microphone. He speaks too loudly for a microphone and, though we might sympathise with his having to cope with speaking in a tent, he spoke too loudly also in the previous speech.  He needs to work on microphone technique.

He concludes his carefully scripted-and-read presentation, and then from 7:35 onwards he is cross-examined. Essentially therefore we are into Q&A. Now he has no choice but to shoot from the hip; and of course he becomes a different speaker, a much better one. Now he is absolutely proving that scriptless he is not only coherent and articulate but also that he still spontaneously trots out the well-turned phrases.

Using a script is for him worse than useless, because not only is it unnecessary not only does it rob him of his spontaneity, but it acts as a screen between him and his audience.  He does not need to read his speeches. He does not need paper.  He needs to learn how to do without it.  He needs The Face & Tripod.

Daniel Hannan: smooth as a kitten’s wrist.

From Auracle Newsletter for March, 2012

For a couple of months I have been gestating for this newsletter, a critique on a speech made by Daniel Hannan MEP to a distinguished audience of mainly Germans and British.

Then a few weeks ago the EU parliament had a recess and Hannan went off on a tour of the Anglosphere. Very soon Twitter began buzzing with how he had wowed an American audience which was an interesting comparison with the previous example as it showed how – true to Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod – he varied his delivery to match his audience. I was just wondering whether to make a choice between them or conduct a comparison of the two, when twittering began afresh on a speech to an Australian audience.  In no time the Twitterati were getting excited over another speech he had made in Canada, but I decided I had enough for this exercise.

1. In May 2011 a debate was held at the Royal Geographical Society. The Motion was, “Germany no longer needs Europe – the dream is over”. Hannan spoke for the motion. His opening is brilliant: he captures the imagination immediately, making a strong argument in the process. Furthermore he attributes the argument to others, thereby doing several clever things simultaneously. He burnishes his image by modestly stepping aside from taking the credit; he inflates the credibility of the argument by citing distinguished authors by name (remember the proper noun directive in F&T); and he heads off any criticism of non-originality.

Which of my past trainees remembers my talking of the ‘muffed-word-test’? Essentially this is not about whether you muff words, which everyone does occasionally, but about how well you correct it with good humoured smoothness. Now watch Hannan at 2:50.

Dig out your copy of F&T and re-read the small section entitled ‘Negotiate’. Then watch this speech from 4:12. Hannan hands out a succession of bouquets to buy enough credit for the message he reaches at around 5:00.

At 5:25 he addresses what could be a knotty issue and dramatizes it well enough to elicit a ripple of laughter and applause; but because it is a knotty issue he speaks on through the applause in order not only to minimise it but be seen to minimise it lest anyone in the audience should take offence. This man is very smart and skilled.  Now let’s look at the second speech listed.

2. In February 2012 Hannan was one of the speakers at CPAC (Centre for American Politics & Citizenship).  In his opening, he uttered words he would never have used in the previous speech, “I gotta tell you…” This is a classic example of tailoring to your audience, as I direct in Cardinal 2 of F&T.  Did you, like me, hold your metaphorical breath lest he took it too far – what one might call ‘the oldest swinger in town’ syndrome? In the event he stopped comfortably short of that. You can hear the atmosphere buzzing in the hall, and he responds to it with just enough controlled ‘mirroring’.

At 4:00 he gives us some throw-away humour concerning the phallic shape of the Washington Monument; but, true to the throw-away principle (see my chapter on humour), he does not beg a laugh but continues as if he’d never said it – and gets a huge laugh. He also delivers the humour in a way that is oblique enough for anyone who might have been offended not to understand it. Very sound.

At 16:30 he gives us an anaphora repetition – less prosperous, less independent, less democratic, less free. Does he harpoon a potential triad by having four elements in his repetition or are the first three the triad which are then emphasised and locked into place, as it were, through the addition of the fourth? I think the latter, because he stops enumerating with his fingers after the third. At any rate, it all works beautifully because it receives a very respectable six seconds of applause, which could easily be longer except he curtails it by starting speaking again.

That’s the second time in this critique that I have found him choosing to kill his own applause. Consider: if by not begging laughter or applause you enhance your standing with your audience, how much more do you do it by actively suppressing them?  In the blink of an eye he conveys an eagerness to get on with imparting the message and the security of an ego that does not need reassurance from applause. Myriad positive messages are being transmitted.

When a speaker is as good as this I cannot help but be super-picky. If you’ve read F&T you know how keen I am on the use of parallels. For some years I edited a rather scholarly wine journal. At 26:38 Hannan goes into a viticulture anecdote-and-metaphor that is true but technically incorrect in a tiny detail which though small is crucial enough fatally to undermine the parallel. What a party-pooping stinker I am to have told you that! Let’s move to the third…

3. Later in February 2012 Hannan spoke at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. At the start I suspect you might be as bemused as I at how sombre he appears to be with an Australian audience. Also we do not seem to have joined it quite at the beginning. This bothered me so much that I dug some more; and I found another source of the speech here. It turns out that the first version begins just over 12 minutes into the whole thing. Perhaps more significantly that version claims to have been posted by Hannan himself, so it was he who apparently edited out those first 12 minutes before posting – in which case he needs to consider hard the difficulties and dangers of that sort of self-editing.

(There is on YouTube a severely cut-down version of a reading I did in 2010 of the whole of the Gospel of St Mark. I did the cutting-down. Several people who were there have observed that I cut out and I kept the wrong bits – and I fear they may be right.) Hannan’s exuberant seduction of his audience in the first few minutes of the uncut version of this speech is lovely to witness, and a rare public insight into his fun-time personality. But he excised all that in favour of later serious arguments which we can see him making a hundred times elsewhere.  I’d be the last to quarrel with his enthusiasm for his message – that’s Cardinal 1, a cornerstone of my training – but in this instance it may have caused an error.

This man is a first class speaker. For one thing he is beautifully economical; and I can identify at least two reasons for this. There are strict time limits on speeches in the EU parliament, so he has trained himself to get on, package his point clearly, and get off. You can see examples all over YouTube.

And he has learnt that the way to use fewer words is to use only the right ones. Those who have attended master classes with me will verify that I advocate the reading aloud of poetry as a way to improve many skills in this medium. Beautiful and economic turns of phrase work themselves into your mind by osmosis and become habit-forming. Not only do you find yourself getting better at finding the right words to convey the precise nuance you seek, but they trip off the tongue with less and less effort. Is there the remotest doubt but that Daniel Hannan is very well read? I began my working life as an actor an aeon ago, and was playing Shakespeare with the National Theatre before he was born; also I have directed half-a dozen Shakespeare productions. But he can out-quote me on Shakespeare without breaking sweat. In the complete version of that speech in Australia he effortlessly quotes 25 seconds of St Matthew’s gospel to make a point. At the 5:10 mark he makes merely the slightest reference to an incident in Jason’s Golden Fleece caper before ‘throwing it away’. All the above speeches are littered with what Logan Pearsall Smith meant when he wrote –

There is one thing that matters, to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.

But such a chime of words can jangle unless delivered with the confidence of familiarity. Hannan is manifestly familiar with everything he quotes – and that’s the key. On one recent occasion in the EU parliament he made a speech which consisted only of a single verse from a poem by G K Chesterton.

So, in conclusion, is he flawless? No, but then no one is. Every so often he allows words to die at the ends of phrases. It is not laziness: his enunciation is exemplary and he uses rising cadences well. It is done deliberately for effect, and it can be very effective, but care has to be taken not to sacrifice intelligibility for that effect. At 7:12 in the second of our speeches there are three examples in quick succession – the words “equivalent”, “independence” and “freedoms”. I’m being picky: President Obama is much worse.

I described Hannan in the title as being smooth as a kitten’s wrist. It’s worth noting that smooth though the feline wrist may be it is in close proximity to some very sharp claws. Hannan has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining strict courtesy to friend and foe alike, yet the speech that drew him to the attention of millions was the one wherein he eviscerated Gordon Brown in the EU Parliament.

There is something else that is interesting about that. The examples of speeches we have examined here I have listed by number, by venue, by date but not by what was said. None of them has a FACE! You try doing a YouTube search with the words “Devalued Prime Minister” and that Gordon Brown speech will fly onto your screen. He gave that speech a FACE – apparently by accident. If he had read F&T, particularly Cardinal 3, perhaps it would have been deliberate; and perhaps he would have made it a habit.

Peter Mandelson at 2009 British Labour Party Conference.

From October ’10 Auracle newsletter

One of my readers suggested I had a look at the speech Peter Mandelson made at the 2009 Labour Party Conference.

The assertion was that Mandelson’s self-deprecation very effectively turns the hall to his side – though I’m not sure how much they were against him before. At one point, the camera looks at the crowd and picks out an enigmatic smile from Ed Miliband (whatever happened to him?), but being enigmatic I really can’t read his feelings at that moment. Anyway, let’s go through the speech.

First things first: he’s tackling a hell of a hump. The nerves aren’t overly obvious because he disguises them well, but they are there all right. Look at the way he screws up his words at the 00:35 point – “I was as shocked as some as you”. A couple of seconds of later he momentarily stammers the beginning of the word, “network”. However by 1:20 he seems to have shed most of the burden and is on a roll. By the time he reaches “I didn’t choose this party: I was born into it” it’s tempting to think he’s in the driving seat.

The second half of his joke about Blair having said that the project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson is brilliant: he’s obviously worked hard on it. There are so many ways he could have completed that gag, but saying that “he set the bar a little too high” is stunningly good. And yet …

The most famous quote from the speech – “If I can come back, we can come back!” actually part-fails. Properly timed, it should not have needed the second half. If he had really had them in the proverbial palm of his hand they would have anticipated the second half and applauded hard enough for him to have discarded it – or made it into a drowned rant.

Speaking analysts have called this many things, but I call it the ‘drowned rant’. For many years beloved of tub-thumping politicians and rabble-rousing union leaders, the ‘drowned rant’ is when the speaker builds to a thunderous declaration, and intends to have the end of it drowned out by a tsunami of applause. Arthur Scargill used it all the time. Today, it’s rather gone out of fashion. Mandelson appears to be trying to generate lots of them – and failing. You hear his voice hardening to trigger the applause, but the applause doesn’t come soon enough to drown him – or even enough for him to ride it like a surfer rides a wave (the surfed applause is the junior partner of the drowned rant). It appears to start so late and so quiet as to exist almost out of sympathy. I was cringing on his behalf, till I began to wonder whether it was simply a case of the sound engineer keeping the ‘atmos’ microphones at a low enough level not to drown him on the recording. And I’m still not certain. But if that is the case, that sound engineer has done him no favours. It makes rant after rant seem rather lame. There are examples at 2:55, 3:45 & 5:00. And then at 7:40 he actually pauses momentarily for applause – and doesn’t get it. And then at 7:50, “…fabric of people’s lives” he’s begging for applause, but it arrives agonizingly late.

Matters begin to improve at 9:10 when he comes up from very quiet to get a really healthy round of applause at the announcement of Car Scrappage being extended; but he misjudges the extent of the improvement by trying for another almost immediately – and failing.

The trout he’s playing on the end of this line is a slippery bastard with a mind of its own; but he’s not a quitter. He goes on playing it manfully; sometimes seeming to win, other times all over the place. At 14:00 he carefully stage-manages another build to a rant, and then actually muffs the words of the punch line. That takes all the guts out of the applause. And then …

At 15:55 he utters the magic words, “and finally”. They have an electric effect on audiences (see The Inner Frame in The Face & Tripod). In this case it seems to weave its magic on him. From that moment – with ten minutes still to go – he’s a different speaker. Now he really gets in the driving seat, and now he’s so much in control that he barely glances at his notes. Now I’d be proud to claim him as my trainee – though he isn’t.

So what mistake(s) was he making before? There’s a technical detail and a General Principle. First the technical detail –

  • ‘Drowned rants’ are rather similar to humour inasmuch as the audience must never feel pressured to respond as required. Begging applause, like begging laughter, is an audience turn-off. He was trying to pull strings too soon. But the General Principle is much more important…
  • Cardinal Rule # 1! The first chapter in the book. Have Something To Say! Before the 16-minute mark he was trying to play clever-buggers with all sorts of rhetorical trickery. After it, he refocused on what his message was. And he became infinitely more effective. It’s the caveat I attach to my Masterclass: don’t allow anything you come to learn later allow your attention to be diverted from the prime requirement – get your message out there.

Last week I was at a conference devoted to sales presentations, and saw all manner of extremely expensive bells-and-whistles that can embellish performances. None of that came near to persuading me that they were as valuable as the steely-eyed drive that accompanies a speaker with something to say. And Mandelson here confirms that belief.
There’s far, far more that I could say on this speech; but that’ll do for now!

Brian Robinson