About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Robert Spencer exits Plato’s cave

Young America’s Foundation hosted a talk on 18 March 2017 at the Reagan Ranch. The speaker was Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch.

I know little of Robert Spencer, other than the normal little bit of research I always undertake into a speaker, before subjecting them to critique on this blog. Thus it was that I learnt that he co-authored a book with Pamela Geller, whose speaking I critiqued last June. He also, I understand, shares with Geller the distinction of having been banned from the UK because of his inflammatory views – banned, that is, under the orders of the British Home Secretary at the time, one Theresa May.

A couple of weeks ago I covered someone else who had a reputation for being inflammatory and turned out to be quite the reverse. I thought I’d be really brave and try it again.

Spencer’s talk begins at 03:27 and ends at 32:27. If we assume a half-hour slot we are looking at a speech lasting a minute less than allotted, and delivered without a script. Regardless of all else I tip my hat to a speaker who knows what he’s doing.

A James Bond Film opening even! He begins with a summary of the Plato’s cave story, which though it may temporarily bemuse those who do not know it, leads beautifully into his message. I tip my hat again.

He then proceeds apparently to narrate the history of the modern day Islamist Jihad. I injected that word ‘apparently’ because not being a scholar of such matters I have no means of knowing the accuracy of what he says. Nevertheless, when claiming to quote from the Koran he always cites chapter and verse, and when quoting incidents always gives names, places and dates. In short, he shows his workings. When one side of an argument does that, and the other seeks to silence them (or worse!) it lends verisimilitude to the party of the first part.

This is twenty-nine minutes of highly authoritative speaking. And with the greatest respect to the British Home Office he never once incites his audience to violence. It is a speech that should be heard.

At 32:27 he throws open to questions. That should be heard too.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!

Charles Murray is here not inflammatory

In September 2016, at the Baugh Center Free Enterprise Forum at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Charles Murray was guest speaker.

Though I haven’t previously heard Murray speak, his name was familiar because of a highly publicised near-riot last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, when he and a Middlebury professor had to be evacuated from a hall where he was due to speak. About ten minutes internet research reveals all manner of accusations hurled at Murray. Principal among them is that he is a ‘white supremacist’ which, along with ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ means these days – especially in seats of learning – that his politics are at odds with those of his accuser.

Nevertheless I did expect some inflammatory stuff to come out of this lecture. Let’s see.

The avuncular, softly spoken, first minute is so bereft of phlogiston as to be almost a disappointment. He quickly mentions his book, Coming Apart, and I accordingly expect him to wade into an overt sales pitch. Again I am wrong, though he does refer to it fairly often. He also mentions the (then) upcoming presidential election, though stressing that it will feature in the lecture only obliquely.

The lecture is about cultural as distinct from economic inequality and, when in the first couple of minutes he refers to a statistic relating to income, he confesses that he hasn’t recently checked it. My interest quickens, because already it appears he is working with broad brush-strokes. Let me explain myself on this.

If this lecture covers roughly the same subject matter as his book, then he is doing what I often find myself helping business executives with. In their case they will be probably presenting some report, and in these cases I find myself dragging them away from the detail because the classic mistake is to try to précis that report. What they should be doing is trailing it. Think about a trailer for a movie. How much of the plot does it give you? Essentially none! It cherry picks a few sexy camera-shots to persuade you to see the movie. Thus the executive presenting a report should be doing nothing other than persuading his audience to read the report, and that usually means broad brush-strokes, glossing over detail and cherry picking sexy assertions. Now back to this lecture …

Murray is broad-brush-stroking his findings concerning the cultural polarisation of American society. His statistics here tend to be ‘ballpark’, though the overview is clear. We do not doubt that his book has precise figures and shows its workings. It’s very effective trailing, though it is revealing how the pace of the speech sags only when he gets too deeply into statistics for a brief section about two-thirds of the way through.

The message overlaps that of Tucker Carlson’s in my previous posting. It’s not the same, and it is presented very differently, but the two do support each other. He is describing the way that America has developed a class system, with an insular elite that views the rest with undisguised disdain. Like Carlson he doesn’t blame that elite, describing them as essentially nice folk following an understandable instinct to be around ‘people who get your jokes’; but the consequences of the alienation is socially and politically destructive. It is also fundamentally un-american.

For me this resonates more than merely my viewing another culture from a distance. There seems to be a similar alienation in Britain. It is rooted differently, but…

Perhaps I shouldn’t get started.

P.S. (April 17)  Charles Murray, in a tweet that links to this blog posting, tells us that this is the lecture he intended to give to Middlebury.  Those rioting students managed to avoid learning something so valuable as to contaminate their university experience.

Tucker Carlson, by the way

On 6 March in Washington DC, Tucker Carlson addressed the International Association of Firefighters.

Situated as I am on the east side of the Atlantic, my relationship with the US media can most charitably be described as sporadic. Nevertheless, in the eternal hunt for speeches I do spend a lot of time on YouTube. So it was that Tucker Carlson crept his way into my consciousness some months ago. He wasn’t making speeches, but he was interviewing many of the speakers into whose background I was delving for the purpose of this blog.

He was interviewing remarkably well, and had a refreshing approach to heavily adversarial, hostile, interviewees. Rather than show anger he would most often deploy one or both of two facial expressions –

  • Little boy puzzled
  • Little boy laughing

He was exploiting his chubbily boyish face, which is highly personable, and making it a hell of a weapon. More importantly the boy could play: he unerringly asked the questions I happened to want asked, couched in the most reasonable terms.

I had vaguely wondered how he would fare on a speaking platform, so when I saw a speech from him on line I pounced.

We don’t see the opening, but come in halfway through a sentence. I understand that people want videos that hit the ground running, but with my niche interest I want to see the opening. Public speaking is like flying an aeroplane inasmuch as the most tricky parts are the takeoff and landing. The rest is relatively easy.

We join Carlson already in the air and climbing. The first words we hear are “By the way” and they herald one seriously attention-grabbing sentence. From there it goes on up. This is a phenomenal speech!

He produces nail after nail and hits each one squarely on the head. I won’t tell you how; I won’t tell you why; you just need to watch it. It answers many questions.

He has a verbal mannerism. I tell my trainees never to worry about mannerisms because if their speech is interesting enough no-one will notice. It just happens to be my job, so I notice. He says “By the way”. I haven’t counted how many times he says it in this speech because I’d rather have a life, but it’s a lot. If I hadn’t mentioned it you wouldn’t have noticed because the speech is spell-binding. It’s refreshing as spring water, coming from someone in the government/media bubble.  Nail-head-nail-head all the way through.

By the way, one of the reasons “By the way” comes out so much is that he has a neat line in micro-digressions. It’s almost as if they supply the mortar between the bricks of his theme.

Another neat line is in self-deprecation – not in an overt simpering way but in tiny, easily missable, almost subliminal throw-away lines. At 13:30 he throws open to questions. See if you pick up the nano-self-deprecation in his final sentence, and ask yourself whether you would have done without my drawing your attention to it.

He’s a very good speaker, and this is a hell of a good speech. Nail-head-nail-head. I’d still have liked to have seen his takeoff, by the way.

Maajid Nawaz is doing really well.

My previous two posts have been from Secularism 2016, a conference held in London last November. I accidentally posted them here out of order. Raheel Raza opened a series of three talks on the necessity to reform Islam, and Douglas Murray concluded it. In between them came a talk from Maajid Nawaz. He has been on this blog twice before, the last time here, and his promise as a speaker is so strong that I was looking forward to seeing his progress.

Having been an Islamic terrorist who landed in jail, but later has devoted his life to fighting extremism, he is an obvious choice to speak at a conference like this.

He has fairly recently begun a regular radio programme on LBC. This was bound to effect his public speaking, though in ways that are not obvious. Radio is different from public speaking because you can’t see your audience. The nerves come from a different direction somehow. On radio you can combat The Hump by scripting your opening, and you thus have to learn how to write in spoken English, a subtly different language from written English. As his programme is a phone-in, he has had to hone his ability to think on his feet, duck and weave, shoot very fluently from the hip and all that will not have done any harm. Let’s see how he does with this speech.

Two immediate impressions strike me…

  1. He is very nervous at the start and wants his scripted opening. I think he has learnt it because he looks very seldom at his script, and a tiny stumble in it has the feel of a memory-blip not a thought-blip. There are other, better ways of combatting the hump; and he could be made more relaxed.
  2. He is going too fast. This is a well-known nerve symptom, so it has the double jeopardy of conveying nervousness to the audience. Actually I think in this case it may not be nervousness because he never slows down, even when his nervousness has subsided. Regardless, it is a bad idea. If you have too much material, speaking more quickly doesn’t save time it makes you less coherent. If you are trying to convey urgency in your message there are better ways of doing it. It’s the squeeze on the natural pauses that make it sound wrong.

Having got those two easily-remedied points out of the way, I must say I am delighted with how he is progressing. His mission is so important, and his approach to it so mature, that I would love to spend a couple of hours with him to make him more relaxed on the platform and restructure his material slightly in a way that works better in this particular medium.

If he is interested he can find me easily enough.

Raheel Raza being ‘controversial’

On September 3, 2016, the National Secular Society in Britain held a conference. I chanced upon videos of it in YouTube for my previous posting. The first speaker was Raheel Raza.

If you read about her in Wikipedia you are told that she holds “controversial views on Islam”. A few paragraphs later you read that she has “unequivocally condemned terrorism”. What a fascinating definition of ‘controversial’!

She is introduced by Afonso Reis e Sousa.

Her speech is preceded by a video documentary, produced and presented by her. It lasts till 14:30, is refreshingly forthright, honest, and not very comfortable. I commend it.

The controversial theme of Raza’s speech is essentially that of equality under the law, that there should be one law for all.  As Thomas Sowell has written –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Quite so. You can switch on the TV to almost any current affairs programme today to see some cretin condemning with a straight face that sort of equality.

Raheel Raza is a good speaker, particularly when she resists the lure of that script on the lectern. She has plenty to say, and says it clearly.

At 17:00 she hits us with revelations that certainly surprise me. Her ‘controversial’ theme obviously advocates resisting the advance of Sharia, and she tells us that just four Muslim countries of the world are run by it – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan. She goes on to declare that in some respects Sharia has more influence in Britain than in Pakistan.

Her bottom line is that state and religion should be kept entirely separate. This obviously befits a speech made to a secular society, but it heaps more controversy in a country like Britain that has an established religion – even if it is fast becoming a minority one.

I’m very glad I watched this video. I learnt some interesting and disturbing things, including some that I haven’t mentioned here. I commend the whole thing.

She was followed on the platform by Maajid Nawaz. I plan to look at his speech next.

Douglas Murray and sincerity

There have been times on this blog that I avoided covering speeches by those who I felt had been covered here too often. Douglas Murray is one such. He is just so good that I know before it starts that my rhetor hat will be redundant, that I will sit and simply enjoy the quality of his speaking and be interested by what he says. The only negative will be the feeling of guilt at this self indulgence. Who cares! I’m going to permit myself a little R&R.

A month ago there was posted on YouTube a speech that he gave at Secularism 2016 which took place on 3 September last.

Though not wishing to get mired in semantics, I feel relaxed with secularism more than with atheism. I believe in the concept of a soul, yet organised religion bothers me – not least in its endless bloody bickering. (What on earth possessed factions within the C of E in the last few days with its hounding of Bishop Philip North?)  Secularism seems to be able to live with private spirituality while not caring much for liturgy, and that suits me very well. On the other hand I mistrust fundamentalism in all its guises, and atheists seem too easily to become tiresome ideologues. The late Christopher Hitchens used to be sneery, and even the admirable Matt Ridley in his otherwise excellent book, The Evolution of Everything is so obsessed with “skyhooks” that tedium threatens.

Enough of that. What has Douglas Murray to say?

He speaks with his audience, not to it. He has perfected the current speaking fashion for what I call ‘conversational sincerity’. If I put my rhetor hat on, I register the personal idiosyncrasies, the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’; but as soon as I doff it they disappear because he absorbs me completelyThat for me is the mark of excellence. I discern no trace of artificial persona: this is the real man. It is a stunningly good piece of speaking – but then that’s what he always provides.

He is also very sound on his subject, and very wise. What I like here is how he is tailoring to his audience. He is always well balanced, but here even more tempered and moderate than I have seen him. He recognises that this is an audience with grownup perceptions, so he doesn’t have to ram stark opinions down their throat.

That video above represents fourteen minutes that I am glad I spent. I am also pleased to have spent it twice. I am also pleased to have watched the panel’s Q&A at the same event. I am also pleased to have watched two other speakers at the same event. It shows that it was worth indulging myself. I shall cover their speeches shortly.