David Starkey gets it right.

In December 2019, a day or two before the 12 December UK General Election, New Culture Forum held its 2019 Smith Lecture, in London. The Speaker was Dr David Starkey.

As a general rule I seldom devote more than a token hat-tip to a speaker’s introduction, but I have a little more than that to say about this contribution from Peter Whittle.

When I began teaching public speaking – shortly after the Napoleonic Wars – there remained in the medium a strong favouring (which I disliked) for formal oratory. Since then that fashion has receded almost to extinction in favour of what I call Conversational Speaking, and the trend was driven by The Market. Audiences want not to be spoken at, but spoken to, or with. Best speaking practice today is characterised by a more chummy demeanour and, ideally, no script or even notes. Speaking without notes (I call it “shooting from the hip”) transmits a range of desirable signals like spontaneity, command of the subject, sincerity, and so on, and (keep my secret!) is astonishingly easy to do.

Whittle’s introduction is shot entirely from the hip. It has stumbles, but if anything they enhance the result because it sounds – and is – spontaneous. He conveys the feeling that he has things that he sincerely wants to tell us, and we therefore want to hear them. Among other things he tells us about “So what you’re saying is…”, a series of interviews that he conducts with interesting people. They are very good: I commend them.

David Starkey begins at 6:00.

He speaks from notes. He nevertheless contrives to convey the chumminess, sincerity and much of the spontaneity of noteless speaking. We shouldn’t be surprised: he’s been doing it a long time. He’s even older than I, though not by much. Rather than develop the skill of dispensing entirely with paper, which till a couple of decades ago was regarded as a bit of a mountebank’s trick, he has learnt to refer very sparingly to his paper and not to allow it to impede his excellent relationship with his audience.

I found this talk highly enjoyable. It is humorous, bulging with relevant information concerning nineteenth century politics, and scattered with some wonderfully quotable lines.

It is also prescient. Though he starts with all manner of caveats concerning the uncertainty still prevailing before the election, and he declares himself determined not to prophesy the result, he nevertheless hints obliquely, late in the talk, how he expects it will pan out. He gets it right, in satisfactory detail.

Jonathan Haidt and time well spent.

At the end of October, the Institute for Humane Studies posted a video of a talk that had recently been given at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The speaker was Professor Jonathan Haidt. The talk is entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, which just happens to be the title of a book that he co-wrote with Greg Lunianoff.

This talk is nearly an hour and a quarter long. If you regard that as bad news, then the good news is that watching it is time well spent.

Haidt presents himself as a reasonable, warm, friendly, winsome person. Cynic that I am, and one that previously was not familiar with him, when his talk starts sailing into water that has recently become controversial to the extent of generating riots, I wonder whether this is a persona that he projects in order more safely to navigate this perilous course. I go off and explore his other speeches and interviews, and return a verdict of Not Guilty.

This is not a persona, but the real Haidt, and the perilous course takes him face-to-face with what has colloquially been termed the Snowflake Culture – i.e. university Safe Spaces, etc.

Gratifyingly, however, he does not so much confront it as strive to understand it. That essentially is the genius of this talk. He explores its origins, its ethos, making us his audience almost empathise, before he explains why it is profoundly and dangerously wrong.

The talk has more visuals than I would like. The editors of this video cut away from the slides enough to prevent Haidt becoming for us a voice-over for a picture show; but the audience in the hall does not have that privilege. My rule with visuals is simply stated: include it only if the argument would be significantly impoverished without it. I venture that there are some slides here that fail that test.

In striving to help us understand various details, Haidt supplies a great deal of survey data which are displayed for us in the form of various graphics. I have absolutely no quarrel with this talk being data-rich. Speakers who address controversies without showing their workings are suspect, and graphics convey such workings very effectively. However, it’s almost as if including an abundance of slides generates its own momentum and that the slides that are necessary and desirable somehow give birth to others that are less so.

How often have I observed in this blog that the better the speaker the pickier I get? The previous two paragraphs are a good example of my becoming hyper-picky, because Jonathan Haidt shows here that he is nothing short of an exemplary speaker. It’s not just the delivery which is superb, but his argument is flawlessly structured also.

I think I may read the book.

Andrew Doyle and Woke

At The National Liberal Club in London, on 13 October 2019, Sovereign Nations held a conference entitled Speaking Truth to Social Justice. One speaker was Andrew Doyle.

I was keen to watch this speech because few have done more to satirise the wearisome Woke movement than Doyle (except, arguably, the Woke movement itself). Among other things, and I’m going out of my way to highlight this because in his speech he doesn’t do so, he co-founded and runs Comedy Unleashed, where comedians may perform without having to conform to the bigotry of Woke restrictions. This means free speech and, in a civilised society, should be the norm. The Woke establishment (and be sure that the Establishment is Woke) hates it and labels it ‘Far Right’, which is Wokese for the holding of non-Woke opinions.

I cannot believe that he’s reading a script! What has possessed him? He’s hacking great chunks out of the impact of what he is saying by regurgitating something he wrote earlier. It’s not all the time: sometimes his eyes mercifully lift from that wretched paper and he addresses the audience in spontaneous terms. Then the eyes go back down and the speech immediately deflates to an appalling degree. If you don’t believe me, close your eyes and listen. It’s certain that you will know when he is looking at the audience and when at the paper. This is exacerbated by the script being in written-, as distinct from spoken-, English; but he shouldn’t have the bloody script in the first place.

I know for an absolute cast-iron certainty that he doesn’t need it. This is not just because I’ve proved it to countless trainees over the decades, but because I have actual evidence from the man himself. Watch this and see if there’s a script.

What he is doing there is monumentally difficult. It looks easy when it’s done that well, but it is without question the most skilful form of public speaking. He’s fallen into the trap of thinking that Public Speaking is in some way different – a formalised medium. It isn’t. It’s just structured talking, and he has shown he can do that phenomenally well.

The speech is brilliant and could and should have been brilliantly delivered. Because it’s personal no one on this planet could deliver it better than he if he did but dare bin the paper. It’s punchy, funny, clever, everything you want it to be. And it’s important.

One tiny caveat concerning paperless speaking. He often quotes people by reading what they said or wrote. On those occasions he is right to do so, because by being seen to read a quote you transmit a subliminal signal that you are not paraphrasing, but quoting faithfully.

Jonathan Aitken on the shoulders of giants.

On 21 December, 2015, at the Richard Nixon Library in California, Jonathan Aitken delivered a speech entitled ‘A Biographer’s Journey’, comparing the subjects of his two best-selling biographies – Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher. Though I habitually attach, for readers that need it, an explanatory hyperlink to the name of the speaker and key people mentioned, I believe that at least two of them require no introduction, and anyway if you watch this video you will come to learn more about all of them than a link can offer. But if you insist –

Jonathan Aitken Richard Nixon Margaret Thatcher

As I habitually also, as a courtesy to the author, include links to books that are mentioned let us attend to them now. All these are authored by Jonathan Aitken.

Frank Gannon, aide to President Nixon, delivers the introduction and apologises that – unlike Nixon and Thatcher – he cannot speak without notes. Was this a specific appeal for me to teach him? Alas no.

That apology notwithstanding he proceeds to shoot most of it very capably from the hip. It’s a truly excellent introduction, affectionately delivered, replete with personal memories and fulsomely advertising all but one of the books listed above. I have heard few introductions that lasted as long as nine and a half minutes and none that so deserved to.

It has been said that punctuality is the politeness of princes. Aitken begins his lecture at 9:30, and passes to Q&A exactly 40 minutes later at 49:30. That sort of precision is super-professional and very rare.

And now I am slightly at a loss for words. This is just such a beautifully constructed and delivered lecture that I shy away from cheapening it with comment. Yes I know he regrettably has notes. Sadly the word ‘lecture’ strictly means a reading, and there are here a few occasions that I feel the reading makes the delivery a little pedestrian, but when his face comes up and he addresses us spontaneously it eclipses those brief shortcomings.

He’s a very fine speaker, and what he has given himself to say is fascinating throughout. I concede that I may bear an advantage in being old enough to have lived through the period in question, but of the many hundreds of speeches I have sampled for this blog (perhaps three times as many as have been actually reviewed) I think this the most enjoyable. I urge you to watch it.

Candace Owens uses dry powder

There was an interesting clip of video posted on YouTube on 21 September, 2019. It came from a congressional hearing on “confronting violent white supremacy”, but it culminates in a two-and-a-half minute pronouncement of extraordinary power. I think it is worth examining.

Three witnesses speak in this clip. In order of appearance they are Dr Kathleen Belew, Assistant Professor of U.S. History, The University of Chicago, Ms Katrina Mulligan, Managing Director for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress, and Ms Candace Owens.

Dr Belew is the first to speak in this clip, and is clearly in opposition to Ms Owens. Most of the time she is referring to things we have not heard so do not yet interest me, but suddenly she comes out with an extraordinary statement. She refers to numbers that she doesn’t have, and then declares that claiming that they don’t say something “is not supported by the data”. Surely the numbers are the data; and though she is unable to produce them she claims the right to say what they do or do not support. I become suspicious.

Ms Mulligan, joining the gang versus Ms Owens, is even less impressive.

Through all this, the occasional brief sights we have of Candace Owens show very little. This impresses me. I always advise those on panels, where they are being attacked, not to weaken their silence with gestures or facial expressions of contradiction. Much better is to maintain your dignity. Stay impassive till it is your turn to speak. Keep your powder dry!

Eventually Representative Jim Jordan asks Ms Owens a question which is clearly intended to provide her with a helpful springboard. She does not squander the opportunity.

I am a fan of an aphorism by Laurence J. Peter (he of the Peter Principle, which is ironic considering the two previous speakers) –

Speak when you are angry – and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.

– but here we have an exception. Candace Owens is angry, but she contains it very well. She proceeds, calmly but mercilessly, to shred her two caucasian adversaries, not just their arguments with their failure to produce those fairytale data, but their motives. I almost feel sorry for them.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the human tongue when wielded as expertly as here demonstrated, can be even more devastating.