Gautam Kalghatgi can’t talk.

Professor Gautam Kalghatgi is one of those rare people whose letters after their name use more ink than the name itself. You could say that he’s been wearing himself down by degrees.

Gautam Kalghatgi, FREng, FSAE, FIMechE, CEng (YouTube adds FISEES, and you can also add B.Tech and Ph.D. if you want) is a visiting professor at … you name it; and on 4 February this year he addressed the Global Warming Policy Foundation with a talk entitled Is it Really the End of the Internal Combustion Engine?

Since he appears to know everything about everything else, you’d expect him to know about Public Speaking. You’d be wrong. He hasn’t the first clue, which is sad because he has important information to impart.

In the first few seconds Kalghatgi tells us that he has been delivering this talk for about a year and a half. This forty two minute video feels longer than that. The term “bogged down in detail” could have been invented for him. For a sample, I suggest you click to 16:50, and read through all of the slide you find there. There are sixteen of those.

In my training to business leaders I offer a great deal of advice about presenting reports like this. That advice can be summed up thus –

  • Don’t try to recount, précis or summarise it.
  • Trail it.

When there is a wealth of data (and there always is), attempting to précis it is futile and the closer you get to succeeding the more counterproductive it becomes. Offer hard copy of the report and devote the talk to persuading the audience to read it. Then they can mark, learn, and inwardly digest at their own speed.

I talk of trailing it – like a movie. We’ve all seen movie trailers: they don’t tell the story, otherwise we wouldn’t bother to see the film. Instead they cherrypick the sexiest shots and leave us wanting more … so we buy our tickets and see the film. I’m sure you follow the point.

So stand, don’t sit like he does, never stare at a screen, still less at paper, but look at your audience and seduce them into being eager to read your report. Use broad brush strokes, the sooner to reach your conclusion, making assertions without justifying them but declaring that all justifications and references are to be found in the hard copy. Yes it’s slightly easier said than done, but not much if you have the right guidance.

Kalghatgi tries to précis, or rather he tries to recount all, the detail on those sixteen slides. He stumbles, loses the next slide, loses his place on slides, careers all over the place. He is a VoiceOver for his own slideshow, playing second fiddle. It is disastrous.

There are three ways to get benefit from this video. Kill the sound, pause on each slide, read it at your own pace, and then spin the video on to the next slide; or turn away, look at the wall, and merely listen; and the third way is to note his email address (he gives it at 00:57) and send for the hard copy. Otherwise you are likely to be asleep in minutes, knocked over by data overload – I’m serious.

But now here’s the killer! It’s worth doing. The information he has amassed, with his wealth of learning and research is immensely important. That’s the only reason I can conceive for anyone wanting him to come and talk. The trouble is that it’s quite a good one.

Boris Johnson talks a good fight

At the beginning of February, 2020, barely hours after the UK ceased to be a member of the EU, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, delivered a speech in the painted hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. It was entitled, Unleashing Britain’s Potential.

The speech generated a fair amount of comment in the press and on social media so, as is my habit, I waited a while for the dust to settle before I addressed it.

Whoever was in charge of filming this video was so determined not to miss anything that the camera was switched on and left to its own devices while the throng awaited the PM’s entrance. You don’t have to wait: he enters at 3:14 and begins speaking at 3:20. He finishes at 31:04, turning to Q&A.

Nearly half a century ago I was involved in organising a gastronomic banquet in this Painted Hall; and the guests from all over the world barely noticed what they were eating, so grand is the setting. The PM opens with a detailed and scholarly, if slightly anarchic description. While admiring the work that went into it, he describes it as “slightly bonkers”. It makes for an amusing opening to the speech.

At around the six-minute mark he reaches the matter in hand, namely that Britain released from the shackles that have bound it to a failing enterprise of protectionist tariffs, needs now to get out into the wide world and exercise some free trade. He speaks of the teachings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Richard Cobden; and no one can deny that Boris talks a good fight.

I find myself made anxious when at 8:25 he says that “politicians are failing to lead”. Smith, Ricardo, Cobden, et al, don’t teach that politicians need to lead; they teach that politicians need to get the hell out of the way. Boris knows this, and he’s a words man, so why does he use wrong words?

At 13:30 “We will be governed by science, and not by mumbo-jumbo!” He’s speaking of doing free trade deals, but I wish he was speaking of Climate Change. What has possessed the man to espouse the preposterous ambition to be “carbon neutral” by 2050? Futile, probably impossible, a short-cut to national bankruptcy, and utterly pointless given that the entire Climate Change religion is a tax-raising, citizen-controlling, political adventure based on mumbo-jumbo and not science. He has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t really ‘get’ climate change. Half an hour spent drilling past the fluff in which the creed is coated and simply looking at the actual data would be a good start. Or he could watch some of the YouTube videos on Tony Heller’s channel.

If, as it appears, he has Churchillian ambitions he really does need to get a grip.

In terms of his delivery it’s a stirring speech, and it is certainly refreshing to see a Prime Minister appear to exhibit a spine made of something other than marshmallow.

So he can talk the talk, let’s see how well he walks the walk.

Victor Davis Hanson, naturally

On 10 November, 2019, the Jewish Leadership Conference was addressed by Victor Davis Hanson. His talk was entitled Israel and the Muscular Spirit of the West.

I’m interested to hear him speak. I have dipped into his blog Private Papers, and also enjoy his podcast The Classicist, and found him supremely articulate; but that doesn’t mean that his effectiveness in front of an audience can be taken for granted.

The introduction is read by Jonathan Silver and I have a suspicion that these are not his own words. I advise my trainees that, if they are due to speak at a conference and the organisers request biographical information in order to assist them in preparing an introduction, they should instead actually write and send the whole introduction themselves. There are advantages for everyone here: the introducer is saved a difficult task and the speaker has – as it were – set his own starting blocks. I would not be surprised if Hanson wrote this: the relevance to the talk is spookily insightful.

Hanson’s Hump betrays its existence in the way he fiddles unnecessarily with the mic, but he very quickly settles down.

In the first minute he attributes his youthful interest in the classics to autodidactic reading. I immediately wonder if his auto didacticism spilled over into teaching himself to speak in public. He shoots this entire speech from the hip, thus persuading me that this is probably what he always does. Could it be that he discovered for himself how easy that is? If so, that might explain something else.

As a speaker he gives every impression of being a Natural and, as I have previously mentioned on this blog, that is a two-edged sword. I teach ordinary mortals to be able to speak without notes by disciplining them to structure their material in easily remembered ways. Naturals don’t need that: they know that they can simply stand there and speak. The trouble is that without that disciplined structure some of the coherence can be lost from the message. It is at least as important for the audience that the material be easily remembered.

About two thirds of the way through this speech it rambles a little, and makes me wish he had divided it into clearer chapters in order to keep himself in check. I’m ok: I can watch it again (and have and shall yet again) but the audience in the hall can’t. The material is fantastically interesting, and otherwise so well argued, that it is tragic if any goes AWOL through his losing even a few seconds of his audience’s attention.

This is one of those occasions that the high quality of a speaker makes me get super-picky. He has so much of value to impart, that being damn good is not enough. He owes it to his own scholarship to match its excellence.

Lawrence Reed and Cicero

In the summer of 2019, Acton Institute hosted a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed. His theme was Modern Parallels to the Fall of Rome.

As I habitually do with speakers on this blog, I have attached to Reed’s name a hyper-link that will take you to a biography, but you will find there not much more than you learn from the detailed introduction given him by Stephen Barrows. He does such a good job of the introduction that I have attached a hyper-link to a biography of him also. He supplies one particular piece of information that seems relevant to this blog. At 2:03 he tells us that Reed has delivered at least seventy five speeches a year for the past thirty years. That’s an average of three per fortnight. He should be pretty good at it. Reed begins at 2:50.

I firmly tell my trainees that every speaker – every speaker – experiences a Hump. They often seem incredulous, but here at the beginning I see tiny, subtle symptoms of nervousness. I am impressed and delighted that even with his huge experience his adrenal glands are still doing their job to raise him to optimal performance. If a speaker is not nervous at the beginning he’ll bore you. If you can’t see Reed’s nerve symptoms that’s because he’s good at disguising them.

After brief preliminaries, including an amusing anecdote, he launches straight into the subject of the Ancient Roman Republic. What I particularly like, the lecture title notwithstanding, is that he seldom bothers to draw modern parallels at all. He doesn’t need to: it’s all implicit. He merely narrates relevant information about the Roman Republic, its crumbling and its transition into an empire, and lets us work out the parallels for ourselves. As a general rule audiences dislike being spoon-fed.

For instance as a Brit my ears prick up at 09:15 when he tells us that Rome had an unwritten constitution which was nonetheless very powerful and built on long established conventions. The British constitution, likewise unwritten, was recently tested, somewhat assailed, but succeeded in riding out the crisis.

When at 18:45 he quotes Sallust’s description of the character of the administration of Rome in its late republican crumbling, he allows it to transmit its own parallel message. Likewise when he tells us at 20:00 about Tacitus warning of ‘lust for power’.

Though the general principles of what he describes are not earth-shatteringly new, it is pleasing to have so much clarity of chapter and verse attached to them. It appears also to be necessary to repeat the obvious warnings.

The lecture is half-an-hour long, as is the Q&A that follows. During the latter he is asked to identify which historical figure (other than Jesus Christ) he would most like to meet. Topping his list is Cicero, whose writings tell us so much about the crumbling of the republic. Cicero has quite a lot also to tell us about public speaking, so I might try to gatecrash that conversation.