J. K. Rowling breaks rules, and wins.

On 5 June, 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the Harvard Commencement Address.

As I watch her acknowledging the applause that welcomes her all my experience and instincts scream that she is downright terrified. It is not just the nervousness of the smile: there are many other symptoms. It is hardly surprising. The Harvard Commencement Address has been delivered by some considerable names over the years: famous, infamous, but always considerable. Her terror turns out to be not a short-lived hump. Symptoms of fear peep out at intervals throughout the speech.

Nevertheless she is manifestly among friends, probably fans. This may explain the phenomenon that transpires, but I am not convinced.

After the Hierarchical Hello, she launches into an opening that acknowledges her nervousness and seeks to exploit it. This is not an original device, and I advise against it because in my experience it nearly always fails. Audiences do not want to be told you are frightened. To my amazement, long before she is anywhere near her punch-line, the audience is lapping it up, loving it and laughing. In fact the entire opening routine proves to be so popular, and generates so many laughs, that I find myself in doubt as to what actually is the punch-line – that is, until one laugh provides a launch-pad for enthusiastic applause. The audience reckons that is the punch-line. When the market makes such a clear-cut decision it is wise to cash in your chips, end that routine and move to the next section. Rowling spurns that wisdom because she has two more things to say on that subject, both good, one brilliant, and all loved by the audience.

And so it goes on. She breaks another rule with spectacular success. She is a talking head, and much of the script is in written rather than spoken English. Does she get away with this because it is slightly Wodehousian in style, so she is playing a British stereotype to the American audience? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced because she continues to enthral the audience when she gets serious.

And she does get serious. More than 70% of this talk is serious; and on the numerous occasions that the camera cuts to the audience only once is there a face not glued to her.

I repeat that though it is tempting to attribute the success of this speech to her huge and devoted following, I think the reason is even simpler (in concept if not in execution).

Audiences will forgive virtually anything, from glaring mannerisms to opinions they find obnoxious, if only you are interesting enough. She had neither of those shortcomings, though she did have others like over-fastidious enunciation (which I would work to smooth out if I were advising her). What trumped it all was the sheer quality of the way her arguments were couched.

Making a speech is, in many ways, like telling a story; and there is a rumour doing the rounds that J. K. Rowling is quite good at that.

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