Andrew Neil: the thickness of paper from brilliant.

In London on 16 October the Holocaust Educational Trust held its annual Appeal Dinner. Speaking was Andrew Neil.

The link on his name will take you where you can learn something about him if you don’t live in the UK and haven’t happened upon him. To that I would add that he can be a very tough interviewer and I have long found him to be one of the freer thinkers in the mainstream British media. True, the British media in general do not have that bar very high; but he sets standards that others could do worse than emulate.

Regular readers here will confirm that I have oft denied that being a good public speaker automatically follows being a good broadcaster or a good writer. Indeed I rather think that to span those media makes you an exception.

Those same regular readers will immediately know my first reaction. What’s he doing with that paper on that lectern? A good, skilled speaker does not need paper. Paper dulls the colour and impact of any speech. Occasionally it is sadly inevitable. Here it isn’t. What a pity!

He is showing symptoms of Hump. That doesn’t surprise me: his professional comfort zone is the lens of a camera which is very different from a sea of faces. Also, of course, that lens would have his script scrolling – and that is why he believes he needs paper here.

He opens by paying tribute to his introducer, Kitty Hart-Moxon, momentarily struggling against displaying emotion through his voice trembling. The emotion is genuine, the successful struggle likewise, and both are laudable. In that tribute it emerges that her introduction was a surprise to him, and that means that this section was unprepared and therefore not on that paper. It’s a beautiful, spontaneous moment, and shows how good he can be without paper. Already I am wishing he knew it.

He moves into recounting the circumstances of his invitation to speak here. He doesn’t need his paper for that, but still he looks at it because it’s a comfort blanket. That is followed by a story about a conversation with a malapropist after another speech. It’s quite amusing but he delivers it a little heavily. It needed a lighter touch and to be ‘thrown away’. My rhetor fingers twitch.

Once he hits the meat of the speech he is manifestly more confident, and the hump recedes. The message is well structured, but then it would be; it is well argued, but then it would be; he’s a very fine journalist after all. And to anyone with a brain, the importance of his message is self-evident. It is a very important speech, and almost a brilliant one.

Had I been there, and had a chance to speak with him afterwards, I would have liked to have taken issue with a couple of things he said; but that is almost by definition the purpose of such a speech. And actually I would have been more likely to have taken issue with his paper-dependence. For instance…

At 12:20 he removes his spectacles and for thirty seconds really looks at, really engages with, his audience. It’s by no means the first time he has raised his eyes, but that was essentially tokenism. For this half minute his delivery lights up. He has been speaking at, here he is speaking with. That’s what he should do all the time; and he could, easily.

If he reads this he won’t believe that: they never do till I show them.

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.

 

Diarmaid MacCulloch – so very close.

In October 2011, as one of its Roland Bainton lectures, Yale Divinity School presented a talk by Diarmaid MacCulloch from Oxford University.

Prof. MacCulloch, specialises in The Reformation; but his theme here is the medieval church, the influence on it by the Arian heresy and the particular significance of Martin of Tours. More than half a century ago at school I won a class speaking competition with three minutes on Martin of Tours; therefore perhaps I should clearly lay out here everything I already knew about what we shall now be learning from MacCulloch …

Good.  I’m glad we’ve clarified that. If you want to skip the introductions (though they are interesting) MacCulloch begins at 5:40.

Regular reader of this blog will have spotted on that still image where MacCulloch’s eyes are directed, and therefore at least one thing I am going to say. Nevertheless I’d like to begin at the beginning.

In the beginning is The Hump. Always. My trainees often seem slightly surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences the hump (“you mean I’m not the only one?”). Certainly many speakers disguise it very effectively, but it is always there. MacCulloch, a professional and experienced communicator – not just in the lecture room but on TV – displays distinct signs of vulnerability for a little more than a minute, particularly when he changes horses between speaking of Roland Bainton and about his own book on the Reformation. He was marginally more relaxed when speaking of his book, enjoying uttering his phrase “rivalling the conceit of Icarus” and his audience likewise enjoyed it, so if I had been advising him I should have got him to open with that and stick with it for at least 90 seconds. That would have seen out the worst of the hump, allowing him, in a relatively relaxed fashion, to swing into something parenthetic like “…and one very important source on which I drew was Roland Bainton’s book on Luther…[etc]…so I feel particularly privileged to be standing here today…”

It is not often that I allow myself to get so specific and picky in this blog; but there is a reason. MacCulloch is so good that he does not give me much else to get my teeth into. Except…

Except what we observed earlier, namely that he appears to have a script.

He looks repeatedly down to the desk through the speech (and each time he does so he loses just a little of his audience engagement) but he often does it at times when he distinctly does not need prompting. This suggests to me that the paper on that desk is a comfort blanket, and that theory is supported by symptoms of shyness that I am picking up. Shyness can be a crippling handicap and, when accompanied by obviously high intelligence, gets little sympathy from the world at large because the combination seems so irrational. I have worked with many victims of it.

I am delighted to say that, script or no, he speaks for the most part in spoken- rather than written-English. This could mean that he has conscientiously learnt how to write speeches that way, or it could mean that he is partly reading and partly speaking spontaneously.

So much for speculation. What should he be doing? You know my answer if you have read this blog before. He should learn to dispense with a script completely. He could do it easily. I know this talk is laden with data, but so what? He knows his subject inside out. At most he needs a few bullet points for occasional reference.

If he kept his eyes up, shooting the lecture from the hip, the engagement with his audience would be infinitely better. Would that cure his supposed shyness? No, shyness doesn’t get cured. It might well help him to live better with it, but I would not attempt to generalise here with trite claims or recommendations.

The talk is really fascinating, and he delivers it very expressively. He is as good a communicator as I have seen, but for this small but crucial and frustrating detail.