Lord Peter Hennessy – paper dependent!

The Michael Young Memorial Lecture this year was held on 21 October. The speaker was Lord Peter Hennessy. The theme of the lecture was Meritocracy Revisited, looking back at Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). I confess that I have not read the book, and also confess to some unease with the word, ‘meritocracy’. It seems to me that however you define ‘merit’ you will come up against subjective disagreement with someone else’s definition. Accordingly I am looking forward to this…

Hennessy was a professor of rhetoric. It seems sensible, in view of the name of this blog (with its strange misspelling whose explanation is too long a story to go into here – though you may get a clue here), to point out that, though in colloquial use ‘rhetoric’ tends to refer to the business of speaking, the art actually encompasses argument and persuasion in all its forms. Nevertheless we are entitled to expect a professor of the art to be a pretty good speaker.

Take a look at the still picture (above) and guess what I am going to address. Hennessy is a talking head. He spends nearly the entire time with his face buried in his script. As the script is resting not on a lectern but a desk this means that his head is tipped right down, his face essentially out of sight. What a disaster!

It gets worse: even if the script were raised to lectern-height it would not help much because the script has been prepared in written- rather than spoken-English. We’ve explored the distinction on this blog often enough for me not to rehash it all here, but close your eyes for a bit. You can tell just by listening to him that he is reading. Ye gods! When will they ever learn?

The frustration for me is in the hundreds of people over the years whom I have freed from their dependency on paper. Not one, not a single one of my trainees has failed to be liberated. And the difference in their whole performance has been dramatically improved as a consequence.

Do you want to see how much better Hennessy would be if he binned that bloody paper? Watch him from 2:23 to 2:50, beginning with the words, “Do you remember them…” That section stands up, head, shoulders and torso, above its surroundings. The section even harvests a satisfactory laugh. There is nothing to stop him speaking that well throughout, except his not knowing how and not realising he can.

That section is not the only time his face rises to his audience. He frequently looks up to add asides and digressions; and the asides and digressions are accordingly much better than the main stream. The principal ones occur at –

  • 09.07 – 09:33
  • 25:05 – 25:40
  • 25:57 – 26:14

I have had it said to me that a script enables the speaker to include beautifully conceived sentences. Hennessy has a choice little phrase when he speaks of ‘meritocracy’ being one of those words that have “stuck to the Velcro of collective memory”. I maintain, and have proved it often enough, that anyone that can conceive something like that can as easily trot it out when shooting from the hip. Oh, how I’d like to liberate Hennessy from his paper-dependency!

As to ‘merit’, I glean the impression that Young’s book explores its definition. I think I might read it.

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