J. K. Rowling breaks rules, and wins.

On 5 June, 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the Harvard Commencement Address.

As I watch her acknowledging the applause that welcomes her all my experience and instincts scream that she is downright terrified. It is not just the nervousness of the smile: there are many other symptoms. It is hardly surprising. The Harvard Commencement Address has been delivered by some considerable names over the years: famous, infamous, but always considerable. Her terror turns out to be not a short-lived hump. Symptoms of fear peep out at intervals throughout the speech.

Nevertheless she is manifestly among friends, probably fans. This may explain the phenomenon that transpires, but I am not convinced.

After the Hierarchical Hello, she launches into an opening that acknowledges her nervousness and seeks to exploit it. This is not an original device, and I advise against it because in my experience it nearly always fails. Audiences do not want to be told you are frightened. To my amazement, long before she is anywhere near her punch-line, the audience is lapping it up, loving it and laughing. In fact the entire opening routine proves to be so popular, and generates so many laughs, that I find myself in doubt as to what actually is the punch-line – that is, until one laugh provides a launch-pad for enthusiastic applause. The audience reckons that is the punch-line. When the market makes such a clear-cut decision it is wise to cash in your chips, end that routine and move to the next section. Rowling spurns that wisdom because she has two more things to say on that subject, both good, one brilliant, and all loved by the audience.

And so it goes on. She breaks another rule with spectacular success. She is a talking head, and much of the script is in written rather than spoken English. Does she get away with this because it is slightly Wodehousian in style, so she is playing a British stereotype to the American audience? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced because she continues to enthral the audience when she gets serious.

And she does get serious. More than 70% of this talk is serious; and on the numerous occasions that the camera cuts to the audience only once is there a face not glued to her.

I repeat that though it is tempting to attribute the success of this speech to her huge and devoted following, I think the reason is even simpler (in concept if not in execution).

Audiences will forgive virtually anything, from glaring mannerisms to opinions they find obnoxious, if only you are interesting enough. She had neither of those shortcomings, though she did have others like over-fastidious enunciation (which I would work to smooth out if I were advising her). What trumped it all was the sheer quality of the way her arguments were couched.

Making a speech is, in many ways, like telling a story; and there is a rumour doing the rounds that J. K. Rowling is quite good at that.

Michael Sandel owns his audience.

My godson, a psychologist and himself a university lecturer, posted on Facebook a link to this TED talk by Michael Sandel; so I had to go and look.  A Harvard professor should be comfortable on the speaking platform; and a political philosopher should fulfil Cardinal 1 – have something to say.

Though we don’t see his introduction, so cannot guarantee to catch the very beginning of his talk, we do see someone (presumably his introducer) exiting downstage right. My eagerness to see the very beginning of any talk is because of my keenness on what I call the bald opening – going straight in without lame preambles.  I think he has a bald opening. He also has adopted one of my favoured default hand-strategies – one hand in pocket, the other gesturing.   He is comfortable with it: I know because the pocket hand, of its own subconscious volition, emerges in seconds .This is promising well.

As a university professor he should be comfortable on his feet in front of an audience, but still there are tiny symptoms of hump if you look for them.  So let’s not.  His hump-busting tactic is to have this opening well-prepared. He gives us a Contents Page by setting his agenda. At 0.25 he says, “We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate”. There’s the Face!  Has he read my book?  This is straight down the middle of the fairway of my orthodoxy.  There’s a pleasing anaphora sequence at 0.50, using the word ‘over’ as the repetition key. To round off his agenda-setting he announces a discussion on the validity of applying Aristotelian principles to the issues at stake. At precisely the 2-minute point he seems to have shrugged off the hump, has set the scene and is well set.

Lovely clear structure – I’m enjoying myself! So will you. It’s excellent.

Having announced a discussion, he is as good as his word. Almost immediately he is working his audience. He calls for opinions, discusses opinions, stages differences of opinions between members of the audience, generates laughter, gets people thinking. He owns that audience right up to his closing; and the reasons are simple.

I’d like to refer you to two things. In my book I discuss the importance of using a judicious mixture of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know; and I give various reasons that I will spare you here. In my critique a few days ago of Matt Ridley’s TED talk, I discussed the value of causing the audience to apply their own critical faculties to issues being covered. The way Sandel structures this discussion fulfils all of that. While audience members are throwing up opinions in a relatively light-hearted fashion the diet cannot get too rich. Therefore they are very receptive when Sandel then piles in with something quite meaty. Furthermore, while he is inviting their opinions they get drawn deeper into the issues at hand; and that means their increased attention.

Suppose you are addressing department heads in your company on the importance of their getting their new fiscal year’s budgetary requirements submitted on time (I have deliberately recalled a scenario with which a Finance Director once challenged me on the basis that it was impossible to make such a talk interesting). I suggest you could use Sandel’s template quite effectively in that situation.

By the way, did you spot asyndeton three paragraphs ago?  Check the glossary if you don’t know what the hell I’m on about.  The third sentence in that paragraph is a list of items with never a conjunction. It makes the list cleaner somehow.