Diarmaid MacCulloch – so very close.

In October 2011, as one of its Roland Bainton lectures, Yale Divinity School presented a talk by Diarmaid MacCulloch from Oxford University.

Prof. MacCulloch, specialises in The Reformation; but his theme here is the medieval church, the influence on it by the Arian heresy and the particular significance of Martin of Tours. More than half a century ago at school I won a class speaking competition with three minutes on Martin of Tours; therefore perhaps I should clearly lay out here everything I already knew about what we shall now be learning from MacCulloch …

Good.  I’m glad we’ve clarified that. If you want to skip the introductions (though they are interesting) MacCulloch begins at 5:40.

Regular reader of this blog will have spotted on that still image where MacCulloch’s eyes are directed, and therefore at least one thing I am going to say. Nevertheless I’d like to begin at the beginning.

In the beginning is The Hump. Always. My trainees often seem slightly surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences the hump (“you mean I’m not the only one?”). Certainly many speakers disguise it very effectively, but it is always there. MacCulloch, a professional and experienced communicator – not just in the lecture room but on TV – displays distinct signs of vulnerability for a little more than a minute, particularly when he changes horses between speaking of Roland Bainton and about his own book on the Reformation. He was marginally more relaxed when speaking of his book, enjoying uttering his phrase “rivalling the conceit of Icarus” and his audience likewise enjoyed it, so if I had been advising him I should have got him to open with that and stick with it for at least 90 seconds. That would have seen out the worst of the hump, allowing him, in a relatively relaxed fashion, to swing into something parenthetic like “…and one very important source on which I drew was Roland Bainton’s book on Luther…[etc]…so I feel particularly privileged to be standing here today…”

It is not often that I allow myself to get so specific and picky in this blog; but there is a reason. MacCulloch is so good that he does not give me much else to get my teeth into. Except…

Except what we observed earlier, namely that he appears to have a script.

He looks repeatedly down to the desk through the speech (and each time he does so he loses just a little of his audience engagement) but he often does it at times when he distinctly does not need prompting. This suggests to me that the paper on that desk is a comfort blanket, and that theory is supported by symptoms of shyness that I am picking up. Shyness can be a crippling handicap and, when accompanied by obviously high intelligence, gets little sympathy from the world at large because the combination seems so irrational. I have worked with many victims of it.

I am delighted to say that, script or no, he speaks for the most part in spoken- rather than written-English. This could mean that he has conscientiously learnt how to write speeches that way, or it could mean that he is partly reading and partly speaking spontaneously.

So much for speculation. What should he be doing? You know my answer if you have read this blog before. He should learn to dispense with a script completely. He could do it easily. I know this talk is laden with data, but so what? He knows his subject inside out. At most he needs a few bullet points for occasional reference.

If he kept his eyes up, shooting the lecture from the hip, the engagement with his audience would be infinitely better. Would that cure his supposed shyness? No, shyness doesn’t get cured. It might well help him to live better with it, but I would not attempt to generalise here with trite claims or recommendations.

The talk is really fascinating, and he delivers it very expressively. He is as good a communicator as I have seen, but for this small but crucial and frustrating detail.

Edwina Currie barnstorms.

In February 2013, The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, This House Believes That We Are All Feminists. Edwina Currie spoke against the motion. When I first spotted the video my instant reaction was, “This’ll be fun!” Edwina Currie is seldom boring.

Often when I’m working with a client a question comes up, prefaced with the words, “Is it all right if…”. I habitually interrupt with, “…The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?” The point is that rules, real or imagined, are ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is what can be made to work.

The Oxford Union could be regarded by some as an intimidating environment, beset with tradition and conventions. But Currie cut her speaking teeth here – something she makes very clear – and later went on to perform on the more august stage of the House of Commons. Under the guise of tipping her hat to the conventions, she puts her personal stamp on proceedings the moment she starts speaking. This is her show, and she is going to bend it to her will. This is precisely the right mindset – if it can be made to work.

Syntactically her first sentence is appalling. It contains, “May I actually congratulate, if I may,….” and it continues to ramble around with more of that sort of thing. No one with an education would ever write like that, and this is a brilliant example of what I try to convey when castigating those who read their speeches. Written English is a different language to spoken English. Currie is shooting from the hip and what emerges makes perfect sense when imbued with her strong personality. Furthermore it is infinitely more engaging for the audience than stuffed-shirt literature. There is a very important communication point here.

  • If you want a speech consisting of  elegant literature read a book.
  • If you want a play in which nothing goes wrong, see a film.
  • If you want a concert consisting of flawless performance, listen to a record.

The whole purpose of live performance is the element of danger. Something could go wrong!

Currie spends her first two and a half minutes, beating the decorum into submission. We have the first of numerous Oxford University reminiscences, in which she chats jovially (and sometimes flirts) with her opponents; and in the process I have to say that she lives dangerously. Several times I wince as she appears to be going too far, but though walking a high wire above the Abyss of Embarrassment, she knows what she’s at. She’s always in control.

Eventually she addresses the matter in hand, and again she bends it to her will by adopting her own position. Those for the motion, she says, claim that the battle is won and feminism is universal. Those against it claim that there is still more to be achieved. She is not – and never has been – a feminist. She then proceeds to tell us why feminism is wrong-headed.

I shall not precis her arguments: that’s what the speech is for. She lays out her stall in binary fashion tackling the issue culturally and practically, and all the while the Oxford anecdotes keep coming. At 3:49 she harvests a seismic laugh, with a secondary shock a few seconds later. She is really very skilled.

The skill extends, when it matters, to uttering ringing phrases. There’s a pleasing epistrophe at 2:55 and, in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, there’s a strong anaphora at 14:20. Another anaphora makes up the spine of the peroration she launches at the 16-minute mark.

What especially singles out this speech for me is what I mentioned earlier. It is saturated with personality – her personality. The whole thing carries her brand. Anyone else would be foolish if they tried to parrot it, but they can learn from the principle. When you deliver a speech, you have the chance to make it your show.

And I was right: this was fun.