28 December 2011

Does Nick Clegg's new year message work for you?



Last week, I asked whether Ed Miliband's Christmas message to our armed forces worked for you, to which the comments received suggested that the answer was "No" (HERE).

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's 'New Year message' has raised the same question for me: "I don't think this quite works, but have yet to figure out exactly why. Comments and/or suggestions welcome..."

25 December 2011

More gobbledygook from the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Christmas sermon



I wasn't planning to do a blog post today, but couldn't resist it when I saw this clip from the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas day sermon.

On previous occasions, I've noted what a hopeless communicator he is (e.g. Inward clutter' in the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon and What does a 147 sentence word sound like?).

Here's another masterpiece. At only 53 words, it may be only about three and a half times longer that the average number of words per sentence in an effective speech (16 words), But does anyone (other than perhaps him) have a clue what it means?

"Whether it is an urban rioter, mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today's financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark."

Other gems from the sermon quoted on the BBC website (HERE) included:

"And the almost forgotten words of the Long Exhortation in the Communion Service, telling people what questions they should ask themselves before coming to the Sacrament, show a keen critical awareness of the new economic order that, in the mid 16th century, was piling up assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite" (60 words).

And the much briefer, but equally unintelligible:

"The Prayer Book is a treasury of words and phrases that are still for countless English-speaking people the nearest you can come to an adequate language for the mysteries of faith."

Atoms spinning apart in the dark?
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband appointed Tim Livesey, a former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury as his chief of staff only a few days ago. As it said in the Guardian 'Livesey...has been involved in some of the archbishop's more controversial speeches, including one suggesting that sharia law was inevitable in the UK.'

Maybe Miliband knows something we don't, or maybe Livesey isn't as barmy as his former boss.

But it's going to be interesting to see whether or not he's able to give the Labour Party good value for money and their leader some some much needed improvement in his speech-making...

23 December 2011

Is there still time to learn from a video of yourself speaking to an audience?


Caught on camera
Browsing through YouTube the other day, I was suprised - and not sure whether to be flattered or annoyed - to come across this clip from a lecture I gave in Copenhagen last year.

Yes, I may have spent decades making, collecting and commenting on videotapes of other people speaking. But, like so many others, I don't much like watching myself in action - which raises the question of why I've decided to draw attention to it with this post?

The short answer is that it made me realise how very few clips I've ever seen of myself actually speaking to an audience. So it gives me a chance to treat my performance as data and to analyse where there might be room for improvement - if it's not too late for that.

It also gives anyone else a chance to do the same - and especially those of you who've had to put up with my feedback on your efforts during courses or coaching sessions. It only seems fair to let you have a chance get your own back on me.

For what they're worth, here are a few of the things that occurred to me.

Pluses & minuses?
Eye-contact with the audience was better than I'd expected, and I was gratified to hear a few laughs from the audience so close to the start of the lecture, when getting their attention is so crucial.

The pace of the delivery also rather surprised me. I don't know whether I pause as often or for as long as I do here when I'm speaking to native speakers of English, but did wonder whether it was rather too slow and ponderous. I was, however, very conscious that almost everyone in this particular audience was a native speaker of Danish.

Mumbling monotone?
There were moments of mumbling that took me back to my first attempts at lecturing more than forty years ago. I was aware then that even the remnants (?) of a Yorkshire accent can come across as flat and monotonous to those who come from anywhere else, and that sounding a bit livelier was something that I was always going to have to work hard at - on this evidence: "still room for improvement."

Where's his jacket?
In a previous blog post (HERE), I recalled a course that I'd attended more than 4o years ago:

"... while I was being video-taped doing a lecture on a course for new university lecturers, the studio lights were so hot that I took my jacket off. At the feedback session, it became a matter for discussion: the tutor stopped the tape with the words, “Here’s a speaker who really means business.” Though nothing could have been further from the truth, the realisation that some people might see it that way has made jacket removal a routine prelude to almost every lecture I have ever given since then."

I still don't know whether speaking in shirtsleeves gives the impression that I "really mean business". What I do know that it helps to keep the sweat under control, which makes me feel marginally more comfortable than would otherwise be the case.

Nor, until or unless someone makes a very strong case that I shouldn't do it, is it something that I plan to do any differently in the near future.

Retirement beckons?
And a near future is all that's left to one who's already qualified for the old age pension and a bus-pass. Gone are the days from a distant past when I used to worry that audiences would think me too young to be taken seriously.

Today, the problem has become the opposite: how are you to know if and when an audience thinks that you're past your sell-by date and really ought to pack it in forthwith?

On the basis of this video clip (aided and abetted by the bias of my own eyes and ears) he doesn't look or sound too much like an old fogey (yet).

But will he ever know when to stop and how will he ever know when that time has arrived - unless he starts to forget crucial points he was planning to mention, falls off the stage or comes across as a doddering old fool?

For all he knows, he may be already there - and might even have been there for quite a while.

So maybe the answer should come from the world of sport - where the sensible few retire before they start losing (or get dropped from the team) - in which case, the safest option may be to call it a day sooner rather than later...

20 December 2011

15 December 2011

Prose for Putin: Christmas speechwriting competition, 2011

The best laid plans of mice, men and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin don't always go as smoothly as intended (e.g. HERE).

So, for this year's Christmas competition, you are cordially invited to write a short speech outlining Mr Putin's message to supporters and/or opponents for 2o12.

Prizes
As usual, the winner will receive a signed copy of Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations with a signed copy of Speech-Making and Presentation Made Easy for the runner up.

How to enter
Entries in Comments below and/or email before midnight on 31 December 2011 (see 'View my complete profile' in left hand column for link).

13 December 2011

A blog for all seasons

Although I took my laptop with me on a recent holiday in the Canary Islands, I found it surprisingly easy not to take it out of its case for a whole week. That meant no blogging, no tweeting and getting out of habit if doing either.

A further incentive to do neither came from the curious fact that, in spite of no new blog posts during that period, the number of blog hits increased dramatically - and now averages twice as many as usual.

All has now been explained by a bit of rather obvious research.

Three years ago, I posted The Office Christmas Party: roads to failure and success.

Two years ago, I posted Christmas competition:What did Santa say before 'Ho-ho-ho'?.

60% of today's visits landed on one or other of these posts after Google searches for things like 'christmas party speeches' and 'christmas santa'.

The moral of the story for bloggers wanting to attract more visitors seems obvious: go through a calendar of the year and devise 'topical' posts for all seasons that will be come up on search engines year after year after year after year. Whether or not I can be bothered, however, remains to be seen...

28 November 2011

Oxford puts degrees (and gowns) from other universities in their place

The annual College Record of the Oxford college where I was a Fellow for twelve enjoyable years has just arrived via snail-mail, revealing that one of the more bizarre manifestations of the university's superiority complex is still very much in evidence.

MA, Oxford?

I had arrived there after teaching at 'plate glass' (Lancaster) and 'red brick' (Manchester) universities, having previously acquired a 'red brick' BA and a 'plate glass' PhD. Such qualifications were not, however, enough for me to be allowed to supervise graduate students in as hallowed a place as Oxford. For that, I also had to acquire a locally awarded 'MA'.

For graduates of Oxford University, the normal route is pretty straightforward: all you have to do after your first degree is not to take any more exams, wait around for a few years and pay a fee for your BA to be automatically 'upgraded' to an MA.

For the rest of us to be allowed anywhere near a graduate student, we first had to be elevated to 'MA Status', achieved by the even simpler procedure of signing a form, returning it to the university offices and paying nothing at all.

MA Status, Oxford?

The year before this happened to me, my name in the College Record was followed by 'BA Reading, PhD, Essex'. The following year, the actual degrees were relegated to their proper place, i.e. in brackets after the more important news: 'MA Status (BA, Reading, PhD, Essex)'.

In the latest College Record, the brackets after names are still there, but 'MA Status' has been replaced by 'MA' - thereby implying that the person in question had been a proper Oxford graduate all along and in the first place, even if s/he had had to spend a few years somewhere else to pick up another degree or two.

One name on the current list caught my attention as something that might amuse (or annoy) American readers and/or graduates of Cambridge (England), followed as it is by: 'MA (BA Harvard, MSA George Washington, PhD Cambridge)'.

Q: What to wear for tea on an Oxford college lawn?

Nor was the elevation of fake local 'degrees' above proper degrees from other places the only evidence of Oxford asserting itself. 'MA Status' also entitled you to wear proper dress for formal dinners and other official occasions (i.e. an Oxford MA gown and hood - top right).

Each year, those of us blessed with 'MA Satus' would also get a luxurious-looking invitation, edged in gold leaf, to Encaenia (the honorary degree ceremony), followed by tea and strawberries on the Vice-Chancellor's college lawn.

At the bottom there was another invitation inviting you to turn over the page - where there was a reassuring message that, if my memory serves me correctly, went as follows:

'Graduates of universities other than Oxford and Cambridge may like to know that, on this occasion, they are permitted to wear the academic robes of their originating institutions.'

A: Robes by Essex man

So one year, mainly for my own amusement and education (as I'd never seen them before then), I went to the expense of hiring Essex PhD robes (above left) - designed in the 1960s by Hardy Amies, a local Essex boy who'd become dress-designer to the Queen.

That, you might think, should impress the locals with a real touch of class - except that I'm pretty sure it didn't...

24 November 2011

Hugh Grant: more articulate as himself than in the parts he plays



A few weeks ago, after hearing a presentation by Melvyn Bragg, I made the point that effective broadcasters aren't necessarily as effective when it comes to public speaking (HERE).

I've also commented on how famous actors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, aren't always particularly effective at making speeches either:

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

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

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

'In fact, the only example of an actor who did become a great public speaker that I can think of is Ronald Reagan, but he’d already been rolling his own speeches on the lecture circuit for General Electric long before he became Governor of California...'
(more HERE)

An articulate spokesman
Hugh Grant's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking (e.g. above), as well as some of his earlier performances on Newsnight and Question Time, suggests that he might be another interesting exception that proves a rule, namely that a professional actor can sometimes come across as far more articulate in person than as the stuttering bumbling characters they've become best known for playing in their films.

In fact, having watched him doing both, I'm beginning to think that he must be a rather better actor than I'd originally thought:

22 November 2011

700th blog post: English and the problem of communicating with foreigners

First, a very big thank you to everyone who came up with ideas after my Twitter appeal about my 700th blog post. There were so many good ones, plus some funny and some verging on the obscure, that I was initially tempted to reproduce the list (below) and leave it at that:
  1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest speech ever - and why? @MartinShovel
  2. Sound-bite culture and the death of political oratory? @lordbonkers
  3. Relationship btw written text and spoken word? @dirkvl
  4. How should scientists address the public? @nhsgooroo
  5. How to keep your presentation fresh after you've done it 700 times @podiumcoaching
  6. How about something involving 7 - like your 7 favourite posts from the last 699, or your top 7 tips for a public speaker? @philpresents
  7. What about great female speakers? Or what attributes women have to be powerful speakers versus their male cntrprts. @frankluempers
  8. "Why?", "10 things I learnt thru blogging", "If I started again...", "The next 300..." ... ;-) @cuchullainn
  9. 1400th century history as it was 700 years ago. @campbellclaret
  10. Speeches that aren't famous but should be. What have we missed that was amazing? @karinjr
  11. The impact of luck on your life -- Lucky #700 or reverse the no's & be cryptic as in 007. @wendycherwinski
  12. Something I've always remembered from 1 of yr books - why audiences pay less attention than indivs. Always stuck with me @DillyTalk
  13. Speechmaking in multilingual events @HadleighRoberts
  14. Using religious imagery/metaphors in public speaking? @carlquilliam
  15. A recap of your favorites or most popular posts @TravisDahle
  16. How about a post highlighting your 10 favorites? It would be nice to "unbury" those posts & give them new life @MrMediaTraining
  17. Studyof rhetoric in The Lord's Prayer @aaronwood
  18. "The 7 Deadly Sins of The Lonesome Speaker"? @MarionChapsal
  19. After 700 posts, what haven't you written about? @johnwatkis
  20. Something hearkening back to order in the court? Categorisation in the production of contrast pairs? @Edward_Reynolds
  21. "On lists of 10, counting, numbers and facts" @Edward_Reynolds
  22. Consider issues raised in my field e.g a speaker makes a joke, the EN audience laugh, the FR needs interpret. & laughs... @HadleighRoberts
  23. Also, given your emphasis on words and structure, does interpreting (meaning and concepts) ultimately ruin a speech? @HadleighRoberts
  24. There's an idea for your 700th post: write it in French! @philpresents
  25. Voilà une idée qu'elle est bonne! @MarionChapsal
  26. What about guest bloggers from all around the world? The 7 Continents Blog Post! @MarionChapsal
  27. Blog in Franglais? Will look forward to seeing where you put the "Focus" @spek2all
  28. Speeches delivered in langs other than English/translated great speeches? @nhs999
  29. How about something on comic timing? Just enjoying fellow Liverpudlian Ken Dodd on TV @LordRennard
So plenty of inspiration there to keep me blogging for a while.

I'll resist the temptation to blog in French, as suggested by Phil Waknell (24) and Marion Chapsal (25). But the question of how we ever manage to communicate effectively with people who speak different languages is an interesting one, especially for native speakers of English who tend to assume that everyone else speaks it too.

'Simplification' isn't always the answer
The first time I ever spoke at a conference where most of the audience were non-native speakers of English, I quickly became aware that they weren't understanding much of what I was saying. So I started to make it simpler - or so I thought.

In retrospect, I realised that my pitiful attempt to make things 'simpler' had led me to use more and more slang and colloquial expressions than I would ever normally do in an academic lecture. These may have made it easier for the native speakers of English to understand, but had made it far more more difficult for everyone else.

Translate jokes or tell the audience to laugh?
A former colleague of mine, who was a fluent speaker and teacher of Russian, used to be hired to do simultaneous translation for visitors from the (then) Soviet Union at major civic events. One of his problems was that the speeches by 'locals' often included jokes that he found quite impossible to translate.

His solution was to say in Russian something along the lines of "he's just told a joke that I can't translate into Russian, so you had all better start laughing - NOW" - which apparently worked well enough for the locals to think that their guests had both understood and appreciated the joke they'd just heard.

What did they really mean?
I once worked with a graduate student, whose bilingual abilities in English and Japanese enabled her to earn fees that more than paid for her higher education. On one occasion when she got back from a high level business meeting where she'd been doing simultaneous translation from Japanese for her British clients, I asked her how it had gone.

"OK as far as it went - but I do think that they should pay me for an extra hour afterwards to tell them what I think they really meant."

Does it matter?
With so much hanging on recent meetings between Euro-zone leaders, not to mention other important 'conversations' taking place elsewhere in our ever more 'globalized' world, a question that comes to mind is: how much should we worry about our reliance on simultaneous translation and/or the pretence that everyone speaks or understands English as well as we do?

18 November 2011

Baby talk on BBC daytime television?

As our dog likes watching television (day and night), she sometimes introduces me to the wonders of daytime TV.

In one of these shows - BBC's Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is - the random intonation of the unseen presenter's voice struck me as being bizarre enough to be worth a quick trawl through YouTube for a specimen:


My researches also led to a TV Guide, where the first comment on the show was headed 'Rubbish voice over'. Others included:
  • Still same rubbish, inane voice-over on this new series.
  • Childish voice over.
  • Can anyone do anything about the patronising and childish commentary?
  • An interesting programme which is spoiled each day by the childish voice over and empty nicknames.
So I wasn't alone in thinking that there was something odd about the commentary. Nor was I altogether surprised that some were describing the stresses on random words and intonational shifts up and down as 'childish'.

But I'm not completely convinced that it's quite the same as 'baby talk' or 'motherese' (HERE), which is supposed to help infants in language acquisition. That presumably involves exaggerating stress and intonation in ways that are relevant to the context and the particular words being used - which is not, as far as I can hear, the case with the voiceover in this show.

The only possible explanation I've been able to come up with is that he has perhaps been coached by the same person as Robert Peston and Rory Bremner:

17 November 2011

Sepp Blatter lands on a racist snake



In previous posts on the snakes & ladders theory of political communication (e.g. HERE and HERE), I've made the point that interviews (unlike speeches) hardly ever generate anything but bad news for politicians.

Strictly speaking, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter may not be a politician, but his ill-chosen words about racism in football are a classic example of the way in which a few seconds from a ten minute interview (which, if you can bear it, you can watch in full HERE) can land anyone on a snake that becomes damaging headline news.

Nor, of course, is it the first time that this master of the gaffe has made a fool of himself in front of a mass audience. I still think that the way in which, having appointed himself to present the World Cup to the winners in South Africa, he pushed President Zuma out of the way should have been grounds for his instant dismissal (below - and for more on which see HERE).

But he's still there eighteen months later and is, I fear, likely to remain as irremovable as ever...

15 November 2011

Rick Perry and the Spanish Inquisition


Last week, I was so busy preparing a keynote address for the annual conference of the UK & Ireland Toastmasters that I missed this spectacular failure to remember a third item in a list.

There are quite a lot of posts on this blog showing speakers making rather more effective use of three-part lists than Mr Perry, as well as a brief summary of the late Gail Jefferson's work on their recurrence in everyday conversation Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?

The above clip also reminded me that classic comedy shows have also sometimes played on a speaker's failure to remember all the items in a list, as in this excerpt from the Spanish Inquisition sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus - where all goes well until Michael Palin makes the mistake of trying to add a fourth item:

14 November 2011

Presentation tip: beware of flip charts on wheels

In previous posts (and books), I've written favourably about writing on blackboards and flip charts (e.g. HERE + links).

But on Saturday, in the middle of a lecture to 200+ people, I suddenly realised that there was a rather important point that I'd failed to mention, namely: if the flip chart has wheels, make sure you LOCK THEM before trying to write anything on it.

Disaster averted
As the chart began falling backwards, the screen (on which I was about to show video clips on which the rest of my lecture depended) started to follow suit. Total disaster was only kept at bay by the weight of the curtain behind the stage and the quick reflexes of one of the organisers, who pushed the flip chart back on to the stage and locked its wheels.

A stunt worth repeating?
The huge amounts of laughter prompted by its sudden reappearance have now raised the question of whether such a stunt might be worth developing (and rehearsing) for use on another occasion?

I'm pretty sure that my blood pressure isn't up to risking it again - but, if anyone else would like to try it for themselves, I'd be delighted to hear whether it achieves a similarly positive impact.

10 November 2011

Murdoch, the Mafia and the manufacture of a misleading soundbite


There were two reasons why I was amazed to see the above highly edited clip being played on ITN's News at Ten this evening.

One was that ITN had cut out - without any mention of the fact that they had done so - two whole minutes of what had happened between Tom Watson's first and last question in this particular sequence.

The other was that, within seconds of the exchange, Twitter had been alive with news that this would be the sound bite from the 2.5 hours interrogation of James Murdoch by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

And so indeed it turned out to be.

But, for the benefit of those who only saw ITN's News at Ten (and/or anyone else who hadn't been following the whole story during the day), shouldn't there have been at least some indication that the sequence portrayed did not take place in quite the way they were making out?

You can compare ITN's version (above) with the full sequence (below) - in which the 'second' question from Tom Watson comes almost two minutes after the first one:


9 November 2011

Communicator of the Year acceptance speech: Hitchcock or Hogan?


At first I thought that the way to solve a problem that's been haunting me in the days before receiving the 'Communicator of the Year, 2011' award from Toastmasters International (UK & Ireland) on Saturday would be to emulate the model brevity of Alfred Hitchcock's two-word Oscar acceptance speech in 1967: "Thank you".

However, as I'll be using video clips in my lecture, an alternative would be to add this one from Paul Hogan's advice to Oscar winners on the "three Gs" - which, as the conference is taking place in Glasgow, might just do the job...

P.S. Problem solved
Thanks to a comment on the previous post from Julien, to whom many thanks, the solution is now obvious: "I think you should do a Keira Knightley but with PowerPoint slides showing (with bullet points) exactly who you're thanking and their relationship to you in a series of hard-to-read-on-screen diagrams."

7 November 2011

Toastmasters International UK & Ireland: Communicator of the Year, 2011

A few months ago, I accepted an invitation to do a keynote lecture at the Toastmasters International conference in Glasgow this coming weekend.

Then I discovered that they had a surprise in store and were going to elevate me to Communicator of the Year, 2011 - "awarded by Toastmasters to individuals who have either helped promote public speaking/leadership or helped to develop understanding of the speaking and leadership worlds."

Speechlessness
To say that I was surprised to the point of speechlessness would be an understatement. But, having just posted a clip of Lyndon Johnson saying "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president", I'm pleased to say "I did not seek, but gratefully accept the nomination of Toastmasters for this award."

When writing hits the mark
From my point of view, what's particularly gratifying is that the award is apparently in recognition of the fact that quite a lot of members of Toastmasters have found my books on speech-making and presentation quite helpful.

As I've said to some who've written positively about them in the past, without such unsolicited comments, authors never quite know whether what they've written has hit the mark(s) they was aiming for. So to receive an award like this comes as both a welcome bonus and as an honour - for which I'm as surprised as I am grateful.

Downsides
The only trouble is that two sources of stress will now be haunting me for the rest of the week.

One is that the audience at the conference lecture on Saturday will no doubt be checking to see if my performance comes anywhere near to matching up to the title Communicator of the Year, 2011.

The other is that I might have to give a Toastmasters' equivalent of an Oscar acceptance speech - which, depending on how many people I decide to thank and whether or not I break down in tears, could take up longer than my allotted time...

3 November 2011

LBJ elected on this day in 1964: underrated president & underrated speaker


Today is the anniversary of Lyndon B Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater in the US presidential election of 1964.

Although presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama have all been recognised as great communicators, LBJ was no mean performer either. I hadn't realised this until seeing a clip shown by David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of The Day, in his presentation at this year's annual conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild.

I haven't been able to find the actual one he showed on YouTube, but the ones above and below are both historically interesting and well worth watching.

Had LBJ not become bogged down in the Vietnam war, his domestic political achievements, especially on civil rights, would have arguably earned him a place among the greatest of all American presidents. And, although he may not have been in the same league as Reagan or Obama in the oratory stakes, he was better at it than most.

31 October 2011

TV talk about prices: "£499" = a lot, "4-9-9" = a little


Not long after starting this blog, I had a slight moan about the way in which more and more TV advertisements were referring to prices in a way that bears little or no relationship to the way we talk about prices in everyday conversation (for more on which HERE):

"Commercials are telling us that an armchair priced at two hundred and ninety nine pounds costs 'two-nine-nine' and that a three-piece suite priced at four hundred and ninety nine pounds can be ours for 'four-nine-nine'. "

At the time, I suggested that there were two reasons why they were doing it:

"One is that it avoids having to mention high-sounding numbers like 'ninety' or 'a hundred'. The other is that these shorthand digital options save on costly air time: there are only three syllables in 'four-nine-nine' compared with eight syllables in 'four hundred and ninety nine pounds', which takes more than twice as long to say."

Three years later, this peculiar way of talking about prices is not only still on our screens, but the first of these reasons is arguably becoming rather more explicit. For example, in the above ad from Currys and PC World, we're told that we get "four hundred pounds off" for a first product that only costs "four-nine-nine", while the next one is "only five-nine-nine" or "four hundred pounds off".

In other words, the full (normal conversational) form is used to emphasise what a lot you "get off", whereas the digital (odd-sounding form) is used to emphasise how little the actual price is.

I can see how the ad agencies have managed to persuade their clients of the logic behind this bizarre usage, but very much doubt whether they have much in the way of hard evidence that it has the desired impact on TV viewers (for more on which, see HERE).

25 October 2011

Did Mr Lickley pause for longer than usual at this particular point in the Tabak trial?

Reports of the prosecution's closing statement to the jury at the trial of Vincent Tabak on the BBC and Sky News websites, have reminded me of what got me interested in studying rhetoric and persuasive language in in the first place.

Both websites cited, presumably verbatim, a contrast, the second part of which is a three-part list from the speech by prosecution barrister Mr Lickley:

"Vincent Tabak is very clever, he is intelligent.
"There is another side to Vincent Tabak. He is dishonest, deceitful and he is a liar."


In response to such rhetoric in a political speech, an audience might well have responded with applause. But in studying courtroom language, there was a methodological problem, summarised in an earlier post on the subject as follows:

'We had plenty of tapes of court hearings, but the absence of any audible responses from jurors during the proceedings meant there was no way of knowing which parts of what was being said were having a positive impact on the audience that really matters.

'The reason why applause in political speeches seemed a promising place to start was because it provides instant and unambiguous evidence that listeners are (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approve strongly enough of what’s just been said to show their approval of it (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.)' - for more on which, see HERE.

Tapes of court hearings?
Earlier this year, in a blog on Televising the Supreme Court: one small step towards a giant leap, I made the point that the original reasons for banning cameras and television from our courts had disappeared long before Paul Drew and I wrote Order in Court: the Organization of Verbal Interaction in Judicial Settings (Macmillan Press, 1978). Yet the best data we could get from courts in the UK had to come from observations and transcripts - though. ironically, we never had any trouble copying audio-tapes of American trials from colleagues in the USA.

More than 30 years later, the same constraint still applies, so that anyone anyone else foolish enough to take a technical interest in the detailed workings of courtroom language will still have to make do without access to the raw material of live recordings. Meanwhile, Sky News (perhaps from rather dubious financial motives) has been doing its best to break through the barriers (e.g. HERE, not to mention its recent coverage of the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor).

The core methodological frustration is still with us
As I was still working at the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies after writing Our Masters' Voices in 1984, people used to ask, quite rightly, if the findings had any implications for speeches made to jurors in courts - and I'd very much like to have been in a position to give them an empirically grounded answer.

As far as we could tell from the American tapes to which we had access, exactly the same rhetorical techniques were being used in prosecution and defence statements to juries. But, at the points where applause would have occurred in a political speech, counsel were tending to pause for longer than usual - as if they were allowing the jurors time to engage in 'mental applause' and approval for the point they had just made.

On the basis of trials I've observed in English courts, I'd say that much the same seems to happen here too. But, so long as researchers aren't allowed access to actual recordings, it's impossible to check this against hard evidence.

My guess would be that the prosecutor in the Tabak trial at Bristol Crown Court probably did pause for longer than usual after making the point that was quoted on the BBC and Sky News websites earlier today. But, without being able to listen to actual recordings, we shall never know...

Professional broadcasters should beware of saying "um" and "er"



The previous post on a famous broadcaster who speaks more effectively on television and radio than when he's lecturing (Melvyn Bragg) reminded me that there are also some professional broadcasters who punctuate their reports and interviews with rather more "ums" and "ers" than they should.

Someone I've noticed doing this is Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News. On turning to YouTube for possible examples, even I was surprised that I had to look no further than the very first clip I came across (above), in which you'll hear 37 "ums" and "ers" in 150 seconds - at a rate of about one every 4 seconds.

SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Ums and Ers
• Needless noises?
A normal feature of conversational speech is the way we punctuate much of what we say with ums and ers. But, for audiences trying to listen to a speech (or broadcast) this can become a major source of irritation, because presenters who retain their normal conversational umming/erring rate come across as hesitant, lacking in confidence, uncertain of their material and badly prepared.

• Don’t worry – I’ve started
In conversation, one of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new speaker’s turn, where we use them to avoid what might otherwise be heard as a potentially embarrassing silence - by indicating: "I'm not being impolite or disagreeable but am about to respond any second now". But some public speakers (and broadcasters) make a habit of starting almost every new sentence with an um or an er, of which they’re typically completely unaware of until they hear themselves on tape - when most are appalled by the negative impact they must have had on their audience.

• Hold on – I haven’t finished yet
Another place where we often um or er in conversation is when we suddenly find ourselves stuck for a word or name we need to be able to carry on. We know that, if we simply stay silent while searching for the word, someone else will use the pause as a chance for them to speak, thereby preventing us from finishing whatever it was we were about to say. So saying um or er is a simple and effective device for letting everyone know that you haven’t finished yet and that it’s still your turn.

• When pause-avoidance loses its point
If the primary functions of ums and ers in conversation are to avoid silences and reduce the chances of being interrupted, they lose their point in presentations and broadcasts. After all, presenters are not competing to hold the floor in the same was as in everyday conversation and, once in full flow, they certainly don't need to keep reminding us that they've just started a new sentence. As a result, umming/erring rates that would be perfectly normal and hardly noticed in everyday conversation stand out as needless distractions when heard from the mouths of presenters.

In defence of Mr Boulton?

In the particular clip above, it could be argued that Adam Boulton's umming/erring reflects his uncertainty in the face of two things that are new to him: (1) the gadget he's showing to the interviewer (and us) and (2) giving a televised

Tomorrow's World style demonstration that's far removed from his natural habitat of political interviewing and reporting.


But the reason I started looking for a video clip of him in the first place was that I'd often noticed (and been surprised by) the frequency of his umming and erring in his regular contributions on Sky News.

Nor, would it appear, am I alone in having done so - as his was one of the names mentioned on Twitter yesterday after I'd invited people to guess the identity of the umming/erring television news presenter about whom I was planning a blog.


P.S. BBC policy on ums & ers?

Long ago, I seem to remember being told that BBC Radio's policy towards editing out ums and
ers had changed over the years and I'd be curious to hear confirmation that this was indeed so (or not). Does anyone know whether that there was a time when all ums and ers were edited out of recorded BBC interviews with inexperienced interviewees as a matter of course, followed by a period when all of them were left in (to ensure greater 'authenticity') and eventually ending up with a 50:50 compromise in which some, but not all, were deleted? Or am I just dreaming?

21 October 2011

Effective broadcasters aren't always effective public speakers: the case of Melvyn Bragg

In his autobiography, the late Professor A.J. Ayer, noted that he'd been surprised to discover, when appearing long ago on BBC Radio's The Brains Trust, that broadcasting was very different from lecturing - in that it worked perfectly well for him and the other participants to speak at their normal conversational speed.

Last night, on the way out of Wells Cathedral after a lecture by Melvyn Bragg, I overheard a conversation between two other members of the audience that went as follows:

A: "There was too much to be able to take in."
B: "And he kept rambling off the subject with too many digressions."

I resisted the temptation to intervene with the strangers to express my complete agreement that he had indeed tried to cover far too much ground in a lecture that was also sadly lacking in structure and direction.

To these complaints, I would have added: "He also spoke far too quickly for a lecture, and especially one that went on for far too long" (i.e. 90 minutes).

Lecturing v. broadcasting
Bragg is, of course, a very experienced award-winning broadcaster - whose South Bank Show was seen as so crucial to London Weekend Television's franchise bid (after the 1990 Broadcasting Act) that he was one of a small group of staff who were paid multi-million pound 'golden handcuffs' to keep them with the company during and after the bid.

But, unlike Professor Ayer, he doesn't seem to have realised that lecturing calls for a rather different pace than broadcasting - not least because listeners are up against problem of trying to stay awake and pay attention to a far longer stream of talk than is ever the case in any of his television or radio programmes (or in everyday conversation, where the average length of turns at talk is about 8 seconds).

For radio listeners, eavesdropping on conversations, even intellectual ones like those on Bragg's In Our Time on BBC Radio 4, is easy enough. But he needs to learn that pausing much more frequently, and for much longer than you would ever do in a conversation (or on radio), is crucial to effective public speaking - and that includes lecturing.

In conversation, native speakers of English talk at a rate of about 180 words per minute, whereas the speed of effective public speakers is 120 words per minute (for more on which, see Lend Me Your Ears).

In this clip from a lecture by Melvyn Bragg marking Darwin's bicentenary at the Natural History Museum (where the acoustics sound remarkably similar to Wells Cathedral), the pauses are so infrequent and so short that his rate of delivery is just over 161 words per minute - i.e. much closer to conversational/broadcasting speeds than to the ideal for effective public speaking (longer version of video HERE):


Melvyn Bragg in his more natural broadcasting habitat
For comparative purposes, here's a clip of the conversational Melvyn Bragg interviewing Gore Vidal on the South Bank Show:

20 October 2011

Gaddafi as orator: a life in quotes - with thanks to Al Jazeera

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, I've been a regular visitor to the AlJazeera website to keep up with the latest news.

Today, they've posted a collection of quotations from Gaddafi which make fascinating reading - not just in themselves, but because most of them are even more bizarre than any of the entries to the 'doomed dictators speechwriting competition' earlier this year.

Al Jazeera's post on Gaddafi's oratory:
As soon as Muammar Gaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969, at the age of 27, he launched into a perplexing and controversial career as a speech-maker that now spans more than 40 decades. In scattershot diatribes that at times stretched to several hours, Gaddafi astounded audience at Libya and abroad.

Famously dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" by Ronald Reagan, the former president of the US, Gaddafi did little to dispel that nickname in his wild orations and writings. In 1975, he outlined his political philosophy in "The Green Book" which carried the subtitle, ""The Solution to the Problems of Democracy; The Social Basis to the Third Universal Theory."

No matter how he is remembered by history, Gaddafi’s legacy as an orator is assured. Here are some famous Gaddafi-isms from his nearly 42 years in power:

"I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level."
Remarks to a crowd including King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and having his microphone cut on March 30, 2009, as quoted by The Scotsman in the article "Gaddafi walks out of summit after attack on Saudi king" by Salah Nasrawi.

"There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet."
Spoken at a conference at Columbia University in New York City on March 23, 2008.

"I am convinced that the [Israel-Palestine] solution is to establish a democratic state for the Jews and the Palestinians, a state that will be called Palestine, Isratine, or whatever they want. This is the fundamental solution, or else the Jews will be annihilated in the future, because the Palestinians have [strategic] depth."
— Interview with Al Jazeera, March 27, 2007

"If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body."
— Excerpt from "The Green Book" (1975)

"[Abraham] Lincoln was a man who created himself from nothing without any help from outside or other people. I followed his struggles. I see certain similarities between him and me."
— Pulbished in The Pittsburgh Press on August 3, 1986, in the article "Gadhafi, the man the world loves to hate" by Marie Colvin.

"Irrespective of the conflict with America, it is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them at these horrifying and awesome events which are bound to awaken human conscience. When I was five, my brother was shot by an Israeli soldier, since then I have been dedicated to uniting the Arab countries throughout the Middle East and retain a trade flow with the West."
— Reaction to the September 11, 2001, attacks as quoted by CBSNews.com on September 12, 2001.

"All right, then nobody can complain if we ask pregnant women to make parachute jumps."
Defending his belief that women's "defects" meant that their place was in the home as quoted by TIME on July 23, 1975.

"Libya is an African country. May Allah help the Arabs and keep them away from us. We don't want anything to do with them. They did not fight with us against the Italians, and they did not fight with us against the Americans. They did not lift the sanctions and siege from us. On the contrary, they gloated at us, and benefited from our hardship…"
Interview with Al Jazeera, March 27, 2007

"There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonise Libya once again. This is impossible, impossible. We will fight until the last man and last woman to defend Libya from east to west, north to south."
audio message broadcast on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station, on August 25, as oppostion forces began as assault on Tripoli.

Related posts on speeches in Arabic:

19 October 2011

A not very fantastic speech from Dr Fox














Resignation speeches tend to be at their best when a cabinet minister has taken the initiative to resign, as in the cases of Sir Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Robin Cook.

So I wasn't expecting much from the statement by the departing Dr Fox in the House of Commons earlier today. Nor did we get very much.

Beforehand, journalists on Twitter were getting very excited:
"Liam Fox just entered commons after govt chief whip Patrick McLoughlin scanned chamber" @nicholaswatt

"Fox has arrived" @paulwaugh

"Fox arrives. Sits on back bench" @MichaelLCrick

During and after the speech, they weren't impressed:
"Astonishing stuff from Fox. Apparently doesn't realise he's done anything wrong. It's all the evil meeja out to get him, right?" @dlknowles

"Fox has the brass neck to blame the media for his downfall." @ayestotheright

"If it weren't for the media, Liam, you wouldn't have been found out. A bit rich to have a go at us now." @MASieghart

"Too much like an Oscar acceptance speech"
This tweet, from @AndrewSparrow of The Guardian, summed the whole thing up - and with a nice touch of irony...

More reactions:

15 October 2011

Two engaging women speakers from British politics - and two models for powerful women?


During the Labour Party conference last month, I raised the question of whether some of the party's leading women, such as Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and Harriet Harman, are better speakers than the party's current generation of leading men.

Shirley Williams
On hearing the 81 year old Shirley Williams speaking at the Wells Literary Festival the other night - along the lines of the above from a similar speech she made at the Stratford-upon- Avon Literary Festival - I realised that there's nothing particularly new about effective women speakers holding their own with their male contemporaries and rising to the higher reaches of the Labour Party (and later, in her case, within the SDP and Liberal Democrats too).

Long before Williams and the three male members of the 'gang of four' had broken away from Labour to form the SDP, she had been a cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments. And, from quite early in her political career, she was sometimes mentioned as a possible first woman Labour leader and even as a possible first ever woman prime minister.

Although these both eluded her, she's still not only a very engaging speaker, but also one who's retained an energy to rival many, if not most, speakers who are very much younger than she is. During her brief stay in Somerset this weekend, she was making speeches and taking questions from 1930-2130 on Friday night and from 0930-1130 and 1230-1400 on Saturday (i.e. for about 50% of the waking hours she was here).

As if that wasn't enough, she was planning to spend her train journey back to London reading a few more hundred pages of the health bill and its amendments in the current House of Lords debate in which she is playing a very active part.

Barbara Castle
Twenty years older than Shirley Williams was another leading figure in Harold Wilson's Labour government, the late Barbara Castle. I haven't been able to find any clips of her speeches on YouTube - where there seem to be more of Miranda Richardson playing her in the film Made in Dagenham than there are of the real Mrs Castle - but some of us are old enough to remember that she too was a much better than average public speaker.

Here's a typically assured performance from her in a TV interview from the early 1970s about the resignation of a defence minister and press intrusion in the private lives of public figures - a curiously topical coincidence to remind us that some issues are still making the headlines four decades later:


Castle, Williams and the Thatcher solution
In Our Masters' Voices and some of the blog posts below (especially HERE), I suggested that Margaret Thatcher had found a solution to the professional woman’s problem of being damned if they behave like a man and damned if they behave like a woman by being tough and decisive in her actions while being uncompromisingly female in her external appearance – and that this was summed up by the nickname the 'Iron Lady’, capturing as it does both 'strength' and 'femininity'.

In this respect, Barbara Castle, regarded in her day as being as tough, glamourous and well-dressed, came much closer to the Thatcher model for women politicians than Shirley Williams ever did.

The Williams alternative
At the time of writing Our Masters' Voices, I remember suggesting somewhere that Mrs Williams represented a rather different available role-model for women in politics than the one offered by Thatcher and Castle: the 'intellectual', ' blue-stockinged', 'untidy', 'verging on scruffy' stereotype of the female Oxbridge don (or Women's Institute lecturer).

As for whether she consciously developed such an image, there are at least two pieces of evidence that she is certainly aware of it in retrospect.

One is that she actually referred, without any prompting, to her erstwhile reputation for having untidy hair during the talk she gave on Friday night.

Clothes + fashion = frivolous waste of time peddled by supercilious saleswomen
The other evidence comes in the first chapter of her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (of which I'm now the proud owner of a signed copy), where she reveals that she already had little or no interest in clothes and fashion by the time she was 10 years old. Comparing herself with her mother, she writes:

'... she did allow herself some moments of frivolity. She loved clothes and used to take me with her while she tried on the elegant polka-dotted silk dresses and emphatic hats of the 1930s. A new hat or pair of gloves could lift her spirit for days. It was a pleasure I did not share. After the first ten minutes of each encounter with a supercilious sales lady, I began to think about ponies and tricycles, and to resent the waste of my time. These early experiences immunised me against both shopping and fashion. For years I bought the first thing that looked even vaguely as if it might suit me, though often it didn't.'

Related posts

12 October 2011

Imagery can take us to the frontiers of science - via scissors, generals and sentinels

People sometimes tell me that it's all very well to bang on about the power of using imagery to get messages across (as in 'Painting Pictures with Words', Lend Me Your Ears, Ch. 7 and various other posts on this blog), but that it won't help much if you're speaking about technical subjects, let alone taking an audience to the frontiers of science.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as can be seen in this clip from a TED talk by Professor Peter Donnelly, FRS, telling us about "chemical scissors which cut DNA whenever they see particular patterns":


A few days ago BBC Radio 4's Material World (listen again HERE) included a discussion of the contribution made by Professor Ralph Steinman who died just before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology. In this sequence, we're told that T cells act "as the generals of the army" and dendritic cells which "instruct T cells who to attack".

Interviewer Quentin Cooper picks up on "the generals in the army" analogy and suggests that dendritic cells are "almost like military intelligence". "Precisely", agrees the interviewee, before dubbing them as "sentinels for the immune system" and developing the point further...

10 October 2011

50 years of Private Eye: a story of retail, rejection and recognition

It's supposed to be a sure sign of growing older when you start thinking that police officers and doctors are getting younger. Another is when you realise that more and more significant anniversaries are taking place of events you think of as recent memories.

For me, the latest reminder of this is the news that it's 50 years since the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye was first published.

Not only do I remember it well, but I was also an early salesman and have been a subscriber and (very occasional) contributor ever since.

Retail
Selling the Eye outside university cafeterias was my first serious business venture. Lord Gnome had rightly seen students as a promising source of potential readers and had invited volunteers to join his sales force.

Once a fortnight, all I had to do was to go down to the station and collect my 6o copies of the latest edition, then priced at 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence, or 7.5 pence in new money) - for which I had to pay 1/- (one shilling, or 5 pence in new money) each, leaving a net profit of 30 shillings (£1.50 in new money) per fortnight.

These days, 75 pence a week may sound like a pittance. But when pubs sold a pint of beer for the equivalent of 7.5 pence, it was riches indeed.

Rejection
For years, I tried unsuccessfully to get Private Eye to publish my hilariously funny (?) cartoons, only to be bombarded with rejection slips suggesting that I should send them to Punch magazine (now coming up to the 10th anniversary of its demise in 2002).

I also rather regret that nothing I've written has ever made it into Pseuds' Corner, even though I know that such acclaim can have embarrassing consequences. Someone (and we haven't forgotten who you are) had successfully submitted a sentence from article about conversational turn-taking that one of my best friends had published in a learned journal.

When I told him that I was rather envious because nothing of mine had ever got into Pseuds' Corner, he warned of the dire consequences such recognition can have. It had been published a few days before he was due in Cambridge to serve as external examiner in a PhD viva. As he put it "they already think we're mad enough to be doing conversation analysis in the first place, without being able to rub it in by waving Private Eye at me before the meeting started."

Recognition
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that I finally managed to extract a cheque from Lord Gnome for a photograph that I'd taken of the village sign outside a village in Northamptonshire that bore the legend "Silverstone - please drive slowly."

Even then, it had seemed like another rejection for the many months it failed to appear in the I Spy feature, making me grumpier by the fortnight. Then, to give them their due, it turned out that they hadn't binned it after all, but had merely been waiting, with the journalistic flair we expect from Private Eye, to publish it the week before that year's British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

More recently, the Eye published another photograph I'd taken of a fly-posted planning notice from Mendip District Council - at a time when they were wasting unspecified amounts of council-tax payers' money on a campaign against fly-posting notices of forthcoming village events on 'items of street furniture', i.e. MDC jobsworthy jargon for telephone and electricity posts... (continued on p. 94).

Listen again: Lord Gnome aged 49 and 3 quarters - Michael Crick, BBC Radio 4 (8th October - for another 6 days).