Diarmaid MacCulloch – so very close.

In October 2011, as one of its Roland Bainton lectures, Yale Divinity School presented a talk by Diarmaid MacCulloch from Oxford University.

Prof. MacCulloch, specialises in The Reformation; but his theme here is the medieval church, the influence on it by the Arian heresy and the particular significance of Martin of Tours. More than half a century ago at school I won a class speaking competition with three minutes on Martin of Tours; therefore perhaps I should clearly lay out here everything I already knew about what we shall now be learning from MacCulloch …

Good.  I’m glad we’ve clarified that. If you want to skip the introductions (though they are interesting) MacCulloch begins at 5:40.

Regular reader of this blog will have spotted on that still image where MacCulloch’s eyes are directed, and therefore at least one thing I am going to say. Nevertheless I’d like to begin at the beginning.

In the beginning is The Hump. Always. My trainees often seem slightly surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences the hump (“you mean I’m not the only one?”). Certainly many speakers disguise it very effectively, but it is always there. MacCulloch, a professional and experienced communicator – not just in the lecture room but on TV – displays distinct signs of vulnerability for a little more than a minute, particularly when he changes horses between speaking of Roland Bainton and about his own book on the Reformation. He was marginally more relaxed when speaking of his book, enjoying uttering his phrase “rivalling the conceit of Icarus” and his audience likewise enjoyed it, so if I had been advising him I should have got him to open with that and stick with it for at least 90 seconds. That would have seen out the worst of the hump, allowing him, in a relatively relaxed fashion, to swing into something parenthetic like “…and one very important source on which I drew was Roland Bainton’s book on Luther…[etc]…so I feel particularly privileged to be standing here today…”

It is not often that I allow myself to get so specific and picky in this blog; but there is a reason. MacCulloch is so good that he does not give me much else to get my teeth into. Except…

Except what we observed earlier, namely that he appears to have a script.

He looks repeatedly down to the desk through the speech (and each time he does so he loses just a little of his audience engagement) but he often does it at times when he distinctly does not need prompting. This suggests to me that the paper on that desk is a comfort blanket, and that theory is supported by symptoms of shyness that I am picking up. Shyness can be a crippling handicap and, when accompanied by obviously high intelligence, gets little sympathy from the world at large because the combination seems so irrational. I have worked with many victims of it.

I am delighted to say that, script or no, he speaks for the most part in spoken- rather than written-English. This could mean that he has conscientiously learnt how to write speeches that way, or it could mean that he is partly reading and partly speaking spontaneously.

So much for speculation. What should he be doing? You know my answer if you have read this blog before. He should learn to dispense with a script completely. He could do it easily. I know this talk is laden with data, but so what? He knows his subject inside out. At most he needs a few bullet points for occasional reference.

If he kept his eyes up, shooting the lecture from the hip, the engagement with his audience would be infinitely better. Would that cure his supposed shyness? No, shyness doesn’t get cured. It might well help him to live better with it, but I would not attempt to generalise here with trite claims or recommendations.

The talk is really fascinating, and he delivers it very expressively. He is as good a communicator as I have seen, but for this small but crucial and frustrating detail.

Bernard Kouchner – Médecin Sans Papier

On 17 February, 2014, Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde addressed the Oxford Union. The talk was entitled How to Prevent Massacres.

He is not speaking in his own language and, though his English is a lot better than my French, it’s not perfect. But for two minutes he engages and addresses this young audience in an exemplary fashion. I am pleased and impressed, and the audience is captive also. They are completely silent.

Then he picks up a sheaf of papers.

Still he engages the audience, merely glancing periodically at his papers while he tells us that 7 April 2014 (yesterday, as I write) sees the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. Still the audience is silent.

Bit by bit his talk moves from stark, broad brush-stroke statements into a more detailed account of atrocities. Bit by bit his eyes linger longer and more often on the paper in his hands. Bit by bit he loses his audience –  not completely: they are still there and still listening, but with not the same rapt attention. I hear the first cough in the audience at 2:54.

He reads out an horrendous account of what happened in Rwanda, with statistics to turn your stomach, and all the while the coughing gradually increases. It’s as if that sheaf of papers represents a glass screen that has now been placed between him and his audience. Despite the importance and power of what he is recounting, those young people – who had been in the palm of his metaphorical hand – are now somehow further away.

At 16:00 he puts his paper back down on the table, and continues to read – bent over – for a minute. At 17:00 he lifts his head, comes back around the table towards the audience and begins recounting his own personal experience – shooting from the hip. The difference is startling. Suddenly he has regained his audience, and he very movingly recounts the circumstances of the founding of Médecins Sans Frontières.

On my website is a page of speaking tips. Among them I make the point that it is more important to put across your message as clearly as possible than it is to dot every i and cross every t.

At the beginning and end of this talk Kouchner is in the driving seat and giving us his message with superb clarity, made all the more compelling with the occasional stumbling search for the right words. In between, paper in hand and reading no doubt vitally important information, he dots and crosses every i and t – but to what purpose? I reckon all the students in that audience will barely remember anything from that middle section.

He’s made my case very graphically.

Eamonn Butler – what a pity!

On 13 February, 2014, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, This House Believes Thatcher Saved Britain. Speaking for the motion was Eamonn Butler.

The audience enjoys his opening gambit. Hard on its heels, he makes a reference to something a previous speaker had said, and he harvests an even bigger laugh. He plays the audience a little more, tickling them with some gently quirky stuff, letting them recover themselves, and when they are least expecting it he hits them with an absolute beauty, and floors them! This is seriously skilful use of humour. Very few people – and I include stand-up comedians here – will reap a round of applause for a joke this early. What a fabulous opening! I don’t remember seeing better.

And then he turns to his cue cards, and a huge amount of the impetus he has wonderfully created goes gurgling down the drain.

Watch carefully, and you will see that whenever he looks down at his cards his fluency suffers. Over and over again he lifts his head, shoots a short section from the hip, regains some momentum thereby, looks back down again and immediately it’s as if he has hit the brake pedal. That use of paper is disastrous.

Why do I keep banging on about this in this blog?  Because they nearly all do it. Why do they do it? Because they think they have to. Why do they think they have to? Two reasons -

  1. they don’t know how to structure their material well enough to make paper redundant, and
  2. they don’t believe that even then they could manage without it.

But they could. Anyone can.

Butler isn’t anyone: potentially he is phenomenally good. His use of humour – not just the selection of excellent material, but the superbly timed delivery – show that. Incidentally he doesn’t use up all the humour in his opening: he hits them several more times – and always unexpectedly.

A month or two ago, when dealing with a speech by Dan Hannan in this same hall, I stressed how important it is to be scrupulously courteous when dealing with heckling – or the more subdued equivalent that you get in this environment. Watch how Butler handles an interruption. Yes, it is courteous … isn’t it? Or is getting an enormous laugh at the expense of the questioner by use of a single word a form of discourtesy? You decide.

In my wake, as a speaking coach, there are several hundred people - very few of them with anything approaching this man’s natural skill – who have cheerfully waved goodbye to the use of script nor notes. You may therefore imagine with what frustration I see this speech so sadly diminished by the speaker’s dependence on bloody paper.

What a pity!

Patrick Moore – The Sensible Environmentalist

At a TEDx gathering in Vancouver in November 2009, Patrick Moore was one of the speakers. If you have clicked the link on his name, or looked at the picture below, you will know that we are dealing here not with the late, English, wonderfully eccentric, amateur astronomer and xylophone player, but with the Canadian environmentalist, the co-founder of Greenpeace who left that organisation in disgust when it conspicuously lost its way a few years ago. He now calls himself The Sensible Environmentalist, and spends much of his time campaigning on behalf of Golden Rice.

I am not an environmentalist but I have read a few books on the subject, been around the block a few times, and watched enough speakers to have developed a nose for, and allergy to, bullshit. The field of environmental activism tends to be so deep in the steaming stuff that in order to critique most speeches I’d need to be equipped with a JCB. So I usually don’t. Let’s see whether I was justified in hoping that Moore would be worth my making an exception in his case.


There’s something that bothers me about his voice and the manner of his speaking. The urgency he conveys is not a problem for me because it indicates a willingness to get into the driving seat. It’s not exactly the speed with which he speaks, because it doesn’t feel like undue nervousness. It is as if he were driving in too low a gear: the voice is working too hard. I bet he gets sore throats after big presentations. If so, it’s absurdly easy to prevent it.

At 2:35 there’s a lovely catalogue of names. If you don’t understand why I like it, you have neither had a course with me nor read The Face & Tripod.

There are a few occasions when he stumbles and momentarily loses his place. Some might blame this on his shooting the speech from the hip, but a couple of small stumbles are a tiny price to pay for the audience engagement that goes with being paper-free. The stumbles don’t bother me, and I’d lay money that they don’t bother his audience; but if they trouble him, there are a few improvements that could be made to his structure to make the mind-mapping easier.

I enjoy his summary dismissal of fallacy after fallacy connected to the global warming scam. At the time of writing we have just been treated (if that’s the word) to mounds of garbage in a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Proper scientists having over the years deserted the IPCC in disgust over being misquoted, it is now mainly a nest of political activists still trying to masquerade as scientists. The main-stream media, either too idle to check or in politico/economic thrall to the alarmist nonsense, make up an eager team of cheer-leaders. I’m old enough to remember when the BBC, for instance, was a respectable organisation employing proper journalists. Others of a similar age who seem to swallow this tripe show themselves too trusting or too busy to check any details. At least I hope that’s the case: the alternative is too depressing.

The most depressing thing is when people start clamouring for ‘deniers’ to be silenced, sectioned, or imprisoned. They might as well burn books like they did in Berlin in 1933. People behave like this only when they know their own argument to be weak. It is weak because its scientific basis is flimsy, and was always actually political rather than scientific.

If you want one reason why I believe this, just go and see how many attempts by sceptical scientists to join in public debate with warmists have had the warmists scurrying for cover. Christopher Monckton has repeatedly challenged Al Gore. Gore has made increasingly pathetic excuses; and who’s to blame him? He’d be slaughtered.

Watching this speech, I find myself wanting to endorse Patrick Moore’s description of himself as The Sensible Environmentalist. He could easily be a better speaker, but meanwhile he’s quite good enough for most markets. And what he says is suitably coloured with doubt as to persuade me that he is a genuine seeker after truth.

Berlinski and Hitchens: amazing debate

The late Christopher Hitchens is everywhere on YouTube, ferociously debating those who espouse religions of all types, and in my previous post I said that I avoided watching. This is true, but more because of the sterility of argument rather than a criticism of Hitchens. My having covered in depth the Oxford Union God Debate, it seemed to me that it always seemed to culminate in a Monty Python argument, with each side automatically gainsaying the other. And again this is not necessarily a reflection on the antagonists, but on the matter in hand. There is no proof, only faith. Therefore these debates are merely confrontations between the fundamentalist followers of two beliefs. Atheists might deny theirs is a belief, asserting that it is an absence of belief, but this is wrong. They believe fundamentally that there is no God.

I have little patience with fundamentalism of any sort. Peter Ustinov observed that “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.” It is in the exploration of doubt that I believe the search for truth lies. For that reason, I am afraid my knee-jerk instinct when meeting someone’s conviction is to challenge it.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  W.B.Yeats

Having long given up wasting time watching these debates, I came across David Berlinski being interviewed on Uncommon Knowledge. As a professor of mathematics seeking after truth, he likewise was challenging universally-held convictions wherever he found them. From Darwinism to global warming, he was delightfully dismissive of the paucity of scientific rigour applied; and what I found particularly appealing was that his standpoint was never that of one harbouring opposing beliefs but one with the humility to admit that he did not know the truth but was uneasy with the reasoning of those who claimed they did.

You may imagine therefore the excitement with which I came across this debate.

Hitchens was a very powerful debater, extraordinarily well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, more coherent than most, and apparently rock-solid in his atheistic conviction. Berlinski is every bit as well-read with the instinctive elegance of phrasing thereby osmotically caused, articulate to a fault, and more coherent than most. I have seen less evidence of his having done much debating, but his most potent weapon is his doubt: he offers no conviction for Hitchens to attack. Let battle commence…

Almost immediately Berlinski reveals his strength. With the proposition’s being Atheism Poisons Everything, there is no need for Berlinski to defend religion. We all know that huge amounts of evil have been done in the name of religion, but that fact leaves not a scratch on the proposition.

Hard on those heels he brings a smile to my face with an offering from Dr Johnson. The quotation can be paraphrased as, “the science is settled: the debate is over”.  Look back to my third paragraph to see how puckish this is.

Set-piece routines are paradoxically the bits of speeches that most often seem to fail. Berlinski’s button schtick at the end of his opening speech was doing fine till the final bit direct to Hitchens which was lame. Significantly that last was omitted from the transcript of this debate to be found here.

Hitchens knows full well that Berlinski has shown that attacking religion is pointless against this proposition, but what else is he to do? Without that, he is left with trying to prove a negative – a notoriously impossible task. He duly attacks religion and the evils done in its name; he rehashes arguments as to the impossibility of a God; he goes down all the familiar routes; but he is not addressing the unaddressable proposition.

Why did Hitchens agree to this debate without insisting on editing the wording of the proposition? Was his proselytising zeal so great that he could not resist the challenge?  The answer may possibly be found in his closing argument which is very good indeed and goes quite a long way to solving the insoluble problem in the previous paragraph.

Among other arguments he asserts at around 43:45 that the ‘little faction” of atheists with whom he is identified “is adamant for doubt”. Names that he has bandied elsewhere, and therefore presumably also belonging to this little faction, include people like Dawkins and Dennett. He maintains that they all explore uncertainty. In short he is seeking to exculpate them from fundamentalism. It’s a nice try, and it can be seen to be the only argument open to him, but I think he is misguided. People who plaster buses with posters containing puerile atheistic slogans are beyond doubt.

It’s time for me to shut up, and for you to enjoy the debate. I commend it.


David Berlinski – a class act

On 7 September 2010, at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel in Alabama, the Fixed Point Foundation hosted a debate between Christopher Hitchens and David Berlinski. The motion was Atheism Poisons Everything.

A very effective way of using up a huge amount of time would be to tour YouTube, watching all the debates involving Christopher Hitchens on the subject of religion. So I don’t. But having recently watched David Berlinski on Uncommon Knowledge, being interviewed by my part-namesake, the excellent Peter Robinson, I was intrigued enough to make this an exception. By the way, I commend Uncommon Knowledge.

Larry Taunton occupies a few seconds less than 4 minutes introducing the debate, and Berlinski begins. Immediately a weird thing happens: a woman in the audience suddenly cackles in an insane fashion. Apart from fixing her with a startled and disapproving stare and pausing long enough for it to matter, Berlinski says nothing.

I like  this man. I like his erudition being very evident but somehow understated. I like the rather patrician image with which he cloaks himself, exhibiting suave condescension mixed with an air of faintly dissolute urbanity. It is a strong contrast to Hitchens’ terrier-like attack, and I find it significant that Hitchens seems on this occasion to tone down his bellicosity and unconsciously seems slightly to mirror Berlinski’s style. This may be indicative of his being awe-struck and psychologically dominated. It’s certainly indicative of respect. You don’t see this happen with Hitchens very often.

With my rhetor hat on I like the way Berlinski speaks very quietly, yet expressively, and despite no discernible effort to do so makes every word heard. Though I don’t suppose he has read my book on that subject, he follows all its strictures.

He uses no notes, and I think he is shooting from the hip. You may claim there is no distinction; but reciting a learnt script is not shooting from the hip. He has a turn of phrase burnished by much good reading, and I love the way he throws away his description of Robespierre as being ‘rabid as a bat’.

My only slight concern is that he is much more nervous than he needs to be.  You may notice that it is not till the rebuttals later that his shoulders descend to a relaxed level.

This opening address runs from 3:55 till 15:16.

As I remarked earlier Christopher Hitchens was a serial debater on religion; and he fairly regularly made mincemeat of his opponents – even (whisper it) his brother Peter; but pitting him against Berlinski was an inspired match. This debate was as fascinating as the Oxford Union God debate should have been but wasn’t. Forgive my veering towards cliché, but it generated more light than heat.

I want to examine the debate in depth, and more fully than as a footnote to Berlinski’s opening speech.  I shall return to it in my next posting.

Daniel Dennett should play to his strength

At the Global Atheist Convention, in Melbourne Australia, in April 2012, Daniel Dennett was one of the speakers. Having seen Dennett interviewed, and thereby having felt him to be not one of those faintly hysterical tub-thumpers that can so easily ruin one’s digestion, I was eager – my being a devout doubter – to see whether this talk might contain some new thinking. It was entitled How To Tell You’re an Atheist.

I like the opening. I call it ‘outflanking the subject’, and I commend it in my courses and seminars. For nearly 3 minutes he appears to be discussing something completely different, thus distributing a layer of mystery over the proceedings and inducing curiosity in his audience. When he reveals the link between that and the matter in hand the audience shows its pent-up satisfaction with applause – a full 8 seconds of it (8 seconds is Par for spontaneous applause).

We can’t see a lectern, but it seems clear that when he looks down he is being prompted. Though I’d always prefer a speaker to be not at all dependent upon paper, I have to admit he manages it very well. It all comes across as spontaneous. I like the epistrophe (“…noticed this pattern”) at 4.20.

He proceeds to narrate research he has done with preachers who are secret atheists, so I am unsurprised to hear Dan Barker‘s name cropping up. I can feel myself getting nervous lest his arguments are going to go down the same old weary paths.

He gets from the audience a couple of laughs that are just a little too easy. I remind myself that this is a conference about and for atheism, so he is addressing a very sympathetic crowd, but still audiences don’t laugh that readily unless they’re a little nervous – in need of reassurance.

Dennett feels no such concern. On the contrary, those laughs persuade him to play to the gallery. In order to mock some theist argument, he affects a silly voice. That is a mistake: such devices cheapen the image of the speaker not his opposition. If you are going to play silly voices, you need to be better at it than this. Also subtlety would help.

Just after 18:30 he begins getting a little more serious, and moves into discussing the work of The Clergy Project, a support group for priests who have lost their faith. Apart from that neat opening, this is the best part of the talk so far. Furthermore when he gets back to atheism he covers areas that are less puerile than earlier, and this is a relief.

In fact this talk suddenly gets quite worth while for a time, only collapsing in the final minute when he absurdly asserts that a sense of humour is the exclusive preserve of the non-believer. What is true is that while he may be a fine philosopher, as a comedian he … is a fine philosopher.