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.

EU debate does pro-lobby no favours.

At the Cadogan Hall in London exactly two years ago on 20 March, 2013, Intelligence Squared staged a debate with the motion Both Britain and the EU would be Happier if they got Divorced. The Chairman was Nik Gowing and his opening statement measured the hall audience at nearly a thousand people..

Speaking for the proposition were Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage, and for the opposition were Katinka Barysch and the late Leon Brittan.

I have gone on record on this blog as declaring myself anti-EU, but wanting a referendum principally because of the accompanying debate. Pro-EU arguments seem either emaciated or disingenuous, and I hunger for some that might give me pause. Perhaps this debate will oblige.

I am often asked, by those who will be taking part in adversarial events such as these, what their ‘off camera’ demeanour should be. Should they, for instance, illustrate with their facial expressions that the current speaker is lying through his teeth? My unwavering advice is that they should keep their powder dry, remaining impassive unless they are speaking. It weakens the image to do anything else. During Gowing’s introduction to the debate, and his naming of the speakers, all remain expressionless except Barysch who switches on a semi-profile friendly smile. She’s already working, but I doubt that it is working.

I assume that the opening addresses are restricted to five minutes each. For one thing this is usual practice, and for another the length of them in the event varies from 4:15 to 4:50. This is impressively professional and disciplined. I am hoping this discipline will prevail in the debate itself. Events like these get cheapened by accusations of untruth or cheap tricks like interruptions that artificially extend themselves to cut into the opponents’ speaking time. Actually, an Intelligence Squared audience should be savvy enough to make such stunts counter-productive.

Hannan [2:44 – 7:34] goes first. He rises to his feet as his introduction begins, arriving at the lectern as the introduction ends. This sort of apparently inconsequential detail has a positive influence on audiences, if only subliminally.

I have featured Hannan often on this blog, commending the skill that he has evidently toiled to polish. I am a little concerned that he is perhaps too polished, that super-fluency might be sterilizing his performance. I would like to see more of the real warts-and-all person showing through. His habit – I have heard this often – of punctuating his speeches with “my friends” is a little old-fashioned and bordering on the prim. Yes I am picking nits off nits, but when a speaker is this good I have little else to pick. If I were advising him I would urge him now to stop striving for perfection, relax a little and allow more warmth of human imperfection to show through – at least with most audiences.

He has a very classy closing! It’s one thing to manipulate the final lines of the poem, Ulysses, weaving your peroration with Tennyson’s, but the impudence of his introducing it via reference to a James Bond film causes me to smile and tip my rhetor’s hat.

Barysch [8:15 – 12:53] opens for the opposition. She likewise walks to the lectern during her introduction: we’re watching pro speakers here!

We saw her studied smile earlier, and now we hear the studied dulcet cadences of her voice. She seems happy to leave much of the nitty and gritty to the others. Her role is to paint the EU loving and understanding, a little wayward possibly on occasion but essentially benign. The EU, she cooingly implies, is a great big fluffy bunny rabbit.

Stressing that she is an economist and therefore concerned with data as well as fluffy bunny rabbits she goes down the “why would Britain want to close her doors to the rest of the world?” route. I wonder how heavily her opponents will tread on that canard, and whether the audience of ‘almost a thousand’ will buy it anyway. In terms of pure speaking technique she is very good. In terms of her reading of this audience I am not so sure

Farage [13:36 – 18:16] likewise walks through his introduction, and opens with “Good evening everybody!” For non-UK readers unfamiliar with the current political climate in Britain, perhaps I should make it clear that Farage is a very sharp thorn in the hide of the British political establishment. The mainstream media and the education system being part of that establishment, he is routinely painted as being the devil in human form. I have yet to read that he eats babies for breakfast, but give it time. The interesting thing is that people who meet and speak with him seem always to like him. Funny that! I have never met him.

I am interested to see what he does with some of Barysch’s assertions. The Japanese have a word, Mokusatsu. It means “To treat with silent contempt”. Farage practises Mokusatsu, trusting in the audience’s wisdom. Instead he concentrates on the duplicity of the EU having been miss-sold on the basis of being merely a market, then steam-rollering its way to a political monolith with the enthusiastic collaboration of the political class but in defiance of just about every poll or national referendum. The inference is that half a billion European people don’t want it, but a few hundred politicians don’t care.

Just after 16:25 he comes out with a statement that could be held to be highly inflammatory, but which gets a small laugh from the audience. This is merely an appetizer to prime a punchline that harvests a huge laugh. He reads the audience very well.

Brittan [19:02 – 23:17], uniquely in this company, stays seated through his introduction. To be fair his chair is nearest to the lectern. Uniquely in this company he has a script, though he handles it skilfully.

He opens with the claim that leaving the EU we could no longer trade with countries within it.

Though we are a net buyer in our trade with other EU countries, apparently European manufacturers are so rich that they would no longer want to take our money for their goods. I remember Ben Gummer MP coming out with that one on Twitter, and being greeted with a deluge of derision. On my visits to Switzerland and Norway – both non-EU countries – I was sure I saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, VWs and Audis, but obviously I was mistaken.

Next he accuses his opponents of lying.

Next he declares it an “absolutely howler” that European Commissioners make the laws. I wonder how strictly Hannan and Farage will practise their Mokusatsu when next they speak.

The four opening addresses being completed, Nik Gowing explains that a poll was taken of audience members when they arrived. He reads out the results which show that pro-EU sentiment prevailed substantially, and goes on to tell us that another poll will be conducted at the end.

There follow some questions and answers which involve lots of Mokusatsu. There is a diverting episode in which Brittan accuses Hannan of misrepresenting something he had said. Hannan’s trademark courtesy is clearly stretched and, though he maintains the niceties, his widened eyes betray his anger. That anger, like all stress, robs Hannan of some of his ability to think on his feet. He has a crushing answer easily available – “the audience were listening: let them decide” but doesn’t use it. Brittan is anyway only doing it to cut into Hannan’s speaking time.

There is a lesson here for all debates including adversarial broadcast interviews. It is easy to lapse into the mistaken sense that your goal is to sway your opponent or interviewer. That is of course nonsense: they couldn’t matter less. It is only the audience that matters.

Barring that momentary lapse from Hannan, he and Farage were infinitely better with the audience than their opponents. You do not need to take my word for that. The final poll showed a huge swing in their favour. They wiped the floor.

Did I glean any new, thought-provoking pro-EU arguments? Nope, they were pathetic.

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.

Antisemitism: civilization at a crisis point.

On 19 February, at the Central Synagogue in London, there was held in conjunction with the Henry Jackson Society, a debate on “Europe and Antisemitism – are we at a civilizational crisis point?” It is worth observing that this was just four days after a kindred gathering in Copenhagen was interrupted by a gunman who burst in, opened fire, killed two and injured five.

I first became aware of this London debate when one of the speakers, Brendan O’Neill, published on line the transcript of his opening address. Immediately I began looking out for an online video. When I found it, I found something very important.

After introductions from Chazan Steven Leas and Rabbi Barry Marcus the moderator, Alan Mendoza, explains that each of the speakers will deliver an opening address. I intend in this posting to focus just on those opening addresses, though I could not tear myself away from watching all the rest and I doubt you will either.

Brendan O’Neill [5:55 – 13:25] has been on this blog before. I have appreciated his writing for many years, never more so than recently, but in his previous posting I bemoaned his practice of reading a script. When I read the transcript of this address I noticed with satisfaction that it was written in spoken rather than written English, and I hoped that I would see him shooting it from the hip. Sadly it was not to be. He has obviously put time and trouble into improving his ability to read discreetly, dropping in the occasional “um” or “er” as camouflage, and this is presumably because he doesn’t believe he could ever do a set-piece without a script. He’s wrong. In a couple of hours I could easily have him throwing away scripts for ever, and the improvement in perceived fluency would be huge. No one else on this panel reads from a script.

For all that, this is a valuable opening shot, and it was always going to be because O’Neill is brilliant. He also has an excellent track-record on the theme of this meeting. He and his publication, Spiked Online, are the sponsors of the Free Speech Now campaign. Also in a recent article for Spiked entitled Ukiphobia: the prejudices that dare not speak their name“, in which he excoriated a recent docudrama on British TV’s Channel 4, he pointed out that in a scene depicting street violence one of the fictitious thugs was seen carrying an Israeli flag – what a pretty subliminal message!. His summary parting shot is that there need to be more young people prepared to stand up and be counted. Presumably he is not looking to the universities to provide them, metastatically infected as they are by imbecilic movements like “No Platform”.

Simone Rodan [13:30 – 18:35]. English not being her first language she enunciates it beautifully (it’s a widespread phenomenon). Therefore with absolute clarity we hear an horrendous catalogue of French statistics of antisemitic attacks, combined with official blind-eye-turning. With respect to this last, she echoes O’Neill’s observation concerning double standards in establishment terminology. If a Muslim is attacked it is “hate-crime”; if a Jew is attacked it is “inter-communal tension”. Her summary parting shot is that we are not going to make any progress till we eschew euphemisms and we name the problem.

Rodan is the only one of the four speakers to come even close to the 5-minute time allocation for these opening addresses. I was going to castigate Mendoza for lax discipline, till I realized that this panel not being adversarial none of the panelists will care.

Maajid Nawaz [18:47 – 30:21] begins by producing a smartphone, and warning the audience that he is about to play a recording that they might find disturbing. He is right to do so. It is not for me to tell you what it is, but it will chill your blood. For me Nawaz takes the blue riband at this gathering, which is saying something when the competition is so fierce. Nawaz is superb.  His articulacy, coherence and passion are outstanding.

He congratulates everyone for their courage in being present. They are all in danger. The Copenhagen atrocity was only four days earlier and had as much security as this gathering. Like Rodan he stresses the importance of naming the problem. He speaks of the “Voldemort effect” – he who must not be named. Because we are frightened of naming the threat it increases the hysteria. Islamist jihad attacks must be named as such – are you listening, Mr Obama?

Lest you have not clicked the link on his name, let me tell you that Nawaz was a convicted Islamist terrorist. Today he is no less a Muslim and campaigns fiercely against Islamist terrorism through Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank that he co-founded. Watch and listen. The audience listens in rapt silence.

Douglas Murray [30:36 – 38:51]  Nawaz finishes saying, “there’s someone far better than me waiting to speak”. I don’t blame him: Douglas Murray is formidable – and that happens to be the title of one of his previous appearances in this blog. When I first saw the lineup I summed it in my mind as O’Neill, Murray and others. That was before I heard the others. Where Murray is equipped with an articulacy that is almost surgical Nawaz has overt passion to back up his articulacy. But what the hell, this isn’t a bloody contest! –  and anyway if you are tempted to think of Murray as a bit of a cold fish you should go back and watch him while Nawaz is playing that recording.

Interestingly, being the last to speak, Murray has clearly decided not so much to prepare a set piece, as simply to trust his considerable ability, coherence and knowledge of the subject to fill in any gaps that the others have left. This makes his delivery a little halting at times, but consequently warmer than he can often appear. His own passion and sincerity come shining through. And like the others he picks up the theme of naming the threat – Islamist extremism.

That concludes the opening addresses, and there remain an hour and ten minutes of questions. I commend all of it.

At the end of my recent second post on Mordechai Kedar I listed some questions to which I had no answer. This meeting goes some way towards suggesting solutions to them. But it also does for me something far more important. In my post on Mark Steyn, just after the Paris atrocities, I described myself as a fervent believer in people. I admit to times when that fervent belief gets tested, but when I see and hear young people (they’re the same age as my sons!) courageously speaking such sense it lifts my cynical heart.

I think this video is possibly the most important one currently on YouTube.

Rudy Giuliani excoriates POTUS

On February 13 the Iranian American Community of Arizona held a symposium in Phoenix  on Countering Islamic Fundamentalism. One of the speakers was Rudy Giuliani, and he became mighty passionate.

This post follows one in which George Galloway, in the British parliament on 29 January, spoke very passionately about the war in Iraq; so we find ourselves with a double bill of passionate politicians. Anyone would think I’d planned it.

Giuliani is introduced by the symposium’s moderator, Linda Chavez. Before we move on, I want to point out how effective it is for Ms Chavez to personalize this introduction. Their political careers cause them to have been acquainted for many years, and she uses reminiscence to make the introduction much more interesting than it might have been.

OK, hold on to your hat. You are in for a storm. He doesn’t burst out of the starting stalls. That would be cheap, a waste of energy, and Giuliani shows himself to be far too skillful a speaker to make that mistake. He starts with quiet intensity, building from a slow burn all the way up to thunder. Surely it is not just chance that the first powerful auxesis hits its summit  at 4:06 with his crying out the words, “Is there no passion?”

There’s passion all right, and he is exhibiting it.

He plays this audience like a skilled angler. He reels them in, building up to mighty shouts, calming down to let them get their breath back, building up again, introducing long pauses for them to reflect, etc.  Also note how he never uses the top volume ‘at’ his audience. Sometimes it’s the big rhetorical question like “Is there no passion?” addressed – as it were – to  the sky: sometimes he is shouting (so to speak) at the US President. It’s a very good technique, because he is not seen to be ranting at his audience, but with them on their behalf – being their spokesperson. And they are loving it – check out the applause. This guy is good!

Having started with what he sees as the President’s weakness towards Islamism, and having then moved into the President’s weakness towards the untrustworthiness of Iran’s theocratic regime it’s time for a third prong to his attack. At 15:30 he moves into a different arena.

Most of this audience will know a lot about Camp Liberty in Iraq. In case my reader doesn’t, but wants to understand this section of the speech better, here is a link to an article published in the British Sunday Telegraph. In the article you will see that Giuliani does not come new to this story, but marched in a protest about it in Paris in June 2013. The story does not make pretty reading, nor does it represent the proudest moment for the USA or the UN – or Britain, come to that. Small wonder some of us come close to despair over our representatives.

Loud or soft, this speech is constantly intense and, of course, shot from the hip. Giuliani (I’m changing metaphors here) plays it like a symphony. Agree with him or not, he’s some speaker!

At 21:10 he asks, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” He is speaking about the M.E.K. but if I had scripted the question for him, I could not have arranged a better cue for the blog posting that will follow this in a few days. it is going to be difficult to write because it concerns a video that is arguably one of the most important on YouTube at the moment.  I hope I can do it justice.

George Galloway: angry

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

That quote has been attributed to several people, including Ambrose Bierce and Groucho Marx, but it is generally a good piece of advice regardless.

On the other hand, as I tell my public speaking trainees, well directed passion is worth buckets of technique. In this posting I want to examine a speech delivered as recently as the 29th of January in the British Parliament. It was on the subject of the Iraq war inquiry. The speaker, George Galloway, gets very passionate.

Galloway is not noted as a shrinking violet. Many will remember his appearing before a US Senate hearing in May 2005 in which, not in the least over-awed, he hit back hard at all accusations. Here it is, if you want a reminder.

So what did you expect – an apparently mindless rant? He’s done it before, after all. No, Galloway is far too smart an operator to make that mistake here. This speech is tailored to this audience. It follows the second Cardinal rule in my book.

This is statesmanlike, passionate as all hell but statesmanlike.

These days, ‘statesmanlike’ is too often held to mean ‘bland’. And read from a script, God help us! But Galloway shoots this entire speech effortlessly and with complete confidence from the hip. And, incidentally, his diction is such that he loses not a syllable. He is as capable as I’ve seen. He is in the top 5% of speakers I’ve covered on this blog, and I tip my hat to him.

He observes all the arcane parliamentary niceties of terminology, quotes past legislators, and bestows credit towards even his political opponents when he deems it appropriate. He quotes wise saws and modern instances. He demonstrates that you don’t need a script to deploy elegant wordplay, like the distinction he makes between ‘false’ and ‘falsehood’.

For all that, this is mighty powerful! My own political opinions could not be more at odds with his, yet I am hard pressed to contest a word he says. He calls the endless procrastination over the Chilcot report a scandal, and so it is. He places the blame on Parliament, and so he should. But the Westminster bubble will ignore him as it ignores all inconvenience and will continue to do till the electorate properly exercises its democratic muscle.

It’s refreshing to see sincere passion in a politician, but I have to tell you that you ain’t seen nothing. My next posting is planned to be on a speech by a politician on the other side of the Atlantic. Passion? It makes this look like wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey from bone china. Come back in a couple of days, and hold on to your hat.

Mordechai Kedar’s history of Islam

I do not know.

Wisdom begins with those words. I picked up that nugget from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who has been featured on this blog several times, and whose first posting in April ’13 is by far the widest-read of all my postings – nearly two years later barely a day goes by without its being viewed.

If you start by acknowledging to yourself that you do not know, questions automatically spring up; and surely we all have questions concerning the activities of militant Islamists around the world. The questions usually begin with “why”.

  • Why do militant Palestinians apparently believe they are at liberty, with honour, to renege on every peace deal they make with Israel?
  • Why do Islamists routinely burn Christian churches and murder Christians in barbarous ways?
  • Why do Islamists think it justifiable to fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers in the name of a religion whose name means ‘peace’?
  • Why do the theocratic rulers of Iran deem it respectable to declare an aim to destroy the Jewish race?
  • Etc. ad tedium.

In my previous post we saw Dr Mordechai Kedar speaking in November 2012, and I stated that six months later he made another speech in which he more clearly laid out Islam’s history from his viewpoint. Here it is.

I shall wear my rhetor hat just long enough to observe that beginning a speech with nearly a minute of ‘thankings’ is not good speaking practice – yes, actors do it at the Oscars which makes my point because actors tend to be lousy public speakers. Having watched this speech several times, and also done a little research into Dr Kedar, I conclude that he felt strongly compelled to issue these thanks. Also there is really nowhere else in this speech to put them. So the bottom line  is, don’t do it unless you absolutely have to. Kedar had to.

Rhetor hat off.

Watch this speech and you find those ‘why’ questions very liberally supplied with very plausible answers. Essentially, it would appear, the mere existence of Judaism and Christianity represent an affront because they give the lie to Islam’s claim to have existed for centuries before it actually did.

Is Kedar right?

I do not know.

His version fits a great many current observations very well. It obviously is considerably more complicated than can be told in less than a quarter of an hour, and Kedar said in the speech covered in my previous post that he could speak on the subject all night, but it is very plausible. If this were a scholarly paper there would be a bibliography that we could follow to check details, but it isn’t. Let us just now, however, work with the supposition that he is right. As any seeker after truth knows, every question answered always throws up dozens of other questions. The science is never settled: the whole truth is never found.

Here are some questions that were not in Kedar’s brief but nevertheless need addressing.

  • Why do the western mainstream media routinely take the Palestinian side when they renege on their peace agreements?
  • Why do universities in western democracies think it justified to treat as a pariah the country with the only operating democracy in the middle east?
  • Why are western governments such abject apologists for Islamism?
  • Why is every Islamic atrocity always greeted within minutes by a public pronouncement from some politico-jerk bending over backwards to paint Islam as the victim and warning of “Islamophobic backlash” when such a thing never happens?

I do not know.