In November 2012 The Oxford Union debated the motion The 21st Century Belongs To China. Speaking for the motion was Lord Powell, one of Britain’s most senior card-carrying members of The Great and the Good. Among other jewels in a glittering CV is the small detail of his having been Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher and John Major during their times as British Prime Minister. With that added to a career as a diplomat and a goodly fistful of non-executive directorships you could be forgiven for assuming that he knew how to construct a speech – and you’d be right. You might also assume that he would deliver immaculately – and you’d be … very close.
What a distinguished figure he cuts in that still picture! That’s how he should have looked all the time, instead of pointless periods of peering at paper.
Very good opening! He recalls references others have made that evening to Guagua Bo, says a few words in tribute to that young man’s colourful career at Oxford and elsewhere, and harvests a very good laugh. Bo’s family in China is currently going through a difficult time and Powell, that laugh gained and in his pocket, immediately turns serious for a few words. It’s very impressive, very skilled: firstly to pick up so fluently on what others have said, secondly to get a full-blown laugh so early in any speech, thirdly so smoothly to steer the decorum to the serious bit. Was it spontaneous, or was it prepared? I’m going to stick my neck out here and put my money on spontaneous.
He could very easily have prepared the section, based on his previous occasion in this hall having been with Bo, and then opportunistically pasted on the front of it his reference to others having that evening spoken of him. So why am I suspecting away from that? It’s because of what comes next.
He gets to the matter in hand and points to how academic the debate is because no one in the hall will be around at the end of the century to verify its conclusions – “…even though you’re all extremely young, with the exception of David Tang and me”. That last is asking for a small laugh and doesn’t get one because it’s very slightly miss-timed. Within less than half a minute, therefore, one joke gets a huge laugh and another dies. A skilled and experienced speaker’s comedy timing is very often surer by instinct than by design, and I think the first was spontaneous instinct and the second design. I could be wrong.
Powell operates a well-conceived tripartite structure, not unlike a Tripod, making his message coherent and digestible. He furnishes his audience with a clear Contents Page, telling them what he’s going to tell them before telling them. There is really not a great deal that he doesn’t know about preparing material, though I’d have liked the speech to have had a Face to give it memorability.
He also has command of small details that distinguish true masters of the craft. At 3:37, for instance, he mimes a steep growth graph and he casually does it in mirror image – in other words the graph is the wrong way round for him but the right way round for the audience.
I have just two niggles, one tiny and pedantic and the other more fundamental. Let’s first get the small one out of the way: at 0:55 he commits a grammatical error that jars this pedant’s sensibilities. The more fundamental niggle is in the second sentence below the video frame above. Powell is a consummate shooter-from-the-hip, yet every so often his face goes pointlessly down to his papers on the dispatch box. From the 2-minute mark for instance there’s half a minute where this happens often. In none of these periods can I find any trace of material that he might of necessity read; therefore I conclude that he has adopted this as a sort of pensive-pose that he assumes from time to time. I find it a pity because it is entirely unnecessary and it temporarily robs him of slices of his audience engagement.
He’s a stunning speaker in every aspect. He has gravitas with humour, and combines lovely use of language with a willingness to season it with occasional slang (who’d have expected him to use a term like ‘slam-dunk’?). His material is copy-book in preparation and he plays his audience like a musical instrument. I’d just like him to adopt another pensive-pose.