Sally Uren – fluent in bureaucratese.

Forum for the Future describes itself on its website as “a sustainability non-profit working globally with business, government and others to solve tricky challenges”. If, like me, you didn’t know that ‘non-profit’ was a noun then we’re all learning something. Thanks to Geoff Chambers I learnt that on 21 May, 2012, Sally Uren, then deputy Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, made a presentation entitled Systems to Solutions. No, I don’t know what that means either. Shall we try to find out?

What, in the name of sanity, possessed her to perform that little yawn pantomime at 0:18! Is she saying that she finds it boring? Is she saying that she expects her audience to find it boring – and wants to pre-empt that? Is she trying (unsuccessfully) to get a laugh? Self-deprecation is one thing: sticking an imbecilic downer into the first seconds of a speech is quite another. She puts me in mind slightly of Dolores Umbridge, the Harry Potter character portrayed by Imelda Staunton, simpering meekly while spouting ghastly and dangerous rubbish.

The perceptive reader might have inferred somehow that I was likely to be difficult to please with this speech. There is a reason. While I am obviously all for sustainability, the reading I have done on the subject persuades me that the empirical data supplied by history clearly show that sustainability and growth in wealth, food, and all other benefits of civilisation comes from millions of mutual accommodations made by people trading for their own benefit. What always makes things go pyriform is interference from busybody know-it-alls who manage to get enough of an administrative foothold to become surrogate decision-makers. Far from ever helping it has consistently been catastrophic. History is strewn with horrifying examples of hugely successful societies being reduced to immiseration, famine and mass-starvation through centralised decision making. Therefore sustainability happens when this sort of ‘non-profit’ is non-existent. When will they ever learn! But back to the speech.

If your interests are such that you cannot survive another minute without learning the distinction between ‘competitive’ and’ pre-competitive’, this speech will have you in orgasmic transports of ecstasy. If, on the other hand, you couldn’t give a monkey’s then go and read a good book – or even a bad one. This is fifteen minutes of wall-to-wall, faux intellectual bureaucratese – the sort of worthy-sounding guff that the producers of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 adore.

I have to admit that she is a good enough speaker to be employable in a real job – albeit after a thorough jargonectomy. Sadly though she is on a slippery slope. When she delivered this speech, her non-job at this non-profit was Deputy Chief Executive. Since then she has been demoted to Chief Executive.

Imran Khan has huge charisma; but he needs a little tuition

In February 2013 Imran Khan addressed the Oxford Union.

There is an introduction from Adnan Rafiq. It ends at 3:45, and Khan begins speaking at 4:08.  The intervening 23 seconds is filled by ecstatic applause. This is from an audience too young ever to have watched him play cricket; but then the man does ooze charisma. My wife (who is old enough to have watched him play cricket) peered over my shoulder and remarked on how good looking he still is. I shall try nevertheless not to hate him too much to be dispassionate about his speaking.

Immediately I give him credit for shooting the speech from the hip. He could do it better, but at least he is doing it.

Let’s examine how he could have done it better. After a little too much preamble (about which I shall say more later) he launches the main thrust of the speech at 5:25. He does it with the single word, “Leadership”, and then proceeds to define it. He aims to operate a  tripartite structure by giving three essential qualities for leadership –

  • Vision
  • Conquering of fear
  • Integrity

That would be excellent except that he contrives that each of those elements has subdivisions and qualifications that muddy the clarity, not just for the audience but for himself – he slightly loses the thread a couple of times. This vision, he says, should be selfless; courage should involve a degree of self-criticism; and lastly he tends to confuse integrity with credibility (the one is purely moral, the other can be concerned with skill). Suddenly therefore the definition of leadership is not tripartite but manifold. He needs to revisit his three sections, slightly re-define and re-title them so as to encompass the qualifications and thereby achieve the tripartite aspect that he evidently was seeking.

He follows all that with a section that can best be described as ethos. He talks about his cricketing experience and the leadership that is required of a team captain. He narrates the battle he had, building a cancer hospital in Pakistan. He speaks about how he refused to compromise his principles for self-advancement, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but the mistake here is that his ethos is following his argument, whereas it must precede it, because ethos should be an underpinning to provide the platform on which the argument stands. You could justifiably claim that Imran Khan has such a high public profile that he doesn’t need ethos to give his arguments credibility, but that is not an argument for putting ethos in the wrong place: it’s an argument for leaving it out.

So this is an overview of the layout of his speech.

  1. Preamble – principally Thankings, and with some slightly sentimental references to his sons being in the audience. Just over one and a quarter minutes of it.
  2. His definitions of Leadership
  3. His ethos.

I would either lose the ethos completely on the grounds of redundancy as argued above or I would slip little illustrative anecdotes into the three elements that define leadership.

And I would put the thankings somewhere else.

But where? Ay there’s the rub! Thankings are often overwhelmingly appropriate and we have to find somewhere for them. On the other hand bald openings are so powerful, that it is a terrible pity when your opening is forced to follow something else. If, for example, there is a formal greeting – “Your Royal Highnesses, my Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen…” then there is no way out. But thankings can be inserted towards the end…

“Finally, I’d like to say how much I appreciate having been given the chance to come here today. Your committee has been wonderfully welcoming… etc.”

Since this speech was delivered, he had that dreadful accident during his political campaign when he fell from a hoist. As I write, that was just over a month ago and he is now out of hospital. I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. 

Stefan Halper – another talking head

At the Oxford Union Debate on the motion The 21st Century Belongs to China Stefan Halper opposed the motion.

I have very often rehearsed the arguments against reading a speech.  For three examples I did it here, and here and here. I should love therefore to avoid today dwelling on that aspect of this speech, but I simply cannot. Once again we find ourselves listening to styles of wording, phrasing and syntax which could have been excellent if read but which are stilted, awkward and clumsy when spoken. My frustration in all this is that we deal here not with someone who is of low intelligence or narrowly educated, but quite the reverse. Has he not noticed, when attending speeches delivered by others, how much better it sounds when they shoot their delivery from the hip?

This conundrum continues to perplex me. He must have noticed! All I can therefore conclude is that either he believes he can read more fluently than his talking-head peers, or he assumes that the ability to speak without notes is a divine gift bestowed only upon a chosen few. Both of those are fallacies. The stilted nature of speech from a talking-head has almost nothing to do with reading ability, and very little to do with writing ability (though you can learn to write better in the spoken idiom). As for the divine-gift fallacy, after the decades I have been teaching public speaking I am still waiting for the first trainee who fails to discover that they belong to the ‘chosen few’.

If you’ve been taught properly, shooting a speech from the hip is more fluent, more engaging, more convincing, more secure and much quicker to prepare. But still they don’t! Still they labour for hours over a script and then sound like railway station announcers.

Halper has so much going for him. He is suitably opinionated, knows his subject well enough to back up those opinions, and so on. He is an author you want to read, and he could in a single morning be transformed into also an inspiring speaker.

Watch from the 5-minute mark. Can you believe that page-turn hiatus?  Stick with it a little longer and we reach a pleasing, though halting, anaphora, built on the word, “Stop…” (though he inexplicably corrupts the anaphora by changing to “cease…” for the fourth element of the series) and then at the 5:30 mark he stumbles over the word, “willingly…”. There’s half a minute that he could utter flawlessly a hundred times with no problem at all, yet here he makes a right, royal meal of it – and only because he is handicapping himself by reading it.

What he has to say is actually very interesting. You may – like me – have to watch it a few times to realise that. Pity his live audience that did not have that chance.

John Redwood shows passion

I was chatting a few days ago to a friend who reads this blog occasionally. He observed how many lousy speakers there were around. I managed to resist pointing out that if this opinion was based on my blog he didn’t know the half of it. I discard far more than I cover, and you may take it that I do not do so on the basis of their being too good. For every speech I critique here I watch perhaps five that don’t warrant the effort because they don’t have a facet that I find interesting, because they are boring or because they are just bad.

On a foray in search of something interesting I happened upon a series of speeches in the British House of Commons. It was the debate in October 2011, triggered by an online petition for the UK to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union. I’ve seen many examples of John Redwood speaking, and have tended to pigeon-hole him as staid, safe and unexciting. Here though he was a different beastie!

No script: no notes: just passion.

In answer to those who claim that without a script the quality of your syntax is in danger of fading, I say just take a look at the following list…

  • 0:08 Anadiplosis on the word ‘democracy’
  • 0:17 Anaphora – “it has been humbled”
  • 0:28 Anaphora – “they not only…”

Not bad for half a minute!

  • 1.30 Anaphora – “Go to …”
  • 2:35 Anaphora – “I cannot …”
  • 2:58 Anaphora – “This house was great …”
  • 3:28 Anaphora – “We need to …”

The whole speech lasted less than four minutes, was beautifully structured, clear, powerful, and far from syntax-lite.

So where was the staid, safe and unexciting speaking that I have seen before? Whence came that passion? The subject matter might have something to do with it, but also it has been said often enough that the House of Commons is like a club. Redwood has been a member for more than a quarter of a century and evidently he feels in his element here, far more perhaps than out in the rest of the world. He may feel that in the rest of the world he has to be more circumspect. Who knows?

Whatever the reason, that’s the way to do it.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev should have spoken at the God debate

In the five months since Rhetauracle was born the sheer internationality of the Internet has been brought dramatically home to me. Yes, of course I knew that it was all over the world: what I hadn’t altogether appreciated was how eager the world was to be reached. Already I have readers in around thirty countries. It seems therefore at least courteous that I avoid being too insular. The difficulty is that though I can stumblingly make myself halfway understood in three other languages it is only in English that I can hope to be able to analyse a speech.  Nevertheless the Anglosphere includes a huge subcontinent that I have thus far neglected. And the curious thing is that I was born in India, and my mother before me.

I found a rich seam to mine for speeches: The India Today Conclave. I shall be dipping into it over several postings, but first I want to explore a speech that frankly belonged in the series of postings that I concluded last week. Am I dreaming, or did I bemoan the lack of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Oxford Union God debate? Likewise, did I or did I not wearily regret the lack of new and inspirational lines of reasoning? And do you recall my quoting Andre Gide – “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”? Stand by for a Seeker of Truth.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev begins speaking at 11:30.  Javed Akthar, who proceeds him makes a ten-minute speech that essentially introduces the debate entitled Is Spirituality Relevant To Leadership?. I may have a look at his speech in a future posting, but Jaggi Vasudev is today’s focus.

That’s what I call an opening! None of the speakers for the Oxford Union motion began their speech with a prayer. Why not? Debates in Parliament start with prayers.

Do you want to grab your audience? One way is to surprise them in some way. He surprised me twice: first with the chanting and then with the quiet “Hello everyone” that followed. It was a glorious amalgam of ethos and decorum. I sensed a smile of delight forming on my lips.

And it stayed there!

This man is awesome. I use the word literally: he fills me with awe. On many levels.

If you chose to click in around half a minute before he began you will have seen how he pointedly stood to one side of the lectern, causing one of the crew to have to move the microphone to him. (What a pity that he pointed the mic at his mouth. At his eyes would have been better, because we get a little bit of popping.) And there he stands, paperless of course, with beautiful wisdom pouring out of him for 45 minutes – yes, there’s also a part 2.

He expresses himself stunningly well. His enunciation is clear and effortless. The structure of his arguments makes for wonderful digestibility. His phrasing is that of one steeped not only in the wisdoms of the East but the finest literature of the West. Forget airy-fairy: his analysis of spirituality is right here, right now, feet firmly on the ground and fired at you from the hip in clusters of those figures of speech in my glossary. Between 15:13 and 16:40 you should spot two anaphoras, one epistrophe and an extended asyndeton.  In many ways he is a copybook speaker – so much so, that I think I shall have to go back and look for further examples of his speaking before I press the publish button and commit this many superlatives to posterity.

My notepad, as well as being smothered in technical observations (that I decided to spare you) is also covered in aphorisms for life, gleaned from this speech. I mentioned that there is a part 2. Beginning at 08:14 there’s a very funny story. It is with huge reluctance that I am telling you this, because I’m dying to steal it.

The Oxford Union brought in Cornel West for their Occupy Wall Street debate. For all that he was hypnotically compelling, West was something of a histrionic cabaret in that setting. Had Jaggi Vasudev been in the God debate, on their own terms and on their own turf, he’d have stormed them.

Dr Joanna Collicutt needs both my books.

Probably the most sensible thing that anyone has said, with respect to the Oxford Union God debate, came from the daughter of the speaker we shall be examining here. I’ll come to that in a few seconds. The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath was the second speaker in support of the motion, This House Believes in God.

She opens with that quote from her daughter saying, “What is there to debate? You either do or you don’t, and that’s an end to it.” What wise words! Dr Collicutt doesn’t quite agree enough to stop there, or they would all have got tucked into their G&D’s ice-cream rather sooner than they did.

I have published two little books on the subject of speaking.

The Face & Tripod (affectionately known as F&T) though it’s specifically targeted at business speaking is every bit as useful for any other type. Anyone who has explored this blog will not be surprised to learn that one of F&T’s principal thrusts concerns paperless speaking. If the material is properly and well enough structured anyone can go out in front of an audience and deliver even quite a long speech without reference to a script or notes. I call it ‘shooting from the hip’.

I bet you have worked out why I mention that here. Dr Collicutt is a talking head. She is wedded (or possibly welded) to the words she has written. And the truly frustrating and tantalising thing is that she has one of the clearest and easiest structures imaginable. It is one of those I commend in F&T – chronology. And what is the chronological path she has given herself to follow? Why, her own life! Yes, gentle reader, Dr Collicutt’s speech is auto-biographical; and still she doesn’t trust herself to be able to remember it. Let’s not castigate her: there are two ingredients to being able to deliver a paperless speech. You have to know how to, and you have to know you can. She hasn’t had me to prove to her beyond doubt that she can do it. I know she can, and her speaking would light up if she did.

I have published another little book – even littler! It is called Every Word Heard, and there’s a second half to that title, “- without discernible effort”.  That is the key to good enunciation. Anyone can make every word heard if they are prepared to sound weird. Dr Collicutt sounds as most people would, under the misguidance of too many people who don’t understand what good diction is. This is the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get each Christmas from the boy chorister that does one of the readings at the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge. The poor thing has been bullied into reading it like that, and I know what I’d like to say to the half-witted grown-up that did the bullying. It’s the sort of over-emphasised clarity that you get from rookie BBC reporters. It’s the sort of … but I think you’ve probably got the picture.

It is perfectly possible – indeed easy, if you know how – to sound completely normal and still have every word heard even in a large hall. Speech is not a series of individual words, all gummed together in a given order: speech is a flow of phrases and clauses and sentences that have beautiful rhythm. If – you – utter – each – word – as – if – it – had – come – individually – wrapped, you do yourself and your speaking no favours at all.

Gosh, how I’d like to help Dr Collicutt!

Perhaps I should be grateful to her for providing me with such graphic examples with which to publicise my books, but I’d rather she did proper justice to her carefully reasoned speech.

Matt Ridley – optimism justified

Matt Ridley is the author of many books, perhaps the most famous of which is The Rational Optimist. Indeed, he has even used that name for his website. He is hugely in demand as a speaker. This month I’d like to take a look at a speech he delivered in Oxford in July 2010. It was a TED Talk.

First thing first: we appear to have a ‘bald’ opening. If you are not familiar with my use of the expression, I mean that he goes straight in without any preamble e.g. “Ladies & Gentlemen”. I like bald openings: they convey confidence and eagerness to get on with delivering the message. They also are very good for the speaker’s nerves (I’ll spare you the reasons here). I say that “we appear” to have a bald opening, because we do not see his actual start. Therefore I went looking for other Ridley speeches and indeed found that he habitually starts without preamble.

What’s the second thing I notice? I think that everyone who has ever done a course with me will remember how together we found a personal ‘happy home’ for their hands. This is intended to be their hands’ default position that they are satisfied both looks good and feels comfortable. All this also features in The Face & Tripod. They will also recall that I warned against holding hands too low, because it looks nervous. Ridley begins with his hands clasped low down. I – or someone – needs to go through that ‘happy home’ process with him. He is not happy with his hands low: he would be much happier clasping his hands high enough for his forearms to be horizontal. How do I know? That’s where his subconscious sent them – and where they largely stayed – from around 1:30 onwards.

And at that point an interesting thing happened. My notes petered out. And the second time I watched the speech my notes were pretty scant also. And the third time. It took a lot of watching and a degree of self-discipline before I got any notes of substance about the main body of this speech at all. And that in itself is a lesson. The purpose of a speech, or any sort of presentation, is to put across a message – just as the purpose of any sort of stage performance is to tell a story. I’m often telling actors that if a member of the audience is sitting and admiring the quality of your performance, you’ve failed him because he isn’t swept up in the story. The equivalent is true of making a speech. You can dress the process up in any fancy way you like, but you still come back to that fundamental purpose – putting across a message. Ridley was repeatedly sweeping me up and carrying me along with a message that so absorbed me that my pen remained frozen over my notepad.

What an important lesson that is! The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else. I tend to boast that when it comes to speeches I don’t miss anything; yet I did. Repeatedly!

But let us see what I did eventually discover. How, for instance, was he grabbing and holding my attention? I’m not altogether sure, and you may disagree, but here’s my take.

For one thing he seems to recruit his audience’s assistance, by inviting us to join with him in addressing questions. Even though he’s dripping with degrees and doctorates in the subject matter he offers, rather than decrees, answers – e.g. at 4:05, “I think the answer is exchange.” He’s treating us as grown-ups by plying us with data and then suggesting a solution that seems to make sense to him. He doesn’t invite anyone to stand up and argue: he doesn’t ask for a show of hands. Yet there seems to be this tacit implication that we are somehow a part of the thought process. That’s damn clever! We find ourselves concentrating just a little harder on the data, almost as if we are going to be invited for our opinion. Can you and I find a way of harnessing that principle? Take another look at my previous paragraph.

All right, so I tricked you! By feigning uncertainty I persuaded you to look a little harder for yourself. It’s a tried and tested device, both on the speaking platform and on the theatre stage. If you want the audience to get more absorbed in what they are hearing, spoon-feed them a little less and persuade their brains to work a little harder. Instead of my merely explaining it, I decided to stage a little demonstration of the principle. That said, I wasn’t kidding you when I said a few paragraphs back that he completely absorbed me in his message. He did.

So… back to the speech.

There’s a glorious moment when he beautifully fulfils a favourite quotation from W.B.Yeats, “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. He says, at 10:30, “ I’m not dissing the Neanderthals”. His live audience appreciates that too.

There are also some wonderful sit-up-and-blink statements – e.g. at 11:20, “Trade is ten times as old as farming.”  Yes, isn’t that a show-stopper!

I said earlier, “The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else.” If Shakespeare could mix metaphors with “to take arms against a sea of troubles” I can; but let’s examine what else igniting that much interest can do. It very effectively hides one thing, and it astonishes me that I did not spot it immediately. He seems to be riddled with nerves! His hump never seems to end. I mentioned the way he is holding his hands rather low for the first minute: at 11:50 he has a period when his hands again are at a loss for a short while. There are periods when he is speaking almost aggressively quickly, falling over occasional words and not allowing natural pauses their full life – a nerve symptom (although his enunciation is so good that he’s always crystal clear) . He gets slightly breathless on occasions – another nerve symptom. There are more such, but I’ll spare you the full catalogue.

I’ve never met him, and it could be that this sort of constant outpouring of nervous energy is his natural style. Also it comes across as overwhelming enthusiasm for his message, which is attractive and may be another instrument in sweeping up his audience. It’s just that when I see a speaker apparently in slight distress I itch to help.

At any rate Matt Ridley is very good. His website claims that this speech has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and I’m not in the least surprised. I’ve just downloaded the kindle edition of The Rational Optimist for my Christmas reading.