The British Exit - and the European Future

The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH: The British Exit – and the European Future

University of Zurich, KOH-B-10, October 17, 2016, 18:40 – 19:26 h. Organised by the Schweizerisches InstitutThe British Exit - and the European Future für Auslandforschung SIAF.

It was an honor and a privilege to have the former Britisch prime minister visit the University of Zurich and be able to experience him at first hand. The presentation was even more relevant because of the recent vote of the UK to exit the European Union. No wonder was the lecture hall filled to almost the last seat available, i.e. about 440 attendees.

Former prime minister John Major argued that the exit came as a surprise to many and that there were going to be many negative consequences. He praised the overall achievements of the European Union, acknowledging some difficulties. The key achievement being peace in Europe after the first and second world war. One of the mistakes the EU in his opinion did, was to let too many countries  adopt the Euro too early. Sir John argued that the vote in favor of the Brexit had to do with the fact, that many British citizens haven’t seen a raise in their living standard for the past 10 years.

Now to the topic of this blog: How good a public speaker is John Major?

On the positive side:

  • Use of humor: He opened and ended his speech with a joke. First with a joke about Gorbachev, then with one about Jelzin. John Major also deflected some potentially difficult questions with humor during the Q&A session.
  • Declaring his standpoint: He clearly said what his personal opinion was about the Brexit: He thinks it was a mistake. Comment: This puts things into perspective and let’s the audience understand more easily that he leans to one or the other side of the argument.
  • Relate to the audience: Sir John related to a large part of the audience when he (sarcastically) asked the students in the audience: „Are 65 million British citizens going to get the same deal as 500 million citizens of the EU? Discuss!“ He earned a big laugh from that (, assuming that that will not be the case).

Areas for improvement:

  • Voice: John Major’s voice was not constantly audible. His voice tended to soften at the end of sentences to the point that he could no longer be understood. Suggestion: Articulate clearly and loudly until the end of every sentence.
  • One sided: Many arguments were unbalanced. E.g. NATO is good, Russia is bad. (No mention of the promise that NATO gave to Russia: We will not expand NATO if you let us reunite Germany.) Suggestion: When preaching to the converted that works fine, probably less so when speaking to a large number of (most likely) critical university students.


Sir John Major’s key strength is his humor. Unfortunately he could not always be acoustically well understood. In addition, in a school paper (and, in my humble opinion, hopefully by the press) he would have been asked to give a more balanced view.

A worthwhile event to go to, if only to experience first hand how a former and current leader speaks.

On a scale of 1 (stay home) to 10 (world champion): 7

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Christine Lagarde at the University of Zurich, Switzerland

Christine Lagarde: Hope dies last

Shared Prosperity in a Globalized World

University of Zurich, Auditorium, KOH-B-10, May 7, 2012

Banner of the opposing studentsRarely does a speaker commend such attention. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, provoked a demonstration in front of the University of Zurich: Students opposed to the policies of the International Monetary Fund IMF had their transparencies with them (see picture above). The campus therefore abounded with security personnel. But there were also several hundred people who had come to listen to Mrs. Lagarde share her views of how to manage the currently difficult situation of world finances. There were so many that the speech had to be broadcasted into several other lecture rooms.

To have a better future for all, she argued, there must be growth in the short, medium and long term. Each country should implement a customized number of policies including the areas of banking, housing, taxes, product and labor markets. In addition the entire world economy should be rebalanced and secured with a financial safety net. She insisted that growth and austerity are not mutually exclusive, but can work together.

What about Mrs. Lagarde’s presentation skills? She has many strengths (+) and a few areas for improvement (-).

+ Alliteration / play of words: „Share the gains in good times; share the pains in bad times.“

Christine Lagarde at the University of Zurich, Switzerland

Christine Lagarde at the University of Zurich, Switzerland

+ Use of „we“ made the audience feel as one with her, e.g.: „We dare not fail. We are all together in this. Let’s make no mistake – it’s easier said than done.“

+ Eye contact: She had her material down cold. Therefore she could at anytime look into and connect with the audience.

– structure: On the one hand very structured, but then so many subpoints, that she lost me.

– Too few anecdotes: I wish she had packaged her key message „growth and stability are not mutually exclusive“ into a memorable anecdote or picture.

– Call for action: At the end of her speech she could/should have had a call for action.

Christine Lagarde's presentation skills on the Skipwith RadarDid what she said convince me? Not entirely. For me it was too general and too high level. As Christine Lagarde said: „The proof of the pudding lies in the eating.“ Hope dies last.

All in all she made a very confident, eloquent and elegant impression on me.

How did Mrs. Lagarde fare on the Skipwith Radar, a measure for presentation skills?

Listen to the speech at

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Prof. Dr. Niall Ferguson at the University of Zurich

Niall Ferguson: A rhetorical analysis of a rhetorical masterpiece

Can Europe collapse? And might America be next?

University of Zurich, Auditorium, KOL-G-201, Jan. 30, 2012

Prof. Dr. Niall Ferguson at the University of Zurich

Prof. Dr. Niall Ferguson at the University of Zurich

Prof. Dr. Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University and Oxford University

In my humble opinion, Niall Ferguson is a master of public speaking. Or so he was at his lecture in Jan. 30, 2012 at the Swiss Institute of International Studies. He did practically everything a good speaker and orator should do. His material, delivery and setting were perfect. Rarely do we hear someone in Switzerland that speaks as well as he does.

First of all, he spoke almost without notes. Only barely did he peek at them, only every two minutes, or so it seemed. I particularly enjoyed seeing someone who owned his content. It came right from the heart. No searching for words or thoughts. All smooth and continuous just like the water flow from a water fountain. Some would say he spoke so well in spite of not using PowerPoint. I say he spoke so well because he DIDN’T use PowerPoint.

He spoke in an auditorium where Winston Churchill spoke in 1946. Churchill then said „Let Europe arise.“ Ferguson referred not only to that sentence (unfortunately Europe seems to go the other way), but also referred several times to Churchill with quotes and analogies.

Ferguson started his speech in fluent German. Then switched to English. Obviously I was impressed that a Scotsman would speak, forgive my ignorance, any foreign languages at all. Also forgive me due to my American heritage when I say he spoke with a bearable accent, albeit somewhat British. Clearly, slowly, with pauses. He must be a university professor – but a good one. Jokes aside, he articulated like Demosthenes after practicing with the marbles, his use of words was varied, his analogies to the point, Ferguson even used voice variation when he imitated Churchill’s voice.

His opening  words were closely followed by a joke. As is customary and almost a must in the Anglo-Saxon world. And recommended for other countries and languages too. Just as speech coach Darren La Croix says, or words to that effect: „Just after the laughter is the best moment to spoon feed your audience with your message.“

Ferguson also expertly connected to recent events, i.e. the World Economic Forum WEF in Davos. An event that was fresh in the minds of most of the audience members.

Expertly, Niall Ferguson used the analogy of killer apps to explain what made Europe such a power house for 500 years. The killer apps were (1) the principle of competition, (2) the scientific revolution, (3) the rule of law, (4) medicine, (5) the consumer society, (6) the work ethic. He claims that while Asia in particular is implementing these killer apps (they downloaded them), Europe and the West is in the process of deleting them.

„What is one of the main reasons why (also) the US is on a downslide? Because they used to have the rule of law. Now they have the rule of lawyers.“

Prof. Ferguson was also master of the Q&A session. He even managed to incorporate the sound of the siren of a passing police car into the answer of one of the questions.

No need for a Skipwith radar chart. He gets 10/10.

If he has a fan club: He can count me in.

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