Owen Paterson just talks

The UK in a changing Europe held a meeting in May 2018, entitled Brexit and the island of Ireland. It included a keynote from the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP.

For some time I have wanted to look at his speaking on this blog, as he is one of Britain’s more impressive Members of Parliament, noted for the conscientiousness with which he does his homework. And there was another reason.

Since the referendum in June 2016, when the British people instructed parliament to extricate the country from the EU, I have been bemused by the convoluted meal that has been made of it. Very shortly after the vote I read an article by a Swiss professor of international law which stated that we did not need Article 50, we could just leave. I read that Lord Tebbit had stated that leaving needed only, “We’re going. We hope we can still be friends. Bye!

The latter might be just a tad simplistic; but I have also noticed that those who insisted upon complications were mainly politicians, lawyers and civil servants, all of whom by nature can cut red tape only lengthwise. They need to get out of the way. Ordinary folk just get on with things. And when the matter of the Northern Ireland Border came up, I looked on in disbelief as a non-problem was elevated to ridiculous proportions. Owen Paterson has always struck me as having a more practical mentality than most, and his wide experience with Northern Ireland meant that he could fill in the obvious holes in my knowledge. Here is my chance to learn the problems that have escaped me.

The introduction is by Professor Anand Menon. He looks down at the lectern to tell us that. I think we can safely assume that he has in fact memorised his own name, so there we have evidence to what extent people use the lectern as a security blanket. Ok I’m being a little unkind because he very properly raises his eyes to us for the remainder of the time, except when listing future events, but people do use lecterns as a security blanket. Much of my time is spent in showing people that they don’t need a security blanket.

Paterson begins at 3:40 and ends for Q&A at 16:25. I don’t think he looks at the lectern one single time.

He spends his first couple of minutes on ethos, in which it emerges that his experience with Ireland, Northern and Republic, goes far beyond merely his parliamentary involvement, which in itself is very extensive.

Thereafter he makes it clear that any sort of heavy border is – in his own words – a dotty idea. It is undesirable for both sides, both of whom will want to go on trading as smoothly as possible. It is also unnecessary, as technology has already smoothed out such requirements. The British and Irish people have shown they can cooperate though much bigger issues than this. To suggest otherwise is political mischief.

His approach to public speaking is equally down to earth. He epitomises what I regularly say to my trainees, “It’s just bloody talking!” Yes, he occasionally goes a bit quickly and swallows a few syllables, but he doesn’t pretend to be attempting high oratory. He’s just talking, and everything about the way he does it conveys sincerity.

Anne Marie Waters trusts the people

Anne Marie Waters (hereinafter AMW) spoke at a meeting in Oxford on 30 May this year. Was it at the Oxford Union? The panelling in the background suggests it was, though Oxford presumably has other panelled rooms. She has been on this blog before.

If you click the link on her name (above) you will be taken to a Wikipedia page in which you will be fed a stream of pearl-clutch nuggets, including “far right”. I no longer know what “far right” means, though recently the most consistent definition I have found is “having views at odds with the bigotry of the Guardian and the BBC”.

This morning I saw that Twitter has suspended her account. I wonder whether this says more about the Establishment in general and Twitter in particular than about her.

Let’s see for ourselves whether she has horns, a forked tail, and spews out violent hate.

[The speech ends at around 44 minutes, after which there are questions.]

For three decades I have been coaching people in public speaking, during which time the fashionable speaking style has become steadily less formal. I welcome this movement, because it counters what in my book I call The Communication Paradox. Briefly this states that the better you are at communicating across a table, the more difficulty you have on a speaking platform. I urge my trainees to think in terms of speaking with their audience as distinct from speaking to or – worst – speaking at.

AMW speaks with her audience. She has pushed the boundaries of speaking informality as far as I have seen. She addresses her audience as you would if talking to friends in your kitchen. The audience embraces this to such an extent that we hear her speech punctuated by audible comments, one of which begins a digression so egregious that we can see that a chunk has been edited out.

On her previous visit to this blog I described AMW’s speaking as having undisciplined passion. Here she has introduced a small measure of discipline, though the speaking is still messy. The interesting thing is that the mess is a key part of its strength. The obvious lack of polish screams sincerity. You can search as hard as you like, but I contend that you will find no signs of artifice; so we are left with the conviction that though we might disagree with her she means what she says.

So what does she say? Do we hear hate? Do we hear swivel-eyed extremism? Do we hear Nazi propaganda? Is she urging us to wear masks, riot in the streets, set fire to cars?

No, she is telling us to trust the people.


Claire Fox. What a communicator!

On 20 July, 2016, less than a month after the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on whether the country should leave the confines of the European Union, a referendum that returned a decisive vote to leave, The Leeds Salon invited Claire Fox to discuss the implications of the vote.

Having heard her on James Delingpole’s podcast, talking nineteen to the dozen, I am astonished to see her handling a thick sheaf of papers on that lectern.

My immediate impulse is, “Whatever for? – she needs a script like a reindeer needs a hatstand“. And then that reaction is quickly chased by admiration at how well she nevertheless manages it.

If you are a regular reader you will know how I often invite you to close your eyes for a short time, while the video is running, to hear the full difference in the sound of a speaker when reading or not reading a script. Usually, when the speaker’s eyes go to the paper, all the life drains from the speaking. In Fox’s case the difference is so slight as to be almost dismissible. Almost.

I fully approve when she reads to quote what someone else has written or said. A speaker needs to get these things precisely right, and be seen to be doing so, but the rest of the time she is so fluent and coherent when eyeballing the audience that it’s a disappointment when she looks down to her script, even though she’s only half a notch less so.

The speech itself is brilliant! She really is a fabulous communicator. She starts by saying that she doesn’t know what will happen next. And then from the opening observation that negotiating seems to be one of the most telling skills hollowed out by membership of the EU (ain’t that the truth!), through the various ways that remainers have tried to explain away their loss, to the exciting future in prospect, she sweeps you along for half an hour. This speech was two years ago, when her principal concern was that the government might renege on invoking Article 50.

She was very perceptive, though I think she would today agree that she underestimated the establishment’s determination disgracefully to thwart the will of the people. They’re still fighting without shame, clearly showing us that we have our own swamp to drain.

The least disruptive route for the country now is surely just to abandon pretence of negotiating with people who do not intend to negotiate; walk away from the table; keep the £40 billion alimony that they had the cheek to demand; go straight to WTO rules (of which we already have plenty of experience and mechanisms in place); kick the dust off our shoes and rejoin the waiting world.


Keir Starmer: competing with paint

On 13 December, 2016, Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech at Bloomberg in London. He is the Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union.

I read a Tweet from someone who, on the basis of a speech one day, described him as the most boring speaker he had ever heard. Naturally, though suspecting that partisan bias might have been at play, I had to investigate further. Sadly I have thus far failed to find that speech on line, but I have found this one. Why don’t you and I make up our own minds on the basis of what we find.

Well it isn’t about to set the world on fire, though I have known considerably worse. The main problem is that it has been scripted, and the scripting has hallmarks of the civil service. Let us look at some specifics.

He takes far too long to get going. From that opening Starmer stammer, which I am sure is not real but an affectation, up to 2:40 could beneficially be binned. It fails to contribute anything. He has in there a faintly humorous observation about his job-title. I have no problem with that, or the faint humour, but I do have a problem with his pause inviting audience response which doesn’t materialise. As throw-away humour it would have worked, but that pause made it lame.

At 2:23 he utters the words, “My speech today will be…” Did you get that? “Will be..” He is acknowledging that he hasn’t started yet, even though he is nearly two and a half minutes in. Two and a half minutes is actually an optimum length for an inconsequential opening (for technical reasons that I’ll spare you), but it needs to be a better two and a half minutes than that.

2:40 sees the beginning of a good epistrophe. As a bald opening that would have been powerful.

At 10:40 there’s a strong anaphora, and at 12:50 there’s another. There may have been more but the tediousness of the delivery makes it difficult to concentrate.

All these suggest professional speechwriting; and the even-handed balance of much of the message supports that view. The speech is relatively weasel-free for a politician.

I appreciate that balance, because not enough remainers have publicly made the point that if the referendum had gone the other way, and leavers had protested and obstructed as aggressively as remainers have, it would have been considered a scandal.

He is also right about the Cameron government’s disgraceful dereliction of duty that absolutely no plans were in place against a Brexit vote.

Yes, I am sure that professional speechwriter(s) were involved here, and it’s a quality job. But to be a good speaker, Starmer needs to learn how to dispense with his script and permit his personality to show. Reading causes him to scatter the speech with reading-stumbles, which are quite different from (and lamer than) speaking stumbles. Worst of all, reading makes his delivery tedious.

I became fascinated by the tangerine paint behind him.

Tony Blair and Bregzit

On 17 February Open Britain hosted a highly publicised speech by a past British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Open Britain is an organisation which deplores the result of the EU Referendum in June 2016 or, to be fair, as True Democrats they accept the result of the referendum but

Good, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

The media had warned informed us that this speech was coming, and I think most of us found the prospect interesting.

My interest was quickened for two reasons. Blair has an impressive record as a public speaker, and I was keen to see if that was still justified. My other reason, having yearned in vain during the referendum campaign for the remain side to come up with a really strong argument to give me something substantial to chew on, was the hope that he might at last produce something of interest. Shall we see?

The warm-up acts being less than riveting let us turn to Blair himself, beginning at 5:30.

Do you see him plonking paper on that lectern? I remember when he used to speak without script or notes. Has senility set in? Why does he have to consult his script to tell us how nice it is to be with us? And he’s taking no chances with that script. Not only does he have that paper, but also autocue: you can see a perspex screen in front of his right elbow, and he consults it.

Blair always did have some weird pronunciations, and now a new one enters his repertoire. We are repeatedly treated to “Bregzit”. Bless him!

Whoever wrote this script has no notion of the difference between written and spoken English. Or if they have, they are too idle to have learnt how to script the latter. This stuff is ghastly! It’s stiff and stilted. Who, when writing for speaking, churns out pompous rubbish like “rancorous verdict from future generations”? Rancorous is a word I might write, but wouldn’t dream of speaking – except possibly in jest. (Actually I might adopt it for a while to see if it gets laughs. Perhaps I could affect rhotacism – that’s the Jonathan Ross speech impediment.)

My hope of fresh arguments around Bregzit quickly fades. He’s revisiting the same weary avenues, or perhaps I should say culs de sac. He even tries to rub the rust from the ‘reform from within’ line. Let us not forget that this is the man who, when Prime Minister and the EU was clamouring for a reduction in the British rebate, assured us that he would negotiate it only against fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. In the event he came home with no CAP reform and greatly reduced rebate, thus demonstrating that the EU is not to be reformed and that he is the weakest negotiator since Eve caved in against the serpent.

Speaking of stiff and stilted, take a gander at this doozy at 9:54

“…thus leaving us with no locus on the terrain where the bridge must be constructed.”

That gem should be put in a glass case in a museum somewhere. We know that ‘locus’ is the Latin for ‘place’, but you justifiably break into a foreign language only if it’s a technical term, if doing so uses a nuance not available in English, or you plan to style yourself a prize pillock. Which do you suppose this has contrived?

If you think I am merely exercising a dislike of the man I would point out that he was on this blog four years ago, at which time I defended him against a shoddy sound engineer whose ineptness bordered on sabotage.

Didn’t I read somewhere that he is paid huge amounts to speak? I honestly would pay a fee to not hear him speak. I’d rather stay at home with a good book – or even a bad one.

Leaving aside all of the above I fear that this leaden weasel-fest is an entrenchment speech. It has not the quality to sway anyone; it will merely cause each side to dig in.

Bregzit means Bregzit.

Theresa May be a Good thing.

On 17 January Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, delivered a speech which had been eagerly awaited by many. Since the people of the United Kingdom, on 23 June 2016, had decisively voted to leave the European Union the country had seemed to be stuck in limbo. For the benefit of non-British readers, allow me to outline the background.

Mrs May’s predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron, had called the Referendum. He had announced, in a highly publicised speech in January 2013, that he intended to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, and then put this expected new dispensation to the British people in a referendum during 2017. In 2015 there was a General Election in which this promise of an EU Referendum was a central plank of his campaign. He won the election, launched this renegotiation in a fanfare of trumpets while many of us marvelled at how radically he had watered down his promised demands, went off to Brussels, and came back with essentially nothing. The little he claimed to have been agreed was not remotely binding, and even that was disputed by many European politicians. He rushed into the referendum, rather earlier than originally promised, on a platform that we should vote to remain ruled by this ‘reformed’ regime. Nevertheless he undertook that in the event of the British people voting to leave he would immediately trigger Article 50, the EU exit door, and lead the exit negotiations.

The referendum took place, the people voted for Brexit, and Cameron immediately vanished. He simply welshed on all assurances and left everything for someone else to sort out. That someone turned out to be Mrs Theresa May. Her principal problem was that incredibly the British governing establishment had put no contingency plans in place against the vote going for Brexit, so she had to start from scratch. Thus for six months the country was in limbo, with several establishment figures openly attempting to thwart the expressed democratic will of the British people who in turn were supported by little more than periodic assurances from Mrs May and her cabinet that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March.

This speech had been loudly heralded as a key piece of progress report.

An opening pause. Immediately I am encouraged.

This video, originally a live, streamed feed, occasionally shows live tweets commenting in a separate window. At 11:07 there is one which expresses the hope that the speech gets more interesting. I can understand this up to a point, because in laying out her stall Mrs May has needed to cover very many bases. I however am in possession of information not then available to that tweeter: there is half-an-hour still to come.

Do you have more than 40 minutes to listen to the whole thing? If not I can recommend two short excerpts that summarise effectively. This is so much better than my cherry-picking quotes. It’s safer too, because of being less susceptible to my confirmation bias.

Between 31:08 and 31:43 she very clearly summarises all that she has thus far covered. If you want to stick with it to 32:58 you will hear how she intends to keep her cards face-down,

 “because this is not a game, or a time for opposition for opposition’s sake.”

You may find that this satisfies your curiosity or that it excites your appetite to hear more. Either way, I whole-heartedly commend all this speech.

The other excerpt is her ending. I recommend that you pick it up at 38:55 with the words, “I don’t believe…” I have heard worse perorations, and didn’t care that it had no auxesis, because the content and the occasion did not call for it.

Only a few days later she delivered another big speech, this time in the USA. In it she was busy massaging the ego of a huge ally, but still I felt that she meant what she said. It is this quality that I like. Even if I don’t always agree with everything she says and stands for, I don’t feel embarrassed that she is representing my country. That speech did call for an auxesis to herald the peroration, and it got it. If you don’t listen to the whole thing you can pick up the peroration at 33:00.

Like or loathe her political position, she does not beat around its bush. More and more I sense that this woman is a WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – and I find that hugely refreshing after the dismal succession of duplicitous twits that have been representing us for a quarter of a century. (The word ‘twits’ was a slight edit from the first word there.)

She makes me feel strangely optimistic.

Don Tapscott talks freedom

Recently published on YouTube by TED is a talk by Canadian Don Tapscott. It is entitled How the blockchain is changing money and business.

Cryptocurrency fascinates me.  It is dragging commerce into something approaching the modern age, and bypassing the orthodox banking system in general and central banks in particular that have made such a pig’s ear of matters in recent years. Also, because it can’t control it, the establishment hates cryptocurrency which is another factor in its favour. I went and watched this talk for reasons that have nothing to do with my work.

Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never very far away, and immediately I am conscious that Tapscott is effectively hiding quite a serious hump, though it lasts barely a minute. Nerves connected with public speaking are unpredictable because they are largely irrational (though being irrational doesn’t make them any less real). Tapscott has done a huge amount of speaking, so why should he be nervous? Because it is irrational.

I always keep to myself the subtler manifestations of nerves, and I have been accused of being miserly with my professional secrets. There is something in that, but my main reason goes much further. The most effective antidote to speakers’ nerves is a relaxed audience. Therefore if the speaker successfully hides nerves, the audience relaxes so the speaker relaxes. If audiences became too conscious of subtler symptoms they would be more difficult to relax, and that benign circle would be broken. I’ll keep my secrets on behalf of all speakers and all audiences.

Shortly after the first minute has passed he is more relaxed, and when he explains the double-spend problem at 1:32 he gets a nice little laugh from the audience. That’s two points to him: one for relaxing them and one for explaining so clearly. The two are totally intertwined.  That hurdle, however, is as nothing compared with some of the concepts he still has to explain.

I must say that he makes a pretty good fist of them. There are a couple of moments that I find myself asking “Wha…?” but in the main he keeps me with him, and I feel that his audience in the hall likewise understands enough to get a pretty good idea of what this is all about.

One of the strongest messages I receive is that every person operating with cryptocurrency is freely dealing with every other person, and the entire process is independent of any controlling body.

And then, beginning around 9:25, he says something that stuns me. While bemoaning a world of increasing levels of all manner of regrettable things like anger, extremism, protectionism, etc. he cites the latest example as being Brexit. I am astonished that someone as smart as he has fallen for that sort of lame EU propaganda. Has it not dawned on him that Brexit is another example – like Blockchain – of people scrambling out from under the dictatorial control of a distant and unaccountable central authority? Is it really so extremist to want your vote to mean something? He is making exactly the same idle mistake as the person who said to me that Bitcoin was all about arms sales and organised crime. He should seek to smell the coffee on this matter. Ignorance is not necessarily his fault, but …   Oh, let’s move on.

Time will tell whether Blockchain really is the future of commerce. In my time I have seen too many cases of brilliant ideas being the vanguard that got swallowed up by even better imitators to assume that this is home and dry, but…

I do like any blow for freedom – which is why I voted Brexit.