Andrew Klavan needs beaker

The Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley (who’da thought?) invited Andrew Klavan to speak at their annual Christmas / Hanukkah party last year.

Klavan is no stranger to either Christmas or Hanukkah, being Jewish by birth and upbringing, and having converted and been baptised a Christian in recent years. He described the pain and reward of that journey in his remarkable book The Great Good Thing, one of the few books for which I have ever bothered to write a review on Amazon.

Here however he is speaking not so much about religion but about being members of a minority group, conservatives in a leftist community. He’s an expert: he lives in Hollywood.

In his podcasts Klavan shows himself to be highly adept both on camera and microphone, and his skill with the written word is legendary, but none of that guarantees that he can handle a live audience. Let’s see …

He’s good, very good, but then I knew that. I’ve seen his ebullience and huge personality being poured into a camera lens in his video podcasts. His delivery to a live audience is very nearly as good. You’ll have spotted that I pulled up short of the absolute superlative, and I will return to that in due course.

He has paper on that lectern, but essentially it’s there as a backstop. He really refers to it only when he is quoting others, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as you need not only to get the quote right but be seen to be doing so. The rest of the time he doesn’t need to follow his script because he has structured his material in a way that he (and we) can follow and remember.

Note how he has divided his message into chapters. Note how he then subdivides his chapters into smaller sections. Yes, the mystery of the ‘magic’ of speaking without notes comes down to details as simple as those. As so much of his hi-tec communication performances these days will depend upon AutoCue, I am pleased to see that he knows and still follows the strictures of horse-drawn public speaking.

Nevertheless there are subtle, almost indefinable, differences between speaking to an audience you can see and one you can’t. I’m referring to timing. For eight years I had a weekly radio programme, and then when I was speaking to live audiences I became conscious that I was occasionally mistiming things slightly.

Mistiming is most apparent when you are playing for a laugh. You don’t need to be an expert to know when you got it wrong.  It’s when the market refuses to buy: the laugh doesn’t come. You get that information only with a live audience, but it can be a shock to the confidence because you begin to wonder whether you are getting it wrong also with the invisible audience on the radio whose response you can’t gauge.

For my part I find him flawlessly laugh-out-loud in his podcasts, though it took me a bit of time to tune in to his wavelength. On the other hand though he harvests some stunningly good laughs there are just a couple of moments here in this speech when the laugh gears don’t quite engage. He’s a pro so he covers it superbly; but if I were advising him I would urge him to speak to live audiences a little more regularly in order to keep the timing instincts exercised, not least because he obviously revels in his live audience. I think I would also suggest that he lean a teeny bit more towards throw-away, as opposed to overt, humour. (As I have said a few times on this blog, I get this picky only with the best; and when they are the best why the hell should they pay attention to me anyway?)

I would also get him to insist on a beaker for his water. That bloody bottle drove me insane!

 

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!