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!


Damian Green not a copper’s nark

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Britannic Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate.

I have already examined speeches by Anthony Stansfeld, Graham Stringer MP, and David Davis MP. Finally, today, we look at the speech in opposition from Damian Green MP.

Damian Green used to be a TV presenter. Before that he was in radio. For nine years he was a broadcast journalist, and for twice as long as that he has been a Member of Parliament. Many might assume that this would guarantee his public speaking skill. My experience shows that this is not necessarily so. For one thing broadcasters don’t see their audience, and for another Members of Parliament do too much of their speaking in the chamber where everything is rather stylized. Let’s see.

This is an amusing opening. The audience enjoys it enough not only to laugh, but one person tries to applaud.

He has at his disposal various pieces of weighty ethos, not least his spell as Police Minister, but he mentions that only obliquely. Instead he brings up his arrest in 2008, on suspicion of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”. While he was in opposition, a junior civil servant had leaked him documents that seemed to indicate failings on behalf of the government’s handling of Home Affairs. The arrest was highly controversial, seemed to be entirely political, and he was released without charge after a few hours questioning. Politicians on all sides were intensely critical of the actions of the police. This story might seem at first sight almost to be reverse ethos, till Green points out that no one will now accuse him of being a ‘copper’s nark’.

The speech is well delivered. Like David Davis he looks at his papers very sparingly and then usually to get a name right in some story. After the comedy of the first minute, this is coldly focused purely on the arguments he is promoting.

He tells the notorious story of the cold-blooded gunning down of two unarmed police officers, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, just two days into his spell as Police Minister. He is illustrating the deadly hazards of being a police officer, but surely this is a straw man argument. Everyone knows that the police have a dangerous job, but how can this excuse corruption like the manufacture of evidence or the taking of bribes? Being the victim of persecution does not paint you virtuous: how you react to it might, but the police too often not reacting properly is the other side’s case.

In terms of his debating strategy he seems too eager to chase down these blind alleys. He does it right up to his parting shot, “…recognize that the police out there are doing a tough job, and that most of them do it really well” That’s virtually saying, “…only some of them are villains”. Or try this, “It’s really difficult being a brain surgeon, and most of them won’t kill you.”

I haven’t been able to find out which side won the debate, but on the basis of the speeches I’ve heard I know which way I’d have voted.

Graham Stringer: apologetically formidable

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Britannic Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate.

I have already examined a speech by Anthony Stansfeld, and I shall be covering one by Damian Green MP both in opposition. The proposition speeches were from Graham Stringer MP and David Davis MP, and today we examine the former.

My word, but that’s a very clever opening! He immediately conveys sorrow that he finds himself on this side of the debate. He takes no satisfaction in criticizing the police force. Also he tells us that he had expected to be debating with the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester who has failed to appear – perhaps because he is currently under criminal investigation. In the process of telling us this he has also added the ethos that he is a Member of Parliament for Manchester.

I have watched this opening several times and am convinced that he is sincere. If not this would have been not just very clever but desperately devious, because his case is virtually home and dry in less than two minutes. Nevertheless he hastens to tell us that this is not the main burden of his argument. That comes perilously close to paralipsis, and less than a minute later there’s an example that comes even closer.

Graham Stringer is a formidable debater. His apologetic demeanour camouflages great skill.

He proceeds to recount some very telling, Manchester-based, examples of appalling police negligence. He gets quite impassioned during this process, so much so that words tumble over themselves and certain sentences come out wrong. It doesn’t matter: these are Neil Armstrong moments that illustrate the strength of his feeling.

He closes with a reiteration of his sadness to be criticizing a force that contains so many fine and conscientious officers. I sense the audience with him all the way. He is good.


P.S. Stringer told us that one of his opponents had failed to show up, yet the opposition had the full complement of speakers. That possibly explains Sam Barker. Barker had puzzled me. He is young, possibly still a student, and all the signs are that he is prodigiously talented as a speaker. He has good stage presence, yet his speech, despite being quite skillfully fashioned, is pretty hollow. It has a Face, “Who do you call?”  but not much else. Could it be that he has stepped in at the last minute to fill the gap has thrown a speech together largely in his head and shot it from the hip? David Davis obviously enjoys the effort, and is right to do so.

Sam Barker: remember the name. I am sure we are going to come across it in future.

Anthony Stansfeld – gelded by paper

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate. By the way, in case there be any doubt, the Majesty in question is Her Britannic Majesty.

I shall be examining speeches by Anthony Stansfeld and Damian Green MP in opposition, and Graham Stringer MP and David Davis MP in proposition. I start with Anthony Stansfeld

What an extraordinary opening sentence! What was he trying to achieve with it? It has nothing to do with the matter in hand. Was it a clumsy attempt at ethos, waving his PC credentials at his audience through his association with a conference on Female Genital Mutilation? He could merely have told us that he was a police commissioner.

Oh dear! He’s reading, and not very well. His audience is instantly switched off to a measurable degree – listen to the onset of coughing.

At 1:05, just as the camera cuts away to David Davis looking underwhelmed, Stansfeld suddenly sounds more genuine. He is recounting, interestingly and relevantly, how he led an investigation into the Hong Kong police some years previously. We see Davis’ face turn back to him in interest, but we have to wait till the camera cuts back to Stansfeld to find that he has lifted his eyes from the script and temporarily is shooting from the hip.

That half-minute passage is infinitely stronger than what preceded it and, sadly, what follows it, because having concluded his Hong Kong story he pauses and returns tediously to his bloody script. We can’t see him but I can imagine David Davis yawning. Right there you have a really dramatic example of what I bang on about in this blog ad nauseam. Too few people know how easy it is to dispense with any paper assistance whatever forever.

If I had advised him I would have kicked the FGM reference into the long grass and opened with the Hong Kong story, which is powerful ethos; and then I’d have created with him, and stories that I would probe out of him, a structure wherein he could have shot the entire speech from the hip. That would have made a strong and compelling argument, instead of the insipid series of bromidic recycled platitudes that he reads to us here. Camera shots of the audience show them to be no more whelmed than David Davis.

What puzzles me is Stansfeld’s service background. In my experience the British armed forces are very good at getting their people to speak well. I have worked with many retired service personnel and merely had to steer them towards a more civilian- or business-friendly focus. All I can assume is that since becoming a Police Commissioner he has been infected with Civil Service politically safe blandness. In public speaking that amounts to castration.

What a pity!

John Waters: The People’s Pervert

On 30 May, 2015, John Waters delivered a Commencement Address to students at Rhode Island School of Design. I am indebted to a reader of this blog, and friend, Duncan Goldie-Scot for drawing it to my attention.

I discourage speakers from trying to get a laugh out of a hierarchical hello [hh]. This is because, by their very nature, these things nearly always crop up on heavyweight occasions. Here we have a speaker who is of the same mind. He has obviously been brought in to be as subversive as possible, yet he delivers his hh dead straight. He beams at the audience’s applause immediately the hh finishes, but he doesn’t monkey with it during the saying.

Immediately thereafter the subversion begins. He launches into an ethos the equal of which none of us is likely to have heard before or will hear again. Waters is studiously one of a kind and wants us to know it. He quotes an epithet attached to him by the press, “The Prince of Puke”. Also did you think I dreamed up that title above? It is lifted, untampered, from this speech.

There is an interesting detail, though. He concludes the ethos by quoting that People’s Pervert title, and then, “I am honoured to be here today with my people”. This is instantly greeted by whoops and applause from the students. Waters returns another beaming smile; but whereas the beam that concluded the hh was full of triumph and delight, this one is rather shy.

He launches into an account of his extraordinary career, “I wanted to be the filthiest person alive!” That pretty well sums it up. His message to the students is that they should in their work be true to themselves, however mad and artistically disruptive that might appear to the rest of the world.

The students lap it up, and presumably the school staff booked him with their eyes open, but I wonder how the students’ parents are enjoying it. I foresee family arguments wherein a need to support themselves fights against a compulsion to create things for which the world is not ready. Some of these students will earn good and secure money designing for large corporations, others may travel today’s equivalence of painting feverishly in the South of France, fighting against mental illness, cutting off an ear, dying penniless and leaving a legacy of work that will keep auction houses in a manner to which they want to be accustomed. Most will hover somewhere in between, jealous of the ones on the extremes.

That is the nature of art and the tragedy of artists. I’ve known many: even some fairly mad ones. You might expect the most outlandish, the ones that fearlessly produce stuff that seems to make no sense at all or that outrages your sensibilities, to be hard-nosed and thick-skinned. Not so. In my experience, the crazier they are the more insecure. And that takes me straight back to the shy smile that John Waters gave the warmth of the students’ welcome. He’s been hugely successful, but I see vulnerability. Perhaps it is that which helps to make this speech not just funny but so appealing.

I just wish he hadn’t thought he had to read it. Also, if you are going to say “Prince of Puke” and People’s Pervert” you need to learn how not to pop the microphone.

Redmond O’Hanlon: still crazy after all these years

There is a quotation attributed to Danny Kaye –

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.

I had a school friend. In fact we were together at two consecutive schools. That means we spent the best part of a decade being educated at the same establishments. On balance I’d say he was marginally less naughty than I, though it was a close thing. In half a century since then I have periodically caught sight of his distinguished career as a naturalist, explorer and author, throwing more paint on his canvas than would be good for most people’s health. He is Redmond O’Hanlon, and having one day online caught sight of a video of his making a speech, I had to go and look.

For heaven’s sake! Whoever posted this video could have chosen a better still picture.

The absence of ethos tells me that either he has been introduced or that he is so well known to this audience that introduction and/or ethos is redundant. The easy-going opening, together with his casual garb, rather reinforces the opinion. A warm decorum is established: he and his audience are comfortable with each other. If I am wrong and he was previously unknown to these people, I doff my cap. Nothing can relax an audience more quickly or thoroughly than a speaker treating them like old friends. The tactic is not speaker-proof: unseemly over-familiarity can be counter-productive. O’Hanlon has got it right.

There follows a stream of fascinating and delightful anecdotage.

It is idle and wrong to assume that if you have been to interesting places and seen interesting things and had interesting experiences then anecdotage just falls into place. To be a raconteur requires real skill.

You have to play to your strength. Peter Ustinov, for instance, was a superb mimic and used that ability to make his stories sparkle. O’Hanlon has written several successful books recounting his travels, so he is practised at painting word-pictures to make his stories come alive. Nevertheless, as we have observed very many times in this blog, writing is not the same as speaking and being good at the one does not automatically make you good at the other.

O’Hanlon has one particular quality on his side: he is prepared to make a fool  of himself. He waves his hands around, he makes silly noises, and the audience enjoys it. But still, lest any reader thinks that I’ve revealed a golden secret, that tactic is not speaker-proof either. I don’t know whether he had to die a few times before he got it right, or whether it was always a natural ability, but he’s got it right now. This is a lovely piece of speaking and great fun to watch.

Speaking personally I am delighted to find that age has not wearied him nor the years condemned. More importantly, he remains as charmingly bonkers as I remember. That is (you might say) satisfactory.

Aaron Porter and butter

The Oxford Union has recently posted videos of a debate held with the motion – This House Believes Popular Support is Enough to Justify a Platform. I find it depressing that such a motion is even regarded as worthy of debate in a prestigious seat of learning. Unpopular support is enough to justify a platform: no support is enough to justify a platform. Stick a box at Speakers’ Corner or any appropriate place, climb on it, start speaking and you have a platform – a justified platform. If no one listens that’s your problem. If people dislike or disapprove what you say they walk away and leave you lecturing the pigeons. There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about the concept: it’s a quaint little custom called Free Speech.

At random I’ve picked a speech in this debate. Aaron Porter is speaking in opposition.

Porter speaks well. If you don’t know who he is and have not clicked the link on his name let me tell you that he used to be President of the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom. Doing a fair amount of speaking would obviously come with that territory, so you might expect him to be good – though this blog has shown that it does not necessarily follow.

Right at the beginning he gives us ethos. Without directly doing so he waves his NUS credentials at us, harvesting some applause in the process. I can’t tell you how much, because an unsubtle editing point reveals that it was cut.

He lays out his stall. His opposition is in the lack of qualification in the motion. So within seconds he reveals himself as a ‘butter’. He classifies himself one of those who believe in free speech, but… There’s a very old saying that everything before “but” is bullshit, and this is no exception. Butters do not believe in free speech. Nevertheless he is free to speak so let us listen on.

He uses butter words like “safe”, “comfortable”, “trusted”.

Speech is not free unless it can be uncomfortable and unsafe. And as for being trusted – well – trusted by whom? And how do they know till they hear it? And why should anyone give a toss what a self-regarding little boy chooses to trust?

Since he is picking at the actual wording of the motion, so shall I. He seems to assume that the provision of a platform is implicit in the motion – but he’s wrong. The wording of the motion speaks of ‘a’ platform, not this platform nor any specific platform. Of course a Society like the Oxford Union, or any private club, is entitled to foster its blinkered prejudice and willful ignorance by denying its platform to anyone they please, but that’s none of the motion’s concern. The motion’s concern is in the denying of others the opportunity to say or hear what they choose. When people arrogate the right to hold sway over someone else’s platform you have something ugly. How do they justify that arrogance? Listen further.

There is an even nastier undertone to come. He makes the distinction between a ‘learned’ gathering like this and others that are less so and therefore less equipped to cope with unsafe, uncomfortable or untrustworthy content. He has yet to grow out of the fallacy that less educated means less intelligent. (These days so much of education seems to consist of idea-sapping indoctrination that I could entertain the possibility of the reverse being the case.)

At any rate that is the basis on which every authoritarian, dictatorial regime is built. “I am cleverer and more virtuous than the plebs, so I will decide what they will hear, read, see, believe, think, do.”  It is a self-serving philosophy that is misanthropic and malevolent. It is a philosophy that invents cretinous concepts like ‘hate speech’. It is a philosophy that culminates in a gunman breaking into a conference in Copenhagen, spraying bullets around, and killing people.

It stinks.

Nevertheless I’ll defend his right to smear his stinking butter on a platform.