About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

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!

Gianna Jessen: born to speak

In 2008, at Queen’s Hall in Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia, an audience was treated to a speech from Gianna Jessen. The day was 8 September, the eve of a debate to decriminalise abortion in the State of Victoria.

Gianna Jessen exists because she confounded a Planned Parenthood abortionist by being born alive.

My having no medical training I cannot confirm whether her suffering from Cerebral Palsy is a legacy of the attempts made to thwart her birth, but I am qualified to declare that the condition doesn’t impede the quality of her speaking in public. Or if it does then heaven knows how well she would have been able to speak otherwise. My word, but she’s good!

And she wastes no time in demonstrating her skill. The timing of her big pauses, the first as early as 1:36, is nano-second perfect, and she is already getting laughs when others would still be battling their hump.

I tell my trainees, and I’ve said it before on this blog, that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique; but the ideal is to have both. Jessen has both, but far more importantly she is prepared to express her passion with vehemence. She has plenty to be passionate about.

Passion, brilliant timing, and laughs: it’s a formula whose result is spellbinding

Tomas Schuman and prescience

Tomas Schuman was the adopted nom de plume of Soviet KGB operative Yuri Alexandrovich Bezmenov after he defected from the Soviet Union in 1970. He was given asylum in Canada, studied political science for two years at the university of Toronto, and afterwards worked as a journalist..

In Los Angeles in 1983 he delivered this lecture.

He’s a proper speaker! All he holds in his hands is a piece of chalk for writing on the blackboard behind him. Even today, speaking without notes is regarded in some quarters as a bit of a circus trick; in 1983 it was considered almost on a par with black magic. Here he shoots from the hip for more than an hour, because he knows that – far from magic – it is dead easy.

On the other hand this speech is spooky in its prescience. We today possess thirty-seven years of hindsight that was not available to him, yet we find his projections to be frighteningly accurate. There are several occasions when he delivers shivers to the spine, one such begins at 09:09.

Let us not overlook, however, that his political studies at Toronto, dovetailing with his inside knowledge of the workings of Lubyanka Square, must have given him an unequalled insight into international shenanigans. His professors at Toronto would have been well advised to have requested tutorials from him. They probably squandered the opportunity, but we can listen and learn.

His central theme is that the most effective invasions are not from force of arms but from subversion, and this speech analyses how it is achieved. It begins with demoralisation and it culminates in crisis.

Lacking our hindsight he didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was destined to come down eight years after his speech, yet his prescience still holds because the subversives continue indoctrinating with their revolting dogma.

Being a very old video, the picture goes rather haywire at about 38:50. I strongly advise you to stay with it though, because the sound remains sound, and worth hearing, and the picture returns to normality after about ten minutes. Also, after that, you won’t want to miss what he says at 53:50.

If the Sahara ever becomes a socialist state there’ll be a shortage of sand

I don’t think you should miss any of it. I shall probably listen to this several times more.

Josh Hawley and Civics

The process continues of nomination leading to appointment of a new Associate Justice to fill the US Supreme Court chair that was vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The President’s nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who appeared on this blog two weeks ago.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearing a week ago on 12 October with an opening statement by Sen. Josh Hawley.

As Judge Coney Barrett will not be speaking at this point, her face is largely covered by a mask. Hawley’s opening sentences of welcome are warm and friendly, and Coney Barrett smiles in response. How do we know that a masked person is smiling? Because the person in question smiles with her eyes. I find that appealing and significant.

Hawley congratulates her on how calmly she has coped with the nomination process this far, and swings immediately into how the media, and some politicians have focussed on her Catholicism, and whether that will influence her legal decisions. My reaction is that surely no one reaches this legal level if their reputation contains even a sniff of that sort, but this is not where Hawley is going.

Hawley (a lawyer himself) goes to Article VI of the US Constitution which specifically prohibits any religious test attaching to office, and so we get a Civics lecture. He makes the point that being an Article, this precedes the Bill of Rights and accordingly is a cornerstone of the very edifice of the United States. (It occurs to me therefore that any questions that are put to Coney Barrett about her faith are unconstitutional regardless of her answers.) He hails this freedom of faith as being one of the hallmarks of American Exceptionalism.

Hailing, as I do, from a country where even today the monarch or even someone too near it may not be a catholic (not that the monarch has any political power) I marvel at the foresight and wisdom of the US Founding Fathers at building this, nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, into the very bones of their body politic.

This is a good speech, looking forward to constructive questions concerning Coney Barrett’s legal credentials, legal philosophy, and her approach to the law. Hawley closes with the fervent wish that this confirmation process will see the final cessation of any faith issues attaching to appointment to office.

Marjorie Dannenfelser’s vital job

The 2019 CPAC – The Conservative Political Action Conference – was held at the Gaylord National Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland. One of the speakers was Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of Susan B. Anthony List, and author of Life is Winning.

I didn’t chance upon this speech: I went looking for it. I had heard Dannenfelser being interviewed by Ann McElhinney on the Ann & Phelim Scoop, one of my favourite podcasts. Dannenfelser was articulate and engaging being interviewed, so I wanted to see how well she spoke from the platform.

Why the script? I’ve heard her spontaneously speaking fluently, persuasively, even movingly with an interviewer, so what makes her think she needs bloody paper to speak with an audience?

In fairness she isn’t alone. I’ve lost count of the speakers on this blog that are manifestly capable of losing the paper like a proper speaker, but don’t realise it. They don’t realise that merely by structuring the material into a secure mind-map they can enable themselves to stand and look at, and spontaneously engage with, their audience with no paper in the way.

Then the speech would become a live conversation as opposed to a regurgitation of something she did earlier. What she is doing here is the speaking equivalent of miming to a record. She’s reading the script pretty well, but compared to what she should be doing it’s sterile and forgettable. I’d defy any listener an hour later to repeat in any detail what this speech says. The reason is that when she wrote it she wasn’t addressing an audience but a computer screen.

And, though she’d never believe it till she’d been shown how and tried it, shooting a speech from the hip is not only far more persuasive but actually easier.

For me, witnessing this, it is agony because the speech could not be more important. About twenty years ago, in Britain, one of the chief political topics involved the banning of fox-hunting. I remember arguing with a left-leaning friend who declared that posterity would regard hunting the way we regard slavery. I protested that it was nothing like as evil.

But abortion is.

I’ve never forgotten how I wept when listening to the self-same Ann McElhinney’s speech when I covered it on this blog two years ago. I believe that future generations will regard our wholesale slaughter of unborn babies with the same revulsion with which today we regard slavery.

If you consider that term ‘wholesale slaughter’ to be too strong, what else would you call close to a million killings per year in the USA alone? And spare me that disgusting slogan “my body, my choice”: the foetus has its own, separate DNA. It’s already a different person. Its body belongs to itself, and no one is asking its choice.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is doing an immeasurably important job. I just want her to be even better at communicating it to audiences.

Amy Coney Barrett and SCOTUS

At Jacksonville University on November 3, 2016 – a handful of days before that year’s US Presidential Election – the Public Policy Institute’s Hesburgh Lecture was delivered by Law Professor, Amy Coney Barrett. She was there to discuss the questions and ramifications of the choices the new POTUS would have in replacing Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice who had recently died.

Here we are today, less than a handful of weeks from the next Presidential election. We know who was appointed by President Trump to succeed Scalia: it was Neil Gorsuch. We also remember the outrageous pantomime in 1918 that accompanied the nomination and appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy. And now, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump has nominated her successor to be Amy Coney Barrett.

The chance to hear the nominee herself – albeit four years ago – lecturing on this is too good to squander.

The Lecture is introduced first by Rick Mullaney, Director of the Institute, who hands over at 1:38 to Pat Kilbane whose task is to introduce the speaker herself. She begins at 4:07, speaks till 18:08, and this is followed by Q&A.

I am often asked about speakers’ mannerisms, and what can be done about them. Over the decades my position has changed a little and now reached a point where essentially I tell speakers not to worry about the existence of a mannerism, only that the audience has noticed it. If you are interesting enough any mannerism becomes unnoticeable to the audience. So what you do about a mannerism is you make your talk more interesting.

Can your vocal quality be a mannerism? If so, Barrett has a mannerism. In the first seconds of my hearing her speak it was almost like Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, in Singin’ in the Rain. That voice has a sharp, acidic, squeaky quality that, despite my conviction on the subject, had me thinking she needed voice coaching like Margaret Thatcher. I was wrong: my conviction was right. Within a minute or two the sound of her voice had become irrelevant, swamped by the value of what she was saying. I never noticed it again. Were I advising her I would tell her to ignore it.

When you have an audience that mixes experts with lay people, leaving you wondering where to pitch the technical scholarship of your arguments, you should do two things: pitch to the least expert and tell the audience you are going to. Barrett does both. There then remains the Einstein challenge: Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain it to a five-year-old you don’t really understand it yourself. What I know about law in general, and the US Constitution and SCOTUS in particular, equates roughly to the square root of not a lot. Yet I managed easily to follow everything she said, and was so absorbed that when she finished and sat with Rick Mullaney for the Q&A, I stayed with it.

It was interesting, enlightening, and fascinating to hear her four-years-younger self explaining to us what could now be facing her.

Is she a good candidate for the position? Don’t know: don’t care. I know nothing of the subject and have zero influence over it. But I can say with a little authority that she is a fine speaker.

Also, Einstein would have been proud.

David Webb: sober maturity.

Early in 2015 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the United States is Institutionally Racist. One of the speakers opposing the motion was David Webb.

Webb opens by reading a quotation whose sentiments are often expressed as if they are a new discovery. The quotation comes from Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915), and makes the point that supposed grievances are too often fostered by those whose livelihoods depend on the grievances.

Webb’s speaking delivery might at first seem ponderous, but very quickly I realise that this measured way of speaking is a function of his economy with words and his refusal to get caught up in wild histrionics. Also it is consistent with his stated determination always to dig to the root of a problem as distinct from leaping on emotional bandwagons.

Though it is slightly startling to find this message from five and a half years ago resonating so strongly today, I like Webb’s sober and mature use of language. It is a pleasure to hear it.

I like this speech.

Simon Sinek is very good indeed.

“Best Speech of all Time” howled the strap-line. “Oh yeah?” I thought, “how many times have I seen that claim?”

With the thousands of speeches I’ve watched on line I couldn’t estimate how many were heralded by superlatives, but I could count on one hand how many lived up to them. The best speeches tend to speak for themselves rather than asking clickbait headlines to do it for them.

Then I saw that it was Simon Sinek. I’ve seen some very interesting things from Sinek, I’ve even given some trainees the link to his Golden Circles TED talk. Suddenly I was less cynical.

He’s speaking about leadership. I can remember only one previous speech on this blog, claiming specifically to train leaders. That speaker wouldn’t recognise leadership qualities if they stood up in her soup. I have better expectations this time.

Regular readers of this blog will immediately know my first impression.

Bald opening + shooting from the hip = proper speaker.

But there’s much more to support that. He is manifestly far more focussed on his message, his audience, and how the one is influencing the other, than he is on himself. That indicates the ideal speaker’s mindset, but there’s more still. His material is beautifully constructed for maximum digestibility. His mix of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know, hard data leavened by illustrative anecdotage and parallels, is really masterly. He’s a joy to watch.

My problem is that, with a blog to write and my rhetor instincts glowing from the quality I am witnessing, I have no time to reflect on his arguments, though what I have registered deserves reflection. I must remember to return to listen again at my leisure.

So is it the best speech of all time? No, of course not. The nature of this medium means that there can never be such a thing, but it is really very good indeed.