William Hague reads to the CBI

William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave an after-dinner speech to the CBI at Grosvenor House, London, in May 2012.

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a speech he had made at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I was underwhelmed by it, because he had been merely a talking head for a dreary FCO Press Release. Sadly, although I have given a link for you to see that critique, I shall be deleting it very soon. The video is no longer available on YouTube – perhaps the FCO were mortally stung by my comments.

Hague is one of the finest speakers around, and I should dearly love to post a critique of him in glorious full flight. Shall we see whether he did justice to himself at this dinner?

For nearly three minutes at the very beginning we are treated to his outstanding speaking ability. He settles and primes the audience, firstly thanking the previous speaker – not with hollow platitudes but with specific references to what he said – then moving seamlessly into reminiscent anecdotes about Boris Johnson. It is masterly. He does it with brilliantly judged humour that is suitably self-deprecating and superbly timed; but the real proof of the pudding is in the effect on the audience. He has them hooting with laughter which, this early in the proceedings, is notoriously difficult. You need to be as good as a stand-up comedian to do that, and he is. And of course all this is shot from the hip.

Again seamlessly, and starting from around 2:45, he gently moves us from that stunning opening to what he is here for. His eyes gradually go down to the script his Civil Servants have prepared and by 3:30 he is firmly on the political message. The transition is interesting, because little flashes of the real man continue to peep out before being suppressed below the persona of the Statesman.

Whether it is because of a residual legacy of that brilliant opening, or because he had more personal control over the content of this speech I don’t know; but even when the transition is complete and he is merely reading the script he is a little more animated than he was in that dreadful previous one on this blog. Nevertheless I feel my interest levels dropping steadily. He is reading to the CBI, and it might as well be a bed-time story.

William Hague being required to read a speech is like Frankel being harnessed to a milk-float. He’ll make the delivery process more exciting, but the product will be just as bland.

William Hague FCO speech. Talking head.

From Auraclenewsletter, Sept 2011

Last week on Twitter, on the blogosphere and in the British national press I suddenly saw many glowing reports of a speech made by Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Rt Hon Mr William Hague. At the weekend when I had some spare time I rushed to YouTube to watch it. I am a great admirer of Hague as a speaker.

As a piece of public speaking it was at best indifferent. And coming from a speaker as good as Hague it was disastrous. My disappointment was so profound that I rushed to dig out anew the glowing reports to see what it was that they liked about it. It took me about a minute to spot the key fact that all these reports had been written before the speech had been delivered. All of them were working from a pre-released transcript. They hadn’t seen the speech: they had merely read what he was planning to say.

It is more than 28 minutes long, and I felt duty bound to subject myself to all of it – but you don’t need to. It quickly becomes clear that he is merely a talking head for an essay written mainly by functionaries, then polished, sanitized and sterilised by mandarins (with a few crumbs of his own thrown in).

Being Hague, he enunciates excellently and really looks the part. In fact in technical terms his only delivery flaw is that here and there he goes a little too fast; but I interpret that as his displaying the same sort of tedium that I was feeling. Essentially it is a beautiful shell around echoing hollowness. Yes there is plenty of substance to the content, including a shocking story about the FCO’s library, built over centuries, having been dispersed by the previous administration; but it is all couched in terms better suited to a written report. And it was the written version that had attracted so much praise in the press.

I also sought out the transcript and read it to see how the delivery could have been improved. I was reminded of an occasion that I helped the chairman of a large company prepare the delivery of his speech at his AGM. When I read the script that had been written for him it was obvious that batteries of highly paid professionals had sweated over every syllable and nuance to make it bullet- and litigation-proof. That being the case, not a letter could be changed. I had to spend several intense hours with him to wrest from the unforgiving text all the personality that it had been hell-bent on concealing.

It is no secret that the nearest I get to performing on a stage these days is doing poetry readings; and I urge Master-class trainees likewise to read poetry aloud in order to hone the skills we explore in the Master-class  When I watch a speech like Hague’s I am reminded that those who rise to stratospherically elevated positions become so vulnerable that their pronouncements have to be sterile to be safe – and that almost inevitably means scripted. Perhaps it is time for me to market a wholly-dedicated Reading Aloud course. William Hague is a brilliant speaker, but his reading isn’t so hot.

As to this speech, it miserably failed the memorability test that I describe in the third Cardinal in The Face & Tripod. It had no Face. The FCO had given it a formal title and they came up with “The best diplomatic service in the world: strengthening the Foreign Office as an institution” – wake up at the back! It also breached the second Cardinal, inasmuch as there is absolutely no indication or clue as to the identity or the nature of his audience. Perhaps it was the world in general.

I’ve a feeling that Official Wisdom dictates that statesmanlike equals bland. When you consider the unbridled feeding frenzy that greets anything that the media decides to term a ‘gaffe’ you can see how that definition gained credence.