Mark Steyn – brilliant, but he must tend to the spoke not to the wrote.

Mark Steyn is a Canadian journalist. He is a contrarian that actually believes in freedom and democracy, rather than the cushioned cages offered by the world’s fashionable western bureaucracies.

On 29 February, 2012 he was speaking at a meeting of the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

English as she is spoke and English as she is wrote are subtly different languages. One of these days I shall write a full-scale essay on the subject; but for now I’d just like to return to a theme that I have oft – that’s apocope, if you’re interested – oft explored concerning a speaker being a talking head.

Steyn is reading his speech. He doesn’t read all of it: now and then his face addresses the room and he goes off on one. When he does, the speech comes alive. The rest of the time it comparatively lacks oomph.

On other occasions in this blog I’ve highlighted a range of advantages to constructing your speech in such a fashion that you have a clear enough mind-map for you to shoot the whole thing from the hip –

  • Audiences love it
  • It frees you to adjust the material on the hoof
  • If your face isn’t forever looking down, you are less likely to pop your microphone
  • It says all the right things about your command of the subject, confidence, sincerity, spontaneity,
  • It forces you to structure the material in a format that you can remember, and as a byproduct you make it easier for your audience to digest.
  • etc.

This speech is only 35 minutes long, and if he had been taught how to do it Steyn could easily have shot it all from the hip.

I’d like to add to that list of bullet-points another factor that comes into play here. It amounts to a challenge. I suggested earlier that there was a lingual difference between written and spoken English. I contend that you can close your eyes, listen to Steyn, and know when he is speaking and when he is reading. There’s a difference in the rhythm, the intensity, the sheer energy that comes out of the words. There’s even a difference in the words. This is where those who have been taught, or taught themselves, skilfully to handle paper too often fail.

Mark Steyn handles paper better than Brendan O’Neill and less well than Boris; but till he finds himself having to make a range of different speeches, day after day, it’s a wasted, indeed counter-productive skill. The skill he needs is learning to do without, and it continues to amaze me how few have it. In nearly fifty postings on this blog barely a handful of speakers have delivered without paper.

He writes brilliantly. He speaks very well, but less brilliantly. If he would only learn how to speak without paper, and trust himself to do it, his speaking would rise to the quality of his writing.

I will admit that there are occasions where it is appropriate, in fact better, to read the material. If you are quoting someone else at length, then by all means unashamedly do that from paper. I mention this because there is just such an example in this speech. At 9:35 Steyn quotes David Icke in an hilarious section that I would not have missed for anything.

In fact, I would not have missed the whole speech. It is brilliant; but particularly when he shoots from the hip.

P.S. [added 14/3/13] Since posting this, I have seen several instances of Steyn speaking without paper. He can do it. So why did he not do it here? I can only assume that he felt this high-profile event required greater security. That’s a mistake: paperless speaking, properly prepared, is actually more secure than its scripted equivalent.

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