Charles Moore is prescient

On 3 October, 2016, the Bruges Group held a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. One of their speakers was Charles Moore.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre…” It’s one of the oldest openings in the book, but as sound as a poun… er … well, it’s sound anyway.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, continental Brexit, full English Brexit: it’s got to be divorce, as the man said.

We are eavesdropping on a meeting, the video camera is incidental and marginal. Thus we are getting less than perfect sound quality, and also a sideways view of the speaker. I actually prefer this for my purposes, because I get a warts-and-all view of what is going on. You may find Moore’s left hand distracting, gesturing as it does between his face and the camera, but I like the way he manifestly is not playing to the camera but applying his focus to his audience in the room. I also like the way those gestures are spontaneous, natural and unconscious.

Moore is clearly familiar and comfortable with the speaking platform. He hasn’t saddled himself with a bloody script, because he knows and trusts his capacity to find the right words spontaneously at any moment during the speech’s journey. All of this I like.

What makes me wince is that he is holding a route-map for that journey. He has an index card with, no doubt, bullet points to guide him on his way.

Why does that bother me? I cannot deny that this is a widespread practice among those who who are good enough to spurn scripts. His periodic consultations of that card do not hamper the pace or rhythm of his speech at all. So what’s my problem?

He is the fountainhead of the information, the views, and arguments he is imparting. If even he can’t remember what he has planned to tell us, what chance that we will remember what he told us?

When working with trainees, I introduce them to structures that are designed to make such notes redundant because the route-map is absurdly easy to memorise. And they work even for hour-long, data-stuffed, keynote speeches to annual conferences. This is not just for their benefit but also for their audiences. Clarity of the route makes the speech not just easy to deliver but also to digest.

Watch the speech, and then see how much of the information, views, and arguments you can subsequently remember. Spooling back any of the video is not allowed for this exercise, because the audience in the room couldn’t do that. However much you can’t remember is how much this speech failed in its purpose.

Moore is good, but he could very easily be better.

So much for his skill as a speaker. Here’s a bouquet to his skill in prescience. This speech was delivered eight months ago. Watch from 19:35, and then consider positions on migration recently adopted by Poland and Hungary in defiance of Brussels. With such a strong grasp of future events, I might suggest that Moore should publish an almanac.

But only if I were feeling particularly childish.



Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.

Jacob Rees-Mogg shoots turkeys from the hip

A reader in the USA, Chun Chan, recently wrote to me suggesting that I should examine the speaking of two of my countrymen. We looked at Douglas Murray a couple of weeks ago: today it is the turn of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Chun suggested a speech that starts at 2:11:35 here. It is a very good example of J.R-M’s speaking skill even though it takes place in the relatively formal environment of the British House of Commons; but I hope Chun will forgive me if I turn instead to his performance in the bear-pit atmosphere of the Oxford Union.

There was a debate in late October 2013 on the motion, This House believes that the EU is a threat to democracy. J.R-M was speaking for the proposition.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has an accent even more plummy than mine. He makes me sound like Ali G. His Wikipedia page suggests that this has been a hindrance in his career; but it also says that he defies the matter. Good. Like everyone else on the planet, the most interesting, engaging and compelling he can be is when he is himself. Furthermore an accent, like any mannerism, is only distracting if the speaker is boring. J.R-M dramatically fails to be tedious.

He is a very good speaker. He shoots from the hip; he is fluent, articulate, compelling, and his arguments are well assembled for maximum clarity.

The only cause for a slap on the wrist in this instance is that he exceeds his time by nearly three minutes. Thirty percent over-run is grounds for the naughty step. We can quickly find how it happened: he spends nearly three minutes gleefully and ruthlessly filleting the opposition’s previous arguments. This is excellent but no excuse, because it is predictable. Surely he realised that they were likely to say things with which he disagreed? Surely he had enough confidence in his own ability to swat them? Surely he knew himself well enough to realise that he would be unable to resist the temptation to do so? He should therefore have allotted a section of his time for the indulgence of this.

The speech is fun to watch, and J.R-M blasts away with a will; but it’s a bit of a turkey shoot. You could hold a debate on many aspects of the European Union, and I really want the UK to do so, but the democratic deficit is such a gaping cavern that it’s hard to see where there could be much of a challenging argument. I look forward to watching speakers from the opposition. I am fascinated to see what they try to say.

There is, of course, the definition of ‘democracy’. There are regimes who appear to define it as a dictatorship that strives for the good of the people, with or without the consent of the people, not even bothering to ask the people. I tend to assume that it is by this rationalisation that East Germany (German Democratic Republic) could in the past and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) can in the present use these names with anything approaching a straight face. The EU often pontificates pompously on democracy, lecturing and hectoring on the subject. They must be assuming the same mindset as Kim Jong-un.

Having an easy argument to win doesn’t make the speech one jot easier to make. As a spectator sport, watching the daylights being kicked out of a marshmallow begins to pall after a minute. Jacob Rees-Mogg maintains the entertainment to the very end.