Lindsay Johns and the Rhetauracle question

I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.

Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.

He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.

Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!

At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.

3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.

Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.

Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.

Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?

Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.

Boris – again!

I thought I’d talk about Boris. Well why not? Everyone else is! From the notorious Eddie Mair interview to the BBC2 documentary to comments published about either, Boris has been ubiquitous for the past week. Once again I marvel at my instinctive use of that name. OK, the name is unusual; but still it is a mark of something very particular in a person when friend and foe alike use his Christian name.

I didn’t see the interview, I have better things to do at that time on a Sunday morning, but I did see a flutter of tweets, proclaiming that he had been ‘done-over’, ‘roasted’, ‘defenestrated’, etc, so I later went to see the podcast. In fact, none of those things had happened. Mair made a provocative statement (10:22), “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you!”. There were various options available to Boris at that moment, and he selected the best. He maintained his humour. Also, bear in mind that we don’t see Mair’s face at that moment: I rather suspect there was a twinkle.

Twinkle or not, just try imagining Paxo throwing that one at Blair! There would have been an explosion just off camera with Alastair Campbell‘s name on it. There was a huge twinkle on Robin Day‘s face when asking the question that had John Nott storming out of the studio all those years ago at the time of the Falklands War. By his staying good humoured this was game set and match to Boris and, as Toby Young observed on his blog, all that juicy material has now been neutralised for ever.

One of my trainees asked me last year whether I was going to look at Boris’ contribution to the Conservative Party conference. His comment was that it was the best thing – probably the only good thing – in the conference. At that time I was in the grip of serious Party Conference fatigue, and anyway I had but recently critiqued a Boris speech, so it was something that got put onto the back-burner. Perhaps now is the time to test the world’s Boris fatigue.

Let us remember that when this speech was delivered Boris was riding the crest of a huge wave of post-Olympic popularity. Put that in a mixing bowl with his Mayoral re-election victory and his accustomed relaxed buffoonery, add the requirement to address serious issues in a speech such as this and you actually have a very complex question as to how and where to pitch the tone. Try as I might, I can’t fault it. This man is a very smart operator. You have masses of humour, balanced skilfully against hard political-point-scoring statistics. And when I say ‘balanced’ I refer not only to weight but also to time: just as you start to tire of one type of material he whisks you away to fresh pastures.

And his use of humour is not just buffoonery. Did he deliberately create the very funny episode beginning around 22:40, or merely ride the wave very skilfully when it happened? I don’t know: I suspect the former, but that is not important. What is important is the quality of the interlude in what actually was a serious speech. He works a crowd as well as anyone I’ve seen.

Almost any further comment I make is superfluous: the speech speaks for itself. But I’d like to highlight two technical points. When before he was on this blog I castigated his bad microphone technique – he was popping all the time. I have also been known to declare that technicians are as much to blame for popping as the speaker. Congratulations to the sound engineers: they are using Boris-proof microphones which are too short for him to speak directly into, yet have the range clearly to pick him up. Nary a pop do we hear.

Boris is reading a script, and might be thought to be disproving everything I say about talking heads because he handles a script as well as anyone I’ve seen. (I still think he’d be even better without.) Nevertheless he is committing one technical error. For one ghastly moment I thought his script was printed on both sides of the paper, but having carefully checked his eye-line I am confident that it is not. Why then does he turn each page over? It would be much smoother, less fussy and more discreet merely to slide each completed sheet to the side (I cover this in my book).

And having triumphantly found one thing I can criticise, I shall now retire.