Matt Ridley reads royally

On 17 October, at the Royal Society in London, Matt Ridley gave a talk that was widely publicised both before and after. Everyone knew that he would be discussing climate change, and adopting a position which would challenge much of its orthodoxy.

This should not be out of the ordinary at the Royal Society which was founded for the purpose of sceptically examining and debating matters scientific, and indeed has a motto – Nullius in Verba – which exhorts it not to take anyone’s word for anything. The trouble is that in recent years the Society had appeared to have become politicised into toeing the establishment line on climate change, and showing to any dissent a level of intolerance which shamed its distinguished history. Therefore the news that this talk would be happening was greeted with eyebrows either raised in surprised and delighted approval, or lowered into shocked disapproval, depending upon the political persuasion of their owner.

Ridley is preceded by Lord Lawson, chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who first offers well-deserved thanks to the Society for having withstood pressure from “fanatics” in holding this event. Then he introduces Ridley, describing him as “the leading scientific writer in the world today”. Ridley’s flattered astonishment at this description is fun to behold. Lawson also describes this talk as a ‘lecture’. This is a significant word because it literally means a reading, and a reading is indeed what we get.

I know, because he has been on this blog twice before – here and here, that Ridley absolutely does not need a script when he speaks. I tell my trainees that those who have learnt to speak without script or notes, but occasionally have to use them, treat those two impostors just the same, coping much better than those who clutch their paper like a drowning man does driftwood.

Ridley could easily deliver this talk with only occasional glances at his script, but he chooses slavishly to read it. Let’s look at the likely reasons.

Timing. It looks as if this is a 40-minute slot. Ridley actually speaks for a little over 36 minutes, allowing enough time for Lawson’s introduction and also a brief word of thanks and conclusion from Benny Peiser. This is courteous, professional and rare. There are some who could hit that sort of precision without the aid of a script, and Ridley may be one of them, but he has other reasons to read.

His slides. Working with a script enables him to change his slides bang on cue every time. It is safer and more precise.

The Press. You may think that I’m about to point out how, with this controversial subject, he has to watch his wording very carefully to minimise his exposure of being vilified by unfriendly reporters, and obviously there is something in that, but actually the issue is far more mundane. With a speech whose profile is as high as this, it’s a fairly safe bet that the press will have been given a transcript. Therefore he has to stick very close to that transcript. Like verbatim.

I suspect he would have preferred not to have read from a script. It robs him of spontaneity, and makes him prey to those rather lame stumblings that you can get when you read aloud. But he really has no choice.

I usually recommend just one technical adjustment to his modus operandi. Rather than turn over each page of the script, it is a little safer to slide each sheet to one side. This is the system habitually used by Chancellors of the Exchequer for their Budget speeches. It is more hazardous beforehand, because the sheets cannot be fastened together by anything more permanent than a paperclip (so you must number your pages), but provided the surface of the lectern is big enough it tends to be a smoother process. Nevertheless from what I have seen of Ridley, I suspect that he uses his system out of choice rather than ignorance of the alternative.

This lecture is historic, being a rare exception to the one-sided barrage of indoctrination that for years we have been fed by the media. It took place very much at the point of a sword, with alarmists fighting ferociously to try to prevent it. Benny Peiser, in his short concluding address, expresses the hope that it might pave the way for an actual grownup debate between adherents of the opposing climate change opinions. What a wonderful thought!

I shall not hold my breath. For years alarmists have fought to suppress debate, offering not arguments but name-calling. Nevertheless we can hope.

Douglas Carswell – with and without paper.

Douglas Carswell MP is the Member of Parliament for Clacton. With Daniel Hannan he is co-author of The Plan – an excellently provocative book. He has a blog with a huge readership: he posts almost daily, and his posts are gratifyingly succinct. He is also author of the recently published and thought-provoking The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, a book of two halves as the title suggests. The first half is deliberately rather dispiriting and the second half is gloriously inspirational. I heartily recommend it: if you haven’t read it, treat yourself for Christmas.

In the May ’11 Auracle newsletter I included the following pair of speeches by him, as illustration of the difference between his delivery when reading from a script and when shooting from the hip.

Here is Carswell at a debate in Westminster Hall. As an example of great speaking it leaves a certain amount to be desired. I attribute much of this to the rather stilted style of debate that the environment and protocol probably dictate. At the very least he is obviously operating against immovable time constraints. Anyway, for whatever reason, he is using a script.

Here is the same man without a script. He begins speaking at 1:45.

The first example in Westminster Hall benefits by being far higher definition video footage. It took place nearly three years after the other example, so he has three more years of experience and maturity under his belt (at his age it is relatively significant). As an MP in a Westminster debate he is in more familiar surroundings, and addressing people that he probably knows. In other words he has almost everything going for him. Except the script. He is not bad with a script, but unless you are very skilled – like, for instance, Boris Johnson – there’s always that slight feeling that the words are coming off the page, in through the eyes and out through the mouth without really being processed en route. With whatever intensity he originally wrote the words and still feels the message, he is coming across as a bit of … a Talking Head.

In the second example the sound isn’t very good; the lighting isn’t helping the video quality; it’s probably being shot on a domestic camcorder so it’s relatively blurry. Also he was only 37 at the time, and there is noticeably less self-assurance in his demeanour: his nervousness shows in the way he fiddles with that folded piece of paper in his hands (his notes). And yet because he isn’t reading the speech you cannot help but feel that this man really means everything he is saying. The transparent sincerity is even enhanced by the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’.

The lesson to be learnt is that taking steps to rid yourself of the necessity for paper is really worthwhile. Don’t worry about the occasional error or halting delivery.  If anything that will enhance your standing with your audience.

It’s the live theatre effect. I tell my casts in stage shows not to worry about small errors. It is these, and the ever-present danger of total cock-up, that make live theatre more exciting.  Anyone who wants to see performances that are always seamlessly flawless should go and see a film.

You can break free of paper: The Face & Tripod will show you how.


Osborne and Balls. Stuff and nonsense.

There are times when the limitation I imposed upon myself for this blog –

discuss how they state their case and possibly how they might have stated it better, but do not get involved with the case itself

– is sorely tried. In fact today I’m going to breach it for one paragraph.

Watching footage of yesterday’s exchange in parliament between George Osborne and Ed Balls I just wanted to wade in, slap both their silly little faces, tell them to stop behaving like imbecilic juveniles, and actually start applying some serious new thought to the parlous state of the country’s economy. If you sweep aside the spin (which actually doesn’t need much sweeping since it is already pathetically flimsy) you realise that there is essentially no difference in the economic strategies of the last administration and this. Both are wedded to weary, discredited, bastardised  Keynesian principles, both are determined to do nothing more creative than firehose artificial money at real problems, both are hell-bent on steering the paddle-less craft further and further up the creek. And all to the accompaniment of puerile, tribal name-calling. And the preposterous BBC compounds the problem by acting as cheerleaders. Did you hear the Today programme this morning?  I had to leave the room in disgust. That programme used to be quite good, but your memory has to go back a few years.

Right! Back to my brief.

Sorry, Eddie dear. I both sympathise with you over your stammer and congratulate you on the success you have so far had in battling it. Nevertheless a stammer can do all sorts of things, but does not make you say the opposite of what you intended to say. I know that little Georgie had a script and therefore an advantage over you, but if either of you were any good at speaking you neither would need scripts. What you’d need is command of the subject, conviction and cool heads.

But you appear to have none of those things.


Talking Heads and Popping

Goodbye November: hello December.

Regular readers – if such a new blog can actually yet be said to have regular readers – will probably already have noticed two distinct trends emerging in the speech critiques so far posted.  They are my impatience with those who read their speeches from scripts (what I call ‘talking heads’) and with those whose microphone technique is so poor that their percussive consonants cause popping sounds to punctuate their speeches.

If you had begun to wonder whether this indicated that I was possessed with a narrow range of just two obsessions, then kindly stand in line behind me.  I have long wondered that also.  But the more speakers and speeches I hear – and, as you might expect, I have already heard more of both than any sane person should expect in several lifetimes – the more I find that these are by far the two most widespread errors.  Furthermore, to add to my frustration, they are both easily remedied.

Talking Heads.

In these critiques I always try to find examples wherein you get the comparison of seeing the same person both reading his speech and then at some other time ‘shooting from the hip’ as I call it.  I hope that you thus get to see and marvel at the transformation.  It is not just a minor detail: it puts the speaker immediately into another class.

When people are asked about speakers or speeches that impressed them, a comment that nearly always comes out is along the lines of, “He spoke for twenty minutes without once referring to any notes.”  That suggests it to be a rare skill and therefore a premium bonus.  It is not – or should not be – a premium bonus.

I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following said to me, “You’ll never get me to be able to do without a script”.  (This comes out often at the preliminary meeting that I usually have with a prospect trainee.)

For more than twenty years I have uttered the same reply – and it remains true to this day, “If I don’t, you’ll be the first.”

The skill boils down to two simple principles –

  • You need to know how, and
  • You need to know you can.

It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you learn the first of those, you are never going to dare try it ‘in anger’ unless and until you know you can.  So if I conduct a course with you I not only explain how, but also I very thoroughly prove to you that you absolutely and easily can.  In my book The Face & Tripod I cover the first element, and make suggestions on how you can deal with the second.  I admit that the result may not be as secure as doing a course with me, but it is one hell of a lot cheaper!

I don’t care who you are: you – reading this – can make a speech without using paper.  I say that with total confidence.  You could make a twenty-minute speech without reference to any script or notes.

So what price now “a premium bonus”?   It’s not a bonus: its absence is a grotesque failing.  And as you have already seen in this blog the failing is appallingly widespread – even among those who are actually paid money to speak!.  I’d love to change the universal attitude to paperless speaking.  It should not be regarded as a rare skill belonging only to special people: it should be the norm.  Those who make speeches from scripts should be regarded as sad numpties beyond the pale.

I admit in my book that there are occasions and good reasons when there is no escape – you have to use a script.  But those who have learnt to do without manage scripts better.  Look back at Boris from a couple of days ago.  He was using a script, but I forgave him.  It wasn’t because he was Teacher’s Pet (remember I bollocked him for popping his microphone): it was because he spoke as if spontaneously.  And there was a reason for that.   It sounded spontaneous because it was spontaneous.  Look back at his video and you’ll see he manages with only occasional glances at the script to keep him on his speech-writer’s track.  He is shooting from the hip.

In the next week or so we’ll have an example of a sitting British MP, with videos of two speeches: one where he had to have a script and one where he didn’t   The difference is dramatic.  We also have two examples from a recent British Prime Minister, one speech with a script and one without.  The difference is even greater.

Tomorrow I hope to look at microphone popping.



Brendan O’Neill – should shed the paper.

This is from the Auracle newsletter of July ’12

As I sometimes do I was browsing one evening in a desultory fashion through YouTube, wondering whether I might happen upon interesting material.  I did.  What caught my eye was the name Brendan O’Neill. He is the editor of Spiked, one of the online newspapers that I sometimes read; and though I don’t always agree with what he and his paper say I enjoy the maverick muscularity with which it is argued.

I was eager to discover whether he carried that characteristic through into his speaking. I like mavericks. I came across two speeches that he made in the past year.  Firstly let’s look at one he delivered at St Stephen’s Club in Westminster on 7 September.

He’s a talking head. He’s reading a script. His natural medium is writing so he has written this speech as a script, enjoyed turning some well-crafted sentences, and now he’s regurgitating it orally. Anyone who has done a course with me, read The Face & Tripod, or just read this blog knows how ferociously eager I am to tear paper props away from speakers. This speech contains some pleasing bits of writing and I would have enjoyed reading it, but I absolutely don’t want to hear it.  I want him shooting from the hip.  He wants it too, though he doesn’t know it.  Look how uncomfortable he is. He never stops fidgeting; and it’s that particular brand of fidgeting that indicates a want of inner calm. You may remember I pointed to Boris Johnson’s unwittingly displaying stress by rubbing the back of his head. O’Neill does it at 1.55, and again later several times.

Shortly after the 8-minute mark he begins lifting his eyes for longer periods from his script, and every time the quality of his speaking lifts also. As he passes 10 minutes there’s very little dependence on the script, and the delivery becomes immeasurably better. Look how well he narrates the Notting Hill Carnival incident. He is following Cardinal 1: he has ‘something to say’ and he is shooting it from the hip. He could not be illustrating more clearly the case that I repeatedly make to trainees, and also made in The Face & Tripod, for throwing away your paper.

Now let us examine a speech he made in a debate at last year’s Wilderness Festival. The motion is “New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving”, and O’Neill is speaking for it. My comments are largely the same as for the previous, except this time with added microphone popping. This last point is not entirely his fault. As he begins, someone is still crouching in front of him adjusting the microphone. He speaks too loudly for a microphone and, though we might sympathise with his having to cope with speaking in a tent, he spoke too loudly also in the previous speech.  He needs to work on microphone technique.

He concludes his carefully scripted-and-read presentation, and then from 7:35 onwards he is cross-examined. Essentially therefore we are into Q&A. Now he has no choice but to shoot from the hip; and of course he becomes a different speaker, a much better one. Now he is absolutely proving that scriptless he is not only coherent and articulate but also that he still spontaneously trots out the well-turned phrases.

Using a script is for him worse than useless, because not only is it unnecessary not only does it rob him of his spontaneity, but it acts as a screen between him and his audience.  He does not need to read his speeches. He does not need paper.  He needs to learn how to do without it.  He needs The Face & Tripod.

Richard Dawkins urges a more romantic view of science

From Auracle Newsletter for February, 2012

I previously dwelt on a speech that Michael O’Leary had delivered in December ’11 at an EU convention on innovation. That same convention was also addressed by Prof. Richard Dawkins; and it is worth having a look at the lessons to be drawn from his speech.

It claims to be 20 minutes long, but the last 3 minutes are actually the following speaker’s introduction.

My book, The Face & Tripod is about the nuts and bolts of public speaking. This speech by Richard Dawkins illustrates very clearly how someone with otherwise all the right equipment to be a topflight speaker can fall short for the lack of some of those nuts and bolts. Here we have a scientist who has obviously delivered hundreds of lectures, and is quite comfortable on his feet in front of audiences. He has also developed a very successful secondary career as a communicator, having published several top-selling books. He has an excellent way with words, and knows how and where to find good ingredients for presentations. And yet…

Well let’s hold on the “and yet” for a moment, and first look at the good ingredients.

There’s a nice little gag starting at 1:28 about violinists’ arms. The gag deserves better than to die on its arse (please forgive a thespian expression which, though coarse, does describe the sensation very vividly).

At 2:18 I felt my interest begin to quicken in response to this progressing anaphora triad –

  • It’s worth it –
  • It’s worth the effort –
  • It’s worth the effort on behalf of the communicator – – –
  • and it’s worth noting that in the short time that he was uttering that his face stayed aloof from the lectern and he looked at his audience.

He shows us very clearly that he has a store of modules available for deployment.

  • There’s a good quotation from Einstein at 2:30.
  • There’s a fascinating geological timeline analogy starting at 12:20, and it follows a riveting piece about bats (the flying mammals – not cricket).
  • After what he tells us, beginning 14:30, I shall never again read anything about the Hadron Collider in quite the same way.
  • Etc.

Now let’s address the “and yet”…

One major problem is that the first 7 minutes are badly hampered by his reluctance to get his face properly out of his wretched script (what I call being a ‘talking head’).  I teach people to outgrow their need for paper assistance of any kind, so they no longer write scripts read scripts or learn scripts (that’s an epistrophe, by the way). Some people think they need scripts to keep themselves on track, others use them as comfort blankets. My impression is that Dawkins is in neither case. I think he is seeking to ensure that he gets the wording right to draw maximum benefit from a few carefully crafted sentences. That’s a mistake.

Speaking is not the same as writing. A reader goes at his own pace. Whether the reader is admiring the quality of the prose or merely being swept along by the narrative is up to him. Therefore the worst a writer does by taking inordinate pains to fashion beautiful sentences is waste his own time; the best he does is delight any reader who appreciates the result. The worst a speaker can do by being “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity” is ruin his show. A speaker’s audience has no choice but to go at the speaker’s pace, so the speaker has to make sure never to break the flow. A speaker’s audience member can never look back up the page to remind himself of anything, so the speaker has to make sure he never needs to. Though the two media of speaking and writing do have many techniques in common, they have at least as many differences.

What I’m saying is that following a script in order faithfully to relay brilliantly authored sentences is as foolish as any other reason, because doing it for any reason widens the gap between speaker and audience to a critical degree.  Back to Dawkins.

And then, at the 7-minute mark, everything is transformed when Dawkins begins to recount his experiences as editor of a scientific journal. His head rises, he looks at the room, he speaks with his audience rather than at it and he does it in spontaneous terms.  And this time he doesn’t retreat back to the script. The speech takes off, because now he is no longer a talking head. Now he is driving the narrative; and that is when some of those good modules begin arriving.

But even this improved section could be further improved with added coherence if he had a better understanding of good speaking structures. Individual bits are very good, but the overall shape is so amoebic as to render it frustratingly opaque. (And, curiously, he devotes some of those ten minutes to advocating better writing structures.)

Had he given the whole package a more graspable shape, he needn’t have had a script. He would have placed the violinist-arm gag in a better place and got a laugh with it.  He would have improved his relationship with his audience by narrowing the metaphorical gap between it and him, and by giving his speech a clarity that it otherwise lacked.  And he and the audience would have enjoyed themselves more.

Nuts and bolts! I found myself wanting to thrust a copy of F&T into his hands in the conviction that its analysis of nuts & bolts would remove all that stands between him and speaking excellence.

And he needs to learn about a FACE. Look at what he himself declares to be his main message –

We can learn to appreciate science just as we appreciate a great work of art or music.”

That’s not too bad in writing, but for a speaker it is a spiny thicket of dead wood. It needs to be lightened, tightened and brightened. Ask yourself how much more clearly that would get across to a live audience as –

“Science has beauty, just as art or music.”