About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Ronald Reagan and hindsight

On March 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, addressed the National Association of Evangelicals in the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel, Orlando, Florida. It was his “Evil Empire” speech.

What am I doing? Any critique or comment from me regarding this speech, its content or delivery, would be outrageously impertinent.

The only thing that I have that Reagan didn’t is a lot of hindsight, and I can hardly bear to consider it.

Would anyone have believed, when this speech was delivered, that thirty seven years later there would be leaders of industry, sport, politics and even churches genuflecting to terrorist street gangs, and political representatives of US cities and states – including the state of which he had been governor – would be imitating the worst excesses of vermin-infested third-world dictatorships? Could anyone have imagined that leading mainstream media would condone infanticide, and be so brazenly partisan in their politics as to describe looting, rape, arson and murder as “peaceful protest”, or that leading political parties in western countries would again have raised the disgusting spectre of anti-semitism?

The only thing to cling to is the hope that the silent majority will cease to be silent.

Joel Kotkin: a proper speaker

It was on 23 February, 2010, that Revelle Forum at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, hosted a talk by Joel Kotkin. He had recently published The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and that was the subject of his talk.

Kotkin has very recently published The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, a warning to the global middle class, and there are several interesting recent interviews with him to be found on that subject, but this blog is about public speaking. Also I am keen to learn what he was projecting ten years ago.

There’s a double introduction: Dan Atkinson introduces Mary Walshok who in turn introduces Joel Kotkin, so we learn two layers of ethos before the main event even begins at 4:10.

Beginning to talk while still on the way to the lectern is a trick we’ve seen before on this blog (though it was a long time ago). Researching other speeches by Kotkin suggests to me that it may be a habit of his. It’s a good one, conveying a range of positive things like enthusiasm to get on with it, and it’s a neat device for relaxing the audience.

He leans on the lectern, and regularly looks down at it, but something tells me that this is a mannerism as distinct from his need to keep prompting himself by looking at whatever might be written there. If I am right, then he has nothing to concern him. Mannerisms are irrelevant unless they bother the audience, and they won’t do that if the talk is interesting enough. Within a short while even I am caught up in what he has to say, so it’s a non-problem. I am sure he’s shooting from the hip – and therefore in my eyes a proper speaker.

I stop making rhetor-style notes within five minutes of his starting, and simply sit and listen till he stops at 42:50. At that stage he swings into Q&A.

Even with the benefit of ten years of hindsight, I found this very interesting and well-delivered. It will be even more interesting in ten more years.

Caroline Cox – courageous

Christian Union invited Baroness Caroline Cox to be the plenary speaker at their 2019 Nexus.

A bald opening!

I want to cry “Hallelujah”, just as she cries it but for different reasons. A speech that does not faff about with meaningless preambles conveys immediate confidence in its message. It is also a wonderful “humpbuster” for reasons with which I will not bore you here. Yes you certainly do need to introduce yourself, but you don’t need to do it right away. Do it once you are on a roll, just as she does.

It’s a wonderful self-introduction. “I am a nurse, and a social scientist by intention […] a baroness by astonishment […] I was the first baroness I had ever met.” I am sure that she has used this introduction routine often, because it has all the hallmarks of repeated road-testing to make it as good as it is. So much the better.

I already expect to enjoy this speech, because I feel that I am in very secure hands.

Meanwhile, wearing my rhetor hat, I am briefly concerned about the device she is holding. She looks at it often. Surely that thing is too small to contain a screen prompting her. I quickly realise that it’s the remote control for her slides which we never see. Later, watching her eyes makes me suspect that she’s prompted by an autocue of some sort, and then I conclude that it’s a slave screen showing her the slide that the audience sees. She occasionally uses it to read out mainly things others have said. She’s a proper speaker, shooting the speech from the hip.

It’s refreshing to see someone wearing their Christian faith so openly. The conference theme is Courageous in the ways of the Lord and she repeatedly commends the courage of brutally oppressed, war-torn churches. She produces a stream of jaw-dropping examples of courage through Christian faith around the world; and while marvelling at them you find a less-obvious common theme dawning on you. Story after story is so graphically described, because she bears eye-witness. She was there.

Caroline Cox talks the talk so well because she has tirelessly and fearlessly walked the walk, and continues to do so.

Because we don’t see the screen we don’t see the video clip that concludes her talk. Though that’s a pity, I have to say that her message of courage through faith had already come across loud and clear.

Dr Thomas Sowell thinks

Yes, I know: Sowell was on this blog only ten weeks ago but in the mean time he has celebrated his 90th birthday. I think that’s worth marking.

But I have to admit that there’s also a far more prosaic reason for today’s posting. My computer is in hospital. If they can’t fix it, I’ll replace it. Meanwhile I am hobbling along on a tablet.

To post one of my speech critiques, I need a screenful of many windows and tabs from which I lift references, precise timings, URLs for hyperlinks, etc. It goes against the grain to have a week without a blog post, but robbed of my normal work environment I feel I just want to put a video here, and let it speak for itself. I cannot think of anyone better to do that than Dr Thomas Sowell.

By way of introduction I offer you a comment published below this video on YouTube –

As a black man I just want to say … this man changed my life and taught me how to think. I’ve never felt so free.

 

 

Ricky Gervais has big boots.

The Golden Globes Awards in January of this year were greeted by press headlines about how the host, Ricky Gervais, had torn into the celebrities. He always does, so why the headlines? Or rather he always did, because he made the point several times in his opening speech that this was the last time.

Unless there’s a very good reason of topicality I tend not to be led by headlines, preferring to allow the dust to settle before I comment. Seven months is enough.

Up to 7:50 is Gervais’ opening speech, and the rest is a series of chained-together snippets from between awards.

The “Roast” is a very American custom, with usually a single guest/target. I have watched very many, but seldom, (if ever) covered them in the blog. They are usually very good, very funny, but so steeped in in-jokes that there’s nothing for me to say. This is different. Gervais is roasting a large room full of over-paid performing fleas, and holding little back. Any viewer who watches movies understands the jokes, as does anyone who is abreast of the news.

Consider his available ammunition: the reputation that Hollywood – indeed California – has for being absurdly over-woke and addicted to virtue signalling, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, the private-jetting around the world to preach about the environment, the list is endless. Gervais overlooks nothing.

‘Cancel culture’ has too many tiptoeing around the truth. The problem with tiptoeing is that you are easily knocked over. Gervais has big boots on, is unapologetic, and doesn’t care – even says so repeatedly.

He also understands something else that is particularly crucial. Actors as a general rule are not very bright. There are a few honourable exceptions, but they tend to be the ones that restrict their activities to the arts pages and keep their own counsel over other matters. They allow their professional performances to do their speaking for them. They tend to rise above, and stay away from, gatherings like this. Actors tend also to be desperately insecure, needing to be oft seen and photographed lest they be forgotten. So they clamour to be allowed to come here and be insulted.

Gervais is pretty skilled and holds his audience where he wants it, but he’s not infallible. I advise my trainees never to pause on a punchline, and he almost never does. Watch at 4:20, where he has a little routine ending at 4:27. He pauses at the end of it, and dies just a little. Compare that to 7:10 –

Most of you spent less time at school than Greta Thunberg

He piles straight on, and is rewarded with a nice little laugh which he ignores and goes for the big one which is bleeped, but we already know what’s coming. So does the audience which goes wild.

Are we sure that was really the last time? How much are they going to offer him to insult them again?

America’s Frontline Doctors heard

On 27 July, on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, a group of white-coated people gathered to conduct a press conference. They called themselves America’s Frontline Doctors, and their videoed presentation was introduced by Congressman Ralph Norman from South Carolina. Within a handful of hours the video had gone viral, and within twenty-four hours it had been banned by social media companies.

Have the cretins who order these bans never heard of the Streisand Effect? The immediate impact of the banning is to invite the question “why?”, and in searching for an answer to “why” far more people go out of their way to listen than would otherwise have done. I am one of them.

Mark Zuckerberg, in answer to a question at a Congressional hearing, said

We do prohibit content that will lead to imminent risk of harm…

Sounds reasonable, but who decides? I am prepared to believe that there is a Facebook medical panel. I am unable to list any of its members, but I am able to list the doctors in this video.


Ralph Norman hands over to Dr Simone Gold. We later hear from Dr Bob Hamilton, Dr Stella Immanuel, Dr James Todaro, and Dr Joseph Ladapo. They are worth hearing, making “why?” even more of a conundrum.

I spent a little time searching for doctors who had arguments to gainsay the ones in this video, and merely found several people targeting these doctors with argumentum ad hominem. I also found several more doctors saying very much the same thing as these.

Furthermore, I found this short video concerning the infamous article in The Lancet which was pulled only a few days after publication.

Nothing that I found proved that the doctors in the video (shooting all their speeches from the hip by the way) are right or that they are wrong, but it did suggest that there is an important debate to be had on the matter. It is always foolish not to pay close attention to information coming to you from the coalface, and even more foolish to act to silence it.

So finding myself still asking “why?” I ask myself Cui Bono? – who benefits? The only answer I can find is anyone who stands to gain from extending the crisis or from producing another prevention or cure and, in view of the medical, social and economic costs of this pandemic in the mean time, there are no pretty answers to that.

P.S. On 6 August it emerged that both Facebook and Twitter had censored the following video on the grounds that it contained “false claims”. Again, who decides? Is their information superior to that available to POTUS?

Andrew Roberts: masterly

At the end of June 2012, United States Army War College posted on YouTube a video of a lecture by British historian, Dr Andrew Roberts. I think we can assume the lecture took place at very much the same time. The lecture was entitled Why Hitler Lost the War.

Before even clicking to start the video I believe I spot something in the image below that emphasises to me Andrew Roberts’ Englishness. I think he’s wearing a Free Forester tie. Free Foresters is the name of a distinguished English Cricket Club.

Before we address the rhetor stuff let’s get one important thing out of the way. This talk is absolutely fascinating, and I wholeheartedly commend it. It makes me want to read The Storm of War, his book on which some of this talk is based.

Roberts has manifestly researched the subject to within an inch of its life, and has such a comprehensive command of it that he’s easily able to shoot the lecture from the hip. This man is a very fine speaker, and regular readers of this blog will know what therefore comes next. I am going to get super-picky – when they’re this good I always do.

Referring again to that still image of the video you will see that he has pointedly come out from behind the lectern, and placed a tiny piece of paper on its corner. That piece of paper is the target of my pickiness. It is his crib sheet.

I know what’s on it: a series of signpost words or phrases that indicate the path he wants the lecture to take. So far, no problem; I don’t so much mind its existence, but what it causes.

Very soon I can predict each time he is about to glance at it, because the smooth flow of the narrative has begun to fragment. He glances and moves on, but the fragmentation is still there for a sentence or two till he is back in his rhythm. This a sure sign that the speech is modular, a compilation of tried-and-tested modules.

Again I have no quarrel with that, modular structures work very well, but time and trouble has to be spent in building and refining bridges between the modules in order to smooth over the joins, maintain the narrative thread, and obviate the need for a crib sheet. If I were advising him I would concede that bridges can fail, particularly when adrenaline has a nasty habit of robbing you of some of your capacity to think on your feet, so his crib sheet might still be desirable. Nevertheless I’d suggest that he put it in his jacket pocket. Its very presence would reassure him, suppress the adrenaline, and make it redundant.

And there is another more prosaic problem with his crib sheet. On two or three occasions during the talk he produces The Storm of War, in order to read out where he has quoted things others have written. (In passing, this is one of the short list of circumstances where reading during a speech is not only acceptable but commendable.) When he does so he shows us that he needs reading spectacles (don’t we all). But understandably he doesn’t bother to use his glasses to glance at his crib sheet, and that could be causing each glance to be slightly more problematic. That crib sheet needs to be made redundant.

I told you I was going to get super-picky; but I now have a final bouquet to bestow. His finish, his final sentence, is masterly.

Jordan Peterson and thumbnails

About two years ago the Oxford Union invited Dr Jordan Peterson to deliver an address and Q&A. It was around the time that I had him on the blog before, and having re-read what I said I stand by it. I also see that I resolved to find more of his speeches, and am shamed that it took this long.

The general terms of reference I laid down for myself in this blog eight years ago, and have only occasionally broken, stated that I would focus on talks as distinct from Q&A. That is because most of my work is in helping people to succeed in the one-way traffic of a speech, because technically it differs hugely from the more familiar two-way traffic of conversation. I mention that because a glance at the way the stage was set, with two armchairs but no lectern, suggested that even though a talk was flagged this would be mainly Q&A. That impression was correct, and gloriously so.

He enters to an enthusiastic greeting, and acknowledges it graciously. That is followed by a brief exchange between him and the host. He assumes a 30-minute talk followed by Q&A, but the host suggests 15-20 minute talk. He immediately acquiesces, and launches straight into telling the audience he’ll be discussing hierarchies.

He is pensive, halting, repetitive in laying out his stall, and as he gets into his stride those three adjectives recede but never completely go away. He could have eliminated them completely and had a smooth, beautifully parsed monologue by having a script, but if he’d done so he’d have had difficulties in cutting down the talk from the expected 30 minutes.

Far more importantly it would have been glaringly obvious to everyone that he was sitting there merely regurgitating something he’d written previously, whereas here it is equally obvious that from a baseline of vast learning he is expressing ideas and concepts to which he has devoted a great deal of thought and is continuing to do even as he speaks. What we are seeing is transparent, spontaneous sincerity. What we are seeing, if you will forgive me a metaphor, is a live music recital as distinct from someone miming to a record. What we are seeing is the reason I continue to bang on about proper speakers not using paper, and why I tear paper out of the hands of my trainees. This is proper speaking, and everyone is capable of doing it.

Editing himself on the hoof he gets his talk down to about 10 minutes and then, for more than an hour, he takes questions. The questions are good. They probe and provoke, and he clearly revels in that. I find it riveting, but shall not even attempt to single out any points he makes. How do you précis something that is already academically concise?

Instead I’d like to praise his metaphor for low-resolution versus high-resolution examination of concepts. He speaks of low-resolution being thumbnail sketch overviews, and I like that. Inevitably I try applying it to myself. I am reassured that my habit of collecting masses of thumbnails (he’s got me doing it now) leaves enough space in my brain for high-resolution images reserved for work, family and principal interests, meanwhile enabling me to understand just enough when working with experts in their fields or listening to someone like him.

George Carlin still stands up

I seldom cover after-dinner speeches on this blog, nor do I often cover stand-up comedy. My speciality is public speaking. After-dinner speaking and stand-up are quite different from that. In terms of pacing they are actually even different from each other.

Nevertheless I’m always prepared to make exceptions.

On May 13, 1999, The National Press Club in Washington D.C. invited the late George Carlin to deliver an after-dinner speech. (In fact it was after-lunch, but who’s counting?) Carlin died in 2008, so there’s a whole generation who never knew him and his work.

Carlin is introduced by the Club President, Larry Lipman. As tends to be the case with all club meetings a certain amount of time is taken, before anything else, with club housekeeping business. If you are less than fascinated by the housekeeping of 21 years ago, you can skip to the actual introduction at 2:50. Carlin begins speaking at 5:25, ends at 35:23 and the rest is Q&A.

His comedy routine here falls into the category of what I call The Cavalry School. It’s a rare process these days, consisting of galloping along, gags flying out all the time, audience constantly tittering, but almost afraid to laugh in case they miss any, and so on. (On my side of the pond, Ken Dodd was possibly the most prominent cavalry charger – though very different in actual style.)

Each charge, though, has to conclude sometime; and at the conclusion he hits them with a punchline, stopping in a welter of pent-up laughter before gearing up the next charge. That punchline pause is almost unknown today. For one thing it requires the speaker to be one hundred percent confident of the punchline. The confidence comes from having practised and tested his punchline technique to destruction. The testing would have taken place in a long series of differing comedy venues, a testing ground barely available any more. That is why today’s comics almost never pause on a punchline, forging on till the audience’s reaction forces them to pause. Some of us are old enough to remember when they always paused (like George Burns cueing us to laugh by taking a puff of his cigar).

When he made this speech Carlin had recently published a book called Brain Droppings, a volume in which, among other things, he explored some of the vagaries of the English language. His various cavalry charges here likewise study words, and he’s tailored them to his audience. His audience consists of journalists, and he’s speaking in Washington D.C. No prizes for guessing therefore that he charges while brandishing some of the political double speak that we still hear.

For that reason this speech stands up remarkably well today twenty-one years after delivery. Yes a sad student of speech like me may spot technical variations from today’s norm, but it is still funny.

There remains one further observation I think worth making. If we assume, as I think we may, that he was given a half-hour slot then he ended two seconds before the end of it. That’s professional.

Liam Halligan loses a slice

In March, 2018, nearly two years after the British people had handed their government their instruction to leave the EU, we still had not done so.

(Today more than two years after that, we still have not done so, though just over a week ago at the end of June we passed the deadline after which another extension of the transition may not be granted. Now, the rules state that on 31 December we leave – for better or worse – with whatever deal has been agreed, or without one. Back to 28 March 2018 …)

The Bruges Group held a conference, entitled Clean Brexit in Princess Alexandra Hall in London. One of the speakers was Liam Halligan.

If you clicked the link that I customarily attach to the speaker’s name, you will see that Halligan is a distinguished columnist and broadcaster. To most, that combination would guarantee that he crafts good arguments and can convey them to an auditorium. By no means is this necessarily true: broadcasting and public speaking are enormously different.

You need only glance at the still picture above to see that Halligan is reading his speech. Therefore before we hear a word we know that the speech is not as good as it could or should be. His website tells us he speaks often, but if he has not done himself the favour of learning how to dispense with paper then however good the words he will not do justice to their delivery – at least not to the bits that he reads. If only he knew how easy it is!

He starts well. It’s a funny opening. His self-deprecating summary of himself as an economist trips off his tongue with the smoothness of the oft-repeated, but I have no problem with that. Nor has he: thorough road-testing of such routines are what make them work. Then at 1:33 his eyes go down to his article and, no longer being spontaneous, a fat slice comes off the top of his stage presence.

As readers go, he’s a pretty good one. He’s expressive and lively, but he’s still a talking head. You could close your eyes and know from the sound alone that he’s regurgitating something he wrote previously.

But not always. At 6:26 he gets excited and doesn’t look down again for nine seconds. That may not seem much time, but for those nine seconds the whole tenor of the delivery lifts markedly.

Those nine seconds are also long enough to lose him his place in the script, and a lame pause ensues. For about the thousandth time on this blog I’m shouting at the screen, “Throw the bloody script away!” He could do it, easily: he just doesn’t know he could.

Otherwise, it’s not a bad speech.