Daniel Dennett should play to his strength

At the Global Atheist Convention, in Melbourne Australia, in April 2012, Daniel Dennett was one of the speakers. Having seen Dennett interviewed, and thereby having felt him to be not one of those faintly hysterical tub-thumpers that can so easily ruin one’s digestion, I was eager – my being a devout doubter – to see whether this talk might contain some new thinking. It was entitled How To Tell You’re an Atheist.

I like the opening. I call it ‘outflanking the subject’, and I commend it in my courses and seminars. For nearly 3 minutes he appears to be discussing something completely different, thus distributing a layer of mystery over the proceedings and inducing curiosity in his audience. When he reveals the link between that and the matter in hand the audience shows its pent-up satisfaction with applause – a full 8 seconds of it (8 seconds is Par for spontaneous applause).

We can’t see a lectern, but it seems clear that when he looks down he is being prompted. Though I’d always prefer a speaker to be not at all dependent upon paper, I have to admit he manages it very well. It all comes across as spontaneous. I like the epistrophe (“…noticed this pattern”) at 4.20.

He proceeds to narrate research he has done with preachers who are secret atheists, so I am unsurprised to hear Dan Barker‘s name cropping up. I can feel myself getting nervous lest his arguments are going to go down the same old weary paths.

He gets from the audience a couple of laughs that are just a little too easy. I remind myself that this is a conference about and for atheism, so he is addressing a very sympathetic crowd, but still audiences don’t laugh that readily unless they’re a little nervous – in need of reassurance.

Dennett feels no such concern. On the contrary, those laughs persuade him to play to the gallery. In order to mock some theist argument, he affects a silly voice. That is a mistake: such devices cheapen the image of the speaker not his opposition. If you are going to play silly voices, you need to be better at it than this. Also subtlety would help.

Just after 18:30 he begins getting a little more serious, and moves into discussing the work of The Clergy Project, a support group for priests who have lost their faith. Apart from that neat opening, this is the best part of the talk so far. Furthermore when he gets back to atheism he covers areas that are less puerile than earlier, and this is a relief.

In fact this talk suddenly gets quite worth while for a time, only collapsing in the final minute when he absurdly asserts that a sense of humour is the exclusive preserve of the non-believer. What is true is that while he may be a fine philosopher, as a comedian he … is a fine philosopher.

Why I like Prof Deepak Malhotra

On 23 April 2012, Prof. Deepak Malhotra delivered this talk to graduating MBA students at Harvard Business School.

I like this guy!

I like what he says and how he says it. Even if I didn’t agree with him I would like how he says it. He conveys just the right amount of conviction and authority without overflowing into dogma, and he achieves that with a judicious addition of sincere warmth. He is talking to the students about happiness, and begins by pointing out that even though they are at the very pinnacle of human privilege there’s a strong danger that they won’t proceed to be any happier than – say – underprivileged folk in starving and dangerous parts of the world. And he does that without launching a guilt trip.

He talks about the value of quitting a job, maybe being prepared to quit often. How are we supposed to know what occupation suits us till we try it? I find myself remembering a conversation I had with someone when in my twenties. My having listed the many occupations I had so far tried he drily asked me what I was going to do next. I eventually happened upon what was for me the best job in the world – but more of that later.

I’m a words person, and so is he. (I rather like the chance coincidence that this speech was delivered on the traditionally observed birthday of William Shakespeare.) His title for this talk is “Tragedy & Genius”, but he has gone back to etymological purity for both those words – I enjoy the obvious relish with which he explains them. He also uses the word, “Delta” unusually. Delta means different things to a classicist or a cartographer; but it means something else again to a mathematician, and here he uses it in this last sense. MBA students will certainly have studied profit margins, so he doesn’t bother to explain this meaning to them.

I like his blunt and assertive epistrophe on the word “genius” at 8:37. I like the anadiplosis with the word “conflict” at 21:05. Because he’s a words man I suspect he knows those terms, but both are deployed without a shadow of self-consciousness – in fact, probably unconsciously.

He is using slides. You can tell by the remote control in his hand; otherwise we would hardly know. Only a couple of times the camera zooms back enough for us to have a glimpse of what’s on the screen. And it doesn’t matter: we don’t need them! His structure is so clear and strong, his narrative thread so distinct, that for us the talk holds up easily with invisible visuals. Needless to say he needs no script, no notes, no signposts from the slides.

At 42:05 he invites questions without yet having closed the speech. My heart leaps! My trainees, or readers of The Face & Tripod, will know this is an obsession of mine. Put your Q&A at the end of the main body of the speech but before your closing – the book explains why. Speakers who do that are as rare as hens’ teeth, but he’s one of them.

I find it reassuring when I find this much mature wisdom in people the same age as my sons. It means there’s a chance – though I can’t judge them dispassionately – that they have it too. Also this speech causes me to examine closely my own feelings with regard to my work. What I find is the indescribable elation I feel when leaving at the end of a course; and I’ve stripped from someone the fear, inhibition, and a whole heap of other baggage that previously was holding them back. I shall never retire: I have the best job in the world.

I like that guy!

Ben Griffin – harnessed fury.

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. We have seen the opening speech by Ben Sullivan for the motion, and Rory Stewart against it. Today we watch Ben Griffin’s contribution to the proposition.

Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.                           Ambrose Bierce

That still picture of Griffin has cleverly selected the most benign facial expression in the video. His default is a ferocious scowl. Griffin is angry. His anger, however, is not “sudden, and quick in quarrel”. Griffin’s is long-term, cold, brooding, carefully considered fury. He has no plans to regret this speech.

If you do not know who he is, click his name in my first paragraph. You will find a bucketful of ethos. Right or wrong, Griffin has earned the right to speak as he does. In passing, while we are in my Glossary, just look at decorum and consider what he does to it.

This speech is profoundly uncomfortable for the listener; yet it is compulsive listening. Nearly nine minutes pass in a flash. We are left feeling battered and bruised but wiser.

At 4:00 Griffin launches into a long asyndeton catalogue of words that are so non-PC as to get him arrested anywhere else.

At 1:58 we have a close-up of Malcolm Rifkind. He has been British Secretary of State for Defence. What do we read into the intense concentration in his features? Is he thinking, “Yes, but”?  He has been in a position to view a bigger picture than Griffin; but I suspect he is welcoming an opportunity to be exposed to the stark reality of the coalface.

At 6:47 we have a close-up of a troubled Rory Stewart, the previous speaker. He is a politician but was a soldier. Though he is representing the opposing argument I get the strong impression that he and Griffin have at least as much common ground as disagreement.  I could say more, but here I must stick to Griffin.

What of Griffin as a speaker? He has so much to say that he epitomises the first chapter of my book, The Face & Tripod. We see how much that alone negates any failings elsewhere in his technique. What if I were asked to coach him? Would I try to improve his grammar or syntax? Would I hell! There are not that many mistakes, and those there are merely add muscle to the message (and that includes the single, hilarious malapropism). I might venture a few small adjustments to the sequence of the speech, but I am already basking in his use of anaphora and epistrophe. And what a peroration that is! Really my principal contribution would be to free him from his dependency on paper.

Meanwhile, it was a privilege to watch this speech. In fact the whole debate is shaping up with huge promise.

Malala Yousafzai – remarkable!

Four days ago on 12 July – her 16th birthday – Malala Yousafzai, wearing a shawl that had belonged to Benazir Bhutto, delivered a speech to the United Nations. On 9 October 2012, along with two classmates, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen, wanting to suppress the education of girls. I am reluctant to use terms like ‘icon’, still less ‘poster-girl’, but undeniably she quickly became a symbol for a struggle for freedom against forces of terrorism. Western governments and media seized her story; she was flown to Birmingham, UK, and treated in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The shooting incident did not parachute her from nowhere onto the world’s stage. Nor was the speech to the UN her first. She had blogged anonymously and spoken publicly for some years about the drive for education for Moslem girls. She had chaired public meetings, made videos. She featured in a 2009 TV documentary about The Taliban’s attempts to close down her school; and this public profile undoubtedly had something to do with her school van having been sprayed with bullets that day last October.

Immediately I have to marvel at the extraordinary assurance she shows in the opening minute. She has learnt how to convey confidence by opening with a very measured pace. She perfectly reflects the decorum of the setting. The only incongruity, if I might nit-pick, is in the words, “I don’t know where to begin my speech”. Oh yes she does!

At that second the camera cuts to three people sitting in reserved seats. In the middle is Ziauddin, her father; so I assume the others to be her brother and mother. I think we are observing whence this speech came. I don’t mean they wrote it for her or coached its delivery, though they may have made contributions; but we see the family unit that provided the nature, nurture and support that has put an astonishing degree of fire in this young belly, steel in her backbone and eloquence in her tongue. We can no more than guess at the constant peril in which they live at home in Pakistan.

Did I say steel in her backbone? Listen to the defiant auxesis with which she declaims from 4:35 that the bullets ignited thousands of voices in support of her campaign. Did I suggest that she knew exactly what she was doing in preparing this speech? Listen to the epistrophe that begins at 5:31, or the anaphora at 7:31

Does she know how to work a crowd? Listen to, and marvel at, the list of her heroes beginning at 6:30. That is a lesson in inclusivity. The list concludes with her parents and could be desperately saccharine, even emetic, in less skilful hands.

Her enunciation is excellent. Never does she sound over fastidious, yet every word gets across. At 9:03 the word “asked” has both the ‘k’ and the ‘d’ discreetly and effortlessly yet clearly uttered. She is really very good indeed.

If bullets do not silence her she has a distinguished future, but what will be the nature of that distinction? If I were to pray for her it would be for the wisdom of Solomon. As with the fictitious Dictator’s Speech by Charlie Chaplin that I critiqued a few weeks ago she, her talent and her message could be used to support many creeds and philosophies, not all of them benign though plausible and backed by immense political strength.

She will need that fire; she will need that steel; she will need that eloquence; she will need that wisdom.

Thomas Sowell. How I’d like to hear him today!

Thomas Sowell talks such abundant sense that I have long wanted to address one of his speeches on this blog. I have repeatedly tried to find a speech from recent years, but have failed. They exist online in transcript but not on video – unless a reader can show me differently. There are plenty of interviews with him on video. That requires a whole different discipline and if I ever get around to covering interview technique here I may return to him. Meanwhile he is addressing The Institute for World Capitalism in Jackson, Florida, in October 1993 – twenty years ago.

YouTube has two versions of this speech (which is just the first quarter of the full address). The other one includes a lengthy introduction and a brief preamble in which Sowell says that being introduced is like getting a sneak preview of one’s own obituary. I mention that because I am able to tell you authoritatively that this speech has a bald opening and is the better for it.

If you are going to lecture an audience on a subject it’s no bad thing to start with fundamental definitions. How fundamental depends on how you define ‘fundamental’. How far upstream should you go? Sowell starts with the Garden of Eden which is quite a long way upstream.

During his fundamental definition of economics he delivers a nice little (only two elements) epistrophe at 0:40. This makes me like him enough partially to forgive his use of a script – which he actually uses pretty discreetly. Nevertheless there is a strange, hesitant hiatus just after the one-minute mark. He tells us that “rationing is inherent whether it’s under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other kind of … method.” It’s almost as if he wanted to say “ism” instead of “method”. Had he done so he would have signalled that his list was another epistrophe – ending in “ism” – and I wish he had because the sentence would have been smoother. Which word was written in his script, I wonder?

At any rate, he concludes his definition with the statement, “Scarcity is the first lesson of economics.” Then he turns to politics in which the first lesson is, “…to forget the first lesson in economics”. He harvests a well-deserved laugh but more importantly signals the essential message of this address, which is that politicians tie themselves in knots in trying to bend economics to the expedients of their utopian philosophy; and this is, and always will be, ultimately futile.

Let us for the moment stand aside from whether we regard this message as palatable. The device of setting out your stall so clearly and so early in a speech is very effective, easy and obvious, but absurdly often overlooked. How often do we sit in an audience, trying to determine from the purple prose what it is that the speaker is actually trying to persuade us? Sowell, here and there, lacks some fluency and coherence (at least he did twenty years ago), but we are left in no doubt as to his message.

So let us return to whether it is palatable. I began this posting by opining that Sowell talks abundant sense. I am a fan of his aphorisms, which I deem as wise as they are unfashionable. You can find some here. Among them is this nugget, in which he acknowledges his unfashionability –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.

2012 Political Party Conferences

Last year I devoted two Auracle newsletters to analysing speeches from all four main party leaders. This year I restrict myself to brief summaries.

I can summarise them communally.  Much better all round than last year. I have to add a rider with an observation I have made before, namely that people in my niche – business executives – could not get away with spouting some of those toe-curling banalities. “I believe we should leave the world a better place than we found it.” Can you imagine the tumbleweed moment that would greet that if one of my trainees dared utter it? One of the party leaders did; and it was greeted with applause. Today I have firmly put their content beyond my brief.

I will address them chronologically.

Nigel Farage consistently fulfils Cardinal 1: he always has strong, clear messages. He was more matter-of-fact and less bellicose than he can be, and thus conveyed an air of increased maturity. Also he has learnt to avoid pulling silly faces to signal that he has a joke brewing. He remained dead-pan while describing van Rompuy as his good friend, and was rewarded with a bigger and better laugh.

Nick Clegg was incomparably better than his defensive, insipid and fractious offering to the March conference at The Sage.  From a good robust opening that culminated in 12-second applause at 2:32, on through a well-placed anaphora at 3:38, this was a very good speech.  He had notes, but he barely looked: he shot this speech from the hip.  No doubt the backdrop of party faithful (also present for Miliband) is something that focus groups and consultants have insisted upon; but not only do I dislike the practice, I feel sorry for the individuals concerned. Constantly on camera they have to sit still and look interested.  Imagine how many votes a yawn could cost!  I would like to work on Clegg’s diction.  It seems to be clear, but too much goes AWOL.

Ed Miliband presented a delivery that was light-years improved on last year. Someone (not I) has tried to get him into the ‘note-free conversational sincerity’ style that I preach. If you rammed me against a wall, demanding a guess, I’d hazard that a stand-up comic has been working with him. A monumental non sequitur in the first minute signalled to me that he was not as relaxed as he was trying to convey. Also sometimes this casual style looked a little as if it had been painted on by numbers as opposed to coming from within; but a huge amount of progress has been achieved. He included a pretty epistrophe, beginning at 17:00, but I shall not comment further on his material.

David Cameron drove me nuts last year with a dreadful trick of periodically delivering what was fondly believed to be a killer sentence straight to camera. It was excruciatingly smarmy. Clearly someone else thought so too, because this year that gimmick had been euthanized. We know he can speak without notes: he did it when campaigning for the party leadership. Why then was he using Autocue here? I think the answer probably has to do with shortage of time, the pressure of office, and large amounts of data. Though the delivery was less sexy than Miliband’s, it was more secure. He is evidently seeking to portray statesmanship while avoiding the epideictic nonsense that we found in All Gore a few posts ago.

I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for those that work on these speeches. It’s too easy for me to criticise from the wings. They have to thread their way through a horrendous minefield of competing criteria. If ever I were called in on a job like that, I would try very hard to restrict my terms of reference to diction and demeanour in delivery, and abdicate any responsibility for the rubbish they were called upon to utter. And that is why I shall very probably never be called.

Richard Dawkins urges a more romantic view of science

From Auracle Newsletter for February, 2012

I previously dwelt on a speech that Michael O’Leary had delivered in December ’11 at an EU convention on innovation. That same convention was also addressed by Prof. Richard Dawkins; and it is worth having a look at the lessons to be drawn from his speech.

It claims to be 20 minutes long, but the last 3 minutes are actually the following speaker’s introduction.

My book, The Face & Tripod is about the nuts and bolts of public speaking. This speech by Richard Dawkins illustrates very clearly how someone with otherwise all the right equipment to be a topflight speaker can fall short for the lack of some of those nuts and bolts. Here we have a scientist who has obviously delivered hundreds of lectures, and is quite comfortable on his feet in front of audiences. He has also developed a very successful secondary career as a communicator, having published several top-selling books. He has an excellent way with words, and knows how and where to find good ingredients for presentations. And yet…

Well let’s hold on the “and yet” for a moment, and first look at the good ingredients.

There’s a nice little gag starting at 1:28 about violinists’ arms. The gag deserves better than to die on its arse (please forgive a thespian expression which, though coarse, does describe the sensation very vividly).

At 2:18 I felt my interest begin to quicken in response to this progressing anaphora triad –

  • It’s worth it –
  • It’s worth the effort –
  • It’s worth the effort on behalf of the communicator – – –
  • and it’s worth noting that in the short time that he was uttering that his face stayed aloof from the lectern and he looked at his audience.

He shows us very clearly that he has a store of modules available for deployment.

  • There’s a good quotation from Einstein at 2:30.
  • There’s a fascinating geological timeline analogy starting at 12:20, and it follows a riveting piece about bats (the flying mammals – not cricket).
  • After what he tells us, beginning 14:30, I shall never again read anything about the Hadron Collider in quite the same way.
  • Etc.

Now let’s address the “and yet”…

One major problem is that the first 7 minutes are badly hampered by his reluctance to get his face properly out of his wretched script (what I call being a ‘talking head’).  I teach people to outgrow their need for paper assistance of any kind, so they no longer write scripts read scripts or learn scripts (that’s an epistrophe, by the way). Some people think they need scripts to keep themselves on track, others use them as comfort blankets. My impression is that Dawkins is in neither case. I think he is seeking to ensure that he gets the wording right to draw maximum benefit from a few carefully crafted sentences. That’s a mistake.

Speaking is not the same as writing. A reader goes at his own pace. Whether the reader is admiring the quality of the prose or merely being swept along by the narrative is up to him. Therefore the worst a writer does by taking inordinate pains to fashion beautiful sentences is waste his own time; the best he does is delight any reader who appreciates the result. The worst a speaker can do by being “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity” is ruin his show. A speaker’s audience has no choice but to go at the speaker’s pace, so the speaker has to make sure never to break the flow. A speaker’s audience member can never look back up the page to remind himself of anything, so the speaker has to make sure he never needs to. Though the two media of speaking and writing do have many techniques in common, they have at least as many differences.

What I’m saying is that following a script in order faithfully to relay brilliantly authored sentences is as foolish as any other reason, because doing it for any reason widens the gap between speaker and audience to a critical degree.  Back to Dawkins.

And then, at the 7-minute mark, everything is transformed when Dawkins begins to recount his experiences as editor of a scientific journal. His head rises, he looks at the room, he speaks with his audience rather than at it and he does it in spontaneous terms.  And this time he doesn’t retreat back to the script. The speech takes off, because now he is no longer a talking head. Now he is driving the narrative; and that is when some of those good modules begin arriving.

But even this improved section could be further improved with added coherence if he had a better understanding of good speaking structures. Individual bits are very good, but the overall shape is so amoebic as to render it frustratingly opaque. (And, curiously, he devotes some of those ten minutes to advocating better writing structures.)

Had he given the whole package a more graspable shape, he needn’t have had a script. He would have placed the violinist-arm gag in a better place and got a laugh with it.  He would have improved his relationship with his audience by narrowing the metaphorical gap between it and him, and by giving his speech a clarity that it otherwise lacked.  And he and the audience would have enjoyed themselves more.

Nuts and bolts! I found myself wanting to thrust a copy of F&T into his hands in the conviction that its analysis of nuts & bolts would remove all that stands between him and speaking excellence.

And he needs to learn about a FACE. Look at what he himself declares to be his main message –

We can learn to appreciate science just as we appreciate a great work of art or music.”

That’s not too bad in writing, but for a speaker it is a spiny thicket of dead wood. It needs to be lightened, tightened and brightened. Ask yourself how much more clearly that would get across to a live audience as –

“Science has beauty, just as art or music.”