Maajid Nawaz is doing really well.

My previous two posts have been from Secularism 2016, a conference held in London last November. I accidentally posted them here out of order. Raheel Raza opened a series of three talks on the necessity to reform Islam, and Douglas Murray concluded it. In between them came a talk from Maajid Nawaz. He has been on this blog twice before, the last time here, and his promise as a speaker is so strong that I was looking forward to seeing his progress.

Having been an Islamic terrorist who landed in jail, but later has devoted his life to fighting extremism, he is an obvious choice to speak at a conference like this.

He has fairly recently begun a regular radio programme on LBC. This was bound to effect his public speaking, though in ways that are not obvious. Radio is different from public speaking because you can’t see your audience. The nerves come from a different direction somehow. On radio you can combat The Hump by scripting your opening, and you thus have to learn how to write in spoken English, a subtly different language from written English. As his programme is a phone-in, he has had to hone his ability to think on his feet, duck and weave, shoot very fluently from the hip and all that will not have done any harm. Let’s see how he does with this speech.

Two immediate impressions strike me…

  1. He is very nervous at the start and wants his scripted opening. I think he has learnt it because he looks very seldom at his script, and a tiny stumble in it has the feel of a memory-blip not a thought-blip. There are other, better ways of combatting the hump; and he could be made more relaxed.
  2. He is going too fast. This is a well-known nerve symptom, so it has the double jeopardy of conveying nervousness to the audience. Actually I think in this case it may not be nervousness because he never slows down, even when his nervousness has subsided. Regardless, it is a bad idea. If you have too much material, speaking more quickly doesn’t save time it makes you less coherent. If you are trying to convey urgency in your message there are better ways of doing it. It’s the squeeze on the natural pauses that make it sound wrong.

Having got those two easily-remedied points out of the way, I must say I am delighted with how he is progressing. His mission is so important, and his approach to it so mature, that I would love to spend a couple of hours with him to make him more relaxed on the platform and restructure his material slightly in a way that works better in this particular medium.

If he is interested he can find me easily enough.

Michelle Malkin and her big mouth

While I was doing a little background research for my recent posting on Brigitte Gabriel I came across another outspoken American woman – a self-proclaimed “big mouth”.  My not having previously come across her is evidence that the Atlantic is still quite wide.

I have been having fun, watching several speeches by Michelle Malkin and trying to choose which to cover. This one is the longest, this perhaps the most temperate and measured, but I chose this one. She is speaking at a dinner in her honour where she was presented with the second annual Breitbart Award. The hosts are the Heritage Foundation and the Franklin Center for government and public integrity

In the first few seconds it emerges that she has been up since 2 a.m. and has drunk lots of coffee. My interest quickens, because an element of peripheral stress can bust the hump and often adds edge to a speech. Also if the way she tells us of the coffee is a guide, this lady is going to tell it like it is by way of a polished repertoire of speaking devices.

I am not disappointed: she’s very good. Yes, of course she’s shooting from the hip – all good speakers do – but there’s more. Look at that beautiful claptrap at 5:45. She hits the word “fight” paying particular attention to the “t” and immediately looks down. The audience applause comes bang on cue. There are plenty more successful claptraps. Yes I know she’s among friends, but still she’s playing the audience brilliantly.

And those pauses! She creates great gaping holes in the soundtrack which serve to heighten our interest in what’s coming next.

She’s a hell of a good communicator. Because I have now watched a great many of her speeches and interviews I have seen how well she either varies her style and rhythm to the prevailing decorum or – more often – creates her own to suit the occasion.

Her self-deprecating self-description “big mouth” is a bit of fun. She’s worked very hard at her speaking skill, which is fairly unusual among writers who too often regard speaking as merely a subdivision of writing. It is not: it is different in very many ways. I salute her.

Shami Chakrabarti mis-engages at first

On 5 March 2015 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion “This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend“.

We recently looked at a speech in proposition from Brendan O’Neill. Today we have a speech from Shami Chakrabarti.

Chakrabarti is nervous.

So what? Everyone is more nervous at the very beginning of a speech: it’s what I call The Hump. Most work that I do with people in tackling nerves is busting that hump, because usually in a couple of minutes it has receded, the person is on a roll, and everything comes together. Probably the most powerful antidote to the hump is the act of engaging – really engaging – with the audience. That glorious feeling that the bridge from the platform to the audience is in place, and you are speaking with them as distinct from at them, drops your stress dramatically. The other side of the coin is that if you don’t engage with the audience the hump stays longer and you continue to battle with nerves. People who read their speeches from scripts sometimes hang onto their hump to the end of the speech.

Chakrabarti, to her credit, is not reading from a script but she is clinging to another type of umbilical cord. She prolongs her hump by repeatedly looking behind her at Madam President and looking at the other speakers around her. She is procrastinating the grasping of the scary nettle of looking at the audience by keeping her attention on the other occupants of the stage. They are her comfort zone, but they will only soothe her symptoms not sort her nerves. For the first minute the audience barely sees her face, and right up to around 2:30 she continues too often to revisit her comfort zone. It looks wrong, and it’s a false comfort.

Then she gets her first laugh. It is deserved: she delivers a good line well. Suddenly the nettle ceases to be scary and she is away. So well is she away that at 3:00 she gets a laugh that turns into applause. The real Shami Chakrabarti has arrived.

She is a very good speaker. Her delivery is spontaneous, warm, sincere, and at times funny, with just enough passion and edge in there to give the speech backbone. All of it shot from the hip. This is the way to engage an audience.

At 7:00 there is an intervention from the opposition. Regardless of the words spoken, I invite you to compare tones – shrillness from the opposition, warmth from Chakrabarti. Where would you place your vote?

I am really pleased to have covered this speech. Shami Chakrabarti unintentionally supplied a negative lesson to speakers to face the front! And then she delivered a positive lesson in excellent speaking.

Barack Obama as an embryonic orator.

On 20 September, 1995, in the public library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thirty-four-year-old law student read from an autobiography entitled Dreams From My Father. You may wonder how many people of that age have already written an autobiography, but perhaps this young man was shaping to put many more entries in the record books.

His name was Barack Obama, and my particular interest lies not in the reading but in the eight minutes he spent introducing the reading.

He utters his first words, “Good evening” while approaching the lectern. It’s a sound technique as a hump-buster, because the long silent walk to where you will speak can tighten you up. This is not a long walk, but still the principle holds. If you are not wearing a radio mic, you may have to raise your voice, but what the hell!  What you are likely to say is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if the audience misses most of it. Fancy a kid of the age of my younger son having already learnt that trick! What else had he learnt?

That’s a nice opening and, though he smiles while saying it, there is no other indication that he expects a laugh.  Essentially he throws it away, and that’s another thing he’s learnt. The boy is good.

He’s shooting from the hip, and is no less fluent for that. The ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ don’t make him look hesitant and indecisive they make him look spontaneous, sincere, and at ease. These are all qualities that relax audiences.

He has a distinctive way of holding his head with his chin up slightly. This lends him an air of openness and authority. In years to come, if he makes something of himself, some body-language analysts might see that as an affectation he has deliberately developed. It may be, but if so it was developed before September ’95.

It is really quite startling how accomplished he already is as a communicator.

He starts reading at 09:10, and I’d prefer not to comment further. It is not that I don’t like book- or poetry-readings – I perform them myself – I just think that the author is not the best person to do it, because he’s too close to it. I feel that the perspective of someone who can stand back further from the canvas is usually better. That said, I have to admit he reads it well.

It’s also interesting and well-written, though I find the anger and self-pity a little trying. He may have good reason to be angry and self-pitying, but so do many people who choose not to display it because it’s an unbecoming characteristic. It doesn’t bode well for his future. At 25:00 he finishes reading, and thereafter he answers questions.

I wonder what became of him.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev returns

In April 2013 Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia, hosted a talk by the mystic, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

He has appeared four times previously on this blog, and the first of those remains my most viewed posting. Barely a day passes without there being several visitors to it. Are they coming to study his speaking skill or listen to his wisdom? I neither know nor care, because I have the same question with regard to myself. I luxuriate in how well he speaks, but mainly listen to what he says about life. He does not have all the answers. If he claimed that I would spurn him. What he has is guidance on how we should seek our own answers.

The reason I am featuring him again, apart from merely indulging myself, is because he displays some fundamental lessons for all speakers.

He likes to begin with that chanting. The one time on this blog that he didn’t was his least successful appearance on it. I am convinced it is a focus device, a form of yoga if you will. It lasts about a minute, so it will also double as a hump-buster. The rest of us would have difficulty in employing it, but we all use what we can to get on a roll.

He looks other-worldly, but doesn’t sound it. This is because he absolutely isn’t. His Isha Foundation is a hugely successful business, for which he makes no apology but instead uses its riches to do much valuable philanthropic work.

He doesn’t take himself seriously. His philosophy, yes, his work, yes, himself no. That is such an important lesson for life as well as for speaking. There’s some lovely, gentle self-mockery. The self-mockery extends to beyond himself. Listen to the way he speaks about India. His love for his country is obviously profound, but that doesn’t stop him ribbing it. All of that will charm any audience.

He has a habit of asking what appear to be rhetorical questions, and then asking for an answer. This keeps the audience slightly on the back foot, but also on its toes. If you are on your toes you pay attention. It’s clever.

He is wonderfully adept at classic rhetorical devices. There is a long and elaborate anaphora series “If you become pleasant …” beginning at 12:35. These things are not only really easy to deliver because of their logical progress, but they are just as easy for an audience to absorb. Win – win.

He needs no script: he needs no notes: he needs no slides. Many people think that this is a magical trick, but they are wrong. It is easy: you merely need to know how to do it. He has structured this whole hour-long talk in a way that has each section following logically from its predecessor. Also he knows his subject. You know your subject, so if you likewise structured your material you would not need script, notes or slides either.

But I think the single most important lesson that he provides for speakers comes from who he is and what he does. This man is supremely comfortable in his skin – do we have any doubt at all about that? His very stock-in-trade is that inner peace that I try to get my trainees to embrace. Thus he spares not a nano-thought to himself, but simply focuses on what this audience needs to hear and how best therefore to tell it to them.

That is the ideal mindset for any speaker. That is why he is so good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to him.

Peter Lovatt – cerebral terpsichore

I have a nephew, Dr Oliver Robinson, who lectures in Psychology and is the author of Development through Adulthood: An Integrative Sourcebook. He it was who alerted me to a wild TED talk by fellow psychologist, Peter Lovatt.

Lovatt is not your run-of-the-mill academic psychologist. His having been a dancer, and now doing research into the psychology of dance, his audience was in for a spot of exercise.

His hump shows through in his opening, which is a little clunky. He talks his way to his speaking position, which is good, but what he says is lame. “Amazing, amazing!” is red-coat talk, and too fluffy at this stage for this audience. Worse is that he devotes half a minute to telling us what he is not going to talk about – a classic error. I know why: this is an attempt to establish his ethos, but he needs to do that another way.

He asks the audience to shake their shoulders. Some do: too many don’t. It’s too early in the proceedings. He is madly trying to entrench a decorum, but it’s not working as well as it should. There’s going to be much more of this, with the audience on their feet being lead through a series of simple dance moves. They’re going to enjoy themselves, but right now they are in their own hump and resisting him. He needs to revamp this opening.

There’s a serious core to all this terpsichore. He has researched the effect of dance on the hippocampus, looking at possibly arresting or even reversing the way it shrinks with a person’s age. His focus is the effect that shrinkage has on Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. This is valuable stuff, and makes all the audience’s dancing important as well as fun, but it doesn’t get mentioned till 2:30.

If I were advising him I would get that serious significance to peep through sooner, as the corner stone of the ethos building. It needs only a tiny peep – holding back proper discussion of it till 2:30 is actually wise, as 2:30 is typical hump-length (his evaporates at 2:30). All the early loosening up stuff is a hump-busting routine,and I applaud him for that, but it needs adjusting.

His opening begins to work at 0:57. The decorum drops into place as soon as he introduces groovy music – his audience is more prepared to move with it. When he asks them at 1:40 to stand up, they all do – whereas they didn’t all shake their shoulders a few seconds earlier. This is not only because their own hump is receding, it’s because it is easier to sit still while others are shaking shoulders than it is to keep your seat while all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you. His having got them on their feet they merrily follow him through a simple preliminary routine that they enjoy so much that when at 2:25 he invites them to sit back down he gets wild applause.

Thereafter he’s away!  The talk is a roaring success – with one small exception. At 14:00, just before the dancing climax when all the routines are going to be strung together, he invites anyone who wants to join him on the stage. No one does. I would bet big money on there being several people itching to do so, but not daring to be the first. He handles that wrong. He should have started building that invitation twelve minutes earlier.

At 2:00, when the groovy music first starts, he picks out, and congratulates, ‘a groover’ up in a gallery – excellent! He should also have picked out one (or more!) near the front of the stalls – and ideally near an aisle. Thereafter he should repeatedly have referred to how good they were – “if in doubt, follow the lady in the pink shirt – she’s brilliant!”  Or better still, develop a relationship with the lady in the pink shirt – ask her name. Thereafter, “Come on guys: see if you can do it as well as Yasmine!”

Then at 14:00, instead of issuing an open, and relatively cold, invitation it should have been, “Yasmine, are you going to join me up here to demonstrate? Anyone else going to join us? Yes, come on up sir! etc.” Working an audience is not easy, but he is already good at it. He just needs a nudge or two to be brilliant.

Enjoy this speech: the audience did!

So did I.

Newman & Trotti – moonwalking.

As part of the Think 2012 series of lectures there was one presented jointly by Dava Newman & Guillermo Trotti entitled Modern Druids – Seed Ideas for a New World. That title was enigmatic enough to provoke me to look further.

They were introduced by Shoma Chaudhury who went a long way to explaining what we were to expect from this talk – namely, that when Newman was faced with the challenge of producing a spacesuit in which astronauts could be more manoeuvrable and agile she turned to Trotti, an architect who specialises in building the impossible. He wasn’t far away at the time.

At 2:11 Newman is the first to speak, though for only half a minute. She is fighting a hump, and would make life easier for herself with an opening that was a little longer and less consequential. We are shown the whole stage in long shot for her first few seconds, and see Trotti standing stage right and waiting to speak. His body language tells me he has problems with his hands.

When he takes centre stage and begins to speak, I am confronted with a spectacle that I see so often in my work. Here we have a man who is brilliant, and bursting with presence and charisma, but who is light-years out of his comfort zone. His hump is ferocious. As expected, his hands meander around, looking for a hiding place. I groan with frustration, because in one single minute with him I could solve that problem for life. At the very beginning he does one thing right: he speaks through the short journey to where he will stand, rather than walking there in silence before speaking. But his gait during that walk screams discomfort. To my relief he warms to his theme quickly, his hump receding in the process, and even his hands begin to look relaxed. Just as he gets comfortable, he relinquishes the stage back to Newman.

A speech is like an aeroplane flight: the most difficult and dangerous bits are the take-off and landing. Whoever arranged and choreographed the opening of this double-hander (and they may have done it themselves) took care to get both back-stories covered early – which is fine – but had no proper understanding of the dynamics and manifestation of nerves, and what to do about them. Nor did they understand the rudiments of staging. This is a pity, because first impressions are so important.

What is eventually narrated from both sides of the collaboration turns out to be fascinating. They have lots to say, and they say it well – and without paper!

Enjoy!