Stephen Fry: a study in futile pontification

I happened upon the following uploading on Upworthy, entitled

Stephen Fry Takes A Firm Stance On Grammar. He Doesn’t Go The Way You’d Think.

Stephen Fry has carved himself a public image for Being Clever, and good luck to him: we all have to eat. However irritating I may find his persona should not (and will not) bother him one jot.

Essentially what this six-and-a-half minutes is all about is that language pedantry is tiresome, pointless and indicative of all sorts of negative characteristics pertaining to the pedant. Before you start jumping up and down wanting to cite the numerous times he has pompously put down panellists on his TV programme, QI, when their syntax was in his judgement less than flawless, I have to tell you that he has got that angle covered.

Oh yes, he declares, he used to be like that; but he grew out of it.

With a deft little flick of his rhetorical wrist he paints himself perfect. He knows all the rules better than you do, has decided from henceforth to apply them only selectively, and if you don’t follow his lead you are a fossil.

If you haven’t yet judged by my tone allow me to make it clear that I find this pontification tedious, not least because it is itself a form of pedantry.  It seeks to replace one set of rules with yet another. Furthermore it is shallow pedantry, not just because it is a case of the silly and superficial masquerading as the profound but because it chooses to be blind to the market mechanisms that govern the growth and development of language.

As with so many things there is a tension between those who would change everything and those who would change nothing. These two extremes need each other: the one drives the change the other applies the brake. Somewhere between them is the course on which our language will progress. The brake is the Devil’s advocate that ensures that only the best of what is new prevails.

Anyone who arrogates the role of arbiter of acceptability is being just plain dumb, because it’s futile. The market will make its decisions, and those decisions will be right. Millions of verbal transactions between speakers of the language will result in fostering and pruning of words and phrases and syntactical patterns, and so the language grows. It really is as simple as that. Those who love the language should watch and enjoy the game, rather than trying to dictate it.

Q. Who led the Pedants’ Revolt?

A. Which Tyler.

Julia Gillard rants

As I write, Australia is enjoying – if that’s the word – its first day with a new prime minister. Kevin Rudd should perhaps be more accurately described as a discredited old prime minister that they dragged out to try to salvage the wreckage from policies that he initiated and Julia Gillard exacerbated. That at least is my understanding from a long way away, and it could very easily be wrong. This morning in Britain, on the BBC Today programme, Alastair Campbell, newly returned from a book-promotion visit to Australia, summarised the happenings with all the balance you would expect from Tony Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief. In the process he mentioned Gillard’s famous ‘misogynist’ speech, which he described as brilliant. Shall we see?

The background, as I understand it, to this speech is that the Speaker, Peter Slipper, has committed a gaffe in the form of an extremely off-colour sexist text message. Mechanisms for disciplining and possibly removing him are in motion, but Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, has demanded his instant removal. Slipper and Abbott are old friends and former parliamentary allies, but Slipper has changed political allegiance and is now part of Gillard’s minuscule majority. Abbott’s haste therefore appears to be opportunistic.

Not for the first time I find myself watching a political speech with incredulity. My niche is business speaking, where every second costs money. Every political second costs money also, but it’s other people’s so it doesn’t matter. Here we have fifteen minutes of ranting, a self-indulgent grievance-fest, that could easily have been wrapped up in two – and been far more effective for it.

Should I be impressed that she shot it all from the hip, referring to paper only for the quotations? No: any politician should be able to do that. Should I luxuriate in the anaphora that begins at 7:00 and then morphs into an extended polysyndeton? No: it merely adds to the turgid verbosity. There’s another anaphora at 11:00 and yet another at 12:20 – ho-hum!

This is school playground stuff, couched in parliamentary language; and politicians wonder why the electorate is more and more holding them in contempt. Alastair Campbell is easily pleased.

Roger Kimball – full of wise saws and modern instances

Ever since I read his book, The Fortunes of PermanenceI’ve wanted to find out whether Roger Kimball speaks as well as he writes. That book is a series of essays, collected around a loose narrative, and his writing is of a quality that makes you luxuriate in it.  With Wikipedia claiming that he lectures widely, I felt it should be easy enough to find an example. As often happens I found plenty of examples of interviews, but almost no speeches. Here is one to the Alexander Hamilton Institute.

This not so much a speech, or even a lecture. It is more the presentation of a paper. Roger Kimball is being a talking head. There have been other examples on this blog of people whose writing is outstanding, but who seem unable or unwilling to change to the conventions, skill and language of speech. I immediately think of Brendan O’Neill and Mark Steyn. But this is somehow different, and the reason is in something I mentioned earlier. He is presenting a paper, and it can be argued that this is an activity with different ground rules. Furthermore, his market buys it: you could hear a pin drop in that audience (except when he gets a laugh from them).

Look at the progress bar on that embedded video and you will think you are in for a long haul; but though it is long it is not the 1 hour and 17 minutes as shown. He starts at the 10 minute mark, after a fulsome introduction by Professor Robert Paquette, and ends two minutes past the hour: the rest is questions.

Speaking of timing, here’s a note to everyone who organises events with speeches. Have a clock that is working, correct and visible from the lectern.  Kimball is professional enough to remove his watch and place it on the lectern, but he should not have had to.

The speech is entitled Numismatics and Limited Government. What have coins to do with limited government? He explains, beginning at around 13:15.

The main body of the speech is a tripartite study of the function of government, and the three headings are Democracy, Equality and Freedom. It is a beautifully elegant piece of writing, delivered in cool, calm, measured tones, but it is not a speech.

It could have been. It could easily have been shot from the hip. Some of the supremely elegant phrasing might have gone missing (though I am by no means convinced of that), but the trade-off would have been a version of the message that was driven by a more transparent conviction. I know the conviction is there, having read that book. The audience is likewise convinced – they have gone there to hear him. But I’d like to see him sway a sceptical audience, and I don’t think he’d have done so with this performance.

At 37:10 he swings into the saddle of a hobby horse that I remember having read. “Benevolence,” he claims, “flatters the vanity of those who espouse it…It is the heroin of The Enlightened, because it is intoxicating, addictive, expensive and ruinous.” Now that’s the sort of concept that takes some selling in today’s political climate, and it needs a particular brand of energy to have a hope of prevailing. It’s the sort of energy that can only be shot from the hip.

Sir David Tang, the bruiser magnate

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord Powell, Stefan Halper, and Lord Wei. Today it is the turn of Sir David Tang who spoke against the motion.

Sir David begins by going straight for Lord Powell’s jugular (metaphorically, you understand). He has evidently been sitting seething since Lord Powell made some assertions during his speech. Lord Powell in his turn leaps up to defend himself, but Sir David refuses to relinquish the floor till he has finished making both his points. Eventually Lord Powell is able to refute or clarify, and an uneasy peace resumes.

What we have witnessed in this episode is a battle of cultures, and I do not mean East versus West. I mean magnate versus mandarin. Now that I write it I immediately see that I am still ambiguous given the Chinese origins of the term ‘mandarin’, so let me make completely clear what I mean. Sir David is a very successful businessman who has thrived and developed his communication skills in the sometimes brutally tough market place. He is the magnate. Lord Powell by contrast has thrived and developed his communication skills in the equally brutal, but outwardly silky, corridors of the civil service mandarinate. Bruiser versus fencer!  I know which I favour, but anyway I find those two and a half minutes fascinating to watch.

The opening episode concluded, we have seen the last of Sir David’s ability to do without his script. Regular readers will sigh and prepare to move on, because of the wearisome repetition of this theme in my blog; but in this case we are looking at something subtly different. Usually I look to highlight occasions when the speaker’s eyes lift from the paper and a heightened coherence manifests itself for a few seconds. Sir David is an extremely rare example of one who actually gets bogged down and tongue-tied when not reading. During that opening exchange his eloquence was driven by passion, so he shot very effectively from the hip. Now that his ire has cooled he absolutely needs his script.

Lest anyone be rash enough to suggest that therefore all he has to do is get angry, I hasten to quote Ambrose Bierce –

Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

He is not a very young man, though younger than I, so I suspect that it is frequent practice that has made him so much more comfortable with a script than without. If he came to me could I sever that dependency? Ye-e-e-e-s, but it would be much more difficult than usual – usually it is easy. And why should he bother when he has learnt to handle paper so well? I don’t merely refer to his delivery: the idiomatic syntax with which his script is written lends itself to very expressive speaking. He really is the exception that proves my no-paper rule.

He delivers humour dead-pan and well. He harvests a few well-deserved and well-timed laughs, but you actually find yourself wondering whether he meant to be funny. It is not till he sits down and shares broad, relaxed smiles with his confederates, that you are permitted a glimpse of his own humour.

In conclusion, though I would enjoy tinkering here and there, I rather think I prefer just to sit and listen to him.

Eben Upton – like a big puppy!

Eben Upton spoke at the Poptech conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in June 2012, narrating the conception, gestation and birth of Raspberry Pi. The perceptive reader will notice that I have already supplied links that will tell you more about Poptech and Eben Upton; but I have not done so for Raspberry Pi. Is this because I am loftily expecting you already to know all about it? No, it is because if Upton’s speech does its job you shouldn’t need to be told more. Shall we see if it does?

I am delighted to tell you that he shoots the whole thing from the hip so, my not being diverted into moaning about paper, I can actually examine the speech itself.

  • He begins by producing two Raspberry Pis and tossing them into the audience, inviting people to look at them. It’s not a run-of-the-mill opening, and as such will be mildly memorable
  • At 0.55 he begins a contents page. It’s an excellent principle, but needs to be very clear. I can’t even tell how many elements it contains, because some things seem to be subdivisions of other things.
  • He speaks very rapidly. Some people naturally do, but this strikes me as exacerbated by nerves. It’s almost as if he is apologising for being there. His enunciation is appalling.
  • For around 6 minutes, from 2:00 to 8:00 he explains that generations of kids that followed his generation were culturally less drawn to learning how to programme computers. It didn’t need 6 minutes.
  • His barely intelligible gabbling makes him diffiult to follow, even for me who also programmed computers in the 80s.
  • He’s finally discussing the product in the ninth minute and, if I hadn’t done some research earlier, I would have a job understanding what on earth he’s talking about.
  • The narrative continues for 18 minutes through to the awkwardly meteoric success of the product (awkward because of the huge demand they had somehow to meet).

There is a very important word in that last bullet point – ‘narrative’. Upton is actually close to being very good with this speech. Rambling, manic and often incoherent though the speech might be we can follow that part of it we can discern because it has a narrative. It also makes it easy for him to dispense with paper, because he always knows where he is going.

The speech is like an eager puppy, running in all directions at once in a skin that’s too big for it. It needs a little sober thinking-through, pulling-together and tightening. Puppies that behave like that are excited and nervous at the same time – and so is Upton. His mindset is insecure, even though he’s narrating a story he lived. He has all the natural talent – and attractive ebullience – to be a first-class speaker, but the talent is in danger of going nowhere.  And as for his diction…!

At the beginning he did actually lay out his stall. He held up a Raspberry Pi before throwing it into the audience. He explained that he hoped it would teach children … what? If you’ve watched the speech you can probably answer that now, but did you hear the words at the time? Go to 0:12 for the answer, and you may have to listen more than once.

Very shortly after that he jokes, while throwing these things into the audience, that he’s been on a presentation skills course. I sincerely hope that is a joke.

Imran Khan has huge charisma; but he needs a little tuition

In February 2013 Imran Khan addressed the Oxford Union.

There is an introduction from Adnan Rafiq. It ends at 3:45, and Khan begins speaking at 4:08.  The intervening 23 seconds is filled by ecstatic applause. This is from an audience too young ever to have watched him play cricket; but then the man does ooze charisma. My wife (who is old enough to have watched him play cricket) peered over my shoulder and remarked on how good looking he still is. I shall try nevertheless not to hate him too much to be dispassionate about his speaking.

Immediately I give him credit for shooting the speech from the hip. He could do it better, but at least he is doing it.

Let’s examine how he could have done it better. After a little too much preamble (about which I shall say more later) he launches the main thrust of the speech at 5:25. He does it with the single word, “Leadership”, and then proceeds to define it. He aims to operate a  tripartite structure by giving three essential qualities for leadership –

  • Vision
  • Conquering of fear
  • Integrity

That would be excellent except that he contrives that each of those elements has subdivisions and qualifications that muddy the clarity, not just for the audience but for himself – he slightly loses the thread a couple of times. This vision, he says, should be selfless; courage should involve a degree of self-criticism; and lastly he tends to confuse integrity with credibility (the one is purely moral, the other can be concerned with skill). Suddenly therefore the definition of leadership is not tripartite but manifold. He needs to revisit his three sections, slightly re-define and re-title them so as to encompass the qualifications and thereby achieve the tripartite aspect that he evidently was seeking.

He follows all that with a section that can best be described as ethos. He talks about his cricketing experience and the leadership that is required of a team captain. He narrates the battle he had, building a cancer hospital in Pakistan. He speaks about how he refused to compromise his principles for self-advancement, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but the mistake here is that his ethos is following his argument, whereas it must precede it, because ethos should be an underpinning to provide the platform on which the argument stands. You could justifiably claim that Imran Khan has such a high public profile that he doesn’t need ethos to give his arguments credibility, but that is not an argument for putting ethos in the wrong place: it’s an argument for leaving it out.

So this is an overview of the layout of his speech.

  1. Preamble – principally Thankings, and with some slightly sentimental references to his sons being in the audience. Just over one and a quarter minutes of it.
  2. His definitions of Leadership
  3. His ethos.

I would either lose the ethos completely on the grounds of redundancy as argued above or I would slip little illustrative anecdotes into the three elements that define leadership.

And I would put the thankings somewhere else.

But where? Ay there’s the rub! Thankings are often overwhelmingly appropriate and we have to find somewhere for them. On the other hand bald openings are so powerful, that it is a terrible pity when your opening is forced to follow something else. If, for example, there is a formal greeting – “Your Royal Highnesses, my Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen…” then there is no way out. But thankings can be inserted towards the end…

“Finally, I’d like to say how much I appreciate having been given the chance to come here today. Your committee has been wonderfully welcoming… etc.”

Since this speech was delivered, he had that dreadful accident during his political campaign when he fell from a hoist. As I write, that was just over a month ago and he is now out of hospital. I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. 

Javed Akhtar introduces a debate.

In early April I critiqued a speech by the brilliant Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, made at the 2008 India Today Conclave.  He was preceded by Javed Akhtar whose speech we shall examine today.

Contrary to the still picture you see there, this is the right video. Javed Akhtar, as an award-winning scriptwriter and lyricist is not exactly obscure and he has spoken at this conclave in previous years, but on this occasion he is the chairman for a debate between two other speakers – and the first of them is pictured above. What Akhtar has to do is set the scene, and that is not an obvious or simple task.

Is he just a glorified warm-up man? He could be. Is he just an animated menu, a face and voice to tell you what to expect? He could be. This is one of those functions that simply becomes what you decide to make it. Like so much else that happens on a speaking platform it is not a case of what is right or wrong but what can be made to work. Whatever else he does, he is responsible for establishing the decorum

He starts at 1:00 and finishes at 10:15. He begins with his own ethos. Much of this involves references to people and matters that presumably resonate with the audience but to which we are not privy; so having identified it as ethos I shall move on.

The debate centres around the question, “Is spirituality relevant to leadership?” From 3:40 Akhtar addresses the question without trying to answer it because that is the job of the subsequent speakers. Shooting from the hip he flags up questions as to what leadership and spirituality are. I can’t fault that.

Nor can I fault the way he delivers it. He speaks slowly and has the confidence to deal in long pregnant pauses which are highly effective. He also demonstrates how you can convey intensity without volume – he has moments of pouring high-octane energy through very quiet passages. It’s a very effective technique.

When listing the supposed qualities of leadership and spirituality he uses both asyndeton and polysyndeton. He also drops a small anaphora into the mix at one point. I repeat that this is all unscripted, so it becomes clear that here we are watching a very skilled, literate and articulate speaker.

And as I declared at the beginning this function of introducing a debate becomes what you make it. The verdict on his performance therefore hangs on the question of whether this short speech works. I think it certainly does, and it also lays down a very good decorum. Job done.