Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Javed Akhtar debate

In early April 2013 I posted on this blog a critique of a speech by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. He delivered it at an India Today Conclave. In June I posted a critique of the speech that was made in introduction by Javed Akhtar. Akhtar’s brief was dispassionately to set the scene for Vasudev’s speech, and he did so; but it felt to me at the time as if he was suppressing strong views that he would have liked to liberate.

So I was excited to find that Tehelka had brought the two of them together in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury at one of their Think sessions in 2012.

As Chaudhury introduces the session you hear the tribal applause and cheers as each name is mentioned. Is this really going to be a verbal gladiatorial contest? If so it will be a treat.

I quickly doff my rhetor hat and just enjoy.  I invite you to do the same.

Simon Heffer – boom but not bust.

On 1 February, 2012, The Bruges Group was addressed by British journalist, Simon Heffer. The Bruges Group is a British Think Tank, known to be anti-EU. Some find it puzzling that such an organisation should call itself after a city in Belgium, but it takes its name from a speech delivered in Bruges by Margaret Thatcher on 20 September, 1988; and anyway euro-sceptics are typically very fond of Europe and its peoples, while disapproving of the unaccountable clique that runs the EU.

Simon Heffer has studied speech-making: indeed he is the compiler/author of Great British Speeches, an anthology published by Quercus. I have a copy and can vouch for the intelligent, erudite, and insightful backgrounds and summaries that he gives of the great speeches transcribed therein. I approach with trepidation conducting a critique of one of his own speeches. In the event I find myself instead exploring an interesting feature of the video recording.

His quip at the beginning harvested a satisfactory laugh, not least from me. Mindful of my global readership I know that many will not understand it. It would be pointless, trying to explain: let’s move on.

Actually I’d like to move back a few seconds, because this video gives me a chance to explore an interesting ploy that some speakers use.

The first sound we get is the very end of his introduction, and then the first words spoken by Heffer. The sound is quite different. Heffer booms in a way that his introducer doesn’t.

Rooms, like everything else have resonant wavelengths, and Heffer’s voice precisely catches that of this room which resonates in sympathy. Is he doing it on purpose? I doubt it: studying speech-making on an academic level is quite different from studying that sort of esoteric technique – and my doubt has another reason.

It is not helping him. With fairly extensive practice you can learn how to find, catch and hold the resonance of some rooms (churches tend to be easy), and use it to enhance your vocal resonance. But if you do so you absolutely must ‘turn up the treble’ on your enunciation. Your sibilant consonants must be super-crisp, and every syllable must be pronounced, or your intelligibility gets swamped by the booming echo. If Heffer was booming on purpose, he would be enunciating more clearly. There’s not much wrong with his enunciation for normal purposes, but with that booming he is quite hard to hear.

Mind you, the people in the room hear him much more clearly than we do. Our sound is almost certainly coming from the microphone built into the camera, which picks up omnidirectional ambient noise. I am sure we are not getting a feed from one of the three microphones in front of him or our sound would be much better. So does that mean that this is all purely a characteristic of the recording and that Heffer is not really booming at all, and that I have just been wasting your time? No it doesn’t. Go back and listen to the first couple of seconds again. His introducer provides us with a ‘control’. He doesn’t boom in anything like the same way. Heffer is booming all right!

Whether or not you find it difficult to hear everything he says, it is certainly worth the effort. The speech is well structured, well argued and well delivered. It is also mostly shot from the hip. Listen, mark, learn, and inwardly digest!

Dr Roy Spencer becomes a voice-over

If the still picture on the video window below looks startlingly similar to the one on my previous post there’s a good reason. It’s the same video. A rare and welcome climate debate was held by The Heartland Institute on 7 July, 2011. Previously we looked at the opening speech from Dr Scott Denning: today the floor is given over to his opponent, Dr Roy Spencer. If you want to grasp the significance of Spencer’s opening statement, you want to watch from 15:50.

One minute into this speech Spencer looks at his watch, thus answering a question I have previously raised. There is apparently no clock visible from the lectern. He looks at his watch again a couple of times in the speech, before over-running by just over 3 minutes. (He finishes at 29:15: all the rest of the video is devoted to questions, I think – I didn’t stay to watch.)

Calling all conference organisers! Come on, Guys! Installing a clock for the guidance of the speakers costs effectively no more than a little thought. It might even save consequential costs when they over-run less often.

There’s another error here, and Denning had it too. There’s no ‘slave screen’, a small monitor in front of the speaker in order that they might see the slide on display without looking up at the big screen. There merely needs to be a vga feed for the speaker’s own laptop.

Every slide on the big screen robs the speaker of some of the audience’s focus (which is a very strong reason for a speaker minimising the number of slides used). Every time a speaker looks up at the big screen he compounds the felony by actively redirecting the audience’s focus away from himself and in the direction of the screen (look at the picture of Spencer above). The more he does it, the more he devalues his speech towards the role of voice-over for a picture show. Always use a slave screen!

At 23:30 Spencer puts up his umpteenth slide.  It is a graph, and he apologises for showing a graph. I gape in disbelief! A graph can save huge amounts of convoluted description and explanation, and therefore is an excusable slide. He should instead be apologising for all those slides of his that are covered in redundant writing. Without them he would have saved a great deal of tedious slide-changing and not over-run his time.

Can anyone explain to me why so many speakers stick up slides covered in words, and then proceed to read them out? Is there a research facility somewhere that claims to have established that it adds something to the impact of the words? If so, I’d like to have a hard look at their data, because all my study indicates the reverse. People have said that if the audience are given hard-copy of a deck of slides that tell a story the deck in its entirety needs to be included in the presentation.


Hasn’t it gone quiet.

Dr Roy Spencer is interesting and personable. His knowledge and understanding of his subject matter is a byword. This speech of his could very easily have been hugely absorbing. It wasn’t. What a pity!

Dr Scott Denning – an excellent speaker.

We have recently looked at speeches from International Conferences on Climate Change as staged by the Heartland Institute. I had read that Heartland, although being essentially sceptical on the subject, nevertheless issued speaking invitations to scientists espoused to the warming orthodoxy. This in contrast to warmist organisations that routinely exclude sceptics on the grounds that ‘the debate is over’. Speaking personally it was precisely the ‘Science is Settled’ approach, and the debate suppression thus implied, that alerted my suspicions several years ago. If it’s science it’s not settled: if it’s settled it’s not science. (That, by the way, is a chiasmus.)

I was delighted to find that on 7 July, 2011, Heartland had staged a Debate at their Sixth International Conference. Scott Denning had debated with Roy Spencer. We shall look at Spencer in a future posting. Today let’s watch Denning.

On the YouTube posting we are not told who creates the civilised decorum for this debate with his well measured introduction, but after some ferreting I believe it to be James Taylor. If I am wrong I hope both he and whoever it was will forgive my error. By the way, he announces that he will be a stickler for time limits. I wonder whether this means that since the 2009 Conference the Institute has installed a clock. If you read my critique on the speech by Christopher Booker you will know what I mean.

Denning speaks from 3:40 till 14:40, and immediately declares himself a skeptic (I have to spell it the transatlantic way because that is how the word appears on his slide). He explains that everyone, scientist or lay, should question all scientific assertions. This is music to my ears, and is clearly intended to resonate well with his audience.

He speaks in simple, clear, uncomplicated sentences without overtly speaking down to his audience. He shoots it from the hip. Already I am enjoying this.

I enjoy it even more when he shows he is prepared to make a fool of himself. He wants to show how molecules vibrate, so he moves his body and makes silly noises to demonstrate. He first does it at 9:07, just as the camera frustratingly cuts away; but be patient. The camera cuts back to him at 9:32 just in time for us to witness the best bit of foolery. How much does he add to the wisdom of ages by such behaviour? Not a lot, but rest assured that everyone in that audience will remember the speaker who did that. If you are due to be one of several speakers at a conference I invite you to bear the thought in mind.

Anyone who has looked beyond sensational tabloidesque headlines on this subject knows that the greenhouse properties of CO2 are commonplace in the climate issue. Where the argument actually rages is in the amount and direction of feedback from consequent water vapour. Therefore Denning’s histrionic clowning to illustrate the way carbon dioxide captures warmth, and indeed most of his talk, is pushing against an open door and ignoring the big question. No matter: be assured that question is raised during the next section of this debate – during the majority of this video that is beyond the brief of this posting.

Meanwhile, within my brief is the conclusion that Dr Scott Denning is an excellent speaker.

Sachin Tendulkar – a natural and a delight

Thanks to ABP Majha there is on YouTube a speech by the legendary Indian cricketing batsman, Sachin Tendulkar.  Sadly I am unable to tell you when or where the speech was delivered, but it is clear that it is a speech of thanks upon his being honoured with the Order Of Australia. Whatever else anyone may say about the game of cricket, it surely is to its credit and that of its players that it fosters the sort of spirit that heaps honours upon distinguished opponents.

Our first glimpse of him in this video finds him adjusting the microphone. What a pity he did it wrong!  Had he pointed it higher, perhaps at his eyes, we would have been spared the occasional popping.

How dare someone who is gifted with such gigantic sporting talent also be so naturally good at speaking! This speech is a delight.

He is slightly nervous at the beginning; and he understandably chooses to bust his hump with an effusive thankfest. At 0:38 he looks skywards as if to seek strength and inspiration, and then launches into an eminently appropriate theme – his association with Australia.

Not only does he shoot the whole thing from the hip, but he has enough inner confidence to be prepared to be seen to search for words, give pauses their full natural life and address his audience with the sort of conversational sincerity that is today’s style. It’s a beautiful piece of speaking, tailored perfectly for an occasion such as this.

All the best structures are simple. This one could not be simpler – it’s essentially autobiographical.

He tells a story about how he was invited to travel to Australia to be a special guest at the 90th birthday party of Sir Donald Bradman, perhaps the only batsman in history to be Tendulkar’s superior. The story has a punch line that draws a huge laugh from his audience; but, and you’ll have to trust me on this, it is not speaker-proof. If he’d miss-timed that punch line he would have killed the laugh.

I find myself pondering on something. I am of the school of opinion that says that a large percentage of someone’s talent consists of a fluid exuded from the brow. Tendulkar was born with a phenomenal natural ability to hit a ball, but he was not born doing it. The man worked hard to maximise his talent. Likewise he has a natural ability as a speaker, but he was not born doing that either.

How much of what we see in this speech is the result of study and work? It’s very difficult to tell … except he made that elementary mistake at the beginning with the microphone. It may be that he could suffer from the widespread problem of the Natural. For an explanation of what I mean, see Peter Schiff here. When he retires from serious cricket, he will remain a considerable celebrity, and obviously invited often to speak. If he relies too heavily on his natural ability he could come unstuck sometime. Anyone who has done that will confirm it to be a very unpleasant experience. I hope he takes the trouble to consolidate the skill.

P.S. Among other things, Tendulkar is one of the relatively few batsmen to have scored a hundred centuries in First Class cricket. This posting is the hundredth on this blog.

Christopher Booker – a writer not a speaker.

Every week Britain’s Sunday Telegraph includes a column by Christopher Booker. He is regularly described as a contrarian, and his often ferocious campaigns include attacking the EU, the secrecy surrounding the British Family Court system, and imbecilic officialdom in general. He spurns the shallow fashions of the intelligentsia and gives the impression of using very thorough research, which is why his opponents tend to restrict themselves to argumentum ad hominem attacks. They seldom prevail if the argument comes down to hard evidence.

Perhaps his chief target in recent years has been global warming alarmism, so I was not surprised to see his name crop up amongst speakers at the same Heartland Institute International Conference on Climate Change in March 2009 that provided this blog recently with a speech by Professor Richard Lindzen.

His introduction is charmingly and self-deprecatingly provided by Dr John Dunn.

Booker begins at 1:45 with a mildly humorous opening. This is good: never try to be too funny too soon unless you are a professional comedian. He then briefly speaks spontaneously and very personally about the conference being peopled with those whose work he admires. And then…

He picks up a sheaf of papers and proceeds to read. My heart sinks. Booker writes well; and most good writers are too restricted to thinking – as it were – through their pen. A speaker needs to think through his tongue, because written English is different from spoken English. Booker, in short, is a talking head for the same reason as we discussed in the case of Brendan O’Neill. This is stuff that would be interesting to read but which is stilted and tedious to listen to.

There are a few blessed occasions that his eyes lift to the audience and he permits himself an aside; but still his script retains overall control. And that is not the only reason for my heart sinking.

The main body of his speech seems to consist principally of his recounting the history of the global warming scare from the time that the global cooling scare lost political traction. I suspect that this audience was not only sympathetic to his argument but populated almost entirely by people who knew this story every bit as well as he. It’s never easy to find a new slant on an argument when you are pushing against an open door, but that is what you really have to do.

At the outset it looks as if he has solved this problem.  He begins talking about the book he co-wrote with Richard North, Scared to Death, in which they analysed the extraordinarily consistent pattern in which successive political/pseudo-scientific scares lived their brief lives, rising up and falling away before being buried and forgotten – scares like bird-flu, Y2K, BSE, etc. He does continue by showing how in its beginnings the global warming scare followed the same overall pattern, causing me to look forward to his restricting himself to that theme, exploring and explaining the extraordinary longevity of this particular scare. How, for instance, are its adherents managing to fight an increasingly bizarre rearguard action even though we have seen more than one and a half decades of the planet refusing to follow any of the projections of the computer models? Why are schools and museums still allowed to poison our children’s minds with this garbage? Is it merely that too much political capital has been invested in it? Admittedly this speech dates from 2009 when many more people than today were still paying lip-service to it, but the game was up even then – which is why Copenhagen collapsed.

Instead, as I mentioned earlier, he gets bogged down too much in a history that in this company is commonplace.

And he’s reading it.

And what is worse he’s accelerating.

At the 16-minute mark he is beginning to gabble and tumble over his words; and at 16:53 we learn why. Someone tells him from the floor that he has five more minutes, and he exclaims with surprise that he had thought he was already over-running. What does this tell us? There is no clock. What does it cost conference organisers to place a clock, working and correct, within sight of the platform? This was the same year that Richard Lindzen had microphone problems, and after this blog’s critique of that speech Jim Lakely, Director of Communications for the Heartland Institute, posted a comment saying that their technology was better at subsequent conferences. I trust this includes their installing a clock.

If Booker had stuck to a study of the mechanics of the scare, exploring the similarities and differences with previous scares, and if he had learnt how to structure the speech so that he could shoot the whole thing from the hip, this speech would have been infinitely better. It deserved to be, because it was important.

Sally Uren – fluent in bureaucratese.

Forum for the Future describes itself on its website as “a sustainability non-profit working globally with business, government and others to solve tricky challenges”. If, like me, you didn’t know that ‘non-profit’ was a noun then we’re all learning something. Thanks to Geoff Chambers I learnt that on 21 May, 2012, Sally Uren, then deputy Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, made a presentation entitled Systems to Solutions. No, I don’t know what that means either. Shall we try to find out?

What, in the name of sanity, possessed her to perform that little yawn pantomime at 0:18! Is she saying that she finds it boring? Is she saying that she expects her audience to find it boring – and wants to pre-empt that? Is she trying (unsuccessfully) to get a laugh? Self-deprecation is one thing: sticking an imbecilic downer into the first seconds of a speech is quite another. She puts me in mind slightly of Dolores Umbridge, the Harry Potter character portrayed by Imelda Staunton, simpering meekly while spouting ghastly and dangerous rubbish.

The perceptive reader might have inferred somehow that I was likely to be difficult to please with this speech. There is a reason. While I am obviously all for sustainability, the reading I have done on the subject persuades me that the empirical data supplied by history clearly show that sustainability and growth in wealth, food, and all other benefits of civilisation comes from millions of mutual accommodations made by people trading for their own benefit. What always makes things go pyriform is interference from busybody know-it-alls who manage to get enough of an administrative foothold to become surrogate decision-makers. Far from ever helping it has consistently been catastrophic. History is strewn with horrifying examples of hugely successful societies being reduced to immiseration, famine and mass-starvation through centralised decision making. Therefore sustainability happens when this sort of ‘non-profit’ is non-existent. When will they ever learn! But back to the speech.

If your interests are such that you cannot survive another minute without learning the distinction between ‘competitive’ and’ pre-competitive’, this speech will have you in orgasmic transports of ecstasy. If, on the other hand, you couldn’t give a monkey’s then go and read a good book – or even a bad one. This is fifteen minutes of wall-to-wall, faux intellectual bureaucratese – the sort of worthy-sounding guff that the producers of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 adore.

I have to admit that she is a good enough speaker to be employable in a real job – albeit after a thorough jargonectomy. Sadly though she is on a slippery slope. When she delivered this speech, her non-job at this non-profit was Deputy Chief Executive. Since then she has been demoted to Chief Executive.