Sir Christopher Hum – brilliant!

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord PowellStefan HalperLord WeiSir David Tang and Linda Yueh. Today we conclude our coverage of this debate with Sir Christopher Hum, who spoke against the motion.

Let us never forget, when we are examining a speech in a debate, that we are eaves-dropping on a rhetorical contest being conducted before a live audience that will subsequently vote. The speakers’ various arguments (and demeanour) are therefore aimed specifically at those in the hall. Now let us look at one of Sir Christopher’s first sentences,

We’re not engaged in some sort of confrontation between the panda-huggers and the enemies of China.

He has painted himself as emollient, reasonable and funny. He has laid down a clear and clever decorum. The camera cuts to the opposing team who are smiling. Are they amused at the panda-hugger term or are the smiles a wry acknowledgement that this is a formidable foe? Within seconds he obliquely insinuates a reference to his term as British Ambassador to China, than which you would be hard pressed to find a more powerful sinological ethos. Imagine how he has seized the attention of the students in that hall! And now imagine the glow of delight that began to steal over me as I watched.

This man is brilliant.

It seems almost superfluous to highlight the elegant extended anaphora that begins at 1:30 (“a China which …”). The speech is littered with such classical figures of speech.

It seems barely necessary to point out how often he harvests really good laughs from his audience without even acknowledging them. He throws away all his gags, thus permitting his audience to laugh or not as they wish. The only thing he demands from them is their attention. That’s a signal of strength and security, and audiences love it.

There is a slight downside to that strategy; audiences don’t always get the dryest gags as they fly by. They didn’t get, “too much extrapolation makes you blind”. It didn’t matter because he never implied that he was trying to be funny.

If you are a regular reader you may be waiting for me to criticise his use of paper. That is not a script merely notes and, except for a very few occasions when in danger of losing his thread, he doesn’t really use them. Better structure would have rendered it almost redundant, but not entirely. At one point he reads a quote, which is one of those occasions that I regard paper as permissible – even desirable (for reasons that would take too long to explain here). When the paper is in his hand it is incidental, and barely more than something with which to gesture. The important thing is that he is using spoken, as distinct from written, English. The very first word that follows his formal greeting is, “um”.

Some might be horrified by that word, but it is a hallmark of spontaneity. Audiences love spontaneity. Perfection generates suspicion. Imperfection reassures, if only subliminally. It is like the imperfections that add value to natural, as opposed to cultured, pearls. This speech has value-adding imperfections. At one point Sir Christopher utters the word “economy” when he means “environment”. Does he correct himself?  No, he smoothly continues, and I doubt that anyone in the hall noticed.

If he’d been my trainee I’d want to revisit his structure with him to make his narrative thread more secure, but otherwise I’d be as proud as a peacock.

Linda Yueh is better than she thinks

The Oxford Union debate on the motion This House Believes that the 21st Century Belongs to China took place in November 2012.  We have already heard from Lord PowellStefan Halper, Lord Wei and Sir David Tang. Today it is the turn of Linda Yueh who spoke in favour of the motion.

In the opening seconds, when I first watched her, I emitted a quiet groan. She appeared to consult her paper even to find the words, “Good evening…”. Almost immediately I reconsidered; because not only was her vocabulary unmistakeably that of the spoken rather than written variety (I’ve covered this before) but her eyes came up and stayed up most of the time. Furthermore her downward glances seemed not for getting prompting from notes. Could it be that her habit of glancing down was merely a comfort thing? If so, it would recede as her Hump receded.

It did.

She swings into a nice anecdote about the movie, Back to the Future. It results in a big, and well deserved, laugh and a ripple of applause. Her decorum has been well established. This audience now belongs to her; she’s on a roll, and she’s good.

You may think that this was to be expected: she is, after all, an experienced broadcaster. This will certainly have helped her to be able to shoot from the hip; but there is a big difference between addressing a lens and a roomful of people. Yueh knows how to work an audience.

The speech suffers a little from being reactive to what the other speakers have said. It makes it slightly disjointed and less coherent than it might have been. I want her to be articulating a much more distinct argument of her own. It emerges that she is in the process of writing a book on this very subject, so she could – and should – have come out with all guns blazing, mowing down contrary arguments in passing.

Why did she not do so? I have two theories, and both could be correct. It could be a gender thing. If a woman speaker doesn’t deliver in a macho fashion, it doesn’t mean she can’t. She could have made a policy decision based on a view that to do so could alienate her audience (and she may be right).

The other theory is that she feels less secure than her ability warrants. The downward glances during her hump are also indicative of this. She can’t help having a hump – everyone has a hump – but she can learn to handle it better. She can also be made more secure.

She’s good. She’s much better than I think she thinks she is. Ultimately only she can persuade herself of this truth, but who is going to persuade her to do that?