29 January 2010

Rare video clip of a politician giving 5 straight answers to 5 consecutive questions

In a recent post about a politician actually answering a TV interviewer's question (Mandelson gives two straight answers to two of Paxman's Questions), I mentioned a classic interview in which Nigel Lawson seemed to take Brian Walden by surprise by giving straight answers to five questions in a row.

The year was 1989, when Lawson's dissatisfaction with Mrs Thatcher's apparent preference for the advice of the economist, Sir Alan Walters, had led the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to resign.

I've just been sorting through some old video tapes, and unearthed the original sequence - which raises the question: has any other politician ever given a straight answer to more than five consecutive questions?

video

RELATED POSTS:

27 January 2010

The best awards ceremony acceptance speech?

I'm grateful to Danny Finkelstein's latest post on Comment Central (see blogroll) for drawing my attention to what he refers to as 'possibly the best acceptance speech in history' (below).

Not sure about that, because it has to compete with Alfred Hitchcock's speech accepting the Irving G. Thalberg Award (given to 'a creative producer who has been responsible for a consistently high quality of motion picture production') at the Oscar awards in 1967 - the full text of which was:

"Thank you."

I'm also a big fan of Paul Hogan's widely ignored tips for award winners' speeches at the 1986 Oscars, which can be seen HERE.

But here's what Wes Anderson had to say on winning the Special Filmmaking Achievement award from the National Board of Review for his film Fantastic Mr Fox:

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24 January 2010

TV Debate Claptrap: a warning to those cooking up rules for the leaders' election debates

Iain Dale has just reported that arguments are developing about the formats for the TV debates between party leaders during the general election.

It reminded me of the pointlessness of having rules that can't be enforced, as happened to the ban on applause (that failed miserably) during the 1984 US election debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.

They took place a few weeks after the Claptrap film had been broadcast on UK television, and I'd temporarily fled the country to take up a visiting professorship at Duke University in North Carolina. While there, I was glued to the TV debates, and managed to get an article on the subject published in the Washington Post (one result of which was that I was later summoned to the Reagan White House to run a workshop for presidential speechwriters).

I'm reproducing the original article here as a warning to those, whether TV producers or party leaders and their aides, who might be trying to invent silly rules that won't be followed and can't be enforced.

DEBATE CLAPTRAP
It didn’t matter what the moderator said, the audience couldn’t help applauding (Washington Post, 1984)

This year's presidential debates clearly demonstrated that neither rules of procedure nor moderators' warnings are capable of preventing audiences from applauding or laughing.

The attempt to ban such displays of approval is presumably motivated by a fear that the mass
audience of television viewers might be swayed in the direction of whichever candidate won most applause. In trying to enforce the ban, however, Barbara Walters and Edwin Newman preferred to stress the amount of valuable debating time that was being wasted by the unruly audience behavior.

In either case, why did the procedural rules and moderators' protestations have so little effect on supporters of both candidates in the audience?

A preliminary analysis of the videotapes reveals that almost all the applause and laughter was in fact triggered by claptrap - not in the sense that the candidates were speaking nonsense, but in an older and largely forgotten sense of the word. For the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary informs us that claptrap is a "trick, device or language designed to catch applause."

After studying recordings of more than 500 political speeches, I can report not just that such
devices are still in widespread use, but that most applause occurs in response to a very small number of verbal and nonverbal cues. When used in appropriate combinations, these work as very powerful "invitations to applaud."

Inspection of the videotapes shows that two of the most effective verbal devices were used by the candidates to make 18 of the 20 points that attracted an audience response.

One of these is a two-part contrast or antithesis of the sort made famous by Shakespeare with the lines "To be, or not to be”' and "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." More recent examples include John F, Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream that my four little children will one day five in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their
skin, but by the content of their character."

In, Louisville Walter Mondale was the first to win applause, using the following contrast:

a) I've proposed- over one hundred billion dollars in cuts in federal spending over four years.
b) But I am not going to cut it out of Social Security and Medicare and student assistance and
things that people need.


Later on, he prompted laughter and applause with a contrastive quotation from the past:

a) It's not what he doesn’t know that bothers me,
b) but what he knows for sure that just ain't so.

Mondale's counterattack to the president's "There you go again" was formulated in terms of an overlapping contrast - the second part of a first contrast doubled as the first part of a second contrast, after the second part of which the audience applauded:

a) Remember the last time you said that? You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare.
a)-b) And you said "Oh no, there you go again, Mr. President. "And what didyou do right after the election?”
b) You went right out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare.

In the Kansas City debate, a technically simpler contrast also brought applause for Mondale:

a) Mr. President, I accept your commitment to peace,
b) but I want you to accept my commitment to a strong national defense.

Meanwhile, the same device was working equally well for President Reagan. In the first debate, his longest burst of applause came when he said:

a) I miss going to church,
b) but I think the Lord understands.

For another simple contrast, he was rewarded with laughter during the second debate:

a) I've heard the national debt blamed for a lot of things,
b) but not for illegal immigration across our borders.

And when he contrasted his own age with that of Mondale he attracted very extended laughter:

a) I will not make age an issue in this campaign.
b) I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

A second device packages political messages in lists of three, as in Hitler's famous slogan 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer" (One people, one state, one leader) or in Reagan's three reasons for invading Grenada: "To protect American lives, to restore law and order, and to prevent chaos."

Contrastive and three-part elements can also be effectively used in constructing a single message, as exemplified by Winston Churchill's celebrated "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."

In the Louisville debate, Mondale's longest burst of applause came when he used three rhetorical questions to make a point about abortion:

a) If it's rape, how do you draw a moral judgment on that?
b) If it's incest, how do you draw a moral judgment on that?
c) Does every woman in America have to present herself before some judge, picked by. Jerry Falwell, to clear her personal judgment?

Having spent several years studying the workings of these and other devices involved in the applause elicitation process, I found myself feeling increasingly sorry for the Louisville and Kansas City audiences as I watched them desperately trying to sit on their hands. For they were not just supposed to stay silent while being exposed to some of the most powerful rhetorical techniques known to man, but were then chastised like naughty school-children on the relatively few occasions when the pressure to respond got the better of them.

Perhaps in future debates there should either be no live audiences or the candidates should be required to speak from specially edited scripts containing no claptrap.

Max Atkinson is a senior research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and visiting scholar at Duke University (or, at least, so he was at that time in 1984).

22 January 2010

Senator Scott Brown shows how to use a newspaper as a visual aid

Scott Brown, the Republican who's just won the seat in the US Senate formerly held by the late Teddy Kennedy, has been hailed as an accomplished speaker - as in Bert Decker's blog under the heading New Communicator Bursts on the Scene.

His victory speech included another nice example of how effective it can be to use an object, even something as simple and mundane as a newspaper, as a visual aid (for more on which, see below the video clip).

It's interesting to note how quickly his holding it up in the air turns the chanting into cheers and applause, which then continue long enough for him to be able to complete a 360 degree circle before starting to speak again.

Notice also how the audience's reaction is finely coordinated with his movements - with the ovation starting to subside as he gets back to where he started from and puts the newspaper down on the lectern.

video

OTHER POSTS ON USING OBJECTS AS VISUAL AIDS:

Will the 2010 UK general election be the first one to leave us speechless?

This post was initially prompted by an invitation from Angela Definis to contribute to her latest blog carnival on the theme 'Public Speaking and the New Year', which has now gone live and includes links to seven other blog posts looking forward to 2010 (even if this one is dreading the prospect of the forthcoming UK general election!).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I find it quite depressing that the British media (aided and/or abetted by politicians themselves) show fewer and fewer excerpts from political speeches on their television news programmes.

Every night during the 1979 UK general election campaign, BBC 2 Television broadcast a half-hour programme called 'The Hustings', featuring excerpts from three of the day’s speeches - which I remember because it was where I first started recording (on audio-tape) the hundreds of speeches that eventually formed the basis of my book Our Masters Voices (1984).

When it came to the 1983 election, the programme was dropped and, by 1997 (and all subsequent UK elections), viewers were much more likely to see shots of politicians speaking in the background, with the all important foreground being dominated by a TV reporter summarising what the speaker was saying -- as also happened in BBC TV news reports of the Obama-McCain debates during the 2008 US presidential election (see 'Mediated speeches - whom do we really want to hear?').

So what?

My worry isn't just that it's not as easy to collect recordings of political speeches as it was when I first got interested in the subject (irritating enough though that is), but that the replacement of speeches by interviews as the main vehicle of political communication
  1. lacks liveliness and is fundamentally boring to viewers,
  2. makes for tedious television that, in the age of remote control, is all too easy to escape from by pressing a button, and
  3. has contributed towards the increasingly dim view that the decreasing number of people who bother to vote have of politicians - who are most commonly seen evading the questions put to them.
But what baffles me above all is that British politicians themselves seem to have gone along with the media in downgrading the importance of speech-making - given that interviews hardly ever generate anything but negative news stories about the interviewees and/or the parties they represent.

That's why I began the 2010 by posting a summary of 'the Snakes & Ladders Theory of Political Communication', an argument that first saw the light of day after the 1987 general election.

As the election is getting nearer and nearer, it's worth repeating the question with which that post ended, namely:

Will 2010 be the first general election with no speeches, no rallies and no excitement?

Given the benefits that can come from making speeches to enthusiastic crowds (look no further than the success of Barack Obama's journey from nowhere), I remain completely baffled by the logic of our politicians’ apparent preference for doing endless interviews rather than letting us judge what they want to say and how they want to say it to audience at lively rallies.

After all, if you're going to play Snakes and Ladders, why on earth would you chose to spend all your time landing on Snakes and avoiding the Ladders altogether?

The answer, I fear, is that our politicians have fallen into a bigger trap set for them by a mass media that's more obsessed with increasing their control and decreasing their costs than they are with what audiences find boring or interesting about politics and politicians. Otherwise, how could anyone get so excited about the dreary prospect of lengthy televised election 'debates' between party leaders?

But accountants at the BBC, ITV and Sky News, of course, have every reason to get excited by the hustings being transferred to television studios. The fewer reporters and camera crews they have to send to film speeches at rallies around the country, the lower their costs will be - the net result of which looks like being the most tedious and boring election on record.

Fewer snakes and more ladders, please!

If I were still active in advising a political leader, I'd be urging him to ignore the new rules set by a misguided media and to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement and building some momentum.

The media would have no choice but to cover them, and the wider public would surely find them a bit more lively than more and more interviews in which we have to wait longer and longer, on the off-chance that someone will slip up and make it interesting enough to become news.

RELATED POSTS:

Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are bad television?

‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place

Is the media no longer interested in what goes on in parliament?

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


21 January 2010

Blogger video bug news (i.e. none)

Two days on and videos uploaded to Blogger (like most of them on this blog) still aren't working.

The collective frustration of the 73 (so far) who've managed to find somewhere to 'communicate' with Blogger's 'customer service' - quite a feat in itself - can be inspected HERE.

One that stood out for me offered a simple practical solution to the problem that they haven't acted on:

'Two days, blogger - pretty unacceptable. I assume the current video player is an upgrade gone wrong, 'cause I looked at some cached results on google and the old video player works just fine and still plays my old videos. In which case, why not reupload the old video player whilst you're fixing the current one? It's common sense really, rather than having tens of thousands people dissatisfied with your service.'

Another pointed to the only longer term remedy:

'this is a cruel but valuable reminder of the limitations of "free services".....Unless you pay for it, you cant own it!.Since none of us is paying for anything, we have no right,& most important,no value.....Instead of giving us all these "free services we don't need, why not charging us something that could provide quality and a minimum level of customer's attention and care?. I am too young & too proud to consider complaining, I am putting monies where my mouth is.....Moving to more friendly territories. Google is not the only platform for bloggers.'


20 January 2010

Blogger video problem

The following 'Blogger Status' announcement appeared late last night (UK time).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Users are experiencing problems playing videos in Blogger blogs. We are investigating and will send an update when fixed.

Posted by Siobhan at 22:50

Visitors can check the current situation by clicking on the Blogger Status link above.

Meanwhile, I'm sorry that no one will be able to see any of the videos (other than the embedded ones) until Google/Blogger get their act together, and hope that you'll return once the problem has been resolved - which I'll post on Twitter in due course.

And, if you're thinking about starting a blog and can't decide between Blogger and Wordpress, this depressing news is yet another reason why you should chose the latter, and why some of us are planning to migrate there from Blogger.

18 January 2010

Martin Luther King Day - and a reminder of how to use rhetoric to convey passion

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the USA.

But regardless of where we happen to live, it's a good excuse for spending a few minutes (and it only lasts 11 minutes) watching his 'I have a dream' speech.

When talking about the use of contrasts and three-part lists, I'm often asked whether the use of such rhetorical techniques will somehow diminish the sincerity and passion of a speaker using them to get his or her point across.

The most vivid way to answer to the question is to play a clip of Martin Luther King using them (as he did with great frequency) and to ask people to reflect on whether, now they can see what he's doing, it makes him sound any less sincere or passionate?

One such example is the last few lines of his 'I have a dream' speech, which concludes with two three-part lists, the first made up of three contrasts and a second one of three repeated phrases - in both of which, the third item is longer than each of the first two:

We will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children,
black men and white men
Jews and gentiles
Protestants and Catholics
will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual
"free at last,
"free at last,
"thank God Almighty, we're free at last"

video

For more on rhetorical techniques, see HERE or type 'rhetoric', 'contrast', 'three-part list', etc. into the search box at the top of the page.

15 January 2010

Date and Scrabble dictionaries as inspirational aids to speechwriters

While editing some video clips for a forthcoming presentation, I was reminded of how useful dictionaries can sometimes be when writing speeches or preparing presentations.

Dictionaries of dates

All too often, looking to see if anything significant might have happened on the same date as a speech is being made yields no more than a list of births and deaths of people you've never heard of.

But occasionally a quick search can yield a fantastic dividend. When the Challenger shuttle disaster prompted Ronald Reagan to scrap his 1986 state of the union address in favour of a televised speech to the nation, speechwriter Peggy Noonan must have been surprised and delighted to discover that it was exactly 390 years since Sir Francis Drake died at sea - which provided for an apt and powerful contrast between the two events:

video

Word-game dictionaries

A year later, and on a much more modest stage, I was working on a speech with Paddy Ashdown, who was the education spokesman for the Liberal-SDP Alliance in the 1987 general election and was scheduled to speak at the launch rally at the Barbican in London.

We'd got as far as a promising puzzle that projected a 3-parted alliterative solution, but got stuck for a third word beginning with the letter 'R'.

The answer quickly came from a Scrabble dictionary. As with other word-game dictionaries, the advantage is that no space is wasted describing meanings of words, so anyone in search of alliterative inspiration can scan through the lists at high speed.

video

14 January 2010

Some of us are still waiting for an apology - for Gordon Brown's raid on pensions


Although I'm all in favour of today's government apology to Thalidomide survivors, I'm resigned to the fact that there will never an apology for Gordon Brown's raid on pension funds soon after he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

If you've only recently discovered this blog, here's what I posted in April last year.

I don't often 'repost' posts, but am doing so because today's story reminded me of how rarely governments ever apologise for anything - and because I feel strongly enough about it to be hoping that I won't be the only one who remembers it on polling day.

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.

12 January 2010

Vowels, voters and the voice of authenticity: the leadership case for Andy Burnham

You might have thought that my post the other day about Andy Burnham declaring his candidacy for the Labour Party leadership was just a tongue-in-cheek exercise. But the more I think about it, the more I think he would be the party's best bet once Brown has gone.

The likes of Straw, Harman, Darling and Johnson might have been OK as caretakers if Brown had been deposed. But, assuming they lose the election, the Labour torch will surely have to be passed on to the next generation.

In various other posts, I've stressed the importance of British party leaders having an elusive appeal that extends beyond those who normally vote for their party. Thatcher and Blair had it, as did Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown for the Liberals, but Gordon Brown doesn't have it (for more on which, see HERE & HERE).

Clinging on to the core vote

Since the advent of 'New Labour', the party's main marketing problem has been how to bring middle class voters on board whilst, at the same time, holding on to trades unionists and the 'core vote'.

Blair's public school and Oxford credentials, coupled with his 'natural charm', were arguably critical in winning over enough Tory voters to see him through three election victories.

But he was also very lucky (and/or shrewd) to have had a supporting chorus of Northern vowel sounds from David Blunkett and John Prescott, senior ministers who sounded like (and appealed to) large swathes of the party's core vote.

Bourgeois intruders in the Labour heartlands

Like Tony Blair, potential leadership candidates such as the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls, not to mention Yvette Cooper (AKA Mrs Balls), all come from highly educated middle class backgrounds - with its potential appeal to waivering Tories (if there still are any).

Something else they also have in common with Blair is that they too were parachuted into safe Northern constituencies that had traditionally always selected and returned trades unionists as their MPs.

But, unlike Blair, they're a bit short on Blunkets and Prescotts to boost the party's appeal to its core voters - with one notable exception:

Andy Burnham, BA (Cambridge): a Labour lad from Lancashire

In marked contrast with the other likely contenders in the Labour leadership stakes, Burnham is the MP for his home town - rather than for somewhere he'd never been to or heard of until being awarded a safe seat by the party's high command.

What's more, his years in the South haven't completely eliminated the authentic Northern vowel sounds that make him sound like 'one of us' to Labour's core vote - whilst his Oxbridge education gives him the middle class credentials of a Thatcher, Blair or Cameron.

Add to that the fact that I've seen commentators refer to him as 'good looking' (*), and have never heard anyone who knows him say anything other than what a nice chap he is - and he may have the Blair 'charm' factor too.

Too nice?

So the main question about him looks like being whether he's too nice to bite the bullet hard enough to go for it, win and do the dirty deeds that will have to be done to put the New Labour show back on the road.

*P.S. Since writing this, my attention has been drawn to this interview with LibDem M.P. Lynne Featherstone, who came second to Mr Burnham in a 'most fanciable M.P.' poll - and who describes him here as "drop dead gorgeous":




10 January 2010

Political speeches can still make a big difference - like changing the date of an election


A few days ago, I posted some of the reasons why I think that current British politicians and media underestimate how important speeches can be (the 'Snakes & Ladders Theory of Political Communication').

So today, I was fascinated to see confirmation in the serialisation of a book by Peter Watt, former Labour Party general secretary of the Labour Party, in today's Mail on Sunday of something I'd long suspected - namely that David Cameron's speech at the 2007 Conservative Party conference was critical in deterring Gordon Brown from calling an election (which he announced two days after the speech):

On Thursday, Cameron called our bluff. He made a spectacular speech demanding an end to the weeks of frenzied speculation about the Election. ‘So Mr Brown, what’s it to be?’ he taunted. ‘Call that Election. We will fight. Britain will win.’

A panicky Gordon summoned Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Spencer, Douglas, Deborah Mattinson – Gordon’s pollster – and Sue Nye – Gordon’s senior adviser and trusted ‘gatekeeper’ – for a crisis meeting.

On Friday morning, Douglas called me. ‘Peter, Gordon’s not going to do it,’ he said quietly. ‘When’s he going to make an announcement?’ I asked. ‘Tomorrow’ (my emphasis).

Given that Labour was 10% ahead in the polls at the time, Cameron's decision to ditch his original script, speak from notes and challenge Brown to call an immediate election was a high risk strategy.

But, in terms of the 'Snakes and Ladders' theory, it was a crucial 'ladder' that paid a handsome dividend to the Conservatives - not just in the favorable media reactions it generated, but in the two extra years it gave the party to reverse the polls in their favour - time they wouldn't have had if Brown had gone ahead and called the election when everyone (including, we now know from Peter Watt's book, the Labour high command) was expecting it.

You can watch the full speech above, or see a BBC report on it with video highlights HERE.

9 January 2010

Andy Burnham declares his candidacy for the Labour leadership

Political blogger Guido Fawkes has posted a video with the 'Guy News' take on last week's failed plot against Gordon Brown, the full version of which can be seen HERE.

Given my recent posts about the significance of speakers delaying before starting to speak (e.g. Jeremy Paxman) and pre-delicate hitches (e.g. Gordon Brown), the high spot for me was hearing Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health, more or less admitting that he's a candidate for the party leadership.

Suddenly confronted with the choice of saying "Yes" or "No" to the question "You don't want to be prime minister?", he goes for the standard politician's response of saying something other than a straight answer to the question.

But note the delay of one second, and the hitches before starting off again - with a blink and a smile that seem to imply "I know what you're up to but you won't catch me out on that one."

BURNHAM: We've got to get on with the job now of taking the fight to the Tories.

QUESTION: You don't want to be prime minister?

[1 second delay]

BURNHAM: I've got a great job as- (I've the uh-*) - Being health secretary is uh- the best privilege ...
(*Approximate transcription of inaudible words).

video

8 January 2010

'Let there be love' - a case of mistaken identity


Official statement for the benefit of anyone who might have stumbled across the above on YouTube:
  1. I am not the artiste.
  2. I've never heard of him before.
  3. I can't sing either.
Gravity Calling:

However, I do admit, with some considerable pride, that one of my sons is a professional musician, who can be seen and heard here playing keyboards on Flipron's latest album:


... more of which can be enjoyed HERE.

Two more straight answers from Mandelson - about failed coups and the PM's rages

Following up on the recent post about Lord Mandelson's two straight answers to Paxman's questions in the Newsnight interview after the failed coup, I've noticed two more - the meanings of which are quite revealing:
  1. Yes, this was another attempted coup and I've saved him again (without having to do a great deal), and
  2. yes, the prime minister does go into rages, but not on this occasion.
video

Brown & Harman: cabinet makers!


Checking on claims in some of the media that Harriet Harman might have been involved in the latest failed coup against Gordon Brown's leadership, I typed "Brown Harman" into Google - and made the astonishing discovery that they are in fact cabinet makers!

7 January 2010

Mandelson gives two straight answers to two of Paxman's questions!

video

Only six months after posting a rare video clip in which a politician (Charles Clarke) gave a straight answer to an interviewer's question, I was amazed to see yet another example last night- twice in quick succession - of the same thing happening in Jeremy Paxman's interview with Lord Mandelson on Newsnight.

Interestingly, both Clarke and Mandelson were both answering questions about Gordon Brown - in marked contrast with Clarke's comments on Brown after the loss of the Norwich North by-election and the day when Mandelson's response to a similar question about Brown was to walk out of the interview altogether.

Evidence that a straight answer surprises interviewers?

Apart from being please to add another exception to my small collection of politicians actually answering questions, I was also struck by the delays before Paxman managed to come up with each of his next questions.

As you'll see, Mandelson's "Yes" came instantly after the end of the first question, but there was a gap of more than a second before Paxman asked his next one, to which Mandelson instantly came up with another straight answer - followed by a delay of about half a second before Paxman carried on.

These might seem slight pauses, but we know from research into conversation that silences as long as one fifth of a second are not only rare, but also tend to be noticed by other participants (and/or observers).

A blast from Mandelson's past?

This particular sequence reminded me of Brian Walden's interview with Nigel Lawson, just after the former chancellor had resigned from the Thatcher government in 1989.

When Lawson gave remarkably straight answers to the first few questions, Walden looked visibly perplexed and, perhaps for the only time, seemed to be struggling to keep the interview going long enough to fill the scheduled slot.

Before going into politics, Mandelson used to work for LWT as a producer on Walden's Weekend World programme - which is, perhaps, where he learned that even top interviewers can find straight answers to questions quite disconcerting.

RELATED POSTS:

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

Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

6 January 2010

Gordon Brown's plotting comes home to roost again

Today's news about more plots against Gordon Brown by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt is only the latest reminder that Brown himself had spent years plotting to remove and replace Tony Blair.

A slightly more subtle reminder was the extraordinary speech he made in November 'supporting' Blair's candidacy for the presidency of the European Council. 'Supporting' is in inverted commas because his 'support' was preceded by no fewer than seven pre-delicate hitches in quick succession.

Regular readers will know that pre-delicate hitches are things like 'uhs', 'ums' and false starts that often come just before a speaker says something that he/she thinks is rather delicate - e.g. when Brown was defending former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, or when Hillary Clinton was threatening North Korea with consequences.

In this case, the question is: what was so delicate about it his support for Blair that he prefaced it with so many hitches?

Was it that he was finding it difficult to 'support' the very person he'd been plotting and briefing against for years?

Or was it that he that, given his well-known hostility towards Blair, he knew that no one would believe him - however 'clearly' he said it?

BROWN:
Uh-
let-let me say very very clearly that we
uh-the British
uh-government
uh-believe that
uh- Tony Blair would be an excellent
uh-candidate and an excellent person to hold the job of president of the Council …

video

4 January 2010

Do interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences?

Regular readers will know that I have serious reservations about the way speeches have steadily given way to broadcast interviews as the main form of political communication in Britain (a selection of posts on which can be found at the bottom of this page).

So if you think that I might be dreading the thought of having to put up with the boredom, tedium and repetitive evasiveness that's awaiting us between now and the general election, you'd be dead right.

Masochists wanting to prepare themselves for the ordeal need look no further than Andrew Marr’s interview with Gordon Brown yesterday morning (see above or HERE for full transcript).

The big story was latched on to by quite a few commentators, including the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, who noted in his blog that:

“.. the interview was memorable … for a slip - on election timing…”

This reminded me of a question that first occurred to me after the 1987 general election, namely:

Has any broadcast interview ever generated any good news for a politician?

If you can think of an example of this happening, I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, here’s a summary of the conclusions John Heritage and I reached in a paper we presented at a conference at Essex University after the 1987 election. Unfortunately I'm having to rely on fading memory, as Heritage migrated to UCLA shortly afterwards, which meant that we never got round to writing it up for publication. I do, however, clearly remember the title of the paper:

‘A SNAKES & LADDERS THEORY OF POLITICAL COMMUNICATION'

Ladders

Our general argument was that speeches work like 'ladders' that can move you up towards a winning position on the board, whereas interviews work like 'snakes' that can only move you downwards.

The advantage of speeches is that politicians (and/or their speechwriters) have total control over both what they say and how they say it. Skillful deployment of rhetoric and imagery can produce punchy lines that get noticed and selected as sound bites for evening news programmes and as headlines for the next morning’s newspapers.

An added bonus is that an audience of millions gets to see and hear the cheers, applause and enthusiasm coming from the local audience of a few hundreds or thousands.

Snakes

But being interviewed is like walking a tight rope. Success means getting to to the end of it without falling off - for which your reward is little or nothing in the way of positive news about what you actually said. Its only chance of becoming newsworthy is if you slip up, as Mr Brown did on Sunday, when he more or less revealed the date of the election. And slips hardly ever generate news that puts you in a good light.

In other words, our argument was that interviews are only capable of generating negative news for the politician.

Three notable examples of the Q-A format leading to negative stories about political leaders stood out during the 1987 general election.

1. Thatcher says she'll go on and on - and on

In an interview with Mrs Thatcher, Robin Day asked her if this, the third election in which she'd led the Conservative party, would be her last election – to which she replied “No, Mr Day. I intend to go on and on”.

Her two-part list was promptly extended to “on and on and on” both by headline writers and by Labour party leader Neil Kinnock in a speech a few days later, in which he used it as the second part of a powerful contrast:

“A leader who has let unemployment go up and up and up and up should not be allowed to go on and on and on” - a line that was singled out and replayed on most prime-time news bulletins (i.e. it took him, albeit temporarily, up a 'ladder' on the Snakes & Ladders board).

2. Kinnock says we’ll take to the mountains to fight the Russians

Meanwhile, unilateral nuclear disarmament was still at the heart of Labour’s defence policy in 1987.

When pressed on this in an interview, Neil Kinnock said that people would take to the hills and fight, thereby rendering any Soviet occupation of the UK “totally untenable” – lines that generated a huge amount of damaging publicity for him and his party (taking him down a 'snake' on the board).

3. The two Davids and Ask the Alliance Rallies

The SDP and Liberal Party fought the 1987 election as the Alliance under two leaders, David Steel (Lib) and David Owen (SDP). Until close to the end of the campaign, neither of them made any set- piece speeches at all, as they’d decided to run events called ‘Ask the Alliance’ rallies (probably because Steel was a better public speaker and Owen didn't want to be outshone by him).

The ‘rallies’ involved members of the public reading out prepared questions to the leaders, who then ad-libbed their answers. I don’t remember a single positive quotation from either of them that made the headlines. But I do remember saying that they came across like Gardeners’ Question Time on a bad day.

What little media interest they did generate mainly concentrated on the question of how well or badly the format was working, but reported little of what either of them had actually said.

Will 2010 be the first general election with no speeches, no rallies and no excitement?

Given the benefits that can come from making speeches to enthusiastic crowds (look no further than the success of Barack Obama's journey from nowhere), I remain completely baffled by the logic of our politicians’ apparent preference for doing endless interviews rather than letting us judge what they want to say and how they want to say it to audience at lively rallies.

After all, if you're going to play Snakes and Ladders, why on earth would you chose to spend all your time landing on Snakes and avoid the Ladders altogether?

The answer, I fear, is that our politicians have fallen into a bigger trap set for them by a mass media that's more obsessed with increasing their control and decreasing their costs than they are with what audiences find boring or interesting about politics and politicians. Otherwise, how could anyone get so excited about the dreary prospect of lengthy televised election 'debates' between party leaders?

But accountants at the BBC, ITV and Sky News, of course, have every reason to get excited by the hustings being transferred to television studios. The fewer reporters and camera crews they have to send to film speeches at rallies around the country, the lower their costs will be - the net result of which looks like being the most tedious and boring election on record.

Fewer snakes and more ladders, please!

If I were still active in advising a political leader, I'd be urging him to ignore the new rules set by a misguided media and to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement and building some momentum.

The media would have no choice but to cover them, and the wider public would surely find them a bit more lively than more and more interviews in which we have to wait longer and longer, on the off-chance that someone will slip up and make it interesting enough to become news.

RELATED POSTS:

Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are bad television?

‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place

Is the media no longer interested in what goes on in parliament?

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