Indarjit Singh – a talking head

On 23 January 2014 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion This House Believes postwar Britain has seen too much immigration. 

One of the speakers in opposition to the motion was Baron Singh, a prominent Sikh and a distinguished commentator on a range of issues. His habitual media of commentary are print and broadcast journalism, so I was interested to see whether he had developed an equivalent level of accomplishment in public speaking.

The answer is apparently no. He may be able to deliver brilliant speeches, but he is not doing so here. What we see him doing here is trying to replace speaking skill by becoming in the most real and literal sense a Talking Head. He has written an article for us, and now he is reading it aloud. This is not a speech: this is a reading. The degree to which this lamentable practice is widespread among those thinking they are making speeches, doesn’t make it any better,

It is a pity, because what he could bring to this debate is important. Let us therefore turn to that.

Debates by definition tend to polarise opinions, and when seeing the motion I feared lest it descend into one side saying that a portcullis should immediately drop and prevent all further immigration, or – even worse – that the other side should wrongly accuse them of saying that. Worse than either would be accusations of what the other side really thinks, regardless of what they say. That really is the most scurrilous variety of argument ad hominem. I have already heard most of the speeches, this blog will cover some of them, and I am pleased to say that in the main it stays above that.

Singh however, does say, at 7:17, “The motion, suggesting that we close the door on immigration, …” Does it? Cast your eye back to my first paragraph for your answer.

At 5:40 he says, “Uncontrolled immigration can lead to social indigestion”. He also speaks of areas in a country being “burdened” with too much immigration. That being as fierce a position as we get from his opponents, we might wonder which side of the argument he takes. Could we be witnessing the result of sloppy thinking? With that in mind, consider that from 6:40 he calls for some enforceable international migration agreement that takes into account –

  • Relative national prosperity
  • Level of unemployment in the receiving country
  • Gradient of economic disparity between countries
  • Dearth or excess of relevant skills

Forgive me, but are not 2 and 4 very similar? And are not 1 and 3 essentially identical? And if so, do not symptoms of sloppy thinking abound?

I’m sorry, but Baron Singh did not distinguish himself here.

Glenn Greenwald: the natural over-speaks

The YouTube introduction reads, “The Future of Freedom Foundation and Young Americans for Liberty presented a one-day conference on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin at the LBJ Auditorium in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on Saturday, April 11, 2015, that addressed the war on drugs and the war on terrorism“. I added the hyperlinks

I am a little uneasy about this talk from Glenn Greenwald and I am not sure why. The title of the talk doesn’t help, but I know little of him and certainly not enough to condemn him unheard. Could it be his ubiquitousness on the university speaking circuit? After all the word university has these days become such an antonym for diversity that being no-platformed is now a badge of honour and being welcomed almost a reason for suspicion.

This is a free-speech blog, so we shall hear him.

What a dreadful introduction! This young man is obviously well-meaning but he needs to learn how to speak in public and how to tie his own bow-tie.

Greenwald is a natural speaker. That is obvious from the start; and now with my rhetor hat firmly donned I am uneasy for other reasons.

People always seem astonished that natural speakers should worry me. If they had read my post on Peter Schiff they would understand better. I don’t particularly want to rehash all the points here, and I don’t really need to. I merely need to invite you to watch this interminable bore of a speech. It is 45 minutes long, could have been concisely delivered in 10, and expansively delivered in 15.

Better still, rather than lose three-quarters of an hour that you will never see again, click at random anywhere in the speech, watch five minutes and then stop. If you learn any more than could have been uttered in six sentences I should be surprised. He repeats and rambles, rambles and repeats till the air is thick with snoring.

The trouble is that the subject matter is important. If you manage to stay awake long enough you will find that he is speaking mainly about universal surveillance, a subject that should concern us all (it was important enough to be the central theme of the latest James Bond film after all). It bothers me that the matter has been so keenly hi-jacked by Islamist apologists, but still it is a matter that needs to be addressed – and preferably by others than power-hungry bureaucrats.

Greenwald, being a natural speaker, has never needed to learn the speaking disciplines that ordinary mortals require. Accordingly his speaking is undisciplined and tedious.

With a little work he could be brilliant.

Tim Montgomerie: stilted and unhappy

On 20 October, 2105, the Danube Institute hosted a lecture by Tim Montgomerie entitled The Moral Power of the Right, which he subtitled Ten Conservative Commandments.

That’s a weak opening, principally because it’s a weak joke, weakly delivered.  Even brilliantly delivered it would fail because he has brought up the name of Moses before the audience has been introduced to the Ten Commandments subtitle; so the joke makes no sense (unless someone mentioned the Ten Commandments earlier).

He seems unhappy.  He never stops fidgeting and the speaking is stilted, even when he’s not reading his bloody script (why will they do that?). The occasional flashes of attempted humour seem not to be working – I can’t hear any laughter, and shots of the audience show them in less than party mood.  If I were in his shoes, I think I would drop attempts at humour on this occasion

His rather laboured speaking could be because his audience do not have English as a first language, but if he thinks that is a problem he should use shorter, punchier sentences and shorter punchier words and deliver them naturally rather than speaking as if to halfwits. Don’t over-enunciate everything and then use words like rhetorical.

20:07 – errm… Oh dear! Probably ill-advised.

This speech could be good.  The ten commandments idea is a reasonably promising one, but it comes across as flat-footed. As an overview, Montgomerie seems to be making two mistakes, both of which are widespread.

  • Speaking is not an extension of writing – the two are completely different genres and preparation of material should be approached in completely different ways.
  • Standing and speaking to an audience is not essentially different from speaking to a friend across a table. It feels different because you are on your feet and it is a monologue, but the delivery mindset should be virtually the same. (I could write several pages on this, but I’ll spare you.)

I’ve read Montgomerie, and he writes well. Now he needs to learn how to prepare a speech in a way that sounds natural when spoken and does not require a script. I’ve seen him interviewed, and he has good and relaxed delivery with occasional throw-away humour. Now he needs to dare to translate that into the same sort of easygoing delivery from the speaking platform.

Meanwhile he will continue to be unhappy.

Brendan Chilton engages.

On 2 October 2015, in Guildford, England, there was a cross-party conference entitled Time to Leave?  There were three speakers, Diane James from UKIP, Daniel Hannan from the Conservative Party, and Brendan Chilton, Director of Labour for Britain.

For a long time I have been yearning for Britain to have a referendum on its membership of the European Union. This was only partially for the referendum itself. What I really wanted was the attendant grown-up debate on the issues involved. Pro-EU people always seem to churn out the same, lame, ingenuous nonsense, and I have assumed that they were saving the real arguments for when it mattered. The trouble is that time ticks on, and I am still waiting.

Meanwhile I am pleased to listen to what a eurosceptic member of the Labour Party has to say. Everyone knows, because the BBC has told them, that only ultra-right-wing people are opposed to the EU – something that must have puzzled Tony Benn.

Chilton is introduced by Daniel Hannan – introduced rather well, actually. Short and to the point, with no messing about. If that man keeps at it he could be rather a good speaker one day.

Good opening. Though euroscepticism observes no party boundaries you can see on the projected slide that this meeting is hosted by the European Conservative and Reformist Group, so Chilton is speaking to an audience that will not share many of his political views. By humorously flagging up the point he puts the audience at its ease. He engages with it from the beginning and keeps it with him.

He’s good. Some might argue that he’s speaking a little too quickly, but I find it indicative of only the passion and sincerity behind what he is saying. No coherence is lost, and we get swept up in his arguments.

The arguments are made in broad brush-strokes. This is something I bang on about with my trainees. When you are writing an opinion-piece, and some of the detail is so fine and complicated that it needs a second look, your reader can always go back. When you are speaking your audience cannot do that: you have to shape your arguments in such a way that they are made clearly in one telling. That means broad brush-strokes, even for bright audiences.

The projected slide to which I referred earlier is still there at the end. Chilton does his own speaking. He doesn’t seek the imagined assistance of intrusive pictures. He’s good!

His closing points are very telling indeed, and excellently expressed. I have nothing to add.