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.
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.