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.

Liam Halligan loses a slice

In March, 2018, nearly two years after the British people had handed their government their instruction to leave the EU, we still had not done so.

(Today more than two years after that, we still have not done so, though just over a week ago at the end of June we passed the deadline after which another extension of the transition may not be granted. Now, the rules state that on 31 December we leave – for better or worse – with whatever deal has been agreed, or without one. Back to 28 March 2018 …)

The Bruges Group held a conference, entitled Clean Brexit in Princess Alexandra Hall in London. One of the speakers was Liam Halligan.

If you clicked the link that I customarily attach to the speaker’s name, you will see that Halligan is a distinguished columnist and broadcaster. To most, that combination would guarantee that he crafts good arguments and can convey them to an auditorium. By no means is this necessarily true: broadcasting and public speaking are enormously different.

You need only glance at the still picture above to see that Halligan is reading his speech. Therefore before we hear a word we know that the speech is not as good as it could or should be. His website tells us he speaks often, but if he has not done himself the favour of learning how to dispense with paper then however good the words he will not do justice to their delivery – at least not to the bits that he reads. If only he knew how easy it is!

He starts well. It’s a funny opening. His self-deprecating summary of himself as an economist trips off his tongue with the smoothness of the oft-repeated, but I have no problem with that. Nor has he: thorough road-testing of such routines are what make them work. Then at 1:33 his eyes go down to his article and, no longer being spontaneous, a fat slice comes off the top of his stage presence.

As readers go, he’s a pretty good one. He’s expressive and lively, but he’s still a talking head. You could close your eyes and know from the sound alone that he’s regurgitating something he wrote previously.

But not always. At 6:26 he gets excited and doesn’t look down again for nine seconds. That may not seem much time, but for those nine seconds the whole tenor of the delivery lifts markedly.

Those nine seconds are also long enough to lose him his place in the script, and a lame pause ensues. For about the thousandth time on this blog I’m shouting at the screen, “Throw the bloody script away!” He could do it, easily: he just doesn’t know he could.

Otherwise, it’s not a bad speech.

Trevor Phillips and censorship

In February 2020, The Free Speech Union was founded by Toby Young. At the launch party, there was a speech from Trevor Phillips, who is the Chair of Index on Censorship.

Nice opening! One of the mantras that I drill into my trainees is that ultimately public speaking is just talking. Yes, there are differences between standing on a platform, speaking before an audience of hundreds, and chatting to friends over a cup of coffee, and it’s obviously worth exploring those differences, but still it’s just talking. Phillips, in this relaxed opening, embodies that philosophy. I repeat: nice opening.

Who edited this? I’m not just complaining about how many edit points there are, but how easy it is to spot them. I’m exercising my right of free speech when I declare that this has been edited with fists of ham.

This is a very good speech, prompted by bullet points on a smartphone to be sure but still a very good speech on a very important topic. I want to hear it, warts and all. I want to hear the real Trevor Phillips uttering the real words, all of them, because they’re good and wise words. I don’t want someone else’s idea of a sanitised version. I suspect that the removed bits are just a few “ums” and “errs”, but I want to hear those too. They are part of the authenticity. A string of obvious edit-points opens this up – with ludicrous irony – to accusations of censorship. Duh!

Raheem Kassam looks left

In August 2019 The America Conservative Union and Liberty Works brought CPAC to Australia. One of the speakers was Raheem Kassam.

Nice introduction, whoever that is. Quirky, funny, and above all short.

The introduction tells us that Kassam is likely to be jet lagged. Strangely enough I’ve found that jet-lag, far from ruining speeches, is often a beneficial source of peripheral stress. Perhaps it triggers an extra helping of adrenaline. The key to combatting it is to have had plenty of sleep. At any rate Kassam seems to be on the ball.

He conspicuously comes out from behind the lectern, wearing a clip-on lapel mic. Does this mean that he’s going to shoot this all from the hip? Not quite.

I become puzzled by how much of the time he is looking to the left (stage left: his left). I wonder whether the auditorium is asymmetric. That would be weird, but not entirely unknown. The hypothesis deflates when I see the lectern standing square to the stage. No there has to be another reason, and I soon spot it. He is being prompted by notes on the lectern – probably just bullet-points, judging by how seldom he looks, though he also conspicuously and correctly reads a quotation – so whether looking at the notes or not he is more comfortable with the lectern in view. That’s irrational: lecterns don’t walk away, but it is a less obvious symptom of let-lag.

There are two solutions. Discipline yourself always to monitor the whole arc of audience and/or learn to do without even bullet-points. From the quality of his speaking I suspect that he’s on top of both. He came out from behind the lectern, because he’s happier not having that between him and his audience. But then he decided to play safe with bullet points because these are special circumstances – jet-lag again.

Yes, jet-lag may not impair the speech, but it can introduce tiny tendencies that get spotted by sad specialists like me. Enough of all that; what about the speech itself?

It’s very good indeed, and delivered well. Worth watching. There’s stuff in there that is relevant to things going on right now.

Peter Shore is passionate

Some speeches featured on this blog are within days of delivery, some a few years old. Today’s is possibly the oldest, yet still as topical and relevant as can be.

This week forty-five years ago in 1975 was notable for both the momentous and the trivial. You may ponder on which was which. Snow on the Monday (yes, in June) caused the abandoning of first class cricket matches, and the UK rang to the strains of Don Estelle and Windsor Davies performing Whispering Grass. The Thursday of that week saw the UK going to the polls in a referendum to decide whether the country should remain in the European Economic Community, now called the European Union.

On Tuesday June 3rd, 1975, Labour Member of Parliament, the late Peter Shore, delivered a speech in The Oxford Union in a debate ahead of that referendum.

Wearing my rhetor hat I struggle with the sense that any negative observation would be impertinent. This is really an outstanding piece of passionate oratory, but …

It is also one of the clearest examples I have heard of a particular diction flaw. I refer to disproportionate syllable stress. In raising his voice to be heard throughout the hall, he heavily emphasises those syllables that should be stressed. So far so good: Peter Shore speaks with beautiful clarity, but he sometimes neglects the non-stress syllables to the point of virtual inaudibility.

Curiously it is a flaw to be most commonly found in speakers who are especially conscientious about their speaking. (One of the finest speakers around today, Daniel Hannan, commits this, and I have said so in this blog a couple of times. Ditto Barack Obama.) Also if you point out the sin to the sinners they deny it so vehemently that without a recording it is desperately difficult to persuade them of it. I understand their incredulity. Some years before this speech I was receiving training from a genius called Kate Fleming, and when she accused me of this I ferociously denied it till circumstances forced my hand. (There’s an account of that in my booklet, Every Word Heard.)

This speech is fantastic, and is made even more entertaining through the cutaway shots of – e.g. Jeremy Thorpe and Edward Heath. We first see the latter smiling smugly, and later again when the smile has gloriously frozen after Shore’s treatment. Is that Barbara Castle sitting in the background? Anyway I commend it to you.

Yes, that was an interesting week. The snow on the Monday cleared quickly, and by the weekend there had started a heatwave and accompanying drought. The drought continued, on and off – chiefly on – till the August Bank Holiday more than a year later.

The effects of that referendum are only just finishing now (Deus Volent).

Bryan Wolfmueller and the world-famous Bagophanes

I was contacted by Lee Proudlove, a vicar in Nottingham and a reader of this blog. Like most of his colleagues he has been transmitting during the lockdown live-streamed services and sermons, scrambling as best he can up the steep learning curve. For ideas he searched the internet and came across Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller. He sent me a link to a video Wolfmueller did for Palm Sunday.

Before I even clicked to start, I registered two things –

  1. Peripheral stress. I’ve addressed peripheral stress before on this blog. If you are not too comfortable or secure, or if there are other stimuli snatching at your concentration, it can do wonders for control of normal nerves by masking their significance. In this case Wolfmueller appears to have decided to drive while preaching.
  2. A name that was new to me, claiming to be world-famous? Bagophanes? What a hook to grab passers-by! Anyone with any curiosity is going to stop for a closer look. Why do you think I used it in the title of this posting?

Without yet having heard a word from him I suspected that Wolfmueller was a smart man. Therefore I pressed “start”.

He opens with a self-deprecating account of how he had recently accidentally recorded a sermon without audio. Self deprecation is good so long as it isn’t making pre-emptive excuses in advance of a lousy performance. My impression was that it wouldn’t be that. Then, settling down to watch the rest, I was struck by a key question. How many ‘takes’ was this recording going to be able to accommodate? Did he have time to go on driving around merely to feed a gimmick?

The more I watched, the more everything fell into place. He has found a way of doing these videos that really works for his personality and is likely to resonate well with most viewers. Explaining something while driving, or listening to someone doing it, is such a familiar experience for anyone interested that the implied environment is as comfortable as can be. Occasional hesitations and/or “erm”, while checking for traffic, are so predictable as not to be noticed. Far from trying for the ‘perfect take’ (which if he even achieved it would be relatively boring) his target is simply to use a single take, warts and all, to put across a story and a message in an easily digested and memorable way. His being personable enables him to do that, while making any flaws in his delivery part of its charm.

Ah yes, memorable! I tell my trainees that the easiest way to make a speech memorable is to give it what I call a Face, a single phrase or sentence by which it will be remembered. Wolfmueller has gone for a single word – Bagophanes! I believe I shall never forget it, if only by remembering his slightly naughty alternative pronunciation. (Actually, on my side of the pond his alternative pronunciation is marginally naughtier – two countries divided by a common language.) I shall not impede your enjoyment by explaining Bagophanes. Suffice it that he has significance to the Palm Sunday story.

Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech”, and many others have made similar observations, but repeatedly pausing for upwards of ten seconds is brave to the frontiers of foolhardiness. Wolfmueller does that here. I doubt he would in a pulpit, but it works now because though he is silent and still, the surrounding image of scenery and traffic is far from still. Therefore we instinctively accept that he is pausing to allow the world to pass while he reflects upon a carpenter’s son riding a donkey, surrounded by people crying “Hosannah”.

I was right: he’s a smart cookie, and a fine communicator. My thanks to Lee Proudlove for bringing him to my attention, and also for pointing out that book sitting in the middle of the car’s backseat, held there by its own seatbelt. Bryan Wolfmueller is a Lutheran pastor and that book is a biography of Martin Luther – his ever-present backseat driver.

Trey Gowdy: editor’s nightmare

Universal lockdown may be easing, but there’s still a dearth of new speeches being delivered. Never mind: I am enjoying exercising archeology and unearthing some interesting samples to examine.

Trey Gowdy is no stranger to this blog, having previously been featured twice – here and here. Though he has retired from US Congress he still appears on television, consulted on the ramifications of political news. Most recently this seems to concern stories surrounding “Obamagate” which is about the only topic that can elbow Covid to one side on American news broadcasts at the moment. The story seems destined to run and run.

I found two brilliant examples from a large supply of speeches Gowdy made in the House of Representatives, and after agonising over them I made my choice. They say very much the same thing, even though – if the backdrop is to be believed – they were delivered on different occasions. This makes me wonder whether the behaviour being described was a habit of that POTUS of the time. The other speech was even more dramatic, generated a standing ovation in the House, and is certainly worth watching. But the one below has one particular feature of interest for students of public speaking. (Incidentally, Gowdy does not say what the video title below suggests.)

In these times of political hyper-partisanship everyone who puts his head above the parapet will be attacked. One attack method involves being misquoted. Even when your words are recorded on video you can still be misquoted by being edited. In the past few days there was an example of an American news anchorman accusing the US Attorney General of not saying something he should have said, when the footage of him actually saying it had been removed from the report. It was clumsy and quickly exposed, but it demonstrates the danger.

Cutting out a portion of a recording is the quickest and easiest way of bending, altering, or even reversing the meaning of what was actually said. But there are evasive precautions that a speaker can adopt to make that more difficult to achieve; and, whether by accident or design, Gowdy habitually uses one of the easiest.

Once the editor has decided what he wants to remove, his principal difficulty is in finding suitable edit points at which he can cut out and then back in again without it being noticeable. (In passing, there are electronic devices that will spot editing, however well disguised, but here we are concerned just with what humans can hear.) By far the easiest edit points are in the tiny pauses between sentences, and removing whole sentences is the easiest way to adjust meaning without appearing to impede the speech flow. Those tiny inter-sentence pauses are therefore going to be the editor’s prime targets.

All the speaker has to do is not pause between sentences. If during a sensitive part of a speech you stick your pauses in shortly before the last couple of words of sentences, and then run straight through into the beginning of the next, you are giving a potential editor a hell of a headache.

If you listen carefully you will find Gowdy doing exactly that.

Listening carefully is worth it anyway, because this is one hell of a good speech.

Andrew Klavan: a polished sapphire.

Think about the people you want to be around. Think about everything that’s the opposite of shallow and trendy. Think about four years of conversations you’ll never forget. That’s Hillsdale College.

(from the website of Hillsdale College in Michigan)

As a courtesy I habitually supply explanatory links for people, places and publications involved in my blog posts. That’s the first time in more than 460 posts that I have been so impressed as to reproduce words from a venue’s website. In April 2019, at Hillsdale College Andrew Klavan delivered the speech we feature today.

Declaration of interest: I’m a fan of Klavan’s, having discovered him years ago via his Revolting Truth videos. I listen to his podcast, The Andrew Klavan Show with its ridiculous opening signature song, preceded by an even more ridiculous one-minute flight of absurdity that sometimes reduces even him to hysterics. He makes me laugh, makes me think, keeps me abreast of the goings-on over the pond. I also appreciated his autobiographical book, The Great Good Thing. I reveal all this to warn that there’s a danger that you might find me fawning.

Klavan begins at 2:00, following an introduction by Abby Liebing. She reads her introduction, and that’s ok given that introductions are more than 80% factual information. However, if I had guided her, I would have urged her to dare to face the audience and not the script when giving us her name because I’m certain she knows her own name well enough not to read it. Yes, of course, the paper is a security blanket; but we want to see her face.

Klavan’s speech ends at 33:12. There follows nearly the same amount of time for Q&A.

He reads his speech, and suddenly I’m torn. He reads better and more expressively than almost anyone I’ve heard. In fact in passing I reckon virtually all of his podcast is read from a script; but you have to listen very closely to spot it because he has really mastered the art of writing in spoken – a subtly different language from written – English.

The writing is magnificent. For instance at 10:10 Klavan brings up the question of abortion, and a few seconds later gives us in just one, short, jaw-dropping sentence the strongest argument I’ve heard that abortion must not be the mother’s choice. And it’s based not on theology but biology.

Would any of the speech’s brilliantly economic choice of words have been compromised if he had shot this speech from the hip? Possibly, but that would have been offset by the benefit of the words being transparently spontaneous. It would have been the same brain that conceived the words, albeit without the luxury of dwelling over each phrase, so right there is the compromise to be judged. The freshness of spontaneity or the sparkle of economy? An uncut diamond or a polished sapphire? That’s why I’m torn.

We can compare the two. At the beginning, from 2:42 Klavan morphs from the end of a brief thank-fest into some spontaneous musing on the state of society and whether it is appropriate to laugh at it. At 3:36 he moves to his script, and the colour minutely fades.

But now I doff my rhetor hat, become an ordinary audience member, and tell you that it is a stupendous speech. There are points here and there when I’d take issue with the detail of some of his arguments, but that’s part of the stimulus that makes it so enjoyable.

I often press the stop button when Q&A begins, but thinking I’d sample a little of it I then sampled all. Hillsdale College yields up some excellent questions. Most of them from students, but there is one questioner who describes himself as “seasoned”. We can see only the side of his head, but I reckon he’s slightly more seasoned than I, and I am more seasoned than Klavan. At any rate, Klavan for once is put on the back foot. His answer is pretty good but his body language suggests that it’s been a narrow thing. I’m glad I saw that.

I enjoyed the whole hour.