Barack Obama as an embryonic orator.

On 20 September, 1995, in the public library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty-four-year-old law student read from an autobiography entitled Dreams From My Father. You may wonder how many people of that age have already written an autobiography, but perhaps this young man was shaping to put many more entries in the record books.

His name was Barack Obama, and my particular interest lies not in the reading but in the eight minutes he spent introducing the reading.

He utters his first words, “Good evening” while approaching the lectern. It’s a sound technique as a hump-buster, because the long silent walk to where you will speak can tighten you up. This is not a long walk, but still the principle holds. If you are not wearing a radio mic, you may have to raise your voice, but what the hell!  What you are likely to say is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if the audience misses most of it. Fancy a kid of the age of my younger son having already learnt that trick! What else had he learnt?

That’s a nice opening and, though he smiles while saying it, there is no other indication that he expects a laugh.  Essentially he throws it away, and that’s another thing he’s learnt. The boy is good.

He’s shooting from the hip, and is no less fluent for that. The ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ don’t make him look hesitant and indecisive they make him look spontaneous, sincere, and at ease. These are all qualities that relax audiences.

He has a distinctive way of holding his head with his chin up slightly. This lends him an air of openness and authority. In years to come, if he makes something of himself, some body-language analysts might see that as an affectation he has deliberately developed. It may be, but if so it was developed before September ’95.

It is really quite startling how accomplished he already is as a communicator.

He starts reading at 09:10, and I’d prefer not to comment further. It is not that I don’t like book- or poetry-readings – I perform them myself – I just think that the author is not the best person to do it, because he’s too close to it. I feel that the perspective of someone who can stand back further from the canvas is usually better. That said, I have to admit he reads it well.

It’s also interesting and well-written, though I find the anger and self-pity a little trying. He may have good reason to be angry and self-pitying, but so do many people who choose not to display it because it’s an unbecoming characteristic. It doesn’t bode well for his future. At 25:00 he finishes reading, and thereafter he answers questions.

I wonder what became of him.

Nate Staniforth – wonderful!

Magician Nate Staniforth recently gave a talk at the Oxford Union. The title of the talk was Wonder. He spoke for a little more than ten minutes during which he did not perform a single illusion.

When I saw this talk listed I was keen to watch it.

I have been known to describe myself as an ‘audiencologist’. It’s an absurdly trite little made-up word, but it does say what I want. I have a lifelong obsession with audiences and what makes them tick. Consequently I have enormous admiration for magicians. Other types of entertainer can make audiences laugh, cry, think and more. They can cause a wide range of feelings and emotions. Only magicians, however, also make audiences see what they did not see and believe what they know to be unbelievable. They are the ultimate manipulators of audiences. So how well does this one speak? I was sure I already knew the answer.

I was right: he is excellent.

Bald opening, and provocative enough to grab you.

The opening leads clearly into a narrative thread to which anyone can relate. He picks you up and sweeps you along his ordained path, talking about wonder and mystery. His structure seems at the outset to be just chronological, a sort of potted life-history, but he has decided that would not quite make his point concerning wonder; so there is a little jumping around to strengthen it. He leaves the narrative thread hanging while he digresses for a while, returning to reclaim it at just the right moment and in the right way. It is good: very good.

As for his delivery, well what did we expect? Any idiot with a cheap book can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it is the performance surrounding the illusion that singles out the star. Watch how Staniforth varies the decorum to hold our interest and add definition to the points he is making. One minute he is animated, the next he slows right down, varying the tone of his voice accordingly. Many people could do that, but there’s more. There’s the intended laugh that never came when he mentioned a couple of people that seem to mean little to this British audience. In less than a heartbeat, he’s thrown it away and moved on. It happened at 2:50, and I guess barely a single person in that hall noticed. I don’t suppose any regular reader of this blog will be surprised that he shot the whole speech from the hip. I should have been devastated had he not.

He is very skilled at disguising how skilled he is. He puts across supreme relaxation, but watch the intensity with which he is constantly scanning his audience. He misses nothing. A short while ago in a posting on this blog I argued a distinction I choose to make between perfection and excellence. Staniforth epitomizes excellence.


Jim DeMint displays personable warmth

On 22 May 2015 – just a couple of weeks after the UK General Election – the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) presented their Edmund Burke Award to Jim DeMint, President of the Heritage Foundation. Daniel Hannan, Secretary-General of the AECR Board, having made the presentation DeMint opened his acceptance speech with a comment addressed to him.

“Daniel, if I could only speak with as much fire and passion as you can…”

I wish I could watch the speech to which he refers. A handful of weeks ago I was complaining that Dan Hannan didn’t put enough fire and passion into his speaking.

DeMint’s principal failing in this speech is familiar to all regulars of this blog. He is reading it. Every fault in the flow is caused by that alone. Whenever he inserts an ad lib ‘aside’ his fluency leaps up. His nervousness at the beginning (what I call The Hump) is prolonged way beyond its natural life simply because of his adherence to that script. He could easily throw it away. He doesn’t know he could, but he could. His engagement with his audience and his enjoyment of the whole process would soar.

DeMint is personable. He addresses his audience with a quiet warmth that is appealing. This causes me to reflect upon a particular dissonance in politics.

The left claim the high moral ground, declaring they represent the philosophy of love and care. They portray the right as hating and uncaring. Only last week in Britain we saw video footage of delegates and press arriving at the Conservative Party Conference, and having to run a gauntlet of screaming, shouting, and spitting. I can never remember the equivalent happening to arrivals at a conference of a left-wing party. So who here is displaying hate?

DeMint is a leading member of the Tea Party movement, whose central philosophy is one of low tax, small government and individual freedom and responsibility. Yet the image painted by their political opponents is one of raging racism and hate. I invite you to watch this man speak, listen to what he says, and try to spot the raging racism and hate. If you fail to find any of either, what does that tell you about those who accuse him?

All those I have met who share his political persuasion also share a belief in people. They want them to have more control over their own lives, trusting them to live up to that responsibility. Does that sound like hate to you?

Rupert Sheldrake displays appealing eccentricity

On 12 January, 2013, there was a TEDx event at Whitechapel in London. One of the talks was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and was entitled The Science Delusion. This is the British title of his book which in the USA is called Science Set Free.

His talk came to my notice because TED later banned it. More accurately they removed the video from their YouTube channel, and someone else promptly re-posted it. There is a discussion on their blog on the matter. No doubt TED carefully considered the possible damage their action would do to their reputation for open-mindedness, and what they choose to include on their channel is their business, but surely someone there has heard what happens when you ban something. When the BBC bans a record it immediately climbs to the top of the charts.

When the equivalent happened to this video I waited a while till the dust had settled, the more calmly to examine it. Shall we now see what the fuss was about?

He’s barefooted! I love eccentricity in all its guises, because it shows a determination to plough your own furrow. It also suggests an inner self-confidence and calmness, though I find other things about his body language tend to belie this. His hands bother me, because they seem to bother him. When they hang at his side, the fingers constantly fidget – a common nerve symptom. I find myself willing him to put at least one hand in a pocket and he appears to hear me because his left hand goes into his jacket pocket. I think that this configuration could be a suitable ‘Happy Home’ for his hands.

He needs to find one, a default location whither to send his hands when he finds himself conscious of them, because if it’s the right Happy Home he will immediately cease to be conscious of them and they will do their own thing. Their own thing is excellent: his gestures are eloquent and strong. Being eager to doff my rhetor hat and just listen, I quickly do so.

He lists ten dogmas on which he maintains science is built, telling us that he will have time in this talk to dwell on only two or three of them. Nevertheless he is already controversial. Science is supposed to be built on open-minded inquiry, and scientists will claim it is so, but immediately we spot that his claim must be correct. Dogma-free doesn’t ban speeches that claim it is built on dogma. Who are these poor dears that made his case for him?

His principal target seems to be an idleness that has caused the scientific establishment to try to simplify science into mechanistic constants that nevertheless seem to defy them by fluctuating. And it looks to me as if I have made the same mistake by trying to summarize the talk in a single sentence.

I think I should stop trying to précis this: I would prefer to trail it. You need to watch it. It is intensely thought-provoking, and already I plan to buy the book.

Tom Holland addresses Islam

On 25 May 2015, Tom Holland delivered the inaugural Christopher Hitchens lecture at the Hay Festival. He called it De-radicalising Muhammad. It was an appropriate title for a speech in memory of a man who was so articulate in his condemnation of organised religion in general and Islam in particular.

Holland begins at 1:55 and ends at 37:40. The rest is questions.

He begins with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens whom he never met. He tells us that he has been instructed that to be true to Hitchens’ memory his talk should be controversial. If as a non-Muslim you are speaking about Islam, or any aspect of it, you are hard-pressed not to be controversial. Holland highlights this, while nevertheless pointing out with examples that Hitchens courted controversy on this subject with some eagerness.

“Nothing to do with Islam…” that is the stock phrase, trotted out by politicians after every new abomination committed by jihadists. Holland cites this as an attempt to de-radicalize matters, but also shows why it is counter-productive. Anyone, particularly a non-Muslim, who says those words is implying that he or she knows the nature of authentic Islam, a claim which is transparently absurd when even Muslim scholars can’t agree. He proceeds with a history lesson that starts with the life of Muhammad himself, including matters of contention surrounding its details.

From where I stand, as a faintly bemused outsider, Holland seems to address this history in about as balanced a manner as is possible, and his ultimate target slowly becomes clear. The fulcrum of the speech, the point at which we finish with the background and venture into a suggested route to a solution, arrives at 16:54 with the words, “Unless Islam can draw sustenance from its own traditions to purge itself of what is going on in its name then really there’s very little hope”.

I don’t want to say any more in description of this excellently structured and argued piece of erudition, because it’s time for me to don my rhetor hat.

Holland is doubly equipped with microphones. He has a face mic, and stereo mics on the lectern. One of those sound systems is providing the feed for this video, and I’m pretty certain it’s the one on the lectern. It is ‘splashing’. Splashing is a cousin of popping (and there’s a tiny bit of popping too). It is when sibilant consonants, principally the ‘s’ sound, give a distorted splashing sound on the output. It’s a pity when he is delivering such good stuff. Slap on the wrist for the sound-engineer.

He has a script. You may think it barely matters when he merely glances at it, and you’d be right to a degree. He does handle the script extremely skilfully, but still it detracts from his delivery. Occasionally he quotes someone else’s words and then I have no problem with it, but too much of his looking down is comfort-blanket stuff. Watch an instance when his eyes go down and ask yourself if he really needed to read those particular words to speak them. Most of the time the answer will be no.

If you want fully to appreciate the difference in quality of delivery when he addresses his script and when he doesn’t, watch a sustained period when his eyes stay up and he shoots a section from the hip. There is one such between 31:30 and 33:20. In it he is subtly more engaged with his audience than the rest of the time. More importantly (to him) he is every bit as articulate and coherent, employing the same high quality of phrasing, as when he is reading. It is this that he doesn’t quite trust himself on. He feels he has a need to underpin his natural fluency with the written word. He is wrong, but I suspect he would take some persuading.

For all that Tom Holland is an impressive speaker, and this is an important and valuable speech.