Nigel Farage has stopped gurning!

In July 2013 Nigel Farage delivered a speech in Canada, at the invitation of Preston Manning. I rather think, though I have failed definitely to establish it, that the event took place at the Manning Centre in Calgary.

He begins at 1:50, but if you jump straight there you will miss Preston Manning’s introduction. There is a telling round of applause at 1:10, which shows us very clearly that, on this occasion at least, Farage is among friends and will be pushing against an open door. This will make a change from banging heads in Brussels.

As part of his preamble Farage utters at 2:17 a sentence that shows us very clearly that this speech was delivered last year and not this.

Farage is a good speaker.

He shoots from the hip of course, but that’s easy. The quality that will always grab an audience is transparent conviction and the willingness to express it. Farage has this by the bucketful, which is what puts his speaking so far above that of the leaders of the other three leading political parties in Britain. Detractors call him brash, but for people outside the Westminster bubble, bored with the duplicitous wittering of the witterati, that’s scarcely a criticism. Obvious sincerity will compensate for a dearth of speaking technique; and incidentally Farage is not short of technique.

I have a particular allergy to a habit some speakers have for telegraphing their gags. There is one alleged comic, based in Britain, who utters a loud “err!” just after every punch line, to cue the audience’s laughter. It occasionally works, but it’s so lame! Farage used habitually to pull a “here comes a good one” face, and I have written that he would do himself a favour if he stopped it. Nowadays it is so slight as to be essentially non-existent, and I applaud him for that.

Recently Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal-Democrat party in Britain, challenged Farage to a broadcast debate on the EU. Farage of course picked up the gauntlet, and suggested that Cameron and Ed Miliband should join the party. They hastily cited pressing appointments. It should be an interesting match nonetheless.

Sam Parnia – soul speaker

On 11 Setember, 2008, Dr Sam Parnia addressed an audience at the United Nations in New York. The title of the talk was Unravelling the Mystery of the Self.

Dr Parnia, a critical care physician, has had considerable experience in the revival of cardiac arrest patients and therefore exposure to the accounts of those who have had Near Death Experience. His interest and study of this brought him to the attention of the Nour Foundation, who work to find the distinction – if there is one – between the mind and the brain.

Among the comments under one of Parnia’s talks, posted on YouTube, someone has asked “Can a light-bulb analyse electricity?”.  It’s a valid question, highlighting the circularity of the attempted process. Because of that circularity we may never know all the answers, but that is no reason to stop seeking.

I have made no secret in this blog of my interest in matters metaphysical. Therefore, with pen poised over my pad, I wait and see how long I can keep my dispassionate rhetor hat on.

The start disappoints me, not because of all the thankings which are mere courtesy, not because Parnia is showing me subtle but clear symptoms of nervousness – who  wouldn’t? – but because at 1:13 the camera cuts away to show us his visual slides. For two minutes and twenty seconds we see nothing but over-worded Power-point slides that add nothing to what he is saying and would be an irritating distraction if we could see him and are maddening when we can’t.

Also I want to strangle the sound-engineer who is allowing enough audio feedback through the system to make Parnia sound slightly tinny. Is it asking too much for the United Nations to operate their sound system at least as well as a reasonably competent English village hall?

I am slightly anxious that he is patronising his audience by speaking down to them, and hoping that he is just setting the stage for meatier stuff to follow, when he hits us with a lovely anaphora at 3:40 (“If you …”). I had thought he was reading the speech (yet was pleased that it appeared to be written in spoken English) but now I change my mind. That is a laptop on the lectern, and I believe it is a slave screen for him to see the slides without having to look round. If I am right, he is shooting from the hip and that anaphora was spontaneously uttered, which promises well. We are still very early in the speech, and once he settles down I am expecting him to be good.

And that is where my notes peter out almost entirely. The talk becomes fascinating, and I am riveted to it. Combine what he is saying with the revelations uttered by Dr Eben Alexander in one of my fairly recent postings, and the possibilities are wonderfully provocative.

Where is the ‘self’ (what I unfashionably still want to call the ‘soul’) when there is evidence that it may be distinct from the brain? He doesn’t pretend to know: he and his colleagues are working on experiments to verify or falsify evidence that there is any distinction. Once warmed up he recounts it very well, though a few little notes on my pad indicate that it could have been better.

I love a section at 19:40 where he performs a little act for a few seconds. That was brave, and good enough to be worth it; but the effort appears to throw him for a few seconds.

He repeatedly uses the word ‘phenomena’ as a singular, which sets my pedantic teeth on edge. He also repeatedly uses the phrase “if you think about it…”. I advise trainees to avoid this phrase as it implies to the audience that they don’t think enough. That may be true, but it’s not polite … if you think about it.

These are quibbles, because he delivered most of his talk well enough to sweep up a grumpy old rhetor with a story that absorbed and thoroughly excited him.

There is for me an interesting aside to this posting. I know of Dr Sam Parnia’s very existence only because he treated a close relative of mine a few months ago.

Catherine Engelbrecht in The Land of the Free

Every so often I go blitzing on line, compiling lists of links to speeches that might be worth visiting more thoroughly later. So it was that I skimmed my way through “Top 10 greatest speeches from TV shows”, a series of examples of heavy dramatic fiction. The very next thing I came to was a video of testimony made on 6 February, 2014, by Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and President of True the Vote, to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to keep pinching myself to cling to the knowledge that the fiction had stopped and that this dramatic account was real life in The Land of the Free.

One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of life, one that we learn when tiny tots in the school playground, is that when one side of an argument feels that it needs to break or bend rules, or cheat in any way on behalf of their cause, then there is something wrong with their cause. They may rationalise their cheating with all sorts of end-justifies-the-means sophistry, but – and here’s the clincher – they likewise realise, deep down, that there’s something wrong with their cause. Otherwise they wouldn’t perceive a need to cheat.

I’m an Englishman, not an American. Though reasonably well-read, and accordingly some of what she says is not completely new to me, I am not well enough versed in the back story to feel qualified to comment beyond general principles like the above. But I have exceptional experience to qualify me to judge how she puts across her account.

I read stress by the bucketful. I think that, even without the story she is telling, it must be pretty tough for a private citizen to address an audience like that. Accordingly I applaud how well she copes.

This is one occasion that I am four-square behind a speaker with a script. She has to stick very tightly to time: she must be very precise with her data: she must be seen to be very precise with her data. But there’s another important plus to her credit with this script. It is written in spoken English.

I am not altogether happy with the “motherhood and apple-pie” section beginning at 1:16. It is not the content that bothers me – that’s crucially relevant – it’s the attempts at the warm smiles at the mention of her husband and family. However warm might be her feelings towards them, and however genuine those smiles at any other time, here and now under a tsunami of stress those smiles could not but look forced. I know why she’s doing it: it’s to add colour to the contrast between her two lives before and after she took on this campaign. I just don’t think it works.

In citing harassment from a range of government agencies she bravely names one of the panel at 1:47. Does she think this will neutralise some of the aggression from his cross-examination later? If so, according to this account, it doesn’t work. There’s more video material there, and you may think it worth watching. I shall not comment on it.

Is her story true? I am not in a position to know absolutely; though I know what I believe. The story that unfolds is a harrowing one and, when recounted without attempts at smiles and as flatly and unemotionally as her stress will allow, is very powerful. At 3:54 she speaks hypothetically about “a political machine that would put its own survival against the civil liberties of the private citizen”.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with the words, “We the people…” The implication is that government is the servant of the people. It’s an extension of the assertions in Magna Carta. Is this concept some kind of wide-eyed romantic fantasy these days? If it is, we should be nervous. History shows an extraordinary consistency in that wherever and whenever people have been free of tyranny that society has managed pretty well. Wherever and whenever a self-serving elite has broken into those freedoms the result has always been misery and immiseration. There is no such thing as a benign tyranny.

There is a silver lining to this story. In the society that currently obtains, Catherine Engelbrecht was able to present this testimony to the House of Representatives: we are able to view it on line: I am able to comment on it here. So far, for the moment, those freedoms at least continue. If any of the links in that chain become endangered it will be time to man the barricades.

Q&A with Billy Joel

Speakers tend to enjoy Q&A sessions. All they need is a knowledge of their subject, and the confidence or chutzpah to run with the dialogue. There are a few guidelines to be followed, but they are pretty obvious. (The most widespread error – in fact it’s almost universal – is to put the Q&A at the very end of the speech. If you want to learn more about that you’ll have to buy my book!)

When celebrities hold “An Evening with …” sessions, these almost always consist entirely of Q&A. The reason is obvious: they don’t have to prepare anything.

Billy Joel was doing one such at Vanderbilt University when Michael Pollack, a music student, asked a question.

Hoary-headed old grumps like me might be tempted to mutter something along the lines of “less is more, particularly when it comes to jazz” but …

  • Did Pollack expect to get up on that stage? Hell no!
  • Did he know the evening was being put on video? Probably.
  • Did he know, once he was invited up, that this clip would be posted on line? Hell yes!
  • Did he think it might go viral? Are you kidding? – with Billy Joel? Hell yes!
  • Was he going to waste a chance to showcase his startling technical virtuosity? Hell no!
  • Did he reckon that subtlety could show itself later? Hell yes!
  • Would I or anyone (given this young man’s talent and opportunity) do differently? Hell no!

Good luck to him. I see he now has a website.

Theodore Dalrymple: finger-lickin’ talking head

In November 2013 The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work”. We have recently looked at speeches by Daniel Hannan for the proposition and Katy Clark for the opposition. Today we turn again to the proposition to examine a speech by Theodore Dalrymple.

Before I go any further let me comment on that still picture that illustrates the video. He is about to lick his fingers the better to turn a page. Any regular reader knows what I plan to say about that, but first allow me to quote from my book The Face & Tripod.

“If you lick your fingers to turn (or slide) pages, it not only looks slightly naff but they dry out very quickly so you have to keep repeating the naffness. If you smear lip-salve on your fingers beforehand, you should not need to lick them.”

If you think it odd that someone who is as averse as I to using scripts should nevertheless offer advice on doing so, you haven’t read the book. There are occasions when a script is unavoidable.

This is not such an occasion – or shouldn’t be. That still picture tells you that, though a doctor who has probably presented many papers, Dalrymple is a talking head and has not properly learnt how to speak in public. Which is a pity because he has a lot to say that is worth saying.

I have for many years enjoyed reading his articles, and periodically dip into the kindle version of a collection of his essays entitled Anything Goes. I am currently 48% through it (O the joys of digital precision!). He is very widely travelled, and has experienced life at its rawest. He is widely considered dyspeptic and pessimistic, but humour hides not far below the surface. (A professed atheist who assumes a pen name with ‘Theodore’ in it has his tongue not far from his cheek.)

There’s humour in this speech, and the humour harvests laughs. His material is good, but it is written material. I have made the point many times in this blog that written English and spoken English are subtly but significantly different beasties.

Dalrymple is idiosyncratic. I like idiosyncratic. He is opinionated. I like opinionated. He has the wisdom to have resisted shop-window pieties like political correctness. He is able to express regard for his fellow man without lapsing into the moist-eyed misanthropy that is so fashionable.

I have never met him, but I would like to – not least for the opportunity to tear that bloody paper out of his hands and show him how easily he could do without it and how much better his public speaking would then become.

Jamie Oliver had a good teacher.

In February 2010 Jamie Oliver delivered a TED talk in Long Beach, California, on a theme that has obsessed him for many years, healthy eating.

Bald opening! It’s just a single sentence, so – although arresting – it hardly qualifies as a James Bond film opening, but who cares? His opening sentence preceded his introduction of himself. In a sense he grabbed our hand before shaking it. This is an excellent start, and sets the bar high for this talk.

He carries a sheaf of cards in his hand. He gestures with them, fiddles with them, slaps them occasionally, and does everything except read from them. I suspect that they contain a few prompts and are there purely for their presence to reduce his stress. I can’t fault this. He shoots everything from the hip.

Oliver has been presenting TV programmes for many years, and the nature of those programmes is such that he has had a lot of practice at shooting from the hip. There are plenty of people for whom that sentence is just as true, but who – when placed on a speaking platform – stick a script on the lectern, their thumb in their mouth, and wear an invisible but unmistakeable caption that says “prat”. There is a reason: a camera lens is not the same as an auditorium full of people; and making the transition requires the application or more effort than they could be bothered to spare.

At 1:20 he plays the audience by requesting a show of hands. The exercise has essentially no value other than making them feel involved. He does nothing with the information, but it was a good thing to do. This keeps getting better.

He produces a graph that shows that obesity kills several times as many people as guns, yet we all know that it generates a fraction of the media outrage. He plays the Brit-lecturing-the-yanks card well, and with enough charm to harvest laughs with it. He works a good visual episode in which he tips a wheelbarrow full of sugar onto the stage. It represents, for the average American child’s five year education period, the sugar consumption from flavoured milk alone. He deploys periodic claptraps, gets the required applause for most of them; and for the few that fail to bring forth fruit he doesn’t dwell but pushes on. He presents gratifyingly short video clips that pithily illustrate points he is making. This whole thing is beautifully put together, and skilfully delivered.

We may quarrel with some of his assertions: we may sit and think, “yes, but…” and many probably will. That is what discourse is for. For my part I have moments when I wince a little, because I have developed an allergy to busybody social policing in all its guises. But I am relieved that he never quite calls for the cold, dead hand of official bureaucracy to get involved. He seems less anti-bad-habits than pro-good-habits, and that is a saving grace – urging people to put pressure on industry, the retail sector, educators and themselves to learn to do better. Consumer power is preferable to social police.

Now I must replace my rhetor hat…

Whoever taught Jamie Oliver to speak this well, I salute them. Could it have been Jamie Oliver?

Nick Cohen needs to learn a just a little.

As one of the speakers at the secularism conference of the National Secular Society in September 2012 in London, journalist and author Nick Cohen chose as his theme the existence of a de facto world-wide blasphemy law. His introduction lasts just a minute, he finishes just before the 22-minute mark. The rest is Q&A.

I have had it suggested to me that this blog is a teach-yourself-public-speaking part work. That is a false and foolish assumption. I certainly touch here on a great many facets of the art which a reader with a ridiculous amount of time on his hands could attempt to compile into some sort of instruction manual; but if anyone out there is doing that I’d better consider sticking disclaimers up all over the place. The critical word in that previous sentence is ‘touch’. For every advisory point I’ve made in this blog in about 140 postings, there are – at a rough guess – about 200 words of detailed and important explanation left out.

What brought all this to mind now is that this speech by Nick Cohen might seem to readers of this blog to tick all my boxes. He is shooting from the hip, which is fairly unusual for a writer. He has adopted a position on his subject. He has a coherent theme. He is speaking in the sort of informal conversational tone that is ideal for his subject. He is transparently sincere. He has a well-marshalled set of arguments. All that puts him ahead of most speakers.

And yet it’s a stream of consciousness whose structure and thread are insufficiently strong or distinct – either for him or us. For him there are several occasions that he has to stop completely to regroup his thoughts. He is so articulate that those thoughts, once regrouped, then pour out very coherently; but the regrouping process inserts an element of disjointedness. For us in the wider audience we are compelled to leap mentally across those disjoints.  We also have to cling to lines of reasoning that often meander slightly at random.

He does not write like that. His writing – to my relatively untutored eye – is very clearly structured. I have said often enough in this blog that written English and spoken English are different languages, likewise written and spoken structures, so I do not complain that he puts writing structures to one side when he is speaking. My complaint is that he seems not to realise that there exist speaking structures that he should adopt in their place.

This is a good and important speech. It is a pity that, for lack of just a ha’porth of skill, it failed to be a brilliant one.