Rose Goslinga – Mvua ame fika

Business speaking is my niche. I work principally with business people whose speaking centres around the need persuasively to communicate commercial matters to other business people. Yet this blog very seldom addresses business speeches because there are not many out there, on line, on video. I was delighted therefore to be introduced to Pop Tech. I could try to tell you all about them, but it is easier for me to supply a link so that you can see them for yourself. Pop Tech have Popcasts, and today we are going to be looking at one such.

Rose Goslinga has an insurance business that has developed a package that enables small-holding African farmers to be able to afford to protect themselves against drought-induced crop-failure. Here she is explaining it; and she shoots it from the hip – without script or notes.

She has a bald opening. Furthermore it is a James Bond film opening. She settles the audience for 45 seconds by speaking (I think) Swahili for us. In the process she makes it clear that Africa is her home. In fact she establishes that detail in one tiny word – we – “…in Kenya we say…” It is excellent ethos and decorum.

Immediately afterwards she lays out her stall. “I insure the rains.”  Having done that, and before going into detail, she briefly returns to her ethos to consolidate it with some photographs. Thereafter she explains how the insurance works and what it achieves. Her ending is ‘paired’ with her opening, thus closing the circle.  All my trainees will testify how much I advocate closing the circle. In fact her entire structure is very good: she’s kept it simple and dealt in clear concepts. Given all that, how much value could I add if she sought my help?

In terms of material, I would address her visuals. This is always difficult to judge when you are not in the hall itself, but here is a smattering of what I think. Those heart-warming pictures are ideal for ethos and decorum. Her man in yellow, who acted as her weather station, was also very helpful. But I think the abundance of pictures may be counter-productive when she is explaining the nitty-gritty: they certainly are not essential to the explanation. I would expect audience members’ attention to start drifting just after the 2:30 mark. The pictures are fussy and interfere with the clarity of her message. They steal too much of the audience’s focus from her, not least because she almost seems to lean on them for support. And this brings me to my main concern for her.

Her delivery is quiet, slightly shy, but warm and friendly. I am sensing that it conceals a fairly serious measure of stress. I won’t go into all the supposed symptoms, but I repeatedly felt that I’d like to help her kick much of that stress into touch. Without it she could still display the same shyness and warmth – which is appealing and probably her natural self – but she could do it from a much more secure emotional platform. And that would enhance not just this speech but all her speaking, not least by freeing her from dependence on visuals.

Most importantly, it would cause her to enjoy it more.

Thomas Sowell. How I’d like to hear him today!

Thomas Sowell talks such abundant sense that I have long wanted to address one of his speeches on this blog. I have repeatedly tried to find a speech from recent years, but have failed. They exist online in transcript but not on video – unless a reader can show me differently. There are plenty of interviews with him on video. That requires a whole different discipline and if I ever get around to covering interview technique here I may return to him. Meanwhile he is addressing The Institute for World Capitalism in Jackson, Florida, in October 1993 – twenty years ago.

YouTube has two versions of this speech (which is just the first quarter of the full address). The other one includes a lengthy introduction and a brief preamble in which Sowell says that being introduced is like getting a sneak preview of one’s own obituary. I mention that because I am able to tell you authoritatively that this speech has a bald opening and is the better for it.

If you are going to lecture an audience on a subject it’s no bad thing to start with fundamental definitions. How fundamental depends on how you define ‘fundamental’. How far upstream should you go? Sowell starts with the Garden of Eden which is quite a long way upstream.

During his fundamental definition of economics he delivers a nice little (only two elements) epistrophe at 0:40. This makes me like him enough partially to forgive his use of a script – which he actually uses pretty discreetly. Nevertheless there is a strange, hesitant hiatus just after the one-minute mark. He tells us that “rationing is inherent whether it’s under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other kind of … method.” It’s almost as if he wanted to say “ism” instead of “method”. Had he done so he would have signalled that his list was another epistrophe – ending in “ism” – and I wish he had because the sentence would have been smoother. Which word was written in his script, I wonder?

At any rate, he concludes his definition with the statement, “Scarcity is the first lesson of economics.” Then he turns to politics in which the first lesson is, “…to forget the first lesson in economics”. He harvests a well-deserved laugh but more importantly signals the essential message of this address, which is that politicians tie themselves in knots in trying to bend economics to the expedients of their utopian philosophy; and this is, and always will be, ultimately futile.

Let us for the moment stand aside from whether we regard this message as palatable. The device of setting out your stall so clearly and so early in a speech is very effective, easy and obvious, but absurdly often overlooked. How often do we sit in an audience, trying to determine from the purple prose what it is that the speaker is actually trying to persuade us? Sowell, here and there, lacks some fluency and coherence (at least he did twenty years ago), but we are left in no doubt as to his message.

So let us return to whether it is palatable. I began this posting by opining that Sowell talks abundant sense. I am a fan of his aphorisms, which I deem as wise as they are unfashionable. You can find some here. Among them is this nugget, in which he acknowledges his unfashionability –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Lord Wei needs help

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012. Lord Wei spoke in favour of the motion.

Because I am able to embed the video above, you do not need to see its posting on YouTube. If on the other hand you elect to click that hyper-link you will see that someone has posted a comment saying, “He’s a pathetic orator”. At the time of writing that is the only comment.

Should I leave it there, or shall I proceed to provide my own critique? I could leave it there because I fear the comment is correct.

The first and most glaring problem is an old friend enemy of this blog. Wei is too much of a talking head. He does not dare to cut himself free from his script – though on this occasion it is not on paper but an iPad. That first sentence – Ye Gods! – is he really incapable of saying that without reading it? No of course he isn’t: he just hasn’t been shown. Regular readers of this blog will have spotted it immediately and will already be watching in horror from between their fingers. All the familiar problems are there: stilted wording, ridiculous stumbling over sections that would not be subject to stumbling if merely spoken, etc.

Then comes the really frustrating part! Watch from the two-minute mark, and you’ll see an excruciating, toe-curling hiatus when he loses his place; and then around 2:20 he adds an aside which involves his face rising and – wonders! – actually addressing the audience, and his tongue merely speaking. That’s the first fluent and engaging part of the speech. There are others to come – and all for the same reason. That wretched script is manifestly his worst enemy in this environment. For a few seconds at a time he’s quite a good speaker: for extended minutes he is – to quote the YouTube comment – pathetic.

What twists the knife in my entrails is that he is in a huge majority. Audiences are constantly being subjected to this sort of abomination. And the knife twists again because I have proved countless times that it is completely unnecessary. No one who has worked with me needs a script.

I am not terribly keen to get into what he says. I happen to find it naive, superficial and lame, but I’ll defend his right to say it.

I’d defend, much harder, his right to deliver it properly and the audience’s right to have it so delivered.

Edwina Currie barnstorms.

In February 2013, The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, This House Believes That We Are All Feminists. Edwina Currie spoke against the motion. When I first spotted the video my instant reaction was, “This’ll be fun!” Edwina Currie is seldom boring.

Often when I’m working with a client a question comes up, prefaced with the words, “Is it all right if…”. I habitually interrupt with, “…The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?” The point is that rules, real or imagined, are ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is what can be made to work.

The Oxford Union could be regarded by some as an intimidating environment, beset with tradition and conventions. But Currie cut her speaking teeth here – something she makes very clear – and later went on to perform on the more august stage of the House of Commons. Under the guise of tipping her hat to the conventions, she puts her personal stamp on proceedings the moment she starts speaking. This is her show, and she is going to bend it to her will. This is precisely the right mindset – if it can be made to work.

Syntactically her first sentence is appalling. It contains, “May I actually congratulate, if I may,….” and it continues to ramble around with more of that sort of thing. No one with an education would ever write like that, and this is a brilliant example of what I try to convey when castigating those who read their speeches. Written English is a different language to spoken English. Currie is shooting from the hip and what emerges makes perfect sense when imbued with her strong personality. Furthermore it is infinitely more engaging for the audience than stuffed-shirt literature. There is a very important communication point here.

  • If you want a speech consisting of  elegant literature read a book.
  • If you want a play in which nothing goes wrong, see a film.
  • If you want a concert consisting of flawless performance, listen to a record.

The whole purpose of live performance is the element of danger. Something could go wrong!

Currie spends her first two and a half minutes, beating the decorum into submission. We have the first of numerous Oxford University reminiscences, in which she chats jovially (and sometimes flirts) with her opponents; and in the process I have to say that she lives dangerously. Several times I wince as she appears to be going too far, but though walking a high wire above the Abyss of Embarrassment, she knows what she’s at. She’s always in control.

Eventually she addresses the matter in hand, and again she bends it to her will by adopting her own position. Those for the motion, she says, claim that the battle is won and feminism is universal. Those against it claim that there is still more to be achieved. She is not – and never has been – a feminist. She then proceeds to tell us why feminism is wrong-headed.

I shall not precis her arguments: that’s what the speech is for. She lays out her stall in binary fashion tackling the issue culturally and practically, and all the while the Oxford anecdotes keep coming. At 3:49 she harvests a seismic laugh, with a secondary shock a few seconds later. She is really very skilled.

The skill extends, when it matters, to uttering ringing phrases. There’s a pleasing epistrophe at 2:55 and, in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, there’s a strong anaphora at 14:20. Another anaphora makes up the spine of the peroration she launches at the 16-minute mark.

What especially singles out this speech for me is what I mentioned earlier. It is saturated with personality – her personality. The whole thing carries her brand. Anyone else would be foolish if they tried to parrot it, but they can learn from the principle. When you deliver a speech, you have the chance to make it your show.

And I was right: this was fun.

Stefan Halper – another talking head

At the Oxford Union Debate on the motion The 21st Century Belongs to China Stefan Halper opposed the motion.

I have very often rehearsed the arguments against reading a speech.  For three examples I did it here, and here and here. I should love therefore to avoid today dwelling on that aspect of this speech, but I simply cannot. Once again we find ourselves listening to styles of wording, phrasing and syntax which could have been excellent if read but which are stilted, awkward and clumsy when spoken. My frustration in all this is that we deal here not with someone who is of low intelligence or narrowly educated, but quite the reverse. Has he not noticed, when attending speeches delivered by others, how much better it sounds when they shoot their delivery from the hip?

This conundrum continues to perplex me. He must have noticed! All I can therefore conclude is that either he believes he can read more fluently than his talking-head peers, or he assumes that the ability to speak without notes is a divine gift bestowed only upon a chosen few. Both of those are fallacies. The stilted nature of speech from a talking-head has almost nothing to do with reading ability, and very little to do with writing ability (though you can learn to write better in the spoken idiom). As for the divine-gift fallacy, after the decades I have been teaching public speaking I am still waiting for the first trainee who fails to discover that they belong to the ‘chosen few’.

If you’ve been taught properly, shooting a speech from the hip is more fluent, more engaging, more convincing, more secure and much quicker to prepare. But still they don’t! Still they labour for hours over a script and then sound like railway station announcers.

Halper has so much going for him. He is suitably opinionated, knows his subject well enough to back up those opinions, and so on. He is an author you want to read, and he could in a single morning be transformed into also an inspiring speaker.

Watch from the 5-minute mark. Can you believe that page-turn hiatus?  Stick with it a little longer and we reach a pleasing, though halting, anaphora, built on the word, “Stop…” (though he inexplicably corrupts the anaphora by changing to “cease…” for the fourth element of the series) and then at the 5:30 mark he stumbles over the word, “willingly…”. There’s half a minute that he could utter flawlessly a hundred times with no problem at all, yet here he makes a right, royal meal of it – and only because he is handicapping himself by reading it.

What he has to say is actually very interesting. You may – like me – have to watch it a few times to realise that. Pity his live audience that did not have that chance.

Lord Powell – practically perfect.

In November 2012 The Oxford Union debated the motion The 21st Century Belongs To China. Speaking for the motion was Lord Powell, one of Britain’s most senior card-carrying members of The Great and the Good. Among other jewels in a glittering CV is the small detail of his having been Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher and John Major during their times as British Prime Minister. With that added to a career as a diplomat and a goodly fistful of non-executive directorships you could be forgiven for assuming that he knew how to construct a speech – and you’d be right. You might also assume that he would deliver immaculately – and you’d be … very close.

What a distinguished figure he cuts in that still picture! That’s how he should have looked all the time, instead of pointless periods of peering at paper.

Very good opening! He recalls references others have made that evening to Guagua Bo, says a few words in tribute to that young man’s colourful career at Oxford and elsewhere, and harvests a very good laugh. Bo’s family in China is currently going through a difficult time and Powell, that laugh gained and in his pocket, immediately turns serious for a few words. It’s very impressive, very skilled: firstly to pick up so fluently on what others have said, secondly to get a full-blown laugh so early in any speech, thirdly so smoothly to steer the decorum to the serious bit. Was it spontaneous, or was it prepared? I’m going to stick my neck out here and put my money on spontaneous.

He could very easily have prepared the section, based on his previous occasion in this hall having been with Bo, and then opportunistically pasted on the front of it his reference to others having that evening spoken of him. So why am I suspecting away from that? It’s because of what comes next.

He gets to the matter in hand and points to how academic the debate is because no one in the hall will be around at the end of the century to verify its conclusions – “…even though you’re all extremely young, with the exception of David Tang and me”. That last is asking for a small laugh and doesn’t get one because it’s very slightly miss-timed. Within less than half a minute, therefore, one joke gets a huge laugh and another dies. A skilled and experienced speaker’s comedy timing is very often surer by instinct than by design, and I think the first was spontaneous  instinct and the second design. I could be wrong.

Powell operates a well-conceived tripartite structure, not unlike a Tripod, making his message coherent and digestible. He furnishes his audience with a clear Contents Page, telling them what he’s going to tell them before telling them. There is really not a great deal that he doesn’t know about preparing material, though I’d have liked the speech to have had a Face to give it memorability.

He also has command of small details that distinguish true masters of the craft. At 3:37, for instance, he mimes a steep growth graph and he casually does it in mirror image – in other words the graph is the wrong way round for him but the right way round for the audience.

I have just two niggles, one tiny and pedantic and the other more fundamental. Let’s first get the small one out of the way: at 0:55 he commits a grammatical error that jars this pedant’s sensibilities. The more fundamental niggle is in the second sentence below the video frame above. Powell is a consummate shooter-from-the-hip, yet every so often his face goes pointlessly down to his papers on the dispatch box. From the 2-minute mark for instance there’s half a minute where this happens often. In none of these periods can I find any trace of material that he might of necessity read; therefore I conclude that he has adopted this as a sort of pensive-pose that he assumes from time to time. I find it a pity because it is entirely unnecessary and it temporarily robs him of slices of his audience engagement.

He’s a stunning speaker in every aspect. He has gravitas with humour, and combines lovely use of language with a willingness to season it with occasional slang (who’d have expected him to use a term like ‘slam-dunk’?). His material is copy-book in preparation and he plays his audience like a musical instrument. I’d just like him to adopt another pensive-pose.

Detlev Schlichter – disappointingly flabby.

In January 2012 Detlev Schlichter spoke at the Adam Smith Institute at an event entitled “Monetary Reform & the Eurozone Crisis”. Schlichter is an Austrian School economist whose expertise is somewhat more than theoretical. Having spent almost as many years trading in international financial markets as I have spent teaching communication skills, he knows how many beans make five. His award-winning book, Paper Money Collapse, and his highly opinionated blog clearly show he has strong views to impart. His regular pundit appearances on the broadcasting media indicate that he also has a lot to say. My question is, how well can he say it on a speaking platform?

Bald opening! Because of etiquette niceties a bald opening is not always appropriate, but if the occasion permits I always recommend it. Though its use feels a little strange at first, I have never found a speaker who didn’t eventually find it liberating.

He has a script, but he is not being a talking head. He is not wedded to that paper: he glances at it from time to time but mostly his face addresses his audience. As a result he engages much more thoroughly with his audience than he would have done had he been reading.  At 2:20 with the words, “this debt is completely out of line…” he begins a well-constructed anaphora triad. I wonder whether this was written in his script or whether he uttered it spontaneously.

So far so good, but his structure lets him down. It consists of his asking himself a series of questions – why are central banks doing this? what does the market do? how have policy-makers tried to do this? how could we get into such a mess? and so on. For him it’s a tempting technique, as he is accustomed to being interviewed. All he thinks he has to do is ask himself the questions he would like an interviewer to ask.

It’s a mistake.

It’s not an unusual mistake, but it’s still a mistake. I have to hit you here with a piece of interviewology that is a little counter-intuitive, so I am going to ask you to take it on trust. Interviewees who know their subject and who know what they are doing sparkle brightest when answering unexpected or even undesirable questions. Questions you ask yourself will be be neither: they will be pat-a-cake questions which merely yield pat-a-cake answers. And that equals flabby.

This speech is flabby. He has some strong things to say – e.g. government bonds are essentially parasitic – but he says them only after he has put his audience to sleep. He spends the first half giving us a history lecture on the abandonment of the gold standard and the disaster of the fiat money system that succeeded it. Flabby! Just after the 11-minute mark he gives us a quotation from Ludwig von Mises, essentially foretelling the current financial meltdown. I would have had him starting the whole speech with that and, as it is a quotation, I would have had him reading it – in which case he wouldn’t have disastrously muffed it. That would have given him a message and put him in the driving seat. It would also have tightened things and stopped him repeating himself and over-running his time.

Did he have a closing to the speech? I don’t know: he ran out of time and just fell off the end. What a pity, that someone who has important things to say has not learnt how to say them in this medium!