Titania McGrath – Queen of Woke

Comedy Unleashed very seldom hosts serious talks. In November it hosted a lecture from best-selling author, social media activist (her Twitter following is nearly half-a-million), and Queen of Woke, Titania McGrath. Among other things she was promoting her latest book, Woke.

Comedy Unleashed is run by Andrew Doyle, who also has a hand in Titania McGrath.

An opening pause is a well-tested device for conveying confidence and settling an audience. The Lord Hague of Richmond often does it, though I don’t think I’ve known his last more than twenty seconds or conclude with a sigh.

However, gestures (see 0:47) involving a hand on the back of the head is a nerve symptom. Psychologists tell us that it signifies stress or tiredness and that it is hard-wired into us. Even new-born babies do it. McGrath habitually flicks her hair with this gesture, suggesting to me that her hands are used to fiddling with the back of the head.

At 4:30 she moves stage right, and into darkness. My immediate reaction is to castigate her for such a basic error, but it quickly turns out that the stage management has failed to cue a lighting change to accommodate this move unmasking the centre-stage screen. Though the lights do eventually change she liberates an ill-mannered comment on the subject, and the lighting engineer takes revenge by pulling his fader back down. Lighting engineers enjoy pulling their faders up and down.

Now that the screen is unmasked we see a series of very moving slides. I found it deeply moving.

Christopher DeMuth breathing

The previous posting, featuring Douglas Murray, was from a National Conservativism Conference held in Rome in February 2020. The Chairman of the conference was Christopher DeMuth, Sr.

He’s showing symptoms of Hump. The existence of hump is not the problem – everyone has that – but I’m concerned that the audience might notice. Someone like me spies stuff that would escape most audiences, but his quick shallow breathing is a little conspicuous. The reason that matters is that a speaker’s first task is to relax the audience, which in turn relaxes the speaker. If the audience is made aware of the speaker’s nerves it will remain edgy, which causes negative feedback that prolongs the hump. If I were advising him, I’d recommend an habitual regime of very slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing for at least the last minute before beginning every speech. It’s very relaxing, slows the pulse, sets a breathing pace whose influence will probably last throughout the speech, and can be done in full view of the hall because it is invisible.

I’d also recommend dispensing with a script, but then I always recommend that. In DeMuth’s case here the script is serving to extend his hump. More crucially it is unnecessary. 

When preparing to feature a speaker new to me, I habitually look for other examples of their speaking seeking trends and comparisons. In DeMuth’s case I found myself watching this keynote speech from 2015. In that case, though there seemed to be a script on the lectern, he broke free of it far more frequently and proceeded to shoot from the hip. On that occasion his hump was very discreet and much shorter. Furthermore, largely unhampered by paper, he did a much better job of engaging with that audience. That speech lasted an hour, whereas this is less than seven minutes. He absolutely doesn’t need a script, and it inhibits him.

It’s an important speech: a valuable speech. He’s given it an excellent Face: “Adios Davos”. And there’s also one sentence I particularly like, coming at 5:40.

We national patriots can get along with each other just fine.

That’s so true: if you can’t love your own country without hating other people’s then you’re doing it wrong.

He closes with a lovely triad. I won’t spoil it.

Douglas Murray is characteristically excellent

A National Conservatism conference was held in Rome in February 2020. One of their speakers was Douglas Murray.

Murray has, I suspect, been on this blog more often than anyone else, the most recent outing being here in May of last year. I make no apology for seeking a regular dose of his speaking. He is just so damn good!

Hmm! Either he has failed to stand close enough to his razor or we are looking at an embryonic beard. If the latter I look forward to seeing it once it has grown up. Is he seeking to adjust his image from brittle, surgical, forensic enfant terrible to cuddly uncle? If so that beard will classify as camouflage: not all beardies are avuncular, however cuddly they may look. Future adversaries beware.

What an opening! Beautifully conceived, and delivered dead-pan. Murray, the still image for this video notwithstanding, is habitually dead-pan and it works very well for him. In fact the weakest I have seen his presentation of arguments was not in a speech but once when interviewed by Mark Steyn. Being in the company of a good friend, and a funny one, he was smiling a lot and it seemed to take some of the edge off the points he was promoting.

He remains surgical. At 08:43 his withering, dismissive, dismantling of a fatuous children’s programme that the embarrassing BBC screened on the day Britain left the EU is a copybook example.

He and I have both recently been interviewed on the same podcast, though in different episodes. I wouldn’t presume to compare myself with him: he researches profoundly and has wonderful things to say whereas I am by nature a listener and tend to interview the interviewer. But we had something in common. Though both anxious about much in the world, we shared and expressed overall optimism. I said that I believed in people, which the interviewer paraphrased as “the wisdom of crowds”, the title of a book by James Surowiecki who may be appearing before long on this blog.

The title of Douglas Murray’s latest book, which I heartily recommend, is The Madness of Crowds. If that title seems to contradict my view of people the book’s content doesn’t, and nor do the closing stages of this characteristically excellent speech.

Patrick Moore must be heard

On 19 June, 2015, Ideacity opened its annual conference with a talk by Patrick Moore.

Anyone who has read any of Moore’s books, heard any of his speeches, or follows him on Twitter (I qualify on all three) knows what to expect. Those who haven’t heard of him get introduced by Moses Znaimer before the speech, and Moore himself fills in the gaps in his opening.

Nevertheless I have issues with that opening…

Znaimer’s introduction is very fine, containing personal reminiscence and just enough biographical material of Moore to tantalise us into wanting to hear the talk. It conveys respect, even affection, is shot from the hip, and short.

Moore’s opening bristles with unmistakeable nerve symptoms. I’m not surprised that he is nervous: every speaker experiences a Hump. But I expected someone of his experience to have developed better techniques to disguise it. It looks as if he has made an attempt by reciting the first couple of minutes by rote. The trouble is that he is uttering the rote like an automaton, and that’s one of the nerve symptoms. I rush to rescue: here’s some advice…

He kicks off with autobiographical ethos. Ethos is good, autobiography is good, automaton aside he does it pretty well, but contrary to widespread opinion there is no divine edict that says it has to be at the beginning. In fact there is a strong case to avoid autobiographical material at the very beginning.

Nerves are a form of vanity because you are concerned with what the audience thinks of you. A very good defence against nerves is to force yourself to think not of yourself but to focus on your message and the audience, and how they are bonding. How do you possibly not think of yourself when you’re talking about yourself? Enter the James Bond Film Opening, because it makes you hold up the autobiographical ethos for a minute or two till the Hump has receded. It’s much easier to talk about yourself after the nerves have been tamed and put in their place.

How about something like this? “It was wet and cold, and all things considered a bad time to be bobbing about in the middle of the ocean in an inflatable boat, trying to face down a Russian harpoon gun…” Continue in this vein for around a minute (avoiding the word “I”), then, “Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.” Swing into the existing opening.

I can come up with many more suggestions. These things are easily fixed, and every speaker should be at the top of his game from the starting gun.

Moore approaches the top of his game about two thirds through his opening, and the talk comes into its own at 5:00. It lifts still higher with the onset of passion, and never looks back.

The planet’s environment is hugely important, but all sensible and informed scientific study has been hijacked and swamped. The warmist establishment has such a political stranglehold on mainstream media that people never hear the dissenting science. Society suffers, particularly the poorest, and by a cruel irony so does the environment.

This is why voices like Patrick Moore’s must be heard.

Yavuz Aydın and sinister pairing

On 18 February, 2020, at the 12th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, there was a plenary address from Yavuz Aydin. He was a Judge in Turkey till the attempted Coup d’État in July 2016, when he was one of tens of thousands of victims of a purge by the Erdoğan administration.

I remember little of detail about that attempted coup, its news having been rather buried under the British reaction to the result of the EU referendum a couple of weeks earlier. Nevertheless I do recall – cynic that I am – how it seemed after its failure to have had for Erdogan the markings of what students of politics call a ‘beneficial crisis’.

At this moment Turkey is heavily in the headlines, as it attempts to help huge numbers of migrants pour into Europe via Greece. So let’s see if we can learn something more about the Turkish government, if only from a source that may have a jaded view of it.

I am also interested to see how a senior and experienced jurist puts his case in a foreign language.

What a gentle, audience-friendly, opening! The slightly shy smile and soft tone are exactly what are needed to generate audience empathy. It may be his genuine natural self, though I wonder whether he looked and sounded like that when sentencing convicted felons.

The way he lays out his story of the mass purge is beautiful. He makes his narrative clearer than the finest crystal. I am impressed. And then at around the seven minute mark everything changes.

He admits it: he says that he’d intended to make this all about himself, but now there were more important matters to cover. The silken narrative gives way to a stumbled, fumbled, rather garbled description of children being drowned trying to cross the sea to freedom in Europe.

The interesting thing is that though this is now rather messy, it is not a jot less compelling. It confirms what I often say to my trainees that passion is worth buckets of technique. It is a very fine address indeed.

But I have a personal conundrum.

Probably because I spend my life helping people express themselves, I have an interest in something called ‘idiom pairs’. These are pairs of words, often clichés, that colloquially are joined at the hip. At root they come in two distinct categories –

  • Antonyms: words that are opposites – e.g. “high and low”
  • Synonyms: words that essentially mean the same – e.g. “bright and shiny”

But often overlooked is a mysterious third category, and this concerns pairs of words that are perceived absolutely to belong together but often actually don’t. For example, “rich and famous”. We all know of many famous people who are definitely not rich, and rich people who shun publicity; and yet that idiom pair is rooted deep in our culture. It is trying to consider why that interests saddos like me. So where am I leading with this?

Aydin repeatedly rattles off a pair of words, obviously translated literally from the idiom of his own language – “judges and prosecutors”. Not “judges and lawyers”, but “judges and prosecutors” suggesting that they are two sides of the same coin. For one brought up in a culture of adversarial, supposedly impartial justice and innocent-till-proved-guilty I find that faintly sinister.

But that’s just me.

Gautam Kalghatgi can’t talk.

Professor Gautam Kalghatgi is one of those rare people whose letters after their name use more ink than the name itself. You could say that he’s been wearing himself down by degrees.

Gautam Kalghatgi, FREng, FSAE, FIMechE, CEng (YouTube adds FISEES, and you can also add B.Tech and Ph.D. if you want) is a visiting professor at … you name it; and on 4 February this year he addressed the Global Warming Policy Foundation with a talk entitled Is it Really the End of the Internal Combustion Engine?

Since he appears to know everything about everything else, you’d expect him to know about Public Speaking. You’d be wrong. He hasn’t the first clue, which is sad because he has important information to impart.

In the first few seconds Kalghatgi tells us that he has been delivering this talk for about a year and a half. This forty two minute video feels longer than that. The term “bogged down in detail” could have been invented for him. For a sample, I suggest you click to 16:50, and read through all of the slide you find there. There are sixteen of those.

In my training to business leaders I offer a great deal of advice about presenting reports like this. That advice can be summed up thus –

  • Don’t try to recount, précis or summarise it.
  • Trail it.

When there is a wealth of data (and there always is), attempting to précis it is futile and the closer you get to succeeding the more counterproductive it becomes. Offer hard copy of the report and devote the talk to persuading the audience to read it. Then they can mark, learn, and inwardly digest at their own speed.

I talk of trailing it – like a movie. We’ve all seen movie trailers: they don’t tell the story, otherwise we wouldn’t bother to see the film. Instead they cherrypick the sexiest shots and leave us wanting more … so we buy our tickets and see the film. I’m sure you follow the point.

So stand, don’t sit like he does, never stare at a screen, still less at paper, but look at your audience and seduce them into being eager to read your report. Use broad brush strokes, the sooner to reach your conclusion, making assertions without justifying them but declaring that all justifications and references are to be found in the hard copy. Yes it’s slightly easier said than done, but not much if you have the right guidance.

Kalghatgi tries to précis, or rather he tries to recount all, the detail on those sixteen slides. He stumbles, loses the next slide, loses his place on slides, careers all over the place. He is a VoiceOver for his own slideshow, playing second fiddle. It is disastrous.

There are three ways to get benefit from this video. Kill the sound, pause on each slide, read it at your own pace, and then spin the video on to the next slide; or turn away, look at the wall, and merely listen; and the third way is to note his email address (he gives it at 00:57) and send for the hard copy. Otherwise you are likely to be asleep in minutes, knocked over by data overload – I’m serious.

But now here’s the killer! It’s worth doing. The information he has amassed, with his wealth of learning and research is immensely important. That’s the only reason I can conceive for anyone wanting him to come and talk. The trouble is that it’s quite a good one.

Victor Davis Hanson, naturally

On 10 November, 2019, the Jewish Leadership Conference was addressed by Victor Davis Hanson. His talk was entitled Israel and the Muscular Spirit of the West.

I’m interested to hear him speak. I have dipped into his blog Private Papers, and also enjoy his podcast The Classicist, and found him supremely articulate; but that doesn’t mean that his effectiveness in front of an audience can be taken for granted.

The introduction is read by Jonathan Silver and I have a suspicion that these are not his own words. I advise my trainees that, if they are due to speak at a conference and the organisers request biographical information in order to assist them in preparing an introduction, they should instead actually write and send the whole introduction themselves. There are advantages for everyone here: the introducer is saved a difficult task and the speaker has – as it were – set his own starting blocks. I would not be surprised if Hanson wrote this: the relevance to the talk is spookily insightful.

Hanson’s Hump betrays its existence in the way he fiddles unnecessarily with the mic, but he very quickly settles down.

In the first minute he attributes his youthful interest in the classics to autodidactic reading. I immediately wonder if his auto didacticism spilled over into teaching himself to speak in public. He shoots this entire speech from the hip, thus persuading me that this is probably what he always does. Could it be that he discovered for himself how easy that is? If so, that might explain something else.

As a speaker he gives every impression of being a Natural and, as I have previously mentioned on this blog, that is a two-edged sword. I teach ordinary mortals to be able to speak without notes by disciplining them to structure their material in easily remembered ways. Naturals don’t need that: they know that they can simply stand there and speak. The trouble is that without that disciplined structure some of the coherence can be lost from the message. It is at least as important for the audience that the material be easily remembered.

About two thirds of the way through this speech it rambles a little, and makes me wish he had divided it into clearer chapters in order to keep himself in check. I’m ok: I can watch it again (and have and shall yet again) but the audience in the hall can’t. The material is fantastically interesting, and otherwise so well argued, that it is tragic if any goes AWOL through his losing even a few seconds of his audience’s attention.

This is one of those occasions that the high quality of a speaker makes me get super-picky. He has so much of value to impart, that being damn good is not enough. He owes it to his own scholarship to match its excellence.