Nikki Haley: quietly tough

When Donald Trump became US President he made a great many appointments, as new incumbents to such an office do. One of the many things to have distinguished his administration from others, however, is how many appointees have subsequently been fired. This might appear to indicate that he got his first choices wrong, but there is another explanation. He could have chosen individuals with specific skillsets to address particular issues, and then replaced them with other specialists for other issues once the first ones had been dealt with.

The latter process is somewhat alien to the political mindset so few commentators seem to think in those terms, but Trump is not a politician. He operates as a businessman does, and a dispassionate evaluation of his administration thus far cannot but be impressed by how much he has achieved and how quickly.

Trump’s appointment of Nikki Haley to be US Ambassador to the United Nations was immediately interesting because her image is so different to that of the President. He hides astonishing astuteness behind a facade of boorish bluster. Her quiet, understated efficiency camouflages a resolve for which the cliché ‘steely’ is inadequate.

A feature of her Ambassadorship is the extent to which this quietly spoken woman has maintained such a high profile for the job, and it’s easy to see why. Whereas predecessors mouthed the usual mealy diplomatic platitudes, Haley doesn’t do mealy any more than Trump does. She coveys the toughest of messages … quietly. Let’s watch one example.

Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, makes the introduction, and comes fairly close to pre-empting Ambassador Haley’s announcement. Haley begins at 4:00.

Tiny error at the very beginning. Haley looks round fleetingly at Pompeo when thanking him. It’s one of those few things that feel right but look wrong. It feels right, because it conveys warmth. It looks wrong because it looks somehow weak. Spool back and you’ll see that Pompeo, with all his glowing compliments, never weakens his introduction by looking round at her.

It is a significant achievement to describe something as self-important as the UNHRC as “a cesspool of political bias” without sounding strident. Haley is equal to the task.

This speech is about fig leaves. Who needs ’em? The afore-mentioned cesspool has been using the USA as a fig leaf to convey respectability: too many think that the USA needs membership of the cesspool as a fig leaf to confirm their concern for human rights: and so on. Haley makes clear that the USA’s record on human rights is way better than the members of the UNHRC, and she is correct.

There’s a clear equivalent in the USA’s CO2 emissions record being better than any of those countries still espousing the preposterous Paris Agreement.

I opened with my rhetor hat on, and I’ll briefly re-don it to close.

My aversion to scripted speeches is well-known, but I acknowledge that sometimes scripts are necessary. I make that point in my book, heading the list of those circumstances with when the Press has a transcript of the speech. This is such an occasion, so I can’t criticise either Secretary Pompeo or Ambassador Haley for their scripts. But isn’t it interesting that arch-proponents of scripted speaking (and they exist!) try to give, as a principal reason, fluency and lack of stumbles. Both Pompeo and Haley  stumble here, and they do so in that particular way that readers stumble. Those speakers who shoot from the hip (and I bet that includes these two when circumstances permit) also stumble, but their stumbles are different and somehow more audience friendly.

Hillel Neuer stirs it

In March 2007 the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) was treated to a speech from the Executive Director of United Nations Watch. News reports subsequently called it a “stunning rebuke”. Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba called it “inadmissible”.

UN Watch has a stated mission, “to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter”, and regularly draws attention to the HRC being peopled largely by representatives of countries with lamentable human rights records.  Its Executive Director is Hillel Neuer. Considering this speech stirred a hornets’ nest perhaps we should watch it.

He’s not sitting on any fences, is he!

That is a blunt and brutal anaphora at 0:39 – “its response has been …”

My aversion to speakers reading speeches is well known, but I can understand when someone reads a speech like this. For posterity there will be a publishable transcript, and if you are pronouncing something as controversial as this you want to ensure that what is published is accurate to the letter. What safer way than personally to supply the transcript, having read from it?

I am curious as to what happens off camera at 2:46. For a few seconds Neuer becomes slightly distracted, and you can see his eyes following activity of some sort.

He finishes at 3:10, and Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba begins speaking. It seems that (again off camera) Neuer, is either already packing up to leave or perhaps someone else is speaking to him, because de Alba has to repeat that he shall not be thanking him for his statement. He goes on to censure him for his tone, his terminology, and his lack of deference. Interestingly, he does not refute a word of what Neuer has said. Could it be irrefutable?

With all the respect that de Alba clearly considers himself and his council to be entitled, his pronouncement puts me in mind of the short speech with which Dogberry closes Act 4, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s the one that begins,

“Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?”

In 2017, Neuer stirred it again in the same place. Perhaps we should look at that speech soon.

Mosab Yousef: a disrupter

The scene is a United Nations Human Rights Council Debate on 25 September, 2017. The council is filled overwhelmingly with people harbouring a shared obsession. Accordingly here they can spew out poison, couched in diplomacy-speak, safe in the belief that no one will gainsay them. Let us watch.

The difficulty with that video is in trying to concentrate on what the lone voice says while being gloriously distracted by the reactions of those who have hitherto been enjoying their cosy hate-fest. We heard that his presence at this debate is to represent United Nations Watch whom we have followed in the previous two postings here and here, and whose terms of reference are to do precisely what this man is doing. But who is he? His name is Mosab Yousef, and he can answer the rest for himself. He is speaking at a multicultural summit in Garden City, Kansas in 2016.

This video appears to have been topped’n’tailed so losing the opening and closing. Or Yousef has deployed a beautiful bald opening. Either way the student of public speaking can see how powerful a bald opening can be. “The mystery of life…” is a fabulous way to start.

It has also been edited: you can easily identify many, unsettlingly many,  edit points. I like to believe that this was not to censor him but to shorten the video a little.

I love the quiet, pensive, almost hesitant way he is delivering. This decorum conveys a level of sincerity that is seldom seen so transparently on a speaking platform.

The speech appears to be essentially autobiographical, pure ethos, and perhaps the editing was intended to restrict the video to that. For me it certainly fleshes out the image of the character who so rudely disrupted the well-manicured diplomats at the UN.

Nevertheless there is also a crucial, kernel, takeaway message between 4:18 and 6:12. If enough people reflected upon this it could become far more disruptive than his contribution to that UN debate.

Ruth Deech: an expressive reader

My previous post was of a speech made at the UN Watch Gala Dinner 2018. I later explored further into such speeches, and found Baroness Deech speaking at the Gala Dinner in May of 2017.

I am a quiet admirer of hers, and the causes she espouses. I also like that she is content to be described as a politician while sitting as a Cross-bench peer. When people idly imply that if it isn’t partisan it isn’t politics I want to bang heads. On the contrary, if all parties agree on a viewpoint it usually warrants more careful scrutiny.

In her opening acknowledgements Deech mentions “Hillel”. He is the Executive Director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, and you may confidently expect him to appear in this blog before long.

This is an excellent and valuable speech, but she is reading it. She is being a talking head.

Many defenders of that practice, including (so help me!) some public speaking trainers, argue that without a script speakers will not find the best words to utter. I have spent the past quarter of a century proving that to be nonsense. I have videoed trainees reading their sample speech, then tinkered both with the structure of the speech and with the speaker’s mindset, and then videoed the speech delivered again shooting entirely from the hip. The result is more fluent, more animated, more engaging, and it employs phrasing, vocabulary and figures of speech at least as good as the script it replaces.

Yes there can be stumbles just as in ordinary conversation, but stumbles from a speaker shooting from the hip are intrinsically more audience-friendly than stumbles from someone mis-reading. Do you want an example of the latter? It’s a tiny one, but you don’t get this particular type of stumble from someone shooting from the hip. Listen to Deech slightly tripping over the word “in”. It occurs at 0:58.

The presence of that script throws up a screen between speaker and audience. In this case it’s a very thin screen, because Deech is a much better and more expressive reader than most, but still her delivery would soar if she knew how to dispense with that script, and had been shown that she could trust herself to speak spontaneously.

Another argument that is put up in favour of scripts concerns security of timing. Again it’s nonsense. Suppose on an impulse you throw in a digression – which, being spontaneous and shot from the hip, will probably be the best bit of the speech – then suddenly you are destined to over-run. Being shackled to a script you are running on rails so skipping a section is very problematic, so you start speaking faster, which is disastrous. Speaking fast makes you less intelligible and is futile: the time it saves is negligible. If you are shooting the whole speech from the hip you can skip a section easily.

In today’s world where formal oratory is virtually extinct and the ubiquitous fashion is for ‘conversational sincerity’, scripts are the speaker’s enemy.

Back to the subject of timing, any long-term regular reader of this blog will know that I castigate conference organisers who do not provide a clock for speakers to check their timing. At 05:23 we see a shot that shows, placed on the floor in front of the lectern, a large digital clock counting down. A bouquet for UN Watch!


Maajid Nawaz: suitably impassioned

In February 2015 I covered a series of short speeches at an important debate about anti-semitism. One of the speakers was a Muslim, and I made him Man of the Match despite the competition including to my mind one of the finest speakers around.

Maajid Nawaz has since been on this blog a couple of times, because I have been following his progress with interest, and not just as a speaker. He has developed very impressively.

At the UN Watch 2018 Gala Dinner in Geneva in May, Nawaz was presented with the 2018 Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award. His acceptance speech tells his story.

For years I have favoured the bald opening, for strength, for impact, and for busting the hump and, however sceptical at first, all my trainees when they try it find I’m right. But what do you do when protocol and your natural gratitude insists that you thank people? That is when the James Bond film opening comes into its own. If I had advised him Nawaz would have begun with a bald “I will briefly summarise …”, which currently comes in at 0:25, and hold back the thanks in his preamble till after the applause which begins at 0:44. It would have made the opening as strong as the rest of the speech, and been easier to deliver.

And strong is what the speech is. He easily shoots it from the hip, because three quarters of it is structured just on chronology, which is ridiculously simple (who can’t remember their life story?) and therefore effective. The last quarter deals with far-left extremism having infiltrated previously respectable institutions, like Her Majesty’s Opposition in Britain.

Another such institution is the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC have preposterously declared Nawaz and also Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both Muslims and both fighting Muslim extremism, to be anti-Muslim extremists. Nawaz is fighting them through the courts, and raising money for this through his website.

I am very glad I watched this speech. It is powerful, suitably impassioned, coherent, articulate and important. It also alerted me to the work being done by UN Watch. We’ll be hearing more from them on this blog.

Trump at the U.N.

On 19 September President Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly. I have seen the speech described with the word ‘hate’. That word has become a catch-all for any opinion ‘with which I disagree’; in fact, disastrously, that almost amounts to a legal definition these days. Therefore like most who actually bother to think I invariably dismiss the term until and unless I have examined the matter in hand.

For example, we were all regaled with how Trump had threatened “to totally destroy North Korea”. There’s an inflammable headline for you! Having now watched the whole speech several times I can bear witness to the accuracy of the quote, just as I can point out how misleading it is without the qualification that preceded it, “if [USA] is forced to defend itself or its allies we will have no choice but…”

Here is the whole speech.

I have no appetite for picking through all his points. There’s more than 40 minutes of speech in which he did that for himself, and you here have the opportunity to form your own opinion. Therefore I shall limit myself to my own speciality interest, the preparation and delivery of the speech itself.

I like his “Welcome to New York” opening. It’s a velvet glove covering an iron fist that says “your building: my town”.

As representing the USA, it is fitting and traditional that he gives a very potted summary of the state of his nation, on the one hand a country battered by hurricanes and on the other a country resolutely and successfully climbing out of economic doldrums. He doesn’t waste the opportunity to point out that the economic turnaround began with his accession. The Dow Jones had been rising for a time before he entered the Oval Office; but it has accelerated since, along with growth and employment. Crime and food-stamp usage have travelled in the opposite direction.

He is much beloved of triads, and I don’t mean oriental crime syndicates. They are scattered all over this speech. “Peace, sovereignty, and prosperity”, “strong, independent, and free”, and so on. They are everywhere, and the commonest ingredient seems to be “sovereignty”. I was put in mind of my own triad in this blog posting almost exactly a year ago where I pointed out that in eight years the previous administration had seen the U.S. become “less free, less safe, and less prosperous”.

At 02:55 I am impressed with Trump’s presence of mind when he switches between TelePrompter screens, misreads a word and seamlessly corrects himself. Later it happens again, and then again. It goes on happening, always the same type of misreading. With my trainees, whenever asked, I tell them how skilled are operators of this sort of equipment, always holding station with the speaker. I think we can safely assume that the United Nations, and/or the White House, have the most skilled of all, yet it seems here that repeatedly Trump’s screens get just behind him. I hesitate to add to the huge heap of conspiracy-theory-rumours that surround this presidency, but I sense a slight odour of the subtlest of sabotage coming off this. Completely unprovable and, probably by anyone other than a saddo like me, unnoticed.

He commits that most widespread of all the diction errors: swallowing the ends of words. He shares this mistake with some of the best speakers in the business, Hannan and Obama to name but two, and there have been others castigated for it on this blog.  I thought you might want evidence of Trump doing it, so I confidently clicked straight to about the middle of the speech and within seconds had an example. At 21:50 he says, “We must deny the terrorists safe haven…” The second syllable of that last word is virtually inaudible.

My having just mentioned Obama, I feel that you might be expecting a comparison between the two presidents’ speaking abilities. This could be a battle of cliché metaphors, but here goes. Trump is no longer the bull in a china shop that he used to be, but he remains a bit of a blunt instrument. Obama is supremely elegant – a fencing master. None of those metaphors answers the question though, because perhaps the prime purpose of a speech is to be memorable. Quote me a sentence from an Obama speech – just one.

Hasn’t it gone quiet!

If I asked you to quote from this speech you’d probably shout, “totally destroy North Korea” but this speech would be cheating because it’s so recent; therefore try Trump’s inaugural speech. Do you remember “Buy American, hire American”?  – or “You will never be ignored again”? If so, Trump wins.

And I bet you never expected me to say that.





Brigitte Gabriel: courage and capability

On 8 September, 2014, the United Nations hosted a conference entitled Global Anti-Semitism: A threat to International Peace and Security.

One of the speakers was Brigitte Gabriel. If you read my previous post you will not be surprised that she is the subject of this post. When seeking a formal speech from her I was torn between this speech and this one. You have the link if you want to see why I was torn. Though the other has an equally powerful, and very moving message this blog is devoted to speaking skills. I commend both, but I shall be examining this.

Unlike the other speech, she is reading this one. I know why, and I can understand it. When you are in this sort of company you don’t want mistakes, nor is it good manners to over-run your time. I often argue with those reasons, but not with the following one: the press will almost certainly have received a transcript in advance, so she has to stick very closely to it. People like her, who have learnt to speak without the aid of paper, handle paper better. She has written the speech in spoken English as distinct from written English, she limits herself to the merest glances at the paper, and she absolutely doesn’t allow it to interfere with her audience engagement.

Clever opening! The story of the necklace is laden with human interest while also including interlinear ethos. Neat.

She enters the main body of the speech by way of an alliterative triad, “demonisation, double-standards, and delegitimisation”. The first of those enables her to list some of the accusations levelled at Israel and one of them is genocide to which she witheringly replies, “If Israel has been committing ‘genocide’ against the Palestinians, then why has the population of Palestinians increased more than 600% since 1948? Israel must be the most incompetent mass murderers in the history of the world.”

She kicks the legs out from under other criticisms of Israel with the same efficiency.

She turns to the effect of antisemitism on the rest of the world. That is, after all, the theme of the conference. She does it very effectively, and I won’t spoil it for you.

With both this and the other speech I find myself assailed by incredulity at her message. How did it come to this? Anyone who reads a newspaper, and has more than a passing interest in what goes on in the world beyond their own town, already knew the truth of the bare bones of what she is saying if not the horrific details. How did we arrive with our Establishment and mainstream media spinning every story that is remotely connected with the middle east into a narrative with Islamism as the victim? We look around at ugly antisemitism becoming widespread and the accepted norm even in communities where it once was unthinkable, like academia and the arts. A frighteningly skillful, ruthless and mendacious PR exercise has been at work.

Brigitte Gabriel has the courage and ability to fight back. It is up to us to fight back also, and start by supporting people like her.