Barry Poulson isn’t fluffy

In my previous post, which was on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I made reference to the current USA administration – of which Mrs Clinton has been a key part – having presided over that country’s being indebted to the tune of “$20-odd trillion”. I am not in a position to know the true figures, but here’s a man who is.

Dr Barry Poulson delivered a talk to the Heartland Institute. It was entitled How Can Fiscal Rules Fix the American Government? 

How indeed? He begins at 04:19. There are severe sound-problems prior to his beginning: persevere.

I do nearly all my work with business speaking. It has particular demands on the speaker, like precision and conciseness. It is also perceived (often wrongly) to be rather hard-edged; and for this reason I enjoy helping people package tough issues in a way that makes them seem relatively fluffy.

Here we have a speaker from an academic environment. His first impression is an avuncular one. Almost immediately we are made to feel that he has all the time in the world, and reckons we have too. He even wanders off to get a drink of water, and is gone for ages; later he becomes inaudible for a time when he takes root on the wrong side of the screen. This man, we tell ourselves, doesn’t need fluffy packaging: he’s already fluffy. Beware! From what I’ve seen of academia it can be every bit as cut-throat as the business world, so ignore sheep’s clothing. The only licence that academics could have over business-people might be freedom from immediate and terminal accountability. Get it wrong and usually you can go back to the drawing board.

Poulson is dealing with an issue (national debt) that everyone has been getting scandalously wrong, and he quickly makes the point that neither of the presidential candidates is talking about it, presumably because there are no votes in it according to the pollsters (remember pollsters? – they’re the people that keep getting it wrong). This is where the $20 trillion number comes up. It exceeds GDP. On this matter Poulson isn’t fluffy: Capitol Hill is. The Executive seems to regard Venezuela as a rôle model.

His message is that without fundamental changes of fiscal direction the USA is toast. That may be unthinkable, but it is feasible and doesn’t have fluff.

There is a way out, and he spends half an hour telling us what it is. Here’s a clue: it’s a little more grown up than taxing the ‘super-rich’, which is why politicians might prefer to see their country gurgling down the drain than put it to the people. Politicians seem to be convinced that people are stupid. That’s why they call themselves ‘leaders’ and expect to be followed by sheep. They are not leaders, they are representatives. They have been delegated to attend to matters, like the nation’s finances, and to do so with competence or be booted out.

The US Constitution begins with its three most important words,

We    The    People.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but on 23 June We The People were presented with a rare chance to exercise a vote that made a difference. They rose to the opportunity, exercised grown-up judgement, made it clear they were the masters, and what their command was. Their command was the one that would keep them in charge. This was in the teeth of flawed [that’s a euphemism] arguments and judgements being fed to them by ‘leaders and experts’ of all descriptions, including the current US President. They showed they were not sheep to be led, but delegators of responsibility. The sheep among them have been bleating piteously ever since.

Politicians really do need to wake up to the probability that We The People are at least as bright as they, and do something really revolutionary like telling the unfluffy truth. Then possibly they might find that their candour wins them votes, and the USA might just be saved.

Hillary Clinton talks the talk

On 28 July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton delivered her acceptance speech for her nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the upcoming USA Presidential Election.

I tip my hat to whoever wrote this speech. It is a rhetorical masterpiece. I have never seen better. Furthermore, Clinton delivers it very well. Her use of autocue is discreet, her diction exemplary (far better than Obama’s). If I were merely critiquing this as a piece of speaking, I would stop there – what more is there to be said? But the brilliance of its writing and delivery hide more than a multitude of sins. It has quite a high PQ rating.

As I observed when critiquing Donald Trump’s equivalent offering a few days ago, I shall have no vote in the election. Nevertheless because its result will have effects way beyond its own shores, I am still interested.

In Trump’s case I pointed out that though he highlighted America’s ills he failed to offer much in the way of solutions. Clinton doesn’t even acknowledge the ills.  I suppose it might be seen as tactically imprudent – for instance – to make much of the way the Union is insolvent to the tune of $20-odd trillion when you were part of the administration that presided over that state of affairs. One claim I read recently had it at $60 trillion – a trillion here and a trillion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money. At any rate the number contains almost as many zeros as were honoured in Cameron’s lavender list.

I have also read that this President has borrowed more than all previous incumbents put together. Is that true? I don’t know: I don’t have access to the raw data, but with that sort of claim hanging over your CV it does seem tactless to occupy so much of a speech like this boasting about how much more you plan to spend. Sooner or later you will run out of other people’s money (arguably they already have). And speaking of CVs, Clinton’s isn’t exactly squeaky.

Many years, or possibly decades, ago I was in the USA shortly before another Presidential election. I cannot (cross my heart!) remember who the two candidates were at that time, but I do remember being amused by a button badge that was widespread…

Any Turkey for President.

Donald Trump is loud

After the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago everywhere was buzzing with Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. So I just had to go and look!

It is more than 75 minutes long, so I’ll keep my comments brief.

I suppose it is in the nature of such jamborees that the speaker is expected to bellow all the time. My pondering whether Americans have heard of microphones would be less than courteous, and naughty; but in case anyone wonders let me make it clear that with only a rudimentary grasp of microphone technique Trump would be completely audible if he spoke to this hall as if he were speaking across a dining table. If he speaks like this across his dining table I do hope I’m never invited.

Actually, in all seriousness, if he spoke as if across a dining table he would be more audible, because he often commits an error that is quite widespread. I call it disproportionate syllable stress. The speaker, when raising  his voice, hammers the bejabers out of stress syllables at the expense of subordinate syllables which disappear completely. Subordinate syllables are almost always at the ends of words, and there are several parts of this speech where word-ends go AWOL. (Obama does it worse, by the way.)

Other than that technical observation I’ll merely say that Trump is a very good speaker.

I should not be concerned with what says – I am not an American voter – but while we’re here…

If you wrote a memo to your line manager, identifying in detail what was going wrong with your company, he might appreciate your frankness. If in the process you nevertheless failed to make adequate suggestions as to what should be done to correct the problems he might be less than satisfied. This is the principal problem with this speech. Trump highlights very effectively what is wrong with the administration of the USA, but is rather light on suggested remedies.

I shall be looking next at Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Spirit of Entebbe

4 July, 1976, saw a military operation beyond compare.

102 Israeli hostages being held in the old terminal at Entebbe airport in Uganda were rescued by a crack troop of Israeli soldiers. If ever a real-life mission could be described as impossible this was it. The bravery might have spilled over into foolhardiness; but fortune favours the brave, and meticulous planning by those guys manufactured a lot of fortune. You can see a 45-minute jaw-dropping documentary here, featuring some of the men who took part.

The fortieth anniversary of the operation was marked at Entebbe airport, when President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to commemorate the event by attending a summit with many other African heads of state.  In my previous posting we watched Museveni’s speech of welcome.  Today we look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s reply.

This speech is less than six minutes long, and immensely important. I would have loved to have worked on it with him, releasing him from the tyranny of that bloody script for one thing (it caused at least two examples of word-stumbling), and for another making  everyone listen to this…

When terrorism succeeds in one place it spreads to other places; and when terrorism is defeated anywhere it’s weakened everywhere.

With those words Netanyahu has a message for the whole world, in particular to those who have turned appeasement into a lifestyle choice. It is quite difficult to find a western politician, mainstream news medium, or opinion former of any kind, who hasn’t.

Netanyahu uses this speech for two essential messages. Predictably he pays tribute to the soldiers who carried out the rescue in 1976. He has brought some of them with him on this visit – his brother, Yoni, commanded the mission and was the only fatality among the Israeli soldiers. But he concentrates less on lauding their heroism and more on the example they set to today’s battle with terrorism as a whole – hence that quote above.

The other message concerns his wish to strengthen trading relationships with African nations.

It seems to me that they should all be lining up to do business with Israel. The country may be a tiny sliver of land in the middle of a huge region of oil-rich nations who want to destroy her, but without any conspicuous natural resources she has succeeded in creating prosperity and order. She is the only working democracy in the region.

As a prospective trading partner she has a matchless reputation for scientific and technical innovation.  That is why India has forged such a strong political and commercial relationship with her.

You may have problems with some of her politics, but you are not alone. Her fiercest critics are among her own citizens. Nevertheless it is worth pointing out that she is the only country in that region that protects freedom of speech, politics, religion, and sexuality, whereas her neighbours officially practise quaint local customs like tossing offenders off high buildings.

She is not decadent – and there are few western countries of whom you can say that. Being constantly threatened on all sides has kept her lean and mean.

Most importantly she has repeatedly shown loyalty. The Entebbe rescue mission was a shining example. Compare it, for example, to the Benghazi attack on the US Embassy in September 2012, and reflect afresh on the western decadence I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Israel’s principal failing seems to be in allowing her neighbours to persuade the western intelligentsia that for all their barbaric aggression, for all their sponsoring of worldwide terrorist atrocities, they are somehow victims. Perhaps Israel sees the dark arts of PR as just another symptom of decadence, or they recognise the current crop of intelligentsia as a pitifully dim bunch.

At any rate, if the chips were down, there is no one I’d prefer to have on my side than Israel.

Yoweri Museveni is great fun

4 July, 2016 marked the fortieth anniversary of perhaps the most audacious and brilliant military operation that I remember occurring in my lifetime. I refer to Operation Entebbe, in which a crack squad of Israeli Special Forces somehow landed at night at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, rescued 102 heavily guarded hostages (Israeli passengers from an Air France airliner hijacked by Palestinians), and spirited them away. The operation took one week to plan and 90 minutes to execute. The hijackers, 3 hostages and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Five of the Israeli rescue unit were injured and one was killed.

The reason that Ugandan soldiers were involved was that Idi Amin, the brutal buffoon that was that country’s dictator, supported the Palestinian terrorist hijackers. Uganda’s current President, Yoweri Museveni, was part of the movement that overthrew Amin.

He invited Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Entebbe as part of the celebrations to mark this anniversary. That was an appropriate diplomatic gesture; and it had a poignant added layer. His elder brother, Lt Col Jonathan Netanyahu, was the rescue unit’s commander and the single Israeli killed.

President Museveni made a speech.

There is a short version of edited excerpts from this speech. They are compiled from Museveni’s attempts at a précis of Jewish history, and are posted on YouTube against the adjective ‘hilarious’. In truth it is very funny and no surprise that it has been viewed nearly 180,000 times. Nevertheless, wearing my rhetor hat, I want to examine this speech as a whole, in the context in which it was delivered.

He begins with a Hierarchical Hello. On occasions such as this these are de rigeur. For many reasons they are ghastly to do, and I have witnessed too many speakers racing to get the bloody things over and done with. That is a mistake, for both protocol and practical reasons. Protocol is obvious; but practically, you merely highlight your own uneasiness with this OBN catalogue. Museveni does exactly the opposite: he sticks huge pauses in there, and I salute him for it.

He goes on to stick huge pauses everywhere, and I am on his side here too. The subliminal message that accompanies many long pauses is one of supreme confidence. Even if you proceed to commit a series of gaffes (which he does) the conveying of an air of nonchalance over that, combined with a readiness to indulge in self-deprecating laughter (which he also does) is very appealing. He is not here to help anyone with their PhD in Holy Land history, and he will laugh as loud and as long as anyone at his own remarks like –

“Herod was a bad gentleman, or something like that.”

When he gets away from that subject matter he knows better whereof he speaks, and it shows. How many politicians at a high profile event such as this would take on the knotty distinction between freedom-fighting and terrorism? All terrorists would self-identify as freedom fighters, but Museveni has a succinct way of separating them out, and makes a reasonable case.

Then he goes back into the history of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu enjoys it, and I venture that he is laughing with Museveni, not at him. Camera shots of other people in the audience display a certain tight-lippage, but who cares about them? Museveni doesn’t: he and his mate Benjamin are enjoying their own jokey party.

There’s a long, rambling, hugely enjoyable story about a conversation he had had with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, concerning the whereabouts these days of the ‘Medians’. After a while I worked out that he spoke of the Medes – as in Medes-and-Persians. In that part of the old testament it’s one of those indivisible pairings, like gin and tonic. Where are the ‘Medians’ now? he asked Ahmadinejad. He had no answer, so an ancient professor from the university had to be summoned. Ultimately Museveni concludes that there exists a lot of ignorance, and so the speech meanders on in largely enjoyable fashion. Most particularly it concludes very well.

Let us consider the purpose of this speech. Museveni is a host, welcoming an honoured guest to his table and putting him at his ease. As an instrument for delivering that, this speech is first class. If you don’t believe me, look at how much the honoured guest is enjoying it. Rectally challenged students of diplomacy can ‘tut’ all they like about imagined faux pas, but who cares? In its way, and for what it is setting out to do this is a triumph.

It is not an easy act to follow, and guess who is following? I intend next to look at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reply.

Ephraim Mirvis ranks with the best.

The Oxford Union very recently played host to a talk from Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi to the Commonwealth.

I was eager to watch this, not just wearing my rhetor hat. I find it refreshing periodically to bathe my mind in the waters of matters spiritual. Though I harbour a gnawing uneasiness towards organised religions of all colours, I think it is good for us to suspect that there is some entity greater than us. To listen to a spiritual teacher whose apostolic succession covers many millennia can therefore surely not be time wasted.

 He is shooting from the hip. What did I expect?

Actually I always expect experienced speakers to shoot from the hip: it is easy, safe, and makes for an immeasurably better relationship between speaker and audience. Too often I am disappointed. In this case I would have been astounded if Mirvis had been using any sort of memory assistance. He is a Chief Rabbi who has elected to explain the five fundamentals of the Torah. What sort of Rabbi would he be if that needed prompting? Nevertheless merely a random dip into past postings on this blog would show lamentably frequent examples of speakers letting down both themselves and their audiences with use of paper.

Mirvis is good. So good, that I happily put down my notepad and just listen.

Almost immediately I learn the distinction that he makes between the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. So startling is this discovery that for a few seconds I am guilty of tangential thinking. [I explain to my trainees that when an audience member’s mind goes off on a tangent it often means that the speaker has triggered it by saying something special; though while he is still speaking he needs to curtail that tangential diversion and bring the straying mind back to him – there are ways!]

Beginning at around 06:55 Mirvis has a message which culminates in a story that draws from me a genuine LOL. This is rare. Having been around for a few years, circled the block often, studied for my living all descriptions of entertainment and all types of audience, I very seldom laugh out loud. I get amused easily enough, but I tend to show it quietly. Mirvis made me laugh out loud. I might on reflection take issue with the message, but I tip my hat to the skilful delivery of the story.

Mirvis speaks till 36:25, and thereafter it is questions. I am very glad I watched all of it.

Maajid Nawaz: so-o-o close!

In May 2016, at AJC Europe in Paris, Maajid Nawaz delivered a talk on the global jihadist insurgency. He is a Muslim, founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank. AJC is a Jewish advocacy organisation. This talk represents ecumenism at an exalted level.

This is not the first time he has appeared in this blog. He was the third speaker on the magnificent panel that I featured here. He was very good and I said so. He subsequently sent me an email of thanks. It would be idle and foolish of me to claim that that event was not dangerous and stressful – it was, very – but in terms of the actual process of delivering a piece of speaking he was surrounded by elements of comfort. For instance there were the other speakers, all with varying versions of an agreeing message, they were all sitting behind a desk (curiously comforting), and so on. Therefore when I saw that he had delivered this speech, standing alone at a lectern, I was interested to see how well he coped without those comfort factors. I so want him to be as good as he can be.

Oh no, he has a script!

I could understand if a reader of mine viewed with exasperation my always harping on this point, but it matters even though Nawaz barely looks at it. Even if he never looked at it because he’d learnt it (and I suspect this is close to the case) I would still know it existed, and it would still matter.

I would know it existed because the sentences are just a little too well parsed to be spontaneous, and that’s why it would matter. Because there is a script the passion behind what he is saying is not coming straight from him, but from the script via him. I don’t say that the passion is not genuine: indeed I know it is genuine. My problem is that not being spontaneous the passion crosses the space between him and the audience with a tiny reduction in power. If ever there was a message of such importance that even a subtle reduction in power is a hideous pity, it is this one.

The reduction is so small for several reasons. He feels the passion strongly. He has obviously practised. He is driven by a fierce desire to get his message across. It is actually a  good script, written with the intention (very nearly achieved) that it should sound spoken rather than written.

He has done almost everything right. Almost. He now has to learn how to speak without a script whether or not it is memorised, and also learn that he can. Here and now with total conviction I can tell you that he can; but till he absolutely knows it he won’t dare try.

This is a very well-conceived speech, and such an important one!

At 08:14 someone in the audience shows agreement with a little clap that we can’t hear. It generates a round of applause, and this is just what he needs. Spurred, he departs from the script with a little aside of appreciation and then returns to the fray with added impetus. Now he is speaking as if with no script (I wonder whether he has departed from it and is speaking largely spontaneously around it). Now he is fully in the driving seat, instead of perching with half a buttock on the handbrake. This is how he should have sounded from the start: this borders on excellence.

At 11:50 he reminds us that he knows so much about the Islamist methods of persuasion because he used to be one who practised them. If you want to see how plausible he was, you can get a taste of his former self here.

It is his depth of understanding of the whole problem that makes Maajid Nawaz so valuable, and why his being even a tenth of a notch below excellence such a pity.