Sunday, 15 February 2015

Censorship Gone Mad?

For the most part, my opinions are pretty well set. This is not to say that I will not change them based on evidence or a stream of logical insights, but the process of changing opinion is relatively long and gradual for me. It is very rarely then that an idea or different perspective shocks me into reevaluating my own preconceived ideas. One such moment came when I read a libertarian write that autocorrect is a censorship device.

Is the iPhone trying to stop your potty mouth?

Initially, I thought that this was ridiculous. But then I read on. He reasoned that because autocorrect won't automatically correct misspelled swear words, it is a censorship device that tries to prevent swearing. Personally, that autocorrect doesn't work on swear words is a source of enormous frustration. Indeed, one colleague of mine remarked to me that her friends had just accepted "ducking" as a perfectly legitimate swear word.

As yet, I haven't made my mind up about this. Part of me finds it somewhat insidious that a group antisocial men wearing skivvies and jeans in Palo Alto have decided that swearing is too risqué to be autocorrected. It also makes me wonder what other words have been restricted by the algorithm. At the moment, I'm not sure. I'll leave it up to you guys to come up with your own answers. Is it really all that bad?

False Hysteria is Just Lazy Journalism

As I am wont to do, I started my morning the other day with a casual trawl through Facebook. Let me paint a picture: this usually involves the odd photo of someone wearing too little clothes, a rant or two about angry parents and a funny video of someone hitting themselves rather hard in the testicles. You will be able to understand my disappointment when my routine trawl through Facebook was rudely interupted by a headline informing me that a rare, mosquito-borne disease had just landed in Victoria.

Immediately, the hypochondriac in me panicked. "But I live in Victoria!" I breathed to myself. As I started to contemplate my impending doom, I decided to click on the article to find out the details; after all, it's always nice to know the symptoms of these killer diseases. It was as I started to read through the article that my anxiety was replaced by anger. The article was an absolute beat-up of epic proportions.

Now let me be clear, the title of the article was as I quoted above "rare, mosquito-borne disease lands in Victoria for the first time". To me—and it appears to many of those who commented—this implies that mosquitoes capable of transmitting a certain disease, which in this case was Japanese encephalitis, had made it to Victoria and were now able to spread said disease amongst Victorians. This is particularly bad news, not only because it would lead to an inevitable spread of Japanese encephalitis, but because it could indicate the spread of other more dangerous mosquito-borne diseases.

None of this, however, was the case. Rather, an unfortunate gentleman had decided to make the trip to Bali and had, rather sadly, come back home to Victoria with a nasty bout of encephalitis that was later ascribed to the JE virus. This is very bad news for said gentleman; however, it is not bad news for me or Victorians. We are, for now, safe.

It pains me to think, however, that all of this fuss—and it must be said that many of the hundreds of commenters were fussing too—could have been avoided if Yahoo7 had showed some more journalistic credibility. As I once wrote on this blog and in Farrago, facts are not objective; they can be used to distort the truth as much as lies can. Yahoo7 knows this and sought to use facts to create hysteria, and thus interest in their article, where it was completely unnecessary.

Thankfully, their strategy backfired on them, with the vast majority of commenters on the post giving them a serve for their fear-mongering. It goes to show that, in the long run, readers really are able to spot crap and aren't all that likely to read it.

As an aside, Japanese encephalitis is not confined to Japan. It is a particular problem in the majority of South-East Asia, and is also found in North Queensland. Tropical diseases such as JE are becoming a bigger problem for the north of Australia. Unfortunately, this problem will only get worse as the climate warms. Warming of the climate, unsurprisingly, extends the tropical zones and thus expands the habitat in which the mosquitoes capable of carrying these tropical diseases can live.

Article in question:
Information about JE:

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

What a "Weak" For Abbott

One of the more genuine moments from the ABC broadcast of the spill earlier this morning was Chris Uhlmann's observation that Tony Abbott was "weak" because he issued a statement rather than doing a press conference immediately after the spill. Uhlmann made the remarks in an uncharacteristically critical moment as the news of Abbott's refusal to do a press conference was beamed into his ear by a producer. The news led to a flurry of speculation from the other panelists, who perhaps naively suggested that he may be planning to resign. Once everyone regained their composure (and their marbles) the discussion inevitably turned to comparisons between Gillard and Abbott in their handling of spills for the leadership.

Julia Gillard's leadership was stalked from go to wo. Kevin Rudd and his supporters relentlessly undermined her Prime Ministership and sought to make the difficult task of running a stable minority government nigh impossible. On top of a infamously hostile media, it does speak to Julia Gillard's character that she managed to stay in the Prime Ministership for as long as she did. What also spoke to her character was the way that she handled spill motions. Before and after party meetings, Gillard was defiant. After each spill, she would immediately call a press conference, giving journalists in attendance the opportunity to grill her about the happenings. During these conferences, she was steely in the face of criticism. She gave insight into the strong and capable person she is and was always defiant in the face of leadership tensions. There were no concessions. There was no grovelling. When she said "we're going back to governing" you felt she meant it.

Contrast this with Tony Abbott. Before the spill motion today, he was grovelling. 16 months into his government and the best he had to give to the media was that "we [the Liberal Party] are not the Labor Party". Prior to the party meeting, it is believed he reversed the decision to have ADF submarines built in Japan to secure votes from the South Australian members of the party room. His public appearances and the information being leaked by back benchers indicated that Abbott's campaign to keep his job reeked of desperation and weakness. This was confirmed by his reaction after the party room meeting, when he decided to opt out of a press conference immediately after (delaying it four hours) and instead gave a statement to a camera in his office. He was rightly criticised by Chris Uhlmann as weak.

The general consensus has it that Tony Abbott is a rough-and-tumble, hardened political warrior and that Julia Gillard was a disorganised and chaotic Prime Minister who was too weak to handle the job. It is somewhat ironic that, in the face of difficulty, they each proved to be the exact opposite.

Don't Cry Over Spilt Milk, Tony

For Tony Abbott, today's vote was confirmation that his days as Prime Minster are numbered. His departure is not a matter of if, but when. The only question that remains is how it will occur. Will Malcolm Turnbull challenge, or will he simply wait for the party room to call a spill and then run?

For the most part, the commentariat (both progressive and conservative) seems to believe that the latter will occur. Since last being leader of the parliamentary Liberal party, Malcolm Turnbull has become extremely disciplined, waiting for Abbott to implode instead of trying to cause issues himself. This strategy has worked well for Turnbull, who will be able to take the leadership whilst also maintaining the visage of a team player—something which will make surviving the conservative wing of the LNP much easier for him.

When Abbott will go is not certain. Realistically, one would suggest that he probably only has one more significant policy blunder in him. If he manages to make it to the budget without a major blunder, there is little doubt that the next budget will probably pick him off. Abbott simply does not have the political capital to create the budget that he needs to lift his approval rating, whilst keeping the conservative wing of the party happy. This is because what the electorate wants and what the conservative arm of the party wants are two entirely different things: the conservative arm wants, well, fiscal conservatism, whilst the voters want a budget that is perceived as fair (which is code for a budget that doesn't reduce entitlements to the middle class).

Creating such a budget is a politically impossible task when your approval ratings are about the same as Ivan Milat's. On top of this, neither he nor Joe Hockey has the policy acumen or the creativity to pull out a budget capable of saving Abbott's Prime Ministership. This spells disaster for the PM and is likely to precipitate in a Turnbull Prime Ministership.

What has become more and more certain over the past 24 hours is that Tony Abbott will not be the Prime Minister come election time. It is now relatively evident that Malcolm Turnbull will be the Australian Prime Minister in the not too distant future. Abbott may have robbed us of Australia Day with his Sir Prince Phillip gaffe, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Australian public will have something to celebrate soon enough...

Thursday, 5 February 2015

How To Write a Speech

Written below is the process that I use to write speeches. It is by no means the only method, nor it is a perfect method. I have not written this article to parade as an instruction booklet on how exactly to write a ripper speech—everyone has their own way—but I do believe that there are some elements that may be particularly helpful and hope that sharing my method is useful. 

Writing speeches is an often frustrating and tiring task. For many, it is a very foreign kind of writing style and one, in particular, that isn't encountered very often at school. What therefore makes speech writing difficult is adapting to the style of writing. It is the failure to adapt to the norms of speech writing—that is to write an essay instead—that often leads people to delivering poor speeches. To avoid this, I've developed (accidentally) a relatively particular method of speech writing that certainly diverges from the methods I (or anyone else for that matter) would use to write an essay.

Before physically writing anything, the first thing I have to do first is test out my topic. Given that the vast majority of speeches are persuasive in nature, it is extremely important to test your ideas out first. For this reason, I tend to brainstorm my topics with anyone and everyone. At school, I would talk to teachers about my topic and explain my stand point. They would then offer their views on the subject and, if I were lucky, give me a good argument about the topic. I do the same with friends and family, seeking as many different views as possible and testing my argument out against a variety of people. This intellectual workout is extremely important, as it allows you to establish confidence in your argument, as well as identify where its weaknesses are (and hopefully rectify them). More importantly, brainstorming a speech topic with others allows you to get some practice actually speaking about your topic before you get to writing about it; after all, this is public speaking and in that field, speaking itself is fairly important!

Once the initial brainstorming is done—which can take a few weeks if you're an enormous procrastinator like me—the next thing to do is to write down some of your initial ideas on paper. Personally, I have a special pen with which I do this, but that's me just being a little bit insane. What I first do is write down my topic and the basic ideas behind it. Then I go on to write down evidence that I've gathered and other general things that I feel support my argument. From these, I select a few of them and start to write a structure for my speech. This is a fairly uncomplicated process. The first element of the structure that I try to work out is the introduction. Working out the introduction involves giving thought to how to grab people's attention; specifically, I look into a neat way to introduce my topic, something that people will remember. For example, in my Media Gone Nuts speech, I opted for a humorous introduction wherein I satirised A Current Affair, and after a very healthy dose of sarcasm, introduced the true purpose of my speech. Unlike an essay, speeches do not require an immediate reveal of the topic. In fact, delaying the introduction of your topic a little bit is a powerful device, as the audience will generally be most receptive to your views at the beginning of the speech. 

Once I've got a basic idea of my introduction (this often changes later on), I will start to think about the body. Rather than write down paragraph 1, paragraph 2 etc. I tend to separate my speech into two or three main points. These points are generally woven around evidence that supports the contention that I have introduced in my introduction. Each piece of evidence should advance the discussion and genuinely offer a unique view point. If the evidence is merely something that just proves what I've said in the introduction, it is not worthwhile. Evidence must be accompanied by genuine analysis that develops the speech and develops the idea; otherwise, the audience will (rightly so) lose interest in the speech. Personally, I believe this is a significant pitfall of many speeches: the evidence merely acts as a cheerleader for the original point, so that the body of the speech doesn't contribute anything interesting. You have x time to introduce an idea, so it is extremely important to spend those x minutes on the idea, not just the reasons that it's right! Get it? 

With an introduction and the basic structure of my speech in tact, I will move on to actually writing the speech itself. Note that I haven't yet thought about my conclusion. To me, this seems a somewhat logical decision. The conclusion, after all, should be written at the conclusion of the speech. Only once the character of the speech is set and it's well and truly on paper should you write the conclusion (in my opinion). Writing itself is not a particularly complicated process. The first thing I'll do is write an introduction. This often takes quite some time, as it is the most vital part of the speech. People pay the most attention at the start and at the end of your speech, making the introduction and the conclusion extremely important. In my opinion, the introduction is even more important as it sets the tone of your speech and provides the best opportunity to use some rhetorical flare to get your audience on board. It is the segment of the speech during which your audience decides whether or not it wants to listen to your speech, so it is extreeeeeemely important. After agonising over the wording of the introduction—remember I've already decided the broad approach I'll take to it—I will produce a relatively rough copy of the introduction. After this, I get cracking into the first, second and [sometimes] third point. These are not particularly difficult to write, as I've already done the ground work in my many discussions with people. Once they're done, a rough conclusion is written. 

During the initial writing process, I don't focus too much on wording. The idea is to get a structure down pat and to get some ideas on paper. With all the work that has gone into planning and preparing the speech, often good phrasing will just jump out from nowhere. Along the way, I tend to test some of the phrasing by standing up and reading out the paragraph. This is an extremely important element of speech writing, although it does mean that the first draft can take some time to produce. With the completed first draft done, I usually take a break for a few hours—speech writing is tiring business! After my break, I take my first draft and read (for want of a better word) it out. This process is about presenting the speech, seeing how it operates as a speech. Despite my best efforts during the writing to make it sound as speechy as possible (I refer you back to the phrase testing I mentioned), often the first draft will end up sounding a little too much like writing. This often leads me to completely discarding the first draft and starting again. 

On my next draft, I essentially repeat the same process for the first. Typically, I will focus a lot more on the phraseology. The first draft has given me the structure and the basis of the arguments, but it is often quite poor in terms of its quality as a presentation. Therefore, the second draft is about lifting the argument and structure from the first, and completely discarding its phrasing. Writing the second draft is an active process. I always find myself on my feet, reading out lines and paragraphs and often getting extremely frustrated about its progress. There are tantrums and, I'm sure, unhealthy blood pressures, but this painstaking process ensures that what goes on paper will sound good when spoken. Being up on my feet, moving around and making sure I act out my speech is what guarantees that my second draft is indeed a speech and not just an essay. This, I believe, is one of the most useful things I do in terms of speech writing. After all, it seems somewhat ridiculous to me that the majority of the preparation that goes into giving a speech be sitting down and writing. It's public speaking, so get up and SPEAK! 

With a second draft done, subsequent drafts are essentially revisions of the second draft. Typically, I will rewrite my introduction and conclusion half a million times, though the body tends to stay relatively constant after the second draft. In the case of the body, I'm looking to improve the message. I look for things that sound clunky or that don't logically flow on from the previous point. It is really important that a speech move seamlessly from sentence to sentence, so much of my revision of the body focuses on ensuring that this is the case. The only way to test the flow of a speech is to get up and give it. A seasoned public speaker will hear the clunks in the speech. This is also a good point to present the speech to other people, who will also hear the clunks and will often offer genuinely helpful advice about where they are and how to remove them. In high school in particular I relied very heavily on sound testing my speeches with other people, not merely for the benefit of their advice, but so that I could see how they sound in front of an audience. Often, I found that much of their advice was consistent with what I had already worked out whilst giving the speech, though hearing it from others is an extremely valuable confirmation of your instincts. I must confess that it took quite a while to develop them properly; when I first started public speaking, I was not as well tuned as I'd like to believe I am now.

Another benefit of running through your speech with other people is that it allows you an opportunity to see how the point has sunk in. If people are still able to question your basic arguments on the basis of what you've said in your speech, then this is indication that it's perhaps necessary to do a total rewrite. Total rewrites are extremely frustrating, but are often necessary if there are deficiencies in the argument that you're presenting. Having an opportunity to test some of your jokes (and there should be humour in speeches) in front of an audience is also an extremely valuable contribution to the speech writing process. Most of the time, it's difficult to get a full audience, so a family member or friend will usually do. If they laugh at the right points, lean in at the right points and look impressed at the right points, you're probably on a winner!

Revision of the speech can often take a long time and so can testing with various audiences. The overall idea of that element of the speech writing is to get feedback (mainly from yourself) and to spruce the speech up to conform with that feedback. At the end of the day, the goal is to have a very smooth and structured speech that will genuinely engage your audience. For me personally, as I've let on already, structure is particularly important. I hate hearing clunks in speeches and I hate unimaginative (or perhaps too imaginative as well) transitions—I can thank one of my teachers (Ms Pearce) for that obsession with structure. Luckily for me, she got onto me early and practically drilled the word structure into my head. 

With all the revising done, it's time to really practise the speech and perhaps even get it memorised. I've included this as part of the speech writing process, as even at this late stage I have a tendency to still revise elements of my speech. In particular, I look for ways to slightly improve particular phrases and eliminate even the slightest clunks or structural issues. Often, some of these revisions will be incorporated at the very last second whilst I'm giving the speech (which did often scare the teachers who had been stuck working with me!). 

Anyway, there we have it! That's my method for writing speeches. If you've made it to the end, well done! I do hope that I've managed to add in some sensible advice that may help you whilst you're writing your speeches. I know I have tried to have my public speaking students follow my methods to some extent and, for the most part, that has worked well for them, so perhaps it will for you too!

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Dying Art of Oratory?

As the world evolves and technology becomes practically ubiquitous, traditional media for communication have found themselves threatened. During this era of technology, we are witnessing the steady decline of the morning newspaper and the paperback book, making way for digital alternatives. With the gradual death of these media, what can we then say for the oldest medium of communication: oratory?

Oratory has long been regarded as one of the most potent forms of communication. A good speech can change the world. There are countless examples of oratory's power spread across history's pages. Indeed, merely saying the names Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln conjures up images of some of their most powerful speeches. Oratory ended slavery. Oratory demanded civil rights. Oratory got women the vote. Much of what we take for granted in today's world would not exist if it weren't for the orators who championed the movements that changed the world. Despite its potency, oratory could soon be facing its death at the hands of the technology era.

Many of the political leaders today are characterised by their lack of oratorical prowess. Tony Abbott can barely get three words out with stumbling, Bill Shorten couldn't get a metaphor straight if his life depended on it and many of the current government ministers are about as entertaining as a 40 car pile up. Despite their uselessness in front of a microphone, these politicians still manage to get our support. This is because contemporary politics is now dominated by soundbites and control of the news cycle; there is simply no more room for big ideas and the speeches the fuel them. Unsurprisingly, the transition to a more reductive type of politics has been driven by emerging technologies. No longer is there the need to give anything more than a sound bite, as anything more substantial is immediately crowded out by the sheer volume of information that is published on digital media.

With all that said, it does seem pretty doom and gloom for oratory. Though it is becoming less and less vital in politics, it would be premature to say that it is dead. A good speech is able to cut through the noise and is still capable of acting as the driving force behind bold movements. There are countless examples of this happening recently. Barack Obama's rousing speeches surely played an enormous part in his election as the United States' first African-American president. Julia Gillard's slam-down on Tony Abbott made her famous worldwide and inspired countless young women to get involved in leadership. Emma Watson's HeforShe speech to the UN guided progressives towards a new type of feminism inclusive of men. Rather than be stamped out by the noise of the internet, these three have managed to be the noise on it. Their respective speeches managed to proliferate and were shared around the world more quickly than a speech has ever been shared before.

Though oratory has suffered a blow at the hands of the technology era, its long history has yet to come to an end. Oratory is one of the few traditional media of communication that has been able to cut through the noise of the technology era and resonated with the people. Rather than die a gradual death at the hands of technology, oratory has been embraced by it and lives to fight another day.

Terminal Tony Talks

So, there we have it—the Liberal party room shouldn't turf Tony because it's the voters who do the hiring and the voters who should do the firing. These comments from Tony Abbott came as part of a last-ditch attempt to hold onto the prime ministership in the face of increasing pressure to resign. The notion that voters are ultimately responsible for choosing the Prime Minister will appeal to the electorate; however, it is oftentimes completely untrue.

A quick look at Australia's PMs over the last fifty years paints a picture. Hawke, Rudd, Gillard and Gorton were all knifed by the party room. Menzies retired, Holt died and Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General. That leaves only McMahon, Fraser, Keating, Howard and Rudd (2.0) who were forced from office by the electorate. In numbers, only 42% of our Prime Ministers in the last 60 years have left on voters' terms. With Australia's political history in mind, chances are that Abbott won't get the opportunity to be removed in an election. This casts doubt over his assertion today that voters are ultimately responsible for choosing and removing their Prime Ministers.

It's hard not to feel a lack of empowerment in the face of the figure I've given above. 68% of the time, voters don't even get a say in a change in Prime Minister. There's a lot to be said for the lack of democratic spirit that this represents. Though not constitutionally recognised, the Prime Minister has taken on increasing importance in Australian politics and with that importance has come increasing control over the executive branch. To deny Australians the right to have their say on a change in Prime Minister serves to concentrate power in the few and not the many, and as such is undemocratic.

With that said, it is also worthwhile to assess the viability of the status quo. Australia's electoral cycle is relatively short, so even when a dud prime minister is inflicted upon us, they will not be there long without the consent of the voters. Furthermore, there are risks in denying the parliamentary team full responsibility for choosing their leader, as is the case in the Labor Party. The parliamentary team must work with the Prime Minister very closer and is ultimately responsible for ensuring good governance. Therefore, if the parliamentary team is incapable of working with their leader, and as such wishes to remove him/her, this can only be in the interests of the country and the party. Failure to remove a Prime Minister who is unfit to lead and cannot work with the caucus members leads to a sclerotic decision making process and chaotic government, as was the case with the Rudd government.

Whether or not a parliamentary team should be given the power to change the Prime Minister without the consent of the electorate is something that does not have a clear answer. Denying the electorate a voice is undemocratic and breeds political apathy. Robbing the parliamentary team of the power to pick their leader runs the risk of stalling the decision making process and hampering the performance of government. What is certain, however, is that despite his assertion today that voters hire and fire their Prime Ministers, the odds are well and truly against Tony Abbott.