Jeff Deist: optimistic.

In Costa Mesa, California, 8 November 2014, the Mises Institute held a Mises Circle. These are one-day seminars of information concerning the Institute and its messages.

A few weeks ago we examined a speech made at this gathering by the Institute’s founder and Chairman, Lew Rockwell.  Today we are looking at a speech by the Institute’s President Jeff Deist.

Almost immediately we learn key things about Deist’s public speaking ability, namely that he has not properly learned how to do it. His microphone technique is essentially non-existent, and he is reading a script. The Mises Institute website tells me he regularly delivers keynote speeches – ye Gods!

He is too close to the microphone, so he pops and distorts horribly – particularly at the beginning. It takes two minutes (max) to teach someone to work a microphone infinitely better than this, and another fifteen to make them really skilled. It can take as little as two hours to free a speaker forever from any dependency on script or notes, and when thus liberated the fluency and potency of their delivery leaps up dramatically. I know there are misguided public speaking teachers who insist that a script is essential, and I have argued with some online. I no longer bother: they’re just wrong.

As the host for the day, with all the attendant welcoming and housekeeping ingredients that involves, Deist takes three and a half minutes to begin laying out his own stall. That’s not his fault: it’s the nature of the beast, but for our purposes it has the advantage of being three and a half minutes when we who are not attending the seminar don’t have to listen but can analyse his delivery. We can watch how he gets steadily freer, more fluent, more compelling and more persuasive during the gaps between looking down at his paper. It’s like watching horses run a steeplechase, with each look at his script being a jump which, far from helping him, actually slows him down and diminishes his power. It is such a pity.

His message is intriguing, particularly for me believing passionately in people and the sovereignty of the individual. I think that it automatically follows therefore that I believe in democracy, but he challenges that. I like my assumptions being challenged. His creed seems on the face of it to be a reductio ad absurdum of what I would regard as a rational standpoint. The Austrian school of economics appeals, as does freedom and small government, but no government…? I must go to the Mises bookstore page and get myself challenged by an anarchist.

Meanwhile my immediate challenge is this speech. Fascinating though I find the content, the speech itself is frankly dreary.  I know that I could transform it beyond measure in just a couple of hours with him; and in the process turn him into a real speaker for life.

Tom Holland addresses Islam

On 25 May 2015, Tom Holland delivered the inaugural Christopher Hitchens lecture at the Hay Festival. He called it De-radicalising Muhammad. It was an appropriate title for a speech in memory of a man who was so articulate in his condemnation of organised religion in general and Islam in particular.

Holland begins at 1:55 and ends at 37:40. The rest is questions.

He begins with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens whom he never met. He tells us that he has been instructed that to be true to Hitchens’ memory his talk should be controversial. If as a non-Muslim you are speaking about Islam, or any aspect of it, you are hard-pressed not to be controversial. Holland highlights this, while nevertheless pointing out with examples that Hitchens courted controversy on this subject with some eagerness.

“Nothing to do with Islam…” that is the stock phrase, trotted out by politicians after every new abomination committed by jihadists. Holland cites this as an attempt to de-radicalize matters, but also shows why it is counter-productive. Anyone, particularly a non-Muslim, who says those words is implying that he or she knows the nature of authentic Islam, a claim which is transparently absurd when even Muslim scholars can’t agree. He proceeds with a history lesson that starts with the life of Muhammad himself, including matters of contention surrounding its details.

From where I stand, as a faintly bemused outsider, Holland seems to address this history in about as balanced a manner as is possible, and his ultimate target slowly becomes clear. The fulcrum of the speech, the point at which we finish with the background and venture into a suggested route to a solution, arrives at 16:54 with the words, “Unless Islam can draw sustenance from its own traditions to purge itself of what is going on in its name then really there’s very little hope”.

I don’t want to say any more in description of this excellently structured and argued piece of erudition, because it’s time for me to don my rhetor hat.

Holland is doubly equipped with microphones. He has a face mic, and stereo mics on the lectern. One of those sound systems is providing the feed for this video, and I’m pretty certain it’s the one on the lectern. It is ‘splashing’. Splashing is a cousin of popping (and there’s a tiny bit of popping too). It is when sibilant consonants, principally the ‘s’ sound, give a distorted splashing sound on the output. It’s a pity when he is delivering such good stuff. Slap on the wrist for the sound-engineer.

He has a script. You may think it barely matters when he merely glances at it, and you’d be right to a degree. He does handle the script extremely skilfully, but still it detracts from his delivery. Occasionally he quotes someone else’s words and then I have no problem with it, but too much of his looking down is comfort-blanket stuff. Watch an instance when his eyes go down and ask yourself if he really needed to read those particular words to speak them. Most of the time the answer will be no.

If you want fully to appreciate the difference in quality of delivery when he addresses his script and when he doesn’t, watch a sustained period when his eyes stay up and he shoots a section from the hip. There is one such between 31:30 and 33:20. In it he is subtly more engaged with his audience than the rest of the time. More importantly (to him) he is every bit as articulate and coherent, employing the same high quality of phrasing, as when he is reading. It is this that he doesn’t quite trust himself on. He feels he has a need to underpin his natural fluency with the written word. He is wrong, but I suspect he would take some persuading.

For all that Tom Holland is an impressive speaker, and this is an important and valuable speech.

Bronwyn Oatley: a star speaker in the making

A reader of this blog referred me to the 2013 student commencement speech at Middlebury College, Vermont.

In the first minute I was struck by the quality of the speaking which is good enough for me to get really picky; but I could not at first discern what made this so particularly outstanding. I soon learnt.

The speaker is Bronwyn Oatley. She delivered this speech two years ago, so I am critiquing a time-capsule. I wonder how good she is now.

She has learnt her first few sentences. Memorized words sound slightly different from true shooting from the hip, but I am not complaining. It is a good plan as a hump-buster, though her hump lasts a little longer than the bit she has memorized. Again, this is not criticism: very few would spot the nervous symptoms, but I’m paid to do so.

She needs to learn to not pop the microphone. Almost every ‘p’ she utters causes the mic to pop, and it’s a distraction. Never point the mic at your mouth, or your mouth at the mic. Speak across it, not at it.

Her formal opening concerns a quote from G.B.Shaw. A smile forms on my face because many years ago I helped someone prepare a speech based on this very quote. It’s a beauty and I commend her choice.

This is good, clear, confident speaking, and beautifully tailored to her audience. There’s an early section full of in-jokes and reference to college events. These obviously mean nothing to me, and allow me to concentrate on the effect she is having on her audience. The staff members behind her, particularly the man on her left, are enjoying every nuance. The audience in front of her responds exactly as it should. Ultimately this, and not the pontification of someone like me, is the only test that matters.

At 4:27 she begins a good, long anaphora series – “I’m talking about the unreasonable…” This is well-constructed stuff, though she is not quite confident enough of her structure to dispose of her notes. The only fully justified time to look at paper has so far been when she overtly read a quote from the campus newspaper.  Other glances down at the lectern are essentially comfort stuff. In one hour I could have her throwing away paper for ever.

At 5:17 she does something brave. She gets personal and talks about herself. This is difficult to do at the best of times, but she makes it not the best of times by addressing the matter of her own sexuality. She recounts her journey of self-discovery and her coming out to her mother. Though she is talking about herself she arranges that Middlebury College be the hero of the story. The stability and support of the community is what saw her through the crisis.

If a pin dropped it would be deafening. Even when she momentarily tries to lighten the mood with a little personal humour the audience is so moved that silence prevails. The balance line between paying a sincere tribute and lapsing into mawkishness is very narrow, but she finds it. This section is quite remarkable.

She breaks the spell at 7:18. The man on her left smiles, and within seconds the hall is full of laughter and applause. She plays this audience like a violin.

At 9:30 she signals her closing by returning to that G.B.Shaw quotation. Every one of my trainees will testify how much I like it when speakers pair their openings and closings – the matter comes up at every course. It is elegant and professional. It closes the circle and cues the applause. Bronwyn closes beautifully… apart from the microphone popping.

John Waters: The People’s Pervert

On 30 May, 2015, John Waters delivered a Commencement Address to students at Rhode Island School of Design. I am indebted to a reader of this blog, and friend, Duncan Goldie-Scot for drawing it to my attention.

I discourage speakers from trying to get a laugh out of a hierarchical hello [hh]. This is because, by their very nature, these things nearly always crop up on heavyweight occasions. Here we have a speaker who is of the same mind. He has obviously been brought in to be as subversive as possible, yet he delivers his hh dead straight. He beams at the audience’s applause immediately the hh finishes, but he doesn’t monkey with it during the saying.

Immediately thereafter the subversion begins. He launches into an ethos the equal of which none of us is likely to have heard before or will hear again. Waters is studiously one of a kind and wants us to know it. He quotes an epithet attached to him by the press, “The Prince of Puke”. Also did you think I dreamed up that title above? It is lifted, untampered, from this speech.

There is an interesting detail, though. He concludes the ethos by quoting that People’s Pervert title, and then, “I am honoured to be here today with my people”. This is instantly greeted by whoops and applause from the students. Waters returns another beaming smile; but whereas the beam that concluded the hh was full of triumph and delight, this one is rather shy.

He launches into an account of his extraordinary career, “I wanted to be the filthiest person alive!” That pretty well sums it up. His message to the students is that they should in their work be true to themselves, however mad and artistically disruptive that might appear to the rest of the world.

The students lap it up, and presumably the school staff booked him with their eyes open, but I wonder how the students’ parents are enjoying it. I foresee family arguments wherein a need to support themselves fights against a compulsion to create things for which the world is not ready. Some of these students will earn good and secure money designing for large corporations, others may travel today’s equivalence of painting feverishly in the South of France, fighting against mental illness, cutting off an ear, dying penniless and leaving a legacy of work that will keep auction houses in a manner to which they want to be accustomed. Most will hover somewhere in between, jealous of the ones on the extremes.

That is the nature of art and the tragedy of artists. I’ve known many: even some fairly mad ones. You might expect the most outlandish, the ones that fearlessly produce stuff that seems to make no sense at all or that outrages your sensibilities, to be hard-nosed and thick-skinned. Not so. In my experience, the crazier they are the more insecure. And that takes me straight back to the shy smile that John Waters gave the warmth of the students’ welcome. He’s been hugely successful, but I see vulnerability. Perhaps it is that which helps to make this speech not just funny but so appealing.

I just wish he hadn’t thought he had to read it. Also, if you are going to say “Prince of Puke” and People’s Pervert” you need to learn how not to pop the microphone.

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”?


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!


Robert Carter frustrates with brilliance.

The Heartland Institute hosted ICCC9 – the ninth International Conference on Climate Change – in Las Vegas from 7–9 July 2014. On 8 July, Prof. Robert Carter delivered a talk entitled Why NIPCC Matters.

As far as I am concerned, NIPCC matters because it shows its workings. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you didn’t read my previous posting.

In my late sixties, I still have a full head of hair. Sometimes I wonder why. Too often I am faced with something that fills me with hair-tearing frustration. This brilliant speech is just such an example.

It is persuasively, authoritatively and articulately argued. He backs up his arguments with chapter and verse. He has structured it all around a beautifully conceived narrative theme of pieces of legendary art, ranging from Salvador Dali to Antony Gormley. He delivers it all with a voice that is clear, expressive and confident. As far as I can establish, he has no paper on that lectern. And yet…

Well, just look at that ‘still’ from the video! That picture shows you two of the three things that have me writhing. In that previous paragraph I very carefully implied – but did not say – that he has no script. He does have a script.

It’s on his bloody slides! 

What is worse he has no slave screen in front of him; so he has to turn away from the audience in order to read all those bloody words off the bloody slides on the bloody wall behind him. Ye Gods!

And the missing thing? – the other irritant that causes me to writhe, the third one that the picture doesn’t show? He is popping. Every so often an explosion detonates as he speaks directly into the microphone. It almost makes me want him to turn his head back towards the wall. And as if that weren’t enough, a hand periodically collides with the microphone to make a still louder noise.

Let us be clear here, and give credit where it is due. This is a brilliant and important speech, delivered by a man who oozes learning, sincerity, charisma and a wealth of obvious speaking ability. The concept of using examples of art to illustrate points is elegant and inspired. The structure of the speech is somewhere between good and very good. The ending perhaps needed something more – and not the final crash from the microphone.

But the staging of this wonderful speech is an abomination! Any trainee of mine watching it would be in hysterics. They have all had paper torn from their hands and verbiage torn from their slides. I know some that have virtually sworn off slides altogether (though Carter definitely needs some slides, if only to show his pieces of art.) They have all experienced the liberation of facing nothing but their audience and breathing the oxygen of that connection.

Getting rid of the microphone problem is slightly more complicated. A clip-on radio mic would have removed the popping; but the unruly hands that sometimes hit the microphone are part of his ebullient personality. An ebullient personality is something you monkey with at your peril. I can’t come up with an answer to that at this distance.

Oh how I’d like an hour alone with him!

Walter Russell Mead and flawed paper

At the City College of New York, on April 15, 2013, Walter Russell Mead delivered the inaugural Anne & Bernard Spitzer Lecture in the Colin L. Powell Center. It was entitled “America’s Asia pivot at a time of upheaval”. There’s a catchy title for you.

Mead begins at 4:20, and ends at 48:57 for Q&A but I would urge you first to watch his introduction by Rajan Menon. Even a professor of political science needs to learn about microphone technique if he is to fulfill this function properly. It has been several months since I last had need to moan here about someone popping on a microphone, but Menon more than makes up the shortfall. How hard would you have to work to pop more than this? What he has to say is interesting and provides a good background for what is to come, but he leans in towards the microphone to ensure that his percussive consonants have his column of breath unerringly hitting the microphone’s diaphragm every time. His aim is flawless.

He commits another error. Leading applause from the lectern feels right, looks wrong and sounds worse because the microphone compounds the felony.  Who would have thought there were so many little things to know?

Mead is taller than Menon so the microphone is aimed just south of his beard. Furthermore he doesn’t lean in to the microphone. As a result we finally hear the name ‘Spitzer’, and words like ‘policy’ or ‘polarization’, without a pop. This continues till 6:49 when Mead adjusts his microphone, and in the process the popping makes a nostalgic return – but only partially. He stands up, doesn’t lean into the microphone, and consequently pops a little less than Menon. A better microphone might eliminate it altogether, but in the meantime it’s there.

The issue being discussed is globally important. It comes from a respected commentator. It is being imparted to a knowledgeable audience in a specialized faculty within a respected seat of learning. Why then am I dwelling on this small detail?

Precisely because of all the above.

Were this a published document which Mead had written, and the paper was so transparently thin that the reader was constantly distracted by seeing other writing through what he was reading, and of such poor quality that it kept tearing when the page was turned, it would not be doing justice to the subject matter – just as in this case.

There is more to public speaking than merely an ability to convey concepts. Mead manifestly knows his subject and has much of importance to say. He argues his case skilfully and very compellingly, he shoots it spontaneously from the hip, with occasional histrionic outbursts that spice up the experience. It is very interesting and I commend this as a speech to be watched.

I just bemoan that it is printed on flawed paper.