Douglas Carswell could be brilliant

Published on YouTube on 17 February, 2016, was a speech by Douglas Carswell as part of Daniel Hannan’s “Time to Leave?” series of speech-fests.  We have seen several of these before – here, here, here, and here.

Now it is the turn of Douglas Carswell who is not only UKIP’s single member of parliament but also co-author with Daniel Hannan of The Plan. They published it a few years ago, and my copy is shabbily well thumbed, unlike my copy of his The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy which is in my kindle. Carswell is also a prolific blogger. Nevertheless we are here to explore not his writing but his speaking.

My pleasure at his excellent bald opening is quickly reduced by the realization that he has notes on the lectern and that he is using them, over-using them. Speech notes exert a tyranny: the more you use them, the more you perceive a need for them. That need inhibits your capacity fully to engage your audience, and also your ability to shed your opening nerves. I am expecting nerve symptoms to show for longer than they should.

At 0:31 he utters the tautological “Who still believes that any more?” It is a minuscule syntactical error, but he wouldn’t have made it usually. He staples the otiose “any more” on the end to buy time to look at his notes, because he is still too nervous to pause.

At 1:50 his nerves have reduced enough to allow a pause, and he sinks into one that is too long and completely unnecessary while he searches on the paper for the words “estate agents and bankers”. That pause would have been no longer if he’d fished those words out of his memory, and would have felt shorter to us if he had been looking at us.

Every time his eyes go down to the lectern my heart sinks a little, because we in the audience are being just a tiny touch alienated by his being more concerned with that paper than he is with us. And he does not need to do it. I am a quarter of a century older than he is, and have reached that age when I regularly have to ask my wife to remind me of things like names, yet I would not need those notes. None of my trainees would be allowed them. He doesn’t need them either – he just thinks he does.

At 6:48 he seems to make an error of terminology, an error which he keeps repeating. He speaks of the EU and the Single Market as being synonymous. As I understand it, they are not synonymous, though they overlap. The Single Market is part of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement which includes the EU, but the latter takes matters further into a Customs Union. It is the Customs Union, with its busybody bureaucracy, control-freakery, authoritarianism and anti-democracy, from which Brexit would cause Britain to withdraw. Being already a signatory to the EEA Britain would still have membership of it and therefore, with some realignment during the two-year period specified under Article 50, remain in the Single Market for as long as it chose to do so. That is my understanding. If I am mistaken no doubt someone will correct me.

I have a different sort of problem with Carswell’s terminology later, and this is one of those things that I drum into my trainees – simplicity of words. At 11:28 he says, “This country is Germany’s biggest single export market”. OK, yes it is, but this is bureaucrat language, just as a couple of sentences later words like “principal beneficiaries of trade”. It’s not that we don’t understand those words – as bureaucratese goes, it’s quite mild –  but I invite you to imagine how much more powerful would be his argument if he called Britain “Germany’s biggest customer”. Everyone, as well as bureaucrats, is familiar with the concept of “a customer”, and will readily relate to the argument that it’s unlikely you would kick your biggest one in the teeth.

As often happens on this blog when I am dealing with a good speaker, I have been rather picky here.  Carswell is good: of course he is, he has the votes to prove it. I just think he could easily be brilliant.

Michael Sheen performs

On 1 March – St David’s Day – a crowd of people, estimated by the South Wales Argus as being 300 strong, marched to Bedwellty Park in Tredegar, South Wales. Tredegar was the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the British National Health Service (NHS), and this was a political rally on behalf of the NHS.

In Bedwellty Park the crowd was addressed by actor Michael Sheen, who was born in Newport about 20 miles away; and for several days afterwards his speech was heralded on social media as having been brilliant. On YouTube I have found two videos of it.  This one was filmed by a camera quite close to Sheen, but it is merely an excerpt. The one I have decided to use was taken from further away, but we have the complete performance.

Sheen begins by thanking the gathering for having turned out in the cold and rain, and then, “In 1945 Aneurin Bevan said…

WE HAVE BEEN THE DREAMERS …

He proceeds to bellow this quotation with all the power, projection and poetic rhythm that characterizes Welsh actors. Richard Burton would have been proud.

He is reading, but as this is a quotation I have no problem with that. My problem is that when he finishes the quotation he continues to read.

This is not a speech but a reading of stuff he wrote earlier, interspersed with stuff Aneurin Bevan said and wrote seventy years ago. He speaks for nearly eleven minutes, with his notebook between him and his audience. That notebook represents a screen that shields us from his sincerity. I do not accuse him of being not sincere: I am sure he means what he reads, but the pre-written words are going in through his eyes and out through his mouth instead of coming spontaneously from his heart. That is the difference between speaking at an audience or speaking with them.

It is a performance. It is a good performance because Sheen is a good actor, but it is a performance.

There’s some good stuff in it because Bevan belonged to a generation of politicians who were not cowed by the malevolent madness of political correctness into spouting the pitiful, mealy-mouthed pap we nearly always get today from their successors. In fact Bevan today could have been arrested for a literal ‘hate’ sentence in there (listen and you’ll hear the actual word used). You don’t have to agree with the sentiments to be refreshed by the openness with which they are expressed.

Yesterday evening on British TV were broadcast interviews of the leaders of the two largest British parliamentary parties. I had neither the stomach nor patience to watch, but listened to music while entertaining myself with a stream of Twitter comments about it. Never once was I tempted to switch on. Those parties describe themselves not as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘centre left’ or ‘centre right’. They are desperate to be seen to be occupying the centre ground. As Bevan said, and as Sheen read,  “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road – they get run down.”

At the moment in Britain there is only one political party that bravely tries to speak the truth as it sees it, and the Establishment hates it for that reason. Interestingly it is difficult to judge whether it is of the right or left as it takes its messages from both old Labour and old Conservative. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the coming General Election.

Back to Michael Sheen. There are extended passages where he is reading quotations from Bevan. This is appropriate as the spirit of Bevan is the star of the show, and it is also appropriate to read quotations. But when it is supposed to be Sheen himself speaking the book must come down and Sheen must speak with his audience – shooting from the hip. It is an easy skill to learn – I could teach him in less time than it took me to write this article.

Then this would be a speech – perhaps a brilliant one.

Vicky Ford paints herself phony

I always stress to my public speaking trainees the importance of first impressions.

Yes I know the concept is hardly apocalyptic; yet today we examine a speaker who should have known better, but destroyed her first impression with an elementary error.

In order to make my point I’d like you to consider the following short list of hypothetical first meetings –

  • Your beloved teenage child has brought the latest amour to your house to meet you.
  • An interviewee for a job has just sat down in the chair opposite.
  • Upon answering your front door bell you are confronted by a canvassing politician.

Suppose the other party opens the conversation with a compliment on your house/office/garden. That would seem a reasonable way to begin but suppose, before doing so, he or she pulls a sheaf of paper from a pocket, carefully unfolds it and then reads from it, “Golly, what a nice house/office/garden you have!” How much do you suppose that paper, and the reading from it, will take the shine off the compliment? The point I am clumsily trying to make, in case you haven’t spotted it, is that there are some things that just have to be seen to be uttered spontaneously, and an opening congratulatory compliment is one of the foremost.

Vicky Ford was the fourth speaker in a debate at the Cambridge Union in November 2014. The motion was This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics and we have already examined the previous speeches from Patrick O’FlynnRupert Myers and Peter Bone. Vicky Ford begins at 51:21.

She opens with thanks to Mr President, appending a short impenetrable joke concerning Movember. Then her eyes descend to her script in order that she might read out, “It’s great to see the Chamber so full.”

I find it difficult to conceive of an opening more demonstrably phony – not the words, but the obvious reading of them. She warbles on for ten more minutes, but as I can no longer find a reason to believe a word I can’t be bothered with it.

To be fair, the audience seems to lap it all up, so good luck to her, but what really bothers me is why? WHY do audiences put up with speakers who couldn’t be bothered to learn to speak spontaneously?

If you ask people about those they regard as brilliant speakers they nearly always bring up the ability to speak without referring to notes, as if this was somehow magical. The skill is so easily taught that it should correctly be regarded as an elementary sine qua non. Audiences should not be impressed by speakers who do, but be prepared to boo off the platform any speakers who don’t. The trouble is that they have been lulled into accepting mediocrity.

I am not idly boasting when I say the skill is easily taught. Six senior executives from a household-name British company were last week the latest in several hundred trainees who after a single day with me were effortlessly shooting their speeches from the hip. Though I told them that speaking without paper says all the right things about the speaker in terms of sincerity, command of the subject, etc, I should have added that it follows that speaking with paper paints you phony.

Peter Bone gets the point.

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion,

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

The debate was opened by Patrick O’Flynn for the proposition. He was followed by Rupert Myers for the opposition. We examined both those speeches in December, and today I want to look at a speech in proposition by Peter Bone. Between the end of Rupert Myers and the beginning of Peter Bone there are twelve minutes of floor speeches. They vary enormously, in quality of both content and delivery, and some time I look forward to examining all those.

Peter Bone begins at 37:46 and ends at 50:40.

No notes! He shoots his speech from the hip. It could be argued that he semi-wings it, but the winging happens only when answering his many interjections.

His most important contribution to the debate thus far is actually to address the motion. Neither of the previous speakers did. O’Flynn set off to do so, but tended then merely to give us an advertisement for UKIP. Myers barely pretended to address the motion, merely hurling tribal brickbats. The motion does not concern itself with whether UKIP’s policies are good or bad but whether the party’s emergence has been a healthy addition to overall political discourse. It would appear from an interjection that even when Bone has highlighted what the motion actually is Myers has not the wit to grasp the distinction.

The time slots in this debate appear to be twelve minutes. Bone receives so many interjections, only one of them remotely relevant, that sitting down, getting up again and answering the points consumes so many minutes that he receives time warnings when he has been actually speaking for a fraction of his allotted span. But that is the nature of the game, and he remains courteous and good humoured.

He made his point and drew attention to the actual motion, but I fear most of the audience were too focused on straw men to understand.

Rupert Myers needs to learn

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion –

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

The debate was opened by Patrick O’Flynn for the proposition. He was followed by Rupert Myers for the opposition. In this video Myers begins at 13:30 and finishes at 24:55.

Myers opens with a harmless little stunt involving sipping from a glass of beer – “This is to demonstrate that I understand UKIP”. A member of the audience points out that for it to represent UKIP it should be bitter not rather insipid-looking lager. Myers’ rejoinder is along the lines of, “if you want to be bitter, wait till after the debate”. Not brilliant but quick, and the audience enjoys it. He is personable, and good with his audience.

Thereafter he buries himself in his script and my heart sinks. He is a talking head. He is a barrister, a man who earns his living speaking in Court, yet gives every impression that he’d want the support of a script before giving you his date of birth.

Ye gods man, get a grip! Lift your face and simply speak! It really isn’t so sophisticated a process, and you will find that what emerges is a lot more engaging and compelling than this tedious regurgitation of something you thought of earlier.

There are a few reasons and occasions that compel a speaker to use a script. One such is a need to fit a very precise time slot. These debate time slots are not very precise: you have ten minutes, but do not have to use it all, and can get away with over-running a little. This is a big and forgiving target which he contrives to miss. Myers gets repeatedly warned about over-running and still adds 15% to his allotted time. Furthermore his warnings make him gabble ridiculously. So having a script fails him for that too.

And that is really all I have to say about the delivery of this offering.

As to the content, I’d rather not comment because in a debate it is the other side’s job to do that. I am not only critiquing these speeches one at a time I am deliberately only watching them individually. At this stage I have no idea what is coming next from the proposition, but there could be straw on the carpet.

Patrick O’Flynn depletes his effectiveness

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion –

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

Opening for the motion was Patrick O’Flynn MEP, economic spokesman and Director of Communications for UKIP. A Director of Communications should be a very good communicator. Shall we see how he managed? He begins at 2:45 and ends at 13:07

It is well-established that if you plan to use any humour at all during a speech you should get your first bit in as early as possible. O’Flynn throws away a tiny bit in the first ten seconds, and then at 3:05 he embarks on more humour which he chooses not to throw away. There are old gags, very old gags, pitifully senile gags, and there is this one. He gets away with it via a well-established device of being seen to quote someone else, and even commenting on what a poor joke it is. Incredibly, he actually harvests a chuckle.

O’Flynn proceeds to spend ten minutes reading something he (or someone) wrote some time previously, and thereby delivers a speech which could and should have been many times more effective.

It is examples like this that are making this blog sound like a cracked gramophone record. In nearly 200 postings probably more than 70% of them have involved my castigating speakers who use paper. For more than twenty years I have been tearing paper out of the hands of speaking trainees, teaching them how to do without and proving to them that they can deliver long, data-rich speeches easily, safely and thereby far more effectively than those sad souls that are dependent upon a script or notes. It is not rocket science: in a single morning I could have O’Flynn binning his paper for ever.

Without paper, shooting from the hip, he would shed that emasculated, listless delivery. He would really drive that message with inspiration, fervour and energy. And probably, even without my having specifically to focus on it, that dreadful right arm moving up and down aimlessly like Andy Pandy’s would actually start gesturing in a manner that would mean something.

There are six speakers in this debate. I haven’t watched any of the others yet, but I think I shall return. What are the chances of any of them having graduated beyond paper?

Gawain Towler shoots from the hip.

I recently had occasion to correct a small error that Gawain Towler, Chief Press Officer for UKIP, had made in a Tweet. I was pleasantly startled to receive a direct message in seconds, conceding the point. This sort of straightforward integrity doesn’t come down the political road too often these days, so when I had a moment I went searching for any speeches he might have made. Does this characteristic appear in his speaking? I found this …

We don’t see the very beginning, which is a pity. I always say that making a speech is like flying a plane insofar as the most difficult, hazardous, and revealing moments come during the takeoff and the landing. We are here denied the chance to witness his leaving the ground, though when we join him he is still climbing rapidly.

He’s nervous! That right hand on the back of his neck is a classic indicator. I’ve highlighted this before, perhaps most notably in the penultimate paragraph here. Also this whole opening is clunky as hell. It takes till around 1:30 before he begins to get into his stride. This could be simply because of hump, but that’s no excuse. If nerves have a habit of getting in the way of your first couple of minutes, then address the problem and bloody fix it! There are ways.

He has a hand-problem, and needs to find for himself a default position for his hands – one that feels and looks right. Crossing arms, as he does around the 2-minute mark, is a no-no.

I’m being a little harsh, but only in order to balance up the praise that is to follow.

He shoots the speech from the hip. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is an obsession of mine hasn’t read this blog much. People have told me they think it’s a risky circus trick. It is not a trick but dead-easy; and if you know how to do it properly it is at least as safe as reading from a script. The subliminal signals it sends to your audience are all positive – chiefly that of sincerity.

You may detest everything that Towler stands for, and disagree with every syllable he utters, but you surely cannot doubt that he is sincere. Here is a politician who, if you vote for him, you know what you will get. And that as a quality is scandalously rare these days among the dung-beetles that pass for politicians.

(No: ‘dung-beetles’ is wrong. Dung-beetles actually clean up the stuff they clamber over.)

The main body of this speech is a good bit of speaking. He establishes a decorum that works, and puts across a clear and unambiguous message. His style is that of ‘conversational sincerity’ which is what the market favours these days. If I were advising him I would like to help him sort out his hump, his opening, and find a default position for his hands. I would want to help him structure his material a little better to add clarity. I would meddle with essentially nothing else. But actually I reckon he’s perfectly equal to sorting these things out for himself

His takeoff was dodgy – what of his landing? His landing was an epistrophe on the word “better”. It was a little beauty!