Ha-Joon Chang hasn’t a clue.

The Oxford Union recently hosted a talk with Q&A from Dr Ha-Joon Chang. He spoke about wealth inequality.

I selected, for the link on his name, Dr Chang’s own website, because it lists and links so many of his writings, interviews, etc. I have browsed extensively around them for one very good reason. This guy is obviously somewhat learned; how does he come across in his writing, conversation, and so on? Quite well in fact.

Those are relevant questions because as a public speaker he hasn’t a clue. You could be forgiven for thinking that impossible for a university lecturer, so let me present my evidence.

The first half hour is dreadfully tedious, but in a strange way. Often, tedium comes from the voice sticking on a monotone. Dr Chang however uses plenty of expression in his voice. The problem is rather in what he says. He has mountains of data which he delivers in a manner which is as indigestible as can be imagined. If you dip in at random for a few seconds at a time you will see an animated speaker, keen to impart information which fascinates him. On the other hand if you watch for a sustained period you will be at a loss to decipher what he is trying to tell you. He flits with even less observable system than does the cliché butterfly.

A common feature on this blog, when the speaker is using a script, is for me to point out how the rhythm and tenor lifts when the speaker’s eyes lift and he addresses the audience directly. In Dr Chang’s case it’s the reverse: his ad lib digressions actually reduce the pace, because he tends to insert huge pauses. Pauses are wonderful for letting an important point sink in, and I sense that is how Dr Chang is intending to use them, but the audience does need to know what the point is supposed to be.

At around 24:33 he begins a personal anecdote that I really want to be an audience-grabber, because the speech desperately needs one. He narrates it so lamely that it’s the proverbial lead-balloon, which is sad because it’s a good story.

At around the half-hour mark it begins to emerge through the fog what his eventual message is, and at that point things lift a little. In fact it builds enough so that at 34:00 he actually gets quite a respectable laugh from the audience.

The speech ends at 43:50 to be succeeded by Q&A.

Let me put my cards on the table: I disagree with his message. But then I frequently work on speeches whose message I regard as misguided, and if anything I enjoy those most because they create for me a target. Can I help to make this message so coherent that it might sway even me?

So no: my attitude to the speech was not jaded by my disagreement. In fact I remind you that I considered the best part of the speech began when I came to know what the message was. And I had to sit through thirty minutes of clueless tedium to reach that.

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