Jodie Foster – a speech analysed by everyone else

So there I was yesterday evening, settling down in the cinema to watch Quartet (a lovely film, by the way). As part of the pre-performance routine I dug out the mobile to switch it off, and happened to see that I had an e-mail from Rick Turner, CEO of Empiricom Technologies, a past trainee.  He is a regular reader of this blog.  He wondered whether I had spotted that in The Guardian online edition someone had done a speech critique along the lines of one of mine?  Furthermore he’d even copied my habit of identifying things like anaphora and polysyndeton!  My immediate reaction was that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, and that I would have a look in the morning.

It was only when I finally had the offending item on the screen, flexing my fingers to tear into it, that I discovered the interloper’s identity.  The critique is written by Sam Leith, author of the excellent You Talkin’ To Me?  I carry the book around with me in e-edition.  Its subtitle is Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.  Though his writing style is light and enjoyable, the book is less for the casual student of speaking; more for sad gits like me. You think that in this blog I sometimes overdo the smart-arse words for figures of speech? His book takes it much further.  I’ve a suspicion that we could bore at Olympic level, arguing over the difference between occultatio and occupatio and whether the former should more correctly be called paralipsis or whether indeed that word should more correctly be spelled paralepsis.  Wake up at the back!

Let’s turn to Jodie Foster. It is not the sort of speech that I would habitually study, as my niche is very specifically the business world and not only is this not a business speech but there’s not a great deal for business speakers to learn from it. She is accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes a couple of days ago. Here it is.

If you clicked on the link a couple of paragraphs back to read Leith’s critique, you will have seen a video embedded there also. They are slightly different. I have used the YouTube posting. The version that The Guardian has on its site is somewhat cut down. The most telling cutting is at the beginning: they removed the first minute and three quarters. That’s why Jodie Foster seemed to have no hump. In even the full version the hump is brilliantly hidden. She busts it very effectively by waving her arms and repeatedly shouting, “I’m fifty!” That sort of device is very effective, though your audience might get slightly bewildered if you stuck that on the front of a presentation to launch your third quarter results. The Guardian’s video not only excised the hump, it also spared us the eternal, schmaltzy, Hollywood-imperative Thankings. Therefore, apart from the neat hump-busting I rather prefer the cut-down version.

After delivering a hugely important presentation, when you are sitting, running through it in your mind, how would you like the version offered to posterity to have all the boring bits cut out?  Ah, wouldn’t we all!  And if subsequently on the website of a national newspaper there appeared critiques by Sam Leith and also another of their contributors – Patrick Strudwick – wouldn’t it be great if they were both working with the judiciously pruned version?  And then Brian – the bastard – comes along and shows warts and all!

You will have noticed that, apart from the hump, I haven’t critiqued the speech. Why should I, when Sam Leith has done such a comprehensive job?  I say that without any irony. He’d be welcome to write a guest posting here any day.

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