21 November 2015

NGOs in Putin's Russia

I have just been invited to a conference in Oxford. The reply to my request for more details went as follows:

Dear Professor Atkinson,

Thank you so much for your interest in our seminar. It'd be a great honor for us if you decide to join our debates in Oxford in January. My only concern is that I can hardly be more specific about the audience at this stage. There will be around 80-90 journalists from different regions of Russia (relatively young, average age 35). The group is now being composed, and as soon as my colleagues give me more information, I'll be happy to share it with you. 

As for the School, we are an NGO based in Moscow, but forced to organize most of our seminars abroad due to the latest law on foreign agents. 

We've been holding seminars on Media and society for the last 20 years, and we believe we represent a unique source of top level Russian expertise, and the strongest of our experts are our journalists. We gather (especially for this seminar) young journalists from all over Russia and post soviet space (Eastern Europe including) and give floor to the best experts and journalists so that they could discuss all the vital issues. Our seminars are built the way that experts give a short talk (20-30 min) followed up by an hour of discussion. We also include panel debates, round tables, screenings and meeting film directors.

Yours sincerely
I--- B-------------

Vaguely puzzled by this, I sent a copy to my brother, who has a degree in Russian and follows events there more closely than most media commentators in the UK.

His reply:

What fantastic proof of your standing in the field. Very impressed.

NGO (non government organisations) are such an interesting story in Russia. They are now all but banned as the Putin govt regards them as foreign agents. The first major casualty was the British Council which I believe was headed by Kinnock junior. 

Russian journalists are very brave. They suffer from intimidation and even murder. Anna Politkovskaya was an example.

Good luck with your lifetime award presentation next week.
D and B!!!

20 November 2015

Lifetime Achievement Award: letter from an 80+ year old friend

Recently, I received a personal letter from someone I first met over 30 years ago. At the risk of sounding as though I'm blowing my own trumpet, a slightly edited version is reproduced here:

'Dear Max

'Congratulations on being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the UK Speechwriters' Guild. It seems to me I knew you as a boy when you came to the Political communication conference at the University of Essex and I met you for the first time. I would have thought then that it shouldn't have taken so long to receive such an award, given your training of your protege, Ann Brennan, to test the water at the SDP Party Conference in Buxton. Her standing ovation was in itself a Lifetime Achievement Award.

'And I know someone had to teach Paddy Ashdown how to speak in short sentences, beginning with a subject, adding a verb and closing in the object of the sentence. I wish more politicians, indeed more graduates, would read your books.

'I am sorry that I will not be there to cheer you on, particularly when you use your own techniques to ensure a rousing round of applause.


' Sir R----- W-------- KBE DL.'

The full story of how an appearance at the conference referred to by RW changed my life was told in 10 episodes in this blog a few years ago - HERE: http://maxatkinson.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/claptrap-10-academic-acclaim.html

What was not mentioned there was that, before I had finished presenting my paper at the conference, RW passed me a note saying: 'I must have a copy of your book to review in my column in The Times.' 

Whether or not he did review it in that newspaper, I don't know. But our paths have crossed in interesting ways over the years since then - and I am grateful to him for quite a lot of things that he and I both remember....

5 November 2015

Bonfire night, halloween and goodbye to "penny for the Guy"???

For former pupils of St Peter's School, York like me, 5th November is an annual reminder of our deprived childhood.

Because Guy Fawkes also went to the school, as too did some of the other gunpowder plotters, bonfires and fireworks were banned - on the grounds that burning an old boy was deemed to be 'bad form'.

Some years ago, whilst listening to some primary school children reading on 5th November, my wife told one of the children that her husband had gone to the same school as Guy Fawkes.

"Oh" said the child, "Did he know him?"

It seems that Bonfire night has been progressively eclipsed by Halloween night - a rather new import from the USA. The first time I heard "trick or treat" was about 35 years ago, and that was only because we lived near a US air base in Oxfordshire - and were visited by American children. 

The whole thing now seems to have got completely out of hand with fancy dress, pointed hats and pumpkin lanterns. There have even been some nasty accidents with cheap outfits catching fire. But not as many as there once were when anyone of any age could buy as many bangers and rockets as they liked.

So maybe we Old Peterites now have a valid reason for not bothering to feel deprived about not going out on a cold wet night to watch a fireworks display. 

I do still miss children asking for "a penny for the Guy?" - which i haven't heard for quite a few years.....

4 November 2015

POPPIES and the British Legion


It is now more than 5 years since I first notified the British Legion about how they could collect even more cash than usual - and yet more in this centenary year of the outbreak of WW1 - but they have still failed to take any notice of my sound advice. See here

If you agree, how about mentioning it to them, if only because they appear to be a bit hard of hearing?

This year it's got worse than ever. They've ignored their long standing collectors and sent out 'free' adverts in the post (presumably to a mass audience at great expense) asking for a £10 donation.

My point was - and still is - that the slits on collection boxes shout out for coins rather than notes. It's really difficult to fold up a £10 note to get it through. It would also help if the boxes were made of Perspex, so that potential donors could see a few notes rather than listen to a few coins rattling around in the tin.

Having written to the British Legion HQ several times, I have yet to receive a reply...

24 October 2015

Question for Mr Cameron and Ms Sturgeon: why don't the Scots have their own time zone?

Repeat of a post from 24th October 2009:

If you find the darker afternoons that start tomorrow a depressing and pointless exercise, an article in The Times several years ago reported some interesting facts.

Apart from relieving the gloom, not putting the clocks back tonight would reduce electricity consumption by 1-2% and save NHS expenditure on dealing with accidents and emergencies:

“During an experiment 40 years ago, when British Summer Time was used all year for three years, there was an average of 2,500 fewer deaths and serious injuries each year. Opposition from Scotland contributed to the decision to return to putting the clocks back in winter.”

If putting the clocks back is such a big deal for the Scots, why don’t we let them do it on their own, especially now they have their own parliament in Edinburgh?

A different time zone in Scotland might be marginally inconvenient for the rest of us, but no more so than it already is when trying to plan meetings in other EC countries.

12 October 2015

Farewell to Howe and Healey: Tory & Labour Chancellors die in the same week

When I was doing the research that led to my first book on public speaking (Our Masters' Voices,1984) Margaret Thatcher was the leading British politician of the day and provided me with much of the data analysed in the book - for which I was and still am extremely grateful.

Later on, when I was writing speeches for former LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown, she provided much raw material for lines that were more or less guaranteed to get rapturous applause.

But those were only two of my debts to her. Another was that I've often summed up my professional life by saying that it came about as a result of being both a victim and a beneficiaryof Thatcherism.

Victim of Thatcherism
This was because of the appalling damage her governments inflicted on higher education and research in the UK, not to mention what they did to my standard of living or the two years of insecurity that came to a head in 1981 - when her Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph commissioned Lord Rothschild to investigate my then employer (the Social Science Research Council) with a view to making a case for closing it down.

Luckily, he didn't oblige, concluding that it would be a 'gross act of intellectual vandalism' to do so. The compromise accepted by Thatcher and Joseph was to delete the word 'science' and elevate the importance of their favoured discipline with a new name: the Economic and Social Research Council.

Beneficiary of Thatcherism
A few years later, the benefit from Thatcherism came when Nigel Lawson's budget of 1988 reduced the top rate of income tax to 40%. That was the moment when and the reason why I decided to risk leaving the groves of academia to become a self-employed consultant and author (links to a fuller story of which can be found in the final post of the Claptrap series HERE).

To that extent, I can claim to be living proof that the official economic case for Thatcher-Reagan tax reductions, namely that they would unleash entrepreneurial zeal, worked in at least one case.

The cricketing simile that put an end to her innings
To mark the twentieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher resignation as prime minister, links to some of my writings about her, both from Our Masters' Voices and this blog, are reproduced below.

I also thought it appropriate to mark the occasion with a clip from the speech that fired the starting gun for what turned out to be a rather quick sprint to the end - coming as it did only 21 days later.

In his speech on resigning as Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who wasn't renowned as a brilliant speaker, deployed a vivid cricketing simile to describe what it had been like working with Mrs Thatcher.

"It's rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

The speech ended with a fairly explicit invitation to other discontented colleagues to stand against her for the leadership:

"The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long."

Three weeks later, she resigned.

There was a rumour at the time that this particular sequence was actually written by Sir Geoffrey Howe's wife - a claim that, so far, I've never managed to verify.

DENIS HEALEY - "Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep"

Now watch the brilliant documentary by Michael Cockerell which was shown again last week on news of Healey's death at 98 on YouTube  here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gudj2-vSueo

He was one of the last politicians to have done other things before entering politics, had an amazing sense of humour and loads of hobbies unrelated to politics - an ominous reminder to Jeremy Corbyn and his fans, perhaps???

7 October 2015

Lifetime Achievement Award!!!


Dr Max Atkinson is to be awarded a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award by the UK Speechwriters’ Guild.

The award is being made for his outstanding contribution to the theory and practice of speechwriting and public speaking over the past 35 years.

Dr Atkinson came to national prominence when he used his academic research into the speaking techniques of top politicians, and applied them to a speech delivered by a novice at a party political conference.

The speaker Ann Brennan went on to win a standing ovation at the SDP conference in Buxton in 1984.

The results were made into a ‘World in Action’ TV documentary, produced by Gus Macdonald, (now Baron Macdonald of Tradeston).

Dr Atkinson published the results of his research in a book called Our Masters’ Voices.

He also had a chance to put his theories to the test by offering speechwriting support to Paddy Ashdown, who became leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1989.

In 2004, Dr Atkinson published his book Lend Me Your Ears, which explains the techniques in simple terms to any layman who might wish to adopt them.

Founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild, Brian Jenner, said, ‘Using recording technology which was new at the time, Dr Max Atkinson discovered the ‘claptrap’ – the means by which speakers can provoke positive responses from audiences. He has championed ‘the language of public speaking’ which most people can master. We want to acknowledge the huge value of the research Max did.’

Dr Atkinson will be presented with his award at a reception at St Matthew’s Conference Centre, 20 Great Peter Street, London on Wednesday 25 November from 6.30pm. Press passes are available on application to info@ukspeechwritersguild.co.uk


Brian Jenner
Winner of the Vital Speeches of the Day Cicero Speechwriting Award 2010http://www.thespeechwriter.co.uk
+44 (0)7545 232980