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.

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