John Redwood: a Speaker’s speaker

In 2011 the Speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, launched a series of lectures in aid of a parliamentary charity. On 20 February 2018, the lecture was delivered by John Redwood MP

You need only look at that still image below to see where Redwood’s eyes are pointing. He is reading his speech. You probably expect me to castigate him for this, and though I shall examine how much better he would have delivered it without a script I shall not castigate him because he is subject to one of the few sets of circumstances whereby a script is necessary. More of that anon.

John Bercow’s introduction is well delivered. I have some reservations concerning the sightly self-conscious content; but he fulfils one of my prime delivery requirements, namely that he speaks with his audience as distinct from at.

Of the many parliamentary positions John Redwood has held, he has yet to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why on earth do I bring this up?

I mentioned earlier that there are circumstances when a script becomes regrettably necessary for a speaker. In my book I cited those occasions when someone has been supplied with a transcript, because you kinda need to say what that transcript does. (The Speaker’s office publishes these lectures.) I then added a brief advice section on how best then to handle paper, including everything from layout on the page to how to avoid needing to lick your finger all the time.

Redwood turns over his pages which is needlessly clunky. It is smoother to have your pages printed on just one side, sitting in a pile of loose sheets which you simply slide one at a time across the lectern. This lectern is wide enough. That technique is customarily employed every year in the House of Commons during the delivering of the budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Redwood has never been Chancellor, and I rather feel that he and scripts are relative strangers. A good thing too.

Redwood speaks well without the aid of a script. I’ve seen him do it, not least when he appeared in this blog before. We see here the huge lift in the quality of communication at 11:40 when he departs from his script to recount an experience. For a minute and a half we see his unmasked personality shining out before he returns to being a talking head.

It’s a very good speech, and I know that the word ‘lecture’ strictly means a reading, but it is a pity when a man who communicates so well is forced by circumstances to operate under the tyranny of paper.

Michael Ball: an actor speaks

The Oxford Union not only hosts debates but invites celebrities of all descriptions to come and speak.  Earlier this year Michael Ball was their guest.

I have yet to meet an actor that didn’t regard him or herself as a consummate public speaker and, truth to tell, good actors can deliver anything you give them; but a speech involves more than skilled delivery. It has to be created first, and that is where actors usually fall down. Michael Ball is a good actor: let us see how he fared here.

He is reading.

You don’t even have to watch to know. Look away and listen. You can hear the words go in through his eyes and out through his mouth, being processed en route for the purpose of performance but not being thought about. The thinking process took place when the words were written: it is not happening now. If you doubt me, listen at 1:33 when he misreads and – before he corrects himself – exactly reverses the meaning of a sentence. If he had been thinking about what he was saying he could not have made that mistake. It’s a good script, some of it is funny, but even when he is being serious and apparently speaking from the heart, he is actually speaking only from the script.

The script is a screen between him and his audience. His performance skill is considerable, but it doesn’t completely penetrate that screen.

Watch this and understand why my trainees all speak without notes. They don’t have to be as good as this at performing: they just need to be themselves.

Ball is nervous, and his nerves continue much longer than they need – again because he is using a script. That script/screen being in the way means he is never completely speaking with his audience, never completely engaging with them. It’s a performance, albeit a skillful one; but even a professional communicator will relax more quickly and thoroughly once he engages with his audience.

And there’s something else.

In Beyond the Fringe there was a legendary piano sketch by Dudley Moore in which he played a parody of a Beethoven Sonata. Apart from the comedy brilliance of his applying Beethovenesque variations to the theme of Colonel Bogey, there is the added joke that he cannot find an ending. For a minute and a half he goes round and round trying to get out of this thing. Michael Ball’s speech reminded me of that. In increasing despair I lost count of the number of times he could and should have just STOPPED.

For about five minutes he goes in circles past obvious exit doors but doggedly continuing to speak. It’s a classic error, and is just another reminder that with public speaking being good at delivering material is simply not enough.