When Brian Jenner, founder of the UK Speechwriters' Guild asked me to do a 10-15 minute presentation at this year's annual conference, the challenge was to try to put into practice the advice of one of my heroes, the late Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg (for more on whom see HERE,), one of whose tips for lecturers was:
'There should be one main theme, and all the subsidiary interesting points, experiments, or demonstrations should be such that they remind the hearer of the theme. As in a picture, so in a lecture, the force of the impression depends upon a ruthless sacrifice of unnecessary detail.'
The 'one main theme' I selected was something I've blogged and written about before, namely how the use of an object as a visual aid can sometimes have an impressive impact when it comes to getting a point across your audience.
There were (of course!) three reasons why it struck me as a promising topic for a short talk at this particular conference.
- It was potentially relevant for an audience of speechwriters, most of whom would have had conversations, if not arguments, with their clients about whether to use PowerPoint or some other type of visual aid.
- Being able to show the audience actual examples makes it a subject that's much easier to speak about than to write about (as I'd discovered when writing about visual aids in my books on speech-making and presentation).
- It would give me a chance to give an implicit demonstration of a subsidiary theme that I'm also quite keen on, namely that short video clips are another type of visual aid that can help to get your point across with clarity and impact.
The video clips I used are posted above and the points I made about them went (roughly) as follows:
1. 'Peace on our time'
The picture of Neville Chamberlain holding up the piece of paper he and Hitler had just signed in Munich seemed a suitably famous example to feature on the opening title.
2. Holding up a boring paper
But the first time I realised that anyone could use a piece of paper to strike an instant chord with an audience was in the speech Ann Brennan gave at the SDP Conference in 1984 (for links to a fuller story of which, see the Claptrap series of posts HERE).
Her 'one main theme' was that the new party was failing to communicate with working class voters who'd become disaffected by the Labour Party. So we wrote a line that involved her holding up the background paper for the debate on equality in which she would be speaking.
It prompted immediate laughter and applause from the audience.
3. Paddy Ashdown holds up a newspaper (not on the video)
The next time I saw the impact a piece of paper could have was five years later on the tenth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's premiership in 1989.
Someone in Paddy Ashdown's office had unearthed a copy of the London Evening Standard from 1979 that carried a front page headline announcing that she would quit after ten years. So he held it up during Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons and asked if she intended to keep her promise.
The instant reaction was was laughter and uproar from MPs; the delayed reaction came with action replays of the sequence on prime-time TV news programmes later that evening.
But we also learnt something else - don't overdo it. A week or two later, he held up another newspaper during PMQ, only to be reprimanded by the Speaker for making such a blatant attempt to grab the headlines again.
4. Senator Scott Brown holds up a newspaper
The same technique goes down just as well with American audiences. In this clip, Scott Brown has just won the election to take over as Senator for Massachusetts following the death of Edward Kennedy. The audience is already chanting enthusiastically, but their chants turn into cheers and applause as soon as Brown holds up a newspaper with the headline 'He did it'.
5. Examples of other objects (1) a glass
Using an object can involve things as simple as holding up a glass and asking whether it's half- full or half-empty, or
6. Examples of other objects (2) currency notes
A year before the 1979 UK general election, when still leader of the opposition, Mrs Thatcher came up with a successful photo-opportunity by using a pair of scissors to cut through a £1 note to illustrate how much the pound had depreciated since Labour came to power (see the clip at P.P.S. below).
I've seen economists make some neat points whilst waving notes about. And the reason why this is a picture of a pre-Euro Spanish note is that I once worked with a client in Spain who had a stunning impact on his audience by setting fire to a 200 Peseta note to open his presentation.
7. Steve Jobs pulls a rabbit out of a hat
I blogged about this sequence a while back (and a more detailed analysis of his script can be seen HERE). The things to look out for are how the audience reacts when he (a) picks up the envelope, (b) takes the MacBook Air out of it and (c) holds it up in the air.
8. Bill Gates releases some insects from a box
In a TED talk on malaria and education, Bill Gates claims to release some mosquitos from a box in front of him.
9. Archbishop of York cuts his dog collar into pieces
During an interview on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning BBC TV show, Archbishop John Sentamu stripped off his clerical collar and cut it up into pieces to illustrate what Robert Mugabe has done to the people of Zimbabwe - a sequence that was replayed many times on the main news networks later that day.
10. Government minister throws his microphone on the table
At the 1982 Conservative Party conference, Robin Day inteviewed John Nott, who had been Secretary of State for Defence during the Falkland's war and had announced that he'd be resigning in the near future to join a merchant bank. When Day refers to him as a "here today gone tomorrow" minister, the Mr Nott announces that he's fed up with this interview, pulls off his microphone and throws it down on the table.
On the longer term impact of this sequence, there were two interesting footnotes. One was that Here Today, Gone Tomorrow resurfaced nearly ten years later as the title of John Nott's autobiography. Then, a few weeks ago, the sequence was featured in a Daily Telegraph article on the 'Top-ten Television Moments of the Eighties'.
11. More mundane objects can also work (not on the video)
A few years ago, I worked with a client who had built a very successful business manufacturing metal clips that hold lamps in place above streets and motorways. He'd been invited to speak about the fatal, legal and financial consequences that could result if any of the thousands of such products failed. He started his presentation to an audience of lawyers at a conference on product liability law by holding up one of the clips and explaining that everyone there had benefited from them, had driven under them but almost certainly didn't know what they were.
By the time he got to providing the solution to his puzzle, the audience was fully attentive and listened closely to the rest of his presentation
12. The swinging ball of death
The final clip came from one of the Christmas lectures for children by Professor Chris Bishop at the Royal Institution.
What surprised and fascinated me when I played this at the conference was that the rising 'woooooh' noise from the children and their response when the ball stopped just short of the speaker's head was echoed, with precision timing, by the conference audience as they watched the clip.
13. Conclusion: showing what you mean
As I noted at the beginning of this post, I'm a big fan of one of the founders of the Christmas Lectures for children and what he had to say about communicating science to wider audiences. It's to be found in a short booklet - Advice to Lecturers - published by the Royal Institution and consisting of writings by Lawrence Bragg and Michael Faraday, whose ability to take lay audiences to the frontiers of science used to fill lecture theatres until there was standing room only.
So I ended by quoting some lines from Bragg. Writing about how the interest of many distinguished scientists as first aroused by the Christmas lectures for children, he says:
"In recalling their impressions they almost invariably say not ' we were told' but 'we were shown' this or that."
A few lines later, he adds:
"The final result of the popular talk is measured by the extent to which the audience recalls it afterwards, and this fixation of the image is effected by arousing an emotional response of interest and thrill."
Chris Bishop's swinging ball of death achieved this both with the audience in the Faraday lecture theatre and, if the noises they made are anything to go by, with the audience in Bournemouth last week - demonstrating also that the traditions set by Faraday and Bragg are still alive and well at the Royal Institution.
For speechwriters, the moral of the story is that it's worth giving at least a few moments of thought as to whether there might be a suitable object that could bring 'interest and thrill' to the audiences for whom they are writing.
P.S. Given the third of my reasons for selecting this topic (at the start of this post) I was delighted when someone in my audience posted this on Twitter: V stimulating day in Bournemouth - @maxatkinson gave a terrific example of how to use (short) video clips as a visual aid.
Whether or not it also works on a blog post is something readers can judge for themselves...
P.P.S. Since posting this a few hours ago, a request in the original version - 'if anyone knows where I could get a copy of this, please let me know where' - has been answered by Chris Rodgers (via Twitter (@ChrisPRodgers), to whom I am very grateful indeed for sending the YouTube link. I was also mistaken in thinking it was 'during the 1979 general election', as it was in fact a year before that: