30 April 2009

Joanna Lumley's rhetoric outshines Clegg and Cameron

In a previous posting, I suggested that actors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, aren’t always very effective speech-makers.

But yesterday, we saw actress and Gurkha justice campaigner Joanna Lumley showing two party leaders the virtues of brevity and enthusiasm when it comes to delivering a highly sound bite (rounded off with a nice simple three-part list):

LUMLEY: When it came through – we saw it on the screen in the corner I can’t tell you the sense of elation, the sense of pride: pride in our country, pride in the democratic system, pride in our parliament…

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By comparison, the reactions of Messrs Clegg and Cameron came across as rather long-winded and their impact was arguably weakened by their eagerness to use the victory to get other political points across:

CLEGG: It's a victory for the rights of Gurkhas who have been waiting for so long for justice. It's a victory for Parliament over a government that just wasn't prepared to listen. But actually the biggest victory of all... it's a victory of decency. It's the kind of thing that I think people want this country to do - that we pay back our obligations, our debt of gratitude towards generations of Gurkhas who have laid their lives on the line for our safety. I'm immensely pleased that David Cameron and I have been able to work on this together, that Labour backbenchers have also been brave enough to vote with their consciences. It was a cross-party effort. It was a great, great day for everybody who believes in fairness and decency in this country.

CAMERON: Today is an historic day where Parliament took the right decision, that the basic presumption that people who fight for our country should have a right to come and live in our country has been set out very clearly. And the government now have got to come back with immediate proposals, so that those Gurkhas that have been waiting so long now for an answer can have that answer. It can be done. We've set out a way for it to be done that doesn't ruin our immigration system and it should be done. And I think everyone should say congratulations to Joanna Lumley for the incredible campaign that she's fought, with all these brave Gurkhas, some of them very old and very infirm, coming to Parliament again and again. The government attempted a shoddy deal today to try and buy off some of their backbenchers. And I'm proud of the fact that it didn't work and I'm proud of all those Labour MPs who joined us in the lobby - and actually got the right result for Britain and the Gurkhas.

29 April 2009

The Turnip Prize


If you’ve ever been baffled by the Turner Prize, you’re likely to find the annual Turnip Prize, keenly competed for by amateur artists in the Somerset village of Wedmore, much more accessible and entertaining.

Recent years have seen entries such as Tea P (Used tea bags in the shape of a P), Flyin saucer (dead fly in a saucer) and Bunch of Marigolds (a posy of yellow rubber gloves).

Putting in 'too much effort' or framing a work of art are grounds for disqualification.

For more information, see HERE and HERE for a selection of past exhibits.

What’s the difference between a flu 'pandemic' and a flu 'epidemic'?

I got a pretty good grade in English ‘A’ level, have spent half my life studying how language actually works and have even managed to publish five books on the subject.

So it’s quite un-nerving to realise that I’m not at all sure what a ‘pandemic’ is, even though it was the only word used in the reports of ‘swine’ (why not ‘pig’) flu in last night’s BBC television news (and every other news report I've heard or read in the last few days).

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only person in the country who doesn’t know what it means, because journalists and broadcasters have taken to using the word ‘pandemic’ as if it’s perfectly obvious to everyone what a 'pandemic' is.

I definitely do know what an ‘epidemic’ is, because I had the misfortune to suffer from Asian flu during the Christmas holidays in 1957-8 – which I then had to pay for in hard labour, as one of the few ‘fags’ of my year fit enough to serve as a slave for the few prefects who were still well enough to need their shoes cleaning.

But I never heard anyone in the media or anywhere else use the word ‘pandemic’ at the time, and had never heard of it until a few years ago.

This has made me wonder if it’s yet another case of one word being replaced by another for no apparent reason – in the same way as journalists now insist on telling us that something is happening ‘ahead of’ rather than ‘before’ something else.

Dictionaries I’ve consulted haven’t been a lot of help, and the best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that a ‘pandemic’ seems to be an epidemic that spreads across more than one country.

Does this mean that the Asian flu ‘epidemic’ in the Winter of 1957-8, which certainly wasn’t confined to the UK, was in fact a ‘pandemic’?

If so, why didn’t anyone say so in 1957-8?

More to the point, can anyone explain to me why today’s media prefer the word 'pandemic' to ‘epidemic.’?

Or is it just that ‘pandemic’ sounds much more serious than 'epidemic' and makes the story sound more sensational?

28 April 2009

Oxford professor models jeans

Here’s a short clip from a TED lecture by Oxford mathematician Professor Peter Donnelly, who does important work in genetics.

Rhetorically speaking, it’s a nice example of how effective a simple sequence of PUZZLE-SOLUTION-PUZZLE-SOLUTION can be (on which, of course, you can learn more in my books).

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A great source of videos for anyone interested in speaking and presentation


While preparing for a visit to the University of Michigan, I was directed by one of my hosts to a fantastic source of free videos of lectures by a range of distinguished experts who speak about quite complicated subjects, mostly in a very accessible way.

If you don’t know it already, I’d strongly recommend a visit to TED – where you might like to start by watching Professor Peter Donnelly, an Oxford mathematician, who makes probability theory sound far more fascinating than anyone who ever tried to teach me maths or statistics.

The website introduces TED as follows:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

This site makes the best talks and performances from TED available to the public, for free. More than 200 talks from our archive are now available, with more added each week. These videos are released under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

27 April 2009

A Tory leader's three evasive answers to the same question

Another gem from my video archive confirms that not answering an interviewer's questions isn't a monopoly of Labour leaders like Clement Attlee, as was vividly demonstrated 35 years ago, when a young David Frost asked the same question three times in an attempt to find out whether or not the then Tory leader, Edward Heath, liked the then Labour leader, Harold Wilson:

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If you've arrived here belatedly (via Iain Dale's Daley Dozen on 5 Jan 2010), you might also be interested in my latest post on 'A Snakes & Ladders Theory of Political Communication' - which doesn't really go along with Iain's optimism about the effectiveness of interviews with politicians.

Jobsworthy News: Council official to walk along a path that doesn’t exist

For sheer entertainment, our local newspaper takes some beating. Where else but in the Wells Journal would you find such surprising news in the run-up to Christmas as was revealed under the headline ‘BUSY TIME FOR POSTAL WORKERS’?

Last week came the extraordinary revelation that a County Council employee is going to walk along a path that doesn’t exist in search of ‘important trees’ – the full story of which seems worth sharing with a wider audience:

TREES DELAYING THE STRAWBERRY LINE

The possibility that there might be important trees along the proposed Strawberry Line path between Wells and Cheddar is the latest reason for delays on revealing details of the route.

Planners at Somerset County Council have now decided that they have to decide whether a tree survey will have to be carried out on the route as part of a planning application.

A council surveyor will have to walk the length of the path, which does not yet exist, and decide if trees might be damaged by cyclists, walkers and horse riders.

The surveyor will also have to contact all the landowners along the nine-mile route of the proposed path to get permission to cross their land.

It is unclear how long it will take to carry out the initial survey, while a full tree survey would take months to complete.

A spokesman for the Strawberry Line Association, which is campaigning for the completion of the path said: “They must have a special procrastination department advising the planners.”

Previous designs for the path, along the route of the old railway line, have caused controversy because they cut through private back gardens and an industrial estate. Fundraising to pay for the path cannot start until planning permission is granted.

Was Kenneth in Wallanderland worth a BAFTA?


I was quite surprised to see the BBC’s Wallander win last night's BAFTA award for ‘Best drama series’.

Having spent quite a lot of time in Sweden (and having watched scores of TV detective programmes), I thought it was an over-laboured attempt to depict an exaggeratedly stereotypal view of the country, its people and its cars.

I mention cars because the series featured one of those awful continuity distractions like open-mouthed acting that, once noticed, continues to irritate for however long you keep on watching the show. As far as I could see, every car that anyone drove in Wallanderland was a Volvo. But anyone who’s ever been to Sweden knows perfectly well that real live Swedes do actually drive other makes of car as well.

One thing that put me off was Kenneth Branagh’s dour and scruffy impersonation of the tight-lipped Ron Knee, Private Eye’s mythical football manager – though he wasn’t so much tight-lipped as sans-lips.

Another was that, unlike the best detective series, there were no laughs at all. In fact, Wallanderland was so completely devoid of humour that, by the time each one finished, you felt at least as depressed as Mr Branagh’s over-stated depiction of a stereotypical Swede who's quite likely to have committed suicide before the next episode.

Unfortunately, he didn't and I fear that the BBC will now use the BAFTA as an excuse to make more of the same.

26 April 2009

A Labour leader with no interest in spin!

Regular visitors will know that I don’t much like the way media coverage of politics shows us fewer and fewer excerpts from speeches and more and more boring interviews with politicians who’ve been trained how to evade giving answers to tricky questions (e.g. see HERE, HERE and HERE).

As I’m planning to write more on this, I started looking through my collection of videos and came across this wonderful example of a Labour leader (Clement Attlee) showing as little interest in answering any questions as he does in taking the opportunity to do a bit of pre-election spinning.

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25 April 2009

David Cameron's attack on the Budget used some well-crafted rhetoric

Having used the neat alliterative phrase ‘decade of debt’ early in his reply to Mr Darling’s Budget speech on Wednesday, David Cameron returned to it in the second part of a contrast as he began to wind up his reply.

He then followed it up with another contrast between the last Labour government and this one, a repetitively constructed three-part list and a question – technically* pretty faultless, and hardly surprising that he was rewarded with a good deal of positive media coverage.

CAMERON:
[A] The last Labour government gave us the Winter of Discontent.
[B] This Labour Government has given us the Decade of Debt.

[A] The last Labour Government left the dead unburied.
[B] This one leaves the debts unpaid.

[1] They sit there, running out of money,
[2] running out of moral authority,
[3] running out of time.

[Q] And you have to ask yourself what on earth is the point of another fourteen months of this Government of the living dead?

(* More on these rhetorical techniques and how to use them can be found in my books Lend Me Your Ears and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy).


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Gordon Brown seems to agree that Labour is ‘savage’ and ‘inhuman’

Unless nodding your head has come to mean something other than expressing agreement with the person you’re listening to, there was an extraordinary sequence in David Cameron’s reply to the Budget speech on Wednesday in which the Gordon Brown was to be seen to nodding quite cheerfully on being told his government is ‘savage’ and ‘inhuman’:

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23 April 2009

Poems for St George's Day


A few years ago, we had a St George's Day supper in the village pub, where part of the evening's entertainment involved giving people the first line of a limerick for them to complete.

The results included the following:

A bard from Stratford called Will
Never had enough strength in his quill.
He asked for Viagra,
But never could find her.
Forsooth Will, it's only a pill.

A bard from Stratford called Will

Drank some whiskey that made him quite ill.

Those three Scottish witches

Made him sick to the breeches.

Now he drinks Gin from a good English still.

Upon the road to Priddy Fair,

I met a maid with golden hair.

We argued all night

As to who had the right

To do what with whom and where.

There once was an English rose

With a large and roseate nose.

But it wasn't much fun

When the cold made it run,

And the drips that fell from it froze.

When Henry fought at Agincourt,

He found himself ten archers short.

"I must have the barrows

With plenty of arrows,

Or this battle will all come to nought."

P.S. Since posting these I've had an email with a rather more topical post-Budget theme:

A Scotsman called Gordon McBrown
Made the English grimace and frown
By taxing their wealth
With cunning and stealth.
But they noticed and voted him down.

22 April 2009

Inspiring banking imagery for Budget day from Martin Luther King

I’m currently preparing for a trip to the University of Michigan next month, where I’ll be running a course for Genome scientists and giving a lecture in the Political Science Department.

So, quite by chance, I’ve spent most of Budget day rummaging through video clips to take with me and came across one of my all time favorites, namely Martin Luther King’s extraordinary use of what, on the face of it, might seem like a rather unpromising source of imagery during the early part of his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

When working with clients in the banking and finance sector, I sometimes find it quite difficult to convince them that they too could be making effective use of imagery to get their business points across.

Yet here we have someone developing an image drawn from banking to get a powerful political message across extremely effectively.

So, if you weren’t too inspired by Mr Darling’s speech earlier today, here’s something completely different: read, watch and enjoy.

MARTIN LUTHER KING:
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.


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Budget speech boredom and television news tedium


It’s now thirty years since I first started recording political speeches during the 1979 general election – but I still don’t have a single budget speech in my collection.

They tend to be so long, boring and full of statistical detail and exaggerated claims about the wonderful things in store for us that there’s seldom much of interest to a speech anorak like me.

I did once manage to listen to the whole of a Gordon Brown budget speech, but the only reason I didn’t turn it off was that I was redecorating a room and didn’t want to mess up the radio with emulsion paint.

But we now have to suffer something that’s no less tedious than the budget speech itself, namely the way television news programmes report it to us.

If there’s one thing we can be sure of today, it is that scores of television news techies will have spent countless hours cooking up yet more awful slideshows to enable the likes of Messrs. Peston, Pym and Robinson to confuse us even more about what the Chancellor’s proposals really mean.

21 April 2009

What news of the House of Lords scandal?

At the end of January, the media was full of stories along the lines of 'Four Lords - Snape, Taylor, Truscott and Moonie - have been accused of entering into negotiations, involving fees of up to £120,000, with a newspaper's reporters', together with various calls for further investigation by the police and parliamentary authorities.

Since then, I haven't heard anything more about it, and a quick search on Google reveals that there's hardly been a mention of it in any of the media since the end of January.

If the MSM has lost interest, I'd have thought it fertile territory for political bloggers to get their teeth into.

And, given my views on the House of Lords (HERE), I'd quite like to know what's going on.

When the young Paddy Ashdown surprised himself by the power of his own rhetoric

Last night I went to an enjoyable and nostalgic event hosted by Total Politics magazine, at which Paddy Ashdown was in conversation with Iain Dale about his autobiography A Fortunate Life (April, 2009).

Hearing him in ‘elder statesman’ mode reminded me of the earliest clip from an Ashdown speech in my collection -which may well have been the first time any of his speeches had ever appeared on television (see below).

It’s from the debate on cruise missiles at the Liberal Party Assembly in 1981, two years before he became an M.P.

If the then prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil possessed a suit, he certainly wasn’t wearing it that day, preferring to appear in a sweater and open necked shirt – though the podium unfortunately prevents us from seeing whether or not he was also wearing sandals.

This was Ashdown in post-military mode, barking out his lines to the troops at high speed and with a serious shortage of pauses. I’ve often used it as an example of how an inexperienced speaker can sometimes be surprised by the power of his own rhetoric. The audience (predictably) applauds after the third item in a three-part list, at which point he breaks off, looking vaguely surprised by what's just happened.

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POSTSCRIPT: 7 YEARS LATER
Paddy subsequently changed his position on cruise missiles, for which he was rewarded with the nickname ‘Paddy Backdown’.

This continued to haunt him during the Ashdown v. Beith campaign for the leadership of the new party formed by the Liberal-SDP merger in 1988. According to his opponents, this change of heart was evidence of inconsistency and indecisiveness, therefore making him unsuitable for leadership.

The response from some of his supporters, which you won't be able to find in his autobiography, came in the form of a very neat contrast along the lines of:

"It’s a damn sight easier to knock sense into a charismatic person than it is to knock charisma into a sensible person."

20 April 2009

Obama’s rhetoric identifies with Martin Luther King but appeals to a wider audience

The oratory of Martin Luther King was clearly derived from the style of preaching he had grown up with in the Southern Baptist Church. That same tradition was also reflected in the way crowds responded to his speeches like congregations, punctuating them at regular intervals with chants like “Holy, holy, holy”, “Amen”, etc.

This was very evident in the last speech he ever made on the night before he was assassinated (see transcript and video below):

MLK: I just want to do God’s will.
CROWD: Yeah-
MLK: And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.
CROWD: Go ahead-
MLK: And I’ve looked over,
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: and I’ve seen the promised land.
CROWD: Holy, Holy, Holy.
CROWD: Amen.
MLK: I may not get there with you.
CROWD: Yeah – holy.
MLK: but I want you to know tonight
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: that we as a people
CROWD: Yeah -
MLK: will get to the promised land.
CROWD: Yeah [APPLAUSE] Holy, holy.
MLK: So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord [CHEERS + APPLAUSE].

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Moving though his use of biblical imagery and references to ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ may have been, a question that never occurred to me when I first wrote about Martin Luther King’s oratory twenty five years ago (Our Masters’ Voices pp. 105-111) was how such language must have sounded to American Muslims, Jews, Hindus and non-believers, all of whom who were explicity included in the nation’s ‘patchwork heritage’ referred to in President Obama’s inaugural address.

Nor was his inaugural speech the first time that Obama’s rhetoric had broadened and extended his appeal to a much wider constituency than King’s fellow Southern Baptists and/or committed Christians. The following sequence from his victory speech in Chicago last November (for detailed analysis of rhetoric, see HERE) included clearly recognisable echoes with its mountain-climbing imagery and the claim that “we as a people will get there”:

OBAMA: The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

CROWD: Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can, yes we can …

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“We as a people will get there” may have sounded a good deal less dramatic than “We as a people will get to the promised land”, but it has the great benefit of being much more inclusive than was implied by the religious connotations of "the promised land" - while at the same time clearly identifying Mr Obama with well-known words of the person whose dream he was implicitly claiming to have fulfilled by winning the election.

The crowd also responded with a ‘secularised’ version of the kind of chanting that brought such life to Martin Luther King’s speeches, replacing words like 'holy' and 'amen' with repetitive refrain of the non-religious “Yes we can”, but still echoing or harking back to the close speaker-audience interaction of the Southern-Baptist tradition of worship.

As an outside observer of Barack Obama’s oratory and rhetoric, I have been fascinated by the way he managed, by stripping out religion from well-known words of Martin Luther King, to broaden his appeal to a much wider audience, while leaving the identification with his distinguished African-American predecessor clearly on view.

The questions I’d be fascinated to hear answered by him and his team of insiders is whether this was a deliberately contrived strategy and, if so, whose idea was it and when it was first conceived?

18 April 2009

A day when LibDems cheered at being told they all read a broadsheet newspaper

Today’s news from Iain Dale that another blog had reported that Nick Clegg was booed at the Welsh LibDem Conference for saying “we’re all broadsheet readers here” reminded me of a time when the SDP Conference in Buxton applauded ecstatically on being told by Ann Brennan that she’d never seen so many Guardian readers in her life – from which she drew a rather ominous electoral prediction (that was also applauded) - see below (or HERE for the full speech).

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Nor is Mr Clegg the first LibDem leader to be booed by the party. It also happened to Paddy Ashdown at a spring conference, where he started a joke with the line "As I was driving to Nottingham..." only to be greeted by boos and hisses. The mistake, we realised in retrospect, was that we hadn't taken into account the large number of train spotters in the party, who would applaud anything that praised railways or criticised motoring.

And what was really annoying was that the joke would have worked just as well if he'd started with "When I was on the train to Nottingham.."

16 April 2009

Time for Gordon Brown to say "sorry" to savers


After today's belated “sorry" for emailgate, Gordon Brown went on to say that he had been “horrified, shocked and very angry indeed” about it – words that exactly sum up how I’ve been feeling about his onslaught on savers ever since he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997.

This blog normally concentrates on, and with occasional exceptions like today, will continue to concentrate on making observations about speaking and communication, rather than expressing political opinions. But I’ve been “horrified, shocked and very angry indeed” about Mr Brown’s attack on savers for twelve years for the very simple reason that it occurred at a time when I was devising a strategy for my own savings and retirement.

Having decided some years before 1997 that I wanted to avoid having to sink my life’s savings into an iniquitous annuity that would allow some life insurance company to pay a pitiful rate of interest – and then pocket the lot if I happened to die the next day – I had already started to invest as heavily as I could in PEPs, on the grounds that it seemed preferable to pay the tax first and enjoy tax-free benefits later than to get tax relief on today’s pension contributions in exchange for the dubious benefits of an annuity tomorrow (not to mention to have the freedom to bequeath anything I hadn’t spent to people more dear to me than an insurance company).

Then, and people seem to have forgotten this, one of Brown’s first plans when he became Chancellor was to introduce retrospective legislation that would eliminate the tax advantages that had induced millions of us to invest in PEPs. I remember writing to him (and every other relevant politician I could think of) pointing out how unfair this was, and urging that there should be no change in the terms of reference that had made people like me opt for this particular form of savings in the first place.

Thankfully, Brown dropped that plan, but didn’t drop the even more cunning plan of abolishing one of the main incentives to put savings into pension policies, namely the tax relief on dividends earned within a pension fund that used to make them build up more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

The first ten years of this infamous raid on pension funds bagged in excess of £100 billion from millions of thrifty savers who had been na├»ve enough to think it might be a good idea save for their retirement.

Even without the post-credit crunch shrinkage of interest now payable on annuities, Brown’s raid had already guaranteed us a much lower pension than we’d been led to believe we’d get when we first signed up for it. It also fired the starting gun for more and more companies to close down their final salary pension schemes.

Two other things about Mr Brown’s position on savings and pensions also leave me “horrified, shocked and very angry indeed.”

One is that he suddenly and belatedly started to sound surprised and worried that the country is now facing a major pensions crisis.

The other is that, whenever interviewers dare to raise the subject with him, he never admits that he had anything to do with it, and becomes even more evasive than the 'default' extreme evasiveness he typically displays in response to any question anyone ever puts to him.

Saying “sorry” for emailgate may or may not work as an effective piece of damage limitation in the aftermath of the recent misconduct of his inner circle.

But the “sorry” millions of us are still waiting for is for the damage he, and not his henchmen, did to our savings.

Unfortunately for us, it’s far too late to limit the damage he’s already done.

Unfortunately for him, none of us will have forgotten about it when we go into the ballot box.

Burnham, Kinnock and the danger of speaking in a sports stadium

Andy Burnham, Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, was no doubt as surprised by the hostile response from the crowd of 30,000 Liverpool supporters at Anfield yesterday as Neil Kinnock was by the adulation he received from the 10,000 Labour supporters at the fateful Sheffield Arena election rally in 1992.

As it turned out, both of them fell victim to the unpredictable spontaneity of a mass audience – which should perhaps remind our politicians to think twice before making any more speeches in a sports stadium.

15 April 2009

Derek Draper – another psycho-therapist who talks too much and listens too little?

I recently posted a note about Derek Draper breaking a basic rule of turn-taking in conversation (‘one speaker at a time’), illustrated by a video of him and Paul Staines being interviewed by Andrew Neill.

Since then, I’ve come across a transcript with more examples of Mr Draper interrupting a co-interviewee, this time former Tory cabinet minister John Redwood – and another case where the interviewer intervenes to put a stop to it (full transcript HERE) – which suggests that the earlier observation may not have been an isolated instance:

Redwood: "Well he was the chief regulator of them, he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer running a tripartite regulatory system…
"

Draper: "Of course he wasn’t the regulator, the regulation was at arm’s length."

Redwood: "Derek you have to let me speak occasionally."


Redwood: "They allowed the banks to borrow and lend…
"

Draper: "You don’t think that perhaps…
"

Interviewer: "Hang on, hang on, let him finish."

Bearing in mind that Mr Draper is some kind of psycho-therapist, this and the earlier exchange with Andrew Neill are consistent with something I’ve noticed about the conversational style of quite a few people who’ve made a late career decision to go into counselling of one kind or another, namely that they tend to be (a) very talkative and (b) not very good at listening to what anyone else has to say.

Given that being a good listener is presumably essential if you’re going to be any good at helping people with their problems, I’ve often wondered if psycho-therapy and counselling are occupations that, for some mysterious reason, attract square pegs into round holes.

And my hypothesis is certainly not undermined by the low ratings and negative comments by readers in the Amazon customer reviews of Mr Draper’s recent book on the subject.

13 April 2009

A smear that never was

During the election of a new leader for the new party formed after the merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party in 1988, there was talk of a possible smear that could have gone either way.

Those of us on Paddy Ashdown’s campaign team got wind of the fact that supporters of his opponent, Alan Beith, had recruited a handwriting expert to analyse a sample of Paddy’s writing without revealing whose writing it was - in the hope that it might reveal some character flaw that might damage his chances of winning.

But the expert apparently disappointed them by saying that he/she had never before seen ‘leadership’ jumping so forcibly off the page - which meant that they had more reason to hide the news than to leak it to the media.

Needless to say, we thought this was hilarious, but it did raise the question of whether or not it would be to our advantage to let the media know that the Beith camp had been cooking up a dirty trick that had rebounded on them by showing that our candidate’s handwriting oozed ‘leadership’.

I’m pleased to say that our decision not to leak the story to the press was unanimous.

Two decades later, and in the light of recent smear stories, I find myself wondering whether we would have been quite so virtuous had the polls and projections not already been showing that Paddy was almost certain to win - a luxury not enjoyed by Gordon Brown's entourage.

12 April 2009

Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation

This year is the 35th anniversary of the publication of a foundational paper that established conversation analysis as a new and serious force across several disciplines in the area of language and social interaction. *

The paper is a defining analysis of how turn-taking works in everyday conversation, central to which is the most basic rule of all, namely ‘one speaker at a time’ – a rule so basic that we even have words in our language – ‘interruption’ and ‘interjection’ – for referring to breaches of it (i.e. speaking while someone else is speaking).

The fact that there are such words in our vocabulary means that the ‘one at a time’ rule must get broken quite often in conversations, as indeed it does.

But the point is that if you make a regular habit of speaking while someone else is speaking, you’re taking quite a risk because it involves, in effect, putting your reputation on the line - for the simple reason that others will not only notice what you’re doing but will also use such behaviour as evidence for coming to negative conclusions about your character and personality. That’s why we often hear complaints about someone being ‘pushy’, ‘domineering’, ‘hogging the conversation’, ‘never letting anyone get a word in edgeways’, ‘liking the sound of their own voice’, etc.

Having just got back from a skiing holiday, I was reminded about this while trying to catch up on the ‘Smeargate’ affair, which included watching Andrew Neill interviewing Derek Draper and Paul Staines.

Try watching the edited sequence below (or the whole interview HERE) and ask yourself three questions:

1. How many times does Mr Draper break the 'one at a time' rule?
2. What impression of him as a person is conveyed by Mr Draper’s repeated breaches of the rule?
3. How often have you seen an interviewer appeal to the ‘one at a time’ rule to restore normal turn-taking, as Neill does when he finally intervenes with “will you shut up for a minute and let him answer” ?

And, as an incidental footnote (given the Berkeley shirt worn by Mr Staines and his reason for wearing it) all three authors of this seminal paper really did have PhDs from the University of California, two of them from the Berkeley campus, where Sacks and Schegloff were supervised by the late great Erving Goffman.

* A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation by: Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, Language, Vol. 50, No. 4. (1974), pp. 696-735.

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6 April 2009

INTERLUDE until Easter

As I may not be able to post anything for the next few days, normal service will be resumed after Easter, when I hope you'll keep on coming back to the blog.

Meanwhile, and in the noble tradition of early days of BBC Television 'Interludes', you might enjoy the following, which arrived recently by email (and make sure you have the sound on).

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2 April 2009

Gordon Brown’s G20 address ignores an important tip from Winston Churchill

Whenever I’m asked about the biggest single problem I’ve come across since migrating from academia into training and coaching, my answer is always the same, namely the sight and sound of speakers trying to get far too much information across – aided and abetted by programs like PowerPoint that implicitly encourage presenters to load up the screen with far too much detail.

It’s something that was very well understood by Winston Churchill, who said:

“If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time with a tremendous whack.”

But it’s never been very well understood by Gordon Brown, as was evidenced yet again in his address at yesterday’s pre-G20 press conference.

Announcing that there are five tests for the G20 summit may not have been quite as daunting to the audience as showing a slide listing seventeen items to be covered, as was once tried by someone I was trying to cure. But it hardly makes you sit up eagerly waiting to hear what’s coming up.

If you can bear to test this out for yourself, try watching the segment below, wait ten minutes and then see how many of his 5 points you can remember (and this clip, by the way, only took up 28% of the full statement, which serious anoraks can watch HERE ).

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Other recent postings on Gordon Brown's speeches include:
Gordon Brown is finding the Jacqui Smith expenses story more ‘delicate’ than he says
It’s time Brown stopped recycling other people’s lines
Brown’s ‘poetry’ heads up news of his speech to Congress
Unexpected poetry in Gordon Brown's speech to the US Congress
Gordon Brown’s model example of how to express condolences

1 April 2009

Is there an open-mouthed school of acting?

When I was a child, I remember being told that it wasn’t a good idea to walk about with my mouth open, or even partially open – advice that sometimes came with dire warnings about the dangers of allowing oral access to flies and other marauding insects.

Now I don’t know if it’s just me (and the small, unrepresentative sample of people I’ve consulted on it so far), but it does seem that film and television actresses are spending more and more time with their mouths open – both when there’s no dialogue and when they’re listening to one of the other actors saying something – than used to be the case.

Nor are those of us who’ve noticed it particularly impressed by it.

For one thing, once you’ve spotted someone doing it early on in a film, it becomes a big distraction - because you go on noticing the same actor doing it again and again. For another, it can be quite confusing trying to work out just what emotions and feelings all these open mouths are supposed to be conveying

So here are five questions on which I'd welcome feedback:

1. Has anyone else noticed it?
2. Is it a recent trend?
3. Am I alone in finding it irritating/distracting?
4. Is open-mouthed acting being taught in drama schools?
5. If so, why?

And, if your answer to Q1 is 'No', have a look at these clips of Keira Knightley in action, as she'd surely be the odds-on favourite to win if there were an Oscar for this style of acting.
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P.S. Since first posting this, I've had this supporting email from a friend, who also happens to be a professional actress:

"Yes! I too have observed the (female) open-mouth school of acting. KK is the main offender who’s come to my notice, but I remember Scarlett Johansson adopted it in Girl With a Pearl Earring. Mind you, the girl in the painting by Vermeer is doing the same thing – I’ve just checked!

"The other perpetrator is Andrea Riseborough, she whom you admired so much in The Devil’s Whore! I think it’s considered sexy by the young actresses. Or, possibly, the (male) film directors encourage it for the same reason. To me it says ‘vacuous’, which is a shame, as I believe Johansson and Riseborough are both intelligent young women."


Her point about it being considered sexy by young actresses and male directors may be getting to it, as I've just typed 'Brigitte Bardot' into Google Images and noticed that most of the shots of the young Bardot (on the first two pages) show her with her mouth open!