Ann McElhinney made me weep.

Texas Alliance for Life hosted, in Austin on 5 October, 2017, a talk from Ann McElhinney. If you click the link on her name you will reach a page devoted to both her and Phelim McAleer, her husband. The pair are a formidable and fearless team dedicated to investigative journalism and the search for truth behind news stories, and it was a close race as to which of them would be examined in this posting. Phelim will undoubtedly feature before very long.

She is speaking both on the book they wrote about Kermit Gosnell and also their film on the same subject.

There’s something about the Irish accent! Perhaps it’s just memories of happy times I have spent there, but for me the sound is immediately friendly. Phelim, her husband, has Northern Irish vowels but she is clearly from the Republic, west coast I reckon.

Her start is likewise audience-friendly. This sort of apparently scatty sorting-out of technical bits and pieces is a great way of fighting nerves. I tell trainees that relaxing your audience is a very effective way of relaxing yourself. She has an important opening question for her audience, but she camouflages its weight behind the performance of technical faffing around. Scatty she ain’t! This is one smart woman. Friendly she may be, but only if you are on the side of the angels.

Silence from the audience in response to a brief and unexplained section beginning at 04:10 referring to Representative Murphy shows that this Texas audience doesn’t know the story. If you want enlightenment you could start by looking here.

This is my type of speaker! She has notes to which she refers for slides and things, but essentially her speaking is all shooting from the hip. Even more important than that is that I detect no vestige of speech mode. What you see is what you get, and what you get is the genuine person. She lets all her idiosyncrasies hang out, because she couldn’t care less about herself: all that matters is her message and whether her audience is getting it. That is the ideal speaker’s mindset, and it is what makes her so powerful. Could she tidy up the structure? Perhaps a tiny bit, but the narrative thread is so strong that we are swept over all the bumps in the road.

And the road certainly is bumpy! This is not a pretty story, but by heaven it’s an important one. On this blog over the years, in 360+ postings, I have covered some very valuable speeches. I rate this in the top three, maybe higher. People absolutely need to learn what she has to tell.

Watch this speech, and at the end you may find yourself like me in a puddle of tears.

Michio Kaku should be himself

Queensborough Community College CUNY, in their Presidential Lecture series, hosted in October 2009 a talk by Dr Michio Kaku entitled The World in 2030. There was a long subtitle which you will see at the beginning of the video but, given that Dr Kaku is a high-profile theoretical physicist and has fronted TV documentaries on the subject, I think we can see where this talk is going.

Kaku begins speaking at 5.34 after an introduction from Eduardo J. Marti. I am a little concerned with the noisiness of the audience. I hope it is going to settle down.

His opening is not original: it is not even the first time we’ve heard it on this blog. Christopher Monckton used it. I’m not complaining though: it’s a nice gag.

I think I do complain at what he says at 6:18. If I may paraphrase slightly he says, “I’m a physicist: we invented the laser”. It’s an implied false syllogism. It’s the equivalent of my saying, “I’m a rhetor: we taught Cicero how to make speeches”. We know that Dr Kako is brilliant in his field, but being phenomenally knowledgeable in one subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you are smarter than any reasonably well-read Joe in others. I feel we are being led towards that assumption here. It’s called sciolism and it makes me uneasy

Let us though turn to his forecasts for 2030, not forgetting that projections like this have a disastrous failure rate. As Niels Bohr observed,

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.

Kaku tells us what the scientific leading edge is close to being capable of making, and then makes a leap of faith to assume that the market will want it. The market has always been more fickle than that. Very many years ago I was told a story that may be apocryphal. It concerns tomato soup. As we know, tomato soup is warm and thick and red and satisfying but doesn’t taste of tomatoes. A big manufacturer of food products developed a tomato soup that did taste of tomatoes and then tested it with consumer panels. They gave it the thumbs down. They agreed that this new product tasted of tomatoes, but it didn’t taste like tomato soup. Leading edges can easily become bleeding edges.

Such future projections then should not be taken too seriously. To be fair, Kaku treats the subject light-heartedly, but amusing diversions have legs for ten minutes at best. He pushes this for three quarters of an hour, and I don’t think it holds up.

One problem is his delivery. It is slick and professional; but it is distinctly a performance. The Holy Grail of holding your audience’s attention is to make each person there believe that you are speaking personally to them. Like the real Holy Grail it may be an unattainable goal, but it should be your target. One way of getting closer to that target is to speak in a tone that could be perceived as one you would use when speaking to your family. I don’t think he speaks to his wife and children like that. This is Speech Mode which is like a costume a speaker dons, and which causes an invisible screen to separate him from his audience. He should dare to be himself.

He closes with a joke about Einstein and his chauffeur. It rather reflects what I have been saying. If Kaku had a chauffeur who had heard this speech often enough, that chauffeur could deliver it for him. All he’d need to do is don the costume.

Al Gore – a highly polished speech-mask.

From the Auracle Newsletter, April 2012

At the beginning of a seminar I conducted recently I told those attending that I would pause for a short while, inviting them to use the silence to dip into their memories to choose a speech that had deeply impressed them. When I resumed I invited a few of them to tell us about their choice (some of you will remember seeing me do this at seminars). On that occasion one of those choices was a speech by Al Gore. A few days later, therefore, I went looking for an Al Gore performance; and I found one here.  Gore delivered it on 17 July 2008.

I watched in awe at the way Gore has polished Speech Mode to such a high degree. I used the word ‘performance’ two sentences ago; and that is the best word I can find to describe this. Here is the reciting of a script that has been crafted and refined, syllable by syllable. We can tell he is not reading it from the lectern. Is he therefore prompted by auto-cue screens at the back of the hall? Possibly: there is a moment at 19:35 when he says “made”, a nanosecond later realises he means “made-up”, and the word “up” squeezes itself in as an afterthought. This sort of thing is a common symptom of misreading as distinct from miss-reciting. Nevertheless from other indicators I actually think he’s learnt this script and rehearsed it to within an inch of its life.  For instance at 11:20 he steamrollers over an unexpected laugh: a strong sign of pre-decreed Rhythm That Must Not Be Broken. And though there are other indicators I’ll spare you.

He opens with nearly 2 minutes of saponaceous thanks and tributes (he is a politician), including some schmaltzy references to his family (I told you he was a politician). The names spill out in profusion because he is far too experienced to overlook an elementary detail like that (The Face & Tripod chapter on Proper Nouns). It’s all as silky smooth as could be. Then at 1:55 something fascinating happens. Into this hyper-lubricated routine he needs to drop a new unrehearsed module because some people in his audience have been bereaved and are in mourning. His eyes drop to the lectern, and for 15 seconds he gives some details of the decease. This comes with a few ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and that particular halting delivery that characterises spontaneity even from an Olympic-standard performer. That is the only piece of spontaneity in the entire speech. At 2:20 he changes gear completely with the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Thereafter he wears a speech-mask.

Personally I detest speech masks, though I admit that this is a very good one. If you want to try to develop one as good as his then bear in mind what he tells us at 11:10 that you are watching someone who entered Congress 32 years earlier. The trouble is, for all the 32 years of burnishing the mask, we know he is not speaking spontaneously because we saw for 15 seconds what that looked like.

When I began teaching public speaking many audiences still wanted this kind of highly-polished oratory. It signalled authority. Today people are cynical enough to prefer clear signs of sincerity, and that requires a more conversational, spontaneous style of speaking.

Even as a piece of polished oratory this is not a good example.  Not only is it riddled with weasel words and assertions that he doesn’t bother to substantiate, it has metaphorically the oiled hair, the over-fastidious clothes and patent-leather shoes of the gigolo. And that doesn’t signal sincerity very well. Rightly or wrongly, to me it signals phoney.

I could not leave it quickly enough. It gave me the creeps.