Obianuju Ekeocha: what a privilege!

The National March for Life is an annual event in Canada, taking place in the nation’s capital of Ottawa. It is joined by thousands, and some of them attend the Rose Dinner that accompanies it.

In 2016 the March and the Dinner took place on Thursday 12 May, and the Keynote speaker was Obianuju Ekeocha.

In this speech, including its delivery – especially the delivery – there is nothing I can fault, though I will make a suggestion in due course.

The construction of the arguments is blindingly good. The narrative thread leads inexorably towards a single sentence which is introduced shortly before the end, but is then repeated and repeated till there is not the slightest doubt that it is the FACE of the speech.

Stop the killing

Yet the narrative doesn’t travel in a straight line. It meanders slightly and, in the process, highlights and scoops up secondary messages to become key to her primary message. There is an excellent example when she talks of the Rwanda massacre. Beginning at 13:16 she recounts how the victims were widely described as cockroaches. When you dehumanise people it is easier to kill them. That thread is left hanging till she reclaims it with huge impact much later.

Tempted though I am to offer more of the legion of such examples, it’s better that you should simply absorb the brilliance of his speech for yourself. There is so much to learn from it.

Likewise her delivery is stupendously good. Her pace, her timing, her phrasing, her instinct for speaking with her audience rather than to them, are as skilled as I’ve seen anywhere.

I am not altogether surprised. I do more of my distance coaching with people in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, and the talent I find from there is world-beating. I have long held the view that the key to Africa’s development is for the west to get the hell out of their way. The road to Africa’s hell is paved with the west’s good intentions. Ok it’s more complicated than that, but not much.

As to this speech I have just one suggestion, and any trainee of mine will already have spotted it.

She begins with a thank-fest and I don’t think she should, because she shows hump symptoms for the first minute or two. A thank-fest is important, laudable, desirable, necessary, all those things of course; but there is no divine edict that says you should open by thanking people, and a host of reasons for not doing so. I won’t bore you with them here: you’ll just have to take my word for it.

The thank-fest is like the titles and opening credits to a film. They usually appear at the opening, but not always. With some films there is an episode that precedes the credits. If Uju (I understand that to be her nickname) had started without any preamble by going straight into the significance of the music that had accompanied her approach to the lectern, broken off at an appropriate place after about two minutes, swung into her thank-fest including her greeting to the various dignitaries, and then returned to talking about the music I think she would have been far more comfortable, and therefore audience-engaging, for the opening five minutes. There are many reasons, but there isn’t room here.

I could easily try to suggest actual precise places to situate the thank-fest, and ways to drop into and out of it, but what’s the point? She has dramatically shown that her own instincts would make judgements at least as good as mine.

I feel privileged to have watched that.

Tucker Carlson: Ship of Fools

Trump and Brexit, Brexit and Trump, it is almost spooky how these two polarising disruptions have shadowed each other on either side of the Atlantic. Feelings on both run frighteningly high, and for me it has meant that speeches delivered about one of them almost always have had resonances towards the other.

Tucker Carlson, Fox News talk-show host, has published a book called Ship of Fools which attempts to answer why USA unexpectedly elected Donald Trump. I haven’t yet got around to reading it, though I want to. Here he is, promoting the book at a talk hosted by the Independent Institute in Alameda, California, in October 2018.

The introduction by David J. Theroux, President of the Institute, raises reactions from the audience that leave us in no doubt that Carlson will be addressing a friendly audience. That is worth noting because California’s political climate has moved so overwhelmingly left that these people almost qualify as a persecuted minority. Carlson comes to the microphone at 05:40, the speech finishes at 36:06, and the Q&A that follows is worth watching also.

He is very skilled, very audience friendly, qualities that are not necessarily a ‘given’ with a TV personality. He comes across as relaxed, friendly, funny, and shoots the speech from the hip.

But the skill doesn’t end there, he neatly melds his warm greeting of the audience with reminiscences of growing up in California (he now lives in Washington DC). He throws in references to places, using their local nicknames. In the process he piles up good ethos, leaving them feeling that this famous man who comes into their homes everyday via the TV is definitely one of them. All his humour, and there’s lots of it, is thrown away – even to the extent of his appearing to try to suppress laughs and thereby actually stoke them. I don’t want to paint him cynical because though he’s good he has me convinced he’s sincere.

The narrative is brilliant, he sweeps you along.

As for the transatlantic parallels concerning the way our countries have been moving, I invite my fellow brits to listen to his summary of US education at 17:17, and cast their minds back a couple of weeks to the school pupils’ “strike”. I put that in quotes because of the number of teachers that seemed to be leading the march through London, and seemed quite comfortable with the appalling things being chanted.

Likewise his account, beginning at 29:50 of the Republican Party official who said that if Trump got nominated he’d see that they took it away, has pretty strong resonances with a referendum in the UK which everyone in the elite from the Prime Minister downwards said would be respected, till it came to it; and as of now from the Prime Minister downwards are busting a gut to find a way to stop it or steer it towards something else with a ‘withdrawal agreement’ that is all about agreement and not about withdrawal.

What Carlson is talking about is the cavernous disconnect between The People and their political representatives (and the mainstream media). The US has it: the UK has it. The US has an Orange Man who has made astonishingly good progress (about which the media remain very quiet). The UK should be on the brink of greatly increased freedom, but not if the elite can help it.

I think that is what Tucker Carlson’s Ship of Fools is about, which is why I want to read it.

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.