About Brian the Rhetaur

I help people become speakers.

Liam Halligan and releasing the handbrake.

On 28 March, a year and a day before the UK is due to leave the EU, The Bruges Group was addressed by John Redwood and Liam Halligan. The former has been on this blog fairly recently, speaking at another event: the latter we will hear today.

Liam Halligan is co-author, with Gerard Lyons, of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense – Building a Post-Brexit Economy for All. The foreword was written by Gisela Stuart who was featured on this blog just last week.

If you glance at a summary of his career you will be in no doubt as to how highly regarded Halligan is, not only as an economist but as a journalist, author and broadcaster. In other words, not only does he know his stuff but he can communicate it. Nevertheless, addressing a live audience is quite different from those other media. Let’s watch.

[A little warning: the fx mic recording the audience reaction is turned too high at the beginning. Therefore turn your volume down before you start the video, and then up again after the applause.]

I’m not a fan of lengthy preambles, favouring what I call the Bald Opening (among other things it’s counter-intuitively good for the control of nerves). Nevertheless here the first 90 seconds is the best part of the opening, because Halligan is not staring at bloody paper. He may be a communicator and he has obviously learnt how to manage a round of applause, but he hasn’t been properly taught how to speak in public if he has to use notes or a script.

That’s not just my beating an idealogical drum: look for yourself how the best, most fluent, most engaging and compelling bits are the parenthetic sections where he lifts his eyes to the audience and just talks. Yes I know he reads very expressively, and he gets some well-deserved laughs, but it would have been even better without the paper. Hampered by paper it’s as if he is driving a car with the handbrake on. If he reads this he won’t believe it – they never do till I prove it to them – but it’s true.

And this speech deserves to be driven without the handbrake on, because it is a good and valuable speech. It has strong well-argued messages, full of properly researched data, everything such a speech should have … except the handbrake is on.

At 17:35, “I want to talk a little bit about No Deal…” he stops reading for more than a minute and a half, and indeed for some periods for the rest of the speech. Even when his eyes go down to the lectern he’s not always reading. You can tell by the tone of his voice, by his using spoken, as distinct from written, English – it’s a subtly different language – that this is Halligan himself speaking, not regurgitating something he’d written earlier. And those periods are always better.

This speech is nearly eight months old and Halligan was saying that though No Deal was not to be feared, an FTA was preferable. I wonder if he’d still say so. For me that argument has receded. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-Finance Minister, has repeatedly warned that the EU is not to be negotiated with; and day by day he is proved right. It now seems to me that a deal – any deal – has now become suspect if it is negotiated before we have left the EU.

WTO may mean some short-term disruption, but it also means…

  • no £39bn
  • no 585 pages of legalese to be combed through for hidden traps (taking time that could be better spent, preparing for WTO)
  • no small print
  • no more pretending that the Northern Irish border is a problem
  • and we might speculate on how long it will then be before the EU comes hammering on our door for an FTA.

And also, open to the world, the UK can then release its own handbrake.

 

Steve Bannon speaks.

A few days ago, the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Steve Bannon.

How many times have you seen film footage of Adolph Hitler making a speech? Same question re: Joseph Stalin: same question re: Mao Zedong. I fancy the three answers are likely to be, “many times”, “never”, “never”. Hitler is widely held to be the world’s most evil person in the 20th Century, whereas the other two still have substantial followings in their own countries and elsewhere. Hitler was diabolical, but in terms of the deaths he caused he was a non-starter compared with the other two. That for me is one of the strongest arguments against the No-Platform movement, because if someone really is evil the world and posterity need to hear from his own lips how evil. If they are no-platformed, doubt will remain.

Am I, with that paragraph, comparing Steve Bannon to people whose respective body-counts are in the tens of millions? No, I’m explaining why we should be keen to watch this speech.

He starts with an account of how on 18 September, 2008, in the Oval Office, the heads of the US Treasury and Goldman Sachs told the President, George W. Bush, that only an injection of one trillion dollars would save the world from economic collapse. That is a high-impact opening.

[Let’s take a moment to look at one trillion as a number. If you’d been counting one trillion dollar bills non-stop at one dollar a second, and had just finished, you’d have needed to start around 30,000 BC.]

Bannon speaks for a smidgeon under half-an-hour and the rest is questions. There are so many questions that in conscientiously answering them he over-runs his time and we learn that he misses his flight.

The speech is so important, as are the answers to the questions, that my critiquing seems impertinent, so I’ll keep it very brief.

I am delighted and not surprised that he speaks entirely without notes. His structure could be a little tidier, both to avoid repetition, therefore saving time, and to make his message(s) even more digestible for his audience.

During questions he ducks nothing, even welcoming the most confrontational. The only time he criticises a questioner is to tell him to stop reading his question and “speak from the heart”. I raise a cheer at that.

I congratulate the Oxford Union for this talk, as I did when they hosted Tommy Robinson. Their audience, both in the hall and on the internet, is grown-up enough to evaluate people on their own account, rather than being forced to rely on second-hand views in the media.

 

Gisela Stuart in the lions’ den

On 12 September Gisela Stuart was in Ireland, addressing The Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA). Her talk was entitled Why the Brexit Referendum Result must be Honoured.

Though many of my political opinions are at odds with hers, Ms Stuart has long struck me as one of the more admirable of British politicians. (Though she is no longer a Member of Parliament she continues to be a politician, occupying the Chair of Change Britain.) I’d often seen her interviewed on television, but I had never heard her delivering a speech. I was eager to amend that, so was delighted when I found this.

The introduction is made by Daithi O’Ceallaigh, erstwhile Irish Ambassador to London. It’s less than a minute and a half long, says what it needs to say. and he very properly never once looks down at the papers in front of him. If you find that unsurprising in such a short section, you haven’t read many posts on this blog.

Whether or not you chose to learn about the IIEA by following the link on their name (above), the word “European” and the ring of stars on the wall behind the chairman’s table bear a strong clue to the europhile nature of this gathering. Therefore Ms Stuart’s opening, slightly jocular, remark about walking into the Lion’s Den is explained. This audience is probably adversarial, possibly hostile, but being Irish it will be courteous.

And it is apparently with that view in mind that Ms Stuart pitches the decorum of this speech. The tone is gentle, reasoned, considered, and epitomises what I call the ‘conversational sincerity’ style of speaking which, I’m glad to say, has replaced the fashion for formal oratory that used to prevail. Perhaps this is her customary style of speaking, I don’t know, but it is certainly right in this setting.

It’s a beautiful speech and describes more calmly and lucidly than anyone I’ve seen why we the people voted leave, why we the people are heartily sick of the dog’s dinner that is being made of the process, and why we the people don’t think much of our political representatives at the moment.

I commend it.

 

Andrew Klavan needs beaker

The Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley (who’da thought?) invited Andrew Klavan to speak at their annual Christmas / Hanukkah party last year.

Klavan is no stranger to either Christmas or Hanukkah, being Jewish by birth and upbringing, and having converted and been baptised a Christian in recent years. He described the pain and reward of that journey in his remarkable book The Great Good Thing, one of the few books for which I have ever bothered to write a review on Amazon.

Here however he is speaking not so much about religion but about being members of a minority group, conservatives in a leftist community. He’s an expert: he lives in Hollywood.

In his podcasts Klavan shows himself to be highly adept both on camera and microphone, and his skill with the written word is legendary, but none of that guarantees that he can handle a live audience. Let’s see …

He’s good, very good, but then I knew that. I’ve seen his ebullience and huge personality being poured into a camera lens in his video podcasts. His delivery to a live audience is very nearly as good. You’ll have spotted that I pulled up short of the absolute superlative, and I will return to that in due course.

He has paper on that lectern, but essentially it’s there as a backstop. He really refers to it only when he is quoting others, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as you need not only to get the quote right but be seen to be doing so. The rest of the time he doesn’t need to follow his script because he has structured his material in a way that he (and we) can follow and remember.

Note how he has divided his message into chapters. Note how he then subdivides his chapters into smaller sections. Yes, the mystery of the ‘magic’ of speaking without notes comes down to details as simple as those. As so much of his hi-tec communication performances these days will depend upon AutoCue, I am pleased to see that he knows and still follows the strictures of horse-drawn public speaking.

Nevertheless there are subtle, almost indefinable, differences between speaking to an audience you can see and one you can’t. I’m referring to timing. For eight years I had a weekly radio programme, and then when I was speaking to live audiences I became conscious that I was occasionally mistiming things slightly.

Mistiming is most apparent when you are playing for a laugh. You don’t need to be an expert to know when you got it wrong.  It’s when the market refuses to buy: the laugh doesn’t come. You get that information only with a live audience, but it can be a shock to the confidence because you begin to wonder whether you are getting it wrong also with the invisible audience on the radio whose response you can’t gauge.

For my part I find him flawlessly laugh-out-loud in his podcasts, though it took me a bit of time to tune in to his wavelength. On the other hand though he harvests some stunningly good laughs there are just a couple of moments here in this speech when the laugh gears don’t quite engage. He’s a pro so he covers it superbly; but if I were advising him I would urge him to speak to live audiences a little more regularly in order to keep the timing instincts exercised, not least because he obviously revels in his live audience. I think I would also suggest that he lean a teeny bit more towards throw-away, as opposed to overt, humour. (As I have said a few times on this blog, I get this picky only with the best; and when they are the best why the hell should they pay attention to me anyway?)

I would also get him to insist on a beaker for his water. That bloody bottle drove me insane!

 

Andrea Jenkyns should spurn “polish”

My eye was caught by a Tweet. Andrea Jenkyns MP was protesting that due to certain medical conditions (which are not for me to describe) she would never be a “polished public speaker”. My instant reaction was to wonder why she – or anybody – would want to be a “polished” public speaker. It is close to being an infallible guide that the more “polish” the less sincerity.

I decided to delve a little deeper into the story. It seems to stem from her appearance on last Thursday’s BBC broadcast of Question Time. I don’t follow that, because I tire of what appears to be the BBC’s promotion of their biased narrative through constructing unrepresentative panels to face equally unrepresentative audiences.

I went and found a recent speech by Andrea Jenkyns. She made this at the BrexitCentral Conference, a packed sideshow event, held on 30 September at the Conservative party Conference.

Having thanked Jonathan Isaby, who is chairing, she embarks upon some chitchat that clearly means something to her audience but doesn’t concern us. The trouble is that her extended preamble is untidy. If she mistakenly thinks she wants “polish”, she could do worse than clean up this sort of mess. I know she’s among friends who will share private jokes, but if I were advising her I’d keep the “Thank you Jonathan”, and then pause for a strong two or three seconds before cutting straight to “Remember that referendum day…” at 1:08.

My next piece of advice would be to take her script and consign it to the nearest bin.

I know she genuinely believes that it helps keep her on track, and far too many share that mistaken belief, but it is a cruel fallacy. Let me try to show you what I mean.

Every so often she leaves the script and speaks spontaneously with her audience. An example is at 1:51 beginning with “Too many of those …” and carrying through to 2:16. The tone of voice, rhythm of speech, body language, everything says that the real Andrea Jenkyns is now speaking with us. And then when she returns to her script most of that goes AWOL. Now she is merely regurgitating something she wrote earlier, and stumbling rather often in the process.

“Ums” and “ers” and – yes – stumbles are features of real day-to-day speaking, and audiences instinctively know this, bestow an intangible licence, and forgive them (or actually seldom notice). Stumbles when you are reading somehow don’t carry this benefit: they seem lame and amateurish. Jenkyns reads well, with masses of expression, but that expression is infinitely stronger when she is speaking spontaneously. And that’s actually true of everyone.

But what of that necessity to stay on track? No problem. It simply comes down to structure. If you know how to prepare your material properly you can present yourself with a mind-map, a route as clear and as easy to follow as driving up a motorway.

That is all Jenkyns needs to learn. Everything else will be automatically looked after by the conviction and passion that got her into parliament in the first place, and the political experience that she has accumulated since.

If she reads this she probably won’t believe it, but it’s true.

 

Jonathan Brown resets the bar

The International Institute of Islamic Thought hosted a talk by Dr Jonathan Brown. It was entitled Islam and the Problem of Slavery.

That’s an interesting title. For whom does he reckon there’s a problem? The slaves or the political apologists for Islam? Shall we find out?

With the list of speeches I have critiqued on this blog nudging close to 400, I am very often asked who I rank as the best speaker. I am rather less often asked for the worst. We have today a very strong contender for the latter title.

Here’s a handy piece of advice for speakers. If you are sufficiently interesting, amusing, or dynamic the audience will forgive you a wide range of shortcomings. You can mess up the order of your slides, you can have an “irritatingly” “repetitive” “mannerism” (for instance – I’m just picking “something” at random – you might “wave” your “fingers” in the air every “few” seconds to indicate inverted commas), you can lose your place in your script too often even though your face is buried in it all the time, you can take an age to connect the projector to show a completely dispensable piece of film footage and then take an eon afterwards to reconnect to your slides, though the audience is likely to be less forgiving if you mumble so much that they can’t hear you properly.

You can also discern if you are not being sufficiently interesting because the air will be filled with the sounds of mobile telephones being used.

The stupid thing is how easily it can be fixed.

The speech is nearly fifty minutes long, and I defy anyone who isn’t conscientiously determined to see it through for the purposes of covering it on a blog to make it to the end of the first ten dreary minutes – or even five? This is tedium honed to its ultimate.

What’s the answer to that question in my second paragraph? I’ve no idea. He seemed to be trying to wrestle with the precise definition of slavery (sorry, “slavery”) citing examples of it throughout history in order to convey that it really needn’t be so bad. So that’s all right then.

I don’t think he ever actually addressed what was specified in the title of the talk, though I might have dozed off.

He tells us there are two more such papers for him to deliver. If it’s all the same to you I’ll pass.

 

Richard Dreyfuss and Civics

It’s just talking!  My public speaking trainees probably get sick of my saying that, but it’s true. Yes, there are things to learn in terms of optimising your material for impact, digestibility, and memorability. There are devices for coping with nerves, for grabbing and holding the audience’s attention, and so on. But strip away all the mystique, and it’s just talking.

Therefore when an interviewee on a TV programme holds forth for a couple of minutes on an important subject I regard it as public speaking as much as if he were on a platform in an auditorium. It is also just talking.

In April 2017, Tucker Carlson had actor Richard Dreyfuss on his programme for an interview, and quite evidently expected it to be adversarial (in fact he admitted it shortly before the end). In the event, though, Dreyfuss launched into an expression of such good sense that Carlson just let him roll uninterrupted.

The video starts with a very short clip from an apparently incendiary interview with someone else a couple of days earlier, and then we learn how Dreyfuss now comes to be down the line from a studio in California.

Carlson begins fairly defiantly, and Dreyfuss replies in a sober manner that momentarily wrong foots him. There follows a little perfunctory skirmishing, during which Dreyfuss briefly disarms Carlson a couple of times; and then around 3:55 Carlson’s trademark worried frown (which tends to be his launchpad for counter-attack) begins subtly changing to one of approval and full-blown receive-mode as Dreyfuss begins lamenting the loss of the teaching of Civics in the US public education system.

The interview concludes with some metaphorical mutual back-slapping, with Carlson expressing the hope that Dreyfuss will come back on the programme another time. But Dreyfuss has more to add.

He invites viewers to go on his website to sign the Preamble to the US Constitution. It begins –

We the People…

Those words!

It’s uncanny how I, on this blog, keep coming back to Brexit.