Jeffrey Archer: light relief.

Given the interesting time we inhabit it is not surprising, I suppose, that recent postings on this blog have been a little – shall we say? – earnest? You will also not be surprised to learn that my small stockpile of speeches yet to be addressed here are all likewise rather meaty.

What better escape to light relief could there be than to listen to the reminiscences of a best selling novelist? – whether or not we are conscious that the narrative thread we are following sits in a life tapestry that has been quite as dramatic as those we are escaping. Jeffrey Archer has thus far had an eventful life.

He chose, however, to restrict this talk at the Oxford Union to an author’s reminiscence; and I think I am rather grateful.

There are various ways of introducing impact early to a speech. Jovially castigating your audience in the manner of a strict schoolteacher is as good as any. He certainly makes the characterisation work, and reintroduces it at strategic points later.

My word, but he’s a fantastic speaker; and he knows to play to his strength. His strength is his skill as a raconteur. You may think that an obvious ‘given’ for a novelist, but it absolutely does not automatically follow. You may think that a hugely successful writer must inevitably be an expert speaker, but that does not follow either. On this blog we have sampled the speaking of some stupendously fine writers who were lousy speakers. I will risk boring you by repeating yet again that written English and spoken English are different languages and require different skills – subtly different, but different.

Furthermore, he is talking about himself; and that is a notorious minefield.

He uses no paper when he speaks: he shoots from the hip. That is not a difficult skill to learn but it does take a measure of well-directed application. He has taken the trouble to learn. So here we witness an expert story-teller and wordsmith. and he spans both languages. What a joy to watch this speech!

Do I have no negative comments? Well I’d prefer it if he didn’t fold his arms from time to time. It’s not because I’ve read somewhere that this is defensive body-language (though obviously I have, as probably have you). It’s because the rest of the time he seems completely in control of the show, but that seems to slip when he has his arms folded. I’ve worked with people who buck the trend and seem completely relaxed with their arms folded, but he doesn’t – not to me.

Oh yes, and I’m not crazy about his red elbow-pads. There I’ve said it.

Amy Wax: victory over handicap

I came across a fairly short piece of speaking by Amy Wax, Professor of Law. She delivered it on September 26, 2016.

I had recently seen a bit of a Twitter storm about an op-ed she had co-written in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and wanted to see how well she communicated orally. I wasn’t particularly anxious to hear her speaking on that controversy, because a few minutes of online research had revealed that it was just another example of PC-driven imbecility trying to shut down a source of reasoned debate. I’m afraid I find that terminally tedious. It is not tedious that academia is being destroyed and that the spinelessness of its authorities is hastening the process: it’s the PC arguments that are tedious. As often happens, the PC arguments opposing her in this matter make Professor Wax’s case for her.

I just wanted to hear her speak, and this video fulfilled that desire.

I have absolutely no comment to make concerning what she says in this video, because I am barely listening. She is commenting upon a Paper about which I know nothing.

Without that distraction I am able to focus entirely on her delivery.

She is a university professor, therefore delivering a lecture is just another day at the office. She has no discernible problem with nerves.

She is reading her script. My opposition to scripts is well enough known on this blog, so I shall not revisit the fundamentals of that specifically. She is reading exceedingly well, with a huge amount of expression, so all her lecturing experience is bearing fruit and negating many of my issues with scripts.

However …

Like most good readers, she periodically lifts her head for a parenthetic, of-the-cuff digression. I invite you to watch those and see how, even though her reading is bright and expressive, her digressions are more so. It’s nothing to do with voice tone or modulation, which is already easily as good as we could want, it comes down to something as basic as seeing her eyes. As soon as we have her eyes we also have the expressiveness of her face, and that adds a dimension that is beyond price. The funny thing is that I think she knows this. When she returns to her script she seems to wind up the vocal expressiveness a notch, as if to compensate for the loss of her eyes.

Even without listening to what she is saying I find this little talk fascinating as a study of the benefit of learning how to dispense with all paper aids to speaking. Professor Wax is younger than I, but she’s been round the block a few times. Within the limitation of having believed that she needs paper she has taught herself very well. It is mouthwatering to speculate on how good she would have been if she had learned to do without.

Mohammed AlKhadra and courage

On 23 July, during the Secular Conference 2017 in London, there was a Plenary Session on the theme of Out, Loud And Proud. On the Panel was Mohammed AlKhadra, Founder of the Jordanian Atheist Group. This video of his speech was uploaded to YouTube by John Smith, and you can see from the strap-line at the top of the still picture what he thought of it.

He speaks for nine and a half minutes, and when the rapturous applause dies down the Chairman of the session, Dan Barker, tells us that this was AlKhadra’s first speech.

He opens almost abruptly. He thanks and indicates Maryam Namazie, whom he describes as the bravest woman he knows, and then he plunges straight into his speech. It’s as near as makes no difference a bald opening, and I would bet money that the first few sentences are memorised. Whoever advised him did well (perhaps it was he himself). Some of my trainees take some persuading that a bald opening is a wonderful way of busting a hump till they try it, at which point a typical reaction is “that was so liberating”. I also recommend that they memorise the first minute or two, and thereafter simply follow a clear structure and shoot from the hip. That looks to me the precise path followed by this young man, and it works beautifully.

At the beginning he is smothered in symptoms of nerves which reduce markedly when he pays tribute, at 0:45, to Richard Dawkins in the audience. By the time he hits an elegant anaphora – “How do I know …” just after 1:30 – hump symptoms have almost evaporated and he is in the driving seat. I feel myself relaxing on his behalf.

The speech is shaming. You don’t have to agree with his atheism to be hugely impressed by the courage he has shown and is showing in being true to himself, and how it compares to the whining of the spoilt brats in the West with their imbecilic victim culture, Safe Spaces, No Platforming, and protestations that everything with which they have been told to disagree is Hate Speech which threatens the comfort they claim they ‘deserve’. Consider what he risks with his apostasy and his determination to speak freely, and you might find yourself thinking that the masked idiots of Antifa, wielding their clubs under an alarmingly familiar flag to deprive people of free speech, should have their bottoms smacked and be sent to bed without supper.

It shames the way western politics has polarised into pathetic but vicious tribal nonsense while real and dangerous issues confront us all.

It shames hate speech laws, every one of which should be instantly repealed. In the UK we have had for many years a law against incitement to violence. What more do we need? If we do not have freedom of speech we do not have freedom. The USA, to its eternal credit, has the First Amendment; and political movements, to their eternal shame, try to chip away at it.

It shames the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service which currently boasts 83% success rate against imagined ‘hate crimes’, while drawing a veil over 0% prosecutions for real and widespread FGM.

Like you, no doubt, I fear for this young man’s future. Perhaps his speech will cause us to reflect on how to make fundamental changes to the political climate that endangers him.

And us. And our children. And theirs.


Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!


Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.


A C Grayling: wonderful on his subject.

What is a philosopher? The Ancients used the word as a catch-all for mathematicians or scientists, but what does it mean now? Leaving aside that someone once told me that she’d like to be a philosopher so that she could spend hours in the bath, working, or the great Tom Lehrer’s observation that they go round giving helpful advice to those who are happier than they are, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition can be paraphrased as one who studies wisdom. A loose definition, to be sure.

Ay, there’s the rub! That definition’s looseness puts it perilously close to ‘Intellectual’, a class of person whose ideas can do, and have done, untold damage to societies. One reason is that too often they pay no price when events prove them wrong. Thomas Sowell published a book on the subject in which, among other things, he observed that usually these people have an exalted and deserved reputation in a particular narrow speciality; but once they step outside its confines they can neglect to apply equivalent rigour to their other opinions. This makes those opinions about as valid as those of any stranger in a pub, but held by Society to be Holy Writ, having been uttered by a known genius.

His examples include Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, G.B.Shaw, J.M.Keynes. We can easily add Richard Wagner, or more recently Paul Nurse or Brian Cox.

A.C.Grayling (philosopher) recently swam into my ken when a series of his hilariously foolish Tweets on the subject of Brexit were being gleefully retweeted, much as I imagine teachers communally giggle over their pupils’ howlers in the staff room. I was interested to know whether he followed the above pattern. What was he like on the speciality that had forged his reputation? I went and found a speech.

This is at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, held annually at Sydney Opera House. He is speaking about Bad Education which, as epistemology is one of his specialities, is straight down the centre of his disciplinary fairway. He is introduced by Julia Baird, and begins speaking at 2:15.

He is really very good indeed. This is shot throughout from the hip. There appear to be autocue screens facing upstage from where footlights would be, but their image is stationary. His diction is lovely: crystal clear without being over-enunciated. He structures his material very well, though if I were super-picky I might suggest making chapter divisions slightly clearer. He has an excellent reservoir of ‘Nice-to-Know’ material with which he tactically leavens the flow of ‘Need-to-Know’ information that pours out of him – I’m referring to humorous anecdotes and so on. Either through research, instinct or both he pitches the talk very precisely at the level of his audience, something we can tell by how well they respond to his use of humour for instance. Most importantly this talk is wonderfully uplifting. It is a delight to have experienced.

His use of English is excellent, but when he steps outside its confines he sort-of makes Thomas Sowell’s point. In quoting just two sentences in French he commits a pronunciation schoolboy howler. Just how picky can I be!

Well I can get pickier. I’m not sure he addressed his brief. ‘Bad Education’ is on the title of that video. He spoke about what education is, what it isn’t, etymology of the word, and so on. He spoke about what he feels education is for, and spent some time on the importance of humanities. All excellent, but where and wherefore the ‘Bad Education’ in the title?

Just asking.

Ian Dunt and one tiny issue

I came across a speech by Ian Dunt, editor of, and I came very close to moving on quickly to look for a richer seam to mine. My problem, as far as this blog is concerned, was that he appeared to be speaking so competently that there was nothing on which I needed to comment. And then a tiny issue emerged.

He was delivering a talk on Civil Liberties and Data Linkage at a seminar organised by the International Journal of Social Research Methodology. I haven’t found the precise date of the seminar but the video was posted on line on 16 July 2015 and in the speech he refers to the tenth anniversary of 7/7 having just happened, so we are inside that 9-day window.

He’s shooting from the hip. Good. Everyone can do it, but very few know they can do it, and I have to work with them to show them how easy it is.

He knows he can do it, and is firing on all cylinders. He is eloquent, articulate, coherent and fluent. If this were a trainee of mine the thought through my head would be ‘Job Done’, and not just because of the shooting from the hip. He is also speaking with a great deal of expression, which is partly because he isn’t shackled to a bloody script but also symptomatic of being comfortable in the speaking environment – possessed of the right sort of inner calm. His diction is also excellent, crystal clear without being over-enunciated.

Nothing to see here, move along. And then …

At 3:51 he dries. There had been a nano-hesitation a couple of seconds earlier that hinted at a loss of thread, and now this is a complete dry. He has to go and find his notebook to remember what he was going to say next. Nothing very dramatic happens because his skill in this environment prevents him from mishandling the situation: he simply has a quick look at his notebook and resumes. End of problem.

Except it happens again at 6:45, and at 7:39 he pre-empts yet another occurrence by going and picking up the notebook and keeping it in his hand thereafter.

You may think that this speech might have been an exception caused by some circumstance preventing him from preparing as thoroughly as he would have liked. So did I, so I went back to YouTube to find another gig. Here it is. He delivers that every bit as well – but again he has repeatedly to stop and check what comes next, except this time it’s not a little notebook, but a laptop computer.

Ian Dunt as a speaker has one tiny issue. He doesn’t know about amnesia-proof structures, nor has he learnt the absurdly simple mind-mapping tricks that will never drop you into that sort of quandary. In all other respects he is a very good speaker so this may not bother him, but ironing out the wrinkle would be very simple.