Liam Halligan loses a slice

In March, 2018, nearly two years after the British people had handed their government their instruction to leave the EU, we still had not done so.

(Today more than two years after that, we still have not done so, though just over a week ago at the end of June we passed the deadline after which another extension of the transition may not be granted. Now, the rules state that on 31 December we leave – for better or worse – with whatever deal has been agreed, or without one. Back to 28 March 2018 …)

The Bruges Group held a conference, entitled Clean Brexit in Princess Alexandra Hall in London. One of the speakers was Liam Halligan.

If you clicked the link that I customarily attach to the speaker’s name, you will see that Halligan is a distinguished columnist and broadcaster. To most, that combination would guarantee that he crafts good arguments and can convey them to an auditorium. By no means is this necessarily true: broadcasting and public speaking are enormously different.

You need only glance at the still picture above to see that Halligan is reading his speech. Therefore before we hear a word we know that the speech is not as good as it could or should be. His website tells us he speaks often, but if he has not done himself the favour of learning how to dispense with paper then however good the words he will not do justice to their delivery – at least not to the bits that he reads. If only he knew how easy it is!

He starts well. It’s a funny opening. His self-deprecating summary of himself as an economist trips off his tongue with the smoothness of the oft-repeated, but I have no problem with that. Nor has he: thorough road-testing of such routines are what make them work. Then at 1:33 his eyes go down to his article and, no longer being spontaneous, a fat slice comes off the top of his stage presence.

As readers go, he’s a pretty good one. He’s expressive and lively, but he’s still a talking head. You could close your eyes and know from the sound alone that he’s regurgitating something he wrote previously.

But not always. At 6:26 he gets excited and doesn’t look down again for nine seconds. That may not seem much time, but for those nine seconds the whole tenor of the delivery lifts markedly.

Those nine seconds are also long enough to lose him his place in the script, and a lame pause ensues. For about the thousandth time on this blog I’m shouting at the screen, “Throw the bloody script away!” He could do it, easily: he just doesn’t know he could.

Otherwise, it’s not a bad speech.

Hans Rosling – amazing!

Many of my trainees at first assume that I disapprove of visuals, because I don’t appear to use them. It’s true that there are almost never any slides in my lectures, but I have a couple of visual props that I use. Essentially my rule is that a visual should be used only if omitting it would significantly impoverish the promotion of your message. Never allow yourself to be voice-over for a string of pictures, competing with you for the audience’s attention.

The finest user of visuals that I have encountered – one of my heroes – was the late Hans Rosling. He has been on this blog twice – here and here – but not since his sad death in 2017. I chanced upon today’s offering and decided to feature it, because one of his most endearing characteristics was his cheerfulness, and we seem to need cheerfulness at the moment. My own expectation of cheerfulness is slightly dented by the realisation that Rosling outlived this performance by barely two years, notwithstanding the comment we will hear him make at 25:33.

I believe he had a superb team of techies, preparing his slides, because they always illustrated his point in a revolutionary fashion and always animated. But I have never before seen, from him or anyone else, what we see here. At 2:26 he builds a graph in the air between him and his audience. What is it: a hologram? I don’t know, but it’s brilliant.

Then suddenly we are watching some video footage, but what does the audience in the hall see? The same video on a screen there, probably, but where is Rosling while the video is playing? I don’t know, but being obsessed with a speaker’s relationship with his audience I’d like to.

Here’s my point. Many speeches are delivered to live audiences and incidentally videos are made of them. Other speeches are made specifically for the video market and an incidental audience is invited to the filming, not least to supply audience reaction. Either way it’s a bit of a compromise, because there are subtle differences in how you present to each medium. But not here. Rosling appears effortlessly to be straddling the two. My word, but he was good!

So concerned have I been with the technicalities, that I haven’t mentioned the message. If you are familiar with his work it will not surprise you to be told that he is exploding the widely held fallacies about the world and the way it is going. Materially the world – all of it! – is going not to the dogs but getting better. Nearly all metrics indicate that global life is getting better – and he illustrates the data in a hugely entertaining fashion. Watch that speech, and it’ll be one of the shortest hours you ever knew.

Yes, there are still some – a rapidly decreasing number, but some – for whom life remains a hard struggle. We see them on video, tackling their struggle with good humour, and my mind flies off to other recent video footage of spoilt kids in rich countries, rioting and burning and looting because of some imagined victimhood.

He addresses climate change – lukewarmly, but he addresses it. I reckon he has to for a lot of understandable political and financial reasons, but I’d like specifically to address a few seconds of video footage of a chimney starting at 52:20. Try going there and pausing the video.

What do you see? A factory chimney belching out filthy, sooty smoke? No. That can’t be smoke. Smoke doesn’t create itself out of nothing after an appreciable gap of a few feet above the chimney. That gap is the giveaway. What we’re seeing is steam – a colourless gas which you can’t see – coming out and cooling to vapour – which you can see. Look closely at the spout of a boiling kettle and you’ll see the same thing. Yes, the vapour from the kettle is a very different colour, but this bit of video has had a colour filter applied. It’s phoney. I’ve seen countless examples of this cheat, so I spotted it immediately.

True, there are factory chimneys with real smoke coming out of them but smoke doesn’t look dramatic enough so they cook up this piece of phoney film. I’ll say no more on that, except I’d like to think that Rosling didn’t make it but used a piece of library film that others supplied.

It’s an amazing lecture, though, and I’m so glad I found it.

Trevor Phillips and censorship

In February 2020, The Free Speech Union was founded by Toby Young. At the launch party, there was a speech from Trevor Phillips, who is the Chair of Index on Censorship.

Nice opening! One of the mantras that I drill into my trainees is that ultimately public speaking is just talking. Yes, there are differences between standing on a platform, speaking before an audience of hundreds, and chatting to friends over a cup of coffee, and it’s obviously worth exploring those differences, but still it’s just talking. Phillips, in this relaxed opening, embodies that philosophy. I repeat: nice opening.

Who edited this? I’m not just complaining about how many edit points there are, but how easy it is to spot them. I’m exercising my right of free speech when I declare that this is been edited with fists of ham.

This is a very good speech, prompted by bullet points on a smartphone to be sure but still a very good speech on a very important topic. I want to hear it, warts and all. I want to hear the real Trevor Phillips uttering the real words, all of them, because they’re good and wise words. I don’t want someone else’s idea of a sanitised version. I suspect that the removed bits are just a few “ums” and “errs”, but I want to hear those too. They are part of the authenticity. A string of obvious edit-points opens this up – with ludicrous irony – to accusations of censorship. Duh!

Raheem Kassam looks left

In August 2019 The America Conservative Union and Liberty Works brought CPAC to Australia. One of the speakers was Raheem Kassam.

Nice introduction, whoever that is. Quirky, funny, and above all short.

The introduction tells us that Kassam is likely to be jet lagged. Strangely enough I’ve found that jet-lag, far from ruining speeches, is often a beneficial source of peripheral stress. Perhaps it triggers an extra helping of adrenaline. The key to combatting it is to have had plenty of sleep. At any rate Kassam seems to be on the ball.

He conspicuously comes out from behind the lectern, wearing a clip-on lapel mic. Does this mean that he’s going to shoot this all from the hip? Not quite.

I become puzzled by how much of the time he is looking to the left (stage left: his left). I wonder whether the auditorium is asymmetric. That would be weird, but not entirely unknown. The hypothesis deflates when I see the lectern standing square to the stage. No there has to be another reason, and I soon spot it. He is being prompted by notes on the lectern – probably just bullet-points, judging by how seldom he looks, though he also conspicuously and correctly reads a quotation – so whether looking at the notes or not he is more comfortable with the lectern in view. That’s irrational: lecterns don’t walk away, but it is a less obvious symptom of let-lag.

There are two solutions. Discipline yourself always to monitor the whole arc of audience and/or learn to do without even bullet-points. From the quality of his speaking I suspect that he’s on top of both. He came out from behind the lectern, because he’s happier not having that between him and his audience. But then he decided to play safe with bullet points because these are special circumstances – jet-lag again.

Yes, jet-lag may not impair the speech, but it can introduce tiny tendencies that get spotted by sad specialists like me. Enough of all that; what about the speech itself?

It’s very good indeed, and delivered well. Worth watching. There’s stuff in there that is relevant to things going on right now.

Thomas Sowell’s answers

It’s a matter of great frustration to me that I am unable to find recent speeches from the man I consider to be one of the clearest and wisest thinkers I have heard or read, Thomas Sowell.

Nevertheless there are many interviews with him, frequently conducted by my namesake Peter Robinson. He is an outstandingly good interviewer of the old school. He works on the basis that the purpose of the interview is to tease information from the guest for the enlightenment of the viewer, so he becomes a frame in which the interviewee is the picture. Too many interviewers today regard the guest as a platform off which they may flaunt their own bigotry.

Conversations between these two very often give us invaluable insight into current issues, their cause and possible solutions. This one is a prime example for the background to events of this week. My blog may be primarily devoted to actual speeches, but I consider circumstances to dictate exceptions.

William Happer and Klingon

The Heartland Institute held a conference in Madrid in mid December 2019, to coincide with COP25 – The United Nations Climate Change Conference – also in Madrid. One of their speakers was Dr William Happer.

I had intended to feature another Happer speech, made at Princeton in September 2014. I enjoyed that one, not least when at 4:25 he shows photographs from Al Gore’s book, Our Choice. Gore has created an image of what the world will look like if we don’t follow his lead over climate. Gore is full of such predictions as we remember from his film An Inconvenient Truth. Predictions in that film have long passed their sell-by date, and none has materialised. The prediction in this image from the book has similar themes like land disappearing under the rising sea, and an abundance of hurricanes. Happer points out that one of the hurricanes is depicted revolving the wrong way round. Along with the audience I laugh out loud at such an elementary error.

However, that other video being six years old was very fuzzy. How technology has improved since I began this blog!

Happer begins by thanking “James for that kind introduction”. At the beginning of this video we momentarily see James leaving the platform. James is James Taylor, and we see him properly later when Happer’s speech gives way to Q&A.

Since beginning this blog in 2012, I have lost count of the climate speeches I have studied – several times as many as I have featured. Very early I spotted that whereas alarmists focus on alarm, sceptics focus on data. When you fail to show the workings that underpin your argument, what does that say about your argument? Not only did sceptics show their workings but they provided links to the data. I’m not a scientist, but I’m quite good at spotting whether one number is higher than another; and over the years I have developed a habit, when I hear the media announcing some alarming climate news, of going straight to the data source to check. It’s almost tedious, the regularity with which the alarming news is shown to be nonsense.

Einstein is quoted as having said something like if you can’t explain it to a five-year-old you don’t properly understand it yourself. Happer is pretty good – when necessary – at explaining to a non-scientist like me; but here he is speaking to a scientific audience, and therefore there is a brief section where he could be speaking Klingon for all I get from it.

However, to my delight, at 18:50 he addresses the infamous 97% consensus thing. My data-checking habit long-since revealed that 97% to be garbage. There have been a couple of supposed surveys that claimed to have established it, and both collapse under scrutiny, but it doesn’t stop alarmists and lazy journalists from parroting it.

Even before I began analysing speeches for this blog I had been made suspicious. Al Gore used to bang on about how “the debate is over”. What debate? I had never seen or even heard of a debate. I now have seen very many sceptics challenge alarmists to debate, but somehow the alarmists always run for cover – meanwhile calling for sceptics be no-platformed.

Today the matter has gone far beyond science into politics, the economy (the climate industry is worth trillions), even religion. This last is witnessed by e.g. the Pope supporting it; and at 1:09 Happer quotes a Hawaii Senator as saying that climate is more religious than scientific. These are powerful forces to be ranged against the holding of a debate when their case is as thin of substance as the air.

President Trump has promised a debate, and he tends to honour his promises, but his presidency has thus far been beset with a range of distractions. If he gets a second term will he honour this one? Happer has worked with several administrations as senior adviser on matters scientific. That includes Trump’s, so if there is a debate perhaps we shall hear a lot more of him.

Peter Shore is passionate

Some speeches featured on this blog are within days of delivery, some a few years old. Today’s is possibly the oldest, yet still as topical and relevant as can be.

This week forty-five years ago in 1975 was notable for both the momentous and the trivial. You may ponder on which was which. Snow on the Monday (yes, in June) caused the abandoning of first class cricket matches, and the UK rang to the strains of Don Estelle and Windsor Davies performing Whispering Grass. The Thursday of that week saw the UK going to the polls in a referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Economic Community, now called the European Union.

On Tuesday June 3rd, 1975, Labour Member of Parliament, the late Peter Shore, delivered a speech in The Oxford Union in a debate ahead of that referendum.

Wearing my rhetor hat I struggle with the sense that any negative observation would be impertinent. This is really an outstanding piece of passionate oratory, but …

It is also one of the clearest examples I have heard of a particular diction flaw. I refer to disproportionate syllable stress. In raising his voice to be heard throughout the hall, he heavily emphasises those syllables that should be stressed. So far so good: Peter Shore speaks with beautiful clarity, but he sometimes neglects the non-stress syllables to the point of virtual inaudibility.

Curiously it is a flaw to be most commonly found in speakers who are especially conscientious about their speaking. (One of the finest speakers around today, Daniel Hannan, commits this, and I have said so in this blog a couple of times. Ditto Barack Obama.) Also if you point out the sin to the sinners they deny it so vehemently that without a recording it is desperately difficult to persuade them of it. I understand their incredulity. Some years before this speech I was receiving training from a genius called Kate Fleming, and when she accused me of this I ferociously denied it till circumstances forced my hand. (There’s an account of that in my booklet, Every Word Heard.)

This speech is fantastic, and is made even more entertaining through the cutaway shots of – e.g. Jeremy Thorpe and Edward Heath. We first see the latter smiling smugly, and later again when the smile has gloriously frozen after Shore’s treatment. Is that Barbara Castle sitting in the background? Anyway I commend it to you.

Yes, that was an interesting week. The snow on the Monday cleared quickly, and by the weekend there had started a heatwave and accompanying drought. The drought continued, on and off – chiefly on – till the August Bank Holiday more than a year later.

The effects of that referendum are only just finishing now (Deus Volent).

Bryan Wolfmueller and the world-famous Bagophanes

I was contacted by Lee Proudlove, a vicar in Nottingham and a reader of this blog. Like most of his colleagues he has been transmitting during the lockdown live-streamed services and sermons, scrambling as best he can up the steep learning curve. For ideas he searched the internet and came across Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller. He sent me a link to a video Wolfmueller did for Palm Sunday.

Before I even clicked to start, I registered two things –

  1. Peripheral stress. I’ve addressed peripheral stress before on this blog. If you are not too comfortable or secure, or if there are other stimuli snatching at your concentration, it can do wonders for control of normal nerves by masking their significance. In this case Wolfmueller appears to have decided to drive while preaching.
  2. A name that was new to me, claiming to be world-famous? Bagophanes? What a hook to grab passers-by! Anyone with any curiosity is going to stop for a closer look. Why do you think I used it in the title of this posting?

Without yet having heard a word from him I suspected that Wolfmueller was a smart man. Therefore I pressed “start”.

He opens with a self-deprecating account of how he had recently accidentally recorded a sermon without audio. Self deprecation is good so long as it isn’t making pre-emptive excuses in advance of a lousy performance. My impression was that it wouldn’t be that. Then, settling down to watch the rest, I was struck by a key question. How many ‘takes’ was this recording going to be able to accommodate? Did he have time to go on driving around merely to feed a gimmick?

The more I watched, the more everything fell into place. He has found a way of doing these videos that really works for his personality and is likely to resonate well with most viewers. Explaining something while driving, or listening to someone doing it, is such a familiar experience for anyone interested that the implied environment is as comfortable as can be. Occasional hesitations and/or “erm”, while checking for traffic, are so predictable as not to be noticed. Far from trying for the ‘perfect take’ (which if he even achieved it would be relatively boring) his target is simply to use a single take, warts and all, to put across a story and a message in an easily digested and memorable way. His being personable enables him to do that, while making any flaws in his delivery part of its charm.

Ah yes, memorable! I tell my trainees that the easiest way to make a speech memorable is to give it what I call a Face, a single phrase or sentence by which it will be remembered. Wolfmueller has gone for a single word – Bagophanes! I believe I shall never forget it, if only by remembering his slightly naughty alternative pronunciation. (Actually, on my side of the pond his alternative pronunciation is marginally naughtier – two countries divided by a common language.) I shall not impede your enjoyment by explaining Bagophanes. Suffice it that he has significance to the Palm Sunday story.

Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech”, and many others have made similar observations, but repeatedly pausing for upwards of ten seconds is brave to the frontiers of foolhardiness. Wolfmueller does that here. I doubt he would in a pulpit, but it works now because though he is silent and still, the surrounding image of scenery and traffic is far from still. Therefore we instinctively accept that he is pausing to allow the world to pass while he reflects upon a carpenter’s son riding a donkey, surrounded by people crying “Hosannah”.

I was right: he’s a smart cookie, and a fine communicator. My thanks to Lee Proudlove for bringing him to my attention, and also for pointing out that book sitting in the middle of the car’s backseat, held there by its own seatbelt. Bryan Wolfmueller is a Lutheran pastor and that book is a biography of Martin Luther – his ever-present backseat driver.

Trey Gowdy: editor’s nightmare

Universal lockdown may be easing, but there’s still a dearth of new speeches being delivered. Never mind: I am enjoying exercising archeology and unearthing some interesting samples to examine.

Trey Gowdy is no stranger to this blog, having previously been featured twice – here and here. Though he has retired from US Congress he still appears on television, consulted on the ramifications of political news. Most recently this seems to concern stories surrounding “Obamagate” which is about the only topic that can elbow Covid to one side on American news broadcasts at the moment. The story seems destined to run and run.

I found two brilliant examples from a large supply of speeches Gowdy made in the House of Representatives, and after agonising over them I made my choice. They say very much the same thing, even though – if the backdrop is to be believed – they were delivered on different occasions. This makes me wonder whether the behaviour being described was a habit of that POTUS of the time. The other speech was even more dramatic, generated a standing ovation in the House, and is certainly worth watching. But the one below has one particular feature of interest for students of public speaking. (Incidentally, Gowdy does not say what the video title below suggests.)

In these times of political hyper-partisanship everyone who puts his head above the parapet will be attacked. One attack method involves being misquoted. Even when your words are recorded on video you can still be misquoted by being edited. In the past few days there was an example of an American news anchorman accusing the US Attorney General of not saying something he should have said, when the footage of him actually saying it had been removed from the report. It was clumsy and quickly exposed, but it demonstrates the danger.

Cutting out a portion of a recording is the quickest and easiest way of bending, altering, or even reversing the meaning of what was actually said. But there are evasive precautions that a speaker can adopt to make that more difficult to achieve; and, whether by accident or design, Gowdy habitually uses one of the easiest.

Once the editor has decided what he wants to remove, his principal difficulty is in finding suitable edit points at which he can cut out and then back in again without it being noticeable. (In passing, there are electronic devices that will spot editing, however well disguised, but here we are concerned just with what humans can hear.) By far the easiest edit points are in the tiny pauses between sentences, and removing whole sentences is the easiest way to adjust meaning without appearing to impede the speech flow. Those tiny inter-sentence pauses are therefore going to be the editor’s prime targets.

All the speaker has to do is not pause between sentences. If during a sensitive part of a speech you stick your pauses in shortly before the last couple of words of sentences, and then run straight through into the beginning of the next, you are giving a potential editor a hell of a headache.

If you listen carefully you will find Gowdy doing exactly that.

Listening carefully is worth it anyway, because this is one hell of a good speech.

Andrew Klavan: a polished sapphire.

Think about the people you want to be around. Think about everything that’s the opposite of shallow and trendy. Think about four years of conversations you’ll never forget. That’s Hillsdale College.

(from the website of Hillsdale College in Michigan)

As a courtesy I habitually supply explanatory links for people, places and publications involved in my blog posts. That’s the first time in more than 460 posts that I have been so impressed as to reproduce words from a venue’s website. In April 2019, at Hillsdale College Andrew Klavan delivered the speech we feature today.

Declaration of interest: I’m a fan of Klavan’s, having discovered him years ago via his Revolting Truth videos. I listen to his podcast, The Andrew Klavan Show with its ridiculous opening signature song, preceded by an even more ridiculous one-minute flight of absurdity that sometimes reduces even him to hysterics. He makes me laugh, makes me think, keeps me abreast of the goings-on over the pond. I also appreciated his autobiographical book, The Great Good Thing. I reveal all this to warn that there’s a danger that you might find me fawning.

Klavan begins at 2:00, following an introduction by Abby Liebing. She reads her introduction, and that’s ok given that introductions are more than 80% factual information. However, if I had guided her, I would have urged her to dare to face the audience and not the script when giving us her name because I’m certain she knows her own name well enough not to read it. Yes, of course, the paper is a security blanket; but we want to see her face.

Klavan’s speech ends at 33:12. There follows nearly the same amount of time for Q&A.

He reads his speech, and suddenly I’m torn. He reads better and more expressively than almost anyone I’ve heard. In fact in passing I reckon virtually all of his podcast is read from a script; but you have to listen very closely to spot it because he has really mastered the art of writing in spoken – a subtly different language from written – English.

The writing is magnificent. For instance at 10:10 Klavan brings up the question of abortion, and a few seconds later gives us in just one, short, jaw-dropping sentence the strongest argument I’ve heard that abortion must not be the mother’s choice. And it’s based not on theology but biology.

Would any of the speech’s brilliantly economic choice of words have been compromised if he had shot this speech from the hip? Possibly, but that would have been offset by the benefit of the words being transparently spontaneous. It would have been the same brain that conceived the words, albeit without the luxury of dwelling over each phrase, so right there is the compromise to be judged. The freshness of spontaneity or the sparkle of economy? An uncut diamond or a polished sapphire? That’s why I’m torn.

We can compare the two. At the beginning, from 2:42 Klavan morphs from the end of a brief thank-fest into some spontaneous musing on the state of society and whether it is appropriate to laugh at it. At 3:36 he moves to his script, and the colour minutely fades.

But now I doff my rhetor hat, become an ordinary audience member, and tell you that it is a stupendous speech. There are points here and there when I’d take issue with the detail of some of his arguments, but that’s part of the stimulus that makes it so enjoyable.

I often press the stop button when Q&A begins, but thinking I’d sample a little of it I then sampled all. Hillsdale College yields up some excellent questions. Most of them from students, but there is one questioner who describes himself as “seasoned”. We can see only the side of his head, but I reckon he’s slightly more seasoned than I, and I am more seasoned than Klavan. At any rate, Klavan for once is put on the back foot. His answer is pretty good but his body language suggests that it’s been a narrow thing. I’m glad I saw that.

I enjoyed the whole hour.