BLOG INDEX: Sept 2008-May 2009

This is a list of everything posted since the blog started in September 2008.

It's updated at the end of each month, and you can access direct links to each one by clicking HERE or from the monthly lists on the left.

MAY 2009
• Ronald Reagan's moving tribute on the 40th anniversary of D Day
• Driving a car can make you look younger than you really are
• Planning to say 'um' and 'uh'
• The ‘delicacy’ of Mrs Clinton’s ‘consequences’ for North Korea
• Clinton on North Korea: "There are consequences to such actions"
• Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Oscar acceptance speech
• Obama’s nomination of Judge Sotomayor received five times more applause than ‘normal’
• Two tips for David Cameron after today’s speech on political change
• Bishops' attendance rates and allowances in the House of Lords
• Climbing out of the manure?
• Since when were Archbishops experts on democracy?
• Disputing the meaning of applause
• House of Lords expenses: Lord Rees-Mogg on gravy trains
• House of Lords expenses
• Goodbye from Mr Speaker
• What a fine Speaker!
• What a poor speaker!
• Sky Sports swindle
• Is the MPs' expenses scandal a hidden legacy of Thatcherism?
• Rhetoric wins applause for questioners on BBC Question Time
• Applause for Dimbleby's questions on BBC Question Time
• The liveliest Question Time ever?
• Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it
• MPs expenses claims merely reflect British attitudes towards home ownership
• Well, well Wells!
• A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions
• UK Speechwriters' Guild
• Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg
• Eye contact, public speaking and the case of President Zuma
• Chicago!
• Weatherization
• Notes from a large continent
• Are there more longer words in American English than in British English?
• Virgin mile-high poetry

APRIL 2009
• The Turnip Prize
• What’s the difference between a flu 'pandemic' and a flu 'epidemic'?
• Oxford professor models jeans
• A great source of videos for anyone interested in speaking and presentation
• A Tory leader's three evasive answers to the same question
• Jobsworthy News: Council official to walk along a path that doesn’t exist
• Was Kenneth in Wallanderland worth a BAFTA?
• A Labour leader with no interest in spin!
• David Cameron's attack on the Budget used some well-crafted rhetoric
• Gordon Brown seems to agree that Labour is ‘savage’ and ‘inhuman’?
• Poems for St George's Day
• Inspiring banking imagery for Budget day from Martin Luther King
• Budget speech boredom and television news tedium
• When the young Paddy Ashdown surprised himself by the power of his own rhetoric
• Obama’s rhetoric identifies with Martin Luther King but appeals to a wider audience
• A day when LibDems cheered at being told they all read a broadsheet newspaper
• Time for Gordon Brown to say "sorry" to savers
• Burnham, Kinnock and the danger of speaking in a sports stadium
• Derek Draper – another psycho-therapist who talks too much and listens too little?
• A smear that never was
• Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation
• Gordon Brown’s G20 address ignores an important tip from Winston Churchill
• Is there an open-mouthed school of acting?

MARCH 2009
• Gordon Brown is finding the Jacqui Smith expenses story more ‘delicate’ than he says
• ‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place
• Another Tory speech that marked the beginning of the end for a prime minister
• Rhetorical techniques and imagery in Hannan’s attack on Gordon Brown – edited highlights
• Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are ‘bad television’?
• Does Daniel Hannan’s attack on Brown tell us what makes a speech memorable?
• UK media slowly wakes up to Daniel Hannan’s speech
• Media Coverage of Daniel Hannan’s attack on Gordon Brown
• It’s time Brown stopped recycling other people’s lines
• Daniel Hannan v. Gordon Brown at the European Parliament
• Jargon and gobbledygook comedy sketch
• Check the fixtures and fittings before you speak
• Why haven't the Lib Dems learnt from Obama’s use of the internet?
• If Bill Gates doesn’t read bullet points from PowerPoint slides ...
• An imaginative innovation in a PowerPoint presentation?
• ‘From Stalin to Mr Bean’: putting two parts of a contrast in the right order
• How to improve impact by sequence, repetition and a rhetorical technique
• Brown’s ‘poetry’ heads up news of his speech to Congress
• Unexpected poetry in Gordon Brown's speech to the US Congress
• The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation
• Gordon Brown’s model example of how to express condolences

February 2009
• The day Barack Obama discovered his powers of oratory and rhetoric
• How to make reading a slide sound interesting
• PowerPoint style presentation continues to dominate BBC News – courtesy Robert Peston (again)
• The 'magic' of Oscar acceptance speeches
• Does Mrs Clinton really know someone everywhere she goes?
• Personality cult as an antidote to tribalism?
• Kenya holiday reading

• Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest democracy of all ?
• Rhetoric and imagery in President Obama’s inauguration speech
• The good news from the House of Lords
• Memorable lines in President Obama's inaugural speech?
• The great camcorder con-trick
• Obama’s inauguration rhetoric won approval for some uncomfortable messages
• Rhetoric and applause in Obama’s inaugural speech as a measure of what the audience liked best
• A line I don't want to hear in today's speech by President Obama
• The enduring challenge and importance of funeral orations
• Has talking the economy down become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophesy?
• Kate Winslet ignores Paul Hogan’s advice to award winners
• Slidomania epidemic contaminates another BBC channel
• How would Obama's rhetoric and oratory sound from a London back street?
• Clinton, Palin and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part III. The education of a female orator
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part II. ‘ The Iron Lady’
• Margaret Thatcher and the evolution of charismatic woman: Part I. Cultural and vocal challenges
• “May we bring hope” – 30 years since Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister

• Ready made words for Mr Obama from a previous president’s inaugural speech
• Neutrality in the Queen’s Christmas speech
• What did Santa say before “Ho, ho ho!”
• You don’t have to be Barack Obama to use rhetoric and imagery
• High-risk practical joke for an office Christmas party speech
• End of year poll on PowerPoint presentations
• Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory
• Gordon’s gaffe explained
• The Office Christmas Party Speech: roads to failure and success
• The Queen's Speech, 2008
• Rhetoric, oratory and Barack Obama's 'The Speech', 2004
• "There's nothing wrong with PowerPoint - until there's an audience"
• What’s in a place name?

• Content-free sermon by Alan Bennett
• 50 years since Peter Sellers recorded his memorable political speech
• Talking the economy up
• Talking the economy down
• Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?
• Tom Peters: High on rhetoric but low on content?
• Bobby Kennedy nearly got it right about Obama
• ‘Reliable sources' on where Obama’s 'Yes we can' came from
• Will there be any ‘rhetorical denial’ from the Obama camp?
• The Queen’s Speech: an exception that proves the ruler
• Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech
• Not Clinton, not McCain but Obama
• How the BBC handled one complaint about Ross

• Another BBC News Slideshow
• Don't put the clocks back
• BBC Television News: produced for or by morons?
• Experience and inexperience in presidential campaigns
• Presidential debates – tedious television but better than commercials
• A secret of eternal youth?
• PowerPoint Peston
• Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma
• Pesky Peston?
• ConVincing Cable
• 'Mature, grown-up and statesmanlike' at the lectern

• Cameron takes to the lectern in a crisis
• Objects as visual aids
• Powerpoint comes to church
• Mediated speeches -- whom do we really want to hear?
• Wisdom of forethought?
• Time for Cameron to surf applause?
• Did Gordon Brown take my advice?
• Eternity, eternity and eternity
• More tips for Gordon Brown
• Tips for Gordon Brown's conference speech

Ronald Reagan's moving tribute on the 40th anniversary of D Day

Iain Dale surely speaks for many of us in not being very pleased about the Queen's non-attendance at the Normandy commemorations.

To see how impressively D Day can be commemorated, have a look at Ronald Reagan's address to veterans on the 40th anniversary of the D Day landings. I think it's one of his greatest speeches, and find the anecdote about the late arrival of a Scot playing the bagpipes particularly moving (see below).

Other Allied countries represented at the ceremony by their heads of state and government were: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, King Olav V of Norway, King Baudouin I of Belgium, Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg, and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Canada.

Youu can watch the whole speech HERE and/or read it below:

PRESIDENT REAGAN: We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your ``lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.''

I think I know what you may be thinking right now -- thinking ``we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.'' Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren't. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him -- Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, ``Sorry I'm a few minutes late,'' as if he'd been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he'd just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's ``Matchbox Fleet'' and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought -- or felt in their hearts, though they couldn't know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m., in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying, and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day: their rockhard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we're about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: ``I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.''

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together.

There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall plan led to the Atlantic alliance -- a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They're still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose -- to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.

But we try always to be prepared for peace; prepared to deter aggression; prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms; and, yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It's fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the Earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that some day that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We are bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We're bound by reality. The strength of America's allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe's democracies. We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: ``I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.''

Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their value [valor], and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all

Driving a car can make you seem younger than you really are

Free bus passes for senior citizens are all very well, but not for anyone who isn’t very keen on revealing their age to a wider public (e.g. me).

Our village bus stop is much busier than it was before free bus passes, but it’s also become like a rolling PowerPoint presentation, continually updating the list of who’s passed a certain birthday for all to see.

Familiar faces that have never knowingly been anywhere near a bus in their lives, let alone been seen getting on or off one, suddenly and shamelessly flaunt themselves at the bus shelter, openly advertising the fact that they too are now old enough to qualify for free bus travel.

And that’s precisely why I stubbornly insist on using my car, without regard for my carbon footprint or the ease with which I could avoid parking hassles by coming clean about my eligibility for a bus pass.

Planning to say 'um' and 'uh'

For non-native speakers of English, learning how to use our definite article must be an absolute doddle compared with the problems I’ve always had in handling ‘le’, ‘la’ and ‘les in French and the even more complicated ‘der’, ‘die’, ‘das’, ‘die’, etc. in German (for which I achieved my worst failure ever with a pitiful 7% at 'O' level).

English nouns don’t have genders so ‘the’ works fine for all of them – except, of course, when we’re speaking. Nouns beginning with a consonant are indeed preceded by ‘the’, but, if the noun starts with a vowel, ‘the’ is pronounced ‘thee’ – so we say ‘the pub’ but ‘thee egg’.

Interestingly, the definite article often comes before ‘uhs’ and ‘ums’ when we're speaking. Even more interesting is the fact that, when it does, speakers invariably use the ‘thee’ form: ‘thee-uh’. The fact that the ‘the’ is fitted to an upcoming vowel sound presumably means that we know that an ‘uh’ or an ‘um’ is on its way before we select ‘thee’ rather than ‘the’.

On the evidence of Mrs Clinton's recent ‘consequences’ statement, she does it quite a lot as you can see from the following video clips:

1. "It has chosen to violate thee u-specific language of thee uh UN Security Council Resolution 1718."

2. ".. discussions are going on to uh add to thee uh consequences"

3. "I want to underscore thee uh commitments that the United States has"

The interesting question for people who know more than I do about languages other than English is whether they too involve planned 'ums' and 'uhs' - and, if so, what form does it take?

For example, do German speakers project an upcoming masculine, feminine or neutral noun with 'der uh', 'die uh' or 'das uh'? And what happens in languages that don't have definite articles at all?

The ‘delicacy’ of Mrs Clinton’s ‘consequences’ for North Korea

First of all, thanks to those of you who took the trouble to make comments about Mrs Clinton’s ‘Consequences’ statement (posted yesterday) – not only because I found them interesting and agree with much of what you said, but also because it was a relief to discover that I wasn’t alone in thinking that there was something rather odd about it.

Some of you may have seen something I posted about the concept of ‘pre-delicate hitches’ a while back, where the general argument is that such hitches (e.g. ums, ers, pauses, etc.) occur when a speaker is about to say something that he or she knows is likely to come across as ‘delicate’ to their listeners.

On watching this sequence again, I realised that it was the first two paragraphs (reproduced and re-transcribed below) that were what had really caught my attention in the first place. In the course of 120 words, there are more than 40 such hitches (i.e. one every three words), not to mention the abstract vagueness of some of the language (‘violate the specific language’, ‘abrogated the obligations it entered into’, ‘consequences’, ‘behaviour’, ‘framework’, etc.).

The 'uhs' and frequency and duration of pauses bring down the speed of her delivery to about 92 words per minute (i.e. words other than 'uh' or 'um'), which is extremely slow compared with the ‘ideal’ speed for public speakers of somewhere between 120-140 words per minute (which is also much slower than normal conversational speeds of around 180 words per minute).

Interestingly, the number of 'hitches' diminishes once she moves on to the second part of the statement, which was delivered at the much more satisfactory rate of 130 words per minute.

Two factors may have influenced this. One was that the hitches came at their thickest and fastest when the key audience most likely to find what she was saying particularly ‘delicate’ was the North Koreans themselves.

The other was that, to be fair to Mrs Clinton, this was not a pre-prepared speech but came in answer to a question at a press conference taking place in Egypt, very soon after the news from North Korea had come through. So it’s possible that there hadn’t been enough time for her to get a full briefing from State Department specialists, which meant that she had no choice but to make it up as she went along (i.e. ‘busk’ it).

(N.B. This revised transcript uses a convention that’s also useful for marking up scripts of speeches before delivery that's described in Lend Me Your Ears, pp. 299-301, where a single slash indicates a slight pause of a fifth to half a second and a double slash indicates a longer pause of half a second to a second).

North Korea has made // uhh //a choice. // It has chosen to // violate the // u-specific language / of the / uh // UN Security Council Resolution 1718. // It has ignored the international community. // It has abrogated the obligations it entered into / through the Six-Party Talks. // And it uh continues to act in a provocative and belligerent manner / uh toward its neighbors.// There are consequences to such actions.//

In the United Nations uh as we speak / discussions are going on to // uh // add to the / uh / consequences that North Korea / will face // u-coming out of the latest uh // u-behavior / u-with the // uh / intent to // u-try to rein in / uh the North Koreans // uh and get them back into a framework where they are once again // uh fulfilling their obligations and moving toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

For her more fluent continuation and the rest of the statement, see video and transcript on yesterdays posting.

P.S. And, thanks to a link from Charles Crawford, see HERE for a fascinating article on the Clintons' problems since Obama took over.

Clinton on North Korea: "There are consequences to such actions"

When I first saw this this statement on the news, it fascinated me enough to want to hear it again. So I looked it up on YouTube, dug out the verbatim transcript from the US State Department's website and am still working on it.

What baffled me the first time round was that 'sounded' as though she was saying something very important, but I was left wondering what it all meant. This is why I'm going to have a look at it in more detail to see if I can put a more precise finger on what made it seem so vague and uncertain the first time I heard it (and the first time is, of course, the last and only time that most normal members of the viewing public get to see of it).

In the meantime, it would be interesting to see what others made of it. Then, once I've had a bit more time to look at it a bit more closely, I'll post whatever I come up with in due course

MRS CLINTON: North Korea has made a choice.

It has chosen to violate the specific language of the UN Security Council Resolution 1718.

It has ignored the international community.

It has abrogated the obligations it entered into through the Six-Party Talks.

And it continues to act in a provocative and belligerent manner toward its neighbors.

There are consequences to such actions.

In the United Nations, as we speak, discussions are going on to add to the consequences that North Korea will face coming out of the latest behavior, with the intent to try to rein in the North Koreans and get them back into a framework where they are once again fulfilling their obligations and moving toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But they have chosen the path they’re on, and I’m very pleased that we have a unified international community, including China and Russia, in setting forth a very specific condemnation of North Korea and then working with us for a firm resolution going forward.

I want to underscore the commitments that the United States has and intends always to honor for the defense of South Korea and Japan.

That is part of our alliance obligation, which we take very seriously.

So we hope that there will be an opportunity for North Korea to come back into a framework of discussion within the Six-Party process, and that we can begin once again to see results from working with the North Koreans toward denuclearization that will benefit, we believe, the people` of North Korea, the region, and the world.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Oscar acceptance speech

Being nominated for a seat in the US Supreme Court is presumably the American lawyer's equivalent of an actor winning an Oscar. That at any rate was the impression given by Judge Sonia Sotomayor as she started to list all the family members on her thank you list (see below for an edited clip or HERE for further details of her family tree).

Like Kate Winslet at the Golden Globe awards, though in a more measured tone, she ignored Paul Hogan’s advice on speeches by winners: “.. it’s a good tip to remember the three Gs: be gracious, be grateful, get off.”


Obama’s nomination of Judge Sotomayor received five times more applause than ‘normal’

Soon after I started studying applause in political speeches, it emerged that there is a ‘normal’ burst of applause that lasts for about eight (plus or minus one) seconds (see Our Masters' Voices, 1984).

Less than this and it sounds half-hearted; more than this and it sounds more enthusiastic than usual – with the result that the media are more likely to select lines that get longer bursts for headlines in newspapers or sound bites on news programmes.

Nor is this norm only to be found in political speeches, but is also to be heard in award ceremonies, at conferences when speakers are introduced or when the identity of guests on television talk shows is revealed.

A few years ago, I went to a concert by Donovan, a pop star contemporary of the Beatles. In the first half, all his performances of familiar hits from the 1960s attracted 15-20 seconds of applause (i.e. considerably more than usual), whereas none of the applause for his numbers from his latest album in the second half fell outside the standard 7-9 second range – polite enough, but nowhere near as enthusiastic as the responses to songs that the audience had known for years.

If you want to check out what the difference sounds like for yourself, compare the following two clips from President Obama's introduction to his nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. In the first one, Judge Sotomayor gets a 'standard' eight-second burst of applause after saying that she loves her family; in the second one, the applause for the President's introduction to her goes on for five times longer than that.

As such, it suggests that the audience was very well pleased with the announcement. But to find out it was a more enthusiastic response than usual, we’d have to compare it with some clips of presidents introducing previous nominations for the post of Supreme Court judge.

Two tips for David Cameron after today’s speech on political change

I suppose it’s of the nature of the Open University that they’re a bit short on decent lecture theatres for speeches like the one David Cameron gave there earlier today. But I did think they could have done a bit better than to position his lectern in front of a distracting and rather unattractive bookshelf – distracting, because anoraks like me start trying to see which books are waiting there to be picked up and read.

The need to check on furniture and fittings before you make a speech is something I’ve commented on before after Prince William had to hover at the bottom of some stairs trying to hold his script in one hand and a microphone in the other.

The OU did a bit better than that, but if I'd been Mr Cameron or one of his aides, I’d have done my best to arrange for a rather more suitable backdrop than a few bookshelves.

One other thing he should be doing something about is that he’s still spending far too much time looking towards one side of the audience before looking in the other direction. On this occasion, it wasn’t quite as marked as it was in the video that can be seen HERE, but his gaze was quite often fixed in one direction for 11-19 seconds (i.e. too long) before being redirected towards the other half of the audience.

Given that his delivery is much better than the average currently prevailing among British politicians, it’s a pity he doesn’t do something about such a simple error that’s so easy to correct.

Bishops' attendance rates and allowances in the House of Lords

If you haven't already noticed, I take a pretty dim view of the way members of the House of Lords are selected (click on labels for 'House of Lords' postings below for more detail), not to mention the way undemocratically selected bishops and arch-bishops have the cheek to lecture the public on democracy.

A quick survey of published details about the the 23 bishops who attended the House of Lords in the year ending March 2008 shows that they put in an average of 22.4 days each.

The keenest five were the bishops of Southwark (83), Chester (46), Manchester (45) Southwell (44) and Liverpool (38).

The lowest attendances were clocked up by the bishops of Chichester (3), Truro (5), Canterbury, Arch-bishop (7) Carlisle (9) and Durham (9).

Top of the claims for daily expenses was the Bishop of Truro, with £1,124 for each of his five days in the Lords, while joint equal lowest spenders were the Arch-bishops of Canterbury (£0) and York (£0) .

As for what any of this means, I have no more idea than I have about what democratic principle entitles any of them to sit in the so-called 'upper' house of our parliament.

Climbing out of the manure?

At today's annual village fun day and church fete, there was a brief sighting of our local MP, David Heathcote-Amory - he of the expenses claim for horse manure and other 'gardening' expenses fame.

One interesting fact is that it was the first time he's ever put in an appearance in the fifteen years that I've been involved in the event, and one can't help wondering whether he was hoping it might help him to climb out of the manure.

Another interesting fact was that he didn't buy any tea or cakes and wasn't seen spending any money at other stalls either. I know this because my wife was in charge of taking the money for tea and cakes and was all set to ask him if he'd like a receipt.

Unfortunately, the matter never arose and we were left wondering whether he'd have managed to spend a bit more if he'd been confident of being able to claim it back from the taxpayer.

We also wonder how many other local events this weekend have suffered similar financial losses in the wake of the MPs' expenses revelations.

Since when were Archbishops experts on democracy?

Given some of his bizarre statements in the not too distant past (e.g. on Sharia Law), it doesn't really surprise me that the Archbishop of Canterbury now seems to think it part of his remit to pontificate about the potential damage that might be done to our democracy by the MPs' expenses revelations.

Given the mysterious (and completely undemocratic) way in which bishops and other senior clergy are appointed, Dr Williams has quite a nerve if he thinks that anyone should take his views on democracy seriously - at least until he shows some sign of putting his own house in order first.

Disputing the meaning of applause

In an interview broadcast yesterday about a meeting with his constituents in Bracknell, Andrew MacKay made much of the fact that three quarters of the clapping was in favour of him and only a quarter was against him (see HERE).

Given that my research into political speeches started by using applause as a gross measure of approval, I always find it fascinating when its presence or absence becomes an issue in a media interview.

The MacKay sequence reminded me of a gem from my collection in which Peter Snow tackled Francis Pym for not applauding vigorously enough during a Tory Party Conference speech by the then Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe – in an effort to use it as evidence of a split on economic policy in the cabinet:

House of Lords expenses: Lord Rees-Mogg on gravy trains

'We must derail the grandfather of gravy trains' read a headline in the Mail on Sunday last weekend above a piece on the European Parliament by Lord Rees-Mogg – who certainly knows a thing or two about gravy trains.

Last year, he managed to clock up a grand total of £41,643 in tax-free ‘allowances’ for his 121 days attendance at the House of Lords. This included £8,923 in ‘office costs’, which raises the interesting question of how many articles he wrote for the Mail and Times in an office subsidised by taxpayers, not to mention how much they paid him for his efforts and whether or not he should now repay at least some of his takings.

Meanwhile, his ‘attendance travel costs’ for the year came to £3,036, for which his chosen ‘mode of transport’ was ‘car’, so we may be paying his congestion charge bills as well (see HERE for further details).

House of Lords expenses

Readers of earlier posts on the House of Lords will know that I’d been hoping that the story about alleged dodgy dealings by some peers might revive the debate about the absurdly undemocratic way in which members of our second chamber are selected.

As it hasn’t done so, maybe the furore about parliamentary ‘expenses’ will redirect attention along the corridor to the House of Cronies again, as the way ‘expenses’ are dished out there seems to be no less virtuous than it is in the House of Commons

The only plus side of the apparently lenient six-month suspension just handed out to Lords Truscott and Taylor is that it will at least save the taxpayer about £50,000 (as their combined allowances claim for last year came to over £100,000).

But there are still plenty of other noble noses in the trough, with questions already being asked about where the likes of Lord’s Lawson, Razzall and Rennard really do have their first and second homes. Meanwhile, I’ve just checked on the claims made by various other Lords I’ve heard of and was amazed to discover that their tax-free ‘allowances’ ranged from £25,000 to £60,000+ a year.

As I don’t have access to the manpower that the Daily Telegraph has been able to devote to exposing MP’s expenses, I now invite readers to do some research into Lords’ expenses for themselves – and, if they feel so inclined, to report back with any interesting findings.

It’s easy enough to check on who’s been claiming what because the full list for the year ending March 2008 is published and can be inspected HERE.

What a fine Speaker!

Mr Speaker Martin’s stumbling performance as he read his statement out to the House of Commons yesterday prompted me to dig through some clips of a previous Speaker in action.

In this gem, Betty Boothroyd interrupts the then prime minister, John Major, to put a heckler firmly in his place. Admittedly, she wasn’t reading a pre-prepared script, but the clarity and decisiveness of her intervention are nice reminders of what a very fine Speaker she was:

What a poor speaker!

Watching the Speaker's statement to the House of Commons earlier this afternoon, I was struck by how ironic it is that someone with the title of 'Speaker' isn't very good at public speaking.

I thought about posting some tips on how he might do better. But, as anyone can do this for themselves by looking HERE (and as it looks as though he's not going to be around for much longer) I decided it would be a waste of time.

Sky Sports swindle

As the only sport I ever watch on television is test match cricket, I had no choice a few years ago but to start paying Sky's very high monthly charge for Sky Sports 1.

This weekend, for the umpteenth time, my attempts to see the current test match were thwarted by the fact that it is only being broadcast on Sky Sports 2 - and, for the privilege of watching it, they're trying to get me to pay even more than I'm already paying.

If Sky is allowed to outbid the BBC and Channel 4 for the television rights to test match cricket, they could at least have the decency to put it out on Sky Sports 1.

As they do not, I've decided to cancel my subscription and make do with BBC radio's ball-by-ball coverage and/or the BBC internet test match service.

The good news is that I've saved myself £15.17 per month, and I'd strongly recommend other dissatisfied customers to do likewise.

P.S. Three years later: If Sky Sports subscriptions haven't gone up during this time (which they almost certainly will have done), this excellent decision has now saved me at least £546.12. 

And, in the meantime, I've discovered various sites on the internet where you can watch Sky Sports cricket coverage for £0.00.

Is the MPs' expenses scandal a hidden legacy of Thatcherism?

In last Thursday's Question Time on BBC1, Margaret Beckett claimed that the existing system of parliamentary expenses was brought in under the Thatcher government in 1983, after a recommendations on a salary increase for MPs by an independent body had been deferred and staggered for 8 years – at which point the additional allowances were brought in ‘in stead of the pay increase’ (see below).

If this is true, it suggests that MPs were explicitly encouraged to subscribe to the culture of greed that Thatcherism is so often accused of having fermented during the 1980s, and it will be interested to wee whether this is confirmed in any forthcoming investigations of the system.

Rhetoric wins applause for questioners on BBC Question Time

It wasn't just some of David Dimbleby's questions that got applauded on last night's Question Time (see previous post). Some of the questions also won bursts of applause, which was hardly surprising in the case of those who used the rhetorical techniques that are most likely to trigger a positive audience response.

In this first example, the question includes a contrast between ‘their own money’ and ‘our country’ that triggers a burst of applause before Dimbleby or anyone else has time to say anything:

The speaker in this next one deploys three rhetorical techniques in quick succession: a rhetorical question, a three-part list and a contrast.

And, as so often happens when someone combines more than one technique at a time, the applause here exceeds the standard 8 pus or minus 1 second 'normal' burst of applause (by about 2 seconds), thereby underlining the response as a more enthusiastic one than usual:

It was quite explicit. It has to be wholly necessary to do the job as an MP.

[Q] What could be more plainer than that?

[1] They don’t need scatter cushions,
[2] bottles of gin,
[3] plocks.

[A] It’s not the system that’s wrong.
[B] It’s the people - the MPs themselves. [APPLAUSE]

For more about rhetorical techniques and how to use them to get your own messages across, see any of my books (listed in the left-hand margin).

Applause for Dimbleby's questions on BBC Question Time

Two very unusual things happen in these two clips from last night's Question Time on BBC1.

The first is that that David Dimbleby feels liberated enough to phrase his questions in a way that might, in a one-to-one interview with no audience, come across as excessively cheeky and perhaps even biased against Labour (Margaret Becket) and the Liberal Democrats (Ming Campbell).

The second is that the audience comes in and applauds what Dimbleby says before the politicians have had time to start their answers - and are therefore under much more pressure than they would have been if they were being interviewed in a studio with no audience there showing how much they approve of the interviewer's question.

The liveliest Question Time ever?

Not long after yesterday's post suggesting that interviews with politicians would be much livelier if they were conducted in front of an audience and that audience reactions can liberate interviewers from being constrained by their professional obligation to be neutral, on came a stunningly lively edition of BBC's Question Time that rather proves the point.

All the questions were about MPs' expenses, and there were moments when David Dimbleby positively buzzed as he used audience interventions to press some of the panel harder than he would have been able to do had there been no audience.

I'm planning to post some edited highlights later today, so watch this space.

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

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d once heard the late Robin Day complaining that the news interview had been ‘hijacked’ by politicians who had discovered that they could get away with ignoring questions and talk about whatever they felt like.

In the clip below, you can hear David Dimbleby making much the same point:

If interviewers as experienced as Day and Dimbleby can be so easily thwarted, there must be some quite deep-seated reason why it’s so easy for politicians to get away with it. And I think Dibmleby is on to it when he says that he doesn’t have a gun to point at them if they don’t answer a question.

The thing about pointing a gun at someone is that it is about as hostile and aggressive an action as you can think of. And the trouble is that the only conversational techniques available to us for trying to get someone to answer questions also come across as hostile and agressive.

Consider, for example, the kind of thing that happens when a witness in court fails to answer a question during cross-examination.

Barristers can ruthlessly intervene and demand an answer:

Counsel: “Did you make any attempt to persuade the crowd to go back before you baton-charged them?”

Witness: “I don’t see how you could persuade them to go back.”

Counsel: “Never mind that – just answer the question first and then give your reason. Did you make any effort to persuade the crowd to go back before you baton-charged them?”

Witness: “No.”

Or they may refer the matter to the judge for a ruling, as in this sequence where the alleged victim in an American rape trial is being cross-examined:

Counsel: “Didn’t you tell the police that the defendant had been drinking?”

Witness: “I told them there was a cooler in the car and I never opened it.”

Counsel: “May the balance of the answer be stricken, your honour, and the answer is ‘no’”

Judge: “Yes - the answer is ‘No’.”

If the lawyers sound hostile or aggressive towards the witnesses, this is of course perfectly acceptable in an adversarial legal system in which barristers are paid to take sides.

But the insurmountable obstacle that our news interviewers are up against is that they are paid to be neutral, which means that appearing to take sides can get them into serious trouble - so that they are, in effect, barred from using the kinds of hostile conversational techniques used in other settings to force people to answer a question without also coming across as aggressive and, by implication, politically biased (unless, of course, they’re willing to court controversy and take the risk of losing their job).

So here’s my formula for sparing us from having to watch the repetitive evasiveness of politicians in interviews: they would be conducted in front of an audience equipped with handsets that would enable them to press a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button, according to whether or not they felt a question had been adequately answered. These would be instantly added up and displayed on a scoreboard behind the interviewer and interviewee.

Whenever more than 50% of the audience felt that the politician had not answered the question, the interviewer would have the right and duty to press further on the same question – and to continue doing so until more than half the audience had rated the answer as adequate.

Such an approach would have three advantages over the present situation:

1. It would liberate interviewers from the risk of being accused of hostility or political bias, because they would merely be acting as representatives on behalf of a dissatisfied audience.

2. By making it more difficult for politicians to be so evasive, it would give viewers and listeners a clearer idea about where the interviewees really stand on a particular issue.

3. It would be much more entertaining television than the tedium currently inflicted on us (and might even have the added bonus of getting people more interested in politics than they are at present).

MPs expenses claims merely reflect British attitudes towards home ownership

Much of the past week’s shock-horror-hullabaloo revelations about MPs' expenses has had to do with claims for mortgage interest payments, stamp duty, capital gains tax and other costs associated with owning houses, none of which would have arisen had these MPs chosen to rent, rather than buy, flats and houses in London and/or their constituencies.

It’s obviously perfectly reasonable to subsidise people whose job requires that they run two homes. But why is this interpreted by MPs and the civil servants who administer the expenses as meaning the purchase of second homes?

Presumably the answer is that, like so many other people in the UK, the MPs and civil servants are obsessed with owning homes rather than renting them. As such, they could be said to be thoroughly representative of the voters who elected them to parliament in the first place.

But – and this seems to be the biggest ‘but’ to have come out of the Telegraph revelations – it is surely totally unacceptable to use taxpayers’ money to underwrite property speculation and then allow the beneficiaries to pocket the profits.

There are at least three obvious ways of putting a stop to this:

1. Give MPs a flat-rate London allowance based on rental costs within a certain distance from Westminster.

2. Set up a Parliamentary property service that would buy properties for MPs to live in rent-free (and hold on to any profits made when the properties were sold).

3. Build a hall of residence in or near Westminster where MPs could live rent-free – made up of different sized flats catering for different family needs and providing a suitably professional standard of comfort (e.g. based on 4 star hotels or the quality of accommodation found in some of our top business schools).

Well, well, Wells!

On learning from yesterday's Telegraph revelations about parliamentary expenses that our Tory MP, David Heathcote-Amory had claimed £380 for horse manure, I wasn't sure whether to be pleased or annoyed.

Should I be pleased because the news can't do the chances of our Liberal Democrat candidate for the Wells constituency, Tessa Munt, any harm at all?

Or should I be annoyed because I reckon I could have found some local manure at a lower price - which would have would have been a better deal for him, a better deal for the taxpayer and a better deal for me, as it would have let me in on a slice of the action for myself.

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

If you saw the recently posted clips of Clement Attlee and Edward Heath, you might enjoy another gem from my collection of memorable TV interviews from the past.

This time, it’s sunny Jim Callaghan in full combat mode, repeatedly refusing to answer questions about Roy Jenkins.

Although he may have succeeded in putting Robin Day in his place, whether or not it did the then prime minister's reputation any good is quite another matter.

However, compared with the way Gordon Brown behaves in interviews (see yesterday’s post), there’s something vaguely refreshing to see a politician being as open as this about his unwillingness to answer the questions put to him:

UK Speechwriters' Guild

Just launched today is a new website of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild, which can be visited HERE.

The Guild has been formed to:

• share knowledge on how to operate as a speechwriter in the UK

• establish guidelines for commercial rates for UK speechwriters’ work

• raise standards of public speaking, by providing training courses for speechwriters, giving awards, circulating information about jobs and organising events

• persuade UK business leaders, professional speakers and politicians of the great value which specialist speechwriters can bring to their commercial and public life

• publish a quarterly trade newsletter, with hints, tips and examples of fine speechwriting

To learn more about what it has to offer and how to join, have a look at the website.

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

Yesterday, Iain Dale posted a plug for a new book about handling media interviews and included the following observation (by Dale) about Gordon Brown (or 'Boredom Frown', as my granddaughters prefer to call him):

“Gordon Brown has catchphrases he uses over and over again. Whatever the question he’s asked he’ll come out with the same five catchphrases. Someone should tell him people are getting bored. They know what the answers are going to be. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to think on his feet in the way that Blair did. He doesn’t come across well in interviews like Blair.’

I think Brown’s problem is even more serious than this. More than 20 years ago, I heard the late great Robin Day complaining that the TV interview had been hijacked by politicians. In the good old days, he said, interviewers could have a really good argument with the likes of Harold Macmillan, who would perk up at the prospect of engaging in serious debate - whereas now (i.e. more than 20 years ago), they just treat questions as prompts to say anything they like about whatever they like.

If you missed one of my postings on this theme last September, here’s part of what it said:

In an age when coverage of speeches makes up an increasingly small proportion of broadcast political news, Brown’s supporters might offer the defence that dourness on the podium doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past. But even if there is some truth in this, the trouble is that their hero has a second, and arguably even bigger, handicap in the way he conducts himself in what has become the main cockpit of political debate on television and radio, namely the interview.

For at least two decades, viewers and listeners have had put up with the sight and sound of politicians treating interviewers’ questions as prompts to say anything they like, regardless of what they were asked, or as yet another opportunity to dodge an issue. As an exponent of how to carry this depressing art to its limits, Gordon Brown has no serious competitors among contemporary British politicians. When he was still shadow chancellor, one commentator noted that if you asked him what he had for breakfast, his most likely response would be ‘what the country needs is a prudent budget’ – and that would merely be the preamble to a lecture about his latest thoughts on the matter. I recently asked one of the BBC’s most experienced and best-known presenters what it was like to interview him. His answer was rather more outspoken than I’d expected:

"Brown answers his own questions, never the interviewer's, and is utterly shameless. He will say what he wants to say and that's it. And he'll say it fifty times in one interview without any embarrassment at all. I've never met anyone quite like him in that respect. I once spent 40 minutes on one narrow point and still failed to get him to make the smallest concession. He's extraordinary and is never anything but evasive and verbose."

If politicians like Brown think it clever or smart to get one over the interviewer with such tactics, they betray a staggering lack of sensitivity to two rather obvious and basic facts about the way people interpret verbal communication. The first is that viewers and listeners can tell instantly when interviewees are being evasive. And the second is that they don’t much like it. Politicians may say that they’re worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public and growing voter apathy. But it never seems to occur to them that their relentless refusal to give straight answers to questions might have something to do with it.

The fuller story can be seen HERE.

Eye contact, public speaking and the case of President Zuma’s dark glasses

Having just watched Jacob Zuma being sworn in as South Africa’ new president (HERE), I was reminded of the importance of eye contact in holding the attention of an audience.

It wasn’t so much that he hardly looked up from the text, which was excusable given that the importance of getting the words right when reading out an oath, as the fact that he was wearing dark glasses at all.

Readers of my books will know that I regard some of the widely circulating claims about body language and non-verbal communication as being at best over-stated, and at worst false (e.g. see Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 11). But eye-contact is definitely not one of these.

In fact, here’s what I wrote about the subject twenty-five years ago that bears on the case of President Zuma'a dark glasses:

‘.. humans are the only primate species in which the irises are framed by visible areas of whiteness, and it is generally considered that the evolutionary significance of this has to do with the communicative importance of our eyes: the whites of the eyes make it relatively easy for people to track even slight movements over quite large distances. An illustration of the importance of eye visibility for holding the attention of an audience is provided by an anecdote in the autobiography of the Oxford philosopher, A.J. Ayer (Part of My Life, 1977). He reports that, after sustaining a black eye as a result of bumping into a lamp post during a wartime blackout, he took to wearing dark glasses. He goes on to say that he subsequently found when lecturing in them that it was quite impossible to hold the attention of an audience. Given his reputation as an effective speaker, this suggests that the invisibility of a person's eyes can seriously interfere with his ability to communicate with an audience. It may therefore be no coincidence that there have been very few great orators who have worn spectacles, even with plain glass in them, when making speeches.’ (Our Masters’ Voices, 1984, pp.89-90).

There’s much more on why eye-contact is so important for effective public speaking in Lend Me Your Ears (pp.36-43), but an additional point about President Zuma’s choice of dark glasses is that it tends to make him look more like a South American dictator than a democratically elected president, an implicit association that he would presumably be quite keen to avoid.

All of which is to say that, if I were advising him, I’d definitely tell him to get some new glasses.

I'd also suggest that his aides should pay a bit more attention to camera angles and back-drops, because there's someone just behind him wearing a black bowler hat, the brim of which at times pokes out from the sides of the president's head - a seemingly trivial point perhaps, but I bet I'm not the only viewer who found it distracting.


A few days ago, I logged on to Expedia to book a flight from Detroit to Chicago, from where I was due to fly back to Heathrow. It didn’t take long and all seemed to go very smoothly - until, at Detroit airport, I discovered that I should have taken a bit longer and taken a bit more care.

So here are a couple of helpful tips for anyone who might ever have to book an internal US flight to Chicago and/or have the misfortune to fly out of Terminal 5 at O'Hare airport.

1. Unknown to me until yesterday, there are two big airports in Chicago, and I'd mistakenly booked a flight from Detroit to Chicago Midway to catch a Virgin flight to Heathrow. But Virgin flights go to and from Chicago O’Hare. Luckily, it’s only a 45 minute shuttle bus ride between the two of them and, even more luckily, I’d allowed so much time that I didn’t have to get into a serious travel flap. So, if you are booking a flight to or from Chicago, make sure you check which airport you need.

2. New and flashy though it may be, Terminal 5 at O’Hare must be the only airport in the world that has no restaurants, and precious little in the way of bar and shopping facilities, once you’ve passed through the security checks. The facilities are so minimal (a few mobile market stalls on wheels), that there’s no coffee or tea available, not even from a machine. Even more annoying is the fact that there are no notices warning you of this irritating fact before you start taking your shoes off and putting your other potentially hazardous belongings through the X ray machine.

So the moral of this part of the story is that, if you ever do have to pass through this miserable place, feeling a bit peckish or in the mood for some retail therapy, make sure you get it done before you go through security - though even then you'll still have the added stress of trying trying to work out whether you've allowed enough time to eat something, go shopping and get through the security checks before your plane leaves.


Reading an American newspaper today has taught me a new word, and it's another long one, to add to my collection.

Home weatherization seems to refer to what we British speakers of English know as home insulation.

A lot of dollars are being dished out to help people to do something about it - an optimistic sign, perhaps, that the new regime is taking global warming a bit more seriously than George W. Bush, whose position on the subject made about as much sense as Thabo Mbeki's ridiculous HIV/AIDS denial policy.

Notes from a large continent

After a relaxing weekend in Los Angeles enjoying perfect weather and good company, I’ve just arrived in Ann Arbor, where I’ve got to do some work at the University of Michigan.

Apart from noticing a few more long words (see previous posting) – like ‘ground transportation’ for what we Brits would be more likely to call ‘buses’ – what immediate impressions so far?

One is that everyone I’ve come across so far is very positive about the Obama presidency in a way that harks back to the early days of the Blair premiership in 1997. This is particularly so among academics, who are getting quite excited by the fact that the new president’s economic stimulus package is going to pump a few billion extra dollars into research that they hadn’t been expecting.

Another is that the word ‘pandemic’ seems to be preferred to ‘epidemic’ in much the same way as in the UK, just as the news networks are spending a lot of time finding out that not a lot seems to be happening.

On the streets, the curious thing is that the only people I’ve seen wearing face masks seem to be the Japanese, which I find quite intriguing because there were quite a lot of Japanese wearing face masks on safari in Kenya when we were there in February. When I asked our Kenyan driver what they were worried about, he said that they seem think the air in places like the Masai Mara is seriously polluted, which it isn’t.

I can see that there might be more of a case for protecting yourself against pollution in LA or Detroit, but haven’t a clue whether it’s that or flu that’s worrying them and am, of course, far too polite to ask them.

Are there more longer words in American English than in British English?

One thing that's often struck me about American English is that long words quite often seem to be preferred to shorter alternatives that are more likely to be used by British speakers of English.

One example I've heard in the last half hour is 'elevator', when Brits would go in a 'lift'. Another is 'expiration', when we woild settle for the shorter 'expiry'.

Is there any evidence that longer options are more frequently used in American English, and, if so, why should this be?

Virgin mile-high poetry

Today, I’m going to the USA for a week and have deliberately chosen to fly with Virgin, rather than the other airlines that fly to Los Angeles.

It’s nearly 25 years since I first went across the Atlantic on a Virgin flight – at a time when the upstart airline only had one leased Boeing 747-200 that spent all its time going backwards and forwards between Gatwick and Newark.

The prohibitive cost of advertising throughout the whole of the USA also prompted the airline's founder to embark on a series of stunts, like crossing the Atlantic in a speed boat, that attracted huge amounts of (free) publicity on American TV news networks.

Right from the start, Richard Branson knew exactly how much it would cost him to hand the plane back to Boeing if the venture didn’t work out. He also had the benefit of a couple of top tips from Freddie Laker, whose transatlantic Skytrain business had only recently collapsed.

One was that the Boeing 747-200 would be a better bet than the DC10s used by Skytrain, because the Boeings were big enough to bring in extra revenue by carrying cargo as well as passengers.

The other was not to concentrate on the backpacker end of the market, as Skytrain had done, but to cater for business passengers too.

So the upstairs deck in the early Virgin flights to Newark were set aside for the cheekily named ‘Upper Class’, which was soon attracting enough customers for it to be extended into the front section of the main deck as well.

It was helped along by two neat marketing ploys. One was summed up in the slogan ‘fist class quality at business class prices’, and the other was that Upper Class passengers were handed a plain brown envelope during the flight, in which there was a free coach-class ticket for another flight across the Atlantic.

On one occasion, I sat next to an English stockbroker who was working in New York. As his company let him decide on which airline to use for his regular transatlantic trips, there was no contest – he always flew on Virgin because the free ticket meant that both his parents were flying with him (for nothing and not for the first time) in the back of the plane.

In those early days, Virgin made a real effort to run Upper Class like a club, with a games area and a bottomless bar where you could go and chat to the itinerant rock 'n roll groups for whom Virgin had already become the airline of choice.

As you’d expect in a club, there was also a visitors’ book, in which customers' comments heaped at least as much praise on Virgin as the scorn they poured on British Airways and other competitors.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, one of the entries is still stuck firmly in my mind, and confirms yet again how effective simple poetic techniques like rhythm, rhyme and/or assonance can be, whether you’re writing a speech, a presentation or a comment in Virgin Atlantic's visitors’ book.

It was at a time when Britain’s (then) second biggest airline, the long-since defunct British Caledonian, was running TV commercials that showed air hostesses in kilts dancing along the aisle to entertain passengers – which must have inspired one wag to compose the following ditty for the Upper Class visitors’ book:

'B-Cal girls are all very fine
But give me a virgin every time.'

(Until 8th May, Virgin permitting, I’ll be in the USA, from where I hope to be able to carry on putting posts on the blog – but don’t be surprised if there’s a slight reduction in output during the next week).