John Redwood: a Speaker’s speaker

In 2011 the Speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, launched a series of lectures in aid of a parliamentary charity. On 20 February 2018, the lecture was delivered by John Redwood MP

You need only look at that still image below to see where Redwood’s eyes are pointing. He is reading his speech. You probably expect me to castigate him for this, and though I shall examine how much better he would have delivered it without a script I shall not castigate him because he is subject to one of the few sets of circumstances whereby a script is necessary. More of that anon.

John Bercow’s introduction is well delivered. I have some reservations concerning the sightly self-conscious content; but he fulfils one of my prime delivery requirements, namely that he speaks with his audience as distinct from at.

Of the many parliamentary positions John Redwood has held, he has yet to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why on earth do I bring this up?

I mentioned earlier that there are circumstances when a script becomes regrettably necessary for a speaker. In my book I cited those occasions when someone has been supplied with a transcript, because you kinda need to say what that transcript does. (The Speaker’s office publishes these lectures.) I then added a brief advice section on how best then to handle paper, including everything from layout on the page to how to avoid needing to lick your finger all the time.

Redwood turns over his pages which is needlessly clunky. It is smoother to have your pages printed on just one side, sitting in a pile of loose sheets which you simply slide one at a time across the lectern. This lectern is wide enough. That technique is customarily employed every year in the House of Commons during the delivering of the budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Redwood has never been Chancellor, and I rather feel that he and scripts are relative strangers. A good thing too.

Redwood speaks well without the aid of a script. I’ve seen him do it, not least when he appeared in this blog before. We see here the huge lift in the quality of communication at 11:40 when he departs from his script to recount an experience. For a minute and a half we see his unmasked personality shining out before he returns to being a talking head.

It’s a very good speech, and I know that the word ‘lecture’ strictly means a reading, but it is a pity when a man who communicates so well is forced by circumstances to operate under the tyranny of paper.

Thierry Baudet: nearly fantastische

Late in 2017 The Oxford Union hosted a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Decline and Fall of the European Union is Upon us. One of the speakers proposing the motion was Thierry Baudet.

Baudet is Dutch, which of course means that – like many Northern Europeans – he speaks English better than most English people. I have almost rid myself of resentment of this, my late wife and mother of my sons having been Danish; but how well does one of these linguistic geniuses deliver a speech? Let’s find out.

Immediately I delight that other than that little piece of paper, visible in the still shot and presumably bearing bullet-point signposts, he is shooting from the hip. I think he looks at it only once. Because none of my trainees needs even that little paper I am tempted to put this tiny failing down to whatever crumb remains of language barrier. I’d be wrong. When researching him my eye was caught by another speech described as “Fantastische”, and though I could understand not a word and though that audience audibly enjoyed it, I can tell you that it was read from a script. Could it be that for him public speaking is actually easier in English?

I am thrilled to be able smugly to point out an error. Where the noun is ‘instability’, the adjective is ‘unstable’. Yes of course it’s an anomaly, but what’s new? – this is English. He repeatedly describes the EU as ‘instable’. He’s absolutely right in his diagnosis, just wrong in his idiom.

I thought that Oxford Union debate speeches were allowed eight minutes, but he has bells rung at him when he has barely cleared six minutes. This seems to unsettle him a little. It’s a pity because he is both articulate and coherent, and he certainly has the measure of the EU – and not just its instability. He kicks its dogma.

Among other things you will find that he effortlessly demolishes the fallacy that past European conflicts in general and WW2 in particular were built on nationalism. The reverse was the truth.

He’s good. He’s very good. He’s nearly fantastische.

Frauke Petry takes the chair

For some months, since the October 2017 Federal Election, Germany’s governance has been a little confused as Chancellor Merkel has struggled to maintain, through negotiation of coalitions and party alliances, a workable majority. I am not a student of German politics, and my opening sentence is evidence of that, but one thing seems clear. It was a tsunami in the popular vote for AfD (Alternative for Germany), a party which won 94 seats from zero in the Bundestag, that put the cat among the pigeons. The party was led into the election by Frauke Petry; and she resigned the leadership immediately afterwards. Her reasons for that are well documented on the internet, so I shall not attempt to summarise here.

However I was interested to see what sort of person could inspire such a dramatic democratic revolution. Her university discipline was chemistry (like Margaret Thatcher). Even more intrigued I went searching for a speech. I haven’t found one with her speaking in English, but this one has subtitles. That’s far from ideal for my purposes (and I’ve never done it before on this blog) but before I discarded it I decided to watch. What I found is an impressive study, not so much of public speaking but of audience control. The speech was delivered in May 2016.

The posting on YouTube apologises for the poor English in the subtitles, and I think we all spot the typo in the third one, but the subtitler did a lot better than I could.

After just a few niceties that includes apologising for the demonstrations outside, she digs from her pocket a piece of paper – a leaflet that has been handed out to and by members of the audience. It makes some aggressive claims against her and her party. She proceeds to invite its authors to approach the stage, restate the claims and be prepared to debate them.

That is brave, impressive, and indicates a remarkable confidence in her political position and her ability to promote it. It also indicates that she is in favour of free speech.

Only one is brave enough to rise to the challenge, a student in apparently his late teens. The others skulk at the back, heckling.

Petry treats him with courtesy, answers his arguments and politely silences any in the audience that interrupt him, whether in favour or opposition to him. He returns to his seat.

Half a dozen more students, emboldened, proceed to come down to the front to try their luck. One of them displays his insecurity with insolence and boorishness. Others are more polite. In all cases Petry remains courteous but firm, chairing this ad hoc meeting with extraordinary skill, while still keeping a firm lid on the audience. We are left wondering at the competence of these students’ teachers.

It’s very impressive indeed, and occupies the rest of this half-hour video.

As mentioned earlier, immediately after the Federal Election Petry resigned her leadership, and indeed membership, of AfD. She now sits as an independent. Nevertheless I don’t think we’ve seen the last of her, and that bothers me not at all

She could be described as Far Right, but only by the Far Left.

Patrick Minford is nearly tickety-boo

On 2 October, 2017, The Bruges Group held a meeting at the Great Hall in Manchester. Inevitably the theme was Brexit, and the meeting was addressed by a series of experts on the subject. We recently looked at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech. It was immediately preceded by one from Patrick Minford. Sadly the online video of that speech is in two parts, and I’m far too impatient to fiddle around with that, so instead I have gone back to another Bruges Group meeting in November 2016, also addressed by Professor Minford.

The messiness of his opening can, I think, be put down principally to nerves. It reeks to me of Hump. The speech dramatically comes together at 1:17 when he addresses the question “What was the Brexit vote for?” He gives his answer and the audience gives his answer a round of applause. Just imagine if that had been his opening – a bald opening. He’d have received that spontaneous applause within 15 seconds of starting, which would have done wonders for his Hump, and his opening would have been clean and mess-free.

Of course I understand the pressure that says that you must acknowledge and thank a gracious introduction. I equally understand the real value of the little bit of self-deprecating humour concerning the previous time he spoke there, but there are ways of satisfying both those imperatives while still starting with a hump-busting bald opening.

At any rate, from that point you can sense his nerves evaporating down to a manageable level while his natural capacity for thinking on his feet builds proportionately. A couple of minutes later he is going like a train.

I’d like to say that thereafter everything is tickety-boo, and it very nearly is because he knows his subject and can talk the hind-legs off a donkey. With a little bit of minor tweaking to the structure he wouldn’t need even that little scrap of paper that he uses as a comfort blanket. He could shoot the whole thing from the hip, everything would be tickety-boo, and that’s the way I like it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: a long investment.

On 2 October, 2017, The Bruges Group held a meeting at the Great Hall in Manchester. Inevitably the theme was Brexit, and the meeting was addressed by a series of experts on the subject. One of them was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a very fine speaker, so I haven’t wasted the opportunity to bring the speech here.

I enjoy listening to his speaking not only because of his articulacy, coherence, his skilful delivery, and so on but because I admire the man. The beautiful balance of his arguments is not artifice. His old-fashioned manners and cut-glass accent may suggest that he is cold, distant and out of touch, but his record dramatically belies that. There are examples of his having, for instance, courteously drawn the claws of quite hostile opponents on TV panel discussions.

He is introduced by Barry Legg, Chairman of this meeting and indeed of the Bruges Group. JRM, as I shall call him hereafter for brevity, begins just after the 4-minute mark though you may like to join at around 3:50 in order to understand his first sentence.

Preliminaries over, he tells his audience that if people take the trouble to come to these meetings, for whatever reason, he wants to engage with their arguments. He is as good as his word. At this same meeting there is disruption from invading protesters waving banners saying “Tories Out”. Before bouncers can evict them, JRM approaches one in order to exchange thoughts. You can watch the episode here.

Of course JRM uses no paper. At 6:38 a bell is heard tolling in the distance. He instantly utters a throw-away quip, being well rewarded with a laugh. This sort of spontaneity is one of the hallmarks of those who shoot from the hip. Audiences love both, and both are absurdly easy.

The speech was well received by the Twitterati at the time it was delivered. I am pleased to agree.

Beppe Grillo: a master at work.

Beppe Grillo is something of a political phenomenon in Italy. Wikipedia describes him thus, while his blog has a different approach.

I thought it might be fun to see him in action. I found a speech/performance that he made nearly twenty years ago in 1998. This is more than ten years before he formally entered politics, but we can see where he is going.

I am fairly often asked about the advisability of going out into the aisles of a hall to get in amongst the audience. I don’t advise against it, but it has to be well stage-managed in order to work. Your first hurdle is practical technology: are there blind spots where your radio mic will drop out? – if you walk in front of a speaker will you get howl-round? – can you with reasonable dignity get off the platform into the body of the hall? – and so on.

Your next hurdle is you: does your message lend itself to being delivered while you are eyeballing members of the audience up close? – do you have the right sort of personality to pull it off? – can you keep moving enough to avoid sections of the audience spending most of the time looking at your back? – and so on.

If checklists like that come back with the right answers, then go for it! It is certainly very good for one of my chief mantras, namely that the audience should feel you are speaking with, as distinct from at, them.

Grillo here is fantastic! This is a masterclass on what can be done. Everything from his constant movement, changing from creeping to running to bounding, his endless variation of vocal tone, now whispering now bellowing, the daringness of the language for 1998 – I’m assuming that the subtitles are faithful – everything is brilliantly performed. You only have to see the faces on his audience to know that he is winning all the way.

Added to that, he has his stage-management issues licked. No one has to look at his distant back because there’s always a huge screen with him in close-up.

You would need to be very skilled, very brave, or downright foolhardy, to try to emulate his style. A FTSE 250 chairman delivering an AGM keynote like this could die very painfully; but that’s not the point. It is by watching a master at work that we get inspiration and ideas, and then we fashion them into something we can reach and handle.

I’m not surprised he has such a following in Italy.


Mario Draghi: from bees to boredom

In the summer of 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games. Almost simultaneously Britain launched – in London – The British Business Embassy. It would be a mark of extreme cynicism to suggest that one was riding on the back of the other.

On 26 July, 2012, at a Global Investment Conference hosted by The British Business Embassy, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, delivered a speech.

Draghi opens with a nice little metaphor about bumblebees; or rather he doesn’t, but he should. Uttering a few obligatory words of thanks to his hosts and introducer is one thing, but – like too many – he fannies around with dross before reaching his opening, the bumblebee metaphor.

It’s a good opening: he compares the Euro to a bumblebee that urban legend decrees should not be able to fly. Come the financial crisis of 2008, the bumblebee was in danger of falling to earth, so now “the bumblebee will have to graduate into a real bee”. Were I an apiarist I might bridle at the suggestion that a bumblebee is not a real bee; but I’m not, I’m a rhetor who hopes that he will run with this metaphor for longer.

He does revisit it a minute or so later, but sadly just the once. It’s a pity because it could have given this speech some much needed coherence, not to mention lift. It almost immediately fell into a mire.

Perhaps he abandoned it because he wanted to devote his eleven minutes to an orgy of self-congratulation, and the spectacle of a currency limping from crisis to crisis doesn’t lend itself too comfortably to the image of a creature buzzing around in the sunshine sipping nectar.

While he trumpeted the euro’s imagined triumphs I could think only of the economic human disaster that is Greece, the hugely expensive silken strips of empty highway that bypass impoverished villages in Spain or Sicily, all the various pieces of pointless white elephant expenditures that are the price that ordinary people pay for his being able to pat his own back and those of his co-conspirators.

Had the speech been more coherent he might just have obscured some of that. In the event he left me conscious that his is becoming merely the latest in a long line of failed attempts at taking self-determination out of the competent hands of the people and trying to centralise it in the hands of those who think they know better. Will they never learn?