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27 March 2021

The English Speaking Union

Tag(s): Education, Languages & Culture
I have been a member of the English Speaking Union (ESU) for many years. I first got in touch with it when at the age of 16 I won my place at New College, Oxford and was, of course, too young to take it the following year. I had anticipated this possibility and had a vague plan for applying for an ESU scholarship to go to school in America and spend the year there. Now that I had the chance, I took a little bit more trouble and found that it really wasn’t much of a scholarship. In fact, it was going to be quite an expensive year. I even investigated the possibility of working my passage on an ocean liner but that was something that the Seamen’s Union had got rid of decades before.

My form master found another exchange programme called the American Field Service (AFS) and that was a true scholarship and turned out to be not only a marvellous year for me personally but also the cheapest my father ever had during my years of dependency on him. But later through the AFS I became very active in their returnee programme finishing up as its president in the UK and we held meetings and dinners at Dartmouth House, the London headquarters of the ESU and later found that membership of this organisation was a very attractive prospect, not only for contact with a fine organisation but also gaining access to Dartmouth House for a relatively modest subscription fee.

Five years ago, I learnt that New College was to get a new Warden and this person was Miles Young who was previously chairman and chief executive of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the largest advertising companies in the world. Miles is the first genuine business leader to take charge of an Oxbridge college and is now a good friend of mine. He has recently taken on a new role, in addition to remaining Warden, as the chairman of the board of the ESU. Normally most of my blogs are my own original work but the interview that Miles gave to the ESU’s publication marking his beginning in the role is so interesting that I’m going to quote it in full here.
 
“Miles Young likes a challenge, it’s fair to say. Asked what he loves about Tibet, a place he’s visited three times and is keen to go back to, whether to trek to the main religious centres or to participate in a nomadic horse fair, the reply comes back: ‘the sparseness, the difficulty, the isolation. And the sheer emptiness. Of course, it’s not without its dangers, which always makes things more interesting.’ 

On a different scale of adrenaline, but ‘terrifying’ nonetheless, was Miles’s first interaction with the ESU nearly 50 years ago, when he took part in the Bedfordshire round of the Public Speaking Competition for Schools. ‘I’d never really spoken in public before and I remember the feeling of fear and terror,’ he says, ‘but also the realisation that, if you prepared, you were safe.’ He went on to win a prize – a Roget’s Thesaurus he still uses today – and the experience instilled in him a confidence which spurred him on to join the debating club. It also sparked a lifelong fascination with words and communication evidenced in over 30 years at international creative agency Ogilvy & Mather where he rose to be worldwide Chair and CEO and, since 2016, in his current position as Warden of New College, Oxford, his alma mater. And it is this ongoing fascination, as well as a curiosity about what had become of the ESU in the interim, which led Miles to voice an interest in the role as Chair of the Board of Trustees. 

‘Spoken communication is such a fundamental issue in the world today – much more so than it was when I was doing the PSC – because the digital revolution has made it a less and less practised skill,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen that as an employer, where people perform poorly in interviews simply because they’d never had any basic training, and I see it very much in the Oxford context with some students who are quite unable to express who they are, what they stand for and what they want to do in life.’ Add in the explosion of content, the growth of fake news and ill-substantiated arguments, and the never-ending onslaught of superficial and spurious comment, and Miles believes we’re at a crisis point. ‘Young people today are exposed to a tide of incivility – it’s a battle that needs to be fought on their behalf and they need to be equipped with the skills to cope with it,’ he says. ‘It appeals to me to be working in an organisation which seeks to remedy some of those issues at their core.’

Miles brings with him not just a long experience in the field, but practical lessons too, not least in how universities deal with the task of widening access into areas of social deprivation, a programme he has been intimately involved in as Chair of the Oxford Conference of Colleges. He also offers a truly international perspective gained from having spent over half his working life abroad – in India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the US and China (where his most vivid memory is watching, as a guest of the government, a display of ballistic missiles roll by in Tiananmen Square on the 50th anniversary of the liberation). As such, he is acutely aware of cultural differences and, above all, the need to listen before you speak. ‘You can never become a good speaker unless you’re a good listener first,’ he says. ‘We in the West tend naturally to talk; in meetings our default position tends to be quite assertive,’ he says. ‘If you live in China or Confucian-influenced culture you do learn listening skills. You realise after one meeting when you don’t conform culturally, you’re never going to be successful, and you start to change your own way of behaving.’

Before opining on any priorities, he’s keen to put these listening skills to good use – there has not even been time for a board meeting when we speak – but he is clear that his first step will be to agree a short, medium and long term plan. ‘We’ve been through a period of exceptional change in the last 20 years in society,’ he says. ‘We’ve been through a sudden, rude shock in the form of the pandemic, and the ESU has had a significant anniversary, so we need to ask ourselves what is the next 100 years going to look like? As we come out of the pandemic the question is, how can we emerge stronger, with a greater sense of coherence and with a sense of the whole organisation being mobilised behind a common purpose.’

That of course includes the members, whom he sees as being at the heart of the charity. ‘There’s a famous phrase in marketing – ‘member get member’– and I’ve always believed that that is the best way to grow a membership,’ he says. ‘We need to ask people whether they accept that this is a necessary objective and then, if they do, we need to define what the membership proposition is and what the benefits are.’ Doing so will surely involve many conversations with the members themselves, something Miles welcomes: ‘Members are our greatest asset,’ he says. ‘Meeting them is without doubt the thing I’m looking forward to most as Chair.’
 
And I met him earlier this week on a zoom call and congratulated him on his new role. He was delighted to learn that I am a member.



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