Josh Hawley and Civics

The process continues of nomination leading to appointment of a new Associate Justice to fill the US Supreme Court chair that was vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The President’s nominee is Amy Coney Barrett, who appeared on this blog two weeks ago.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearing a week ago on 12 October with an opening statement by Sen. Josh Hawley.

As Judge Coney Barrett will not be speaking at this point, her face is largely covered by a mask. Hawley’s opening sentences of welcome are warm and friendly, and Coney Barrett smiles in response. How do we know that a masked person is smiling? Because the person in question smiles with her eyes. I find that appealing and significant.

Hawley congratulates her on how calmly she has coped with the nomination process this far, and swings immediately into how the media, and some politicians have focussed on her Catholicism, and whether that will influence her legal decisions. My reaction is that surely no one reaches this legal level if their reputation contains even a sniff of that sort, but this is not where Hawley is going.

Hawley (a lawyer himself) goes to Article VI of the US Constitution which specifically prohibits any religious test attaching to office, and so we get a Civics lecture. He makes the point that being an Article, this precedes the Bill of Rights and accordingly is a cornerstone of the very edifice of the United States. (It occurs to me therefore that any questions that are put to Coney Barrett about her faith are unconstitutional regardless of her answers.) He hails this freedom of faith as being one of the hallmarks of American Exceptionalism.

Hailing, as I do, from a country where even today the monarch or even someone too near it may not be a catholic (not that the monarch has any political power) I marvel at the foresight and wisdom of the US Founding Fathers at building this, nearly a quarter of a millennium ago, into the very bones of their body politic.

This is a good speech, looking forward to constructive questions concerning Coney Barrett’s legal credentials, legal philosophy, and her approach to the law. Hawley closes with the fervent wish that this confirmation process will see the final cessation of any faith issues attaching to appointment to office.

Marjorie Dannenfelser’s vital job

The 2019 CPAC – The Conservative Political Action Conference – was held at the Gaylord National Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland. One of the speakers was Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of Susan B. Anthony List, and author of Life is Winning.

I didn’t chance upon this speech: I went looking for it. I had heard Dannenfelser being interviewed by Ann McElhinney on the Ann & Phelim Scoop, one of my favourite podcasts. Dannenfelser was articulate and engaging being interviewed, so I wanted to see how well she spoke from the platform.

Why the script? I’ve heard her spontaneously speaking fluently, persuasively, even movingly with an interviewer, so what makes her think she needs bloody paper to speak with an audience?

In fairness she isn’t alone. I’ve lost count of the speakers on this blog that are manifestly capable of losing the paper like a proper speaker, but don’t realise it. They don’t realise that merely by structuring the material into a secure mind-map they can enable themselves to stand and look at, and spontaneously engage with, their audience with no paper in the way.

Then the speech would become a live conversation as opposed to a regurgitation of something she did earlier. What she is doing here is the speaking equivalent of miming to a record. She’s reading the script pretty well, but compared to what she should be doing it’s sterile and forgettable. I’d defy any listener an hour later to repeat in any detail what this speech says. The reason is that when she wrote it she wasn’t addressing an audience but a computer screen.

And, though she’d never believe it till she’d been shown how and tried it, shooting a speech from the hip is not only far more persuasive but actually easier.

For me, witnessing this, it is agony because the speech could not be more important. About twenty years ago, in Britain, one of the chief political topics involved the banning of fox-hunting. I remember arguing with a left-leaning friend who declared that posterity would regard hunting the way we regard slavery. I protested that it was nothing like as evil.

But abortion is.

I’ve never forgotten how I wept when listening to the self-same Ann McElhinney’s speech when I covered it on this blog two years ago. I believe that future generations will regard our wholesale slaughter of unborn babies with the same revulsion with which today we regard slavery.

If you consider that term ‘wholesale slaughter’ to be too strong, what else would you call close to a million killings per year in the USA alone? And spare me that disgusting slogan “my body, my choice”: the foetus has its own, separate DNA. It’s already a different person. Its body belongs to itself, and no one is asking its choice.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is doing an immeasurably important job. I just want her to be even better at communicating it to audiences.

Amy Coney Barrett and SCOTUS

At Jacksonville University on November 3, 2016 – a handful of days before that year’s US Presidential Election – the Public Policy Institute’s Hesburgh Lecture was delivered by Law Professor, Amy Coney Barrett. She was there to discuss the questions and ramifications of the choices the new POTUS would have in replacing Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice who had recently died.

Here we are today, less than a handful of weeks from the next Presidential election. We know who was appointed by President Trump to succeed Scalia: it was Neil Gorsuch. We also remember the outrageous pantomime in 1918 that accompanied the nomination and appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy. And now, with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump has nominated her successor to be Amy Coney Barrett.

The chance to hear the nominee herself – albeit four years ago – lecturing on this is too good to squander.

The Lecture is introduced first by Rick Mullaney, Director of the Institute, who hands over at 1:38 to Pat Kilbane whose task is to introduce the speaker herself. She begins at 4:07, speaks till 18:08, and this is followed by Q&A.

I am often asked about speakers’ mannerisms, and what can be done about them. Over the decades my position has changed a little and now reached a point where essentially I tell speakers not to worry about the existence of a mannerism, only that the audience has noticed it. If you are interesting enough any mannerism becomes unnoticeable to the audience. So what you do about a mannerism is you make your talk more interesting.

Can your vocal quality be a mannerism? If so, Barrett has a mannerism. In the first seconds of my hearing her speak it was almost like Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, in Singin’ in the Rain. That voice has a sharp, acidic, squeaky quality that, despite my conviction on the subject, had me thinking she needed voice coaching like Margaret Thatcher. I was wrong: my conviction was right. Within a minute or two the sound of her voice had become irrelevant, swamped by the value of what she was saying. I never noticed it again. Were I advising her I would tell her to ignore it.

When you have an audience that mixes experts with lay people, leaving you wondering where to pitch the technical scholarship of your arguments, you should do two things: pitch to the least expert and tell the audience you are going to. Barrett does both. There then remains the Einstein challenge: Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain it to a five-year-old you don’t really understand it yourself. What I know about law in general, and the US Constitution and SCOTUS in particular, equates roughly to the square root of not a lot. Yet I managed easily to follow everything she said, and was so absorbed that when she finished and sat with Rick Mullaney for the Q&A, I stayed with it.

It was interesting, enlightening, and fascinating to hear her four-years-younger self explaining to us what could now be facing her.

Is she a good candidate for the position? Don’t know: don’t care. I know nothing of the subject and have zero influence over it. But I can say with a little authority that she is a fine speaker.

Also, Einstein would have been proud.

David Webb: sober maturity.

Early in 2015 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the United States is Institutionally Racist. One of the speakers opposing the motion was David Webb.

Webb opens by reading a quotation whose sentiments are often expressed as if they are a new discovery. The quotation comes from Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915), and makes the point that supposed grievances are too often fostered by those whose livelihoods depend on the grievances.

Webb’s speaking delivery might at first seem ponderous, but very quickly I realise that this measured way of speaking is a function of his economy with words and his refusal to get caught up in wild histrionics. Also it is consistent with his stated determination always to dig to the root of a problem as distinct from leaping on emotional bandwagons.

Though it is slightly startling to find this message from five and a half years ago resonating so strongly today, I like Webb’s sober and mature use of language. It is a pleasure to hear it.

I like this speech.

Simon Sinek is very good indeed.

“Best Speech of all Time” howled the strap-line. “Oh yeah?” I thought, “how many times have I seen that claim?”

With the thousands of speeches I’ve watched on line I couldn’t estimate how many were heralded by superlatives, but I could count on one hand how many lived up to them. The best speeches tend to speak for themselves rather than asking clickbait headlines to do it for them.

Then I saw that it was Simon Sinek. I’ve seen some very interesting things from Sinek, I’ve even given some trainees the link to his Golden Circles TED talk. Suddenly I was less cynical.

He’s speaking about leadership. I can remember only one previous speech on this blog, claiming specifically to train leaders. That speaker wouldn’t recognise leadership qualities if they stood up in her soup. I have better expectations this time.

Regular readers of this blog will immediately know my first impression.

Bald opening + shooting from the hip = proper speaker.

But there’s much more to support that. He is manifestly far more focussed on his message, his audience, and how the one is influencing the other, than he is on himself. That indicates the ideal speaker’s mindset, but there’s more still. His material is beautifully constructed for maximum digestibility. His mix of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know, hard data leavened by illustrative anecdotage and parallels, is really masterly. He’s a joy to watch.

My problem is that, with a blog to write and my rhetor instincts glowing from the quality I am witnessing, I have no time to reflect on his arguments, though what I have registered deserves reflection. I must remember to return to listen again at my leisure.

So is it the best speech of all time? No, of course not. The nature of this medium means that there can never be such a thing, but it is really very good indeed.

Joel Kotkin: a proper speaker

It was on 23 February, 2010, that Revelle Forum at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, hosted a talk by Joel Kotkin. He had recently published The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and that was the subject of his talk.

Kotkin has very recently published The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, a warning to the global middle class, and there are several interesting recent interviews with him to be found on that subject, but this blog is about public speaking. Also I am keen to learn what he was projecting ten years ago.

There’s a double introduction: Dan Atkinson introduces Mary Walshok who in turn introduces Joel Kotkin, so we learn two layers of ethos before the main event even begins at 4:10.

Beginning to talk while still on the way to the lectern is a trick we’ve seen before on this blog (though it was a long time ago). Researching other speeches by Kotkin suggests to me that it may be a habit of his. It’s a good one, conveying a range of positive things like enthusiasm to get on with it, and it’s a neat device for relaxing the audience.

He leans on the lectern, and regularly looks down at it, but something tells me that this is a mannerism as distinct from his need to keep prompting himself by looking at whatever might be written there. If I am right, then he has nothing to concern him. Mannerisms are irrelevant unless they bother the audience, and they won’t do that if the talk is interesting enough. Within a short while even I am caught up in what he has to say, so it’s a non-problem. I am sure he’s shooting from the hip – and therefore in my eyes a proper speaker.

I stop making rhetor-style notes within five minutes of his starting, and simply sit and listen till he stops at 42:50. At that stage he swings into Q&A.

Even with the benefit of ten years of hindsight, I found this very interesting and well-delivered. It will be even more interesting in ten more years.

Ricky Gervais has big boots.

The Golden Globes Awards in January of this year were greeted by press headlines about how the host, Ricky Gervais, had torn into the celebrities. He always does, so why the headlines? Or rather he always did, because he made the point several times in his opening speech that this was the last time.

Unless there’s a very good reason of topicality I tend not to be led by headlines, preferring to allow the dust to settle before I comment. Seven months is enough.

Up to 7:50 is Gervais’ opening speech, and the rest is a series of chained-together snippets from between awards.

The “Roast” is a very American custom, with usually a single guest/target. I have watched very many, but seldom, (if ever) covered them in the blog. They are usually very good, very funny, but so steeped in in-jokes that there’s nothing for me to say. This is different. Gervais is roasting a large room full of over-paid performing fleas, and holding little back. Any viewer who watches movies understands the jokes, as does anyone who is abreast of the news.

Consider his available ammunition: the reputation that Hollywood – indeed California – has for being absurdly over-woke and addicted to virtue signalling, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, the private-jetting around the world to preach about the environment, the list is endless. Gervais overlooks nothing.

‘Cancel culture’ has too many tiptoeing around the truth. The problem with tiptoeing is that you are easily knocked over. Gervais has big boots on, is unapologetic, and doesn’t care – even says so repeatedly.

He also understands something else that is particularly crucial. Actors as a general rule are not very bright. There are a few honourable exceptions, but they tend to be the ones that restrict their activities to the arts pages and keep their own counsel over other matters. They allow their professional performances to do their speaking for them. They tend to rise above, and stay away from, gatherings like this. Actors tend also to be desperately insecure, needing to be oft seen and photographed lest they be forgotten. So they clamour to be allowed to come here and be insulted.

Gervais is pretty skilled and holds his audience where he wants it, but he’s not infallible. I advise my trainees never to pause on a punchline, and he almost never does. Watch at 4:20, where he has a little routine ending at 4:27. He pauses at the end of it, and dies just a little. Compare that to 7:10 –

Most of you spent less time at school than Greta Thunberg

He piles straight on, and is rewarded with a nice little laugh which he ignores and goes for the big one which is bleeped, but we already know what’s coming. So does the audience which goes wild.

Are we sure that was really the last time? How much are they going to offer him to insult them again?

America’s Frontline Doctors heard

On 27 July, on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, a group of white-coated people gathered to conduct a press conference. They called themselves America’s Frontline Doctors, and their videoed presentation was introduced by Congressman Ralph Norman from South Carolina. Within a handful of hours the video had gone viral, and within twenty-four hours it had been banned by social media companies.

Have the cretins who order these bans never heard of the Streisand Effect? The immediate impact of the banning is to invite the question “why?”, and in searching for an answer to “why” far more people go out of their way to listen than would otherwise have done. I am one of them.

Mark Zuckerberg, in answer to a question at a Congressional hearing, said

We do prohibit content that will lead to imminent risk of harm…

Sounds reasonable, but who decides? I am prepared to believe that there is a Facebook medical panel. I am unable to list any of its members, but I am able to list the doctors in this video.


Ralph Norman hands over to Dr Simone Gold. We later hear from Dr Bob Hamilton, Dr Stella Immanuel, Dr James Todaro, and Dr Joseph Ladapo. They are worth hearing, making “why?” even more of a conundrum.

I spent a little time searching for doctors who had arguments to gainsay the ones in this video, and merely found several people targeting these doctors with argumentum ad hominem. I also found several more doctors saying very much the same thing as these.

Furthermore, I found this short video concerning the infamous article in The Lancet which was pulled only a few days after publication.

Nothing that I found proved that the doctors in the video (shooting all their speeches from the hip by the way) are right or that they are wrong, but it did suggest that there is an important debate to be had on the matter. It is always foolish not to pay close attention to information coming to you from the coalface, and even more foolish to act to silence it.

So finding myself still asking “why?” I ask myself Cui Bono? – who benefits? The only answer I can find is anyone who stands to gain from extending the crisis or from producing another prevention or cure and, in view of the medical, social and economic costs of this pandemic in the mean time, there are no pretty answers to that.

P.S. On 6 August it emerged that both Facebook and Twitter had censored the following video on the grounds that it contained “false claims”. Again, who decides? Is their information superior to that available to POTUS?

Andrew Roberts: masterly

At the end of June 2012, United States Army War College posted on YouTube a video of a lecture by British historian, Dr Andrew Roberts. I think we can assume the lecture took place at very much the same time. The lecture was entitled Why Hitler Lost the War.

Before even clicking to start the video I believe I spot something in the image below that emphasises to me Andrew Roberts’ Englishness. I think he’s wearing a Free Forester tie. Free Foresters is the name of a distinguished English Cricket Club.

Before we address the rhetor stuff let’s get one important thing out of the way. This talk is absolutely fascinating, and I wholeheartedly commend it. It makes me want to read The Storm of War, his book on which some of this talk is based.

Roberts has manifestly researched the subject to within an inch of its life, and has such a comprehensive command of it that he’s easily able to shoot the lecture from the hip. This man is a very fine speaker, and regular readers of this blog will know what therefore comes next. I am going to get super-picky – when they’re this good I always do.

Referring again to that still image of the video you will see that he has pointedly come out from behind the lectern, and placed a tiny piece of paper on its corner. That piece of paper is the target of my pickiness. It is his crib sheet.

I know what’s on it: a series of signpost words or phrases that indicate the path he wants the lecture to take. So far, no problem; I don’t so much mind its existence, but what it causes.

Very soon I can predict each time he is about to glance at it, because the smooth flow of the narrative has begun to fragment. He glances and moves on, but the fragmentation is still there for a sentence or two till he is back in his rhythm. This a sure sign that the speech is modular, a compilation of tried-and-tested modules.

Again I have no quarrel with that, modular structures work very well, but time and trouble has to be spent in building and refining bridges between the modules in order to smooth over the joins, maintain the narrative thread, and obviate the need for a crib sheet. If I were advising him I would concede that bridges can fail, particularly when adrenaline has a nasty habit of robbing you of some of your capacity to think on your feet, so his crib sheet might still be desirable. Nevertheless I’d suggest that he put it in his jacket pocket. Its very presence would reassure him, suppress the adrenaline, and make it redundant.

And there is another more prosaic problem with his crib sheet. On two or three occasions during the talk he produces The Storm of War, in order to read out where he has quoted things others have written. (In passing, this is one of the short list of circumstances where reading during a speech is not only acceptable but commendable.) When he does so he shows us that he needs reading spectacles (don’t we all). But understandably he doesn’t bother to use his glasses to glance at his crib sheet, and that could be causing each glance to be slightly more problematic. That crib sheet needs to be made redundant.

I told you I was going to get super-picky; but I now have a final bouquet to bestow. His finish, his final sentence, is masterly.

Jordan Peterson and thumbnails

About two years ago the Oxford Union invited Dr Jordan Peterson to deliver an address and Q&A. It was around the time that I had him on the blog before, and having re-read what I said I stand by it. I also see that I resolved to find more of his speeches, and am shamed that it took this long.

The general terms of reference I laid down for myself in this blog eight years ago, and have only occasionally broken, stated that I would focus on talks as distinct from Q&A. That is because most of my work is in helping people to succeed in the one-way traffic of a speech, because technically it differs hugely from the more familiar two-way traffic of conversation. I mention that because a glance at the way the stage was set, with two armchairs but no lectern, suggested that even though a talk was flagged this would be mainly Q&A. That impression was correct, and gloriously so.

He enters to an enthusiastic greeting, and acknowledges it graciously. That is followed by a brief exchange between him and the host. He assumes a 30-minute talk followed by Q&A, but the host suggests 15-20 minute talk. He immediately acquiesces, and launches straight into telling the audience he’ll be discussing hierarchies.

He is pensive, halting, repetitive in laying out his stall, and as he gets into his stride those three adjectives recede but never completely go away. He could have eliminated them completely and had a smooth, beautifully parsed monologue by having a script, but if he’d done so he’d have had difficulties in cutting down the talk from the expected 30 minutes.

Far more importantly it would have been glaringly obvious to everyone that he was sitting there merely regurgitating something he’d written previously, whereas here it is equally obvious that from a baseline of vast learning he is expressing ideas and concepts to which he has devoted a great deal of thought and is continuing to do even as he speaks. What we are seeing is transparent, spontaneous sincerity. What we are seeing, if you will forgive me a metaphor, is a live music recital as distinct from someone miming to a record. What we are seeing is the reason I continue to bang on about proper speakers not using paper, and why I tear paper out of the hands of my trainees. This is proper speaking, and everyone is capable of doing it.

Editing himself on the hoof he gets his talk down to about 10 minutes and then, for more than an hour, he takes questions. The questions are good. They probe and provoke, and he clearly revels in that. I find it riveting, but shall not even attempt to single out any points he makes. How do you précis something that is already academically concise?

Instead I’d like to praise his metaphor for low-resolution versus high-resolution examination of concepts. He speaks of low-resolution being thumbnail sketch overviews, and I like that. Inevitably I try applying it to myself. I am reassured that my habit of collecting masses of thumbnails (he’s got me doing it now) leaves enough space in my brain for high-resolution images reserved for work, family and principal interests, meanwhile enabling me to understand just enough when working with experts in their fields or listening to someone like him.