The Dalai Lama needs a screwdriver…

Read biographies of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama and you will be told of his many lecture tours and of his inspirational speaking. I have spent some time seeking out his pronouncements and, although I have discovered some excellent aphorisms, actual speeches on line in English are relatively rare. In Tokyo on 6 November, 2012, he addressed an audience of Japanese scientists to open a two-day dialogue on “Buddhist Inner Science and External Science”. He was speaking in English, and begins at 3:20.

For a man whose life is dedicated to matters of the spirit, HH is famously fascinated by mechanical matters. It is said that when he was a boy he repaired a movie projector without the aid of a manual. To this day he repairs watches for a hobby, and has been quoted as declaring that had he not been a monk he would have liked to have been an engineer. I mention this because if I were advising him I would tap into that interest.

He needs to understand and follow a relatively simple range of speaking principles that are – as it were – mechanical.

My admittedly sketchy impression of his life is one of being publicly fawned upon while privately retreating into contemplation, meditation and deep thought. In that latter environment ideas and concepts fly on strong wings unhampered by the need for articulation; but then taking them and trying to deliver them to an audience by merely voicing a stream of consciousness is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

The trouble is that no one among the fawning courtiers appears to have told him.

Dare I say that this speech is excruciatingly boring? We can’t blame it on a slight language barrier; others cope with that better. It’s partly those huge pauses which are not dramatic flavour-enhancers but more a case of “what shall I say next?” or “how am I going to put this next bit?”. Mostly I think it’s the flitting around disjointed themes with all the agility of a butterfly on crutches.

There’s no discernible narrative, or if there is I lost it on one of the numerous times I dropped off; and without that thread the audience’s attention is as manipulable as a herd of cats.

For me this is a speaking disaster, made particularly frustrating because all the best ingredients are there. He has masses to say that deserves to be said: he scorns paper: he has the inner calm that nearly everyone else craves. Oh for three hours with him! In that time I could transform his speaking beyond recognition, without compromising any of that lovely, jolly, avuncular character.

I need to go and lie down in a darkened room!

Ron Finley plays a blinder.

I came across this TED TALK. The speaker is Ron Finley. He’s a fashion designer.

Before the greeting applause has died down comes the first sentence. “I live in South Central”. That’s ethos if I want you to look at my glossary page. And the ethos continues till we reach a glorious pair of sentences,

South Central Los Angeles, home of the drive-through and the drive-by. The funny thing is the drive-throughs are killing more people than the drive-bys…

This man has grabbed my interest by the throat, and satisfies my curiosity immediately by explaining that the biggest killer in his neighbourhood is obesity.

So the story unfolds, and the beauty is that it is a story. How I urge people to build a speech on a structure that creates a narrative thread! It makes it much easier to deliver and much more digestible to receive.

Needless to say, Finley shoots this entirely from the hip – look at the empty hands in that picture! – and restricts his visual slides to only those that will enhance the narrative. The speech is around 10 minutes long (the last minute is a message from the sponsor). It’s a beautiful and exemplary piece of speaking; and rather than steal any more of your time I’d prefer to let you simply enjoy it.

Except … I really can’t resist doffing my rhetor hat long enough to observe that this story gives the lie to the fiction we are frequently fed by officialdom and their cheerleaders in the media, namely that The State and Society are one and the same. Here we have a story of a community bypassing officialdom, and helping itself in a manner that is positive, logical, beautiful and which officialdom vehemently opposed till they saw votes in it.


Diana, Princess of Wales. A study in confidence.

HRH Charles Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer were married on 29 July, 1981. It is an easy date for me to remember because my second child was due to be born then at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and we were given a special telephone number to use in order to get a police escort through the huge crowds if necessary. In the event my son announced his arrival just before dawn two days later, and we drove to the hospital through deserted streets.

Nearly eight years later on 18 May, 1989, Princess Diana made a speech for the charity, Turning Point. The subject was what was then called substance abuse.

The princess starts speaking at 1:58. You will want to go straight there, because the introduction by Nick Ross is virtually inaudible and anyway chopped up and garbled in this video (which is a relief because the little we can hear is not as good as a professional should be).

Too much of this speech is a copybook example of ghastly talking-headism and also dreadful over-enunciation. She is reading a script to which she may have applied some editing, but which she almost certainly didn’t write because she is evidently unhappy with much of the phrasing. The script is mainly in written, rather than spoken, English; she is reading it very badly with much of the phrasing and emphases wildly awry; too much of her enunciation sounds as if every – word – came – individually – wrapped; and apparently no one among her armies of advisers even knew how she should manipulate the actual paper. It is disastrous; I feel very sorry for her, and want to give her advisers a good kicking.

Now let us fast-forward to 7 December 1995. The most telling context to that date is that less than two weeks later Buckingham Palace announced that The Queen had urged Charles and Diana to divorce. This time she is at Centrepoint, speaking about homelessness.

What a difference! From the bald opening onwards this is much more impressive.

Yes, it is still scripted, but I reckon she wrote this one personally because she is far more comfortable with the phrasing – so much so that she looks at it only fleetingly. It surges with passionate energy. She surges with passionate energy. Gone is the simpering bird in a gilded cage, we now welcome a new confidence. This is a woman not to be messed with. Look at the strength that emanates even from her eyes: she means what she is saying.

There’s a strong 10-element anaphora (“Young people …”) that begins at 1:00 and periodically permeates the rest of a good and telling speech.

The principle agent working for her here is her inner confidence, twinned with passion. I call it inner confidence, because it is more rational than mere bravado. Unless underpinned with some technical know-how confidence and passion can too easily be foolhardiness. I see areas where she needed a little more technical know-how, but let’s not quibble. This was very good.

The Duchess of Cambridge

In March 2012, the news media bubbled with excitement over Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge having made her first public speech. The venue was one of East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices. HRH is patron of EACH.

The next time you are about to climb to your feet to deliver a speech, and you sense the familiar onset of your Hump, spare a thought for one who knew for certain that the slightest slip of any sort would generate a media feeding frenzy.

Regular readers might be expecting me to claim that I could cause her not to need that script, and ’tis true: I could. They might be expecting me to claim that without paper she would be less nervous and therefore safer, and ’tis true: she would. Neither she nor her advisers would have agreed to depend upon that assurance under these circumstances, and I wouldn’t blame them. But she has one key glance at the script that is a sad mistake.

If HRH was not suffering inner turmoil when she began it would be very surprising. I have mentioned before in this blog that when you are very nervous – and The Hump is just such a time – it is desperately difficult to look at the audience. HRH manages it with sweeps of her gaze over the first half of her first sentence, but then her eyes drop to her script.  The whole sentence reads,

You have all made me feel so welcome * and I feel hugely honoured to be here to see this wonderful centre.

The * indicates where her eyes dropped. The trouble is that the drop of her eyes carries an implication of the words, “it says here”. Could she not have managed to utter that sentence without being prompted from the script? Of course she could, but that is not why she looked down. She looked down because her eyes needed momentarily to escape from the audience.

It’s an excellent and appropriate opening sentence; and I have no doubt that she absolutely means it.  Under the circumstances she manages very well with the amount of audience-look she achieves, but it’s not quite enough.

So what could have been done?

If I had worked with her on this, I think I would have taken that opening sentence and moved it to the end. It would work at least as powerfully as a closing sentence, and with a much more manageable stress level by then she would not have needed to look away. Opening with how much she would have liked William to have been there with her would have been just as charming as it was as a second sentence, and her eyes escaping to her script would not have devalued it. She would still have had the same springboard from the laugh that the sentence drew, and by the time she reached that closing sentence she would be a veteran of two minutes of very strong speech.

All in all it was as fine an effort as I would expect from a Marlburian.

I am conscious that any second now HRH is due to become a mum. If the league table of stressful activities is any guide, that delivery will be, in a way, less of an ordeal than was delivering this speech. As I said at the beginning none of the rest of us have such a perilous downside risk of failure; but I shall shortly be examining a speech by one who did.

HRH’s mother-in-law.

Malala Yousafzai – remarkable!

Four days ago on 12 July – her 16th birthday – Malala Yousafzai, wearing a shawl that had belonged to Benazir Bhutto, delivered a speech to the United Nations. On 9 October 2012, along with two classmates, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen, wanting to suppress the education of girls. I am reluctant to use terms like ‘icon’, still less ‘poster-girl’, but undeniably she quickly became a symbol for a struggle for freedom against forces of terrorism. Western governments and media seized her story; she was flown to Birmingham, UK, and treated in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The shooting incident did not parachute her from nowhere onto the world’s stage. Nor was the speech to the UN her first. She had blogged anonymously and spoken publicly for some years about the drive for education for Moslem girls. She had chaired public meetings, made videos. She featured in a 2009 TV documentary about The Taliban’s attempts to close down her school; and this public profile undoubtedly had something to do with her school van having been sprayed with bullets that day last October.

Immediately I have to marvel at the extraordinary assurance she shows in the opening minute. She has learnt how to convey confidence by opening with a very measured pace. She perfectly reflects the decorum of the setting. The only incongruity, if I might nit-pick, is in the words, “I don’t know where to begin my speech”. Oh yes she does!

At that second the camera cuts to three people sitting in reserved seats. In the middle is Ziauddin, her father; so I assume the others to be her brother and mother. I think we are observing whence this speech came. I don’t mean they wrote it for her or coached its delivery, though they may have made contributions; but we see the family unit that provided the nature, nurture and support that has put an astonishing degree of fire in this young belly, steel in her backbone and eloquence in her tongue. We can no more than guess at the constant peril in which they live at home in Pakistan.

Did I say steel in her backbone? Listen to the defiant auxesis with which she declaims from 4:35 that the bullets ignited thousands of voices in support of her campaign. Did I suggest that she knew exactly what she was doing in preparing this speech? Listen to the epistrophe that begins at 5:31, or the anaphora at 7:31

Does she know how to work a crowd? Listen to, and marvel at, the list of her heroes beginning at 6:30. That is a lesson in inclusivity. The list concludes with her parents and could be desperately saccharine, even emetic, in less skilful hands.

Her enunciation is excellent. Never does she sound over fastidious, yet every word gets across. At 9:03 the word “asked” has both the ‘k’ and the ‘d’ discreetly and effortlessly yet clearly uttered. She is really very good indeed.

If bullets do not silence her she has a distinguished future, but what will be the nature of that distinction? If I were to pray for her it would be for the wisdom of Solomon. As with the fictitious Dictator’s Speech by Charlie Chaplin that I critiqued a few weeks ago she, her talent and her message could be used to support many creeds and philosophies, not all of them benign though plausible and backed by immense political strength.

She will need that fire; she will need that steel; she will need that eloquence; she will need that wisdom.

Sir Christopher Hum – brilliant!

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 PowellStefan HalperLord WeiSir David Tang and Linda Yueh. Today we conclude our coverage of this debate with Sir Christopher Hum, who spoke against the motion.

Let us never forget, when we are examining a speech in a debate, that we are eaves-dropping on a rhetorical contest being conducted before a live audience that will subsequently vote. The speakers’ various arguments (and demeanour) are therefore aimed specifically at those in the hall. Now let us look at one of Sir Christopher’s first sentences,

We’re not engaged in some sort of confrontation between the panda-huggers and the enemies of China.

He has painted himself as emollient, reasonable and funny. He has laid down a clear and clever decorum. The camera cuts to the opposing team who are smiling. Are they amused at the panda-hugger term or are the smiles a wry acknowledgement that this is a formidable foe? Within seconds he obliquely insinuates a reference to his term as British Ambassador to China, than which you would be hard pressed to find a more powerful sinological ethos. Imagine how he has seized the attention of the students in that hall! And now imagine the glow of delight that began to steal over me as I watched.

This man is brilliant.

It seems almost superfluous to highlight the elegant extended anaphora that begins at 1:30 (“a China which …”). The speech is littered with such classical figures of speech.

It seems barely necessary to point out how often he harvests really good laughs from his audience without even acknowledging them. He throws away all his gags, thus permitting his audience to laugh or not as they wish. The only thing he demands from them is their attention. That’s a signal of strength and security, and audiences love it.

There is a slight downside to that strategy; audiences don’t always get the dryest gags as they fly by. They didn’t get, “too much extrapolation makes you blind”. It didn’t matter because he never implied that he was trying to be funny.

If you are a regular reader you may be waiting for me to criticise his use of paper. That is not a script merely notes and, except for a very few occasions when in danger of losing his thread, he doesn’t really use them. Better structure would have rendered it almost redundant, but not entirely. At one point he reads a quote, which is one of those occasions that I regard paper as permissible – even desirable (for reasons that would take too long to explain here). When the paper is in his hand it is incidental, and barely more than something with which to gesture. The important thing is that he is using spoken, as distinct from written, English. The very first word that follows his formal greeting is, “um”.

Some might be horrified by that word, but it is a hallmark of spontaneity. Audiences love spontaneity. Perfection generates suspicion. Imperfection reassures, if only subliminally. It is like the imperfections that add value to natural, as opposed to cultured, pearls. This speech has value-adding imperfections. At one point Sir Christopher utters the word “economy” when he means “environment”. Does he correct himself?  No, he smoothly continues, and I doubt that anyone in the hall noticed.

If he’d been my trainee I’d want to revisit his structure with him to make his narrative thread more secure, but otherwise I’d be as proud as a peacock.

Danny Dorling – a fish out of water

In October 2012 The Cambridge Union Society held a debate with the motion This House Believes Class Runs BritainIn passing, I’d like to say that the CUS has a better organised online presence than the Oxford Union.  With the former there is a web page dedicated to the debate details; with the latter you have to try to hunt them down. Danny Dorling opened the case for the motion, and I’d like to thank fellow bloggist, Geoff Chambers, for drawing my attention to it.

My instant reaction was, why? The excellent CUS web page, mentioned above, tells me that also speaking for the motion is Ken Livingstone. What possessed them to put Dorling on first? I’m sure he’s a charming man, but he’s a fish out of water. The answer is that they were holding Livingstone back to field questions and summarise at the end. In the above video Dorling’s speech runs from 3:00 to 13:25.

Did I say a fish out of water? He says it too, though not quite in those words. But even before he admits being new to this environment his body language is screaming it. Look how his hands are all around his mouth in his first seconds of speaking. This is a classic terror symptom. Throughout the speech his hands periodically worry themselves behind his ears, which is likewise a stress symptom that we met before towards the end of this posting. (You can see another type of stress here, where a well-known sportsman is repeatedly worrying behind his ear and showing us that he’d rather be in the shower than doing this dumb interview.)

Take the environment out of the frame and Dorling is actually expressing himself quite well: there’s a neat anaphora that starts at 3:17 – “you worry about…”.

More than once in articles on this blog I have protested that your accent is part of you so you should honour it. I’m therefore disappointed by his assertion at 5:20 that if you live for any time in Newcastle without adopting the Geordie accent you are a ‘complete idiot’ and ‘very arrogant’. I’m sorry but I classify going native as a mark of insecurity.

At 5:30 he says that he’s not going to shower us with statistics, because they could be challenged by subsequent speakers. That looks like insecurity again (I’m trying to be charitable). The class issue, he says, is more of a gut feeling. Ah yes! Assertions backed up by essentially nothing are suitably unverifiable: don’t we love arguments like that – particularly from professors?

At 7:07 he tells us that he’s never spoken in a debate before (I told you so!). All right, there’s a first time for everything. I don’t suppose he’s ever dived off a 10-metre board either, but it might occur to him to learn something before trying.

What is it about public speaking that, although it is widely recognised as one of the most stressful things you can do, it doesn’t dawn on most people to seek help? How many seriously bright, knowledgeable and insightful people have been featured in this blog and been seen to fail dramatically to do themselves justice? The right guidance can turn a terrifying minefield into a pussy-cat playground.

When will they ever learn?