The Duchess of Cambridge

In March 2012, the news media bubbled with excitement over Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge having made her first public speech. The venue was one of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices. HRH is patron of EACH.

The next time you are about to climb to your feet to deliver a speech, and you sense the familiar onset of your Hump, spare a thought for one who knew for certain that the slightest slip of any sort would generate a media feeding frenzy.

Regular readers might be expecting me to claim that I could cause her not to need that script, and ’tis true: I could. They might be expecting me to claim that without paper she would be less nervous and therefore safer, and ’tis true: she would. Neither she nor her advisers would have agreed to depend upon that assurance under these circumstances, and I wouldn’t blame them. But she has one key glance at the script that is a sad mistake.

If HRH was not suffering inner turmoil when she began it would be very surprising. I have mentioned before in this blog that when you are very nervous – and The Hump is just such a time – it is desperately difficult to look at the audience. HRH manages it with sweeps of her gaze over the first half of her first sentence, but then her eyes drop to her script.  The whole sentence reads,

You have all made me feel so welcome * and I feel hugely honoured to be here to see this wonderful centre.

The * indicates where her eyes dropped. The trouble is that the drop of her eyes carries an implication of the words, “it says here”. Could she not have managed to utter that sentence without being prompted from the script? Of course she could, but that is not why she looked down. She looked down because her eyes needed momentarily to escape from the audience.

It’s an excellent and appropriate opening sentence; and I have no doubt that she absolutely means it.  Under the circumstances she manages very well with the amount of audience-look she achieves, but it’s not quite enough.

So what could have been done?

If I had worked with her on this, I think I would have taken that opening sentence and moved it to the end. It would work at least as powerfully as a closing sentence, and with a much more manageable stress level by then she would not have needed to look away. Opening with how much she would have liked William to have been there with her would have been just as charming as it was as a second sentence, and her eyes escaping to her script would not have devalued it. She would still have had the same springboard from the laugh that the sentence drew, and by the time she reached that closing sentence she would be a veteran of two minutes of very strong speech.

All in all it was as fine an effort as I would expect from a Marlburian.

I am conscious that any second now HRH is due to become a mum. If the league table of stressful activities is any guide, that delivery will be, in a way, less of an ordeal than was delivering this speech. As I said at the beginning none of the rest of us have such a perilous downside risk of failure; but I shall shortly be examining a speech by one who did.

HRH’s mother-in-law.

Linda Yueh is better than she thinks

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord PowellStefan Halper, Lord Wei and Sir David Tang. Today it is the turn of Linda Yueh who spoke in favour of the motion.

In the opening seconds, when I first watched her, I emitted a quiet groan. She appeared to consult her paper even to find the words, “Good evening…”. Almost immediately I reconsidered; because not only was her vocabulary unmistakeably that of the spoken rather than written variety (I’ve covered this before) but her eyes came up and stayed up most of the time. Furthermore her downward glances seemed not for getting prompting from notes. Could it be that her habit of glancing down was merely a comfort thing? If so, it would recede as her Hump receded.

It did.

She swings into a nice anecdote about the movie, Back to the Future. It results in a big, and well deserved, laugh and a ripple of applause. Her decorum has been well established. This audience now belongs to her; she’s on a roll, and she’s good.

You may think that this was to be expected: she is, after all, an experienced broadcaster. This will certainly have helped her to be able to shoot from the hip; but there is a big difference between addressing a lens and a roomful of people. Yueh knows how to work an audience.

The speech suffers a little from being reactive to what the other speakers have said. It makes it slightly disjointed and less coherent than it might have been. I want her to be articulating a much more distinct argument of her own. It emerges that she is in the process of writing a book on this very subject, so she could – and should – have come out with all guns blazing, mowing down contrary arguments in passing.

Why did she not do so? I have two theories, and both could be correct. It could be a gender thing. If a woman speaker doesn’t deliver in a macho fashion, it doesn’t mean she can’t. She could have made a policy decision based on a view that to do so could alienate her audience (and she may be right).

The other theory is that she feels less secure than her ability warrants. The downward glances during her hump are also indicative of this. She can’t help having a hump – everyone has a hump – but she can learn to handle it better. She can also be made more secure.

She’s good. She’s much better than I think she thinks she is. Ultimately only she can persuade herself of this truth, but who is going to persuade her to do that?

Allan Savory bucks the environmental trend

Last weekend I was persuaded by a posting on WUWT to watch a video that I have since watched nearly a dozen times. A TED talk by Allan Savory turns on their heads enough environmental preconceptions to drop your jaw to your lap.

Bald opening! I like bald openings because dispensing with any introductory niceties is counter-intuitively relaxing and liberating for the speaker. Nevertheless Savory still for a short while shows subtle symptoms of hump, though the downbeat nature of his delivery conveys calm, confidence and camouflages the nerves very effectively.

For a minute he seems to be treading the worn, weary and widely discredited warmist way, but he has a seismic surprise up his sleeve.

At 1:44 he stuns his audience with a sentence that very few are accustomed to hearing these days, “I have for you a very simple message that offers more hope than you can imagine.” As attention-grabbers go, that could be a lot worse.

Till 4:42 he is establishing decorum, giving background to the environmental problem that he intends to address during the talk. At precisely 4:42 there is both a video cut-away and a sentence that doesn’t quite make sense. I spy an edit point. No matter: perhaps he coughed, or something; but that point marks the beginning of his ethos. Suddenly we are into the story of him, his work, his love of wild animals, and a bitter confession. I’ll let him reveal all of that.

If in the middle of a speech you pose one huge question which, though not truly rhetorical, does not seriously expect to get a reply because there does not seem to be one, and if you throw your arms wide as you pose it, and if you then stand there silently, arms wide, staring at a stunned and mute audience for more than five whole seconds you deserve a medal for bravery. Five seconds under those circumstances is like a week. Who dares wins! He has now very powerfully set the scene for him to answer that huge question. That episode starts at 11:35, and he will hold you spellbound for the rest of the speech.

For that reason I should now shut up. He is far more interesting than I. But wait for your jaw to drop at 17:01. The audience’s applause is more sedate than the expletive that I released.

And now I shall shut up.

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.

 

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Compering – Who’s the Daddy!

I was helping a past trainee with preparing a presentation to be delivered to a conference he is hosting early in the New Year. During our deliberations I remarked on how the conference timetable showed that his Marketing Director would be the conference MC, and I offered guidance on what that would involve.

I was asked only a few weeks ago by a firm of Conference Organisers whether I preferred that term or the word ‘Compere’, and I replied that they were different functions. Their functions are quite well described by their titles.

An MC (Master of Ceremonies) is a cross between a toastmaster and a town-crier – a very visible figure. It is someone whose job it is to bring proceedings to order at appropriate moments. My client (above) has very properly appointed a high-profile personality from the company to manage this function. The nature of the job means (though it goes against the grain to admit it) that what they say could be pre-scripted. It’s relatively easy.

A compere – as anyone with a smattering of French will see in the word – should act as a sort of father. Daddy will look after everything. He (or she – I tend not to waste time smoothing over gender specifics, but with a word like ‘Daddy’ in the frame let’s be clear that women make very good comperes) should be a relatively unobtrusive figure that simply makes everything go smoothly, relaxes the audience, relaxes the speakers and is always ready to grab the wheel and steady the ship should anything go wrong – an omnipresent safe pair of hands. The nature of this job forbids scripting.

I recommend to anyone who aspires to develop himself as a speaker that he should seize every opportunity to act as compere. The skills that are needed, and therefore honed, are plentiful and invaluable.

You are the ‘Humpmaster’. When the event begins everyone in the place is nursing his own hump. All the speakers/performers are edgy; the audience has yet to settle; it is your job to bust all those humps at once. What’s that you say? You have a hump too? Tough! You just have to ignore it, and pretend to the whole world it isn’t there. You’ll be amazed at how this improves your nerve-hiding.

You are the ‘Bridge-builder’. Have you heard or read me going on about the importance of breaking down invisible screens and building a bridge between the platform and the audience? Now you have to build a communal bridge for the whole event. Get good at that, and you’ll never again have problems on your own account.

You are everyone’s support, backstop and trouble-shooter. If you are doing your job properly you never relax: you are constantly looking ahead for possible problems and working out contingency measures. Do I have to lay out how valuable that habit is?

You are the timetable elastic. In between events you have effortlessly to motor-mouth for longer or shorter periods to cater for whatever changeover measures have to take place. The key here is to be armed with stacks of snippets of nice-to-know, inconsequential information that you can wheel out or not as required. Yes: homework!

As far as the audience is concerned you don’t matter. You are never the picture, barely the frame. All that matters is the event as a whole and the next item in it. This is actually quite liberating: you can witter away in a casual fashion, knowing that no one really cares. And that is exactly the right attitude for you to adopt. Surely you’ve spotted the developmental advantage. You are never thinking of yourself: your focus is constantly looking the other way. If you don’t know what I’m going on about here, read my book.

And all without a script. Shooting from the hip.

The better you do it, the easier it looks to everyone else. The greatest compliment they can pay you is to forget to thank you. That means the event proceeded as if on silken rails. I seriously consider the absence of a thank-you as a badge of honour, to such an extent that I itch at the end simply to slide way unnoticed.

This isn’t some phoney Lone Ranger pose – “Who was that masked man?” It’s the Jeeves effect, shimmering in and out.

As you might imagine, all this applies as much to compering a local talent show as a huge international corporate shindig; so get out there and get compering. Do it often, do it well, and progressively great swathes of previous difficulties you experienced on the speaking platform will vanish away.

And, since you ask, yes!  I’m compering Carol concerts, both in stately homes, tomorrow and Tuesday. Why do you think it was prominently in mind to make me think of writing about it?

[added 19/12/12]    P.S. Both those carol concerts have been and gone. I am proud to say that at neither was I publicly thanked.  RESULT!

Matt Ridley – optimism justified

Matt Ridley is the author of many books, perhaps the most famous of which is The Rational Optimist. Indeed, he has even used that name for his website. He is hugely in demand as a speaker. This month I’d like to take a look at a speech he delivered in Oxford in July 2010. It was a TED Talk.

First thing first: we appear to have a ‘bald’ opening. If you are not familiar with my use of the expression, I mean that he goes straight in without any preamble e.g. “Ladies & Gentlemen”. I like bald openings: they convey confidence and eagerness to get on with delivering the message. They also are very good for the speaker’s nerves (I’ll spare you the reasons here). I say that “we appear” to have a bald opening, because we do not see his actual start. Therefore I went looking for other Ridley speeches and indeed found that he habitually starts without preamble.

What’s the second thing I notice? I think that everyone who has ever done a course with me will remember how together we found a personal ‘happy home’ for their hands. This is intended to be their hands’ default position that they are satisfied both looks good and feels comfortable. All this also features in The Face & Tripod. They will also recall that I warned against holding hands too low, because it looks nervous. Ridley begins with his hands clasped low down. I – or someone – needs to go through that ‘happy home’ process with him. He is not happy with his hands low: he would be much happier clasping his hands high enough for his forearms to be horizontal. How do I know? That’s where his subconscious sent them – and where they largely stayed – from around 1:30 onwards.

And at that point an interesting thing happened. My notes petered out. And the second time I watched the speech my notes were pretty scant also. And the third time. It took a lot of watching and a degree of self-discipline before I got any notes of substance about the main body of this speech at all. And that in itself is a lesson. The purpose of a speech, or any sort of presentation, is to put across a message – just as the purpose of any sort of stage performance is to tell a story. I’m often telling actors that if a member of the audience is sitting and admiring the quality of your performance, you’ve failed him because he isn’t swept up in the story. The equivalent is true of making a speech. You can dress the process up in any fancy way you like, but you still come back to that fundamental purpose – putting across a message. Ridley was repeatedly sweeping me up and carrying me along with a message that so absorbed me that my pen remained frozen over my notepad.

What an important lesson that is! The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else. I tend to boast that when it comes to speeches I don’t miss anything; yet I did. Repeatedly!

But let us see what I did eventually discover. How, for instance, was he grabbing and holding my attention? I’m not altogether sure, and you may disagree, but here’s my take.

For one thing he seems to recruit his audience’s assistance, by inviting us to join with him in addressing questions. Even though he’s dripping with degrees and doctorates in the subject matter he offers, rather than decrees, answers – e.g. at 4:05, “I think the answer is exchange.” He’s treating us as grown-ups by plying us with data and then suggesting a solution that seems to make sense to him. He doesn’t invite anyone to stand up and argue: he doesn’t ask for a show of hands. Yet there seems to be this tacit implication that we are somehow a part of the thought process. That’s damn clever! We find ourselves concentrating just a little harder on the data, almost as if we are going to be invited for our opinion. Can you and I find a way of harnessing that principle? Take another look at my previous paragraph.

All right, so I tricked you! By feigning uncertainty I persuaded you to look a little harder for yourself. It’s a tried and tested device, both on the speaking platform and on the theatre stage. If you want the audience to get more absorbed in what they are hearing, spoon-feed them a little less and persuade their brains to work a little harder. Instead of my merely explaining it, I decided to stage a little demonstration of the principle. That said, I wasn’t kidding you when I said a few paragraphs back that he completely absorbed me in his message. He did.

So… back to the speech.

There’s a glorious moment when he beautifully fulfils a favourite quotation from W.B.Yeats, “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. He says, at 10:30, “ I’m not dissing the Neanderthals”. His live audience appreciates that too.

There are also some wonderful sit-up-and-blink statements – e.g. at 11:20, “Trade is ten times as old as farming.”  Yes, isn’t that a show-stopper!

I said earlier, “The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else.” If Shakespeare could mix metaphors with “to take arms against a sea of troubles” I can; but let’s examine what else igniting that much interest can do. It very effectively hides one thing, and it astonishes me that I did not spot it immediately. He seems to be riddled with nerves! His hump never seems to end. I mentioned the way he is holding his hands rather low for the first minute: at 11:50 he has a period when his hands again are at a loss for a short while. There are periods when he is speaking almost aggressively quickly, falling over occasional words and not allowing natural pauses their full life – a nerve symptom (although his enunciation is so good that he’s always crystal clear) . He gets slightly breathless on occasions – another nerve symptom. There are more such, but I’ll spare you the full catalogue.

I’ve never met him, and it could be that this sort of constant outpouring of nervous energy is his natural style. Also it comes across as overwhelming enthusiasm for his message, which is attractive and may be another instrument in sweeping up his audience. It’s just that when I see a speaker apparently in slight distress I itch to help.

At any rate Matt Ridley is very good. His website claims that this speech has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and I’m not in the least surprised. I’ve just downloaded the kindle edition of The Rational Optimist for my Christmas reading.

Hilary Benn – better than some, but no cigar.

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.
  • 1:43  “To protect …”   He used an anaphora triad.
  • 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.

Ken Livingstone is pretty good.

For the May ’12 Auracle newsletter I went looking through speeches made at the Labour Party Conference in autumn 2011. 

Why are parliamentarians so much weaker at public speaking than they used to be? Is it because I’m getting old? My theory is that the party system makes it less necessary for them actually to go out and engage with the electorate. Open primaries would help.

It took me only about 90 frustrated seconds to switch off Harriet Harman, because if in a couple of hours I can stop people needing to refer to a script at all, why does the deputy leader of the Labour Party need to be buried in hers? It’s pathetic!  For the same reason I meted out similar treatment to Ed Balls. Yes, I know the theory is that ministers need to make so many speeches that they have to have scripts much of the time; but these are not ministers. They’re out of office so that pressure is reduced. What is more this conference occurs just once a year so surely it warrants a little more effort.

And then, still scanning that Conference, I found myself watching Ken Livingstone

I quickly spotted manifold symptoms of nervous Hump at the beginning. I always say that everyone experiences The Hump and is never rid of it; but I also say that experienced speakers get better at disguising it. Livingstone disguises less well than I’d expect: he muffs a word in the first few seconds; his speaking rhythm is all to pot; he adjusts his stance unnecessarily; &c. It takes about 30 seconds for him to settle, but it’s worth waiting for.

As always I stress that it’s beyond my self-appointed brief to comment on what the message is, or to point out that later revelations cast a fresh colour on certain assertions. I didn’t do that to Al Gore and I shall not do it here (paralipsis? Perhaps just a touch). I shall restrict my comments to how this is delivered. My verdict, in a word, brilliantly. His eyes never leave his audience. His gaze swings back and forth a little metronomically, but in a calm unhurried fashion. He’s not using Perspex autocue screens. Is he using screens at the back of the auditorium? I can’t make up my mind!  Sometimes I think so. There’s a tiny indication at 3:09 when a descending cadence, “…leading Tory in Britain…” suggests that he thought wrongly that he’d ended a sentence. And periodically there are other kindred indicators of the material being read as distinct from being spoken spontaneously. But you do have to follow very closely to spot them – so closely that other times I decide that I am wrong.  He is very good at this.

I have declared often enough that politicians have audiences that are generally less tough than business people, and it shows in their frequently being surprisingly disappointing as speakers. Ken Livingstone is an exception on both counts.  He has habitually courted controversy and the tough audiences that are attendant upon that.  He has also – perhaps as a consequence – become a very adroit speaker. If I went to an event to hear a past trainee, and heard a speech delivered as well as this, I’d be well pleased.  It is no surprise that the London Mayoral elections became so captivating.  I’ll be having a look at his opponent very soon.

Michael O’Leary (Ryanair), on a Brussels stage, bashes EU

From Auracle Newsletter. January ‘12

Towards the end of 2011 there was held in Brussels, hosted by the EU, an Innovation Convention. Speakers at that convention included Michael O’Leary of Ryanair.

He spoke for nearly 18 minutes; and used his time on the platform to speak not only about innovation and innovators but also about Ryanair. That’s fair enough. He’d be crazy to squander the profile opportunity; and anyway, what is the story of Ryanair if not a lesson in innovation? He also used the opportunity to deliver some pretty savage and well-aimed sideswipes at his hosts – the EU – which adds an element of entertainment. (To their credit, the audience took it in good heart.)

The first observation to be made is that O’Leary has completely cut his umbilical cord. Never once during his delivery do I pick up the slightest symptom of his being concerned with himself, or giving a damn about anything except his message and his audience. (You might think that would be a ‘given’ for someone in his position. Trust me: it isn’t.) Let’s look at a few specifics in his speech.

  • He appears to treat his opening so casually that it is tempting to regard it as inconsequential and therefore not worthy of study. That would be a mistake because – whether by accident or design – it is a very clever opening. We clearly join the occasion just as his introduction has finished. He could (and most would) have strode across to the lectern before beginning; but every second of that silent journey would have added to his hump (yes, he has a hump like everyone else). Instead he takes a shillelagh to his hump by starting speaking immediately and speaking all the way to the lectern. Just consider how much he ‘informalises’ the atmosphere by doing this, how much he transmits an eagerness to impart his message, how much he takes instant control of the proceedings, how much he relaxes his audience.
  • 3:22 he throws in a triad/gag in the shape of a good Ronald Reagan quote.  It’s quite funny but the instant impression is that it has died, because the ‘atmos’ sound is turned right down and we don’t hear the laughter.  Luckily we cut to a view of the audience, and see the laughter instead.
  • There is no sign of any script, but he is using PowerPoint or Keynote; and he clearly has a slave screen somewhere down to his left. This he uses as an ‘Idiot Board’ when he starts trotting out statistics. This is better than wielding paper: better than surrendering his focus by turning to look at the big screen: much better than getting statistics wrong.
  • 12:40 (He’s so good that I’m allowing myself to be really picky!) With his hand in the air in front of him, he illustrates a flat-lining graph that suddenly takes off. He does it his way round. If I were advising him I’d get him into the habit of doing such things in mirror image, so that the graph was the right way round for his audience.

Still being picky I found myself thinking that if I were advising him I might get him to do more to segment his three areas of discussion – innovation, Ryanair and anti- EU-sideswipes: the way he mixes them all together has a tendency to muddy the various messages. And then I completely changed my mind, and for a very good reason.

Let’s leave the public speaking arena for a moment and imagine you are being interviewed by a broadcaster with political agenda. If you want to get in some side-swipes that they might not like, then mix them up in the pure gold that you are also uttering. It makes it much more difficult for them to edit out the side-swipes without losing the gold. Therefore for a minor sacrifice of a little coherence you ensure that all your messages strike home. Might whoever shot the video have tried to edit out O’Leary’s anti-EU comments? I actually don’t think so, but anyway they’d have had a hell of a job.

Finally, let’s see whether Michael O’Leary passes Brian’s memorability test (Cardinal 3 in The Face & Tripod). Yes he does! What did he say? He said, “If you want to be an innovator get the hell out of Brussels!”

Peter Mandelson at 2009 British Labour Party Conference.

From October ’10 Auracle newsletter

One of my readers suggested I had a look at the speech Peter Mandelson made at the 2009 Labour Party Conference.

The assertion was that Mandelson’s self-deprecation very effectively turns the hall to his side – though I’m not sure how much they were against him before. At one point, the camera looks at the crowd and picks out an enigmatic smile from Ed Miliband (whatever happened to him?), but being enigmatic I really can’t read his feelings at that moment. Anyway, let’s go through the speech.

First things first: he’s tackling a hell of a hump. The nerves aren’t overly obvious because he disguises them well, but they are there all right. Look at the way he screws up his words at the 00:35 point – “I was as shocked as some as you”. A couple of seconds of later he momentarily stammers the beginning of the word, “network”. However by 1:20 he seems to have shed most of the burden and is on a roll. By the time he reaches “I didn’t choose this party: I was born into it” it’s tempting to think he’s in the driving seat.

The second half of his joke about Blair having said that the project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson is brilliant: he’s obviously worked hard on it. There are so many ways he could have completed that gag, but saying that “he set the bar a little too high” is stunningly good. And yet …

The most famous quote from the speech – “If I can come back, we can come back!” actually part-fails. Properly timed, it should not have needed the second half. If he had really had them in the proverbial palm of his hand they would have anticipated the second half and applauded hard enough for him to have discarded it – or made it into a drowned rant.

Speaking analysts have called this many things, but I call it the ‘drowned rant’. For many years beloved of tub-thumping politicians and rabble-rousing union leaders, the ‘drowned rant’ is when the speaker builds to a thunderous declaration, and intends to have the end of it drowned out by a tsunami of applause. Arthur Scargill used it all the time. Today, it’s rather gone out of fashion. Mandelson appears to be trying to generate lots of them – and failing. You hear his voice hardening to trigger the applause, but the applause doesn’t come soon enough to drown him – or even enough for him to ride it like a surfer rides a wave (the surfed applause is the junior partner of the drowned rant). It appears to start so late and so quiet as to exist almost out of sympathy. I was cringing on his behalf, till I began to wonder whether it was simply a case of the sound engineer keeping the ‘atmos’ microphones at a low enough level not to drown him on the recording. And I’m still not certain. But if that is the case, that sound engineer has done him no favours. It makes rant after rant seem rather lame. There are examples at 2:55, 3:45 & 5:00. And then at 7:40 he actually pauses momentarily for applause – and doesn’t get it. And then at 7:50, “…fabric of people’s lives” he’s begging for applause, but it arrives agonizingly late.

Matters begin to improve at 9:10 when he comes up from very quiet to get a really healthy round of applause at the announcement of Car Scrappage being extended; but he misjudges the extent of the improvement by trying for another almost immediately – and failing.

The trout he’s playing on the end of this line is a slippery bastard with a mind of its own; but he’s not a quitter. He goes on playing it manfully; sometimes seeming to win, other times all over the place. At 14:00 he carefully stage-manages another build to a rant, and then actually muffs the words of the punch line. That takes all the guts out of the applause. And then …

At 15:55 he utters the magic words, “and finally”. They have an electric effect on audiences (see The Inner Frame in The Face & Tripod). In this case it seems to weave its magic on him. From that moment – with ten minutes still to go – he’s a different speaker. Now he really gets in the driving seat, and now he’s so much in control that he barely glances at his notes. Now I’d be proud to claim him as my trainee – though he isn’t.

So what mistake(s) was he making before? There’s a technical detail and a General Principle. First the technical detail –

  • ‘Drowned rants’ are rather similar to humour inasmuch as the audience must never feel pressured to respond as required. Begging applause, like begging laughter, is an audience turn-off. He was trying to pull strings too soon. But the General Principle is much more important…
  • Cardinal Rule # 1! The first chapter in the book. Have Something To Say! Before the 16-minute mark he was trying to play clever-buggers with all sorts of rhetorical trickery. After it, he refocused on what his message was. And he became infinitely more effective. It’s the caveat I attach to my Masterclass: don’t allow anything you come to learn later allow your attention to be diverted from the prime requirement – get your message out there.

Last week I was at a conference devoted to sales presentations, and saw all manner of extremely expensive bells-and-whistles that can embellish performances. None of that came near to persuading me that they were as valuable as the steely-eyed drive that accompanies a speaker with something to say. And Mandelson here confirms that belief.
There’s far, far more that I could say on this speech; but that’ll do for now!

Brian Robinson

www.auracle.co.uk