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.

Katie Hopkins and the Lady in Red

The previous two posts featured Oxford Union debate speeches for and against the motion This House Supports No Platforming. Those speeches, here and here, followed a couple from students who were competitive debaters.

Today we hear from Katie Hopkins, speaking against the motion.

Whenever I hear Katie Hopkins speak I am assailed by two reactions –

  1. What a phenomenally accomplished speaker she is, and
  2. She must be the rudest person on the planet.

We’ll return to 1 but for the moment let’s deal with 2. No one hurls insults around in quite such an intemperate fashion unless either they lack the wit to insult soberly or because they intend the insults to be taken not entirely seriously. Hopkins manifestly does have the wit, so let’s watch through our fingers and try to enjoy the ride. In the course of this speech she does actually insult – soberly – just one person, one who is not present but should have been. That particular barb is not wasted.

I have previously on this blog noted that those with a natural facility for public speaking often have difficulty in sticking to the point because they have never needed to learn the disciplines that enable ordinary folk to shoot from the hip. Hopkins epitomises this. Whenever she seems to be getting to grips with the matter in hand, she suddenly disappears over the horizon astride an admittedly hilarious digression. And then …

At 10:50 a lady in red climbs to her feet, asking Hopkins actually to address the motion. The transformation is so magically instant that someone more cynical than I might suspect that she and her interjection had been planted.

Hopkins is a different woman. She stops stalking the aisle, returns to the dispatch box, and begins seven minutes of astonishingly well argued case against the motion. I suddenly realise that she is conscious of the failing I highlighted above. She knows her speaking lacks discipline because now she is using paper to keep herself on the rails. She doesn’t look at it much, she doesn’t need to, but just enough to put across her message unerringly and with magnificent power.

Furthermore, to my delight and unlike her predecessors, she addresses the motion from the viewpoint of audience members and their right to hear.

After the comedy-relief, this turns into an outstandingly good speech…

…thanks to the lady in red.

Mahathir Mohamad: carefully unexceptionable

On 16 June Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, spoke at the Cambridge Union. When I read that he had raised both dust and hackles in the process I went searching for it. A speech does not have to be controversial to be good, but a great deal can be learnt from the process of raising controversy.

This video I found was disappointingly calm and courteous. The speech was shot from the hip, so revealed a proper speaker; but, while purporting to be a potted recent history of his country delivering a few polite little barbs in the direction of the west in general and Britain in particular, it gave us nothing to generate more than the occasional naughty chuckle. Where was all this controversy?

The answer was in the Q&A that followed, and to find that I needed a different video…

If you want to see the beginning of the speech you can find it via the previous link, but I wouldn’t bother: you haven’t missed much. There’s a bit of milling around while he gets onto the platform, the obligatory thank-fest, and some stuff about Malaysia having – as Malaya – been a British protectorate. In all, just under 2 minutes.

As I said earlier, this speech is frankly unexceptional and unexceptionable. The questions and the controversy kick off only when he sits down just after 16:00. If that floats your boat, enjoy.

I must say that the Chairman of the event, whose barely audible questions (black mark to the sound crew) tease more controversial stuff out of Mahathir, does an impressive job of dismantling the carefully conveyed jovial great-uncle image that Mahathir had created with his unexceptional speech.