Roger Scruton tragically paper-bound

I wonder whether it was it by happenstance or design that late last year the Oxford Union hosted two severely contrasting talks by philosophers.

The contrast is dramatic. On the one hand there was Slavoj Žižek, at whom we looked a couple of weeks ago, and on the other there was Sir Roger Scruton. The former an apparently neurotic firebrand of Eastern European peasant stock, the latter an apparently patrician-born, establishment pedagogue.

In fact both impressions are false. Žižek is the son of a middle-class civil servant. As for Scruton, he typifies a dilemma I often have on this blog. When I affix a link to his name, which I aways do, should it be to his own website where he tells the world what he is now, or to Wikipedia where others have described his life thus far? In Scruton’s case the difference in accounts is considerable, so I have supplied both links in consecutive paragraphs.

I have watched and heard several interviews with Sir Roger, and he represents himself very well. His arguments are clear, well-reasoned, and fluent. This is hardly surprising, because he knows his subject and is more than able to defend his adopted positions. You can see what I mean when he turns to Q&A at 39:50.

A speech is merely answers supplied to a sequence of imagined questions; so at the very most all he needs on that lectern is a bulleted list of questions, certainly not a script. If he had operated that way his delivery would have benefitted from spontaneity, and been not one jot less rich in language. His interviews prove that last point.

I would prefer him not to have even that, because speaking entirely without notes forces you into structuring your material in a fashion that is more disciplined than even an academic lecture. There are a few mind-wandering moments in this talk, and the camera catches at least one audience member’s mind absorbed in something else. This forty minutes could easily have tightened to little more than thirty and benefited thereby.

We with this video can pause, rewind, rewatch, etc., and it is worth doing for all the reasons that make his interviews so good. It’s just a pity both that his audience there in that hall could not do that or that they sometimes needed to, because what Sir Roger has to say needs to be heard and understood.

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.

Jimmy Valvano: laugh, think, cry

For this, my 400th posting on the blog, it is appropriate that I choose something a little different, a little special. This is both. For one thing this speech is 25 years old, for another it has been viewed on YouTube nearly 4.5 million times. I was pointed at it by a trainee.

Jimmy Valvano, known to his fans as Jimmy V, was a legendary basketball coach in the USA. In 1992 he was diagnosed with cancer. On 4 March, 1993 he delivered this speech at Madison Square Garden, accepting the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

We are primed for an emotional experience by the adoration shown by the audience. We see him leaning on someone’s arm as he climbs the steps onto the stage, but otherwise there are no strong clues to his illness.

After retiring as a basketball coach he had another career as a motivational speaker, and it shows. This is no stranger to the speaking platform.

In his opening he makes the point that today he has no cue cards, and that makes me wonder whether he usually did. My theory, from other things he says, is that this free speaking shooting from the hip is not quite the norm for him, but I’m not surprised how easily he does it.

I remember, as quite a small boy, observing to my parents how invalids always seemed to be more cheerful than other people (at that time WWII was a very recent memory, so people with war injuries were all around). Here we have a man on the threshold of death lecturing us how we should maintain our happiness.

And look at the energy with which he does it! If there was little sign of his illness at the beginning there is absolutely none now. He is being swept along by the intensity of his message. 

His prime message is, “Don’t give up: don’t ever give up,” but there is another recurring theme – almost a mantra – in this speech. He urges us to make sure that every single day we laugh, we think, and we cry.

I’m reminded of another mantra that we hear all over the place, that we should treat each day as if it were our last. Jimmy V makes me realise that we should deliver each speech as if it were our last. The wonderful uninhibited freedom with which he delivers this must surely owe something to his being conscious that he has nothing to lose. 

This is a classic piece of speaking and – guess what? – it makes us laugh; it makes us think; and it makes us cry.

At the end we see several friends almost carrying him back down the steps off the stage, and now we can see how ill he is. He died on 28 April that year.

Yanis Varoufakis: Euro problem

In 2018 the Oxford Union hosted an address with Q&A from Yanis Varoufakis. Finding out the precise dates of these talks is never easy, and these days I have neither the time nor inclination to fish around, but I reckon that a few clues suggest it was mid-November.

The talk was entitled The Euro Has Never Been More Problematic.

Yes, well he’s done this before. 

He even makes it clear that he has spoken at the Oxford Union before. Yet at the beginning I still see nerve symptoms – tiny ones, admittedly, but it confirms that everyone experiences a hump. Better speakers hide it better and dismiss it more quickly, but everyone gets one.

This is a fine piece of speaking. It could be improved; for instance I found myself having to spool back a couple of times to clarify points he was making. His live audience couldn’t do that, and it indicates that his structure could be refined slightly.

When working on trainees’ structures, I usually do it under the guise of making it easier for them to deliver without prompting from script or notes. Nevertheless I also point out that good structure carries a more important byproduct of making the speech easier for the audience to follow, and we always need to keep an eye on that byproduct. Varoufakis has comfortably outgrown the need for paper prompting, so he needs to factor in a conscious effort to discipline his structure for coherence. Though he speaks excellent English, his accent adds a hurdle to his coherence. The hurdle is small, but it will be enlarged for those students in this audience for whom English is likewise not their first language.

[Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that when speakers are as good as this I just get more picky.]

I am reluctant to comment on what he says, because he makes his arguments very well as you’d expect from a politician. He has been round the block a few times, so he is well informed. Nevertheless what I call ‘politician blinkers’ cause him, in my opinion, to be misguided in two or three areas; but I’d rather not get bogged down in that.

The Oxford Union are to be congratulated yet again on platforming a good and wide range of speakers.

LOL Peter Ustinov

The key is to have a brilliant opening and a brilliant closing, and keep them as close as possible.

For many years I used to entertain public speaking seminar audiences with that quotation by Peter Ustinov; but I stopped when too many of my audience looked at me blankly, not having a clue who Peter Ustinov was (he died in 2004). That’s when I started suspecting I was getting old. I had the suspicion confirmed when, for the purposes of this posting, I started searching not only my own books but also the internet for the quotation in order to get the wording precisely correct. I couldn’t find it anywhere. The nearest I got was a similar observation by George Burns, and that was about sermons. (George Burns was – oh never mind, he died in 1996.)

So either I got it wrong all that time, or I am so ancient that I’ve become an incompetent searcher for quotations.

At any rate, for a little Christmas entertainment both for those of us who remember him and those who never had that benefit, here is his contribution to the ITV “An Audience With …” series. It dates from 1988. For me it might have been the inspiration for the acronym LOL.

Stand by to see what a great many celebrities looked like thirty years ago.

He’s unquestionably the finest raconteur I’ve ever seen. 

Lia Mills: out of the mouths …

In 2009 a twelve-year-old girl wrote an impassioned English class assignment. The assignment became a speech that was posted on YouTube and went viral. It was on the subject of abortion.

As we have often been told, the Pro-Choice movement cares for women and their right to choose. The death threats that immediately started being aimed at this girl and her family must therefore be classified as caring death-threats.

Lia Mills is now twenty-one years old and a Human Rights Activist with her own YouTube Channel. She is the author of An Inconvenient Life, an autobiography. It would seem therefore that the death threats didn’t work.

From the classic James Bond opening, via the epistrophe that begins at 0:53, through the disturbing statistics, and concluding with the quote by Horton (the Dr Seuss elephant) this is by any standards an outstanding speech.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.


Shannon Bream makes me glad.

This will not be the first time on this blog that we have watched a speech from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. On the previous occasion Trey Gowdy was the speaker. Unsurprisingly, given Liberty’s Christian roots, that was a ringing call to the students to follow a lifelong path of Christian integrity.

In May 2013 the keynote speaker for their Commencement was Shannon Bream.

The introduction by Jerry Falwell Jr, President of the University, is suitably effusive, and concludes with a brief ceremony of conferring upon Shannon Bream a Doctorate of Communication. She begins speaking at 4:03.

As a programme anchor on TV Bream will have spoken to bigger audiences, but when you are broadcasting and can’t see your audience its size is just a number. At 4:20 we get a shot of the audience, crammed into a football stadium, and I wonder whether this is the largest live and visible audience that she has addressed.

In that same shot we see her Teleprompter screens. To me they are hugely significant.

In my work, though occasionally I and the trainee will work hard to develop new skills, the first, easiest, and commonest thing is to identify the trainee’s strengths in order to build them and play to them. Bream plays to her strengths.

She is reading from a Teleprompter, and doing it very well. Of course! That’s a skill she had to develop for her work.

The words she is reading are not in written English but in spoken English and sound spontaneous. Writing a script like that is a surprisingly difficult skill (so difficult that I find it quicker and easier to teach people to structure their material in such a way as to be able to speak spontaneously without writing it). Difficult or not, that’s also a skill she had to develop for her work.

She is speaking quickly. Most would sound less intelligible or even panicky at that pace, but again it’s an occupational skill for what she does for a living.

All this would be very difficult for nearly everyone, but she is making it seem like a walk in the park and succeeding wonderfully.

The only professional error I can identify is rather cheeky and based on the assumption that she is working to a fifteen minute slot. Starting at 4:03 and ending at 19:41 she over-runs by thirty-eight seconds. You think that’s splitting hairs? You’re right of course, though you would not have been had this been a broadcast. Airtime operates precisely to the second: under-running is manageable, over-running is not. Nevertheless, this is not broadcasting and she is playing to a window she knows to be elastic. I bet her timing is more accurate than anyone else who has done this speech.

Shannon Bream’s message is rather devout. That is appropriate in this setting, though many outside the setting would be a little uncomfortable with it. I would urge them nevertheless to pay close attention. You do not have to espouse the dogma to value the philosophy.

I’m glad I watched this.