Antonin Scalia chats with authority

When, a handful of weeks ago, I covered a four-year-old speech by a university law professor who has since become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court – The Honourable Amy Coney Barrett – I learnt that she had clerked for another Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia.

That suggests to me that he might have been something of a mentor to her. In my experience, good mentors teach you to think properly. They should not feed you their opinions, but help you to refine the faculty to form your own.

I wouldn’t claim to be able to discern that quality from a speech, but I was interested to find out how good a public speaker he was (outside the Court), so I found this from June 1997. He was speaking at the 7th anniversary dinner of the Acton Institute.

Richard L. Antonini delivers the introduction, and does it well. He starts with a good joke. Inevitably this is followed by a potted CV of the guest speaker who begins at 7:15.

First impressions are important, so I always like to give mine. The audience greets him with a standing ovation and the first we hear from him coming faintly through the applause are his protestations, “no, sit down, sit down”. I like that. I also like, once the audience lets him speak, how he begins with an amusing anecdote about the pronunciation of his name. This is homey, fireside chat stuff: excellent for relaxing an audience (in passing, relaxing your audience is a wonderfully effective way of relaxing yourself).

He speaks about the US Constitution. He tells us that he has a prepared text, but doesn’t want to use it so he barely looks down at all. He shoots this from the hip, and does it brilliantly well. It’s a riveting, fascinating talk.

In the early nineties, when I began coaching this skill, formal oratory (speaking at your audience) was still very much alive and I fought against it. Today to my satisfaction a style of ‘conversational sincerity’ is in fashion. I mention this because this speech was delivered back in June 1997, and Scalia’s speaking style was right up to today’s. He was decades ahead of his time.

(Sadly, the same can’t be said of his microphone. Relatively primitive, it “pops” like crazy! He should have spoken across it, not into it.)

True, after-dinner speeches were already less formal than those from platforms in halls, but Scalia has another wonderful quality. I mentioned “fireside chat” further back, and that style even seeps into this Constitutional seminar. He is speaking with his audience. That is the key to excellent communication, and one that I try to instil into my trainees.

His status helps. When you are recognised to be a huge authority on the matter in hand, you feel less need to get all stiff about it. But, as I tell my trainees, you are also a recognised authority on the matter in hand.

Why the hell do you think they wanted you to speak about it?

I almost envy Amy Coney Barrett having him as a mentor. Almost, because I was equally blessed.

Marjorie Dannenfelser’s vital job

The 2019 CPAC – The Conservative Political Action Conference – was held at the Gaylord National Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland. One of the speakers was Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of Susan B. Anthony List, and author of Life is Winning.

I didn’t chance upon this speech: I went looking for it. I had heard Dannenfelser being interviewed by Ann McElhinney on the Ann & Phelim Scoop, one of my favourite podcasts. Dannenfelser was articulate and engaging being interviewed, so I wanted to see how well she spoke from the platform.

Why the script? I’ve heard her spontaneously speaking fluently, persuasively, even movingly with an interviewer, so what makes her think she needs bloody paper to speak with an audience?

In fairness she isn’t alone. I’ve lost count of the speakers on this blog that are manifestly capable of losing the paper like a proper speaker, but don’t realise it. They don’t realise that merely by structuring the material into a secure mind-map they can enable themselves to stand and look at, and spontaneously engage with, their audience with no paper in the way.

Then the speech would become a live conversation as opposed to a regurgitation of something she did earlier. What she is doing here is the speaking equivalent of miming to a record. She’s reading the script pretty well, but compared to what she should be doing it’s sterile and forgettable. I’d defy any listener an hour later to repeat in any detail what this speech says. The reason is that when she wrote it she wasn’t addressing an audience but a computer screen.

And, though she’d never believe it till she’d been shown how and tried it, shooting a speech from the hip is not only far more persuasive but actually easier.

For me, witnessing this, it is agony because the speech could not be more important. About twenty years ago, in Britain, one of the chief political topics involved the banning of fox-hunting. I remember arguing with a left-leaning friend who declared that posterity would regard hunting the way we regard slavery. I protested that it was nothing like as evil.

But abortion is.

I’ve never forgotten how I wept when listening to the self-same Ann McElhinney’s speech when I covered it on this blog two years ago. I believe that future generations will regard our wholesale slaughter of unborn babies with the same revulsion with which today we regard slavery.

If you consider that term ‘wholesale slaughter’ to be too strong, what else would you call close to a million killings per year in the USA alone? And spare me that disgusting slogan “my body, my choice”: the foetus has its own, separate DNA. It’s already a different person. Its body belongs to itself, and no one is asking its choice.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is doing an immeasurably important job. I just want her to be even better at communicating it to audiences.

Simon Sinek is very good indeed.

“Best Speech of all Time” howled the strap-line. “Oh yeah?” I thought, “how many times have I seen that claim?”

With the thousands of speeches I’ve watched on line I couldn’t estimate how many were heralded by superlatives, but I could count on one hand how many lived up to them. The best speeches tend to speak for themselves rather than asking clickbait headlines to do it for them.

Then I saw that it was Simon Sinek. I’ve seen some very interesting things from Sinek, I’ve even given some trainees the link to his Golden Circles TED talk. Suddenly I was less cynical.

He’s speaking about leadership. I can remember only one previous speech on this blog, claiming specifically to train leaders. That speaker wouldn’t recognise leadership qualities if they stood up in her soup. I have better expectations this time.

Regular readers of this blog will immediately know my first impression.

Bald opening + shooting from the hip = proper speaker.

But there’s much more to support that. He is manifestly far more focussed on his message, his audience, and how the one is influencing the other, than he is on himself. That indicates the ideal speaker’s mindset, but there’s more still. His material is beautifully constructed for maximum digestibility. His mix of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know, hard data leavened by illustrative anecdotage and parallels, is really masterly. He’s a joy to watch.

My problem is that, with a blog to write and my rhetor instincts glowing from the quality I am witnessing, I have no time to reflect on his arguments, though what I have registered deserves reflection. I must remember to return to listen again at my leisure.

So is it the best speech of all time? No, of course not. The nature of this medium means that there can never be such a thing, but it is really very good indeed.

Caroline Cox – courageous

Christian Union invited Baroness Caroline Cox to be the plenary speaker at their 2019 Nexus.

A bald opening!

I want to cry “Hallelujah”, just as she cries it but for different reasons. A speech that does not faff about with meaningless preambles conveys immediate confidence in its message. It is also a wonderful “humpbuster” for reasons with which I will not bore you here. Yes you certainly do need to introduce yourself, but you don’t need to do it right away. Do it once you are on a roll, just as she does.

It’s a wonderful self-introduction. “I am a nurse, and a social scientist by intention […] a baroness by astonishment […] I was the first baroness I had ever met.” I am sure that she has used this introduction routine often, because it has all the hallmarks of repeated road-testing to make it as good as it is. So much the better.

I already expect to enjoy this speech, because I feel that I am in very secure hands.

Meanwhile, wearing my rhetor hat, I am briefly concerned about the device she is holding. She looks at it often. Surely that thing is too small to contain a screen prompting her. I quickly realise that it’s the remote control for her slides which we never see. Later, watching her eyes makes me suspect that she’s prompted by an autocue of some sort, and then I conclude that it’s a slave screen showing her the slide that the audience sees. She occasionally uses it to read out mainly things others have said. She’s a proper speaker, shooting the speech from the hip.

It’s refreshing to see someone wearing their Christian faith so openly. The conference theme is Courageous in the ways of the Lord and she repeatedly commends the courage of brutally oppressed, war-torn churches. She produces a stream of jaw-dropping examples of courage through Christian faith around the world; and while marvelling at them you find a less-obvious common theme dawning on you. Story after story is so graphically described, because she bears eye-witness. She was there.

Caroline Cox talks the talk so well because she has tirelessly and fearlessly walked the walk, and continues to do so.

Because we don’t see the screen we don’t see the video clip that concludes her talk. Though that’s a pity, I have to say that her message of courage through faith had already come across loud and clear.

Andrew Roberts: masterly

At the end of June 2012, United States Army War College posted on YouTube a video of a lecture by British historian, Dr Andrew Roberts. I think we can assume the lecture took place at very much the same time. The lecture was entitled Why Hitler Lost the War.

Before even clicking to start the video I believe I spot something in the image below that emphasises to me Andrew Roberts’ Englishness. I think he’s wearing a Free Forester tie. Free Foresters is the name of a distinguished English Cricket Club.

Before we address the rhetor stuff let’s get one important thing out of the way. This talk is absolutely fascinating, and I wholeheartedly commend it. It makes me want to read The Storm of War, his book on which some of this talk is based.

Roberts has manifestly researched the subject to within an inch of its life, and has such a comprehensive command of it that he’s easily able to shoot the lecture from the hip. This man is a very fine speaker, and regular readers of this blog will know what therefore comes next. I am going to get super-picky – when they’re this good I always do.

Referring again to that still image of the video you will see that he has pointedly come out from behind the lectern, and placed a tiny piece of paper on its corner. That piece of paper is the target of my pickiness. It is his crib sheet.

I know what’s on it: a series of signpost words or phrases that indicate the path he wants the lecture to take. So far, no problem; I don’t so much mind its existence, but what it causes.

Very soon I can predict each time he is about to glance at it, because the smooth flow of the narrative has begun to fragment. He glances and moves on, but the fragmentation is still there for a sentence or two till he is back in his rhythm. This a sure sign that the speech is modular, a compilation of tried-and-tested modules.

Again I have no quarrel with that, modular structures work very well, but time and trouble has to be spent in building and refining bridges between the modules in order to smooth over the joins, maintain the narrative thread, and obviate the need for a crib sheet. If I were advising him I would concede that bridges can fail, particularly when adrenaline has a nasty habit of robbing you of some of your capacity to think on your feet, so his crib sheet might still be desirable. Nevertheless I’d suggest that he put it in his jacket pocket. Its very presence would reassure him, suppress the adrenaline, and make it redundant.

And there is another more prosaic problem with his crib sheet. On two or three occasions during the talk he produces The Storm of War, in order to read out where he has quoted things others have written. (In passing, this is one of the short list of circumstances where reading during a speech is not only acceptable but commendable.) When he does so he shows us that he needs reading spectacles (don’t we all). But understandably he doesn’t bother to use his glasses to glance at his crib sheet, and that could be causing each glance to be slightly more problematic. That crib sheet needs to be made redundant.

I told you I was going to get super-picky; but I now have a final bouquet to bestow. His finish, his final sentence, is masterly.

Tim Scott: engaging and sincere

On 8 August 2019 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube a video of an Address and Q&A by United States Senator, Tim Scott.

I like coming across speeches by someone of whom I have never previously heard. I start with a blank slate and no preconceptions.

Good start! Having said no more than “Good Evening” he comes out from behind the lectern to stand in the centre aisle, empty handed. He’s going to shoot this from the hip. A proper speaker.

I notice that for the first few seconds he has one hand in a pocket and the other gesturing. Every speaker needs a default position for his hands, where to put them in the event he finds himself suddenly conscious of them. Pockets are one of the options, and it works for him because in seconds he has forgotten them and both hands are out gesturing freely and unselfconsciously.

His opening salvo is ethos; autobiographical and dealing with his childhood in poverty. This can easily be mawkish, cringe-inducing victimhood-claiming, but not here. He handles the subject with disinterested objectivity, not just telling us that he had no money but that he wasted a great deal of time at school, not doing any work. After seven years of drifting he was turned around by two people: his mother, who was prepared to apply tough love, and the inspiration of a mentor.

So he reaches his political career, and one of its principal thrusts for the benefit of the community – the provision of opportunity.

Scott has grasped one of the things I keep drilling into my trainees: it’s just talking. We can dress up public speaking with all manner of mystique, and certainly there are techniques we can use to embellish it, but at root it is just talking.

He stands there in that aisle and just talks. He has a simple structure which is broadly chronological, and that carries the narrative along. I would like to see the address more firmly underpinned with a clear single message, not least because it would bring that narrative into sharper focus, but still he puts himself across as an engaging and sincere fellow and that makes us want to listen and learn.

In many ways it is the Q&A that follows the address that sharpens the focus, not least because of the quality of the questioning. The young woman chairing the session is to be congratulated.

Katharine Birbalsingh: especially when it’s difficult

On Thursday 31 May, 2018, Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal of Michaela Community School and the woman dubbed “the strictest teacher in the UK” had a full diary in New Zealand. Click here to see the evidence: you will find several interviews that she gave through the day. After that lot she dined with New Zealand Initiative in Auckland, and gave them a half-hour dinner lecture.

I have been unable to establish her whole itinerary in New Zealand, or even how long she was actually there; but as a UK school principal in the middle of term I rather suspect she merely grabbed, over the Whitsun break, a small handful of days into which she crammed one of the longest return journeys on the planet, itineraries like that Thursday, and diametrically opposite time-displacement.

I’m making excuses for the possibility that she was feeling a little weary, only because she won’t. In her world there are no excuses.

You see where she’s looking? She’s reading a script. I’ve seen speeches where she was shooting from the hip, and heard interviews where she was super-fluent, super-articulate, super-coherent. I was stunned to find her reading this one, went hunting for reasons, and think I found them. She’s dead on her feet, knew she was likely to be so, and therefore wrote the script for her own protection and in order not to let down her audience. She suspected that she would be barely intelligible.

Highly laudable, but wrong. She could have sat in the aeroplane, preparing this – and any other speeches she needed, in her head with her eyes closed. The result would have been every bit as secure, and her delivery demeanour would have been critically more real and natural. She just needed to have been properly taught how.

For her very well-chosen opening story, lasting 1:25 minutes, she is shooting from the hip; and yes, knowing what we now know about how she had spent that day, we can see her weariness and yes we see her having to search for the word “fix”. And then she turns to her script.

She’s a very fine communicator, so the reading is subtly done and with bags of expression. She always speaks in an extrovert fashion, and that is either her natural persona or one that she has thoroughly developed, but here it occasionally breaks out into over-the-top histrionics which are almost manic. That could be caused by her tiredness or it could be a compensation mechanism for reading, or both.

Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine speech, very well delivered. But, even allowing for her tiredness, it could have been better – not least because it is easier to speak without a script than with one. Much of the spade work was done before she even planned this visit.

  • she is using modules that are clearly well road-tested,
  • I would bet money that she already has well-worked bridges to link those modules,
  • she has a personal mantra that serves brilliantly as an unmistakeable Face for the speech…

…even when it’s difficult – especially when it’s difficult.

Here’s another bet. I bet that speech poured out of her, onto whatever writing medium she used, as fast as she could write it. There would have been no need to stop and think. If so it demonstrates that she could have delivered this without paper, and I believe she knows it. What she doesn’t know, or trust, is how secure that would have been on the day.

At 11:45, “but we still don’t have results. That’s the thing about a free school, at least our free school: you keep on going without the security of knowing that tomorrow will definitely come.”

She has results now. In August the results came through for the school’s first GSCE exams; and Michaela School was in the stratosphere, among the top performers in the country.

So that silenced the hysterical screams from her detractors, didn’t it?

No, they merely changed tack from, “It’ll never work” to “Her pupils are reduced to cowed, humourless, zombie robots”. But I have friends who have visited her school, in one of the most deprived areas in Britain, and found cheerful, lively children who engage intelligently in conversation and are fiercely loyal to her.

And some of them are now founder-pupils of the new sixth form and are studying for ‘A’ levels. We await those results with interest, but I view with trepidation what they do after that. The current state of many of our universities is so dire that these children will be far too good for them.

But they’ll solve that, even if it’s difficult – especially if it’s difficult.

Peter Ridd and the penalty for dissent.

At the end of September last year, 2018, LibertyFest held a conference in Brisbane, Australia. One of the speakers was Professor Peter Ridd, latterly of James Cook University (a.k.a. JCU) in Queensland, Australia.

Ridd had been in a spot of bother with JCU, and here he is speaking about it.

Oh what a shame! He’s reading it.

I don’t necessarily blame him, because he has probably been instructed at some stage in his life that he should script his speeches: there is still a lot of that nonsense taught. But you only have to home in on the little asides when his eyes lift from the script and the man is actually talking with us, as distinct from regurgitating something he wrote earlier, to appreciate the lift in quality. He has an appealing personality, and that bloody script is hiding too much of it.

To make this speech shootable from the hip could not be easier. It consists of autobiography mixed with scientific data with which he has worked for years. Everything here, if he were answering questions in an interview, he could rattle off effortlessly.

Nevertheless it is still an absorbing story of how an academic hears and reads lies published about his specialist subject, and has the temerity to say so. As a result his university tries to gag him and when that fails it fires him.

I have had, for some weeks, this speech in my stock of to-do material; and what caused me to dig it out now was reading recently in the press that the court had awarded Dr Ridd $1.2m against JCU in damages resulting from unfair dismissal. JCU is appealing the judgement.

We are repeatedly told that the catastrophic alarm attached to climate change is shared by 97% of climate scientists. Awkward bastards like me check the data and of course find that the assertion is garbage. You are actually hard pressed to find a single climate scientist, not dependant for salary, mortgage, and/or pension on conspicuously toeing the line, who agrees with the alarm. But even without our checking the data, stories like this must raise everyone’s suspicion of the claimed consensus. How genuine can be consent when this is the penalty for dissent?

Robert Elliott Smith got algorithm

On 2 August there was posted on YouTube a speech by Robert Elliott Smith, promoting his new book, Rage inside the Machine. It is subtitled How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All. It was under the imprimatur of Talks at Google.

Robert Elliott Smith is quite a lot of name; so if no one minds I shall refer to him as Rob, which is actually what I call him. He is a trainee of mine, so at least I won’t have to bother with any script-reading nonsense. I know he will shoot this from the hip.

I approach this talk with the words of Albert Einstein ringing in my ears –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Rob’s book is about algorithms, on which he is expert. I am very definitely not, so I should make a good judge of his powers of explanation.

Nevertheless the Q&A which begins at 42:15 shows that his audience compromises people who got algorithm, in fact they seem to be Google employees. His dilemma therefore is how to set out his stall so that video-watching dumdums like me can grasp it while not alienating the experts in the room. He solves it in the first seconds by metaphorically tipping his hat to the audience’s expertise. It’s a simple device, but effective.

The other side of this dilemma is that I have urged him never to spoon-feed his audience, that people engage more thoroughly with your message if made to think. Therefore he will have to tread, between dumdum and expert, a path made narrow by the need to engage both without spoon-feeding either.

Having explained to the dumdums that algorithms are the ubiquitous electronic calculations that, for instance, cause us to receive targeted advertisements through our computers, he moves into where and why they make mistakes. In particular he addresses the interesting concept that algorithms are prejudiced. This resonates with me. My having turned seventy two algorithms have wrongly concluded that I am in urgent need of a range of geriatric products, thus causing me much hilarity but not helping the supplier client.

Obviously this comes down to the alchemy whereby incoming data are transformed into outgoing conclusions, and Rob addresses the prejudice question by comparing it to human prejudice. He is well-placed, being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and having been born as the Jim Crow race segregation laws were beginning to collapse.

Thus we have a section describing his growing up surrounded by racial issues; and that subsequently morphs into drawing parallels with data juggling by today’s computers.

I felt he got slightly bogged down in the autobiographical details, which can easily happen, and he needed to be using broader brush-strokes there. But though a card-carrying dumdum, and a geriatric one at that, I still felt that I grasped the essential message that algorithms still in their infancy, relatively blunt instruments, are constantly being made sharper, and here are some concepts whereby the sharpening process can be improved.

What I find particularly impressive is how many comments, not only on YouTube but also LinkedIn where I first saw the video, come from those who got algorithm and now want to read the book. Ultimately the reaction of the market is far more important than my opinion.

And, much more than before, I got algorithm. Who could ask for anything more?

Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.