Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!