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.

US Defense Secretary cheats brilliantly

Usually when I’ve been working with someone on their public speaking there’s a sentence I trot out at or near the end of the session. “It’s just xxxxxx talking.” [Insert your own adjective.] The sentiment behind what I’m saying is that we can wrestle with analyses and techniques till hell freezes over but in the end you are doing nothing more sophisticated than talking. Get a handle on that point, dismiss the mystique, and your mindset is going to be in a good place.

So when a couple of days ago I happened upon this tiny clip of film of the United States Secretary of Defense, recorded apparently by a phone while delivering an impromptu speech, I was delighted.

The best advice that I ever give concerning the art of impromptu speaking is, CHEAT. Always have something up your sleeve. Let’s see what James Mattis has up his sleeve.

There’s no grand opening, just a jocular exchange of banter concerning how they’ve ambushed him. We need to bear in mind the extraordinary bond that prevails between comrades in arms; and Mattis was a Marine Corps General.

Opening banter over, Mattis just xxxxxx talks. Look at his body language: hands in pockets, casual stance, head swinging backwards and forwards so that everyone sees his face (and we periodically almost lose his voice). He’s just xxxxxx talking. No ceremony.

My book on business speaking has a strange title, at least it’s strange to anyone who hasn’t worked with me on their speaking. It contains the word Face, which is the name I give to that phrase or sentence that you give your speech to identify it and make it memorable. There are no prizes on offer for spotting the Face of this tiny little casual talk.

We got two powers; the power of inspiration, and the power of intimidation.

I would take a lot of persuading that he hasn’t said that before. It doesn’t matter: it’s damn good and it instantly identifies this little talk for ever. He’s simultaneously obeyed two prime pieces of speaking advice: give your speech a Face, and in case you suddenly have to deliver something impromptu always have some gold up your sleeve.

And his peroration? “Listen to your NCOs, now. So long.”

Less than three minutes and a brilliant piece of speaking. He needs saluting.

Trey Gowdy is a speaking phenomenon.

Although English, I idly follow some of the political circus in the USA – not least in order to see what interesting speeches have been delivered. Thus I found myself one day a couple of weeks ago with the name, Trey Gowdy, coming at me from more than one direction. One minute he was tipped to succeed James Comey as Director of the FBI, the next he was going to succeed Jason Chaffetz as Chairman of The United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As I write both possibilities seem to remain open, neither yet being dismissed or confirmed.

[Subsequently, on 9 June, it was announced that Gowdy was to be the new Chairman of The United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform]

I wondered whether there might perchance be a speech on line whereby I could learn more about him and how he performs.

How do you spell a hollow laugh? I instantly found myself swamped by Gowdy speeches, and every one a blinder. With respect to public speaking the man is a phenomenon. For the purposes of this posting I chose one wherein he is delivering a Convocation Speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Speaking at gatherings like this is notoriously difficult. You have not only the students, but also parents, teachers, and probably press. The audience is so varied that you have to decide where specifically you want to aim. When I receive cries for help on this I always reply that you should pitch at the section of the audience that you think has the shortest attention span.

Gowdy is aiming at the students and, if you want to know whether he has their attention, just focus on their silence. He engineers that by deploying arguments that are structured to be crystal clear, by using strong dramatic pauses which invite the audience to ponder on what he has just said, by periodically taking the volume of his voice down till they almost have to strain to hear. This is a beautifully skilled piece of speaking.

Were that all it was, it would fail to get that silence. What underpins the whole thing more than all those techniques is his transparent and passionate sincerity. I tell my trainees that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique, but the dream ticket is to have both. Gowdy has both.

One of the most important things I do for trainees is help them to play to their strength. First I need to identifying their strength. In the case of Gowdy it’s easy. When he tells stories the standard of the speech lifts from very high to even higher. Here his account of the plane crash in the Potomac River is the electrifying highlight. His lesson on persuasion is relatively clunky. The same goes for other speeches I’ve seen of his. He is an outstanding raconteur, and he has an excellent instinct for choosing the right story.

Regular readers of this blog will know that the better the speaker the pickier I get. I look at ‘clunky’ in that previous paragraph, and realise that Gowdy’s clunky is anyone else’s triumph.

Speaking of techniques, do you want to know how to emphasise a word subliminally? – causing the audience to absorb the emphasis without being conscious that you were emphasising? You simply pronounce all its syllables. Many words that we speak have syllables that we habitually swallow. ‘Habitually’ has 5 syllables, but we pronounce 3-and-a-bit. If you pronounce all five, you subliminally emphasise the word. Don’t make a song-and-dance of it, or it won’t be subliminal, just pronounce them. ‘Every’ is usually spoken with two syllables, though it has three. Now listen to Gowdy at 3:07 and again at 3:19 where he subliminally emphasises the word ‘every’ by pronouncing all three syllables. If you think that he always pronounces ‘every’ with three syllables, then listen at 13:33 when he doesn’t and keep listening through 13:45 when he does. He may consciously know the trick or it may be instinctive: I don’t know.

This is a wonderful speech. I wish it hadn’t been edited and pulled about by whoever posted it, but never mind: it’s wonderful.

So is this one, overflowing with passion.

So is this one, overflowing with prescience.

I could go on and on, adding to that list, but I don’t need to. Those links will take you to YouTube, and each one will have many other Gowdy speeches.  You may use up many hours, watching. I did, and regret none of them.