20 November 2012

Parliament Week trailer: Ashdown & Atkinson in conversation

Tomorrow evening, Paddy Ashdown and I have been invited to an event organised by the UK Speecbwriters' Guild as part of Parliament Week 2012 (details HERE).

It's given me an excuse to rummage through some ancient video clips, and it occurred to me that those who won't be there tomorrow might like to see them.

A promising newcomer?
The first one dates from 1981, when he was still the prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil, and John Heritage and I were in the process of recording all the televised output from that year's three main political party conferences.


At this stage, Paddy wasn't really aware of how rhetoric works and has to break off when his three-part list prompts a burst of applause - looking vaguely surprised that it had brought so positive a response from the audience.


Nor, it appears had he given much thought to wearing a jacket and tie - and maybe he'll be able to tell us tomorrow night whether the lectern was hiding sandals.

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1987 General Election
After becoming an MP in 1983, Paddy was transport spokesman for the Liberals and had been lent a copy of my book Our Masters' Voices (1984) by a mutual friend (now Lord Bradshaw) who introduced us with a view to my helping the new MP with his speeches.

By the time of the 1987 General Election, Paddy had become the education spokesman for the SDP Liberal Alliance, which meant that he would have to speak when they launched their campaign at the Barbican.

So this was the first speech that we worked on together to be televised. A puzzle with an alliterative three-parted solution was among the lines that got the desired response. And one of these 'Rs' came from a Scrabble dictionary, which can be a useful resource for searching lists of words quickly and without being deflected by definitions.

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Although Our Masters' Voices had quite a lot to say about rhetorical devices like contrasts and three-part lists, it said little about the importance of imagery and story telling as ways of getting your message across. However, having by this stage become more involved in coaching people to make speeches and presentations, I'd become much more aware of how effective metaphors, similes, analogies and anecdotes could be.

And it was a contrastive simile that won both laughter and applause in this sequence:

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Liberal Party merger debate, 1988
Having fought the 1987 general election as two parties in an alliance, the Liberals and SDP turned to the question of whether they should become a single party.

Paddy was keen that they should, and planned to speak in support of merger at the special assembly early in 1988. I wrote a speech but did not go to the conference. On the train to the venue, one of his other advisors persuaded him to leave out every sentence I'd written - except for one.

To my great delight, it was the Tower of Babel/tower of strength contrast that  only line that was selected as a sound bite on prime-time news programmes. One of the commentators even claimed it was a 'clear statement' of Ashdown's intention to run for the leadership if a new party were formed (which it wasn't).

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Leadership campaign, 1988
Once Paddy had decided to run for the leadership of the new party, we spent weeks working with him on the speech in which he would announce his candidacy - not realising at the time that, for the next three weeks, he would need at least one new speech per day.

Amidst the ongoing panic that followed, I remember getting a note from one of the other writers saying "My price is a peerage, what's yours?" - but, for some strange reason, neither of us has (yet) been elevated to the House of Lords.

But I was quite pleased that a widely played sound bite from the speech was a simple three-part list in which yesterday, today and tomorrow were used as metaphors for past, present and future:

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The new leader
A few days before the result was announced, it became clear that our candidate was going to win. By then, the gains of the two parties at the 1987 election had been largely whittled away, and Paddy was well aware of the need to remind the public that the Alliance was still going strong (?) in a different form.

Reflecting on my brief to cook up some lines to get this across, I was stuck in one of those traffic jams on the M6 where there's so little movement that you have to turn the car engine off. 

Reaching for my pen and pad I started trying different possibilities and came up with a contrast between being "not only back in business, but mean business", which BBC political editor John Cole seem to think good enough to headline his introduction to live footage - of yet another three-part list.

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Who's helping?
I've often likened speechwriting as an occupation to being rather like robbing banks, in that you can't go around advertising your wares by boasting which speeches you wrote for whom. Nor, usually, can you expect a client to tell all his friends that he'd got someone else to help him.

But on this, Paddy had a different and refreshingly open approach. During his leadership campaign, he asked me if I would mind if he told the media who'd been helping him with his speeches. 

Initially, I wasn't convinced that this would be a good idea from his point of view, as my involvement in coaching someone to win a standing ovation at the 1984 SDP conference had earned me the name 'Dr Claptrap' in some quarters. But his line was that it was as rational to consult an 'expert' on speechmaking and rhetoric as it was to consult 'experts' on IT or any other field he felt he needed help with - 

At around that time, the director of communications of a large multi-national company told me it wouldn't do my business any good if it became known that I was associated with such losers as the Liberal Democrats.

Ten years later, I was still in business, Ashdown had more than doubled the number of Liberal Democrat MPs but the company of the director of communications had gone into liquidation a few years earlier.

Why?
As for why I got involved, I had been a keen supporter of the SDP and believed then (as I still believe now) that, if Ashdown didn't win the leadership of the new party, it would be the end of three party politics in the UK for at least a generation.

How much?
Party members who worry about how much I was paid by the Lib Dems during the twelve years I worked with Paddy will be relieved to know that it was a grand total of £0.00. In fact, given that I never charged for travel costs, it was actually a substantial minus figure - not least because, in those early years, all the Sainsbury cash had stayed with David Owen's rump SDP (before being diverted to 'New Labour').

For those of us whose journey to the Liberal Democrats was via the SDP, the Blair years were arguably  pretty much what the gang of four had been hoping for all those years ago...

12 November 2012

If John Nott & Peter Mandelson can walk out of TV interviews, so can the BBC's acting Director General



If his last interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme was what finally did for George Entwistle's stint as Director General, you'd think that his successor (albeit only 'acting' DG) might have had a little coaching on media interviews before venturing forth to speak to wider audiences.

But if he did, he doesn't seem to have been given, or at least didn't take, any advice either on the wearing of ties or the negative impression likely to be given by walking out of an interview (especially with 24 hour news competitor Sky News).

So here, on Tim Davie's second day in office, we have a welcome addition to my small collection of interviewees walking out of TV interviews.

What's in a tie?
Andy Turner has, perfectly reasonably, entered a comment asking what's the advice about ties (below)?

While it may be the case that wearing a tie is becoming more optional in the world of business and management than in the past, my advice is that the safest option for someone in charge of such a huge public organisation as the BBC is to wear one - not least because a very high percentage of licence payers are quite old and expect 'top people' to be 'properly dressed'.

This was brought home to me at a lunch today in our village hall at which the age range of those sitting at our table was between 65 and 80. Asked their impression of the BBC's acting Director General, all of them had noticed and disapproved of the fact that he wasn't wearing a tie. Some thought it too casual of him to be seen carrying a cup of coffee to the interview. And, those who saw the interview from which he walked out (above) were thoroughly appalled by his conduct.

So, Mr Turner, my advice to the BBC would be to make sure that Mr Davie not only buys a tie, but is seen to be wearing it when he goes on television...

And from Twitter:
Since posting this, some of the comments on Twitter support my view, including these:

@edstaite: "Also, in crises don't turn up for work brandishing coffee as if all OK. Not exactly 'getting a grip'"

@nigelfletcher: "Needed to step out of a car. in suit and tie, carrying a BBC portfolio. First impressions count."

OTHER WALKOUTS

7 November 2012

President Obama's victory speech & the return of rhetoric



It's four years since I posted 'Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech' (HERE), based on a line-by-line analysis of a piece that was originally commissioned by the Independent on Sunday. It is still by far the most frequently read post of the 961 that have appeared on this blog since it first started.

Now we have another victory speech to analyse, which will obviously take time to complete. In the meantime, this fascinating article from The Washington Post is well worth reading:

Obama’s victory speech: Behind the return of the president’s rhetoric
Posted by Ezra Klein on November 7, 2012 at 2:31 am

Judging from Twitter, President Obama’s rousing victory speech left most everyone with the same question: Where’s that guy been during the 2012 campaign?


There’s an answer to that question. The Obama campaign pored through the focus groups and the polls and came to believe that though voters were disappointed with Obama, they didn’t really hold the disappointments of the last few years against him. They figured no one could have delivered the kind of hope and change Obama had promised against an economy this bad, a Republican Party this intransigent, a world this dangerous.
But if they were willing to cut Obama some slack, they weren’t willing to let him make the same promises a second time. It was understandable that Obama couldn’t change Washington, but it was only forgivable so long as he stopped promising to change Washington. Fool me once, and all that.
The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They’d lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals. Rather than stopping the rise of the oceans — which sounded rather more fantastical before Sandy — Obama promised to train more teachers and boost manufacturing jobs.
What you saw tonight, however, was that Obama didn’t much like being that guy. He still wants to be the guy he was in 2008. He still wants to inspire and to unite. He still wants Americans to feel that the arc of history is bending under their pressure.  He still wants to talk about climate change and election reform and other problems that the Senate is not especially eager to solve.
This has been the tension at the center of the Obama White House for four years now. Hope and change don’t go together. The legislative process doesn’t leave people feeling very hopeful. But it’s the only mechanism the president really has to make change.
Tonight, however, President Obama wasn’t trying to get 60 votes in the Senate or to swing a few undecideds in Ohio. Tonight, he had finished the long grind of his last campaign, but he hadn’t begun the hard work of his second term. Tonight, he could be the candidate of both hope and change, if only for a little while.

1 November 2012

Clegg's reply to the Tory rebels weakened by lack of rehearsal

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As a former MEP who has worked for an EU commissioner, Nick Clegg is obviously better informed about Europe than most of our MPs.

Given yesterday's anti-EU vote in the House of Commons, it was therefore quite fortunate that he was booked to speak this morning at the Chatham House think-tank on international affairs - even if there wasn't much time to write much of a critique in time for today.

What a pity, then, that the Deputy Prime Minister didn't allow more time to rehearse what he wanted to say a few times before he said it. Had he done so, he wouldn't have had to spend so much time looking down at his script and might have even have managed a rather livelier and less 'wooden' delivery...