Hans Rosling – amazing!

Many of my trainees at first assume that I disapprove of visuals, because I don’t appear to use them. It’s true that there are almost never any slides in my lectures, but I have a couple of visual props that I use. Essentially my rule is that a visual should be used only if omitting it would significantly impoverish the promotion of your message. Never allow yourself to be voice-over for a string of pictures, competing with you for the audience’s attention.

The finest user of visuals that I have encountered – one of my heroes – was the late Hans Rosling. He has been on this blog twice – here and here – but not since his sad death in 2017. I chanced upon today’s offering and decided to feature it, because one of his most endearing characteristics was his cheerfulness, and we seem to need cheerfulness at the moment. My own expectation of cheerfulness is slightly dented by the realisation that Rosling outlived this performance by barely two years, notwithstanding the comment we will hear him make at 25:33.

I believe he had a superb team of techies, preparing his slides, because they always illustrated his point in a revolutionary fashion and always animated. But I have never before seen, from him or anyone else, what we see here. At 2:26 he builds a graph in the air between him and his audience. What is it: a hologram? I don’t know, but it’s brilliant.

Then suddenly we are watching some video footage, but what does the audience in the hall see? The same video on a screen there, probably, but where is Rosling while the video is playing? I don’t know, but being obsessed with a speaker’s relationship with his audience I’d like to.

Here’s my point. Many speeches are delivered to live audiences and incidentally videos are made of them. Other speeches are made specifically for the video market and an incidental audience is invited to the filming, not least to supply audience reaction. Either way it’s a bit of a compromise, because there are subtle differences in how you present to each medium. But not here. Rosling appears effortlessly to be straddling the two. My word, but he was good!

So concerned have I been with the technicalities, that I haven’t mentioned the message. If you are familiar with his work it will not surprise you to be told that he is exploding the widely held fallacies about the world and the way it is going. Materially the world – all of it! – is going not to the dogs but getting better. Nearly all metrics indicate that global life is getting better – and he illustrates the data in a hugely entertaining fashion. Watch that speech, and it’ll be one of the shortest hours you ever knew.

Yes, there are still some – a rapidly decreasing number, but some – for whom life remains a hard struggle. We see them on video, tackling their struggle with good humour, and my mind flies off to other recent video footage of spoilt kids in rich countries, rioting and burning and looting because of some imagined victimhood.

He addresses climate change – lukewarmly, but he addresses it. I reckon he has to for a lot of understandable political and financial reasons, but I’d like specifically to address a few seconds of video footage of a chimney starting at 52:20. Try going there and pausing the video.

What do you see? A factory chimney belching out filthy, sooty smoke? No. That can’t be smoke. Smoke doesn’t create itself out of nothing after an appreciable gap of a few feet above the chimney. That gap is the giveaway. What we’re seeing is steam – a colourless gas which you can’t see – coming out and cooling to vapour – which you can see. Look closely at the spout of a boiling kettle and you’ll see the same thing. Yes, the vapour from the kettle is a very different colour, but this bit of video has had a colour filter applied. It’s phoney. I’ve seen countless examples of this cheat, so I spotted it immediately.

True, there are factory chimneys with real smoke coming out of them but smoke doesn’t look dramatic enough so they cook up this piece of phoney film. I’ll say no more on that, except I’d like to think that Rosling didn’t make it but used a piece of library film that others supplied.

It’s an amazing lecture, though, and I’m so glad I found it.

Peter Shore is passionate

Some speeches featured on this blog are within days of delivery, some a few years old. Today’s is possibly the oldest, yet still as topical and relevant as can be.

This week forty-five years ago in 1975 was notable for both the momentous and the trivial. You may ponder on which was which. Snow on the Monday (yes, in June) caused the abandoning of first class cricket matches, and the UK rang to the strains of Don Estelle and Windsor Davies performing Whispering Grass. The Thursday of that week saw the UK going to the polls in a referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Economic Community, now called the European Union.

On Tuesday June 3rd, 1975, Labour Member of Parliament, the late Peter Shore, delivered a speech in The Oxford Union in a debate ahead of that referendum.

Wearing my rhetor hat I struggle with the sense that any negative observation would be impertinent. This is really an outstanding piece of passionate oratory, but …

It is also one of the clearest examples I have heard of a particular diction flaw. I refer to disproportionate syllable stress. In raising his voice to be heard throughout the hall, he heavily emphasises those syllables that should be stressed. So far so good: Peter Shore speaks with beautiful clarity, but he sometimes neglects the non-stress syllables to the point of virtual inaudibility.

Curiously it is a flaw to be most commonly found in speakers who are especially conscientious about their speaking. (One of the finest speakers around today, Daniel Hannan, commits this, and I have said so in this blog a couple of times. Ditto Barack Obama.) Also if you point out the sin to the sinners they deny it so vehemently that without a recording it is desperately difficult to persuade them of it. I understand their incredulity. Some years before this speech I was receiving training from a genius called Kate Fleming, and when she accused me of this I ferociously denied it till circumstances forced my hand. (There’s an account of that in my booklet, Every Word Heard.)

This speech is fantastic, and is made even more entertaining through the cutaway shots of – e.g. Jeremy Thorpe and Edward Heath. We first see the latter smiling smugly, and later again when the smile has gloriously frozen after Shore’s treatment. Is that Barbara Castle sitting in the background? Anyway I commend it to you.

Yes, that was an interesting week. The snow on the Monday cleared quickly, and by the weekend there had started a heatwave and accompanying drought. The drought continued, on and off – chiefly on – till the August Bank Holiday more than a year later.

The effects of that referendum are only just finishing now (Deus Volent).

Trey Gowdy: editor’s nightmare

Universal lockdown may be easing, but there’s still a dearth of new speeches being delivered. Never mind: I am enjoying exercising archeology and unearthing some interesting samples to examine.

Trey Gowdy is no stranger to this blog, having previously been featured twice – here and here. Though he has retired from US Congress he still appears on television, consulted on the ramifications of political news. Most recently this seems to concern stories surrounding “Obamagate” which is about the only topic that can elbow Covid to one side on American news broadcasts at the moment. The story seems destined to run and run.

I found two brilliant examples from a large supply of speeches Gowdy made in the House of Representatives, and after agonising over them I made my choice. They say very much the same thing, even though – if the backdrop is to be believed – they were delivered on different occasions. This makes me wonder whether the behaviour being described was a habit of that POTUS of the time. The other speech was even more dramatic, generated a standing ovation in the House, and is certainly worth watching. But the one below has one particular feature of interest for students of public speaking. (Incidentally, Gowdy does not say what the video title below suggests.)

In these times of political hyper-partisanship everyone who puts his head above the parapet will be attacked. One attack method involves being misquoted. Even when your words are recorded on video you can still be misquoted by being edited. In the past few days there was an example of an American news anchorman accusing the US Attorney General of not saying something he should have said, when the footage of him actually saying it had been removed from the report. It was clumsy and quickly exposed, but it demonstrates the danger.

Cutting out a portion of a recording is the quickest and easiest way of bending, altering, or even reversing the meaning of what was actually said. But there are evasive precautions that a speaker can adopt to make that more difficult to achieve; and, whether by accident or design, Gowdy habitually uses one of the easiest.

Once the editor has decided what he wants to remove, his principal difficulty is in finding suitable edit points at which he can cut out and then back in again without it being noticeable. (In passing, there are electronic devices that will spot editing, however well disguised, but here we are concerned just with what humans can hear.) By far the easiest edit points are in the tiny pauses between sentences, and removing whole sentences is the easiest way to adjust meaning without appearing to impede the speech flow. Those tiny inter-sentence pauses are therefore going to be the editor’s prime targets.

All the speaker has to do is not pause between sentences. If during a sensitive part of a speech you stick your pauses in shortly before the last couple of words of sentences, and then run straight through into the beginning of the next, you are giving a potential editor a hell of a headache.

If you listen carefully you will find Gowdy doing exactly that.

Listening carefully is worth it anyway, because this is one hell of a good speech.

Eva Schloss and Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born 12 June, 1929, so today is her 90th birthday.

Eva Schloss was a friend of Anne Frank and her family, something that emerged during a talk she gave at the Oxford Union in August 2018.

In her opening remarks she tells us how she has read lists of distinguished people who have spoken in this hall, and how privileged she feels to be added to them. A cynic might put this down to simpering artificial modesty, till she unknowingly has what I call a Neil Armstrong Moment. She talks about Hitler having managed to influence “a cultured people like America”. We know what she means, as does the audience being far too well-mannered to react, so she continues not knowing what she said. I am meanwhile noting her significant stress.

The stronger the story, the less need there is to ‘sell’ it. In this case ‘selling’ it would detract. We can imagine all sorts of ways Schloss could enhance her narration, but the story neither needs nor wants it. Speaking in almost a monotone to pin-drop silence she tells us how a man succeeded in seducing much of the world’s establishment in his attempt to subjugate Europe under centralised control, and started a Word War in the process.

She speaks of the spread of antisemitism, culminating in the robbing of the Jewish race of everything from its property to very nearly its existence. Indeed all but its dignity which they refused to make available to be stolen.

Many of us, particularly we older ones, have heard much of this many times before; but still it catches the breath with horror.

Fleeing Vienna, where she was born, her family reached Amsterdam. She was eleven years old and was befriended by another little girl called Anne Frank, whose family were destined to influence her later life.

I could tell you more, but she tells it better. So I urge you to sit through the ghastly but strangely uplifting story, including her somehow surviving Auschwitz.

Lest we forget.

Evan Sayet champions the good, the right, and the successful.

When Evan Sayet was the introducer in a recent posting examining a speech by Geert Wilders, I observed that it had been a couple of years since a speech of Sayet’s had been on this blog and perhaps it was time for another. Now is that time.

Here he is at The Heritage Foundation, in 2013, talking about his book KinderGarden of Eden.

He is introduced by someone called John whose surname I have been unable to find. The introduction, including all the customary housekeeping details like urging the audience to switch off their cellphones, takes a smidgeon less than three and a half minutes. For my purposes the most interesting snippet is the very first sentence which reveals that Evan Sayet writes his own introduction. That is what I urge my trainees to do.

The speech is about ten minutes long and, at 13:10 he throws it out to questions.

At the very end of his video, after the last of the questions, Sayet boasts that there was no TelePrompter. I am surprised – not that he shoots from the hip, which is what all proper speakers do – but because when he first starts speaking, after fielding a quick question from the floor, his eyes fix upon a spot just below the camera.

Eyes intent upon transmitting look slightly different from eyes intent upon receiving, and my impression in those first few seconds was that they were the latter. I assumed that this prompting was to carry him past The Hump (yes, even speakers as experienced and adept as this have a Hump). I felt I was right when, around a minute later, he got on a roll, his eyes stopped staring at that spot, and never returned. There was never another moment in this speech when he looked to me to be prompted.

He speaks very well, which is hardly surprising when you consider how much he speaks. In fact his voice is here suffering from over-use, and he could use some help in this respect. For my ear, coming from the other side of the Atlantic, the speed with which he speaks causes some loss of comprehension here and there, but this could be a cunning device to persuade me to buy the book. (It worked.)

I am not too transatlantic to pick up, at 12:12, the significance of the words, “You didn’t build that.” It is a notorious Obama quote.

But another transatlantic difficulty I do have is in following his sports analogies. He’s an American addressing other Americans, while I am a foreign eavesdropper, so it’s hardly his fault. But it does highlight something about parallels like this. Sports analogies are brilliantly effective so long as your audience knows what the hell you’re talking about.

The speech, and therefore presumably the book that I look forward to receiving, concerns how and why today’s media promotes messages that are not just untrue, but the precise opposite of the truth. The reasoning is very interesting, and I look forward to absorbing it at my own pace. It’s important because, as he says …

Journalism is the first draft of history.

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.

Autodidacticism

New Year (if I might be allowed to indulge in a cliché) is a time for reflection.

Here comes a reflective question. What really is the nature of this terror-inducing beastie, Public Speaking?

Here comes the answer. Stripped of all the mystique that gets in our way, it is just talking. That’s all.

I know it’s not quite the same as the other talking we spend our lives doing, because other details crash this party. For instance, you are standing while everyone else is sitting. You are facing in the opposite direction to everyone else who all just happen to be looking at you. You are the only one speaking – ah yes, there’s the respect that makes calamity…

Usual talking involves other people speaking also. Dialogue (another word for conversation which is what we’re used to) is a process whereby people feed each other with thoughts, ideas, questions to be answered, and so on – two-way traffic. This is monologue – one way traffic – ay, there’s the rub. You have to do all the talking for a period of time that doesn’t include prompting from anyone else.

So the first thing you need to learn is how to prepare your monologue so that –

  • you can deliver it like a proper speaker, in other words without script or notes,
  • you answer many of the questions they would have asked,
  • the audience can easily follow, understand, and remember what is said, and
  • both you and the audience can get full benefit from it.

That can be quickly and easily taught and learnt. The second thing is how to deliver it – a different matter altogether. 

Rubbish speakers speak at their audience; mediocre speakers speak to them; proper speakers speak with them. Speech delivery comes down to how well you can develop your relationship with your audience.

Your relationship: your audience. No one else’s; this is entirely your province. And the most persuasive, engaging, compelling you can be is you. The real you.

Oscar Wilde said, 

Be yourself; everyone else is taken. 

He was right. He also said, 

To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up. 

In that he was wrong. In his modishly brittle cynicism he was suggesting that you could be ‘natural’ only by posing; and that’s nonsense. Being natural is not so much difficult as scary, because certain guards need to be lowered. I’m not saying that you need to be bosom-buddies with everyone in the room, but each member of that audience should sense a connection of some sort. Built properly, an audience relationship can get quite personal.

So personal that learning how to build it should likewise be your province: no one else can reach inside you as well as you can. And that’s why I do not teach people their delivery. I enable them to teach themselves.

Steve Milloy is better than a voice-over

At the Heartland Institute‘s 12th International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC) on March 24, 2017, Steve Milloy presented a speech entitled “Resetting Climate Policy”.

I was interested to watch, because I have had a book of his (it’s an exposé of the EPA) on my wish list for longer than I care to admit, and have been following Milloy on Twitter in the mean time.

Speeches from Heartland’s various ICCCs have appeared in this blog for many years, during which time I have watched the production values on their videos go from ‘clunky’ to ‘seriously neat’. You have only to look at that ‘still’ on the video above to see how we get a simultaneous view of the speaker and his visual slide that is nearly as good as that of the live audience. I congratulate them.

I say “nearly” as good because in that window the slide occupies more space than the speaker.  You could argue that it needs to in order that all those words should be legible, and at that point I begin to quarrel with the speaker.

A convention has built over the years that seems to decree that it isn’t a serious presentation unless it is accompanied by slides smothered in verbiage. I fight with that every working day, because it means that the slides are in competition with the speaker for the audience’s attention and the speaker can become a voice-over for a slide-show.

At corporate presentations the speaker is very often presenting a report whose hard-copy contains a fat deck of slides, but that doesn’t mean the speaker has to use all (or any) of them in the presentation. The presentation should not attempt to précis the report but to trail it. The object is to persuade the audience to read the damn thing, and if your précis is too good they won’t.

Does Milloy’s audience at this presentation get a hard-copy of his slide deck? If so I would try to persuade him to leave at least most of the slides out of the presentation.

In Heartland’s defence I bet that most of their ICCC speakers’ slides are graphs, and graphs are when slides become invaluable and detail on them likewise, so I will forgive their dedicating most of the video space to slides.

But what of Milloy’s actual speech? It is very good. It is specifically aimed at his live audience which is knowledgeable on the subject matter, so he doesn’t faff around with unnecessary explanations – e.g. who Tony Heller is (I won’t either); and therefore he gets a whole lot more into the available time. This might leave some video viewers, who are eavesdroppers after all, scratching their heads but perhaps eager to become more knowledgeable.

Speaking of which I really must get on and read his book, Scare Pollution.

 

Barack Obama: dreadful DSS

It was an early morning of November, 1967, and I as an understudy was being frantically rehearsed to step up and take over a role in a very important theatre company at that day’s matinée. I was being rehearsed now by the company’s legendary voice-coach. I had already had some lessons with her but, at the age of twenty, I of course knew everything and had always argued that I wasn’t doing what she accused me of. Now, only hours from execution (so to speak), I changed my plea and asked for guidance.

My diction crime was Disproportionate Syllable Stress (DSS). It is particularly widespread among people who are trying to speak expressively. Today it is a bugbear of mine, and one of the worst offenders is today’s subject.

Barack Obama delivered this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Words in English, like in most western languages, have syllable stress. For example, the word itself – “syllable” – has three syllables, of which we stress the first. The other two are subordinated, but we still pronounce them and people still hear them.

Then up on a platform to make a speech, we raise our voices and in the process we hammer those stressed syllables. We should also hammer the subordinate ones, though proportionately less heavily, so that the audience hears the whole of every word.

DSS is when we don’t do all that.  The stressed syllables are hammered and the subordinate ones are left to look after themselves, so in that example what is heard is “syll – -“. Now let’s turn to Obama’s speech, and we don’t have to wait long for examples.

At 01:31 he says “It is a singular honour…” and our brains automatically fill in the gap and we think we hear all that, but what we actually hear is, “It is a singular hon-“

  • 01:56 “…and a few confess-“
  • 02:06 “I am a very good danc-“

This is just during the jokey opening. Once he gets to the meat of the speech more examples come thick and fast.

Because our brains are so adept at grasping the sense of a sentence and filling in the gaps for us we don’t notice – unless we happen to be a sad idiot like me who winces at each example. So you may think it doesn’t matter. But it is fundamentally bad practice, because the sense is not always obvious.

In a play I directed some years ago, a character had the following line, “Are you dissatisfied with my work?” to which the other character in the scene had to reply, “No.” I could not get the first character to pronounce audibly the first syllable of “dissatisfied”. It is a subordinate syllable and she persistently swallowed it. I eventually gave up, changed her word to “satisfied” and the other character’s reply to “Yes”.

All syllables matter, and Obama swallows far too many – usually the ends of words. To me it marks him out as a rank amateur. You’d have thought someone would have told him. Perhaps someone did and he didn’t believe it – any more than I did of myself all those years ago.

My excuse was the arrogance of  youth. What’s his?

Ann McElhinney made me weep.

Texas Alliance for Life hosted, in Austin on 5 October, 2017, a talk from Ann McElhinney. If you click the link on her name you will reach a page devoted to both her and Phelim McAleer, her husband. The pair are a formidable and fearless team dedicated to investigative journalism and the search for truth behind news stories, and it was a close race as to which of them would be examined in this posting. Phelim will undoubtedly feature before very long.

She is speaking both on the book they wrote about Kermit Gosnell and also their film on the same subject.

There’s something about the Irish accent! Perhaps it’s just memories of happy times I have spent there, but for me the sound is immediately friendly. Phelim, her husband, has Northern Irish vowels but she is clearly from the Republic, west coast I reckon.

Her start is likewise audience-friendly. This sort of apparently scatty sorting-out of technical bits and pieces is a great way of fighting nerves. I tell trainees that relaxing your audience is a very effective way of relaxing yourself. She has an important opening question for her audience, but she camouflages its weight behind the performance of technical faffing around. Scatty she ain’t! This is one smart woman. Friendly she may be, but only if you are on the side of the angels.

Silence from the audience in response to a brief and unexplained section beginning at 04:10 referring to Representative Murphy shows that this Texas audience doesn’t know the story. If you want enlightenment you could start by looking here.

This is my type of speaker! She has notes to which she refers for slides and things, but essentially her speaking is all shooting from the hip. Even more important than that is that I detect no vestige of speech mode. What you see is what you get, and what you get is the genuine person. She lets all her idiosyncrasies hang out, because she couldn’t care less about herself: all that matters is her message and whether her audience is getting it. That is the ideal speaker’s mindset, and it is what makes her so powerful. Could she tidy up the structure? Perhaps a tiny bit, but the narrative thread is so strong that we are swept over all the bumps in the road.

And the road certainly is bumpy! This is not a pretty story, but by heaven it’s an important one. On this blog over the years, in 360+ postings, I have covered some very valuable speeches. I rate this in the top three, maybe higher. People absolutely need to learn what she has to tell.

Watch this speech, and at the end you may find yourself like me in a puddle of tears.