Rory Stewart displays excellence

Rory Stewart is a very, very good speaker

I am there quoting myself in a posting from 1 November, 2013. Though I had to go back to check the date and details I have never forgotten the impact on me that speech had. Thus when I spotted this lecture at Yale, delivered in April 2018, I was eager to watch it if only to indulge myself.

I did more than check details on that previous post, I re-read it and will take back not a word. Rory Stewart is outstanding. We see him here displaying all the qualities of all the best speakers.

During preliminary chats with my trainees, I regularly hear the protestation that they’re “ok” when lucky enough to be dealing with subject matter they know really well, but when ordered to deliver a presentation on something of which they have scant knowledge they are less good. Well of course! In an ideal world no one would be asked to speak on something they didn’t really know (though there are tricks); but this isn’t an ideal world and adverse circumstances arise.

Stewart here is being rather better than “ok”.

We see him showing total command of his subject, quoting from memory myriad facts, figures and a wide range of random data, and we are reminded that he makes his own luck. Consider the extraordinary lengths to which he goes in order to get right under the skin of the communities and cultures with which he deals. In 2002 he took leave from his job with the British foreign service to walk across Asia, entitling him thereafter to speak for those at the grass roots as one who had lived there.

There is another less obvious quality to his knowledge of his subject. Deep knowledge brings with it a heightened awareness of that which you don’t know. Stewart’s willingness in this speech to admit to questions to which he has no answers speaks eloquently for his inner confidence. Insecurity would not allow that admission.

That quality enriches the questions he receives. Though the absence of an audience mic prevents us from properly hearing the questions, the way he addresses them seems to acknowledge their value; and his answers to these relatively random issues are as full of detailed data from memory as the main body of the speech.

Had I been in the audience I would have highlighted the way the developed world’s devotion to the preposterous climate change fallacy denies impoverished African countries access to cheap energy from coal. I would have challenged his repeatedly trotting out ‘legitimate state monopoly on the use of violence’ as a commonplace desirability, because defining ‘legitimate’ presents immediate knottiness, even if you are prepared to overlook the 2nd amendment in the US Bill Of Rights, and so on. His attitude throughout suggests he is open to debating all views, and the consequent conversation will be the richer for it.

Yes he really is a very good speaker, equipped with an outstanding memory, and amazingly adept at addressing matters that are miles outside his apparent expertise. Here is a speech that I offer as a bonus and which moved Madam Deputy Speaker to declare it one of the best speeches she had ever heard in the House of Commons.

David Starkey gets it right.

In December 2019, a day or two before the 12 December UK General Election, New Culture Forum held its 2019 Smith Lecture, in London. The Speaker was Dr David Starkey.

As a general rule I seldom devote more than a token hat-tip to a speaker’s introduction, but I have a little more than that to say about this contribution from Peter Whittle.

When I began teaching public speaking – shortly after the Napoleonic Wars – there remained in the medium a strong favouring (which I disliked) for formal oratory. Since then that fashion has receded almost to extinction in favour of what I call Conversational Speaking, and the trend was driven by The Market. Audiences want not to be spoken at, but spoken to, or with. Best speaking practice today is characterised by a more chummy demeanour and, ideally, no script or even notes. Speaking without notes (I call it “shooting from the hip”) transmits a range of desirable signals like spontaneity, command of the subject, sincerity, and so on, and (keep my secret!) is astonishingly easy to do.

Whittle’s introduction is shot entirely from the hip. It has stumbles, but if anything they enhance the result because it sounds – and is – spontaneous. He conveys the feeling that he has things that he sincerely wants to tell us, and we therefore want to hear them. Among other things he tells us about “So what you’re saying is…”, a series of interviews that he conducts with interesting people. They are very good: I commend them.

David Starkey begins at 6:00.

He speaks from notes. He nevertheless contrives to convey the chumminess, sincerity and much of the spontaneity of noteless speaking. We shouldn’t be surprised: he’s been doing it a long time. He’s even older than I, though not by much. Rather than develop the skill of dispensing entirely with paper, which till a couple of decades ago was regarded as a bit of a mountebank’s trick, he has learnt to refer very sparingly to his paper and not to allow it to impede his excellent relationship with his audience.

I found this talk highly enjoyable. It is humorous, bulging with relevant information concerning nineteenth century politics, and scattered with some wonderfully quotable lines.

It is also prescient. Though he starts with all manner of caveats concerning the uncertainty still prevailing before the election, and he declares himself determined not to prophesy the result, he nevertheless hints obliquely, late in the talk, how he expects it will pan out. He gets it right, in satisfactory detail.

Andrew Klavan needs beaker

The Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley (who’da thought?) invited Andrew Klavan to speak at their annual Christmas / Hanukkah party last year.

Klavan is no stranger to either Christmas or Hanukkah, being Jewish by birth and upbringing, and having converted and been baptised a Christian in recent years. He described the pain and reward of that journey in his remarkable book The Great Good Thing, one of the few books for which I have ever bothered to write a review on Amazon.

Here however he is speaking not so much about religion but about being members of a minority group, conservatives in a leftist community. He’s an expert: he lives in Hollywood.

In his podcasts Klavan shows himself to be highly adept both on camera and microphone, and his skill with the written word is legendary, but none of that guarantees that he can handle a live audience. Let’s see …

He’s good, very good, but then I knew that. I’ve seen his ebullience and huge personality being poured into a camera lens in his video podcasts. His delivery to a live audience is very nearly as good. You’ll have spotted that I pulled up short of the absolute superlative, and I will return to that in due course.

He has paper on that lectern, but essentially it’s there as a backstop. He really refers to it only when he is quoting others, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as you need not only to get the quote right but be seen to be doing so. The rest of the time he doesn’t need to follow his script because he has structured his material in a way that he (and we) can follow and remember.

Note how he has divided his message into chapters. Note how he then subdivides his chapters into smaller sections. Yes, the mystery of the ‘magic’ of speaking without notes comes down to details as simple as those. As so much of his hi-tec communication performances these days will depend upon AutoCue, I am pleased to see that he knows and still follows the strictures of horse-drawn public speaking.

Nevertheless there are subtle, almost indefinable, differences between speaking to an audience you can see and one you can’t. I’m referring to timing. For eight years I had a weekly radio programme, and then when I was speaking to live audiences I became conscious that I was occasionally mistiming things slightly.

Mistiming is most apparent when you are playing for a laugh. You don’t need to be an expert to know when you got it wrong.  It’s when the market refuses to buy: the laugh doesn’t come. You get that information only with a live audience, but it can be a shock to the confidence because you begin to wonder whether you are getting it wrong also with the invisible audience on the radio whose response you can’t gauge.

For my part I find him flawlessly laugh-out-loud in his podcasts, though it took me a bit of time to tune in to his wavelength. On the other hand though he harvests some stunningly good laughs there are just a couple of moments here in this speech when the laugh gears don’t quite engage. He’s a pro so he covers it superbly; but if I were advising him I would urge him to speak to live audiences a little more regularly in order to keep the timing instincts exercised, not least because he obviously revels in his live audience. I think I would also suggest that he lean a teeny bit more towards throw-away, as opposed to overt, humour. (As I have said a few times on this blog, I get this picky only with the best; and when they are the best why the hell should they pay attention to me anyway?)

I would also get him to insist on a beaker for his water. That bloody bottle drove me insane!


Harry Browne speaks about freedom

Recently I became conscious that I seemed to devote too much of this blog to those I call talking heads, and that I should go out of my way to find speakers who had outgrown the assistance of paper. What a difficult task that has turned out to be! It is downright horrifying how many people fail this simple test, and fail themselves in the process. But I searched because I wanted to be able to concentrate on other aspects of speaking.

I was delighted therefore to find this brief speech by the late Harry Browne, delivered in 2002.

Is this a bald opening or does the clip join a speech at an appropriate moment? I can’t tell; but whether or not it actually was one, it nevertheless illustrates very clearly how bald openings are powerful and elegant in their simplicity. They are also hugely liberating for speakers, as they dispense with unnecessary verbal clutter.

Let’s look at his gestures. All of them are with palms up. This is body-language orthodoxy. The theory is that it indicates warmth and welcome. I don’t teach this: I prefer to get people feeling warm and welcoming towards their audience, and let the hands follow as they naturally will. I think he’s been taught it, because it looks slightly contrived to me. Gestures by numbers. He’s learnt well nonetheless. Look at the mime gestures when he speaks of the government taking things –  0.58, 1.02, 1.08, etc. They’re good. Perhaps a little too good.

There’s a nice little cluster of anaphora and epistrophe when talking of government controls beginning 1:13. There’s another welcome anaphora beginning around 3:30. This material is nicely constructed and and all fired from the hip.

His vocal delivery is warm and friendly, and you could say that a presidential candidate (which he was at the time) should be more assertive and statesmanlike. But libertarians tend to get painted by their opponents as hard hearted bastards that eat fluffy kittens for breakfast, so this avuncular image that he is conveying counters that very well.

All in all it’s a good bit of speaking. Obviously he was fruitlessly crying in the wilderness against the huge interests vested in the Republicans and Democrats, but good all the same