Getting picky with Adam Afriyie

On 26 March 2018, the AltFi London Summit had its opening keynote speech from Adam Afriyie MP.

That’s what I call a snappy introduction. It’s hard to be certain but it looks to me as if it is made by David Stevenson, Executive Director of AltFi, and he is to be congratulated on not fannying around but getting the speaker quickly onto the platform.

Every speaker has what I call a Hump, that brief period of extra nervousness at the beginning of a speech. Find me a speaker that appears not to, and I’ll find you one that has got good at disguising and abbreviating it.

There are some effective hump-busting techniques, but opening with something light, fluffy and inconsequential is not one of them. It may make for an amusing opening, and be admirable for that, but counter-intuitively it won’t help the nerves. The reason is that while drawing a chuckle or two from the audience you are also procrastinating the moment that you address the meat of your message; and that is when the hump will recede.

Afriyie opens with thanks for the invitation, moves into a little joke that is too overt to get a laugh so early in the proceedings (but which he salvages by throwing it away), an assurance that his talk will be brief to allow time for questions, and a nano-biography by way of ethos. The biog morphs into a description of the parliamentary group which he chairs. That last happens at 1:27, and up till then he is hump-bound. The second he gets into the terms of reference of his parliamentary group he’s on a roll – a good one – that carries him through to the end of an excellent speech.

I don’t want to delve into the subtle body-language hump-symptoms that I read, but there is one clear signal that everyone can see when I point it out. He has bullet-point notes on the lectern, which is infinitely better than having a script, and he looks down at them before telling us that he is Member of Parliament for Windsor. Does he need to do that? Does he not know? Or is that a classic security-blanket impulse? We know the answer. Once on a roll he barely glances at his notes again.

If I were advising him I would have him opening baldly with – e.g. “Good morning, I’m Chair of the all-party group…etc” Had he done that his hump would have lasted barely ten seconds instead of a minute and a half, and all those things in his hump-bound preamble he could have slid in later if necessary.

I’ve said it before in this blog, and I sincerely hope I’ll say it again …

I get this picky only when they’re good.

Tim Scott: engaging and sincere

On 8 August 2019 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube a video of an Address and Q&A by United States Senator, Tim Scott.

I like coming across speeches by someone of whom I have never previously heard. I start with a blank slate and no preconceptions.

Good start! Having said no more than “Good Evening” he comes out from behind the lectern to stand in the centre aisle, empty handed. He’s going to shoot this from the hip. A proper speaker.

I notice that for the first few seconds he has one hand in a pocket and the other gesturing. Every speaker needs a default position for his hands, where to put them in the event he finds himself suddenly conscious of them. Pockets are one of the options, and it works for him because in seconds he has forgotten them and both hands are out gesturing freely and unselfconsciously.

His opening salvo is ethos; autobiographical and dealing with his childhood in poverty. This can easily be mawkish, cringe-inducing victimhood-claiming, but not here. He handles the subject with disinterested objectivity, not just telling us that he had no money but that he wasted a great deal of time at school, not doing any work. After seven years of drifting he was turned around by two people: his mother, who was prepared to apply tough love, and the inspiration of a mentor.

So he reaches his political career, and one of its principal thrusts for the benefit of the community – the provision of opportunity.

Scott has grasped one of the things I keep drilling into my trainees: it’s just talking. We can dress up public speaking with all manner of mystique, and certainly there are techniques we can use to embellish it, but at root it is just talking.

He stands there in that aisle and just talks. He has a simple structure which is broadly chronological, and that carries the narrative along. I would like to see the address more firmly underpinned with a clear single message, not least because it would bring that narrative into sharper focus, but still he puts himself across as an engaging and sincere fellow and that makes us want to listen and learn.

In many ways it is the Q&A that follows the address that sharpens the focus, not least because of the quality of the questioning. The young woman chairing the session is to be congratulated.

Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.

Nimco Ali – professional

It was in The Eden Project, in Cornwall in England in June 2018, that today’s speech was delivered as part of a 5 x 15 session. These sessions consist of five speakers speaking for fifteen minutes each.

Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, campaigns tirelessly against FGM.

I am immediately impressed before I watch any of her speaking that, although an introduction is included, the video is just a smidgeon over 14 minutes in length. It is shamefully unusual for speakers at any event to finish so comfortably within their allotted time.

The YouTube posting does not tell us who does the introduction. Whoever it is has presence, is personable, but is strangely uncomfortable with the role. Barely a minute to speak, but reads it all, stumbles over it, and has lousy microphone technique. I feel sorry for her because she is clearly not at ease when she could so easily be.

Ali on the other hand shows herself supremely comfortable in front of an audience. She’s the type of speaker that shoots from the hip and relaxes the audience immediately, partly from her confident demeanour, and partly through meeting her subject head-on. “All I do is talk about vaginas.”

She tells us she is a survivor of FGM, but strengthens her ethos immeasurably by her apparent insouciance towards her experience. She displays no simpering victimhood, describing the operation as “stupid” and “weird”, while several faces in her audience register horror. That’s very effective, casting her as admirably objective.

Most importantly she speaks with her audience, addressing them almost as if across a coffee table. It’s a style of speaking that comes from the right mindset and it works. I am not in the least surprised by her success at getting politicians to listen, “I got David Cameron to say the word, clitoris. I also got £36m out of him to fund an African campaign.”

I will finish as I started on this speech. Along with everything I’ve said about her speaking ability she has speaking discipline. Her allotted time was 15 minutes. After her introduction she began at 01:24, she grabbed her audience, told them what she wanted them to hear, even getting a few laughs out of them, stopped, concluded with a 2-minute video and the whole thing lasted 14:02 minutes. That’s a level of professionalism that you seldom get even from professionals.

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.

 

Mosab Yousef: a disrupter

The scene is a United Nations Human Rights Council Debate on 25 September, 2017. The council is filled overwhelmingly with people harbouring a shared obsession. Accordingly here they can spew out poison, couched in diplomacy-speak, safe in the belief that no one will gainsay them. Let us watch.

The difficulty with that video is in trying to concentrate on what the lone voice says while being gloriously distracted by the reactions of those who have hitherto been enjoying their cosy hate-fest. We heard that his presence at this debate is to represent United Nations Watch whom we have followed in the previous two postings here and here, and whose terms of reference are to do precisely what this man is doing. But who is he? His name is Mosab Yousef, and he can answer the rest for himself. He is speaking at a multicultural summit in Garden City, Kansas in 2016.

This video appears to have been topped’n’tailed so losing the opening and closing. Or Yousef has deployed a beautiful bald opening. Either way the student of public speaking can see how powerful a bald opening can be. “The mystery of life…” is a fabulous way to start.

It has also been edited: you can easily identify many, unsettlingly many,  edit points. I like to believe that this was not to censor him but to shorten the video a little.

I love the quiet, pensive, almost hesitant way he is delivering. This decorum conveys a level of sincerity that is seldom seen so transparently on a speaking platform.

The speech appears to be essentially autobiographical, pure ethos, and perhaps the editing was intended to restrict the video to that. For me it certainly fleshes out the image of the character who so rudely disrupted the well-manicured diplomats at the UN.

Nevertheless there is also a crucial, kernel, takeaway message between 4:18 and 6:12. If enough people reflected upon this it could become far more disruptive than his contribution to that UN debate.

Greg Lukianoff and the 1st Amendment

I have lost count of the number times I have covered on this blog speeches extolling the virtues, or condemning the restriction, of free speech. I can though remember the first time: it was in November 2012 and a Christopher Hitchens speech which he had delivered at a debate in 2006. Here we are, twelve years after that debate, and free speech is under worse attack than ever.

My interest in the subject must be obvious. My occupation is my obsession and based on communication. In my opinion anyone who strives to curtail communication is either imbecilic or possessed of dangerously questionable motives; and it seems that most of western academia, officialdom, and too many of our political representatives can be thus categorised. It’s worse than depressing: it’s frightening.

I hate the word ‘hate’ when it is used as a legal adjective.

Here we see a lecture on Free Speech delivered by Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE – The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It was at Williams College, Massachusetts, in April 2014.

Check out the size of the audience!

As part of his opening ethos Lukianoff amusingly introduces himself as a specialist 1st Amendment lawyer. We in Britain do not have a 1st Amendment: we do not even have a written Constitution to amend. What this lecture tells us is that even with full constitutional backup to protect it the USA has free speech problems pretty much as severe as ours.

Generally I would disapprove of his slides carrying so much verbiage, because of the risk that the speaker can find himself in competition with himself. But when he sticks important, historic, Supreme Court rulings on the screen, then to quote key passages from them I have to say I think it works by dint of the weight of the passages.

I find him a joy to listen to because he lays out his arguments with stunning clarity, but then he’s a lawyer. In half an hour I find the whole free speech thing more cogently expressed than I have heard elsewhere.

He actually goes on for more than half an hour, finishing and inviting questions at 34:30, but the last four minutes are specifically aimed at American students and the benefits of FIRE membership. Then it’s questions.

This speech was four years ago, since when these matters have appeared to have got worse even though the official political culture, if not the culture of  academe, has turned through 180 degrees. For my own private interest I must go and find what he is saying now.