Stephen Fry works his socks off

Towards the end of October or possibly at the beginning of November 2014 Stephen Fry spoke at the Oxford Union. We immediately know the rough date because he is wearing a poppy, and we also later hear him commenting that Oscar Wilde’s birthday (16 October) was very recent. The video was nevertheless posted on YouTube only at the beginning of April 2015.

Fry has been featured three times previously on this blog. Twice I gave him a kicking for something stupid he had said; once I praised him effusively for a fine speech. My interest in this gig, therefore, may seem obvious, though in fact my curiosity was alerted professionally for a very particular and less obvious reason. What he was being asked to do is intensely difficult. You need only glance at the blurb beneath the video on YouTube to find a potted biography of Stephen Fry. They expected him to speak about himself. I have, more often than is good for my health, seen fine communicators die miserably attempting this and I really feared for him.

Almost everyone in the public eye has an image that is polished, flattering and wrong. It is well-known in such circles that to believe your own publicity is a fatal mistake; but while disbelieving it you have to stand in front of a high-profile audience, with cameras rolling, and promote it. You want to be sincere and speak from the heart, but to do so could be ruinous. It is a ghastly predicament.

I advise my trainees to write their own introductions for speaking gigs: the advantages for everyone are manifold. Mayank Banerjee may have composed this introduction, but I suspect otherwise. At any rate, he delivers it pretty well and gets the laugh he wanted.

Various mass audience actions, most notably applause and laughter, work like a wave. We have seen waves approaching a beach, the swell building up till the crown tips over and the wave breaks in a flurry of chaos. The expert audience-smith, in whatever guise, learns how to use that wave motion to the best advantage to time a laugh, stoke applause or whatever it might be. Bear that in mind as you watch Fry make his entrance. He avoids any sense of self-aggrandizement by playing his twee persona, and then starts calling to the applauding audience, “stop it: stop it: oh you have”. The way he times that to the wave motion of the applause is immaculate.

After a little more introductory tweeness he addresses the theme of his talk. Whatever his audience was told to expect, he does not speak about himself. Instead he sidesteps that dreaded trap by speaking about one with whom he has become closely associated – Oscar Wilde. We are told about Wilde, his early life, education, accomplishments, loves, plays, publications, and the slow-motion car crash of his fall from grace to imprisonment and bankruptcy. It is a well conceived, well structured, well delivered talk that is wholly shot from the hip. Given that Fry has played Wilde in a film, given that Wilde is clearly a hero of Fry’s, given that both of them can lay claim to being what Quentin Crisp, speaking of himself, called A Stately Homo of England, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fry had chosen a task that was for him a piece of cake that he could breeze through.

You would be wrong.

Stephen Fry is a pro and wise to a range of pitfalls. Hark back to my second paragraph and consider the baggage that he carries with respect to his public image. Some have even attached to him the imbecilic epithet ‘National Treasure’. What a burden when faced with an intelligent, well-read, cynical audience!  Most of this lot will actually not entirely meet that description but there will be enough to make life dangerous. Consider the penalty for putting a foot wrong. By ducking away from the main Pooh-trap and speaking about Wilde instead of himself he is by no means out of the woods and he knows it. So we proceed to see clever, evasive and audience-wooing devices competing against serious symptoms of stress. He works his socks off, and does it very well.

The tweeness is an evasive device, and even after his twee opening he deploys it again in the way he says, “bless you!” to an audience member who sneezes. He had that ready. With a few hundred in an audience at the turn of November you are bound to have sneezers and/or coughers, and he wheeled out a prepared twee routine to have fun with it. There are many more such devices, but as he is entitled to keep his secrets I shall mention only a couple and not be too specific. There was the joke that bombed, so he immediately threw into the cavern of aching silence a very coarse side-comment that drew a roar of embarrassed laughter and eclipsed the turkey. There was the period when the audience coughing was getting out of control and signalling encroaching boredom. He neatly turned off into a digression that got them back.

All right: one more. At 34:20 he emits a shameless paralipsis.

He really is very good, but he is also vulnerable. I am not referring to the highly-publicized bi-polarity that assails him: I mean plain speakers’ funk. Many assume that expertise banishes fear. It doesn’t: it makes you better at hiding it, but also gives you greater awareness of what can easily go wrong. Fry’s most glaring symptom is how hot he is. Early winter 2014 in England was unseasonably mild, but it was still winter. The audience is full of woolly jumpers, whereas Fry in a lightweight suit and open-necked shirt is sweating profusely. Again I will keep his secrets (and mine) but without being specific I can’t resist one obviously nerve-related moment. Stress is a devil for robbing you of much of your natural ability to think on your feet. At one point Fry is seeking the right adjective to describe someone. At any other time he would have made an excellent choice from an obvious array of candidates, but here – probably trying to avoid a cliche – he pauses, vainly gropes through his mind, and then in desperation comes out with a ridiculous word that causes me to sit bold upright and cry aloud, “What?“.

I have written a sheaf of notes on the content of this speech, but I will restrict myself to two challenges.

To claim that The Importance of Being Earnest is the only Victorian play still seriously performed is absurd. When I first was taken to it as barely a teenager, I came away declaring with adolescent arrogance that if the author similarly spoke in wall-to-wall epigrams he must have been a crashing bore. I have recently directed a production of it and was conscious that this facet makes it very difficult to play – not least because the audience’s lips are moving as they silently say those famous lines along with the cast. It’s fun, but a great play it ain’t! Of its style, Arms and the Man is better – and look what I’ve done: I’ve introduced G.B.Shaw into the argument! For Fry to overlook all those great Shavian plays was – how shall I put it? – careless.

Towards the end of this speech Fry mentions De Profundis, Wilde’s legendary letter written in prison. Fry declares it a hugely important piece of writing, and so it is. I am at a loss, though, to understand how anyone could read that, love it, understand it – as Fry obviously has and does – and still say the things he spouted in that interview with Gay Byrne, It is possible to revere something while disagreeing with it, but still. Could Fry and I, through Confirmation Bias, be reading opposing messages from the same words? It is a conundrum.

This speech is forty minutes of hagiography – studiously jocular at times, out of necessity – but hagiography nonetheless. It finishes with an unusually quiet, rather reverential, peroration. He has worked his socks off: I think he is relieved to be finished.

Oliver Robinson in speech mode

At Imperial College in London on 1 November 2014, Dr Oliver Robinson gave a talk on ‘Science and Spirituality’. He is an author, lecturing in psychology at Greenwich University. The subject matter here is for him a personal interest and sideline. I know this because I know him. He is my nephew.

You may think that our relationship would guarantee that he is a trainee of mine. Not so. He has never asked me for help in this field and I have always assumed that this was because he didn’t wish to bother me, or he felt that he was at least as good as, and probably better than, most people (which he is), or along the lines of that excellent rule – don’t try to teach your wife to drive. I was very eager to watch this talk.

He doesn’t bother with an opening beyond the standard “Tell them what you’re going to tell them”; and with only ten minutes for the talk I think he’s right. He also slips a minuscule piece of throw-away humour into the first few seconds, and correctly throws it away. This is good, though the opening goes on a little too long. Devices like that ‘hanging thread’ of the book that he will later tell us about really only work with longer speeches than this.

As a lecturer he has become expert at disguising his hump, but it’s still there (it is with everyone). The symptoms are tiny but unmistakable, and even quite late in this talk there are nerve symptoms. It is a pity that his conscientiousness is generating anxiety which in turn is throwing up a mask that hides his full personality. I call it Speech Mode, and its elimination is one of my first targets with my trainees. But let’s get to specifics concerning this talk.

He suffers from the almost universal malady of over-use of PowerPoint.

  • Slide 1 is the title of the talk – ok
  • Slide 2 is worse than redundant: if a slide bears the words that you’ve spoken or are speaking it doesn’t help. it is in direct competition with you. Lose it.
  • Slide 3  – ditto. It’s actually an extension of Slide 2.
  • Slide 4 – ditto, ditto.
  • Slide 5 is his re-seizing of that hanging thread, adding the image of the book to the rogue slide that has been extending all this while. That image is important: it should have a slide of its own and be Slide 2.
  • Slide 6 is a bookfest image. He shows four pairs of books which represent the remainder of his talk that essentially now becomes a bibliography.

With these books, all of which he commends, he shows that since the seventeenth century each of the books on science has a spiritual counterpart, and thus the two movements have progressed in parallel. It’s an interesting principle and suitably provocative in that it makes us keen to read all the books to sample the theory. I’ve a feeling we need to, because in just ten minutes Oliver is not really able to establish much, if any, linkage. Parallel, yes – but parallel lines never converge. To suggest complementarity we need convergence or linkage of some sort.

That said, his normal University work probably involves perhaps as much research guidance as actual teaching, so pointing audiences at books to read, and whetting their appetite to do so, would then be an essential skill.

But let’s get back to Oliver’s actual speaking skill. The two most important ingredients are there. He is very articulate and he has good command of the subject. A couple of things are getting in the way of his doing full justice to himself. He needs to be rid of that bloody paper. The script or notes in front of him are a constant impediment. He needs to learn how to structure a sufficiently secure mind-map that enables him safely to shoot the speech from the hip. He could do it easily. He has a shortage of fundamental inner confidence. He may tell me I’m wrong, and he certainly synthesizes confidence pretty effectively, but he is behind a speech-mode mask which is hiding much of the huge personality I know him to have. Sort out those two things and he’d fly. The natural ability is there: look at the excellence of timing that harvests from his audience a fine and deserved laugh at 10:00.

Could I make him fly? Yes, of course – easily. Would I if he asked? Yes, of course: he’s my Godson.

Thatcher’s last speech – The Mummy Returns

On 22 May 2001, at a general election rally in Plymouth, Baroness Thatcher came out of retirement long enough to take the stage for what was probably her last big speech. My speaking students will understand when I say that the speech had a Face – “The Mummy Returns“.

There is a transcript of the speech downloadable here.

Say “The two Ronnies” to most British people and they will immediately think of Messrs Barker and Corbett, whose comedy partnership is a TV legend; but to those of us involved with British Theatre in the mid-sixties there was an earlier pair of Ronnies. Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar collaborated on two West End musicals, Robert & Elizabeth, which opened in 1964 ran for nearly a thousand performances and has been revived several times since, and On the Level which opened in 1966 and died shortly afterwards. I briefly assisted Ronnie Grainer during that time: a sort of unpaid internship, sharpening pencils and making tea.

What has that riveting nugget to do with this speech?  Only that Ronnie Millar went on to become Thatcher’s speechwriter, for which he was awarded a knighthood. It was he who was credited with “The Lady’s Not for Turning”. He didn’t write this speech, he died in 1998, though I think he would have approved.

Thatcher lived in an era when formal oratory was still the norm and today’s style of conversational sincerity had yet to take hold. Everyone used to read their speeches from scripts, and delivery was relatively stiff. What is remarkable about this bit of speaking is how modern it sounds. Though she is reading it, she imbues it with much of the conversational sincerity that today we expect. Her speaking skill was ahead of its time.

I have a sneaking suspicion that she might have written this herself. Her managerial style was hands-on, so she would always have been closely involved with the preparation of her speeches; and when this came to be prepared she had time on her hands.

I’d like to think that she authored the description of New Labour at 4:37 – “rootless, empty, and artificial”. What a withering dismissal, and all in a little triad! (The trouble is that it neatly describes most of the posturing pygmies that people all parliamentary parties these days.) And what about this alliterative triad a minute later – “the bitter, brawling bully”?

There are several stumbles and losses-of-place, but this is a tendency when people read speeches – particularly if they are conscientious enough to raise their eyes regularly to their audience. That is why I liberate all my trainees from the tyranny of paper. If your memory contains a structure that is strong, simple  and clear enough you don’t lose your place and you can shoot your speech from the hip maintaining eye-contact with the audience all the time.

She is enough of a pro to massage the egos of her audience, not just for being Conservatives but for living in Plymouth. At 10:29 she begins her peroration with an extended anaphora on the word ‘Plymouth’.

She was very good at this; and it is a lesson for us, when we embrace new fashions for things like Public Speaking, to grab the best of the new but without rolling up behind us the carpet of the old.

Michael Sheen performs

On 1 March – St David’s Day – a crowd of people, estimated by the South Wales Argus as being 300 strong, marched to Bedwellty Park in Tredegar, South Wales. Tredegar was the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the British National Health Service (NHS), and this was a political rally on behalf of the NHS.

In Bedwellty Park the crowd was addressed by actor Michael Sheen, who was born in Newport about 20 miles away; and for several days afterwards his speech was heralded on social media as having been brilliant. On YouTube I have found two videos of it.  This one was filmed by a camera quite close to Sheen, but it is merely an excerpt. The one I have decided to use was taken from further away, but we have the complete performance.

Sheen begins by thanking the gathering for having turned out in the cold and rain, and then, “In 1945 Aneurin Bevan said…

WE HAVE BEEN THE DREAMERS …

He proceeds to bellow this quotation with all the power, projection and poetic rhythm that characterizes Welsh actors. Richard Burton would have been proud.

He is reading, but as this is a quotation I have no problem with that. My problem is that when he finishes the quotation he continues to read.

This is not a speech but a reading of stuff he wrote earlier, interspersed with stuff Aneurin Bevan said and wrote seventy years ago. He speaks for nearly eleven minutes, with his notebook between him and his audience. That notebook represents a screen that shields us from his sincerity. I do not accuse him of being not sincere: I am sure he means what he reads, but the pre-written words are going in through his eyes and out through his mouth instead of coming spontaneously from his heart. That is the difference between speaking at an audience or speaking with them.

It is a performance. It is a good performance because Sheen is a good actor, but it is a performance.

There’s some good stuff in it because Bevan belonged to a generation of politicians who were not cowed by the malevolent madness of political correctness into spouting the pitiful, mealy-mouthed pap we nearly always get today from their successors. In fact Bevan today could have been arrested for a literal ‘hate’ sentence in there (listen and you’ll hear the actual word used). You don’t have to agree with the sentiments to be refreshed by the openness with which they are expressed.

Yesterday evening on British TV were broadcast interviews of the leaders of the two largest British parliamentary parties. I had neither the stomach nor patience to watch, but listened to music while entertaining myself with a stream of Twitter comments about it. Never once was I tempted to switch on. Those parties describe themselves not as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘centre left’ or ‘centre right’. They are desperate to be seen to be occupying the centre ground. As Bevan said, and as Sheen read,  “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road – they get run down.”

At the moment in Britain there is only one political party that bravely tries to speak the truth as it sees it, and the Establishment hates it for that reason. Interestingly it is difficult to judge whether it is of the right or left as it takes its messages from both old Labour and old Conservative. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the coming General Election.

Back to Michael Sheen. There are extended passages where he is reading quotations from Bevan. This is appropriate as the spirit of Bevan is the star of the show, and it is also appropriate to read quotations. But when it is supposed to be Sheen himself speaking the book must come down and Sheen must speak with his audience – shooting from the hip. It is an easy skill to learn – I could teach him in less time than it took me to write this article.

Then this would be a speech – perhaps a brilliant one.

EU debate does pro-lobby no favours.

At the Cadogan Hall in London exactly two years ago on 20 March, 2013, Intelligence Squared staged a debate with the motion Both Britain and the EU would be Happier if they got Divorced. The Chairman was Nik Gowing and his opening statement measured the hall audience at nearly a thousand people..

Speaking for the proposition were Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage, and for the opposition were Katinka Barysch and the late Leon Brittan.

I have gone on record on this blog as declaring myself anti-EU, but wanting a referendum principally because of the accompanying debate. Pro-EU arguments seem either emaciated or disingenuous, and I hunger for some that might give me pause. Perhaps this debate will oblige.

I am often asked, by those who will be taking part in adversarial events such as these, what their ‘off camera’ demeanour should be. Should they, for instance, illustrate with their facial expressions that the current speaker is lying through his teeth? My unwavering advice is that they should keep their powder dry, remaining impassive unless they are speaking. It weakens the image to do anything else. During Gowing’s introduction to the debate, and his naming of the speakers, all remain expressionless except Barysch who switches on a semi-profile friendly smile. She’s already working, but I doubt that it is working.

I assume that the opening addresses are restricted to five minutes each. For one thing this is usual practice, and for another the length of them in the event varies from 4:15 to 4:50. This is impressively professional and disciplined. I am hoping this discipline will prevail in the debate itself. Events like these get cheapened by accusations of untruth or cheap tricks like interruptions that artificially extend themselves to cut into the opponents’ speaking time. Actually, an Intelligence Squared audience should be savvy enough to make such stunts counter-productive.

Hannan [2:44 – 7:34] goes first. He rises to his feet as his introduction begins, arriving at the lectern as the introduction ends. This sort of apparently inconsequential detail has a positive influence on audiences, if only subliminally.

I have featured Hannan often on this blog, commending the skill that he has evidently toiled to polish. I am a little concerned that he is perhaps too polished, that super-fluency might be sterilizing his performance. I would like to see more of the real warts-and-all person showing through. His habit – I have heard this often – of punctuating his speeches with “my friends” is a little old-fashioned and bordering on the prim. Yes I am picking nits off nits, but when a speaker is this good I have little else to pick. If I were advising him I would urge him now to stop striving for perfection, relax a little and allow more warmth of human imperfection to show through – at least with most audiences.

He has a very classy closing! It’s one thing to manipulate the final lines of the poem, Ulysses, weaving your peroration with Tennyson’s, but the impudence of his introducing it via reference to a James Bond film causes me to smile and tip my rhetor’s hat.

Barysch [8:15 – 12:53] opens for the opposition. She likewise walks to the lectern during her introduction: we’re watching pro speakers here!

We saw her studied smile earlier, and now we hear the studied dulcet cadences of her voice. She seems happy to leave much of the nitty and gritty to the others. Her role is to paint the EU loving and understanding, a little wayward possibly on occasion but essentially benign. The EU, she cooingly implies, is a great big fluffy bunny rabbit.

Stressing that she is an economist and therefore concerned with data as well as fluffy bunny rabbits she goes down the “why would Britain want to close her doors to the rest of the world?” route. I wonder how heavily her opponents will tread on that canard, and whether the audience of ‘almost a thousand’ will buy it anyway. In terms of pure speaking technique she is very good. In terms of her reading of this audience I am not so sure

Farage [13:36 – 18:16] likewise walks through his introduction, and opens with “Good evening everybody!” For non-UK readers unfamiliar with the current political climate in Britain, perhaps I should make it clear that Farage is a very sharp thorn in the hide of the British political establishment. The mainstream media and the education system being part of that establishment, he is routinely painted as being the devil in human form. I have yet to read that he eats babies for breakfast, but give it time. The interesting thing is that people who meet and speak with him seem always to like him. Funny that! I have never met him.

I am interested to see what he does with some of Barysch’s assertions. The Japanese have a word, Mokusatsu. It means “To treat with silent contempt”. Farage practises Mokusatsu, trusting in the audience’s wisdom. Instead he concentrates on the duplicity of the EU having been miss-sold on the basis of being merely a market, then steam-rollering its way to a political monolith with the enthusiastic collaboration of the political class but in defiance of just about every poll or national referendum. The inference is that half a billion European people don’t want it, but a few hundred politicians don’t care.

Just after 16:25 he comes out with a statement that could be held to be highly inflammatory, but which gets a small laugh from the audience. This is merely an appetizer to prime a punchline that harvests a huge laugh. He reads the audience very well.

Brittan [19:02 – 23:17], uniquely in this company, stays seated through his introduction. To be fair his chair is nearest to the lectern. Uniquely in this company he has a script, though he handles it skilfully.

He opens with the claim that leaving the EU we could no longer trade with countries within it.

Though we are a net buyer in our trade with other EU countries, apparently European manufacturers are so rich that they would no longer want to take our money for their goods. I remember Ben Gummer MP coming out with that one on Twitter, and being greeted with a deluge of derision. On my visits to Switzerland and Norway – both non-EU countries – I was sure I saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, VWs and Audis, but obviously I was mistaken.

Next he accuses his opponents of lying.

Next he declares it an “absolutely howler” that European Commissioners make the laws. I wonder how strictly Hannan and Farage will practise their Mokusatsu when next they speak.

The four opening addresses being completed, Nik Gowing explains that a poll was taken of audience members when they arrived. He reads out the results which show that pro-EU sentiment prevailed substantially, and goes on to tell us that another poll will be conducted at the end.

There follow some questions and answers which involve lots of Mokusatsu. There is a diverting episode in which Brittan accuses Hannan of misrepresenting something he had said. Hannan’s trademark courtesy is clearly stretched and, though he maintains the niceties, his widened eyes betray his anger. That anger, like all stress, robs Hannan of some of his ability to think on his feet. He has a crushing answer easily available – “the audience were listening: let them decide” but doesn’t use it. Brittan is anyway only doing it to cut into Hannan’s speaking time.

There is a lesson here for all debates including adversarial broadcast interviews. It is easy to lapse into the mistaken sense that your goal is to sway your opponent or interviewer. That is of course nonsense: they couldn’t matter less. It is only the audience that matters.

Barring that momentary lapse from Hannan, he and Farage were infinitely better with the audience than their opponents. You do not need to take my word for that. The final poll showed a huge swing in their favour. They wiped the floor.

Did I glean any new, thought-provoking pro-EU arguments? Nope, they were pathetic.

Vicky Ford paints herself phony

I always stress to my public speaking trainees the importance of first impressions.

Yes I know the concept is hardly apocalyptic; yet today we examine a speaker who should have known better, but destroyed her first impression with an elementary error.

In order to make my point I’d like you to consider the following short list of hypothetical first meetings –

  • Your beloved teenage child has brought the latest amour to your house to meet you.
  • An interviewee for a job has just sat down in the chair opposite.
  • Upon answering your front door bell you are confronted by a canvassing politician.

Suppose the other party opens the conversation with a compliment on your house/office/garden. That would seem a reasonable way to begin but suppose, before doing so, he or she pulls a sheaf of paper from a pocket, carefully unfolds it and then reads from it, “Golly, what a nice house/office/garden you have!” How much do you suppose that paper, and the reading from it, will take the shine off the compliment? The point I am clumsily trying to make, in case you haven’t spotted it, is that there are some things that just have to be seen to be uttered spontaneously, and an opening congratulatory compliment is one of the foremost.

Vicky Ford was the fourth speaker in a debate at the Cambridge Union in November 2014. The motion was This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics and we have already examined the previous speeches from Patrick O’FlynnRupert Myers and Peter Bone. Vicky Ford begins at 51:21.

She opens with thanks to Mr President, appending a short impenetrable joke concerning Movember. Then her eyes descend to her script in order that she might read out, “It’s great to see the Chamber so full.”

I find it difficult to conceive of an opening more demonstrably phony – not the words, but the obvious reading of them. She warbles on for ten more minutes, but as I can no longer find a reason to believe a word I can’t be bothered with it.

To be fair, the audience seems to lap it all up, so good luck to her, but what really bothers me is why? WHY do audiences put up with speakers who couldn’t be bothered to learn to speak spontaneously?

If you ask people about those they regard as brilliant speakers they nearly always bring up the ability to speak without referring to notes, as if this was somehow magical. The skill is so easily taught that it should correctly be regarded as an elementary sine qua non. Audiences should not be impressed by speakers who do, but be prepared to boo off the platform any speakers who don’t. The trouble is that they have been lulled into accepting mediocrity.

I am not idly boasting when I say the skill is easily taught. Six senior executives from a household-name British company were last week the latest in several hundred trainees who after a single day with me were effortlessly shooting their speeches from the hip. Though I told them that speaking without paper says all the right things about the speaker in terms of sincerity, command of the subject, etc, I should have added that it follows that speaking with paper paints you phony.

Antisemitism: civilization at a crisis point.

On 19 February, at the Central Synagogue in London, there was held in conjunction with the Henry Jackson Society, a debate on “Europe and Antisemitism – are we at a civilizational crisis point?” It is worth observing that this was just four days after a kindred gathering in Copenhagen was interrupted by a gunman who burst in, opened fire, killed two and injured five.

I first became aware of this London debate when one of the speakers, Brendan O’Neill, published on line the transcript of his opening address. Immediately I began looking out for an online video. When I found it, I found something very important.

After introductions from Chazan Steven Leas and Rabbi Barry Marcus the moderator, Alan Mendoza, explains that each of the speakers will deliver an opening address. I intend in this posting to focus just on those opening addresses, though I could not tear myself away from watching all the rest and I doubt you will either.

Brendan O’Neill [5:55 – 13:25] has been on this blog before. I have appreciated his writing for many years, never more so than recently, but in his previous posting I bemoaned his practice of reading a script. When I read the transcript of this address I noticed with satisfaction that it was written in spoken rather than written English, and I hoped that I would see him shooting it from the hip. Sadly it was not to be. He has obviously put time and trouble into improving his ability to read discreetly, dropping in the occasional “um” or “er” as camouflage, and this is presumably because he doesn’t believe he could ever do a set-piece without a script. He’s wrong. In a couple of hours I could easily have him throwing away scripts for ever, and the improvement in perceived fluency would be huge. No one else on this panel reads from a script.

For all that, this is a valuable opening shot, and it was always going to be because O’Neill is brilliant. He also has an excellent track-record on the theme of this meeting. He and his publication, Spiked Online, are the sponsors of the Free Speech Now campaign. Also in a recent article for Spiked entitled Ukiphobia: the prejudices that dare not speak their name“, in which he excoriated a recent docudrama on British TV’s Channel 4, he pointed out that in a scene depicting street violence one of the fictitious thugs was seen carrying an Israeli flag – what a pretty subliminal message!. His summary parting shot is that there need to be more young people prepared to stand up and be counted. Presumably he is not looking to the universities to provide them, metastatically infected as they are by imbecilic movements like “No Platform”.

Simone Rodan [13:30 – 18:35]. English not being her first language she enunciates it beautifully (it’s a widespread phenomenon). Therefore with absolute clarity we hear an horrendous catalogue of French statistics of antisemitic attacks, combined with official blind-eye-turning. With respect to this last, she echoes O’Neill’s observation concerning double standards in establishment terminology. If a Muslim is attacked it is “hate-crime”; if a Jew is attacked it is “inter-communal tension”. Her summary parting shot is that we are not going to make any progress till we eschew euphemisms and we name the problem.

Rodan is the only one of the four speakers to come even close to the 5-minute time allocation for these opening addresses. I was going to castigate Mendoza for lax discipline, till I realized that this panel not being adversarial none of the panelists will care.

Maajid Nawaz [18:47 – 30:21] begins by producing a smartphone, and warning the audience that he is about to play a recording that they might find disturbing. He is right to do so. It is not for me to tell you what it is, but it will chill your blood. For me Nawaz takes the blue riband at this gathering, which is saying something when the competition is so fierce. Nawaz is superb.  His articulacy, coherence and passion are outstanding.

He congratulates everyone for their courage in being present. They are all in danger. The Copenhagen atrocity was only four days earlier and had as much security as this gathering. Like Rodan he stresses the importance of naming the problem. He speaks of the “Voldemort effect” – he who must not be named. Because we are frightened of naming the threat it increases the hysteria. Islamist jihad attacks must be named as such – are you listening, Mr Obama?

Lest you have not clicked the link on his name, let me tell you that Nawaz was a convicted Islamist terrorist. Today he is no less a Muslim and campaigns fiercely against Islamist terrorism through Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank that he co-founded. Watch and listen. The audience listens in rapt silence.

Douglas Murray [30:36 – 38:51]  Nawaz finishes saying, “there’s someone far better than me waiting to speak”. I don’t blame him: Douglas Murray is formidable – and that happens to be the title of one of his previous appearances in this blog. When I first saw the lineup I summed it in my mind as O’Neill, Murray and others. That was before I heard the others. Where Murray is equipped with an articulacy that is almost surgical Nawaz has overt passion to back up his articulacy. But what the hell, this isn’t a bloody contest! –  and anyway if you are tempted to think of Murray as a bit of a cold fish you should go back and watch him while Nawaz is playing that recording.

Interestingly, being the last to speak, Murray has clearly decided not so much to prepare a set piece, as simply to trust his considerable ability, coherence and knowledge of the subject to fill in any gaps that the others have left. This makes his delivery a little halting at times, but consequently warmer than he can often appear. His own passion and sincerity come shining through. And like the others he picks up the theme of naming the threat – Islamist extremism.

That concludes the opening addresses, and there remain an hour and ten minutes of questions. I commend all of it.

At the end of my recent second post on Mordechai Kedar I listed some questions to which I had no answer. This meeting goes some way towards suggesting solutions to them. But it also does for me something far more important. In my post on Mark Steyn, just after the Paris atrocities, I described myself as a fervent believer in people. I admit to times when that fervent belief gets tested, but when I see and hear young people (they’re the same age as my sons!) courageously speaking such sense it lifts my cynical heart.

I think this video is possibly the most important one currently on YouTube.