Mark Steyn makes me LOL

The Heartland Institute’s Tenth International Conference on Climate Change on June 12, 2015, had a keynote speech from Mark Steyn.

I include Mark Steyn on this blog every couple of years or I start suffering from withdrawal. The man is great listening, because he’s opinionated, articulate, and funny. I marvel that the first time I covered a Steyn speech here I castigated him for reading it. I knew then that he didn’t need to (no one needs to) but I hadn’t yet seen him shooting from the hip or, if I may mix my metaphors, spreading his wings and flying. I have now, very many times; in fact the speech we’re watching today was eventually chosen from three over which I spent an enjoyable afternoon agonising.

Actually if I’m going to be desperately picky, and I get desperately picky only with speakers who are desperately good, Steyn does have a script – or at least notes. The difference though, since his first appearance here in March 2013, is that he now writes it in spoken, as distinct from written, English. What’s more he has perfected his technique to the point that his glances at the lectern are barely noticeable.

He has a few speaking mannerisms, like that of repeating his phrases a huge amount, but I’m prepared to bet that without my pointing it out almost no one would notice. It’s my job to spot such things, so I do, but I always tell my trainees the same about mannerisms. If you are interesting/entertaining/absorbing enough no one will ever notice. Steyn’s interest/entertainment/absorption is far more than enough, and that’s another reason that his glances at the lectern are barely noticeable.

And he’s funny! He’s laugh-out-loud funny. He really knows how to do it, and let’s not belittle that skill: it is hugely difficult. Steyn can write funny as well as speak funny, and that’s an unusual combination. A central plank of his spoken comedy is that he doesn’t try to do it all the time, when he does he plays it straight-face and throws it away. Throw-away is a wonderful comedy technique, because it doesn’t pressure the audience by begging them to laugh. Nevertheless it is not speaker-proof: it still needs expert timing, and he has that timing.

At one point – and I won’t spoil it by telling you where – Steyn uses his script as a comedy prop. It’s hilarious enough for me to forgive him the script.

And anyway, though a few years ago I could have easily had him throwing his paper away, if he came to me today I would tell him not to bother. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and it certainly ain’t broke.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby and two mistakes

In November 2012, the appointment was announced of the (then) next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham. He duly delivered a statement in Lambeth Palace.

It is well known that Welby, before being ordained, had a career in the oil business. Both industry and the church help their executives with skills such as speaking in public. I was eager to see whether, and how well, he had been trained.

[I wonder why whoever posted this speech on line used a ‘still’ from another occasion. He’s dressed differently.]

In a past posting on this blog I marvelled at how none of the speakers in the Oxford Union God debate had begun with a prayer. Welby did not show the same neglect.

Followers of this blog will expect me to be scandalised by Welby’s reading this speech unless they recall, in this posting, the following sentence, “There are occasions when a script is unavoidable“. If the occasion of your speech is of such high profile that the press corps has been or will be supplied with a transcript, you have little option but to utter what they will report. This is one such occasion. Welby has to have a script.

I have also been known say that those who have learned to speak without the assistance of paper, tend to cope with scripts better and with more assurance than those who haven’t. It is not always that simple: habitual shooters from the hip, when one day confronted with a script, often find that their timing suffers. I shall venture the guess that Welby comes into that last category. As far as I am concerned he makes just two crucial errors in a speech that otherwise is not at all bad.

Repeatedly, particularly in the early stages, the audience stubbornly neglects to respond as they were evidently intended. 0:28 – Someone laughed. We heard him. Mark that!  It means that the microphone can pick up audience response: the following 2 minutes could make us doubt it. 1:35 – Here, surely, the audience was intended to applaud, or show some courteous agreement. Nothing. Welby pauses, and tries to prompt gently by naming the person they were expected to acknowledge. Still nothing. 2:03 – Again the audience yields zero response. Welby expects some semblance of laughter. How do I know? 2:05 – “…to be fully serious…” No! NO! NO! Never tell an audience you just tried to be funny. Those words are disastrous. If the audience had been laughing their heads off it would have been lame. As they hadn’t even tittered, he wiped egg all over his face. That’s one mistake.

[Here is a Rogues’ Gallery of phrases which should never, after humour, be uttered by any speaker (except, possibly, with heavy irony) – 

  • Be that as it may…
  • But seriously though, folks…
  • Anyway…
  • Any derivative or equivalent of the above]

This is a lousy audience that responds to nothing; and it puzzles me because his performance deserves better. The speech is good. It’s a little bland, because when you reach these stratospheric altitudes of profile any perceived gaffe results in a media feeding frenzy, but I’ve known blander.

10:35 – In the closing words we learn the other mistake, and I believe it explains a huge amount. This is essentially a Press Conference to which he is making a statement. As he finishes, he tells them that they will be receiving a copy of it. If he at the beginning, or better still if someone else before he even entered the room, had told the audience they would receive a transcript, they would have sat, listened, enjoyed and made a few notes. Instead, I reckon they were feverishly taking shorthand while he spoke.

And that’s why they didn’t respond as they should.

Eamonn Butler – what a pity!

On 13 February, 2014, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, This House Believes Thatcher Saved Britain. Speaking for the motion was Eamonn Butler.

The audience enjoys his opening gambit. Hard on its heels, he makes a reference to something a previous speaker had said, and he harvests an even bigger laugh. He plays the audience a little more, tickling them with some gently quirky stuff, letting them recover themselves, and when they are least expecting it he hits them with an absolute beauty, and floors them! This is seriously skilful use of humour. Very few people – and I include stand-up comedians here – will reap a round of applause for a joke this early. What a fabulous opening! I don’t remember seeing better.

And then he turns to his cue cards, and a huge amount of the impetus he has wonderfully created goes gurgling down the drain.

Watch carefully, and you will see that whenever he looks down at his cards his fluency suffers. Over and over again he lifts his head, shoots a short section from the hip, regains some momentum thereby, looks back down again and immediately it’s as if he has hit the brake pedal. That use of paper is disastrous.

Why do I keep banging on about this in this blog?  Because they nearly all do it. Why do they do it? Because they think they have to. Why do they think they have to? Two reasons –

  1. they don’t know how to structure their material well enough to make paper redundant, and
  2. they don’t believe that even then they could manage without it.

But they could. Anyone can.

Butler isn’t anyone: potentially he is phenomenally good. His use of humour – not just the selection of excellent material, but the superbly timed delivery – show that. Incidentally he doesn’t use up all the humour in his opening: he hits them several more times – and always unexpectedly.

A month or two ago, when dealing with a speech by Dan Hannan in this same hall, I stressed how important it is to be scrupulously courteous when dealing with heckling – or the more subdued equivalent that you get in this environment. Watch how Butler handles an interruption. Yes, it is courteous … isn’t it? Or is getting an enormous laugh at the expense of the questioner by use of a single word a form of discourtesy? You decide.

In my wake, as a speaking coach, there are several hundred people – very few of them with anything approaching this man’s natural skill – who have cheerfully waved goodbye to the use of script or notes. You may therefore imagine with what frustration I see this speech so sadly diminished by the speaker’s dependence on bloody paper.

What a pity!