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:


Roger said...

He has of course been a member of the House of Lords for the past 13 years - be interesting to know if he gallops through his speeches there at the same speed.

Max Atkinson said...

Obviously something worth further research, Roger - though I rather doubt if anyone in the House of Lords would be awake enough to notice.

Max Atkinson said...

P.S. Since your comment, Roger, I've searched YouTube for specimens of him in action in the House of Lords - but no luck (so far).