About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Barack Obama: dreadful DSS

It was an early morning of November, 1967, and I as an understudy was being frantically rehearsed to step up and take over a role in a very important theatre company at that day’s matinée. I was being rehearsed now by the company’s legendary voice-coach. I had already had some lessons with her but, at the age of twenty, I of course knew everything and had always argued that I wasn’t doing what she accused me of. Now, only hours from execution (so to speak), I changed my plea and asked for guidance.

My diction crime was Disproportionate Syllable Stress (DSS). It is particularly widespread among people who are trying to speak expressively. Today it is a bugbear of mine, and one of the worst offenders is today’s subject.

Barack Obama delivered this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Words in English, like in most western languages, have syllable stress. For example, the word itself – “syllable” – has three syllables, of which we stress the first. The other two are subordinated, but we still pronounce them and people still hear them.

Then up on a platform to make a speech, we raise our voices and in the process we hammer those stressed syllables. We should also hammer the subordinate ones, though proportionately less heavily, so that the audience hears the whole of every word.

DSS is when we don’t do all that.  The stressed syllables are hammered and the subordinate ones are left to look after themselves, so in that example what is heard is “syll – -“. Now let’s turn to Obama’s speech, and we don’t have to wait long for examples.

At 01:31 he says “It is a singular honour…” and our brains automatically fill in the gap and we think we hear all that, but what we actually hear is, “It is a singular hon-“

  • 01:56 “…and a few confess-“
  • 02:06 “I am a very good danc-“

This is just during the jokey opening. Once he gets to the meat of the speech more examples come thick and fast.

Because our brains are so adept at grasping the sense of a sentence and filling in the gaps for us we don’t notice – unless we happen to be a sad idiot like me who winces at each example. So you may think it doesn’t matter. But it is fundamentally bad practice, because the sense is not always obvious.

In a play I directed some years ago, a character had the following line, “Are you dissatisfied with my work?” to which the other character in the scene had to reply, “No.” I could not get the first character to pronounce audibly the first syllable of “dissatisfied”. It is a subordinate syllable and she persistently swallowed it. I eventually gave up, changed her word to “satisfied” and the other character’s reply to “Yes”.

All syllables matter, and Obama swallows far too many – usually the ends of words. To me it marks him out as a rank amateur. You’d have thought someone would have told him. Perhaps someone did and he didn’t believe it – any more than I did of myself all those years ago.

My excuse was the arrogance of  youth. What’s his?

Jen Kuznicki hidden by a script

In early July 2018 Jen Kuznicki delivered a speech in Toledo, Ohio. If the banner on the wall behind her is a clue, she was addressing a branch of the Tea Party.

If you ask a Tea Party member what the party stands for they will tell you small government, low taxes, personal freedom. Ask a leftist what it stands for they will tell you that they’re nazis. You can decide for yourself whether that tells you more about the Tea Party or leftists.

We join this halfway through a sentence. Kuznicki is telling the audience a little about herself. Rhetoricians call this Ethos. What to me is important is that she is talking to the audience. It may be a little halting, but so what? Her own real personality is coming through here, together with her personal charm. (I know she has plenty – I follow her on Twitter.)

But she doesn’t think she’s started  yet.

At 0:39 she turns to her script, and now she is no longer speaking to the audience. Her mouth is relaying to the audience what she wrote earlier. She is now just a talking head, and great swathes of her personal charm have gone AWOL.

She’s a journalist, and a good one. What she’s reading is good stuff, and she’s reading it pretty well. But it isn’t her! Her personality is hidden behind that bloody script.

She doesn’t need that script. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t. With just a little tweaking to the structure, and a little guidance she could come out from behind that script, even from behind that lectern, and really engage that audience shooting from the hip.

When the video cuts away at the end, we hear the beginnings of good applause. In her own account on her website she tells us that she received a standing ovation. I believe it: as I said, this is good stuff. But it could so easily have been immeasurably better if Jen Kuznicki, as distinct from a talking head representing Jen Kuznicki, had done the delivery.

I’m not angling for business: I’m seventy-one and trying to slow down. But if she contacts me through this blog I’ll happily arrange to give her a free hour’s Skype consultation to set her on her way to scriptless freedom. Just as her writing needs to be read, her voice – her voice – needs to be heard.

 

Nikki Haley: quietly tough

When Donald Trump became US President he made a great many appointments, as new incumbents to such an office do. One of the many things to have distinguished his administration from others, however, is how many appointees have subsequently been fired. This might appear to indicate that he got his first choices wrong, but there is another explanation. He could have chosen individuals with specific skillsets to address particular issues, and then replaced them with other specialists for other issues once the first ones had been dealt with.

The latter process is somewhat alien to the political mindset so few commentators seem to think in those terms, but Trump is not a politician. He operates as a businessman does, and a dispassionate evaluation of his administration thus far cannot but be impressed by how much he has achieved and how quickly.

Trump’s appointment of Nikki Haley to be US Ambassador to the United Nations was immediately interesting because her image is so different to that of the President. He hides astonishing astuteness behind a facade of boorish bluster. Her quiet, understated efficiency camouflages a resolve for which the cliché ‘steely’ is inadequate.

A feature of her Ambassadorship is the extent to which this quietly spoken woman has maintained such a high profile for the job, and it’s easy to see why. Whereas predecessors mouthed the usual mealy diplomatic platitudes, Haley doesn’t do mealy any more than Trump does. She coveys the toughest of messages … quietly. Let’s watch one example.

Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, makes the introduction, and comes fairly close to pre-empting Ambassador Haley’s announcement. Haley begins at 4:00.

Tiny error at the very beginning. Haley looks round fleetingly at Pompeo when thanking him. It’s one of those few things that feel right but look wrong. It feels right, because it conveys warmth. It looks wrong because it looks somehow weak. Spool back and you’ll see that Pompeo, with all his glowing compliments, never weakens his introduction by looking round at her.

It is a significant achievement to describe something as self-important as the UNHRC as “a cesspool of political bias” without sounding strident. Haley is equal to the task.

This speech is about fig leaves. Who needs ’em? The afore-mentioned cesspool has been using the USA as a fig leaf to convey respectability: too many think that the USA needs membership of the cesspool as a fig leaf to confirm their concern for human rights: and so on. Haley makes clear that the USA’s record on human rights is way better than the members of the UNHRC, and she is correct.

There’s a clear equivalent in the USA’s CO2 emissions record being better than any of those countries still espousing the preposterous Paris Agreement.

I opened with my rhetor hat on, and I’ll briefly re-don it to close.

My aversion to scripted speeches is well-known, but I acknowledge that sometimes scripts are necessary. I make that point in my book, heading the list of those circumstances with when the Press has a transcript of the speech. This is such an occasion, so I can’t criticise either Secretary Pompeo or Ambassador Haley for their scripts. But isn’t it interesting that arch-proponents of scripted speaking (and they exist!) try to give, as a principal reason, fluency and lack of stumbles. Both Pompeo and Haley  stumble here, and they do so in that particular way that readers stumble. Those speakers who shoot from the hip (and I bet that includes these two when circumstances permit) also stumble, but their stumbles are different and somehow more audience friendly.

Boris Johnson resignation

On 18 July, 2018, Boris Johnson made a statement in the British House of Commons, explaining why he had resigned the post of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

It was streamed live, and we have here the unedited video.

We’re greeted with the bear-garden noise that is characteristic of the House of Commons, and Boris raises his voice to come in over it. That, the tribute he then pays to the government department that he represented for a time, and the constant glowing praise to the Prime Minister (PM), are all par for the course for such a statement.

At around 01:30 the speech morphs seamlessly into addressing its main purpose.

Immediately it is clear that his theme here is to compare the Brexit proposal that emerged from the meeting at Chequers (the PM’s country house) the previous week to the Brexit speech made by the PM on 17 January 2017 at Lancaster House. Thus he sidesteps any accusation that he has changed his allegiance to the PM, and instead implies that she has changed her allegiance to her own stated aims.

He blames this on a “fog of self doubt” which has descended upon her, though he chooses not to analyse the source of the fog. He tells us how well Lancaster House was received not just by him but by commentators, the markets, our world allies, those in the Commonwealth and so on.

This speech is a very eloquent comparison of the bright, sunlit uplands of Lancaster House with the cringing defeatism of Chequers.

Boris points out that he had said at the Chequers meeting that he could not support the proposal on the table. What he does not say, because he does not need to, is that there is only one way for a Cabinet member publicly to refuse to support a Cabinet communique and that is to resign.

His principal message, indeed the Face of the speech, is that there is still time to return to the values of Lancaster House, and pledging his support he urges the PM to do so. It’s a very good speech.

But what of that “fog”? Whence came it?

Let us try to continue to play the game that everyone else has played by overlooking that the PM was a remainer in the referendum: let us take at face value her repeated assurances that Brexit meant Brexit. It requires a certain amount of credulousness because it inevitably assumes that the PM must be stupid, but let’s go down that route. What was she thinking when she surrounded herself with an extremist clique of Brexophobic civil servants and then allowed them to get ideas above their station? Wasn’t that “fog” inevitable?

Boris is right that it is not too late, but May is surely not the one any more. The administration needs a new broom.

Oliver Robinson: science and spirituality

On 5 July, 2018, at Swedenborg Hall in London, Dr Oliver Robinson launched his new book, Paths between Head and HeartIt is already available for pre-order, and will be released in the UK on 31 August and in the USA on 28 September.

Before we see Olly’s launch speech, and also in explanation of my using that diminutive of his name, I must declare an interest. Olly is my nephew and godson, I already have my copy of the book, and I’m enjoying reading it.

I find the subject matter so fascinating that it is a bit of a chore for me to wear my rhetor hat at all, but that’s what this blog is for so I’ll don it briefly.

He’s been here before, in April 2015. Apart from praising his overall speaking I got a little picky about over-use of visual slides, something that is widespread everywhere and almost universal in academe; and also I felt that he was trying to protect his nerves by adopting a persona mask which hid too much of his personality.

Here, he’s come out from behind any mask and is all the more engaging for it.

My guidance on any slide is that thinking it might add something is not enough: it should be included only if its absence would significantly impoverish that part of the speech. The danger of not following that principle is that you find yourself in competition with your own visuals. The editor of that video has limited our exposure to his slides, but I still think he has too many. (Speaking of editors, slides are very useful for hiding edit-points so his editor was probably grateful.)

There’s another factor here which I find interesting. I urge my trainees to speak with their audience, as opposed to at them. I also tell them that passion is worth buckets of technique. Here I am torn over whether his conveying his evident passion for the subject is causing him to lose some of the warmth that you get when you speak with the audience. It’s a balancing act, and the tightrope is very thin. I remind myself that he is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich, and that sort of lecturing tends to lean towards the at preposition to keep students paying attention. I’m in two minds.

On the other hand I am single-minded in wanting to discuss the subject matter of the talk and the book, because I find it fascinating.

On this blog I have covered several speeches from atheists, and I find it tedious that they persist in assuming atheism to be half of a binary choice, the other half being religion. That is intellectually idle: there is another choice. You can be spiritual without espousing a religion. In fact religions carry so much political and doctrinal baggage that their spiritual side gets easily overlooked.  Years ago on this blog I covered six adversarial speeches from an Oxford Union God Debate, and I don’t think the word ‘spirit’ came up once. All the atheists focussed on debunking the doctrine, and ignored the spiritual. They always seem to, and who’s to blame them when religions focus on doctrine also.

In September at Imperial College in London there will be an event consisting of a conversation between Alan Lightman and Richard Dawkins entitled Science and Religion – two truths or one? At a glance you might think they are covering the same ground as Olly, but they’re not. However interesting the event turns out to be that title assumes the same false binary choice and therefore signals a much narrower path.

Though I don’t see him often enough to sit and talk quietly I’ve known for some time of Olly’s interest in the relationship of science and spirituality. I have harboured an excitement to learn more of what he’s found. From this talk I expect to be in for a treat as I dig deeper into the book.

Katie Hopkins: stupidly brave.

“There’s stupid, there’s very stupid, and there’s Katie Hopkins”

Is that a precise quote? Probably not: it’s more likely to be a close paraphrase, but I have better things to do with my time than check it by sitting yet again through the speech from which it came. It was Tariq Ali at the Oxford Union.

I recently came across a speech that Katie Hopkins made. The posting simply said that the speech was ‘outstanding’ and received a standing ovation. Not where or when it was given. A little detective work persuades me it was at CPAC 2018. There are two clues: the date – late February 2018 – and the wallpaper behind her. There’s another February 2018 video of her delivering very much the same message but much more quietly and soberly at a panel discussion at CPAC, with very similar wallpaper behind her. That panel speech can be found here, but I want us to look now at Hopkins working an audience.

I’ve watched more speeches than is probably good for my health, but I’ve seldom if ever seen an audience made to laugh so loud so close to the beginning of a speech. Overt humour that early is a classic minefield, but Hopkins is evidently not phased by minefields, and the audience loves her for it.

It has to be said that Hopkins is very brave indeed, and for that I salute her. I also salute that, one by one, she targets and obliterates every PC icon in sight.

I have stated often and loud enough that I absolutely detest political correctness. Don’t ask me to itemise PC attitudes to which I object, because that’s a straw man. What I loathe is the concept itself. That anyone has the effrontery to declare any opinion ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ gives me spots before the eyes. Politics is opinion and therefore to be subject to civilised debate: it is never ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ except in totalitarian dictatorships, and they give me spots before the eyes also.

Hopkins claims absolute freedom of speech, and exercises that freedom with considerable abandon.

This is an astonishing speech! It’s constructed well, delivered well, and crammed full of things that we need to hear but which – appallingly, disgracefully and shamefully – have become dangerous to say or even think.

This is one brave woman.

Hillel Neuer stirs it

In March 2007 the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) was treated to a speech from the Executive Director of United Nations Watch. News reports subsequently called it a “stunning rebuke”. Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba called it “inadmissible”.

UN Watch has a stated mission, “to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter”, and regularly draws attention to the HRC being peopled largely by representatives of countries with lamentable human rights records.  Its Executive Director is Hillel Neuer. Considering this speech stirred a hornets’ nest perhaps we should watch it.

He’s not sitting on any fences, is he!

That is a blunt and brutal anaphora at 0:39 – “its response has been …”

My aversion to speakers reading speeches is well known, but I can understand when someone reads a speech like this. For posterity there will be a publishable transcript, and if you are pronouncing something as controversial as this you want to ensure that what is published is accurate to the letter. What safer way than personally to supply the transcript, having read from it?

I am curious as to what happens off camera at 2:46. For a few seconds Neuer becomes slightly distracted, and you can see his eyes following activity of some sort.

He finishes at 3:10, and Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba begins speaking. It seems that (again off camera) Neuer, is either already packing up to leave or perhaps someone else is speaking to him, because de Alba has to repeat that he shall not be thanking him for his statement. He goes on to censure him for his tone, his terminology, and his lack of deference. Interestingly, he does not refute a word of what Neuer has said. Could it be irrefutable?

With all the respect that de Alba clearly considers himself and his council to be entitled, his pronouncement puts me in mind of the short speech with which Dogberry closes Act 4, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s the one that begins,

“Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?”

In 2017, Neuer stirred it again in the same place. Perhaps we should look at that speech soon.