Charlie Chaplin – a little dated, but hey!

I was invited to look at the final speech in the Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. How could I resist? A critique of a fictional speech is a first for this blog, and it has been hailed in some quarters as the finest speech of all time.

Is it? No. There could never be any such thing. Nevertheless, of its time it is a pretty fine example.

Bald opening! And you thought the concept was revolutionary!

Are you surprised that, for a star of silent movies, his enunciation is so good? Don’t be. He was not always a movie star: he paid his early dues on the live stage, and you didn’t get anywhere in those pre-radio-microphone days without having learnt this facet of your craft. I know his vowels, to the modern ear, are a little pale and clipped, and also he’s part-rolling his ‘r’s (a little like Olivier in the same period); but listen to how he always speaks right to the end of every word, never swallowing a syllable. If you found yourself having to speak in a large hall with a PA system that had broken down, that is how to enunciate. And he’s not over-enunciating. At 0:45, “Human beings are like that,” the final ‘t’ is barely touched…but it’s there!

I mentioned the paleness of his vowels, but it’s not with all of them. Yes, at 2:30 he speaks of people being treated ‘like kettle’, but that vowel was the fashion of the day. Also the fashion was to make the long ‘o’ sound desperately pale, almost like a long ‘a’. I once heard someone address Noel Coward, calling him “Nail”. However listen to Chaplin at 2:20. The ‘o’ in the first syllable of ‘soldiers’ is really quite dark, and there’s a reason for this. He learnt to enunciate correctly from the front of his mouth, and that always darkens the ‘o’ sound. I feel myself getting on too much of a hobby horse here, so I shall cease this subject. I cover it all in my booklet, Every Word Heard.

Chaplin’s eyes are fixed to a little below the camera lens. Is this supposed to represent humility, or is there an idiot-board there?  I don’t know, but let us remember that he directed this film, and directing steals a hell of a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent learning your lines.

When he gets worked up towards the end of the speech is when the age of the film really shows. No speaker could get away with that sort of ranting, stylized oratory in front of an audience of today. The man he was lampooning, Adolph Hitler (or Adenoid Hynkel, as they called him in the film) got away with it – but that was then.

What about the value of the speech’s message? My problem is that because it calls for all sorts of obviously desirable things – freedom, happiness (or, rather, heppiness), brotherly love, etc. it can be cited as supporting any political doctrine that claims to achieve those things – i.e. all of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Soviet commissars used to wheel it out to promote their disgusting creed. I know that it calls upon people to throw off dictatorial yokes – a consummation devoutly to be wished – but how many dictators would admit to using yokes? This ain’t aimed at me, guv, honest!

I know what I choose to assume the speech means, and I like it for that reason; but …

At 3:40 he calls for the doing away of national barriers, and immediately I’m onto another hobby horse. That concept is superficially very seductive, but withstands no examination whatever. Consider: someone has to run things. In order that they do so on behalf of their fellows and not on behalf of themselves or anyone else, they need to be accountable chiefly to their fellows. Tyranny thrives on distance between governors and governed, because accountability diminishes proportionally. Administrative units should therefore be as small as practicable. World government would be guaranteed to become tyrannical, exploitative, incompetent and corrupt. Look at the EU, and then multiply several-fold. What a ghastly prospect!

All right, I have attempted to encapsulate a very complicated matter into a single paragraph. I concede there is more to it than that, but be in no doubt that sovereign national barriers are A Good Thing, particularly if the national administration fosters localism. Good! I’m glad I got that off my chest!

I’ve never seen the whole film of The Great Dictator. I think I shall get it.

Mark Thornton – unexceptionable: unex…anything!

Some years ago I was in a meeting with the training manager of a company that here shall remain nameless. I had already trained their CEO and this discussion concerned the possibility of my working with other executives. He suddenly asked me whether I had any sort of government-recognized qualification in teaching public speaking. I replied that as far as I knew there was no such thing, which was probably a blessing as I could imagine the joy-sucking automatons that would graduate from such a system. He didn’t seem to see the funny side of that, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.

I think somewhere out there is a school of thought to the effect that it doesn’t have maturity or class unless it’s stuffed-shirt-boring (you may recall the hatchet job I did on an offering by William Hague). This was brought sharply into focus when I came across this speech in which the speaker fought bravely to conceal as much as possible of his personality.

Mark Thornton is delivering a lecture at the Ludvig von Mises Institute in June 2011. He is explaining the difference between Austrian and mainstream economics. He favours the Austrian variety; and I felt bound to confide this information to you because in his struggle to be balanced and even-handed he comes close to hiding that detail. What we have here is 21 minutes of message-lite, emotion-free information, in plain-wrapping. It’s the sort of thing that would have a government-certified inspector of speeches biting his standard-issue clipboard in ecstasy.

Except for five seconds! For that very brief period in an unguarded moment Thornton’s passion peeps out. I’ll tell you a little later where you may witness this minor outrage.

Right at the beginning, from 0:30 there is a section where he explains that Austrian economics is at the same time the oldest, the smallest and the fastest growing school of economic thought. At this point there is a slight teasing suggestion that Thornton is going to get into the driving seat and sell the concept, but no dice.

I really do not know what else to say about this leaden performance. I am no economist, but I find the Austrian doctrine exciting and seductive. Nevertheless if this had been my introduction to it I should not have given it a second glance. It makes me crave to confront Thornton, unpin his communication wings and watch him fly.

He could very easily fly. He knows his subject, and behind all that iron control there is someone who is passionate about it. Do you want to see my evidence? Watch from 19:45, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

And the day that some busy-body half-witted politician (a description that fits too many of them) decides to create a quango to oversee public speaking is the day that I shall retire in disgust.

John Redwood shows passion

I was chatting a few days ago to a friend who reads this blog occasionally. He observed how many lousy speakers there were around. I managed to resist pointing out that if this opinion was based on my blog he didn’t know the half of it. I discard far more than I cover, and you may take it that I do not do so on the basis of their being too good. For every speech I critique here I watch perhaps five that don’t warrant the effort because they don’t have a facet that I find interesting, because they are boring or because they are just bad.

On a foray in search of something interesting I happened upon a series of speeches in the British House of Commons. It was the debate in October 2011, triggered by an online petition for the UK to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union. I’ve seen many examples of John Redwood speaking, and have tended to pigeon-hole him as staid, safe and unexciting. Here though he was a different beastie!

No script: no notes: just passion.

In answer to those who claim that without a script the quality of your syntax is in danger of fading, I say just take a look at the following list…

  • 0:08 Anadiplosis on the word ‘democracy’
  • 0:17 Anaphora – “it has been humbled”
  • 0:28 Anaphora – “they not only…”

Not bad for half a minute!

  • 1.30 Anaphora – “Go to …”
  • 2:35 Anaphora – “I cannot …”
  • 2:58 Anaphora – “This house was great …”
  • 3:28 Anaphora – “We need to …”

The whole speech lasted less than four minutes, was beautifully structured, clear, powerful, and far from syntax-lite.

So where was the staid, safe and unexciting speaking that I have seen before? Whence came that passion? The subject matter might have something to do with it, but also it has been said often enough that the House of Commons is like a club. Redwood has been a member for more than a quarter of a century and evidently he feels in his element here, far more perhaps than out in the rest of the world. He may feel that in the rest of the world he has to be more circumspect. Who knows?

Whatever the reason, that’s the way to do it.

Dan Pink – not bad at all.

Here’s a TED talk by Dan Pink. I’ve seen him speak on this subject when I was relaxed and not in critique mode, so I was interested to examine it here. I was delighted to see from the very start that he would shoot it from the hip, and even more pleased that he was so good that I could use my nit-picking tweezers.

Watching this footage for the first time, I felt myself tensing up when he opened with that mock-serious routine. I felt that the ‘mock’ was too transparent; he was over-cooking it; and therefore it was all too obviously a set-up for a gag. If you’ve done a course with me or read my book you will understand that I feared that the gag, this early, would bomb. I was right and wrong: right that a gag was coming, wrong that it would bomb. I’m not too proud to hold my hands up. I never argue with the market, and the market bought it – he got his laugh. I reckon he’s worked this routine often enough to have refined the timing, and I don’t argue with work either. The routine, by the way, hadn’t finished with the initial laugh and its final punch line was tasty.

TED talks, posted on line, are usually topped and tailed. Any introductions and preambling pleasantries, and endings that do not involve important questions, are trimmed off. This is no exception so we can’t tell if it is actually a bald opening, but we can tell how good it would have been if so.

Another thing TED talks do is bring visuals to the fore. Rather than our seeing them as the audience saw them – on a screen behind him – the visuals briefly take over our screen. This is good production for everyone in the world except me. I want to see how he hung on to his audience’s focus when this interloper was presented behind him. I can’t do that, but I can comment on the visuals themselves. In general they are very good, sparing in their quantity and (usually) their content. He also gets humour onto them.

Note the abundance of proper nouns. When he describes scientists’ experiments he always names the scientist and faculty. It’s courteous – yes, of course – but it is also good speaking practice. Note also, when speaking of two groups of people, his gestures put them (in our imagination) on different parts of the stage. This lends a graphic quality which is very strong. He does a great deal of geographic and mime gesturing, and does it well.

His vocal tone colouring is excellent. He varies volume and pitch dramatically, but not so arbitrarily as to be noticeable except to a sad analytical git like me. This guy is very good; and my nit-picking tweezers are threatened with redundancy. Then at 15:19 they are given purpose when a slide appears with eleven words on it. That is on the high side for almost any slide; but the killer point that emerges, as these words are repeated often, is that this is his speech’s Face.

Naturally I am delighted that he has given his speech a Face – it is a detail almost always overlooked by even very skilled speakers – but these eleven words don’t really work as a Face. They are not nearly light, tight and bright enough. It’s a reasonably smart sentence, but woefully forgettable. I watched this speech two or three times, then had to break off to go to a meeting. Driving back afterwards I could not bring to mind the words. You might like to try it yourself. I have visions of my past trainees playing with that sentence to see how much it could be improved.

So I finally found something that I could wag my finger at! But the amusing thing while I was writing this is that out of the corner of my eye I could see a list of ‘related articles’. WordPress supplies a specially designed page for writing new posts.  While you are writing their sophisticated software monitors your words, seeks out other comments on the same topic, and dangles examples that might interested you. I had a quick look and they are all on the subject matter of his talk, rather than how he conducted it. So if you’ll excuse me, I shall now go and have a read…

Harry Browne speaks about freedom

Recently I became conscious that I seemed to devote too much of this blog to those I call talking heads, and that I should go out of my way to find speakers who had outgrown the assistance of paper. What a difficult task that has turned out to be! It is downright horrifying how many people fail this simple test, and fail themselves in the process. But I searched because I wanted to be able to concentrate on other aspects of speaking.

I was delighted therefore to find this brief speech by the late Harry Browne, delivered in 2002.

Is this a bald opening or does the clip join a speech at an appropriate moment? I can’t tell; but whether or not it actually was one, it nevertheless illustrates very clearly how bald openings are powerful and elegant in their simplicity. They are also hugely liberating for speakers, as they dispense with unnecessary verbal clutter.

Let’s look at his gestures. All of them are with palms up. This is body-language orthodoxy. The theory is that it indicates warmth and welcome. I don’t teach this: I prefer to get people feeling warm and welcoming towards their audience, and let the hands follow as they naturally will. I think he’s been taught it, because it looks slightly contrived to me. Gestures by numbers. He’s learnt well nonetheless. Look at the mime gestures when he speaks of the government taking things –  0.58, 1.02, 1.08, etc. They’re good. Perhaps a little too good.

There’s a nice little cluster of anaphora and epistrophe when talking of government controls beginning 1:13. There’s another welcome anaphora beginning around 3:30. This material is nicely constructed and and all fired from the hip.

His vocal delivery is warm and friendly, and you could say that a presidential candidate (which he was at the time) should be more assertive and statesmanlike. But libertarians tend to get painted by their opponents as hard hearted bastards that eat fluffy kittens for breakfast, so this avuncular image that he is conveying counters that very well.

All in all it’s a good bit of speaking. Obviously he was fruitlessly crying in the wilderness against the huge interests vested in the Republicans and Democrats, but good all the same

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Peter Schiff – tragically natural

Over the decades that I have been teaching public speaking I have worked with people who were better than they thought, worse than they thought, worse than you would believe, scared witless, over-confident, monosyllabic, monotonous, and almost any other characteristic you could conceive. I am often asked what type of person is the most difficult, and the answer is actually none of the above. The most difficult is the ‘natural’. People who have always been able just to stand up and deliver have little incentive to study the art, so are almost certain to stay for ever on a plateau that is somewhere between good and very good, though usually nearer the former. When, for instance, their boss commissions me to work with them they usually assume that I’m just going to assist them with perhaps researching a forthcoming presentation, rather than actually working on their skill. That’s when I have to start getting diplomatic and persuasive.

In 2011 US Congressman Ron Paul sponsored a series of three Congressional lectures on money.  Peter Schiff delivered the third, entitled What About Money Causes Economic Crises? Peter Schiff is a natural.

In his opening half-minute my eyes, when I first watched it, narrowed with suspicion. Almost everything is wrong: the swig of water so early, the ham-fisted adjustment of the microphone, the clunky producing of his mobile telephone to switch it off, the mumbled commentary throughout. No one makes that many mistakes! Could it be that this was a carefully choreographed, hump-busting routine? After all, he did conclude it with a muttered exhortation for others to switch off their mobiles also – and this could be seen as a gentler way of doing it than delivering a sort of military command. I still don’t know the answer, so I’m still suspicious. (And I still hate that bloody bottle – could we organise a whip-round to buy Congress a glass?)

Peter Schiff obviously knows his subject inside out; he has masses to say; and for 37 minutes it all tumbles out of him. Spot the problem. My first Cardinal Rule, in my courses and my book, is “Have Something to Say”. Spot the problem. Got it? “Something” is a singular noun. Can you identify a singularity here? Nor can I.

It would not be difficult to distil this entire speech into a single message through which to drive all the rest, but that’s a discipline to which he is not accustomed. He is very bright indeed and probably used to barking information and instructions to underlings who are likewise very bright indeed. In a Congressional lecture he is entitled to assume that his audience is also very bright, but the difference is that whereas his staff live and work with these concepts this audience doesn’t. In fact much of what he is saying is diametrically opposite to what they have been fed by armies of Keynesian economists.

Schiff needs structure. He doesn’t need it for himself: ordinary mortals need structure as rails along which to run (and therefore dispense with script or notes). He doesn’t: he scorns paper: he just talks: he shoots from the hip. For him that’s fine, but it’s not enough for his audience. The audience needs a message and a narrative. Otherwise what he’s firing from the hip is just a cloud of shotgun (scattergun) pellets with almost no penetrative ability – they’ll just bounce off the audience. He needs structure.

Try this experiment. Imagine that you are going to have to write an essay outlining all his arguments. Now watch the speech and see how long it takes before you need to stop and go back a bit to check on something he said.  Not long, I’ll bet. If you’d been sitting in the audience you couldn’t have done that. All his arguments are there: all his data are there. He’s giving you everything you need, but in a relatively incoherent fashion. And that’s tragic!

His audience doesn’t need to write an essay, but absolutely does need to follow everything he says because it is so important.

He needs structure. Who’s going to tell him?