On 29 January, 2014, the York Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Thatcherism Must Be Abandoned To Save Britain’s Economy”.
This blog has visited the Oxford Union countless times, and the Cambridge Union quite often, but it took a specific search for an example of a speech by Martin Vander Weyer for me to discover the York University equivalent, of which I see he is Patron. I feel rather ashamed at my laziness in not having found it before. Ferreting now around their website reveals a rich seam for me to mine, and I look forward to doing so.
I searched for an example of Vander Weyer’s speaking because I enjoy reading him in The Spectator, where he is business editor. In this debate he is speaking in opposition to the motion.
What a super opening! It is not just that it is funny, it is not that he pokes jovial, unmalicious fun at previous speakers, but what causes the audience to laugh and keep laughing is that not once does he beg a laugh or even pause. He just ploughs on through the hilarity till suddenly you realise that he has turned serious. It is one of the finest examples of brilliantly executed throw-away opening humour that I have found. There is a lesson here for all speakers, if they encounter the right circumstances.
I do wish he weren’t using paper. He manages it very well, not letting it spoil his rhythm; but paper, even if it isn’t a script but merely notes, imposes a negative force on any speech.
In order to shoot a speech from the hip, you need two things. You need to know how to, and in order to dare to do it you need to know you can. (Vander Weyer knows he can: he proves it during that excellent opening.) In order for it to be feasible you need to apply a series of very strong structural rules to the content. The rules are simple and once learned can be easily applied. With practice it is also very quick – quicker than writing notes.
But here’s the clincher argument. That structure, making the whole route of the speech crystal clear in your mind, makes it simultaneously more digestible for the audience. Digestible makes memorable. I’ve watched this speech a couple of times, and although I obviously know the general gist of it I am not sitting here knowing precisely what I’ve heard. The message is slightly nebulous. If he’d applied the right discipline to the structure it would be starkly clear.
It’s the paper’s fault: it excused him that discipline.