Earlier this year a European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin was addressed by MEP, Daniel Hannan.
He has graced this space many times, and with good reason. He is very good, in fact one of the best. Not wanting him to monopolize the blog I watch probably ten times as many of his speeches as I cover here, and I’ve decided today to air a concern for him that I’ve been suppressing for a time. The concern was triggered by something he tweeted some months ago.
Outstandingly good though he is, I fear that the way he is heading will not make him any better, but could easily make him less effective on the speaking platform. He has his sights on the wrong target.
I have mentioned before – here, for instance – that Hannan has a tendency to swallow syllables or sometimes words or even occasionally whole phrases. It’s not idleness: he is doing it on purpose for dramatic effect. He varies the tonal colour of his speaking, making it sometimes loud sometimes soft – though those too adjectives don’t nearly cover the myriad nuances that he finds. Though I feel he tries too hard I can’t quarrel with any of that as such, except for the technical detail that he isn’t accomplished enough vocally to be heard when he is at his softest, so bits go missing.
But that is merely a symptom of what concerns me.
At 4:26 there is a high shot from the gallery,which pans from Hannan to the audience. Out of interest I paused the video at random and found that out of 34 visible audience members 9 were engaged in something other than paying attention to Hannan. I can go into ecstasies at how well Hannan speaks, but if more than 25% of my sample of his audience – his market – fails to be rapt we have another symptom that gives cause for concern.
Fifty years ago I devoured all the James Bond novels, and there was one recurrent detail in them that I have never forgotten. When describing the beauty of Bond girls, Ian Fleming always highlighted flaws. The nose was a little too straight, the eyes a little too far apart, etc. He had observed that desirability comes from imperfections. So what has this to do with Dan Hannan?
There is no doubt that Hannan has worked very hard on his public speaking, and continues to do so, but his mistake is that he is a perfectionist. The trouble with perfection is that it is flawless, sterile, boring. I prefer excellence. Most dictionaries declare the two words to be virtually synonymous, but I arbitrarily choose to make the distinction that excellence embraces the idiosyncrasies that make you unique and display your character – in short your flaws.
When striving for perfection you tend to be a slave to the nuance of every syllable, listen intently to yourself for the right modulation, etc. That is misdirected focus. You should be concentrating only on your message and whether the audience is getting it; and you should be enjoying the liberty of not giving a damn about yourself. When striving for perfection you don a speech-mode mask and give a performance, whereas the most engaging, persuasive and interesting you can be is your own, real, flawed self. That is true of everyone, but not everyone is already good enough to let go and unwind as much as Hannan could.
He doesn’t realize that some of his syllables and words are inaudible, because he can hear them. He can hear them because he is listening to himself. That is also symptomatic of his being a slave to perfection.
So what was this tweet that I mentioned at the end of my second paragraph? He was paying tribute to a mentor who had stopped him uttering ‘um’ and ‘er’. That set my alarm bells ringing, because I have satisfied myself over many years that audiences don’t ever notice such things unless you are boring them. And the converse is that if you obsess over that sort of detail there is a very good chance that you will bore them.
This speech is immensely important, brilliantly conceived, excellently reasoned, but delivered by one who is “as smooth as a kitten’s wrist”. Yes, I have described him that way before, and now I believe he would do himself a favour if he permitted some unsmoothness to show. He can do it: he’s already looser on some of his video pieces to camera, but he can beneficially loosen further still.