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Short of time

A couple of years ago, a Californian intern came to me aged eighteen and on the verge of completing her first degree. You can immediately conclude that this young person was bright, very bright.

Her parents were not monied folks. She had got to where she was by sheer graft and considerable intellect. As with all my interns, I asked her to write a speech for me which I would deliver twenty-four hours later. A brief flicker of concern crossed her face. She had never written a speech before. And while she had done presentations, aided by charts, and relying on the usual academic references, she had never delivered one either.

I explained what a political speech looked like. It relies on three constructs: alliteration, antithesis and triples. My colleague Kevin Stewart produced in one of his speeches a nine-word "sentence" that used all three.

Now it's worth saying, and I always explain this to interns, that we will tend to speak a deal less grammatically than we might write. There are plenty of sentences in speeches that even fail to contain a verb. They might even be a single word. We can rely on Parliament's Official Report to tidy it up a bit.

Partly that's because delivering a speech isn't merely reading words off a bit of paper for the benefit of the listener. The speaker will vary the pace, add and remove emphasis, insert pauses, raise and lower pitch; not merely fire words at an audience in a uniform manner. Indeed silence can be one of the most powerful parts of a speech.

Sometimes the speaker kind of gets ahead of themselves. Because of my eidetic memory, at least I think this is why I do it, I tend to be reading the notes in front of me about 20 to 30 seconds ahead of my speaking them.

In one of my early Ministerial speeches in 2007 - a statement on Transport - I had an allocation of eighteen minutes in which to deliver my words.

It was only the second statement our Government had given. I think it fair to say that we were still "learning the ropes". It is a Parliamentary convention that the text of a Minister's statement is given to other political party spokespeople one hour before the Minister rises to her or his feet.

As the one-hour deadline approached, we were still cutting and pasting into the text. It was fine, and it went off to others. And to our own press officers.

I rose to my feet, prepared and confident. And spoke at my normal pace - 132 words per minute. At the half-way mark, after nine minutes, I felt a tug at my jacket from John Swinney, who was sitting beside me. He said, sotto voce, you'll have to speed up. I had only delivered a third of the statement in half the available time. In our rush, we had failed to count the number of words in the much-amended speech. It was far too long.

I now started to quickly look forward in the text before me while still speaking. I identified three pages I could drop out without losing the overall thrust of the message. I removed them from the pile and put them on the desk.

I am now a couple of pages beyond the omitted text. And I have spotted that I am about to refer to something on one of the pages I had discarded. Something I had not said. I found the omitted page, read the relevant bit from it and resumed.

Even so, my eighteen minutes stretched to twenty-two. But the Presiding Officer kindly ignored the clock.

All of this was possible because I am reading a fair bit ahead of where I am speaking. It's a useful skill. But I also had the confidence to just pause for about three seconds to "catch my breath". No one ever notices you doing that.

Indeed if you look around during a pause, not easy in Parliament where the MSPs are behind you, but possible in an after-dinner speech delivered towards the audience, you will see heads coming up and re-engaging with you. And they aren't conscious of doing it. The power of silence. It's much better than filling a hiatus with "ums and ahs".

I always watch the video of my Parliamentary speeches. On this occasion, I could see myself shuffling paper from time to time. But the delivery appeared to be unaffected by the kerfuffle. To this day only John Swinney has been aware of the justified "panic in my breastie" during this speech.

So back to Kevin Stewart. His classic sentence was:

"Bairns not bombs, Nurses not nukes, Teachers not Trident."

It met the three rules for a Parliamentary speech. It had three parts; the mind works best on threes. Better than twos or fours. Don't ask. I don't know.

Each pairing set opposite notions against each other; antithesis. And two "B"s, two "N"s, two "T"s provided the alliteration to complete the set. In a mere nine words.

En passant, I feel that it works best in the order used because the order is familiar. It's in alphabetic sequence. That seems to make it even easier to remember. But that's not a "rule". Yet.

My 18-year-old intern got her head down and within 60 minutes said she'd finished. Rule of thumb suggests preparation is ten times as long as delivery. For a first effort, pretty much spot on.

But she said that she wasn't sure about it. I read it, and while it reflected good research, analysis of information and provided a cogent set of words, it wasn't a speech. It was an essay. A well-written essay. Her doubts were well-founded, but she did not know why she had doubts.

For me, there were two choices. I could sit down and explain the problem to her. But she's clearly half-way there because of her having doubts. And in any event, I would wish her to be able to analyse and solve her own problems because that's what would lift her as a person to another place.

So I said that I wanted her to take what she had written along the corridor into the loo and to read out her "speech".

Five minutes later, she was back with a smile on her face and immediately sat down again at her PC and started typing.

Twenty minutes elapsed and then she was in with a new version. I didn't pick it up and read it. I asked her to talk me through her thought processes. She had worked out for herself what needed to be done. And then did it. She had taken the first step towards a life where there was no tutor. And she seemed to feel pretty good about it.

I handed back her new "copy" unread and asked that she re-format it so that it was in the 20-point print that would suit my older eyes. To make sure the pages were numbered. And to hand it to me twenty minutes before the start of the debate.

That's about their understanding that they are an essential part of the team. They will be trusted to do the right things and to do them right.

It would be later that they would realise that the risks for me were not that high. An "old lag" like me could have delivered an "off the cuff" speech if what was before me turned out to be rubbish.

But hearing their speech delivered all but verbatim, and getting a name check for their work on the Parliament's Official Report, they were on the road, on the second day with me, from undergraduate student to independent adult.

It is one of my biggest disappointments that the pandemic probably means I shall have no more interns before my retirement in Spring next year.

But writing this down here might shove a few neophytes in a useful direction.

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