About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Susie Green and Jackie

In December 2017 there was given a TEDx talk in Truro, Cornwall, by Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, an organisation set up to advise and support parents of gender nonconforming children.

I seldom cover TED talks, because the actual process of speaking is made fairly uniform and therefore gives me little to cause my rhetor hat to be donned. However I chose to explore this one as there is another speech giving a contrary view; and we will look at it in the post that follows this.

Thirty six years ago my elder son, likewise aged four, came home from nursery school one day and startled his mother and me with the declaration that he now knew the difference between boys and girls. We gulped gently and asked him to explain. He announced –

Girls cry and boys don’t.

A four-year-old boy barely knows what girls are, other than that they get treated differently, get dressed differently, and play with different toys. Unless he has a sister he probably won’t know the physical difference, and even then won’t care. If any four-year-old boy would rather fancy being treated as they do that other sort, have longer hair like them, wear those softer, freer, more fluid clothes, and play more gently, so what? Plenty of girls play football, even rugby, or climb trees. Our world is astonishingly rigid in its adherence to certain gender stereotypes and interpretation of non-conformity.

It’s not our fault: we were brought up from the cradle in these rigid conventions, and that conditioning goes very deep. It’s probably high time we dismantled much of it; but the current fashion for gender-nonsense, far from dismantling, actually reinforces the stereotype because its default interpretation of simple preference seems to be dysphoria. “If he wants to wear a skirt, he must want to be a girl” – why? He may be too young to have yet been conditioned, and may grow up to be a prop-forward. Convention aside, what is inherently female about a skirt? What is inherently male about climbing trees? I have no doubt that genuine gender dysphoria exists, but the way a whole industry is growing around it, must surely give us pause.

This speech tells a very moving and heartwarming story about a mother and child, and may be true in every detail. It may – in every detail – have happened to Susie and Jackie Green, or she may have cherry-picked some bits from others’ true stories with which to embellish it – as CEO of Mermaids she certainly has access to material.

[If that is thought to be an accusation of scurrilous behaviour, I would point out that there is noble precedent. We are in the season of celebrating the story of Christ’s nativity, the details of which we have cherry-picked and cobbled together from multiple sources. Nowhere in the Bible is there a star over a stable. St Matthew’s Gospel has the star, etc, St Luke has the manger, etc. Just about the only overlap detail is Bethlehem as the venue. Back to Susie Green …]

I get slightly concerned when Green supports gender realignment with statistics about the terrible rate of suicide among trans people, but fails to tell us how much of that happens after treatment. That is the sort of counter-information to be found in a blog called 4thWaveNow, which is far more knowledgeable and informative on the subject than I.

Nevertheless, misguided or not, she makes a good case in this speech. Whatever our views, those conventions are there and will cause the sort of adverse reaction from some people who were conditioned like the rest of us and don’t understand. It is therefore important that an organisation like Mermaids exists among parents trying to cope with a situation in their children that is at best confusing and at worst life-threatening.

In my next posting we will examine the opposing argument.

Martin Howe pulls no punches.

The British Conservative Party Conference at the beginning of October 2019 was an interesting affair. Parliament had been turned, by those bent on betraying the biggest democratic mandate in Britain’s history, into a bad joke. A disgustingly partisan Speaker in the House of Commons had assisted opposition parties in breaking many traditions, including that of suspending parliament during conference season. Other parties had been able to hold their conferences without their members of parliament needing to be in London to debate legislation, but not the governing Conservatives. Not only was parliament sitting while their conference was on, but crucially important business was in hand. Nevertheless the conference did happen, and much of the talk was about the foregoing in this paragraph.

During the conference the Bruges Group held a meeting which was addressed by Martin Howe.

The introduction by Barry Legg, Chairman of the Bruges Group, is delivered in tones that barely disguise desperation. There is an air of persecution. The fight to honour the people’s instruction to secure Britain’s independence from the EU is looking to be in peril. Britain’s Establishment has shown that it is prepared to descend to whatever depths are necessary, breaking any rule to thwart it, and its scrupulousness has seemed to be winning.

Howe reveals his early nerves by clinging umbilically to his script. He even looks down to be prompted to say the words, “this afternoon”. He knows that every syllable spoken at this meeting will be picked over. It is a measure of the seriousness of the political environment when a highly experienced legal advocate feels himself to need such strict circumspection.

Nevertheless he does not pull his punches. Parliament has made itself illegitimate; its activities are unconstitutional; the administration is entitled to ignore its instructions. I take this as meaning that, on 31st October 2019, the Surrender Act notwithstanding, the Prime Minister is entitled to use the Royal Prerogative to break with the EU, something he has repeatedly promised –

“No ifs or buts”

– to do. That, and the same in other equally uncompromising terms, he has made more times than I care to count.

Yet on 31st October he didn’t. Why not? What other pressures were brought to bear? It seems that the principal one was that this wretched excuse for a parliament, rotten from the Speaker upwards, would not allow a General Election to take place unless the PM undertook to break that promise he had repeatedly made. He had been rendered powerless – at least that was the story we were persuaded to understand.

So now we are into a General Election, still haven’t left the EU; and I for one know not what, or whom, to believe. It barely matters because the only feasible alternative to his party is so horrendous, that we have no choice but to elect him.

Unless the PM is party to a very deep conspiracy, and the people are being duped into believing his new assurances to return him to power only to have him renege yet again on everything he has said and lock us deeper into the EU, Boris Johnson will form a new government with a bigger majority and take us out. If he reneges, I shudder to think what will happen. The anger of the people will be ugly, just as it has been in France for the past year; and as in France we could have EU armoured vehicles on the streets of Britain. And I fear that I will not be too surprised: why do we suppose that the mainstream media in Britain has avoided showing us what has been going on in France?

But while we still can, let us try to remain optimistic and assume that the PM is sincere. High on his agenda then should be root-and-branch reformation of the Establishment. It makes the Augean Stables look like a sterile operating theatre.

Tom Daley dismisses the unimportant

The Oxford Union hosted a talk, followed by Q&A, from Tom Daley. The video of it was posted on YouTube on 2 January, 2018, so was probably recorded shortly before everyone broke for the Christmas holiday 2017.

When he enters I am pleased to note that he carries no paper. I later discover, from the way that his eyes occasionally flick down to the lectern, that his notes have been placed there beforehand. Full marks for planning and stage-setting, coupled with admiration at how discreetly he later consults his notes, easily swamp whatever small disappointment I might feel for his using paper at all.

I always feel sympathy for anyone invited to deliver a speech about themselves. What the hell is there to say? If you are famous, which under the circumstances is likely, the audience already knows plenty about your fame. All then that is left is your private life which is none of their business. In Daley’s case he is a prodigiously successful high-board diver, and he’s gay. The former we can follow on the sports pages if we’re interested, the latter we can follow on other pages – again if we’re interested.

Speakers square this circle in various ways, and Daley has elected to make this motivational. His message is that you should combat stress by being yourself, trusting your game, and caring less about peripheries.

Almost a bald opening. It is clear that a pure bald opening was planned, but a delayed train forced him to squeeze in front of it his apology for tardiness. I forgive him.

The early part of the speech, almost a quarter of an hour, is spent with Daley recounting several ways and occasions through his childhood when his late father used to embarrass him in public. That sentence probably doesn’t exactly drag you in to watch it, and indeed it is rather garbled, prone to needless repetition, and clumsily recounted. There were many times I found myself editing and improving it in my head.

The strange thing, though, is that when he reaches a description of his standing with his toes at the edge of a ten-metre diving platform, with an Olympic medal riding on how he performs the next few seconds, you understand how he attributes his father’s eccentric behaviour to his now being able to wipe from his mind that which doesn’t matter in order to focus on that which does. And the garbled nature of that early section of the speech helps to paint it as belonging to those things that don’t matter. It’s an interesting structural device, whether or not it’s intentional.

At 18:30 the speech gives way to Q&A, which too quickly homes in on his being an LBGT &c. icon; and I’m afraid at that point I couldn’t care less. His, or anyone else’s, sexuality is their business and, for me, slightly less interesting than whether they are left- or right-handed. This is not least because my wife is left-handed so always folds up the ironing board the wrong way.

Roger Hallam and claps

From 30 July till 2 August this year there was a Green Gathering Festival somewhere in Wales. Provided the weather was good, it looks as if they probably had a wonderful time. I was too young and impecunious to visit San Francisco before 1976, and therefore missed their Summer of Love hippie fest of 1967. On the other hand I and my guitar spent the whole summer of 1965 being irresponsible in a (then) minuscule and almost unknown Algarve fishing village called Albufeira. I can vividly recall the intoxicating sense of freedom, so I begrudge no one the urge to return to what feels like nature.

But there was a difference. A great deal of our intoxication came from an overwhelming sense of optimism (and, let’s not deny it, sangria, sun and sex). Yes, there was The Bomb; yes, there was Vietnam; yes, we young people rebelled (all young people do), but still we felt that the future of the world was wonderful and out there to be seized. Today’s message is that there is no future; and the message is a dangerous lie.

On 2 August, the Green Gathering was addressed by Extinction Rebellion co-founder, Roger Hallam.

It is overwhelmingly tempting to give this speech a good kicking: it is such an easy target. It makes a long series of assertions, that claim to be scientifically proved but which are easily exploded via reference to authoritative data in the public domain, and does so with a desperate lack of coherence.

It is also tempting to mock it. I was genuinely startled to hear him repeatedly predicting universal ‘claps’. I understood that woke orthodoxy had outlawed the practice of normal applause in favour of ‘glad hands’. It was a second or two before I realised he foresees collapse.

Also is that a stain on the front of his trousers? If so, do I even want to know what it is? No. Quite a long way into the speech someone in the audience comes and tidies some fabric wrapped around a lead,

He tells us that he has been, for five years, at King’s College doing PhD research into how to cause trouble effectively. Though surprised that there should even be such a course, I believe him. This autumn has witnessed an astounding amount of trouble caused, and he has been largely to blame.

Nevertheless, looked at as a whole, this could easily be quite a good speech. His delivery, constantly on a falling cadence, is tedious; but though incoherent he manages to get his message across.

The question I ask myself, as he spews out this hate-filled stream of disinformation, is whether he is a fool or a knave. He makes it clear very early that he dislikes people, so wholesale merchants of disinformation would have found him a vessel eager to be filled. His organisation, Extinction Rebellion, is a misnomer twice over. There is no acceleration of extinctions, and when teachers take children out of school to join demonstrations there is no rebellion.

Problems are always upstream of the symptoms, and Hallam is merely a symptom – a puppet sideshow. There are very rich and powerful forces upstream, and legions of puppets – of varying degrees of influence – downstream. The climate industry is unimaginably big. The disinformation is parroted by the high, the mighty, and the rapidly getting richer on the back of it.

It is the disinformation that is stealing the children’s childhood.

The world is a wonderful place full of mainly wonderful people, and the environment is overall getting better all the time: the data make that very clear. If ever there was a moment in the whole story of homo sapiens for bright-eyed, smiling optimism and love and hope this is it. But there are forces who prefer – for reasons that no doubt make sense to them – to sow discord.

Getting picky with Adam Afriyie

On 26 March 2018, the AltFi London Summit had its opening keynote speech from Adam Afriyie MP.

That’s what I call a snappy introduction. It’s hard to be certain but it looks to me as if it is made by David Stevenson, Executive Director of AltFi, and he is to be congratulated on not fannying around but getting the speaker quickly onto the platform.

Every speaker has what I call a Hump, that brief period of extra nervousness at the beginning of a speech. Find me a speaker that appears not to, and I’ll find you one that has got good at disguising and abbreviating it.

There are some effective hump-busting techniques, but opening with something light, fluffy and inconsequential is not one of them. It may make for an amusing opening, and be admirable for that, but counter-intuitively it won’t help the nerves. The reason is that while drawing a chuckle or two from the audience you are also procrastinating the moment that you address the meat of your message; and that is when the hump will recede.

Afriyie opens with thanks for the invitation, moves into a little joke that is too overt to get a laugh so early in the proceedings (but which he salvages by throwing it away), an assurance that his talk will be brief to allow time for questions, and a nano-biography by way of ethos. The biog morphs into a description of the parliamentary group which he chairs. That last happens at 1:27, and up till then he is hump-bound. The second he gets into the terms of reference of his parliamentary group he’s on a roll – a good one – that carries him through to the end of an excellent speech.

I don’t want to delve into the subtle body-language hump-symptoms that I read, but there is one clear signal that everyone can see when I point it out. He has bullet-point notes on the lectern, which is infinitely better than having a script, and he looks down at them before telling us that he is Member of Parliament for Windsor. Does he need to do that? Does he not know? Or is that a classic security-blanket impulse? We know the answer. Once on a roll he barely glances at his notes again.

If I were advising him I would have him opening baldly with – e.g. “Good morning, I’m Chair of the all-party group…etc” Had he done that his hump would have lasted barely ten seconds instead of a minute and a half, and all those things in his hump-bound preamble he could have slid in later if necessary.

I’ve said it before in this blog, and I sincerely hope I’ll say it again …

I get this picky only when they’re good.

Roger Bootle: mildly excellent

On 28 January 2015 Roger Bootle, Chairman of Capital Economics, gave a talk at the University of Leeds. The talk was one of the Financial Times Masterclass Lecture series, and entitled The Trouble with Europe.

At this stage in the history of the UK this is fascinating: a penetrating, deeply researched and authoritative analysis of the European Union. Therefore as I did with the recent post we had of a speech by Digby Jones, I think it is relevant to put the timing of this talk into context. It was –

  • a little more than 3 months before a UK General Election, whereat David Cameron promised to seek radical reform of the EU, and then hold a referendum.
  • 18 months before the Referendum,
  • a time when the Euro was under enormous pressure.

That time-context gets particularly significant and interesting from about 41:00 onwards, and increasingly more as it approaches the end.

Malcolm Sawyer, Emeritus Professor of Economics, makes the introduction; and as we join it we see two figures standing in the gloaming before the screen. We zoom in to see which of them is speaking now and which is preparing to do so.

For me this is excellent! In these videos we seldom get a chance to watch the demeanour and body-language of a speaker before taking the stage. Bootle seems relaxed, and it is the sort of relaxation that is the preserve of one in command of his subject. He is listening impassively and slightly amused to the description of himself. Why is he carrying a sheaf of paper? Surely he won’t use a script: surely he is too adept a speaker for that. His adeptness is confirmed when he removes his wristwatch in preparation for laying it on the desk. That tells me that he has spotted the absence of a clock on the wall. It may seem a small thing but it indicates professionalism, and my expectation of speaking excellence rises – but what about those papers?

It turns out to be a list of his deck of slides – we even get a glimpse of it at one point. There are many slides, mainly graphics, and where there are words they are minimal. Very good. Accordingly I forgive the paper, except at one point when it rubs against his microphone.

He opens with some mild reminiscing about his long memories of this university. I chose that adjective ‘mild’ with care, because you can tell a lot about the tenor of a speech from the first minute. Immediately we know that however thoroughly he drills into the subject he will not hector. Nor does he. His command of the subject gives him authority, and enables the mildness.

This whole talk – fifty minutes of it – is riveting, not least because here we hear while armed with nearly five years of hindsight.

At 48:45 he begins to tell us how he will vote in the referendum, depending upon circumstances in the mean time. With hindsight we know what those circumstances turned out to be, and therefore how he probably voted. But what about his opinion nearer to today? This interview is from March of this year.

Tim Scott: engaging and sincere

On 8 August 2019 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube a video of an Address and Q&A by United States Senator, Tim Scott.

I like coming across speeches by someone of whom I have never previously heard. I start with a blank slate and no preconceptions.

Good start! Having said no more than “Good Evening” he comes out from behind the lectern to stand in the centre aisle, empty handed. He’s going to shoot this from the hip. A proper speaker.

I notice that for the first few seconds he has one hand in a pocket and the other gesturing. Every speaker needs a default position for his hands, where to put them in the event he finds himself suddenly conscious of them. Pockets are one of the options, and it works for him because in seconds he has forgotten them and both hands are out gesturing freely and unselfconsciously.

His opening salvo is ethos; autobiographical and dealing with his childhood in poverty. This can easily be mawkish, cringe-inducing victimhood-claiming, but not here. He handles the subject with disinterested objectivity, not just telling us that he had no money but that he wasted a great deal of time at school, not doing any work. After seven years of drifting he was turned around by two people: his mother, who was prepared to apply tough love, and the inspiration of a mentor.

So he reaches his political career, and one of its principal thrusts for the benefit of the community – the provision of opportunity.

Scott has grasped one of the things I keep drilling into my trainees: it’s just talking. We can dress up public speaking with all manner of mystique, and certainly there are techniques we can use to embellish it, but at root it is just talking.

He stands there in that aisle and just talks. He has a simple structure which is broadly chronological, and that carries the narrative along. I would like to see the address more firmly underpinned with a clear single message, not least because it would bring that narrative into sharper focus, but still he puts himself across as an engaging and sincere fellow and that makes us want to listen and learn.

In many ways it is the Q&A that follows the address that sharpens the focus, not least because of the quality of the questioning. The young woman chairing the session is to be congratulated.