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.

Mario Draghi: from bees to boredom

In the summer of 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games. Almost simultaneously Britain launched – in London – The British Business Embassy. It would be a mark of extreme cynicism to suggest that one was riding on the back of the other.

On 26 July, 2012, at a Global Investment Conference hosted by The British Business Embassy, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, delivered a speech.

Draghi opens with a nice little metaphor about bumblebees; or rather he doesn’t, but he should. Uttering a few obligatory words of thanks to his hosts and introducer is one thing, but – like too many – he fannies around with dross before reaching his opening, the bumblebee metaphor.

It’s a good opening: he compares the Euro to a bumblebee that urban legend decrees should not be able to fly. Come the financial crisis of 2008, the bumblebee was in danger of falling to earth, so now “the bumblebee will have to graduate into a real bee”. Were I an apiarist I might bridle at the suggestion that a bumblebee is not a real bee; but I’m not, I’m a rhetor who hopes that he will run with this metaphor for longer.

He does revisit it a minute or so later, but sadly just the once. It’s a pity because it could have given this speech some much needed coherence, not to mention lift. It almost immediately fell into a mire.

Perhaps he abandoned it because he wanted to devote his eleven minutes to an orgy of self-congratulation, and the spectacle of a currency limping from crisis to crisis doesn’t lend itself too comfortably to the image of a creature buzzing around in the sunshine sipping nectar.

While he trumpeted the euro’s imagined triumphs I could think only of the economic human disaster that is Greece, the hugely expensive silken strips of empty highway that bypass impoverished villages in Spain or Sicily, all the various pieces of pointless white elephant expenditures that are the price that ordinary people pay for his being able to pat his own back and those of his co-conspirators.

Had the speech been more coherent he might just have obscured some of that. In the event he left me conscious that his is becoming merely the latest in a long line of failed attempts at taking self-determination out of the competent hands of the people and trying to centralise it in the hands of those who think they know better. Will they never learn?

Jon Smith sits and talks with …

The Oxford Union, on 14 October, hosted a talk followed by Q&A from Jon Smith, football super-agent.

What I know about football (soccer) could be written in several languages on the back of a postage stamp, but my interest was quickened because the mainstream media suggest that football agents are shadowy lowlife, barely legal beings – bottom-feeders; and given that the mainstream media are almost unfailingly wrong about everything I wanted to learn more. I was also curious as to how and why the Oxford Union had gone out of its way to seek a talk from him. This last was quickly answered by the revelation that he had recently published a book of memoirs. When I had a radio programme, I remember book promotion campaigns as one of the best seams to mine for good interviews.

He is seated.

My mind rockets back more than half a century to schooldays and a class speaking competition. The teacher had surrendered his desk at the front of the classroom,  and we were all invited to use it. All the others enthroned themselves in his seat of power. I, choosing to stand, won. Although the teacher did mention that by standing I showed more authority than the others, I have always liked to believe that there was more than that to my victory.

In The Face & Tripod, I have a chapter entitled The Communication Paradox. This paradox is essentially in how unexpectedly often it is that otherwise good communicators have difficulty with public speaking. I discuss reasons and remedies. In particular I home in on the preposition ‘with’, and commend the mindset of speaking with your audience as distinct from to. Jon Smith is definitely speaking with his audience, and I have a suspicion that by sitting he is helping that.

I feel slightly chastened. When I began teaching and coaching public speaking, nearly thirty years ago, I was a bit of a maverick inasmuch as I sensed (correctly it turned out) that the fashion for formal oratory was on the wain. I was one of the earliest advocates of the conversational-sincerity school of speaking, but I have always stopped short of recommending being seated. Jon Smith is making me rethink. He is showing me that there are circumstances when it obviously works.

He is instantly likeable, sincere, articulate, coherent, everything I would wish him to be. From the moment he starts I want to learn more. That is the equivalent of the author forcing you to turn pages. My notepad is discarded: I am too interested in what he has to say to give a damn about how he says it. And remember: I know nothing about football.

This talk is brilliant. The book is called The Deal: Inside the World of a Super-Agent. I can’t wait to read it.

And the Q&A is fascinating too. I suspect you would never guess his answer to the question, “Who is the most powerful man in football?”

Anika Penn nails it!

Since I began this blog in November 2012 it has presented me with rewards that went way beyond the obvious. It spurred me into exploring ways technology could enable me to work with people at a distance, and as a result my experience has been enriched by good friends in other parts of the world. One of the principal agents in this is Duncan Goldie-Scot, a tireless entrepreneur who is helping to open up the developing world by founding, backing, nurturing and incubating micro-businesses . And micro-businesses don’t stay micro.

In February of this year Duncan emailed me an introduction to Anika Penn, a bright young New Yorker with a new company that he was backing. She was going to need to pitch to investors, and could use my help.

Anika and I had three one-hour Skype sessions over the next couple of weeks, after which there was a pause while she travelled to Kenya where her business was being piloted. I expected us to speak again on her return, putting finishing touches to her pitch with anecdotal material from her Kenya trip. I reckoned without Anika’s flair and determination. From Kenya I received an email with a link to this.

I was bowled over, as was Duncan who had also received that email. She told us only that she had filmed it on the roof of a community centre in Kibera.

I habitually give to people, planning to do something on camera, a strange piece of maverick, counter-intuitive advice. Don’t be too comfortable. An element of peripheral stress can distract your mind into forgetting to introduce some of those inhibitions that get in your way. I hadn’t told this to Anika because it hadn’t come up: I thought we were preparing a pitch to a live audience. Anika had just decided to run with the ball her own way; and it looked to me as if the blustering wind had provided some of that peripheral stress. I didn’t know the half of it.

When she was back in New York we arranged another Skype chat. I was eager to find out all about this.

As I said earlier, this job has its rewards.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is not worrying

Every so often, finding myself in need of reflection and spiritual refreshment of a different kind, I like to examine talks concerning Eastern Wisdom. So it was that I found myself watching Sri Sri Ravi Shankar talking about Karma. This is not his first visit to these pages.

I thought Karma was simply a spiritual judgmental philosophy: behave yourself or else! How wrong I apparently was.

Mr rhetor hat is never far away. My passion for my work is such that though intending merely to soak up what he is saying I can’t help but register how he is saying it. Look at the way he lays out his stall so clearly in the first minute and a half. And look at how it leads like silk into the next section where he makes the distinction between good Karma and bad Karma, how the one can be used to drive out the other, but how even the good Karma must then be rinsed away.

“Rinsed.”  I had to use that verb – he made me. He weaves a vey clever parallel, beginning at 5:55, to explain why even good Karma must be evicted from your mind for you to be completely at rest.

His pace seems almost glacially slow, made slower by huge pauses, yet he explains more in twenty quiet minutes than I have often seen imparted in twice as many frenetic ones.

I love his final message. Having led us through a labyrinth of what Karma is, is not, and how best to cope with it, he finishes by saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

It is a little like my training. I very often say to my trainees that when you boil it all down this is just talking. And so it is. Don’t worry about it.

Thomas Picketty didn’t play the piano

Early in 2014 French economist Thomas Picketty published a book on economics, entitled CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a sensation. It rocketed to the higher reaches of the Best-Seller lists and stayed there a long time, assembling all sorts of awards. I have to confess to not having a copy of my own, although I have read several reviews of it …

… actually, because I have read several reviews of it.

Late in 2014 Picketty delivered a TED Talk.

How well I remember, all those years ago at school, our French teacher was exasperated at our attempts to wrap our Anglo-Saxon tongues around French vowel sounds. He would thunder at us that it was thoroughly ill-mannered to attempt to speak a language without applying at least as much effort to pronouncing it properly, so the better we could converse the worse the impression bad pronunciation would give. I remember his words every time I hear French people speaking English. The Hollywood actor, Maurice Chevalier, regarded his French accent as not just his professional trademark but part of his charm to such a degree that I believe while living in California he used to visit a dialogue coach to preserve it.

With my rhetor hat on I couldn’t care less about accents unless they impede intelligibility. Picketty’s accent impedes his intelligibility. So does the speed he speaks. Speaking subjectively,  I have to say that so does his subject matter.

r>g where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

If you are still awake I regret to inform you that this entire speech (and, for all I know, his book) is devoted to inequality of wealth, inequality of income and what can be done about it. At no point in the speech, though he may have slipped something in while I was dozing or admiring the piano behind him, did I notice him even bother to address why inequality matters.

I know that many people do get exercised that there is wealth inequality, though I don’t share their concern. I have met a few people with huge amounts of money, and they never seem to be particularly happy. I have also met many highly cheerful souls with very little. We are all much richer than our ancestors. And anyway, wealth isn’t just things.

There is only one cast-iron guaranteed way of ensuring that everyone has the same, and that is if everyone has nothing. As soon as any wealth is created, some will have more than others. The greater the overall wealth, the greater the inequality. Show me an unequal free society and I’ll show you a rich one. The richer a free society the richer the poorest in it, and that’s all that matters. How much more proportionately rich the richest have become in the process is irrelevant. Please don’t bleat to me about ‘trickle-down economics’: it doesn’t exist. Free market transactions enrich all their participants. Zero-sum transactions, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, occur almost exclusively with theft and its derivatives.

Picketty seems to assume that inequality is self-evidently bad, because at 14:45 he begins to address “what can be done about it”; and all his remedies are varieties of institutionalized theft. At 15:10 he explicitly lists “expropriation” which he dismisses only because it is “inefficient”. It doesn’t seem to concern him, or even occur to him, that it is theft.

Proper economists are probably rolling their eyes while reading my clumsy attempts to make a case on the basis of my (at best) sketchy understanding of the science, so I think I had better shut up and go looking for a speech from an expert who can take Picketty properly to task. Watch this space.

Picketty must have made a lot of money from his book. Good luck to him. I wish him well, because I don’t resent another man’s success. I would wish him better if he had played that piano, because it couldn’t fail to have been more entertaining.

Lew Rockwell: a wise head, but a talking one.

At the end of January 2016 in Houston, Texas, the Mises Institute hosted a conference at which one of the speakers was the Institute’s founder and Chairman, Lew Rockwell.

I quite often receive, from past trainees, panic emails about the pitfalls involved in introducing important speakers. They are right to be concerned, because it can be a minefield, but I shan’t burden you here with all the guidelines. There is, though, one very simple principle. The more important the guest, the shorter should be the introduction. Jeff Deist, President of the Mises Institute, clearly knows this rule. He’s gone inside 20 seconds.

When Rockwell begins it takes even less time for me inwardly to groan, because he is reading a script. I may one day devote here an entire post to why speakers should never read a script, but for the moment let me list some aspects of audience-engagement which are damaged by script-reading: credibility, fluency, perceived sincerity, comprehensibility, flexibility, nerve-control, and perceived command of the subject. How’s that for starters? Also – and I admit this is counter-intuitive – if you know what you are doing paperless speaking is safer, much safer, and I’ll defend that opinion to anyone.

Rockwell is a good writer, and I’d love to read this speech, but writing and speaking are completely different disciplines and it is ridiculously hard work listening to it. And this opinion comes from a maverick-by-nature who agrees with nearly everything that Rockwell stands for.

From his own site I found my way to a podcast on which he was interviewed. I was not in the least surprised to find that – shooting from the hip – he was expressive, fluent and coherent to a degree that was unrecognisable from this agonisingly stilted talking-head reading. Furthermore in that podcast he sounded relaxed and at ease, whereas in this speech I am picking up stress symptoms almost to the end.

So why is he reading a script? The answer, in this context, is ironic. He is conforming to an established, top-down, opinion-moulded orthodoxy. Thou shalt write and read thy speeches! The Mises Institute, this conference, this speech, indeed Lew Rockwell himself are all about resisting established, top-down, opinion-moulded orthodoxy. Do you understand therefore why I tear my hair in frustration? One hour over a video-link would be more than enough for me to set him free from that paper tyranny.

A conference from the Mises Institute is nevertheless a treat for me.  I shall stick with it, and pray that another speaker actually speak to us.