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.

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