Trey Gowdy spellbinds

There is a small group of people whose speeches I go out of my way to watch, whether or not I plan to cover them in this blog. In fact they all tend to have been here often enough for me to feel guilty about the self-indulgence of taking time watching them at all. Trey Gowdy is one such. When he was a US Congressman I saw many stunning speeches, and critiqued three of them – here, here and here. Then he retired from Congress and I occasionally saw him interviewed, but what speeches he may have made seemed not to appear on line.

Then I saw this one, new and not a political speech. Not expecting to cover it here, I went and watched. I have now watched it several times and will watch it more. He is seen delivering a talk at the Second Baptist Church, Houston at the end of June 2020.

The church is led by Dr Ed Young who delivers the introduction. He describes Gowdy as a ‘gifted communicator’ and even if I’d never heard of Gowdy I’d be interested because when it comes to speaking Dr Young is himself no slouch. Shooting from the hip, which immediately labels him a proper speaker, he speaks with respect, warmth and humour. Also there are technical details like his measured rhythm, his timing, and the way he speaks through a smattering of applause.

At 4:45 Gowdy goes to the lectern and places upon it a few sheets of paper whose function seems to be only to keep the lectern warm, because I don’t think he looks at them till he folds them forty minutes later at the end.

He spends about seven minutes, opening with a humorous story. It’s a great joke, which I first heard with two of the personalities being Edward Heath and Harold Wilson – yep nearly fifty years ago. It is strong enough to withstand the passing of the years, but not perhaps to cross The Atlantic in this form. In the telling you need to include personalities and circumstances to which your audience can so easily relate that it has to be essentially parochial, an augmented in-joke. His audience loves it.

Seamlessly, at 11:50 he swings into his main theme with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” This unmistakeable sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and Independence Day being only a few days away his theme is independence, personal independence. He addresses it from the standpoint of three factors, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Without doubt any trainee of mine will instantly recognise the value of that structure, how it makes speaking without notes for forty minutes really simple and how he can take the audience with him all the way.

But great communication is more than a neat structure. Gowdy injects a magical alchemy of personal reminiscence, literary allusion, masterful imagery, and thorough horse-sense wisdom, delivered with a superb instinct for measured pace. The occasional giant pause enables important points to sink in but is never so long as to lose his audience. He deploys humour with a formula of little-and-often and it is always delivered dead-pan and thrown away.

Elbert Hubbard is credited as having observed that –

The Highest Applause is Silence

Throughout this speech you could hear an ant licking its lips. The audience is spellbound, as am I. This forty minutes is a life lesson for anyone.

At 43:25 Dr Young reclaims the stage to summarise and conclude.

Alex Salmond doesn’t need a comfort blanket.

I have not previously featured Alex Salmond on this blog. So it seemed to me that if I was ever going to do it this week would seem pertinent timing. Lest the reader regards it as significant, let me lay out my own prejudices concerning this week’s Scottish Independence Referendum.

I have an affection for the country so sense a pang at its possible loss, while realizing this is is absurd – whatever happens it will still be there. I am a fervent localist so it is logical that I should feel a little excited at people wanting more control over their own destiny, while hoping for their sake that Scotland doesn’t turn into a British version of North Korea. Those details aside, I am disinterested. Like all other inhabitants of the British Isles, outside Scotland, I have no vote on the matter; so disinterest is my officially imposed designation. I have viewed aghast the contemptible spectacle of the prime minister and other party leaders pathetically trying to outbid each other with offers of constitutional goody-bags to shore up the ‘No’ campaign, without a shred of mandate so to do, and I have sighed at how unpleasant the campaign has become. There: that just about covers it.

What about Salmond as a speaker? I have never before watched him. I noticed how, when he resigned as SNP leader in 2000 and picked up the reins again in 2004, the party’s fortunes seemed to be directly linked to whether or not he was leading it, so it would appear that the man has something – if only plausibility. Let’s have a look at his party conference speech earlier this year.

Like far too many speakers he has a comfort blanket made of paper on that lectern. It is entirely unnecessary. I have carefully monitored the times his face goes down, and almost never was there so much as a syllable that he could not have confidently uttered without the assistance of paper. Every time his face goes down he breaks eye-contact with his audience, and he does it about ten times a minute. In communication terms this is an expensive comfort blanket.

That aside, he is a very good communicator. The audience is his from the moment he starts. That is not too surprising: party leaders’ speeches seldom get greeted with stony faces and crossed arms, but this is not simply mindless fawning. Those people are really listening, and they are right to do so. It is pretty well crafted stuff.

Whoever wrote the speech loves anaphora. Two that I noted almost at random occurred at 14:25 and 29:22, and he also ends with an anaphoric tricolon. But details like that add cosmetic enhancement; they don’t make or break speeches.

The make/break ingredients are always the message and how it is structured. This speech is fairly good, though if he had dared spurn the paper (like all my trainees) he would have forced himself to structure it even more simply. KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid! Then he would have eliminated those few moments when the pace sagged. He would have been able to eyeball his audience throughout (it’s only half-an-hour), and turn the speech from very good to outstanding.

The speech failed my memorability test, but you will have to read my book to know what that is. Salmond would benefit from reading my book. Then he might take his thumb out of his mouth, throw away his comfort blanket and become a great speaker.