Pamela Geller makes a hate speech

In this blog I seem to have covered many speeches recently by ballsy American females. Can I help it if I like ballsy speakers? – and if they happen to be female so what? America seems to supply plenty. My only caveat is when they become shrill. Today’s speaker is not in the least shrill.

On 19 October, 2011, Pamela Geller spoke to the Sugar Land Tea Party in Sugar Land, Texas. The speech was intended to be at the Hyatt Place; but apparently a single email threatening to hold a protest caused the Hyatt Place to clutch its pearls, pick up its petticoats, and run screaming for cover, forcing the organisers to move to the Sugar Land Community Centre. What was so inflammatory that Geller was intending to voice?  Shall we find out?

You see why I like ballsy speaking? From the moment Geller begins you know that she means what she says: honestly and sincerely she means it. You can disagree with everything she says but you cannot accuse her of falsely representing her views. This is why I keep saying to my trainees that by learning to speak without script or notes, you elevate your credibility beyond measure. By daring to be yourself, warts and all, you are going to be believed more readily than some sort of talking-head avatar, however highly polished might be his oratory. Geller sometimes stumbles over words, sometimes scrambles her syntax in her eagerness to convey her message. So what? I bet you hardly noticed, if at all. That’s what a speaker’s transparent passion does – disguises any slips.

Even if you disagree with her you cannot deny that she shows her workings; therefore to repudiate her you are going to have to come up with some counter-evidence. I have searched a huge amount of online material condemning her, but it is nearly all ad hominem. They play the man not the ball. Why? Could it be that the ball is unplayable?

I could have looked at a later speech of Geller’s, but I chose for this posting to go back nearly five years, so that we may reflect on what has happened since and what has changed in the official line that we hear after each successive Islamist outrage. Here is a Wikipedia page that lists Jihad attacks worldwide since 1983. They make sober reading. Just the list since this speech in October 2011 is very long, and it doesn’t end with the appalling massacre in Orlando a few days ago. Today, 14 June 2016,  there was a double stabbing in France by a man who apparently swore allegiance to Isis.

If the media even bother to cover most of these obscene acts at all they do so in a way that paints the perpetrators as victims.  Who is to blame them as they take their lead from officialdom?

Is President Obama pathologically incapable of allowing the words “Jihad” or “Islamist” to pass his lips? Orlando was blamed on extremism – oh yes, and the availability of guns. Was today’s stabbing in France blamed on the availability of knives?

As Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam said in a debate I covered here some months ago, it’s like Voldemort being a name you may not mention.

We don’t stand a chance against this revolting movement till we are prepared to call a spade a spade. But certain very powerful movements in the west effectively shut down any attempt at free speech on the matter. In the light of the ongoing atrocities, we are compelled to question their motives. These powerful movements need to be held to account.

The truth is become hate speech, and it seems that Pamela Geller speaks it.

Indarjit Singh – a talking head

On 23 January 2014 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion This House Believes postwar Britain has seen too much immigration. 

One of the speakers in opposition to the motion was Baron Singh, a prominent Sikh and a distinguished commentator on a range of issues. His habitual media of commentary are print and broadcast journalism, so I was interested to see whether he had developed an equivalent level of accomplishment in public speaking.

The answer is apparently no. He may be able to deliver brilliant speeches, but he is not doing so here. What we see him doing here is trying to replace speaking skill by becoming in the most real and literal sense a Talking Head. He has written an article for us, and now he is reading it aloud. This is not a speech: this is a reading. The degree to which this lamentable practice is widespread among those thinking they are making speeches, doesn’t make it any better,

It is a pity, because what he could bring to this debate is important. Let us therefore turn to that.

Debates by definition tend to polarise opinions, and when seeing the motion I feared lest it descend into one side saying that a portcullis should immediately drop and prevent all further immigration, or – even worse – that the other side should wrongly accuse them of saying that. Worse than either would be accusations of what the other side really thinks, regardless of what they say. That really is the most scurrilous variety of argument ad hominem. I have already heard most of the speeches, this blog will cover some of them, and I am pleased to say that in the main it stays above that.

Singh however, does say, at 7:17, “The motion, suggesting that we close the door on immigration, …” Does it? Cast your eye back to my first paragraph for your answer.

At 5:40 he says, “Uncontrolled immigration can lead to social indigestion”. He also speaks of areas in a country being “burdened” with too much immigration. That being as fierce a position as we get from his opponents, we might wonder which side of the argument he takes. Could we be witnessing the result of sloppy thinking? With that in mind, consider that from 6:40 he calls for some enforceable international migration agreement that takes into account –

  • Relative national prosperity
  • Level of unemployment in the receiving country
  • Gradient of economic disparity between countries
  • Dearth or excess of relevant skills

Forgive me, but are not 2 and 4 very similar? And are not 1 and 3 essentially identical? And if so, do not symptoms of sloppy thinking abound?

I’m sorry, but Baron Singh did not distinguish himself here.

Rupert Myers needs to learn

In November 2014, on the day that the United Kingdom Independence Party in the guise of Mark Reckless was easily gaining a parliamentary seat in a by-election at Rochester & Strood, The Cambridge Union was holding a debate under the motion –

This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics

The debate was opened by Patrick O’Flynn for the proposition. He was followed by Rupert Myers for the opposition. In this video Myers begins at 13:30 and finishes at 24:55.

Myers opens with a harmless little stunt involving sipping from a glass of beer – “This is to demonstrate that I understand UKIP”. A member of the audience points out that for it to represent UKIP it should be bitter not rather insipid-looking lager. Myers’ rejoinder is along the lines of, “if you want to be bitter, wait till after the debate”. Not brilliant but quick, and the audience enjoys it. He is personable, and good with his audience.

Thereafter he buries himself in his script and my heart sinks. He is a talking head. He is a barrister, a man who earns his living speaking in Court, yet gives every impression that he’d want the support of a script before giving you his date of birth.

Ye gods man, get a grip! Lift your face and simply speak! It really isn’t so sophisticated a process, and you will find that what emerges is a lot more engaging and compelling than this tedious regurgitation of something you thought of earlier.

There are a few reasons and occasions that compel a speaker to use a script. One such is a need to fit a very precise time slot. These debate time slots are not very precise: you have ten minutes, but do not have to use it all, and can get away with over-running a little. This is a big and forgiving target which he contrives to miss. Myers gets repeatedly warned about over-running and still adds 15% to his allotted time. Furthermore his warnings make him gabble ridiculously. So having a script fails him for that too.

And that is really all I have to say about the delivery of this offering.

As to the content, I’d rather not comment because in a debate it is the other side’s job to do that. I am not only critiquing these speeches one at a time I am deliberately only watching them individually. At this stage I have no idea what is coming next from the proposition, but there could be straw on the carpet.

Lord Lawson reads what needs to be said.

At the end of April 2014, Lord Lawson of Blaby gave a speech to the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the University of Bath, in England. His being the Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Lawson’s pronouncements on the subject of climate change usually excite a degree of interest, and this occasion was no exception.

You should not be too alarmed by the indication at the foot of the video that it lasts for nearly an hour and a half. Lawson’s speech ends at 46:30, and the rest is questions – quite robust ones by the way.

At the outset, Lawson asks for his briefcase, which had been placed in the care of someone else. He is duly delivered his script, from which he reads the entire speech. Some might say that he is not making a speech so much as presenting a paper, and I would tend to agree. The process that we witness is in every sense that of a talking head. We would get more out of it if we each were to read that paper to ourselves (till the onset of the questions). That way our minds would process the information at our own pace and rhythm, rather than his, with consequent greater understanding of what is argued. It’s the same phenomenon that makes the film of a book almost invariably inferior to the book.

If you would rather read it yourself, here is a transcript.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I would greatly prefer him not to have used a script. Using paper, even if as skilfully as Lawson, instantly robs your delivery of a substantial part of its persuasiveness.They will also expect me to claim that I could have enabled him to have dispensed with it, though they might not believe it.

One man, who would probably not have believed it last Wednesday, did a course with me on Thursday. He is a senior executive in a well-known British company. On Saturday he sent me an email. I have not sought his permission to identify him so I shall not do so.

What I failed to highlight on Thursday was that on Friday I was hosting an all day workshop with senior members of the xxxxxxxx team.  I had been having kittens for weeks.  Through the time in your course I was mentally whittling down the workshop from 20 slides, to 6, to 2.  That’s what I slept on, and eventually I conducted an 8 hour workshop with no slides and no notes.  I launched the day with a James Bond opening (an icebreaker) followed by a 15 minute speech on why we were there.  A speech with purpose!  What followed was a very lively and interesting workshop. I could not have done it without you.  You switched a light on, and I hope I can keep it alight in future presentations.

He will!

Matt Ridley and optimistic greenery

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, has appeared in this blog before. Last year we looked at his TED Talk entitled When Ideas have Sex. In February 2013 he delivered a short talk at Reason TV with the provocative title How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet. I rather like being provoked in this way, so I thought I’d watch.

This has a very informal, almost chummy opening. It’s possible that Reason TV have chopped off the opening seconds, in the manner that TED does, and that there were in fact lots of dreary preambles (though I doubt it). But even if it wasn’t actually a bald opening it looked like one and I invite aspiring speakers to see how appealing and audience-friendly a bald opening is. My trainees, when they try it, invariably find it liberating.

Ridley’s chummy informality continues. He is dealing with serious stuff, but putting it across as if chatting over a lunch table. His open-necked shirt suggests that the decorum of the occasion is already informal, but again I invite you to see that this detracts not a jot from the impact of the message.

Ridley is very good and expressive. In fact I have really only one problem with his speaking. Having started off brilliantly, he comes to a grinding halt at 2:55. His eyes go down to a card in his hand in order to see what comes next. The pit-stop continues for just a few seconds, and then off he goes again shooting from the hip. That is probably the most egregious of his pit-stops, but it is not the only one: his eyes regularly seek refuelling from that card.

Of course I concede that this is infinitely preferable to talking heads who read their speeches; but when I see a speaker as good as Ridley, it is so frustrating that this small detail is between him and excellence. What he needs is a better structure, a mind-map which will render those pit-stops redundant. It is the creation and use of such structures that take up most of the theory part of my training courses, and indeed my book, The Face & Tripod.

I regularly refer to ‘shooting from the hip’ in this blog, and the casual reader might interpret that as my advocating a speaker merely ‘winging’ a speech. No! Absolutely not so. The speeches delivered by my trainees are far too critical to risk anything so foolish. When my trainee goes out in front of an audience, paperless, without notes and sometimes without slides, and speaks for twenty, thirty or more minutes, delivering an important data-rich speech, he or she can perform this apparent miracle in absolute safety because the speech is under-pinned by a rock-solid structure that enables them to know, at any moment, exactly where they are and where they are going. And then they can say what needs to be said, speaking spontaneously the words that come to mind as they go.

Ridley does all of that except for those wretched pit-stops!

Sermon over. Enjoy the speech. It’s fascinating and – characteristically for Ridley – wonderfully optimistic.

William Hague reads to the CBI

William Hague, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave an after-dinner speech to the CBI at Grosvenor House, London, in May 2012.

One of my first posts on this blog concerned a speech he had made at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I was underwhelmed by it, because he had been merely a talking head for a dreary FCO Press Release. Sadly, although I have given a link for you to see that critique, I shall be deleting it very soon. The video is no longer available on YouTube – perhaps the FCO were mortally stung by my comments.

Hague is one of the finest speakers around, and I should dearly love to post a critique of him in glorious full flight. Shall we see whether he did justice to himself at this dinner?

For nearly three minutes at the very beginning we are treated to his outstanding speaking ability. He settles and primes the audience, firstly thanking the previous speaker – not with hollow platitudes but with specific references to what he said – then moving seamlessly into reminiscent anecdotes about Boris Johnson. It is masterly. He does it with brilliantly judged humour that is suitably self-deprecating and superbly timed; but the real proof of the pudding is in the effect on the audience. He has them hooting with laughter which, this early in the proceedings, is notoriously difficult. You need to be as good as a stand-up comedian to do that, and he is. And of course all this is shot from the hip.

Again seamlessly, and starting from around 2:45, he gently moves us from that stunning opening to what he is here for. His eyes gradually go down to the script his Civil Servants have prepared and by 3:30 he is firmly on the political message. The transition is interesting, because little flashes of the real man continue to peep out before being suppressed below the persona of the Statesman.

Whether it is because of a residual legacy of that brilliant opening, or because he had more personal control over the content of this speech I don’t know; but even when the transition is complete and he is merely reading the script he is a little more animated than he was in that dreadful previous one on this blog. Nevertheless I feel my interest levels dropping steadily. He is reading to the CBI, and it might as well be a bed-time story.

William Hague being required to read a speech is like Frankel being harnessed to a milk-float. He’ll make the delivery process more exciting, but the product will be just as bland.

Lindsay Johns and the Rhetauracle question

I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.

Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.

He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.

Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!

At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.

3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.

Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.

Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.

Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?

Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.