Matthew Handley needs gravitas

The Oxford Union on 23 May, 2013, conducted a debate on the motion, This House Believes Islam is a Religion of Peace. Opening for the motion was Matthew Handley who, we learn, is studying history at Oxford. Despite his youth he is a veteran of The Platform, having debated competitively at school and university, and is a mentor for the Debate Mate programme.

If I could have avoided this pun, believe me I would have done; but Mr Handley has a hand problem. It’s not that he uses his hands a great deal. That strikes me as natural for him because his gestures are so expressive; so I’m right behind him on that. It is that he is constantly searching in vain for a ‘happy home’, a default position for them to be at rest; and therefore he too often selects the worst option. Before he even started, I had spotted a tell-tale sign: he was standing with his thumbs in his pockets. Putting your thumbs in your pockets is saying, “I’d like to put my hands in my pockets but I don’t think I should so I’m half sort-of pretending that they’re not really there.”

He takes a breath to begin. His hands go to clasp themselves in front of his chest, change their mind and he folds his arms instead. Students of body language will tell you that folding your arms is defensive and aggressive at the same time; but what concerns me is that I have never met anyone who looked relaxed and natural while speaking in that pose. That is the worst option I mentioned earlier, and he returns to it too often. Once would be too often. Other non-gesturing attempts are thumbs in pockets, hands in pockets or clasped in front of him – indeed he never stops experimenting, and it is the constant experimentation that highlights the problem.

I am not certain, but I think that clasping his hands in front of him might be his best option. The reason that I am not certain is that at no point do I see him relaxed.

There is a great deal that he is doing right – by the book (I am not going to comment on the arguments he promotes, restricting myself on this occasion just to the delivery) – but there is one over-riding problem. He is not driving this speech so much as letting the speech drive him.

He needs to rest back on his heels a little, dare to give pauses their natural lifespan, let the audience absorb some of his points before bombarding them with more. That way he would give himself more chance to portray an element of gravitas that is missing. Without gravitas he comes across as a little shrill. Gravitas is difficult to portray when you are so young, but I am under the impression that he would not thank me for offering him his youth as an excuse – so I won’t.

He will be a very fine speaker, because he evidently wants it so much. I hope I get to see it when it happens.

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