30 December 2008

Name your price: the curious language of television advertising

More and more British television advertisements are referring to prices in a way that bears little or no relationship to the way we talk about prices in everyday life.

Commercials are telling us that an armchair priced at two hundred and ninety nine pounds costs “two-nine-nine” and that a three-piece suite priced at four hundred and ninety nine pounds can be ours for “four-nine-nine”.

There are presumably two reasons why the ad agencies have sold their clients on the idea of listing digits as an 'effective' way of mentioning the price of a product. One is that it avoids having to mention high-sounding numbers like “ninety” or “a hundred”. The other is that these shorthand digital options save on costly air time: there are only three syllables in “four-nine-nine” compared with eight syllables in “four hundred and ninety nine pounds”, which takes more than twice as long to say.

But the trouble is that, to any competent speaker of English (e.g. the mass television audience), these linguistic inventions stand out as noticeable and distinctly odd in comparison with the more usual conversational way of referring to the price of things in tens, hundreds or thousands of pounds. What’s more, if you actually follow the advertisers’ preferred usage, it can lead to confusion and embarrassment, as happened on the only occasion on which I can ever remember describing a price in this rather unusual way.

After I’d spent £1,250.00 (one thousand two hundred and fifty pounds) on an antique dining table, my late mother-in-law said she’d like to pay for it as a house-warming present and asked me how much it had cost. Taken aback by such unexpected generosity, I replied (perhaps unwittingly following the advertisers’ example of trying to make a high price sound lower) by saying “twelve-fifty” – at which point, she reached into her purse and handed me £12.50 (twelve pounds and fifty pence).

I won’t dwell on how the conversation developed after that, because what really interests me about all this is the question of how ad agencies manage to get away with persuading their clients to buy into such bizarre linguistic usages without regard for what (little) we know how language actually works.

Another example of heavy investment on the basis of questionable advice from the agencies is the huge number of TV commercials in which there is no spoken reference at all to the name of the product being advertised. Even when this key information appears in a written caption on the screen, it won’t be noticed by the millions of viewers who are reading a newspaper, doing a crossword puzzle or are using the break to make a cup of tea.

The expensive pointlessness of such commercials was summed up many years ago by Professor W.M. O’Barr of Duke University, when he pointed out that the advertisers and/or their agencies don’t seem to realise that eyes have eyelids but ears don’t have ear lids – the obvious consequence of which is that, however inattentive viewers are, they will at least hear the name of the product being advertised.

The net result of all this is that we often become very familiar with expensively created artistic film footage of cars doing extraordinary things without being left with any idea about what make or model of car it is that we’re supposed to go out and buy.

Meanwhile, the ad agencies seem content to carry on ignoring research, like that by O’Barr, that could point them and their clients in much more profitable directions.

28 December 2008

Ready-made words for Mr Obama from a previous president’s inaugural speech

Given that Barack Obama is such a brilliant orator, it might seem a bit presumptuous to offer any suggestions for his inaugural address next month. But these lines from another presidential inaugural seem uncannily relevant for someone taking office at a time of economic crisis:

“These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions… It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

“Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity … For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.

“You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we're not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to begin to act, beginning today.

“The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away…

The speaker was Ronald Reagan at his inauguration on 20th January 1981. More than two and a half decades later, the depressing thing is that nothing much seems to have changed – including the optimism/hope of the newly elected president.

24 December 2008

Neutrality in the Queen's Christmas speech

In an earlier blog entry (12 November 2008), I looked at the way the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament each year is a model of how to read out someone else’s words (i.e. the government’s legislative plans for the coming year) with complete neutrality.

Although her annual broadcast to the Commonwealth on Christmas day is supposed to be her words to people in the UK and the British Commonwealth, she has to solve a rather different problem of displaying neutrality – not between different political parties, but between different religions.

As head of the Church of England, she's obviously free, and perhaps even obliged, to be open about her own Christian faith in her Christmas message, but sections aimed at believers in other religions have become a regular feature in recent years, as is illustrated by the following three extracts:

"There may be an instinct in all of us to help those in distress, but in many cases I believe this has been inspired by religious faith. Christianity is not the only religion to teach its followers to help others and to treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself. 

It has been clear that in the course of this year relief workers and financial support have come from members of every faith and from every corner of the world.

"It is worth bearing in mind that all of our faith communities encourage the bridging of that divide. The wisdom and experience of the great religions point to the need to nurture and guide the young, and to encourage respect for the elderly…. The scriptures and traditions of the other faiths enshrine the same fundamental guidance. It is very easy to concentrate on the differences between the religious faiths and to forget what they have in common."

"All the great religious teachings of the world press home the message that everyone has a responsibility to care for the vulnerable."

You can inspect the whole scripts of these and ones going back to 1996 by clicking on the title above. Or you can click here to see her in action last year, or here (after 3.00 p.m. UK time on 25 December) to check whether she has any more religious neutrality in store for us this year.

19 December 2008

What did Santa say before "Ho, ho ho"?

I’ve just received an email with Christmas greetings from the White House Writers Group in Washington D.C., which contains a nice little ditty:

Santa called the other day.
"I need a speech and right away!
It should sound new, but somehow old;
A message sweet, yet still quite bold.
My words must be both short and clear
And memorable throughout the year!"
Our writers worked all through the night
To get each phrase exactly right.
Then one scribe cried, "Ah ha! I know!
Tell Santa to say just, 'Ho, ho, ho!'"

Rhetorically speaking, their use of repetition, alliteration and a three-part list can hardly be faulted.

But, having just seen Santa using these very words 3,000 miles away from Washington, I realise that this memorable line raises another intriguing question, namely, what had he been talking about just before saying “ho, ho, ho”?

The reason for asking the question comes from many years ago when I heard the late Gail Jefferson talking about her fascinating and innovative work on transcribing particles of laughter, of which “ho, ho, ho” is one of several possible vowel sounds – such as “ha, ha , ha”, “he, he, he”, “huh, huh, huh”, etc.

The gist of Jefferson’s point was that which one of these gets selected often seems to be triggered by vowel sounds that had come immediately before it. Someone might say “he was stung by a bee – he-he-he!”, “he was locked in the bar – ha-ha-ha” or “she dropped a bottle of gin on her toe – ho-ho-ho”.

I didn’t catch what Santa had been saying just before he used the line that had been supplied to him by the White House Writers Group, so there’s scope here for a pre-Christmas creative competition.

Suggestions as to what it was he'd said just before "ho-ho-ho" before midnight on 25th December, please.

17 December 2008

You don’t have to be Barack Obama to use rhetoric and imagery to discuss the financial crisis

When I show clips of top politicians in action to illustrate the power of rhetoric and imagery, people sometimes react by saying that such techniques may be all very well in political speeches but wouldn’t be much use in the kind of technical presentations they have to do.

It's alright for Barack Obama to say things like "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep", as he did in his victory speech in Chicago, but conjuring up images of journeys and hills isn't the kind of thing that professionals like economists and bankers can do.

My usual reply to such reactions is that nothing could be further from the truth - because I've yet to come across any subject where rhetoric and imagery can't be used to make a point more clearly and/or effectively.

The following transcript and video clips provide a nice illustration of how rhetorical techniques (including contrasts, a puzzle-solution format and a three-part list) and imagery can be used to discuss the ongoing financial crisis. Complicated it may be, but here we have a Nobel prize-winning economist (Joseph Stiglitz) talking about an economy going into "a tailspin", using a contrast (between two points in time and two contrasting facts) followed by a medical metaphor (“the cure is worse than the disease”).

The video then cuts to a segment from a prime-time (UK) television news broadcast (from ITN) in which the newsreader starts by using a puzzling headline that gets us wondering what the governor of the Bank of England's "most downbeat prediction yet about the economy” actually is and a solution that seems to be using an image (“the ‘nice’ decade is over”) – though actually Mr King's use of "nice" is a reference to an acronym for 'Non-Inflationary Consistent Expansion', that's been used by economists to describe the sort of growth the UK has experienced since Labour came to power in 1997.

He then uses a three-part list and a metaphor (“travelling along a bumpy road”) that’s immediately picked up by a reporter, who continues the journey imagery (“en route”) and sums the problem up with a simple contrast (“high inflation and low growth”).

It’s worth comparing this with another news programme featured in a previous blog entry on 9th October 2008 ('PowerPoint Peston' - click here to view) and reflecting on which way of getting messages across is easier to follow.


[METAPHOR] When the largest economy in the world goes into a tailspin it's going to have global repercussions.
[A] Before the Iraq war the price of oil was twenty-five dollars a barrel.
[B] Now it’s over a hundred and ten dollars a barrel.
[METAPHOR] The cure is worse than the disease.

[P] The governor of the Bank of England made his most downbeat prediction yet about the economy.
[S] What Mervyn King called 'the nice decade' is over.

[1] The nice decade is behind us.
[2] The credit cycle has turned.
[3] Commodity prices are rising.

[METAPHOR] We are travelling along a bumpy road as the economy rebalances.

So we’re all now traveling along the governor’s bumpy road.
[A] En route, high inflation
[B] and low growth.


16 December 2008

High-risk practical joke for an office Christmas party speech

If you have to make a speech that involves presenting someone with a gift, you could try something that was done at a farewell party for a colleague who was leaving.

Unknown to the audience, the speaker had two identical gift-wrapped boxes. The real present, a decanter and glasses, bought with money collected from colleagues in the room, was hidden under the table; the one on public view was a box full of broken glass.

While presenting the ‘gift’, the speaker dropped it on the floor. The clatter of broken glass prompted collective gasps of dismay – that were quickly replaced by laughter and applause when he came clean, retrieved the undamaged gift from under the table and presented it to their departing colleague.

Not all recipients, of course, would be very amused by such a prank, so think carefully about whether it’s worth the risk before deciding to go through with it (and don't blame me if it doesn't work).

15 December 2008

End of year poll on PowerPoint presentations

If you haven't noticed it yet, there's now an end of year poll with one simple question:

How many inspiring PowerPoint presentations have you attended during 2008?

If you'd like to vote, you'll find it on the left, just below the Blog Archive.

13 December 2008

Obama's rhetoric renews UK media interest in the 'lost art' of oratory

Judging from the number of approaches from the media I've had since the election of Barack Obama, his outstanding speaking ability seems to have made some in our media wake up to the fact that, with the notable exceptions of Tony Blair and David Cameron, there's been a shortage of good orators in recent British politics. Some radio journalists told me the other day that they couldn't think of any current members of parliament who stood out as effective speakers.

The irony is, as I've hinted in some earlier blog entries, that the media themselves have probably played a major part in this by deciding that speeches do not make 'good television' and by giving ever greater priority to interviews as the main form of political communication - a process that seems to have begun during the late 1980s and has accelerated ever since.

It's something into which I hope to do some more research. Meanwhile, the fullest discussion of these issues I've written so far was an introductory chapter in the book Great Liberal Speeches, edited by Duncan Brack and Tony Little (Politicos, London, 2001), a version of which is reproduced below.


At the start of the 1987 general election, David Owen, then a co-leader of the SDP-Liberal Alliance kicked off his campaign by saying: “reason, not rhetoric will win this election.” By so doing, he not only highlighted the fact that rhetoric has not had a good press in recent decades, often being used as a term of abuse, but also that there may be no escape from it, even when a speaker is being critical of it. ‘Reason, not rhetoric’ is a contrast, and the contrast is, and remains, one of the most powerful rhetorical weapons in the armoury of anyone who wishes to get messages across in a way that strikes a chord with audiences.

After a televised experiment at the 1984 SDP Conference, in which I had been involved in helping a novice speaker to win a standing ovation, a similar example of a rhetorically formulated denial of the value of rhetorical techniques came in a radio interview. Asked what he thought about them, Ken Livingstone, then leader of the GLC, used two consecutive contrasts: “Public speakers are born, not made. People shouldn’t worry about all these techniques; they should just be themselves.” Here, then, was another example someone using rhetoric to deny its value.

There is, however, little evidence for supposing that it is somehow possible to forego the use of rhetoric and still be a persuasive and effective public speaker. Similarly, however much people may complain about the evils of soundbites, it is difficult to conceive of how it could ever be possible to eliminate them. Whether we call them soundbites, quotable quotes, slogans or aphorisms, lines that stand out from the vast mass of forgettable sentences have always been with us, from the Bible, through literature and politics, to television advertising. The fact that many of them are splendid illustrations of rhetorical technique does not necessarily mean that they are, or should be, regarded with suspicion.

For example, Christianity tends not to be rejected on the grounds that there was something devious about Jesus making such effective use of anecdotes to get key messages across, or because, as a three-part list, the Trinity is ‘mere rhetoric.’ Shakespeare is not denounced for having composed contrasts like ‘I come to bury Caesar; not to praise him’, or three part lists like “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” We do not argue that revolutionaries were somehow duped because they fought under the banners of three-part lists like “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, or “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our view of Churchill is undiminished by his use of lines like “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.” Nor do we think any the less of Martin Luther King for the fact that almost every sentence in his I have a Dream speech uses imagery or rhetoric.

What we have, then, is a curious situation in which rhetoric from the past comes to be revered and stored in dictionaries of quotations or books like this, whereas rhetoric from the present is likely to be dismissed as yet another soundbite. In his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches, Brian MacArthur makes the point that “every generation judges contemporary speakers unfavourably against the giants of the past.” It may also be that, with a few notable exceptions, it is only with the passage of time and the wisdom of hindsight that good speeches achieve recognition as great speeches. There is, however, another possible reason for this ambivalence about the value of rhetoric, for it seems that we are more willing to be impressed if we think that someone is a ‘gifted’ speaker, naturally endowed with an ability to get the message across effectively, than if we think that they have been schooled, coached, or otherwise assisted by speech writers and coaches. If persuasive skill is ‘natural’, it is commendable and perhaps even charismatic, but if it has been schooled, there is something suspect or devious about it.

Such a view first came to my attention in a letter from one of the twenty publishers who rejected the manuscript of my book Our Masters’ Voices (1984), which reported on research into the main rhetorical techniques that trigger applause in political speeches. The reason given for rejection was that ‘people are cynical enough about politicians already, without publishing this kind of stuff.’ This came as quite a surprise, as the aim of the study had been to observe and describe some of the key factors involved in political speech making, rather than to criticise politicians for being so unscrupulous as use a small range of well-proven verbal techniques to get their points across. However, the publisher’s view that there was something essentially manipulative or artificially contrived about effective political communication was echoed in some of the other reactions to the book and televised experiment that accompanied its publication.

Equipped with a script that bristled with contrasts, three-part lists and rhetorical questions, Ann Brennan’s speech to the 1984 SDP Conference generated so much applause that she only managed to deliver about two thirds of it before running out of time. During the standing ovation that followed, the late Sir Robin Day, who was doing the BBC live commentary, described it as “the most refreshing speech at the conference so far.” However, once it became known that she had received help in writing and delivering the speech, opinions suddenly changed. I was written off as an Oxford don who is “some kind of expert in how people wave their hands about when speaking.” Words like ‘stunt’, ‘hoax’ and ‘put-up job’ sprang to the lips of commentators, as they went around the conference hall trying to collect statements of disapproval from delegates. One reporter looked visibly disappointed when he elicited the reply: “I think we were applauding the sentiment and the message. And, in any case, if you can be coached to get a standing ovation, I’d like to take the course of training.”

The ‘hoax’ line of criticism was at its height at the point where the commentators thought that the speaker was merely a stooge, who had been used by us to perpetrate a practical joke on conference. It began to decline once it emerged that she was a fully paid up SDP member and local activist, and that the message she had put to the party was her own strongly held belief -- namely that if it was going to get anywhere, the SDP would have to broaden its appeal to attract working class voters like herself. In other words, had we invented the message and used her as a mouthpiece, the ‘hoax’ claim might have stuck. But, at a time when it was well-known that the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, had help from teams of professional speech writers, television producers and conference impresarios, it was difficult to claim there was anything particularly wrong about a complete beginner being given some help to get her message across as effectively as possible.

Some examples from the speaking career of Paddy Ashdown further underline the dubiousness of rating ‘gifted’ speakers as being somehow more genuine than ‘coached’ speakers. In the early stages of collecting videotaped data for the original research project, one of the speakers at the 1981 Liberal Assembly attracted our attention as a speaker with potential. Speaking at high speed, and dressed in a blue sweater and open-necked shirt, the then prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil was getting a lot of positive responses from the audience. One line that stood out was a three-part list, incorporating imagery and repetition: “The armed truce that passes as peace for us has been bought in other people’s blood, on other people’s territory and at a price of other people’s misery.” By the time the applause got under way, he was already into his next sentence, at which point he broke off and looked up from his text, visibly surprised by the power of his own rhetoric. At that early point in his political career, then, it could be said that he was showing signs of being ‘a natural.’

Whether or not he was one of the naturally gifted few, this is not how he rated himself. Otherwise, he would presumably not have turned to people like me for advice on speech-writing and delivery. What is clear, however, is that audiences responded no less favourably to the ‘schooled’ Ashdown than they had done to the ‘unschooled’ Ashdown. But the question in the present context is: should they have done? Should lines composed by someone else with a brief to translate his ideas into rhetorically more striking forms have been treated as suspect or devious? For example, the basic message he wanted to convey to the 1988 merger debate was that “we need to stop squabbling between ourselves and frittering away the achievements of the SDP-Liberal Alliance”. It was actually delivered as a contrast, incorporating biblical imagery and a degree of repetition: “We need to stop sounding like the Tower of Babel, and start building a tower of strength.” On winning the leadership of the Social and Liberal Democrats later in 1988, his basic concern was that, “after nine months of messing about since the 1987 election, there’s a danger that the public is forgetting we exist, let alone might be worth taking seriously.” This became a simple contrast with repetition of the key word: “We have to show people that we’re not just back in business, but really mean business.”

As with the case of Ann Brennan, if lines such as these were conveying messages that had been imposed on, rather than derived from, the speaker, there would be a case for saying that there is something devious or unscrupulous about deploying rhetoric in this way. But the case begins to fall away if the lines express the ideas of the speaker, and if he or she is comfortable with delivering the revised form of words.

Nearly two decades of research and training in the field of public speaking and presentation skills have taught me that some people do indeed have a ‘natural’ facility to use rhetoric, imagery, anecdotes and all the other ingredients of effective speech-making, but that they are in a minority. The vast majority of us dread public speaking, and there must be many who are deeply frustrated by the fact that they feel passionately about something, yet lack the technical skills to communicate it effectively. So when Ken Livingstone said that “public speakers are born, not made” and that “people should not worry about technique, but just be themselves”, he was, in effect, saying: “Leave persuasive power in the hands of those of us who happen to have had the good fortune to speak this way naturally.” A more democratic and less elitist view is that it is much fairer to liberate the techniques that the gifted use naturally and without realising it, and to make them available for anyone to use.

To dismiss or denigrate rhetoric is to ignore the fact that its structures and devices provide an infinitely adaptable tool-kit for packaging messages in a simple and striking way that audiences can grasp immediately. Without it, persuasive discourse and debate become much more difficult, probably to the point of impossibility. To complain about it is to complain about the way the spoken language works, and about language forms that have been with us since before the invention of writing. And the claim that people who have learnt to use it are somehow less genuine than the naturally gifted is like complaining that anyone without perfect pitch, or an ability to play a musical instrument by ear, is not a genuine musician.

However suspicious some critics may be of all things rhetorical, the fact remains that there is still a demand, and perhaps even a need, for impressive displays of rhetoric. At least three examples stand out from the recent past: Ronald Reagan’s speech after the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, Tony Blair’s comments immediately after the death of the Princess of Wales, and the address by her brother, Lord Spencer, at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. Their impact was not diminished either by their use of rhetoric, or by questions about whose hand lay behind some of the lines. What mattered was that they caught the national moods in response to tragic news. Something else they had in common is that they were short enough to be shown in their entirety on television. In other words, they worked with mass audiences via a medium that increasingly operates on the assumption that, except in special cases like these, speeches make bad television.

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 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, 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 broadcast excerpts from speeches become shorter and rarer, our chances of hearing and evaluating what politicians are saying directly from their own mouths are increasingly restricted to long set-piece interviews, phone-ins and short responses in the course of endless walkabouts and photo opportunities. This reflects a view, apparently shared by broadcasters and politicians alike, that, in the television age, a more informal conversational approach to communication is more effective than traditional oratory. It was also a view endorsed, mainly on the basis of observations of Ronald Reagan, in the concluding chapter of Our Masters’ Voices, and which may now be worth revisiting.

The reason for supposing that a low-key, conversational style of delivery is likely to play well with television audiences is much the same as the reason why a low-key style of acting works better on film and television than on a live stage. In a theatre or conference hall, the speaker is communicating across a very long distance, compared with speakers in a conversation, who are typically no more than a metre or two apart. Without a degree of exaggeration of intonation, emphasis, pausing, movement and gesture, a speaker is likely to come across as static, flat and monotonous. When it comes to transferring this to the television screen, the problem is that the zoom lens produces a close-up image of verbal and non-verbal behaviours that are designed for long distance communication, and transmits it into millions of living rooms. In other words, a way of speaking appropriate for a large audience in a formal setting is seen and heard by small audiences of two or three viewers in a very informal setting. To people sitting a conversational distance away from their screens, often engaging in conversation with others in the room, traditional theatrical styles of delivery, when seen and heard at close quarters, are likely to come across as excessively manic or over-dramatic. Indeed, this may well have been one of the reasons why former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, one of the finest live orators of his generation, never managed to achieve high personal ratings with the mass audience beyond the conference hall.

However, if Ronald Reagan, and more recently Bill Clinton, successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of a more folksy style of delivery, the point which does not yet seem to have been taken on board by some recent and contemporary British politicians is that the case for conversational style has more to do with adapting the delivery, than with adapting the way the words and scripts are put together. Reagan, in particular, demonstrated repeatedly that powerfully constructed rhetorical scripts can be effectively delivered in a chatty, low-key conversational tone of voice. He certainly did not forego the use of tightly structured scripts in favour of the much more discursive, less structured, often ungrammatical ramblings that we associate with the language of conversation. In fact, had he been judged on his comparatively rare unscripted performances, it is highly unlikely that he would have achieved recognition as the ‘great communicator.’

Meanwhile, there are some British politicians (and/or their advisors), who seem to have concluded that the words, as well as the delivery of them, should be chatty and conversational. Two such examples from the tradition represented in this volume are David Owen, former leader of the SDP, and Charles Kennedy, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, both of whom have made conversationally delivered speeches from conversationally constructed scripts. The problem with such an approach is that it is likely to have negative consequences both for the audience listening to the speech in the hall and for the way the media covers the event. Low levels of rhetorical content will generate low rates of applause from the audience in the conference hall. The media is then likely to interpret and report on this as a less than enthusiastic response from the party faithful. At the same time, the shortage of rhetorically structured quotable quotes makes it more difficult for reporters and editors to select soundbites for playing or reporting on news programmes. In the absence of these, there is then a danger that the media coverage will devote more time to discussing the style of delivery, and whether or not it worked, than to reporting on the actual political messages the speaker was hoping to get across.

If politicians are still learning how to make speeches that can inspire both the audience immediately in front of them, and the one watching television in their homes, it is perhaps time that the broadcasters themselves gave some thought to the impact on audiences of their preference for showing countless extended interviews with politicians during elections, rather than more or longer excerpts from speeches. These quasi-conversational confrontations between top politicians and top interviewers may be easy to organise and convenient to schedule. However, whether they make better television than excerpts from speeches is debatable. Their quasi-conversational nature limits the time available to develop any particular point to seconds rather than minutes. Like the conversationally worded speech, memorable lines or displays of passion or enthusiasm from the speaker are few and far between.

Once in this conversational cockpit, many politicians proceed, with breathtaking regularity, to flout one of the most basic conversational rules of all, namely that questions should be followed by answers. Treating questions as prompts to say anything they like, or opportunities for yet another evasion of an issue, have become part of the routine repertoire that is inflicted daily on viewers and listeners. If politicians seriously believe that viewers and listeners lack the intelligence to see at a glance when they are being evasive, they can hardly complain when people conclude that they are patronising or arrogant. If they think that audiences will be impressed or inspired by the tortuous circumlocutions in which so much of their evasiveness is expressed, they should not be surprised when people conclude that they are out of touch with the way real people tick. We hear that politicians are becoming worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public, and about growing voter apathy. Perhaps they should consider whether one factor might be that the way they speak in interviews is at best bland or boring, and at worst evasive and downright irritating.

Yet the broadcasting establishment still seems to be committed to the view that interviews, however sterile and tedious they may be, make better television than excerpts from well crafted passionately delivered speeches. If they ever get round to reassessing their policy, one piece of evidence to which their attention should be drawn is the fact that editors and publishers of books do not seem to find televised interviews interesting, inspiring or provocative enough to merit the publication of collections of Great Interviews, whether Liberal or of any other kind. Rhetoric and oratory may well have had a bad press in recent years, but readers of this book will surely be thankful that it consists of speeches rather than transcripts of interviews. They can therefore look forward to reading carefully developed arguments in language robust enough to have survived the immediate moment of delivery to become a form of historical literature. Without the application of both reason and rhetoric, these speeches would not only never have been noticed in the first place, but would have been forgotten and more or less unreadable.

11 December 2008

Gordon Brown's gaffe shows what Gail Jefferson meant by a 'sound formed error'

Yesterday, I was phoned by a BBC radio station and asked to comment on Gordon Brown’s gaffe about how he had ‘saved the world’ when he’d apparently meant to say ‘saved the banks’. As this was the first I’d heard of it, they allowed me an hour or two to have a look at it before phoning back to do the interview.

News of this high profile slip of the tongue reminded me of a fascinating paper on the ‘Poetics of Ordinary Talk’* that I’d heard Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, give at a conference in Boston in 1977. It included a discussion of what she called ‘sound formed errors’, by which she meant cases where a speaker’s choice of a ‘wrong’ word seems to be triggered by sounds in the words that came just before it.

In one of her examples, the first syllable of ‘Wednesday’ was abandoned and corrected to ‘Thursday’:

“I will be up that way Wed – uh –Thursday.”

Gail’s suggestion was that, as the mistaken initial selection of ‘Wednesday’ came just after there had been two ‘wuh’ noises in quick succession, it could have been the repetitive sounds that triggered the error.

This made me wonder whether there had been any ‘wuh’ sounds in what Gordon Brown had said just before saying “world” when he’d meant to say “banks”. So it was with considerable surprise and delight that I spotted no less than four of them in the sentence leading up to the error that's caused him so much embarrassment.

GORDON BROWN: “The first point of recapitalisation was to save banks that would otherwise have collapsed and we’ve not only saved the world – erh - saved the banks.”

Unfortunately you won’t be able to watch this on most of the clips on news websites and YouTube, as they’ve been edited to start at the point where he says “.. and we’ve not only…” - but you can see the full sentence below (with Italian sub-titles).

The fact that there were so many 'wuh' sounds before the error was a real gift to me because I could now say something in the interview that might be a bit different from the various speculations coming from other commentators since the gaffe had hit the airwaves.

I also said something else in the interview, but I can’t remember whether it was in the original Jefferson paper, had came up in the discussion after it or was something I’d noticed or been told about some time since 1977. This is the idea that ‘sound formed errors’ and ‘triggered puns’ (also featured in her paper) are more likely to happen when a speaker is tired, because that’s when the brain is most likely to take handy short cuts like selecting words that sound like others nearby.

This led me to suggest that Gordon Brown’s error might have happened because he was more tired than usual, a comment I now regret – as it enabled the interviewer to get away from what I thought was quite an interesting subject and go down the track they’d presumably been hoping their ‘expert’ would take them along in the first place.

“So can we conclude from this” asked the interviewer, “that the stresses of the job are getting too much for him?”

Er, no. I just said that he might have been tired.

But I do think it qualifies as a prime example of exactly what Gail meant by ‘sound formed errors’ – and how they can sometimes get you into trouble you could have well done without.

(* Gail Jefferson, ‘On the Poetics of Ordinary Talk’, Text and Performance Quarterly, 1996, 16(1), 1-61 - you can download the paper by clicking here or on the title above).).


8 December 2008

A welcome visit from Peking

I'm pleased to report that there's been a visit to the Blog from Peking - yes "Peking, Beijing, China" is how the local Chinese service provider refers to the place. This suggests that the Chinese themselves are apparently as relaxed about calling the city "Peking" as the Indians are about calling Mumbai "Bombay" (see my entry What's in a place name on 1st December).

Wikipedia casts some light on why this might be so. Not only was 'Peking" chosen as suitable by those who translated Chinese writing into Roman letters, but it's also closer to the way it's pronounced in some Chinese dialects, as can be seen from the following (anoraks can inspect the fuller story by clicking here):

"Peking is the name of the city according to Chinese Postal Map Romanization ... The term Peking originated with French missionaries four hundred years ago and corresponds to an older pronunciation predating a subsequent sound change in Mandarin from [kʲ] to [tɕ][15] ([tɕ] is represented in pinyin as j, as in Beijing). It is still used in many languages ... The pronunciation "Peking" is also closer to the Fujianese dialect of Amoy or Min Nan spoken in the city of Xiamen, a port where European traders first landed in the 16th century, while "Beijing" more closely approximates the Mandarin dialect's pronunciation."

However, I'm still none the wiser about when and why the British media started to change the way they spell and pronounce varous place names and would be interested to hear if anyone could clarify the issue for me.

I can see why, following independence and/or revolution, it might be appropriate to recognise a new status quo by calling "Salisbury, Rhodesia" "Harare, Zimbabwe", or "Saigon, South Vietnam" "Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam". But even here there's no consistency, as our media still refuses to call "Burma" "Myanmar", as decreed by that country's rulers, which is presumably an overtly political decision by media that purport to be 'politically correct', but doesn't happen to approve of this particular junta.

On the other more trivial issue mentioned in my earlier blog entry, Wikipedia mentions a breed of dogs called "Pekingese", "Peke" or "Pekinese", as well as a few more obscure names. So at least we don't have to worry about trying to get our English tongues around words like "Beijingeses" or "Beijes".

6 December 2008

The Office Christmas Party Speech: roads to failure and success

One of the advantages of being self-employed is that I’m normally spared from the annual rigours of the office Christmas party. Sometimes, however, you simply can’t escape from being dragged along to one as the spouse or partner of an employee.

Once when this happened to me, the boss came up to me during the pre-dinner aperitifs, apparently to ask my advice. “Ahh -” he said, “you’re supposed to be an expert on public speaking, so how about a few tips for my speech.”

At such short notice, all I could suggest was that he should make no more than three points, and stick to drinking water throughout the meal - making the obvious point that alcohol interferes with the very part of the brain that produces speech.

I also pointed out that, by the time he got up to speak, everyone else would be at different stages of intoxicaion and he would have the advantage of being one of the few people in the room with a clear head. “Then, once you’ve made your speech,” I said generously, “feel free to hit the bottle as much as you like.”

He made it pretty clear that he didn’t think much of my advice by promptly ordering another gin and tonic and telling me that his wife had already agreed to drive him home. During the dinner, he drank one glass of wine after another, glancing at me occasionally with what looked suspiciously like a defiant grin.

Then, when the time came for him to speak, this normally articulate and entertaining communicator slurred his words, and rambled on for what everyone agreed afterwards was far too long. It was difficult to tell one point from another, let alone how many he was making - other than that there were far more than the three I’d recommended.

The safest way of avoiding such embarrassment is obviously not to make a speech at all. But people at office parties do expect someone to say something, even if it’s only to wish them a happy Christmas. And there are always going to be people there to be welcomed and/or thanked.

So, if you’re the one on whom this burden falls, here are seven steps to see you safely through it.

Seven Steps to Success

1. Plan what you want to say in advance, jot some headings down on cards and don’t be afraid to be seen using them on the day. Apart from giving you the added confidence that comes from knowing that you won’t forget what to say, it will make you look conscientious and professional for having gone to the trouble of preparing a few words speciallyfor the occasion.

2. Drink as little alcohol as possible, and preferably none at all, before making the speech.

3. Welcome and thank everyone for coming, with a special welcome to spouses, partners and any other guests from outside the office.

4. Thank everyone involved in organising the event, preparing food, booking venue, etc.

5. If appropriate, mention any significant or amusing things that have happened since the last Christmas party, and perhaps speculate on what lies ahead in the coming year.

6. Wish everyone a merry Christmas and happy new year -- and make sure you sound as though you mean it.

7. Be brief: five minutes is probably the absolute limit. After all, hardly anyone ever complains about a speech being too short, and the biggest compliment you can be paid is when people say they wish you’d gone on longer

4 December 2008

The Queen's Speech, 2008

If you read my observations on The Queen's Speech:an exception that proves the ruler (12th November blog entry) and would be interested in seeing her latest performance, click on the title above to watch her delivering this year's speech, or here if you'd like to read the full script.

Rhetoric, oratory and Barack Obama's 'The Speech' (2004)

About eighteen months ago, David Bernstein of the Chicago Magazine phoned me. They were, he said, preparing a major article on the keynote speech given at the 2004 Democratic Convention by Barack Obama. As an Englishman with only an occasional interest In American politics, my immediate reaction was “Who?”

After telling me a bit about Obama and why there was so much interest in him, especially in Chicago, David explained that he was calling to ask if I could offer any 'expert' comments on the senator’s rhetoric and style of oratory.

Within five minutes of putting the phone down, I’d downloaded a video and a full transcript of the speech from the internet – a spectacular advance on 25 years ago when I first started recording political speeches, and had to wait with finger on the ‘record’ button of the Betamax (!) before having to spend hours transcribing the text myself.

By the time I'd finished watching it, my immediate reaction was "Wow!", not least because it’s so rare to come across such an outstanding performance from a ‘new’ speaker whom you’ve never heard of before. Yet here were echoes of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all rolled into one.

And Ronald Reagan was probably the last American example of someone being launched from political obscurity on to the national stage by a single speech when he spoke in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican Convention in 1964.

After that first viewing of Obama in action, my notes on things worth looking at in more detail read as follows:

Frequent and effective use of:
• Rhetorical techniques
• 3 part lists
• Metaphors
• Repetition
• Especially good on anecdotes
• Pressing right buttons for Democrats and patriots

• Good pace
• Good voice
• Not too theatrical for the mass television audience (c.f. Reagan)
• Good at reading but sounding as though he’s not reading (c.f. Reagan)
• Good at 'surfing' applause (c.f. MLK)

The piece in the Chicago Magazine provides a fascinating insight into the background of how the speech was written, who was involved and what was going on at the convention, and it’s the most interesting and informative article I’ve read on the subject.

Published in June 2007, the summary at the top of David Bernstein's article says:

When Barack Obama launched into his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was still an obscure state senator from Illinois. By the time he finished 17 minutes later, he had captured the nation's attention and opened the way for a run at the presidency. A behind-the-scenes look at the politicking, plotting, and preparation that went into Obama's breakthrough moment.

If you haven’t read it, you can do so by clicking here or on the title above.

2 December 2008

"There's nothing wrong with PowerPoint - until there's an audience"

The other day, my wife went to a meeting that had been advertised as a social event, but which turned out to include a number of unscheduled PowerPoint presentations. On the way out, she said to the friend she was with that she would not have bothered to go if she’d known that they were going to have to listen to three speakers reading from PowerPoint slides.

A stranger overheard her complaint, turned round and sounded as though he was looking for an argument. “There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint” he asserted, but then added the profound words “until, that is, there’s an audience.”

And he does have a point. I’ve now asked hundreds of people how many PowerPoint presentations they’ve been to that were inspiring or memorable. It’s a question that typically produces a deathly silence. Most people struggle to think of a single instance, and the biggest number anyone has ever managed to come up with is two.

Further investigation into these rare exceptions usually reveals two important facts: (1) the slides were mostly pictures illustrating what the speaker was talking about, and (2) there weren’t very many of them.

However, the idea that slides are essential to the modern business presentation has become so entrenched that you sometimes have to be careful about questioning the dominant orthodoxy – and not just when you happen to be on your way out of a presentation. When I wrote about the (many) problems they create for audiences in Lend Me Your Ears, my publisher’s lawyers tried to get me to tone down some of my comments in case Microsoft, purveyors of PowerPoint to the world, decided to sue.

I refused to change a word, on the grounds that I wasn’t saying anything that couldn’t be confirmed by even the most casual research into audience reactions to slide-dependent presentations – and you have a defence in English law, if you can show that what you are saying is true,

In any case, it’s not actually Microsoft’s fault that slide dependency has become the industry-standard model of presentation. There may be some fairly dubious assumptions built into PowerPoint (e.g. the first set of templates offered to users positively encourages them to produce lists of written words), but the global epidemic of presentational paralysis that we’re up against was actually spawned much earlier by the misuse of overhead projectors – aided and abetted by a technological ‘advance’ in photo-copying technology.

I say the ‘misuse of overhead projectors’ because they were originally invented to solve a problem with writing and drawing on black boards and white boards (which has gone down well with audiences for generations) in large auditoriums, where people can’t always see what’s being written on the board.

That’s why a key component of the first overhead projectors was a winding roll of acetate that enabled speakers to write and draw on it as they went along, and project their handiwork on to a big screen that everyone could see.

All was well for a while, but the rot set in during the 1970s (before anyone had thought of PCs, let alone PowerPoint) thanks to the invention of photo-copying machines that could print just as well on acetate as earlier models had done on paper.

The main casualty was the ancient (and very effective) art of ‘chalk and talk’, through which many of us learnt much of what we learnt at school and university. It was replaced by the use of ready-made slides, consisting mainly of lists of written headings and sentences that were actually the speaker’s notes.

So widespread and comprehensive did this practice become that overhead projector manufacturers were soon able to cut their production costs by discontinuing the winding rolls of acetate, and it wasn’t long before machines that would only accept ready-made slides became the norm.

The advent of computer programs like PowerPoint may have made slides easier for audiences to read than in the days of acetates, but how many of us, when we’re sitting in an audience, really want to read and listen at the same time? And how many of us, when speaking to an audience really want to supply our listeners with a continuing source of distraction?

As the stranger said to my wife the other day, “There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint – until there's an audience.”

(A fuller discussion of the pluses – and yes, there are some pluses – and minuses of programs like PowerPoint can be found 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, London: Vermilion, 2008).

1 December 2008

What's in a place name?

I should warn you that there's a hidden counter on this blog that tells me, among other things, which country each visitor comes from.

Recently, quite a few have come from India, from where some, according to data from India, come from a place called 'Bombay', not from 'Mumbai', as the BBC and other news programmes have been calling it all this week. 

I find this very reassuring, as the British media has taken to telling us that there is something politically incorrect about calling cities by the names we've always known them by -- or, to be more precise, cities that are a long way away from Europe.

So this year's Olympic Games were not held in Peking but in 'Beijing' (though we have yet to be notified as to whether we're now supposed to call Pekingese dogs 'Beijingese' dogs).

But there are plenty of cities in Europe that are called something different by people from other countries in Europe. I've never heard any Brits complaining about the fact that the French say 'Londres' when we call it London.

And do Austrians complain when we call their capital city 'Vienna' rather than Wien, do the Czechs complain when we call theirs 'Prague' rather than Praha or the Italians when we talk about 'Rome', 'Florence', and 'Venice' instead of Roma, Firenze and Venezia?

We also say 'Moscow' when the Russians say 'Moscva', 'Gothenberg' when the Swedes say 'Göteborg' (and pronounce it 'Yerterborrier') and 'Copenhagen' when the Danes say 'Kobenhavn'.

None of this seems to cause anyone any problem at all, and even the media have so far made no attempts to correct the way we all refer to these cities. 

So, if the Indians themselves are quite relaxed about referring to Mumbai as 'Bombay', why on earth do our broadcasters and newspapers keep telling us to call it 'Mumbai'?