Billy Kosco gets off the bus

The congregation that gathered in St Henry’s Church, Buckeye, Arizona on Sunday 7 February most probably didn’t guess that they were shortly to be witness to a homily that would become a viral internet phenomenon.

Father Billy Kosco delivered something that has been viewed on numerous online platforms nearly one million times, and generated many thousands of comments – nearly all of them positive, in fact I gave up searching for a negative.

I tell my trainees that passion is worth bucketfuls of technique, in fact I have secret ways of proving it to them.

Other than that I have nothing to add.

Vladimir Pozner educates

Speeches – real life speeches in front of real life audiences – are beginning to reappear on line, though admittedly most were recorded prior to 2020.

I chanced upon a speech given at Yale in 2018, and I am glad of it. The speaker was Vladimir Pozner, and the speech was entitled How the United States Created Vladimir Putin. The video is nearly two hours long of which only 40 minutes is his speech, the rest being Q&A.

Spoiler alert! I was raptly absorbed by the entire thing, grateful to semi-retirement for making that possible.

I may have mislaid you slightly: the speech was merely 34 minutes long, the first six minutes of the video taken up by two introductions. My rhetor hat was redundant when Pozner spoke because he is so good and because what he had to say was much more interesting than any observations I might offer. Accordingly I shall unusually limit myself to critiquing the introductions.

Professor Douglas Rogers welcomed the audience, pointedly standing away from the lectern and speaking without notes. He filled his role very well. His default position for his hands (everyone should have one for those occasions when you have nothing else to do with them) was a fairly common one – clasping them loosely in front of himself. As a general rule this position looks most natural when your forearms are horizontal: hands too high looks as if you are pleading, too low looks as if you are in a free-kick wall in a soccer match. Rogers seems comfortable with his hands slightly higher than I would usually like, but these things are personal.

Professor Constantine Muravnik took over to deliver the speaker’s biography. He had notes, and unashamedly used them, because his material was obviously data-saturated, and he injected enough humour to make the speaker laugh out loud. He displayed more nerve symptoms than I would expect, but he handled them well. He made two introducers’ technical errors, both counter-intuitive. If the person you are introducing is behind you, don’t look around at them. It feels right but looks wrong. Muravnik did it only briefly so I wouldn’t have mentioned it except my rhetor hat is in danger of gathering dust. The worse error is in joining in with the applause at the end of the introduction. Again its feels right but not only looks wrong it sounds dreadful because you are doing it straight into your microphone.

Pozner begins at six minutes, and he is riveting! He covers half a century of the political and diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia, and does it in a manner that I find spell-binding.

Objectively I like the balance that he applies to what he says. His French/Russian/American background seems to hold him between opinion camps. Actually, as he is regularly citing chapter and verse of incidents that he recounts, there seems little actual opinion in what he says – and when there is he declares it.

Subjectively I like his view concerning the respective peoples as distinct from their political and diplomatic representatives. The people seem more eager to get on with each other than their representatives seem able. There are telling examples of this at 13:00 and more tellingly at 36:50 when he quotes – of all people – Hermann Göring. I also share his lamenting of the plummeting standards of balance in the mainstream news media. Had this speech been made today I bet he would have bracketed Big Tech in his comments.

The speech ends at forty minutes, and he sits with the host to receive questions which, with their answers, last more than an hour. It is not that there are so many questions but that they are so searching. Most of the questioners at this U.S. university audience turn out to be either Russian or from Eastern Europe, and he seems delighted to field an informed interrogation. At 1:38:30 he gets to dig at the mainstream media in both nations, and 1:44:00 – shortly before the end – he gets questioned on a matter he has obviously expected, and in which I as a Brit have a particular interest. Only a few months earlier Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned in Salisbury, England. What he has to say about that is worth waiting for.

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.

Caroline Cox – courageous

Christian Union invited Baroness Caroline Cox to be the plenary speaker at their 2019 Nexus.

A bald opening!

I want to cry “Hallelujah”, just as she cries it but for different reasons. A speech that does not faff about with meaningless preambles conveys immediate confidence in its message. It is also a wonderful “humpbuster” for reasons with which I will not bore you here. Yes you certainly do need to introduce yourself, but you don’t need to do it right away. Do it once you are on a roll, just as she does.

It’s a wonderful self-introduction. “I am a nurse, and a social scientist by intention […] a baroness by astonishment […] I was the first baroness I had ever met.” I am sure that she has used this introduction routine often, because it has all the hallmarks of repeated road-testing to make it as good as it is. So much the better.

I already expect to enjoy this speech, because I feel that I am in very secure hands.

Meanwhile, wearing my rhetor hat, I am briefly concerned about the device she is holding. She looks at it often. Surely that thing is too small to contain a screen prompting her. I quickly realise that it’s the remote control for her slides which we never see. Later, watching her eyes makes me suspect that she’s prompted by an autocue of some sort, and then I conclude that it’s a slave screen showing her the slide that the audience sees. She occasionally uses it to read out mainly things others have said. She’s a proper speaker, shooting the speech from the hip.

It’s refreshing to see someone wearing their Christian faith so openly. The conference theme is Courageous in the ways of the Lord and she repeatedly commends the courage of brutally oppressed, war-torn churches. She produces a stream of jaw-dropping examples of courage through Christian faith around the world; and while marvelling at them you find a less-obvious common theme dawning on you. Story after story is so graphically described, because she bears eye-witness. She was there.

Caroline Cox talks the talk so well because she has tirelessly and fearlessly walked the walk, and continues to do so.

Because we don’t see the screen we don’t see the video clip that concludes her talk. Though that’s a pity, I have to say that her message of courage through faith had already come across loud and clear.

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’s 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.