Matthew Handley needs gravitas

The Oxford Union on 23 May, 2013, conducted a debate on the motion, This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Opening for the motion was Matthew Handley who, we learn, is studying history at Oxford. Despite his youth he is a veteran of The Platform, having debated competitively at school and university, and is a mentor for the Debate Mate programme.

If I could have avoided this pun, believe me I would have done; but Mr Handley has a hand problem. It’s not that he uses his hands a great deal. That strikes me as natural for him because his gestures are so expressive; so I’m right behind him on that. It is that he is constantly searching in vain for a ‘happy home’, a default position for them to be at rest; and therefore he too often selects the worst option. Before he even started, I had spotted a tell-tale sign: he was standing with his thumbs in his pockets. Putting your thumbs in your pockets is saying, “I’d like to put my hands in my pockets but I don’t think I should so I’m half sort-of pretending that they’re not really there.”

He takes a breath to begin. His hands go to clasp themselves in front of his chest, change their mind and he folds his arms instead. Students of body language will tell you that folding your arms is defensive and aggressive at the same time; but what concerns me is that I have never met anyone who looked relaxed and natural while speaking in that pose. That is the worst option I mentioned earlier, and he returns to it too often. Once would be too often. Other non-gesturing attempts are thumbs in pockets, hands in pockets or clasped in front of him – indeed he never stops experimenting, and it is the constant experimentation that highlights the problem.

I am not certain, but I think that clasping his hands in front of him might be his best option. The reason that I am not certain is that at no point do I see him relaxed.

There is a great deal that he is doing right – by the book (I am not going to comment on the arguments he promotes, restricting myself on this occasion just to the delivery) – but there is one over-riding problem. He is not driving this speech so much as letting the speech drive him.

He needs to rest back on his heels a little, dare to give pauses their natural lifespan, let the audience absorb some of his points before bombarding them with more. That way he would give himself more chance to portray an element of gravitas that is missing. Without gravitas he comes across as a little shrill. Gravitas is difficult to portray when you are so young, but I am under the impression that he would not thank me for offering him his youth as an excuse – so I won’t.

He will be a very fine speaker, because he evidently wants it so much. I hope I get to see it when it happens.

Richard Lindzen engages

In March 2009 in New York City, The Heartland Institute held their second International Conference on climate change. Among the climatologists, geophysicists, economists and practitioners of sundry other kindred sciences was Richard Lindzen, atmospheric physicist and Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He delivered this speech.

He was introduced by Joseph Bast, President and CEO of The Heartland Institute, who had a range of other announcements to make. That is why it is not till 7:04 that Lindzen begins.

Two or three months ago on this blog there was a period when every second posting would have me getting exercised about bad microphone technique causing popping. Here the phenomenon returns with a vengeance, though don’t look to me for signs of nostalgia.  I am slightly reassured that someone at least noticed, because at 7:55 a disembodied hand appears from the side to push the mics down, and Lindzen’s voice goes so quiet that cries from the audience cause him to bring them up again, making the popping even worse than before. Shortly afterwards an engineer, probably still trying to cure the problem, turns the volume right down; but this was never going to work: it just makes it more difficult to hear him. The cause is not volume but the tender bits of the microphone being assaulted by percussive columns of the speaker’s breath. Don’t speak into a microphone, speak across it.

(Isn’t it wonderful! That auditorium is lousy with scientific doctorates, but it apparently needed a mere rhetor to tell them how to make a microphone behave itself.)

He reads a script, which is a bit of a pity, though actually this is more the presentation of a paper than a speech.

Despite that and the popping, I found the speech fascinating. He strongly makes the point that global warming was never a scientific or even environmental issue but rather a political one. We have become accustomed, in the climate change argument, for academics to (ab)use their high-sounding titles as a licence loftily to wave away any dissent with cheap phrases like ‘anti-science’ rather than engaging with the arguments. Lindzen soberly engages with everything in sight using merciless rigour. Though it is very clear which side of the argument he favours, that does not stop him castigating his own side when their arguments have fallen short of the intellectual standards he demands.

It is quite difficult for us to read his slides on this video, but I am left in little doubt that his graphs are fed by data that is empirically tested for the purposes of scientific truth and accuracy rather than massaged for the purposes of promoting a pre-written narrative.

It’s an important speech and, because of it and a few like it, posterity will surely be less forgiving of the promoters of global warming alarmism and its monumental cost to Society and the environment. They shall never be able to claim that no one told them.

Michael Pritchard – workmanlike

I came across a TED talk by inventor Michael Pritchard. I have watched a great many Ted talks, and have often been disappointed, but this one is good. I also see that to date nearly 1.6 million others have seen it since it was posted in 2009. It concerns Lifesaver, a flask that can turn disgustingly dirty water into drinking water in seconds, and I’ll leave you to consider the implications of that.

The first observation I make is that Pritchard is not a natural speaker (though assiduous readers of this blog will know that being a natural speaker is not necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be – here’s an example). There is a slight tautness in his delivery that tells me that Pritchard has worked very hard at getting his speaking to the level it has reached. There is also a tautness about the structure of the content that commands attention.

His visual slides are used very sparingly, and have greater impact for that. Also they are used only to set the scene and highlight the problem. When he reaches his answer to it, all the visual aid comes from his own live demonstration. He gleefully prepares a really revolting solution (I would be specific, but you’ll find it more fun to watch); then he pours some into one of his flasks, and seconds later drinks it. It is very impressive.

The next section of the speech is occupied by apparently reiterating the problem, and at first I felt with regret that we were just going over the same ground. I was wrong: the scenarios he now shows are subtly different now that we have seen his magic flask in action. Now we instantly and instinctively work out for ourselves how disaster relief has always had to carry huge and heavy quantities of stuff that is abundantly lying uselessly around – water. Now that very stuff can be put to use.

It’s a good speech, delivered in a workmanlike and businesslike manner. The structure has a very strong narrative which makes it digestible and compelling.

I would have cut out the final two minutes, which for me did not really hang together with the narrative of the rest; but as an example of how to construct a business pitch this is copy-book stuff.

I was not surprised, when I found elsewhere some footage of him pitching another invention on The Dragons’ Denthat he got himself a deal.

Bill Stuart-White. Archidiaconal syllables go AWOL

This morning in Truro cathedral, the preacher at sung Eucharist was the Archdeacon of Cornwall, The Venerable Bill Stuart-White. As well as the sermon he led many of the prayers, and also performed the Gospel reading.

Considering that a few days ago I posted that I would be silent for a week, you might well wonder what it is about that paragraph that could cause me to break my Trappist vow. The answer is that there is something about his speaking on which I feel compelled to comment.

He is conscientious about his speaking which is very expressive. His voice has good resonance, plenty of personality shines through, yet he has a flaw; and the title to this posting may be a big enough clue for you to think you have spotted it. And yet…

We are looking here not at your normal run-of-the-mill syllable loss, caused by vocal idleness (like Obama): I would not have bothered to trouble you with anything so mundane. What we have here is a very pronounced example of a type that is caused by that conscientiousness that I mentioned earlier.

It is disproportionate emphasis.

Normally I would here have an embedded video with which I could illustrate what I was describing and I itched to dare to capture him on my mobile telephone for a few precious minutes before the vergers threw me out on the street. I chickened out of that adventure; and instead have to explain and describe as best I can.

If you are speaking, and striving to do so expressively, you will lean more heavily on the natural emphases – so far so good. Often, however, some subconscious instinct causes speakers to enhance those emphases even more by suppressing the surrounding verbal landscape – making the strong syllables sound louder by uttering the other syllables softer. That is what Stuart-White does to a disastrous degree.

(If ever he happens to read these words, he probably won’t believe them: I refused to believe the same message from my voice coach all those decades ago till I had to – but that’s another story. And this is another reason that I wish I had a recording as evidence.)

You may think that the loss of a few insignificant syllables is a small price to pay for expressive speech, but not needing or wanting to emphasise a syllable does not make it unimportant. It may be a whole, single syllable word. Take the following phrase…

the love of God

If the sense makes you want to stress the word ‘love’, and the last syllable (word) gets rendered inaudible, are you telling me it doesn’t matter? That, I fear, is an actual example from this morning (oh how I wish for a recording!)

I earnestly urge Stuart-White and all those who strive to be super-expressive to be aware of this danger. It is rare, because expressive speakers are rare, but a widespread tendency among them.

When you heap stress upon a syllable or word, do NOT steal the stress from other syllables.

Going quiet for a week.

Mrs Rhetaur is a very fine chorister, and sings with many choirs. One of them, Cantus, is singing the services this weekend at Truro cathedral. I’m going along for the ride.

That’s too far to travel for just a weekend, so we’re going to stay for a few extra days and sample Cornwall.

So there’ll be no new posts for about a week. Meanwhile there is an archive of around 90 speech critiques for you to explore.

Gon out


Bisy backson


J. K. Rowling breaks rules, and wins.

On 5 June, 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the Harvard Commencement Address.

As I watch her acknowledging the applause that welcomes her all my experience and instincts scream that she is downright terrified. It is not just the nervousness of the smile: there are many other symptoms. It is hardly surprising. The Harvard Commencement Address has been delivered by some considerable names over the years: famous, infamous, but always considerable. Her terror turns out to be not a short-lived hump. Symptoms of fear peep out at intervals throughout the speech.

Nevertheless she is manifestly among friends, probably fans. This may explain the phenomenon that transpires, but I am not convinced.

After the Hierarchical Hello, she launches into an opening that acknowledges her nervousness and seeks to exploit it. This is not an original device, and I advise against it because in my experience it nearly always fails. Audiences do not want to be told you are frightened. To my amazement, long before she is anywhere near her punch-line, the audience is lapping it up, loving it and laughing. In fact the entire opening routine proves to be so popular, and generates so many laughs, that I find myself in doubt as to what actually is the punch-line – that is, until one laugh provides a launch-pad for enthusiastic applause. The audience reckons that is the punch-line. When the market makes such a clear-cut decision it is wise to cash in your chips, end that routine and move to the next section. Rowling spurns that wisdom because she has two more things to say on that subject, both good, one brilliant, and all loved by the audience.

And so it goes on. She breaks another rule with spectacular success. She is a talking head, and much of the script is in written rather than spoken English. Does she get away with this because it is slightly Wodehousian in style, so she is playing a British stereotype to the American audience? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced because she continues to enthral the audience when she gets serious.

And she does get serious. More than 70% of this talk is serious; and on the numerous occasions that the camera cuts to the audience only once is there a face not glued to her.

I repeat that though it is tempting to attribute the success of this speech to her huge and devoted following, I think the reason is even simpler (in concept if not in execution).

Audiences will forgive virtually anything, from glaring mannerisms to opinions they find obnoxious, if only you are interesting enough. She had neither of those shortcomings, though she did have others like over-fastidious enunciation (which I would work to smooth out if I were advising her). What trumped it all was the sheer quality of the way her arguments were couched.

Making a speech is, in many ways, like telling a story; and there is a rumour doing the rounds that J. K. Rowling is quite good at that.