13 May 2013
9 May 2013
Preparing for a presentation on our political leaders' curious preference for making speeches in peculiar places, I stumbled across this from David Cameron speaking in front of a window at the end of the 2010 general election.
My reason for posting it here is by way of a reminder to all the anti-Cameron Conservatives and their chums in the Tory press of some rather important facts.
Although I didn't vote Conservative, I'm still baffled by the extraordinary hostility towards Mr Cameron from parts of the media that really ought to be thanking their lucky stars that he did so well at the last election...
1 May 2013
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yesterday's speech by the Prime Minister at the Morrisons distribution centre in Bridgewater (above) could be seen as a bid to keep up (or down) with Chancellor George Osborne - who tried out another Morrisons distribution centre (in Kent) as a bizarre venue for making a political speech a month ago,
What the connection is between Morrisons supermarkets and the higher reaches of the Conservative Party I have no idea but, if anyone else has a clue, I'd be very glad to hear from them.
Meanwhile, I'm grateful to Morrisons and the Conservative Party for providing such a timely reminder that the closing date of our Spring Competition (inviting nominations of daft places to make speeches -
details HERE) is only two weeks away.
15 April 2013
The problem of pitch (see PART I) was only one aspect of public speaking that Mrs Thatcher took seriously after becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. She also took advice from professionals in the theatre, television and even evangelism. One of her main speechwriters was Ronald Millar, a playwright about whose influence Mrs Thatcher's biographers have noted as follows:
‘She ... turned out to be an amenable pupil to Millar's methods, which included advice on delivery as well as script. Millar has become known as the author of the jokes (he was responsible for 'U-turn if you want to - the lady's not for turning'), but his principal skill was and is playing director to the leading lady, a combination of firm steering mixed with reassurance.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, p. 161)
'The lady's not for turning' is but one of many contrastive punch lines supplied to Mrs Thatcher by Millar, and it was at his suggestion that she quoted the following four contrasts from St Francis of Assisi as she entered Downing Street after winning the 1979 general election (see video with blog entry on 1st January 2009):
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.
Where there is error, may we bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Since before the 1979 election, television producer Gordon Reece had provided Mrs Thatcher with extensive and detailed guidance on how to perform effectively on the small screen. And, during the 1983 general election, the staging of her set-piece speeches was organised by the same team that managed mass meetings for Billy Graham's evangelical crusades to Britain.
Much of this expert help, of course, had little or nothing to do with the specific problems faced by a female political leader. But some of the advice, such as that provided by Gordon Reece, was directly concerned with image-related matters like hair-styles, clothes, jewellery make-up and even which side of her face was supposed to be best for exposing to the camera.
This included advice that she should go for greater simplicity of appearance in television performances than when making major speeches. Reece and Millar were also concerned with the problems associated with pitch. To quote her biographers again:
‘A full blast Commons speech can sound like raving hysteria in a broadcasting studio. The broadcasting of the Commons (which happened to coincide with Reece's arrival) caused him special problems. He was heard to remark that the selling of Margaret Thatcher had been put back two years by the mass broadcasting of Prime Minister's Question Time as she had to be at her shrillest to be heard over the din... Millar had also taught her that lowering the voice brought the speed down to a steadier rate. He advised holding to a steady and equable tone at Question Time which would eventually drive through, not over or under, the noise.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, pp. 169-70)
Before the 1979 general election, the Conservative Party's advertising agents, Saatchi and Saatchi, were also worried about the prospects of convincing the electorate of the leadership potential not just of a woman, but of one who seemed to epitomise the typical suburban middle-class housewife.
Meanwhile, the various nicknames devised by her colleagues, such as 'Mother', the 'Leaderene', the 'Bossette', 'Attila the Hen', 'the Immaculate Misconception', etc. can be seen as reflecting a sustained attempt on their part to come to terms with the fact that they were having to work under a woman leader.
Much the same could be said of the culturally available stereotypes of powerful women that cartoonists exploited in their caricatures of Mrs Thatcher, which included Bodicea, Britannia, a witch and the Queen. But the most astute attempt to come to terms with Mrs Thatcher's position as a political leader was supplied by the Soviet newspapers when, after a speech at Kensington Town Hall in 1976, they dubbed her the 'Iron Lady'. Of all the nicknames Mrs Thatcher attracted, it was as the 'Iron Lady' that she became internationally best known. And this may well be because these two words aptly sum up one of the main secrets of her success in finding a solution to the problem of being a female in a position of power.
Given that successful women face the dilemma of being ‘damned if they behave like men, and damned if they don't', one solution is to behave in as efficient, tough and decisive a manner as possible, while at the same time making no concessions whatsoever when it comes to maintaining the external trappings of femininity. So Mrs Thatcher was committed to the importance of being smart in a conventionally feminine way, and consistently sought to make the most of her natural physical attractiveness. This included the preservation of her blonde hair by regular tinting as well as the elimination of gaps in her teeth by dental capping.
Nor was she afraid to be seen in the traditional female roles of wife and mother, even to the extent of being photographed at the kitchen sink just before competing as a candidate in the 1975 Conservative Party leadership election. Her uncompromisingly feminine appearance, and her repeated emphasis on the virtues of family life may not have endeared Mrs Thatcher to feminists. But, in the eyes and ears of a wider public, such factors had the effect of insulating her from being 'damned' for lacking culturally acceptable feminine attributes, by leaving no one with any doubt that she was anything less than a 100 per cent female of the species.
At the same time, there was little or nothing in her conduct of government that could be singled out to expose her as 'gentle', 'weak' or not up to the job, and this enabled her to avoid being 'damned' for possessing the sorts of stereotypical feminine attributes so often cited in attempts to demonstrate the unsuitability of women for positions of power and responsibility.
Her external image of unambiguously recognisable femininity effectively liberated her to pursue forceful policies without running any risk of being damned for behaving ‘like a man’, because any such claim would have been so transparently at odds with all the other evidence that she was uncompromisingly female. And, with lines like “a general doesn't leave the field of battle just as it's reaching a climax”, she showed no inhibitions at all about identifying herself closely with a powerful male role model, without having to worry about whether this would raise doubts about her essential femininity.
Nor was she averse to using a negative nickname to question the manliness of her male colleagues, as it was Mrs Thatcher herself who first used the word 'wet', a colloquialism for describing men as feeble or lacking in masculinity, for referring to her more liberal Tory cabinet ministers.
As for the 'iron lady', its aptness lay in the fact that it captured the two most visible and contrasting characteristics of her public image: toughness and femininity. And, when these two qualities are exhibited in the conduct and appearance of the same woman, she has found an effective way of deterring, resisting and neutralising any attacks based on male-chauvinist assumptions.
Mrs Thatcher was also quick to latch on to the advantages of this. Within weeks of the Russians dubbing her the ‘iron lady’ (and still three years before she became prime minister) she was to be heard juxtaposing her feminine attributes with the toughness implied by the nickname in a speech she made in 1976:
Seven years later, when fighting for re-election in 1983, she was still confident enough about the nickname being an asset to woo her audiences with lines like these:
Thatcher: "The Russians said that I was an Iron Lady."
Thatcher: "They were right."
Thatcher: "Britain needs an Iron Lady."
Audience: "Hear-hear" [applause]
Nor did she ever try to deny the appropriateness of another nickname that located her firmly within a long-standing and culturally familiar category of successful professional women in positions of power, namely head-teachers. In a report by John Cole, the BBC’s political editor, during the 1983 general election, she showed no qualms about accepting the image he presented her with in a question formulated in blatantly male-chauvinist terms:
Cole: “Other Prime Ministers after all have been bossy too, but Mrs Thatcher does undoubtedly keep a fussy watch on her ministers' performances with an occasional touch of motherliness. I asked her today what she said to suggestions that she had a headmistress image.”
Thatcher: “Well I've known some very good headmistresses who've launched their pupils on wonderful careers. I had one such and was very grateful. But I am what I am. Yes, my style is of vigorous leadership. Yes, I do believe certain things very strongly. Yes, I do believe in trying to persuade people that the things I believe in are the things they should follow. And Mr Cole I'm far too old to change now.”
By saying that there is not only nothing wrong with being like a headmistress, but that it’s a role model with positive virtues, Mrs Thatcher was able to identify herself with one of the relatively few widely respected positions of power and responsibility that have traditionally been available to women. Teaching is also one of the very few professions with job conditions that include a great deal of public speaking. For a female leader to be identified with the role of headmistress would therefore seem to be something worth cultivating if it’s in your interests to promote the idea that women are perfectly capable of holding their own both on a public platform and in a position of power.
Indeed, one of Mrs Thatcher's major long term achievements may turn out to have been the undermining of age-old assumptions of the sort contained in Quintillian's observation that the perfect orator cannot exist ‘unless as a good man'. And, by finding a workable solution to the problem of being damned for being like a man and damned for not being like a man, her combination of uncompromising femininity with equally uncompromising words and deeds may have laid the foundations for a new tradition within which women politicians of the future will be able to operate.
- Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher
- Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, 20 years on from her resignation
- Michael Aspel interviews Margaret Thatcher during the miners' strike
- Margaret Thatcher, body language and non-verbal communication
- Thatcher had more teleprompter problems than Obama
- The day when Mrs Thatcher apologised (twice) for what she said in an interview
- Brown may plan to 'keep going' but Mrs Thatcher never said she'd go 'on and on and on'
- Two engaging women speakers from British politics - and two models for powerful women?
2 April 2013
Regular readers of this blog know that I've been getting exasperated by the growing obsession of leading British politicians with making important speeches at strange times and at peculiar venues.
David Cameron's much heralded speech on Europe was given at 8.30 a.m. in the morning at the London headquarters of an American news agency and was, in effect, a press release thinly disguised as a 'speech' (on which, more HERE).
A week or so later, George Osborne turned up to read another press release at the offices of JP Morgan in Bournemouth (on which a bit more HERE).
Today, Mr Osborne's aides excelled themselves with the selection of a venue - a Morrisons supermarket distribution centre somewhere in Kent - for another important 'speech'/'press release' on the government's latest benefit changes - most of which had, as usual, been available in all this morning's newspapers and/or online long before he arrived to read out the 'speech' (see extract above).
As with the earlier two by Cameron and Osborne, there was no coughing, sneezing, applause, cheering, booing or indeed any other evidence that there was actually an audience there in the warehouse (or was it a corridor?) listening to his every word, or indeed any of his words...
Which brings me to announcing our next prize competition.
WHERE, WHEN AND TO WHOM?
Contestants are invited to propose exactly when, where and to whom any UK politician of their choice should give his or her next major 'speech'. They may also, if they think it relevant, add what the subject matter of the speech should be.
The lucky winner will receive a signed copy of my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations and the runner-up will receive a signed copy of Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy (also by me).
CLOSING DATE: midnight, 15th May 2013
The results will be announced on 16th May 2013 at the International Speechwriting Conference in London.
25 March 2013
On several occasions, I've asked whether interviews are ever capable of delivering good news for politicians and wondered why our political leaders appear content with the deal that appears to have been done with the media - in which news interviews have more or less taken over from speeches as the main means of political communication in Britain (see links below).
Vivid evidence of the damage a politician can do to himself was provided yesterday morning on a TV show in which interviews play a major part, and where the producers' best hope is that an interviewee will say something - or, better still, say some things - that will attract much wider media attention than the show normally enjoys.
This time, the interviewee was Mayor of London Boris Johnson, for whom at least three of Eddie Mair's questions caused problems (from about 7 minutes 20 seconds into the above): was he fired from The Times for inventing a story, had he told former leader of the Conservative Party Michael Howard a 'bare-faced lie' and had he talked to a friend on the phone about having someone beaten up?
Not news on the BBC?
A curious feature of this story was the way in which it didn't become a story on the BBC, whose news broadcasts later in the day carried on as if the Mair-Johnson interview wasn't news at all, even though other media outlets thought differently:
Short-term irritant or longer term damage?
The interesting question now is whether these few moments from a Sunday morning TV show will have any more lasting impact on Mr Johnson's reputation and political career.
If nothing else, I suspect that I won't be alone in watching tonight's Michael Cockerell documentary that prompted Eddie Mair's quetions (at 9.00 p.m. on BBC2).
14 March 2013
Now that Benedict XVI has shown the world that a pope can retire when he feels a bit past it, the cardinals must have felt liberated to hand the top job to another old man.
And how very polite commentators have become. There was a time when the advanced age of the new Pope would have been a major focus for comment and complaint. But there doesn't seem to have been much of either (yet).
Since qualifying for bus and rail passes, I don't feel at all inhibited about saying that I think there's something vaguely barmy about cardinals electing a 76 year old to take charge of an organisation as big and complex as the Roman Catholic church.
Unless, of course, their hidden and hush-hush agenda was to accept the implicit change in job specification decreed by Benedict - i.e. that popes can now retire whenever they feel like it.
By opening the papacy up to anyone below the age of 80 (males only, of course) the cardinals are giving more of them a chance to become infallible. And, if old fogeys are now to become the norm rather than the exception, the Roman Catholic church won't have to suffer for too long from any mistakes the 'electorate' happens to make (as, for example, the pope emeritus?).