Andrew Klavan needs beaker

The Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley (who’da thought?) invited Andrew Klavan to speak at their annual Christmas / Hanukkah party last year.

Klavan is no stranger to either Christmas or Hanukkah, being Jewish by birth and upbringing, and having converted and been baptised a Christian in recent years. He described the pain and reward of that journey in his remarkable book The Great Good Thing, one of the few books for which I have ever bothered to write a review on Amazon.

Here however he is speaking not so much about religion but about being members of a minority group, conservatives in a leftist community. He’s an expert: he lives in Hollywood.

In his podcasts Klavan shows himself to be highly adept both on camera and microphone, and his skill with the written word is legendary, but none of that guarantees that he can handle a live audience. Let’s see …

He’s good, very good, but then I knew that. I’ve seen his ebullience and huge personality being poured into a camera lens in his video podcasts. His delivery to a live audience is very nearly as good. You’ll have spotted that I pulled up short of the absolute superlative, and I will return to that in due course.

He has paper on that lectern, but essentially it’s there as a backstop. He really refers to it only when he is quoting others, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as you need not only to get the quote right but be seen to be doing so. The rest of the time he doesn’t need to follow his script because he has structured his material in a way that he (and we) can follow and remember.

Note how he has divided his message into chapters. Note how he then subdivides his chapters into smaller sections. Yes, the mystery of the ‘magic’ of speaking without notes comes down to details as simple as those. As so much of his hi-tec communication performances these days will depend upon AutoCue, I am pleased to see that he knows and still follows the strictures of horse-drawn public speaking.

Nevertheless there are subtle, almost indefinable, differences between speaking to an audience you can see and one you can’t. I’m referring to timing. For eight years I had a weekly radio programme, and then when I was speaking to live audiences I became conscious that I was occasionally mistiming things slightly.

Mistiming is most apparent when you are playing for a laugh. You don’t need to be an expert to know when you got it wrong.  It’s when the market refuses to buy: the laugh doesn’t come. You get that information only with a live audience, but it can be a shock to the confidence because you begin to wonder whether you are getting it wrong also with the invisible audience on the radio whose response you can’t gauge.

For my part I find him flawlessly laugh-out-loud in his podcasts, though it took me a bit of time to tune in to his wavelength. On the other hand though he harvests some stunningly good laughs there are just a couple of moments here in this speech when the laugh gears don’t quite engage. He’s a pro so he covers it superbly; but if I were advising him I would urge him to speak to live audiences a little more regularly in order to keep the timing instincts exercised, not least because he obviously revels in his live audience. I think I would also suggest that he lean a teeny bit more towards throw-away, as opposed to overt, humour. (As I have said a few times on this blog, I get this picky only with the best; and when they are the best why the hell should they pay attention to me anyway?)

I would also get him to insist on a beaker for his water. That bloody bottle drove me insane!

 

Andrea Jenkyns should spurn “polish”

My eye was caught by a Tweet. Andrea Jenkyns MP was protesting that due to certain medical conditions (which are not for me to describe) she would never be a “polished public speaker”. My instant reaction was to wonder why she – or anybody – would want to be a “polished” public speaker. It is close to being an infallible guide that the more “polish” the less sincerity.

I decided to delve a little deeper into the story. It seems to stem from her appearance on last Thursday’s BBC broadcast of Question Time. I don’t follow that, because I tire of what appears to be the BBC’s promotion of their biased narrative through constructing unrepresentative panels to face equally unrepresentative audiences.

I went and found a recent speech by Andrea Jenkyns. She made this at the BrexitCentral Conference, a packed sideshow event, held on 30 September at the Conservative party Conference.

Having thanked Jonathan Isaby, who is chairing, she embarks upon some chitchat that clearly means something to her audience but doesn’t concern us. The trouble is that her extended preamble is untidy. If she mistakenly thinks she wants “polish”, she could do worse than clean up this sort of mess. I know she’s among friends who will share private jokes, but if I were advising her I’d keep the “Thank you Jonathan”, and then pause for a strong two or three seconds before cutting straight to “Remember that referendum day…” at 1:08.

My next piece of advice would be to take her script and consign it to the nearest bin.

I know she genuinely believes that it helps keep her on track, and far too many share that mistaken belief, but it is a cruel fallacy. Let me try to show you what I mean.

Every so often she leaves the script and speaks spontaneously with her audience. An example is at 1:51 beginning with “Too many of those …” and carrying through to 2:16. The tone of voice, rhythm of speech, body language, everything says that the real Andrea Jenkyns is now speaking with us. And then when she returns to her script most of that goes AWOL. Now she is merely regurgitating something she wrote earlier, and stumbling rather often in the process.

“Ums” and “ers” and – yes – stumbles are features of real day-to-day speaking, and audiences instinctively know this, bestow an intangible licence, and forgive them (or actually seldom notice). Stumbles when you are reading somehow don’t carry this benefit: they seem lame and amateurish. Jenkyns reads well, with masses of expression, but that expression is infinitely stronger when she is speaking spontaneously. And that’s actually true of everyone.

But what of that necessity to stay on track? No problem. It simply comes down to structure. If you know how to prepare your material properly you can present yourself with a mind-map, a route as clear and as easy to follow as driving up a motorway.

That is all Jenkyns needs to learn. Everything else will be automatically looked after by the conviction and passion that got her into parliament in the first place, and the political experience that she has accumulated since.

If she reads this she probably won’t believe it, but it’s true.

 

Jonathan Brown resets the bar

The International Institute of Islamic Thought hosted a talk by Dr Jonathan Brown. It was entitled Islam and the Problem of Slavery.

That’s an interesting title. For whom does he reckon there’s a problem? The slaves or the political apologists for Islam? Shall we find out?

With the list of speeches I have critiqued on this blog nudging close to 400, I am very often asked who I rank as the best speaker. I am rather less often asked for the worst. We have today a very strong contender for the latter title.

Here’s a handy piece of advice for speakers. If you are sufficiently interesting, amusing, or dynamic the audience will forgive you a wide range of shortcomings. You can mess up the order of your slides, you can have an “irritatingly” “repetitive” “mannerism” (for instance – I’m just picking “something” at random – you might “wave” your “fingers” in the air every “few” seconds to indicate inverted commas), you can lose your place in your script too often even though your face is buried in it all the time, you can take an age to connect the projector to show a completely dispensable piece of film footage and then take an eon afterwards to reconnect to your slides, though the audience is likely to be less forgiving if you mumble so much that they can’t hear you properly.

You can also discern if you are not being sufficiently interesting because the air will be filled with the sounds of mobile telephones being used.

The stupid thing is how easily it can be fixed.

The speech is nearly fifty minutes long, and I defy anyone who isn’t conscientiously determined to see it through for the purposes of covering it on a blog to make it to the end of the first ten dreary minutes – or even five? This is tedium honed to its ultimate.

What’s the answer to that question in my second paragraph? I’ve no idea. He seemed to be trying to wrestle with the precise definition of slavery (sorry, “slavery”) citing examples of it throughout history in order to convey that it really needn’t be so bad. So that’s all right then.

I don’t think he ever actually addressed what was specified in the title of the talk, though I might have dozed off.

He tells us there are two more such papers for him to deliver. If it’s all the same to you I’ll pass.

 

Richard Dreyfuss and Civics

It’s just talking!  My public speaking trainees probably get sick of my saying that, but it’s true. Yes, there are things to learn in terms of optimising your material for impact, digestibility, and memorability. There are devices for coping with nerves, for grabbing and holding the audience’s attention, and so on. But strip away all the mystique, and it’s just talking.

Therefore when an interviewee on a TV programme holds forth for a couple of minutes on an important subject I regard it as public speaking as much as if he were on a platform in an auditorium. It is also just talking.

In April 2017, Tucker Carlson had actor Richard Dreyfuss on his programme for an interview, and quite evidently expected it to be adversarial (in fact he admitted it shortly before the end). In the event, though, Dreyfuss launched into an expression of such good sense that Carlson just let him roll uninterrupted.

The video starts with a very short clip from an apparently incendiary interview with someone else a couple of days earlier, and then we learn how Dreyfuss now comes to be down the line from a studio in California.

Carlson begins fairly defiantly, and Dreyfuss replies in a sober manner that momentarily wrong foots him. There follows a little perfunctory skirmishing, during which Dreyfuss briefly disarms Carlson a couple of times; and then around 3:55 Carlson’s trademark worried frown (which tends to be his launchpad for counter-attack) begins subtly changing to one of approval and full-blown receive-mode as Dreyfuss begins lamenting the loss of the teaching of Civics in the US public education system.

The interview concludes with some metaphorical mutual back-slapping, with Carlson expressing the hope that Dreyfuss will come back on the programme another time. But Dreyfuss has more to add.

He invites viewers to go on his website to sign the Preamble to the US Constitution. It begins –

We the People…

Those words!

It’s uncanny how I, on this blog, keep coming back to Brexit.

 

Susan Collins settles it.

The recent, highly dramatic and sometimes ugly, circus that surrounded the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States seemed in the event to be largely settled by a single speech from the Senate Floor on Friday October 5.

Susan Collins, senior United States Senator for Maine, delivered a forty minute speech which concluded with the declaration that she would vote ‘Yes’. Almost immediately the usual suspects began screaming that she had condoned rape. Anyone claiming to conclude that from this speech has not heard it.

This is long, measured, sober and well-argued. So much so that it would be impertinent for me – not even an American – to judge it.

Nevertheless I am conscious that you may not be able easily to spare forty minutes to watch the whole thing, so I will restrict myself to supplying some guidance – a map, if you will – as to what she discusses, and when.

  • The first four minutes are devoted to condemnation of some of the behaviour surrounding this particular nomination. Targets for her ire include not just activists and journalists, but even a few members of the Senate itself.
  • She then moves into the necessity for looking beyond supposed party affiliations of a nominee like Kavanaugh, citing her own votes for past nominees. This leads into an extended description of her detailed examination of Kavanaugh’s Judgements, Opinions, Speeches and Legal Writings over a great number of years. This includes many examples of when his legal conclusions have run contrary to what might have been expected considering his supposed political persuasion. It also includes long, frank and penetrating conversations she held with him after his nomination. Crucially it reveals the strength of his regard for precedent.
  • At 21:40 she addresses the wealth of glowing testimonials from all who have worked with him. These are not only technical legal commendations but also those dealing with his demeanour and character.
  • At 24:00 she turns to the accusation from Professor Ford. Her main thrust is that though she believes Prof. Ford is sincere and was assaulted by someone, somewhere, sometime, the principle of the presumption of innocence is of such fundamental importance that in the absence of any corroborating evidence it fails the ‘more-likely-than-not’ standard and must therefore be dismissed. On the other hand she is withering in her condemnation of the me-too allegations against Kavanaugh that emerged from the woodwork.
  • At 32:25 she launches into expressing the hope that some good might come out of this if it raises public awareness of sexual assault.
  • The final section begins at 36:10. She talks of Ford’s reluctance to come forward, and how she feels she was a victim of political manoeuvring, though she completely absolves Senator Feinstein of that. She praises Chairman Grassley for the way he handled the proceedings, but she expresses contempt for whoever leaked Professor Ford’s letter.

The speech is structured and delivered beautifully. It is very impressive indeed.

Owen Paterson just talks

The UK in a changing Europe held a meeting in May 2018, entitled Brexit and the island of Ireland. It included a keynote from the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP.

For some time I have wanted to look at his speaking on this blog, as he is one of Britain’s more impressive Members of Parliament, noted for the conscientiousness with which he does his homework. And there was another reason.

Since the referendum in June 2016, when the British people instructed parliament to extricate the country from the EU, I have been bemused by the convoluted meal that has been made of it. Very shortly after the vote I read an article by a Swiss professor of international law which stated that we did not need Article 50, we could just leave. I read that Lord Tebbit had stated that leaving needed only, “We’re going. We hope we can still be friends. Bye!

The latter might be just a tad simplistic; but I have also noticed that those who insisted upon complications were mainly politicians, lawyers and civil servants, all of whom by nature can cut red tape only lengthwise. They need to get out of the way. Ordinary folk just get on with things. And when the matter of the Northern Ireland Border came up, I looked on in disbelief as a non-problem was elevated to ridiculous proportions. Owen Paterson has always struck me as having a more practical mentality than most, and his wide experience with Northern Ireland meant that he could fill in the obvious holes in my knowledge. Here is my chance to learn the problems that have escaped me.

The introduction is by Professor Anand Menon. He looks down at the lectern to tell us that. I think we can safely assume that he has in fact memorised his own name, so there we have evidence to what extent people use the lectern as a security blanket. Ok I’m being a little unkind because he very properly raises his eyes to us for the remainder of the time, except when listing future events, but people do use lecterns as a security blanket. Much of my time is spent in showing people that they don’t need a security blanket.

Paterson begins at 3:40 and ends for Q&A at 16:25. I don’t think he looks at the lectern one single time.

He spends his first couple of minutes on ethos, in which it emerges that his experience with Ireland, Northern and Republic, goes far beyond merely his parliamentary involvement, which in itself is very extensive.

Thereafter he makes it clear that any sort of heavy border is – in his own words – a dotty idea. It is undesirable for both sides, both of whom will want to go on trading as smoothly as possible. It is also unnecessary, as technology has already smoothed out such requirements. The British and Irish people have shown they can cooperate though much bigger issues than this. To suggest otherwise is political mischief.

His approach to public speaking is equally down to earth. He epitomises what I regularly say to my trainees, “It’s just bloody talking!” Yes, he occasionally goes a bit quickly and swallows a few syllables, but he doesn’t pretend to be attempting high oratory. He’s just talking, and everything about the way he does it conveys sincerity.

Ben Sasse educates

Through September, the clamour surrounding the confirmation of the proposed appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has spiralled to alarming proportions. Yesterday, 27 September, saw Judge Kavanaugh deliver an impassioned, emotional, and defiant defence of himself, his record and his character; though for sheer drama that was challenged by Senator Lindsey Graham who tore into what he saw as a disgusting conspiracy by certain parties. It is perfectly possible that Judge Kavanaugh’s and Senator Graham’s speeches will find their way onto this blog, but for now I’d like to turn to a quieter more reasoned time.

At the beginning of September lawmakers delivered opening statements to the confirmation hearing. Senator Ben Sasse was one of them, and he gave a brilliant speech.

For this Brit, with little more than a sketchy understanding of the workings of the US legislature, this speech is an education. For one thing it seems to explain the creation of what President Trump calls “the swamp”. But it is much more than that, as it also has huge resonances to what ails the political tides in Britain.

When he says “The legislature is impotent: the legislature is weak, and most people here want their jobs more than they want to do legislative work so they punt most of the work to the next branch” I find myself thinking that the British legislature does exactly the same thing, in fact disgracefully punted most of it overseas whence the British people are desperately trying to claw it back.

Sasse strongly advocates restricting responsibility for legislature to the hands of those who can be kicked out of office when they get it wrong. He is referring to SCOTUS being a lifetime appointment for a Justice, but you get no prizes for guessing what I am thinking. Nevertheless let’s stick with Sasse (who, incidentally, later explains even more clearly why politicians punt decision-making away). He says that the judiciary’s having become such a political hot potato stems from the elected politicians’ having failed to do their job properly.

There’s a potent moment for me, a student of audiences, at 0:32. The split screen allows us simultaneously to watch Sasse and the focal point of the audience – Kavanaugh himself. The latter has been listening intently, but now picks up a pen to make notes.

What I think is significant about Kavanaugh throughout this speech is not just the intensity of his concentration, but the dispassion. His frowns convey concentration not disagreement. At no point does his expression display an opinion on what is said. The exception is when Sasse slips in a provocative joke, and Kavanaugh permits himself a smile.

Just before his summary, and beginning at 9:39, Sasse delivers a very strong anaphora – “this is why …”, and then the summary heads unswervingly towards his final two sentences.

“It seems to me that Judge Kavanaugh is ready to do his job. The question for us is whether we’re ready to do our job.”