BLOG INDEX: Sept 2008-June 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 post by clicking HERE or from the monthly lists on the left.

JUNE 2009
• Monty Python, conversation and turn-taking

• Margaret Thatcher, body language and non-verbal communication

• NLP: No Linguistic Proof

• Body language and non-verbal communication video

• The 250 posts landmark
• Another body language & non-verbal communication cartoon

• 'Check against delivery'

• Body language, non-verbal communication and the myth about folded arms & defensiveness

• Another expenses dilemma

• The urgent need for EU directives on tea-making and lunch times

• Expenses?
• Imagery worthy of Obama in speech by the Governor of the Bank of England

• News on BBC radio is sometimes very good indeed

• Dudley Moore’s ‘Little Miss Muffet’ by Benjamin Britten

• BBC Television News slideshow Quiz

• No flies on Obama!

• ‘Sound-formed errors’ and humour

• BBC Television News informs, educates and entertains without slides!

• Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule
• Combining rhetoric and imagery to get your point across

• Did the MP's manure come by appointment?

• Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

• Banksy officially on show in Bristol

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

• “Labour’s not for turning” – Peter Hain

• Presidential heights

• Why it suited Brown and Blair to take House of Lords reform no further

• Monty Python’s Election Night Special

• Euro-election coverage: was the BBC’s graphical overkill a violation of its charter?

• Lord Mandelspin strikes again

• Brown does a better job than Obama at the 65th anniversary of D-Day

• How Caroline Flint gave the game away about expecting a post in the cabinet

• Gordon Brown’s honesty about the death of New Labour

• D-Day 65th Anniversary (2): a reminder for Sarkozy and a challenge for Obama

• D-Day 65th Anniversary: (1) A British soldier returns to Gold Beach

• The end of free speech?

• Obama: Echoes of Berlin in Cairo

• Inspiring speech for polling day by Peter Sellers

• Pre-delicate hitches from the White House

• Body language and non-verbal communication

• 'Pre-delicate hitches' from Brown as he avoids answering a question about the Queen

• The end of the beginning

• How NOT to use PowerPoint

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

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

Monty Python, conversation and turn-taking

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was originally broadcast at a time when a small number academics in Britain (e.g. me) were becoming very excited by the methodology and findings of conversation analysis, a new approach to analysing interaction that was becoming established at various campuses of the University of California in the early 1970s.

Some of the Python humour played around with some fundamental aspects of the way conversation works, like turn-taking – even though it’s very unlikely that any of those who wrote and performed the sketches had ever come across the defining paper on the subject by Sacks, Shegloff and Jefferson*, which wasn’t published until the final year of the Monty Python series in 1974.

When talking about turn-taking in my courses, I sometimes use the following example. The first version of the sketch isn’t particularly funny and sounds like a fairly ‘normal’, if excessively polite and hearty, conversation. But this is because some crucial turns from Idle and Palin have been edited out of the sequence:

Put the missing turns back in, as in the original version, and the fun begins:

(* Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, 'A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation', Language, Vol. 50, No. 4. 1974, pp. 696-735).

Margaret Thatcher, body language and non-verbal communication

Here's a simple exercise for anyone who really believes that only 7% of communication comes from the words we actually use.

In the first of these clips, according to purveyors of the Mehrabian myth, you'll miss out on the words (7% ) and tone of voice (55%), but at least you'll get 38% of Mrs Thatcher's message from her body language alone - or will you?

Now ask yourself, whether the words alone -"The Lady's not for turning" - convey any more than 7% of her message.

Then watch the second clip and ask yourself whether her body language and tone of voice add a further 93% to the intelligibility and/or power of her message:

And, if you'd like to know more about modern myths about body language and non-verbal communication, have a look HERE, HERE or read more on 'Physical Facts and Fiction' in my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations.

NLP: No Linguistic Proof

It's more than 40 years since I started doing research for a PhD. Ever since then, I've naively thought that you really shouldn't go around making claims about the workings of human behavior and interaction for which there is little or no empirical justification. And that means, among other things, that there have to be methodological procedures that are clear enough for any other researcher to be able to check out the validity of whatever it is you're claiming.

In previous postings, I've already touched on some of the grossly exaggerated claims about the supposedly overwhelming importance of body language and non-verbal behavior in human communication.

But however flawed the empirical basis for some of these may be, they pale into insignificance compared with what's on offer from proponents of Neuro Linguistic Programming.

If only I'd realised how much money can be made if you don't hold yourself bound by what can be established through careful observational research, I could have not only got my hands on part of the action but also, at the same time, could have saved myself huge amounts of time.

But I don't think I could have lived with my conscience - unless, of course, I'm missing out on something when I see stuff like this (which really hots up after about 60 seconds):

Now, some questions:

Q1. Did you manage to watch it through to the very end?
Q2. Can you summarise what the point of it all was?
Q3. What empirical research is 'the point' based on?

Body language and non-verbal communication video

If you enjoyed the cartoons posted recently (HERE and HERE), you might also be interested in this training video on body language and non-verbal behavior.

The challenge is to decide whether you think it's intended to be humorous or serious:

The 250 posts landmark

I’ve just noticed that that yesterday’s post was the 250th since I first dipped my toes in the blogoshere nine months ago.

If the number of visitors hadn’t been steadily increasing and if there hadn’t been so many positive and encouraging comments and emails, I don’t expect I’d have carried on for this long – so many thanks to everyone for taking an interest and for giving me an incentive to carry on (at least for a bit longer).

Any suggestions about how to improve the blog, and/or which kinds of post you like best would be very welcome.

So too would any ideas about how to attract even more visitors.

Another body language & non-verbal communication cartoon

Quite a lot of people seem to have enjoyed the cartoon I posted recently summing up the absurdity of the claim that only 7% of communication comes from the words we actually use and that 93% is 'non-verbal' (HERE).

What I like about this one is that the humour is massively reduced as soon the words 'actually used' are removed from above the door:

(If you're interested in modern myths about body language and non-verbal communication, you might also like to look HERE at my comments on the claim that people with their arms folded are on the defensive).

'Check against delivery'

Charles Crawford has a very interesting post today about David Miliband’s speech in Poland that's prompted me to try something I’ve never done before.

I’ve seen plenty of speeches (and have even penned a few) that started with the instruction ‘Check against delivery’ in the first line, but had never bothered to do so in any detail. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and YouTube, it's now become something that's easier to do than ever before.

What's more, you can go beyond checking against the speaker's delivery and check against what anyone else might saying about a particular speech.

So, whilst checking the press release of Miliband’s speech against his delivery, I was able to see exactly what Charles Crawford meant about the opening passages being "clunky. An attempt by a speech-writer who knows little of Poland to rummage around and find a few historical examples by way of 'filler'. The examples used cast no light of insight on what follows, and might as well have been omitted…"

Mr Miliband too seems to have found them 'a bit clunky', or presumably wouldn't have felt himself prompted to ad-lib so many changes as he went along.

It’s as if, having declared himself "deeply conscious of the history between our two countries", he realised that he hadn’t until that moment been in the least bit conscious of King Canute’s Polish ancestry (and one has to wonder if the Poles in the audience were any more conscious than him about King Canute's genealogy).

Then, with his quip about the speech becoming "pronunciation test", he openly confesses that he’s just reading out stuff that's news to him (supplied by the local ambassador and/or his staff).

You can read the whole speech HERE and check against delivery HERE.

The parts of the speech in red below were what was actually delivered and did not appear in the official press release.

"I think for obvious reasons any visiting British Foreign Secretary coming to Poland is deeply conscious of the history between our two countries.

"It goes back a long way.
I didn’t know that Canute er- was the half Polish King of Denmark who, in 1015, actually invaded England, bringing with him Polish soldiers and his mother, Princess Swietoslawa, who er- is buried -is buried - Winchester castle.

"When I asked for a historical lesson from our ambassador, I didn’t realise it would be a pronunciation test, but it has become such."

Body language, non-verbal communication and the myth about folded arms and defensiveness

A recent posting on Olivia Mitchell’s Speaking about Presenting blog led to a lively exchange about the absurdly overstated claims that 93% of communication is non-verbal (see also HERE for a cartoon that neatly sums it up).

The chapter on ‘Physical Facts and Fiction’ in my book Lend Me Your Ears was aimed at debunking some of these modern myths, and I’d like to know what others think about the claim that folding your arms means that you’re being defensive.

It’s one that prompted me years ago to start asking people sitting in lectures with their arms folded whether they were feeling defensive.

The immediate and invariable reaction is that they quickly unfold their arms – because they too know exactly what I’m referring to and they too 'know' that it's alleged to be a sign of defensiveness.

The commonest response is that they’re feeling quite comfortable, thank you very much.

Sometimes they point out that there are no armrests on the chairs; occasionally they complain that the room is a bit cold.

But never once has anyone among the hundreds of people I’ve now put he question to ever said that they felt on the defensive.

The body language ‘experts’ would no doubt tell me that I’m a naïve idiot for being taken in by them, that I’m failing to read what their non-verbal behaviour is really telling me, that they’re covering up what their real feelings are in order not to offend me, etc, etc.

My problem is that I see no reason not believing them. Nor, until someone provides a convincing demonstration to the contrary, do I believe that these self-appointed ‘experts’ have any evidence to support their position, or to prove that people like me have got it so wrong.

But, and this is perhaps the most depressing thing of all, I do nontheless advise people not to fold their arms when speaking, whether in a conversation, presentation, job interview or anywhere lese where they’re hoping to make a good impression – not because I believe that folded arms signals defensiveness, but because I know that there’s almost certain to be someone in the audience who’s been misled into believing that it does.

Another expenses dilemma

I confess that, before the days of airport security restrictions on liquids in hand baggage, I would normally pack a hip flask of whisky to take with me on short trips into Europe - only, you understand, because I often find it difficult sleeping in foreign hotel beds without the aid of a night cap.

Now that my hip flask is banned, I have to resort to buying a night cap from the hotel bar.

So far on this two-day stay in Germany,  30 Euros has bought me what would have cost me less than 10 Euros had I been able to bring the said liquid with me.

In former times, I would never have dreamt of charging the client for my night cap. But, now that its costing me at least 20 Euros more than it used to do, I'm beginning to wonder whether I should add it to my invoice?

Or should I just charge it to the hotel account in the hopes that the client will pick up the bill for whatever I consume while I'm here?

If I do neither, would I be allowed to set the extra 20 Euros against tax, on the grounds that no sleep would render me incapable of delivering a decent day's service to the client?

These are the kinds of momentous and troublesome problems I find myself having to grapple with since reading about some of the things that MPs seem to regard as perfectly legitimate expenses.

The urgent need for EU directives on tea-making and lunch times

The hotel I'm staying at in Mainz has quite an impressive array of tea, including Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey and English Breakfast.

But can you get a decent cup of tea? No you can't, because, as in most of the hotels in Europe, no one outside the UK (and presumably the Indian sub-continent) seems to understand one of the most basic factors in the chemistry of tea-making - which is why I think it's high time that we had an EU directive that would require hotels, cafes and other outlets to boil, yes boil, the water before pouring it on the tea leaves or tea bags.

And, while they were at it, they might as well go the whole hog and add in requirements to warm the tea pot first and then let it brew for a few minutes before pouring into a cup.

Apart from reducing the grumbling dissatisfaction of British tourists and business visitors with what's currently passed off as a cup of tea, a beneficial side effect might be that growers in developing countries would be able to increase their sales to Europe. After all, if only more people here knew what tea can really taste like, they'd surely want to drink a lot more of it.

From the point of view of improving communication between businesses within the EU, there's also a case for another European directive on lunch times. In Holland, it's 12.00 noon, in Germany it's 12.30 p.m. (but moving ever nearer towards 12 noon), in Britain and France it's closer to 1.00 p.m. while, in Spain, you're lucky if you get anything to eat until about 3.00 p.m. in the afternoon.

The net result of all this is that there are 4-5 hours in every working day when there's no point in trying to phone people in various different countries because they'll be out on their lunch break. An EU directive that standaredised lunch time within the EU would be an obvious way to solve the problem and might perhaps even help to oil our faltering economies along their way towards recovery from the recession.


I have to go to Frankfurt this evening to run a two-day course on Monday and Tuesday.

The recent revelations about MPs' expenses have got me wondering whether I include enough of my outgoings when invoicing clients, as well as whether I should be setting more of my expenses against tax.

Short journeys like this one, for example, mean buying cups of tea, coffee and snacks that I can never be bothered to include in my invoices, even though I wouldn't have had to spend any of this money had I not been on my way to do a job for a client.

And, having just bought a new case that's big enough to take all my equipment, shirts, etc,. but small enough to count as hand baggage and save me time waiting at luggage carousels, does this count as a 'business expense' that can be legitimately set against tax?

Thanks to our elected representatives, I feel a visit to my accountant coming on...

Imagery worthy of Obama in speech by the Governor of the Bank of England

I’ve thought for some time that Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, has some pretty good speechwriters, and this isn’t the first time I’ve thought it worth posting an example from one of his speeches.

The night before last at the Mansion House, he used and developed a neat simile, that was singled out and used as a headline in the print and broadcast media:


"To achieve financial stability the powers of the Bank are limited to those of voice and the new resolution powers.

"The Bank finds itself in a position rather like that of a church whose congregation attends weddings and burials but ignores the sermons in between.

"Like the church, we cannot promise that bad things won’t happen to our flock – the prevention of all financial crises is in neither our nor anyone else’s power, as a study of history or human nature would reveal.

"And experience suggests that attempts to encourage a better life through the power of voice alone is not enough.

"Warnings are unlikely to be effective when people are being asked to change behaviour which seems to them highly profitable.

"So it is not entirely clear how the Bank will be able to discharge its new statutory responsibility if we can do no more than issue sermons or organise burials."

You can watch this part of the speech HERE - and was there a slight smirk on his face as he finished the punch line about 'sermons' and 'burials'?

News on BBC radio is sometimes very good indeed

I didn’t get to see any television news last night but did listen to The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 while having a bath.

I hadn't heard it for a while, and had forgotten what a very good a news programme it is and was impressed by how much more I learnt about what's going on in Iran than I have from all the television pictures of John Simpson wandering about the streets of Tehran, interspersed with poor quality mobile phone footage.

There were no needlessly adversarial interviews as featured daily on the Today programme - and, better still, I somehow managed to understand every word without having to watch a single slideshow from the likes of Nick Robinson, Robert Peston and all the other death from PowerPoint merchants who now dominate BBC Television News programmes.

Dudley Moore's 'Little Miss Muffet' by Benjamin Britten

I’ve often noticed that I don’t often laugh out loud when listening to comedy on my own, and that the exceptions, when they do occur, really are exceptional.

It happened last night on Radio 4 during a fascinating programme, in which John Bassett was being interviewed about his long friendship with the late Dudley Moore.

The cause of my laughter was the latter's brilliant rendition of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ à la Benjamin Britten from Beyond the Fringe - which also reminded me that I’ve always found this piece far more entertaining than anything Britten himself ever managed to write.

BBC Television News slideshow Quiz

Regular readers will know that I’m getting increasingly worried about the way BBC Television News shows us more and more PowerPoint style presentations.

Whether or not anyone at the BBC has ever bothered to ask viewers what they really think about it, I do not know, but I can’t think of any reason why television audiences would differ much from other audiences – which raises the question of why would they be any more favourably inclined towards slidomania than the hundreds of audience members who’ve told me how much they detest it when listening to PowerPoint dependent presentations.

However, after a lifetime in research, one thing I know for sure is that I might be wrong. Maybe information overload isn’t as big a problem for people as I think it is. Maybe viewers really do like to see pictures and printed words popping up on the screen behind reporters in the studio. Maybe it really does make it easier for people to understand and take in things in.

Here's another exhibit from the BBC’s 10 o’clock news (a couple of nights ago) and an invitation to see how it works for you. Watch it once – which is, of course, all that viewers get to do – and don’t read any further until you’ve seen the whole thing.

Then have a go at answering the questions below the video – and let us know how many you got right.

If the result is 'all' or 'most of them', the BBC's nightly slideshows must be doing a good job.

If it's 'none' or 'hardly any of them', I rest my case.

1. What are the 4 essentials of modern life?
2. What did the Prime Minister say today?
3. What would be hugely expensive?
4. How many of us are already in reach of superfast broadband?
5. What will be hugely expensive?
6. How much a year would the annual levy be?
7. What prices have been falling in recent years?
8. What is the government's clever wheeze?
9. How much a year is raised from television license fee payers?
10. How much is it going to cost to help old people to cope with the digital switch over?
11. How much of that might be left over by 2012?
12. How much do local news programmes cost ITV?

No flies on Obama!

After recent posts about how British politicians behave in interviews, I couldn't help being impressed by President Obama's cool and skillful dispatch of a fly whilst being interviewed.

Whether or not the ASPCA worries about insects, I do not know, but I can imagine the RSPCA, not to mention the anti-hunting lobby, getting very steamed up such heartless behaviour!

'Sound-formed errors' and humour

Last December, I suggested that Gordon Brown’s gaffe when he said that he’d saved the world was probably the result of what Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, referred to as a ‘sound-formed error’ – because there were four ‘wuh-’ sounds in quick succession just before the word ‘world’ popped out of his mouth – which he quickly corrected to ‘banks’.

Whether or not it really was a ‘sound-formed error’, we shall never know for certain, but there's no doubt that it was a mistake that caused widespread amusement.

There’s also no doubt that you can sometimes use this type of error with deliberately humorous intent , as is nicely illustrated by whoever wrote this TV commercial for Berlitz language courses:

(Gail Jefferson's original paper on the subject is HERE, and many of her other publications can be downloaded from HERE).

BBC Television News informs, educates and entertains without slides!

In case you missed the last edition of Have I Got News for You, here’s the sequence showing how much more interesting the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson can be when he forsakes the awful slides he usually inflicts on us:

You might also like to compare this with some of the following:

POLITICIAN ANSWERS A QUESTION: an exception that proves the rule

Given previous posts about politicians not answering interviewers' questions (on which, see below for list of posts) I was delighted last week to see former Home Secretary Charles Clarke giving as straight an answer to a question as anyone could ever hope for:

Q: "Will you tell us what you think about Gordon Brown?"
A: "No."


Combining rhetoric and imagery to get your point across in a speech

I’ve just been going through some video clips in preparation for a presentation I have to give next week and came across an old favourite, in which a 90 year old speaker shows how effectively imagery and the main rhetorical techniques can be combined to get a point across in a mere 75 words.

As audiences are getting younger and fewer still remember former prime minister Harold Macmillan (who later became Lord Stockton), I tend not to use this example much these days, but it’s such a fine specimen of rhetorical techniques in action that it deserves a wider audience.

In lines 1-8, he uses a metaphorical puzzle about a sinking ship that juxtaposes a contrast between two alternatives, [A]‘sinking’ or [B] making a new cross-party effort.

The first part of this contrast ends with a third item (‘go slowly down’) that contrasts with the first two (‘drastically’ and ‘tragically’), and the second part includes a three part list (‘new, determined, united’).

The solution to the puzzle (lines 9-12) then comes in the form of another contrast, this time between [A]‘ decline and fall’ and [B] ‘a new and glorious renaissance’.

Add to this his delivery, with pauses (marked by / in the transcript) coming at an average rate of one pause per 3.75 words, and it's hardly surprising that the commentator refers to it as "another masterly speech".

I used to say that, if I had to illustrate as many of the key points about rhetoric and imagery as possible with reference to a single exampe, this would be it - a view I'm not so sure about having looked in detail at some of Barack Obama's speeches (e.g. see HERE and HERE, or type 'Obama' into blog search box for more posts on his speeches. Or, for more detail on how anyone can use these techniques in any type of speech or presentation, see any of the books listed in the column on the left)).


1 Do we just / slowly / majestically / sink /

2 not perhaps drastically

3 or tragically /

4 but go slowly down like a great ship? /

5 Or shall we make / a

6 new /

7 determined /

8 united effort, / putting as far as we can / party aside. /

9 Let us / do the latter,

10 and then / historians of the future /will not describe the end of this century /

11 as the beginning / of the decline and fall of Britain /

12 but as the beginning / of a new / and glorious renaissance.

Did the MP's manure come by appointment?

Our local MP, David Heathcote-Amory, recently achieved public notoriety for his parliamentary expenses claim for £380 worth of horse manure – on which an interesting new angle may be about to emerge.

At a party this weekend, a normally reliable source of inside information about local politics was broadcasting the 'news' that our MP’s manure had not been locally sourced from within the constituency (as I’d rather suspected, given the price), but had been imported from a neighbouring county – Gloucestershire, to be precise and, to be even more precise, from Highgrove, the country seat of the Prince of Wales.

If true, this raises the interesting questions of whether one of Prince Charles’s businesses has been a beneficiary of an MP’s expenses claim, whether he know about it and, if so, whether it will have any constitutional implications?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

It’s almost impossible to watch or listen to a media interview without coming to a positive or negative impression of the person who is being interviewed.

This is very clear in the following exchange between Andrew Neil and cabinet minister Yvette Cooper – watch the whole thing first and see what you think before reading on:

I deliberately didn’t use the original YouTube version, because its title – ‘Yvette Cooper’s worst interview yet … probably (and that’s saying something)’ – might have influenced your own personal reaction.

The video a splendid example of something I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, namely that a major reason why the interview is such an unsatisfactory form of political communication is that it’s so easy for politicians not to answer questions and so difficult for interviewers to extract answers from them (without coming across as unreasonably hostile or biased, on which see HERE).

In this case, the interviewer's difficulties in getting an answer out of the interviewee and her determination not to provide one are even more evident than usual, because of the extraordinary amount time that both of them spend speaking at the same time as each other – which is a such a flagrant breach of the most basic rule of conversation of all, namely ‘one speaker speaks at a time’, that it’s bound to be noticed by any competent speaker of the language (i.e. viewers and listeners).

But what still hasn’t dawned on politicians (and the media advisors who train them how to perform in interviews) is that coming across as evasive or as someone who ‘hogs’ the conversation’ invariably creates a negative impression.

So, if your reaction to Ms Cooper veered towards the negative end of the scale, you shouldn’t be at all surprised. You are not alone – as you’ll see from these samples from the 117 comments posted by some of the 8,000 people who have so far seen the interview on YouTube:

“I watched this today as well, and couldn't believe my eyes. Every time I see her being interviewed she always tries to speak over the interviewer and never answers the question directly. She has this 'I don't care how stupid I look' kind of attitude which doesn't do her or her party any favours. Just answer the question you silly woman!”

“All Labour ministers go to the same school where they learn to ignore the question, talking over the interviewer and acting in a supercilious arrogant manner. No wonder the public hate them.”

“This is Bliar's real legacy. The complete triumph of waffle and spin over unpleasant facts.”

“I'm surprised the leftist BBC allowed Andrew Neil to press Cooper like this. But he did a good job and still got no answer. As other people have said on here, she is just a pre-programmed robot reading from a script embedded in her brain.”


The video also provides some excellent illustrations of what the late Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, referred to as ‘overlap competition’.

The argument, briefly stated, goes like this. So basic is the ‘one speaker at a time’ rule that we get uneasy when we find ourselves in situations where it is being violated, whether by ourselves or by someone else. As a result, one or other of the speakers will always eventually give way, thereby enabling a return to orderly turn-taking where ‘one speaker speaks at a time’.

Jefferson also noted that there are two techniques available to interrupters, one of which is always far more effective than the other when it comes to winning and holding the floor.

To win, all you have to do is to carry on speaking and ignore anyone else’s attempts to ‘get a word in edgeways’. And it’s no use just trying to get the odd word or two in - e.g. ‘but- but- but' - and expect that the other person will give way, because, so long as you proceed no further than that, they won’t.

For the purposes of what follows, let’s call these truncated attempts to get the floor the ‘staccato’ technique.

But if you’re more persistent and launch unhesitatingly into producing a fully-fledged sentence, the power of the one speaker at a time rule will start to weaken the other person's determination and knock them off course – by making him or her feel just as uneasy and inhibited as you felt when you were breaking the rule.

So long as you carry on speaking as fluently as you can (or dare), you’ll eventually force your competitor to back off and leave you in the clear to say whatever you like.

For the purposes of what follows, let’s call this the ‘continuo’ technique).

I’ve edited this interview into five consecutive sequences, in which you can not only see both speakers using both of these techniques, but also how whichever one persists with the ‘continuo’ technique always wins.

Episode 1: Neil's initial use of staccato fails and he only wins when he uses continuo to assert that he's asking her a question:

Episode 2: Neil’s several initial attempts at staccato are defeated by Cooper’s persistent use of continuo:

Episode 3: Neil’s initial attempts with staccato fail but he wins through as soon as he opts for continuo:

Episode 4: Cooper’s persistent use of continuo wins through and frustrates Neil to the point where he explicitly complains that she is preventing him from asking his question.

Episode 5: Having got the floor, Neil makes the most of it by asking a much longer question than usual, which Cooper seems to treat as an invitation to produce an even longer answer. Initially, her use of continuo successfully holds Neil’s staccato efforts at bay. Then, very unusually, both of them start using continuo at the same time, and Cooper only backs off when she gets to the end of her sentence, leaving Neil in the clear to carry on and get his question out.


Next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re competing to get a chance to speak, remember that the staccato technique is unlikely to succeed, but that you're almost certain to win if you’re prepared to use the continuo technique.

But remember too that the only thing you'll win is the space to say whatever it is you want to say and that such victories come at a price - namely that people will not only notice what you're doing but will also use such behaviour as a basis for drawing negative conclusions about you and the kind of person you are.

Sooner or later, politicians may actually wake up to this brutal fact of life and realise how little there is to be gained from talking over their interviewers and ignoring the questions put to them.

And as a footnote, on this evidence from Ms Cooper (AKA Mrs Ed Balls), one does have to wonder who wears the trousers in the Balls household?


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

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

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

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

· A Labour leader with no interest in spin!

· Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation

· Applause for Dimbleby’s questions on Question Time

Banksy officially on show in Bristol

Last week, we went to see an exhibition that included some Banksy limited edition prints and a slab cut from the wall of a garage at the ViewArt gallery in Bristol - where you could also  see artists Snik and Ben Slow painting two pieces on the outer wall and floor of the gallery (HERE).

Today, Bristol Museum has announced a surprise exhibition by Banksy, who said of it (or should that be is 'alleged to have said'?): 

"This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off."

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

From the huge amount of media coverage about MPs over the past month, it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that there is a similarly huge amount of media and public interest in what actually goes on the House of Commons every day.

In a number of earlier posts (e.g. HERE, HERE and HERE), I have pointed out that the broadcast media in Britain decided long ago that speeches make 'bad television', and prefer to show us reporters telling us what a politician was saying and/or to inflict endless tedious interviews on viewers and listeners (look and listen no further than the BBC’s daily output on their flagship Newsnight and Today programmes).

Some time ago, I mentioned this to a well-known political reporter who can be seen on our television screens almost every day (and, since reading this, Michael Crick, political editor of Newsnight, has informed me: 'quite happy to be quoted by name on that'). His reply drew my attention to the fact that the situation is even worse than I had realised:

‘Your concern about us using real-life speeches less and less is a very valid one. It applies to Parliament too, when we ignore debates in favour of interviews outside. I try and resist producers on this when I can … and of course none of the newspapers run extracts from Parliament any more either, though all the qualities did up until about 15 years ago.’

And he’s dead right.

If you have a look at the Hansard website, you can see a verbatim transcript of all the 165,000 words uttered in the House of Commons yesterday. Then look at today's newspapers, and you’ll see that, apart from a tiny proportion of the 5,000 words spoken during Prime Minister’s Questions, hardly any of the others get any mention at all - and when it's not the day after PMQs, you'll see even fewer words than that.

It would obviously be impractical for radio, television and the newspapers to feature lengthy reports on parliamentary speeches and debates.

But why has their move away from covering the day-to-day proceedings of our legislature been so total and complete?

And are we really more interested in allegations about MPs’ expenses and rows within the Labour Party than in the debates that are actually taking place in parliament, not to mention the the impact they might have on our lives?

"Labour's not for turning" - Peter Hain

This intriguing email about Peter Hain’s speech earlier today in the dissolution of parliament debate has just arrived from a regular reader of the blog, who sometimes posts comments under the pseudonym ‘Scan’: 

‘Hain spent fifteen minutes telling everyone how horrid the Tories are, used to be and will be in the future - there wasn't a lot other than that. Yet at the end of his speech he used a bastardisation of Thatcher's famous phrase and said, "You can dissolve if you want to. This government's not for dissolution." 

‘I'm not sure what it says about his mentality or wheher Freud would have had a field day or not, but it seems curious that, after spending so long saying negative things about the Tories, his flourish at the end comes from the most Tory of all Tories, Thatcher.’

If anyone has a link to the speech, please let me know, as it would be nice to be able to do a more detailed comparison with the original from Mrs Thatcher’s speech at the Conservatie Party Conference in 1980: 

Presidential heights

If you’ve been following the debate about how important body language and non-verbal communication really are, you shouldn't conclude from one of my recent posts that I don’t think such things matter at all. 

During the Obama-McCain campaigns, I even suggested that there might be a connection between political success and a good head of hair (‘Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma?’), in which I also mentioned a study of US politicians  ‘from presidents down to the lowest levels of local government, that identified the two most powerful predictors of electoral success in American politics as being the candidate’s height (the taller the better) and record of athletic achievement (the sportier the better).’ 

On the question of height, it's worth looking at a  piece in today’s Times Online entitled ‘How Sarkozy stood up to Obama’

As can be seen from the picture, Sarkozy is clearly sensitive enough about being vertically challenged to stand on a step at the same podium as other speakers at the D-Day commemorations last weekend.

And, if height really is as important in American politics as suggested in the study mentioned above, Mr Sarkozy might have found it more difficult to get elected as president had he been campaigning in the USA rather than France.

Why it suited Brown and Blair to take House of Lords reform no further

Regular followers of this blog will know that I don’t often forsake non-partisan comment on speech and communication to air my own political views. They will also know that one of the exceptions is my thorough disapproval of the unfinished business of reforming the House of Lords. 

In the early days of this Labour government, it looked as though they might actually come up with something more sensible (i.e. more democratic) than the continuingly absurd system of allocating seats in the House of Lords. 

But, in the light of the recent cabinet reshuffle, I’m beginning to see why the two most senior architects of New Labour avoided doing any such thing. 

Had they done so, Gordon Brown would not have been able to sneak the unelected Peter Mandelson back into the cabinet, let alone promote him to deputy prime minister. Nor, given the recent departure of so many of his senior ministers (and/or refusal of others to fill their places), would he have been able to replace them with whichever unelected recruit he took a fancy to, whether it be Sir Alan Sugar or Lord Adonis, who is now in the cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport.

Luckily for Brown, Tony Blair had already made such dubious practices easy for him by giving Adonis a seat in the House of Lords back in 2005 – in spite of our new transport supremo’s distaste for standing in elections. 

Apart from serving as an elected Liberal Democrat councilor on Oxford City Council (1987-91), Andrew Adonis, as he then was, had withdrawn from being the Lib Dem PPC for Westbury in 1995 and then, three years later, withdrew from being a Labour candidate for Islington Council.

In principle, of course, Adonis has always been in favour of elections and has even advocated them for the House of Lords: 

"Lords reform is not just about democratic equality. The present Second Chamber, lacking democratic legitimacy, is incapable of performing the essential functions of a revising assembly…” (for fuller story, see HERE). 

But in practice, why complain about the appointment of cronies if you’d rather rise without trace than go to all the trouble of fighting an election? 

And why complain if you’re a prime minister who’s running out of elected MPs willing to serve in your cabinet? 

If  Brown and Blair had taken the reform of the House of Lords any further when they had the chance, there would have been no such handy escape route. 

Nor, without a system that allows the unelected to be promoted above the elected, would former critics of the ‘democratic legitimacy’ of the House of Lords, like Adonis, have been able to ignore their past position on the matter and float so effortlessly to the top. 

Yet further proof, if proof were needed, that the 'reformed' way of allocating seats in the House of Lords, as devised by this government is not only an embarrassing sham, but is postitively damaging and detrimental to the democratic process.

Monty Python's Election Night Special

Here's some light relief for anyone who was frustrated or irritated by last night's BBC television coverage of the Euro election results. 

And what a fine gadget the swingometer was compared with the ghastly visual aids we have to put up with these days (see previous post).

Euro-election coverage: was the BBC’s graphical overkill a violation of its charter?

The increasing domination of BBC news coverage by ever more expensive, elaborate and distracting graphics is an issue that I’ve touched on several times since starting this blog.

Last night’s Euro election coverage saw this graphical mania plumbing new depths, as we had to watch Jeremy Vine groping his way around a virtual studio, with maps on the floor and walls, as bar charts kept springing up from beneath his feet and one incomprehensible circle after another kept materializing behind him.

Does anyone at the BBC (other than their computer graphics nerds) seriously believe that viewers like watching this kind of stuff, let alone find it useful?

According to the BBC’s Royal Charter, the corporation has an obligation to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

Have a look at the following, helpfully described on the BBC's website as 'The figures explained', and see if you think it achieves any of these objectives.

Then click Play again, close your eyes and see if you’re any more or less the wiser when you can’t see Mr Vine or his graphics.