Lindsay Johns and the Rhetauracle question

I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.

Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.

He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.

Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!

At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.

3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.

Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.

Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.

Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?

Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.

Alain de Botton lacking structure

A past trainee of mine co-sponsors periodic business lectures in Cambridge, and I have attended some excellent ones. I wallow in the luxury of being able to listen without needing to criticise. One such that I remember enjoying (though I don’t remember what it was about) was by Alain de Botton; so when I came across a TED talk by him I was eager to go and sample it. It was this lecture, entitled A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.

We don’t see the very beginning, unless he is accustomed to starting halfway through a sentence, but when we join him he is travelling like an express train. He talks of his misery on occasions when he judges the degree to which his achievements are dwarfed by his ambitions; and he therefore seems to be castigating our culture for belittling those it perceives to be losers. I decide first, before donning my rhetor hat, to listen to the talk.

  • He confuses career with life – a common but critical error.
  • He bases his arguments on a shallow and narrow definition of success – even when he says he doesn’t.
  • He mixes with the wrong people.
  • He goes to the wrong parties
  • He seems almost to conclude that something should be done about this perceived problem. Legislation? What a hideous prospect!

Regardless of the above (and with this talk so far scoring 1.8 million views, he should worry what I think!) let’s look at how well he put it across, and how it could be improved…

He can speak: he is very articulate. He can shoot from the hip: so can anyone (I’ve proved it countless times) but he knows he can so he does. He speaks very quickly and nervously; but in his case it represents an outpouring of nervous energy as distinct from fear, so to the audience it’s appealing. He is intelligent, well-read and bursting with ideas, even if to my mind some of them might be a little half-baked. The only thing he really lacks is structure.

The talk, though reasonably absorbing, has no real after-taste. Five minutes later you are likely to have forgotten it, or at any rate what he said. What did he say? In my mini-summary, above, my last comment begins, “He seems almost to conclude…” because I was not quite sure what his conclusion was. He flits from idea to example to argument like a manic butterfly.

His lack of structure is also evinced by his needing to hold (and regularly refer to) a palm-top as a prompting device. For a lousy seventeen minutes, that’s really pathetic. I could show him a range of ways he could give this thing structure and shape and narrative and an overall coherence that would make it memorable both to the audience and to him.

As I often say to trainees, if you can’t remember what you are planning to say to them, how can you expect them to remember what you said?