Anniversary ‘King and Country’ Debate. This one is opened by Ben Sullivan

Some months ago this blog covered all the speeches in an Oxford Union debate on the subject of belief in God. Today I want to start an equally comprehensive coverage of a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. If I recounted more details of that debate I might ineptly spoil what speakers will tell you.

In this debate, whose motion is “This house would not fight for Queen and country” the speakers are –

  1. Ben Sullivan, librarian of the Oxford Union [for the motion]
  2. Rory Stewart [against]
  3. Ben Griffin [for]
  4. Nikolai Tolstoy  [against]
  5. Gareth Porter [for]
  6. Malcolm Rifkind [against]

– and I will summarise the debate afterwards.

First impressions are important, and Sullivan’s first impression is that he is a talking head. Does he need to consult his paper to tell us that his voice is husky? No of course not, so immediately we are informed that his script is his security blanket.

There are, nevertheless, a few circumstances under which it is appropriate to read your material; and shortly after he begins Sullivan meets one of them. As first speaker, and also his being Librarian of the Union, he is the host.  Therefore it falls to him to introduce the debate and its speakers. While he is doing that, why doesn’t he just pick up the paper and read? The audience will instantly understand that, as he is giving them detailed information about all the speakers, he owes it to them to get all his facts precisely correct. Apart from a bit of stumbling, which he might not have done had he been holding his paper in front of him, he does these introductions competently. His speech actually begins at 4:06.

At this point he reaches miles above his competence. He has not even the first idea of how to prepare or deliver a speech. I am happy to leave it to subsequent speakers to fillet his arguments if they wish, but I am not happy watching this. This is wall-to-wall cringe. He reads every word, stumbles the whole time, speaks too fast, and is just generally incoherent. It is safe to assume that he is bright, which is why he is librarian (and even at Oxford in the first place) so he could easily learn how to speak. In the mean time I can only say that I have had pleasanter headaches.

Being of stern stuff, and conscientious on behalf of my readers, I endured the speech to the end. Thus I witnessed a moment (at 11:41) that managed to cause me to wince even while I was mid-cringe. If you are going to be overtly pedantic you must first be sure you are correct or you will lock yourself into a pillory.

“…whomever he may be…”

…is incorrect. The verb ‘to be’ cannot have an object, so the accusative version of ‘whoever’ is ghastly in this context. It’s a little precious in any spoken context. Had he been shooting this from the hip I might have forgiven it, but he actually wrote down that horror.

I strongly urge Ben Sullivan to get some lessons; and I hope for his sake that subsequent speakers in this debate are courteous enough to let him down lightly. We shall see.

Willis Eschenbach – refreshingly simple.

In 2012 The Heartland Institute hosted its seventh International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC7) in Chicago. Among the speakers was Willis Eschenbach.

Climatologists delight in pointing out the lack of Eschenbach’s scientific qualifications, though it is rather sweet how seldom they make the same observation about Al Gore. The difference is that Eschenbach readily tells everyone who will listen that he is not a scientist. My having no scientific qualifications either, I am happy to dwell instead on how well he articulates his message.

They do not tell us on YouTube who makes the introduction, and this is an omission I prefer not to repeat.  Having scanned through scores of mugshots on Heartland’s website I reckon this is Steve Goreham. I wanted to name him because he does it well. Eschenbach begins at 1:13, uttering his first words before he reaches the lectern.

As I have observed before, W.B.Yeats said,

“Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people.”

In my work I frequently find myself paraphrasing in common terms what some boffin has said to me, either the better for me to understand what he will be telling other boffins in some speech that I am helping with, or to help him make some impenetrable piece of ‘scientese’ (an Eschenbach word) more digestible for the lay people in an audience. Therefore listening to Eschenbach, who is a carpenter, handling scientific concepts in everyday language is like a holiday.

It is worth remembering that you do not need a PhD in order to read. If a scientist publishes something and you read it, the fact that you happen not to be a scientist does not make what you learnt any less relevant. Eschenbach’s speech is about species’ extinction rates having been exaggerated. Here’s a startling claim from him. It appears at the 5 minute mark: there is no record of any species having gone extinct from habitat loss.


Do you view that with suspicion? Would you have been as sceptical if, say, Dr Craig Loehle had said it? I did not invent that name: Dr Loehle is Principal Scientist with the National [US] Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI). He collaborates with Eschenbach on publications.

I am not in a position to pontificate on the quality of Eschenbach’s research or his pronouncements; but I can comment on how well he puts it across. His delivery is refreshingly guileless, clear, well structured and largely shot from the hip. It is held together by a narrative thread that keeps you with him. What more could I want?

Ancient Wisdom in seven guises

At the Davos Economic Forum in 2006 there was a meeting whereat seven of the world’s spiritual leaders each spoke for between 5 and 10 minutes.

I am bound to say that I am not a fan of the Economic Forum. No doubt it was founded with the best of intentions, but it has always looked to me like a gathering of self-regarding busybodies who, persuaded that they are wiser than everyone else, discuss how to impose their views on the world. It is true that Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War and the exchange of thoughts and ideas is welcome. But it is ‘top-down’ imposition of those ideas, rather than the fostering of their natural organic spread, that has consistently caused so many problems in the world.

Nevertheless a group of spiritual leaders in discussion might be a source of wisdom, so let’s eavesdrop. They are Lord Carey, Matthieu Ricard, Diarmuid Martin, David Rosen, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Bartholomew, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. The last is becoming a regular on this blog and, though he speaks for barely 10% of the time, some arbitrary electronic decision has placed a still image of him (below) to represent them all.

The meeting is fairly pleasingly punctuated by song, though I have been unable definitively to identify the singer.

Lord Carey tops and tails the meeting. He greets from 5:55 to 10:10, setting the scene. He seeks to define wisdom, citing T.S.Eliot’s making the distinction between information. knowledge and wisdom. He introduces the speakers, and also points out that the audience contains several spiritual leaders also.  At this stage I spot an inevitability about all the offerings from these speakers. Coming from a range of different faiths, they are not there to promote their own faith but to promote the oneness of humanity. Doing that without resorting to a stream of cliché platitudes is a challenge that I would not want to tackle..

Matthieu Ricard speaks from 10:12 to 16:27. People are beautiful: people are good, however much they might quarrel. Ricard quotes Gandhi, and the quote leads him into a call for compassion and forgiveness. He quotes Martin Luther King and The Dalai Lama and these lead him towards a call for Gross Domestic Happiness.

Diarmuid Martin speaks from 18:35 to 24:36. He uses the parable of The Good Samaritan as his theme, pointing out that though we know no more about the Samaritan than his nationality, we know even less about the traveller. He is every man, and one in distress. Martin goes on to examine the nature of care, and becomes quite compelling in the process.

David Rosen speaks from 26:28 to 33:03. He draws on the Midrash to define wisdom and one conclusion that he reaches is that wisdom is the capacity to be aware of, and appreciate, the divine in everything and everyone. I have one quibble, not with what he says but how he says it. There were two places that he could have stopped earlier than he did, and either would have been slightly stronger than his eventual finish.

Feisal Abdul Rauf speaks from 35:18 to 43:53. “Religion […] is the repository of human wisdom”. That is his opening shot, and an uncompromising one to those whose spiritual thought harbours doubts about religion. But this is only the first element in an anaphora which culminates in acknowledging that religion can be a harmful tool in the hands of unscrupulous men. He goes on to reinforce the distinction between those for whom the word of God inspires love, and those in whom it foments hatred.

Bartholomew speaks from 46:15 to 55:57. He raises a word that had been niggling at me – ‘succession’. I had been marvelling at the wealth of apostolic succession represented on that stage. He lists, and explores, essential values: dignity, silence, beauty and ascesis. He dwells longest on silence, with a four-element anaphora – “if we stand silent…”

Jaggi Vasudev speaks from 58:22 to 1:06:12. Remembering that central to his teaching are the words, “I do not know”, I am curious as to how well this talk will sit with the others. He translates the word, “Yoga”. It means “Union”. He goes on to expand on the nature of the union, reaching the necessity of all of us to be at one with each other and our surroundings. That needs clarity of perception. Finally he says that modern questions require modern answers, and he illustrates that with a funny story. It gets more of a laugh from the floor than from the stage.

Lord Carey concludes from 1:08:18. He addresses the challenge of being passionate about one’s own religion without diminishing the divine in others. He recalls an orchestra that had entertained them the previous evening, all the musicians and the variety of instruments all combining towards a single message. He likewise concludes with a story, this time about the distinction between a church service and worship.

The quality of the speaking at this gathering was predictably very high. All of them lead through teaching, and their communication skill is manifest. It would be frankly impertinent and otiose for me to offer any conclusion beyond what these people said. And anyway, I do not know.

Bill Callaghan has a speech to speak, O

Bill Callaghan is a Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London. He also is in demand as an after-dinner speaker. Videos of his tours have been posted on line and received hits in seven figures; and the man we apparently have to thank is American tourist Jerry Clark, who wielded a camcorder for the benefit of us all.

You may think that addressing tourists at the Tower of London is very different from delivering speeches from a lectern, and so it is. After-dinner speaking is likewise different. But all of them have in common the need to grab and hold an audience’s attention while saying stuff (stop me if I’m getting too technical). Shall we see how Callaghan does it?

Well there’s an opening to be remembered! Of course you could never open a speech like that from a lectern, or an after-dinner speech, or a sermon from a pulpit. But it’s all right when you’re addressing a bunch of elderly foreign … er…

  • 2:30 You couldn’t get away with a remark like that about our Caledonian cousins or the Royal Marines if you were speaking at a lectern, a dinner table or a pulpit. But it’s ok … er …
  • 3:50 Ditto unwanted children.
  • Ditto
  • Ditto
  • Dittos, several and sundry

The fact is that in this world of the PC police looking over our shoulders at every turn no one can get away with what he says. But he does.

He appears not to have heard of ‘Hate Speech’, and how I wish I hadn’t! It is the invention of a relatively small but disproportionately influential coterie of sweet, self-important souls whose own hate is evidently directed at themselves. Normal, well-balanced people jovially hurl affectionate insults at each other without some tiresome twerp popping up to tell them how offended they should be. Perhaps someone will one day put them all out of our misery.

Callaghan is a normal, well-balanced person insulting everyone; and he does it with stunning skill. Regardless of the malign madness of political correctness, his material is manifestly dangerous; and yet he not only gets away with it, but his audience – who comprise many of his targets – laugh, love, and lap it up.

Children: don’t try this at home (unless your family is an intelligent, well-balanced, loving and sensible one with grown-up values).


Jim Cook … retains more than data

In June 2013 in Las Vegas, the IBM Edge conference for 2013 was entitled Cloud Storage for a Virtualized World. One of the speakers was Jim Cook, CEO of Arkivum.

At this point I think it is appropriate for me to declare an interest. Jim is a trainee of mine. I asked him at the time to let me know how well it went. This is from his email –

Just finished. Numbers around the 500 mark I would guess. Went well thanks, particularly pleased with the opening, could have done better with the coherent story but was pretty good.

Shall we see what we think?

Probably the most widely recognised symptom of nervousness in a speaker is talking too fast, so I urge my trainees to set themselves a measured pace from the start; and for the very start I point out that the slowest thing they can do is… nothing. I can cite numerous excellent examples of speakers starting with a long pause: I seem to remember William Hague doing it when he was Conservative leader, with his ‘Commonsense Revolution’ speech in October 1999. Jim here pauses for six whole seconds! That is brave and, under the circumstances, would have felt like a week. He had evidently listened to that part of his course with me. He followed the pause with a bald opening.

He was also listening when I said that going in through the front door of the topic is intrinsically boring, and that opening by outflanking the subject in order to enter through a side-door, thus having the audience wondering where this is leading, is a good way to get their attention. Yes, Jim is right to be pleased with the opening.

Thanks to this speech I have learnt that a petabyte is a thousand terabytes; therefore 1,000,000,000 megabytes. The petabyte seems to be Jim’s basic unit of currency.

A couple of blog postings ago I deplored the practice of looking over your shoulder at the slide on the big screen because it surrenders and redirects some of your audience’s focus. You see Jim change a slide, and he’s looking at a slave screen near his feet. From the pause involved in this process I think he’s using the slide as a signpost, and ideally I’d like his structure to be so clear in his mind that signposts are unnecessary, but I’ll forgive him this small transgression. I am less forgiving of all that verbiage on his slides. While the audience are reading that, they are not paying full attention to his voice. Actually it appears that we don’t see all his slides: there seems to be one of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley that doesn’t make it to the video…

All my trainees shoot their speeches from the hip, so it comes as no surprise that Jim uses no paper; and listen to how expressive his voice is as a consequence! This could so easily be a dry and tedious subject, yet without a script or notes to drag him down he makes it lively and absorbing. And every word is heard.

His parting shot was to thank and congratulate IBM on an excellent conference.  I am persuaded to return to it to examine other speeches.  Meanwhile …