About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Rush Limbaugh RIP

Last week saw the death of a broadcasting legend. On his radio programme Rush Limbaugh spoke daily to more people than populate many countries. Uniquely for this blog I shall not attach a descriptive hyper link to this speaker’s name. Instead I offer you one of his most recent speeches, one in which he spoke about himself and his career.

Just over a year ago, in December 2019 he spoke at the Winter Gala of TPUSA, in response to their having presented him with an award.

As a point of general guidance, it is far more difficult to be interesting speaking about something than taking a position and arguing a point connected with it. By far the most difficult ‘something’ to speak about is yourself. Limbaugh does it here. One thing he doesn’t mention though, because it hadn’t happened yet, was his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

No script, no notes. Of course not: he is a proper speaker.

I’ve said so often on this blog that the better they are the pickier I get. Therefore I could probably waste much of your time, and even more of mine, dissecting bits of this speech. But what would be the point? Even if he were around to read it, why should he care? The most demanding critic, and the one whose opinion counts for most, is the audience. His audience was huge, loving and loyal.

But these critiques of mine are not just to guide the speaker, but to offer help to my readers to improve their speaking. So if you want to be as good as this, here’s how.

Spend three hours a day for thirty years speaking on the radio. That should do it.

The Cambridge lockdown debate

On 28 January, The Cambridge Union conducted a live-streamed debate on the motion, “This House Believes Lockdown Was A Mistake“. The speakers were Sir Graham Brady, Laura Spinney, Richard Tice, Phil Whitaker, Toby Young and Layla Moran.

This blog having brought me to the attention of people overseas, I began a few years ago delivering distance coaching via video link. In the early days it was rather clunky, but trial, error and perseverance prevailed. Though passionately involved with my work I was not getting any younger, and I fondly imagined that virtually trotting around the world delivering speaking training from my study was a reasonable recipe for semi-retirement. Then came Covid and lockdowns.

Somehow word quickly spread that I was a specialist in delivering training by video link and my semi-retirement got busy. When it’s distance training it makes little difference if the person on the other end is in East Africa or West Sussex. Also delivering training via a computer screen nurtured a byproduct skill that was useful now that people wanted to learn how to deliver speeches via a computer screen. There’s quite a list of guidelines, but I’ll restrict here to the essential three.

  • Framing: arrange yourself and the camera so that your face is mainly in the top third of the screen.
  • Lighting: in front of you not behind.
  • Eyes: ay there’s the rub, because in video-link eye-contact is an illusion. If you look at their eyes you appear not to. Look at the camera.

So firstly let’s see how the speakers did on those principles.

Framing: all fairly good, though Spinney and Young were the best. Whitaker would have been ok if he’d sat up, but he looked as if he’d crawled into frame.

Lighting: Moran was startlingly brilliant. The others were good except Spinney whose lighting couldn’t have been worse. I wonder whether she is shy. (I’m not joking: I work often with bright and successful people who are shy. Intelligence and shyness dwelling in the same person is a miserable combination for them.)

Eyes: Sir Graham, script-bound, is conforming to the politician’s habit of reading and looking up periodically at the audience. His assumption is that the audience is on the screen, so we never get his eyes. Spinney is speaking spontaneously and extremely well, but the light is so bad that I can’t really see her eyes. Tice, script-bound, is using the same routine as Sir Graham, except better because when he looks up he looks at the camera. Whitaker’s eyes are all over the place: script, screen, the wall, barely the camera. He does himself no favours as the resultant effect is perceived insincerity. Young is shooting from the hip, with eyes locked firmly on the camera. Moran’s eyes are locked on and she is so slick that, reinforced by other symptoms, I suspect autocue.

Briefly, because this is already getting long, I will address some of what was said. Sir Graham was not just the first but the last to speak, and he accurately summed up a general feeling that had pervaded both sides of this debate. The first lockdown may have been justified because of the dearth of data at the time, but the subsequent ones indicate at best a failure. He reasons and argues very well, as befits an experienced politician.

Laura Spinney speaks with us (that italicised preposition is one of my hobby horses). It’s an excellent skill which makes the hearer want to listen. Apart from the stygian darkness, this is my joint favourite speech.

Richard Tice, has well-marshalled arguments that show their workings – and the workings include some explosive revelations. Being script-bound he sadly loses much of his relationship with his audience, and that isn’t helped by his adopting a phoney, am-dram, emotive tone.

Phil Whitaker begins by telling us what Covid 19 is. It seems not to have dawned on him that over the past year we have kind of gathered all that stuff that he wastes valuable time telling us. In that pointless preamble he implies that the virus is novel in that it can sometimes cause no symptoms. How does he know that is novel? How often has there been a government project to mass-test perfectly healthy people for signs of an infection? “Asymptomatic” surely means “healthy”.

Laurence J. Peter‘s second most famous pronouncement, “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret” nearly applies to Toby Young’s contribution. Having spent months compiling a huge assembly of competing expert opinions on this matter, along with mountains of data, he has formed a view and is able to dispense with a script and speak straight to the camera. Arguments backed up with facts, figures, and quotes from peer-reviewed papers are fired in volleys straight at us. He does get a little too worked up towards the end, nearly causing his case to unravel, but he just manages to hold it together. It’s compulsive watching.

Layla Moran’s advent is startling. Production values including the lighting are brilliant. It’s almost too good. I have in the past had occasion to warn in this blog against perfectionism because if you smooth away every edge you risk sterilising the product. In this case, despite admiring those production values I dislike the speech because of the data torturing. If you quote bald numbers to promote a case, without comparing them to some sort of control, you are merely decorating a shop window. Her opening salvo is cheap and unworthy. All that said, I do admire the elegance of the anadiplosis that begins at 1:04:05.

For the record, the Proposition won the debate.

Klaus Schwab and the Pink Panther

On 13 May 2019 the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was addressed by the founder of the World Economic Forum, Mr Klaus Schwab.

In that previous paragraph we see two grand-seeming names of think-tanks, or some might call them talking-shops. This might be a source of some powerful speechmaking. Shall we go and look?

When the video starts we hear some breathy notes from a saxophone. For a second I think we might be treated to a rendition of the Pink Panther theme, but it seems that this is just a groovy way of heralding someone coming to the microphone on the stage. A nice young man invites us to take our seats, reads us a few standard bromides, and introduces another nice young man. The second nice young man is very nervous, utters further bromides, apparently has to consult his script to tell us what his job is, tells us how excited he is to be introducing Schwab who will “elaborate on the characteristics of the revolution as he sees it”, gets lost in his script for a while and finally at 3:08 to everyone’s relief (including I suspect, his) hands over to Schwab.

Schwab is relaxed, brimming over with bonhomie, pleased by the size of the audience, and eager to impart something. He asks if we will allow him to spend some time telling us about the World Economic Forum.

He stands well, gestures well, shoots from the hip, and if you dip at random into this speech you will hear snippets that sound as if he is imparting a lecture rich in information.

In fact he says nothing. At all. I defy anyone to tell us what is to be learned from the half-an-hour he spends waffling aimlessly.

At 33:05 he opens up to questions and, if you have the patience to stick with it, good luck to you. I have better ways to spend my time.

I wish it had been the Pink Panther.

Liz Truss: Whitehall Farce

On 17 December 2020 the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss, MP delivered a live-streamed speech from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) in London. It received a great deal of publicity at the time: The Independent called it “bonkers”, and it seems that bits of the transcript were redacted from the government website. They may have been edited out here also, for all I know.

Let’s have a look…

She is introduced by Robert Colville, director of the CPS, and immediately I am wincing. Many, if not most, inexperienced speakers have a problem with their hands. There are reasons and simple solutions with which I shall not tire you, but the very worst thing to do with your hands is to stick your thumbs in your pockets. Again I’ll spare you the several paragraphs I could add here in explanation.

Colville begins with his thumbs in his pockets. In fact he seems deeply unhappy throughout this introduction, and although it is barely one minute long I can’t wait for it to finish. Within seconds of Truss starting I’m wishing Colville had gone on longer.

What is it about Whitehall? I am reminded of a speech I covered on this blog in November 2012. William Hague, a superb speaker in real life, had spoken in his then capacity as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and done it like a lobotomised automaton. Though I have supplied a link to that posting you can see only my comments because it seems that some official, so embarrassed by the speech, has removed it. I sympathise.

Is there a Whitehall Civil Service department responsible for advising ministers how to deliver official speeches? If so I recommend that it be broken up forthwith and its staff reassigned to occupations more suited to their talents. I suggest scarecrows. The incompetence hereby manifested throws light on much else that emanates from the cvil service in Whitehall.

Lis Truss is an able politician. She doesn’t speak like this. No one speaks like this. I’m not referring to the essential message, which is fairly reasonable – though appallingly structured – I refer to the way it is being put across. It wouldn’t be less engaging if written in Klingon. This bland monotone, periodically punctuated by huge meaningless pauses is simply ghastly.

The Big Pause is an excellent speaking device with a wide range of beneficial uses. Deployment at random between sentences is not one of them.

I fell asleep at one point, and when I awoke was unable to establish what I had missed. I confess it was all so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to go back over it. Therefore I can’t tell you whether there are edit-points in there to indicate redaction. I was past caring.

Bill, Ben and Stan

This period between Christmas and the New Year is one in which I prefer not to get too serious. Nevertheless I still browse for interesting speeches and interviews. Thus it was that I happened upon a late and lamented performer, whom I had known slightly, interviewing a man who had contributed generously to my very small childhood.

Though I earn my living helping people to speak I am a fan of nonsense-speak.

Peter Hawkins was a voice-artist who supplied the speaking for many famous TV stars, including the Daleks. But many years earlier my infant self used to hear him speaking “Oddle-poddle” (yes, they even gave it a name), the language spoken by Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men. I even dared to speak it a bit myself.

Stanley Unwin was a hero to my youthful self. I would clamour never to miss his appearances on television and loved his performance in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Again I would try to imitate. In the nineties, when I produced and presented an arts programme on BBC Radio, I recorded with him a long-form, broadly biographical, interview. The recording subsequently required heavy editing, as we would regularly dissolve into laughter. He was a lovely man.

I will leave you with the one interviewing the other. It is introduced by the late Robert Robinson.

Happy New Year.

Dan Crenshaw brightens

A friend asked me to stop posting so many political speeches. I sympathised, and challenged him to find me current speeches that are not political. Politicians, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the media and Big Tech, have closed down the world in defiance of science, so the flow of all normal speechmaking has dried up. Therefore …

Here’s a juicy four and a half minutes from a week or so ago in the US House of Representatives. Dan Crenshaw doesn’t mince his words, even though he feels the need to read them.

He wades into the conduct of Nancy Pelosi, and what he calls the hypocrisy displayed by lockdown-supporting politicians who break the rules. I call it lying.

After all, if you vote for a policy while your behaviour shows that you don’t believe in it, isn’t that a form of mendacity? The trouble is that with lying being the favoured currency of politics, it’s as un-newsworthy as “Dog bites man”.

At 2:46 Crenshaw mentions the viral video of Angela Marsden. If you haven’t seen it, have a look here –

And now register how many seats are occupied in the House of Representatives to hear Crenshaw’s speech. More people need to know about this, but the media won’t help.

Jonathan Sumption’s coherent sense

People are not making speeches at the moment, for reasons I don’t need to explain. For this blog I can mine reserves of historic speeches, and I have done so, but part of the interest I get from critiquing speeches is to learn what views and arguments people are currently promoting.

On the other hand people are being interviewed. The essential difference with an interview is that the speaker is fed questions which dictate the direction of the conversation; and it is a very large part of the public speaking skill to address the direction your conversation would have taken had the audience been able to dictate it.

Lord Sumption, erstwhile Supreme Court Justice, has made no secret of his disapproval of the government’s policies concerning Covid 19, and here is an interview on the subject. It was broadcast in May of this year.

I’ll admit that I did have an actual speech that Sumption had made a few years ago, but I decided against covering it because the subject matter was way out of date and because to my intense irritation he slavishly read every syllable of the wretched thing.

You will see that I have supplied a link to that discarded speech in order that students of public speaking can see for themselves that, by reading it, Sumption made himself not a jot more articulate than he is being here in this interview, while sacrificing a huge portion of the perceived sincerity that spontaneity would have granted. But back to this interview …

What would be beyond belief had we not experienced it is that this interview, and Sumption’s excellently articulated arguments in it, were broadcast half a year ago and politicians are still pursuing the same asinine policies. How dare they have the impertinence to arrogate the right to consider Christmas to be within their gift!

It is not only disgraceful it is politically foolish. The arguments they promote in the name of “science” have become visibly and risibly threadbare and widely debunked by substantial scientific authority. The various degrees of lockdown have done manifestly more damage, not only culturally, socially and economically, but even medically, than the coronavirus ever could. This is vandalism conducted behind a smokescreen of a disease whose puny fatality rate is losing ground to that of hay fever.

The trouble with official idiocy on this scale is that conspiracy theories take hold. When no one is capable of being quite this stupid the only apparent explanation is that there is something else going on. And there are some very plausible and alarming explanations being aired which, if they are only slightly true, suggest that the people concerned are dangerous lunatics.

Patricia Sandoval and redemption

In the last few weeks I have twice covered Pro-Life speeches, here and here, a detail that seems to have not escaped the notice of YouTube’s algorithms. I found myself being offered another.

Patricia Sandoval, author of Transfigured, delivered this speech on 10 February, 2018, in the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Turlock, California. Its write-up suggests that it is pretty powerful, but on the grounds that this subject can be uncomfortable I was prepared – at least I thought I was.

The video begins with post-speech interviews with members of her audience, a section that obviously is building up for us the speech that is to follow. At 3:35 she begins.

This isn’t the first theocentric speech I’ve discussed here. In March 2013 on this blog I covered an Oxford Union Debate, dubbed The God Debate. Well known thinkers had a right royal ding-dong about Christianity. I’ve had other arguments of varying ferocity on the subject. I’ve had a speech from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet I think this is only the second speaker on this blog to begin with a prayer, and the other was a Hindu.

Over the years many trainees have expressed surprise that I do not criticise them, as others have, for waving their arms “too much”. Exaggerated gestures bother me only when they are phoney. I detest phoney. If you are naturally an arm-waver then you must follow your nature, to refrain from doing so would be … phoney.

Sandoval’s nature seems to dictate that her hands are relaxed only when they are busy. And it’s not just her hands that are expressive, she speaks with her eyes, with her face, in fact with her whole body. This woman is so deeply into the driving seat of her message, so filled with its passion, that watching and listening becomes compulsive.

She epitomises my dictum that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique, but the ideal is to have both. She has both: she is a very fine speaker, made even better by white hot passion.

The passion is born out of the life she has led, wherein she had three abortions in quick succession, went downhill, lost her faith, lost everything else – and I mean everything including her hair – till she hit, so to speak, the rocks on the seabed. At that point her soul cried out for help which came via someone called Bonny.

It would be impertinent for me to attempt to recount her story when she does it so well. It’s not a pretty story, it needs a very strong stomach in places, but it is uplifting.

Including a three-minute video at the end it lasts almost exactly an hour. There follow a range of supportive snippets, including a gentleman who tells us that her book is even tougher than her speech. Fair warning!

Antonin Scalia chats with authority

When, a handful of weeks ago, I covered a four-year-old speech by a university law professor who has since become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court – The Honourable Amy Coney Barrett – I learnt that she had clerked for another Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia.

That suggests to me that he might have been something of a mentor to her. In my experience, good mentors teach you to think properly. They should not feed you their opinions, but help you to refine the faculty to form your own.

I wouldn’t claim to be able to discern that quality from a speech, but I was interested to find out how good a public speaker he was (outside the Court), so I found this from June 1997. He was speaking at the 7th anniversary dinner of the Acton Institute.

Richard L. Antonini delivers the introduction, and does it well. He starts with a good joke. Inevitably this is followed by a potted CV of the guest speaker who begins at 7:15.

First impressions are important, so I always like to give mine. The audience greets him with a standing ovation and the first we hear from him coming faintly through the applause are his protestations, “no, sit down, sit down”. I like that. I also like, once the audience lets him speak, how he begins with an amusing anecdote about the pronunciation of his name. This is homey, fireside chat stuff: excellent for relaxing an audience (in passing, relaxing your audience is a wonderfully effective way of relaxing yourself).

He speaks about the US Constitution. He tells us that he has a prepared text, but doesn’t want to use it so he barely looks down at all. He shoots this from the hip, and does it brilliantly well. It’s a riveting, fascinating talk.

In the early nineties, when I began coaching this skill, formal oratory (speaking at your audience) was still very much alive and I fought against it. Today to my satisfaction a style of ‘conversational sincerity’ is in fashion. I mention this because this speech was delivered back in June 1997, and Scalia’s speaking style was right up to today’s. He was decades ahead of his time.

(Sadly, the same can’t be said of his microphone. Relatively primitive, it “pops” like crazy! He should have spoken across it, not into it.)

True, after-dinner speeches were already less formal than those from platforms in halls, but Scalia has another wonderful quality. I mentioned “fireside chat” further back, and that style even seeps into this Constitutional seminar. He is speaking with his audience. That is the key to excellent communication, and one that I try to instil into my trainees.

His status helps. When you are recognised to be a huge authority on the matter in hand, you feel less need to get all stiff about it. But, as I tell my trainees, you are also a recognised authority on the matter in hand.

Why the hell do you think they wanted you to speak about it?

I almost envy Amy Coney Barrett having him as a mentor. Almost, because I was equally blessed.

Jimmy Page: no gadfly

In November 2017, the Oxford Union hosted one of their ‘Full Address and Q&A’ evenings, this one with Jimmy Page as the speaker.

For reasons that are not important here, I went almost overnight during the sixties from overwhelming passion for pop/rock music to losing all interest. I mention this because when I first came across this video my reaction was “who’s he?”, and now I realise that I must have missed this legend by a hair’s breadth. Apart from a little peripheral research my knowledge of him today comes down to what I learnt from this talk, which is good because I harboured no pre-conceptions.

Apart from a few minor nerve symptoms that almost no one would notice, he controls his Hump extremely well. This is impressive because though no stranger to audiences this is not his usual environment. Nerve control is notoriously unportable.

He’s shooting this from the hip, which is easy provided you have a clear structure supplying you with a route map. His clear structure is chronological – autobiographical.

I am almost instantly absorbed because I was learning to play the guitar at the same time as he was. When he talks of being inspired by Lonnie Donegan, I nod knowingly and stand by for another name that I know will come. I don’t have to wait long. Bert Weedon and his book, Play in a day, kicked-started more rock guitarists than you could count.

My absorption is strengthened by learning that he worked as a session musician before he found fame. I went into the theatre and production, and therefore know the huge respect in which session musicians are held. This was not some gadfly, parachuted in from nowhere, but one who learnt his craft in serious depth.

As you might imagine, I have now been playing a lot of his recordings. The boy can play! What have I missed for more than half a century?

The talk ends at 13:14; he then sits and takes questions. That is just as interesting!