Daniel Hannan: brilliant when audible.

In May ACRE held a conference in Miami to launch Conservatives International. One of the speakers was Dan Hannan. On learning this my immediate instinct was to move on: I’ve critiqued him far too often. But when I investigated further I found that it was more than eighteen months since last we covered a speech by him, so I at least owed myself a chance to look.

I am very glad I did. Just the still image advertising the video quickened my pulse. No lectern, no slides, no aids of any sort. We see just him on a stage, which is how I set the scene for my trainees because it forces them to confront all their challenges.

Clever opening. He outflanks his theme by appearing to talk nonsense, thus drawing us in. By the time he explains his reasoning we are already with him, and well primed for his childhood reminiscences which are chosen to be starkly relevant.

He comes across as very relaxed, but why shouldn’t he? He’s preaching to the choir, of which I admit I am one, and there are only two hundred of them in the hall. Still his body language conveys an inner confidence that certainly would not be there with many speakers.

He hasn’t yet eradicated the diction flaw of sacrificing syllables for the sake of a perceived dramatic effect. I’ll present just one example from a very large field: at 3:52 that word is “developing”, but we know only from the sense. The final syllable is inaudible. My mind flies back half a century to 1967 and the wonderful Kate Fleming, then voice coach at the National Theatre. Had she had a recording device to prove it, I would have been more easily persuaded that I was doing then what Hannan is doing now. It is possible, with guidance, to develop habits that retain dramatic effect and also all syllables, words, phrases; and he needs to do so, because meanwhile too much of what he says is partially lost.

I get this picky only with speakers who are very good, and they don’t come much better than Hannan. This is a beautifully crafted speech, with brilliantly coherent arguments. He goes down the obvious route of explaining the economic and ethical points that make free trade the most beneficial system for humanity. That was to be expected. He also takes us through the obstacles that can make it so difficult to sell; and that is for me the most enlightening part.

He explains the political, economic and psychological barriers that drive people away from the free market system that has elevated society (particularly the poor) so much over the past two centuries into the welcoming but coercive arms of socialism that has failed at every attempt, always results in immiseration, and was responsible for one hundred million deaths in the twentieth century.

It is a brilliant speech.

Hannan was selected by Aldershot, a constituency in the south east of England, to be their Conservative candidate at the recent General Election. The selection was blocked, I understand, by Conservative Central Office. We can only guess at their reasons, just as we can only guess at how the Conservative Party squandered a seemingly invulnerable poll lead.

Eben Upton – like a big puppy!

Eben Upton spoke at the Poptech conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in June 2012, narrating the conception, gestation and birth of Raspberry Pi. The perceptive reader will notice that I have already supplied links that will tell you more about Poptech and Eben Upton; but I have not done so for Raspberry Pi. Is this because I am loftily expecting you already to know all about it? No, it is because if Upton’s speech does its job you shouldn’t need to be told more. Shall we see if it does?

I am delighted to tell you that he shoots the whole thing from the hip so, my not being diverted into moaning about paper, I can actually examine the speech itself.

  • He begins by producing two Raspberry Pis and tossing them into the audience, inviting people to look at them. It’s not a run-of-the-mill opening, and as such will be mildly memorable
  • At 0.55 he begins a contents page. It’s an excellent principle, but needs to be very clear. I can’t even tell how many elements it contains, because some things seem to be subdivisions of other things.
  • He speaks very rapidly. Some people naturally do, but this strikes me as exacerbated by nerves. It’s almost as if he is apologising for being there. His enunciation is appalling.
  • For around 6 minutes, from 2:00 to 8:00 he explains that generations of kids that followed his generation were culturally less drawn to learning how to programme computers. It didn’t need 6 minutes.
  • His barely intelligible gabbling makes him diffiult to follow, even for me who also programmed computers in the 80s.
  • He’s finally discussing the product in the ninth minute and, if I hadn’t done some research earlier, I would have a job understanding what on earth he’s talking about.
  • The narrative continues for 18 minutes through to the awkwardly meteoric success of the product (awkward because of the huge demand they had somehow to meet).

There is a very important word in that last bullet point – ‘narrative’. Upton is actually close to being very good with this speech. Rambling, manic and often incoherent though the speech might be we can follow that part of it we can discern because it has a narrative. It also makes it easy for him to dispense with paper, because he always knows where he is going.

The speech is like an eager puppy, running in all directions at once in a skin that’s too big for it. It needs a little sober thinking-through, pulling-together and tightening. Puppies that behave like that are excited and nervous at the same time – and so is Upton. His mindset is insecure, even though he’s narrating a story he lived. He has all the natural talent – and attractive ebullience – to be a first-class speaker, but the talent is in danger of going nowhere.  And as for his diction…!

At the beginning he did actually lay out his stall. He held up a Raspberry Pi before throwing it into the audience. He explained that he hoped it would teach children … what? If you’ve watched the speech you can probably answer that now, but did you hear the words at the time? Go to 0:12 for the answer, and you may have to listen more than once.

Very shortly after that he jokes, while throwing these things into the audience, that he’s been on a presentation skills course. I sincerely hope that is a joke.

Dr Joanna Collicutt needs both my books.

Probably the most sensible thing that anyone has said, with respect to the Oxford Union God debate, came from the daughter of the speaker we shall be examining here. I’ll come to that in a few seconds. The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath was the second speaker in support of the motion, This House Believes in God.

She opens with that quote from her daughter saying, “What is there to debate? You either do or you don’t, and that’s an end to it.” What wise words! Dr Collicutt doesn’t quite agree enough to stop there, or they would all have got tucked into their G&D’s ice-cream rather sooner than they did.

I have published two little books on the subject of speaking.

The Face & Tripod (affectionately known as F&T) though it’s specifically targeted at business speaking is every bit as useful for any other type. Anyone who has explored this blog will not be surprised to learn that one of F&T’s principal thrusts concerns paperless speaking. If the material is properly and well enough structured anyone can go out in front of an audience and deliver even quite a long speech without reference to a script or notes. I call it ‘shooting from the hip’.

I bet you have worked out why I mention that here. Dr Collicutt is a talking head. She is wedded (or possibly welded) to the words she has written. And the truly frustrating and tantalising thing is that she has one of the clearest and easiest structures imaginable. It is one of those I commend in F&T – chronology. And what is the chronological path she has given herself to follow? Why, her own life! Yes, gentle reader, Dr Collicutt’s speech is auto-biographical; and still she doesn’t trust herself to be able to remember it. Let’s not castigate her: there are two ingredients to being able to deliver a paperless speech. You have to know how to, and you have to know you can. She hasn’t had me to prove to her beyond doubt that she can do it. I know she can, and her speaking would light up if she did.

I have published another little book – even littler! It is called Every Word Heard, and there’s a second half to that title, “- without discernible effort”.  That is the key to good enunciation. Anyone can make every word heard if they are prepared to sound weird. Dr Collicutt sounds as most people would, under the misguidance of too many people who don’t understand what good diction is. This is the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get each Christmas from the boy chorister that does one of the readings at the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge. The poor thing has been bullied into reading it like that, and I know what I’d like to say to the half-witted grown-up that did the bullying. It’s the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get from rookie BBC reporters. It’s the sort of … but I think you’ve probably got the picture.

It is perfectly possible – indeed easy, if you know how – to sound completely normal and still have every word heard even in a large hall. Speech is not a series of individual words, all gummed together in a given order: speech is a flow of phrases and clauses and sentences that have beautiful rhythm. If – you – utter – each – word – as – if – it – had – come – individually – wrapped, you do yourself and your speaking no favours at all.

Gosh, how I’d like to help Dr Collicutt!

Perhaps I should be grateful to her for providing me with such graphic examples with which to publicise my books, but I’d rather she did proper justice to her carefully reasoned speech.