On 5 March 2015 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion “This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend“.
Chakrabarti is nervous.
So what? Everyone is more nervous at the very beginning of a speech: it’s what I call The Hump. Most work that I do with people in tackling nerves is busting that hump, because usually in a couple of minutes it has receded, the person is on a roll, and everything comes together. Probably the most powerful antidote to the hump is the act of engaging – really engaging – with the audience. That glorious feeling that the bridge from the platform to the audience is in place, and you are speaking with them as distinct from at them, drops your stress dramatically. The other side of the coin is that if you don’t engage with the audience the hump stays longer and you continue to battle with nerves. People who read their speeches from scripts sometimes hang onto their hump to the end of the speech.
Chakrabarti, to her credit, is not reading from a script but she is clinging to another type of umbilical cord. She prolongs her hump by repeatedly looking behind her at Madam President and looking at the other speakers around her. She is procrastinating the grasping of the scary nettle of looking at the audience by keeping her attention on the other occupants of the stage. They are her comfort zone, but they will only soothe her symptoms not sort her nerves. For the first minute the audience barely sees her face, and right up to around 2:30 she continues too often to revisit her comfort zone. It looks wrong, and it’s a false comfort.
Then she gets her first laugh. It is deserved: she delivers a good line well. Suddenly the nettle ceases to be scary and she is away. So well is she away that at 3:00 she gets a laugh that turns into applause. The real Shami Chakrabarti has arrived.
She is a very good speaker. Her delivery is spontaneous, warm, sincere, and at times funny, with just enough passion and edge in there to give the speech backbone. All of it shot from the hip. This is the way to engage an audience.
At 7:00 there is an intervention from the opposition. Regardless of the words spoken, I invite you to compare tones – shrillness from the opposition, warmth from Chakrabarti. Where would you place your vote?
I am really pleased to have covered this speech. Shami Chakrabarti unintentionally supplied a negative lesson to speakers to face the front! And then she delivered a positive lesson in excellent speaking.