Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!

 

Tariq Ali: smh

Sometime recently (it was during the recent General Election campaign: you’ll find you can glean that) the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Tariq Ali, and I had my interest and memories stirred.  Ali was President of the Oxford Union in the mid-sixties, and spent much of the rest of that decade leading marches, protests, even riots. His name was seldom out of the papers. He was one of the leaders of the now-defunct International Marxist Group, a brand that made the Workers Revolutionary Party look like wishy-washy liberals.

I wanted to see whether the years had mellowed him. I know of several firebrand Trots from those days who have since performed philosophical u-turns; but from the little I’ve seen of Ali in the past half-century I get the impression that he is not one of them.

He begins by announcing that he had intended to speak about his book on Lenin but had changed his mind. He then speaks about his book on Lenin.

I was not surprised to see that one who had addressed so many protests, marches and suchlike was quite relaxed here, shooting this entire speech from the hip. On the other hand I was delighted to learn that his speaking skill is not merely a byproduct of doing a lot of it. There are indications that he has put in some thoughtful work, and one piece of evidence is to be found at 35:18, where he makes gestures accompanying a comparison between the political left and right. He is doing the gestures in mirror image, so that when he says ‘left’ he is indicating our left. It is these small things that single out expert speakers.

Actually he doesn’t speak exclusively about his book: he eventually moves on into rambling around matters of today.

I actually find myself quite liking him as a person, even though he is profoundly misguided. He comes across significantly less strident than he did in the sixties, but then so do we all. He disappoints me with a dreadful piece of cheap and gratuitous (though well-timed) ad hominem. I’ll put it down to senility – he’s a little older than I. Smh.

Smh is one of those tla (three letter abbreviations) to be found on Twitter. It stands for ‘shaking my head’ and I’m smh quite often during this speech as he trots out preposterous assertions. Nevertheless he’s entitled to his opinions.

If I were advising him I would warn him about one thing. He always did seem to take himself too seriously, and when you reach our age that comes across as pomposity. He needs to watch that.

More than once in this blog I have castigated hosts of speeches, conference halls, all sorts of auditoria, for not having a clock on the back wall with which speakers can time themselves. Tariq Ali over-runs, and it emerges that he has been carefully watching just such a clock, thoughtfully supplied by the Oxford Union. It just isn’t working properly.

Smh.

Kemi Badenoch bowls a Maiden

I first came across Kemi Badenoch shortly after the recent British General Election when I saw a Twitter trend on the subject of this new Member of Parliament. It seemed that many wrongly assumed that she was a Labour Party member. Like her I am trying to work out what gave them that idea.

Her maiden speech in the House of Commons has been widely lauded. Shall we make our own judgement?

A quarter of a minute in and she starts giving us a rundown of some of the hardships she experienced when growing up in Nigeria. I know why she’s doing it; I don’t blame her for doing it; but I suspect she would join with my lamenting that she needs to. Ethos is important, but this veers towards pandering to the identity politics and ‘privilege checking’ that is all the rage at the moment. Nevertheless if that is the game people are playing and you can beat them at it so dramatically, you’d be foolish not to. And she’s smart enough to get a partisan argument into it.

Nor do I blame her for reading a script. A maiden speech is a rite of passage that you simply have to get past, and I suspect that using a script is conventionally required. Not to do so might make you look like a smart-Alec. If the eye misses out a line (at 3:09) causing the sort of stumble that you don’t get when you are shooting from the hip then your best course is simply to laugh it off. Badenoch simply laughs it off.

She throws in a lovely Woody Allen quote, beginning at 4:16. I have heard it before, but not for a time and certainly not put in this context; so I laugh as readily as the MPs in the house. At 5 minutes she does even better: she makes me want to cheer.

I don’t know enough about the genre to tell whether just under five and a half minutes is a conventional length for a maiden speech but, convention aside, I found its length pretty well perfect. It said enough, yet met the oldest and best showbiz maxim of all – leave ’em wanting more.

I am sure we will hear more of Kemi Badenoch.