Sir Christopher Hum – brilliant!

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord PowellStefan HalperLord WeiSir David Tang and Linda Yueh. Today we conclude our coverage of this debate with Sir Christopher Hum, who spoke against the motion.

Let us never forget, when we are examining a speech in a debate, that we are eaves-dropping on a rhetorical contest being conducted before a live audience that will subsequently vote. The speakers’ various arguments (and demeanour) are therefore aimed specifically at those in the hall. Now let us look at one of Sir Christopher’s first sentences,

We’re not engaged in some sort of confrontation between the panda-huggers and the enemies of China.

He has painted himself as emollient, reasonable and funny. He has laid down a clear and clever decorum. The camera cuts to the opposing team who are smiling. Are they amused at the panda-hugger term or are the smiles a wry acknowledgement that this is a formidable foe? Within seconds he obliquely insinuates a reference to his term as British Ambassador to China, than which you would be hard pressed to find a more powerful sinological ethos. Imagine how he has seized the attention of the students in that hall! And now imagine the glow of delight that began to steal over me as I watched.

This man is brilliant.

It seems almost superfluous to highlight the elegant extended anaphora that begins at 1:30 (“a China which …”). The speech is littered with such classical figures of speech.

It seems barely necessary to point out how often he harvests really good laughs from his audience without even acknowledging them. He throws away all his gags, thus permitting his audience to laugh or not as they wish. The only thing he demands from them is their attention. That’s a signal of strength and security, and audiences love it.

There is a slight downside to that strategy; audiences don’t always get the dryest gags as they fly by. They didn’t get, “too much extrapolation makes you blind”. It didn’t matter because he never implied that he was trying to be funny.

If you are a regular reader you may be waiting for me to criticise his use of paper. That is not a script merely notes and, except for a very few occasions when in danger of losing his thread, he doesn’t really use them. Better structure would have rendered it almost redundant, but not entirely. At one point he reads a quote, which is one of those occasions that I regard paper as permissible – even desirable (for reasons that would take too long to explain here). When the paper is in his hand it is incidental, and barely more than something with which to gesture. The important thing is that he is using spoken, as distinct from written, English. The very first word that follows his formal greeting is, “um”.

Some might be horrified by that word, but it is a hallmark of spontaneity. Audiences love spontaneity. Perfection generates suspicion. Imperfection reassures, if only subliminally. It is like the imperfections that add value to natural, as opposed to cultured, pearls. This speech has value-adding imperfections. At one point Sir Christopher utters the word “economy” when he means “environment”. Does he correct himself?  No, he smoothly continues, and I doubt that anyone in the hall noticed.

If he’d been my trainee I’d want to revisit his structure with him to make his narrative thread more secure, but otherwise I’d be as proud as a peacock.

Linda Yueh is better than she thinks

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord PowellStefan Halper, Lord Wei and Sir David Tang. Today it is the turn of Linda Yueh who spoke in favour of the motion.

In the opening seconds, when I first watched her, I emitted a quiet groan. She appeared to consult her paper even to find the words, “Good evening…”. Almost immediately I reconsidered; because not only was her vocabulary unmistakeably that of the spoken rather than written variety (I’ve covered this before) but her eyes came up and stayed up most of the time. Furthermore her downward glances seemed not for getting prompting from notes. Could it be that her habit of glancing down was merely a comfort thing? If so, it would recede as her Hump receded.

It did.

She swings into a nice anecdote about the movie, Back to the Future. It results in a big, and well deserved, laugh and a ripple of applause. Her decorum has been well established. This audience now belongs to her; she’s on a roll, and she’s good.

You may think that this was to be expected: she is, after all, an experienced broadcaster. This will certainly have helped her to be able to shoot from the hip; but there is a big difference between addressing a lens and a roomful of people. Yueh knows how to work an audience.

The speech suffers a little from being reactive to what the other speakers have said. It makes it slightly disjointed and less coherent than it might have been. I want her to be articulating a much more distinct argument of her own. It emerges that she is in the process of writing a book on this very subject, so she could – and should – have come out with all guns blazing, mowing down contrary arguments in passing.

Why did she not do so? I have two theories, and both could be correct. It could be a gender thing. If a woman speaker doesn’t deliver in a macho fashion, it doesn’t mean she can’t. She could have made a policy decision based on a view that to do so could alienate her audience (and she may be right).

The other theory is that she feels less secure than her ability warrants. The downward glances during her hump are also indicative of this. She can’t help having a hump – everyone has a hump – but she can learn to handle it better. She can also be made more secure.

She’s good. She’s much better than I think she thinks she is. Ultimately only she can persuade herself of this truth, but who is going to persuade her to do that?

Sir David Tang, the bruiser magnate

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord Powell, Stefan Halper, and Lord Wei. Today it is the turn of Sir David Tang who spoke against the motion.

Sir David begins by going straight for Lord Powell’s jugular (metaphorically, you understand). He has evidently been sitting seething since Lord Powell made some assertions during his speech. Lord Powell in his turn leaps up to defend himself, but Sir David refuses to relinquish the floor till he has finished making both his points. Eventually Lord Powell is able to refute or clarify, and an uneasy peace resumes.

What we have witnessed in this episode is a battle of cultures, and I do not mean East versus West. I mean magnate versus mandarin. Now that I write it I immediately see that I am still ambiguous given the Chinese origins of the term ‘mandarin’, so let me make completely clear what I mean. Sir David is a very successful businessman who has thrived and developed his communication skills in the sometimes brutally tough market place. He is the magnate. Lord Powell by contrast has thrived and developed his communication skills in the equally brutal, but outwardly silky, corridors of the civil service mandarinate. Bruiser versus fencer!  I know which I favour, but anyway I find those two and a half minutes fascinating to watch.

The opening episode concluded, we have seen the last of Sir David’s ability to do without his script. Regular readers will sigh and prepare to move on, because of the wearisome repetition of this theme in my blog; but in this case we are looking at something subtly different. Usually I look to highlight occasions when the speaker’s eyes lift from the paper and a heightened coherence manifests itself for a few seconds. Sir David is an extremely rare example of one who actually gets bogged down and tongue-tied when not reading. During that opening exchange his eloquence was driven by passion, so he shot very effectively from the hip. Now that his ire has cooled he absolutely needs his script.

Lest anyone be rash enough to suggest that therefore all he has to do is get angry, I hasten to quote Ambrose Bierce –

Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

He is not a very young man, though younger than I, so I suspect that it is frequent practice that has made him so much more comfortable with a script than without. If he came to me could I sever that dependency? Ye-e-e-e-s, but it would be much more difficult than usual – usually it is easy. And why should he bother when he has learnt to handle paper so well? I don’t merely refer to his delivery: the idiomatic syntax with which his script is written lends itself to very expressive speaking. He really is the exception that proves my no-paper rule.

He delivers humour dead-pan and well. He harvests a few well-deserved and well-timed laughs, but you actually find yourself wondering whether he meant to be funny. It is not till he sits down and shares broad, relaxed smiles with his confederates, that you are permitted a glimpse of his own humour.

In conclusion, though I would enjoy tinkering here and there, I rather think I prefer just to sit and listen to him.

Lord Wei needs help

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012. Lord Wei spoke in favour of the motion.

Because I am able to embed the video above, you do not need to see its posting on YouTube. If on the other hand you elect to click that hyper-link you will see that someone has posted a comment saying, “He’s a pathetic orator”. At the time of writing that is the only comment.

Should I leave it there, or shall I proceed to provide my own critique? I could leave it there because I fear the comment is correct.

The first and most glaring problem is an old friend enemy of this blog. Wei is too much of a talking head. He does not dare to cut himself free from his script – though on this occasion it is not on paper but an iPad. That first sentence – Ye Gods! – is he really incapable of saying that without reading it? No of course he isn’t: he just hasn’t been shown. Regular readers of this blog will have spotted it immediately and will already be watching in horror from between their fingers. All the familiar problems are there: stilted wording, ridiculous stumbling over sections that would not be subject to stumbling if merely spoken, etc.

Then comes the really frustrating part! Watch from the two-minute mark, and you’ll see an excruciating, toe-curling hiatus when he loses his place; and then around 2:20 he adds an aside which involves his face rising and – wonders! – actually addressing the audience, and his tongue merely speaking. That’s the first fluent and engaging part of the speech. There are others to come – and all for the same reason. That wretched script is manifestly his worst enemy in this environment. For a few seconds at a time he’s quite a good speaker: for extended minutes he is – to quote the YouTube comment – pathetic.

What twists the knife in my entrails is that he is in a huge majority. Audiences are constantly being subjected to this sort of abomination. And the knife twists again because I have proved countless times that it is completely unnecessary. No one who has worked with me needs a script.

I am not terribly keen to get into what he says. I happen to find it naive, superficial and lame, but I’ll defend his right to say it.

I’d defend, much harder, his right to deliver it properly and the audience’s right to have it so delivered.

Stefan Halper – another talking head

At the Oxford Union Debate on the motion The 21st Century Belongs to China Stefan Halper opposed the motion.

I have very often rehearsed the arguments against reading a speech.  For three examples I did it here, and here and here. I should love therefore to avoid today dwelling on that aspect of this speech, but I simply cannot. Once again we find ourselves listening to styles of wording, phrasing and syntax which could have been excellent if read but which are stilted, awkward and clumsy when spoken. My frustration in all this is that we deal here not with someone who is of low intelligence or narrowly educated, but quite the reverse. Has he not noticed, when attending speeches delivered by others, how much better it sounds when they shoot their delivery from the hip?

This conundrum continues to perplex me. He must have noticed! All I can therefore conclude is that either he believes he can read more fluently than his talking-head peers, or he assumes that the ability to speak without notes is a divine gift bestowed only upon a chosen few. Both of those are fallacies. The stilted nature of speech from a talking-head has almost nothing to do with reading ability, and very little to do with writing ability (though you can learn to write better in the spoken idiom). As for the divine-gift fallacy, after the decades I have been teaching public speaking I am still waiting for the first trainee who fails to discover that they belong to the ‘chosen few’.

If you’ve been taught properly, shooting a speech from the hip is more fluent, more engaging, more convincing, more secure and much quicker to prepare. But still they don’t! Still they labour for hours over a script and then sound like railway station announcers.

Halper has so much going for him. He is suitably opinionated, knows his subject well enough to back up those opinions, and so on. He is an author you want to read, and he could in a single morning be transformed into also an inspiring speaker.

Watch from the 5-minute mark. Can you believe that page-turn hiatus?  Stick with it a little longer and we reach a pleasing, though halting, anaphora, built on the word, “Stop…” (though he inexplicably corrupts the anaphora by changing to “cease…” for the fourth element of the series) and then at the 5:30 mark he stumbles over the word, “willingly…”. There’s half a minute that he could utter flawlessly a hundred times with no problem at all, yet here he makes a right, royal meal of it – and only because he is handicapping himself by reading it.

What he has to say is actually very interesting. You may – like me – have to watch it a few times to realise that. Pity his live audience that did not have that chance.

Lord Powell – practically perfect.

In November 2012 The Oxford Union debated the motion The 21st Century Belongs To China. Speaking for the motion was Lord Powell, one of Britain’s most senior card-carrying members of The Great and the Good. Among other jewels in a glittering CV is the small detail of his having been Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher and John Major during their times as British Prime Minister. With that added to a career as a diplomat and a goodly fistful of non-executive directorships you could be forgiven for assuming that he knew how to construct a speech – and you’d be right. You might also assume that he would deliver immaculately – and you’d be … very close.

What a distinguished figure he cuts in that still picture! That’s how he should have looked all the time, instead of pointless periods of peering at paper.

Very good opening! He recalls references others have made that evening to Guagua Bo, says a few words in tribute to that young man’s colourful career at Oxford and elsewhere, and harvests a very good laugh. Bo’s family in China is currently going through a difficult time and Powell, that laugh gained and in his pocket, immediately turns serious for a few words. It’s very impressive, very skilled: firstly to pick up so fluently on what others have said, secondly to get a full-blown laugh so early in any speech, thirdly so smoothly to steer the decorum to the serious bit. Was it spontaneous, or was it prepared? I’m going to stick my neck out here and put my money on spontaneous.

He could very easily have prepared the section, based on his previous occasion in this hall having been with Bo, and then opportunistically pasted on the front of it his reference to others having that evening spoken of him. So why am I suspecting away from that? It’s because of what comes next.

He gets to the matter in hand and points to how academic the debate is because no one in the hall will be around at the end of the century to verify its conclusions – “…even though you’re all extremely young, with the exception of David Tang and me”. That last is asking for a small laugh and doesn’t get one because it’s very slightly miss-timed. Within less than half a minute, therefore, one joke gets a huge laugh and another dies. A skilled and experienced speaker’s comedy timing is very often surer by instinct than by design, and I think the first was spontaneous  instinct and the second design. I could be wrong.

Powell operates a well-conceived tripartite structure, not unlike a Tripod, making his message coherent and digestible. He furnishes his audience with a clear Contents Page, telling them what he’s going to tell them before telling them. There is really not a great deal that he doesn’t know about preparing material, though I’d have liked the speech to have had a Face to give it memorability.

He also has command of small details that distinguish true masters of the craft. At 3:37, for instance, he mimes a steep growth graph and he casually does it in mirror image – in other words the graph is the wrong way round for him but the right way round for the audience.

I have just two niggles, one tiny and pedantic and the other more fundamental. Let’s first get the small one out of the way: at 0:55 he commits a grammatical error that jars this pedant’s sensibilities. The more fundamental niggle is in the second sentence below the video frame above. Powell is a consummate shooter-from-the-hip, yet every so often his face goes pointlessly down to his papers on the dispatch box. From the 2-minute mark for instance there’s half a minute where this happens often. In none of these periods can I find any trace of material that he might of necessity read; therefore I conclude that he has adopted this as a sort of pensive-pose that he assumes from time to time. I find it a pity because it is entirely unnecessary and it temporarily robs him of slices of his audience engagement.

He’s a stunning speaker in every aspect. He has gravitas with humour, and combines lovely use of language with a willingness to season it with occasional slang (who’d have expected him to use a term like ‘slam-dunk’?). His material is copy-book in preparation and he plays his audience like a musical instrument. I’d just like him to adopt another pensive-pose.