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August 2013

Capax imperii...

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson

Edited by Harry Mount

Bloomsbury 2013

ISBN 978 1408 1835 26


On my beside table, I currently have a copy of Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon.  It’s one of a fast-proliferating breed of book: designed to look more like books than books, with extra thick pages, big type and textured covers.  Sort of hyper-real books.Not-quite books. Waterstone’s counter yesterday was awash with them. 

Boris Johnson reminds me of this kind of book.  He’s a not-quite politician.

When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister in May 2004, his response was:  "look the point, what is the point?  It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it."  Anacoluthon and erotema - interrupting the syntax of the sentence with a rhetorical question - are carefully placed in the service of a precisely calibrated impression of what Boris has proudly called imbecilio. 

"Boris," says Harry Mount, in an introduction to this book that's considerably more interesting and insightful than I was expecting, "is in fact a brilliant calibrator."  He can shift his register precisely as the kairos demands. 

In particulaJohnson2r, his "magical gift for surreal, amusing apology" works "like a sort of bulletproof armour."  When Eddie Mair called him "a nasty piece of work" earlier this year, Boris drew the venom with relative ease.  "If a BBC presenter can't attack a nasty Tory politician," he suggested the next day, "what's the world coming to?"

Clever.  Tory politicians are nasty; BBC presenters are inherently anti-conservative; 'twas ever thus and 'twill ever be thus.  By holding up a mirror to our own prejudices, Johnson implies a level of honesty that actually increases his credibility.   He knows that the only politician the public will now believe is a parody of a politician. 

He uses his lack of ethos to magnify his ethos.

There's no doubting, then, the man's rhetorical flair.  (Open this book at any page.)  "That facility," claims Mount, "is largely to do with having studied classics."  He has the classicist's command of language, playing off Latinate against Anglo-Saxon just as he plays off class against class.  And his schooling allowed him to rehearse to perfection a role based on the archetypes of privilege, public school and ivory-tower academia:  "Billy Bunter meets Bertie Wooster meets Professor Brainstorm."  It's a "well-practised, mock-bumbling, Latin-loving routine that never fails him in “that crucial Johnsonian mission – to get him off the hook.”

For some, the image is a disguise.  Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP, believes that “there’s a smooth machine under the buffoonery.  It’s not an exaggeration,” he claims, “to call him a genius.” (What is it, then, I wonder?)

Ian-HislopIan Hislop’s comment on Boris is more ambiguous.  When people ask Hislop, “Is Boris a very clever man pretending to be an idiot?’, Hislop simply replies: ‘No.’

What Eton and Balliol failed, apparently, to instil in our man is any "capacity for long, concentrated periods of work" (Mount's words).  When he missed a First, they say he went alone to the cinema and cried.  When he was writing for the Daily Telegraph, he consistently failed to file his copy on time. When Mount asked one of Boris's old classics tutors about his chances of making it to Number 10, the man replied:

"Capax imperii nisi imperasset."



This is Tacitus on the Emperor Galba:  "He was up the job of emperor, as long as he never became emperor."



Johnson's practised incompetence may allow him, very effectively, to hide what Jonathan Coe has called “his doggedly neo-liberal and pro-City agenda”. (I'm seriously indebted to Coe's recent article in the LRB.)  Whether it also gives him cover for his lack of political competence is another matter.

For the moment, we can hold off the question about his ability to rise to the demands of high office.  What matters is why people vote for him.  His wit gains him support because it taps into a very British contempt for anything outstanding.  "Boris," claims Mount, "manages to pull off the trick of being ambitious and successful, at the same time as implicitly mocking ambition and success.  You end up forgiving him his ambition, and not begrudging him his success, because the whole act is so funny and endearing."

Ah.  Endearing.

So Boris scores because he has incorporated satire's mockery of political hubris and incompetence into his own act and utterly emasculated it.  Johnson knows that he has nothing to fear from the public’s laughter, because the public’s ridicule for politicians has become undiscriminating.  He knows, to paraphrase Coe, that the best way to deal with satire is to create it yourself.  Mount quotes Stuart Reid, Boris's deputy editor at the Spectator:  “people of all social classes and most political persuasions will vote for him, precisely because he reduces everything to a joke.” 

Wit and wisdom for our time.

Telling it like it is

Toye_RhetoricRhetoric: A Very Short Introduction

Richard Toye

Oxford, 2013


ISBN 978 0 19 965136 8

At the heart of Richard Toye’s excellent new book is “the problem of meaning and intention.” 

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.  How can speakers be confident that the audience will be persuaded?  (Think of Blair at the Women’s Institute conference in 2000.)  Can we decide what, exactly, a speaker means?  “This is what seems to fascinate us,” he writes, “although pinning it down is infuriatingly difficult.” 



Difficult, partly, because we can’t argue without using rhetoric.  When Kennedy famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, he wasn’t just employing antimetabole for fun; the repetition of words in reverse order actually formulates the idea.  “Rhetoric,” says Toye, “is not merely the means by which ideas are expressed, it is also the means by which they are generated.”  


This is one of his major themes.  Another is that rhetorical meaning is generated socially.  Too much discussion of rhetoric stalls at geeky chat about figures of speech.  Toye deepens the conversation.  Rhetoric isn’t solely about style; its reception depends on the norms of the society in which it’s delivered.

St-francis-preaching-to-birdsWe’re invited to analyse St Francis’ sermon to the birds.  Did he really think that he could talk to the birds? Did the people who circulated the sermon think that he could?  Or were they trying to convince the audience that he could?  And if so, why?  How do we know that what we’re reading even remotely resembles what he said?  These questions both enrich our understanding of the text, and demonstrate the impossibility of deriving a final, authoritative meaning.

Rhetoric both reveals and conceals.  It’s this epistemological slipperiness that Plato found so offensive.  Aristotle, in response, sought to codify rhetoric into a set of rules, instigating a project pursued with varying levels of enthusiasm ever since.  Toye outlines the story in a superb potted history.

He’s paOngetcrticularly good on the great 20th figures, who redefined the terms of the debate:  Richards, Ong, Austin, Burke.



By the 1950s, some intellectuals on the Aristotelian wing became convinced that “science would eventually be able to foretell with precision how human minds would be persuaded.”  Such an approach “now looks,” writes Toye, “too mechanistic and not a little frightening.”  Too mechanistic because rhetoric’s effects are “inherently unpredictable”; frightening because, on some level, rhetoric does seem to operate mechanistically.  While the Mad Men were developing Edward Bernays’ advertising  techniques, Alfred Hitchcock was honing his rhetorical skills – both verbal and visual – to unprecedented levels of coercive mastery.




Toye uses Hitchcock’s 1935 English 39 Steps, in contrast, to demonstrate rhetoric’s playful ambiguity.  Richard Hannay’s improvised hustings speech – “I’ve known what it is to feel lonely and helpless” – gains layers of meaning from his situation: impersonating a parliamentary candidate when, in fact, he’s on the run from sinister agents of a foreign power and playing for time.  Rhetorical analysis identifies “the social meanings of particular statements or symbols in given contexts.” High-flown and complicated?  Well, Hitch’s audience has no trouble doing it.


Toye fAnti-intellectual-presidencyavours political rhetoric over others – unsurprisingly, given his position as Professor of Modern History at Exeter University.  He gives valuable insights into the shift, during the 19th century, from 'laudatory' rhetoric, praising the politician's character, to 'hortatory' rhetoric, linking voters  emotionally to policies - "the model of rhetoric that informs modern programmatic politics".  And he gives a strong account of the concepts of the  'rhetorical presidency' and the 'anti-intellectual presidency' in modern American politics.  Other forms of rhetoric are somewhat sidelined; but Toye shows that rhetoric, of whatever kind, is never politically neutral; rhetorical analysis therefore provides insights into how a society generates its governing ideas, and “the way it talks about the way those things ought to be talked about.” 

Rhetoric matters.  To explicate this shaggy beast in 35,000 words is no small challenge, and Toye succeeds with a consistently light touch.  (I’d like a few more pointers to some of the scholars he quotes.)  He even provides a ‘basic toolkit’ of rhetorical techniques.  He wants to empower us; but he also warns us about the limits of such empowerment.  Above all, he says, understanding rhetoric “helps people to assess the validity of arguments and to avoid being misled by plausible but flawed appeals.  It can also provide tools that will help counter them.”

Spot on.

Take the Chair: a guide to running meetings


Think of chairing a meeting as being like air traffic control.



The participants are all flying their kites.

Your job is to keep the airspace clear.


We all know that groups go through a four-stage life cycle. (If you don't, Google 'tuckman group development'.  It's an old model and a great one.)







Groups in meetings are no different.  So the way you lead the meeting will depend on where the group is in the life-cycle.

Lead the group in two ways.

  • Task leadership - clarifying objectives, setting parameters, guiding the group in its thinking - will tend to dominate the first two stages of group development, as the group is forming and as diverse views emerge at the storming stage.
  •  Social leadership - helping the group to negotiate conflict and maintain coherence, establishing norms of behaviour - will tend to dominate the central stages of development, as conflicts threaten group cohesion and as the group seeks the values by which it will operate


Opening the meeting

Upset-man-time-clockStart on time. If you don’t, you’ll have late arrivals for the next meeting. Lateness can become a chronic problem if not dealt with immediately. Anybody who arrives late at a meeting that started promptly should soon get the message.

 State the purpose or objective of the meeting. Refer to the agenda, and indicate the common ground that exists within the group to reach this goal.

 Make all suitable introductions. Check that everybody knows each other. Attend in particular to new members.


Announce procedures and the timetable of the meeting. Tell people how long the meeting will last, and times of breaks. Indicate how you expect them to contribute and how you intend to control the discussion.

 If you are chairing a new group:

  • identify and agree the group's purpose;
  • give information on everybody attending: their expertise and relevance to the task; and
  • invite everybody to introduce themselves.
 If the group is well established:
  • identify the purpose of this meeting;
  • note any changes in circumstances since the last meeting;
  • remind the group of its identity;
  • introduce new members or guests;
  • praise achievements of the group or individuals since the last meeting;
  • acknowledge new difficulties; and
  • reaffirm the determination of the meeting to meet the challenge.


Managing agenda items



Lead by example.



Keep the group focused on your vision of the meeting: not only what we want to achieve, but how we want to behave.

Manage the conversation by asking questions, listening, energizing, praising, accepting and, occasionally, disciplining.

Check that each task leader is satisfied with the outcome: that decisions and actions, and the responsibilities and deadlines associated with them, are clear.      

  • Refer to the agenda.
  • Do not start an item before concluding the previous one.
  • Clarify the purpose of the item.
  • Start the discussion positively.
  • Remind the group how much time is allocated.

Most of us sometimes need to be encouraged to speak out. An important idea may never emerge because somebody is too reticent or overawed to volunteer it. Meetings can easily become 'tennis matches' dominated by a few strong personalities while everybody else looks on helplessly.

You can encourage democracy in two ways.

  • Task behaviour: initiating discussion, building on it, making suggestions 
  • Process behaviour: gate-keeping to allow everyone to contribute; time-keeping to concentrate people's minds; and summarizing the group's feelings

Everybody should feel relaxed about contributing, and that their contribution is valued. Distinguish contributions from the people making them. Praise useful ideas and remarks rather than according the speaker gushing adoration; be critical, if you must, of a comment without condemning the speaker. Be open, honest and specific.

Using questions and statements

At the next meeting you attend, count the number of questions. Compare it to the number of assertions made.

What conclusions can you draw?

Johnson460'Questioning,’ wrote Samuel Johnson with typically heavy irony, 'is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen.’ As a result, many managers become much more skilled in advocating their own ideas than in enquiring into those of others - or into their own


We ask questions to find out, to check our understanding and – if we are good questioners – to help others improve their understanding.  But we also question for many other reasons: to ridicule someone, to criticize or to make ourselves look clever. We need to make sure that we’re asking questions for the right reasons.

Become aware of the repertoire of questions available to you. Use them to help you pilot the conversation: to open it, keep it alive, take it in new directions, steer it away from dangerous waters or shallows where it might get stuck, and bring it to a close.

Ask genuine questions, truly seeking information, encouraging people to speak from their experience and expertise, rather than 'putting answers into their mouths'.

Making statements

Statements are useful at the beginning of a meeting, to define the purpose, objectives and scope of the conversation. Make your opening statements positive. You can use statements during agenda items to:

  •  introduce it: 'We're all aware of the problems in this area. They include...';
  • give information: 'This is a new venture for the company. Briefly it works like this...';
  • temper conflict or confusion with fact: 'Perhaps I can make a few points clear at this stage. . .';
  • gauge the mood of the group: 'I can see that there's a good deal of frustration about this...', 'I think we're all satisfied about that decision . . .', 'It seems to me that we're getting confused. . .';
  • provoke, to energize or stimulate discussion: 'Our jobs all depend on this!'.



All meetings go through periods of relative calm, between or within items.


The group may be uncertain of the next move: the conversation dries up, begins to go in circles or degenerates into chat. At times like this, the Chair should intervene with a summary.



Good timing is essential. Don’t try to summarize when the discussion is in full swing: take notes to prepare yourself for the moment when the group stops generating ideas. There are three main points in any meeting when summarizing becomes a useful tool to guide the conversation.

  • Summarizing within items. Control contributions by summarizing them: when they ramble, repeat themselves or become anecdotal. Mark the end of one phase of the conversation with a summary before inviting further comments. Summarize to bring together the strands of a discussion, or when it goes slack. Sometimes a summary can be used to check how much agreement you have achieved and to reopen the discussion.
  • Summarizing at the end of items. This will seal an agreement or clarify exactly what has been agreed. This is a task that can usefully be given to the administrator, to help clarify what to put in the minutes.
  • Summarizing at the end of the meeting. A brief summary will remind the group of its achievement and point the way forward to the actions that will be taken.


Closing the meeting

Closing the meeting well is as important as opening it. The group is about to disperse. We should show everyone what they have achieved, acknowledge their success and thank them for their efforts. And we must also make sure that people commit to taking action.




All agreed actions should have a named 'actioner', who should feel that they 'own'the action. They should understand why they are doing it and have the authority and resources to carry it through.



Make sure that nobody takes on an unrealistic amount of work. Schedule actions to happen as soon as possible. Participants are more likely to take prompt action if they are still fired with enthusiasm by the meeting they have just left! 

Back up all decisions and actions in writing. A summary action sheet distributed with (or before) the full minutes can be useful. Others affected by the action may need to be contacted by memo or e-mail.

  • Summarize what has been decided and point the way ahead.
  • Briefly announce what actions are to occur: by whom and when.
  • Test for commitment.
  • Check that the administrator is happy with the record of the meeting.
  • Set the time and date of the next meeting if possible.
  • End positively. Emphasize the achievements of the meeting.
  • Thank everybody for their attendance and their contributions.

What do you mean, 'agenda'?

Every meeting has an agenda.

No, really.

Every meeting has one.

Or more.

Some of them hidden.

The agenda may not have been written down, discussed or even thought about. But the agenda exists, all the same. And whoever controls the agenda controls the meeting.

The most effective agendas are public and written down. If there's no public agenda, the meeting may be hijacked by private agendas.

Result?  Confusion, frustration and failure.










The final responsibility for setting the agenda is the Chair's. After all, it’s the Chair who is calling the meeting.

Keep it simple. The more complicated your agenda, the more likely it will be that the meeting will flounder.

The word 'agenda' is Latin for 'things to be done'.

Not, please note, 'things to be talked  about'.

So: no more agendas that look like this, please.











An agenda is a plan of the meeting.  It should tell us all what we're supposed to be doing here.

Why have an agenda?

A written agenda allows everyone to focus on what they are to do before, during and after the meeting. It acts as:

  • a plan of the meeting to aid preparation;
  • an objective control of the meeting's progress;and
  • a measure of the meeting's success.

An ideal agenda item tells us:

  • what the task is;
  • how it will be tackled;
  • what the group will do at the end of the item

Every item on the agenda should contain at least one verb, indicating what the group will do.

 'Item 7: New IT network'

- says very little that will help participants to prepare. Verbs clearly indicate what kind of thinking you’re expecting at that point in the meeting.

‘Item 3: New IT network. Clive to present quotations and essential specifications of systems under consideration. Team to agree system to be recommended for purchase.’

 This much fuller entry indicates what the group is to do, who the task owner is, and how we will know whether we have achieved our objective.

What's on the agenda?

The most formal of agendas will include (in this order):

  • Title of meeting
  • Date, time, venue
  • Apologies for absence
  • Minutes of previous meeting
  • Matters arising from the previous meeting
  • Other items to be discussed and decided
  • Motions relating to the above
  • Reports from sub-committees
  • Contributions from guest speakers
  • Any other business
  • Date, time and venue of next meeting

Your agenda may not need to be so comprehensive. (And I strongly suggest removing 'Any other business'.  But we'll discuss that shortly.)

Include timings and task owners for each item.

Constructing the agenda

As you gather items for the agenda, look for:

  • a logical order;
  • a common thread: keep linked items together;
  • routine items: place near the beginning;
  • special factors (for example, people who are only involved in a part of the meeting);
  • difficult or contentious items.

The best agendas reflect the natural energy levels of a group over time.



The most 'difficult' items - those needing the most discussion and thinking work - will be best placed in the middle third of the meeting, when the group's physical and mental alertness are at their peak. Routine items, information items or urgent matters that can be dealt with quickly, can be put first; and the 'easiest' items - those of greatest interest, or presentations by guest speakers - towards the end.

The agenda should also reflect the thinking process that you wish to follow.

Assembling the agenda items

Here's a checklist.

  • Remove any unnecessary items.
  • Give detailed titles to each item.
  • Every title should contain at least one verb: what the group will do.
  • Give timings to each item.
  • Indicate any specific speakers to an item.
  • Note any attached papers - in case of loss.
  • Consider putting motions on a separate sheet, for ease of reference.

Beware 'Any other business'!

If something is worth discussing, it should be itemised on the agenda. All too often, people use 'AOB' to pursue private or hidden agendas, to settle old scores, reawaken old grudges or make lengthy and irrelevant complaints.

If you can, remove this item from the agenda. Remember that your meeting should end on a positive note, with a summary of what you have achieved and the suggested next steps.

How to avoid 'any other business'

Distribute a draft agenda, with invitations for contributions. Invite participants to submit any late business at the start of the meeting.

Decide whether to include extra items, on the basis of their urgency, not their importance. Make it clear that any late inclusions are at the Chair's discretion.

Amend the agenda. Consider placing the new items at the beginning of the meeting, rather than at the end.  Allocate time to the new items and revise the timings for the rest of the agenda. Keep to the original overall timing of the meeting; simply extending it is counterproductive.

More than a minute-taker: the role of the meeting administrator

There are three roles in most meetings.



And -

well: what do we call them?

I suppose the most common term is 'minute-taker'. 

But the minute-takers I meet usually do so much more.  They prepare the room, the papers, the equipment - and the jammy dodgers. 






They liaise with Chair and participants.  They take notes in the meeting and write up a record after it.

I'd like to call these stalwart professionals 'administrators'.

Team_meetingThe administrator is principally responsible for taking an accurate record of the meeting: what happens, what is discussed, what is decided and what actions are agreed. But they often take on other responsibilities: preparation for the meeting, arrangements during the meeting and follow-up after it.


The administrator can contribute powerfully to a meeting’s success. They can take over critical tasks from the Chair: summarizing agenda items before discussion, and summarizing the discussion after each item; keeping time; even, on occasions, intervening to maintain order.

If you are a meeting administrator, here are some tips to help make your job more effective and more interesting.

Many administrators tell me that they:

  • have been brought in at a moment's notice;
  • are unclear what their responsibilities are; and
  • don't understand what people are talking about.

The key to developing your role is to create a close working relationship with the Chair.    

That may be an immediate problem.  Many minute- - sorry, administrators - hardly meet their Chairs outside the meeting room, and may not have the chance to speak with them before the meeting.  If that's your situation, you may need to develop your relationship with the Chair one tiny move at a time.  Most self-respecting Chairs will welcome any offers of help you can give them - providing you don't threaten their sense of competence.

Alternatively, you and the Chair can forestall many problems at a ‘pre-meeting meeting’. At this meeting, you can discuss:
  • the purpose of the meeting;
  • who is attending;
  • what will go on the agenda; and
  • background information to help in taking the minutes.
 Anticipate success with Kipling's famous six serving men.  You know who I mean: the 'w' questions.


‘Why?’: clarifying the purpose of the meeting with the Chair


If you have some idea what people are talking about - and, more importantly, why they are discussing it - you will be able to follow the conversation more fully. Better still, by understanding the goal of the conversation, you can also judge whether the group has arrived at a decision that meets the goal.


Understanding more about the meeting’s objectives will also help to make the meeting more enjoyable - or, at least, less boring.

‘Who?’: liaising with participants



You may need to manage arrangements with the participants in the meeting. It’s probably you who'll be distributing the agenda (perhaps in draft form, inviting contributions), or the minutes of the last meeting. You'll also probably need to manage travel arrangements or prepare papers and presentations.



Making these connections is useful work to help you put names to faces when you are in the meeting room. Helping others will almost certainly help you.

‘When’: times and timings



Work with the Chair to organize both when the meeting is happening and how long it will last. Check all the item timings; do they add up to the total amount of time allocated for the meeting?  Encourage the Chair to reduce the amounts of time allocated. Remind them of the cost of lengthy conversations!


‘Where?’: the meeting’s venue

G20_Melbourne_meeting_roomThe venue can be as critical to a meeting’s success as the time of day it’s held. Is the venue conveniently located?  Is it accessible: for people with disabilities, for example, or women travelling alone at night?  Are you meeting on 'home ground'?  Will everybody feel at ease when they are in the room?


Is the room the right size and shape?  Is it suitable for your purpose?  The Chair may wish to place allies (or potential troublemakers) in 'control positions'. You should be able to communicate easily with everybody - and especially the Chair - while taking the minutes. Everybody should be able to see a screen or flip chart with a minimum of disruption.

Effective participation depends on easy eye contact. Participants should be about one arm's length from each other. Closer, and they will invade each other's space; further apart, they will feel isolated and the group dynamics will suffer.


 ‘What?’: preparing materials

MessydeskYou have a key role in preparing the materials that will support the meeting’s thinking. You may need to print and distribute papers, prepare presentations or set up equipment.

Get to know how things work. Be ready to save the day when a beamer fails, or if a laptop fails to connect. 


‘How?: setting the procedure


Your procedural style will determine how the meeting - well, proceeds!  What type of meeting is it? Do you have to abide by regulations or legal requirements in the way you run the meeting? How do you expect participants to contribute? 


You'll be able to take the minutes much more effectively if you have the authority to:

  • intervene to clarify points that are unclear; and
  • summarize at the end of each item with details of decisions and actions agreed.

That last idea is particularly useful.  Not only can you check that your notes are accurate, but the group has a chance to stop, take stock and reflect on their work over the last twenty minutes or so, before moving on.

A meeting administrator can be so much more than a human sound recorder.