Nick Cohen needs to learn a just a little.

As one of the speakers at the secularism conference of the National Secular Society in September 2012 in London, journalist and author Nick Cohen chose as his theme the existence of a de facto world-wide blasphemy law. His introduction lasts just a minute, he finishes just before the 22-minute mark. The rest is Q&A.

I have had it suggested to me that this blog is a teach-yourself-public-speaking part work. That is a false and foolish assumption. I certainly touch here on a great many facets of the art which a reader with a ridiculous amount of time on his hands could attempt to compile into some sort of instruction manual; but if anyone out there is doing that I’d better consider sticking disclaimers up all over the place. The critical word in that previous sentence is ‘touch’. For every advisory point I’ve made in this blog in about 140 postings, there are – at a rough guess – about 200 words of detailed and important explanation left out.

What brought all this to mind now is that this speech by Nick Cohen might seem to readers of this blog to tick all my boxes. He is shooting from the hip, which is fairly unusual for a writer. He has adopted a position on his subject. He has a coherent theme. He is speaking in the sort of informal conversational tone that is ideal for his subject. He is transparently sincere. He has a well-marshalled set of arguments. All that puts him ahead of most speakers.

And yet it’s a stream of consciousness whose structure and thread are insufficiently strong or distinct – either for him or us. For him there are several occasions that he has to stop completely to regroup his thoughts. He is so articulate that those thoughts, once regrouped, then pour out very coherently; but the regrouping process inserts an element of disjointedness. For us in the wider audience we are compelled to leap mentally across those disjoints.  We also have to cling to lines of reasoning that often meander slightly at random.

He does not write like that. His writing – to my relatively untutored eye – is very clearly structured. I have said often enough in this blog that written English and spoken English are different languages, likewise written and spoken structures, so I do not complain that he puts writing structures to one side when he is speaking. My complaint is that he seems not to realise that there exist speaking structures that he should adopt in their place.

This is a good and important speech. It is a pity that, for lack of just a ha’porth of skill, it failed to be a brilliant one.

Bill Callaghan has a speech to speak, O

Bill Callaghan is a Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London. He also is in demand as an after-dinner speaker. Videos of his tours have been posted on line and received hits in seven figures; and the man we apparently have to thank is American tourist Jerry Clark, who wielded a camcorder for the benefit of us all.

You may think that addressing tourists at the Tower of London is very different from delivering speeches from a lectern, and so it is. After-dinner speaking is likewise different. But all of them have in common the need to grab and hold an audience’s attention while saying stuff (stop me if I’m getting too technical). Shall we see how Callaghan does it?

Well there’s an opening to be remembered! Of course you could never open a speech like that from a lectern, or an after-dinner speech, or a sermon from a pulpit. But it’s all right when you’re addressing a bunch of elderly foreign … er…

  • 2:30 You couldn’t get away with a remark like that about our Caledonian cousins or the Royal Marines if you were speaking at a lectern, a dinner table or a pulpit. But it’s ok … er …
  • 3:50 Ditto unwanted children.
  • Ditto
  • Ditto
  • Dittos, several and sundry

The fact is that in this world of the PC police looking over our shoulders at every turn no one can get away with what he says. But he does.

He appears not to have heard of ‘Hate Speech’, and how I wish I hadn’t! It is the invention of a relatively small but disproportionately influential coterie of sweet, self-important souls whose own hate is evidently directed at themselves. Normal, well-balanced people jovially hurl affectionate insults at each other without some tiresome twerp popping up to tell them how offended they should be. Perhaps someone will one day put them all out of our misery.

Callaghan is a normal, well-balanced person insulting everyone; and he does it with stunning skill. Regardless of the malign madness of political correctness, his material is manifestly dangerous; and yet he not only gets away with it, but his audience – who comprise many of his targets – laugh, love, and lap it up.

Children: don’t try this at home (unless your family is an intelligent, well-balanced, loving and sensible one with grown-up values).


Danny Dorling – a fish out of water

In October 2012 The Cambridge Union Society held a debate with the motion This House Believes Class Runs BritainIn passing, I’d like to say that the CUS has a better organised online presence than the Oxford Union.  With the former there is a web page dedicated to the debate details; with the latter you have to try to hunt them down. Danny Dorling opened the case for the motion, and I’d like to thank fellow bloggist, Geoff Chambers, for drawing my attention to it.

My instant reaction was, why? The excellent CUS web page, mentioned above, tells me that also speaking for the motion is Ken Livingstone. What possessed them to put Dorling on first? I’m sure he’s a charming man, but he’s a fish out of water. The answer is that they were holding Livingstone back to field questions and summarise at the end. In the above video Dorling’s speech runs from 3:00 to 13:25.

Did I say a fish out of water? He says it too, though not quite in those words. But even before he admits being new to this environment his body language is screaming it. Look how his hands are all around his mouth in his first seconds of speaking. This is a classic terror symptom. Throughout the speech his hands periodically worry themselves behind his ears, which is likewise a stress symptom that we met before towards the end of this posting. (You can see another type of stress here, where a well-known sportsman is repeatedly worrying behind his ear and showing us that he’d rather be in the shower than doing this dumb interview.)

Take the environment out of the frame and Dorling is actually expressing himself quite well: there’s a neat anaphora that starts at 3:17 – “you worry about…”.

More than once in articles on this blog I have protested that your accent is part of you so you should honour it. I’m therefore disappointed by his assertion at 5:20 that if you live for any time in Newcastle without adopting the Geordie accent you are a ‘complete idiot’ and ‘very arrogant’. I’m sorry but I classify going native as a mark of insecurity.

At 5:30 he says that he’s not going to shower us with statistics, because they could be challenged by subsequent speakers. That looks like insecurity again (I’m trying to be charitable). The class issue, he says, is more of a gut feeling. Ah yes! Assertions backed up by essentially nothing are suitably unverifiable: don’t we love arguments like that – particularly from professors?

At 7:07 he tells us that he’s never spoken in a debate before (I told you so!). All right, there’s a first time for everything. I don’t suppose he’s ever dived off a 10-metre board either, but it might occur to him to learn something before trying.

What is it about public speaking that, although it is widely recognised as one of the most stressful things you can do, it doesn’t dawn on most people to seek help? How many seriously bright, knowledgeable and insightful people have been featured in this blog and been seen to fail dramatically to do themselves justice? The right guidance can turn a terrifying minefield into a pussy-cat playground.

When will they ever learn?

Imran Khan has huge charisma; but he needs a little tuition

In February 2013 Imran Khan addressed the Oxford Union.

There is an introduction from Adnan Rafiq. It ends at 3:45, and Khan begins speaking at 4:08.  The intervening 23 seconds is filled by ecstatic applause. This is from an audience too young ever to have watched him play cricket; but then the man does ooze charisma. My wife (who is old enough to have watched him play cricket) peered over my shoulder and remarked on how good looking he still is. I shall try nevertheless not to hate him too much to be dispassionate about his speaking.

Immediately I give him credit for shooting the speech from the hip. He could do it better, but at least he is doing it.

Let’s examine how he could have done it better. After a little too much preamble (about which I shall say more later) he launches the main thrust of the speech at 5:25. He does it with the single word, “Leadership”, and then proceeds to define it. He aims to operate a  tripartite structure by giving three essential qualities for leadership –

  • Vision
  • Conquering of fear
  • Integrity

That would be excellent except that he contrives that each of those elements has subdivisions and qualifications that muddy the clarity, not just for the audience but for himself – he slightly loses the thread a couple of times. This vision, he says, should be selfless; courage should involve a degree of self-criticism; and lastly he tends to confuse integrity with credibility (the one is purely moral, the other can be concerned with skill). Suddenly therefore the definition of leadership is not tripartite but manifold. He needs to revisit his three sections, slightly re-define and re-title them so as to encompass the qualifications and thereby achieve the tripartite aspect that he evidently was seeking.

He follows all that with a section that can best be described as ethos. He talks about his cricketing experience and the leadership that is required of a team captain. He narrates the battle he had, building a cancer hospital in Pakistan. He speaks about how he refused to compromise his principles for self-advancement, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but the mistake here is that his ethos is following his argument, whereas it must precede it, because ethos should be an underpinning to provide the platform on which the argument stands. You could justifiably claim that Imran Khan has such a high public profile that he doesn’t need ethos to give his arguments credibility, but that is not an argument for putting ethos in the wrong place: it’s an argument for leaving it out.

So this is an overview of the layout of his speech.

  1. Preamble – principally Thankings, and with some slightly sentimental references to his sons being in the audience. Just over one and a quarter minutes of it.
  2. His definitions of Leadership
  3. His ethos.

I would either lose the ethos completely on the grounds of redundancy as argued above or I would slip little illustrative anecdotes into the three elements that define leadership.

And I would put the thankings somewhere else.

But where? Ay there’s the rub! Thankings are often overwhelmingly appropriate and we have to find somewhere for them. On the other hand bald openings are so powerful, that it is a terrible pity when your opening is forced to follow something else. If, for example, there is a formal greeting – “Your Royal Highnesses, my Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen…” then there is no way out. But thankings can be inserted towards the end…

“Finally, I’d like to say how much I appreciate having been given the chance to come here today. Your committee has been wonderfully welcoming… etc.”

Since this speech was delivered, he had that dreadful accident during his political campaign when he fell from a hoist. As I write, that was just over a month ago and he is now out of hospital. I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. 

Stefan Halper – another talking head

At the Oxford Union Debate on the motion The 21st Century Belongs to China Stefan Halper opposed the motion.

I have very often rehearsed the arguments against reading a speech.  For three examples I did it here, and here and here. I should love therefore to avoid today dwelling on that aspect of this speech, but I simply cannot. Once again we find ourselves listening to styles of wording, phrasing and syntax which could have been excellent if read but which are stilted, awkward and clumsy when spoken. My frustration in all this is that we deal here not with someone who is of low intelligence or narrowly educated, but quite the reverse. Has he not noticed, when attending speeches delivered by others, how much better it sounds when they shoot their delivery from the hip?

This conundrum continues to perplex me. He must have noticed! All I can therefore conclude is that either he believes he can read more fluently than his talking-head peers, or he assumes that the ability to speak without notes is a divine gift bestowed only upon a chosen few. Both of those are fallacies. The stilted nature of speech from a talking-head has almost nothing to do with reading ability, and very little to do with writing ability (though you can learn to write better in the spoken idiom). As for the divine-gift fallacy, after the decades I have been teaching public speaking I am still waiting for the first trainee who fails to discover that they belong to the ‘chosen few’.

If you’ve been taught properly, shooting a speech from the hip is more fluent, more engaging, more convincing, more secure and much quicker to prepare. But still they don’t! Still they labour for hours over a script and then sound like railway station announcers.

Halper has so much going for him. He is suitably opinionated, knows his subject well enough to back up those opinions, and so on. He is an author you want to read, and he could in a single morning be transformed into also an inspiring speaker.

Watch from the 5-minute mark. Can you believe that page-turn hiatus?  Stick with it a little longer and we reach a pleasing, though halting, anaphora, built on the word, “Stop…” (though he inexplicably corrupts the anaphora by changing to “cease…” for the fourth element of the series) and then at the 5:30 mark he stumbles over the word, “willingly…”. There’s half a minute that he could utter flawlessly a hundred times with no problem at all, yet here he makes a right, royal meal of it – and only because he is handicapping himself by reading it.

What he has to say is actually very interesting. You may – like me – have to watch it a few times to realise that. Pity his live audience that did not have that chance.

Mark Thornton – unexceptionable: unex…anything!

Some years ago I was in a meeting with the training manager of a company that here shall remain nameless. I had already trained their CEO and this discussion concerned the possibility of my working with other executives. He suddenly asked me whether I had any sort of government-recognized qualification in teaching public speaking. I replied that as far as I knew there was no such thing, which was probably a blessing as I could imagine the joy-sucking automatons that would graduate from such a system. He didn’t seem to see the funny side of that, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.

I think somewhere out there is a school of thought to the effect that it doesn’t have maturity or class unless it’s stuffed-shirt-boring (you may recall the hatchet job I did on an offering by William Hague). This was brought sharply into focus when I came across this speech in which the speaker fought bravely to conceal as much as possible of his personality.

Mark Thornton is delivering a lecture at the Ludvig von Mises Institute in June 2011. He is explaining the difference between Austrian and mainstream economics. He favours the Austrian variety; and I felt bound to confide this information to you because in his struggle to be balanced and even-handed he comes close to hiding that detail. What we have here is 21 minutes of message-lite, emotion-free information, in plain-wrapping. It’s the sort of thing that would have a government-certified inspector of speeches biting his standard-issue clipboard in ecstasy.

Except for five seconds! For that very brief period in an unguarded moment Thornton’s passion peeps out. I’ll tell you a little later where you may witness this minor outrage.

Right at the beginning, from 0:30 there is a section where he explains that Austrian economics is at the same time the oldest, the smallest and the fastest growing school of economic thought. At this point there is a slight teasing suggestion that Thornton is going to get into the driving seat and sell the concept, but no dice.

I really do not know what else to say about this leaden performance. I am no economist, but I find the Austrian doctrine exciting and seductive. Nevertheless if this had been my introduction to it I should not have given it a second glance. It makes me crave to confront Thornton, unpin his communication wings and watch him fly.

He could very easily fly. He knows his subject, and behind all that iron control there is someone who is passionate about it. Do you want to see my evidence? Watch from 19:45, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

And the day that some busy-body half-witted politician (a description that fits too many of them) decides to create a quango to oversee public speaking is the day that I shall retire in disgust.

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