On 8 August 2019 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube a video of an Address and Q&A by United States Senator, Tim Scott.
I like coming across speeches by someone of whom I have never previously heard. I start with a blank slate and no preconceptions.
Good start! Having said no more than “Good Evening” he comes out from behind the lectern to stand in the centre aisle, empty handed. He’s going to shoot this from the hip. A proper speaker.
I notice that for the first few seconds he has one hand in a pocket and the other gesturing. Every speaker needs a default position for his hands, where to put them in the event he finds himself suddenly conscious of them. Pockets are one of the options, and it works for him because in seconds he has forgotten them and both hands are out gesturing freely and unselfconsciously.
His opening salvo is ethos; autobiographical and dealing with his childhood in poverty. This can easily be mawkish, cringe-inducing victimhood-claiming, but not here. He handles the subject with disinterested objectivity, not just telling us that he had no money but that he wasted a great deal of time at school, not doing any work. After seven years of drifting he was turned around by two people: his mother, who was prepared to apply tough love, and the inspiration of a mentor.
So he reaches his political career, and one of its principal thrusts for the benefit of the community – the provision of opportunity.
Scott has grasped one of the things I keep drilling into my trainees: it’s just talking. We can dress up public speaking with all manner of mystique, and certainly there are techniques we can use to embellish it, but at root it is just talking.
He stands there in that aisle and just talks. He has a simple structure which is broadly chronological, and that carries the narrative along. I would like to see the address more firmly underpinned with a clear single message, not least because it would bring that narrative into sharper focus, but still he puts himself across as an engaging and sincere fellow and that makes us want to listen and learn.
In many ways it is the Q&A that follows the address that sharpens the focus, not least because of the quality of the questioning. The young woman chairing the session is to be congratulated.