31 October 2009

Whom are we not remembering with our poppies?


As the son of a farmer, with two grandfathers who were also farmers, I wear a poppy with a slight sense of unease. Our family was, to say the least, a bit short on relatives who fought in either of the two world wars, let alone who died in them.

This was because those in 'reserved' occupations didn't have to go to war, although my paternal grandfather used to grumble about having had to hand over some of his horses for military duty in WW1.

But there were others working in occupations no less harrowing and no less dangerous than those in the armed services.

The father of a primary school friend of mine was in the London fire brigade throughout the blitz. Also in London at the same time was one of my father's cousins, a Quaker and conscientious objector, who drove an ambulance to and from bomb sites.

Although both of them survived (though not without scars), there must have been many of their colleagues in the rescue services who did not.

But, like those who 'were digging for victory' and countless others on whom the war effort depended, they never get a mention on remembrance Sunday.

Shouldn't we be remembering them too?

30 October 2009

Tips for new bloggers

Blogger Shane Greer of Total Politics magazine has a link to an interview, which he offers some tips for new bloggers that I'd have found useful when I first started out.

If you're thinking of starting a blog, you might find some of his points helpful, even if you're a bit older than the questioner's target audience!

If you could give a 17-year-old startup blogger three top tips, what would they be?

Greer: 'Firstly, you have to have a strategy. Not in a Machiavellian sense, but you have to know what you want to achieve. Do you want to reach tens of thousands of people? If that’s your goal and you manage it, then you’re a successful blogger. If it’s just two very specific people that you want to reach and you do, then you’re a successful blogger. Know what you want to achieve, and don’t just write for writing’s sake – unless that’s your objective.

'Secondly, engage in the wider blogging community. Share links, ask for a place in a blogroll – but the bigger bloggers, like Iain, tend to keep blogrolls that only show what they read, so you might not get on there. When I was starting out I also found it useful to get involved in comments. If you’ve written something that’s interesting, then, without spamming, you can share the link in comments. Drive traffic by getting people from that bigger site to find yours through those links. If someone links to me from Iain Dale’s Diary or Political Betting, the effect can be quite phenomenal.

'Thirdly, a lot of times people get caught up in how their site looks, with loads of widgets and so on, but content is king. You can have the worst-looking site in the world – Drudge Report – and still have a gazillion readers because you’re putting up very good content that an audience wants to read. Your audience won’t come back to your site because it’s got lots of shiny things on it, they’ll come back because it has good-quality blog posts that actually add something to the discussion.

'... a fourth piece of advice to a young blogger, don’t just toe the party line. No-one wants to read someone who is just relentlessly on-message – it’s dull. If you disagree with the party, say it'
(extracts from an interview on the Tory Rascal blog).

28 October 2009

Question Time as entertainment: the 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' version

Having raised the question of whether BBC's Question Time has lost its way through its selection of post-Robin Day chairmen and addition of a fifth guest (previous post) should enjoy this version from the Not the Nine O'clock News team.

If you can't imagine a comedian pulling off anything as effective as this by impersonating Peter Sissons or David Dimbleby in the chair, it arguably supports the point I was making in the previous post.

27 October 2009

Why isn't Question Time as entertaining as it used to be & what should be done about it

Watching the recent Question Time reminded me, as a former addict of the programme, that it's been many years since I've watched it more than very occasionally.

There are two reasons why it lost its grip on me, and I'm curious to know whether I'm alone in my disaffection for the show

1. Unpredictable eccentric or straight man?
For me, the first step downhill came when the BBC selected Peter Sissons to replace the late Sir Robin Day in the chair, and the second when they appointed David Dimbleby to take over from Sissons.

I've nothing against Sissons or Dimbleby, other than that they are too straight and predictable to make the programme anything like as entertaining as it was when Day was in charge.

Apart from his quick wit, Day's assets included impatience, irritability and an adversarial willingness to put people in their places, regardless of whether they were on the panel or in the audience - all of which you can see being displayed in a short video of the virtuoso in action on the BBC website a few months ago HERE.

For what it's worth, my candidate for the job after Day retired would have been Peter Snow, after whom I'd have gone for Jeremy Paxman. Different from Day, yes, but both with a degree of eccentricity and unpredictability of the kind that used to make Question Time so very entertaining.

2. Five guests on the panel is one guest too many
The programme was originally conceived as a television version of Radio 4's long running Any Questions, which had and still has four guests on the panel. But some time back, Question Time added a fifth member to the panel.

This has not only reduced the amount of time available for each speaker, but has also made it easier for some guests to hog the conversation to the exclusion of others (e.g Jack Straw in the most recent show).

There are also, as readers of Lend Me Your Ears will know, some good technical reasons why the smooth operation of turn-taking tends to degenerate as the numbers involved increases - and becomes especially tricky once you have six people sitting around a table, as on Question Time in its current form.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT IT?
1. Replace David Dimbleby with Jeremy Paxman of Newsnight or recruit Jon Snow from Channel 4 News (and/or perhaps rotate the chair in the way that's worked pretty well on Have I got News for You).

2. Go back to having four guests on the panel instead of five.

(See also the Not the Nine O'clock News version of QT).

P.S.
Mark Pack has added a good point to this on his blog via BloggersCircle:

'.. for me at least there is a different key factor:with the huge increase in the number of media outlets over the last 20 years, it's just simply no longer as interesting to see politicians being questioned - because you see, hear and read them answering questions all over the place nearly all the time.'

I agree that the increase in media outlets and the fact that we now see more of them being questioned are things I hadn't taken into account.

However, I don't think we see or hear them actually answering questions - with one exception HERE - and their routine evasiveness has been a regular theme on this blog since it started just over a year ago to which a selection of links can be found at the bottom of this post on a duel between Andrew Neil and Yvette Cooper).

You can also link to some more amusing links to classic interviews below:


Claptrap 9: Broadcasters' bile and SDP sulks


This is the ninth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voicesand the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.


An earlier posting of an excerpt from Ann Brennan’s speech (HERE) prompted the following comment from Chris Rodgers, a former member of the SDP:

‘I was a member of the audience that day in the autumn of 1984, in Buxton's Pavilion Gardens, as the SDP debated a typically learned (but dry) paper on equality.

‘Then Ann Brennan rose to speak. I can confirm that her well crafted and superbly delivered speech was a breath of fresh air. It was accompanied throughout by applause, cheering and the stamping of feet. When Shirley Williams tried to 'call time', at the end of the allotted four minutes, she was shouted down by party members. Ann Brennan left to a deserved standing ovation.’


BBC approves and disapproves
As the standing ovation got under way, Sir Robin Day, the commentator on BBC Television’s live coverage of the conference, described it as ‘the most refreshing speech we’ve heard all week and the audience would have liked her to go on ...’

Meanwhile, his colleague Peter Snow, who had wanted me to appear on Newsnight after the Chesterfield by-election a few months earlier (see Claptrap 6), had seen us being filmed by the Granada crew as we left the hall - and lost no time in telling Robin Day what was going on.

A few minutes later, Day was almost spluttering with rage as he interrupted a later speech to tell viewers:

"An extraordinary story is beginning to emerge.. it seems that Ann Brennan who's just got a standing ovation was coached by a Dr Max Atkinson, an Oxford don who's an expert in - er - an expert - er -in how people wave their hands about when making speeches - for a television programme being made by Granada Television - and there'll be a tremendous row between the SDP and Granada for interfering with the proceedings of their conference.."

Meanwhile, Peter Snow was hot on the trail outside the hall and had rounded up three delegates to interview live on air.

When he tried to get them to denounce us for what we'd done, the first two seemed quite relaxed about it, saying that they were applauding the sentiment of what Ann Brennan had been saying.

The third interviewee, to Snow's obvious disappointment, rounded off his comment by saying: "In any case, if you can be coached to get a standing ovation, I'd like to have a course of their coaching."

(I hope to post clips of these gems - if and when I ever discover how to transfer video from an ancient Betamax machine to a computer).

Broadcasters' bile
Until then, it had never really occurred to me just how fierce the competition between the BBC and commercial broadcasters was - a fact that was amplified further by an invitation to Ann Brennan and me to appear on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour - that was withdrawn as soon as they realised that Granada would be broadcasting a documentary on it about ten days later.

SDP sulks
After posting Claptrap 1, an exchange between David Cox and me discussed the way the SDP had reacted at the time:

Cox: I think the SDP used the speech on their party political broadcast. I think I'm right in saying more people joined the SDP after her speech as well.

Atkinson: As far as I remember, the SDP never used anything from Ann's speech for a PPB. They did however use Rosie Barnes (in one of the worst PPB's I've ever seen) and a lot of people used to confuse the two of them.

It wouldn't surprise me if new members came in after the speech. What did surprise me was that the SDP leadership, Owen included, were fuming about it. They thought it a disgraceful 'stunt', and I remember trying to convince them that it was excellent PR for them that they should make the most of. If nothing else, it meant that the 1984 conference got far more media coverage than it otherwise would have done.

Cox: ‘Disgraceful stunt' ! What is false or distasteful about giving somebody the skills to communicate and articulate their ideas; after all, Ann was given the training, but the message was Ann’s, and it was Ann who delivered it.

24 October 2009

Question Time wooden spoon: Jack Straw

Until watching the latest Question Time, I'd always thought of Gordon Brown as the current champion among British politicians when it came to being long-winded and packing far too much into speeches and interview responses (e.g. HERE).

But I'm now beginning to think that Jack Straw may have overtaken his boss.

How someone who, as he reminded us, has been an MP for 30 years can be so verbose and undisciplined in his answers on a 60 minute show - in which there are 4 other guests on the panel and a large audience trying to get a word in - is quite beyond me.

Having been invited to speak first in response to the very first question, Straw droned on (aided in various places by notes) for two and a half minutes! So, by the time anyone else got a chance to say anything, he'd already managed to gobble up 4% of the scheduled time available for lesser mortals to say anything.

And that was only the first of quite a few more of his answers that were needlessly long-winded and garbled - but even I am not enough of an anorak to be able to bear the tedium of going through the whole thing in order to work out exactly how much time he managed to bag from everyone else.

Don't put clocks back (again)

REPEAT OF LAST YEAR"S POST ON THE GLOOMIEST DAY OF THE YEAR

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

Apart from relieving the gloom, not putting the clocks back tonight would reduce electricity consumption by 1-2% and save NHS expenditure on dealing with accidents and emergencies:

“During an experiment 40 years ago, when British Summer Time was used all year for three years, there was an average of 2,500 fewer deaths and serious injuries each year. Opposition from Scotland contributed to the decision to return to putting the clocks back in winter.”

If putting the clocks back is such a big deal for the Scots, why don’t we let them do it on their own, especially now they have their own parliament in Edinburgh?

A different time zone in Scotland might be marginally inconvenient for the rest of us, but no more so than it already is when trying to plan meetings in other EC countries.

23 October 2009

How rhetorical techniques work: an example from last night's Question Time

(Postscript on the 'star of the show' added on Saturday 24th October)

I'm quite often asked how rhetorical techniques actually work to trigger a positive response from members of an audience.

Part of the answer is because their structure provides listeners with implicit instructions that enable them to anticipate exactly when the speaker will finish - so that they can be ready to respond as soon as he/she gets to the end (in much the same way as we're able to know when to respond in a conversation without interrupting or leaving a potentially embarrassing silence before we start to speak).

So, once someone in an audience notices that a speaker has launched into a contrast, it's pretty easy for them to recognise when the second part of it comes to an end. Or, if you hear a rhetorical question, you'll know that that you'll be able to respond as soon as the answer is completed.

In this sense, audience responses like booing, cheering and clapping are collective versions of the individual turns we take when talking to someone in a conversation (on which there's much more in my books!).

It's not often that television editors let us see members of an audience visibly anticipating one of these completion points, though I've already posted a very clear example of a woman anticipating the answer to a question being posed by David Cameron (HERE).

On BBC Question Time last night, there was a similar example of a listener anticipating the third item in a three-part list as the person in front of her was putting a question to the leader of the BNP.

As he launches into his list, watch the woman behind him on the left, and you'll see her nodding in approval just as he starts the third item in his list - which is also exactly the point at which the applause begins:

Where do you want me to go?

This is my country
I love this country
I'm part of this country


(See also Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?)

video

P.S. AND HE WAS THE STAR OF THE SHOW!

Reading through some of the newspaper reports on the show, I was fascinated to see that this particular speaker was singled out in quite a few of them as the star of the show, as in this from The Guardian:

If there was a star of Nick Griffin's personal Question Time, it was not to be found on the panel of guests.

Instead it took a member of the audience to deliver a gift to headline writers across the globe and raise the loudest cheer.

Khush Klare, 38, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1960s, didn't plan it so. But as the microphone swung in his direction he heard himself asking Griffin: "Where would you like to me go? I was born in this country. I love this country."

However, it was his subsequent suggestion of a "whip-round" to send Griffin to the south pole – "It's a colourless landscape that will suit you fine" – that proved the undoubted highlight.
(see HERE for full Guardian report and interview with Mr Klare).

The reason this fascinated me is that the connection between effective speaking and the way the media selects and covers excerpts from speeches is something that has interested me for more than 25 years, and was a main focus in Chapter 5 ('Quotability) of Our Masters' Voices.

After recent posts on the effectiveness of 'surfing applause' by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron in their recent party conference speeches, it was great to see yet another example of surfing serving a speaker so well.

In the full sequence from Mr Klare's question below, you'll see that he follows an initial attempt to carry on speaking during the applause with a more determined effort as he continued towards the line about having a whip round to send the BNP leader to the colourless landscape of the South Pole:

video

22 October 2009

How often do politicians watch television?


In the run-up to the BNP leader's first appearance on BBC TV's Quesion TIme later tonight, the Number 10 website had an interesting snippet about Gordon Brown's plans for the evening:

'Asked whether the Prime Minister was planning to watch Question Time, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister did not routinely watch Question Time.'

This reminded me of something I remember being surprised by when I was more actively involved in day-to-day politics:
however keen politicians might be to appear on the box, they didn't actually watch television very often themselves - not least because the timing of House of Commons proceedings meant that they wouldn't be able to see prime-time shows even if they'd wanted to.

As I'm not sure if my Betamax video recorder still works, I can't show you a gem from one of Mrs Thatcher's early Conservative Party conference speeches after becoming prime minister.

It was around the time that Heineken lager was running TV commercials (later banned because they claimed health benefits from drinking the stuff) that ended with the slogan "The beer that reaches parts that other beers can't reach".

My reason for thinking Mrs Thatcher had never seen or heard of the commercial came as she was thanking her cabinet ministers. Of Lord Carrington, the then foreign secretary, she said:

"He really is the peer that reaches parts that other peers can't reach."

The audience, most of whom must have been watching television often enough to be familiar with the slogan, loved it. But, as the laughter and applause got under way, Mrs Thatcher looked visibly surprised and said under her breath, and presumably with earlier arguments with speechwriters in mind:

"Oh - it did work then."

So I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Mr Brown doesn't 'routinely watch Question Time', and suspect that, like Mrs Thatcher and many other politicians, he hardly ever watches any television at all.

21 October 2009

Steve Jobs shows how to use an object as a visual aid (and how to speak about it)

When teaching and writing about the effectiveness of different types of visual aid, one that I always recommend for getting a positive response from audiences is the use of an object or prop to get your point across.

If you've seen Ann Brennan's speech (4th video clip in Claptrap 1), you might have noticed that the audience laughed and applauded when she held up a copy of the paper on equality that she was speaking about.

Earlier posts on the same theme include a clip showing the Archbishop of York taking off his dog collar and cutting it into pieces during a TV interview, another in which Bill Gates appears to release some mosquitos from a box in a TED talk about malaria and one in which a Nobel prize winner commends a lecturer for using a mock-up of turbine blades.

And so to the case of the announcement in 2008 of the MacBook Air notebook by Apple's Steve Jobs that was recently brought to my notice by Twitterers (to whom thanks) - and on which there may well be a few more posts in the near future.

STEVE JOBS TAKES THE RABBIT OUT OF AN ENVELOPE
One of the high spots, widely hailed as such in reviews of the event, was the way Jobs introduced the new notebook by pulling it out of a very ordinary looking office envelope - which occurred after an extended build-up in which he'd been contrasting the thinness and other virtues of the yet to be revealed MacBook Air with the thickness and other (inferior) features of its competitors.

Details worth noting in the video clip below include:
  1. A well-timed open armed 'iconic' gesture that gets under way just before he says ".. floating around the office" (on the timing of which, see also the recent post about iconic gestures in relation to Churchill's 'iron curtain' speech).
  2. The leisurely four seconds he takes to move across to where he can pick up the envelope.
  3. The instant positive audience response as he picks up the envelope.
  4. The way this response grows into hoots, cheers and applause when he holds it up in the air.
  5. The fact that he lets the applause continue for 8 seconds before his first attempt to continue speaking (for more on the 8 ± 1 seconds standard burst of applause, see HERE and HERE).
  6. His slow and unhurried removal of the MacBook Air from the envelope.
  7. After saying "there it is", waits until 9 seconds of applause has elapsed (i.e. within the 8 ± 1 second standard burst again) before saying anything else.
  8. Shows the keyboard and display before saying "full size keyboard full size display" (iconic gesture precedes the words again - see 1 above).
  9. On average, he pauses every 5.5 words - i.e. at a very similar rate to that found in speeches by accomplished orators like Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Blair and Cameron (for more on which, see HERE)
  10. He walks (unhurriedly) large distances from one side of the stage to the other.
  11. And smiling for some of the time (but not all of the time) is no bad thing either.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL
Were any of these details actually noticed by any of those who were there at the time and/or who wrote about it as a masterful performance?

Probably not - other than, perhaps, that it was like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat whilst talking about it in a natural, confident and enthusiastic way.

The fact that it's almost certain that few, if any of these details were consciously identified by the audience is one of reasons why I think it's such an excellent example of effective speaking in action (as it was widely recognised as having been) - for the obvious reason that it confirms pretty much everything I've learnt, taught and written about in nearly 30 years of research, namely that the more details you can get right, the more impressed will your audience be.

TRANSCRIPT

The line-breaks in the following are where pauses occur:

So
it’s so thin
it even fits inside
one of these envelopes we’ve all seen floating around the office.
And so let me go ahead an show it to you now.
This is it.
Let me take it out here.
This is the new
MacBook Air
And you can get a feel for how thin it is.
Yeh – there it is.
Right.
Amazing product here – full-size keyboard
Full size display


video

A voting system where everybody gets what no one wants

There was a classic moment in last night's televised repeat from the comedy series Auf Wiedersehen Pet, in which economic miseries of the early 1980s had driven a group of English construction workers to work on a building site in Germany.

They want to paint the hut they live in to make it more homely. But what colour should it be?

Barry has a plan for reaching a democratic decision:

video

20 October 2009

Churchill's perfect timing of his 'iron curtain' gesture

Watching Churchill's 'iron' curtain clip again yesterday got me thinking about posting a note on the timing of his gesture - at which point, there suddenly appeared a Twitter link to a book by a body language expert that included 'iconic' gestures as one of three types of gesture:

'Different types of gesture

'Iconic-gestures whose form displays a close relationship to the meaning of the accompanying speech

'Metaphoric-gestures that are essentially pictorial but the content depicted here is an abstract idea rather than a concrete object or event

'The Beat-movements that look as though they are beating out musical time' (full post HERE)

Although I always advise that three-parted typologies, whether from Marx, Freud or countless other theorists, need to be treated with caution (because the theorist probably stopped looking for more after the third one made the story seem complete enough to get it published), I don't have a problem with the idea that 'iconic gestures' are a distinct and frequently used type of gesture that do indeed relate to words that are coming out of a speaker's mouth.

I'm less certain, however, about the above distinction between 'iconic' and 'metaphoric' gestures - as it's not clear to me whether Churchill's downward hand movement relates to the words 'has descended' or the metaphor of an 'iron curtain' falling across Europe. Nor do I think there's any way of determining which of these it is, any more than I think it matters very much.

THE TIMING OF ICONIC GESTURES

A far as I'm concerned, the most interesting thing about it is that it's a splendid illustration of perfect timing of an iconic gesture.

The first time I ever heard the term used was in a lecture by Emanuel Schegloff, one of the founders of conversation analysis, back in 1979, in which he observed that iconic gestures anticipate a word that's coming up any second now - i.e. they get under way just before the speaker actually says the word to which the gesture relates (E.A. Schegloff, 'On some gestures' relation to talk', in Atkinson & Heritage, Eds. Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 266-298 - Amazon link at bottom right of page).

This can be clearly seen in the Churchill clip, where his hand begins to move just as he starts to say "an iron curtain" and has fully descended by the time he gets to the word "descended'.

If you watch the video again, an interesting question to ask yourself is what it would have looked like had he started the gesture after saying the word "descended". Or think of an angler telling you that the fish he'd just caught was "huge" and then moving his hands apart to show just how huge it was.

In both cases, your answer is likely to be something like 'odd', 'mistimed', 'later than it should have been' or even 'vaguely amusing'

This is because one of the intriguing things about the way we use these iconic gestures is that timing them 'correctly' (i.e. start before saying the word) is something we learn in early childhood.

SOMETHING TO LOOK OUT FOR IF YOU HAVE YOUNG CHILDREN

Sometimes, very young children will describe something before doing a gesture that relates to it - e.g. "It was really round", followed by drawing a circle in the air with their hands - the timing of which, is likely to be regarded by adults as 'cute' - but, as they grow older, they discover how to get the timing right.

No one ever tells them they'd been doing it 'wrong' or coaches them to get it 'right' - just as I have never found it necessary to coach adult speakers how to use iconic gestures (or would ever dream of doing so).

video

19 October 2009

The 'iron curtain' descended from Russia via Goebbels to Churchill

In an interesting post on 'What PowerPoint can't show you' yesterday, Martin Shovel poses the excellent question of whether it would have improved the famous metaphor used by Winston Churchill in his speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he said “.. an iron curtain has descended across the continent”:

‘Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.’

Although 'iron curtain' was a perfect metaphor for summing up the Cold War division of Europe, this ‘strikingly original idea’ wasn't Churchill's. Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists had used it before him, as too had others in England and Russia before that.

The most succinct summary of the metaphor's history that I’ve come across is on About.com:

‘Churchill had previously used the term in two telegrams to Truman. However, the term, which dates back to the nineteenth century, was probably first used in regard to Russia by Vassily Rozanov in 1918 when he wrote "an iron curtain is descending on Russian history". It was also used by Ethel Snowden in 1920 in a book called 'Through Bolshevik Russia' and during WW2 by Joseph Goebbels and German politician Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, both in propaganda.’

None of which is to belittle the power of the metaphor or Churchill’s success in making it part of the language of the Cold War – which is why I still use the video clip below when teaching about the importance of imagery.

BUT WHAT MAKES A SPEECH MEMORABLE?
This is a question I blogged about back in March and is something that will no doubt continue to fascinate me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. The 'iron curtain' speech arguably fits with where I've got to so far from looking at some of the speeches that people mentioned most frequently as 'memorable' :

'The best I’ve been able to come up with is that, in each case, the speaker managed to hit the jackpot by saying something that struck just the right chord with just the right audience in just the right place at just the right moment in history – which means that it’s more or less impossible to predict ‘memorability’ with any certainty in advance of any particular speech...'

You can see the list of 'memorable' speeches and comments on the discussion HERE. And, if you feel like continuing the discussion, please feel free to do so.

video

18 October 2009

Just who does Lord Adonis think he is?

Only a few hours after posting my latest grumbles about the House of Lords, I was flabbergasted to be greeted by the appearance on the BBC website the following staggering piece of presumptuousness from our unelected Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis - to which all I can say is:

How dare such a person have the cheek to demand the right to speak the chamber of the elected House of Commons?

For me, the presence of Adonis in the House of Lords at all, let alone his recent elevation to the cabinet, sums up everything that's wrong with our second chamber.

After all, here is someone whose political career has included avoiding elections (see HERE) and changing sides (he was a LibDem advisor to Paddy Ashdown before defecting to Labour) when it suited him - and who is presumably only in the cabinet now because Gordon Brown had run out elected MPs considered 'reliable' enough for such high office.

I've never posted a whole web page from another site before, but it will at least save you from looking it up and, perhaps also explain why, on this occasion, long words fail me:


Peers 'should appear in Commons'

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has said he wants to be able to answer MPs' questions in the House of Commons.

Current rules say peers who serve as ministers can face direct inquiries only in the House of Lords.

But Lord Adonis told BBC One's Politics Show he and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson would be "delighted" to face MPs in the Commons chamber.

He has written to the Speaker to suggest this, but said the Commons was not the "fastest-moving" institution.

The promotion of peers to cabinet rank means some of the leading figures in government cannot face questions from their own and opposition MPs in the Commons itself.

Scrutiny concerns

More junior ministers deputise for their bosses at the despatch box.

So, for instance, Lord Mandelson and his Conservative shadow, Ken Clarke, never sit opposite each other in Parliament.

Critics say this reduces the effective scrutiny of government.

Lord Adonis said that, as he had to appear before Commons select committees, there was some direct questioning of him by MPs.

But he said he and Lord Mandelson "would be delighted to answer questions" in the main Commons chamber.

Lord Adonis said he had written to Speaker John Bercow, but added: "I don't think the Commons, when it comes to reforming itself, is the fastest-moving of institutions."

The peer, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, reiterated that he would not serve under David Cameron if the Conservatives won the next general election.
He said he had "no interest" in such an arrangement.

Noble noses in the trough

All the main political parties seem quite happy to have their nominees sitting and working in the House of Lords as if they represented someone and/or as if there's a rational basis for any of them to have a seat there at all. So it's a subject that I don't regard as a 'no-go area' for a 'non-aligned' blog.

Anyone interested can read a selection of my 'non-aligned' posts on the subject below. And anyone really interested is recommended to inspect the expenses claims of our 'nobility' for the year ended 31 March 2008 HERE.

I first got wind of the fact that there might be something dubious about Hose of Lords expenses claims a few years ago, when I heard of a special branch protection officer with reservations about the behaviour of a peer he was protecting - whose day would start by being driven to the House of Lords, signing in to claim his daily tax-free allowance and then being driven off again to do whatever else he'd got planned for the day.

Only one example, perhaps, but many more questions spring to mind from looking at the expenses list referred to above, and you may be as surprised as I was at how much is being claimed by so many for so few days of effort.

Some peers, like Lord Rees Mogg, appear to be claiming allowances for office expenses associated with doing paid work for someone else - e.g. how much of the £8,923 claimed for his 'office' in the year 2007-80 was actually subsidising him to write articles for The Times and Mail on Sunday?

As I've said before, I don't have the staff, resources or inclination to research the matter as closely as the Daily Telegraph investigated the expenses of our elected representatives.

But I do wish someone would do more of it, if only to remind people that the new improved House of Lords is as far removed from anything approximating democracy as it ever was - and perhaps even get the debate about it going again.

Other posts on the House of Lords include:

17 October 2009

Contrasting reactions to Cameron's 'poverty moment'

I’ve just caught up with BBC’s Question Time that was broadcast on the day of David Cameron’s leader’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Given what I’d said last week about the high spot being the sequence on poverty in which he 'surfed' applause (HERE and HERE), I wasn’t at all surprised to see two of QT guests singling it out for comment.

But I was surprised and intrigued by the very different audience reactions to their attacks on that particular part of the speech.

Asked whether David Cameron is ready to become prime minister, Ian Hislop only got a slight titter of laughter for his reason for saying “yes”:

video

It may well have been his failure to get a bigger laugh that prompted him to carry on at greater length. But his overt attempt get a reaction by pouring scorn on Cameron’s ‘poverty moment’ got another rather lukewarm response - and his final sentence was greeted by a deathly and quite lengthy silence before Dimbleby called for the next speaker:

video

By contrast, Labour cabinet minister Yvette Cooper’s characterisation of the same sequence as ‘synthetic indignation’ and her quote of Cameron’s line in the speech about ‘being straight’ with people got a fulsome round of applause:

video

For members of the Tory communications team, this positive response to Ms Cooper must have been as discouraging as the lack of response to Mr Hislop had been encouraging.

But there was one evaluation of the speech as a whole from a member of the audience that must have been music to their ears - and worth at least one bottle of champagne (to be drunk, of course, out of sight of any roving TV cameras):

video

16 October 2009

Claptrap 8: Sparks in the background


This is the eighth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

In the summer of 1984, the miners’ strike was still dragging on as a daily reminder of the woeful state of industrial relations in the Britain at the time.

Of the many ways in which those of us who worked in universities were privileged, one was that we had little or no first hand experience of the irritating frustrations that so many industries were up against – especially, I soon learnt, in the world of the media.

When the Granada Television crew came to film in my study at home, I remember being amazed at just how many of them there were – and quite shocked by how little there was for some of them to do.

How many electricians does it take to check a plug?
There was an electrician, for example, who spent about a minute poking a gadget into one of the electrical sockets on my study wall before giving the crew the ‘all clear’ to set up the camera and lighting. It was a warm sunny day, so he went to the village shop, bought a newspaper and spent the rest of the time reading in the garden.

How many electricians does it take to light a theatre?
I’d also got wind of rumblings between Granada and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, where more filming was scheduled for later that day.

Granada needed to know exactly how many RSC electricians would be doing the stage lighting. If there were three, there would have to be three from Granada, if four then four from Granada, and so on. It wasn’t that there would be anything for them to do, or even that they would have been allowed to do anything by the local electricians, but the rule was that same number would have to be there (and paid) for the same number of hours as the theatre’s own electricians.

How many production assistants does it take to carry a film to Manchester?
Meanwhile, Granada was also constrained by some fairly bizarre demarcation issues among its own staff. After filming at the TUC in Brighton, Don Jordan, the researcher in daily charge of the production, had arranged a business meeting in London the next day. World in Action was filmed on 16mm film that had to be developed before editing could begin, so he asked a production assistant to do him a favour that would let him get straight on to London: could she take today’s film back to Manchester and drop it off at the labs for him.

“No”, she replied, “that’s not part of my job.”

Don knew the union rules well enough to know that he had no choice but to cancel his meeting in London and go back to Manchester - sitting next to the same woman on the same flight from Gatwick – for the sole purpose of carrying the film from the airport to the laboratories (which she had to go past on her way home).

How many films were never made?
Ann Brennan's standing ovation may have been a major victory for Granada. But so too was the fact that they ever managed to make any television programmes at all.

15 October 2009

Claptrap 7: On location


This is the seventh in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

The two most common questions I’ve been asked since the Claptrap programme was first shown are (with answers in brief):

1. How long did it actually take to coach Ann Brennan to make her speech?

Ans: A few hours on five separate days.

2. Which parts of the process played the biggest part in her success?

Ans: They were never filmed or shown.

FIVE DAYS ON LOCATION

  1. Voice coaching at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London rehearsal rooms.
  2. Oxford & Stratford upon Avon: John Heritage and I showing Ann the main rhetorical techniques; Cicely Berry coaching her on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (by far the busiest single day).
  3. Ann & I watching Arthur Scargill in action at the TUC in Brighton
  4. Ann’s encounter with Joe Haynes, Harold Wilson’s former speechwriter.
  5. Filming the speech in Buxton (plus Scargill speech analysis that had had to be deferredfor reasons explained HERE).

The most important parts of the process that were never shown were the actual writing of the speech (as opposed to the sequence in which Joe Haynes, former speechwriter for Harold Wilson, came up with some brilliant lines) and Cicely Berry’s work with Ann rehearsing the speech the night before she gave it.

THE SCENE THAT NEARLY WASN'T

Before the meeting with Joe Haynes, he’d been sent a copy of Our Masters’ Voices and asked to write a speech using the main rhetorical techniques described in it.

As the camera was being set up, Ann was asked to read through the draft. Her initial reaction was to that Haynes was trying to put Labour words into her mouth – to which he retaliated by accusing her of being a ‘closet Tory’, and it began to look as though there might not be anything to film that day.

So we asked her to go through it again and mark anything that she liked or might feel comfortable saying.

If only the camera had been ready by then! Because if it had been, it could have have shown a close up her hand marking particular lines with comments like “I like this bit” and “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to say”. Viewers would have been able to see the same fascinating sight that we saw – it was as if the contrasts, puzzles and three-part lists that were later to have such an impact on the audience in Buxton were already jumping off the page and having an impact on her.

And that’s how the lines recommended by Joe Haynes on the film were selected for when the camera started to roll.

THE TWO MISSING LINKS

The final text of the speech took a whole day to write at a meeting attended by Gus Maconald, Ann and me at the Macdonald’s home in Islington with no cameras present. We were careful to weave in some of the lines from Joe Haynes, and very careful to make sure that Ann felt comfortable with every word we wrote.

In other words, contrary to what some critics later tried to make out, we merely translated the messages she wanted to get across into rhetorically effective words, and were determined throughout not to put any of our own views into her mouth.

Apart from the script, the other most crucial part of the exercise took place in a hotel room in Buxton on the night before Ann gave the speech. Present were Cicely Berry, then head of Voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gus Macdonald and I - and it was in that hour or two and I learnt almost everything I know(and still teach) about the importance of rehearsing speeches.

Not present, unfortunately, were any cameramen. Otherwise that particular part of Cicely’s genius could have been made available to an audience of millions. And that’s why I think that the omission of the rehearsal was the film’s biggest weakness.

UK Speechwriters' Guild annual conference video

Brian Jenner of the UK Speechwriters' Guild has just posted a video on YouTube of the first annual conference in Bournemouth last month.

It was filmed and produced by Tim Clague, who as Brian rightly says 'has communicated brilliantly what we all stand for.'

You can also watch it and read a more detailed report on the conference by Martin Shovel HERE.

14 October 2009

Think twice before you read or write

Late last night, Google Alerts took me to an article by Danny Finkelstein that was about to appear in The Times today about the point in David Cameron's speech last week where he surfed applause and which I'd written about a couple of times last week HERE and HERE.

Reading it at dead of night on a computer screen and in this morning's cool light of day in the actual (rather than virtual) newspaper yielded quite different reactions.

At first sight, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But this morning, the questions that came to mind then look like an unhealthy cocktail of paranoia and megalomania (and I'd only had two nightcaps, honest).

As I know that some of my garbled twittering got a few people wondering what I was on about, a word or two of clarification may help to solve the mystery.

Here are the questions that troubled me last night, followed by my answers after reading the same article in a hard copy of the newspaper earlier today:

1. Should I be pleased to be referred to as a 'guru' by such an eminent journalist and glad that the speech that had changed my life had changed his life too (Claptrap 1)?

Ans: Yes.

2. As one who writes books and runs courses on the subject, should I be annoyed that he makes it sound as though speechwriting is such an easy and straightforward craft?

Ans: No.

3. Did his casual use of the phrase 'surfing applause', as if everyone knows what it is, and his focus on the poverty point in Cameron's speech mean that he'd been following my blog and was now recycling some of it without much in the way of attribution?

Ans: Don't know.

4. Was he saying or implying that Ann Brennan didn't mean what she said in her speech and/or that I had claimed that Cameron hadn't meant what he said?

Ans: No.

5. And why hadn't he mentioned any of my books on all this, or at least supplied a link to my blog?

Ans: Because he's a journalist and doesn't have to.

Memo to self:
Be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of reading articles on computer screens late at night.

Remember that computers and the internet have made it far easier to write and post things without anything like the amount of care and reflection that was necessary to get anything out to a wider audience in days gone by.

Memo to journalists:
Remember that, with 115,000+ books being published each year, it matters a very great deal to authors to have their books mentioned in the media occasionally, and that you have the power to open and close an important door to public awareness (or lack of it) of particular titles.

Regular readers will know that I've blogged on this before in relation to BBC plug-a-book shows. Today, the mere mention of my name in The Times has already prompted enough people to type it into Google to double the number of visits to my blog (and there are still about 5 hours to go until midnight).

Today has also seen Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy and Lend Me Your Ears rise to their highest positions in the Amazon UK bestsellers rankings since the last time they got a mention on the BBC website.

So I am grateful to Mr Finkelstein and The Times for today's small mercies - but not half as grateful as I would have been if one of the book titles had appeared in print and/or if there'd been a link to this blog from their online edition.

And that, I suppose, is what really explains the initial irritations that struck me in the early hours of this morning.

POSTSCRIPT (Thursday)
I take it all back! Danny Finkelstein has done me proud - and predictably, for 3 reasons, the third of which also comes in three parts:

1. Mention of the name seems to be enough, as indicated in the comment below from Mr Anonymous (plus various emails and phone calls I've received today.

2. Blog visits yesterday were three times more than on Monday.

3. Danny Finkelstein has done me proud with two posts on his Times Online blog this afternoon in which he
  • mentions and links to one of my books and this blog,
  • shows the YouTube video of Ann Brennan's speech at the 1984 SDP conference and
  • ends with a hilarious story about how Roy Jenkins reacted to one of the best lines in the speech.

13 October 2009

2009 Conference season summary

Quite a number of new visitors, to whom welcome, arrived here during the party conference season, which inspired, if that's not too strong a word, the following 27 posts.

You can link directly to them by clicking the title. The ones in italics include video clips or links to a video illustrating the particular point under discussion.

The TUC, where ‘fings aint wot they used to be’

Why is Mr Brown bothering to speak at the TUC?

Gordon Brown tries out a 4-part list at the TUC

Not the LibDem Conference –BBC website news

Clegg’s conference speech: ‘definitely OK, absolutely fine, without any doubt not bad’

Methinks Labour doth protest/spin too much

Gordon Brown goes walkabout (again)

Why doesn’t anyone warn politicians about becoming autocue automatons?

If Mandelson has to struggle to win applause, what are the Labour Party faithful saying?

Was it Mandelson’s self-deprecating humour that won the day for him

Brown surfs applause (briefly) before reverting to type

Gordon Brown: The way he told them

Gordon Brown on the morning after the night before

What do Harriet Harman and Sybil Fawlty have in common?

Reading between the lines of ‘Labour Vision’

Boris Johnson’s funny bits

Surely it’s time someone coached Cameron to use a teleprompter

What a peculiar Tory conference backdrop

The barmy Tory backdrop disappears & reappears

Does YouTube oppose the Tories and support UKIP?

George Osborne + Chris Grayling = Geoffrey Howe

Tory PR on the eve of Cameron’s speech: gaffe pr master stroke?

I was wrong about Cameron looking at screens

Cameron’s conference sound bite: ‘compassionate conservatism’

Cameron’s conference speech high spot: standing ovation for ‘surfing applause’

Surfing applause was Cameron’s high spot too

Contrasting reactions to Cameron’s ‘poverty moment’