Why I like Prof Deepak Malhotra

On 23 April 2012, Prof. Deepak Malhotra delivered this talk to graduating MBA students at Harvard Business School.

I like this guy!

I like what he says and how he says it. Even if I didn’t agree with him I would like how he says it. He conveys just the right amount of conviction and authority without overflowing into dogma, and he achieves that with a judicious addition of sincere warmth. He is talking to the students about happiness, and begins by pointing out that even though they are at the very pinnacle of human privilege there’s a strong danger that they won’t proceed to be any happier than – say – underprivileged folk in starving and dangerous parts of the world. And he does that without launching a guilt trip.

He talks about the value of quitting a job, maybe being prepared to quit often. How are we supposed to know what occupation suits us till we try it? I find myself remembering a conversation I had with someone when in my twenties. My having listed the many occupations I had so far tried he drily asked me what I was going to do next. I eventually happened upon what was for me the best job in the world – but more of that later.

I’m a words person, and so is he. (I rather like the chance coincidence that this speech was delivered on the traditionally observed birthday of William Shakespeare.) His title for this talk is “Tragedy & Genius”, but he has gone back to etymological purity for both those words – I enjoy the obvious relish with which he explains them. He also uses the word, “Delta” unusually. Delta means different things to a classicist or a cartographer; but it means something else again to a mathematician, and here he uses it in this last sense. MBA students will certainly have studied profit margins, so he doesn’t bother to explain this meaning to them.

I like his blunt and assertive epistrophe on the word “genius” at 8:37. I like the anadiplosis with the word “conflict” at 21:05. Because he’s a words man I suspect he knows those terms, but both are deployed without a shadow of self-consciousness – in fact, probably unconsciously.

He is using slides. You can tell by the remote control in his hand; otherwise we would hardly know. Only a couple of times the camera zooms back enough for us to have a glimpse of what’s on the screen. And it doesn’t matter: we don’t need them! His structure is so clear and strong, his narrative thread so distinct, that for us the talk holds up easily with invisible visuals. Needless to say he needs no script, no notes, no signposts from the slides.

At 42:05 he invites questions without yet having closed the speech. My heart leaps! My trainees, or readers of The Face & Tripod, will know this is an obsession of mine. Put your Q&A at the end of the main body of the speech but before your closing – the book explains why. Speakers who do that are as rare as hens’ teeth, but he’s one of them.

I find it reassuring when I find this much mature wisdom in people the same age as my sons. It means there’s a chance – though I can’t judge them dispassionately – that they have it too. Also this speech causes me to examine closely my own feelings with regard to my work. What I find is the indescribable elation I feel when leaving at the end of a course; and I’ve stripped from someone the fear, inhibition, and a whole heap of other baggage that previously was holding them back. I shall never retire: I have the best job in the world.

I like that guy!

Rory Stewart – a copy-book speaker

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. We have seen the opening speech by Ben Sullivan for the motion. Today we examine the first speech against the motion. It is delivered by Rory Stewart.

I concluded the critique on Ben Sullivan’s speech by hoping for his sake that subsequent speakers would be courteous enough to let him down lightly. In the first few seconds Stewart does exactly that. He has the strength to afford to be charitable.

Rory Stewart is a very, very good speaker.

It is not just the absence of any sort of paper assistance – shooting from the hip is easy if you know how. His good syntax notwithstanding, I’d be prepared to bet that this speech has never seen paper, and was principally composed in his head. He certainly hasn’t memorised it: the effortless way he digresses to quote the preceding speech shows that. Some might think the elegance of figures of speech suggest that it had been written down: there are a 2-element anaphora at 0:55, 3-element ones at 2:04, 2:26 and 5:50; and the last of these is immediately preceded by an anadiplosis (this doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive catalogue because I was enjoying it so much that I stopped noticing). The ability spontaneously to produce things like this becomes a natural facility for those who read good literature. They work themselves into your subconscious by osmosis.

It is not just his masterful command of his subject matter – that is (or should be) a sine qua non for any speaker booked by the Oxford Union. That said, it warms my heart to see how confidently and smoothly the facts, figures and dates punctuate his talk.

It is not his unselfconscious enunciation which makes every word heard, nor the (rare) discipline that causes him to conclude comfortably within his time limit.

It is the laser-sharp focus that he brings to bear on his message and its effect on his audience. His mindset is exactly where it needs to be, and it makes him as near bullet-proof on the speaking platform as anyone should want to be. At one point, shortly before the end, Ben Sullivan, oblivious of how kind Stewart has been in only covertly disembowelling his emaciated arguments, asks for the floor, is courteously granted it, attempts to refute some point, and is gently trodden on. In technical terms I think Stewart may just be the best I have had on this blog.

He grabs you with his argument, and weaves his narrative spell around you.

He pitches his decorum exactly where it needs to be for this environment. The hard, cold facts are warmed by the humanity of the emotions that he recounts in those who went to fight Hitler. But still it is all a little formal – as befits the Oxford Union. That leads me to my only reservation. What would he be like in more of a bear-pit environment?

I may find the time to go looking.

Hannan dazzles at the Oxford Union

My brother expressed to me disquiet over this blog. He felt that it covered the performances of speakers that were so good that readers might be fed unreasonable expectation. Upon my probing further it emerged that the only posting he could remember was Daniel Hannan. On that sample he had a case. Hannan is about as good as they get.

At an Oxford Union debate in November 2012 he had to be at the top of his game because, as we saw in my previous posting, he was preceded by a barnstorming performance by Cornel West. Indeed he begins his speech by suggesting that he should just agree and have done with it – “…but while I’m on my feet I’m going to say one other  thing…” and then he says a great deal. The Motion was ‘The House Would Occupy Wall Street’ and Hannan was speaking against it

The Oxford Union, despite the formal garb, lends itself to animated delivery. You think you know what decorum means? In rhetoric it means blending to your advantage with the prevailing environment. Hannan doffs his “smooth as a kitten’s wrist” image, replacing it with enthusiastic energy.

The enthusiastic energy [anadiplosis] begins with the last thing the audience had expected to hear from him. He castigates the bailing out of the banks. These students, fed on a diet of mainstream media, thought they knew what all politicians of the right stood for and he is determined to disabuse them. He creates a slow-building auxesis whose impetus is so strong that he perhaps stuns the audience into missing a potential laugh at 1:30. No matter: without breaking stride he throws it away, forges on and is rewarded with full-blooded applause at 2:18. He’s got them! Now with the assistance of a little pantomime he gets a huge laugh at 2:37. The auxesis continues to its punch-line for which he unexpectedly takes the top right off the volume to underpin the earnestness of his central message which is that corporatism is not the same as capitalism, This is the end of his beginning.

He swings into the main body of his speech; and my pulse quickens. He is using a Tripod structure. He even gives us a Contents Page! Has he read my book?  Not as far as I know, but then I merely codified and named the structure: creating it for yourself is hardly rocket-science. This is truly magnificent. His message is crystal clear, transparently sincere and solidly argued. As he swings into his closing you feel that though Cornel West brilliantly grabbed the audience’s emotion and heart, if the vote goes with the head Hannan must win.

The closing is another auxesis. He had told them at the beginning that the Occupy movement was misdirected, aiming at the wrong target. Now he closes the circle (has he read my book?) listing for them the buildings they should be occupying, intensifying example upon example till … aargh! He spoonerized the punch-line! The micro-structure that lead to the punch-line was pretty as could be and should have climaxed triumphantly. In the event it was a bit of a smudge. It was momentary, half-way only, corrected after a mini-second, probably didn’t matter at all to the audience; but if I were in his shoes I know I’d be kicking myself black and blue. I am not: I can look at it with my nose further from the canvas, and I am convinced it didn’t matter. I doubt that he sees it that way.

Dan Hannan is really outstanding. Could I help him improve? In terms of his material I could really help only by being a sounding board; and with this speech I’d have to be picking nits off nits. There is one area that bothers me slightly. He makes much use of vocal colour-tone, and does it very effectively. The trouble is that when he goes dramatically quiet he loses some intelligibility. It’s because his voice is not trained.

So what about my brother’s disquiet? Can I help others to reach this standard? Yes and no. It depends on them. Hannan certainly has natural ability; but don’t make the mistake of supposing that he emerged from the womb doing this. He has worked hard. Any candidate that came to me asking for that level would have to want it very much, and be prepared to put in the work! And some have done all of that.

Knowing words like symploce doesn’t make you a better speaker

My text for today…

DOOLITTLE: I’ll tell you, Governor, if you’ll only let me get a word in. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.

HIGGINS: Pickering, this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native wood-notes wild. “I’m willing to tell you: I’m wanting to tell you: I’m waiting to tell you.” Sentimental rhetoric! That’s the Welsh strain in him. It also accounts for his mendacity and dishonesty.

Fairly often in this blog there occur words which, it must be admitted, probably stop the eyes of most readers momentarily. At that point a reader that doesn’t know the word may click the Glossary button on the grey ribbon at the head of the page or impatiently go and read something else. I made the decision to use these words here, even at the risk of driving people away, not to flaunt my knowledge of them but to save space. If I had to explain what anadiplosis was whenever it cropped up in a speech I would be adding a paragraph every time. The same is true of all other such.

Most would agree that I, doing what I do, need to know these words. A regular reader of this blog will also find it helpful to know them, and will learn them quickly – there are not that many.  But you don’t need to know them to be a better speaker.

Consider that bit of dialogue at the head of today’s article. It comes from Pygmalion by G.B.Shaw – and therefore also crops up in My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins styles himself Professor and is a scholar and published author of books on linguistics and phonetics. Col Pickering is likewise an author of a book about Sanskrit. If ever two men could be expected to know words like those we are discussing, here they are. Why then did Shaw not put into Higgins’ mouth any reference to symploce? A quick look at the Glossary page will confirm that symploce refers to a form of repetition wherein both the beginnings and endings of the elements are the same. This is perhaps the neatest and most elegant example of it I’ve ever found –

  • I’m willing to tell you
  • I’m wanting to tell you
  • I’m waiting to tell you

But Shaw is silent on the matter; and the only reason I can conceive is that he did not know it was called Symploce.  Why should he?  Shaw was one of the foremost writers of his age, and churned out beauties like that in profusion, but so what?  He didn’t need to have learnt their obscure names to create the things. So why should you?

I fervently favour spontaneity in speaking, because audiences do. The way to find yourself spontaneously uttering beautiful and elegant phrases is to immerse yourself in fine literature and/or poetry where such figures of speech abound.

It obviously worked for Bernard Shaw!

Obama’s victory speech – a tour de force.

When, on the morning of 7 November, I learnt on the radio that Barack Obama had won another four-year term as President of the United States of America, I also learnt that his victory speech had a distinct Face –

“The best is yet to come!”

I greeted this with mixed feelings. I was delighted that he had actually given the speech a Face. Can you quote anything from his inauguration four years ago?  I can’t either. It’s such a simple device, and so many overlook it.  But my delight was tinged with nervousness. His Face was uncannily similar to Ronald Reagan’s under precisely the same circumstances, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was nervous lest his victory speech turn out to be merely a rehash of political plagiarism and cliché.


My anxiety was mightily reinforced by his opening which came pretty close to merely updating, “Four score and seven years ago…”; but very quickly my fears were squashed. For what it needed to be, this speech shaped into a supremely impressive example.

What is a speech like that supposed to achieve? Are we to expect detailed policy news? – a reform timetable? – a series of eye-catching initiatives? For heaven’s sake, he was there to congratulate, thank and rally. Nothing else. You’d have to work pretty hard to write a better example of that than this.

I don’t reckon anyone had written this though. He spoke for twenty minutes with no vestige of a script or notes. Many regard that as barely a notch short of magic  It isn’t: it’s easy: everyone I’ve trained can do that. Nevertheless he did it in ringing tones, unhaltingly, scattering names and other data prodigiously. You may think I say this through gritted teeth because I am not his greatest fan as a speaker, but I was bowled over.

There was the series of thankings. We have all curled our toes at lame thankings at the Oscar ceremonies (all actors think they can speak in public, and very few can). Obama addressed each group of thankees in a different way. What a simple device for making each group feel special! Simple, but not easy.

He varied the vocal tone. Most of it was pretty declamatory, which is to be expected under the circumstances. This had the added advantage for him of what I call ‘relentless iambicism’ – a regular lifting of the voice at the ends of words and phrases. Iambicism can be intensely tedious unless it’s appropriate – and here it was appropriate. For Obama the advantage was that it remedied much of his tendency to swallow the ends of his words. He still referred to the ‘peep’ who voted for him in the ‘elecksh’, and so on – but I won’t rain on his parade.  I began this paragraph by stating that he varied the tone. Note how he brings it right down to a quieter intensity at 8:40. Having that section in the middle of all that declaiming was particularly telling. It was a lovely section in the speech.

He stuck in a lot of huge pauses. Very dramatic: a good device for conveying security and authority: an excellent device for buying him thinking time.

That thinking time or a well-developed way with words, or both, produced for instance anadiplosis in the first minute and a very good anaphora triad at 19:20 – keep reaching, keep working, keep fighting.  It could be argued that it was not just anaphora but symploce (beginnings and endings the same) because each element began with ‘keep’ and ended with ‘ing’

How to close? Send for Polly!

At 19:50 he deployed polysyndeton. If you want to build to a big finish (peroration), polysyndeton can be a good friend. You have an enormous list, and instead of reeling it off without conjunctions (asyndeton), you go out of your way to stick the same conjunction between each element in the list. In this case the conjunction was ‘or’. He began with phrases, each joined with ‘or’. The phrases became shorter which caused the incidence of ‘or’ to accelerate. Eventually he was rattling off individual words – all separated by ‘or’. The effect on the crowd was nuclear: it was never going to be otherwise. He climbed on top of the tumult by blazing extended anaphora till he was addressing bedlam.  Who heard all the “God Bless America” bits?  Who needed to?

Barack baby, that’ll do.