Autodidacticism

New Year (if I might be allowed to indulge in a cliché) is a time for reflection.

Here comes a reflective question. What really is the nature of this terror-inducing beastie, Public Speaking?

Here comes the answer. Stripped of all the mystique that gets in our way, it is just talking. That’s all.

I know it’s not quite the same as the other talking we spend our lives doing, because other details crash this party. For instance, you are standing while everyone else is sitting. You are facing in the opposite direction to everyone else who all just happen to be looking at you. You are the only one speaking – ah yes, there’s the respect that makes calamity…

Usual talking involves other people speaking also. Dialogue (another word for conversation which is what we’re used to) is a process whereby people feed each other with thoughts, ideas, questions to be answered, and so on – two-way traffic. This is monologue – one way traffic – ay, there’s the rub. You have to do all the talking for a period of time that doesn’t include prompting from anyone else.

So the first thing you need to learn is how to prepare your monologue so that –

  • you can deliver it like a proper speaker, in other words without script or notes,
  • you answer many of the questions they would have asked,
  • the audience can easily follow, understand, and remember what is said, and
  • both you and the audience can get full benefit from it.

That can be quickly and easily taught and learnt. The second thing is how to deliver it – a different matter altogether. 

Rubbish speakers speak at their audience; mediocre speakers speak to them; proper speakers speak with them. Speech delivery comes down to how well you can develop your relationship with your audience.

Your relationship: your audience. No one else’s; this is entirely your province. And the most persuasive, engaging, compelling you can be is you. The real you.

Oscar Wilde said, 

Be yourself; everyone else is taken. 

He was right. He also said, 

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

In that he was wrong. In his modishly brittle cynicism he was suggesting that you could be ‘natural’ only by posing; and that’s nonsense. Being natural is not so much difficult as scary, because certain guards need to be lowered. I’m not saying that you need to be bosom-buddies with everyone in the room, but each member of that audience should sense a connection of some sort. Built properly, an audience relationship can get quite personal.

So personal that learning how to build it should likewise be your province: no one else can reach inside you as well as you can. And that’s why I do not teach people their delivery. I enable them to teach themselves.

LOL Peter Ustinov

The key is to have a brilliant opening and a brilliant closing, and keep them as close as possible.

For many years I used to entertain public speaking seminar audiences with that quotation by Peter Ustinov; but I stopped when too many of my audience looked at me blankly, not having a clue who Peter Ustinov was (he died in 2004). That’s when I started suspecting I was getting old. I had the suspicion confirmed when, for the purposes of this posting, I started searching not only my own books but also the internet for the quotation in order to get the wording precisely correct. I couldn’t find it anywhere. The nearest I got was a similar observation by George Burns, and that was about sermons. (George Burns was – oh never mind, he died in 1996.)

So either I got it wrong all that time, or I am so ancient that I’ve become an incompetent searcher for quotations.

At any rate, for a little Christmas entertainment both for those of us who remember him and those who never had that benefit, here is his contribution to the ITV “An Audience With …” series. It dates from 1988. For me it might have been the inspiration for the acronym LOL.

Stand by to see what a great many celebrities looked like thirty years ago.

He’s unquestionably the finest raconteur I’ve ever seen. 

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.

 

Steve Bannon speaks.

A few days ago, the Oxford Union hosted a talk from Steve Bannon.

How many times have you seen film footage of Adolph Hitler making a speech? Same question re: Joseph Stalin: same question re: Mao Zedong. I fancy the three answers are likely to be, “many times”, “never”, “never”. Hitler is widely held to be the world’s most evil person in the 20th Century, whereas the other two still have substantial followings in their own countries and elsewhere. Hitler was diabolical, but in terms of the deaths he caused he was a non-starter compared with the other two. That for me is one of the strongest arguments against the No-Platform movement, because if someone really is evil the world and posterity need to hear from his own lips how evil. If they are no-platformed, doubt will remain.

Am I, with that paragraph, comparing Steve Bannon to people whose respective body-counts are in the tens of millions? No, I’m explaining why we should be keen to watch this speech.

He starts with an account of how on 18 September, 2008, in the Oval Office, the heads of the US Treasury and Goldman Sachs told the President, George W. Bush, that only an injection of one trillion dollars would save the world from economic collapse. That is a high-impact opening.

[Let’s take a moment to look at one trillion as a number. If you’d been counting one trillion dollar bills non-stop at one dollar a second, and had just finished, you’d have needed to start around 30,000 BC.]

Bannon speaks for a smidgeon under half-an-hour and the rest is questions. There are so many questions that in conscientiously answering them he over-runs his time and we learn that he misses his flight.

The speech is so important, as are the answers to the questions, that my critiquing seems impertinent, so I’ll keep it very brief.

I am delighted and not surprised that he speaks entirely without notes. His structure could be a little tidier, both to avoid repetition, therefore saving time, and to make his message(s) even more digestible for his audience.

During questions he ducks nothing, even welcoming the most confrontational. The only time he criticises a questioner is to tell him to stop reading his question and “speak from the heart”. I raise a cheer at that.

I congratulate the Oxford Union for this talk, as I did when they hosted Tommy Robinson. Their audience, both in the hall and on the internet, is grown-up enough to evaluate people on their own account, rather than being forced to rely on second-hand views in the media.