Heather Mac Donald’s audience matters

On 6 April, 2017, Heather Mac Donald was booked to address an audience of students at Claremont McKenna College in California. When the appointed hour arrived, the entrance to the auditorium was blocked by a crowd of chanting protesters, so Ms Mac Donald delivered the speech to an essentially empty hall and a camera which streamed her lecture to be received elsewhere. The camera’s footage also found its way online, thus ensuring that this protest multiplied the lecture’s audience several-fold. Today we increase that audience by a little more.

Disregarding the size of the audience, if I don my rhetor hat Ms Mac Donald has my sympathy. Some years ago I delivered a seminar in London to an international law firm. There were around 250 people in the auditorium. Subsequent feedback was severely mixed; and when I delved deeper it emerged that, without my having been told, an audio feed of my talk had been relayed to other offices worldwide, and every single piece of negative feedback had come from people not in the hall. I remonstrated with the organisers, not for enormously increasing my audience (I was promoting my book!), but for withholding from me the information. There are subtle but significant differences in how you deliver to those who are present and those who aren’t, and my being kept in ignorance of most of my audience, the unseen had been shortchanged.

Ms Mac Donald’s lecture is designed to be delivered to an audience in the hall, and she is here having to build ‘on the hoof’ a communication line to persons unseen and unknown. Let’s see how she copes.

The introduction is made by Sara Sanbar, who is clearly conscious of the absurdity of addressing an empty hall – she even mentions it. The serious side to her introduction is that she evidently disagrees with what she believes Mac Donald will say, but she is defending her right to say it. Some students understand the value of free speech.

Mac Donald begins. She’s talking about BLM (Black Lives Matter). Those three words comprise most of the chanting by the crowds who blocked students from attending this lecture. You might have thought from this that it must therefore be the case that to Ms Mac Donald black lives don’t matter. But in that case you’d be disastrously wrong. Within seconds of the lecture beginning it becomes supremely clear that no one holds black lives more precious than Ms Mac Donald.

The statistics that she hands out should churn your stomach. Here’s an example: black victims of homicide in the USA outnumber white and hispanic combined, by a factor of six. Who kill them? Overwhelmingly other blacks. Who is in between, trying to stop it happening, and then picking up the pieces afterwards? The BLM-maligned police.

You should listen to the whole of her lecture. Those protestors whom we can still hear faintly chanting should definitely have listened to her lecture. They would have learnt something – an activity which used to be the purpose of going to university.

BLM may not know the actual statistics, but they know perfectly well the basic facts. The organisation’s true purpose is not to defend blacks, but to pursue a much darker programme of disruption, the chief victims being blacks. The name is a fraud.

You don’t have to poke very far below the surface to learn that they are just one bunch of many, operating under fraudulent names. Antifa is not anti fascist: it is fascist. Hope-not-hate is consumed with hate. We can see where they learnt this trick: countries have been doing it for years. The communist totalitarian dictatorship of East Germany used to call itself the German Democratic Republic. Even today North Korea styles itself The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Of course black lives matter. Half a century ago, black lives in the USA were in far better shape than they are today. What went wrong is another story for another time.

Ian McKellen delivers a speech

This posting is something of a pairing with its predecessor, and what a pairing! Mind you: the illustrious Sirs, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, are good friends and it’s by no means the first time they have been paired.

Before I devote my almost undivided attention to Sir Ian allow me to continue briefly with the pairing theme by making some observations comparing style. While Sir Patrick strode immaculately into the Oxford Union straight to a lectern placed downstage centre on the platform, there to stand in his own pool of light and command the hall, Sir Ian shambled in, exuding buckets of bonhomie, looking like an unmade bed, turned the wrong way when reaching the aisle, greeting members of the audience like old friends before turning to the platform to embrace the Union President with a bear hug. Then instead of occupying the platform he strode up and down the aisle releasing a stream of consciousness which rather gave the impression of being random, but was actually carefully structured.

There’s theatre for you! When it comes to treatment, there’s no such thing as right or wrong. All that matters is whether you can make it work. And of course they can: these guys know what they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean they can make a speech. Frighteningly few actors can do that well.

There’s one thing that I hammer into the heads of all my trainees. The most engaging, compelling, persuasive person you can be is you. Not a persona, but the real you. It sounds easy, but, as Oscar Wilde observed –

To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

The difficulty is that we all have different masks that we don under different circumstances; and knowing which of them is a genuine part of the real you is quite tricky. Is this man we are watching the Ian McKellen that opens his eyes first thing in the morning? Very unlikely, but still I reckon it’s real. That’s why we want to listen.

Another lovely voice used flawlessly, and there’s also something to be learned from it. Unlike the audience, we can wind back and listen again to sections, ignoring what he says but analysing how he says it. How surprised are you to hear how, unlike those who make themselves sound phoney by over-enunciating as if every word came individually wrapped, he seems to slither around in an apparently slovenly fashion – and yet everything is heard with crystal clarity? That’s what proper voice coaching does for you.

In passing, I wonder whether he (and Sir Patrick) might have had the same voice coach as I. I’m just a handful of years younger than they and as a National Theatre Player in the mid sixties my voice was bashed into shape by a legend, a merciless darling called Kate Fleming.

Sir Ian kicks off by reading from a tablet a series of things that he claims have been written about him on the internet. I neither know nor care whether they are genuine: they are very funny. At one point he loses his place and there’s quite a long pause while he scrolls around, hunting the next thing he wants to read. It couldn’t matter less: he can hold this audience till Godot arrives.

That section over, he loses the tablet, and just talks. For a time he discusses some of his recent work, pointing out that the beard is for King Lear whose run might not yet be over, and then moves on into his principal non-theatre preoccupation. He tells us of his work visiting schools to discuss sexual orientation. That could get very ‘worthy’ but it doesn’t. It’s a bit like the deceptive skill that underpins his diction. By putting everything across like a favourite, absent-minded uncle, seeming to meander hither and yon but actually staying acutely focussed, he makes you want to listen. And much of it is very funny.

That’s a bloody good speech.

Patrick Stewart gives a reading

The Oxford Union does not just host important debates. Sometimes, to its credit, it invites people of fame to speak about themselves. This is very difficult for them, for reasons I discussed briefly when I covered Stephen Fry’s such gig.  With my line of work, therefore, I find them interesting.

Patrick Stewart was the guest recently.

He’s reading!

It’s a pity, because when speakers do this I immediately stop thinking of it as a speech; however I shall stick with it, because there are good and bad readings and I want to see to which category this belongs. A Reading is a perfectly respectable piece of entertainment: I do poetry and prose readings, though unlike Sir Patrick I have never dared to read anything I have written myself. Anyway, let’s face it, I want to hear what he has to relate. It’s bound to be autobiographical and, though half a century ago we mixed in similar circles, we have never worked together.

He lays out his stall at the beginning, giving us a Contents Page – good! Then we are off. It’s beautifully written, very well structured for a reading, thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully delivered.  He has a terrific voice and by golly he knows how to use it.

This is going to come across like the nostalgic rantings of an old fart, but I remember one nervous occasion some years ago, dining with a legendary, now dead, TV director. I tentatively bewailed the passing of the provincial rep system – in which he and I (and Sir Patrick of course) had worked our apprenticeship. He was almost explosive in his agreement with me. Decades of actors now have been mostly deprived of that benefit, and I’m afraid it shows. It’s nothing to do with talent: it’s a subtle mastery of stage presence which is becoming extinct, but Sir Patrick of course has it in abundance.

There were moments here when I felt he needed a director. For some years on BBC radio I broadcast theatre reviews; and with one-handed productions I reckoned that in the first few minutes I could spot whether or not the actor had spent a few quid – or dinner at The Ivy – to get a director to give it the once-over. It doesn’t matter who you are, you cannot see yourself from the audience. I’m being ultra-picky here, but there were a few little moments…

I’ll give you an example. There’s a good story that begins at about 8:00. At 9:02, having just harvested a good, well-deserved laugh with the punchline, he needlessly adds a single sentence that lamely explains the joke. That, of course, doesn’t get a laugh. A director would have cut that sentence.

Likewise I was uncertain about a section involving stories of actors who got serious fear-freeze and bailed out. In my experience there are very few theatre stories that don’t come under the heading, “you need to have been there”. The difficulty is in conveying the precise prevailing atmosphere that caused the crisis. It’s like ‘corpsing’ stories, of occasions when a stageful of actors is reduced to battling uncontrollable giggling. Those stories should be very funny, but I long ago gave up trying to narrate them – even to other actors.

For all that, this is a highly enjoyable 36 minutes, and Sir Patrick is to be congratulated.

But to me it isn’t a speech. To convey what I mean, I invite you to join me in my next posting which involves another famous actor: same vintage, same venue. He also worked his apprenticeship. I would hate to try to judge which of their performances is the more enjoyable or interesting, but I do say this –

The next one is a speech!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frauke Petry takes the chair

For some months, since the October 2017 Federal Election, Germany’s governance has been a little confused as Chancellor Merkel has struggled to maintain, through negotiation of coalitions and party alliances, a workable majority. I am not a student of German politics, and my opening sentence is evidence of that, but one thing seems clear. It was a tsunami in the popular vote for AfD (Alternative for Germany), a party which won 94 seats from zero in the Bundestag, that put the cat among the pigeons. The party was led into the election by Frauke Petry; and she resigned the leadership immediately afterwards. Her reasons for that are well documented on the internet, so I shall not attempt to summarise here.

However I was interested to see what sort of person could inspire such a dramatic democratic revolution. Her university discipline was chemistry (like Margaret Thatcher). Even more intrigued I went searching for a speech. I haven’t found one with her speaking in English, but this one has subtitles. That’s far from ideal for my purposes (and I’ve never done it before on this blog) but before I discarded it I decided to watch. What I found is an impressive study, not so much of public speaking but of audience control. The speech was delivered in May 2016.

The posting on YouTube apologises for the poor English in the subtitles, and I think we all spot the typo in the third one, but the subtitler did a lot better than I could.

After just a few niceties that includes apologising for the demonstrations outside, she digs from her pocket a piece of paper – a leaflet that has been handed out to and by members of the audience. It makes some aggressive claims against her and her party. She proceeds to invite its authors to approach the stage, restate the claims and be prepared to debate them.

That is brave, impressive, and indicates a remarkable confidence in her political position and her ability to promote it. It also indicates that she is in favour of free speech.

Only one is brave enough to rise to the challenge, a student in apparently his late teens. The others skulk at the back, heckling.

Petry treats him with courtesy, answers his arguments and politely silences any in the audience that interrupt him, whether in favour or opposition to him. He returns to his seat.

Half a dozen more students, emboldened, proceed to come down to the front to try their luck. One of them displays his insecurity with insolence and boorishness. Others are more polite. In all cases Petry remains courteous but firm, chairing this ad hoc meeting with extraordinary skill, while still keeping a firm lid on the audience. We are left wondering at the competence of these students’ teachers.

It’s very impressive indeed, and occupies the rest of this half-hour video.

As mentioned earlier, immediately after the Federal Election Petry resigned her leadership, and indeed membership, of AfD. She now sits as an independent. Nevertheless I don’t think we’ve seen the last of her, and that bothers me not at all

She could be described as Far Right, but only by the Far Left.

Jordan Peterson. Who needs bridges?

For some weeks I have had a speech sitting awaiting my attention. I found it when the story broke of Lindsay Shepherd. She was the teacher at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, who was brutally reprimanded for showing her students a clip of a TVOntario debate. If you missed it you can learn the whole scandalous story here. I warn you that you may wonder how and where any university finds such imbecilic administrators.

It was in wanting to learn more about the speaker to whose disgusting ravings she had subjected her poor students that I found clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson and the speech we will examine today.

It had been gathering dust in my to-do stock till he hit the news again this past week after his TV interview on Britain’s Channel 4 went viral on YouTube. The interviewer, Cathy Newman, was determined to humiliate him, but instead was completely outclassed. Ch4 has declared that she has since been subjected to vile online abuse. I haven’t seen any, but that proves nothing. They claim that they “called in security”, but that proves nothing either.

Personally I found Newman’s wilful misunderstanding of his answers intensely irritating, but in retrospect I find I have some sympathy for her. It seems to me that she is as much a victim as Lindsay Shepherd of a fashionable anti-free-speech culture in academia and the media. When free speech gets suppressed, when ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’ prevail, the final result will be – as Peter Hitchens said in a speech I covered very recently – silence. What he did not say was that meanwhile people will lose the ability to engage in debate. Newman probably thinks she’s adept at crushing opposing views, but she looks as if she has never properly encountered any. Holders of views at odds with today’s fashionable pieties, if they ever get the chance to air them at all, are immediately bullied into grovelling apology. Therefore, along with her fellow PC cohorts, she has never had to punch anything tougher than a marshmallow.

Then along comes Dr Peterson who knows his stuff, will not back down unless out-argued, treats her discourtesy with courtesy, will not allow her to misrepresent him, stays calm and good humoured, and the more aggressive she gets the more he laughs. With any luck he has blazed the trail for others, and one day once again media interviewers will have to learn how to do it.

Dedicated followers of fashionable pieties need to bear in mind that today’s cutting-edge chic is tomorrow’s avocado bathroom suite.

Let’s watch this speech that I’ve had sitting around. It comes from his Biblical Series, but with the length of my preamble this time I do not intend to comment on the content but restrict myself to his delivery style which I find interesting.

We join in the middle of a sentence, and it doesn’t matter because it feels typical of the entire speech. Peterson here speaks sporadically with huge pauses.

I’m delighted to report, though not surprised, that he shoots from the hip. As I tell my trainees, it is not only ridiculously easy to learn how to speak without notes but the learning is one of the best investments you can make to your personal image as a speaker. Audiences love speakers who do it because it conveys command of the subject, spontaneity, sincerity, all the things that an audience wants from a speaker. And you speak better for it.

I’ve put some thought to his huge pauses. I think he must be a modular speaker, with a big library in his mind of modules that he can use to explain this, to outline that, and so on. I’ve come across many such, and I even do it myself to a degree, but as a rule I advocate preparing bridges to join the modules. He seems to eschew that principle, and doesn’t care that parts of the talk seem severely disjointed. The funny thing is that he has a stage presence that almost seems to benefit from those gaping periods of silence. I’m fascinated.

I shall seek out more of his talks.

Ben Shapiro and an amazing speech

At Christmas, I suddenly saw a posting on Twitter to the effect that Ben Shapiro had delivered “an amazing speech and received a standing ovation”. I was immediately interested, as I had read many articles by him and had watched bits of speeches which had been disrupted so much by protesters that it had been impossible for me to evaluate. Nevertheless I had been impressed by the former, and guardedly so by the latter. Was this the opportunity to critique him properly? Where and when was this speech?

The answers were (a) yes, and (b) I haven’t been able to find out. But here it is…

We join it halfway through a sentence, yet the speech apparently hasn’t started.  The sentence that follows gives us the title of the speech, ‘Why Freedom Succeeds While Collectivism Fails‘. He is pitting freedom against collectivism; not capitalism versus socialism or right versus left, but freedom versus collectivism. I find that interesting. The right/left dichotomy has actually become blurred and corrupted when so many institutions automatically classify anything wrong as right wing. I have even heard Stalin’s pogroms described as a right wing policy. Likewise the terms capitalism and socialism come these days much confusing baggage. I am impressed that Shapiro skirts all this so neatly.

And he needs to. He needs there to be no doubt what he is saying because he takes no prisoners while saying it. This is blunt! We have become so accustomed to politicians and commentators being mealy mouthed and smothered in caveats, particularly when criticising the left – sorry, collectivism, that it is a little startling to hear Shapiro say that this collectivism is evil. He’s right, of course, but we’re not used to hearing it.

He even dares to say that this collectivism has evil intent, and he will prove it by itemising how it breaks each of the Ten Commandments. I immediately smile with professional approval because a structure like that is a gift to a speaker provided he knows the Commandments by heart. Shapiro, wearing a Yamaka, seems to stand a good chance.

Then why does he keep looking down at the lectern? Does he need prompting? No of course he doesn’t: the lectern is a comfort blanket. It’s a pity, because those periods when we lose his eyes, albeit momentarily, take the edge off his effectiveness.

I don’t mean those occasions when it is absolutely correct to read from the lectern, for instance when he quotes someone – there are a few occasions when he does –  I mean those glances down when we know he didn’t need to.

Another thing that takes away some of his edge is the rapidity with which he speaks. I can’t even believe I’m saying this because I am rabidly in favour of speakers being themselves, warts and all, and I am sure this is not nervous gabbling  but simply the way he naturally speaks. But too much gets lost. He loses a couple of laughs and one or two moment of impact because the audience didn’t quite catch what he said.

But for all that, this is indeed an amazing speech. He well deserves his standing ovation.

 

Roger Scruton: not at all bad

When I saw that the Oxford Union had just posted online a video of Professor Sir Roger Scruton delivering to them a talk followed by Q&A, I was eager to watch it.

For some reason his writings have thus far passed me by, but I heard him in a lengthy interview on a friend’s podcast recently and I was in equal measure impressed with him and disappointed with myself for having not properly encountered him ages ago. He’s a couple of years older than I, we share roughly the same amount of hair, of roughly the same shade, and of comparable disorder. He can’t be all bad.

He’s a writer.

All too often on this blog I have raged against those who read their speeches, but I shall not with him because he has bridged much of the huge gap between the written and the spoken word. He has evidently worked at being able to restrict himself to mere occasional glances at his paper, so our losing his eyes from time to time does not drastically impede the quality of his delivery. Likewise he has prepared this almost entirely in spoken, rather than written, English.

Nevertheless there remains the intensity of detail. This is structured as a piece of writing. If you were reading it you could stop and ponder a section before moving on to the next. You could also re-read passages. We here can pause the video, or rewind to review, but the audience in the hall can’t. Any lapse of concentration and what they miss they miss for ever.

It needs broader brush-strokes. It needs the flow of data to be slowed down from time to time. It needs to be blocked out in a fashion that anyone could follow. I know the audience consists of not anyone, but very accomplished students, but I also know from experience that academic prowess doesn’t make you immune to data overload. I’m afraid he does periodically lose some of his audience: we can hear it in the coughing. They’re missing some brilliant stuff!

I felt myself itching to rebuild the speech from the ground up, restructuring in a way that enabled him to dispense entirely with paper and the audience not to miss a syllable.

That said, he inserts some lovely touches of humour from time to time and the audience welcomes the opportunity to relax and regroup: the coughing recedes. During the Q&A, he obviously has no choice but to shoot from the hip and of course this is when we see the power of his delivery at its best. At its best it is extremely good.

Even at its worst it is not at all bad.