About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Daniel Hannan: brilliant when audible.

In May ACRE held a conference in Miami to launch Conservatives International. One of the speakers was Dan Hannan. On learning this my immediate instinct was to move on: I’ve critiqued him far too often. But when I investigated further I found that it was more than eighteen months since last we covered a speech by him, so I at least owed myself a chance to look.

I am very glad I did. Just the still image advertising the video quickened my pulse. No lectern, no slides, no aids of any sort. We see just him on a stage, which is how I set the scene for my trainees because it forces them to confront all their challenges.

Clever opening. He outflanks his theme by appearing to talk nonsense, thus drawing us in. By the time he explains his reasoning we are already with him, and well primed for his childhood reminiscences which are chosen to be starkly relevant.

He comes across as very relaxed, but why shouldn’t he? He’s preaching to the choir, of which I admit I am one, and there are only two hundred of them in the hall. Still his body language conveys an inner confidence that certainly would not be there with many speakers.

He hasn’t yet eradicated the diction flaw of sacrificing syllables for the sake of a perceived dramatic effect. I’ll present just one example from a very large field: at 3:52 that word is “developing”, but we know only from the sense. The final syllable is inaudible. My mind flies back half a century to 1967 and the wonderful Kate Fleming, then voice coach at the National Theatre. Had she had a recording device to prove it, I would have been more easily persuaded that I was doing then what Hannan is doing now. It is possible, with guidance, to develop habits that retain dramatic effect and also all syllables, words, phrases; and he needs to do so, because meanwhile too much of what he says is partially lost.

I get this picky only with speakers who are very good, and they don’t come much better than Hannan. This is a beautifully crafted speech, with brilliantly coherent arguments. He goes down the obvious route of explaining the economic and ethical points that make free trade the most beneficial system for humanity. That was to be expected. He also takes us through the obstacles that can make it so difficult to sell; and that is for me the most enlightening part.

He explains the political, economic and psychological barriers that drive people away from the free market system that has elevated society (particularly the poor) so much over the past two centuries into the welcoming but coercive arms of socialism that has failed at every attempt, always results in immiseration, and was responsible for one hundred million deaths in the twentieth century.

It is a brilliant speech.

Hannan was selected by Aldershot, a constituency in the south east of England, to be their Conservative candidate at the recent General Election. The selection was blocked, I understand, by Conservative Central Office. We can only guess at their reasons, just as we can only guess at how the Conservative Party squandered a seemingly invulnerable poll lead.

Peter Tatchell: disappointingly insipid

The Oxford Union recently held a debate on the motion, This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space. Among the speakers for the opposition was Peter Tatchell.

I have not previously covered a speech by him, which comes as a surprise considering that he is not known for hiding his light under bushels. I was eager to amend the omission.

According to his opening, this is his thirtieth Oxford Union debate in three and a half decades. Then why isn’t he better?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to score cheap points. I admit that I am uneasy with many of his political views, but I defer to none in my admiration for the personal courage and principled perseverance that he has shown in the campaigns I have seem him fight over the decades. I genuinely expected this to be a forceful, and forcefully argued, speech.

But it isn’t: compared to what I expected it’s insipid, repetitious, flabby. The insipidness is in the way he is almost speaking down to his audience as if it had been drawn from a primary school. The repetitiousness is just that: he goes over and over virtually the same ground. And it’s flabby because he spends almost as much time apologising for perfectly sensible views as he does expressing them.

In the early minutes he is transfixed by the paper at his right elbow. It seems not to be a script so much as a comfort blanket; but why on earth should someone of his experience need a comfort blanket? What on earth is the matter with him?

He has spent more hours than you or I would care to count being grilled by the toughest the media has to offer, giving it back with interest. I guess I had expected him to light a fire under this gathering, and yet we get a bit of moist rag. Why?

Could it be that his communication skill is in the two-way traffic of hitting back at hard questioning, and he’s never got around to learning how to construct his own one-way traffic? No, it can’t be! Not if he’s been debating at the Oxford Union on average nearly once a year since the early eighties. I don’t understand it.

Was I simply expecting too much from someone like him? This performance would just about suffice for many speakers. I suppose.

It is a puzzlement.

Mind you: his side won the debate.

Beppe Grillo: a master at work.

Beppe Grillo is something of a political phenomenon in Italy. Wikipedia describes him thus, while his blog has a different approach.

I thought it might be fun to see him in action. I found a speech/performance that he made nearly twenty years ago in 1998. This is more than ten years before he formally entered politics, but we can see where he is going.

I am fairly often asked about the advisability of going out into the aisles of a hall to get in amongst the audience. I don’t advise against it, but it has to be well stage-managed in order to work. Your first hurdle is practical technology: are there blind spots where your radio mic will drop out? – if you walk in front of a speaker will you get howl-round? – can you with reasonable dignity get off the platform into the body of the hall? – and so on.

Your next hurdle is you: does your message lend itself to being delivered while you are eyeballing members of the audience up close? – do you have the right sort of personality to pull it off? – can you keep moving enough to avoid sections of the audience spending most of the time looking at your back? – and so on.

If checklists like that come back with the right answers, then go for it! It is certainly very good for one of my chief mantras, namely that the audience should feel you are speaking with, as distinct from at, them.

Grillo here is fantastic! This is a masterclass on what can be done. Everything from his constant movement, changing from creeping to running to bounding, his endless variation of vocal tone, now whispering now bellowing, the daringness of the language for 1998 – I’m assuming that the subtitles are faithful – everything is brilliantly performed. You only have to see the faces on his audience to know that he is winning all the way.

Added to that, he has his stage-management issues licked. No one has to look at his distant back because there’s always a huge screen with him in close-up.

You would need to be very skilled, very brave, or downright foolhardy, to try to emulate his style. A FTSE 250 chairman delivering an AGM keynote like this could die very painfully; but that’s not the point. It is by watching a master at work that we get inspiration and ideas, and then we fashion them into something we can reach and handle.

I’m not surprised he has such a following in Italy.

 

Charles Moore is prescient

On 3 October, 2016, the Bruges Group held a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. One of their speakers was Charles Moore.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre…” It’s one of the oldest openings in the book, but as sound as a poun… er … well, it’s sound anyway.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, continental Brexit, full English Brexit: it’s got to be divorce, as the man said.

We are eavesdropping on a meeting, the video camera is incidental and marginal. Thus we are getting less than perfect sound quality, and also a sideways view of the speaker. I actually prefer this for my purposes, because I get a warts-and-all view of what is going on. You may find Moore’s left hand distracting, gesturing as it does between his face and the camera, but I like the way he manifestly is not playing to the camera but applying his focus to his audience in the room. I also like the way those gestures are spontaneous, natural and unconscious.

Moore is clearly familiar and comfortable with the speaking platform. He hasn’t saddled himself with a bloody script, because he knows and trusts his capacity to find the right words spontaneously at any moment during the speech’s journey. All of this I like.

What makes me wince is that he is holding a route-map for that journey. He has an index card with, no doubt, bullet points to guide him on his way.

Why does that bother me? I cannot deny that this is a widespread practice among those who who are good enough to spurn scripts. His periodic consultations of that card do not hamper the pace or rhythm of his speech at all. So what’s my problem?

He is the fountainhead of the information, the views, and arguments he is imparting. If even he can’t remember what he has planned to tell us, what chance that we will remember what he told us?

When working with trainees, I introduce them to structures that are designed to make such notes redundant because the route-map is absurdly easy to memorise. And they work even for hour-long, data-stuffed, keynote speeches to annual conferences. This is not just for their benefit but also for their audiences. Clarity of the route makes the speech not just easy to deliver but also to digest.

Watch the speech, and then see how much of the information, views, and arguments you can subsequently remember. Spooling back any of the video is not allowed for this exercise, because the audience in the room couldn’t do that. However much you can’t remember is how much this speech failed in its purpose.

Moore is good, but he could very easily be better.

So much for his skill as a speaker. Here’s a bouquet to his skill in prescience. This speech was delivered eight months ago. Watch from 19:35, and then consider positions on migration recently adopted by Poland and Hungary in defiance of Brussels. With such a strong grasp of future events, I might suggest that Moore should publish an almanac.

But only if I were feeling particularly childish.

 

 

Trey Gowdy is a speaking phenomenon.

Although English, I idly follow some of the political circus in the USA – not least in order to see what interesting speeches have been delivered. Thus I found myself one day a couple of weeks ago with the name, Trey Gowdy, coming at me from more than one direction. One minute he was tipped to succeed James Comey as Director of the FBI, the next he was going to succeed Jason Chaffetz as Chairman of The United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As I write both possibilities seem to remain open, neither yet being dismissed or confirmed.

[Subsequently, on 9 June, it was announced that Gowdy was to be the new Chairman of The United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform]

I wondered whether there might perchance be a speech on line whereby I could learn more about him and how he performs.

How do you spell a hollow laugh? I instantly found myself swamped by Gowdy speeches, and every one a blinder. With respect to public speaking the man is a phenomenon. For the purposes of this posting I chose one wherein he is delivering a Convocation Speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Speaking at gatherings like this is notoriously difficult. You have not only the students, but also parents, teachers, and probably press. The audience is so varied that you have to decide where specifically you want to aim. When I receive cries for help on this I always reply that you should pitch at the section of the audience that you think has the shortest attention span.

Gowdy is aiming at the students and, if you want to know whether he has their attention, just focus on their silence. He engineers that by deploying arguments that are structured to be crystal clear, by using strong dramatic pauses which invite the audience to ponder on what he has just said, by periodically taking the volume of his voice down till they almost have to strain to hear. This is a beautifully skilled piece of speaking.

Were that all it was, it would fail to get that silence. What underpins the whole thing more than all those techniques is his transparent and passionate sincerity. I tell my trainees that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique, but the dream ticket is to have both. Gowdy has both.

One of the most important things I do for trainees is help them to play to their strength. First I need to identifying their strength. In the case of Gowdy it’s easy. When he tells stories the standard of the speech lifts from very high to even higher. Here his account of the plane crash in the Potomac River is the electrifying highlight. His lesson on persuasion is relatively clunky. The same goes for other speeches I’ve seen of his. He is an outstanding raconteur, and he has an excellent instinct for choosing the right story.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the better the speaker the pickier I get. I look at ‘clunky’ in that previous paragraph, and realise that Gowdy’s clunky is anyone else’s triumph.

Speaking of techniques, do you want to know how to emphasise a word subliminally? – causing the audience to absorb the emphasis without being conscious that you were emphasising? You simply pronounce all its syllables. Many words that we speak have syllables that we habitually swallow. ‘Habitually’ has 5 syllables, but we pronounce 3-and-a-bit. If you pronounce all five, you subliminally emphasise the word. Don’t make a song-and-dance of it, or it won’t be subliminal, just pronounce them. ‘Every’ is usually spoken with two syllables, though it has three. Now listen to Gowdy at 3:07 and again at 3:19 where he subliminally emphasises the word ‘every’ by pronouncing all three syllables. If you think that he always pronounces ‘every’ with three syllables, then listen at 13:33 when he doesn’t and keep listening through 13:45 when he does. He may consciously know the trick or it may be instinctive: I don’t know.

This is a wonderful speech. I wish it hadn’t been edited and pulled about by whoever posted it, but never mind: it’s wonderful.

So is this one, overflowing with passion.

So is this one, overflowing with prescience.

I could go on and on, adding to that list, but I don’t need to. Those links will take you to YouTube, and each one will have many other Gowdy speeches.  You may use up many hours, watching. I did, and regret none of them.

Mario Draghi: from bees to boredom

In the summer of 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games. Almost simultaneously Britain launched – in London – The British Business Embassy. It would be a mark of extreme cynicism to suggest that one was riding on the back of the other.

On 26 July, 2012, at a Global Investment Conference hosted by The British Business Embassy, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, delivered a speech.

Draghi opens with a nice little metaphor about bumblebees; or rather he doesn’t, but he should. Uttering a few obligatory words of thanks to his hosts and introducer is one thing, but – like too many – he fannies around with dross before reaching his opening, the bumblebee metaphor.

It’s a good opening: he compares the Euro to a bumblebee that urban legend decrees should not be able to fly. Come the financial crisis of 2008, the bumblebee was in danger of falling to earth, so now “the bumblebee will have to graduate into a real bee”. Were I an apiarist I might bridle at the suggestion that a bumblebee is not a real bee; but I’m not, I’m a rhetor who hopes that he will run with this metaphor for longer.

He does revisit it a minute or so later, but sadly just the once. It’s a pity because it could have given this speech some much needed coherence, not to mention lift. It almost immediately fell into a mire.

Perhaps he abandoned it because he wanted to devote his eleven minutes to an orgy of self-congratulation, and the spectacle of a currency limping from crisis to crisis doesn’t lend itself too comfortably to the image of a creature buzzing around in the sunshine sipping nectar.

While he trumpeted the euro’s imagined triumphs I could think only of the economic human disaster that is Greece, the hugely expensive silken strips of empty highway that bypass impoverished villages in Spain or Sicily, all the various pieces of pointless white elephant expenditures that are the price that ordinary people pay for his being able to pat his own back and those of his co-conspirators.

Had the speech been more coherent he might just have obscured some of that. In the event he left me conscious that his is becoming merely the latest in a long line of failed attempts at taking self-determination out of the competent hands of the people and trying to centralise it in the hands of those who think they know better. Will they never learn?

A C Grayling: wonderful on his subject.

What is a philosopher? The Ancients used the word as a catch-all for mathematicians or scientists, but what does it mean now? Leaving aside that someone once told me that she’d like to be a philosopher so that she could spend hours in the bath, working, or the great Tom Lehrer’s observation that they go round giving helpful advice to those who are happier than they are, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition can be paraphrased as one who studies wisdom. A loose definition, to be sure.

Ay, there’s the rub! That definition’s looseness puts it perilously close to ‘Intellectual’, a class of person whose ideas can do, and have done, untold damage to societies. One reason is that too often they pay no price when events prove them wrong. Thomas Sowell published a book on the subject in which, among other things, he observed that usually these people have an exalted and deserved reputation in a particular narrow speciality; but once they step outside its confines they can neglect to apply equivalent rigour to their other opinions. This makes those opinions about as valid as those of any stranger in a pub, but held by Society to be Holy Writ, having been uttered by a known genius.

His examples include Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, G.B.Shaw, J.M.Keynes. We can easily add Richard Wagner, or more recently Paul Nurse or Brian Cox.

A.C.Grayling (philosopher) recently swam into my ken when a series of his hilariously foolish Tweets on the subject of Brexit were being gleefully retweeted, much as I imagine teachers communally giggle over their pupils’ howlers in the staff room. I was interested to know whether he followed the above pattern. What was he like on the speciality that had forged his reputation? I went and found a speech.

This is at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held annually at Sydney Opera House. He is speaking about Bad Education which, as epistemology is one of his specialities, is straight down the centre of his disciplinary fairway. He is introduced by Julia Baird, and begins speaking at 2:15.

He is really very good indeed. This is shot throughout from the hip. There appear to be autocue screens facing upstage from where footlights would be, but their image is stationary. His diction is lovely: crystal clear without being over-enunciated. He structures his material very well, though if I were super-picky I might suggest making chapter divisions slightly clearer. He has an excellent reservoir of ‘Nice-to-Know’ material with which he tactically leavens the flow of ‘Need-to-Know’ information that pours out of him – I’m referring to humorous anecdotes and so on. Either through research, instinct or both he pitches the talk very precisely at the level of his audience, something we can tell by how well they respond to his use of humour for instance. Most importantly this talk is wonderfully uplifting. It is a delight to have experienced.

His use of English is excellent, but when he steps outside its confines he sort-of makes Thomas Sowell’s point. In quoting just two sentences in French he commits a pronunciation schoolboy howler. Just how picky can I be!

Well I can get pickier. I’m not sure he addressed his brief. ‘Bad Education’ is on the title of that video. He spoke about what education is, what it isn’t, etymology of the word, and so on. He spoke about what he feels education is for, and spent some time on the importance of humanities. All excellent, but where and wherefore the ‘Bad Education’ in the title?

Just asking.