Diarmaid MacCulloch – so very close.

In October 2011, as one of its Roland Bainton lectures, Yale Divinity School presented a talk by Diarmaid MacCulloch from Oxford University.

Prof. MacCulloch, specialises in The Reformation; but his theme here is the medieval church, the influence on it by the Arian heresy and the particular significance of Martin of Tours. More than half a century ago at school I won a class speaking competition with three minutes on Martin of Tours; therefore perhaps I should clearly lay out here everything I already knew about what we shall now be learning from MacCulloch …

Good.  I’m glad we’ve clarified that. If you want to skip the introductions (though they are interesting) MacCulloch begins at 5:40.

Regular reader of this blog will have spotted on that still image where MacCulloch’s eyes are directed, and therefore at least one thing I am going to say. Nevertheless I’d like to begin at the beginning.

In the beginning is The Hump. Always. My trainees often seem slightly surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences the hump (“you mean I’m not the only one?”). Certainly many speakers disguise it very effectively, but it is always there. MacCulloch, a professional and experienced communicator – not just in the lecture room but on TV – displays distinct signs of vulnerability for a little more than a minute, particularly when he changes horses between speaking of Roland Bainton and about his own book on the Reformation. He was marginally more relaxed when speaking of his book, enjoying uttering his phrase “rivalling the conceit of Icarus” and his audience likewise enjoyed it, so if I had been advising him I should have got him to open with that and stick with it for at least 90 seconds. That would have seen out the worst of the hump, allowing him, in a relatively relaxed fashion, to swing into something parenthetic like “…and one very important source on which I drew was Roland Bainton’s book on Luther…[etc]…so I feel particularly privileged to be standing here today…”

It is not often that I allow myself to get so specific and picky in this blog; but there is a reason. MacCulloch is so good that he does not give me much else to get my teeth into. Except…

Except what we observed earlier, namely that he appears to have a script.

He looks repeatedly down to the desk through the speech (and each time he does so he loses just a little of his audience engagement) but he often does it at times when he distinctly does not need prompting. This suggests to me that the paper on that desk is a comfort blanket, and that theory is supported by symptoms of shyness that I am picking up. Shyness can be a crippling handicap and, when accompanied by obviously high intelligence, gets little sympathy from the world at large because the combination seems so irrational. I have worked with many victims of it.

I am delighted to say that, script or no, he speaks for the most part in spoken- rather than written-English. This could mean that he has conscientiously learnt how to write speeches that way, or it could mean that he is partly reading and partly speaking spontaneously.

So much for speculation. What should he be doing? You know my answer if you have read this blog before. He should learn to dispense with a script completely. He could do it easily. I know this talk is laden with data, but so what? He knows his subject inside out. At most he needs a few bullet points for occasional reference.

If he kept his eyes up, shooting the lecture from the hip, the engagement with his audience would be infinitely better. Would that cure his supposed shyness? No, shyness doesn’t get cured. It might well help him to live better with it, but I would not attempt to generalise here with trite claims or recommendations.

The talk is really fascinating, and he delivers it very expressively. He is as good a communicator as I have seen, but for this small but crucial and frustrating detail.

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