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.

Glenn Greenwald: the natural over-speaks

The YouTube introduction reads, “The Future of Freedom Foundation and Young Americans for Liberty presented a one-day conference on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin at the LBJ Auditorium in the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on Saturday, April 11, 2015, that addressed the war on drugs and the war on terrorism“. I added the hyperlinks

I am a little uneasy about this talk from Glenn Greenwald and I am not sure why. The title of the talk doesn’t help, but I know little of him and certainly not enough to condemn him unheard. Could it be his ubiquitousness on the university speaking circuit? After all the word university has these days become such an antonym for diversity that being no-platformed is now a badge of honour and being welcomed almost a reason for suspicion.

This is a free-speech blog, so we shall hear him.

What a dreadful introduction! This young man is obviously well-meaning but he needs to learn how to speak in public and how to tie his own bow-tie.

Greenwald is a natural speaker. That is obvious from the start; and now with my rhetor hat firmly donned I am uneasy for other reasons.

People always seem astonished that natural speakers should worry me. If they had read my post on Peter Schiff they would understand better. I don’t particularly want to rehash all the points here, and I don’t really need to. I merely need to invite you to watch this interminable bore of a speech. It is 45 minutes long, could have been concisely delivered in 10, and expansively delivered in 15.

Better still, rather than lose three-quarters of an hour that you will never see again, click at random anywhere in the speech, watch five minutes and then stop. If you learn any more than could have been uttered in six sentences I should be surprised. He repeats and rambles, rambles and repeats till the air is thick with snoring.

The trouble is that the subject matter is important. If you manage to stay awake long enough you will find that he is speaking mainly about universal surveillance, a subject that should concern us all (it was important enough to be the central theme of the latest James Bond film after all). It bothers me that the matter has been so keenly hi-jacked by Islamist apologists, but still it is a matter that needs to be addressed – and preferably by others than power-hungry bureaucrats.

Greenwald, being a natural speaker, has never needed to learn the speaking disciplines that ordinary mortals require. Accordingly his speaking is undisciplined and tedious.

With a little work he could be brilliant.

Daniel Hannan: aiming for the wrong target

Earlier this year a European Students for Liberty Conference in Berlin was addressed by MEP, Daniel Hannan.

He has graced this space many times, and with good reason. He is very good, in fact one of the best. Not wanting him to monopolize the blog I watch probably ten times as many of his speeches as I cover here, and I’ve decided today to air a concern for him that I’ve been suppressing for a time. The concern was triggered by something he tweeted some months ago.

Outstandingly good though he is, I fear that the way he is heading will not make him any better, but could easily make him less effective on the speaking platform. He has his sights on the wrong target.

I have mentioned before – here, for instance – that Hannan has a tendency to swallow syllables or sometimes words or even occasionally whole phrases. It’s not idleness: he is doing it on purpose for dramatic effect. He varies the tonal colour of his speaking, making it sometimes loud sometimes soft – though those too adjectives don’t nearly cover the myriad nuances that he finds. Though I feel he tries too hard I can’t quarrel with any of that as such, except for the technical detail that he isn’t accomplished enough vocally to be heard when he is at his softest, so bits go missing.

But that is merely a symptom of what concerns me.

At 4:26 there is a high shot from the gallery,which pans from Hannan to the audience. Out of interest I paused the video at random and found that out of 34 visible audience members 9 were engaged in something other than paying attention to Hannan.  I can go into ecstasies at how well Hannan speaks, but if more than 25% of my sample of his audience – his market – fails to be rapt we have another symptom that gives cause for concern.

Fifty years ago I devoured all the James Bond novels, and there was one recurrent detail in them that I have never forgotten. When describing the beauty of Bond girls, Ian Fleming always highlighted flaws. The nose was a little too straight, the eyes a little too far apart, etc. He had observed that desirability comes from imperfections. So what has this to do with Dan Hannan?

There is no doubt that Hannan has worked very hard on his public speaking, and continues to do so, but his mistake is that he is a perfectionist. The trouble with perfection is that it is flawless, sterile, boring. I prefer excellence. Most dictionaries declare the two words to be virtually synonymous, but I arbitrarily choose to make the distinction that excellence embraces the idiosyncrasies that make you unique and display your character – in short your flaws.

When striving for perfection you tend to be a slave to the nuance of every syllable, listen intently to yourself for the right modulation, etc. That is misdirected focus. You should be concentrating only on your message and whether the audience is getting it; and you should be enjoying the liberty of not giving a damn about yourself. When striving for perfection you don a speech-mode mask and give a performance, whereas the most engaging, persuasive and interesting you can be is your own, real, flawed self. That is true of everyone, but not everyone is already good enough to let go and unwind as much as Hannan could.

He doesn’t realize that some of his syllables and words are inaudible, because he can hear them. He can hear them because he is listening to himself. That is also symptomatic of his being a slave to perfection.

So what was this tweet that I mentioned at the end of my second paragraph? He was paying tribute to a mentor who had stopped him uttering ‘um’ and ‘er’. That set my alarm bells ringing, because I have satisfied myself over many years that audiences don’t ever notice such things unless you are boring them. And the converse is that if you obsess over that sort of detail there is a very good chance that you will bore them.

This speech is immensely important, brilliantly conceived, excellently reasoned, but delivered by one who is “as smooth as a kitten’s wrist”. Yes, I have described him that way before, and now I believe he would do himself a favour if he permitted some  unsmoothness to show. He can do it: he’s already looser on some of his video pieces to camera, but he can beneficially loosen further still.

Walter Williams and Liberty

It has not escaped the notice of YouTube that I have more than a passing interest in speeches; so they keep waving suggestions under my nose, so to speak. One such recently was a speech delivered by Dr Walter Williams to the Heartland Institute. Though Heartland posted this on YouTube only a couple of weeks ago, the speech was delivered in 1994. A brief search revealed that there are plenty of his newer speeches on line but I decided to stick with this one. Its title is The Role of Government in a Free Society.

Nice opening! The most effective way to use humour early in a speech is by keeping it restrained and thrown away. He did both and it worked.

A regular reader will expect me immediately to castigate him for reading this rather than shooting it from the hip. However, there is one thing that puts me on weak ground when I am dealing with what is essentially a lecture. ‘Lecture’ literally means ‘reading’. Williams would undoubtedly deliver this better if he shot it from the hip, though he might take some persuading. But watch this and you see that, every so often, he raises his head from his script and delivers sometimes quite a long aside, and always that section is more engaging than the scripted bit from which he digressed. Let’s move on.

The reason I decided to work with this speech is that he determinedly takes his topic as far upstream as possible and addresses first principles. With something as fundamental as freedom it’s obvious to look at fundamentals, because from there you can see clearly to conduct a debate over pragmatic compromises.

When it comes to liberty, few speakers bother themselves with fundamentals. This speech was delivered twenty years ago, since when the word ‘liberty’ has moved even further from its true meaning. Today successive governments work with a corrupted interpretation of the word that is frighteningly Orwellian and getting worse. Furthermore the mainstream media, both in print and broadcasting, are enthusiastic collaborators. The media may affect political posturing with partisan tribalism, but a need for ever-swelling government with steadily increasing control from ‘above’, is universally accepted by the self-appointed intelligentsia as a given.

If you don’t believe me, try to imagine the BBC or its equivalents around the world broadcasting this speech today. I bet you can’t, any more than you can imagine schools or universities allowing their students to be exposed to such dangerous material. If I may misquote Mark Anthony, “O freedom thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason”.

Catherine Engelbrecht in The Land of the Free

Every so often I go blitzing on line, compiling lists of links to speeches that might be worth visiting more thoroughly later. So it was that I skimmed my way through “Top 10 greatest speeches from TV shows”, a series of examples of heavy dramatic fiction. The very next thing I came to was a video of testimony made on 6 February, 2014, by Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and President of True the Vote, to a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had to keep pinching myself to cling to the knowledge that the fiction had stopped and that this dramatic account was real life in The Land of the Free.

One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of life, one that we learn when tiny tots in the school playground, is that when one side of an argument feels that it needs to break or bend rules, or cheat in any way on behalf of their cause, then there is something wrong with their cause. They may rationalise their cheating with all sorts of end-justifies-the-means sophistry, but – and here’s the clincher – they likewise realise, deep down, that there’s something wrong with their cause. Otherwise they wouldn’t perceive a need to cheat.

I’m an Englishman, not an American. Though reasonably well-read, and accordingly some of what she says is not completely new to me, I am not well enough versed in the back story to feel qualified to comment beyond general principles like the above. But I have exceptional experience to qualify me to judge how she puts across her account.

I read stress by the bucketful. I think that, even without the story she is telling, it must be pretty tough for a private citizen to address an audience like that. Accordingly I applaud how well she copes.

This is one occasion that I am four-square behind a speaker with a script. She has to stick very tightly to time: she must be very precise with her data: she must be seen to be very precise with her data. But there’s another important plus to her credit with this script. It is written in spoken English.

I am not altogether happy with the “motherhood and apple-pie” section beginning at 1:16. It is not the content that bothers me – that’s crucially relevant – it’s the attempts at the warm smiles at the mention of her husband and family. However warm might be her feelings towards them, and however genuine those smiles at any other time, here and now under a tsunami of stress those smiles could not but look forced. I know why she’s doing it: it’s to add colour to the contrast between her two lives before and after she took on this campaign. I just don’t think it works.

In citing harassment from a range of government agencies she bravely names one of the panel at 1:47. Does she think this will neutralise some of the aggression from his cross-examination later? If so, according to this account, it doesn’t work. There’s more video material there, and you may think it worth watching. I shall not comment on it.

Is her story true? I am not in a position to know absolutely; though I know what I believe. The story that unfolds is a harrowing one and, when recounted without attempts at smiles and as flatly and unemotionally as her stress will allow, is very powerful. At 3:54 she speaks hypothetically about “a political machine that would put its own survival against the civil liberties of the private citizen”.

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America begins with the words, “We the people…” The implication is that government is the servant of the people. It’s an extension of the assertions in Magna Carta. Is this concept some kind of wide-eyed romantic fantasy these days? If it is, we should be nervous. History shows an extraordinary consistency in that wherever and whenever people have been free of tyranny that society has managed pretty well. Wherever and whenever a self-serving elite has broken into those freedoms the result has always been misery and immiseration. There is no such thing as a benign tyranny.

There is a silver lining to this story. In the society that currently obtains, Catherine Engelbrecht was able to present this testimony to the House of Representatives: we are able to view it on line: I am able to comment on it here. So far, for the moment, those freedoms at least continue. If any of the links in that chain become endangered it will be time to man the barricades.