Gavin Ashenden has found himself in the news recently, and you are shortly to hear him say so. Earlier this year he resigned his position as Honorary Chaplain to HM The Queen in order to be able to speak out more freely against the direction the Church of England was taking. The specific trigger for that resignation was the permitted reading from the Koran in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. He later explained that strict Muslim doctrine could hold that the reading transferred ownership of the cathedral to Islam (I hope I’ve represented him accurately there) .
Here he is making a speech direct to camera. It is worth bearing in mind that this was published on YouTube in March, since when much more has happened along the lines he explores.
In his opening he describes himself as speaking here as if to friends. I can think of no better mindset for making most speeches. He goes on to apologise for speaking off the cuff with no notes, asking us to make allowances for the inadequacies of that. Regular readers of this blog will know that I regard the speaking with no notes as having no inadequacies, indeed quite the contrary if you know how to structure your material for the purpose. Speaking without notes lends a sense of spontaneity, sincerity, and command of the subject that more than compensates for any occasional haltingness in the delivery. Audiences love it.
Ashenden conveys sincerity all the way through this.
Revelation or revolution. What an excellent Face for a speech! If I had trained him I should already be emailing my congratulations.
I find myself riveted by his discussion of the ordination of women into the priesthood and episcopacy. My mind flies back more than twenty years to when it first began in the Anglican church and I interviewed, for a radio programme, someone who was a high-profile objector to it. His reasoning was so puerile that I have casually dismissed objections ever since. I now castigate myself. Had the matter been more central to my life perhaps I’d have been less intellectually idle. Ashenden’s reasoning is on a different plane, whether or not I agree with it.
He moves on into matters like gay marriage and gender fluidity, and concludes with the only appropriate closing for a talk like this: The Lord’s Prayer.
I am left rather stunned! As a devout doubter, who attends church mainly for the spiritual refreshment of the rituals, whose relationship with his maker is at odds with many of the teachings of the church, I have been fed with much reflective material. I am by nature a contrarian, constantly challenging fashionable pieties, but this goes deeper.
Not least I may have a clue towards the conundrum that was gay marriage. Whence and why did it materialise? Not being gay myself, I studied the reactions of gay friends to it at the time. There had been no build-up of irresistible opinion groundswell causing our political representatives to grant it: it just appeared, ready packaged, conferred from above. A little research at the time revealed that it was probably an edict that emerged from the United Nations and was imposed on the world with astonishing haste. Why?
Look at its effect. It surprised all the gays I know who had not asked for it; but now that it was there many were delighted to take advantage of it – and who is to blame them? Personally I shrugged and wished them good luck – though I was puzzled by this conundrum. Why was it imposed, unrequested? It caused social division, creating a new, synthetically created, controversial extra layer to PC. Overnight. Suddenly anyone who didn’t pay deafening lip-service to it was beyond the PC pale. Divide and defeat?
And it is now dividing the church. And it has been joined in the past few days by this gender fluidity thing in very similar undue haste. The way that is being handled, by both Government and Synod, is a model of ham-fistedness. You have to work very hard to do things in a manner that is going to damage society’s cohesion this effectively. It almost feels like sabotage.
My godson, a psychologist and himself a university lecturer, posted on Facebook a link to this TED talk by Michael Sandel; so I had to go and look. A Harvard professor should be comfortable on the speaking platform; and a political philosopher should fulfil Cardinal 1 – have something to say.
Though we don’t see his introduction, so cannot guarantee to catch the very beginning of his talk, we do see someone (presumably his introducer) exiting downstage right. My eagerness to see the very beginning of any talk is because of my keenness on what I call the bald opening – going straight in without lame preambles. I think he has a bald opening. He also has adopted one of my favoured default hand-strategies – one hand in pocket, the other gesturing. He is comfortable with it: I know because the pocket hand, of its own subconscious volition, emerges in seconds .This is promising well.
As a university professor he should be comfortable on his feet in front of an audience, but still there are tiny symptoms of hump if you look for them. So let’s not. His hump-busting tactic is to have this opening well-prepared. He gives us a Contents Page by setting his agenda. At 0.25 he says, “We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate”. There’s the Face! Has he read my book? This is straight down the middle of the fairway of my orthodoxy. There’s a pleasing anaphora sequence at 0.50, using the word ‘over’ as the repetition key. To round off his agenda-setting he announces a discussion on the validity of applying Aristotelian principles to the issues at stake. At precisely the 2-minute point he seems to have shrugged off the hump, has set the scene and is well set.
Lovely clear structure – I’m enjoying myself! So will you. It’s excellent.
Having announced a discussion, he is as good as his word. Almost immediately he is working his audience. He calls for opinions, discusses opinions, stages differences of opinions between members of the audience, generates laughter, gets people thinking. He owns that audience right up to his closing; and the reasons are simple.
I’d like to refer you to two things. In my book I discuss the importance of using a judicious mixture of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know; and I give various reasons that I will spare you here. In my critique a few days ago of Matt Ridley’s TED talk, I discussed the value of causing the audience to apply their own critical faculties to issues being covered. The way Sandel structures this discussion fulfils all of that. While audience members are throwing up opinions in a relatively light-hearted fashion the diet cannot get too rich. Therefore they are very receptive when Sandel then piles in with something quite meaty. Furthermore, while he is inviting their opinions they get drawn deeper into the issues at hand; and that means their increased attention.
Suppose you are addressing department heads in your company on the importance of their getting their new fiscal year’s budgetary requirements submitted on time (I have deliberately recalled a scenario with which a Finance Director once challenged me on the basis that it was impossible to make such a talk interesting). I suggest you could use Sandel’s template quite effectively in that situation.
By the way, did you spot asyndeton three paragraphs ago? Check the glossary if you don’t know what the hell I’m on about. The third sentence in that paragraph is a list of items with never a conjunction. It makes the list cleaner somehow.
When, on the morning of 7 November, I learnt on the radio that Barack Obama had won another four-year term as President of the United States of America, I also learnt that his victory speech had a distinct Face –
“The best is yet to come!”
I greeted this with mixed feelings. I was delighted that he had actually given the speech a Face. Can you quote anything from his inauguration four years ago? I can’t either. It’s such a simple device, and so many overlook it. But my delight was tinged with nervousness. His Face was uncannily similar to Ronald Reagan’s under precisely the same circumstances, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was nervous lest his victory speech turn out to be merely a rehash of political plagiarism and cliché.
My anxiety was mightily reinforced by his opening which came pretty close to merely updating, “Four score and seven years ago…”; but very quickly my fears were squashed. For what it needed to be, this speech shaped into a supremely impressive example.
What is a speech like that supposed to achieve? Are we to expect detailed policy news? – a reform timetable? – a series of eye-catching initiatives? For heaven’s sake, he was there to congratulate, thank and rally. Nothing else. You’d have to work pretty hard to write a better example of that than this.
I don’t reckon anyone had written this though. He spoke for twenty minutes with no vestige of a script or notes. Many regard that as barely a notch short of magic It isn’t: it’s easy: everyone I’ve trained can do that. Nevertheless he did it in ringing tones, unhaltingly, scattering names and other data prodigiously. You may think I say this through gritted teeth because I am not his greatest fan as a speaker, but I was bowled over.
There was the series of thankings. We have all curled our toes at lame thankings at the Oscar ceremonies (all actors think they can speak in public, and very few can). Obama addressed each group of thankees in a different way. What a simple device for making each group feel special! Simple, but not easy.
He varied the vocal tone. Most of it was pretty declamatory, which is to be expected under the circumstances. This had the added advantage for him of what I call ‘relentless iambicism’ – a regular lifting of the voice at the ends of words and phrases. Iambicism can be intensely tedious unless it’s appropriate – and here it was appropriate. For Obama the advantage was that it remedied much of his tendency to swallow the ends of his words. He still referred to the ‘peep’ who voted for him in the ‘elecksh’, and so on – but I won’t rain on his parade. I began this paragraph by stating that he varied the tone. Note how he brings it right down to a quieter intensity at 8:40. Having that section in the middle of all that declaiming was particularly telling. It was a lovely section in the speech.
He stuck in a lot of huge pauses. Very dramatic: a good device for conveying security and authority: an excellent device for buying him thinking time.
That thinking time or a well-developed way with words, or both, produced for instance anadiplosis in the first minute and a very good anaphora triad at 19:20 – keep reaching, keep working, keep fighting. It could be argued that it was not just anaphora but symploce (beginnings and endings the same) because each element began with ‘keep’ and ended with ‘ing’
How to close? Send for Polly!
At 19:50 he deployed polysyndeton. If you want to build to a big finish (peroration), polysyndeton can be a good friend. You have an enormous list, and instead of reeling it off without conjunctions (asyndeton), you go out of your way to stick the same conjunction between each element in the list. In this case the conjunction was ‘or’. He began with phrases, each joined with ‘or’. The phrases became shorter which caused the incidence of ‘or’ to accelerate. Eventually he was rattling off individual words – all separated by ‘or’. The effect on the crowd was nuclear: it was never going to be otherwise. He climbed on top of the tumult by blazing extended anaphora till he was addressing bedlam. Who heard all the “God Bless America” bits? Who needed to?
For the May ’12 Auracle newsletter I had been sniffing around the 2011 Labour Party Conference for speeches that provided interesting study. I have previously posted a look at Ken Livingstone’s speech; but now –
Also at that conference was a speech by Hilary Benn. He was looking at a script but not quite as often as some. (Have you noticed how tolerant I am becoming of politicians who are buried in their scripts? It’s because I have come to expect no better from them. Previous generations of politicians didn’t need scripts: you can’t use one when you’re standing on a soapbox.)
What is interesting about his speech is that he has learnt some classic principles and he uses them. It was by no means flawless: for instance there was a problem with the Hump, not just his but the audience’s. There was no Face, but still there was some copy-book stuff. Let’s go through it…
0:32 “Where we got it wrong…” he added a dramatic shrug, but his hump caused him to hurry it and render it pointless.
1:21 “We made the right choice that day.” The audience, still not yet warmed to him, gave merely 4 seconds applause. [N.B. Par for applause within a speech is 8 seconds.]
1:30 “ I’ve got a bit of news for you.” This was unnecessary. The audience had got the point and was already laughing. In fact this addendum actually suppressed the laugh a little.
1:45 My writing mentor, a million years ago, told me, “Never ever say never ever”. Does the same rule apply to speaking? I’m not sure.
2:25 This would have been funnier if he’d done it later, because (a) he would have delivered it better, and (b) the audience would have been more receptive. In the event it part-died.
3:16 The audience now warmed up, he got his full 8 seconds of applause.
3:46 “He promised…” Another anaphora triad, rather a protracted one.
4:48, 5:52, 6:51 Three bouts of applause – all 8 seconds long – and he spread them out, giving the audience around a minute each time to recover.
7:32 “Remind them…” Anaphora, but not a triad. He extended to 5 elements of repetition.
8:42 “We have the …” Anaphora, and building to his finish he gave this one a whopping 7 elements. He delivered them all without reference to his script. He doesn’t need the bloody thing: it’s just a comfort blanket. Take your thumb out of your mouth, Hilary, and throw away the paper! You won’t believe how liberating that will feel.
His old man was pretty good – still is. Hilary Benn now needs to learn to do without a script. He also needs to be conscious of The Hump – not just his but also that of the audience. You can’t play an audience anything like as much as he clearly wanted till you have them warmed to you. In this speech he could have had them standing on their heads after around the 3-minute mark. Before that he just needed to relax them.
This generation of politicians needs hustings experience.
For a couple of months I have been gestating for this newsletter, a critique on a speech made by Daniel Hannan MEP to a distinguished audience of mainly Germans and British.
Then a few weeks ago the EU parliament had a recess and Hannan went off on a tour of the Anglosphere. Very soon Twitter began buzzing with how he had wowed an American audience which was an interesting comparison with the previous example as it showed how – true to Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod – he varied his delivery to match his audience. I was just wondering whether to make a choice between them or conduct a comparison of the two, when twittering began afresh on a speech to an Australian audience. In no time the Twitterati were getting excited over another speech he had made in Canada, but I decided I had enough for this exercise.
1. In May 2011 a debate was held at the Royal Geographical Society. The Motion was, “Germany no longer needs Europe – the dream is over”. Hannan spoke for the motion. His opening is brilliant: he captures the imagination immediately, making a strong argument in the process. Furthermore he attributes the argument to others, thereby doing several clever things simultaneously. He burnishes his image by modestly stepping aside from taking the credit; he inflates the credibility of the argument by citing distinguished authors by name (remember the proper noun directive in F&T); and he heads off any criticism of non-originality.
Which of my past trainees remembers my talking of the ‘muffed-word-test’? Essentially this is not about whether you muff words, which everyone does occasionally, but about how well you correct it with good humoured smoothness. Now watch Hannan at 2:50.
Dig out your copy of F&T and re-read the small section entitled ‘Negotiate’. Then watch this speech from 4:12. Hannan hands out a succession of bouquets to buy enough credit for the message he reaches at around 5:00.
At 5:25 he addresses what could be a knotty issue and dramatizes it well enough to elicit a ripple of laughter and applause; but because it is a knotty issue he speaks on through the applause in order not only to minimise it but be seen to minimise it lest anyone in the audience should take offence. This man is very smart and skilled. Now let’s look at the second speech listed.
2. In February 2012 Hannan was one of the speakers at CPAC (Centre for American Politics & Citizenship). In his opening, he uttered words he would never have used in the previous speech, “I gotta tell you…” This is a classic example of tailoring to your audience, as I direct in Cardinal 2 of F&T. Did you, like me, hold your metaphorical breath lest he took it too far – what one might call ‘the oldest swinger in town’ syndrome? In the event he stopped comfortably short of that. You can hear the atmosphere buzzing in the hall, and he responds to it with just enough controlled ‘mirroring’.
At 4:00 he gives us some throw-away humour concerning the phallic shape of the Washington Monument; but, true to the throw-away principle (see my chapter on humour), he does not beg a laugh but continues as if he’d never said it – and gets a huge laugh. He also delivers the humour in a way that is oblique enough for anyone who might have been offended not to understand it. Very sound.
At 16:30 he gives us an anaphora repetition – less prosperous, less independent, less democratic, less free. Does he harpoon a potential triad by having four elements in his repetition or are the first three the triad which are then emphasised and locked into place, as it were, through the addition of the fourth? I think the latter, because he stops enumerating with his fingers after the third. At any rate, it all works beautifully because it receives a very respectable six seconds of applause, which could easily be longer except he curtails it by starting speaking again.
That’s the second time in this critique that I have found him choosing to kill his own applause. Consider: if by not begging laughter or applause you enhance your standing with your audience, how much more do you do it by actively suppressing them? In the blink of an eye he conveys an eagerness to get on with imparting the message and the security of an ego that does not need reassurance from applause. Myriad positive messages are being transmitted.
When a speaker is as good as this I cannot help but be super-picky. If you’ve read F&T you know how keen I am on the use of parallels. For some years I edited a rather scholarly wine journal. At 26:38 Hannan goes into a viticulture anecdote-and-metaphor that is true but technically incorrect in a tiny detail which though small is crucial enough fatally to undermine the parallel. What a party-pooping stinker I am to have told you that! Let’s move to the third…
3. Later in February 2012 Hannan spoke at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. At the start I suspect you might be as bemused as I at how sombre he appears to be with an Australian audience. Also we do not seem to have joined it quite at the beginning. This bothered me so much that I dug some more; and I found another source of the speech here. It turns out that the first version begins just over 12 minutes into the whole thing. Perhaps more significantly that version claims to have been posted by Hannan himself, so it was he who apparently edited out those first 12 minutes before posting – in which case he needs to consider hard the difficulties and dangers of that sort of self-editing.
(There is on YouTube a severely cut-down version of a reading I did in 2010 of the whole of the Gospel of St Mark. I did the cutting-down. Several people who were there have observed that I cut out and I kept the wrong bits – and I fear they may be right.) Hannan’s exuberant seduction of his audience in the first few minutes of the uncut version of this speech is lovely to witness, and a rare public insight into his fun-time personality. But he excised all that in favour of later serious arguments which we can see him making a hundred times elsewhere. I’d be the last to quarrel with his enthusiasm for his message – that’s Cardinal 1, a cornerstone of my training – but in this instance it may have caused an error.
This man is a first class speaker. For one thing he is beautifully economical; and I can identify at least two reasons for this. There are strict time limits on speeches in the EU parliament, so he has trained himself to get on, package his point clearly, and get off. You can see examples all over YouTube.
And he has learnt that the way to use fewer words is to use only the right ones. Those who have attended master classes with me will verify that I advocate the reading aloud of poetry as a way to improve many skills in this medium. Beautiful and economic turns of phrase work themselves into your mind by osmosis and become habit-forming. Not only do you find yourself getting better at finding the right words to convey the precise nuance you seek, but they trip off the tongue with less and less effort. Is there the remotest doubt but that Daniel Hannan is very well read? I began my working life as an actor an aeon ago, and was playing Shakespeare with the National Theatre before he was born; also I have directed half-a dozen Shakespeare productions. But he can out-quote me on Shakespeare without breaking sweat. In the complete version of that speech in Australia he effortlessly quotes 25 seconds of St Matthew’s gospel to make a point. At the 5:10 mark he makes merely the slightest reference to an incident in Jason’s Golden Fleece caper before ‘throwing it away’. All the above speeches are littered with what Logan Pearsall Smith meant when he wrote –
There is one thing that matters, to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.
But such a chime of words can jangle unless delivered with the confidence of familiarity. Hannan is manifestly familiar with everything he quotes – and that’s the key. On one recent occasion in the EU parliament he made a speech which consisted only of a single verse from a poem by G K Chesterton.
So, in conclusion, is he flawless? No, but then no one is. Every so often he allows words to die at the ends of phrases. It is not laziness: his enunciation is exemplary and he uses rising cadences well. It is done deliberately for effect, and it can be very effective, but care has to be taken not to sacrifice intelligibility for that effect. At 7:12 in the second of our speeches there are three examples in quick succession – the words “equivalent”, “independence” and “freedoms”. I’m being picky: President Obama is much worse.
I described Hannan in the title as being smooth as a kitten’s wrist. It’s worth noting that smooth though the feline wrist may be it is in close proximity to some very sharp claws. Hannan has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining strict courtesy to friend and foe alike, yet the speech that drew him to the attention of millions was the one wherein he eviscerated Gordon Brown in the EU Parliament.
There is something else that is interesting about that. The examples of speeches we have examined here I have listed by number, by venue, by date but not by what was said. None of them has a FACE! You try doing a YouTube search with the words “Devalued Prime Minister” and that Gordon Brown speech will fly onto your screen. He gave that speech a FACE – apparently by accident. If he had read F&T, particularly Cardinal 3, perhaps it would have been deliberate; and perhaps he would have made it a habit.
I previously dwelt on a speech that Michael O’Leary had delivered in December ’11 at an EU convention on innovation. That same convention was also addressed by Prof. Richard Dawkins; and it is worth having a look at the lessons to be drawn from his speech.
It claims to be 20 minutes long, but the last 3 minutes are actually the following speaker’s introduction.
My book, The Face & Tripod is about the nuts and bolts of public speaking. This speech by Richard Dawkins illustrates very clearly how someone with otherwise all the right equipment to be a topflight speaker can fall short for the lack of some of those nuts and bolts. Here we have a scientist who has obviously delivered hundreds of lectures, and is quite comfortable on his feet in front of audiences. He has also developed a very successful secondary career as a communicator, having published several top-selling books. He has an excellent way with words, and knows how and where to find good ingredients for presentations. And yet…
Well let’s hold on the “and yet” for a moment, and first look at the good ingredients.
There’s a nice little gag starting at 1:28 about violinists’ arms. The gag deserves better than to die on its arse (please forgive a thespian expression which, though coarse, does describe the sensation very vividly).
At 2:18 I felt my interest begin to quicken in response to this progressing anaphora triad –
It’s worth it –
It’s worth the effort –
It’s worth the effort on behalf of the communicator – – –
and it’s worth noting that in the short time that he was uttering that his face stayed aloof from the lectern and he looked at his audience.
He shows us very clearly that he has a store of modules available for deployment.
There’s a good quotation from Einstein at 2:30.
There’s a fascinating geological timeline analogy starting at 12:20, and it follows a riveting piece about bats (the flying mammals – not cricket).
After what he tells us, beginning 14:30, I shall never again read anything about the Hadron Collider in quite the same way.
Now let’s address the “and yet”…
One major problem is that the first 7 minutes are badly hampered by his reluctance to get his face properly out of his wretched script (what I call being a ‘talking head’). I teach people to outgrow their need for paper assistance of any kind, so they no longer write scripts read scripts or learn scripts (that’s an epistrophe, by the way). Some people think they need scripts to keep themselves on track, others use them as comfort blankets. My impression is that Dawkins is in neither case. I think he is seeking to ensure that he gets the wording right to draw maximum benefit from a few carefully crafted sentences. That’s a mistake.
Speaking is not the same as writing. A reader goes at his own pace. Whether the reader is admiring the quality of the prose or merely being swept along by the narrative is up to him. Therefore the worst a writer does by taking inordinate pains to fashion beautiful sentences is waste his own time; the best he does is delight any reader who appreciates the result. The worst a speaker can do by being “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity” is ruin his show. A speaker’s audience has no choice but to go at the speaker’s pace, so the speaker has to make sure never to break the flow. A speaker’s audience member can never look back up the page to remind himself of anything, so the speaker has to make sure he never needs to. Though the two media of speaking and writing do have many techniques in common, they have at least as many differences.
What I’m saying is that following a script in order faithfully to relay brilliantly authored sentences is as foolish as any other reason, because doing it for any reason widens the gap between speaker and audience to a critical degree. Back to Dawkins.
And then, at the 7-minute mark, everything is transformed when Dawkins begins to recount his experiences as editor of a scientific journal. His head rises, he looks at the room, he speaks with his audience rather than at it and he does it in spontaneous terms. And this time he doesn’t retreat back to the script. The speech takes off, because now he is no longer a talking head. Now he is driving the narrative; and that is when some of those good modules begin arriving.
But even this improved section could be further improved with added coherence if he had a better understanding of good speaking structures. Individual bits are very good, but the overall shape is so amoebic as to render it frustratingly opaque. (And, curiously, he devotes some of those ten minutes to advocating better writing structures.)
Had he given the whole package a more graspable shape, he needn’t have had a script. He would have placed the violinist-arm gag in a better place and got a laugh with it. He would have improved his relationship with his audience by narrowing the metaphorical gap between it and him, and by giving his speech a clarity that it otherwise lacked. And he and the audience would have enjoyed themselves more.
Nuts and bolts! I found myself wanting to thrust a copy of F&T into his hands in the conviction that its analysis of nuts & bolts would remove all that stands between him and speaking excellence.
And he needs to learn about a FACE. Look at what he himself declares to be his main message –
“We can learn to appreciate science just as we appreciate a great work of art or music.”
That’s not too bad in writing, but for a speaker it is a spiny thicket of dead wood. It needs to be lightened, tightened and brightened. Ask yourself how much more clearly that would get across to a live audience as –
Michael Portillo’s Who Dares Wins speech in 1995 has often since been characterised as an embarrassing failure. But was it? This critique is lifted from the December ’11 Auracle Newsletter.
In the mid-nineties I did some work with MORI (now Ipsos MORI); and one day I was having a meeting with their then chairman, Bob (now Sir Robert) Worcester, doyen of pollsters in the UK. A telephone call came through from some press person who was important enough for Bob to interrupt the meeting and answer questions – though he was quite relaxed about my remaining the other side of his desk, ears inevitably flapping. The gist was that the Conservatives stood not a chance at the next election. Since so-called Black Wednesday (September ’92) their stock had fallen so far with the electorate that not even contriving the Second Coming (I’m sure I particularly remember that reference, but my memory could be tricking me) could save them.
This then was the political climate in which Michael Portillo, Defence Minister at the time, made his Who Dares Wins speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1995. I never saw it or any excerpts on television – I was far too busy. My memory is that it was regarded as an embarrassment. But then most of the main-stream media at the time were running with the anti-Major-government tide. Also any form of expressed patriotism was deeply unfashionable; so this speech never stood a chance in the press.
Now, more than sixteen years later and thanks to YouTube, I am able to watch it and make my own judgement – as are you.
One of the first things to notice is that there are two versions on YouTube. The other is nearly twice as long as this one; so what’s missing in this one? Answer: most of the applause. Yes, gentle reader, Portillo – true to my exhortation in Cardinal Two of The Face & Tripod– positioned the speech brilliantly. He hit the audience’s G-Spot, and they gave him three minutes of ecstatic standing ovation. There’s also another conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended), and I’ll return to that in a while.
Let’s go through the speech, cherry picking in the process –
We don’t appear to have the beginning (nor does the other version) but as we join it he launches into an overt triad (see the relevant chapter in The Face & Tripod) which he immediately expands. This is greeted with about 9 seconds of applause. [N.B. 8 seconds is par for any mid-speech applause: 12% improvement on par is very good, particularly this early.]
0:28 another triad – “war is messy, brutal and violent”
0:46 an attributed quote which introduces a sustained reflection on the evils of war
1:55 a lengthy triad which builds in intensity. He makes a small error here inasmuch as he gets too loud too early, thus squeezing his room for manoeuvre – it’s a widespread mistake, caused partly by eagerness outweighing technical prowess, partly by the limitations of an untrained voice and partly by the widely-held fallacy that volume is the only way to convey intensity. This error notwithstanding – and he covers it very well – he is greeted with an outstanding 19 seconds of applause.
2:58 triad – Nelson, Wellington, Churchill
3:25 another triad
3:47 he sets the stage for quoting the SAS motto – and then delivers it.
3:57 the audience goes berserk and, though he has sat down, they are on their feet and forcing him repeatedly to return to his feet to acknowledge their adulation.
I said earlier that I would return to highlighting a conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended). I had never seen this speech till I searched on YouTube; but I knew that if it were there I’d find it in seconds. I was right. I searched “Portillo who dares wins” and there it was. He had given the speech a FACE.
More than a decade before it was written he obeyed all three of the cardinal rules in The Face & Tripodin addition to several others of its strictures. This shows that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about my book: it merely lays out time-tested simple but effective principles that will get anyone at least up to the competent 80% mark.
He appropriated his FACE from the SAS, but so what? JFK stole “Ask not what your country can do for you…&c” from Epictetus. I have the same attitude to this sort of plagiarism as the late, great, sainted Tom Lehrer – just remember why the good Lord made your eyes, and plagiarise.
Mostly with these speeches I prefer not to comment upon the sentiments expressed: my brief is to comment upon how well they are delivered. There’s a saying, popular in investors’ circles, that the market is never wrong. His audience was his market.
September customarily sees the political parties holding their conferences; and the chattering classes get wildly exercised over the trading of insults and the peddling of policies. I on the other hand have a reason to look at the speeches through different eyes; and I thought I’d share some analysis with you. I had intended today to trawl through four leaders’ speeches – Farage, Clegg, Miliband and Cameron – but then realised how long that would make the newsletter. I have therefore taken pity on you, and will look this month only at Farage and Clegg, saving Miliband and Cameron for November.
In recent years leaders have taken to topping and tailing the conferences: delivering a businesslike keynote at the beginning and then a high-profile closing speech (the latter tending to be judged on the basis of the length of its standing ovation). You might think that fairness dictates that I should compare like with like, but I am not treating this as a competition: I just want to analyse the most technically interesting speech from each.
Taken chronologically, this was the first of the four. He chooses to buck the trend by making his opening keynote speech the main course, using the closing speech as a “go-out-and-tell-the-world” rallying cry lasting less than six minutes. Therefore I shall address the keynote.
Even this, at less than eighteen minutes, is an admirably concise offering. He declines to monkey around to soften up the audience as I have seen him do in previous years. Instead he goes straight for the jugular. He conforms to the first cardinal rule in The Face & Tripod, jumps into the driving seat, and certainly has something to say. The wealth of passion and energy that he pours into his pronouncements is what you’d usually expect from a grass-roots firebrand rather than a polished parliamentarian. Many might find this regrettable, hankering after the smooth manners and scrupulous courtesy that you find from, for instance, Daniel Hannan; and unquestionably Farage’s bull-in-a-china-shop manner is a gift to the mainstream media, from the BBC upwards, who seek to paint him as a loony extremist. But look closely and you realise that he is far from merely a bluster merchant.
On a technical level he has learnt the claptrap technique of marrying heavy-duty triads with corresponding hand gestures – and it works every time. Not one opportunity for a round of applause goes AWOL. He juggles all those esoteric rhetorical devices like epistrophe and anaphora and even paralipsis. He embodies my favourite quote from W.B.Yeats: “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. This is one smart cookie!
One reservation: though he never begs laughs, he does have a tiresome habit of signalling his humour by making a weird face.
I search in vain for weasel words. What you see is what you get: look at the unequivocal policy statement at 08:25. Yes, I know that the lower your chances of getting elected the easier it is to be frank, but still…
The speech needs a Face, but in every other respect I come away from it admiring the skill of the speaker.
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat – 21/9/11
[This was originally posted on YouTube in three parts. Since then some copyright issue has caused Part 3 to be blocked in the UK. However the remaining two parts are quite long enough!}
Part 1Part 2Part 3 – for those who might be able to view it and have the patience to do so.
Clegg’s closing speech from the Lib-Dem conference totals nearly three quarters of an hour. He starts with two or three long pauses – a tried and tested technique for setting a measured pace, slowing down your own pulse and getting on top of your nerves. Having done that he turns his attention immediately to getting his audience on his side by indulging in a schmaltzy tribute to them. It’s easy to be cynical about that; but he and his parliamentary colleagues have been under the cosh from their own side, and he is conforming to the second cardinal in The Face & Tripod: having analysed his audience he is stroking their egos. The stroking concludes with a simple “Thank you” followed by a nano-pause for applause which never comes, so he skilfully leaps straight back in to hide the silence. He has a more emphatic claptrap just around the corner, drives harder for it, brings in some rather more positive gestures – and gets the applause. [N.B. the word, “claptrap” has for centuries meant a rhetorical device for getting an audience to applaud whereas today it also tends to mean “rubbish”. I use it in the traditional sense.]
Applause is a powerful drug, and this dose seems to put fire in Clegg’s belly. At 03:05 he employs a clever use of political Left and Right, describing how the two wings view his party in their respective ways – the implication being that the Lib-Dems are slap in the middle. Just after the 4-minute mark he throws up a possible Face for the speech, “Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing” and as the speech goes on he reinforces it. The whole thing seems to be going pretty well, but –
Weasel Words Alert! Suddenly he wheels out some words and phrases that sound good and noble till you look more closely.
“People before Politics”. If there’s a conflict, what does that say about your politics?
“Nation before Party”. Similarly, if you imply a conflict, what does that say about your party?
“Populism.” This is a favoured buzzword in political circles. It is a stealth device to express contempt for the electorate, and get away with it.
(I have been asked about my attitude to weasel words as a rhetorical device. It can best be summarised by the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.) He speaks of the party having to move from, “the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government”. It seems mature of him to admit that there have previously been easy promises.
So much for the first of the three parts; and already I’ve used up a lot of space. But the second section can be quickly characterised as a catalogue (albeit sometimes passionately listed) of facts and figures. Notice how he keeps naming names through all of them, and look at my Chapter on Proper Nouns in The Face & Tripod.
The third section seems to take a leaf from Farage’s book. He gets worked up and passionate; and anyone who has done a course with me knows how I commend that as a device (so long as you keep it under control). The rhetoric gets rather hollow – a bit along the lines of declaring that everyone should be made happier, without really engaging with the tiresome detail of explaining how – but my brief is with the quality of the speech and not the validity of the message. This passion is centred on his explaining why he’s in politics, and as such it has the weakness of self-justification, of pleading. It would have been stronger had he invited his audience to reflect on why they were in politics, and then invited them to share in his vision.
I would have cut at least twenty minutes from that speech. I don’t care where: it just needed to be shorter. Aside from that, and subject to my comments above, I felt he did a pretty good job. He is saddled with an image of being young and effete: bright but immature: driven but naive. Given all of that, and given the position in which he finds himself, with his party’s support haemorrhaging since the formation of the coalition, he had a very difficult brief. In the main I felt he distinguished himself a lot better than some of the familiar faces in his audience would have done.