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?

A C Grayling: wonderful on his subject.

What is a philosopher? The Ancients used the word as a catch-all for mathematicians or scientists, but what does it mean now? Leaving aside that someone once told me that she’d like to be a philosopher so that she could spend hours in the bath, working, or the great Tom Lehrer’s observation that they go round giving helpful advice to those who are happier than they are, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition can be paraphrased as one who studies wisdom. A loose definition, to be sure.

Ay, there’s the rub! That definition’s looseness puts it perilously close to ‘Intellectual’, a class of person whose ideas can do, and have done, untold damage to societies. One reason is that too often they pay no price when events prove them wrong. Thomas Sowell published a book on the subject in which, among other things, he observed that usually these people have an exalted and deserved reputation in a particular narrow speciality; but once they step outside its confines they can neglect to apply equivalent rigour to their other opinions. This makes those opinions about as valid as those of any stranger in a pub, but held by Society to be Holy Writ, having been uttered by a known genius.

His examples include Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, G.B.Shaw, J.M.Keynes. We can easily add Richard Wagner, or more recently Paul Nurse or Brian Cox.

A.C.Grayling (philosopher) recently swam into my ken when a series of his hilariously foolish Tweets on the subject of Brexit were being gleefully retweeted, much as I imagine teachers communally giggle over their pupils’ howlers in the staff room. I was interested to know whether he followed the above pattern. What was he like on the speciality that had forged his reputation? I went and found a speech.

This is at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held annually at Sydney Opera House. He is speaking about Bad Education which, as epistemology is one of his specialities, is straight down the centre of his disciplinary fairway. He is introduced by Julia Baird, and begins speaking at 2:15.

He is really very good indeed. This is shot throughout from the hip. There appear to be autocue screens facing upstage from where footlights would be, but their image is stationary. His diction is lovely: crystal clear without being over-enunciated. He structures his material very well, though if I were super-picky I might suggest making chapter divisions slightly clearer. He has an excellent reservoir of ‘Nice-to-Know’ material with which he tactically leavens the flow of ‘Need-to-Know’ information that pours out of him – I’m referring to humorous anecdotes and so on. Either through research, instinct or both he pitches the talk very precisely at the level of his audience, something we can tell by how well they respond to his use of humour for instance. Most importantly this talk is wonderfully uplifting. It is a delight to have experienced.

His use of English is excellent, but when he steps outside its confines he sort-of makes Thomas Sowell’s point. In quoting just two sentences in French he commits a pronunciation schoolboy howler. Just how picky can I be!

Well I can get pickier. I’m not sure he addressed his brief. ‘Bad Education’ is on the title of that video. He spoke about what education is, what it isn’t, etymology of the word, and so on. He spoke about what he feels education is for, and spent some time on the importance of humanities. All excellent, but where and wherefore the ‘Bad Education’ in the title?

Just asking.

Keir Starmer: competing with paint

On 13 December, 2016, Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech at Bloomberg in London. He is the Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union.

I read a Tweet from someone who, on the basis of a speech one day, described him as the most boring speaker he had ever heard. Naturally, though suspecting that partisan bias might have been at play, I had to investigate further. Sadly I have thus far failed to find that speech on line, but I have found this one. Why don’t you and I make up our own minds on the basis of what we find.

Well it isn’t about to set the world on fire, though I have known considerably worse. The main problem is that it has been scripted, and the scripting has hallmarks of the civil service. Let us look at some specifics.

He takes far too long to get going. From that opening Starmer stammer, which I am sure is not real but an affectation, up to 2:40 could beneficially be binned. It fails to contribute anything. He has in there a faintly humorous observation about his job-title. I have no problem with that, or the faint humour, but I do have a problem with his pause inviting audience response which doesn’t materialise. As throw-away humour it would have worked, but that pause made it lame.

At 2:23 he utters the words, “My speech today will be…” Did you get that? “Will be..” He is acknowledging that he hasn’t started yet, even though he is nearly two and a half minutes in. Two and a half minutes is actually an optimum length for an inconsequential opening (for technical reasons that I’ll spare you), but it needs to be a better two and a half minutes than that.

2:40 sees the beginning of a good epistrophe. As a bald opening that would have been powerful.

At 10:40 there’s a strong anaphora, and at 12:50 there’s another. There may have been more but the tediousness of the delivery makes it difficult to concentrate.

All these suggest professional speechwriting; and the even-handed balance of much of the message supports that view. The speech is relatively weasel-free for a politician.

I appreciate that balance, because not enough remainers have publicly made the point that if the referendum had gone the other way, and leavers had protested and obstructed as aggressively as remainers have, it would have been considered a scandal.

He is also right about the Cameron government’s disgraceful dereliction of duty that absolutely no plans were in place against a Brexit vote.

Yes, I am sure that professional speechwriter(s) were involved here, and it’s a quality job. But to be a good speaker, Starmer needs to learn how to dispense with his script and permit his personality to show. Reading causes him to scatter the speech with reading-stumbles, which are quite different from (and lamer than) speaking stumbles. Worst of all, reading makes his delivery tedious.

I became fascinated by the tangerine paint behind him.

Robert Spencer exits Plato’s cave

Young America’s Foundation hosted a talk on 18 March 2017 at the Reagan Ranch. The speaker was Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch.

I know little of Robert Spencer, other than the normal little bit of research I always undertake into a speaker, before subjecting them to critique on this blog. Thus it was that I learnt that he co-authored a book with Pamela Geller, whose speaking I critiqued last June. He also, I understand, shares with Geller the distinction of having been banned from the UK because of his inflammatory views – banned, that is, under the orders of the British Home Secretary at the time, one Theresa May.

A couple of weeks ago I covered someone else who had a reputation for being inflammatory and turned out to be quite the reverse. I thought I’d be really brave and try it again.

Spencer’s talk begins at 03:27 and ends at 32:27. If we assume a half-hour slot we are looking at a speech lasting a minute less than allotted, and delivered without a script. Regardless of all else I tip my hat to a speaker who knows what he’s doing.

A James Bond Film opening even! He begins with a summary of the Plato’s cave story, which though it may temporarily bemuse those who do not know it, leads beautifully into his message. I tip my hat again.

He then proceeds apparently to narrate the history of the modern day Islamist Jihad. I injected that word ‘apparently’ because not being a scholar of such matters I have no means of knowing the accuracy of what he says. Nevertheless, when claiming to quote from the Koran he always cites chapter and verse, and when quoting incidents always gives names, places and dates. In short, he shows his workings. When one side of an argument does that, and the other seeks to silence them (or worse!) it lends verisimilitude to the party of the first part.

This is twenty-nine minutes of highly authoritative speaking. And with the greatest respect to the British Home Office he never once incites his audience to violence. It is a speech that should be heard.

At 32:27 he throws open to questions. That should be heard too.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!

Tucker Carlson, by the way

On 6 March in Washington DC, Tucker Carlson addressed the International Association of Firefighters.

Situated as I am on the east side of the Atlantic, my relationship with the US media can most charitably be described as sporadic. Nevertheless, in the eternal hunt for speeches I do spend a lot of time on YouTube. So it was that Tucker Carlson crept his way into my consciousness some months ago. He wasn’t making speeches, but he was interviewing many of the speakers into whose background I was delving for the purpose of this blog.

He was interviewing remarkably well, and had a refreshing approach to heavily adversarial, hostile, interviewees. Rather than show anger he would most often deploy one or both of two facial expressions –

  • Little boy puzzled
  • Little boy laughing

He was exploiting his chubbily boyish face, which is highly personable, and making it a hell of a weapon. More importantly the boy could play: he unerringly asked the questions I happened to want asked, couched in the most reasonable terms.

I had vaguely wondered how he would fare on a speaking platform, so when I saw a speech from him on line I pounced.

We don’t see the opening, but come in halfway through a sentence. I understand that people want videos that hit the ground running, but with my niche interest I want to see the opening. Public speaking is like flying an aeroplane inasmuch as the most tricky parts are the takeoff and landing. The rest is relatively easy.

We join Carlson already in the air and climbing. The first words we hear are “By the way” and they herald one seriously attention-grabbing sentence. From there it goes on up. This is a phenomenal speech!

He produces nail after nail and hits each one squarely on the head. I won’t tell you how; I won’t tell you why; you just need to watch it. It answers many questions.

He has a verbal mannerism. I tell my trainees never to worry about mannerisms because if their speech is interesting enough no-one will notice. It just happens to be my job, so I notice. He says “By the way”. I haven’t counted how many times he says it in this speech because I’d rather have a life, but it’s a lot. If I hadn’t mentioned it you wouldn’t have noticed because the speech is spell-binding. It’s refreshing as spring water, coming from someone in the government/media bubble.  Nail-head-nail-head all the way through.

By the way, one of the reasons “By the way” comes out so much is that he has a neat line in micro-digressions. It’s almost as if they supply the mortar between the bricks of his theme.

Another neat line is in self-deprecation – not in an overt simpering way but in tiny, easily missable, almost subliminal throw-away lines. At 13:30 he throws open to questions. See if you pick up the nano-self-deprecation in his final sentence, and ask yourself whether you would have done without my drawing your attention to it.

He’s a very good speaker, and this is a hell of a good speech. Nail-head-nail-head. I’d still have liked to have seen his takeoff, by the way.

Raheel Raza being ‘controversial’

On September 3, 2016, the National Secular Society in Britain held a conference. I chanced upon videos of it in YouTube for my previous posting. The first speaker was Raheel Raza.

If you read about her in Wikipedia you are told that she holds “controversial views on Islam”. A few paragraphs later you read that she has “unequivocally condemned terrorism”. What a fascinating definition of ‘controversial’!

She is introduced by Afonso Reis e Sousa.

Her speech is preceded by a video documentary, produced and presented by her. It lasts till 14:30, is refreshingly forthright, honest, and not very comfortable. I commend it.

The controversial theme of Raza’s speech is essentially that of equality under the law, that there should be one law for all.  As Thomas Sowell has written –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

Quite so. You can switch on the TV to almost any current affairs programme today to see some cretin condemning with a straight face that sort of equality.

Raheel Raza is a good speaker, particularly when she resists the lure of that script on the lectern. She has plenty to say, and says it clearly.

At 17:00 she hits us with revelations that certainly surprise me. Her ‘controversial’ theme obviously advocates resisting the advance of Sharia, and she tells us that just four Muslim countries of the world are run by it – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan. She goes on to declare that in some respects Sharia has more influence in Britain than in Pakistan.

Her bottom line is that state and religion should be kept entirely separate. This obviously befits a speech made to a secular society, but it heaps more controversy in a country like Britain that has an established religion – even if it is fast becoming a minority one.

I’m very glad I watched this video. I learnt some interesting and disturbing things, including some that I haven’t mentioned here. I commend the whole thing.

She was followed on the platform by Maajid Nawaz. I plan to look at his speech next.