Anthony Fry at the Oxford Union.

We have in previous posts dipped into a debate that was held at the Oxford Union in November 2012, with the motion ‘The House Would Occupy Wall Street’. We gaped open-jawed at the grand histrionics of Cornel West: we marvelled at the rapier skill of Daniel Hannan. The former is a philosopher, academic and political activist, the latter an MEP and journalist. Both are outstanding speakers and exciting to watch. Professionally though, working as I do in the upper levels of the business world, it was their colleagues who interested me more.

Beside those virtuosi were two distinguished men of money. We heard Errol Damelin a few days ago supporting the motion: today it’s the turn of Anthony Fry, speaking against.

For his opening the first half of the first sentence was all the ethos he needed, and it was well chosen. Furthermore, to my delight, he paired his opening with his closing. Just as Damelin did he dresses his offering in handsome garments. But again I am racked with frustration. Damelin used cue-cards: Fry is reading from a script: he’s a talking head.

As talking heads go, he’s a very good talking head: the script is fairly well-constructed, well argued, well written. He delivers it smoothly, fluently, with just the right balance of gravitas and expression and with crystal clarity. What more could I want? I want him to throw away that script.

He’d probably tell me that he could not manage without a script; and my reply would be that he is the latest in a very long line stretching back more than twenty years of people who have told me that, and I have not failed to convert any of them.  Let me refer you to three small sections in this speech.

The first sentence: did he really need to read that? I’ve heard it perhaps four times and can already recite it verbatim. So could you. So could anyone. Even if he had to do it for the rest of the speech, what’s he doing with his face buried in paper during that sentence? From 1:24 there’s a ten-second section of several sentences that he delivers straight out front, looking at the audience, with no discernible loss of fluency. At 11:25, in concluding he says, “Mr President, *** I beg to oppose the motion…” That line of three asterisks?  That’s when his face turned down to his script. Did he need to read that bit? No, of course not. He does not need that bloody paper!

So why is it there? My guesstimate is about 60% comfort-blanket and I’ll split the rest down the middle between his desire for some of the pretty phrasing he has composed, and a structure that is not quite clear enough.  If I address the last first, the key word is ‘quite’. It’s nearly there: there are clear sections, chapters containing distinct topics. It needs but the merest tinkering and he could think his way confidently through it without prompting. What about the pretty phrases? Did he really scratch his head for hours over each one? Were they all so reluctantly and agonizingly torn from his brain that the only way to retail them is to read them? I don’t think so. The relaxed, unforced fluidity with which he utters them tells me that this is largely his natural way of speaking – in which case he would probably have said near enough the same thing if he had been speaking spontaneously.

That leaves the comfort blanket. Plain funk. Put like that it may seem pejorative, but I deal with this all the time. There will be an element of irrational fear (which is nevertheless still real) but just as much rational fear. This is, after all, the Oxford Union. Oxford is his alma mater, and even if it weren’t it is an environment to be treated with respect. This is neither the time nor the place to fall off a speech by drying up. So yes, this issue of fear needs addressing at another time and place. But it could easily be done.

Not for the first time, with subjects of this blog, I itch to help.

Errol Damelin at the Oxford Union

We have in previous posts dipped into a debate that was held at the Oxford Union in November 2012, with the motion ‘The House Would Occupy Wall Street‘. We gaped open-jawed at the grand histrionics of Cornel West: we marvelled at the rapier skill of Daniel Hannan. The former is a philosopher, academic and political activist, the latter an MEP and journalist. Both are outstanding speakers; neither is to be found in my niche.

I work in the upper levels of the business world; and another two speakers in that same debate come from there.  Errol Damelin and Anthony Fry are both distinguished members of the banking fraternity. Today I’d like to look at a speech delivered by Errol Damelin in support of the motion.

After a few seconds of preliminary small-talk he swings into ethos. “you may be questioning why the founder of  […] a financial services company is sitting on this side…” Regardless of how he answers that supposed questioning he has very neatly laid out his credentials for addressing the issue at hand. This bodes well. He then proceeds to outline the essence of the Occupy movement. Beginning at 1:08 there is an extended (eight elements) anaphora – “it’s about…”.

This man may not be the sort of virtuoso performer that we saw in West and Hannan, but he has presence and he knows a certain amount of speaking theory.

Nevertheless if I were advising him I’d want him to lose those cue cards on the dispatch box. He uses them very smoothly. unobtrusively and skilfully; yet they offend me. I briefly wondered whether they might be a comfort blanket, essentially redundant but still providing reassurance through periodic glances: but no, he needs them. There are a few occasions when he gets momentarily lost, and has to re-orientate himself. He needs them.

If his material were properly structured he wouldn’t need them. If he – the expert authority – can’t remember what he wants to tell them what chance has the audience – inexpert listeners – of remembering what they were told? Let me put this another way. The need for cue cards has nothing to do with memory – he spoke for less than a mere ten minutes: it is symptomatic of his not having marshalled his facts and arguments clearly enough.  That’s where he needs to do his work.

I wrote that paragraph with the speech paused at 4:45, and then watched the rest. It proceeded dramatically to support what I had written. Test it for yourself: watch the speech once and then pretend that you needed to retail the same arguments to someone who hadn’t been there.  Could you make a good enough fist of that?  I venture not, because his structure is messy and incoherent. Sentences, once spoken, fall off a cliff and are lost to memory.

Understanding and applying structure is where he needs to do his work.

Hannan dazzles at the Oxford Union

My brother expressed to me disquiet over this blog. He felt that it covered the performances of speakers that were so good that readers might be fed unreasonable expectation. Upon my probing further it emerged that the only posting he could remember was Daniel Hannan. On that sample he had a case. Hannan is about as good as they get.

At an Oxford Union debate in November 2012 he had to be at the top of his game because, as we saw in my previous posting, he was preceded by a barnstorming performance by Cornel West. Indeed he begins his speech by suggesting that he should just agree and have done with it – “…but while I’m on my feet I’m going to say one other  thing…” and then he says a great deal. The Motion was ‘The House Would Occupy Wall Street’ and Hannan was speaking against it

The Oxford Union, despite the formal garb, lends itself to animated delivery. You think you know what decorum means? In rhetoric it means blending to your advantage with the prevailing environment. Hannan doffs his “smooth as a kitten’s wrist” image, replacing it with enthusiastic energy.

The enthusiastic energy [anadiplosis] begins with the last thing the audience had expected to hear from him. He castigates the bailing out of the banks. These students, fed on a diet of mainstream media, thought they knew what all politicians of the right stood for and he is determined to disabuse them. He creates a slow-building auxesis whose impetus is so strong that he perhaps stuns the audience into missing a potential laugh at 1:30. No matter: without breaking stride he throws it away, forges on and is rewarded with full-blooded applause at 2:18. He’s got them! Now with the assistance of a little pantomime he gets a huge laugh at 2:37. The auxesis continues to its punch-line for which he unexpectedly takes the top right off the volume to underpin the earnestness of his central message which is that corporatism is not the same as capitalism, This is the end of his beginning.

He swings into the main body of his speech; and my pulse quickens. He is using a Tripod structure. He even gives us a Contents Page! Has he read my book?  Not as far as I know, but then I merely codified and named the structure: creating it for yourself is hardly rocket-science. This is truly magnificent. His message is crystal clear, transparently sincere and solidly argued. As he swings into his closing you feel that though Cornel West brilliantly grabbed the audience’s emotion and heart, if the vote goes with the head Hannan must win.

The closing is another auxesis. He had told them at the beginning that the Occupy movement was misdirected, aiming at the wrong target. Now he closes the circle (has he read my book?) listing for them the buildings they should be occupying, intensifying example upon example till … aargh! He spoonerized the punch-line! The micro-structure that lead to the punch-line was pretty as could be and should have climaxed triumphantly. In the event it was a bit of a smudge. It was momentary, half-way only, corrected after a mini-second, probably didn’t matter at all to the audience; but if I were in his shoes I know I’d be kicking myself black and blue. I am not: I can look at it with my nose further from the canvas, and I am convinced it didn’t matter. I doubt that he sees it that way.

Dan Hannan is really outstanding. Could I help him improve? In terms of his material I could really help only by being a sounding board; and with this speech I’d have to be picking nits off nits. There is one area that bothers me slightly. He makes much use of vocal colour-tone, and does it very effectively. The trouble is that when he goes dramatically quiet he loses some intelligibility. It’s because his voice is not trained.

So what about my brother’s disquiet? Can I help others to reach this standard? Yes and no. It depends on them. Hannan certainly has natural ability; but don’t make the mistake of supposing that he emerged from the womb doing this. He has worked hard. Any candidate that came to me asking for that level would have to want it very much, and be prepared to put in the work! And some have done all of that.

Cornel West: Grand Opera

While I can still get a word in edgeways, allow me to introduce a word that has not previously cropped up in this blog. Ethos has elsewhere varied its meaning, but in classic rhetorical doctrine ethos refers to any attempt by a speaker to establish credentials to maximise his appeal with his audience. In Britain we saw a lot of it when Blair was Prime Minister, affecting blokey estuary vowels, dabbing an eye during one of his emetic grief-bites, that sort of thing.  It doesn’t have to consist of devious artifice: merely murmuring that you hold a doctorate in the subject under discussion classifies as ethos.

In November 2012 The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, “This house would occupy Wall Street”. Speaking for the motion were Errol Damelin and Cornel West; against the motion were Anthony Fry and Daniel Hannan. I’m planning to cover all their speeches, beginning today with Cornel West, which may be slightly tough on the others because he takes a bit of following.

Now you know why I was at pains to explain ethos. This is ethos on legs. From the start he overwhelms the hall with gospel-preacher histrionics. We warm ourselves with the persuasion that this is the noble essence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, conveniently overlooking the implied patronising racism. Our camera cuts to his audience who are all smiles, including the opposing speakers.

Much of the time it is near impossible to discern actual sentences, but who cares! Magnificent sounding, ringing phrases ricochet from the anthem. No doubt you’ve heard of ‘dog-whistles’, those subtle, seemingly innocent words and phrases that subliminally resonate with the ‘right people’. Transmit the dog-whistles through a loud-hailer and you begin to get the idea here. A catalogue of lefty hate-bites, regardless of relevance, rings out to the whooping delight of the helpful innocents in the audience: Israeli occupation, drones, ‘our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters’, anti-Semitism (yes, honestly, who needs consistency when you are mainlining ethos!), homophobia (whaaat?), white supremacy, male supremacy, ecological catastrophe. It’s all there, in a magnificent masterpiece tapestry of non-sequitur. It sounds great, but children: don’t try this at home.

At 2:40 he invents a word – pigmentocratic. I think we’ve probably cracked the code.

To digress slightly in passing, at one point he has a side-swipe at Obama. “I love the Brother – I’m a Christian – but to engage in that kind of activity makes him a war-criminal with a Nobel Peace Prize.” The camera cuts to Anthony Fry who is shaking his head. That’s a mistake on Fry’s part. Attempting, when others are speaking, to make a tacit point in that way somehow weakens you. You see it on programmes like BBC Question Time  While novices on the panel are busy gurning, the pros sit impassively giving nothing away till it’s their turn to speak.

The speech is ten and a half minutes of Grand Opera; and it is exactly what the audience wants to hear.  Following and countering is a submission from Hannan (Christian name: Daniel – I shall rise above the tempting reference to the lions’ den). This blog has already identified him as a brilliant speaker, but how will he cope here? I previously described him as ‘smooth as a kitten’s wrist’: is that the quality he needs on this occasion? Tune in soon to learn the answers to these and other questions that you never thought to ask.