BLOG INDEX: Sept 2008-July 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.

JULY 2009
• Impersonators as masterful analysts of non-verbal communication
• Televised interviews and political communication
• Thatcher had more teleprompter troubles than Obama
• Jargon & gobbledygook refresher course
• How many numbers can you get into a minute?
• Will The Times be investigating Lord Rees-Mogg’s House of Lords expenses?
• Why is the MoD involved in planning Harry Patch’s funeral?
• Clarke has more to say about Brown than a few weeks ago
• Book plugging news
• Why doesn’t Amazon have a Spanish site?
• Media debilitated by swine flu news pandemic
• More standup comedy from Gordon Brown
• Standing ovation for Gordon Brown after anecdotes about Reagan, Cicero and Demosthenes
• Gordon Brown’s tough decisions and/or rehearsal for defeat
• White paint, red lights and fuel conservation
• Are you ahead of reading this post?
• Nudging in a more enlightened direction
• Moon rhetoric from Neil Armstrong, JFK & Werner von Braun
• Rhetoric revival?
• Book plugging
• How to stay awake during a repetitive ceremony
• BBC plug-a-book shows: how and why is so much offered to so few?
• Puzzle-Solution formats
• BBC rediscovers the 'Lost Art of Oratory' (again)
• Welcome to visitors from the BBC website
• D-Day memorabilia from Normandy to Lüneburg
• More on body language & non-verbal behavior
• Guinea pigs
• Non-verbal communication
• A commentator likely to keep his job
• Non-verbal communication and height
• Welcome to visitors from the BBC website
• How to use video to study body language, verbal & non-verbal communication
• Is the 'Daily Telegraph' borrowing from blogs?
• More bad news for Gordon Brown
• Translation and fantasies of global domination
• Pious and expensive twaddle from strong man Straw
• There’s no such thing as a boring subject

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

Impersonators as masterful analysts of non-verbal communication

The recent debate on various blogs about some of the myths about body language and non-verbal communication (on which see HERE and HERE) has reminded me of a minor frustration from my days as a full-time academic.

When I worked in Oxford during the 1970s-80s, there were quite a few social psychologists doing research into body language and non-verbal communication.

Although they were always good company and interesting to talk to over lunch, they knew and I knew that there were some quite important methodological differences between their approach and that of conversation analysts like me.

Put briefly, and from my point of view, they didn't seem to let empirical data constrain their claims to the same extent as we did.

Invite an impersonator to give a seminar?
Some of the people I knew used to arrange for visiting academics to speak at their regular seminars, and I was continually trying to persuade them to invite Mike Yarwood. He wasn’t an academic, but was the top showbiz impersonator at the time (and, if I were still there today, I’d no doubt be trying to get them to invite Rory Bremner, for the same reason).

As for why I thought Yarwood would have some interesting things to say, it was because, for his impersonations to convince the mass television audience so successfully, he must have developed some very effective techniques for observing the way celebrities speak and behave – and for analyzing at such fine levels of detail that he was then able to reproduce instantly recognisable versions of them in his own performances.

In fact, as far as I could see, he must have been better at it than those of us who were supposed to be ‘experts’, and should therefore be able to teach us a thing or two that would help us to improve our own observational skills.

What's the point?
My conversations with the psychologists about this always ended in failure, so we never did get to hear Mr Yarwood revealing any of his secrets.

In retrospect, I suspect my argument may have too threatening, or perhaps too undiplomatic, for them to agree to invite him to a seminar.

When they asked “Why?”, “What would the point of that be?”, etc., my reply went along the following lines:

“Because his observations and analyses have to be accurate enough not just to describe their behaviour in detail, but to be able to reproduce it so effectively that anyone can recognize who it is. If Yarwood gets it wrong, his shows will fail and he’ll be out of a job, whereas academics can be wrong for the next 30+ years and still get paid.”

Such were the luxuries of the academic life.

Televised interviews and political communication

If you’re a new reader of this blog and are interested in the problems associated with the growing importance of interviews as the major form of political communication in the UK, there are a number of posts, both serious and not so serious that you might like to catch up on.

They include the following, most of which are illustrated by short video clips:

Why it’s so easy for politicians not to answer questions - and what should be done about it
Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them
Gordon Brown’s interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg
Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?
A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s question
A Tory leader’s three evasive answers to the same question
A Labour leader with no interest in spin
Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

And here’s another classic from the early 1980s BBC series Not the Nine o’clock News:

Thatcher had more teleprompter troubles than Obama

Bert Decker has just posted a very interesting piece arguing that President Obama’s use of the teleprompter isn’t doing any favours for his reputation as a great communicator.

This doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve always thought it a rather mixed blessing since seeing Margaret Thatcher’s performance deteriorate after she moved from using a script on a lectern to reading from teleprompter screens.

Before 1982, she never used a teleprompter. But, on seeing Ronald Reagan using it in a masterly speech to both houses of parliament that year, she was apparently so impressed that she told her aides that she wanted one too - and, a few months later she tried it out at the annual conference of the Conservative Party.

The immediate result was a dramatic fall in the amount of applause she received. In her 1981 Conference speech, she’d achieved the astonishing average of one burst of applause for every three sentences she uttered. A year later, aided, or rather abetted, by the teleprompter, her applause rate fell by about 35%.

One reason for this was that it interfered with an extremely regular part her delivery. When using a script on a lectern, she would routinely lower her eyes and head towards the text during the last two or three syllables as she approached a completion point (e.g. the end of the second part of a contrast or the third item in a list).

If anyone in the audience still wasn't sure that she’d finished and it was time to respond (i.e, applaud), any such doubt was eliminated by two more non-verbal signals: she would close her mouth tightly and audibly clear her throat.

In some of her speeches from a lectern, this didn’t just happen now and then, but on every single occasion she was applauded. You can see examples of the routine as she delivers two consecutive contrasts at the start of her third successful general election campaign in 1987:

Whereas this all worked pretty smoothly to trigger instantaneous applause, it was a very different story when Mrs Thatcher's eyes were fixed on teleprompter screens instead of a lectern. She no longer looked down towards the script as she came to a completion point, but gazed beyond the screens into thin air.

The removal of these decisive and unambiguous signals that she’d definitely finished and it was time to applaud meant that it didn’t happen as often as it did when could return her eyes to the lectern.

The line in this first example should have been guaranteed to get applause from any Tory party audience in 1982:

THATCHER “.. this is why we need nuclear weapons, because having them makes peace more secure.”

But, as you'll see, nothing happens, other than some rapid eye-blinking and a long pause from Mrs Thatcher before continuing, perhaps indicating that she’d both noticed and was surprised by the lack of applause:

In the next example, the audience does applaud after the second part of a contrast, but only after a delay of about half a second and then for noticeably less than the ‘standard’ 8 seconds (for more on ‘standard’ bursts of applause, see HERE) .

THATCHER: “We all want peace, but not peace at any price; peace with justice and freedom.”

Once the slight delay is over and the applause is underway, you can see that Mrs Thatcher half closes her mouth and then, looks down towards the lectern – after the applause had started rather than before it, as would have happened had she been reading from the lectern:

Although these may seem to be small details, there were so many of them in her 1982 conference speech that it's easy to pick out enough similar examples to be unsurprised that she got so much less applause than in the previous year.

For Mrs Thatcher, it brought with it other new, and rather odd-looking, changes to the way her eyes and body had previously moved. Sometimes, her eyes would remain fixed on one screen as her shoulders started moving towards the other one. Then, once the shoulders were in position, her head and eyes would dart very quickly and suddenly from one screen to the other, as if she wasn't going to take any chances about losing her place.

So this is why I started by saying that teleprompters are a mixed blessing for speakers. Few, including, it appears, President Obama can match Ronald Reagan's mastery of the technology. And some, like Margaret Thatcher, were considerably more effective reading from a script on sheets of paper resting on a lectern than when reading from transparent screens in front of them.

I first came across teleprompters when writing Our Masters' Voices 25 years ago. In those days, they used to be called 'sincerity machines' – and that, perhaps, is precisely the problem with them.

Jargon & gobbledygook refresher course

Ahead of the holiday period, this video might help you to get your ducks in a row when it’s time to get up to the plate again going forward - and two earlier posts might help to get the issues up the flag pole HERE and HERE.

But Sky News can hardly claim to be innocent when it comes to telling us that something is happening ahead of something else when what they mean is 'before'.

How many numbers can you get into a minute?

A few months ago, I made the point that Gordon Brown tends to pack far too much information into his speeches and still has to take notice of a crucial tip from Winston Churchill about simplicity.

In his final press conference before the Summer recess, he was at it again. At one stage, as you can see below, he managed to mention nine numbers in less than a minute.

The trouble is that a lot of people glaze over when numbers come at them so thick and fast – a problem that’s even worse if, as in this case, they’re delivered in a flat monotonous tone of voice.

And the importance of speakers conveying enthusiasm for their subjects cannot be overestimated – for the very obvious reason that, if a speaker sounds bored by his or her subject matter, why should the audience feel any less bored, let alone be inspired by it?

Add to this Mr Brown’s earnest facial expression and it's hardly surprising that he’s so often referred to ‘dour’.

Will The Times be investigating Lord Rees-Mogg’s House of Lords expenses?

Today’s Times on Line has a story about Lord Bhatia’s House of Lords expenses claims.

This raises the interesting question of whether they are going to be as thorough in their investigations as the Telegraph was with it’s stories about MP’s expenses.

If so, they might like to start with one of their own columnists, William Rees-Mogg.

A previous post on this blog reported that, in the last year for which details were available at the time, Lord Rees-Mogg drew £41,463 in tax-free allowances. £8,923 of this was for ‘office costs’, part of which is quite likely to have helped to subsidise journalistic activities for The Times and other newspapers.

Why is the MoD involved in planning Harry Patch's funeral?

Harry Patch, who died yesterday, was a familiar face to those of us who read the Wells Journal every week and had become nationally famous as the last surviving Tommy from WW1.

Funeral services in Wells Cathedral are not available for everyone who dies in this area, but I’m sure there will be widespread local consensus that, if anyone deserves a send-off in the Cathedral, Harry Patch certainly does.

The only thing that seems a bit odd about the plan is the following announcement on the BBC website, that has been echoed in a lot of other media reportage:

‘The Ministry of Defence said there would be a funeral cortege through Wells followed by a service at Wells Cathedral.’

This raises the question of whether the MoD has a say in where the funerals of all ex-servicemen are to be held, not to mention whether there is some kind of hotline or special influence between MoD and the Dioceses of Bath and Wells?

At the risk of sounding ungracious, disrespectful or even a little suspicious, I can't help wondering if the MoD’s apparent involvement in planning Mr Patch’s funeral has something to with the PR attractions of holding such a high profile event for a famous war veteran at a time when we're hearing almost daily news of British deaths in Afghanistan.

Clarke has more to say about Brown than a few weeks ago

In the wake of Labour's loss of the Norwich North by-election, it looks as though former Home Secretary Charles Clarke is less reluctant to tell us what he thinks of Gordon Brown than he was five weeks ago.

Here's what he said then:

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

But today's BBC website has rather more detail on what Mr Clarke thinks of Mr Brown now:

Ex-home secretary Charles Clarke blamed the result on Mr Brown's "incompetent" treatment of outgoing MP Dr Ian Gibson … Mr Clarke - the MP for neighbouring Norwich South and a long-time critic of the prime minister - said there had been no "guiding principles" to the prime minister's handling of the expenses scandal.

"What happened to Ian Gibson was not fair and many, many people felt that," Mr Clarke told the BBC. "You need the transparency, you need a comprehensive approach, you need fairness and you need it to be done quickly and these things didn't happen."

Book plugging news

It's 10 days since I posted some comments about the impact of BBC 'plug-a-book' shows on sales, following a mention of Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy (see above) on the BBC website.

As expected, it soon slipped back from its all-time high of 1,841st in the Amazon bestsellers chart, but it's still been averaging about 220,000 places higher than it was before the plug on the BBC website.

What this means in terms of actual sales, I'll have to wait for news from the publishers.

But, with the ever-growing domination of booksellers like Waterstones, Amazon and word-of-mouth are becoming even more important to frustrated authors, and the book's current placing prompts a degree of cautious optimism that it might have just about reached lift-off.

Why doesn't Amazon have a Spanish site?

Wondering how the Spanish translation of Lend Me Your Ears was doing, I thought I'd have a look at Amazon Spain.

To my astonishment, I discovered that it doesn't exist, even though Spanish is the 3rd most widely spoken language in the world.

But, there are Amazon sites in Japanese (10th most widely spoken) and German (11th most widely spoken), not to mention three in English (UK, USA, Canada) and Amazon China.

I'm not as worried about Amazon missing such a major market opportunity as I am about the fact that Spanish speakers don't have access to books translated from English into Spanish.

I know from emails and comments on the blog that there are some regular Spanish speaking visitors.

They might like to know that the Spanish edition of Lend Me Your Ears is published as Claves para hablar en público: Todo lo que necesita saber sobre cómo pronunciar discursos y hacer presentaciones, further details of which are available HERE (from where copies can also be ordered).

Media debilitated by swine flu news pandemic

I just tried (but failed) to catch up with the news by listening to The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 10.00 p.m..

Twenty minutes into the broadcast and they were still banging on about the latest flu statistics, when a vaccine would be ready, government help lines, websites, etc., etc.

All of which could have been collapsed into a three-part list that would have taken less than 10 seconds to read out:

"There's more of it about, it's not very serious and a vaccine's on its way."

(See also What's the difference between a 'flu pandemic' and a 'flu epidemic'?)

More standup comedy from Gordon Brown

The story about Ronald Reagan that Gordon Brown told at the TED conference the other day wasn’t the only one that got a laugh from the audience (see previous post).

He also had one about singer Amy Whitehouse and Nelson Mandela. It was a neat example of the puzzle-solution technique illustrated last week with clips from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and William Hague.

Puzzle: “Amy Whitehouse said “Nelson Mandela and I have got a lot in common.

Solution: “My husband too has spent a long time in prison.”

But I was always taught that you shouldn't laugh at your own jokes, and this would surely have worked better if he hadn't done so.

Standing ovation for Gordon Brown after anecdotes about Reagan, Cicero and Demosthenes

A couple of days ago, Gordon Brown took time out from local problems, like today’s by-election, to make a surprise appearance at the TED Global conference, and one can’t help wondering if the chance to give a lecture in Oxford marked the official start of his exit strategy into teaching that he was dropping hints about a few weeks ago.

You can see the whole of his TED performance at the bottom of this page and inspect a brief review of Twitter responses HERE.

Readers of my books will know that I give great emphasis to the importance of anecdotes in effective speeches and presentations, and there are two nice examples of this in Mr Brown's speech.

The first one came as he tried his hand at a bit of standup with this story about what Ronald Reagan is alleged to have thought of the then Swedish prime minister, Olaf Palme:

Then, right at the end came another anecdote involving a contrast between the way audiences used to respond to Cicero and Demosthenes. Brown firmly identifies himself with the latter and gets a positive reaction that doesn’t often happen to him outside Labour Party conferences – a standing ovation - and it doesn't often happen to anyone in Oxford either (or at least, I never got one when I worked there).

The whole unedited 16 minute speech can be watched below. And, as you'll see from the first few minutes, someone must have advised Mr Brown that, if you must use PowerPoint, you can't beat genuinely visual slides like pictures:

Gordon Brown's tough decisions and/or rehearsal for defeat

In case you missed Gordon Brown’s last press conference before the Summer recess, here’s the ‘Top Story’ on the No 10 website today:

Government taking “tough decisions” on economy – PM
The Government has taken “tough decisions” to tackle the recession and reduce its impact, the Prime Minister has said.

Speaking at his final Downing Street press conference before the summer recess, Gordon Brown said it was a challenging time for the country, but ministers had put in place “considerable” measures to help British businesses and families.

The Prime Minister also set out what the Government is doing to prepare for an increase in swine flu cases, and took questions on Afghanistan.

Read more: Government taking “tough decisions” on economy - PM

Curiously, if you do click to read more, you won’t find any mention of a question about tomorrow's Norwich North by-election.

Luckily, however, the Channel 4 News website does show us the the question and 'answer' under the headline ‘a rehearsal for by-election defeat’.

Here's how reporter Gary Gibbon introduces the video:

'Gordon Brown at his press conference just now sounded like a man rehearsing his lines for Friday when Norwich North looks like getting a Tory MP.

'He said he thought “people do understand the uniqueness of this by-election” in answer (or rather in reply) to a question about why he deselected Ian Gibson.'

See what you think:

White paint, red lights and fuel conservation

Yesterday, I suggested that the country could achieve significant energy savings by the simple and virtually free device of permitting left turns at red traffic lights.

Even greater savings in fuel consumption could be had by replacing as many traffic lights as possible with mini-roundabouts.

A few years ago, for example, there weren’t any traffic lights in the city of Wells, and the worst traffic jam I’d ever been in was one in which there were three cars in front of me (and that was at 8.55 a.m in the morning).

But Somerset County Council, aided and abetted by their highways consultants, W.S. Atkins, soon put a stop to all that by installing numerous sets of traffic lights at as many junctions as they could find.

As a result, Wells now has plenty of traffic jams in which, more often than not, you have to keep your vehicle idling while waiting for no traffic at all to come from any other direction.

In every place where the lights were installed, traffic flow would have worked more smoothly – and have cost far less money – if the County Council had spent a few pounds on white paint to create mini-roundabouts.

As there’s so little traffic in Wells, fuel conservation would have been significantly improved by a reduction in (a) idling time and (b) the number of times vehicles have to move off from a standing start.

Are you ahead of reading this post?

A few months ago, I posted a 'Jargon and gobbledygook comedy sketch' that was based on various words and phrases in common usage that that I find irritating and/or annoying.

One that baffles me more than most is the ever-increasing preference of writers in the press and broadcast media for using the phrase ‘ahead of’ when they actually mean ‘before’, as in the following recent examples:

‘Man scales plinth ahead of launch.’ – BBC website.

‘Today's co-ordinated attacks came with violence surging in Afghanistan ahead of presidential and provincial elections next month times on line.’ – Times Online.

'Kevin Pietersen will see a specialist about his longstanding Achilles problem ahead of the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston.’ – Sky News website.

In these and the scores of examples you can read or hear every day, wouldn't it sound much more normal and natural if they’d used the good old English word ‘before’.

Is it just me, or did something go seriously wrong with the way I originally learnt to speak (and, as far as I know, continue to speak) my native tongue.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school ahead of going to university any more than I became a father ahead of becoming a grandfather. But I do know that I did both of the former BEFORE experiencing either of the latter.

So can anyone explain to me why is it that so many journalists and editors are so obsessed with using a way of saying ‘before’ that’s not in common usage among any section of the British public (outside the media)?

When did it start being used, and where on earth did it come from in the first place?

I'd really appreciate it if anyone can shed any light on all this going forward – and there’s another one that sounds just as out of touch with common usage and raises much the same questions.

Nudging in a more enlightened direction

Rob Greenland has an interesting post on The Social Business about the encouraging reduction in plastic bag use – and the even more encouraging way it’s been achieved:

'It's in the news today that supermarkets just missed their target of 50% reduction in plastic bag use (they got to 48%). I'm not a big fan of supermarkets but I think on this one they need to be congratulated. Remember the reaction against proposals to tax plastic bags, and how, many believed, people would never change their habits.

'Far too many bags are still used but a 48% reduction is a massive improvement. If businesses and the public can get their act together on this issue, what other seemingly impossible environmental problems might we solve? It may also suggest that it's better to nudge people into doing the right thing (like the clever question the checkout assistant was trained to ask), rather than taxing them into behavioural change.'

I couldn’t agree more with his recommendation of the nudge-nudge approach and would like to add a couple of simple but effective options that wouldn’t even need nudge-nudge because they would not only achieve savings automatically, but would also be be virtually free and require no new targets or elaborate regulatory controls.

If you’ve ever driven in the USA, you’ll know that most states allow drivers to turn right on a red light if there’s no traffic coming from that direction.

This was arguably the single most important legacy of Gerald Ford’s administration and saves fuel by reducing (a) idling time and (b) the number of times you have to start off from a complete stop. Apart from reducing overall fuel consumption and emissions, the rule brings the added benefit of instant financial savings for motorists and transport companies.

In the UK, for obvious reasons the equivalent would be to permit left turns at red lights – and could be introduced instantly at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

In an age when car head-lights are so much better than they used to be, why do there have to be so many lights on so many miles of motorway – and why do they stay on into the early hours of the morning?

And can we really justify so many street-lights in our town centres, suburbs and villages?

Whereas the first recommendation could be brought in instantly, this one would need a bit of experimentation to get the balance right. As a start, I’d suggest turning off 50% of all road and street lighting and see what happened.

Moon rhetoric from Neil Armstrong, JFK & Werner von Braun

About twelve years after the moon landing in 1969, I started writing about the power of rhetorical techniques like the contrast, and remember being vaguely amused and delighted when I realised that, of all the possible things that Neil Armstrong could have said 40 years ago, it was a simple contrast that was beamed back to earth.

[A] That's one small step for man;
[B] one giant leap for mankind.

But this historic achievement was also the fulfillment of earlier memorable rhetorical flourishes from President Kennedy, who’d committed the USA to land a man on the moon within a decade. And here he is cranking out a contrast and rounding off his message off with a three-part list:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,

[A] not because they are easy,
[B] but because they are hard,

because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is

[1] one that we are willing to accept,
[2] one we are unwilling to postpone
[3] and one we intend to win.

(The full text of the speech is HERE).

Rocket scientist though he may have been, Werner von Braun, without whose brains NASA might never have met Kennedy’s deadline, was no slouch when it came to coining memorable quotations.

When the first of the V2 rockets he’d designed for Hitler hit London, it’s been claimed that his mind was already on space – as he was quoted as saying: "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."

Other famous lines from von Braun include the following:

“Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft, and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.”

“Our sun is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies populating the universe. It would be the height of presumption to think that we are the only living things in that enormous immensity.”

“Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing.”

“Don't tell me that man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go -- and he'll do plenty well when he gets there.”

“We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

“There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space program - your tax-dollar will go further.”

“Crash programs fail because they are based on theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”

“It will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet.”

“For my confirmation, I didn't get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys. I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift.”

For someone who helped the Nazis to develop the V2 rockets that launched so much terror and destruction on London, US citizenship wasn't such a bad gift either.

Rhetoric revival?

In case you missed Sal Pinto's comment on a recent post, he's drawn attention to the news that a new MA course in Rhetoric is about to be launched by a British University, full details of which can be inspected by following the links from HERE.

As he says, "Progress!".

The picture, by the way is of one of the 'old schools' in Oxford, not the University of Central Lancashire where the new MA will be taught.

Book plugging

If you're wondering why my books have suddenly appeared in such a prominent place at the top of the page, there are two reasons.

The first is that the Amazon rankings already show that the initial surge in sales after Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy was mentioned on the BBC website has already subsided after only a few days exposure. So instead of posting stuff about the impact on sales of BBC 'plug-a-book' shows, I thought I should be doing a bit more in the way of plugging my own books on the blog.

The second reason is that I'm only just beginning to get the hang of the rather inflexible Blogspot templates, and it's taken me this long to work out how to insert pictorial links to Amazon.

How to stay awake during a repetitive ceremony

Graduation ceremonies are important landmarks for graduates, families and universities.

But seeing 125 youngsters trooping across a stage to shake hands and receive their degrees can hardly be said to be the most gripping of theatrical events, especially when there's only one of the 125 that you actually know and care about.

I’ve just been to such an event, at which it quickly became apparent that we were in for a long wait (over half an hour, as it turned out) before our candidate got anywhere near the stage. Nor were we alone, because there were about 250 other people in the audience in exactly the same position as us.

All of which raises the interesting question of how you stay awake, as one unfamiliar name after another is read out, and as one unfamiliar smiling face after another appears on stage. For me, the answer is easy, because occasionally there's an advantage in having a technical interest in how such ceremonies work,

And I have to say that this particular one worked like clockwork, and did so in two intriguing respects that probably weren’t even noticed by anyone else in the audience.

The first was the supreme efficiency with which the ‘clap on the name’ technique ensured that every candidate was applauded as they walked into the limelight, with the applause coming in on cue a fraction of a second after each name was read out.

The second piece of clockwork was that the ovation in every single case lasted for exactly 7 seconds. No one told the audience to time their clapping to fit within the standard 7-9 second span found in the vast majority of bursts of applause, but the fact is that they did - with mechanical precision.

And the fact that they did so meant that, in every case, it sounded about right – less than 7 seconds wouldn’t have sounded complimentary enough; more than 9 seconds would have sounded more enthusiastic than necessary.

The only reason I’m able to report this extraordinary 100% regularity is that I sat there timing them all, which not only kept me wide awake, but also enabled me to test a hypothesis or two.

At the start, for example, I wondered whether there might be a difference between the amount of applause awarded to men and women, younger and older graduates, members of different ethnic groups, etc. But there was no hint of any such difference, as all of them got exactly the same 7 second ration.

Such negative results can sometimes be disappointing, but not if the process of coming up with them keeps you awake and attentive from the beginning to the end of what might otherwise have been a rather tedious experience (apart from our 30 second reason for being there).

There were, however, two exceptions that did get an outstanding 15 seconds of applause (outstanding because it’s twice as long as normal). One was for the collected assembly of graduates themselves, and the other was for their teachers – which is also exactly as it should be.

(Further details about the 'clap on the name' technique and the 7-9 second standard burst of applause can, of course, be found in my books).

BBC plug-a-book shows: how and why is so much offered to so few?

There are quite a number of plug-a-book shows on BBC Radio 4 (e.g. Start the Week, Midweek, Thinking Allowed, etc.), which is, I suppose, what you’d expect from the country's leading talk radio channel. Several times a week, a few lucky authors are invited by the likes of Andrew Marr, Libby Purves and Laurie Taylor to spend ten minutes saying whatever they like about their latest book.

Since yesterday, I’ve been twittering and blogging about how even a short interview on a fairly obscure part of the BBC website can work short-term wonders on book sales.

Before it was mentioned on the BBC website, my book Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy was languishing at around 245,000th on Amazon (UK).

Two hours later, it had shot up 220,000 places to 25,000th; two hours after that it rose to its highest place ever at 1,841 and pushed Lend Me Your Ears into second place in their ‘Public Speaking’ best-sellers list.

Impressive though this may seem, it pales into insignificance compared with what can happen after a few minutes on Radio 4. A couple of years ago, I was interviewed about speechwriting on Saturday Live by Fi Glover. When I mentioned Lend Me Your Ears, she told me I wasn’t supposed to be plugging my book, to which I replied that I thought this was the whole point of Radio 4.

Three hours later, I had a look to see if there’d been any move from its placing at about 4,000th, where it had been for a week or two on Amazon. To my astonishment, it had risen to 2nd – not 2nd in books on public speaking, but it had made it to the 2nd bestselling book in Amazon’s entire UK list. And there It stayed there for about half a day before beginning to slide down the rankings.

But the net result was that my publishers had to reprint it three days after the broadcast, and sold about 1,000 copies in the next seven days.

So there’s no doubt at all that the BBC, despite the fact that it’s not a commercial broadcaster and doesn’t officially advertise anything, does in fact advertise books. What's more, they must know what an impact their plug-a-book shows can have on sales, and the question on which I think we could do with a bit more transparency is, quite simply this: how do they go about selecting which of the thousands of possible authors get the tiny number of such important slots?

It would be nice to think that they operate with the kind of studied neutrality you might expect from a public service broadcaster. But at least two things make me wonder just how detached they really are.

The first goes back 25 years, when I was involved in coaching a woman who had never made a speech before to make a speech at the SDP annual conference in 1984. The fact that she got a standing ovation became a news story, but bookings for one or both of us to appear on various BBC radio and television programmes were suddenly cancelled when they realised that the training had been organised by, and was to be televised a couple of weeks later by, one of their commercial rivals, Granada Television.

The second reason for wondering about their detachment comes from the past two or three weeks. In one Radio 4 book review programme, the main inteviewee was a novelist who, before starting to write novels, had been a presenter on a BBC Television arts programme. At about the same time, Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime featured nightly readings from a novel by someone who used to run a London advertising agency, whose clients included one of our three main political parties.

Whether or not these two authors are better at writing novels than they were in their previous jobs, or whether they are any better than all the others who also publish novels each year, I have no idea. But I can’t help wondering whether they are part of a London social network that includes radio producers who find it easier to put people they know on their shows than the hundreds of other worthy candidates who never get a look in when it comes to such valuable exposure.

It’s well known that bookshops like Waterstones charge publishers huge sums of money to have their books displayed on tables near the entrance to their stores, a practice that doesn’t seem very far removed from the Payola scandals in the music industry all those years ago.

I’m not suggesting something similar is going on at the BBC. But at a time when the corporation is showing signs of becoming a bit more open about and accountable for their executives’ salaries and expense accounts, I don’t think it would do any harm to have some kind of investigation, or at least a good deal more transparency, on the question how candidates actually get selected for their plug-a-book programmes.

And, if it sounds as though I'm biting a hand that feeds me, I should make it clear that it doesn't happen as often as I'd like it to, and, on the rare occasions that it does, the rations don't last for very long.

Puzzzle-Solution formats

If you've arrived here from the BBC website, a very warm welcome to the Blog. If you haven't, you might like to see the article that's been sending quite a lot of people here since earlier today.

One important rhetorical technique that wasn't mentioned in Denise Waterman's piece on the BBC website, is what I refer to in my books and courses as the Puzzle-Solution format. It's based on the very simple principle that, if you say something that gets the audience wondering what's coming next, they'll listen more attentively and, if it's a good 'solution', they'll applaud it.

An example I often use when teaching is from a speech that Ronald Reagan made when declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. What's puzzling is why this should be a moment of 'mixed emotions' for him:

PUZZLE: This is a moment for quite some mixed emotions for me.
SOLUTION: I haven't been on prime-time television for quite a while.

Another of my favorite examples comes from a speech by William Hague when he was leader of the Conservative Party.

This one poses as big a puzzle as anyone who knows anything about the recent history of British politics could ever pose, namely the suggestion that former Tory prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath could actually agree on something in a debate about Europe.

To appreciate the solution, it also helps to know that, on the previous day, the conference stage had been furnished with some chairs supplied by the Swedish furniture company IKEA:

PUZZLE: Ted and Margaret came on to the platform for the debate on Europe yesterday and they were both in instant agreement.
SOLUTION: They both hated those chairs.


Something else not mentioned in the post on the BBC website is the way in which you can combine rhetorical techniques to achieve greater impact.

In this clip, from the 1987 UK general election, Mrs Thatcher poses a metaphorical puzzle (why is the Labour party's manifesto going to be like an iceberg), the solution to which comes in the form of a simple contrast:

PUZZLE: From the Labour Party expect the iceberg manifesto.
[A] One tenth of its socialism visible.
[B] Nine tenths beneath the surface.

BBC rediscovers the 'Lost Art of Oratory' (again)

An interesting feature of today's post about oratory on the BBC website is that it doesn't say anything about why it should be appearing today, or any other day for that matter.

I say this because, as I've noted before, the BBC, like other media outlets, has systematically reduced the numbers of speeches they show on television over the past twenty years, which I regard as a worrying trend. You can see more on this in earlier postings on this blog, including Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media in the ‘lost art’ of oratory.

And the title of that is what I would bet inspired Denise Waterman, and/or whoever it was at the BBC who commissioned the piece, to write about a subject that they'd probably never have bothered with in the pre-Obama era.

So a few months ago Alan Yentob, who in his former job at the BBC played a part in taking speeches off the air, suddenly became interested in the subject, probably to justify the expense of sending so many staff to Washington for Obama's inauguration - on which, see ‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place.

If you'd like to learn more about Obama's techniqes, the following posts include line-by-line analyses:

Rhetoric and imagery in Obama’s victory speech

Rhetoric and imagery in President Obama’s inauguration speech

There are quite a lot of other posts about him on the blog, and the easiest way to access them is either to type his name (or that of any other politician you might be interested in) into the search box on the left, or to go to my business website where there's a complete list of posts (and direct links to them) since the blog began.

Welcome to visitors from the BBC website

Other bloggers, authors and anyone else interested in the impact of different links on the number of hits you get and/or how many books you sell may like to know that I'll be monitoring these things quite closely today.

This is because I was interviewed last week for an article that's just appeared on the BBC website.

As with all such contacts, you never quite know what they'll make of whatever it was you managed to splutter out from wherever you happened to be when they called - in this case from my mobile phone somewhere in the depths of Wiltshire. But one thing I do know from previous mentions by the BBC is that they usually generate a sudden and dramatic surge in traffic.

Regular readers can watch this space for a periodic updates on progress (if any).

And, if you've just arrived here from a link from the BBC web, a very warm welcome to the blog.

If you want to find out more about speech-making and communication, you'll be able to find plenty more about it here, some of it topical, some historical and much of it illustrated with suitably selected video clips.

I hope you'll find it interesting enough to become a regular visitor, and perhaps even introduce any of your friends who might also want to know more about the subject.

If you want to learn more about speechwriting, why not join the UK Speechwriters' Guild?

And, if you're interested in writing speeches and/or making speeches and presentations, my books on the subject are available from Amazon at very reasonable prices by clicking on the boxes at the top of the page.

D-Day memorabilia: from Normandy to Lüneburg

I've just been sorting through an old suitcase that belonged to my late father-in-law, who, by the time he landed in Normandy in 1944, had been promoted from Private to Major in the Pioneer Corps.

One of the things I'd never seen before was an official regimental Christmas card for 1944 (above). Inside, there's a map of their journey towards Lüneburg Heath, where he ended up running a refugee camp after the war ended.

But I'm not sure what the numbers on the back cover refer to. They start six months before D-Day and could perhaps be the numbers of soldiers killed during the different periods. If anyone can shed any light on this, do let me know so that I can pass on a fuller story to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

There's also a scrap of paper with his neatly written personal record of his journey to Lüneburg Heath:

Some of the entries include addresses, presumably of where they were billeted, and I was amazed to see a reference to La Hulpe, just outside Brussels - because, 45 years later, I went to the same place to give some lectures at an IBM training complex that's now become a hotel and conference centre.

More on body language & non verbal behavior

A few weeks ago, Olivia Mitchell got quite a debate going on the blogosphere about some of the more ridiculous claims that have been circulating as 'facts' about the allegedly overwhelming importance of non-verbal factors in communication.

I've found the way the debate has been going very encouraging, not least because I've been banging on about these myths for years and had a go at debunking some of them in my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, which included some email exchanges with the originator of the myth discussed by Olivia Mitchell and in a video that's just appeared on YouTube (see below).

Whether or not what I wrote five years ago had anything to do with inspiring others to start addressing such issues, I don't know. Nor do I really care, because what really matters is that the tide finally seems to be moving in a more sensible direction - which might help to save thousands of people from being mislead into a state of needless anxiety by so-called 'experts' in the field.

If you're interested in the subject, related postings on this blog, including various cartoons and video clips, can inspected by clicking on any of the following.

Non-verbal communication
How to use video to study body language, verbal and non-verbal communication
Margaret Thatcher, body language and non-verbal communication
Body language and non-verbal communication video
Another body language & non-verbal communication cartoon
Body language, non-verbal behaviour and the myth about folded arms and defensiveness
Body language and non-verbal communication

You might also enjoy the following video that's just been posted on YouTube about one of the most preposterous myths of all.

Guinea pigs

Regular readers will know that I'm pretty keen on using short video clips to illustrate points about speaking and communication.

So I'm pleased to report that the use of video for educational purposes seems to be running in the family, as you'll see from this film produced by my 11 year old granddaughter that's just been posted on YouTube:

Non-verbal communication

Here's another cartoon on non-verbal communication (others can be seen HERE & HERE):

A commentator likely to keep his job

The other day, in discussing the analysis of videotaped behaviour, I compared the analyst's challenge as being similar to that of a sports commentator - in that, if a commentator's description regularly fails to match what viewers saw for themselves, he or she is unlikely to stay in the job for very long.

Little did I realise that such a gem of an example would crop up so soon. If you didn't hear it, it's well worth listening to Geoffrey Boycott's rant about the fall of a key England wicket on the first day of this year's first test match against Australia.

Boycott has been commentating on cricket ever since he retired from the game. On this evidence, and especially if you saw Pietersen's 'daft shot', I think he'll manage to hold his job down for a quite a few more years.

You can listen to him HERE and see what you think.

Non-verbal communication and height

Charles Crawford's blog has alerted me to some intriguing news about image-management in Moscow, that looks as though it was a cunning plan to make President Obama (6'1'') look uncomfortable sitting in a very low chair alongside Prime Minister Putin (5'7").

As you can see from the picture I posted a few weeks ago, President Sarkozy certainly has no qualms about rising to the same height as President Obama, even if it does mean standing on a box.

But, though we may know less about what image-handlers get up to in Russia than in the West, it shouldn't be thought that it's anything new. I have newspaper clippings from the Reagan years with reports from Moscow that Gorbachev was having smiling lessons, presumably to compete with the cheerful countenance of the Great Communicator in Washington.

A while back, I expressed surprise that the Republicans had taken such a risk as to nominate a candidate (McCain) who is six inches shorter than Obama - because there's some research suggesting that the most powerful predictors of success in US politics are height (the taller the better) and a record of sporting achievement (the sportier the better).

I've also suggested that, at least since the television age began, baldness may be a disadvantage for male politicians.

So no one should think that, just because I think that some of the claims about the importance of body language have been grossly over-stated, I don't think it matters at all. But I do think there are some difficult methodological problems in being more precise about it, however much agreement there may be between Messrs Putin and Sarkozy on the question of height.

How to use video to study body language, verbal and non-verbal communication

If you've been following the recent debate about some of the more outrageous claims about non-verbal behaviour and body languge (e.g. HERE and HERE), you may have been wondering why I think that so much research in this area falls short of the methodological constraints associated with the approach of conversation analysis.

There’s a long version, that has to do with the theoretical debates taking place within sociology during the 1960s–70s that I certainly don’t intend to get into here.

There’s also a much shorter version that has to do with the way conversation analysis offered a viable alternative for any researcher with doubts about sociology’s heavy reliance on surveys and official statistics, psychology’s equally heavy reliance on artificially contrived experiments and linguistics’s use of invented examples, and/or denying that there’s any point at all in looking at how language actually works (e.g. Chomsky).

What conversation analysts did was to move away from the previously dominant hypothetico-deductive model of science towards a much more inductive alternative of the kind that had given birth to ethology in biology/zoology.

This was made possible by what I believe will eventually recognised as having been as important for our understanding of talk and interaction as the invention of the telescope had been for understanding astronomy: by the late 1960s, high quality audio and video recording technology meant that anyone could record real everyday talk, put it under the microscope and study it at a level of detail that had never before been possible. And the first people to do so were the founders of conversation analysis.

When I wrote Our Masters’ Voices (1984), I was aiming at more general readership than the professional academic community of sociologists, psychologists and linguists. But I still thought it necessary to say at least something about the observational methodology that had made the findings possible.

The most important elements of this approach to observation were that (a) the researcher’s claims are severely constrained by what’s there in the empirical data (so you can’t just speculate, say whatever you like or make it up), and (b) any claims that you do make can be checked out by anyone else who has access to the same data (which is about as powerful a form of verification as there is anywhere else in the social and behavioural sciences).

The following refers to speeches because that's what the book was about, But I still believe, as I did then, that the methodology can be used to study pretty well any data on human interaction and communication that’s been recorded on audio or video tape:

Once a speech has been recorded, it can be studied with all the advantages that television viewers of an action replay of a sporting incident have over those who actually saw it happening live. Unlike them, television viewers get a chance to look at it again and again. Finer points that may have been missed the first time around are brought into sharper focus as the action is replayed, slowed down, or frozen for even closer inspection.

While footballers and spectators may know who scored a goal, they often have no more than a vague impression of the events leading up to it. By contrast, viewers of the action-replay can track the sequence as it unfolds and see exactly how the different actions were organised and combined to produce the goal. They are therefore in a far better position to understand how a particular move worked than those who saw it only once.

All this applies equally to the study of any other form of human behaviour that can be preserved on video tape, including the behaviour of politicians. If, for example, the saying of something which results in applause is to the orator what scoring a goal is to a footballer, then action replays can be put to work in a similar way by looking to see how the words, gestures and other bodily movements combined together to produce the desired response.

Another well known feature of the action replay is also crucially important for the way the observations can be read and evaluated. Replays of sporting incidents are almost always accompanied by more commentary from the commentator(s) on the events we are seeing again, the object of the exercise being to supply a more detailed and informed analysis.

But viewers can also see the sequence of events just as well for themselves, and are therefore in a position to draw their own conclusions about what actually happened. This means that they can also judge the adequacy or otherwise of the commentator's description and analysis.

If the commentator’s claims about how the event occurred are out of line with what the viewers saw, the television company's switchboards will be jammed within minutes. And, if a sports commentator persists in making excessively personal, subjective or eccentric observations about what he (and everyone else) is seeing, he’s unlikely to hold down his job for very long.

Is the 'Daily Telegraph' borrowing from blogs?

Three days ago, I ended my post about the words used by Jack Straw to justify his rejection of the Parole Board's recommendation about Ronnie Biggs by referring to:

.. a government that knows a thing or two about being 'wholly unrepentant' about its actions and has 'outrageously courted the media'.

In today's Daly Telegraph, Vicki Woods picks out exactly the same phrases from Mr Straw to make much the same point:

The Parole Board's not unreasonable recommendation this week that Ronnie Biggs should be released on licence was overturned by Jack Straw because Biggs was "wholly unrepentant" and "outrageously courted the media". Sounds like the life and times of Gordon Brown, eh?

In my post on Wednesday, I said that keeping him in prison was pouring taxpayers' money 'down the drain'.

Today, Vicki Woods tells us that releasing him would be 'better value for money'.

Is this just a coincidence, I wonder, or are Daily Telegraph journalists touring blogs like this one to pick up ideas for their coulmns?

If the latter, I'd like the Telegraph (and any other newspaper that might be interested) to know that I'd be more than willing to convert some of my posts into a regular column for them - and that it might even be 'better value for money' than employing the likes of Ms Woods.

More bad news for Gordon Brown

A recent World Public Opinion survey has some interesting results about how Gordon Brown and other world leaders are regarded in the USA and in their home countries when it comes to world affairs.

64% of Americans compared with only 46% of us Brits have 'a lot' or 'some' confidence in Mr Brown 'to do the right thing regarding world affairs'.

In American eyes, this puts him way ahead of other European leaders like President Sarkozy (46%) and Chancellor Merkel (47%), and his 64% would be very heartening for him - if only Americans could vote Labour in next year's general election.

But they won't be able to, and what must make Brown very envious indeed about these numbers is Mrs Merkel's extremely high ratings from the Germans themselves, eight out out ten of whom (82%) have 'a lot' or 'some' confidence in her doing the right thing in world affairs.

Translation and fantasies of global domination

When a book comes out in English, it immediately becomes accessible to 480 million native speakers, which sounds very promising - until you realise that this is only about 7% of the world's population.

So whenever news of a translation deal comes through, it's difficult to keep fantasies about growing global domination and a tidal wave of royalties at bay.

The Spanish edition of Lend Me Your Ears added another 332 million and the Russian version that's now being translated will increase the potential market by another 180 million.

All very promising except that, taken together, these only mean an increase in accessibility of 5% (Spanish) and 3% (Russian) of the world's population, bringing the total up to 15% - a percentage that would be more than doubled if only someone would translate it into Mandarin.

Pious and expensive twaddle from strong man Straw

The following stirring story has just appeared in a headline slot on the BBC website:

The Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs has been refused parole by Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Mr Straw rejected a recommendation by the Parole Board which backed the release of Biggs, 79. Mr Straw said Biggs was "wholly unrepentant" about his actions and had "outrageously courted the media".

So down the drain goes another £32,358 a year of taxpayers' money to keep Biggs in prison, thanks to another enlightened decision of a government that knows a thing or two about being 'wholly unrepentant' about its actions and has 'outrageously courted the media'.

There's no such thing as a boring subject

One of the more memorable lines from the late David Ellis-Jones, with whom I used to teach presentation and communication skills at the Henley Management College, was "There's no such thing as a boring subject; there are only boring speakers."

People often didn't believe him and often don't believe me when I repeat the line. Anyone with similar doubts should have a look at this recent posting from Chris Witt to see what an interesting topic 'bacteria' can be.

One of the least promising subjects I ever heard a presenter talking about was the history of changes in UK retirement pensions. The speaker was Steve Bee of Scottish Life, whom I saw holding an audience of 800+ riveted and entertained by the topic.

He also taught me something new. Although I'd been advocating the use of 'chalk and talk' (i.e. writing and/or drawing stuff up on a blackboard or flip chart as you go along) for years, I also used to enter the caveat that people in big audiences may not be able to see what you're doing.

But Steve Bee used a visualiser, a technologically slicker version of the old blank rolls of acetate on overhead projectors. His only visual aid was a blank sheet of paper, on which he gradually drew an ever more complicated diagram that was not only critical to his general argument, but was also clearly visible on the screen above him - and made me realise that 'chalk and talk' can be as effective with a huge audience as it can be with a small one.

On the subject of 'boring subjects', one of the interesting things on the British political scene in the recent past has been the rising esteem for the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, whose star has risen on the back of his ability to sound as though he's talking more sense about complicated economic and financial topics than most of his competitors.

However boring and incomprehensible such subjects may seem at first sight - or when coming out of the mouths of Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling - Cable talks about them with clarity and authority.

And it's probably no coincidence that, unlike most of his political opponents, he's one of the ever-decreasing number of MPs who actually had a proper job outside politics before becoming a full-time politician.

As chief economist at Shell, making economics intelligible to colleagues who weren't trained as economists must have been a routine part of Vince Cable's everyday working life - that has now, in his 'new' life, become his strongest 'political' asset.