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


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?

Dr Joanna Collicutt needs both my books.

Probably the most sensible thing that anyone has said, with respect to the Oxford Union God debate, came from the daughter of the speaker we shall be examining here. I’ll come to that in a few seconds. The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath was the second speaker in support of the motion, This House Believes in God.

She opens with that quote from her daughter saying, “What is there to debate? You either do or you don’t, and that’s an end to it.” What wise words! Dr Collicutt doesn’t quite agree enough to stop there, or they would all have got tucked into their G&D’s ice-cream rather sooner than they did.

I have published two little books on the subject of speaking.

The Face & Tripod (affectionately known as F&T) though it’s specifically targeted at business speaking is every bit as useful for any other type. Anyone who has explored this blog will not be surprised to learn that one of F&T’s principal thrusts concerns paperless speaking. If the material is properly and well enough structured anyone can go out in front of an audience and deliver even quite a long speech without reference to a script or notes. I call it ‘shooting from the hip’.

I bet you have worked out why I mention that here. Dr Collicutt is a talking head. She is wedded (or possibly welded) to the words she has written. And the truly frustrating and tantalising thing is that she has one of the clearest and easiest structures imaginable. It is one of those I commend in F&T – chronology. And what is the chronological path she has given herself to follow? Why, her own life! Yes, gentle reader, Dr Collicutt’s speech is auto-biographical; and still she doesn’t trust herself to be able to remember it. Let’s not castigate her: there are two ingredients to being able to deliver a paperless speech. You have to know how to, and you have to know you can. She hasn’t had me to prove to her beyond doubt that she can do it. I know she can, and her speaking would light up if she did.

I have published another little book – even littler! It is called Every Word Heard, and there’s a second half to that title, “- without discernible effort”.  That is the key to good enunciation. Anyone can make every word heard if they are prepared to sound weird. Dr Collicutt sounds as most people would, under the misguidance of too many people who don’t understand what good diction is. This is the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get each Christmas from the boy chorister that does one of the readings at the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge. The poor thing has been bullied into reading it like that, and I know what I’d like to say to the half-witted grown-up that did the bullying. It’s the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get from rookie BBC reporters. It’s the sort of … but I think you’ve probably got the picture.

It is perfectly possible – indeed easy, if you know how – to sound completely normal and still have every word heard even in a large hall. Speech is not a series of individual words, all gummed together in a given order: speech is a flow of phrases and clauses and sentences that have beautiful rhythm. If – you – utter – each – word – as – if – it – had – come – individually – wrapped, you do yourself and your speaking no favours at all.

Gosh, how I’d like to help Dr Collicutt!

Perhaps I should be grateful to her for providing me with such graphic examples with which to publicise my books, but I’d rather she did proper justice to her carefully reasoned speech.

Danny Moore – in a few hours I could transform him.

At the Dublin Web Summit, in October 2011, one of the keynote speakers was Danny Moore. His company, Lough Shore Investments, nurture high-potential start-ups and have a stated goal of bringing ten great companies to exit or IPO by 2025. I have corporate clients in that line of business: his company is not one of them.

Whoever edited and posted this video decided that we should join it shortly after the beginning, replacing Moore’s opening with a slide telling us that his talk was entitled, “Entrepreneurship: seven core pillars“.  Why?  Why did they do this? Was his opening so tedious or garbled that they felt a half-seen slide could do the job better? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s a dismal start to the video. It’s doing no favours at all for Moore nor Lough Shore Investments nor Dublin Web Summit. Whoever stuck this on the web needs his bum kicking.

When we do join him Moore is delivering a very downbeat resume of his education. Would you be able to tell me the name of your school and your hometown without having to look them up?  I thought so. Why then did he need to look at the lectern before naming these things? The answer is hump. At the beginning of a presentation like this, when you are assailed by nerves, there’s a temptation to look anywhere but at the audience. He surrendered to the temptation.  First impressions are very important, and this first impression is dire.

Which is a pity, because we find that Moore has plenty to say.  The trouble is that he has little idea of how to say it.

Many might have trouble with his northern Ireland accent: it is undeniably a robust example. Nevertheless we should remember that his live audience is in Dublin where ears will be easily in tune with it. If I were advising him, and conscious of the wider potential audience from a YouTube posting, I would work with him on clarity of enunciation without losing the essence of his accent.  Part of the problem is that Co. Antrim produces not just distinctive vowel sounds, but a style of intonation that to non-Irish ears implies a monotone.

I am unable to read his slides, but I am fairly certain that he is not regurgitating precisely what they say – which is good. On the other hand they are smothered in verbiage – which is dreadful. Does he want his audience to read his slides or listen to him? If he absolutely had to have any slides at all I’d restrict him to showing only the headline sentences. If I were being really assertive I’d kick all the slides into touch, and the pillars too. My problem with the pillars is that he is straying into the realm of those lame book titles, beloved of the mass self-help industry, “The five errors made by most coracle repairers“. His business surely is with bright revolutionary innovation, yet he’s selling it with the aid of the stalest of cheap cliché.

The closing is simply appalling.  He runs out of time, weakly mentions a reading list and then falls off the end. This is a keynote speech in a flagship tech conference, for heaven’s sake!  What a waste of a fabulous shop-window!

I itch to help.


Fareed Zakaria – so nearly excellent that it’s frustrating!

When a man has been editing for more than a decade serious international periodicals like Newsweek and Time,  all the while writing articles in a range of other distinguished organs, when he has published several books including two best-sellers, and when moreover he has hosted two TV shows and been a regular contributor to others, you could be forgiven for thinking that he must have a skill like public speaking completely cracked. You’d be nearly right. Fareed Zakaria comes close, but he could very easily be closer. I found this speech by him at the 2010 Forum 2000 conference.

Whatever possessed him to utter that first sentence that way round? I can’t believe it was deliberate, so I put it down to Hump. In fact I rushed to add to my glossary an expression of mine that I haven’t used for some time. It’s a “Neil Armstrong moment“! In fact he is seriously hump-ridden for about a minute.  I say it in courses: I say it in my book: you should always have the hump-period completely nailed, so that if the ceiling fell in you’d still cope under auto-pilot.

There are in the video footage a few small edit-points that puzzle me. In each case what is said seems to flow on smoothly enough (though any competent editor should achieve that). What did they cut out? There’s one at 1:25, another at 2:27, and several more, and they make me wonder whether he had something like a paroxysm of coughing that they decided posterity didn’t need to see, or whether he just got even more boring for a bit.

One day I shall devote an entire posting on this blog to the differences between the written and spoken word. I’ve touched briefly on the subject before, but never enough fully to cover an area that is not well enough understood by too many people that absolutely should understand it. Zakaria, it seems to me, well-used to expressing himself brilliantly on paper or speaking to camera with that particular glassy stare that typifies TV presenters when they are using Autocue, has not bothered to explore the matter further. Autocue eyes somehow absolve their owners from the sin of uttering stilted speech; but utter the same stilted speech from a speaking platform and you do yourself no favours. Writing natural-sounding speech is so enormously difficult that I teach people the simplest of shortcuts. It’s simple: but at first it takes courage. You learn to create structures: you follow your structures: you trust yourself to speak spontaneously through your structures. And that sentence was epistrophe.

Dip into this speech for instance just after the 2-minute point and what you get is stilted, halting and – frankly – tedious. Suspicious that you might be looking at the remnants of a hump you might look again shortly after 4:00 and very much the same greets you – and there’s an edit point at 4:18.  Almost slap in between, at 3:20, he briefly gets seized by the urge to talk about inflation.  For that short period he is fulfilling Cardinal 1.  He has something to say and Real Speech comes flowing eloquently out of him. The contrast between this section and its neighbours is very marked.

Overall this young man, with a meteoric track record as a communicator simply seems to lack speaking-platform-savvy.  And this extends even to his repeated popping on that damned microphone. If I’d trained him he’d be a hell of a lot better, and he’d not be popping. After a while I became so frustrated that I went searching for another example of his speaking.  I found this. He is speaking at an IBM Think Forum.

What a contrast! Here we have the best part of 17 minutes of Zakaria shooting brilliantly from the hip. He is able to do it because now he has a rock-solid mind-map structure. It’s chronology. He merely relates and discusses the economic fortunes of the globe in general and USA in particular over a series of decades. There’s even a parallel to die for at 9:45! In technical speaking terms it is fabulous stuff.

If ever there was an argument for understanding the importance, both for you and for the audience, of knowing how to create and use structures, here it is in the comparison between two speeches from the same man.  The second one appears to have been delivered a few months later than the first. Had he learnt the skill in the interim, or is he still today playing hit-and-miss Russian Roulette?

If the latter he should contact me.

Compering – Who’s the Daddy!

I was helping a past trainee with preparing a presentation to be delivered to a conference he is hosting early in the New Year. During our deliberations I remarked on how the conference timetable showed that his Marketing Director would be the conference MC, and I offered guidance on what that would involve.

I was asked only a few weeks ago by a firm of Conference Organisers whether I preferred that term or the word ‘Compere’, and I replied that they were different functions. Their functions are quite well described by their titles.

An MC (Master of Ceremonies) is a cross between a toastmaster and a town-crier – a very visible figure. It is someone whose job it is to bring proceedings to order at appropriate moments. My client (above) has very properly appointed a high-profile personality from the company to manage this function. The nature of the job means (though it goes against the grain to admit it) that what they say could be pre-scripted. It’s relatively easy.

A compere – as anyone with a smattering of French will see in the word – should act as a sort of father. Daddy will look after everything. He (or she – I tend not to waste time smoothing over gender specifics, but with a word like ‘Daddy’ in the frame let’s be clear that women make very good comperes) should be a relatively unobtrusive figure that simply makes everything go smoothly, relaxes the audience, relaxes the speakers and is always ready to grab the wheel and steady the ship should anything go wrong – an omnipresent safe pair of hands. The nature of this job forbids scripting.

I recommend to anyone who aspires to develop himself as a speaker that he should seize every opportunity to act as compere. The skills that are needed, and therefore honed, are plentiful and invaluable.

You are the ‘Humpmaster’. When the event begins everyone in the place is nursing his own hump. All the speakers/performers are edgy; the audience has yet to settle; it is your job to bust all those humps at once. What’s that you say? You have a hump too? Tough! You just have to ignore it, and pretend to the whole world it isn’t there. You’ll be amazed at how this improves your nerve-hiding.

You are the ‘Bridge-builder’. Have you heard or read me going on about the importance of breaking down invisible screens and building a bridge between the platform and the audience? Now you have to build a communal bridge for the whole event. Get good at that, and you’ll never again have problems on your own account.

You are everyone’s support, backstop and trouble-shooter. If you are doing your job properly you never relax: you are constantly looking ahead for possible problems and working out contingency measures. Do I have to lay out how valuable that habit is?

You are the timetable elastic. In between events you have effortlessly to motor-mouth for longer or shorter periods to cater for whatever changeover measures have to take place. The key here is to be armed with stacks of snippets of nice-to-know, inconsequential information that you can wheel out or not as required. Yes: homework!

As far as the audience is concerned you don’t matter. You are never the picture, barely the frame. All that matters is the event as a whole and the next item in it. This is actually quite liberating: you can witter away in a casual fashion, knowing that no one really cares. And that is exactly the right attitude for you to adopt. Surely you’ve spotted the developmental advantage. You are never thinking of yourself: your focus is constantly looking the other way. If you don’t know what I’m going on about here, read my book.

And all without a script. Shooting from the hip.

The better you do it, the easier it looks to everyone else. The greatest compliment they can pay you is to forget to thank you. That means the event proceeded as if on silken rails. I seriously consider the absence of a thank-you as a badge of honour, to such an extent that I itch at the end simply to slide way unnoticed.

This isn’t some phoney Lone Ranger pose – “Who was that masked man?” It’s the Jeeves effect, shimmering in and out.

As you might imagine, all this applies as much to compering a local talent show as a huge international corporate shindig; so get out there and get compering. Do it often, do it well, and progressively great swathes of previous difficulties you experienced on the speaking platform will vanish away.

And, since you ask, yes!  I’m compering Carol concerts, both in stately homes, tomorrow and Tuesday. Why do you think it was prominently in mind to make me think of writing about it?

[added 19/12/12]    P.S. Both those carol concerts have been and gone. I am proud to say that at neither was I publicly thanked.  RESULT!