William Hague reads to the CBI

William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave an after-dinner speech to the CBI at Grosvenor House, London, in May 2012.

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a speech he had made at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I was underwhelmed by it, because he had been merely a talking head for a dreary FCO Press Release. Sadly, although I have given a link for you to see that critique, I shall be deleting it very soon. The video is no longer available on YouTube – perhaps the FCO were mortally stung by my comments.

Hague is one of the finest speakers around, and I should dearly love to post a critique of him in glorious full flight. Shall we see whether he did justice to himself at this dinner?

For nearly three minutes at the very beginning we are treated to his outstanding speaking ability. He settles and primes the audience, firstly thanking the previous speaker – not with hollow platitudes but with specific references to what he said – then moving seamlessly into reminiscent anecdotes about Boris Johnson. It is masterly. He does it with brilliantly judged humour that is suitably self-deprecating and superbly timed; but the real proof of the pudding is in the effect on the audience. He has them hooting with laughter which, this early in the proceedings, is notoriously difficult. You need to be as good as a stand-up comedian to do that, and he is. And of course all this is shot from the hip.

Again seamlessly, and starting from around 2:45, he gently moves us from that stunning opening to what he is here for. His eyes gradually go down to the script his Civil Servants have prepared and by 3:30 he is firmly on the political message. The transition is interesting, because little flashes of the real man continue to peep out before being suppressed below the persona of the Statesman.

Whether it is because of a residual legacy of that brilliant opening, or because he had more personal control over the content of this speech I don’t know; but even when the transition is complete and he is merely reading the script he is a little more animated than he was in that dreadful previous one on this blog. Nevertheless I feel my interest levels dropping steadily. He is reading to the CBI, and it might as well be a bed-time story.

William Hague being required to read a speech is like Frankel being harnessed to a milk-float. He’ll make the delivery process more exciting, but the product will be just as bland.

Jim Cook … retains more than data

In June 2013 in Las Vegas, the IBM Edge conference for 2013 was entitled Cloud Storage for a Virtualized World. One of the speakers was Jim Cook, CEO of Arkivum.

At this point I think it is appropriate for me to declare an interest. Jim is a trainee of mine. I asked him at the time to let me know how well it went. This is from his email –

Just finished. Numbers around the 500 mark I would guess. Went well thanks, particularly pleased with the opening, could have done better with the coherent story but was pretty good.

Shall we see what we think?

Probably the most widely recognised symptom of nervousness in a speaker is talking too fast, so I urge my trainees to set themselves a measured pace from the start; and for the very start I point out that the slowest thing they can do is… nothing. I can cite numerous excellent examples of speakers starting with a long pause: I seem to remember William Hague doing it when he was Conservative leader, with his ‘Commonsense Revolution’ speech in October 1999. Jim here pauses for six whole seconds! That is brave and, under the circumstances, would have felt like a week. He had evidently listened to that part of his course with me. He followed the pause with a bald opening.

He was also listening when I said that going in through the front door of the topic is intrinsically boring, and that opening by outflanking the subject in order to enter through a side-door, thus having the audience wondering where this is leading, is a good way to get their attention. Yes, Jim is right to be pleased with the opening.

Thanks to this speech I have learnt that a petabyte is a thousand terabytes; therefore 1,000,000,000 megabytes. The petabyte seems to be Jim’s basic unit of currency.

A couple of blog postings ago I deplored the practice of looking over your shoulder at the slide on the big screen because it surrenders and redirects some of your audience’s focus. You see Jim change a slide, and he’s looking at a slave screen near his feet. From the pause involved in this process I think he’s using the slide as a signpost, and ideally I’d like his structure to be so clear in his mind that signposts are unnecessary, but I’ll forgive him this small transgression. I am less forgiving of all that verbiage on his slides. While the audience are reading that, they are not paying full attention to his voice. Actually it appears that we don’t see all his slides: there seems to be one of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley that doesn’t make it to the video…

All my trainees shoot their speeches from the hip, so it comes as no surprise that Jim uses no paper; and listen to how expressive his voice is as a consequence! This could so easily be a dry and tedious subject, yet without a script or notes to drag him down he makes it lively and absorbing. And every word is heard.

His parting shot was to thank and congratulate IBM on an excellent conference.  I am persuaded to return to it to examine other speeches.  Meanwhile …

Mark Thornton – unexceptionable: unex…anything!

Some years ago I was in a meeting with the training manager of a company that here shall remain nameless. I had already trained their CEO and this discussion concerned the possibility of my working with other executives. He suddenly asked me whether I had any sort of government-recognized qualification in teaching public speaking. I replied that as far as I knew there was no such thing, which was probably a blessing as I could imagine the joy-sucking automatons that would graduate from such a system. He didn’t seem to see the funny side of that, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.

I think somewhere out there is a school of thought to the effect that it doesn’t have maturity or class unless it’s stuffed-shirt-boring (you may recall the hatchet job I did on an offering by William Hague). This was brought sharply into focus when I came across this speech in which the speaker fought bravely to conceal as much as possible of his personality.

Mark Thornton is delivering a lecture at the Ludvig von Mises Institute in June 2011. He is explaining the difference between Austrian and mainstream economics. He favours the Austrian variety; and I felt bound to confide this information to you because in his struggle to be balanced and even-handed he comes close to hiding that detail. What we have here is 21 minutes of message-lite, emotion-free information, in plain-wrapping. It’s the sort of thing that would have a government-certified inspector of speeches biting his standard-issue clipboard in ecstasy.

Except for five seconds! For that very brief period in an unguarded moment Thornton’s passion peeps out. I’ll tell you a little later where you may witness this minor outrage.

Right at the beginning, from 0:30 there is a section where he explains that Austrian economics is at the same time the oldest, the smallest and the fastest growing school of economic thought. At this point there is a slight teasing suggestion that Thornton is going to get into the driving seat and sell the concept, but no dice.

I really do not know what else to say about this leaden performance. I am no economist, but I find the Austrian doctrine exciting and seductive. Nevertheless if this had been my introduction to it I should not have given it a second glance. It makes me crave to confront Thornton, unpin his communication wings and watch him fly.

He could very easily fly. He knows his subject, and behind all that iron control there is someone who is passionate about it. Do you want to see my evidence? Watch from 19:45, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

And the day that some busy-body half-witted politician (a description that fits too many of them) decides to create a quango to oversee public speaking is the day that I shall retire in disgust.

William Hague FCO speech. Talking head.

From Auraclenewsletter, Sept 2011

Last week on Twitter, on the blogosphere and in the British national press I suddenly saw many glowing reports of a speech made by Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Rt Hon Mr William Hague. At the weekend when I had some spare time I rushed to YouTube to watch it. I am a great admirer of Hague as a speaker.

As a piece of public speaking it was at best indifferent. And coming from a speaker as good as Hague it was disastrous. My disappointment was so profound that I rushed to dig out anew the glowing reports to see what it was that they liked about it. It took me about a minute to spot the key fact that all these reports had been written before the speech had been delivered. All of them were working from a pre-released transcript. They hadn’t seen the speech: they had merely read what he was planning to say.

It is more than 28 minutes long, and I felt duty bound to subject myself to all of it – but you don’t need to. It quickly becomes clear that he is merely a talking head for an essay written mainly by functionaries, then polished, sanitized and sterilised by mandarins (with a few crumbs of his own thrown in).

Being Hague, he enunciates excellently and really looks the part. In fact in technical terms his only delivery flaw is that here and there he goes a little too fast; but I interpret that as his displaying the same sort of tedium that I was feeling. Essentially it is a beautiful shell around echoing hollowness. Yes there is plenty of substance to the content, including a shocking story about the FCO’s library, built over centuries, having been dispersed by the previous administration; but it is all couched in terms better suited to a written report. And it was the written version that had attracted so much praise in the press.

I also sought out the transcript and read it to see how the delivery could have been improved. I was reminded of an occasion that I helped the chairman of a large company prepare the delivery of his speech at his AGM. When I read the script that had been written for him it was obvious that batteries of highly paid professionals had sweated over every syllable and nuance to make it bullet- and litigation-proof. That being the case, not a letter could be changed. I had to spend several intense hours with him to wrest from the unforgiving text all the personality that it had been hell-bent on concealing.

It is no secret that the nearest I get to performing on a stage these days is doing poetry readings; and I urge Master-class trainees likewise to read poetry aloud in order to hone the skills we explore in the Master-class  When I watch a speech like Hague’s I am reminded that those who rise to stratospherically elevated positions become so vulnerable that their pronouncements have to be sterile to be safe – and that almost inevitably means scripted. Perhaps it is time for me to market a wholly-dedicated Reading Aloud course. William Hague is a brilliant speaker, but his reading isn’t so hot.

As to this speech, it miserably failed the memorability test that I describe in the third Cardinal in The Face & Tripod. It had no Face. The FCO had given it a formal title and they came up with “The best diplomatic service in the world: strengthening the Foreign Office as an institution” – wake up at the back! It also breached the second Cardinal, inasmuch as there is absolutely no indication or clue as to the identity or the nature of his audience. Perhaps it was the world in general.

I’ve a feeling that Official Wisdom dictates that statesmanlike equals bland. When you consider the unbridled feeding frenzy that greets anything that the media decides to term a ‘gaffe’ you can see how that definition gained credence.