Is this the moment to deploy the Marmite cliché? You love him or you hate him. If you are a Brit your life was certainly effected by him. I don’t know how much influence he had over Tony Blair’s actual policy-making, but he can justifiably claim that Blair’s sustained career as Prime Minister was largely thanks to his efforts. Blair enjoyed a reputation as a communicator, and Alastair Campbell was his Communications Director. He periodically gets wheeled out by the media to give his views on speeches, but being used to analyse and criticise others’ work doesn’t necessarily make it follow that you yourself are a good speaker. So when a reader suggested that I should have a look at how well he communicated it certainly seemed like an interesting idea. I went and found this …
He was speaking in July of last year at the Summer Lunch of the UK’s Direct Mail Association.
He opens with quite a sustained period of blokey Mick-taking with members of the audience. He appears to have been noting comments received before and during the lunch, scribbling all over a sheaf of paper in his hand. Look carefully at that sheaf. Note the neat fold down its middle: it is not there by accident, and I shall return to that.
On the subject of the Mick-taking, his blokeyness plays towards the obvious fact that a certain amount of booze has been consumed by everyone there. Or not quite everyone! As a reformed drunk (his expression) he will not have touched a drop. I urge you always to abstain if you are speaking at any sort of gathering like this. With your clear head you can handle an inebriated audience easily! His claim at 1:15 that he doesn’t care if he’s f*ckin’ rubbish is an example of this: he’s smashing his hump and the audience’s in a manner that he has correctly judged will resonate with them.
In fact the whole opening is inspired! I have already referred to the scribbled notes of the badinage he has earlier shared with audience members: now he regurgitates this stuff for more than four minutes. A two-minute opening is usually enough for hump-busting, but he has assembled a stack of material and isn’t afraid to use it. It has another function: this opening also represents detailed, real-time, cold (he’s sober, remember), calculated, audience analysis – Cardinal 2. Yes, he will have done some homework beforehand; but those scribbled notes are pure gold for the purpose of telling him how and where to pitch this speech.
There’s something else in that opening that contains a lesson. He tells them that someone had told him that he’d been hoping a comedian would be speaking. I’ve had that said to me too! Also the late Frank Muir, when I interviewed him for the radio once, related how he’d done a speaking tour in the USA. His american agent had urged him to add liberal doses of american-style razzmatazz to his delivery. He refused, but the tour was nevertheless a huge success. Never succumb to pressure – real or perceived – to be anything but yourself. Alastair Campbell got loads of laughs, but if he’d tried to be a comic he’d have died.
Here’s a little challenge: find the moment that the opening ends and the speech starts. He teases you a couple of times, suggesting that this is where the serious stuff begins, and then putting in another bunch of jokey, blokey asides. It’s a good technique, because the audience is kept in a state of relaxed receptiveness till suddenly, seamlessly, the speech-proper has already begun. And it is good, focussed, often serious, stuff on essentially the important distinction between strategy and tactics. It is worth watching.
He shoots it from the hip. The paper goes down at the end of his opening. He knows exactly where he’s going and he speaks his way there in spontaneous terms. You can do that: anyone can do that: I teach people all the time to do that.
But now I want to return to that halfway fold in his sheaf of paper. He hadn’t folded it to fit in his pocket, or he’d have folded it in three. There’s another reason. Just before the 23-minute mark he begins a good hard poke at the Daily Mail, whose offices are across the street from where he’s speaking. That poke culminates in his demonstrating what you should do with a copy of the Daily Mail. He tears his sheaf of papers neatly in half. You just try tearing a sheaf of papers neatly in half without having a hard fold down the middle.
Alastair Campbell did not make a successful career in communication by leaving things to chance. That speech conveys the appearance of a rambling meander down myriad corridors of anecdote and argument, but it is all very carefully constructed – even down to his providing himself with a stage prop: sheaf of paper with halfway hard-fold, tearing for the purpose of.
I contend that appearing to use it for referring to those scribbled notes was merely a blind to justify its existence in his hand. He could have delivered that opening without that paper. My evidence? At 1:50 he makes a big play of scrutinizing it to find the name of someone called Colin who has a girlfriend called Melissa – you can see the business for yourself. Both Colin and Melissa are referred to again later, repeatedly, unhesitatingly, without reference to that paper. He doesn’t need that paper at all except to tear it in half, but he justifies its presence with that clever opening. That shows me just how strategically he had thought through this speech.
N.B. Strategy was his theme.
P.S. the first seconds of the video show a spelling of his name which is incorrect, if his own website is to be believed.