When I reached a certain level of seniority, my employers sent me to the dreaming spires of Henley Management College, (now Henley Business School of the University of Reading), Strawberries and cream on the lawn; watching the boats row by on the Thames; lounging over high tea in the drawing room; that sort of thing. I learned a lot of interesting and useful knowledge, although little of it relevant to my job.
For example, I found out how a nation’s economy works, how interest rates affect it and what money supply is. That would probably be useful now to help me define exactly what a bunch of lying hypocritical bastards the Conservatives are, if only I could remember it. I learned how to analyse the market for a product, and heard that the Mazda MX-5 sports car was the result of exactly such an analysis spotting a gap.
The subject that gave me most benefit though was Public Speaking. It’s a strange aspect of my personality in that I’m normally very shy and reserved, but, paradoxically, I have absolutely zero fear about getting up in front of an audience and speaking to them. Before going to Henley, I thought I was already pretty good at it, but I soon found out that I had a lot to learn.
The tutor was Dr. Max Atkinson, who was speech writer for Paddy Ashdown, when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats. Atkinson also was the author of a book, Our Masters’ Voices, which basically gave away all the secrets of political speaking: the tricks and rhetorical devices that politicians use to manipulate an audience. Not long before I met Atkinson, he had been on television, in a World in Action programme in which he coached a woman with no previous experience of public speaking to use the techniques and win a standing ovation at the annual conference of the Social Democratic Party. Sir Robin Day, commenting for BBC television, described the experience as “The most refreshing speech we’ve heard so far.”
Well, I don’t know if I’d make the grade at a party conference. Actually, scratch that. I already know that the majority of political speakers can’t do it properly. You only have to watch any of the broadcasts from the Stormont Assembly, or the Dáil, or Westminster, to see senior politicians droning at each other from written scripts. It’s not inspiring.
So, yes, I can speak to an audience, and be interesting and convincing. I should really do something with that. I know: Monster Raving Loony Party.