Douglas Carswell could be brilliant

Published on YouTube on 17 February, 2016, was a speech by Douglas Carswell as part of Daniel Hannan’s “Time to Leave?” series of speech-fests.  We have seen several of these before – here, here, here, and here.

Now it is the turn of Douglas Carswell who is not only UKIP’s single member of parliament but also co-author with Daniel Hannan of The Plan. They published it a few years ago, and my copy is shabbily well thumbed, unlike my copy of his The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy which is in my kindle. Carswell is also a prolific blogger. Nevertheless we are here to explore not his writing but his speaking.

My pleasure at his excellent bald opening is quickly reduced by the realization that he has notes on the lectern and that he is using them, over-using them. Speech notes exert a tyranny: the more you use them, the more you perceive a need for them. That need inhibits your capacity fully to engage your audience, and also your ability to shed your opening nerves. I am expecting nerve symptoms to show for longer than they should.

At 0:31 he utters the tautological “Who still believes that any more?” It is a minuscule syntactical error, but he wouldn’t have made it usually. He staples the otiose “any more” on the end to buy time to look at his notes, because he is still too nervous to pause.

At 1:50 his nerves have reduced enough to allow a pause, and he sinks into one that is too long and completely unnecessary while he searches on the paper for the words “estate agents and bankers”. That pause would have been no longer if he’d fished those words out of his memory, and would have felt shorter to us if he had been looking at us.

Every time his eyes go down to the lectern my heart sinks a little, because we in the audience are being just a tiny touch alienated by his being more concerned with that paper than he is with us. And he does not need to do it. I am a quarter of a century older than he is, and have reached that age when I regularly have to ask my wife to remind me of things like names, yet I would not need those notes. None of my trainees would be allowed them. He doesn’t need them either – he just thinks he does.

At 6:48 he seems to make an error of terminology, an error which he keeps repeating. He speaks of the EU and the Single Market as being synonymous. As I understand it, they are not synonymous, though they overlap. The Single Market is part of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement which includes the EU, but the latter takes matters further into a Customs Union. It is the Customs Union, with its busybody bureaucracy, control-freakery, authoritarianism and anti-democracy, from which Brexit would cause Britain to withdraw. Being already a signatory to the EEA Britain would still have membership of it and therefore, with some realignment during the two-year period specified under Article 50, remain in the Single Market for as long as it chose to do so. That is my understanding. If I am mistaken no doubt someone will correct me.

I have a different sort of problem with Carswell’s terminology later, and this is one of those things that I drum into my trainees – simplicity of words. At 11:28 he says, “This country is Germany’s biggest single export market”. OK, yes it is, but this is bureaucrat language, just as a couple of sentences later words like “principal beneficiaries of trade”. It’s not that we don’t understand those words – as bureaucratese goes, it’s quite mild –  but I invite you to imagine how much more powerful would be his argument if he called Britain “Germany’s biggest customer”. Everyone, as well as bureaucrats, is familiar with the concept of “a customer”, and will readily relate to the argument that it’s unlikely you would kick your biggest one in the teeth.

As often happens on this blog when I am dealing with a good speaker, I have been rather picky here.  Carswell is good: of course he is, he has the votes to prove it. I just think he could easily be brilliant.

Will McAvoy has a lesson for us

I think most of us have become familiar with the way our online surfing habits are monitored by clever-dick pieces of software that profile our tastes, the better then to dangle under our noses advertisements for juicy morsels. Likewise if this rhetor habitually seeks speeches, who’s to blame YouTube for offering him more of what it believes to be the same? Thus it was that I found myself watching an opening scene from a piece of fictional TV.

I don’t watch much television but I understand that the HBO series, The Newsroom, is shown on my side of the pond. I’ve never seen it so I knew nothing of what I was watching, but my curiosity held my hand away from the Off Button long enough for my eyes to narrow at the graphic demonstration of some of the principles I teach.

I trust that knowledgeable fans of this series will forgive my obvious ignorance of it, while I zero in on areas of my particular expertise.

Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is one of a trio of celebrities in a Q&A session at (presumably) a university. The other two guests sing like canaries, but the chairman is getting pissed off with McAvoy’s not saying much. He tries to coax or even bully out of him more comprehensive exposure of his views, and fails miserably. A woman in the audience holds up a sign that then prompts McAvoy finally to deliver a very pithy little speech.

The writing of this scene is clever, not least because McAvoy is a news anchorman. When I coach people for being interviewed by the media, I try to have more than one trainee at a time; because then I can get them to interview each other. The quickest and most thorough way of developing an understanding of the nature of this ritual is by experiencing it from both sides. McAvoy is a communicator and interviews people for a living. He is far more comfortable in this environment than anyone else on that stage. He knows the most fundamental principle of all…

While it is the interviewer’s duty to draw information from the interviewee, it is not the interviewee’s duty to impart anything except on his own terms.

[I could very easily follow that headline with several hundred words of explanation, enlargement, illustration, exemplification and caveat. but I’ll spare you.]

McAvoy’s opinions are unfashionable, They run counter to the prevailing group-think. If he just plunged in and spouted his unpalatable stuff he’d be digging himself a hole and anyway would be silenced by universal disapproval. Likewise if he refused to speak at all he would be condemned as surly, snooty and obnoxious. Therefore he restricts himself to evasive utterings that are at the same time both dumb and smart-arse. In the process he creates a pent-up demand for his views, till the professor/chairman is reduced to insisting that he open up.

And now they hear him out.

I am not for one second suggesting that you try to use this video as a blueprint for a future interview, because for one thing the process is far more complicated than this example and for another you do not have a script writer to make the other side do what you want. But espousing the above principle, and never speaking beyond the end of your answer, will put you ahead of most interviewees that sully the airwaves.

As to what McAvoy actually says…well, if I were asked to deliver a talk on a subject of my choice, outside that of my work, McAvoy’s theme would be in my top three.

Willis Eschenbach – refreshingly simple.

In 2012 The Heartland Institute hosted its seventh International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC7) in Chicago. Among the speakers was Willis Eschenbach.

Climatologists delight in pointing out the lack of Eschenbach’s scientific qualifications, though it is rather sweet how seldom they make the same observation about Al Gore. The difference is that Eschenbach readily tells everyone who will listen that he is not a scientist. My having no scientific qualifications either, I am happy to dwell instead on how well he articulates his message.

They do not tell us on YouTube who makes the introduction, and this is an omission I prefer not to repeat.  Having scanned through scores of mugshots on Heartland’s website I reckon this is Steve Goreham. I wanted to name him because he does it well. Eschenbach begins at 1:13, uttering his first words before he reaches the lectern.

As I have observed before, W.B.Yeats said,

“Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people.”

In my work I frequently find myself paraphrasing in common terms what some boffin has said to me, either the better for me to understand what he will be telling other boffins in some speech that I am helping with, or to help him make some impenetrable piece of ‘scientese’ (an Eschenbach word) more digestible for the lay people in an audience. Therefore listening to Eschenbach, who is a carpenter, handling scientific concepts in everyday language is like a holiday.

It is worth remembering that you do not need a PhD in order to read. If a scientist publishes something and you read it, the fact that you happen not to be a scientist does not make what you learnt any less relevant. Eschenbach’s speech is about species’ extinction rates having been exaggerated. Here’s a startling claim from him. It appears at the 5 minute mark: there is no record of any species having gone extinct from habitat loss.

Ever!

Do you view that with suspicion? Would you have been as sceptical if, say, Dr Craig Loehle had said it? I did not invent that name: Dr Loehle is Principal Scientist with the National [US] Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI). He collaborates with Eschenbach on publications.

I am not in a position to pontificate on the quality of Eschenbach’s research or his pronouncements; but I can comment on how well he puts it across. His delivery is refreshingly guileless, clear, well structured and largely shot from the hip. It is held together by a narrative thread that keeps you with him. What more could I want?

Dr Scott Denning – an excellent speaker.

We have recently looked at speeches from International Conferences on Climate Change as staged by the Heartland Institute. I had read that Heartland, although being essentially sceptical on the subject, nevertheless issued speaking invitations to scientists espoused to the warming orthodoxy. This in contrast to warmist organisations that routinely exclude sceptics on the grounds that ‘the debate is over’. Speaking personally it was precisely the ‘Science is Settled’ approach, and the debate suppression thus implied, that alerted my suspicions several years ago. If it’s science it’s not settled: if it’s settled it’s not science. (That, by the way, is a chiasmus.)

I was delighted to find that on 7 July, 2011, Heartland had staged a Debate at their Sixth International Conference. Scott Denning had debated with Roy Spencer. We shall look at Spencer in a future posting. Today let’s watch Denning.

On the YouTube posting we are not told who creates the civilised decorum for this debate with his well measured introduction, but after some ferreting I believe it to be James Taylor. If I am wrong I hope both he and whoever it was will forgive my error. By the way, he announces that he will be a stickler for time limits. I wonder whether this means that since the 2009 Conference the Institute has installed a clock. If you read my critique on the speech by Christopher Booker you will know what I mean.

Denning speaks from 3:40 till 14:40, and immediately declares himself a skeptic (I have to spell it the transatlantic way because that is how the word appears on his slide). He explains that everyone, scientist or lay, should question all scientific assertions. This is music to my ears, and is clearly intended to resonate well with his audience.

He speaks in simple, clear, uncomplicated sentences without overtly speaking down to his audience. He shoots it from the hip. Already I am enjoying this.

I enjoy it even more when he shows he is prepared to make a fool of himself. He wants to show how molecules vibrate, so he moves his body and makes silly noises to demonstrate. He first does it at 9:07, just as the camera frustratingly cuts away; but be patient. The camera cuts back to him at 9:32 just in time for us to witness the best bit of foolery. How much does he add to the wisdom of ages by such behaviour? Not a lot, but rest assured that everyone in that audience will remember the speaker who did that. If you are due to be one of several speakers at a conference I invite you to bear the thought in mind.

Anyone who has looked beyond sensational tabloidesque headlines on this subject knows that the greenhouse properties of CO2 are commonplace in the climate issue. Where the argument actually rages is in the amount and direction of feedback from consequent water vapour. Therefore Denning’s histrionic clowning to illustrate the way carbon dioxide captures warmth, and indeed most of his talk, is pushing against an open door and ignoring the big question. No matter: be assured that question is raised during the next section of this debate – during the majority of this video that is beyond the brief of this posting.

Meanwhile, within my brief is the conclusion that Dr Scott Denning is an excellent speaker.

Sachin Tendulkar – a natural and a delight

Thanks to ABP Majha there is on YouTube a speech by the legendary Indian cricketing batsman, Sachin Tendulkar.  Sadly I am unable to tell you when or where the speech was delivered, but it is clear that it is a speech of thanks upon his being honoured with the Order Of Australia. Whatever else anyone may say about the game of cricket, it surely is to its credit and that of its players that it fosters the sort of spirit that heaps honours upon distinguished opponents.

Our first glimpse of him in this video finds him adjusting the microphone. What a pity he did it wrong!  Had he pointed it higher, perhaps at his eyes, we would have been spared the occasional popping.

How dare someone who is gifted with such gigantic sporting talent also be so naturally good at speaking! This speech is a delight.

He is slightly nervous at the beginning; and he understandably chooses to bust his hump with an effusive thankfest. At 0:38 he looks skywards as if to seek strength and inspiration, and then launches into an eminently appropriate theme – his association with Australia.

Not only does he shoot the whole thing from the hip, but he has enough inner confidence to be prepared to be seen to search for words, give pauses their full natural life and address his audience with the sort of conversational sincerity that is today’s style. It’s a beautiful piece of speaking, tailored perfectly for an occasion such as this.

All the best structures are simple. This one could not be simpler – it’s essentially autobiographical.

He tells a story about how he was invited to travel to Australia to be a special guest at the 90th birthday party of Sir Donald Bradman, perhaps the only batsman in history to be Tendulkar’s superior. The story has a punch line that draws a huge laugh from his audience; but, and you’ll have to trust me on this, it is not speaker-proof. If he’d miss-timed that punch line he would have killed the laugh.

I find myself pondering on something. I am of the school of opinion that says that a large percentage of someone’s talent consists of a fluid exuded from the brow. Tendulkar was born with a phenomenal natural ability to hit a ball, but he was not born doing it. The man worked hard to maximise his talent. Likewise he has a natural ability as a speaker, but he was not born doing that either.

How much of what we see in this speech is the result of study and work? It’s very difficult to tell … except he made that elementary mistake at the beginning with the microphone. It may be that he could suffer from the widespread problem of the Natural. For an explanation of what I mean, see Peter Schiff here. When he retires from serious cricket, he will remain a considerable celebrity, and obviously invited often to speak. If he relies too heavily on his natural ability he could come unstuck sometime. Anyone who has done that will confirm it to be a very unpleasant experience. I hope he takes the trouble to consolidate the skill.

P.S. Among other things, Tendulkar is one of the relatively few batsmen to have scored a hundred centuries in First Class cricket. This posting is the hundredth on this blog.

Lord Wei needs help

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012. Lord Wei spoke in favour of the motion.

Because I am able to embed the video above, you do not need to see its posting on YouTube. If on the other hand you elect to click that hyper-link you will see that someone has posted a comment saying, “He’s a pathetic orator”. At the time of writing that is the only comment.

Should I leave it there, or shall I proceed to provide my own critique? I could leave it there because I fear the comment is correct.

The first and most glaring problem is an old friend enemy of this blog. Wei is too much of a talking head. He does not dare to cut himself free from his script – though on this occasion it is not on paper but an iPad. That first sentence – Ye Gods! – is he really incapable of saying that without reading it? No of course he isn’t: he just hasn’t been shown. Regular readers of this blog will have spotted it immediately and will already be watching in horror from between their fingers. All the familiar problems are there: stilted wording, ridiculous stumbling over sections that would not be subject to stumbling if merely spoken, etc.

Then comes the really frustrating part! Watch from the two-minute mark, and you’ll see an excruciating, toe-curling hiatus when he loses his place; and then around 2:20 he adds an aside which involves his face rising and – wonders! – actually addressing the audience, and his tongue merely speaking. That’s the first fluent and engaging part of the speech. There are others to come – and all for the same reason. That wretched script is manifestly his worst enemy in this environment. For a few seconds at a time he’s quite a good speaker: for extended minutes he is – to quote the YouTube comment – pathetic.

What twists the knife in my entrails is that he is in a huge majority. Audiences are constantly being subjected to this sort of abomination. And the knife twists again because I have proved countless times that it is completely unnecessary. No one who has worked with me needs a script.

I am not terribly keen to get into what he says. I happen to find it naive, superficial and lame, but I’ll defend his right to say it.

I’d defend, much harder, his right to deliver it properly and the audience’s right to have it so delivered.

Peter Hitchens lays into his opponents

The third speaker in favour of the motion This House Believes in God in the debate at the Oxford Union, was Peter Hitchens. He hates this argument – he told us so.

“I hate this argument!” That’s his high-impact opener. And he stokes the impact by explaining that he has to defend a philosophy of love while kicking his opponents in the crotch. Did he assume that humour centred around genitalia would be a sure-fire laugh with an undergraduate audience?  Probably, and he was right.

That is not the end of the beginning. He now appears to get seriously offensive about his opponents but defuses it all with a twist that I won’t spoil for you. Again he is rewarded with a laugh. The twist has a half-hidden facet that partly re-establishes the offence, though the nature of the laugh suggests that most of the audience did not notice.

The endorsement from the market (the laugh) reassured me, because I had this down as a good opening. It was brave, because it was enacted through his (barely visible) hump and only a slight error in timing would have harpooned it; but he knows what he is doing. In his newspaper column and blog he carefully maintains a reputation for bellicosity, and this sort of knock-about insult is his meat and drink. On the quality of argument so far offered by his opponents he pours a measure of scorn that teeters on the lip of argumentum ad hominem, but uses schoolboy language to neutralise the sting. It’s clever.

When he reaches the serious stuff, introduced with a reading from the book of Job, he makes the point that no one can prove, or otherwise, the existence of God; it is a matter of belief, and belief is a matter of opinion, and opinion is a matter of choice. He chooses to believe in a concept that maintains order in what otherwise is chaos. In the process of delivering this reasoning he gets bellicose again with his opponents, casting serious aspersions on their motives for choosing to believe what they do.

At times in the process he does slip into ad hominem, and again he finds a way to pull the sting. Someone in the audience wants to ask a question, and he declines to surrender the floor, “No, not just now. I’m about to finish, and I’ve decided to give them a Christian kicking.” It’s a beautifully oxymoronic ad lib and the audience loves it.  Speaking of ad lib, he shoots the entire speech from the hip. The only time he turns to paper is for the biblical reading. This guy is good.

Nevertheless I need to say something about his enunciation. Let us return to his opening sentence – “I hate this argument.” The word ‘argument’, after its first syllable, disappears. Hitchens commits a diction error that goes like this…

All multi-syllable words have a prosodic rhythm that stresses some syllables and relegates others to relative insignificance. Face to face it doesn’t matter, because we hear enough to understand. In a large hall we instinctively raise the volume on the important syllables, but being used to leaving the other ones to fend for themselves we forget them and they easily get lost. We need to bring up the relative volume on all syllables. I have a short chapter on this in The Face & Tripod, and cover it in greater depth in Every Word HeardIt is a widespread error that Hitchens commits often, and is very easily fixed.

Speaking of chapters in The Face & Tripod, did you notice the degree to which he kept fiddling with that pen?  If not he may have proved the point with which I conclude the chapter on Mannerisms.

If I may doff my rhetor hat, I’d like to say that what I found particularly appealing about this speech was that he returned to the motion. The word ‘existence’ was crucially not in the motion though too many speakers treated it is if it had been, subtly changing (and infantilising) the nature of the argument. “I believe in God” does not mean the same as “I believe in the existence of God”.

There are on YouTube other debates about God. One such between Peter Hitchens and his late brother, Christopher, is good stuff! Neither takes prisoners. I shall have to address it one day on this blog.