Alan Mendoza can speak, but doesn’t

The Cambridge Union Society, in June 2013, held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Two State Solution is the Only Solution. In case there be any doubt, let me make it clear now that the two intended states to which the motion refers are Israel and Palestine. One of the speakers for the proposition was Alan Mendoza.

If you follow the hyperlink which I attached to Mendoza’s name you will see that he is “a frequent speaker at high-profile national and international events and conferences”. Yet, he can’t speak (or at least he almost doesn’t). He writes well, and reads his writing back reasonably well, but that is not speaking. Granted he is at least as good as most people who deliver speeches at “high profile national and international events and conferences”, but that merely supports what I have frequently observed, namely that when it comes to public speaking the world sets its bar pathetically low.

Close your eyes, and just listen to a little more than the first minute of his delivery, and you will hear him obviously shooting from the hip some jokey comments concerning the debate thus far; and then unmistakably you will hear him begin reading his script.  You can hear the change, because spoken English is quite different from written English. The content certainly becomes more meaty at that point, but the audience-engagement deflates appallingly.

It might be tempting to conclude from this that hip-shooting is fine for ribald dross, but when you get to the serious stuff you need to read it, even at the expense of a little audience-engagement. It is a widespread, almost universally held, fallacy. I have friends and acquaintances who – bless them – have solemnly made this assertion to me; but my trainees never do, because they have had it proved to them that this is nonsense.

As it happens, Mendoza elsewhere in this speech makes my point for me. He proves to us that he can shoot strong, meaty, data-rich stuff from the hip with more fluency, more conviction and much better audience-engagement than when he reads a script. That is why I chose this speech for this posting.

At 4:02, someone in the hall asks to intervene and Mendoza allows him. Afterwards, from 4:56 to 5:34, Mendoza clinically and compellingly unpicks the argument in the intervention – shooting entirely from the hip. Those 38 seconds show us how good this speech could have been had he learnt how to structure his material in order to shoot all of it from the hip.

He could do it, without losing any of the essential elegance of the wording. There is a pleasing little tricolon at 7:30 which could just as easily have been there. Sadly though, at 5:34 he returns to his wretched script and his audience engagement falls off a cliff.

I called it a wretched script. It is actually well written and would make a good read. But as a piece of speaking it is lousy. It is comparable in lousiness to most of the offerings you get at “high profile national and international events and conferences” with successions of ‘speakers’ reading drearily to each other.

We need to raise the bar.

Atifete Jahjaga rises above.

In March 2012 Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kozovo, delivered a speech at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA.

The speech was streamed live on Dartmouth’s YouTube channel, which for us is significant for one particular reason. Usually when watching these videos we are eavesdropping. Here we are intended to be part of the audience.

There is a great deal wrong with the staging of this. Carol Folt, who introduces the guest, commits a series of errors.

  • Never applaud from the lectern. It may feel right, but it looks wrong and sounds worse when the microphone picks it up.
  • Never, while you are introducing, look round at the guest behind you. It looks awful and you go off mic.
  • Don’t put the guest there in the first place. She’s staring at your back, and anyway no one wants to be in view while being introduced.
  • Introducing in the second person – i.e. as if speaking to the guest - seems like a good idea till you try it. It is fraught with hazards which I would love to list here, but I have already devoted too much space to the introduction. However, before I leave the subject let me just say that I would have invited Madam President to wait in the wings till after the introduction, then enter to thunderous applause.

The above notwithstanding, Madam President was excellent throughout that introduction, standing still and dignified.  Furthermore, when before her speech she had to present an award to someone, you will notice that she knew better than to applaud from the lectern. She is a pro, as befits a Head of State.

The recipient of the award delivers a short address of thanks to her.  Because the presentation takes place in front of the lectern, he is off mic and we hear none of it.  The audience in the hall hears it: he gets a laugh from them at one point. Those responsible for staging this event should have been prepared for this eventuality. Remember, as I observed in my second paragraph, we viewers of this video were intended to be part of the audience.

Her speech begins in earnest at 9:37, and gives way to Q&A at 40:00

Though on this blog I regularly castigate speakers for reading their speeches from a script, and though everyone who has done a course with me is capable of speaking without script or notes, I do acknowledge in The Face & Tripod that there are some occasions when a script is inevitable and forgivable (and I think we can include foreign language speaking in that). I even give advice and hints for coping with the paper. Madam President appears to know all of them. I find myself mentally ticking each thing she does right. Someone has taught her well.

Given that Heads of State can never really push the envelope without generating a feeding frenzy from the press, this speech manages to avoid being too bland. There are periods of personal warmth and humour that shine through wonderfully. There is a charming section where she tells the student audience how much she enjoyed her time at university and how, when her presidential mandate is over, she plans – Cincinnatus-like – to return to teaching. She even shows her human side by mischievously offering to answer a few questions at the end despite having been told that this is normally not permitted.

We hear Madam President’s answers but not the questions. I think we can forgive the absence of a roaming mic for the audience, since Q&A was never intended to happen.

Otherwise the stage management that framed her performance was severely wanting in very many ways. Madam President rose above it by showing just the right balance of dignity and professionalism. Of its type this is really an excellent speech.

Peter Lovatt – cerebral terpsichore

I have a nephew, Dr Oliver Robinson, who lectures in Psychology and is the author of Development through Adulthood: An Integrative Sourcebook. He it was who alerted me to a wild TED talk by fellow psychologist, Peter Lovatt.

Lovatt is not your run-of-the-mill academic psychologist. His having been a dancer, and now doing research into the psychology of dance, his audience was in for a spot of exercise.

His hump shows through in his opening, which is a little clunky. He talks his way to his speaking position, which is good, but what he says is lame. “Amazing, amazing!” is red-coat talk, and too fluffy at this stage for this audience. Worse is that he devotes half a minute to telling us what he is not going to talk about – a classic error. I know why: this is an attempt to establish his ethos, but he needs to do that another way.

He asks the audience to shake their shoulders. Some do: too many don’t. It’s too early in the proceedings. He is madly trying to entrench a decorum, but it’s not working as well as it should. There’s going to be much more of this, with the audience on their feet being lead through a series of simple dance moves. They’re going to enjoy themselves, but right now they are in their own hump and resisting him. He needs to revamp this opening.

There’s a serious core to all this terpsichore. He has researched the effect of dance on the hippocampus, looking at possibly arresting or even reversing the way it shrinks with a person’s age. His focus is the effect that shrinkage has on Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. This is valuable stuff, and makes all the audience’s dancing important as well as fun, but it doesn’t get mentioned till 2:30.

If I were advising him I would get that serious significance to peep through sooner, as the corner stone of the ethos building. It needs only a tiny peep – holding back proper discussion of it till 2:30 is actually wise, as 2:30 is typical hump-length (his evaporates at 2:30). All the early loosening up stuff is a hump-busting routine,and I applaud him for that, but it needs adjusting.

His opening begins to work at 0:57. The decorum drops into place as soon as he introduces groovy music – his audience is more prepared to move with it. When he asks them at 1:40 to stand up, they all do – whereas they didn’t all shake their shoulders a few seconds earlier. This is not only because their own hump is receding, it’s because it is easier to sit still while others are shaking shoulders than it is to keep your seat while all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you. His having got them on their feet they merrily follow him through a simple preliminary routine that they enjoy so much that when at 2:25 he invites them to sit back down he gets wild applause.

Thereafter he’s away!  The talk is a roaring success – with one small exception. At 14:00, just before the dancing climax when all the routines are going to be strung together, he invites anyone who wants to join him on the stage. No one does. I would bet big money on there being several people itching to do so, but not daring to be the first. He handles that wrong. He should have started building that invitation twelve minutes earlier.

At 2:00, when the groovy music first starts, he picks out, and congratulates, ‘a groover’ up in a gallery - excellent! He should also have picked out one (or more!) near the front of the stalls – and ideally near an aisle. Thereafter he should repeatedly have referred to how good they were – “if in doubt, follow the lady in the pink shirt – she’s brilliant!”  Or better still, develop a relationship with the lady in the pink shirt – ask her name. Thereafter, “Come on guys: see if you can do it as well as Yasmine!”

Then at 14:00, instead of issuing an open, and relatively cold, invitation it should have been, “Yasmine, are you going to join me up here to demonstrate? Anyone else going to join us? Yes, come on up sir! etc.” Working an audience is not easy, but he is already good at it. He just needs a nudge or two to be brilliant.

Enjoy this speech: the audience did!

So did I.

Andrew C McCarthy and a lawless President

Andrew C. McCarthy was at the Heartland Institute last week (12 June to be precise). He delivered a talk to promote his new book Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

This, it seems to me, is eye-catching subject matter when such a distinguished attorney is broadcasting it. Amazon quotes The New York Times thus:

His background distinguishes him from pundits on the left and the right.

I wonder whether the speech excites equivalent interest.

In posting this video on You Tube, The Heartland Institute removed McCarthy’s introduction, so we are not privy to the “litany of past accomplishments” that apparently precede this speech. We start when he does, and his speech gives way to Q&A at 37:30.

When trainees of mine, struggling with a huge deck of slides representing the fruit of some enormously expensive piece of corporate research, are sweating over how to precis it to an audience, I invariably tell them not to bother. The audience will get that deck in hard-copy; so then the speaker’s job becomes not to precis it but to trail it. Just as a film trailer doesn’t tell you how the movie pans out but seeks to persuade you to watch the movie, so you should prepare some sexy cherry-picking in such a way that the audience becomes determined to read through all the rest of that hard-copy.

By precisely the same token I hoped that McCarthy would trail this book and not precis it. He trails it.

My heart momentarily sank when he produced a sheaf of papers at the beginning, but never did he look at it. This speech is shot entirely from the hip, and is all the better for that.

It’s also well structured: he tells us clearly how he approached the lay-out of the book, takes us through that layout, and cherry-picks (that expression again) examples in passing. What makes it all rather startling is the calm matter-of-fact way he recounts a stream of spine-chilling stuff. I keep reminding myself that he is not just a lawyer, but has spent many years as a prosecuting attorney. What may be spine-chilling to me is mundane to him.

The proof of the pudding for a speech such as this is whether it works. Has it persuaded me to buy and read the book?

You bet.

Walter Russell Mead and flawed paper

At the City College of New York, on April 15, 2013, Walter Russell Mead delivered the inaugural Anne & Bernard Spitzer Lecture in the Colin L. Powell Center. It was entitled “America’s Asia pivot at a time of upheaval”. There’s a catchy title for you.

Mead begins at 4:20, and ends at 48:57 for Q&A but I would urge you first to watch his introduction by Rajan Menon. Even a professor of political science needs to learn about microphone technique if he is to fulfill this function properly. It has been several months since I last had need to moan here about someone popping on a microphone, but Menon more than makes up the shortfall. How hard would you have to work to pop more than this? What he has to say is interesting and provides a good background for what is to come, but he leans in towards the microphone to ensure that his percussive consonants have his column of breath unerringly hitting the microphone’s diaphragm every time. His aim is flawless.

He commits another error. Leading applause from the lectern feels right, looks wrong and sounds worse because the microphone compounds the felony.  Who would have thought there were so many little things to know?

Mead is taller than Menon so the microphone is aimed just south of his beard. Furthermore he doesn’t lean in to the microphone. As a result we finally hear the name ‘Spitzer’, and words like ‘policy’ or ‘polarization’, without a pop. This continues till 6:49 when Mead adjusts his microphone, and in the process the popping makes a nostalgic return – but only partially. He stands up, doesn’t lean into the microphone, and consequently pops a little less than Menon. A better microphone might eliminate it altogether, but in the meantime it’s there.

The issue being discussed is globally important. It comes from a respected commentator. It is being imparted to a knowledgeable audience in a specialized faculty within a respected seat of learning. Why then am I dwelling on this small detail?

Precisely because of all the above.

Were this a published document which Mead had written, and the paper was so transparently thin that the reader was constantly distracted by seeing other writing through what he was reading, and of such poor quality that it kept tearing when the page was turned, it would not be doing justice to the subject matter – just as in this case.

There is more to public speaking than merely an ability to convey concepts. Mead manifestly knows his subject and has much of importance to say. He argues his case skilfully and very compellingly, he shoots it spontaneously from the hip, with occasional histrionic outbursts that spice up the experience. It is very interesting and I commend this as a speech to be watched.

I just bemoan that it is printed on flawed paper.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and decorum mismatch

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has featured several times here, indeed my critique of the speech he delivered at the 2008 India Today Conclave has attracted more views than any other posting on this blog.

He delivered a talk at TED India 2009.

Ted talks, as uploaded online, have a distinct style; and generally it’s a good one. It’s not that they edit out introductions and preambles; it’s not that they are professional and slick enough to have a wandering camera to supplement the fixed front-of-house shots; it’s not just that they dress the stage appropriately to the talks; it’s not that in the video editing they tend to cut away completely to any slides being shown; etc.  It’s more a general feel that comes out in the pace and rhythm of the 18 minute talks. They come across as tight and business-like, which is ideal for nearly all speakers.

I spotted some months ago that Vasudev had delivered a TED talk, and I delayed watching it because I feared a clash of decorum, that TED’s house-style rhythm would be incompatible with Vasudev’s. The latter has a very particular decorum: he habitually begins with some chanting that sets a very slow, almost somnolent and very unTED-like, pace for what follows.

I was right to be anxious. Vasudev is an outstanding speaker, and with outstanding speakers I get picky as hell – that’s my job. Here the tuning of his engine seems constantly to be slightly wrong.

Did he omit his habitual chanting, or did he include it and they edited it out of the video? I shall stick my neck out and suggest the former. Chanting would have established a more Vasudev-style rhythm.

It is uncharacteristic for him to begin with such an aggressively overt gag. Furthermore, as every trainee of mine knows, it is a mistake – I haven’t the space here to explain why. The tittering while the gag is being recounted sounds nervous, and the laugh at the punchline is rather lacklustre. That is all entirely predictable.

The link from the gag to his theme is slightly clunky, as is the rest of the talk, and the decorum throughout is wrong for the content.

The gears are grinding: he is not himself. Watch that speech I mentioned in the first paragraph, or watch this one (wherein he begins at 2:50), and you witness an inner stillness that makes you hang on every word. Not only is he here galloping along too quickly, look how much he is fidgeting: his feet never stop moving. I have no problem with speakers who move, but Vasudev is not a fidget.

Do you hang on every word, or does your mind wander?  Mine wanders, and it is so frustrating! His subject and message fascinate me, but still I have to fight to stay with him. This is entirely because of decorum mismatch.

Some twenty years ago I recorded a radio interview with the late English comedy writer, Frank Muir. He recalled a book promotion speaking tour that took him to the USA. Before his first talk the American booking agent urged him to add some zip and pzazz to his delivery. Frank, realizing that zip and pzazz were not to be found in his armoury, delivered as he would have done to an English audience – and stormed them!

You have to be yourself. You are the best, most interesting, most engaging, most compelling you can be when you are being yourself. If your style is incompatible with that of the conference organizer, one of you has to give way. If you are as good as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev it should definitely not be you.

Lord Lawson reads what needs to be said.

At the end of April 2014, Lord Lawson of Blaby gave a speech to the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the University of Bath, in England. His being the Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Lawson’s pronouncements on the subject of climate change usually excite a degree of interest, and this occasion was no exception.

You should not be too alarmed by the indication at the foot of the video that it lasts for nearly an hour and a half. Lawson’s speech ends at 46:30, and the rest is questions – quite robust ones by the way.

At the outset, Lawson asks for his briefcase, which had been placed in the care of someone else. He is duly delivered his script, from which he reads the entire speech. Some might say that he is not making a speech so much as presenting a paper, and I would tend to agree. The process that we witness is in every sense that of a talking head. We would get more out of it if we each were to read that paper to ourselves (till the onset of the questions). That way our minds would process the information at our own pace and rhythm, rather than his, with consequent greater understanding of what is argued. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the film of a book almost invariably inferior to the book.

If you would rather read it yourself, here is a transcript.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I would greatly prefer him not to have used a script. Using paper, even if as skilfully as Lawson, instantly robs your delivery of a substantial part of its persuasiveness.They will also expect me to claim that I could have enabled him to have dispensed with it, though they might not believe it.

One man, who would probably not have believed it last Wednesday, did a course with me on Thursday. He is a senior executive in a well-known British company. On Saturday he sent me an email. I have not sought his permission to identify him so I shall not do so.

What I failed to highlight on Thursday was that on Friday I was hosting an all day workshop with senior members of the xxxxxxxx team.  I had been having kittens for weeks.  Through the time in your course I was mentally whittling down the workshop from 20 slides, to 6, to 2.  That’s what I slept on, and eventually I conducted an 8 hour workshop with no slides and no notes.  I launched the day with a James Bond opening (an icebreaker) followed by a 15 minute speech on why we were there.  A speech with purpose!  What followed was a very lively and interesting workshop. I could not have done it without you.  You switched a light on, and I hope I can keep it alight in future presentations.

He will!