Glenn Greenwald: the natural over-speaks

The YouTube introduction reads, “The Future of Freedom Foundation and Young Americans for Liberty presented a one-day conference on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin at the LBJ Auditorium in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on Saturday, April 11, 2015, that addressed the war on drugs and the war on terrorism“. I added the hyperlinks

I am a little uneasy about this talk from Glenn Greenwald and I am not sure why. The title of the talk doesn’t help, but I know little of him and certainly not enough to condemn him unheard. Could it be his ubiquitousness on the university speaking circuit? After all the word university has these days become such an antonym for diversity that being no-platformed is now a badge of honour and being welcomed almost a reason for suspicion.

This is a free-speech blog, so we shall hear him.

What a dreadful introduction! This young man is obviously well-meaning but he needs to learn how to speak in public and how to tie his own bow-tie.

Greenwald is a natural speaker. That is obvious from the start; and now with my rhetor hat firmly donned I am uneasy for other reasons.

People always seem astonished that natural speakers should worry me. If they had read my post on Peter Schiff they would understand better. I don’t particularly want to rehash all the points here, and I don’t really need to. I merely need to invite you to watch this interminable bore of a speech. It is 45 minutes long, could have been concisely delivered in 10, and expansively delivered in 15.

Better still, rather than lose three-quarters of an hour that you will never see again, click at random anywhere in the speech, watch five minutes and then stop. If you learn any more than could have been uttered in six sentences I should be surprised. He repeats and rambles, rambles and repeats till the air is thick with snoring.

The trouble is that the subject matter is important. If you manage to stay awake long enough you will find that he is speaking mainly about universal surveillance, a subject that should concern us all (it was important enough to be the central theme of the latest James Bond film after all). It bothers me that the matter has been so keenly hi-jacked by Islamist apologists, but still it is a matter that needs to be addressed – and preferably by others than power-hungry bureaucrats.

Greenwald, being a natural speaker, has never needed to learn the speaking disciplines that ordinary mortals require. Accordingly his speaking is undisciplined and tedious.

With a little work he could be brilliant.

Tim Montgomerie: stilted and unhappy

On 20 October, 2105, the Danube Institute hosted a lecture by Tim Montgomerie entitled The Moral Power of the Right, which he subtitled Ten Conservative Commandments.

That’s a weak opening, principally because it’s a weak joke, weakly delivered.  Even brilliantly delivered it would fail because he has brought up the name of Moses before the audience has been introduced to the Ten Commandments subtitle; so the joke makes no sense (unless someone mentioned the Ten Commandments earlier).

He seems unhappy.  He never stops fidgeting and the speaking is stilted, even when he’s not reading his bloody script (why will they do that?). The occasional flashes of attempted humour seem not to be working – I can’t hear any laughter, and shots of the audience show them in less than party mood.  If I were in his shoes, I think I would drop attempts at humour on this occasion

His rather laboured speaking could be because his audience do not have English as a first language, but if he thinks that is a problem he should use shorter, punchier sentences and shorter punchier words and deliver them naturally rather than speaking as if to halfwits. Don’t over-enunciate everything and then use words like rhetorical.

20:07 – errm… Oh dear! Probably ill-advised.

This speech could be good.  The ten commandments idea is a reasonably promising one, but it comes across as flat-footed. As an overview, Montgomerie seems to be making two mistakes, both of which are widespread.

  • Speaking is not an extension of writing – the two are completely different genres and preparation of material should be approached in completely different ways.
  • Standing and speaking to an audience is not essentially different from speaking to a friend across a table. It feels different because you are on your feet and it is a monologue, but the delivery mindset should be virtually the same. (I could write several pages on this, but I’ll spare you.)

I’ve read Montgomerie, and he writes well. Now he needs to learn how to prepare a speech in a way that sounds natural when spoken and does not require a script. I’ve seen him interviewed, and he has good and relaxed delivery with occasional throw-away humour. Now he needs to dare to translate that into the same sort of easygoing delivery from the speaking platform.

Meanwhile he will continue to be unhappy.

Brendan Chilton engages.

On 2 October 2015, in Guildford, England, there was a cross-party conference entitled Time to Leave?  There were three speakers, Diane James from UKIP, Daniel Hannan from the Conservative Party, and Brendan Chilton, Director of Labour for Britain.

For a long time I have been yearning for Britain to have a referendum on its membership of the European Union. This was only partially for the referendum itself. What I really wanted was the attendant grown-up debate on the issues involved. Pro-EU people always seem to churn out the same, lame, ingenuous nonsense, and I have assumed that they were saving the real arguments for when it mattered. The trouble is that time ticks on, and I am still waiting.

Meanwhile I am pleased to listen to what a eurosceptic member of the Labour Party has to say. Everyone knows, because the BBC has told them, that only ultra-right-wing people are opposed to the EU – something that must have puzzled Tony Benn.

Chilton is introduced by Daniel Hannan – introduced rather well, actually. Short and to the point, with no messing about. If that man keeps at it he could be rather a good speaker one day.

Good opening. Though euroscepticism observes no party boundaries you can see on the projected slide that this meeting is hosted by the European Conservative and Reformist Group, so Chilton is speaking to an audience that will not share many of his political views. By humorously flagging up the point he puts the audience at its ease. He engages with it from the beginning and keeps it with him.

He’s good. Some might argue that he’s speaking a little too quickly, but I find it indicative of only the passion and sincerity behind what he is saying. No coherence is lost, and we get swept up in his arguments.

The arguments are made in broad brush-strokes. This is something I bang on about with my trainees. When you are writing an opinion-piece, and some of the detail is so fine and complicated that it needs a second look, your reader can always go back. When you are speaking your audience cannot do that: you have to shape your arguments in such a way that they are made clearly in one telling. That means broad brush-strokes, even for bright audiences.

The projected slide to which I referred earlier is still there at the end. Chilton does his own speaking. He doesn’t seek the imagined assistance of intrusive pictures. He’s good!

His closing points are very telling indeed, and excellently expressed. I have nothing to add.

Barack Obama as an embryonic orator.

On 20 September, 1995, in the public library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty-four-year-old law student read from an autobiography entitled Dreams From My Father. You may wonder how many people of that age have already written an autobiography, but perhaps this young man was shaping to put many more entries in the record books.

His name was Barack Obama, and my particular interest lies not in the reading but in the eight minutes he spent introducing the reading.

He utters his first words, “Good evening” while approaching the lectern. It’s a sound technique as a hump-buster, because the long silent walk to where you will speak can tighten you up. This is not a long walk, but still the principle holds. If you are not wearing a radio mic, you may have to raise your voice, but what the hell!  What you are likely to say is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if the audience misses most of it. Fancy a kid of the age of my younger son having already learnt that trick! What else had he learnt?

That’s a nice opening and, though he smiles while saying it, there is no other indication that he expects a laugh.  Essentially he throws it away, and that’s another thing he’s learnt. The boy is good.

He’s shooting from the hip, and is no less fluent for that. The ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ don’t make him look hesitant and indecisive they make him look spontaneous, sincere, and at ease. These are all qualities that relax audiences.

He has a distinctive way of holding his head with his chin up slightly. This lends him an air of openness and authority. In years to come, if he makes something of himself, some body-language analysts might see that as an affectation he has deliberately developed. It may be, but if so it was developed before September ’95.

It is really quite startling how accomplished he already is as a communicator.

He starts reading at 09:10, and I’d prefer not to comment further. It is not that I don’t like book- or poetry-readings – I perform them myself – I just think that the author is not the best person to do it, because he’s too close to it. I feel that the perspective of someone who can stand back further from the canvas is usually better. That said, I have to admit he reads it well.

It’s also interesting and well-written, though I find the anger and self-pity a little trying. He may have good reason to be angry and self-pitying, but so do many people who choose not to display it because it’s an unbecoming characteristic. It doesn’t bode well for his future. At 25:00 he finishes reading, and thereafter he answers questions.

I wonder what became of him.

Nate Staniforth – wonderful!

Magician Nate Staniforth recently gave a talk at the Oxford Union. The title of the talk was Wonder. He spoke for a little more than ten minutes during which he did not perform a single illusion.

When I saw this talk listed I was keen to watch it.

I have been known to describe myself as an ‘audiencologist’. It’s an absurdly trite little made-up word, but it does say what I want. I have a lifelong obsession with audiences and what makes them tick. Consequently I have enormous admiration for magicians. Other types of entertainer can make audiences laugh, cry, think and more. They can cause a wide range of feelings and emotions. Only magicians, however, also make audiences see what they did not see and believe what they know to be unbelievable. They are the ultimate manipulators of audiences. So how well does this one speak? I was sure I already knew the answer.

I was right: he is excellent.

Bald opening, and provocative enough to grab you.

The opening leads clearly into a narrative thread to which anyone can relate. He picks you up and sweeps you along his ordained path, talking about wonder and mystery. His structure seems at the outset to be just chronological, a sort of potted life-history, but he has decided that would not quite make his point concerning wonder; so there is a little jumping around to strengthen it. He leaves the narrative thread hanging while he digresses for a while, returning to reclaim it at just the right moment and in the right way. It is good: very good.

As for his delivery, well what did we expect? Any idiot with a cheap book can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it is the performance surrounding the illusion that singles out the star. Watch how Staniforth varies the decorum to hold our interest and add definition to the points he is making. One minute he is animated, the next he slows right down, varying the tone of his voice accordingly. Many people could do that, but there’s more. There’s the intended laugh that never came when he mentioned a couple of people that seem to mean little to this British audience. In less than a heartbeat, he’s thrown it away and moved on. It happened at 2:50, and I guess barely a single person in that hall noticed. I don’t suppose any regular reader of this blog will be surprised that he shot the whole speech from the hip. I should have been devastated had he not.

He is very skilled at disguising how skilled he is. He puts across supreme relaxation, but watch the intensity with which he is constantly scanning his audience. He misses nothing. A short while ago in a posting on this blog I argued a distinction I choose to make between perfection and excellence. Staniforth epitomizes excellence.


Jim DeMint displays personable warmth

On 22 May 2015 – just a couple of weeks after the UK General Election – the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) presented their Edmund Burke Award to Jim DeMint, President of the Heritage Foundation. Daniel Hannan, Secretary-General of the AECR Board, having made the presentation DeMint opened his acceptance speech with a comment addressed to him.

“Daniel, if I could only speak with as much fire and passion as you can…”

I wish I could watch the speech to which he refers. A handful of weeks ago I was complaining that Dan Hannan didn’t put enough fire and passion into his speaking.

DeMint’s principal failing in this speech is familiar to all regulars of this blog. He is reading it. Every fault in the flow is caused by that alone. Whenever he inserts an ad lib ‘aside’ his fluency leaps up. His nervousness at the beginning (what I call The Hump) is prolonged way beyond its natural life simply because of his adherence to that script. He could easily throw it away. He doesn’t know he could, but he could. His engagement with his audience and his enjoyment of the whole process would soar.

DeMint is personable. He addresses his audience with a quiet warmth that is appealing. This causes me to reflect upon a particular dissonance in politics.

The left claim the high moral ground, declaring they represent the philosophy of love and care. They portray the right as hating and uncaring. Only last week in Britain we saw video footage of delegates and press arriving at the Conservative Party Conference, and having to run a gauntlet of screaming, shouting, and spitting. I can never remember the equivalent happening to arrivals at a conference of a left-wing party. So who here is displaying hate?

DeMint is a leading member of the Tea Party movement, whose central philosophy is one of low tax, small government and individual freedom and responsibility. Yet the image painted by their political opponents is one of raging racism and hate. I invite you to watch this man speak, listen to what he says, and try to spot the raging racism and hate. If you fail to find any of either, what does that tell you about those who accuse him?

All those I have met who share his political persuasion also share a belief in people. They want them to have more control over their own lives, trusting them to live up to that responsibility. Does that sound like hate to you?

Rupert Sheldrake displays appealing eccentricity

On 12 January, 2013, there was a TEDx event at Whitechapel in London. One of the talks was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and was entitled The Science Delusion. This is the British title of his book which in the USA is called Science Set Free.

His talk came to my notice because TED later banned it. More accurately they removed the video from their YouTube channel, and someone else promptly re-posted it. There is a discussion on their blog on the matter. No doubt TED carefully considered the possible damage their action would do to their reputation for open-mindedness, and what they choose to include on their channel is their business, but surely someone there has heard what happens when you ban something. When the BBC bans a record it immediately climbs to the top of the charts.

When the equivalent happened to this video I waited a while till the dust had settled, the more calmly to examine it. Shall we now see what the fuss was about?

He’s barefooted! I love eccentricity in all its guises, because it shows a determination to plough your own furrow. It also suggests an inner self-confidence and calmness, though I find other things about his body language tend to belie this. His hands bother me, because they seem to bother him. When they hang at his side, the fingers constantly fidget – a common nerve symptom. I find myself willing him to put at least one hand in a pocket and he appears to hear me because his left hand goes into his jacket pocket. I think that this configuration could be a suitable ‘Happy Home’ for his hands.

He needs to find one, a default location whither to send his hands when he finds himself conscious of them, because if it’s the right Happy Home he will immediately cease to be conscious of them and they will do their own thing. Their own thing is excellent: his gestures are eloquent and strong. Being eager to doff my rhetor hat and just listen, I quickly do so.

He lists ten dogmas on which he maintains science is built, telling us that he will have time in this talk to dwell on only two or three of them. Nevertheless he is already controversial. Science is supposed to be built on open-minded inquiry, and scientists will claim it is so, but immediately we spot that his claim must be correct. Dogma-free doesn’t ban speeches that claim it is built on dogma. Who are these poor dears that made his case for him?

His principal target seems to be an idleness that has caused the scientific establishment to try to simplify science into mechanistic constants that nevertheless seem to defy them by fluctuating. And it looks to me as if I have made the same mistake by trying to summarize the talk in a single sentence.

I think I should stop trying to précis this: I would prefer to trail it. You need to watch it. It is intensely thought-provoking, and already I plan to buy the book.