Black Rod holds me spellbound

On 8 October 2014, there was a UK Open Parliament lecture from Black Rod. He was speaking about his job. If you know even less about Black Rod than I do (or did), then stay tuned. His full title is Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. The current incumbent, the man who delivered this lecture, is Lieutenant General David Leakey.

Wearing my rhetor hat I was eager to watch this lecture for a particular reason. I have worked with many executives who had previously had military careers, and have always been impressed by their stage presence, their natural unassuming authority, and their ability to home in on the essence of a message. That said, I have worked with very few generals; so I was eager to see how well he performed.


(Whoever posted this video on YouTube needs shooting for choosing such a lousy still picture to illustrate it.)

The first thing Black Rod does is to cross to stage right to fetch the item from which his title derives. Having retrieved it he doesn’t immediately return all the way to the lectern but begins speaking a yard or two ‘off mic’. What is impressive is that he is barely less audible there. We’re dealing with a good microphone and good enunciation.

He very quickly establishes a decorum of informal conversation that is almost avuncular. There are many who believe that ‘informal conversation’ is a style that is suitable only for a limited type of audience. In my experience it has a far wider application than most believe, principally because it conveys sincerity. Overblown oratory is often a turn-off for modern audiences. Though we are told nothing of how this audience is constituted, we quickly get a good idea from the way Black Rod handles it. Note in the first couple of minutes how he uses his fingers to illustrate the word ‘nano’ rather than explaining it. Thus he ensures that everyone understands, while not patronizing them. In the next sentence he uses the word again, but this time he doesn’t illustrate it.

The audience is nervous, perhaps over-awed. The most telling symptom is the lack of reaction to his first piece of humour which he throws away (correctly) at 4:10. He throws away another piece of humour at 7:16, and they are still reluctant to show much reaction. At 9:15 he throws away yet another, and this time there is the slightest stirring of those daring to laugh. That’s how long they took to relax.  Are we surprised therefore at how gently he has been leading them through his narrative?

He shoots the entire lecture from the hip, and if any regular readers of this blog think I bang on too much about this, I invite them to watch and understand. He is not reading to his audience; he is not speaking at them; he is speaking with them and the difference is huge. It does mean that here and there he appears to lose his place, and I shall have more to say about that, but this is a small price to pay for the sheer quality of the delivery.

My rhetor hat slips off for a while of its own accord. When he describes the history of his post, and its connection with the Order of the Garter, I am mesmerized. It takes an apparent error of Latin to shake me out of it. He claims that the title of ‘Usher’ derives from the Latin usarius meaning doorkeeper. No, usarius is a particular type of slave: a doorkeeper is ustiarius. It is not impossible that in late vulgar Latin the two words (which are similar) became interchangeable, particularly if usarii were used as ustiarii. This warrants further investigation, but not now.

Black Rod does occasionally treat us to a pause while he considers what he will say next. It is a little too simple merely to conclude that he needs to work on his structure. He explains during the thirteenth minute that these talks are usually only ten minutes long, but on this occasion he can expand. It thus becomes clear that he is using a modular principle, bolting on extra modules as he finds time. It’s a tried and tested device, but two precautions need to be taken. You need to have established in your mind a clear macro-structure within which you will operate, and you need to have a supply of ‘bridges’ to take you from module to module. He has observed both those needs, but perhaps not quite firmly enough particularly with bridges for those modules that are less ‘road-tested’. The module on the history and office of the Lord Great Chamberlain is a little clunky.

Having described the medieval history of his post (since 1348 he is only the 69th incumbent) he goes on to talk about how the job has evolved over the centuries, how his time is occupied today and he also takes us on a verbal tour of the Palace of Westminster. The whole thing is riveting, and I commend it as a constitutional history lesson.

As I said at the beginning, I have worked with many people of a military background. They tend to speak with that calm assurance that Black Rod displays, so my work with them is usually restricted to very particular techniques for preparing material. Could I help him? Possibly, with tinkering round the edges, but he’s demonstrably capable of sorting things out for himself.

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