26 October 2008

Another BBC News Slideshow

Click on the title above to watch the show and then write an essay on one or more of the following:

(1) To what extent are you any the wiser?

(2) Compare and contrast the helpfulness of the slides in helping you to understand the message(s).

(3) Evaluate Mr Peston's chances of being awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

25 October 2008

Don't put clocks back

If you find the darker afternoons that start tomorrow a depressing and pointless exercise, you might be interested in an article in The Times a few days ago (click on title above for the full story).

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?

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.

23 October 2008

BBC Television NEWS: produced for or by morons?

I’d very much like to know if I’m alone in noticing that BBC television news programmes are making more and more use of slide shows and graphics in their bulletins.

So I’ve put together some edited highlights from the 10 o’clock News on 8th October to illustrate the style of news coverage that seems to be taking up an increasing proportion of the available air time (see below to view), and there follows a step-by-step commentary on some of the news stories as they unfolded that night.

Before writing any more on the subject, I’d really like to get an idea of what other people think and would very much appreciate it if, after reading the commentary and watching the video, you could let me know your views on the subject (either on the blog or by email).


BBC TELEVISION NEWS, 10.00 p.m., 8th October 2008:

The news starts with a picture of a revolving globe as the number “0.5%” appears with a red arrow pointing downwards and a voice-over from Huw Edwards, tonight’s newsreader, telling us that interest rates around the world have fallen, and in Britain by “half a point”.

There follows the normal opening tune and swirling graphics which fade away to reveal Mr Edwards standing next to a slide with “GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS” written on it against a background of a globe and red graphs.

Click below to watch video:


He’s clutching a mysterious piece of paper that he occasionally looks at while telling us about the crisis and the fact that the government is making £400 billion available (and if you missed the number, don’t worry because you’ll be hearing and seeing it again). He announces that our specialist correspondents are going to explain the magnitude of what’s happened.

The globe on the slide next to him now disappears behind a picture of Robert Peston and the subtitle “BANK RESCUE PLAN” appears below “GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS” – as Edwards informs us that our business editor Robert Peston will tell us about the rescue plan for the banks.

Then the picture of Peston changes to one of Hugh Pym and the new subtitle “GLOBAL RATES CUT” appears below “GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS" – as Edwards informs us that our economics editor Hugh Pym will look at the likely impact of the lower interest rates.

The Picture of Pym changes to one of Nick Robinson and the words beneath “GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS” disappear – Edwards tells us that our political editor Nick Robinson is coming on first to report on “the most dramatic day so far in the global financial crisis.”

Then we hear Robinson’s voice-over a picture of the City of London in the background, as £400,000,000,000 appears in the foreground and another £400,000,000,000 tracks across the screen behind it, while Nick Robinson helpfully tells us that the key figure is £400,000,000,000 – and, if you still haven’t got it, he informs us “that’s eleven naughts at the end”.

A digital clock appears showing the time 7.30, as Robinson tells us what happened “first thing this morning” (presumably at 7.30 a.m.).

His voice-over continues as we’re shown pictures of dealing screens, a shot of the Bank of England quickly followed by ominous-looking red graph lines moving across the screen while a red arrow points downwards through the graphs.

Robinson goes on to ask “what exactly is the deal” as another slide appears with “what’s the DEAL?” written on it, along with pictures of the Bank of England and more descending red graphs.

He tells us that banks will be part-nationalised, and, if you didn’t hear that, red letters drop down from above to form the words “Part Nationalisation”.

He tells us the cost will be “50 billion pounds of tax payers’ money”, as more red numbers and letters fall into place so we can now read “£50 bn taxpayers’ money” – and so it goes on, with more letters and numbers falling into place to coincide with what Robinson has to say.

Then it’s back to Huw Edwards, who is now sitting at a table next to the screen with “GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS” written on it. It’s an oval table with a mirror in the middle that reflects part of whatever’s on the screen at his side.

He reminds us that, “as Nick Robinson’s just told us”, the full cost could be as much as – yes, you’ve guessed it – “£400,000,000,000”. He also repeats various other facts already mentioned before handing over to “our business editor Robert Peston who examines the detail and asks if this will work.”

What we get from Peston is a carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation, with him standing next to a screen as ten slide changes repeat most of what he’s saying in written bullet points. He too has a slide with “£400,000,000,000” written on it – the eighth time we’ve been shown or told about this number since the news began.

When it comes to Hugh Pym’s turn, we hear his voice-over and see a picture of the City of London behind the number “0.5%” with a red arrow pointing downwards. As he proceeds, a revolving globe with numbers materialises in the background while two red graph lines move across the screen in the foreground. As he speaks, written phrases zoom out towards us four times in quick succession, and, apart from the first one, each one tells us something different from what he’s actually saying.

Finally, we get to some of ‘today’s other news”. Edwards shuffles his mysterious pieces of paper, presumably to let us know that we’re moving on to something new (if only he can find it). But we are given a hint of what to expect on the screen next to him, where there’s a picture of a blue shirt with a badge on it that could just be an American flag.

As he starts to talk about last night’s presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the badge zooms towards us and disintegrates into hundreds of small bubbles. The legend “US08” appears before shrinking back into the top right hand corner, to be make room for the words “ELECTION DAY 27 days to go”, superimposed over rows of tiddly winks going round in a circle.

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22 October 2008

Experience and inexperience in presidential campaigns

Reflecting on televised ‘debates’ in US presidential campaigns for my previous entry reminded me of two memorable moments from previous shows, both of which majored on the importance of a candidate’s experience or lack of it .

The first, from the 1988 vice-presidential ‘debate’, was Lloyd Bentsen’s reply to Dan Quayle’s claim to be as experienced as Jack Kennedy was when he ran for president:

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The second had more resonance for the current campaign, in which one of the candidates also has an age problem. When running for his second term in 1984, Ronald Reagan was a year older than John McCain is now, and one of the interviewers had the cheek to raise the matter with him on prime time television. No doubt carefully prepared in advance, Reagan came up with the classic response:

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Watch the second video below and you’ll see that Walter Mondale, Reagan’s ‘youthful and inexperienced’ opponent, thought it a pretty good joke too. But part of the humour lay in the fact that Mondale was not particularly youthful and, as vice-president to Jimmy Carter, could hardly be described as ‘inexperienced’.

McCain, of course, can’t pull a similar trick on Obama, because he’s been doing his best to make his opponent’s youthfulness and inexperience an issue. Nor does this Senator McCain seem to be gifted with the folksy self-deprecating sense of humour that served Ronald Reagan so well. video

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21 October 2008

Presidential debates – tedious television but better than commercials

For British audiences, the televised ‘debates’ between US presidential candidates come across as a very strange form of television indeed, which is hardly surprising given the peculiar rules of engagement as set out by Bob Schieffer of CBS News at the start of the third one:

“The rules tonight are simple. The subject is domestic policy. I will divide the next hour and a half into nine-minute segments. I will ask a question at the beginning of each segment. Each candidate will then have two minutes to respond and then we’ll have a discussion. I’ll encourage them to ask follow-up questions of each other. If they do not, I will.”

The candidates are then allowed to make a two-minute mini-speech on each topic before having to answer any subsidiary questions, and they certainly don’t have to worry about being interrupted, challenged or knocked off course by a Dimbleby, Paxman or Humphrys.

The fact that such ‘debates’ take place at all is a reflection of (or perhaps a necessary antidote to) what struck me as one of the most depressing aspects of US politics when I was working and watching television there during the Reagan-Mondale election in 1984. What astonished me was that you never got to see either of the presidential candidates or candidates for a local senate seat being interviewed in the way that’s routine on British radio and television. The reason is alarmingly simple: after all, why would you risk being put on the spot in an adversarial interview when you can buy as much advertising time as you can afford?

Back in 1984, two candidates for one senate seat the North Carolina managed to spend more than $20 million on advertising. As viewers, we weren’t just subjected to short and nasty TV commercials, but we also had to put up with ghastly 20 minute documentary-style propaganda ‘programmes’ aimed at showing what wonderful people the candidates were, produced and paid for, of course, by the candidates themselves.

Although I have serious reservations about interviews taking over from speeches as the main form of political communication in the UK, I have none at all about our politicians being banned from buying political advertising on radio and television. This is because the lesson from the dismal situation in the USA is that, once political advertising is allowed, politicians can ignore invitations from the media to be interviewed on news and current affairs programmes, and thereby insulate themselves from being exposed to challenging questions from well-informed neutral interviewers.

12 October 2008

A secret of eternal youth?

When I was a teenager, my brother thought it very amusing to give me Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as a birthday present. Still in print, it’s one of those self-help manuals that keeps on repeating the same basic message until it’s long enough to count as a full-length book.

All I can remember about it is that the ‘secret’ is to show interest in what other people say and to encourage them to say more and more about whatever it is they want to talk about -- while not volunteering much about yourself unless they happen to ask.

What I’ve noticed increasingly in conversations with strangers at parties is that fewer and fewer of them ever ask me anything at all about myself. It’s not that I’m desperate to tell my life story to anyone who cares to listen, but I am getting rather bored with endless details about where these people live, their family and/or job history, their hobbies, their latest ailments, etc., etc.

Quite often, I come away realising that the person I’ve just been talking still knows nothing whatsoever about me, other than what I look like. In fact, I’ve started to wonder whether Dale Carnegie might have penetrated my subconscious all those years ago and that I’ve unwittingly become rather good at following his advice.

Or, and I fear this is much more likely, it’s nothing to do with me at all, but reflects the age of the people I’m most likely to meet at parties these days. Maybe growing old really does mean that you become more and more preoccupied with yourself and less and less interested in anyone else – in which case, Dale Carnegie’s instructions may also be pointing us to the secret of eternal youth, or at least be telling us something about how resist one of the symptoms of old age.

8 October 2008

Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma?



My past attempts to analyse charisma have concentrated on the speech-making and communication skills of politicians. But there are clearly other more subtle and elusive factors that are more difficult to pin down. This was highlighted by a study of US politicians, from presidents down to the lowest levels of local government, that identified the two most powerful predictors of electoral success in American politics as being the candidate’s height (the taller the better) and record of athletic achievement (the sportier the better).

But there’s some evidence that another, even more trivial, physical attribute has become a key component of charisma since the age of mass television began – namely that successful male politicians need a good head of hair. When radio was still the main form of broadcast media, how much or how little hair you had was not as visible to the public. And, even if you were out and about, it was a time when men routinely wore hats in public, which kept baldness conveniently concealed from any passing press or film cameras.

Wigs and career success
It was a consultant dermatologist who first got me thinking seriously about baldness. He claimed to have transformed some of his patients’ careers by the simple device of prescribing a wig. Bald men, who had been repeatedly rejected at interviews for jobs as diverse as head chef and leader of an orchestra, enjoyed immediate success as soon as they appeared at an interview with a good head of hair.

Shortly after being told about this, I appeared on a television programme about the problems former Labour leader Neil Kinnock was then having with his public image. I had no qualms about discussing how his theatrical style of oratory tended to come over as too manic when transmitted to the small screens in people’s living rooms. But I also confessed to the producer that there was another possible cause of his difficulties that was far too delicate to mention on air, namely that he was bald.

The fate of bald Tories
Since then, we saw the leadership ambitions of Conservative party leaders William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith come to grief in double quick time. And, even if you never joined in the chorus yourself, it’s a sure fire bet that you heard others making snide remarks about their lack of hair.

In fact, if you want to find the last British prime ministers who were bald, you have to go back more than fifty years to Atlee and Churchill, both of whom were elected to office before the age of mass television. After them, the only ones with even slightly thinning hair were Sir Alec Douglas Home and James Callaghan -- but both of them only became P.M. when their predecessors resigned in mid-term, and both of them went on to lose the first general elections they fought as party leaders.

Transatlantic similiarities
It’s much the same story on the other side of the Atlantic, where the last really bald president was Eisenhower. After that, the long succession of presidents with plenty of hair was only interrupted by Lyndon Johnston and Gerald Ford. And, like Home and Callaghan, they were far from being completely bald, they too came to power without winning an election for the job and neither of them survived much longer than Home and Callaghan: Johnston declined to run for a second term, and Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

Baldness and electability
Two intriguing patterns emerge from this. The first is that, apart from Churchill, Atlee and Eisenhower, the only bald or balding leaders who got to the top in Britain or America since then did so because of the death or resignation of their predecessor, rather than by the popular vote of their parties or the electorate at large. The second is that those who did fight a general election were promptly defeated.

If voters really do prefer candidates with a good head of hair, the main political parties in the UK have made all made safe choices for the next election. But in the USA, the Republicans have arguably taken quite a risk by pitting John McCain’s receding hairline against Barack Obama’s full head of hair. When it comes to sport, there may not be much to chose between them: McCain apparently excelled at wrestling and boxing and Obama still plays basketball. But the other big risk the Republicans have taken is to have selected a candidate who is a good six inches shorter than his rival.

4 October 2008

Pesky Peston?

One of the points made in my books on presentation and speech-making is that, when it comes to assessing others, we’re all wired up in much the same way, and that it’s difficult to see how human communication could work at all if we weren't.

So I’ve been intrigued to find myself on the receiving end of 3 completely unsolicited complaints about the presentational peculiarities of Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor.

The most outspoken one, which I’ve had to censor for publication purposes, went as like this: “As for that (expletives deleted) Robert Peston, all the training they must have poured into him still doesn’t make him any more coherent. I can do without the ‘y'knows’ and ‘errrrrrrrs’ and EMPHASIS where you're LEAST expectiiiiiing IT.”

Another said of him: ".. almost UNWATCHable as he seems to stress WORDS and syllables COMpletely at random without much regard for the meaning OF what he happens to be ON about – with similarly random upWARDS and downwards shifts IN intonation."

According to an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year (which you can inspect by clicking on the above title), he does at least seem to be aware that his “on-screen delivery lacks polish”.

But is that all? And does anyone else have any strong views on the matter?

2 October 2008

ConVincing Cable

In the days of Paddy Ashdown’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats, his staff were always having to struggle, usually without much luck, to persuade the broadcast media to have any LibDem MPs other than Paddy on their programmes – which risked creating the impression that the party was a bit of a one-man band.

How things have changed now that Vince Cable is popping up all over the place, and seems to have become a regular on programmes like Newsnight and Question Time.

But he’s only the deputy leader, so what’s going on?

Is it just that, as former chief economist at Shell (and one of the ever-diminishing number of MPs who’ve ever had a serious career outside politics), he talks more sense about economics than most politicians?

Or maybe they're hoping he’ll come up with another gem like his ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ quip about Gordon Brown.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t strike me as being very good news for new leader Nick Clegg, who still needs to raise his public profile and could surely do with as much exposure as Vince is getting

1 October 2008

‘Mature, grown-up and statesmanlike’ Cameron at the lectern

So David Cameron did stay at the lectern for his big speech - and won the instant accolade of being ‘mature, grown-up and statesmanlike’ in one of the interviews with the party faithful a few seconds after he’d finished.

But there’s still some room for improvement in his delivery. There were quite a few mis-readings of the script that had to be corrected as he went along. If, as seems likely, this was because he hadn’t had enough time to rehearse all the last-minute changes that were apparently made, the lesson is clear – late modifications are fine, but only if you leave enough time to rehearse the new lines.

He also did something I’d never noticed before, perhaps because it doesn’t happen when he’s doing a walkabout speech. In fact, it was a rather unusual form of ‘skewed’ eye-contact. It wasn’t that he excluded one half of the audience by hardly ever looking at them at all, as is likely to happen if you’re sitting to Gordon Brown’s right during a speech (see 'More tips for Gordon Brown'). What Cameron did was to alternate between one very long period looking one way and another very long period looking the other, with occasional glances straight ahead.

On average, it was about 20 seconds each way, which means that the rest of the audience was having to wait for about five sentences before they got another glance from their leader (see for yourself what it looks like by clicking on the title of this section, and go to video 4).

The most extreme case was one sequence when he spent nearly a minute and a half (about twenty sentences), looking continuously to one side, effectively excluding everyone on the other side (and in front of him) for a very long time indeed.

So my advice would be that, if he’s going to carry on using a lectern, he needs to work on alternating his glances much more frequently than he did in this speech, so that no one in the audience can complain that he’s ignoring them for unusually long periods of time.

As for why I think he’s doing it, I’ll leave that for another blog when I’ve got more time.

Cameron skewed gaze video:
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