As one of the speakers at the secularism conference of the National Secular Society in September 2012 in London, journalist and author Nick Cohen chose as his theme the existence of a de facto world-wide blasphemy law. His introduction lasts just a minute, he finishes just before the 22-minute mark. The rest is Q&A.
I have had it suggested to me that this blog is a teach-yourself-public-speaking part work. That is a false and foolish assumption. I certainly touch here on a great many facets of the art which a reader with a ridiculous amount of time on his hands could attempt to compile into some sort of instruction manual; but if anyone out there is doing that I’d better consider sticking disclaimers up all over the place. The critical word in that previous sentence is ‘touch’. For every advisory point I’ve made in this blog in about 140 postings, there are – at a rough guess – about 200 words of detailed and important explanation left out.
What brought all this to mind now is that this speech by Nick Cohen might seem to readers of this blog to tick all my boxes. He is shooting from the hip, which is fairly unusual for a writer. He has adopted a position on his subject. He has a coherent theme. He is speaking in the sort of informal conversational tone that is ideal for his subject. He is transparently sincere. He has a well-marshalled set of arguments. All that puts him ahead of most speakers.
And yet it’s a stream of consciousness whose structure and thread are insufficiently strong or distinct – either for him or us. For him there are several occasions that he has to stop completely to regroup his thoughts. He is so articulate that those thoughts, once regrouped, then pour out very coherently; but the regrouping process inserts an element of disjointedness. For us in the wider audience we are compelled to leap mentally across those disjoints. We also have to cling to lines of reasoning that often meander slightly at random.
He does not write like that. His writing – to my relatively untutored eye – is very clearly structured. I have said often enough in this blog that written English and spoken English are different languages, likewise written and spoken structures, so I do not complain that he puts writing structures to one side when he is speaking. My complaint is that he seems not to realise that there exist speaking structures that he should adopt in their place.
This is a good and important speech. It is a pity that, for lack of just a ha’porth of skill, it failed to be a brilliant one.