Claire Fox. What a communicator!

On 20 July, 2016, less than a month after the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on whether the country should leave the confines of the European Union, a referendum that returned a decisive vote to leave, The Leeds Salon invited Claire Fox to discuss the implications of the vote.

Having heard her on James Delingpole’s podcast, talking nineteen to the dozen, I am astonished to see her handling a thick sheaf of papers on that lectern.

My immediate impulse is, “Whatever for? – she needs a script like a reindeer needs a hatstand“. And then that reaction is quickly chased by admiration at how well she nevertheless manages it.

If you are a regular reader you will know how I often invite you to close your eyes for a short time, while the video is running, to hear the full difference in the sound of a speaker when reading or not reading a script. Usually, when the speaker’s eyes go to the paper, all the life drains from the speaking. In Fox’s case the difference is so slight as to be almost dismissible. Almost.

I fully approve when she reads to quote what someone else has written or said. A speaker needs to get these things precisely right, and be seen to be doing so, but the rest of the time she is so fluent and coherent when eyeballing the audience that it’s a disappointment when she looks down to her script, even though she’s only half a notch less so.

The speech itself is brilliant! She really is a fabulous communicator. She starts by saying that she doesn’t know what will happen next. And then from the opening observation that negotiating seems to be one of the most telling skills hollowed out by membership of the EU (ain’t that the truth!), through the various ways that remainers have tried to explain away their loss, to the exciting future in prospect, she sweeps you along for half an hour. This speech was two years ago, when her principal concern was that the government might renege on invoking Article 50.

She was very perceptive, though I think she would today agree that she underestimated the establishment’s determination disgracefully to thwart the will of the people. They’re still fighting without shame, clearly showing us that we have our own swamp to drain.

The least disruptive route for the country now is surely just to abandon pretence of negotiating with people who do not intend to negotiate; walk away from the table; keep the £40 billion alimony that they had the cheek to demand; go straight to WTO rules (of which we already have plenty of experience and mechanisms in place); kick the dust off our shoes and rejoin the waiting world.

 

Steve Milloy is better than a voice-over

At the Heartland Institute‘s 12th International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC) on March 24, 2017, Steve Milloy presented a speech entitled “Resetting Climate Policy”.

I was interested to watch, because I have had a book of his (it’s an exposé of the EPA) on my wish list for longer than I care to admit, and have been following Milloy on Twitter in the mean time.

Speeches from Heartland’s various ICCCs have appeared in this blog for many years, during which time I have watched the production values on their videos go from ‘clunky’ to ‘seriously neat’. You have only to look at that ‘still’ on the video above to see how we get a simultaneous view of the speaker and his visual slide that is nearly as good as that of the live audience. I congratulate them.

I say “nearly” as good because in that window the slide occupies more space than the speaker.  You could argue that it needs to in order that all those words should be legible, and at that point I begin to quarrel with the speaker.

A convention has built over the years that seems to decree that it isn’t a serious presentation unless it is accompanied by slides smothered in verbiage. I fight with that every working day, because it means that the slides are in competition with the speaker for the audience’s attention and the speaker can become a voice-over for a slide-show.

At corporate presentations the speaker is very often presenting a report whose hard-copy contains a fat deck of slides, but that doesn’t mean the speaker has to use all (or any) of them in the presentation. The presentation should not attempt to précis the report but to trail it. The object is to persuade the audience to read the damn thing, and if your précis is too good they won’t.

Does Milloy’s audience at this presentation get a hard-copy of his slide deck? If so I would try to persuade him to leave at least most of the slides out of the presentation.

In Heartland’s defence I bet that most of their ICCC speakers’ slides are graphs, and graphs are when slides become invaluable and detail on them likewise, so I will forgive their dedicating most of the video space to slides.

But what of Milloy’s actual speech? It is very good. It is specifically aimed at his live audience which is knowledgeable on the subject matter, so he doesn’t faff around with unnecessary explanations – e.g. who Tony Heller is (I won’t either); and therefore he gets a whole lot more into the available time. This might leave some video viewers, who are eavesdroppers after all, scratching their heads but perhaps eager to become more knowledgeable.

Speaking of which I really must get on and read his book, Scare Pollution.

 

Barack Obama: dreadful DSS

It was an early morning of November, 1967, and I as an understudy was being frantically rehearsed to step up and take over a role in a very important theatre company at that day’s matinée. I was being rehearsed now by the company’s legendary voice-coach. I had already had some lessons with her but, at the age of twenty, I of course knew everything and had always argued that I wasn’t doing what she accused me of. Now, only hours from execution (so to speak), I changed my plea and asked for guidance.

My diction crime was Disproportionate Syllable Stress (DSS). It is particularly widespread among people who are trying to speak expressively. Today it is a bugbear of mine, and one of the worst offenders is today’s subject.

Barack Obama delivered this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Words in English, like in most western languages, have syllable stress. For example, the word itself – “syllable” – has three syllables, of which we stress the first. The other two are subordinated, but we still pronounce them and people still hear them.

Then up on a platform to make a speech, we raise our voices and in the process we hammer those stressed syllables. We should also hammer the subordinate ones, though proportionately less heavily, so that the audience hears the whole of every word.

DSS is when we don’t do all that.  The stressed syllables are hammered and the subordinate ones are left to look after themselves, so in that example what is heard is “syll – -“. Now let’s turn to Obama’s speech, and we don’t have to wait long for examples.

At 01:31 he says “It is a singular honour…” and our brains automatically fill in the gap and we think we hear all that, but what we actually hear is, “It is a singular hon-“

  • 01:56 “…and a few confess-“
  • 02:06 “I am a very good danc-“

This is just during the jokey opening. Once he gets to the meat of the speech more examples come thick and fast.

Because our brains are so adept at grasping the sense of a sentence and filling in the gaps for us we don’t notice – unless we happen to be a sad idiot like me who winces at each example. So you may think it doesn’t matter. But it is fundamentally bad practice, because the sense is not always obvious.

In a play I directed some years ago, a character had the following line, “Are you dissatisfied with my work?” to which the other character in the scene had to reply, “No.” I could not get the first character to pronounce audibly the first syllable of “dissatisfied”. It is a subordinate syllable and she persistently swallowed it. I eventually gave up, changed her word to “satisfied” and the other character’s reply to “Yes”.

All syllables matter, and Obama swallows far too many – usually the ends of words. To me it marks him out as a rank amateur. You’d have thought someone would have told him. Perhaps someone did and he didn’t believe it – any more than I did of myself all those years ago.

My excuse was the arrogance of  youth. What’s his?

Jen Kuznicki hidden by a script

In early July 2018 Jen Kuznicki delivered a speech in Toledo, Ohio. If the banner on the wall behind her is a clue, she was addressing a branch of the Tea Party.

If you ask a Tea Party member what the party stands for they will tell you small government, low taxes, personal freedom. Ask a leftist what it stands for they will tell you that they’re nazis. You can decide for yourself whether that tells you more about the Tea Party or leftists.

We join this halfway through a sentence. Kuznicki is telling the audience a little about herself. Rhetoricians call this Ethos. What to me is important is that she is talking to the audience. It may be a little halting, but so what? Her own real personality is coming through here, together with her personal charm. (I know she has plenty – I follow her on Twitter.)

But she doesn’t think she’s started  yet.

At 0:39 she turns to her script, and now she is no longer speaking to the audience. Her mouth is relaying to the audience what she wrote earlier. She is now just a talking head, and great swathes of her personal charm have gone AWOL.

She’s a journalist, and a good one. What she’s reading is good stuff, and she’s reading it pretty well. But it isn’t her! Her personality is hidden behind that bloody script.

She doesn’t need that script. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t. With just a little tweaking to the structure, and a little guidance she could come out from behind that script, even from behind that lectern, and really engage that audience shooting from the hip.

When the video cuts away at the end, we hear the beginnings of good applause. In her own account on her website she tells us that she received a standing ovation. I believe it: as I said, this is good stuff. But it could so easily have been immeasurably better if Jen Kuznicki, as distinct from a talking head representing Jen Kuznicki, had done the delivery.

I’m not angling for business: I’m seventy-one and trying to slow down. But if she contacts me through this blog I’ll happily arrange to give her a free hour’s Skype consultation to set her on her way to scriptless freedom. Just as her writing needs to be read, her voice – her voice – needs to be heard.

 

Nikki Haley: quietly tough

When Donald Trump became US President he made a great many appointments, as new incumbents to such an office do. One of the many things to have distinguished his administration from others, however, is how many appointees have subsequently been fired. This might appear to indicate that he got his first choices wrong, but there is another explanation. He could have chosen individuals with specific skillsets to address particular issues, and then replaced them with other specialists for other issues once the first ones had been dealt with.

The latter process is somewhat alien to the political mindset so few commentators seem to think in those terms, but Trump is not a politician. He operates as a businessman does, and a dispassionate evaluation of his administration thus far cannot but be impressed by how much he has achieved and how quickly.

Trump’s appointment of Nikki Haley to be US Ambassador to the United Nations was immediately interesting because her image is so different to that of the President. He hides astonishing astuteness behind a facade of boorish bluster. Her quiet, understated efficiency camouflages a resolve for which the cliché ‘steely’ is inadequate.

A feature of her Ambassadorship is the extent to which this quietly spoken woman has maintained such a high profile for the job, and it’s easy to see why. Whereas predecessors mouthed the usual mealy diplomatic platitudes, Haley doesn’t do mealy any more than Trump does. She coveys the toughest of messages … quietly. Let’s watch one example.

Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, makes the introduction, and comes fairly close to pre-empting Ambassador Haley’s announcement. Haley begins at 4:00.

Tiny error at the very beginning. Haley looks round fleetingly at Pompeo when thanking him. It’s one of those few things that feel right but look wrong. It feels right, because it conveys warmth. It looks wrong because it looks somehow weak. Spool back and you’ll see that Pompeo, with all his glowing compliments, never weakens his introduction by looking round at her.

It is a significant achievement to describe something as self-important as the UNHRC as “a cesspool of political bias” without sounding strident. Haley is equal to the task.

This speech is about fig leaves. Who needs ’em? The afore-mentioned cesspool has been using the USA as a fig leaf to convey respectability: too many think that the USA needs membership of the cesspool as a fig leaf to confirm their concern for human rights: and so on. Haley makes clear that the USA’s record on human rights is way better than the members of the UNHRC, and she is correct.

There’s a clear equivalent in the USA’s CO2 emissions record being better than any of those countries still espousing the preposterous Paris Agreement.

I opened with my rhetor hat on, and I’ll briefly re-don it to close.

My aversion to scripted speeches is well-known, but I acknowledge that sometimes scripts are necessary. I make that point in my book, heading the list of those circumstances with when the Press has a transcript of the speech. This is such an occasion, so I can’t criticise either Secretary Pompeo or Ambassador Haley for their scripts. But isn’t it interesting that arch-proponents of scripted speaking (and they exist!) try to give, as a principal reason, fluency and lack of stumbles. Both Pompeo and Haley  stumble here, and they do so in that particular way that readers stumble. Those speakers who shoot from the hip (and I bet that includes these two when circumstances permit) also stumble, but their stumbles are different and somehow more audience friendly.

Boris Johnson resignation

On 18 July, 2018, Boris Johnson made a statement in the British House of Commons, explaining why he had resigned the post of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

It was streamed live, and we have here the unedited video.

We’re greeted with the bear-garden noise that is characteristic of the House of Commons, and Boris raises his voice to come in over it. That, the tribute he then pays to the government department that he represented for a time, and the constant glowing praise to the Prime Minister (PM), are all par for the course for such a statement.

At around 01:30 the speech morphs seamlessly into addressing its main purpose.

Immediately it is clear that his theme here is to compare the Brexit proposal that emerged from the meeting at Chequers (the PM’s country house) the previous week to the Brexit speech made by the PM on 17 January 2017 at Lancaster House. Thus he sidesteps any accusation that he has changed his allegiance to the PM, and instead implies that she has changed her allegiance to her own stated aims.

He blames this on a “fog of self doubt” which has descended upon her, though he chooses not to analyse the source of the fog. He tells us how well Lancaster House was received not just by him but by commentators, the markets, our world allies, those in the Commonwealth and so on.

This speech is a very eloquent comparison of the bright, sunlit uplands of Lancaster House with the cringing defeatism of Chequers.

Boris points out that he had said at the Chequers meeting that he could not support the proposal on the table. What he does not say, because he does not need to, is that there is only one way for a Cabinet member publicly to refuse to support a Cabinet communique and that is to resign.

His principal message, indeed the Face of the speech, is that there is still time to return to the values of Lancaster House, and pledging his support he urges the PM to do so. It’s a very good speech.

But what of that “fog”? Whence came it?

Let us try to continue to play the game that everyone else has played by overlooking that the PM was a remainer in the referendum: let us take at face value her repeated assurances that Brexit meant Brexit. It requires a certain amount of credulousness because it inevitably assumes that the PM must be stupid, but let’s go down that route. What was she thinking when she surrounded herself with an extremist clique of Brexophobic civil servants and then allowed them to get ideas above their station? Wasn’t that “fog” inevitable?

Boris is right that it is not too late, but May is surely not the one any more. The administration needs a new broom.

Oliver Robinson: science and spirituality

On 5 July, 2018, at Swedenborg Hall in London, Dr Oliver Robinson launched his new book, Paths between Head and HeartIt is already available for pre-order, and will be released in the UK on 31 August and in the USA on 28 September.

Before we see Olly’s launch speech, and also in explanation of my using that diminutive of his name, I must declare an interest. Olly is my nephew and godson, I already have my copy of the book, and I’m enjoying reading it.

I find the subject matter so fascinating that it is a bit of a chore for me to wear my rhetor hat at all, but that’s what this blog is for so I’ll don it briefly.

He’s been here before, in April 2015. Apart from praising his overall speaking I got a little picky about over-use of visual slides, something that is widespread everywhere and almost universal in academe; and also I felt that he was trying to protect his nerves by adopting a persona mask which hid too much of his personality.

Here, he’s come out from behind any mask and is all the more engaging for it.

My guidance on any slide is that thinking it might add something is not enough: it should be included only if its absence would significantly impoverish that part of the speech. The danger of not following that principle is that you find yourself in competition with your own visuals. The editor of that video has limited our exposure to his slides, but I still think he has too many. (Speaking of editors, slides are very useful for hiding edit-points so his editor was probably grateful.)

There’s another factor here which I find interesting. I urge my trainees to speak with their audience, as opposed to at them. I also tell them that passion is worth buckets of technique. Here I am torn over whether his conveying his evident passion for the subject is causing him to lose some of the warmth that you get when you speak with the audience. It’s a balancing act, and the tightrope is very thin. I remind myself that he is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich, and that sort of lecturing tends to lean towards the at preposition to keep students paying attention. I’m in two minds.

On the other hand I am single-minded in wanting to discuss the subject matter of the talk and the book, because I find it fascinating.

On this blog I have covered several speeches from atheists, and I find it tedious that they persist in assuming atheism to be half of a binary choice, the other half being religion. That is intellectually idle: there is another choice. You can be spiritual without espousing a religion. In fact religions carry so much political and doctrinal baggage that their spiritual side gets easily overlooked.  Years ago on this blog I covered six adversarial speeches from an Oxford Union God Debate, and I don’t think the word ‘spirit’ came up once. All the atheists focussed on debunking the doctrine, and ignored the spiritual. They always seem to, and who’s to blame them when religions focus on doctrine also.

In September at Imperial College in London there will be an event consisting of a conversation between Alan Lightman and Richard Dawkins entitled Science and Religion – two truths or one? At a glance you might think they are covering the same ground as Olly, but they’re not. However interesting the event turns out to be that title assumes the same false binary choice and therefore signals a much narrower path.

Though I don’t see him often enough to sit and talk quietly I’ve known for some time of Olly’s interest in the relationship of science and spirituality. I have harboured an excitement to learn more of what he’s found. From this talk I expect to be in for a treat as I dig deeper into the book.