Roger Kimball – full of wise saws and modern instances

Ever since I read his book, The Fortunes of PermanenceI’ve wanted to find out whether Roger Kimball speaks as well as he writes. That book is a series of essays, collected around a loose narrative, and his writing is of a quality that makes you luxuriate in it.  With Wikipedia claiming that he lectures widely, I felt it should be easy enough to find an example. As often happens I found plenty of examples of interviews, but almost no speeches. Here is one to the Alexander Hamilton Institute.

This not so much a speech, or even a lecture. It is more the presentation of a paper. Roger Kimball is being a talking head. There have been other examples on this blog of people whose writing is outstanding, but who seem unable or unwilling to change to the conventions, skill and language of speech. I immediately think of Brendan O’Neill and Mark Steyn. But this is somehow different, and the reason is in something I mentioned earlier. He is presenting a paper, and it can be argued that this is an activity with different ground rules. Furthermore, his market buys it: you could hear a pin drop in that audience (except when he gets a laugh from them).

Look at the progress bar on that embedded video and you will think you are in for a long haul; but though it is long it is not the 1 hour and 17 minutes as shown. He starts at the 10 minute mark, after a fulsome introduction by Professor Robert Paquette, and ends two minutes past the hour: the rest is questions.

Speaking of timing, here’s a note to everyone who organises events with speeches. Have a clock that is working, correct and visible from the lectern.  Kimball is professional enough to remove his watch and place it on the lectern, but he should not have had to.

The speech is entitled Numismatics and Limited Government. What have coins to do with limited government? He explains, beginning at around 13:15.

The main body of the speech is a tripartite study of the function of government, and the three headings are Democracy, Equality and Freedom. It is a beautifully elegant piece of writing, delivered in cool, calm, measured tones, but it is not a speech.

It could have been. It could easily have been shot from the hip. Some of the supremely elegant phrasing might have gone missing (though I am by no means convinced of that), but the trade-off would have been a version of the message that was driven by a more transparent conviction. I know the conviction is there, having read that book. The audience is likewise convinced – they have gone there to hear him. But I’d like to see him sway a sceptical audience, and I don’t think he’d have done so with this performance.

At 37:10 he swings into the saddle of a hobby horse that I remember having read. “Benevolence,” he claims, “flatters the vanity of those who espouse it…It is the heroin of The Enlightened, because it is intoxicating, addictive, expensive and ruinous.” Now that’s the sort of concept that takes some selling in today’s political climate, and it needs a particular brand of energy to have a hope of prevailing. It’s the sort of energy that can only be shot from the hip.

Mark Steyn – brilliant, but he must tend to the spoke not to the wrote.

Mark Steyn is a Canadian journalist. He is a contrarian that actually believes in freedom and democracy, rather than the cushioned cages offered by the world’s fashionable western bureaucracies.

On 29 February, 2012 he was speaking at a meeting of the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

English as she is spoke and English as she is wrote are subtly different languages. One of these days I shall write a full-scale essay on the subject; but for now I’d just like to return to a theme that I have oft – that’s apocope, if you’re interested – oft explored concerning a speaker being a talking head.

Steyn is reading his speech. He doesn’t read all of it: now and then his face addresses the room and he goes off on one. When he does, the speech comes alive. The rest of the time it comparatively lacks oomph.

On other occasions in this blog I’ve highlighted a range of advantages to constructing your speech in such a fashion that you have a clear enough mind-map for you to shoot the whole thing from the hip –

  • Audiences love it
  • It frees you to adjust the material on the hoof
  • If your face isn’t forever looking down, you are less likely to pop your microphone
  • It says all the right things about your command of the subject, confidence, sincerity, spontaneity,
  • It forces you to structure the material in a format that you can remember, and as a byproduct you make it easier for your audience to digest.
  • etc.

This speech is only 35 minutes long, and if he had been taught how to do it Steyn could easily have shot it all from the hip.

I’d like to add to that list of bullet-points another factor that comes into play here. It amounts to a challenge. I suggested earlier that there was a lingual difference between written and spoken English. I contend that you can close your eyes, listen to Steyn, and know when he is speaking and when he is reading. There’s a difference in the rhythm, the intensity, the sheer energy that comes out of the words. There’s even a difference in the words. This is where those who have been taught, or taught themselves, skilfully to handle paper too often fail.

Mark Steyn handles paper better than Brendan O’Neill and less well than Boris; but till he finds himself having to make a range of different speeches, day after day, it’s a wasted, indeed counter-productive skill. The skill he needs is learning to do without, and it continues to amaze me how few have it. In nearly fifty postings on this blog barely a handful of speakers have delivered without paper.

He writes brilliantly. He speaks very well, but less brilliantly. If he would only learn how to speak without paper, and trust himself to do it, his speaking would rise to the quality of his writing.

I will admit that there are occasions where it is appropriate, in fact better, to read the material. If you are quoting someone else at length, then by all means unashamedly do that from paper. I mention this because there is just such an example in this speech. At 9:35 Steyn quotes David Icke in an hilarious section that I would not have missed for anything.

In fact, I would not have missed the whole speech. It is brilliant; but particularly when he shoots from the hip.

P.S. [added 14/3/13] Since posting this, I have seen several instances of Steyn speaking without paper. He can do it. So why did he not do it here? I can only assume that he felt this high-profile event required greater security. That’s a mistake: paperless speaking, properly prepared, is actually more secure than its scripted equivalent.

Brendan O’Neill – should shed the paper.

This is from the Auracle newsletter of July ’12

As I sometimes do I was browsing one evening in a desultory fashion through YouTube, wondering whether I might happen upon interesting material.  I did.  What caught my eye was the name Brendan O’Neill. He is the editor of Spiked, one of the online newspapers that I sometimes read; and though I don’t always agree with what he and his paper say I enjoy the maverick muscularity with which it is argued.

I was eager to discover whether he carried that characteristic through into his speaking. I like mavericks. I came across two speeches that he made in the past year.  Firstly let’s look at one he delivered at St Stephen’s Club in Westminster on 7 September.

He’s a talking head. He’s reading a script. His natural medium is writing so he has written this speech as a script, enjoyed turning some well-crafted sentences, and now he’s regurgitating it orally. Anyone who has done a course with me, read The Face & Tripod, or just read this blog knows how ferociously eager I am to tear paper props away from speakers. This speech contains some pleasing bits of writing and I would have enjoyed reading it, but I absolutely don’t want to hear it.  I want him shooting from the hip.  He wants it too, though he doesn’t know it.  Look how uncomfortable he is. He never stops fidgeting; and it’s that particular brand of fidgeting that indicates a want of inner calm. You may remember I pointed to Boris Johnson’s unwittingly displaying stress by rubbing the back of his head. O’Neill does it at 1.55, and again later several times.

Shortly after the 8-minute mark he begins lifting his eyes for longer periods from his script, and every time the quality of his speaking lifts also. As he passes 10 minutes there’s very little dependence on the script, and the delivery becomes immeasurably better. Look how well he narrates the Notting Hill Carnival incident. He is following Cardinal 1: he has ‘something to say’ and he is shooting it from the hip. He could not be illustrating more clearly the case that I repeatedly make to trainees, and also made in The Face & Tripod, for throwing away your paper.

Now let us examine a speech he made in a debate at last year’s Wilderness Festival. The motion is “New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving”, and O’Neill is speaking for it. My comments are largely the same as for the previous, except this time with added microphone popping. This last point is not entirely his fault. As he begins, someone is still crouching in front of him adjusting the microphone. He speaks too loudly for a microphone and, though we might sympathise with his having to cope with speaking in a tent, he spoke too loudly also in the previous speech.  He needs to work on microphone technique.

He concludes his carefully scripted-and-read presentation, and then from 7:35 onwards he is cross-examined. Essentially therefore we are into Q&A. Now he has no choice but to shoot from the hip; and of course he becomes a different speaker, a much better one. Now he is absolutely proving that scriptless he is not only coherent and articulate but also that he still spontaneously trots out the well-turned phrases.

Using a script is for him worse than useless, because not only is it unnecessary not only does it rob him of his spontaneity, but it acts as a screen between him and his audience.  He does not need to read his speeches. He does not need paper.  He needs to learn how to do without it.  He needs The Face & Tripod.