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Churchill, Thatcher, The Dalai Lama, Col Gadaffi, Archbishop Tutu, Dame Edna … & John Simonett!

24 February, 2015

Being asked to speak to an audience who have previously seen and heard “celebrity” speakers (or just very good ones!) can be daunting.  In the trade it is called “following” another speaker. The list of names in the title of this post are not often seen together! So what have they got in common?

A:  They’ve all spoken in a debate at the Cambridge University Students Union!


The debating floor of the Cambridge Union – modelled on the House of Commons!

I must admit I had mixed feelings when I got the call from the President of the Cambridge Union asking if I would be prepared to take part in a debate. Who me? It was of course a great honour to be asked …  especially as it was a “fun” end of term debate – right up my street! He had chosen me from my internet profile to join his team in proposing the motion “This House would rather have a Blue than a First”! (Just to explain – to my American readers – a “Blue” means being selected to represent the University in a “Varsity match” against rivals Oxford in one of several major sports – and is considered a great honour. A First is obviously a First Class degree on graduation!).

It was of course a no-brainer that I should accept the invitation – and join the pantheon of politicians, comedians, actors and world leaders who have graced the debating floor before me! Few speakers are given the chance to add the Cambridge Union to their CVs!

The topic was essentially a “Brawn vs. Brain” debate – chosen by the President as he was a Hockey “Blue” – and wore his Cambridge Blue blazer in the debate!  He had selected me at random – as a sportsman (and humorist!) to join his team to propose the motion! Let’s be honest – we were up against it – as very few people go to a University specifically to emerge with a sporting honour!

Cambridge Union.June2008 (9)

Here’s me at the Dispatch Box proposing the motion!

The evening followed traditional lines – formal dress, dinner beforehand with the other debaters and guests, clapped in to the auditorium (or “bear pit”!) by an audience seated on two sides and on a balcony, with the “Speaker” in the middle to keep order! Each team had four members and spoke at the Dispatch Box in turn – and were always likely to be interrupted by “points of order” from the floor! At the end the “House” voted by exiting from one of two doors – according to whether they were “For” or “Against” the motion. In other words – perfect preparation for a life in politics in the House of Commons!

Cambridge Union.June2008

Pre-debate dinner

So how did we get on? The motion was in fact a very good one …  as it gave scope to consider the relative merits of physical and mental prowess and what benefits they bring in later life. As I researched the topic I found many compelling arguments as to why (as an employer) I would prefer to choose someone with a “Blue” rather than a First! I even threw out the topic as a challenge to listeners of a breakfast show on BBC Radio Gloucestershire on which I was a guest! Several callers (including two Blues and a First) gave me extra “ammo” for my speech!

However the best advice I received was from fellow speaker – and ex barrister and former President of the Cambridge Union – Graham Davies.  He said “John – don’t try and be clever. Be funny”! He was right – faced with an audience of sharp undergraduates it was probably much better to treat the topic with humour – and not take oneself too seriously!

Of course – I slipped in a mention of the fact that as I had not only played First Class Rugby (my equivalent of a “Blue”!) and also had a First Class Honours degree … that the best person to employ would be someone who had both a Blue AND a First! However I conceded that was technically outside the scope of the motion!

OK – we lost the debate 60/40 – which the President told me was a “result” as he fully expected most people to vote according to why they applied to go to Cambridge – to get a First! However he said that they encourage the audience to vote according to the skill of the debaters – including how entertaining they were – rather than according to their pre-conceived ideas!

Cambridge Union.June2008 (18)

Couldn’t resist a post-debate pic in the Speaker’s Chair!

The whole  experience was a wonderful glimpse into one of the extra-curricular activities which go into moulding a Cambridge graduate’s persona – and are as much a part of the reason for attending such an institution as obtaining a degree. I’m glad I accepted the challenge!

You can see who the other guests have been by visiting the website of the Cambridge Union Society.

If you are looking for an entertaining keynote or after-dinner speaker – please get in touch to discuss your event!

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