Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!

Jon Smith sits and talks with …

The Oxford Union, on 14 October, hosted a talk followed by Q&A from Jon Smith, football super-agent.

What I know about football (soccer) could be written in several languages on the back of a postage stamp, but my interest was quickened because the mainstream media suggest that football agents are shadowy lowlife, barely legal beings – bottom-feeders; and given that the mainstream media are almost unfailingly wrong about everything I wanted to learn more. I was also curious as to how and why the Oxford Union had gone out of its way to seek a talk from him. This last was quickly answered by the revelation that he had recently published a book of memoirs. When I had a radio programme, I remember book promotion campaigns as one of the best seams to mine for good interviews.

He is seated.

My mind rockets back more than half a century to schooldays and a class speaking competition. The teacher had surrendered his desk at the front of the classroom,  and we were all invited to use it. All the others enthroned themselves in his seat of power. I, choosing to stand, won. Although the teacher did mention that by standing I showed more authority than the others, I have always liked to believe that there was more than that to my victory.

In The Face & Tripod, I have a chapter entitled The Communication Paradox. This paradox is essentially in how unexpectedly often it is that otherwise good communicators have difficulty with public speaking. I discuss reasons and remedies. In particular I home in on the preposition ‘with’, and commend the mindset of speaking with your audience as distinct from to. Jon Smith is definitely speaking with his audience, and I have a suspicion that by sitting he is helping that.

I feel slightly chastened. When I began teaching and coaching public speaking, nearly thirty years ago, I was a bit of a maverick inasmuch as I sensed (correctly it turned out) that the fashion for formal oratory was on the wain. I was one of the earliest advocates of the conversational-sincerity school of speaking, but I have always stopped short of recommending being seated. Jon Smith is making me rethink. He is showing me that there are circumstances when it obviously works.

He is instantly likeable, sincere, articulate, coherent, everything I would wish him to be. From the moment he starts I want to learn more. That is the equivalent of the author forcing you to turn pages. My notepad is discarded: I am too interested in what he has to say to give a damn about how he says it. And remember: I know nothing about football.

This talk is brilliant. The book is called The Deal: Inside the World of a Super-Agent. I can’t wait to read it.

And the Q&A is fascinating too. I suspect you would never guess his answer to the question, “Who is the most powerful man in football?”

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.

Ephraim Mirvis ranks with the best.

The Oxford Union very recently played host to a talk from Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi to the Commonwealth.

I was eager to watch this, not just wearing my rhetor hat. I find it refreshing periodically to bathe my mind in the waters of matters spiritual. Though I harbour a gnawing uneasiness towards organised religions of all colours, I think it is good for us to suspect that there is some entity greater than us. To listen to a spiritual teacher whose apostolic succession covers many millennia can therefore surely not be time wasted.

 He is shooting from the hip. What did I expect?

Actually I always expect experienced speakers to shoot from the hip: it is easy, safe, and makes for an immeasurably better relationship between speaker and audience. Too often I am disappointed. In this case I would have been astounded if Mirvis had been using any sort of memory assistance. He is a Chief Rabbi who has elected to explain the five fundamentals of the Torah. What sort of Rabbi would he be if that needed prompting? Nevertheless merely a random dip into past postings on this blog would show lamentably frequent examples of speakers letting down both themselves and their audiences with use of paper.

Mirvis is good. So good, that I happily put down my notepad and just listen.

Almost immediately I learn the distinction that he makes between the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. So startling is this discovery that for a few seconds I am guilty of tangential thinking. [I explain to my trainees that when an audience member’s mind goes off on a tangent it often means that the speaker has triggered it by saying something special; though while he is still speaking he needs to curtail that tangential diversion and bring the straying mind back to him – there are ways!]

Beginning at around 06:55 Mirvis has a message which culminates in a story that draws from me a genuine LOL. This is rare. Having been around for a few years, circled the block often, studied for my living all descriptions of entertainment and all types of audience, I very seldom laugh out loud. I get amused easily enough, but I tend to show it quietly. Mirvis made me laugh out loud. I might on reflection take issue with the message, but I tip my hat to the skilful delivery of the story.

Mirvis speaks till 36:25, and thereafter it is questions. I am very glad I watched all of it.

John Major: copper-bottomed nonsense

A few weeks ago The Oxford Union played host to the Right Honourable Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom from 1990 to 1997. He delivered a speech in favour of Britain remaining within the EU, after which there was a Q&A session which you can find here.

Here is a little experiment. I invite you to watch the speech to the end of the story about Boris Yeltsin – that is roughly the first 30 seconds of Sir John speaking. Now pause the video, reflect for a few seconds on what you have heard and then tell that Boris Yeltsin story to your computer screen, the nearest chair, the wall, anything. I venture that you will have no problem doing so.

Unlike Sir John, you didn’t have that conversation with Yeltsin; you probably haven’t been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; you haven’t delivered anything like as many speeches as he has; you probably haven’t told that story before; yet you can tell it now without the aid of a script.

Then why can’t he?

Well obviously he can, but he doesn’t. He looks at his script twice during that 30 seconds. It’s conditioned reflex: his eyes are drawn downwards by invisible elastic every few seconds throughout the speech. That lousy bunch of papers is his comfort blanket. It’s pitiful; and this is a man who from his experience should be a masterful speaker.

At 6:02 he surveys the room and asks the rhetorical question, “What sort of country are we?” And then he has to look at his script for the answer. He really needs to get a grip!

I have said often enough on this blog that I looked forward to the referendum because in the campaign I eagerly expected some really well reasoned pro-EU arguments. I was drawn to this speech for that very reason. Fat chance! It is a series of outrageous claims, all of which could be easily blown out of the water once you had decided where to start on each. I could give you scores of examples, but here’s one to brighten your day. You’ll find it at 25:25…

Commonwealth immigration is entirely unaffected by our membership of the EU.

…see what I mean – where do you start? This speech is a load of copper-bottomed nonsense, which curiously happens to be the very phrase he used about something when regurgitating from his script at one point.

It’s worth remembering that after signing the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, Sir John solemnly informed the British people that it set a high-water mark in terms of Euro-federalism. Let us pause while we reflect upon the subsequent onward federalist rush represented by the Treaty of Lisbon et al, with Gordon Brown’s lame wittering about ‘red lines’, and then shall we permit ourselves a hollow laugh? How on earth can Sir John keep a straight face when he tells us that David Cameron has secured immunity from ever closer union? The EU doesn’t obey even its own treaties, let alone casual assurances to nuisance Prime Ministers.

The funny thing is that he seems a personable sort of chap, really, and I’m sure he is sincere. The question we have to address therefore is how gullible Prime Ministers are allowed to be.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has confidence

In 2015 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion,

This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government

One of the speakers was Jacob Rees-Mogg who, as a member of the governing party in Her Majesty’s Parliament, predictably spoke in opposition.

Browse online on line in order to research Rees-Mogg’s quality of speaking and, before you even get to watch this example, you have a good idea what to expect. As he had previously been on this blog, I thought myself already well versed in Rees-Moggery, but still I went a-browsing. What I found was that he adjusts his tone and pace (though never, I’m delighted to report, his accent) according to each audience. This is a sound device but only if you do it very subtly, which he does, unlike a recent British Prime Minister who by unsubtly varying everything including his accent merely contrived to make himself sound phoney.

I was also wildly entertained in Rees-Mogg’s welcoming of interjections. He habitually gives way with an eagerness that suggests that Christmas has come early, and you understand why when very courteously he proceeds to carve up the interjection. Anyone who takes him on is playing on his home turf, as he is lightning-fast and very well briefed. You can find such examples here and here.

I was faintly surprised to find that Repartee was not actually his middle name.

He uses home turf insight with this speech, because he was the Oxford Union Librarian in his day. Consider that when he brings up the subject of gin in the second minute.  Also watch how he softens up this audience with gentle self-deprecation.

At 3:05 he delights in giving way to some rash person. Christmas comes early.

At 5:25 he begins a section which is music to my ears. It begins by his asserting that Conservatives believe that Society is built from individuals up, not from the state down. I am delighted to hear that he at least believes in the principle, and I concur that Conservatives in general agree, but I fear that the parliamentary party – particularly the leadership – has shown little indication of this since he made this speech.

The peroration is short but dramatic.

The Oxford Union, unlike the Cambridge Union, appears not to publish the result of the votes that conclude debates. Did the house have confidence? I don’t know, but Rees-Mogg’s confidence in himself in well-founded.

Douglas Murray knows his stuff

On 23 January 2014 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion This House Believes postwar Britain has seen too much immigration. 

We have previously examined a speech from Baron Singh in opposition to the motion, and today we look at a speech from Douglas Murray in proposition.

Douglas Murray is not new to this blog.  I have previously looked at his speaking herehere, and here.

When Murray speaks everything seems to be spontaneous. This could be either because he just wings all his speeches, or because he is extremely good at artifice, or because he has learnt how to prepare and structure a speech so that he always knows where he is and where he is going and trusts himself to say spontaneously what needs to be said at any point. I have no doubt that it is that last. It is what I teach my trainees (of which Murray is not one). It is not particularly difficult, but it does require you to know your subject. Murray knows his subject.

He opens with an apology for not being in a dinner jacket, and harvests an excellent laugh in the process.

When moving on to the matter at issue, he puts his hands over his face and rubs his forehead at a particularly critical moment. It beautifully underpins the words that he is speaking concerning the seriousness of the subject. Is that spontaneous or choreographed? I don’t know, but it is every bit as effective at conveying un-self-conscious sincerity as Kate Hoey’s adjustment of her clothing in my previous blog posting.

He bombards his audience with telling statistics, fierce arguments and heartfelt views. His papers on the dispatch box are there for reference not for prompting, and he mines the references skilfully – even throwing back at his opponents data from surveys they had quoted. Murray is very good at this.

But it is his peroration that really puts the icing on this cake.  From 08:33 he kicks down to go into his big finish.  I say ‘big’ but the term is relative: Murray likes to play with intensity rather than volume. If you watch any of it, watch that last section. The applause from the audience is instant, sincere and well-deserved.