Jimmy Valvano: laugh, think, cry

For this, my 400th posting on the blog, it is appropriate that I choose something a little different, a little special. This is both. For one thing this speech is 25 years old, for another it has been viewed on YouTube nearly 4.5 million times. I was pointed at it by a trainee.

Jimmy Valvano, known to his fans as Jimmy V, was a legendary basketball coach in the USA. In 1992 he was diagnosed with cancer. On 4 March, 1993 he delivered this speech at Madison Square Garden, accepting the first Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

We are primed for an emotional experience by the adoration shown by the audience. We see him leaning on someone’s arm as he climbs the steps onto the stage, but otherwise there are no strong clues to his illness.

After retiring as a basketball coach he had another career as a motivational speaker, and it shows. This is no stranger to the speaking platform.

In his opening he makes the point that today he has no cue cards, and that makes me wonder whether he usually did. My theory, from other things he says, is that this free speaking shooting from the hip is not quite the norm for him, but I’m not surprised how easily he does it.

I remember, as quite a small boy, observing to my parents how invalids always seemed to be more cheerful than other people (at that time WWII was a very recent memory, so people with war injuries were all around). Here we have a man on the threshold of death lecturing us how we should maintain our happiness.

And look at the energy with which he does it! If there was little sign of his illness at the beginning there is absolutely none now. He is being swept along by the intensity of his message. 

His prime message is, “Don’t give up: don’t ever give up,” but there is another recurring theme – almost a mantra – in this speech. He urges us to make sure that every single day we laugh, we think, and we cry.

I’m reminded of another mantra that we hear all over the place, that we should treat each day as if it were our last. Jimmy V makes me realise that we should deliver each speech as if it were our last. The wonderful uninhibited freedom with which he delivers this must surely owe something to his being conscious that he has nothing to lose. 

This is a classic piece of speaking and – guess what? – it makes us laugh; it makes us think; and it makes us cry.

At the end we see several friends almost carrying him back down the steps off the stage, and now we can see how ill he is. He died on 28 April that year.

Tim Martin should give paper the bullet

Leave Means Leave, an organisation whose name gives us a strong clue that it is pro-Brexit, has been holding rallies around the UK for some months. On 14 December they held one in London, and on the bill was Tim Martin of Wetherspoons.

He claims that his accent is an amalgam of Northern Ireland and New Zealand. Those countries may be where he has spent most of his life, but I hear neither of those in his accent which is a one-off, but then Tim Martin is a one-off.

He has delivered speeches at other Leave Means Leave rallies and, having watched some, I can tell you that they essentially bear the same message. But they are not the same speech because the words he is using are different.

He is using a list of bullet points and then trusting himself to say the words that come to him. That causes glorious episodes of Martin speaking spontaneously with his audience, with all the desired symptoms of sincerity and command of his subject, but those glorious episodes are separated by self interruptions while he dons his specs and peers at his list of bullet points. I itch to show him how easily he could bin that bloody paper and then shoot the whole speech from the hip. He’s almost there already.

His audience loves him because he’s such a refreshing personality, and that personality pours across the footlights onto the floor of the hall.

Except while he’s peering at his bloody paper.

Yanis Varoufakis: Euro problem

In 2018 the Oxford Union hosted an address with Q&A from Yanis Varoufakis. Finding out the precise dates of these talks is never easy, and these days I have neither the time nor inclination to fish around, but I reckon that a few clues suggest it was mid-November.

The talk was entitled The Euro Has Never Been More Problematic.

Yes, well he’s done this before. 

He even makes it clear that he has spoken at the Oxford Union before. Yet at the beginning I still see nerve symptoms – tiny ones, admittedly, but it confirms that everyone experiences a hump. Better speakers hide it better and dismiss it more quickly, but everyone gets one.

This is a fine piece of speaking. It could be improved; for instance I found myself having to spool back a couple of times to clarify points he was making. His live audience couldn’t do that, and it indicates that his structure could be refined slightly.

When working on trainees’ structures, I usually do it under the guise of making it easier for them to deliver without prompting from script or notes. Nevertheless I also point out that good structure carries a more important byproduct of making the speech easier for the audience to follow, and we always need to keep an eye on that byproduct. Varoufakis has comfortably outgrown the need for paper prompting, so he needs to factor in a conscious effort to discipline his structure for coherence. Though he speaks excellent English, his accent adds a hurdle to his coherence. The hurdle is small, but it will be enlarged for those students in this audience for whom English is likewise not their first language.

[Regular readers of this blog will have spotted that when speakers are as good as this I just get more picky.]

I am reluctant to comment on what he says, because he makes his arguments very well as you’d expect from a politician. He has been round the block a few times, so he is well informed. Nevertheless what I call ‘politician blinkers’ cause him, in my opinion, to be misguided in two or three areas; but I’d rather not get bogged down in that.

The Oxford Union are to be congratulated yet again on platforming a good and wide range of speakers.

Lia Mills: out of the mouths …

In 2009 a twelve-year-old girl wrote an impassioned English class assignment. The assignment became a speech that was posted on YouTube and went viral. It was on the subject of abortion.

As we have often been told, the Pro-Choice movement cares for women and their right to choose. The death threats that immediately started being aimed at this girl and her family must therefore be classified as caring death-threats.

Lia Mills is now twenty-one years old and a Human Rights Activist with her own YouTube Channel. She is the author of An Inconvenient Life, an autobiography. It would seem therefore that the death threats didn’t work.

From the classic James Bond opening, via the epistrophe that begins at 0:53, through the disturbing statistics, and concluding with the quote by Horton (the Dr Seuss elephant) this is by any standards an outstanding speech.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

 

Shannon Bream makes me glad.

This will not be the first time on this blog that we have watched a speech from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. On the previous occasion Trey Gowdy was the speaker. Unsurprisingly, given Liberty’s Christian roots, that was a ringing call to the students to follow a lifelong path of Christian integrity.

In May 2013 the keynote speaker for their Commencement was Shannon Bream.

The introduction by Jerry Falwell Jr, President of the University, is suitably effusive, and concludes with a brief ceremony of conferring upon Shannon Bream a Doctorate of Communication. She begins speaking at 4:03.

As a programme anchor on TV Bream will have spoken to bigger audiences, but when you are broadcasting and can’t see your audience its size is just a number. At 4:20 we get a shot of the audience, crammed into a football stadium, and I wonder whether this is the largest live and visible audience that she has addressed.

In that same shot we see her Teleprompter screens. To me they are hugely significant.

In my work, though occasionally I and the trainee will work hard to develop new skills, the first, easiest, and commonest thing is to identify the trainee’s strengths in order to build them and play to them. Bream plays to her strengths.

She is reading from a Teleprompter, and doing it very well. Of course! That’s a skill she had to develop for her work.

The words she is reading are not in written English but in spoken English and sound spontaneous. Writing a script like that is a surprisingly difficult skill (so difficult that I find it quicker and easier to teach people to structure their material in such a way as to be able to speak spontaneously without writing it). Difficult or not, that’s also a skill she had to develop for her work.

She is speaking quickly. Most would sound less intelligible or even panicky at that pace, but again it’s an occupational skill for what she does for a living.

All this would be very difficult for nearly everyone, but she is making it seem like a walk in the park and succeeding wonderfully.

The only professional error I can identify is rather cheeky and based on the assumption that she is working to a fifteen minute slot. Starting at 4:03 and ending at 19:41 she over-runs by thirty-eight seconds. You think that’s splitting hairs? You’re right of course, though you would not have been had this been a broadcast. Airtime operates precisely to the second: under-running is manageable, over-running is not. Nevertheless, this is not broadcasting and she is playing to a window she knows to be elastic. I bet her timing is more accurate than anyone else who has done this speech.

Shannon Bream’s message is rather devout. That is appropriate in this setting, though many outside the setting would be a little uncomfortable with it. I would urge them nevertheless to pay close attention. You do not have to espouse the dogma to value the philosophy.

I’m glad I watched this.

 

Mohammad Tawhidi: worthy of salute

In March 2017, the Rotary Club of Adelaide, Australia, hosted a talk by Shaikh Mohammad Tawhidi. He styles himself the Imam of Peace, and I describe him as very brave.

We are not told who introduces him but he does a workmanlike job. Tawhidi comes to the microphone at 3:20, and opens with a pause. When he eventually speaks, it is at a measured pace. I am already becoming aware that this guy knows what he’s doing, so I’m not at all surprised when he speaks without notes.

On the other hand I am astounded at how brave he is. I shouldn’t have to make that observation. Other faiths accept it when their members identify ways in which their culture could be reformed, but Muslim agitators have claimed a unique right to do what they like, breaking any law, to punish those who fail to toe even their most extreme line; and western politicians, from Theresa May upwards, have disgracefully turned their back on their consciences to indulge them.

We in the west were brought up to understand that everyone should be equal before the law. Today, that is an assertion that can get you absurdly labelled a hate-stained extremist, and it is the politicians and their echo chamber in the media that are to blame. Desperately we search for some spark of courage and integrity among our political servants, and then happen upon it here in the form of an Imam. I salute him.

Tawhidi’s speech ends at 23:25, and then he goes to questions.

 

Liam Halligan and releasing the handbrake.

On 28 March, a year and a day before the UK is due to leave the EU, The Bruges Group was addressed by John Redwood and Liam Halligan. The former has been on this blog fairly recently, speaking at another event: the latter we will hear today.

Liam Halligan is co-author, with Gerard Lyons, of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense – Building a Post-Brexit Economy for All. The foreword was written by Gisela Stuart who was featured on this blog just last week.

If you glance at a summary of his career you will be in no doubt as to how highly regarded Halligan is, not only as an economist but as a journalist, author and broadcaster. In other words, not only does he know his stuff but he can communicate it. Nevertheless, addressing a live audience is quite different from those other media. Let’s watch.

[A little warning: the fx mic recording the audience reaction is turned too high at the beginning. Therefore turn your volume down before you start the video, and then up again after the applause.]

I’m not a fan of lengthy preambles, favouring what I call the Bald Opening (among other things it’s counter-intuitively good for the control of nerves). Nevertheless here the first 90 seconds is the best part of the opening, because Halligan is not staring at bloody paper. He may be a communicator and he has obviously learnt how to manage a round of applause, but he hasn’t been properly taught how to speak in public if he has to use notes or a script.

That’s not just my beating an idealogical drum: look for yourself how the best, most fluent, most engaging and compelling bits are the parenthetic sections where he lifts his eyes to the audience and just talks. Yes I know he reads very expressively, and he gets some well-deserved laughs, but it would have been even better without the paper. Hampered by paper it’s as if he is driving a car with the handbrake on. If he reads this he won’t believe it – they never do till I prove it to them – but it’s true.

And this speech deserves to be driven without the handbrake on, because it is a good and valuable speech. It has strong well-argued messages, full of properly researched data, everything such a speech should have … except the handbrake is on.

At 17:35, “I want to talk a little bit about No Deal…” he stops reading for more than a minute and a half, and indeed for some periods for the rest of the speech. Even when his eyes go down to the lectern he’s not always reading. You can tell by the tone of his voice, by his using spoken, as distinct from written, English – it’s a subtly different language – that this is Halligan himself speaking, not regurgitating something he’d written earlier. And those periods are always better.

This speech is nearly eight months old and Halligan was saying that though No Deal was not to be feared, an FTA was preferable. I wonder if he’d still say so. For me that argument has receded. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-Finance Minister, has repeatedly warned that the EU is not to be negotiated with; and day by day he is proved right. It now seems to me that a deal – any deal – has now become suspect if it is negotiated before we have left the EU.

WTO may mean some short-term disruption, but it also means…

  • no £39bn
  • no 585 pages of legalese to be combed through for hidden traps (taking time that could be better spent, preparing for WTO)
  • no small print
  • no more pretending that the Northern Irish border is a problem
  • and we might speculate on how long it will then be before the EU comes hammering on our door for an FTA.

And also, open to the world, the UK can then release its own handbrake.