About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Boris Johnson talks a good fight

At the beginning of February, 2020, barely hours after the UK ceased to be a member of the EU, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, delivered a speech in the painted hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. It was entitled, Unleashing Britain’s Potential.

The speech generated a fair amount of comment in the press and on social media so, as is my habit, I waited a while for the dust to settle before I addressed it.

Whoever was in charge of filming this video was so determined not to miss anything that the camera was switched on and left to its own devices while the throng awaited the PM’s entrance. You don’t have to wait: he enters at 3:14 and begins speaking at 3:20. He finishes at 31:04, turning to Q&A.

Nearly half a century ago I was involved in organising a gastronomic banquet in this Painted Hall; and the guests from all over the world barely noticed what they were eating, so grand is the setting. The PM opens with a detailed and scholarly, if slightly anarchic description. While admiring the work that went into it, he describes it as “slightly bonkers”. It makes for an amusing opening to the speech.

At around the six-minute mark he reaches the matter in hand, namely that Britain released from the shackles that have bound it to a failing enterprise of protectionist tariffs, needs now to get out into the wide world and exercise some free trade. He speaks of the teachings of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Richard Cobden; and no one can deny that Boris talks a good fight.

I find myself made anxious when at 8:25 he says that “politicians are failing to lead”. Smith, Ricardo, Cobden, et al, don’t teach that politicians need to lead; they teach that politicians need to get the hell out of the way. Boris knows this, and he’s a words man, so why does he use wrong words?

At 13:30 “We will be governed by science, and not by mumbo-jumbo!” He’s speaking of doing free trade deals, but I wish he was speaking of Climate Change. What has possessed the man to espouse the preposterous ambition to be “carbon neutral” by 2050? Futile, probably impossible, a short-cut to national bankruptcy, and utterly pointless given that the entire Climate Change religion is a tax-raising, citizen-controlling, political adventure based on mumbo-jumbo and not science. He has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t really ‘get’ climate change. Half an hour spent drilling past the fluff in which the creed is coated and simply looking at the actual data would be a good start. Or he could watch some of the YouTube videos on Tony Heller’s channel.

If, as it appears, he has Churchillian ambitions he really does need to get a grip.

In terms of his delivery it’s a stirring speech, and it is certainly refreshing to see a Prime Minister appear to exhibit a spine made of something other than marshmallow.

So he can talk the talk, let’s see how well he walks the walk.

Victor Davis Hanson, naturally

On 10 November, 2019, the Jewish Leadership Conference was addressed by Victor Davis Hanson. His talk was entitled Israel and the Muscular Spirit of the West.

I’m interested to hear him speak. I have dipped into his blog Private Papers, and also enjoy his podcast The Classicist, and found him supremely articulate; but that doesn’t mean that his effectiveness in front of an audience can be taken for granted.

The introduction is read by Jonathan Silver and I have a suspicion that these are not his own words. I advise my trainees that, if they are due to speak at a conference and the organisers request biographical information in order to assist them in preparing an introduction, they should instead actually write and send the whole introduction themselves. There are advantages for everyone here: the introducer is saved a difficult task and the speaker has – as it were – set his own starting blocks. I would not be surprised if Hanson wrote this: the relevance to the talk is spookily insightful.

Hanson’s Hump betrays its existence in the way he fiddles unnecessarily with the mic, but he very quickly settles down.

In the first minute he attributes his youthful interest in the classics to autodidactic reading. I immediately wonder if his auto didacticism spilled over into teaching himself to speak in public. He shoots this entire speech from the hip, thus persuading me that this is probably what he always does. Could it be that he discovered for himself how easy that is? If so, that might explain something else.

As a speaker he gives every impression of being a Natural and, as I have previously mentioned on this blog, that is a two-edged sword. I teach ordinary mortals to be able to speak without notes by disciplining them to structure their material in easily remembered ways. Naturals don’t need that: they know that they can simply stand there and speak. The trouble is that without that disciplined structure some of the coherence can be lost from the message. It is at least as important for the audience that the material be easily remembered.

About two thirds of the way through this speech it rambles a little, and makes me wish he had divided it into clearer chapters in order to keep himself in check. I’m ok: I can watch it again (and have and shall yet again) but the audience in the hall can’t. The material is fantastically interesting, and otherwise so well argued, that it is tragic if any goes AWOL through his losing even a few seconds of his audience’s attention.

This is one of those occasions that the high quality of a speaker makes me get super-picky. He has so much of value to impart, that being damn good is not enough. He owes it to his own scholarship to match its excellence.

Lawrence Reed and Cicero

In the summer of 2019, Acton Institute hosted a lecture by Lawrence W. Reed. His theme was Modern Parallels to the Fall of Rome.

As I habitually do with speakers on this blog, I have attached to Reed’s name a hyper-link that will take you to a biography, but you will find there not much more than you learn from the detailed introduction given him by Stephen Barrows. He does such a good job of the introduction that I have attached a hyper-link to a biography of him also. He supplies one particular piece of information that seems relevant to this blog. At 2:03 he tells us that Reed has delivered at least seventy five speeches a year for the past thirty years. That’s an average of three per fortnight. He should be pretty good at it. Reed begins at 2:50.

I firmly tell my trainees that every speaker – every speaker – experiences a Hump. They often seem incredulous, but here at the beginning I see tiny, subtle symptoms of nervousness. I am impressed and delighted that even with his huge experience his adrenal glands are still doing their job to raise him to optimal performance. If a speaker is not nervous at the beginning he’ll bore you. If you can’t see Reed’s nerve symptoms that’s because he’s good at disguising them.

After brief preliminaries, including an amusing anecdote, he launches straight into the subject of the Ancient Roman Republic. What I particularly like, the lecture title notwithstanding, is that he seldom bothers to draw modern parallels at all. He doesn’t need to: it’s all implicit. He merely narrates relevant information about the Roman Republic, its crumbling and its transition into an empire, and lets us work out the parallels for ourselves. As a general rule audiences dislike being spoon-fed.

For instance as a Brit my ears prick up at 09:15 when he tells us that Rome had an unwritten constitution which was nonetheless very powerful and built on long established conventions. The British constitution, likewise unwritten, was recently tested, somewhat assailed, but succeeded in riding out the crisis.

When at 18:45 he quotes Sallust’s description of the character of the administration of Rome in its late republican crumbling, he allows it to transmit its own parallel message. Likewise when he tells us at 20:00 about Tacitus warning of ‘lust for power’.

Though the general principles of what he describes are not earth-shatteringly new, it is pleasing to have so much clarity of chapter and verse attached to them. It appears also to be necessary to repeat the obvious warnings.

The lecture is half-an-hour long, as is the Q&A that follows. During the latter he is asked to identify which historical figure (other than Jesus Christ) he would most like to meet. Topping his list is Cicero, whose writings tell us so much about the crumbling of the republic. Cicero has quite a lot also to tell us about public speaking, so I might try to gatecrash that conversation.

David Starkey gets it right.

In December 2019, a day or two before the 12 December UK General Election, New Culture Forum held its 2019 Smith Lecture, in London. The Speaker was Dr David Starkey.

As a general rule I seldom devote more than a token hat-tip to a speaker’s introduction, but I have a little more than that to say about this contribution from Peter Whittle.

When I began teaching public speaking – shortly after the Napoleonic Wars – there remained in the medium a strong favouring (which I disliked) for formal oratory. Since then that fashion has receded almost to extinction in favour of what I call Conversational Speaking, and the trend was driven by The Market. Audiences want not to be spoken at, but spoken to, or with. Best speaking practice today is characterised by a more chummy demeanour and, ideally, no script or even notes. Speaking without notes (I call it “shooting from the hip”) transmits a range of desirable signals like spontaneity, command of the subject, sincerity, and so on, and (keep my secret!) is astonishingly easy to do.

Whittle’s introduction is shot entirely from the hip. It has stumbles, but if anything they enhance the result because it sounds – and is – spontaneous. He conveys the feeling that he has things that he sincerely wants to tell us, and we therefore want to hear them. Among other things he tells us about “So what you’re saying is…”, a series of interviews that he conducts with interesting people. They are very good: I commend them.

David Starkey begins at 6:00.

He speaks from notes. He nevertheless contrives to convey the chumminess, sincerity and much of the spontaneity of noteless speaking. We shouldn’t be surprised: he’s been doing it a long time. He’s even older than I, though not by much. Rather than develop the skill of dispensing entirely with paper, which till a couple of decades ago was regarded as a bit of a mountebank’s trick, he has learnt to refer very sparingly to his paper and not to allow it to impede his excellent relationship with his audience.

I found this talk highly enjoyable. It is humorous, bulging with relevant information concerning nineteenth century politics, and scattered with some wonderfully quotable lines.

It is also prescient. Though he starts with all manner of caveats concerning the uncertainty still prevailing before the election, and he declares himself determined not to prophesy the result, he nevertheless hints obliquely, late in the talk, how he expects it will pan out. He gets it right, in satisfactory detail.

Jonathan Haidt and time well spent.

At the end of October, the Institute for Humane Studies posted a video of a talk that had recently been given at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. The speaker was Professor Jonathan Haidt. The talk is entitled The Coddling of the American Mind, which just happens to be the title of a book that he co-wrote with Greg Lunianoff.

This talk is nearly an hour and a quarter long. If you regard that as bad news, then the good news is that watching it is time well spent.

Haidt presents himself as a reasonable, warm, friendly, winsome person. Cynic that I am, and one that previously was not familiar with him, when his talk starts sailing into water that has recently become controversial to the extent of generating riots, I wonder whether this is a persona that he projects in order more safely to navigate this perilous course. I go off and explore his other speeches and interviews, and return a verdict of Not Guilty.

This is not a persona, but the real Haidt, and the perilous course takes him face-to-face with what has colloquially been termed the Snowflake Culture – i.e. university Safe Spaces, etc.

Gratifyingly, however, he does not so much confront it as strive to understand it. That essentially is the genius of this talk. He explores its origins, its ethos, making us his audience almost empathise, before he explains why it is profoundly and dangerously wrong.

The talk has more visuals than I would like. The editors of this video cut away from the slides enough to prevent Haidt becoming for us a voice-over for a picture show; but the audience in the hall does not have that privilege. My rule with visuals is simply stated: include it only if the argument would be significantly impoverished without it. I venture that there are some slides here that fail that test.

In striving to help us understand various details, Haidt supplies a great deal of survey data which are displayed for us in the form of various graphics. I have absolutely no quarrel with this talk being data-rich. Speakers who address controversies without showing their workings are suspect, and graphics convey such workings very effectively. However, it’s almost as if including an abundance of slides generates its own momentum and that the slides that are necessary and desirable somehow give birth to others that are less so.

How often have I observed in this blog that the better the speaker the pickier I get? The previous two paragraphs are a good example of my becoming hyper-picky, because Jonathan Haidt shows here that he is nothing short of an exemplary speaker. It’s not just the delivery which is superb, but his argument is flawlessly structured also.

I think I may read the book.

Andrew Doyle and Woke

At The National Liberal Club in London, on 13 October 2019, Sovereign Nations held a conference entitled Speaking Truth to Social Justice. One speaker was Andrew Doyle.

I was keen to watch this speech because few have done more to satirise the wearisome Woke movement than Doyle (except, arguably, the Woke movement itself). Among other things, and I’m going out of my way to highlight this because in his speech he doesn’t do so, he co-founded and runs Comedy Unleashed, where comedians may perform without having to conform to the bigotry of Woke restrictions. This means free speech and, in a civilised society, should be the norm. The Woke establishment (and be sure that the Establishment is Woke) hates it and labels it ‘Far Right’, which is Wokese for the holding of non-Woke opinions.

I cannot believe that he’s reading a script! What has possessed him? He’s hacking great chunks out of the impact of what he is saying by regurgitating something he wrote earlier. It’s not all the time: sometimes his eyes mercifully lift from that wretched paper and he addresses the audience in spontaneous terms. Then the eyes go back down and the speech immediately deflates to an appalling degree. If you don’t believe me, close your eyes and listen. It’s certain that you will know when he is looking at the audience and when at the paper. This is exacerbated by the script being in written-, as distinct from spoken-, English; but he shouldn’t have the bloody script in the first place.

I know for an absolute cast-iron certainty that he doesn’t need it. This is not just because I’ve proved it to countless trainees over the decades, but because I have actual evidence from the man himself. Watch this and see if there’s a script.

What he is doing there is monumentally difficult. It looks easy when it’s done that well, but it is without question the most skilful form of public speaking. He’s fallen into the trap of thinking that Public Speaking is in some way different – a formalised medium. It isn’t. It’s just structured talking, and he has shown he can do that phenomenally well.

The speech is brilliant and could and should have been brilliantly delivered. Because it’s personal no one on this planet could deliver it better than he if he did but dare bin the paper. It’s punchy, funny, clever, everything you want it to be. And it’s important.

One tiny caveat concerning paperless speaking. He often quotes people by reading what they said or wrote. On those occasions he is right to do so, because by being seen to read a quote you transmit a subliminal signal that you are not paraphrasing, but quoting faithfully.

Jonathan Aitken on the shoulders of giants.

On 21 December, 2015, at the Richard Nixon Library in California, Jonathan Aitken delivered a speech entitled ‘A Biographer’s Journey’, comparing the subjects of his two best-selling biographies – Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher. Though I habitually attach, for readers that need it, an explanatory hyperlink to the name of the speaker and key people mentioned, I believe that at least two of them require no introduction, and anyway if you watch this video you will come to learn more about all of them than a link can offer. But if you insist –

Jonathan Aitken Richard Nixon Margaret Thatcher

As I habitually also, as a courtesy to the author, include links to books that are mentioned let us attend to them now. All these are authored by Jonathan Aitken.

Frank Gannon, aide to President Nixon, delivers the introduction and apologises that – unlike Nixon and Thatcher – he cannot speak without notes. Was this a specific appeal for me to teach him? Alas no.

That apology notwithstanding he proceeds to shoot most of it very capably from the hip. It’s a truly excellent introduction, affectionately delivered, replete with personal memories and fulsomely advertising all but one of the books listed above. I have heard few introductions that lasted as long as nine and a half minutes and none that so deserved to.

It has been said that punctuality is the politeness of princes. Aitken begins his lecture at 9:30, and passes to Q&A exactly 40 minutes later at 49:30. That sort of precision is super-professional and very rare.

And now I am slightly at a loss for words. This is just such a beautifully constructed and delivered lecture that I shy away from cheapening it with comment. Yes I know he regrettably has notes. Sadly the word ‘lecture’ strictly means a reading, and there are here a few occasions that I feel the reading makes the delivery a little pedestrian, but when his face comes up and he addresses us spontaneously it eclipses those brief shortcomings.

He’s a very fine speaker, and what he has given himself to say is fascinating throughout. I concede that I may bear an advantage in being old enough to have lived through the period in question, but of the many hundreds of speeches I have sampled for this blog (perhaps three times as many as have been actually reviewed) I think this the most enjoyable. I urge you to watch it.