About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Stefan Molyneux is sincere

I had seen and heard him in interviews, and had been impressed by his fluency, vocal use, etc., so I went looking for speeches by Stefan Molyneux.

I found two, both recent, and requiring very different deliveries. The first was in Melbourne, Australia, the video having been posted on YouTube in August 2018. The audience response and references to a protest outside suggest that this is in a university.

A shrinking violet he ain’t. I like the way he bursts into his opening: it’s appropriate for the environment. He’s not using paper of course, and that marks him out as a proper speaker, therefore worth watching closely.

I don’t want to spend too much time or space on this speech, with another still to examine, particularly as he has gone on record as thinking that the other is the best he has made. But before we move on let us admire his technical ability. I can find no flaw with the way he uses his voice. His resonance and enunciation are top flight; also he moves around the space very well so I am not surprised to learn that he studied acting. But …

There are two spotlights upstage, sticking upwards from the floor and rocking very slowly. Their beams intersect sometimes in line with the top of the cyclorama, framing the speaker with an inverted V and sometimes intersecting just above his head showing an X. Why is that even remotely significant? Because I noticed.

All right I concede that I have an obvious interest in how such things are presented, but still if he’s doing his job as well as he wants he should absorb everyone watching and not be upstaged by bloody lights. The casual, jokey nature of the talk is appropriate with this audience, but he is rambling a little too much, indulging in irrelevant histrionics, not keeping his narrative tight enough and actually allowing it to get a little flabby in places. Let’s now see how he did, less than three weeks ago, on 31 January at the EU Parliament.

The video kicks off with a financial appeal to camera. Fair enough: he has to eat, his work requires a lot of expense, and he has chosen the freedom of independence.

This speech, as expected in view of the venue, is far tighter. Many, most, indeed nearly all, would meet that need for discipline by equipping themselves with a script. I warmly applaud his empty lectern, and he’s right: it will be a better speech for being shot from the hip.

I would be prepared to bet that he has not learnt this, but is speaking spontaneously following a carefully structured route. I also reckon it’s modular: he has strung together modules which he has used many times and refined, and they form the backbone. He has a penchant for long lists — sometimes asyndeton sometimes polysyndeton, never apparently a mixture. A characteristic like that, which would be spotted only by sad idiots like me, is the sort of thing that emerges in modular speeches that have never been written down.

Let’s not beat about the bush: Molyneux is outstandingly good. A regular reader will know that the better they are the pickier I get…

He is probably as near perfect a speaker as I have seen (and I’ve seen a fair few). Why is that picky? Because, as I have observed before in this blog — though previously when people were striving for it, never before when they had reached it — perfection, being an absence of flaws, can be boring. Excellence, which flaunts its idiosyncrasies, brings excitement. Molyneux has ironed out his flaws and hidden his idiosyncrasies, and now injects excitement via performance. Here we have a simply brilliant piece of speaking, but are we watching the real person or a superbly sculpted persona? I think the latter, and that disappoints me — though only slightly.

Only slightly, because persona or not he’s completely sincere. He must be sincere: no one in today’s society synthesises the appallingly unfashionable and personally unprofitable philosophy he promotes, unless he’s sincere or insane. Some might try to persuade you that people like he are secretly funded by an evil plutocracy, but I don’t believe that, nor do they, and nor should you. He’s sincere.

Roger Scruton tragically paper-bound

I wonder whether it was it by happenstance or design that late last year the Oxford Union hosted two severely contrasting talks by philosophers.

The contrast is dramatic. On the one hand there was Slavoj Žižek, at whom we looked a couple of weeks ago, and on the other there was Sir Roger Scruton. The former an apparently neurotic firebrand of Eastern European peasant stock, the latter an apparently patrician-born, establishment pedagogue.

In fact both impressions are false. Žižek is the son of a middle-class civil servant. As for Scruton, he typifies a dilemma I often have on this blog. When I affix a link to his name, which I aways do, should it be to his own website where he tells the world what he is now, or to Wikipedia where others have described his life thus far? In Scruton’s case the difference in accounts is considerable, so I have supplied both links in consecutive paragraphs.

I have watched and heard several interviews with Sir Roger, and he represents himself very well. His arguments are clear, well-reasoned, and fluent. This is hardly surprising, because he knows his subject and is more than able to defend his adopted positions. You can see what I mean when he turns to Q&A at 39:50.

A speech is merely answers supplied to a sequence of imagined questions; so at the very most all he needs on that lectern is a bulleted list of questions, certainly not a script. If he had operated that way his delivery would have benefitted from spontaneity, and been not one jot less rich in language. His interviews prove that last point.

I would prefer him not to have even that, because speaking entirely without notes forces you into structuring your material in a fashion that is more disciplined than even an academic lecture. There are a few mind-wandering moments in this talk, and the camera catches at least one audience member’s mind absorbed in something else. This forty minutes could easily have tightened to little more than thirty and benefited thereby.

We with this video can pause, rewind, rewatch, etc., and it is worth doing for all the reasons that make his interviews so good. It’s just a pity both that his audience there in that hall could not do that or that they sometimes needed to, because what Sir Roger has to say needs to be heard and understood.

Dr Oliver Robinson again

Yes, he been on twice before, here and here. And, in case you haven’t picked up my personal interest, he’s my nephew. I have been following with some interest his progress as a speaker, and am impressed by this latest leap. I haven’t coached him: he read my previous critiques here, and we’ve discussed concepts, but essentially it’s his own work.

Since he previously appeared here we have lunched together; but there were far more interesting things than speaking to discuss, mainly his latest book called Paths Between Head and Heart, which I had read and which he is promoting in this speech at Watkins Books.

The link to the video arrived in an email from him, declaring that he was speaking without script or notes. Like a wasp to beer I was drawn in.

When I first started coaching people in public speaking it was still de rigueur to stand in a power-pose, and orate. Bit by bit, in the decades since, the fashion has moved to what I term ‘conversational sincerity’. I much prefer it, would love to claim that I had influenced it, but actually it was going to happen anyway.

Here we find Olly, paperless as promised, in ‘conversational sincerity’ mode, and taking flight in the process. The freshness, spontaneity, and enthusiasm for his message is infectious. True his shooting from the hip makes it a little rough around the edges here and there, but the net gain in audience engagement obliterates that cost. The more he speaks without paper the smoother it will get, but in the meantime who cares anyway?

For about a quarter of an hour his structure is chronological, as he traces the history of scientific enlightenment and spirituality. (Who would have thought that the 1680s, the decade of the Glorious Revolution, was also so significant in this story?) Chronology is an easy structure to work, but by being linear, a single dimension, it can cause a speaker to lose thread. A simple aid is to introduce cross-structures that intersect this timeline, but that’s a detail.

At 18:00 he begins talking about expansion of mind and, suggesting an elastic band as a metaphor, he makes the point that to expand anything you need to pull its extremities in opposite directions. Thus any expansion involves tension between opposites. (What a devastating argument against ‘Safe Spaces’ in universities!)

This introduces a chart that he has in his book, a wheel containing opposites facing each other across its centre. He produces a printout of that chart; and this is his visual, the only one. Had he been in a lecture room it would have been a slide, but he manages perfectly well holding it up in front of himself. The rest of his talk is essentially exploring briefly some of the dialectics in the book between those opposites.

I was slightly unsettled in the talk by the frequent cross-fades betraying edit points. The edits were very skilfully done, with seamless joins in the audio, but what was edited out? Interjections or questions from the audience which threatened to lengthen the video unnecessarily? Who knows?

I found it unsettling also when he described a discussion he had with his father, as it took me a second to realise that the other party to that dialogue was my own brother.

It is an excellent and stimulating talk which ends a few seconds after 35:00. The rest is Q&A.

On Amazon the book has seven reviews, one by me, all positive and 5-stars throughout.

Slavoj Žižek is a tonic

In late 2018 the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Slovenian philosopher, Professor Slavoj Žižek. On this blog I have been known to quote Tom Lehrer’s definition of a philosopher, namely –

someone who goes around giving helpful advice to those who are happier than he is.

Let us see.

Within seconds of his starting I doff my rhetor hat to him. 

I have very often been asked by trainees to help them rid themselves of mannerisms that they have been told are a distraction. My standard answer is that they should be their natural selves, that their mannerisms are personal and natural to them, and if they try to eliminate them they will probably fail but if they succeed they will find them replaced by ‘anti-mannerisms’ which, being unnatural to them, will be a greater distraction. Therefore they should battle not the mannerism but the distraction. Be more interesting and your audience will not be distracted.

Žižek has tics. He has a shedload of tics. What is the collective noun for tics? Whatever it is Žižek has a big one; yet he appears to pay them no heed. His focus is entirely on his message and how to convey it, leaving no room for wasting any energy on irrelevances like tics. Bravo to him for that!

At his opening there are a few seconds of tic-enhanced searching through his papers while he marshals his thoughts. Thereafter he makes me wonder why he even bothered to bring the papers as he never again consults them. Another reason to doff my hat to him.

Does Tom Lehrer’s definition hold water? – are we happier than he? He repeatedly professes himself pessimistic, so we probably are. In particular I was happy I saw this speech.

I didn’t always understand the concepts he promoted, and when I understood I didn’t always agree; but being who I am and doing what I do, I am a sucker for when a speaker shows this level of commitment to his message.

I enjoyed it immensely. 

Jimmy Valvano: laugh, think, cry

For this, my 400th posting on the blog, it is appropriate that I choose something a little different, a little special. This is both. For one thing this speech is 25 years old, for another it has been viewed on YouTube nearly 4.5 million times. I was pointed at it by a trainee.

Jimmy Valvano, known to his fans as Jimmy V, was a legendary basketball coach in the USA. In 1992 he was diagnosed with cancer. On 4 March, 1993 he delivered this speech at Madison Square Garden, accepting the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

We are primed for an emotional experience by the adoration shown by the audience. We see him leaning on someone’s arm as he climbs the steps onto the stage, but otherwise there are no strong clues to his illness.

After retiring as a basketball coach he had another career as a motivational speaker, and it shows. This is no stranger to the speaking platform.

In his opening he makes the point that today he has no cue cards, and that makes me wonder whether he usually did. My theory, from other things he says, is that this free speaking shooting from the hip is not quite the norm for him, but I’m not surprised how easily he does it.

I remember, as quite a small boy, observing to my parents how invalids always seemed to be more cheerful than other people (at that time WWII was a very recent memory, so people with war injuries were all around). Here we have a man on the threshold of death lecturing us how we should maintain our happiness.

And look at the energy with which he does it! If there was little sign of his illness at the beginning there is absolutely none now. He is being swept along by the intensity of his message. 

His prime message is, “Don’t give up: don’t ever give up,” but there is another recurring theme – almost a mantra – in this speech. He urges us to make sure that every single day we laugh, we think, and we cry.

I’m reminded of another mantra that we hear all over the place, that we should treat each day as if it were our last. Jimmy V makes me realise that we should deliver each speech as if it were our last. The wonderful uninhibited freedom with which he delivers this must surely owe something to his being conscious that he has nothing to lose. 

This is a classic piece of speaking and – guess what? – it makes us laugh; it makes us think; and it makes us cry.

At the end we see several friends almost carrying him back down the steps off the stage, and now we can see how ill he is. He died on 28 April that year.

Tim Martin should give paper the bullet

Leave Means Leave, an organisation whose name gives us a strong clue that it is pro-Brexit, has been holding rallies around the UK for some months. On 14 December they held one in London, and on the bill was Tim Martin of Wetherspoons.

He claims that his accent is an amalgam of Northern Ireland and New Zealand. Those countries may be where he has spent most of his life, but I hear neither of those in his accent which is a one-off, but then Tim Martin is a one-off.

He has delivered speeches at other Leave Means Leave rallies and, having watched some, I can tell you that they essentially bear the same message. But they are not the same speech because the words he is using are different.

He is using a list of bullet points and then trusting himself to say the words that come to him. That causes glorious episodes of Martin speaking spontaneously with his audience, with all the desired symptoms of sincerity and command of his subject, but those glorious episodes are separated by self interruptions while he dons his specs and peers at his list of bullet points. I itch to show him how easily he could bin that bloody paper and then shoot the whole speech from the hip. He’s almost there already.

His audience loves him because he’s such a refreshing personality, and that personality pours across the footlights onto the floor of the hall.

Except while he’s peering at his bloody paper.

Yanis Varoufakis: Euro problem

In 2018 the Oxford Union hosted an address with Q&A from Yanis Varoufakis. Finding out the precise dates of these talks is never easy, and these days I have neither the time nor inclination to fish around, but I reckon that a few clues suggest it was mid-November.

The talk was entitled The Euro Has Never Been More Problematic.

Yes, well he’s done this before. 

He even makes it clear that he has spoken at the Oxford Union before. Yet at the beginning I still see nerve symptoms – tiny ones, admittedly, but it confirms that everyone experiences a hump. Better speakers hide it better and dismiss it more quickly, but everyone gets one.

This is a fine piece of speaking. It could be improved; for instance I found myself having to spool back a couple of times to clarify points he was making. His live audience couldn’t do that, and it indicates that his structure could be refined slightly.

When working on trainees’ structures, I usually do it under the guise of making it easier for them to deliver without prompting from script or notes. Nevertheless I also point out that good structure carries a more important byproduct of making the speech easier for the audience to follow, and we always need to keep an eye on that byproduct. Varoufakis has comfortably outgrown the need for paper prompting, so he needs to factor in a conscious effort to discipline his structure for coherence. Though he speaks excellent English, his accent adds a hurdle to his coherence. The hurdle is small, but it will be enlarged for those students in this audience for whom English is likewise not their first language.

[Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that when speakers are as good as this I just get more picky.]

I am reluctant to comment on what he says, because he makes his arguments very well as you’d expect from a politician. He has been round the block a few times, so he is well informed. Nevertheless what I call ‘politician blinkers’ cause him, in my opinion, to be misguided in two or three areas; but I’d rather not get bogged down in that.

The Oxford Union are to be congratulated yet again on platforming a good and wide range of speakers.