I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.
Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.
He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.
Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!
At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.
3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.
Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.
Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.
Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?
Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.
He gave me permission to stop listening to him after 15 seconds, so I did. When will speakers learn that rhetorical questions give permission for listeners to disengage from what they are saying? (You may now disengage too).