Stefan Halper – another talking head

At the Oxford Union Debate on the motion The 21st Century Belongs to China Stefan Halper opposed the motion.

I have very often rehearsed the arguments against reading a speech.  For three examples I did it here, and here and here. I should love therefore to avoid today dwelling on that aspect of this speech, but I simply cannot. Once again we find ourselves listening to styles of wording, phrasing and syntax which could have been excellent if read but which are stilted, awkward and clumsy when spoken. My frustration in all this is that we deal here not with someone who is of low intelligence or narrowly educated, but quite the reverse. Has he not noticed, when attending speeches delivered by others, how much better it sounds when they shoot their delivery from the hip?

This conundrum continues to perplex me. He must have noticed! All I can therefore conclude is that either he believes he can read more fluently than his talking-head peers, or he assumes that the ability to speak without notes is a divine gift bestowed only upon a chosen few. Both of those are fallacies. The stilted nature of speech from a talking-head has almost nothing to do with reading ability, and very little to do with writing ability (though you can learn to write better in the spoken idiom). As for the divine-gift fallacy, after the decades I have been teaching public speaking I am still waiting for the first trainee who fails to discover that they belong to the ‘chosen few’.

If you’ve been taught properly, shooting a speech from the hip is more fluent, more engaging, more convincing, more secure and much quicker to prepare. But still they don’t! Still they labour for hours over a script and then sound like railway station announcers.

Halper has so much going for him. He is suitably opinionated, knows his subject well enough to back up those opinions, and so on. He is an author you want to read, and he could in a single morning be transformed into also an inspiring speaker.

Watch from the 5-minute mark. Can you believe that page-turn hiatus?  Stick with it a little longer and we reach a pleasing, though halting, anaphora, built on the word, “Stop…” (though he inexplicably corrupts the anaphora by changing to “cease…” for the fourth element of the series) and then at the 5:30 mark he stumbles over the word, “willingly…”. There’s half a minute that he could utter flawlessly a hundred times with no problem at all, yet here he makes a right, royal meal of it – and only because he is handicapping himself by reading it.

What he has to say is actually very interesting. You may – like me – have to watch it a few times to realise that. Pity his live audience that did not have that chance.

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