31 January 2009

INTERLUDE: Normal service will be resumed as soon as poissible


Diary commitments mean that there won't be many new postings for the next two weeks, but I very much hope that regular visitors will come back to see what's on offer in the second half of February.

The heading will strike a chord with anyone who remembers BBC TV in the 1950s, when there were no other television channels, and when management hadn't realised that gaps between programmes could be filled with endless trailers of forthcoming delights in store for viewers.

In those days, we were treated to INTERLUDES. This usually meant having to watch boring films of a repetitively revolving potter's wheel, rotating sails on a windmill or waves breaking on a beach - but one notable exception was the 51 mile train journey from London to Brighton in 4 minutes.

A selection of other less action-packed footage can be seen here.

BLOG INDEX: Sept 2008-Jan 2009

This is a list of everything posted since the Blog started in September 2008.

It's updated at the end of each month, and you can access direct links to each one by clicking on the title above or here.

JANUARY 2009
• Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest democracy of all ?
• Rhetoric and imagery in President Obama’s inauguration speech
• The good news from the House of Lords
• Memorable lines in President Obama's inaugural speech?
• The great camcorder con-trick
• Obama’s inauguration rhetoric won approval for some uncomfortable messages
• Rhetoric and applause in Obama’s inaugural speech as a measure of what the audience liked best
• A line I don't want to hear in today's speech by President Obama
• The enduring challenge and importance of funeral orations
• Has talking the economy down become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophesy?
• Kate Winslet ignores Paul Hogan’s advice to award winners
• Slidomania epidemic contaminates another BBC channel
• How would Obama's rhetoric and oratory sound from a London back street?
• Clinton, Palin and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part III. The education of a female orator
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part II. ‘ The Iron Lady’
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part I. Cultural and vocal challenges
• “May we bring hope” – 30 years since Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister

DECEMBER 2008
• Ready made words for Mr Obama from a previous president’s inaugural speech
• Neutrality in the Queen’s Christmas speech
• What did Santa say before “Ho, ho ho!”
• You don’t have to be Barack Obama to use rhetoric and imagery
• High-risk practical joke for an office Christmas party speech
• End of year poll on PowerPoint presentations
• Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory
• Gordon’s gaffe explained
• The Office Christmas Party Speech: roads to failure and success
• The Queen's Speech, 2008
• Rhetoric, oratory and Barack Obama's 'The Speech', 2004
• "There's nothing wrong with PowerPoint - until there's an audience"
• What’s in a place name?

NOVEMBER 2008
• Content-free sermon by Alan Bennett
• 50 years since Peter Sellers recorded his memorable political speech
• Talking the economy up
• Talking the economy down
• Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?
• Tom Peters: High on rhetoric but low on content?
• Bobby Kennedy nearly got it right about Obama
• ‘Reliable sources' on where Obama’s 'Yes we can' came from
• Will there be any ‘rhetorical denial’ from the Obama camp?
• The Queen’s Speech: an exception that proves the ruler
• Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech
• Not Clinton, not McCain but Obama
• How the BBC handled one complaint about Ross

OCTOBER 2008:
• Another BBC News Slideshow
• Don't put the clocks back
• BBC Television News: produced for or by morons?
• Experience and inexperience in presidential campaigns
• Presidential debates – tedious television but better than commercials
• A secret of eternal youth?
• PowerPoint Peston
• Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma
• Pesky Peston?
• ConVincing Cable
• 'Mature, grown-up and statesmanlike' at the lectern

SEPTEMBER 2008:
• Cameron takes to the lectern in a crisis
• Objects as visual aids
• Powerpoint comes to church
• Mediated speeches -- whom do we really want to hear?
• Wisdom of forethought?
• Time for Cameron to surf applause?
• Did Gordon Brown take my advice?
• Eternity, eternity and eternity
• More tips for Gordon Brown
• Tips for Gordon Brown's conference speech

30 January 2009

Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest democracy of all?


Just before President Obama’s inaugural address, Clark Judge, a former Reagan speechwriter, posted an interesting piece anticipating the speech on the Podium Pundits blog (here), which included the line: “Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…”

This prompted me to post a note here saying that I hoped President Obama would not follow this tendency of Americans to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world (which, in fact, he did not do in his speech).

Mr. Judge took issue with what I’d said (here), but I remain unconvinced, as can be seen here.

You can follow where the debate has got to by by following the above links or by reading on.


ANSWERING A BRITISH CRITIC
Clark S. Judge (WHWG)

Last week, a distinguished British blogger took issue with a January 19th posting in which I said that, “Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…” I’d like to respond.

The blogger was Max Atkinson and his challenge is here. As he wrote: 'My point is not to criticize the particular form of democracy and freedom that’s been developed in the USA. Nor is it to claim that we in the UK (or any other European country) have a come up with an even better version of democracy. But it is to register a complaint about this implicit criticism of other countries’ democracy and freedom that’s so regularly trotted out by American politicians.'

By way of background, Atkinson is a former Oxford professor of anthropology. In the 1980s he became interested in how audiences respond to speakers. He focused first on analyzing structures of language that trigger applause. This interest led him ultimately to leaving academia and becoming a highly successful consultant on public presentation. His clients are political and corporate leaders, primarily in the UK and Europe. He has written two excellent books on speechwriting and presentation development, most recently Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need To Know About Speeches And Presentations (published in the US by Oxford University Press, 2005).

Saying we in America have an historically unmatched commitment to the combination of popular sovereignty and individual liberty is no more than stating a simple fact. Switzerland is occasionally cited as an example of earlier popular rule, but Switzerland of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (before the Napoleonic occupation) was an authoritarian realm under patrician families — nothing like the U.S. from the hour of its independence.

It is true that Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 established the standards for law and liberty that became the foundation of the American experiment. Our revolutionary generation considered themselves (correctly) heirs to and perfectors of the British achievement. Part of that perfecting was introducing rule by the people to a degree the British would not come close to equaling for decades.

Atkinson criticizes Ronald Reagan for saying, in his Time for Choosing speech of 1964, “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.” He might as well have taken on Abraham Lincoln, who, in his 1838 Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum speech, observed that the US “for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world” and who, in his 1862 Annual Message to Congress, termed the American nation, “the last best hope of earth.” Lincoln knew — and the world of his time knew — that something unprecedented and as yet unmatched had happened here.

Many countries have followed since, including, of course, the UK. But when Reagan spoke in 1964, the mix of individual freedom and popular sovereignty was still far from framing the world’s standard. It was the middle of the Cold War, and it was no exaggeration to assert that, given the geopolitics of that era, if America were to fall, all other centers of freedom and popular rule would follow us down, just as they had followed us up.

Directly put: The modern move of nations to personal liberty in the context of popular sovereignty originates in the United States — and, even with the beating our global image arguably took in recent years, America remains a internationally animating example of that ideal to a degree that no other country equals. As part of the task of “maintaining the vigor of our national life and the constancy of our national purpose” — a task that, as I said, is among the functions of each inaugural (and that President Obama in his inaugural fulfilled admirably) — it is legitimate, appropriate and even essential to return to this truth. It is not chauvinism. It is in no way a dismissal of other democracies. It is simply right.


TACTLESS IN AMERICA?
Max Atkinson, Guest Contributor

The point I was making that Clark Judge has responded to was not that the UK had a better or older version of democracy than the USA, but that American claims to democratic superiority come across as a bit tactless to some of its closest allies.

His suggestion that it is no more than stating a simple fact to say that America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty had been there ‘from the hour of its independence’, still strikes me as overstating the case. After all, the commitment to individual liberty did not apply to slaves, and voting rights after independence were restricted to white male adult property owners – nor were they extended beyond that until about 1850, after which voters still had to be white and male. There then remained the de facto denial of African American voting rights in most southern states until as recently as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A year before that, Ronald Reagan had described the USA as the last stand on earth for freedom and liberty. And, although Clark may be right in saying that other free countries might have followed if the US had fallen, that was not the point I heard Mr Reagan to be making – unless George Bernard Shaw was right about Britain and the United States being ‘nations separated by a common language’ and we really do hear things differently.



His assertion that ‘the modern move of nations to personal liberty in the context of popular sovereignty originates in the United States’ is also debatable. For one thing, similar moves were already underway in various European countries at the time of the American revolution, though admittedly progress here was a good deal messier (e.g. the French revolution) or slower (e.g. Britain) than in the USA. For another, it was the same intellectual force, the Enlightenment, that was driving change on both sides of the Atlantic. The American founding fathers may have made a cleaner and quicker job of it, but they did have the advantage of being in a new world with a blank slate to write on, unencumbered by trying to accommodate the new ideals within established, evolving and ancient forms of government.

The idea that America remains an internationally animating example of the ideal of popular sovereignty rests easily enough on foreign ears – until hyperbole strikes again with the addition of ‘to a degree that no other country equals’. On reading that, other famous words of Ronald Reagan sprang to mind: “There you go again!”

But I stress again that I have no interest in asserting the superiority of the UK brand of democracy and liberty. There have been too many missed opportunities and dubious imperialistic adventures for us to be smug about our past or complacent about our present. And there’s still unfinished business and more work to be done. To take but one example, the Blair government finally got around to abolishing the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of the House of Lords, but has left us with entry qualifications to the upper house that are as far removed from any democratic principles as could be imagined (as you can see by looking here).

This willingness to find fault in British constitutional arrangements is not a preface to withdrawing my original complaint, but a reminder of the dangers of complacency: to compare democracies and/or to assert the superiority of one over another is to enter difficult and delicate territory, for the obvious reason that there are no universally established or objective principles of what counts as ‘pure’ democracy and liberty. In the absence of any such measuring device, it is surely healthier for people committed to these ideals to admit that there may still be room for improving the way their own country puts them into practice than it is to believe that one or other of us has already reached perfection, or the most perfect version that any nation can ever hope to achieve.

If I were an American, I know that I would definitely not be arguing for a 28th constitutional amendment that would prohibit any further amendments. But, as an Englishman, I’m far too polite to start pointing out possible flaws in the US constitution that could perhaps be changed for the better.

29 January 2009

Rhetoric and imagery in President Obama’s inauguration speech

If the number of hits and emails are anything to go by, my earlier line-by-line analysis of rhetoric and imagery in Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago (originally published in the British weekly newspaper, the Independent on Sunday) attracted a good deal of interest.

In response to those who have asked for something similar on his inaugural address, here's the text of the speech with comments in italics just after the points to which they relate.

The earlier piece had some introductory background on the main rhetorical techniques. If you’re not familiar with them what follows might make more sense by looking here before reading on.

More detail on rhetorical techniques and imagery and how anyone can use them to get messages across effectively in any kind of speech or presentation can be found in my books (for details of which, see column on the left).



My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us,
grateful for the trust you have bestowed,
mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

3-part list.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.

Double conrast between rising tides and still waters and prosperity and peace, using sea imagery and alliteration.

Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

Weater imagery to depict trouble ahead.

At these moments, America has carried on
not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office,
but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

Contrast with indirect references to declaration of independence and the US constitution.

So it has been.
So it must be with this generation of Americans.

Contrast between past and present.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood.

Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.
Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost;
jobs shed;
businesses shuttered.

3-part list.

Our health care is too costly;
our schools fail too many;
and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

3-part list.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.
Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Contrast between measurable and not so measurable.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.
They are serious
and they are many.

3-part list.

They will not be met easily
or in a short span of time.
But know this, America - they will be met.

The first burst of applause came after this second of two 3-part lists in a row – in which the third positive point also contrasts with the first two negative ones. Note also that the final item exploits the puzzle-solution format by getting the audience wondering what they’re going to have to know before he provides them with the solution to the puzzle.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear,
unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

Two contrasts.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Repetition of first words of each line – ‘on this day’ – known as ‘anaphora’ in classical rhetoric.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit;
to choose our better history;
to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:

the God-given promise that all are equal,
all are free,
and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Two 3-part lists, each of which with a third item longer than the first two.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given.
It must be earned.

Contrast with alliteration (g-g) in first part.

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.
It has not been the path for the faint-hearted –
for those who prefer leisure over work,
or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Imagery of a journey starts with 3-part list, which turns out to be the first part of a contrast in which the second part is another 3-part list.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers,
the doers,
the makers of things –

3-part list

some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
Contrast between famous and obscure continues journey imagery with alliteration – path/prosperity.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

Journey image now extended to refer to original immigrants to USA, with another alliterative ‘p-p’ clause.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West;
endured the lash of the whip
and plowed the hard earth.

Repetition of first words (‘anaphora’) and ‘lash of the whip’ image now includes slaves among immigrants.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Third ‘for us’ now extends the list of heroes to more periods of struggle on our behalf, revolution, civil war, second world war and Viet Nam, each identified with images of famous battles.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.

Imagery of painful hard work and struggle (for us).

They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions;
greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Two comparative contrasts, with a 3-part list in the second one.

This is the journey we continue today.
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.

P-p alliteration as he turns to speak about the present.

Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.
Our minds are no less inventive,
our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year.

3 comparative sentences starting with ‘our’ (anaphora again), with third one ending in a 3-part list.

Our capacity remains undiminished.
But our time of standing pat,
of protecting narrow interests
and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed.

Contrast in which second part includes a 3-part list (with more p-p alliteration).

Starting today,
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America.

3-part list with third item longer than the first two.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

Puzzle to get people wondering what needs to be done

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act –
not only to create new jobs,
but to lay a new foundation for growth.

First part of the Solution to the Puzzle ends with not only/but also contrast and starts with what turns out to be a sequence of repeated ‘we will…’ lines (i.e. more ‘anaphora’).

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.

Contrast between raising quality/lowering cost.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

3 things will be harnessed.

And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

And 3 things will be improved.

All this we can do.
And all this we will do.

Contrast between what can be done and will be done.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.

Their memories are short.

Puzzle.

For they have forgotten what this country has already done;
what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

Solution to puzzle explains why their memories are short.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them –

Ground-shifting imagery to refer to changing ideas.

that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works –

Question/puzzle formulated with a contrast between big and small that then contrasts with the third item.

whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage,
care they can afford,
a retirement that is dignified.

Question/puzzle elaborated with 3-part list.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.
Where the answer is no, programs will end.

Contrast with anaphora.

And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account –
to spend wisely,
reform bad habits,
and do our business in the light of day –

3 things he’ll be accountable for, with daylight imagery to refer to openness.

because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.
Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched,

Puzzle-solution.

but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Spinning imagery and contrast between national and individual prosperity.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity;

Contrast.

on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart –
not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

Contrast.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Writing image to refer to the US constitution; blood image to refer to changes from Civil War.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

Lighting world imagery to say that US ideals are widely admired.

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born:

Contrasting images of ‘grandest capitals’ and ‘small village’.

know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

Contrast between first item and second two in a 3-part sequence.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.

Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use;
our security emanates from the justness of our cause,
the force of our example,
the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

Second part of contrast ends with 3-part list.

We are the keepers of this legacy.

Guardians/inheritance imagery.

Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.

We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now

3 'we will' starts (anaphora) followed by puzzle (what is he going to say now?).

that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken;
you cannot outlast us,
and we will defeat you.

3-parted solution.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

Contrast.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.

Contrast between religious believers and non-believeers

We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth;
and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

First in a sequence with repetitive starts (anaphora).

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

Contrast.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,

3 unacceptable ways of holding power.

know that you are on the wrong side of history;

but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Contrast with imagery of shaking hands and unclenching fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish

p-p and f-f alliteration

and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

3 water and feeding images.

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us,

Return to journey imagery from earlier in the speech implies he’s moving towards the end, or at least changing the subject.

we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains.

‘Desert’ and ‘mountain’ imagery used to refer to difficulties troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

Compares message from current troops with that from dead ones – referred to with image of whispers from the national cemetery.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service;

Contrast.

a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

American people contrasted favourably with American government.

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Imagery used to provide examples of American people’s virtues.

Our challenges may be new.
The instruments with which we meet them may be new.
But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old.

Contrast between two new things and a third old thing.

These things are true.
They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded then is a return to these truths.
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

Comparative contrast.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

3 repetitive starts (anaphora) ending with a contrast between negative status of a father being discriminated against 60 years ago and his son becoming president today.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled.

Return to earlier journey imagery implies he’s close to the end.

In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.

Historical imagery that echoes water and weather images from start of speech confirms that he is indeed moving into the peroration.

The capital was abandoned.
The enemy was advancing.
The snow was stained with blood.

3-part list of images depicting threats and struggle during was of independence.

At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

Quotation from George Washington as first part of contrast between then and now.

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words.

Continuation of weather image.

With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.

Continuation of water and weather images.

Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested
we refused to let this journey end,
that we did not turn back
nor did we falter;

3-part list of what we did and didn’t do when tested.

and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Concludes with 3-part journey images (‘horizon’, ‘carried forth’ ,'delivered') of the destination.

28 January 2009

The good news from the House of Lords


What really matters about the potential scandal brewing in the House of Lords is not that there might be some dodgy members who've been caught out sounding as though they were negotiating possible bribes, but that the story might actually get us thinking again about why such people are awarded peerages in the first place – given that not all former MPs, MEPs or Leaders of Blackburn (and other city) councils get a seat there on retirement.

The hereditary basis for sitting in the House of Lords was embarrassing enough for anyone wanting to defend or take pride in British democracy, but the ramshackle replacement is no less embarrassing. In one sense, it’s even worse, as it’s come from a premeditated and supposedly carefully thought out reform of the system, rather than from a legacy of feudalism that previous governments had never bothered to get rid of.

Worthy though most of the miscellany of retired MPs and mysteriously selected ‘great and good’ Lords may be, they are not elected by anyone, not accountable to anyone and not obliged to depart until they die. As such, there is no democratic principle I've ever heard of that would justify their playing any legislative role at all in a modern democracy.

25 January 2009

Memorable lines in President Obama's inaugural speech?


A lot of commentators have been complaining that President Obama’s inaugural address was a bit short on memorable phrases, and there’s a very interesting post on the subject at Podium Pundits by Clark Judge, a former Reagan speechwriter.

This got me thinking about two related questions: (1) were the most memorable lines from other presidential inaugural addresses noticed by the media there and then, and/or (2) does it take longer than that for a line to become memorable?

The preliminary findings from my initial surf of the internet suggest the answers may be (1) no, and (2) quite a while.

This is based on the surprising discovery that none of the famous quotations from President Kennedy’s inaugural address on 20 January 1961 made it into the headlines or front page reports of two leading American newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

If nothing else, this looks to be worth a bit more research and should serve as a warning to all the ‘expert’ commentators who don't think there were enough memorable lines in President Obama’s speech that they should perhaps think again and wait a while before drawing any such conclusion.

The great camcorder con-trick


After using video cameras in my work (and leisure) for as long as they’ve been around, I’ve become increasingly frustrated that so many manufacturers have done away with view-finders and replaced them with silly little screens that stick out at the side of the camera.

I’m told that this is to keep them as compact and as cheap as possible, which would be all very well if it didn't completely ignore a fairly obvious problem that will afflict any customer who wants to use a camcorder in bright sunshine (i.e. most of them) when on holiday – where they’ll soon discover that glare and reflection make it almost impossible to see anything at all on the screen.

This happened to me twice last year, first on a Nile cruise and then on a skiing holiday. Whether you’re pointing the lens towards an ancient ruin or someone whizzing down a ski slope, your main resource is guesswork, and it’s become a matter of luck whether you end up with anything worth watching again.

To make matters worse, some of the top manufacturers (e.g. Sony) don’t seem to realise or care that the by far the best and easiest video-editing facilities are to be found on Apple computers, and are so complacent that they only supply software that’s compatible with Windows.

As far as these 'we know best' merchants are concerned, ‘the customer is always right’ is presumably no more than a high-sounding principle for paying lip-service to whilst completely ignoring it in practice, and we can only hope that disappointing sales and complaints from frustrated users will eventually bring them to their senses.

23 January 2009

BLOG INDEX

Some people have been telling me that the absence of a simple list of headings for earlier postings in the Blog Archive on the left makes it difficult to find topics posted before the current month.

To make things easier, here's a list of everything posted since the Blog started in September 2008.

It will be updated at the end of each month, and you can access direct links to each one by clicking on the title above or here.


DECEMBER 2008
• Ready made words for Mr Obama from a previous president’s inaugural speech
• Neutrality in the Queen’s Christmas speech
• What did Santa say before “Ho, ho ho!”
• You don’t have to be Barack Obama to use rhetoric and imagery
• High-risk practical joke for an office Christmas party speech
• End of year poll on PowerPoint presentations
• Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory
• Gordon’s gaffe explained
• The Office Christmas Party Speech: roads to failure and success
• The Queen's Speech, 2008
• Rhetoric, oratory and Barack Obama's 'The Speech', 2004
• "There's nothing wrong with PowerPoint - until there's an audience"
• What’s in a place name?

NOVEMBER 2008
• Content-free sermon by Alan Bennett
• 50 years since Peter Sellers recorded his memorable political speech
• Talking the economy up
• Talking the economy down
• Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?
• Tom Peters: High on rhetoric but low on content?
• Bobby Kennedy nearly got it right about Obama
• ‘Reliable sources' on where Obama’s 'Yes we can' came from
• Will there be any ‘rhetorical denial’ from the Obama camp?
• The Queen’s Speech: an exception that proves the ruler
• Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech
• Not Clinton, not McCain but Obama
• How the BBC handled one complaint about Ross

OCTOBER 2008:
• Another BBC News Slideshow
• Don't put the clocks back
• BBC Television News: produced for or by morons?
• Experience and inexperience in presidential campaigns
• Presidential debates – tedious television but better than commercials
• A secret of eternal youth?
• PowerPoint Peston
• Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma
• Pesky Peston?
• ConVincing Cable
• 'Mature, grown-up and statesmanlike' at the lectern

SEPTEMBER 2008:
• Cameron takes to the lectern in a crisis
• Objects as visual aids
• Powerpoint comes to church
• Mediated speeches -- whom do we really want to hear?
• Wisdom of forethought?
• Time for Cameron to surf applause?
• Did Gordon Brown take my advice?
• Eternity, eternity and eternity
• More tips for Gordon Brown
• Tips for Gordon Brown's conference speech

Obama’s inauguration rhetoric won approval for some uncomfortable messages

A point I made a couple of days ago was that bursts of applause can be used to identify which points in a speech an audience liked best.

If there are about 150 sentences, of which only six (4%) stood out enough to get a whole-hearted display of approval that lasted more than a few seconds – as happened on Tuesday – it’s worth looking at them in a bit more detail to see what really turned the audience on.

On looking through them again, what I found interesting and surprising was that three of the six messages rated by the crowd as worthy of a decent round of applause were actually quite contentious or uncomfortable ones:

1. The USA is up against a lot of serious problems that can’t be fixed easily or instantly, though the new administration will eventually fix them.

2. A lot of work needs to be done to remake America – where the use of the word ‘remake’ implies that there’s something so wrong with the country that it actually needs remaking.

3. The USA will be friends with any countries wanting to live in peace and dignity and is ready to provide leadership again – where ‘again’ is presumably an admission that its foreign policy hasn't been making a very good job of it recently.

To foreign ears, the encouraging thing about all this is not just that the new president is willing to acknowledge that all is not well on a number of important fronts, but that the large numbers of Americans in the crowd were willing to applaud him for subscribing to such uncomfortable positions.

At the very least, these sentiments are a far cry from the over-stated claims about the unique greatness of the country that I was complaining about the other day – and which have put in another appearance in an article in the Washington Post by Robert Ehrlich, Jr., former governor of Maryland, who writes of the need to 'pray for ‘the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

(The rhetorical techniques that prompted the crowd to applaud these uncomfortable messages can be seen in the previous post – under sections 1, 3 & 4).

21 January 2009

Rhetoric and applause in Obama’s inaugural speech as a measure of what the audience liked best

When I first started studying bursts of applause in political speeches thirty years ago, some people couldn’t see the point; others thought I was mad.

But I did have a rational reason for doing it – because the absence of any instant positive response from jurors in the tape-recorded court hearings I was studying made it impossible to get empirical evidence about what might be having a positive impact on the twelve most important members of the audience in court.

In trying to solve this ‘methodological’ problem, I was drawn to applause in speeches as a promising place to start, as it provides fairly concrete evidence that an audience is (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approves of what’s just been said strongly enough to join in a collective physical demonstration of their approval (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.).

The main finding – that most bursts of applause are triggered by a small number of simple rhetorical techniques – not only surprised me, but also launched me on a new career (further details on which can be found in the books listed on the left of this page and/or my main website.).

More than a quarter of a century later, I still sometimes find it instructive to focus on the lines that were applauded in a particular speech to see which messages turned the audience on the most.

So the lines that prompted bursts of applause during President Obama’s inaugural speech yesterday are reproduced below, along with some notes about the rhetorical techniques that were involved. Video clips of the first six examples can be seen below.

[For anyone unfamiliar with them, the main rhetorical techniques include: Contrasts: e.g. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him (Mark Antony), three-part lists: e.g. Education, education and education. (Tony Blair) and combinations of contrasts and lists: e.g by contrasting a third item with the first two: We shall negotiate for it, sacrifice for it but never surrender for it. (Ronald Reagan). Add to these devices like alliteration, repetition, imagery and anecdotes, and you have the basic building blocks of the language of public speaking.]


1. The first burst of Applause came after the second of two three-part lists – in which the third item contrasts with the first two. Note also that the final item exploits the puzzle-solution format by getting the audience wondering what they’re going to have to know before providing tehm with the solution to the puzzle.

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.
They are serious
and they are many.

They will not be met easily
or in a short span of time.
But know this, America — they will be met."
[APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED being told that the country is up against some serious problems that will be hard to solve and his assurance that they will be overcome.

(This was the first of four examples in the speech of his using the imperative form ('know this'), which is arguably a rather less high-sounding version of the repetitive ‘let’ form of imperative favoured by Kennedy for directing his inaugural remarks to specific audiences in 1961:

KENNEDY: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."
)


2. The second burst of applause also came after two three-part lists, each of which had a third item that was longer than the first two:

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit;
to choose our better history;
to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:

the God-given promise that all are equal,
all are free
and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
[APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED hearing his reaffirmation of the American dream.


3. Another three-part list with longest item coming third:

"Starting today,
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America."
[APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED his recognition that there’s work to be done in order to remake America (and, by implication, that America is in need of 'remaking').


4. Another example of the ‘know’ form of imperative, addressed this time to foreign audiences (identified by imagery contrasting ‘grandest capitals’ with the "small village" in Kenya where his father was born):

".. to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more." [APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED liked the idea of restoring America’s reputation for positive leadership in the world (and, by implication, that it's in need of restoring).


5. Use of one three-part list to set up a puzzle (‘what is it that he's going to say now?’) that's solved by another three-part list that gets applauded.

"We will not apologize for our way of life,
nor will we waver in its defense,
and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that

our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken;
you cannot outlast us,
and we will defeat you."
[APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED hearing his commitment to defend the American way of life and defeat terrorism.


6. Contrast between negative status of a father being discriminated against 60 years ago and his son becoming president today:

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." [APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED being invited to celebrate the election of an African-American as president as evidence that the central part of Martin Luther King’s dream has come true.


UNEXPECTED FLUTTERS OF APPLAUSE

There were a few other instances where a slight flutter of applause didn’t build into a fully fledged burst, and where Obama didn’t seem to have been expecting applause.

In the following, it came in just after the second of two contrasts, the first of which contrasted the first item with the second two in the list.

Evidence that he wasn’t expecting it came from the fact that he can be seen abandoning an in-breath and a pointing gesture before waiting for the flutter of applause to subside.

"The success of our economy has always depended
not just on the size of our gross domestic product,
but on the reach of our prosperity;
on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart –

not out of charity,
but because it is the surest route to our common good."
[FLUTTER OF APPLAUSE]


In this final example, the short burst of applause came in response to another ‘know this’ imperative that ended with a contrast between ‘build’ and ‘destroy’.

The start of the applause interrupted President Obama just after he’d embarked on another “to those .." - which he cut short and then repeated as the applause was fading away (for more on ‘surfing applause’, see earlier post in September 2008).

"To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." [FLUTTER OF APPLAUSE]

video

20 January 2009

A line I don't want to hear in today's speech by President Obama

If there’s one thing that irks me about speeches by American presidents, it’s their tendency to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world.

The issue is summed up here in a thoughtful, and otherwise strongly recommended, piece by Clark Judge, a former Reagan speechwriter:

“Inaugural addresses invariably remind us of America’s historically unmatched commitment to popular sovereignty and individual liberty…”

It was also there in a famous anecdote used by Ronald Reagan in his address at the 1964 Republican Convention that launched him on to the national political stage (A time for choosing: Rendezvous with Destiny):

REAGAN: Not too long ago two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, "We don't know how lucky we are." And the Cuban stopped and said, "How lucky you are! I had someplace to escape to." In that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth..

My point is not to criticise the particular form of democracy and freedom that’s been developed in the USA.

Nor is it to claim that we in the UK (or any other European country) have a come up with an even better version of democracy.

But it is to register a complaint about this implicit criticism of other countries' democracy and freedom that’s so regularly trotted out by American politicians.

Reagan was as wrong in saying that there was no place to escape to as he was wrong in claiming that the USA was ‘the last stand on earth’.

From the point of view of those of us lucky enough live in other countries where elections also determine who governs and also result in a peaceful transfer of power, such overstated claims are at best tactless, and at worst quite offensive.

That’s why it’s a line I would never recommend to any of my clients with a vested interest in staying friends with their closest allies.

19 January 2009

The enduring challenge and importance of funeral orations

Unlike many commentators, I haven’t had much time to try my hand at second guessing what Barack Obama might say in his inaugural address tomorrow. This is because I’ve been involved in the sad business of preparing for the funeral of the 27-year old daughter of some friends of ours, who died in sudden and tragic circumstances.

I've found the determination of some of her young friends to speak at her funeral and the experience of editing their words and coaching them in rehearsals a more moving and uplifting experience than I’d expected.

[And - now the funeral is over - what was even more uplifting was to hear them doing such a fantastic job, and see them receiving so much well-deserved praise from those who were there].

The whole experience has reminded me just how difficult it can be to get it right for such a diverse audience on such a distressing occasion.

It also reminded me that, however suspicious some critics may be of all things rhetorical, there is still a demand and a need for impressive displays of rhetoric that catch the shared mood of a group, both at the best of times and at the worst of times.

At the national level, this is exactly what Tony Blair achieved a few hours after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August, 1997 (see text and video below). At the time, I remember being surprised and impressed by the number of Tories who openly volunteered their approval of what a Labour prime minister had just said.

An added side effect was that it helped to establish the then new prime minister's recognition as a national leader much more quickly than is usually the case. But that doesn't in any way diminish the effectiveness of the writing or delivery of the speech on that particular morning.

BLAIR:Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Dianas family - in particular her two sons, two boys - our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation, in Britain, in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us.

She was a wonderful and warm human being. Though her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy, she touched the lives of so many others in Britain - throughout the world - with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her, in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy, when, with just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

How difficult things were for her from time to time, surely we can only guess at - but the people everywhere, not just here in Britain but everywhere, they kept faith with Princess Diana, they liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the peoples princess and thats how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.
video

15 January 2009

Has talking the economy down become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophesy?


In previous blog entries, I’ve noted how depressingly keen the UK media is on talking the economy down (23 October 2008, 23 November 2008).

It now seems to have reached a point where any hint of talking it up will get you into trouble, even when the ‘offending’ words were prompted by a leading question from an interiewer.

Baroness Vadera was asked on the ITV Lunchtime News when she believed that the UK could expect to see “green shoots” and replied: “I am seeing a few green shoots, but it’s a little bit too early to say exactly how they’d grow.”

CUE - headlines:

MINISTER'S 'GREEN SHOOTS' GAFFE

GREEN SHOOTS: SHRITI VADERA'S ECONOMIC OPTIMISM SPARKS OUTRAGE

BARONESS VADERA UNDER FIRE FOR 'SEEING GREEN SHOOTS OF RECOVERY'

CUE - retraction/confession:

BARONESS VADERA REGRETS 'GREEN SHOOTS' OPTIMISM IN ECONOMY

Hardly surprising when opposition parties had been so quick to join the media in making such a meal of it:

"The Conservatives said Lady Vadera's comments showed ministers were 'insensitive and out of touch' with the reality facing millions of families. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, said that they showed she was 'living in a parallel universe'".

But are we really doomed to stand by and submit to one gloomy self-fulfilling prophesy after another from everyone on the public stage (with the possible exception of Baroness Vadera)?

And does all this prove that American sociologist W.I. Thomas got it right in 1928 when he said:

'If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.'

13 January 2009

Kate Winslet ignores Paul Hogan’s advice to award winners


One of the few good speeches at a showbiz awards ceremony was Paul Hogan’s warm-up act at the Oscars in 1986 (for his key advice to winners on the three Gs, see video clip below, or here for the full version).

But Kate Winslet was only 11 years old at the time and probably never even saw it. So, at the Golden Globe awards the other day, she joined Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry in the hall of fame for award winners’ embarrassing speeches (see below after Paul Hogan's much neglected advice).

But then why should anyone expect actors to be any good at speech-making?

After all, their skill is to deliver other people’s lines in a way that portrays characters other than themselves, which is a very different business from writing your own lines and coming across as yourself.

Politically active thespians like Glenda Jackson, M.P., and Vanessa Redgrave may be admired for their successful acting careers, but neither of them is particularly impressive when it comes to making political speeches.

In fact, the only example of an actor who did become a great public speaker that I can think of is Ronald Reagan, but he’d already been rolling his own speeches on the lecture circuit for General Electric long before he became Governor of California – with a contract from the company that ‘required him to tour GE plants ten weeks out of the year, often demanding of him fourteen speeches per day’ (Wikipedia).

video

11 January 2009

Slidomania epidemic contaminates another BBC channel

It’s not just BBC televison news programmes that are being infected by PowerPoint-style presentations from newsreaders and reporters (see blog entries on 23 October & 26 October, 2008).

Tonight’s BBC Parliament Channel featured an interview with Gerald Scarfe, arguably the finest cartoonist of his generation, about his new book – a chance, you might think, to show us a few nice pictorial examples of his talent – but why do that when it also gives you a chance to film him in front of some completely pointless and extremely distracting graphics?

Fascinating though it would have been to see the sketches of Sarah Palin he mentions, the slidomaniacs in charge of the programme seem to think that a conversation with Scarfe is so boring (which it isn’t) that we must be supplied with some brightly coloured swirling graphics to keep us awake.

video

9 January 2009

How would Obama's rhetoric and oratory sound from a London back street?



With pageants like the annual trooping the colour and state opening of parliament by the Queen, occasional royal weddings, state funerals and even more occasional coronations, Britain normally excels at finely choreographed displays of pomp and circumstance.

But the inauguration of an American president is an interesting example of how a former colony can sometimes outperform the old mother country with a set-piece event that makes the arrival of a new British prime minister about as inspiring as the sight of someone changing planes at Heathrow Airport.

One key difference, of course, is that our American cousins are inaugurating a new head of state as well as a new head of government, whereas a British prime minister is no more than that: the prime minister of a Queen, who will carry on being head of state for the rest of her life, and without whose invitation politicians wouldn’t be able to form a government at all.

Another stark difference is 'location, location. location'. New US presidents speak from Capitol Hill, looking out over a classic masterpiece of post-enlightenment town design that stretches before them as far as the eye can see. New UK prime ministers speak from the front doorstep of a terraced house that has no front garden and opens directly on to a cramped London backstreet – not the most promising venue for stirring rhetoric and oratory.

The British version of the orderly transfer of power is at its most mundane when a new prime minister takes office because the majority party in the House of Commons has changed its leader between general elections, which means that there won’t even be any jubilant crowds celebrating the previous day’s victory (not that there’s room for much of a crowd in Downing Street anyway).

So the official schedule of events for the afternoon of 27th June 2007, when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, went as follows:

13.00: Blair says farewell to staff at No 10 Downing Street
13.12: Blair arrives at Buckingham Palace, where he tenders resignation to the Queen
13.30: Brown departs Treasury with wife Sarah
13.40: Blair leaves the Palace
13.51: Brown arrives at the Palace where the Queen asks him to form a government
14.48: Brown leaves the Palace
14.55: Brown enters No 10 Downing Street for first time as prime minister

Although the schedule makes no mention of a speech at 14.55, new prime ministers can’t just walk in without saying anything to the television cameras and reporters. But they hardly ever say anything that anyone ever remembers, and it’s an occasion that’s generated very few entries in dictionaries of quotations.

One apparent exception was Margaret Thatcher’s recitation of lines from St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing Street in 1979. But even that hardly qualifies as a real exception, as it was already a memorable quotation that had survived for about eight hundred years before being recycled by Mrs Thatcher (see video clip in blog entry of 1 January 2009).

8 January 2009

Clinton, Palin and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher


In the last few blog entries on Margaret Thatcher, I've been suggesting that she had found a solution to the professional woman’s problem of being damned if they behave like a man and damned if they behave like a woman – which involved being tough and decisive in her actions while being uncompromisingly female in her external appearance – and that this was summed up by the nickname the 'Iron Lady’. Although first used by the Soviet media, it was something that Mrs Thatcher was quick to take on board and use to her own advantage.

Whether or not Sarah Palin and her advisors were aware of this when she juxtaposed toughness and femininity by dubbing herself a ‘pit bull with lipstick’, I do not know. But, judging from news reports of Republican campaign expenditure on her wardrobe, and widespread coverage of her enjoyment of rugged outdoor pursuits like hunting and shooting, it looks as though she or her advisors had taken on board Margaret Thatcher’s lesson about combining unequivocal femininity with toughness.

However, leaks from Hillary Clinton’s aides (and casual observation of her preference for trousers/pants over skirts/dresses) suggest that they hadn’t quite got the point about Mrs Thatchers success in image mangement.

On 12th August 2008, the following headline appeared in the Daily Telegraph (click here for full story).

HILLARY CLINTON'S FAILED STRATEGY INSPIRED BY MARGARET THATCHER
'Hillary Clinton's flawed strategy for winning the White House was rooted in her chief strategist's admiration for Margaret Thatcher as the "best role model" for her, according to a leaked campaign memorandum.'

My immediate reaction on reading this was to wonder whether these 'strategists' or Mrs Clinton herself had actually understood the key components of the ‘role model’ so successfully established by Mrs Thatcher more than 30 years ago . What followed suggested that the author of the leaked document had not understood it at all, and that he’d made the mistake of concentrating exclusively on the mature Thatcher of later years (in her second and third terms in office) rather than on the younger Thatcher who had won her way to the top in the first place. The Telegraph article continued:

"We are more Thatcher than anyone else - top of the university, a high achiever throughout life, a lawyer who could absorb and analyse problems, "Mark Penn wrote to the former First Lady in a "launch strategy" document in December 2006.

The Democratic candidate, he argued, had to show the kind of decisiveness the former British prime minister had shown when she was first elected in 1979 - "her mantra was opportunity, renewal, strength and choice" - and avoid the temptation to try to be loved.

"Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving Prime Minister in British history, serving far longer than Winston Churchill. She represents the most successful elected woman leader in this century - and the adjectives that were used about her (Iron Lady) were not of good humour or warmth, they were of smart, tough leadership."

The memo was part of a trove of internal Clinton campaign documents leaked to the Atlantic Monthly magazine that reveal a campaign that was fatally undermined by internal dissension, an incoherent strategy and - ironically, given the Thatcher comparison - Senator Clinton's hesitancy and failure to take decisions.

But what about the other half of the story?
The flaw in Penn’s analysis was to concentrate only on those components of Thatcher’s ‘role model’ that had insulated her from being damned for behaving like a woman (e.g. ‘decisiveness’, ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’) to the exclusion of those that had insulated her from being damned for being unfeminine (e.g. carefully coiffured hair, dental capping, make-up, dresses – yes, dresses, not trouser/pant-suits, à la Hillary Clinton).

How could Penn, Clinton or anyone else who bought into this ‘analysis’ have missed such an obvious point as Thatcher’s uncompromising femininity – even to the extent of making much of the ‘tough’ implications of the first word in the ‘Iron Lady’ nickname while completely ignoring the essentially female connotations of the second word?

The age factor?
At the risk of sounding ‘ageist’, the most likely explanation of this extraordinary gaffe is that it did have to do with age, both of the advisor and of his client: in 2008, Mrs Clinton was ten years older than Mrs Thatcher was after she'd already spent six years as prime minister (and was only two years away from winning her third general election).

And unless Mr Penn, as a 21 year old, took far more interest in European politics than most Americans I know, it seems highly unlikely that he would even have noticed when a rather good-looking and well turned-out 50 year old English woman won the Conservative Party leadership campaign in 1975 (still four years away from making it to the top job). But by the time he became a strategist/consultant, all he could see was a much older woman who was, by then, more famous for her toughness than for her femininity.

Thatcher and Palin?
As for Mrs Palin, her record in Miss Alaska competitions, her willingness to wear skirts and dresses and to boast about being a 'hockey Mom' suggest that, like Mrs Thatcher, she had no qualms about combining uncompromising femininity with the toughness associated with her outdoor sporting pursuits.

However, from a distance of 6,000+ miles away, and on the basis of cursory research into her education and career history, I have to say that her background seems to be a bit lacking in the impeccable credentials of Margaret Thatcher, who graduated from a top university (Oxford) and had worked as a research chemist and tax lawyer before winning a seat in the House of Commons and embarking on a career in politics.

RELATED POSTS:

7 January 2009

Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: PART III The education of a female orator



Although Mrs Thatcher took the business of public speaking very seriously after becoming leader of the Conservative Party (see parts I & II), it’s important to remember that she had already come a very long way in the years before she got there and must have found a way of surviving in the male-dominated world of politics long before Ronald Millar, Gordon Reece or Saatchi and Saatchi came on the scene. In this connection, her biography shows that, from a very early age, the former Margaret Roberts had far more opportunities than most English girls of her generation to become accustomed with being treated on equal terms with men.

Mrs Thatcher's father was very active both as a local town councillor in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and as a Methodist lay preacher. According to her biographers, the young Margaret was not just exposed throughout her childhood to the political discussions that regularly took place in the Roberts household and across the counter of their grocery shop, but was also actively encouraged by her father to take part in them.

At the same time, she was listening to weekly Sunday sermons in the local Methodist church and, more occasionally, heard speeches by national politicians who were visiting the town. That she showed early promise in making the most of these experiences is shown by the fact that, at the age of nine, she won a poetry-reading competition at a local drama festival. It’s also reported that such talents continued to blossom while she was a pupil at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School:

‘She was a studious girl, but enjoyed the dramatic society, which made her at one time consider becoming an actress, and also question and answer sessions at the end of visitors' lectures, as long as the subject was current affairs. She is well remembered by a girl in the year above her, Margaret Goodrich, for cross-questioning Bernard Newman, the expert on spying, with a confidence not normally expected from such a young girl.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, pp. 34-5)

For her higher education, the future prime minister could hardly have gone to a university more dominated by men and male traditions than the Oxford of the 1940s. Nor could she have chosen a subject studied by fewer women or by fewer aspiring politicians than chemistry - Mrs Thatcher is not just the first woman, but also the first, and so far only, science graduate, to have become prime minister of the UK.

At the same time, part of the experience of living in an all women's college for three years involved taking it for granted that female academics were perfectly capable of performing on equal terms with men. Her chemistry tutor at Somerville was Dorothy Hodgkin, who subsequently went on to win a Nobel prize. During this period she also kept up an active interest in politics, and became president of the University Conservative Association, a post that brought her into direct contact with many of the then leading national politicians, as well as her own student contemporaries who were later to achieve cabinet rank, including Tony Benn, Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle.

In her subsequent careers, first as an industrial research chemist and later as a tax barrister, Mrs Thatcher continued to live and work on equal terms with men in professions where women were still extremely under-represented. So, by the time she won a seat in parliament, she had already accumulated two decades of experience at succeeding in male-dominated environments. Even allowing for the inevitable tendency of biographers (and obituary- writers) to select facts from a life story which fit in with whatever the subject eventually became, it would seem that Mrs Thatcher underwent a lengthy and highly relevant apprenticeship, similar to that recommended by the classical Greek and Roman writers on the education of male orators.

As can be seen from her speeches, there is no doubt of her ability to deploy the full range of rhetorical techniques, and to do so in such a way that her essential femininity was never seriously called into question.

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5 January 2009

Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: PART II The 'Iron Lady'


The problem of pitch (see PART I) was only one aspect of public speaking that Mrs Thatcher took seriously after becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. She also took advice from professionals in the theatre, television and even evangelism. One of her main speechwriters was Ronald Millar, a playwright about whose influence Mrs Thatcher's biographers have noted as follows:

‘She ... turned out to be an amenable pupil to Millar's methods, which included advice on delivery as well as script. Millar has become known as the author of the jokes (he was responsible for 'U-turn if you want to - the lady's not for turning'), but his principal skill was and is playing director to the leading lady, a combination of firm steering mixed with reassurance.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, p. 161)

'The lady's not for turning' is but one of many contrastive punch lines supplied to Mrs Thatcher by Millar, and it was at his suggestion that she quoted the following four contrasts from St Francis of Assisi as she entered Downing Street after winning the 1979 general election (see video with blog entry on 1st January 2009):

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.
Where there is error, may we bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”


Since before the 1979 election, television producer Gordon Reece had provided Mrs Thatcher with extensive and detailed guidance on how to perform effectively on the small screen. And, during the 1983 general election, the staging of her set-piece speeches was organised by the same team that managed mass meetings for Billy Graham's evangelical crusades to Britain.

Much of this expert help, of course, had little or nothing to do with the specific problems faced by a female political leader. But some of the advice, such as that provided by Gordon Reece, was directly concerned with image-related matters like hair-styles, clothes, jewellery make-up and even which side of her face was supposed to be best for exposing to the camera.

This included advice that she should go for greater simplicity of appearance in television performances than when making major speeches. Reece and Millar were also concerned with the problems associated with pitch. To quote her biographers again:

‘A full blast Commons speech can sound like raving hysteria in a broadcasting studio. The broadcasting of the Commons (which happened to coincide with Reece's arrival) caused him special problems. He was heard to remark that the selling of Margaret Thatcher had been put back two years by the mass broadcasting of Prime Minister's Question Time as she had to be at her shrillest to be heard over the din... Millar had also taught her that lowering the voice brought the speed down to a steadier rate. He advised holding to a steady and equable tone at Question Time which would eventually drive through, not over or under, the noise.’ (Wapshott and Brock, Thatcher, pp. 169-70)

Before the 1979 general election, the Conservative Party's advertising agents, Saatchi and Saatchi, were also worried about the prospects of convincing the electorate of the leadership potential not just of a woman, but of one who seemed to epitomise the typical suburban middle-class housewife.

Meanwhile, the various nicknames devised by her colleagues, such as 'Mother', the 'Leaderene', the 'Bossette', 'Attila the Hen', 'the Immaculate Misconception', etc. can be seen as reflecting a sustained attempt on their part to come to terms with the fact that they were having to work under a woman leader.

Much the same could be said of the culturally available stereotypes of powerful women that cartoonists exploited in their caricatures of Mrs Thatcher, which included Bodicea, Britannia, a witch and the Queen. But the most astute attempt to come to terms with Mrs Thatcher's position as a political leader was supplied by the Soviet newspapers when, after a speech at Kensington Town Hall in 1976, they dubbed her the 'Iron Lady'. Of all the nicknames Mrs Thatcher attracted, it was as the 'Iron Lady' that she became internationally best known. And this may well be because these two words aptly sum up one of the main secrets of her success in finding a solution to the problem of being a female in a position of power.

Given that successful women face the dilemma of being ‘damned if they behave like men, and damned if they don't', one solution is to behave in as efficient, tough and decisive a manner as possible, while at the same time making no concessions whatsoever when it comes to maintaining the external trappings of femininity. So Mrs Thatcher was committed to the importance of being smart in a conventionally feminine way, and consistently sought to make the most of her natural physical attractiveness. This included the preservation of her blonde hair by regular tinting as well as the elimination of gaps in her teeth by dental capping.

Nor was she afraid to be seen in the traditional female roles of wife and mother, even to the extent of being photographed at the kitchen sink just before competing as a candidate in the 1975 Conservative Party leadership election. Her uncompromisingly feminine appearance, and her repeated emphasis on the virtues of family life may not have endeared Mrs Thatcher to feminists. But, in the eyes and ears of a wider public, such factors had the effect of insulating her from being 'damned' for lacking culturally acceptable feminine attributes, by leaving no one with any doubt that she was anything less than a 100 per cent female of the species.

At the same time, there was little or nothing in her conduct of government that could be singled out to expose her as 'gentle', 'weak' or not up to the job, and this enabled her to avoid being 'damned' for possessing the sorts of stereotypical feminine attributes so often cited in attempts to demonstrate the unsuitability of women for positions of power and responsibility.

Her external image of unambiguously recognisable femininity effectively liberated her to pursue forceful policies without running any risk of being damned for behaving ‘like a man’, because any such claim would have been so transparently at odds with all the other evidence that she was uncompromisingly female. And, with lines like “a general doesn't leave the field of battle just as it's reaching a climax”, she showed no inhibitions at all about identifying herself closely with a powerful male role model, without having to worry about whether this would raise doubts about her essential femininity.

Nor was she averse to using a negative nickname to question the manliness of her male colleagues, as it was Mrs Thatcher herself who first used the word 'wet', a colloquialism for describing men as feeble or lacking in masculinity, for referring to her more liberal Tory cabinet ministers.

As for the 'iron lady', its aptness lay in the fact that it captured the two most visible and contrasting characteristics of her public image: toughness and femininity. And, when these two qualities are exhibited in the conduct and appearance of the same woman, she has found an effective way of deterring, resisting and neutralising any attacks based on male-chauvinist assumptions.

Mrs Thatcher was also quick to latch on to the advantages of this. Within weeks of the Russians dubbing her the ‘iron lady’ (and still three years before she became prime minister) she was to be heard juxtaposing her feminine attributes with the toughness implied by the nickname in a speech she made in 1976:

video

Seven years later, when fighting for re-election in 1983, she was still confident enough about the nickname being an asset to woo her audiences with lines like these:

Thatcher: "The Russians said that I was an Iron Lady."
Audience: "Hear-hear."
Thatcher: "They were right."
Audience: "Heh-heh-heh"
Thatcher: "Britain needs an Iron Lady."
Audience: "Hear-hear" [applause]

Nor did she ever try to deny the appropriateness of another nickname that located her firmly within a long-standing and culturally familiar category of successful professional women in positions of power, namely head-teachers. In a report by John Cole, the BBC’s political editor, during the 1983 general election, she showed no qualms about accepting the image he presented her with in a question formulated in blatantly male-chauvinist terms:

Cole: “Other Prime Ministers after all have been bossy too, but Mrs Thatcher does undoubtedly keep a fussy watch on her ministers' performances with an occasional touch of motherliness. I asked her today what she said to suggestions that she had a headmistress image.”

Thatcher: “Well I've known some very good headmistresses who've launched their pupils on wonderful careers. I had one such and was very grateful. But I am what I am. Yes, my style is of vigorous leadership. Yes, I do believe certain things very strongly. Yes, I do believe in trying to persuade people that the things I believe in are the things they should follow. And Mr Cole I'm far too old to change now.”

By saying that there is not only nothing wrong with being like a headmistress, but that it’s a role model with positive virtues, Mrs Thatcher was able to identify herself with one of the relatively few widely respected positions of power and responsibility that have traditionally been available to women. Teaching is also one of the very few professions with job conditions that include a great deal of public speaking. For a female leader to be identified with the role of headmistress would therefore seem to be something worth cultivating if it’s in your interests to promote the idea that women are perfectly capable of holding their own both on a public platform and in a position of power.

Indeed, one of Mrs Thatcher's major long term achievements may turn out to have been the undermining of age-old assumptions of the sort contained in Quintillian's observation that the perfect orator cannot exist ‘unless as a good man'. And, by finding a workable solution to the problem of being damned for being like a man and damned for not being like a man, her combination of uncompromising femininity with equally uncompromising words and deeds may have laid the foundations for a new tradition within which women politicians of the future will be able to operate.

POSTSCRIPT:
After a year in which Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were at the forefront in the US presidential campaign, the question arises as to whether either of them showed any signs of taking on board any of these lessons from Margaret Thatcher - a theme to which I plan to return after posting this series of reflections on female charisma.