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.

Peter Schiff – tragically natural

Over the decades that I have been teaching public speaking I have worked with people who were better than they thought, worse than they thought, worse than you would believe, scared witless, over-confident, monosyllabic, monotonous, and almost any other characteristic you could conceive. I am often asked what type of person is the most difficult, and the answer is actually none of the above. The most difficult is the ‘natural’. People who have always been able just to stand up and deliver have little incentive to study the art, so are almost certain to stay for ever on a plateau that is somewhere between good and very good, though usually nearer the former. When, for instance, their boss commissions me to work with them they usually assume that I’m just going to assist them with perhaps researching a forthcoming presentation, rather than actually working on their skill. That’s when I have to start getting diplomatic and persuasive.

In 2011 US Congressman Ron Paul sponsored a series of three Congressional lectures on money.  Peter Schiff delivered the third, entitled What About Money Causes Economic Crises? Peter Schiff is a natural.

In his opening half-minute my eyes, when I first watched it, narrowed with suspicion. Almost everything is wrong: the swig of water so early, the ham-fisted adjustment of the microphone, the clunky producing of his mobile telephone to switch it off, the mumbled commentary throughout. No one makes that many mistakes! Could it be that this was a carefully choreographed, hump-busting routine? After all, he did conclude it with a muttered exhortation for others to switch off their mobiles also – and this could be seen as a gentler way of doing it than delivering a sort of military command. I still don’t know the answer, so I’m still suspicious. (And I still hate that bloody bottle – could we organise a whip-round to buy Congress a glass?)

Peter Schiff obviously knows his subject inside out; he has masses to say; and for 37 minutes it all tumbles out of him. Spot the problem. My first Cardinal Rule, in my courses and my book, is “Have Something to Say”. Spot the problem. Got it? “Something” is a singular noun. Can you identify a singularity here? Nor can I.

It would not be difficult to distil this entire speech into a single message through which to drive all the rest, but that’s a discipline to which he is not accustomed. He is very bright indeed and probably used to barking information and instructions to underlings who are likewise very bright indeed. In a Congressional lecture he is entitled to assume that his audience is also very bright, but the difference is that whereas his staff live and work with these concepts this audience doesn’t. In fact much of what he is saying is diametrically opposite to what they have been fed by armies of Keynesian economists.

Schiff needs structure. He doesn’t need it for himself: ordinary mortals need structure as rails along which to run (and therefore dispense with script or notes). He doesn’t: he scorns paper: he just talks: he shoots from the hip. For him that’s fine, but it’s not enough for his audience. The audience needs a message and a narrative. Otherwise what he’s firing from the hip is just a cloud of shotgun (scattergun) pellets with almost no penetrative ability – they’ll just bounce off the audience. He needs structure.

Try this experiment. Imagine that you are going to have to write an essay outlining all his arguments. Now watch the speech and see how long it takes before you need to stop and go back a bit to check on something he said.  Not long, I’ll bet. If you’d been sitting in the audience you couldn’t have done that. All his arguments are there: all his data are there. He’s giving you everything you need, but in a relatively incoherent fashion. And that’s tragic!

His audience doesn’t need to write an essay, but absolutely does need to follow everything he says because it is so important.

He needs structure. Who’s going to tell him?