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.

Detlev Schlichter – disappointingly flabby.

In January 2012 Detlev Schlichter spoke at the Adam Smith Institute at an event entitled “Monetary Reform & the Eurozone Crisis”. Schlichter is an Austrian School economist whose expertise is somewhat more than theoretical. Having spent almost as many years trading in international financial markets as I have spent teaching communication skills, he knows how many beans make five. His award-winning book, Paper Money Collapse, and his highly opinionated blog clearly show he has strong views to impart. His regular pundit appearances on the broadcasting media indicate that he also has a lot to say. My question is, how well can he say it on a speaking platform?

Bald opening! Because of etiquette niceties a bald opening is not always appropriate, but if the occasion permits I always recommend it. Though its use feels a little strange at first, I have never found a speaker who didn’t eventually find it liberating.

He has a script, but he is not being a talking head. He is not wedded to that paper: he glances at it from time to time but mostly his face addresses his audience. As a result he engages much more thoroughly with his audience than he would have done had he been reading.  At 2:20 with the words, “this debt is completely out of line…” he begins a well-constructed anaphora triad. I wonder whether this was written in his script or whether he uttered it spontaneously.

So far so good, but his structure lets him down. It consists of his asking himself a series of questions – why are central banks doing this? what does the market do? how have policy-makers tried to do this? how could we get into such a mess? and so on. For him it’s a tempting technique, as he is accustomed to being interviewed. All he thinks he has to do is ask himself the questions he would like an interviewer to ask.

It’s a mistake.

It’s not an unusual mistake, but it’s still a mistake. I have to hit you here with a piece of interviewology that is a little counter-intuitive, so I am going to ask you to take it on trust. Interviewees who know their subject and who know what they are doing sparkle brightest when answering unexpected or even undesirable questions. Questions you ask yourself will be be neither: they will be pat-a-cake questions which merely yield pat-a-cake answers. And that equals flabby.

This speech is flabby. He has some strong things to say – e.g. government bonds are essentially parasitic – but he says them only after he has put his audience to sleep. He spends the first half giving us a history lecture on the abandonment of the gold standard and the disaster of the fiat money system that succeeded it. Flabby! Just after the 11-minute mark he gives us a quotation from Ludwig von Mises, essentially foretelling the current financial meltdown. I would have had him starting the whole speech with that and, as it is a quotation, I would have had him reading it – in which case he wouldn’t have disastrously muffed it. That would have given him a message and put him in the driving seat. It would also have tightened things and stopped him repeating himself and over-running his time.

Did he have a closing to the speech? I don’t know: he ran out of time and just fell off the end. What a pity, that someone who has important things to say has not learnt how to say them in this medium!