30 September 2008

Cameron takes to the lectern in a crisis

One reason why I suggested last week that Gordon Brown should give up trying to emulate David Cameron's walkabout style of delivery and return to the lectern was that it would make the embattled P.M. look more statesmanlike.

So what does Cameron do when he wants to appear statesmanlike in the middle of today's financial mayhem? Well, it was back to the lectern, back to a script and hardly any movement at all, let alone any walking about.

And making this unscheduled emergency intervention at his party conference on the day before his big speech was probably a very smart move. Otherwise, the risk was that both he and the Conservative conference would have been completely wiped off the front pages and prime-time news programmes by all the reports of financial crisis.

But doing what he did paid off and got him to the top of tonight's BBC 10 o'clock television news.

His dilemma now is how to play it tomorrow? Will we see another 'unscripted' walkabout or a carefully scripted statesman speaking at a lectern?

Objects as visual aids: Obama & Archbishop Sentamu in action

If you've read my books or been on any of my courses, you'll know that one type of visual aid that tends to go down well with audiences is the use of objects or props to make a point. Two nice examples came my way recently, showing that even something as apparently unpromising as cutting up or brushing items of clothing can be very effective.

In the first one, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, took off his dog collar during an interview with Andrew Marr, and then proceeded to cut it into small pieces to illustrate what Mugabe was doing to the identity of the Zimbabwean people, ending by promising not to wear it again until Mugabe was gone.

In the second one, Barack Obama dismisses criticism from the Clinton camp by brushing invisible dust from his jacket - and the more he brushed, the more the audience applauded.

You can see both these examples by clicking below - and more on objects as visual aids in my books Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, London: Vermilion, 2004 & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy: Seven Essential Steps to Success, London: Vemilion, 2008.

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29 September 2008

PowerPoint comes to church

This Sunday, it was the Harvest Festival in our village church, where the congregation was treated to a PowerPoint presentation that went on for twice as long as it was supposed to do.

As for how it went down, I couldn't help noticing that the assembled multitude only managed about 4 seconds of applause - way below the standard burst of 8 (plus or minus 1) seconds - further proof, if proof were needed, that the C of E shouldn't be putting too much faith in PowerPoint to reverse declining church attendance!

27 September 2008

Mediated speeches -- whom do we really want to hear?

I've just been watching the first of the US presidential debates on the BBC's main evening news programme, as I wanted to see what the candidates had to say, how well they said it and how competent they seemed. But actually I had to watch and listen to far more from the BBC's correspondent in Washington than from Obama or McCain - the reporter was speaking for 2.4 minutes compared with 30 seconds each for the two candidates-- i.e. the BBC forced its viewers to listen to more than twice as much media commentary as we were allowed to hear from the the candidates themselves.

Of course, I shouldn't really have been surprised because I know that things have been moving in this direction for a long time. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of excerpts from speeches shown on American television news programmes during presidential campaigns fell from an average of 42 seconds in 1968 to an average of only 9 seconds in 1988. In the UK, during the 1979 general election campaign, BBC 2 showed a nightly half-hour programme of excerpts from the day’s speeches. It was not continued during the 1983 election, and, by 1997 (and all subsequent UK elections), viewers were much more likely to see shots of politicians speaking in the background, with the all important foreground being dominated by a TV reporter summarising what the speaker was saying -- as also happened during parts tonight's report on the Obama-McCain debate.

But does it matter? I think it does, because television has the capacity (which it used to exercise long ago) of allowing viewers/voters to hear arguments coming directly from the horses' mouths, from which they used to be able to draw their own conclusions about what they saw and heard -- which strikes me as something that should be encouraged in a democracy.

But tonight, as usual, the BBC took it upon itself to tell us all what to think - i.e. "the debate was a tie with no clear winner." From the little they did let us hear, I'm not sure I agree. But, without seeing rather more than 30 seconds of Senators Obama and McCain arguing their cases, I'm not really in much of a position to come to a considered or definite conclusion of my own. And that's precisely why I find this ever-increasing occupation of the air time by media employees so unsatisfactory and and why I worry about the damage it might be doing to the democratic process itself.

Wisdom of forethought?

Back in 2004, when Brownites were busy briefing against Tony Blair, I wrote an article questioning whether Gordon Brown would make a good or better leader. It was rejected by the various newspapers I sent it to, but, in the light of events since he became Prime Minister, I don't think it was too far off the mark:

Can Labour afford to back Brown?
(written in September, 2004)

1979 Revisited?

On the day after the 1979 general election, I remember being flabbergasted by a letter to The Guardian that seemed completely out of touch with reality. Signed by Tony Benn and a group of like-minded colleagues, it attributed Labour’s defeat entirely to the fact that it had failed to pursue policies that were left-wing enough. The authors conveniently ignored the fact that the Callaghan government had only managed to stay in power because of a pact with the Liberals. And they were undaunted by the complete lack of evidence of any widespread support for left-wing policies from an electorate that had just voted Margaret Thatcher into office.

With the price of ignoring the preferences of the electorate as high as eighteen years in opposition, the party ought surely have learnt its lesson. But calls from Labour malcontents to replace Blair with Brown are beginning to sound like the first drum beats of a renewed retreat from political reality. It’s not just that the anti-Blair agitators have apparently forgotten that bickering and division are a sure-fire recipe for damaging a party’s fortunes. They also seem to be assuming that the electorate would be happier, or at least just as happy, with Brown at the helm as they are with Blair.

What harks back so resonantly to 1979 is the fact that the change being pressed for by the siren voices within the party once again seem to have more to do with internal party feuds than any rational assessment of Labour’s wider electoral appeal. Unlike the last time the party turned in on itself, the present situation has little or nothing to do with policy. After all, Blair and Brown were co-architects of New Labour, even though Brown now seems obsessed with deleting the phrase from his vocabulary. Nor, as far as the average voter can see, does there seem to be much difference between them about current policies. So whether the malcontents like it or not, the issue actually boils down to personalities – or to be more precise to which of them has greater electoral appeal. And this is where I find myself almost as flabbergasted by the pro-Brown lobby as when I read the Benn letter 25 years ago. And there are at least three reasons why a Brown leadership could be one small step, and perhaps even a giant leap, towards electoral disaster.

Lawyer v. Lecturer?

Gordon Brown’s first problem is that, when it comes to communication skills, the former lawyer has the former university lecturer beaten hands down. Blair knows how to craft and deliver a speech. He knows how to make the most of rhetoric, imagery and anecdotes to get his points across. And he has that rare and essential electoral asset of being able to attract respect, however grudging, from supporters of other parties. His ‘people’s princess’ speech on the death of the Princess of Wales caught the mood of the nation, regardless of party affiliation. And the impact of his speeches after 9/11 transcended national boundaries: such was the power of his oratory that, for a while at least, many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, looked on Blair, rather than Bush, as the world’s leading spokesman against global terrorism.

By comparison, even the most casual research into audience reactions to Gordon Brown’s speeches comes up with descriptions like ‘the quintessence of dour’, ‘a finance geek in a grey suit’, ‘serious’, ‘sombre’ or just plain ‘boring’. However much he may be admired for his undoubted intelligence or competence as chancellor, he comes across as dull and uninspiring -- except to a tiny minority of political commentators who delight in looking for the presence or absence of words and phrases that might be a coded hint about the current state of his relationship with Blair and/or the party at large.

In an age when coverage of speeches makes up an increasingly small proportion of broadcast political news, Brown’s supporters might offer the defence that dourness on the podium doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past. But even if there is some truth in this, the trouble is that their hero has a second, and arguably even bigger, handicap in the way he conducts himself in what has become the main cockpit of political debate on television and radio, namely the interview.

Not Answering Questions

For at least two decades, viewers and listeners have had put up with the sight and sound of politicians treating interviewers’ questions as prompts to say anything they like, regardless of what they were asked, or as yet another opportunity to dodge an issue. As an exponent of how to carry this depressing art to its limits, Gordon Brown has no serious competitors among contemporary British politicians. When he was still shadow chancellor, one commentator noted that if you asked him what he had for breakfast, his most likely response would be ‘what the country needs is a prudent budget’ – and that would merely be the preamble to a lecture about his latest thoughts on the matter. I recently asked one of the BBC’s most experienced and best-known presenters what it was like to interview him. His answer was rather more outspoken than I’d expected:

‘Brown answers his own questions, never the interviewer's, and is utterly shameless. He will say what he wants to say and that's it. And he'll say it fifty times in one interview without any embarrassment at all. I've never met anyone quite like him in that respect. I once spent 40 minutes on one narrow point and still failed to get him to make the smallest concession. He's extraordinary and is never anything but evasive and verbose.’

If politicians like Brown think it clever or smart to get one over the interviewer with such tactics, they betray a staggering lack of sensitivity to two rather obvious and basic facts about the way people interpret verbal communication. The first is that viewers and listeners can tell instantly when interviewees are being evasive. And the second is that they don’t much like it. Politicians may say that they’re worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public and growing voter apathy. But it never seems to occur to them that their relentless refusal to give straight answers to questions might have something to do with it.

The 'drink tonight' Test

Finally, Gordon Brown fails a simple test that I’ve found to be an interesting barometer of charismatic potential. I first started using it during a stint as visiting professor at an American university which just happened to coincide with 1984 U.S. presidential election. Noting that all the bumper stickers on cars in the faculty parking lot were pro-Democrat, I took to asking colleagues a simple question: ‘If you could go out for a drink tonight with Reagan or Mondale, which one would you choose?’ Without exception, they opted for Reagan, who was duly elected a few weeks later.

According to this test, the Tories have made a number of serious blunders since the demise of Margaret Thatcher: it pointed to Heseltine rather than Major, Clarke rather than Hague and Portillo rather Duncan Smith. And, if the opportunity had arisen, David Davis might have come out ahead of Michael Howard

Applied to Labour’s choice of leader after the death of John Smith, the test resulted in 100 percent of my respondents opting for a drink with Blair rather than Brown -- a statistic that has remained unchanged to this day. Add to this the prime minister’s greater effectiveness as an orator, the chancellor’s dour image and continuing evasiveness in interviews, mix in the damaging effect of internal splits and squabbling, and the plan to ditch Blair in favour of Brown begins to look almost as far removed from electoral reality as the left-wing fantasies of Tony Benn and his cronies in the 1980s.

Time for Cameron to surf applause?

This suggestion for the Conservative leader hasn't been published (yet), and video clips illustrating the main points can be seen below.

When it comes to speech-making, David Cameron has enjoyed more success than most British politicians of his generation. His short unscripted pitch for the party leadership in 2005 was enough to transform him from rank outsider to eventual winner. And his speech at last year’s conference was so effective that it was arguably one of the factors that helped to deter Gordon Brown from calling an election at a time when Labour were still safely ahead in the polls.

If Mr Cameron has already mastered most of the key techniques that set a good orator apart from an average one, the question arises as to whether there’s anything else he could be doing to take the next step into the premier league? And one thing he might like to consider is the art of surfing applause, a technique that’s only to be found among those at the top of their trade. Past maestros include Martin Luther King and Tony Benn, and today’s most prominent exponents are Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama.

Unlike most speakers, surfers don’t just stop whenever the audience applauds and wait until they’ve finished. What surfers do is to carry on speaking after the applause has started, which creates a number of positive impressions. It makes it look as though you hadn’t been seeking applause at all, and are really quite surprised that the audience has interrupted you with an unexpected display of approval.

Then, if you keep trying to go on while the audience is still clapping, it’s as if you’re telling them that, unlike less passionate politicians, you’re the kind of person who regards getting your message across as much more important than waiting around to savour the applause. If you’re really lucky, and the broadcasters want to put this particular extract on prime time news programmes, the lack of any clean break between your speech and the applause makes it difficult for them to edit without including the adulation of the crowd as well – so that the various positive impressions are transmitted beyond the hall to the much bigger numbers viewing or listening at home.

On the plus side, Mr Cameron is already exhibiting the first signs of surfing in some of his speeches, but needs to carry through with a bit further if he’s to make the most of it. A sign that he was almost ready for fully-fledged surfing came in his 2005 conference speech, when he said:

“That is a stain on this country and this government [applause starts] and what is – [applause stops] -- and what is the government’s answer?”

This was all right as far as it went, but he didn’t have to stop after only a single attempt at carrying on and then wait for the applause to subside before speaking again. More experienced surfers don’t just make one aborted attempt to speak during the applause, but do it several times in a row, as in this example from Barack Obama:

“.. that threatens my civil liberties. [applause starts] It is that fundamental belief – [applause continues] -- It is that fundamental belief -- [applause starts to fade] It is that fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that makes this country work.”

The important thing is to make sure that you don’t say anything that really matters while the noise of the applause might still drown it out, because there’s no point in developing the message until you’re sure it will be audible.

Repeating the first few words, as Obama did in the above example, is probably the easiest and safest way of doing it, but it’s not the only option. Another is to keep adding a few more words each time until the applause has died down enough for people to be able to hear the fully formed sentence you want them to hear. Really experienced surfers develop a finely-tuned ear for the volume of applause that enables them to know exactly when it’s become quiet enough for it to be safe to carry on.

Tony Benn often used to do this three or four times before carrying on with his point,
as in this example from the 1980s:

[Applause starts] “My resent – my resentment – my resentment about the - uh- [applause fades] my resentment about the exclusion of the House of Lords …”

Nearly 30 years later, he's still at it

"That's the [applause starts] real distinction that we have to face -- and it's not just -- actually - [applause stops] you can't even give Karl Marx the credit for that."

It might seem, of course that the Conservative Party’s annual conference is far too important and exposed a platform for Mr Cameron to start having a go at surfing the applause. But he has already been showing a natural inclination to do it, and taking it a small step further might not be any bigger risk than his daring departure from the lectern in 2005 –which yielded such such a handsome dividend.

Click below to see examples from Benn, Sarkozy, Obama and Cameron:

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Did Gordon Brown take my advice?

Here's what I said in The Times after Mr Brown had made his speech:


Judging from his conference speech, Gordon Brown seems to have taken on board the three main points I recommended on these pages on Monday, and arguably gained from some of the benefits I had in mind.

The first was that he should stop trying to emulate the ‘unscripted’ walkabout style favoured by Messrs. Cameron and Clegg and return to the lectern. By doing this, he looked much more comfortable than when he’s tried walking about: his gestures looked much more ‘natural’, he didn’t have to worry about what to do during bursts of applause and, perhaps most important of all, he came across as a confident and experienced elder statesman.

My second concern was that, in some of his previous speeches, his average pause rate was only once every fifteen words -- three times longer than in speeches by the likes of Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton and Blair, who used to pause, on average, every five words. Not pausing often enough can cause two main problems. One is that it’s much easier for audiences to follow if they can take in short chunks at a time. Another is that even slight pauses can transform the meaning, emphasis and mood of the point being made.

On this occasion, Mr. Brown made a startling improvement on some of his other efforts by matching, almost exactly, the one pause per five words of the famous leaders mentioned above.

The third thing that’s worried me about his speeches is his past tendency to pack in long lists of statistical information that doesn’t instantly mean very much to the average listener. On this too, he did particularly well. Certainly he had some big numbers, but there was a really nice sequence where made them come to life with real life examples, such as “That’s not just a number, that’s the dad who lives to walk his daughter up the aisle” – a contrastive technique that he used four or five times in quick succession.

And the contrast, in its various forms, triggers about a third of the applause in political speeches. Before Mr Brown’s speech, I’d said that if he could equal or exceed Mrs Thatcher’s achievement at the 1981 Conservative conference (when things weren’t going too well for her either), at which she was applauded, on average once every three sentences, he would be home and dry.

He came very close, with a rate of once every 3.5 sentences -- so he might just be nearly there.

Eternity, eternity and eternity

A radio station asked me to suggest some lines for Gordon Brown to include in his speech. As self-deprecating humour always worked well for Ronald Reagan and can be quite effective in getting an audience on your side, I came up with this:

"I’m sure that no one would ever expect me to be critical of anything said by any previous Labour Prime Minister.

But I’ll admit that I do have a question for one of them: just what did Harold Wilson mean when he said that a week is a long time in politics?

And what would he have said about the 63 weeks since I came into the job?

So I asked Tony what he thought.

“Obvious”, he said: 'eternity, eternity and eternity.' "

More tips for Gordon Brown's speech

Here are some more that weren't published, and you can see a video clip of Brown and Clinton at the end of this entry,

When it comes to party leaders’ speeches in the television age, it’s widely believed that the audience that really matters is the millions watching excerpts on news bulletins at home, rather than the hundreds who are actually there in the conference hall.

But for Gordon Brown this year, his live audience is arguably far more important than usual, consisting as it will of key Labour decision-makers and activists who will have to be won over if he’s to succeed in reducing the heat in the kitchen. So here are three tips that could help to make or break his performance on Tuesday.

1. MAKE EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE FEEL INCLUDED

It’s quite common for speakers to look at one side of the audience more frequently than they look at the other. For example, during Mrs Thatcher’s speeches, she used to look to the left three times more often than she looked to the right. But Gordon Brown suffers from by far the most serious case of ‘skewed eye-contact’ I have ever seen, and spends the vast majority of his time looking towards his left. His glances to the right sometimes fall to as low as 5% of the time, as happened in his speech to the Labour Party Forum in July, during which he only looked to the right for just under two of the 37 minutes it took to deliver.

The trouble with this is that it’s likely to make half audience feel ignored or left out, as if he’s not really speaking to them at all. And with a conference audience made up of so many doubters, dissidents and plotters, he really cannot afford to risk making a large proportion of them feel excluded or uninvolved. So he needs to remember to alternate his gaze to both sides (and straight ahead) for the duration of his speech.

2. TRY TO TRIGGER AS MANY BURSTS OF APPLAUSE AS YOU CAN

Although observers and commentators are not equipped with clapometers, the fact is that they do notice how much applause there is and us this as a basis for assessing the success or otherwise of a speech. This means that the more bursts of applause there are and the longer the standing ovation at the end, the more favourably will the speech be reported by journalists. So the more positive the response Mr Brown gets, the more will it weaken the case of the those who want to continue their campaign against him -- and might even see them off for the foreseeable future.

Two key points need to be borne in mind when it comes to maximizing the frequency of applause. The first is that about 70% of the applause in political speeches comes after the speaker attacks, criticises or ridicules the opposition.

The second is that most bursts of applause come after the speaker has used one or other of a small range of very simple rhetorical techniques. This means that he should use these to package as many of his key messages as possible, because the more use he makes of them, the more applause will he get.

If he could equal or exceed Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 conference speech, when she was applauded, on average, every three sentences, Mr Brown would surely be home and dry.

3. DON’T LIFT LINES FROM OTHER POLITICIANS

In 1988, Senator Joe Biden’s campaign for his party’s presidential nomination collapse when he was exposed for having borrowed verbatim from a Neil Kinnock speech during the 1987 general election – an iniscretion that has continued to haunt him since being selected as Barack Obama’s vice-presidential running mate.


There was a strong echo of this in Gordon Brown’s July speech to the Labour Party Policy Forum, when he said “There is nothing bad about Britain that cannot be corrected by what’s good about Britain”, which was suspiciously close to a line from Bill Clinton’s inaugural address in 1993: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what’s right with America.”

Brown was lucky that it went unnoticed at the time. But the Labour Party Conference is a much bigger stage, and Mr Brown and his speechwriters should be aware that there is nothing to be gained by taking the risk of being accused of plagiarism.

Click below to watch clips of Clinton and Brown in action.

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Tips for Gordon Brown's conference speech

Here's what The Times published about what I said before Gordon Brown's conference speech: 

David Cameron does it. Nick Clegg has tried it. But there is no need for Gordon Brown to bend to fashion by abandoning the traditional lectern for a no-notes, pacing the stage speech.

He tried it at Warwick in July, but the regular pacing - two or three steps from side to side - was distracting. Instead he should make the most of looking and sounding like the 'elder statesman' he has become.

It also throws up other problems, such as what to do when the audience applauds. Do you walk aimlessly around, stand still, look down, look away? At a lectern, at least he can look down as if to check his script, turn a page or have a drink of water, all of which look a good deal more natural.

Maybe there's a lesson to be learned here from Neil Kinnock, who is reputed to have had a lectern made to measure to fit the width of his shoulders.

Secondly, he needs to appreciate the importance of pauses. Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Blair and Cameron paused, on average, every five words. But, in some of Mr Brown's speeches, he is pausing only once every fifteen words. This needs to come down. When and where the pauses come make a huge difference to the meaning, feeling and emphasis.

Thirdly he needs to think about his hands. In the past, Brown has resorted to a small number of repetitive gestures that seemed contrived or robotic. This is another argument for using a lectern: at a podium, his hands tend to look after themselves and appear more 'natural', whether clutching the sides, moving away occasionally to give emphasis.

Finally he should make his speeches simpler. He tries to pack far too much information into them, including long recitations of statistics and huge numbers. He cannot rely on everyone finding such things easy to understand.