Roger Scruton: not at all bad

When I saw that the Oxford Union had just posted online a video of Professor Sir Roger Scruton delivering to them a talk followed by Q&A, I was eager to watch it.

For some reason his writings have thus far passed me by, but I heard him in a lengthy interview on a friend’s podcast recently and I was in equal measure impressed with him and disappointed with myself for having not properly encountered him ages ago. He’s a couple of years older than I, we share roughly the same amount of hair, of roughly the same shade, and of comparable disorder. He can’t be all bad.

He’s a writer.

All too often on this blog I have raged against those who read their speeches, but I shall not with him because he has bridged much of the huge gap between the written and the spoken word. He has evidently worked at being able to restrict himself to mere occasional glances at his paper, so our losing his eyes from time to time does not drastically impede the quality of his delivery. Likewise he has prepared this almost entirely in spoken, rather than written, English.

Nevertheless there remains the intensity of detail. This is structured as a piece of writing. If you were reading it you could stop and ponder a section before moving on to the next. You could also re-read passages. We here can pause the video, or rewind to review, but the audience in the hall can’t. Any lapse of concentration and what they miss they miss for ever.

It needs broader brush-strokes. It needs the flow of data to be slowed down from time to time. It needs to be blocked out in a fashion that anyone could follow. I know the audience consists of not anyone, but very accomplished students, but I also know from experience that academic prowess doesn’t make you immune to data overload. I’m afraid he does periodically lose some of his audience: we can hear it in the coughing. They’re missing some brilliant stuff!

I felt myself itching to rebuild the speech from the ground up, restructuring in a way that enabled him to dispense entirely with paper and the audience not to miss a syllable.

That said, he inserts some lovely touches of humour from time to time and the audience welcomes the opportunity to relax and regroup: the coughing recedes. During the Q&A, he obviously has no choice but to shoot from the hip and of course this is when we see the power of his delivery at its best. At its best it is extremely good.

Even at its worst it is not at all bad.




Boris – again!

I thought I’d talk about Boris. Well why not? Everyone else is! From the notorious Eddie Mair interview to the BBC2 documentary to comments published about either, Boris has been ubiquitous for the past week. Once again I marvel at my instinctive use of that name. OK, the name is unusual; but still it is a mark of something very particular in a person when friend and foe alike use his Christian name.

I didn’t see the interview, I have better things to do at that time on a Sunday morning, but I did see a flutter of tweets, proclaiming that he had been ‘done-over’, ‘roasted’, ‘defenestrated’, etc, so I later went to see the podcast. In fact, none of those things had happened. Mair made a provocative statement (10:22), “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you!”. There were various options available to Boris at that moment, and he selected the best. He maintained his humour. Also, bear in mind that we don’t see Mair’s face at that moment: I rather suspect there was a twinkle.

Twinkle or not, just try imagining Paxo throwing that one at Blair! There would have been an explosion just off camera with Alastair Campbell‘s name on it. There was a huge twinkle on Robin Day‘s face when asking the question that had John Nott storming out of the studio all those years ago at the time of the Falklands War. By his staying good humoured this was game set and match to Boris and, as Toby Young observed on his blog, all that juicy material has now been neutralised for ever.

One of my trainees asked me last year whether I was going to look at Boris’ contribution to the Conservative Party conference. His comment was that it was the best thing – probably the only good thing – in the conference. At that time I was in the grip of serious Party Conference fatigue, and anyway I had but recently critiqued a Boris speech, so it was something that got put onto the back-burner. Perhaps now is the time to test the world’s Boris fatigue.

Let us remember that when this speech was delivered Boris was riding the crest of a huge wave of post-Olympic popularity. Put that in a mixing bowl with his Mayoral re-election victory and his accustomed relaxed buffoonery, add the requirement to address serious issues in a speech such as this and you actually have a very complex question as to how and where to pitch the tone. Try as I might, I can’t fault it. This man is a very smart operator. You have masses of humour, balanced skilfully against hard political-point-scoring statistics. And when I say ‘balanced’ I refer not only to weight but also to time: just as you start to tire of one type of material he whisks you away to fresh pastures.

And his use of humour is not just buffoonery. Did he deliberately create the very funny episode beginning around 22:40, or merely ride the wave very skilfully when it happened? I don’t know: I suspect the former, but that is not important. What is important is the quality of the interlude in what actually was a serious speech. He works a crowd as well as anyone I’ve seen.

Almost any further comment I make is superfluous: the speech speaks for itself. But I’d like to highlight two technical points. When before he was on this blog I castigated his bad microphone technique – he was popping all the time. I have also been known to declare that technicians are as much to blame for popping as the speaker. Congratulations to the sound engineers: they are using Boris-proof microphones which are too short for him to speak directly into, yet have the range clearly to pick him up. Nary a pop do we hear.

Boris is reading a script, and might be thought to be disproving everything I say about talking heads because he handles a script as well as anyone I’ve seen. (I still think he’d be even better without.) Nevertheless he is committing one technical error. For one ghastly moment I thought his script was printed on both sides of the paper, but having carefully checked his eye-line I am confident that it is not. Why then does he turn each page over? It would be much smoother, less fussy and more discreet merely to slide each completed sheet to the side (I cover this in my book).

And having triumphantly found one thing I can criticise, I shall now retire.

Portillo – Who Dares Wins. He dared: did this speech win?

Michael Portillo’s Who Dares Wins speech in 1995 has often since been characterised as an embarrassing failure. But was it? This critique is lifted from the December ’11 Auracle Newsletter.

In the mid-nineties I did some work with MORI (now Ipsos MORI); and one day I was having a meeting with their then chairman, Bob (now Sir Robert) Worcester, doyen of pollsters in the UK. A telephone call came through from some press person who was important enough for Bob to interrupt the meeting and answer questions – though he was quite relaxed about my remaining the other side of his desk, ears inevitably flapping. The gist was that the Conservatives stood not a chance at the next election. Since so-called Black Wednesday (September ’92) their stock had fallen so far with the electorate that not even contriving the Second Coming (I’m sure I particularly remember that reference, but my memory could be tricking me) could save them.

This then was the political climate in which Michael Portillo, Defence Minister at the time, made his Who Dares Wins speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1995. I never saw it or any excerpts on television – I was far too busy. My memory is that it was regarded as an embarrassment. But then most of the main-stream media at the time were running with the anti-Major-government tide. Also any form of expressed patriotism was deeply unfashionable; so this speech never stood a chance in the press.

Now, more than sixteen years later and thanks to YouTube, I am able to watch it and make my own judgement – as are you.

One of the first things to notice is that there are two versions on YouTube. The other is nearly twice as long as this one; so what’s missing in this one? Answer: most of the applause. Yes, gentle reader, Portillo – true to my exhortation in Cardinal Two of The Face & Tripod – positioned the speech brilliantly. He hit the audience’s G-Spot, and they gave him three minutes of ecstatic standing ovation. There’s also another conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended), and I’ll return to that in a while.

Let’s go through the speech, cherry picking in the process –

  • We don’t appear to have the beginning (nor does the other version) but as we join it he launches into an overt triad (see the relevant chapter in The Face & Tripod) which he immediately expands. This is greeted with about 9 seconds of applause. [N.B. 8 seconds is par for any mid-speech applause: 12% improvement on par is very good, particularly this early.]
  • 0:28 another triad – “war is messy, brutal and violent”
  • 0:46 an attributed quote which introduces a sustained reflection on the evils of war
  • 1:55 a lengthy triad which builds in intensity. He makes a small error here inasmuch as he gets too loud too early, thus squeezing his room for manoeuvre – it’s a widespread mistake, caused partly by eagerness outweighing technical prowess, partly by the limitations of an untrained voice and partly by the widely-held fallacy that volume is the only way to convey intensity. This error notwithstanding – and he covers it very well – he is greeted with an outstanding 19 seconds of applause.
  • 2:58 triad – Nelson, Wellington, Churchill
  • 3:25 another triad
  • 3:47 he sets the stage for quoting the SAS motto – and then delivers it.
  • 3:57 the audience goes berserk and, though he has sat down, they are on their feet and forcing him repeatedly to return to his feet to acknowledge their adulation.

I said earlier that I would return to highlighting a conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended). I had never seen this speech till I searched on YouTube; but I knew that if it were there I’d find it in seconds. I was right. I searched “Portillo who dares wins” and there it was. He had given the speech a FACE.

More than a decade before it was written he obeyed all three of the cardinal rules in The Face & Tripod in addition to several others of its strictures. This shows that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about my book: it merely lays out time-tested simple but effective principles that will get anyone at least up to the competent 80% mark.

He appropriated his FACE from the SAS, but so what? JFK stole “Ask not what your country can do for you…&c” from Epictetus. I have the same attitude to this sort of plagiarism as the late, great, sainted Tom Lehrer – just remember why the good Lord made your eyes, and plagiarise.

Mostly with these speeches I prefer not to comment upon the sentiments expressed: my brief is to comment upon how well they are delivered. There’s a saying, popular in investors’ circles, that the market is never wrong. His audience was his market.

Go figure.

2011 Party Conferences, Part 2: Miliband and Cameron. October ’11 Auracle Newsletter

In the October newsletter I did analyses of conference speeches by the leaders of UKIP and the LibDems. This month I shall to do the same for Labour and Conservative. Chronology having caused the two biggest guns to have delivered last, I knew that these would be the ones subjected to the greatest pressure.

For various reasons I had seen neither speech live; so I was looking forward to settling down with pen and pad in front of the screen. In the event I found it impossible to sit all the way through either of them.

Ed Miliband
While he was making this speech Tweets were pouring into my BlackBerry from his political friends and foes; and they were universally scathing. As usual I treated these criticisms with a pinch of salt; because as a rule others don’t look where I am looking. It wasn’t going to be as bad as they claimed. Was it?

Within minutes of my watching the YouTube posting I had dropped both pen and pad, had covered my face with my hands and was viewing the screen between clenched fingers. The ultra-schmaltzy opening, directed at his wife, was emetic not just because it was ultra-schmaltzy but because there was nothing against which to balance it. Schmaltz can work only with a counter-weight of something very tough or the audience is left (as in this case) with just a sickly puddle of emotional soup. The worst of the schmaltz gave way to some humour on the subject of his nose-job. A bit of human-interest Nice-to-Know material (see the Chapter in The Face & Tripod) is quite a good idea, and the punch-line was quite funny so I began to hope that when he cut to the chase things would look up.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the political angle – that is not the brief I set myself – but it is supremely lame and a waste of everyone’s time, merely to catalogue what you see as shortcomings in the administration without recommending how to put them right. Imagine a member of your team delivering a presentation to you and doing that. This, even more than the opening schmaltz, was what put my hands over my face. This also was what eventually caused me to stab the ‘off’ button: I couldn’t take any more.

The last quality we should seek in a political leader is film-star attractiveness. Yes I know that the electorate, led by the media, too easily treats elections as a pantomime audition (and accordingly Britain was run for around a decade by Buttons – followed by Baron Hard-up) but to counter this tendency it makes it all the more important for political speeches to be of the highest standard. This wasn’t.  Miliband looks and sounds a little weird, so he needs to deliver strong arguments with transparent passion. He tried, but failed. He also needs basic platform savvy to stop himself repeatedly hitting the microphone with his gestures. If any of you had delivered this speech in the more testing environment of a business setting the audience would have sent you packing. I turned to Cameron, hoping for better.

David Cameron in four parts – Part 1,  Part 2,  Part 3,  Part 4

I remember when Press pre-releases were embargoed. This speech, whether by accident or design, road-tested itself by pre-release. The Today programme buzzed with how the PM was going to tell us all to pay off our credit cards. Comments were passed by usual-suspect Radio 4 punditry; and the 6 o’clock news that evening informed us that that bit had been dropped. Were it so easy for the rest of us!  It isn’t, hence Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod.

He began with a very strong opening sentence, uncompromising to a fault. My hopes soared. He followed with an anaphora repetition – “ I’m proud of my…” with the last of the series delivered straight down the lens of the camera, “… and I’m proud of you.” My hopes sank. That wasn’t schmaltzy: that was oily. He paused for applause, and the audience – no doubt as stunned as I – failed to oblige. What possessed him to do something so creepy?

I have to keep reminding myself that these people have armies of consultants advising them on every eyebrow twitch. Why else would Cameron have acquired this curious thin-lipped grimace which he now affects, as if to project a ‘don’t mess with me’ image? It looks to me so phoney that I have trouble focussing instead on what he is saying; which sometimes is a pity because sometimes it is good.

But, as with Miliband, I found myself wondering whether this speech would have survived in a business environment. And the resounding answer was, no.

I recently engaged in an argument with a friend who disputed my claim that business speaking was more exacting than its political equivalent. He pointed to the myriad pressures that govern what and how politicians have to speak. He opined that where business speaking is fuelled by conviction, political speaking fakes conviction – and doing that successfully is a considerable skill. It’s a seductive case, because it assumes that all a business speaker needs is truth and sincerity. However we all know that occasions arise, in business as much as in politics, when your view of a broader picture than your audience can see will force you to aim slightly to one side of the truth. And your audience is invariably harder-nosed, more cynical and less easily duped than most of the millions of voters on the other side of the politician’s TV camera. If you find yourself having to fake sincerity, you’d better be a damn sight better at it than those guys above! In my training I try to avoid dispensing phoney cosmetic veneers, not because I am a starry-eyed optimist but because I’m a steely-eyed pessimist concerning the chances of pulling it off with the audiences of the niche in which I work. (It is perfectly possible to be genuinely sincere, aiming to one side of the truth, but that’s a long story.)

If you can bear to watch some of the footage of those two lamentable speeches, look hard when the camera gives you close-up shots of party grandees. How often do you see from them a genuine laugh, a truly thoughtful nod or applause that is more than dutiful? Very seldom. But when you do, that is when the speaker has swayed an audience as unforgiving as your average business audience.