Mark Steyn: if it’s not the crusades…

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

That is the fourth time I have published that precise paragraph. The other three were for speeches from –

That is a roll of honour. I commend all their speeches. I also commend the fourth and last speech at this conference. It is from Mark Steyn.

Though I am certain the conference organisers selected their speakers purely on the strength of their manifest commitment to free speech, they could scarcely have offered up a greater range of tone colour. Compare for instance Murray to Steyn. Where the one fences with an epée the other wields a knobkerry. Don’t try to decree which is more effective: just enjoy the contrast.

Nice opening! I have made a similar observation in this blog concerning the diction of those for whom English is not their first language.

In a formidable communication armoury Steyn has one astonishing skill. He is able to recount the most horrendous stories using dry humour in a way that attracts many little laughs from the audience right up to the moment he unleashes the punchline; and he does it without reducing the horror of the story. He displays this skill repeatedly in this speech, but never more tellingly that in his account of Molly Norris, beginning at 3:50. The most serious section in the whole speech begins at 27:00 where, paradoxically, he is talking about jokes.

My trainees, or readers of my book The Face & Tripod will know the value that I place on making a speech possess a Face. Steyn gives this speech a Face by quoting George Bush.

If it’s not the crusades it’s the cartoons

It’s a good speech. Like all of the speeches at this conference it’s an important speech.

Watch it.

At the beginning of this series of four blog-postings I said that I saluted everyone connected with this conference in Copenhagen last September. Now, after several hours of watching and re-watching those speeches and becoming rather attached to that androgynous figure that is the logo of Trykkefrihedsselskabet constantly overlooking the lectern, I do more.

I applaud them.

Douglas Murray and excellence

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

Taking speakers in the same sequence as in the conference, we have thus far watched speeches from Henryk Broder from Germany and Vebjørn Selbekk from Norway. Today’s speaker is from Britain. He is a man who has appeared on this blog so often that it is almost time to give him his own parking space. The last time was only two weeks ago. He is Douglas Murray.

Excellent speaking is nigh impossible to define. It is this intangible, illusive thing that I earn my living helping people to help themselves to achieve. It is built on a fiendishly complex alchemy of being yourself, answering your audience’s perception of you, engaging with them at as high a level as possible, and offering your case with maximum clarity and digestibility so that even if the audience disagrees with your message they understand your arguments. If you can do all that while still entertaining you are getting somewhere. Defining it may be difficult, but you know it when you see it. For me this speech gets about as close as you can get.

I am not alone. Listen for other sounds in the room. Occasionally there’s a response when he wants there to be – a little laugh here, some applause there – but otherwise there is pin-drop silence. People simply want to listen to him – as do you, so you will not welcome this exercise (but unlike the audience in the hall you can wind back and re-listen).

Regular readers of this blog are accustomed to my castigating speakers for using scripts or even notes, so they might expect me to point out that Murray sometimes lowers his eyes to the lectern. I tell my trainees, as I also tell readers of my book, The Face & Tripod, that sometimes you have to be prompted by paper – e.g. you have so many speaking engagements that you cannot keep all those different mind-maps in your head. Those who have learned how to speak without the aid of paper, handle paper better than those who haven’t. Murray’s few glances downwards never interfere with the astonishingly tight bond he has with his audience. He really owns them.

When, at 22:20, his speech finishes and his Q&A session begins you may find yourself so spellbound that you listen to all that too. I did.

Andrew Klavan pops

In March 2013 Andrew Klavan delivered a talk at a David Horowitz Wednesday Morning Club meeting in Los Angeles.

Klavan is the author of A Killer in the Wind. I came across him in one of his Revolting Truth videos while searching for interesting speakers.  Good writers often fail to make good speakers, as the techniques are subtly different.

For the purposes of this blog I was torn between two speeches. I settled on the one below, though this one is interesting too.

“I want to talk about sex and German philosophy.” Delivered at 0:45 this gives every appearance of Klavan laying out his stall. The audience falls about laughing, as he intended, but actually he does talk about sex and German philosophy.

Klavan has everything going for him as a speaker. He has a very good, wonderfully resonant, voice which he uses well. He has plenty to say because he is passionate about his message. He is not only articulate but coherent to a fault. He uses humour skilfully, inserting it fairly sparingly into the proceedings but delivering it well enough to harvest some very good laughs. Do you sense the probable advent of a “but”?

But…

He is oblivious to a glaring fault. In my experience the world at large is oblivious (consciously at least) to this fault whenever it occurs – even though it is ubiquitous. I’ve mentioned it often in this blog before, but I will continue till audiences demand its elimination.

He pops. There: I’ve just ruined your enjoyment of this speech. He pops relentlessly. Now that you are conscious of it you will hear little else.

How big is that auditorium? I ask because it is possible that he is not amplified to the room, but the microphone is there only to provide a feed for this video. That being the case he is unable to hear the popping: the fault belongs to the sound engineer. That’s no excuse: if you aspire to being a competent speaker you should never let your mouth and the microphone point at each other. Never speak at a microphone, speak across it. Point the mic at your throat, your eyes, anywhere but at your mouth.

The world is full of ignorant bozos, masquerading as technicians, who are likely to point the microphone at your mouth (it happened to me only last week). Don’t put up with it! Reset the microphone. If the ignorant bozo argues (it happened to me only last week) educate him. Explain that when you utter a percussive consonant a fast-moving column of air is generated which, if it hits the diaphragm of the microphone head-on, will cause a ghastly popping sound. Don’t give way.

You may protest that if audiences don’t notice it doesn’t matter, so if only Brian would shut the … would be quiet about it everything would be OK.

They do notice: just not consciously. If Klavan’s mic were tipped just five degrees upwards he would make an infinitely cleaner and sweeter sound, and the audience would be happier. They might not know why, but they’d be happier.

Spread the word!

 

Dambisa Moyo and freedom

In June 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Dambisa Moyo delivered a TED Talk entitled Is China the new idol for emerging economies.

Ted talks, though of mixed quality, usually offer good food for thought. Not knowing therefore how much I would wear my rhetor hat for this one, I settled down, notepad in hand.

When Ted boasts talks from the ‘world’s leading thinkers’ is it asking too much for competent sound engineers? When first we hear Moyo, we simultaneously hear threatened howl-round. There should have been a thorough sound-level-check before the audience was admitted, and anyway there are clip-on microphones these days whose range is so short that the wearer can stand close in front of a speaker without problems. Failing that, all the engineer can do is play the volume control; and we can hear that happening for the first few seconds. I would condemn them with the word, “Amateurs”, except that amateurs are more conscientious than that.

Ted speakers tend to shoot from the hip, and Moyo is no exception. Nevertheless she feels to me a little over-rehearsed. I suspect that she is not fully confident of her own ability to keep oriented and keep speaking, and therefore has practised till she can deliver this in her sleep. I’m being a little picky, because it’s all emerging smoothly and with enough vocal expression, but I just do not feel we are watching the real woman. My impression is that there is a more interesting and engaging person hiding in there.

The talk is mildly provocative, but what bothers me is that her entire argument is predicated on a widespread assumption that opinions are things to be imposed. People today seem to think that if you approve of something it automatically follows that you believe it should be compulsory, and that if you disapprove you want it banned. Whatever became of freedom?

Moyo tells us that, for some, economic freedom is more important than political freedom. Yes, I am sure she is right, but so what? She goes on to point out that the authoritarian political system in China has worked economic marvels. Good.

I would enjoy an argument about her assertion that economic growth is a pre-requisite for democracy. Also I itch to tell her that the term ‘state capitalism’ is as contradictory as ‘hot snow’. But that is merely terminology: my main problem is with her supposed East/West Schism.

She tells us that the West can either ‘compete’ or ‘co-operate’ with the East. We can either “go around the world, pushing an agenda of private capitalism…” or we can allow the East to adopt a political system that suits them. I call the latter course ‘minding our own business’. I can have perfectly good relations with my neighbour without wanting to dictate the colour he paints his kitchen.

I understand why Moyo feels this point needs making. The West has become a dreadful (and dreadfully pious!) busybody, seems intent on relinquishing free capitalism in favour of a creeping authoritarianism, and it has spawned an assumption that this is a natural process. There was that quotation from Ronald Reagan about the workings of government –

If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

If the West genuinely believes in freedom, a good way to show it would be by returning freedom to its own people and by accepting the diversity of other people’s opinions.