Martin Vander Weyer. Jolly but nebulous.

On 29 January, 2014, the York Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Thatcherism Must Be Abandoned To Save Britain’s Economy”. 

This blog has visited the Oxford Union countless times, and the Cambridge Union quite often, but it took a specific search for an example of a speech by Martin Vander Weyer for me to discover the York University equivalent, of which I see he is Patron. I feel rather ashamed at my laziness in not having found it before. Ferreting now around their website reveals a rich seam for me to mine, and I look forward to doing so.

I searched for an example of Vander Weyer’s  speaking because I enjoy reading him in The Spectator, where he is business editorIn this debate he is speaking in opposition to the motion.

What a super opening! It is not just that it is funny, it is not that he pokes jovial, unmalicious fun at previous speakers, but what causes the audience to laugh and keep laughing is that not once does he beg a laugh or even pause. He just ploughs on through the hilarity till suddenly you realise that he has turned serious. It is one of the finest examples of brilliantly executed throw-away opening humour that I have found. There is a lesson here for all speakers, if they encounter the right circumstances.

I do wish he weren’t using paper. He manages it very well, not letting it spoil his rhythm; but paper, even if it isn’t a script but merely notes, imposes a negative force on any speech.

In order to shoot a speech from the hip, you need two things. You need to know how to, and in order to dare to do it you need to know you can. (Vander Weyer knows he can: he proves it during that excellent opening.) In order for it to be feasible you need to apply a series of very strong structural rules to the content. The rules are simple and once learned can be easily applied. With practice it is also very quick – quicker than writing notes.

But here’s the clincher argument. That structure, making the whole route of the speech crystal clear in your mind, makes it simultaneously more digestible for the audience. Digestible makes memorable. I’ve watched this speech a couple of times, and although I obviously know the general gist of it I am not sitting here knowing precisely what I’ve heard. The message is slightly nebulous. If he’d applied the right discipline to the structure it would be starkly clear.

It’s the paper’s fault: it excused him that discipline.

 

Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Thatcher’s last speech – The Mummy Returns

On 22 May 2001, at a general election rally in Plymouth, Baroness Thatcher came out of retirement long enough to take the stage for what was probably her last big speech. My speaking students will understand when I say that the speech had a Face – “The Mummy Returns“.

There is a transcript of the speech downloadable here.

Say “The two Ronnies” to most British people and they will immediately think of Messrs Barker and Corbett, whose comedy partnership is a TV legend; but to those of us involved with British Theatre in the mid-sixties there was an earlier pair of Ronnies. Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar collaborated on two West End musicals, Robert & Elizabeth, which opened in 1964 ran for nearly a thousand performances and has been revived several times since, and On the Level which opened in 1966 and died shortly afterwards. I briefly assisted Ronnie Grainer during that time: a sort of unpaid internship, sharpening pencils and making tea.

What has that riveting nugget to do with this speech?  Only that Ronnie Millar went on to become Thatcher’s speechwriter, for which he was awarded a knighthood. It was he who was credited with “The Lady’s Not for Turning”. He didn’t write this speech, he died in 1998, though I think he would have approved.

Thatcher lived in an era when formal oratory was still the norm and today’s style of conversational sincerity had yet to take hold. Everyone used to read their speeches from scripts, and delivery was relatively stiff. What is remarkable about this bit of speaking is how modern it sounds. Though she is reading it, she imbues it with much of the conversational sincerity that today we expect. Her speaking skill was ahead of its time.

I have a sneaking suspicion that she might have written this herself. Her managerial style was hands-on, so she would always have been closely involved with the preparation of her speeches; and when this came to be prepared she had time on her hands.

I’d like to think that she authored the description of New Labour at 4:37 – “rootless, empty, and artificial”. What a withering dismissal, and all in a little triad! (The trouble is that it neatly describes most of the posturing pygmies that people all parliamentary parties these days.) And what about this alliterative triad a minute later – “the bitter, brawling bully”?

There are several stumbles and losses-of-place, but this is a tendency when people read speeches – particularly if they are conscientious enough to raise their eyes regularly to their audience. That is why I liberate all my trainees from the tyranny of paper. If your memory contains a structure that is strong, simple  and clear enough you don’t lose your place and you can shoot your speech from the hip maintaining eye-contact with the audience all the time.

She is enough of a pro to massage the egos of her audience, not just for being Conservatives but for living in Plymouth. At 10:29 she begins her peroration with an extended anaphora on the word ‘Plymouth’.

She was very good at this; and it is a lesson for us, when we embrace new fashions for things like Public Speaking, to grab the best of the new but without rolling up behind us the carpet of the old.

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!

Simon Heffer – boom but not bust.

On 1 February, 2012, The Bruges Group was addressed by British journalist, Simon Heffer. The Bruges Group is a British Think Tank, known to be anti-EU. Some find it puzzling that such an organisation should call itself after a city in Belgium, but it takes its name from a speech delivered in Bruges by Margaret Thatcher on 20 September, 1988; and anyway euro-sceptics are typically very fond of Europe and its peoples, while disapproving of the unaccountable clique that runs the EU.

Simon Heffer has studied speech-making: indeed he is the compiler/author of Great British Speeches, an anthology published by Quercus. I have a copy and can vouch for the intelligent, erudite, and insightful backgrounds and summaries that he gives of the great speeches transcribed therein. I approach with trepidation conducting a critique of one of his own speeches. In the event I find myself instead exploring an interesting feature of the video recording.

His quip at the beginning harvested a satisfactory laugh, not least from me. Mindful of my global readership I know that many will not understand it. It would be pointless, trying to explain: let’s move on.

Actually I’d like to move back a few seconds, because this video gives me a chance to explore an interesting ploy that some speakers use.

The first sound we get is the very end of his introduction, and then the first words spoken by Heffer. The sound is quite different. Heffer booms in a way that his introducer doesn’t.

Rooms, like everything else have resonant wavelengths, and Heffer’s voice precisely catches that of this room which resonates in sympathy. Is he doing it on purpose? I doubt it: studying speech-making on an academic level is quite different from studying that sort of esoteric technique – and my doubt has another reason.

It is not helping him. With fairly extensive practice you can learn how to find, catch and hold the resonance of some rooms (churches tend to be easy), and use it to enhance your vocal resonance. But if you do so you absolutely must ‘turn up the treble’ on your enunciation. Your sibilant consonants must be super-crisp, and every syllable must be pronounced, or your intelligibility gets swamped by the booming echo. If Heffer was booming on purpose, he would be enunciating more clearly. There’s not much wrong with his enunciation for normal purposes, but with that booming he is quite hard to hear.

Mind you, the people in the room hear him much more clearly than we do. Our sound is almost certainly coming from the microphone built into the camera, which picks up omnidirectional ambient noise. I am sure we are not getting a feed from one of the three microphones in front of him or our sound would be much better. So does that mean that this is all purely a characteristic of the recording and that Heffer is not really booming at all, and that I have just been wasting your time? No it doesn’t. Go back and listen to the first couple of seconds again. His introducer provides us with a ‘control’. He doesn’t boom in anything like the same way. Heffer is booming all right!

Whether or not you find it difficult to hear everything he says, it is certainly worth the effort. The speech is well structured, well argued and well delivered. It is also mostly shot from the hip. Listen, mark, learn, and inwardly digest!

Edwina Currie barnstorms.

In February 2013, The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, This House Believes That We Are All Feminists. Edwina Currie spoke against the motion. When I first spotted the video my instant reaction was, “This’ll be fun!” Edwina Currie is seldom boring.

Often when I’m working with a client a question comes up, prefaced with the words, “Is it all right if…”. I habitually interrupt with, “…The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?” The point is that rules, real or imagined, are ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is what can be made to work.

The Oxford Union could be regarded by some as an intimidating environment, beset with tradition and conventions. But Currie cut her speaking teeth here – something she makes very clear – and later went on to perform on the more august stage of the House of Commons. Under the guise of tipping her hat to the conventions, she puts her personal stamp on proceedings the moment she starts speaking. This is her show, and she is going to bend it to her will. This is precisely the right mindset – if it can be made to work.

Syntactically her first sentence is appalling. It contains, “May I actually congratulate, if I may,….” and it continues to ramble around with more of that sort of thing. No one with an education would ever write like that, and this is a brilliant example of what I try to convey when castigating those who read their speeches. Written English is a different language to spoken English. Currie is shooting from the hip and what emerges makes perfect sense when imbued with her strong personality. Furthermore it is infinitely more engaging for the audience than stuffed-shirt literature. There is a very important communication point here.

  • If you want a speech consisting of  elegant literature read a book.
  • If you want a play in which nothing goes wrong, see a film.
  • If you want a concert consisting of flawless performance, listen to a record.

The whole purpose of live performance is the element of danger. Something could go wrong!

Currie spends her first two and a half minutes, beating the decorum into submission. We have the first of numerous Oxford University reminiscences, in which she chats jovially (and sometimes flirts) with her opponents; and in the process I have to say that she lives dangerously. Several times I wince as she appears to be going too far, but though walking a high wire above the Abyss of Embarrassment, she knows what she’s at. She’s always in control.

Eventually she addresses the matter in hand, and again she bends it to her will by adopting her own position. Those for the motion, she says, claim that the battle is won and feminism is universal. Those against it claim that there is still more to be achieved. She is not – and never has been – a feminist. She then proceeds to tell us why feminism is wrong-headed.

I shall not precis her arguments: that’s what the speech is for. She lays out her stall in binary fashion tackling the issue culturally and practically, and all the while the Oxford anecdotes keep coming. At 3:49 she harvests a seismic laugh, with a secondary shock a few seconds later. She is really very skilled.

The skill extends, when it matters, to uttering ringing phrases. There’s a pleasing epistrophe at 2:55 and, in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, there’s a strong anaphora at 14:20. Another anaphora makes up the spine of the peroration she launches at the 16-minute mark.

What especially singles out this speech for me is what I mentioned earlier. It is saturated with personality – her personality. The whole thing carries her brand. Anyone else would be foolish if they tried to parrot it, but they can learn from the principle. When you deliver a speech, you have the chance to make it your show.

And I was right: this was fun.

Lord Powell – practically perfect.

In November 2012 The Oxford Union debated the motion The 21st Century Belongs To China. Speaking for the motion was Lord Powell, one of Britain’s most senior card-carrying members of The Great and the Good. Among other jewels in a glittering CV is the small detail of his having been Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher and John Major during their times as British Prime Minister. With that added to a career as a diplomat and a goodly fistful of non-executive directorships you could be forgiven for assuming that he knew how to construct a speech – and you’d be right. You might also assume that he would deliver immaculately – and you’d be … very close.

What a distinguished figure he cuts in that still picture! That’s how he should have looked all the time, instead of pointless periods of peering at paper.

Very good opening! He recalls references others have made that evening to Guagua Bo, says a few words in tribute to that young man’s colourful career at Oxford and elsewhere, and harvests a very good laugh. Bo’s family in China is currently going through a difficult time and Powell, that laugh gained and in his pocket, immediately turns serious for a few words. It’s very impressive, very skilled: firstly to pick up so fluently on what others have said, secondly to get a full-blown laugh so early in any speech, thirdly so smoothly to steer the decorum to the serious bit. Was it spontaneous, or was it prepared? I’m going to stick my neck out here and put my money on spontaneous.

He could very easily have prepared the section, based on his previous occasion in this hall having been with Bo, and then opportunistically pasted on the front of it his reference to others having that evening spoken of him. So why am I suspecting away from that? It’s because of what comes next.

He gets to the matter in hand and points to how academic the debate is because no one in the hall will be around at the end of the century to verify its conclusions – “…even though you’re all extremely young, with the exception of David Tang and me”. That last is asking for a small laugh and doesn’t get one because it’s very slightly miss-timed. Within less than half a minute, therefore, one joke gets a huge laugh and another dies. A skilled and experienced speaker’s comedy timing is very often surer by instinct than by design, and I think the first was spontaneous  instinct and the second design. I could be wrong.

Powell operates a well-conceived tripartite structure, not unlike a Tripod, making his message coherent and digestible. He furnishes his audience with a clear Contents Page, telling them what he’s going to tell them before telling them. There is really not a great deal that he doesn’t know about preparing material, though I’d have liked the speech to have had a Face to give it memorability.

He also has command of small details that distinguish true masters of the craft. At 3:37, for instance, he mimes a steep growth graph and he casually does it in mirror image – in other words the graph is the wrong way round for him but the right way round for the audience.

I have just two niggles, one tiny and pedantic and the other more fundamental. Let’s first get the small one out of the way: at 0:55 he commits a grammatical error that jars this pedant’s sensibilities. The more fundamental niggle is in the second sentence below the video frame above. Powell is a consummate shooter-from-the-hip, yet every so often his face goes pointlessly down to his papers on the dispatch box. From the 2-minute mark for instance there’s half a minute where this happens often. In none of these periods can I find any trace of material that he might of necessity read; therefore I conclude that he has adopted this as a sort of pensive-pose that he assumes from time to time. I find it a pity because it is entirely unnecessary and it temporarily robs him of slices of his audience engagement.

He’s a stunning speaker in every aspect. He has gravitas with humour, and combines lovely use of language with a willingness to season it with occasional slang (who’d have expected him to use a term like ‘slam-dunk’?). His material is copy-book in preparation and he plays his audience like a musical instrument. I’d just like him to adopt another pensive-pose.