Julia Gillard rants

As I write, Australia is enjoying – if that’s the word – its first day with a new prime minister. Kevin Rudd should perhaps be more accurately described as a discredited old prime minister that they dragged out to try to salvage the wreckage from policies that he initiated and Julia Gillard exacerbated. That at least is my understanding from a long way away, and it could very easily be wrong. This morning in Britain, on the BBC Today programme, Alastair Campbell, newly returned from a book-promotion visit to Australia, summarised the happenings with all the balance you would expect from Tony Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief. In the process he mentioned Gillard’s famous ‘misogynist’ speech, which he described as brilliant. Shall we see?

The background, as I understand it, to this speech is that the Speaker, Peter Slipper, has committed a gaffe in the form of an extremely off-colour sexist text message. Mechanisms for disciplining and possibly removing him are in motion, but Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, has demanded his instant removal. Slipper and Abbott are old friends and former parliamentary allies, but Slipper has changed political allegiance and is now part of Gillard’s minuscule majority. Abbott’s haste therefore appears to be opportunistic.

Not for the first time I find myself watching a political speech with incredulity. My niche is business speaking, where every second costs money. Every political second costs money also, but it’s other people’s so it doesn’t matter. Here we have fifteen minutes of ranting, a self-indulgent grievance-fest, that could easily have been wrapped up in two – and been far more effective for it.

Should I be impressed that she shot it all from the hip, referring to paper only for the quotations? No: any politician should be able to do that. Should I luxuriate in the anaphora that begins at 7:00 and then morphs into an extended polysyndeton? No: it merely adds to the turgid verbosity. There’s another anaphora at 11:00 and yet another at 12:20 – ho-hum!

This is school playground stuff, couched in parliamentary language; and politicians wonder why the electorate is more and more holding them in contempt. Alastair Campbell is easily pleased.

Alastair Campbell uses blokey charm on drinking audience.

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.

Blair – bad, not so bad, and splashing.

Today I am once again on the subject of talking heads . It’s a term I use rather disparagingly to refer to the speaker being merely a voice-conduit for a piece of literature. When a speaker just reads a script it will usually be a huge turn-off for the audience, and the ‘better’ the writing the bigger the turn-off.

You may wrestle with that, so let me explain. I put the word ‘better’ in quotes, because good literature has a tendency towards formality. Speaking, because of today’s fashion for a more casual style of conversational sincerity, tends the opposite way so better writing makes for worse speaking. On those occasions when a script becomes necessary we have to write it with speaking in mind. Remove its tie: loosen its collar!  There are guidelines for this which I don’t usually cover in a course unless specifically requested, but I did in the book.

I bet your experiences as an audience member confirm this; and if you have ever read transcripts of great speeches you have probably met with the converse – great speeches don’t make good reading. You needed to be there. Lord Roseberry said in his Life of Pitt,

“Few speeches which have produced an electrical effect on an audience can bear the colourless photography of a printed record.”

Let’s look at a debate held in Canada between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether Religion is a Force for Good. To watch the whole thing you would need an hour and three quarters, but I should like to refer you merely to small sections.

Blair’s first offering goes from 14:00 – 21:02. It is scripted and, though Blair handles a script better than most, he is being a Talking Head – even down to the occasional piece of smart-alec writing that just doesn’t work in this medium!  Later he and Hitchens each have two four-minute rebuttal slots, and those of Blair can be found here –

  • 26:40 – 31:13
  • 36:05 – 40:13.

Now he is shooting from the hip, and the improvement in delivery is huge.

I shan’t comment on what either of them is saying, because that’s not my brief today. Blair in his rebuttals may be reverting to the old touchy-feely, schmaltzy stuff that we remember so vividly from him; but even in the guise that so many find emetic he relates much better with his audience when unhampered by paper.

That’s why I don’t like Talking Heads: that’s why I metaphorically tear paper from out of the hands of trainees: that’s why I show trainees how to structure and prepare their material so that they can securely ‘shoot it from the hip’: that’s why I go to lengths to show them that they are – often to their amazement – perfectly able to do it: that’s why I wrote the book . This paragraph was anaphora, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I am also today returning to the subject of microphone problems. Usually I am castigating the speaker for bad microphone technique, but Blair in that recording was blameless. When a speaker is working so hard on what emerges from his mouth, it enrages me when the technology fails to deliver it properly. Blair in that debate had a lapel microphone attached to his shirt. With those things you are entirely in the hands of the sound engineer. The sound system disgracefully distorted and ‘splashed’ all his sibilant consonants. That sound engineer needs to take up an occupation better suited to his talents. Like sweeping streets.

[added in 2017: the video embedded in this posting was since taken off line and replaced with one that appears to have had its sound quality cleaned up.]

Rudyard Griffiths, the chairman of that debate was wearing an earset mic – one of those things that they try to blend in with your skin-colour. If you stick a ball of foam over the end – and they usually do – the colouring doesn’t hide it and it looks as if you have a boil on your cheek. The advantage of earsets is that if you turn your head you don’t go off-mic. They don’t need that foam-ball. It is theoretically there as a wind-break to lessen popping, but if you fit the thing right you won’t get popping and if you fit it wrong that foam won’t save you. He’s slightly sibilant, but he’s not splashing like Blair.

Two paragraphs ago it may not have escaped your notice that I suggested rather forcibly that the sound engineer was incompetent. There may be another less charitable explanation for Blair’s terrible sound quality. I have sometimes idly speculated that most audience members might not even notice these aberrations, because their brains filter them out.   Just for a moment suppose that this little theory is right, and that most listeners just vaguely register is that one speaker makes for more pleasant listening.

Listen closely to Hitchens.  Do you hear the same scale of sound problems from him? This was a debate on a matter which polarizes people.  If the organisation staging the debate favoured one side of the argument, what a sneaky way that could be of subliminally handicapping the opposition. Am I being too fanciful?  Perhaps, but it’s a thought.

As a matter of interest, who was it that staged this debate in Canada?  There may be a clue in the introduction spoken by Rudyard Griffiths.