Dan Barker wears eye-catching braces at the Oxford Union God Debate.

When you have an argument that is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable, existing only as a matter of faith, and when that argument has been joined countless times over the ages by a large number of very clever people, then holding yet another debate on the same subject is itself an act of faith. You are hoping that either someone will say something completely new or that a previously promoted facet to the argument will be put in a new way or that someone will express themselves with such potent charisma that even a weary commonplace will suddenly seem fresh. It was this last hope that attracted me as a student of speaking to the Oxford Union God Debate. John Lennox, opening the batting for the motion, came very close to fulfilling that, How would Dan Barker follow?

Oh dear! That still picture that YouTube has caused to represent this video has Barker looking mighty fierce. Be reassured: he isn’t.

He opens with a very strong introduction. Before becoming an atheist he had been an ordained minister for a great many years, preaching the gospel of Jesus. That’s about as good an ethos as you could want under the circumstances. He has another detail up his sleeve though – a joke. In describing how evangelical he was, he quotes Richard Dawkins as having written that he was the sort of preacher you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus. It gets a good laugh, and deserves to because of the way he delivers it. There’s a problem though: it instantly triggered in my mind the realisation that the gospels have his case covered in the parable of the sower.

I find myself torn! On the one hand he graphically stokes up his ethos and gets an excellent laugh, on the other he slightly over-eggs it in the process and (for me personally) actually weakens the ethos. I am a very long way from being a theologian, but I did pass Scripture O-level (half a century ago).  If I, then who else would suddenly think of the seed that fell on stony ground? I really don’t know how I would advise him.

Barker has obviously said much of this before. He has been in essence a professional atheist for many years; and he is able to stand, paperless, and let the arguments pour out of him. As a fierce advocate of paperless speaking, I am delighted at how powerful that makes him.

He needs that power. Even though the intellectually lazy might regard his stance as self-evident, it’s all much more complex than that. His case is not easy: you cannot prove a negative. The best you can do is break down the arguments of those trying to prove the positive. Meanwhile they do not have to prove anything: they merely have to affirm their faith. I am impressed that, rather than merely revisiting his normal schtick, he is tailoring his case to address the specific arguments promoted just a few minutes before by Lennox. He even eyeballs Lennox sometimes while doing it.

Nevertheless there is one idiotically trivial detail that bothers me. I am not exaggerating when I call it trivial. Have you ever sat in the open-air sunshine intending to read a book, and had a fly constantly buzzing around your head till, maddened, you retreat indoors? For me, Barker’s braces are that fly! He is a musician. His braces are patterned like a piano keyboard.  I spotted them when he did a high hand-gesture and the jacket opened just enough to reveal them. Thereafter they are a perpetual distraction. There I am, trying to concentrate on what he is saying, and I’m thinking about those bloody braces.

Suddenly I am reminded of a television interview I saw with the great Vladimir Horowitz. The legendary pianist was wearing a keyboard-pattern bow-tie, and at the end of the interview I couldn’t remember a word he’d said. Now, decades later, I still can’t remember what he said; but I remember the tie. Am I seriously saying that it is tiny things like this that can sabotage a speech? Yes, I am afraid I might be.

Richard Dawkins urges a more romantic view of science

From Auracle Newsletter for February, 2012

I previously dwelt on a speech that Michael O’Leary had delivered in December ’11 at an EU convention on innovation. That same convention was also addressed by Prof. Richard Dawkins; and it is worth having a look at the lessons to be drawn from his speech.

It claims to be 20 minutes long, but the last 3 minutes are actually the following speaker’s introduction.

My book, The Face & Tripod is about the nuts and bolts of public speaking. This speech by Richard Dawkins illustrates very clearly how someone with otherwise all the right equipment to be a topflight speaker can fall short for the lack of some of those nuts and bolts. Here we have a scientist who has obviously delivered hundreds of lectures, and is quite comfortable on his feet in front of audiences. He has also developed a very successful secondary career as a communicator, having published several top-selling books. He has an excellent way with words, and knows how and where to find good ingredients for presentations. And yet…

Well let’s hold on the “and yet” for a moment, and first look at the good ingredients.

There’s a nice little gag starting at 1:28 about violinists’ arms. The gag deserves better than to die on its arse (please forgive a thespian expression which, though coarse, does describe the sensation very vividly).

At 2:18 I felt my interest begin to quicken in response to this progressing anaphora triad –

  • It’s worth it –
  • It’s worth the effort –
  • It’s worth the effort on behalf of the communicator – – –
  • and it’s worth noting that in the short time that he was uttering that his face stayed aloof from the lectern and he looked at his audience.

He shows us very clearly that he has a store of modules available for deployment.

  • There’s a good quotation from Einstein at 2:30.
  • There’s a fascinating geological timeline analogy starting at 12:20, and it follows a riveting piece about bats (the flying mammals – not cricket).
  • After what he tells us, beginning 14:30, I shall never again read anything about the Hadron Collider in quite the same way.
  • Etc.

Now let’s address the “and yet”…

One major problem is that the first 7 minutes are badly hampered by his reluctance to get his face properly out of his wretched script (what I call being a ‘talking head’).  I teach people to outgrow their need for paper assistance of any kind, so they no longer write scripts read scripts or learn scripts (that’s an epistrophe, by the way). Some people think they need scripts to keep themselves on track, others use them as comfort blankets. My impression is that Dawkins is in neither case. I think he is seeking to ensure that he gets the wording right to draw maximum benefit from a few carefully crafted sentences. That’s a mistake.

Speaking is not the same as writing. A reader goes at his own pace. Whether the reader is admiring the quality of the prose or merely being swept along by the narrative is up to him. Therefore the worst a writer does by taking inordinate pains to fashion beautiful sentences is waste his own time; the best he does is delight any reader who appreciates the result. The worst a speaker can do by being “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity” is ruin his show. A speaker’s audience has no choice but to go at the speaker’s pace, so the speaker has to make sure never to break the flow. A speaker’s audience member can never look back up the page to remind himself of anything, so the speaker has to make sure he never needs to. Though the two media of speaking and writing do have many techniques in common, they have at least as many differences.

What I’m saying is that following a script in order faithfully to relay brilliantly authored sentences is as foolish as any other reason, because doing it for any reason widens the gap between speaker and audience to a critical degree.  Back to Dawkins.

And then, at the 7-minute mark, everything is transformed when Dawkins begins to recount his experiences as editor of a scientific journal. His head rises, he looks at the room, he speaks with his audience rather than at it and he does it in spontaneous terms.  And this time he doesn’t retreat back to the script. The speech takes off, because now he is no longer a talking head. Now he is driving the narrative; and that is when some of those good modules begin arriving.

But even this improved section could be further improved with added coherence if he had a better understanding of good speaking structures. Individual bits are very good, but the overall shape is so amoebic as to render it frustratingly opaque. (And, curiously, he devotes some of those ten minutes to advocating better writing structures.)

Had he given the whole package a more graspable shape, he needn’t have had a script. He would have placed the violinist-arm gag in a better place and got a laugh with it.  He would have improved his relationship with his audience by narrowing the metaphorical gap between it and him, and by giving his speech a clarity that it otherwise lacked.  And he and the audience would have enjoyed themselves more.

Nuts and bolts! I found myself wanting to thrust a copy of F&T into his hands in the conviction that its analysis of nuts & bolts would remove all that stands between him and speaking excellence.

And he needs to learn about a FACE. Look at what he himself declares to be his main message –

We can learn to appreciate science just as we appreciate a great work of art or music.”

That’s not too bad in writing, but for a speaker it is a spiny thicket of dead wood. It needs to be lightened, tightened and brightened. Ask yourself how much more clearly that would get across to a live audience as –

“Science has beauty, just as art or music.”