mhairi black's speech

When my friend Pieter showed me this video of the maiden speech in the British parliament of the 20 year old Scot, Mhairi Black, my mind and imagination hatched a little plan.

A bit like coming to a biblical text for the first time, with a view to preaching it. I set myself to look and look, listen and listen - until I discovered twenty things to like and learn from this piece of communication.

Let's do it (in no particular order):

1. She honours the past
As a (very) young person, she stands up and immediately pays respect to those whom she follows. She looks for continuity. She places herself in a heritage which she values - and immediately all those older than her (ie the entire audience) who are wanting to think, 'who does this girl think she is?' - are not able to do so. She has disarmed them and from now on she owns their ears.

2. She understands humour
It is natural. It flows out. She doesn't tell jokes, as much as be someone who is funny. Instinctively, she knows to use humour early and, as a younger person, to keep it self-deprecating and freed of cynicism. It is a masterful performance of using humour as a way to gain entry into the heart, as well as the will. She sets herself up to be persuasive.

3. She uses words well
After the opening salvo of a little humour ('I was three at the time') and a little rapport-building (the William Wallace comment), there are 2-3 sentences that are almost lyrical in their quality. Perfect place. Perfect time. She reads them because she has prepared them carefully - but it doesn't matter. After just two minutes she is 'in' and from then on the audience is in the palm of her hand, as they say.

4. She is warm, and yet intense
I love this combination. The phrase I've used over the years is 'a warmth in the face and eyes and an urgency in the voice and manner'. In his recent book, Tim Keller talks about 'combining warmth and force'. That's it - and this twenty year old woman knows all about it.

5. She is brief
What she achieves in less than eight minutes is remarkable. No attention span issues here. Throw in the contemporary TED talk genre which comes in at under twenty minutes and there is clearly an ongoing place for monological speech - with the right combination of features (and length).

6. She is (relatively) note-free
There is a 'scripted informality'. The notes are there. That is OK. There are those who exalt note-free communication above all else - but then we listeners often have to submit ourselves to wandering, unprepared speech. Ugh. Not Mhairi. She has respected the occasion by preparing something and writing it out. People like that. But then she knows when to lift-off from her notes - particularly when she is in either story mode or testimony mode.

7. She gives testimony
Another phrase I like to use comes to mind - 'bearing witness to the truth you proclaim from the story of your own life'. The message is not over there somewhere, disconnected from her own life. Nope. Without turning the speech into something solely about herself, she deftly draws herself in from time-to-time. We are left to engage someone who comes across as credible, authentic - and humble.

8. She uses story powerfully
That story of the man early on takes up about one sixth of the speech. That is a big call - but the right call. She re-tells the story. There is detail. There is dialogue. There are short sentences. There is a slowing down in her pace. Watch the people around her. The raucous humour at the one minute mark has become a quiet stillness at the three minute mark.

9. She appreciates specificity
In her stories - and her facts and statistics - she demonstrates the value of being specific. Generalities wash over people - but so also does piling up the facts and the statistics. Mhairi gets it just right. Very judicious in her choices. 'Third highest'. 'One in five'.  They are like hooks into the imagination of listeners, earthing things and making what she says more difficult to escape.

10. She imagines a full house
I love this one. When I started as a pastor there was a congregation of 25 in an auditorium that seated 250. It is so hard to speak to empty rows! This clip opens and closes with rows of empty seats. And yet it doesn't seem to phase her at all. It would be so easy for a young, inexperienced communicator to take a cheap shot. She doesn't. She imagines the rows are full, she gives it her very best regardless - and makes them all feel so silly for not showing up.

11. She gets As from the twin As
When it comes to good speaking, Aristotle was about 'logos-ethos-pathos' and Augustine was about 'to delight - to inform - to persuade'. This one could be a post all of its own - or an assignment for preaching students (now - there's a good idea!). However you hold this speech up in the light of this ancient wisdom, Mhairi does well.

12. Speaking of As, she knows how to use assonance and alliteration
Not too much. Not drawing attention to it - in fact, you don't notice it unless you go looking for it. 'uncaring ... uncompromising'. 'deteriorate ... decline'. Yes, they are there. People love to make fun of this sort of feature in sermons, but the reality is that it is an effective and enduring feature of memorable communication.

13. She utilises imagery
The mix of story and image is one of my favourite features of this speech. Gotta make room for both. A key story (about the man) draws her listeners in and then a key image leads her listeners on: the signpost and the weathercock. But don't miss the others, like 'wave of hope' and 'hold up a mirror' etc. Illustration is not just about story - it is also about imagery, transforming the listening exercise into an imaginative one.

14. She masters the personal pronouns
Sometime watch/listen to the speech with an ear only for her use of pronouns. The mingling of 'I' and 'we' ... the use of '(s)he/they' (be it used for the people in her constituency, or for the government) ... and then what about turning to 'you' and the way she addresses the (mostly empty rows of) Labourites? Log the time given to each pronoun. Note where they predominate in the speech. Again, it is masterful. I bet the Labour caucus had a few things to talk about next time they met.

15. She involves her body
Holding your notes as you speak is tricky, but she still manages to get her arms free and gesticulate in a manner which adds emphasis to what she says. Ya can't tie the hands of a storyteller! But beyond that I like the way moves her head/neck to include her party colleagues around her - and then the way she positions her feet/stance to speak directly to her fellow-opposition members in the Labour ranks.

16. She is articulate
Sure, there are stories and humour and testimony - but there is also logic and argument. She makes a series of quotable comments, pithy little statements that live on in the memory - and the press. The one about food banks and the welfare state. The one about waves of nationalism and waves of hope. The government takes a few hits, as you'd expect (she even mentions the T-word, 'Thatcher') - but it is the way she appeals to the Labour party, which I suspect is the overall point of her speech ('let's be in opposition together') where her argument is most compelling and articulate. I love the Acts 17 ploy of quoting their own authority back to them.

17. She uses rhetorical questions
It is one of most effective ways to transform a monologue into a dialogue, without giving your listeners time to speak! 'On whom is the sun shining?' was one of the high moments in the speech - but, given this fact, it is also an area that attracts a bit of critique. Apart from the story about the man near the beginning, she seemed to be in too much of a hurry. Was there a time limit? I don't know. After a rhetorical question, it helps to pause for a second or two...

18. She is winsome and authentic and passionate as a person
There is a quality about this speech that will have her political opponents drawing nearer. #1-17 will all play their part, but when all is said and done, it will be these personal qualities that do it for her. These attributes transcend politics. The benches will be full next time she speaks. She has credibility. She has some runs on the board. By being winsome like this, she is likely to win some...

19. She builds rapport
This is crucial - and it is multi-dimensional in that all of the features mentioned so far will play their part. If you don't have rapport, you don't have much. Trumping Burns with Wallace had all her own people with her - and then, as she moved on, she won everyone else as well.

20. ???
I think I'll give readers of this post the opportunity to add anything I've missed!

Well, that was great fun. Now I pray that Jesus will find her and, if he has found her already (I don't want to assume anything), that the Bible will fascinate her so much that these skills will be used in the service of her constituency for an additional purpose: communicating the gospel in all its appealing glory.

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
Great speech, great assessment of it & its application in preaching. Thanks again!
Paul Windsor said…
Yes, it is set up perfectly for a valuable classroom discussion, isn't it? Takes 7 minutes to watch and listen ... and then you can talk about it for hours.

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