Bernard Kouchner – Médecin Sans Papier

On 17 February, 2014, Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde addressed the Oxford Union. The talk was entitled How to Prevent Massacres.

He is not speaking in his own language and, though his English is a lot better than my French, it’s not perfect. But for two minutes he engages and addresses this young audience in an exemplary fashion. I am pleased and impressed, and the audience is captive also. They are completely silent.

Then he picks up a sheaf of papers.

Still he engages the audience, merely glancing periodically at his papers while he tells us that 7 April 2014 (yesterday, as I write) sees the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. Still the audience is silent.

Bit by bit his talk moves from stark, broad brush-stroke statements into a more detailed account of atrocities. Bit by bit his eyes linger longer and more often on the paper in his hands. Bit by bit he loses his audience –  not completely: they are still there and still listening, but with not the same rapt attention. I hear the first cough in the audience at 2:54.

He reads out an horrendous account of what happened in Rwanda, with statistics to turn your stomach, and all the while the coughing gradually increases. It’s as if that sheaf of papers represents a glass screen that has now been placed between him and his audience. Despite the importance and power of what he is recounting, those young people – who had been in the palm of his metaphorical hand – are now somehow further away.

At 16:00 he puts his paper back down on the table, and continues to read – bent over – for a minute. At 17:00 he lifts his head, comes back around the table towards the audience and begins recounting his own personal experience – shooting from the hip. The difference is startling. Suddenly he has regained his audience, and he very movingly recounts the circumstances of the founding of Médecins Sans Frontières.

On my website is a page of speaking tips. Among them I make the point that it is more important to put across your message as clearly as possible than it is to dot every i and cross every t.

At the beginning and end of this talk Kouchner is in the driving seat and giving us his message with superb clarity, made all the more compelling with the occasional stumbling search for the right words. In between, paper in hand and reading no doubt vitally important information, he dots and crosses every i and t – but to what purpose? I reckon all the students in that audience will barely remember anything from that middle section.

He’s made my case very graphically.

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