Alan Mendoza can speak, but doesn’t

The Cambridge Union Society, in June 2013, held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Two State Solution is the Only Solution. In case there be any doubt, let me make it clear now that the two intended states to which the motion refers are Israel and Palestine. One of the speakers for the proposition was Alan Mendoza.

If you follow the hyperlink which I attached to Mendoza’s name you will see that he is “a frequent speaker at high-profile national and international events and conferences”. Yet, he can’t speak (or at least he almost doesn’t). He writes well, and reads his writing back reasonably well, but that is not speaking. Granted he is at least as good as most people who deliver speeches at “high profile national and international events and conferences”, but that merely supports what I have frequently observed, namely that when it comes to public speaking the world sets its bar pathetically low.

Close your eyes, and just listen to a little more than the first minute of his delivery, and you will hear him obviously shooting from the hip some jokey comments concerning the debate thus far; and then unmistakably you will hear him begin reading his script.  You can hear the change, because spoken English is quite different from written English. The content certainly becomes more meaty at that point, but the audience-engagement deflates appallingly.

It might be tempting to conclude from this that hip-shooting is fine for ribald dross, but when you get to the serious stuff you need to read it, even at the expense of a little audience-engagement. It is a widespread, almost universally held, fallacy. I have friends and acquaintances who – bless them – have solemnly made this assertion to me; but my trainees never do, because they have had it proved to them that this is nonsense.

As it happens, Mendoza elsewhere in this speech makes my point for me. He proves to us that he can shoot strong, meaty, data-rich stuff from the hip with more fluency, more conviction and much better audience-engagement than when he reads a script. That is why I chose this speech for this posting.

At 4:02, someone in the hall asks to intervene and Mendoza allows him. Afterwards, from 4:56 to 5:34, Mendoza clinically and compellingly unpicks the argument in the intervention – shooting entirely from the hip. Those 38 seconds show us how good this speech could have been had he learnt how to structure his material in order to shoot all of it from the hip.

He could do it, without losing any of the essential elegance of the wording. There is a pleasing little tricolon at 7:30 which could just as easily have been there. Sadly though, at 5:34 he returns to his wretched script and his audience engagement falls off a cliff.

I called it a wretched script. It is actually well written and would make a good read. But as a piece of speaking it is lousy. It is comparable in lousiness to most of the offerings you get at “high profile national and international events and conferences” with successions of ‘speakers’ reading drearily to each other.

We need to raise the bar.

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