Jamie Oliver had a good teacher.

In February 2010 Jamie Oliver delivered a TED talk in Long Beach, California, on a theme that has obsessed him for many years, healthy eating.

Bald opening! It’s just a single sentence, so – although arresting – it hardly qualifies as a James Bond film opening, but who cares? His opening sentence preceded his introduction of himself. In a sense he grabbed our hand before shaking it. This is an excellent start, and sets the bar high for this talk.

He carries a sheaf of cards in his hand. He gestures with them, fiddles with them, slaps them occasionally, and does everything except read from them. I suspect that they contain a few prompts and are there purely for their presence to reduce his stress. I can’t fault this. He shoots everything from the hip.

Oliver has been presenting TV programmes for many years, and the nature of those programmes is such that he has had a lot of practice at shooting from the hip. There are plenty of people for whom that sentence is just as true, but who – when placed on a speaking platform – stick a script on the lectern, their thumb in their mouth, and wear an invisible but unmistakeable caption that says “prat”. There is a reason: a camera lens is not the same as an auditorium full of people; and making the transition requires the application or more effort than they could be bothered to spare.

At 1:20 he plays the audience by requesting a show of hands. The exercise has essentially no value other than making them feel involved. He does nothing with the information, but it was a good thing to do. This keeps getting better.

He produces a graph that shows that obesity kills several times as many people as guns, yet we all know that it generates a fraction of the media outrage. He plays the Brit-lecturing-the-yanks card well, and with enough charm to harvest laughs with it. He works a good visual episode in which he tips a wheelbarrow full of sugar onto the stage. It represents, for the average American child’s five year education period, the sugar consumption from flavoured milk alone. He deploys periodic claptraps, gets the required applause for most of them; and for the few that fail to bring forth fruit he doesn’t dwell but pushes on. He presents gratifyingly short video clips that pithily illustrate points he is making. This whole thing is beautifully put together, and skilfully delivered.

We may quarrel with some of his assertions: we may sit and think, “yes, but…” and many probably will. That is what discourse is for. For my part I have moments when I wince a little, because I have developed an allergy to busybody social policing in all its guises. But I am relieved that he never quite calls for the cold, dead hand of official bureaucracy to get involved. He seems less anti-bad-habits than pro-good-habits, and that is a saving grace – urging people to put pressure on industry, the retail sector, educators and themselves to learn to do better. Consumer power is preferable to social police.

Now I must replace my rhetor hat…

Whoever taught Jamie Oliver to speak this well, I salute them. Could it have been Jamie Oliver?

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.