Gordon Brown on the morning after the night before

If you didn't see this interview on Sky News, it's well worth watching.

I don't plan to comment on it, other than to say that I found it fascinating in all sorts of different ways - so fascinating, in fact, that I'm curious to know about the impressions others take from it.


GORDON BROWN: The way he told them

It’s good to see The Guardian taking a leaf out of my book and having a go at doing (part of) my job for me!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I sometimes go through a speech looking at the rhetorical techniques the speaker used (e.g. HERE and HERE) and the amount of applause received – where the average burst is 8 ± 1 second (e.g. HERE).

So I was delighted to see the following piece on the Guardian website today, as all it left for me to do was to spot the rhetorical techniques and note whether the bursts of applause were average, below or above average (in red below).

(Links to other posts since the conference season began can be found at the bottom of the page).

Key moments in the prime minister's speech to the Labour party conference
(from today's Guardian website)

"We nationalised Northern Rock and took shares in British banks, and as a result not one British saver has lost a single penny. That was the change we chose. The change that benefits the hard working majority, not the privileged few." (CONTRAST)

Applause: 9.38 seconds (Average)

"The Conservative party were faced with the economic call of the century and they called it wrong."

Applause: 8.13 secs (Average)

"Call them middle class values, call them traditional working class values, call them family values, call them all of these; (1) these are the values of the mainstream majority; (2) the anchor of Britain's families, (3) the best instincts of the British people, (4) the soul of our party (5) and the mission of our government." (5 PART LIST)

Applause: 11.41 secs (Above average)

"For us the NHS has not been a 60-year mistake but a 60-year liberation." (CONTRAST)

Applause: 12.13 secs (Above average)

"In a crisis, what the British people want to know is that their government will not pass by on the other side but will be on their side." (CONTRAST with embedded biblical imagery)

Applause: 10.13 secs (Above average)

"Always a party of restless and relentless reformers, the new mission for new Labour is to realise our passion for fairness and responsibility in these new global times."

Applause: 5.69 secs (Below average)

"The best way finance can serve our country now is to help ensure that the inventions and innovations pioneered in Britain are developed and manufactured in Britain."

Applause: 7.56 secs (Average)

"And when people say, faced with the constraints of the recession, can you make progress towards a fairer and more responsible Britain, let us tell them we did, we can, and we will."

Applause: 7.25 secs (Average)

"I do think it's time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of 16, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own." (3 part list)

Applause: 14.72 secs (Above average)

"Whenever and wherever there is antisocial behaviour, we will be there to fight it."

Applause: 6.06 secs (Below average)

"Britain - the four home nations - each is unique, each with its own great contribution and we will never allow separatists or narrow nationalists in Scotland or in Wales to sever the common bonds that bring our country together as one."

Applause: 13.66 secs (Above average)

"Countries from every continent look to our NHS for inspiration. And this summer didn't we show them? We love our NHS." (PUZZLE + SOLUTION)

Applause: 9.28 secs (Average)

"Others may break their promises to the poorest, with Labour Britain never will." (CONTRAST)

Applause: 5.54 secs (Below average)

"Never again should any member of parliament be more interested in the value of their allowances than the values of their constituents." (CONTRAST)

Applause: 7.50 secs (Average)

"And so I say to the British people, the election to come will not be about my future - it's about your future. Your job. Your home. Your children's school. Your hospital. Your community. Your country." (CONTAST WITH LIST OF 7 AS SECOND PART!)

Applause: 11.88 secs (Above average)

"There is a difference between the parties. It's the difference between Conservatives who embrace pessimism and austerity and progressives like Labour who embrace prosperity and hope." (PUZZLE + 3 PARTED SOLUTION)

Applause: 11 secs (Above average)

"We love this country. And we have shown over the years that if you aim high you can lift not just yourself but your country - that there is nothing in life which is inevitable - it's about the change you choose." (CONTRAST?)

Applause: 10.56 secs (Above average)

"This is the change we choose; change that will benefit not just the few who can afford to pay, but the mainstream majority." (CONTRAST + ch-ch-m-m ALLITERATION)

Applause: 7.47 secs (Average)


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Brown surfs applause (briefly) before reverting to type

I've never seen Gordon Brown surfing applause before, but it got his speech off to such a lively start that he got a premature standing ovation. But once that was over, it was back to Brown-style speaking business as usual.

As a result, instant media comments a few minutes after he'd finished were already saying that the opening had got them expecting something better and that they were disappointed by what followed.

I obviously don't know whose idea it was that he should have a go at surfing, but the irony for me was that this is exactly what I had recommended David Cameron to do in order to up his game for last year's Conservative Party conference (HERE),

If you're wondering what I mean by 'surfing applause', here's an excerpt from one of the first posts on this blog that summarises how it works and why it can have an electrifying effect on audiences. Once the video of Brown's speech becomes available, I'll post a clip of the sequence in question.

'If Mr Cameron has already mastered most of the key techniques that set a good orator apart from an average one, the question arises as to whether there’s anything else he could be doing to take the next step into the premier league? And one thing he might like to consider is the art of surfing applause, a technique that’s only to be found among those at the top of their trade. Past maestros include Martin Luther King and Tony Benn, and today’s most prominent exponents are Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama.

'Unlike most speakers, surfers don’t just stop whenever the audience applauds and wait until they’ve finished. What surfers do is to carry on speaking after the applause has started, which creates a number of positive impressions. It makes it look as though you hadn’t been seeking applause at all, and are really quite surprised that the audience has interrupted you with an unexpected display of approval.

'Then, if you keep trying to go on while the audience is still clapping, it’s as if you’re telling them that, unlike less passionate politicians, you’re the kind of person who regards getting your message across as much more important than waiting around to savour the applause. If you’re really lucky, and the broadcasters want to put this particular extract on prime time news programmes, the lack of any clean break between your speech and the applause makes it difficult for them to edit without including the adulation of the crowd as well – so that the various positive impressions are transmitted beyond the hall to the much bigger numbers viewing or listening at home.'

Video clips of other surfers in action can be seen HERE.


Having seen the video again, a number of points are worth noting.

First, it's the most extreme case I've ever seen since I first noticed it about 30 years ago - where what I mean by 'extreme' is that it goes on for longer and more persistently than I've ever seen before. As such it comes over as contrived and bears little resemblance to the more 'natural' sounding way in which more skilled exponents like Benn and Obama do it. That's why I think this was carefully planned to provide a rabble-rousing opening to what turned out to be a rather typical Brown speech.

Second, this list is not included in the 'full text' of the speech on any of the websites I've looked at so far, which suggests that the ploy was either a last minute decision, or was designed to spring a surprise on the media (or both).

Third, I was fascinated to see that the applause got under way immediately after the 3rd item in a 14-part list. CORRECTION: Actually, it was a 24-part list that can now be seen in full HERE on the BBC website. The clip below came from the BBC 10 o'clock news, where, interestingly, the editors had cut into it 3 items before the applause got under way.

Fourth, in the first cut-away to cabinet ministers clapping on the front row, all of them look more despondent than delighted, none of them are clapping particularly vigorously and Alistair Darling comes in so late that the Stalin would certainly have had him dispatched to Siberia on the first available transport.

Was it Mandelson's self-deprecating humour that won the day for him?

Having suggested yesterday that the Labour Party faithful had withheld applause from some rather important points in Peter Mandelson’s conference speech and that he'd had to use the ‘last resort’ technique for winning applause (the ‘pursuit’) a few times, I was surprised that no one in the media seemed to notice.

I was even more surprised at just how positive most of the media coverage has been - so much so that I've taken a closer both at it and at the speech itself.

What was widely featured both by TV news programmes and newspaper reports were Mandelson's jokes. Given that his departures from Tony Blair's cabinet had been clouded with controversy and that his recall by Brown as an unelected Peer, his use of self-deprecating humour may well have been the smartest thing he did to win over doubters in the audience (and in the media).

But I've had one email that summed the whole thing up as 'pantomime performance' - and these three examples almost make you wonder whether Rory Bremner has has joined the Mandelson speech writng team.

If Mandelson has to struggle to win applause, what are the Labour party faithful saying?

In discussing Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference a few days ago, I touched on the concept of a 'noticeable absence':

“a simple but important concept in conversation analysis. It refers to instances where conversationalists notice that something that had been expected to be (or should have been) said is missing – e.g. if you don’t say ‘hello’ in response to someone who’s just said ‘hello’ to you."

Although speeches obviously differ in various interesting ways from conversation, 'absences' can be 'noticeable' there, as, for example, when audiences don’t applaud when they might have been expected to have done (e.g. after the speaker has just used one of the main rhetorical techniques that trigger applause).

Quite often, speakers not only notice when this happens, but implicitly acknowledge the absence of a response by using a 'last resort' technique, that's been referred to as ‘pursuing’ or going ‘in ‘pursuit’ of applause.

An neat example of this happened in the 1987 election, when Neil Kinnock produced used a three-part list to describe the Labour Party's manifesto as ‘cool, tough and unsinkable’. In the absence of instant applause, he went in pursuit with “That’s our manifesto that we launched today”, whereupon the audience started clapping.


There were several more examples of 'noticeable absences' and 'pursuits' in the excerpt from Peter Mandelson’s speech to the Labour Party conference that was shown on the BBC website earlier today (HERE or at the bottom of the page).

The first absence came after he’d just used an alliterative three-part list and a contrast between Labour and the Conservatives – to which he responded with a pursuit - “That’s what we’ve got to do” - that eventually got the applause under way.

After that, there were four more contrasts in succession, none of which (surprisingly) managed to prompt any applause at all – which only came after Mandelson had used another ‘pursuit’ as a last resort: “That’s the choice for the British people at the next general election.”


Although it may be of technical interest to note that the Labour Party audience were withholding applause at places were it should have happened, it’s arguably of greater political interest to inspect the content (rather than the rhetorical structure) of the messages that came before each of these noticeable absences. These were:

  1. the leadership of Gordon Brown
  2. the party is in the progressive centre of British politics
  3. the party knows it will have to meet global changes
  4. the shallowness of David Cameron

Taken together, it’s difficult not to conclude that the Labour party loyalists at the conference are less than enthusiastic when it comes to ‘showing their approval in the usual manner’ for Gordon Brown (1 and 4), being positioned in the centre of British politics (2) or being willing to change to meet global events (3).

If I’d been one of the original architects of new Labour or a strategist aiming for electoral success next year (like Brown and Mandelson), I’d find these particular noticeable absences, coupled with the need to use ‘pursuits’ to get any applause at all, more than a little worrying.

You can see what you think by reading the transcript below whilst watching the video clip on the BBC website or at the bottom of the page.


We need to fight back. Of course we do.

But to do so successfully it is up to us to explain – with confidence, and with clarity and conviction – what the choice is between us and the Conservatives.

No applause.

Pursuit: That’s what we’ve got to do.


(A) The choice between a Conservative party – the choice between a Conservative party whose judgements on the credit crunch were wrong,

(B) or a party providing leadership (points at Gordon Brown) in the toughest of times.

No applause (for Gordon Brown?).

(A) A choice between a party A choice between a party that lurches to the right the second it sees a chance of doing so,

(B) or our party that is resolutely anchored in the progressive centre of British politics.

No applause (for being in the centre?).

(A) A choice between a party that does not understand the new world we live in or even what has happened in the last year,

(B) or a Labour Party that knows the world has changed and we that we have to change with it.

No applause (for the Labour Party?).

That’s the choice, conference, and I tell you too

(A) experience and change with Gordon’s leadership

(B) or the shallowness of David Cameron.

No applause (for criticism of Cameron?).

Pursuit: That’s the choice for the British people at the next general election


Why doesn't anyone warn politicians about becoming autocue automatons?

When we were being taught about road safety at primary school, we had to learn a slogan that’s still firmly entrenched in my mind:

“Look right, look left and right again and quick march across the road you go.”

What brought it back into my head this morning was the sight of Alistair Darling speaking to the Labour Party conference, where he seemed to be following a revised version of the slogan:

“Look right for 1o seconds, look left for ten seconds, look right for 10 seconds and turn your head when you get to the end of the sentence.”

In other words, like David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher, he has a problem with reading from teleprompter screens.

The commonest one, which you can variations of by clicking on any of the above names, involves spending too much time looking in one direction rather than the other.

Sometimes, it creates the impression that you’re so tied to your script that you daren’t look at the other screen until you get to the next full stop (even though you’re supposed to be pretending you don’t have a script).

Sometimes it creates such regular movements of the head from side to side that the regularity becomes noticeable.

And sometimes it excludes half the audience for very extended periods of time (e.g. Cameron and Brown).

Given the high stakes involved in some of these speeches, I never cease to be amazed that no one alerts the speakers to such an obvious problem, let alone spends a few minutes coaching them to make a better job of it.

Gordon Brown goes walkabout (again)

A few days ago, I questioned the ‘management guru walkabout’ style of delivery adopted by Nick Clegg in his speech to the LibDem Conference.

A year ago, in the first post on this blog, I advised Gordon Brown against it in my tips for his speech to the 2008 Labour Party conference.

But yesterday, he was it it again, combining regular pacing from side to side with randomized double handed gestures. Is it just me that finds it distracting?

See what you think HERE.

Anniversary of a year of blogging

I started this blog a year ago today, after being asked by The Times to offer a few tips for Gordon Brown's speech to the 2008 Labour Party Conference. As I could think of more things to say than amount of space allowed, blogging seemed simple way to add a few extra tips - and held out the promise of 'publishing' anything else I'd written that hadn't found a proper publisher.

A year ago, I hardly knew what a blog was, and one of the benefits for me has been to discover the extraordinary wealth of interesting material that's available on the blogosphere.

When I started, I had three other vaguely formulated motives in mind. One was that I thought it might drive some traffic to my main business website, which it has done. Another was that I thought it might help to sell a few books, which it has also done.

The third one was to see if I could write things on a regular basis that were topical and/or interesting to a general audience.

For example, I've long been thinking about writing a book about conversation, and wanted to see if it would be possible to translate some of the brilliant, but rather inaccessible, research literature on the subject into more readable language. Whether or not that's worked is not for me to say, but I’ve listed a few examples below that you can check out for yourself.

The average number of hits has steadily increased and is now about five times more than it was during the first three months and continues to grow enough to make it worth continuing to make the effort.

Occasionally there have been massive surges, as when the BBC website or top bloggers like Iain Dale have included a link to this one.

I also discovered fairly early on that Google delivers a large amount of traffic whenever the title of a post includes words like 'Obama', 'rhetoric' or 'oratory'– and have had to resist the temptation to use promising key words just for the sake of it.

If there’d been little or no interest in what I write, I’d have given up blogging long before reaching this, the 296th post.

So to all of you who’ve taken the trouble to visit, and especially if you've added or emailed encouraging comments, thank you for playing a more important part than you realise in keeping me going for as long as this.

And any suggestions you might have about how it could be improved and/or about which kinds of post you like best are always very welcome.

Examples of posts inspired by conversation analysis:
What’s wrong with saying “Hi”?
Planning to say ‘um’ and ‘er’
Gordon’s gaffe explained
Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?
How to use video to study body language, verbal and non-verbal communication
Monty Python, conversation and turn-taking
Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them
Derek Draper breaks a basic rule of conversation
• ‘Sound-formed errors’ and humour’
Gordon Brown is finding the Jacqui Smith expenses story more ‘delicate’ than he says
The ‘delicacy’ of Mrs Clinton’s ‘consequences’ for North Korea
Pre-delicate hitches from the White House
Pre-delicate hitches from Brown as he avoids answering a question about the Queen

Why are there so many quotations on Twitter?

This is a genuine question that's perplexed me since joining Twitter a few months ago - and it's one to which I really would like to hear some answers .

Admittedly, I do tend to follow (and am followed by) others with an interest in public speaking and communication, and that no doubt has something to do with the daily dose of quotations that pops up on TweetDeck (see below for 10 latest examples).

I also think that quotations can play a useful part in speeches and presentations. I've written a bit about them and have included quite a lot of them in some of my books.

But if I'm looking for one, there are plenty of dictionaries of quotations on my bookshelves and plenty of dedicated quotation websites online.

So, if I could see any point in it, I could tweet quotations at people all day long.

My question, therefore, is a simple one that's addressed to all of you who send quotations winging in my (and who knows how many other people's) direction:

Why do you do it?

Is it intended as aid to my sluggish imagination, to make me think, to amuse me, to inspire me to pull my socks up - or what?

10 latest quotations to reach me from Twitter:
  • The greatest mistake you can make in this life is to be continually fearing you will make one.
  • Recognition not given where deserved is a form of theft.
  • There are no secrets better kept than the secrets that everybody guesses.
  • Authentic praise inspires. Disingenuous praise patronizes.
  • The minute you stop learning is the moment you stop leading.
  • Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
  • Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
  • A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
  • You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
  • Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day
P.S. The problem's getting so serious that, whilst writing this, three more have appeared:
  • An unused life is an early death.
  • The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.
  • The world stands aside to let anyone pass who knows where he is going.

Methinks Labour doth protest/spin too much

One of the lead stories the BBC website today caught my eye as a an extraordinarily orchestrated effort to avoid all the talk of getting rid of Gordon Brown that preceded last year's party conference.

It summarises what cabinet ministers (and one former cabinet minister) have been saying to various newspapers on the eve of the last Labour Party Conference before the general election - and depicts a level of unity that, to say the least, smacks of being rather too good to be true.

Here’s how the story starts, followed by a selection of fan/spin messages from Mr Brown’s colleagues (full post can be seen HERE):

Ministers back PM pre-conference
Cabinet ministers are falling in behind Gordon Brown as he prepares to issue a rallying cry at Labour's last party conference before the general election.

Schools Secretary
Ed Balls said the prime minister's "authentic" approach would find favour with voters.

The Energy Secretary
Ed Miliband said Mr Brown was "the right leader".

International Development Secretary
Douglas Alexanderr said Mr Brown had "nothing to fear" from a TV debate between the party leaders.

Mr Miliband said Mr Brown had "bags" of resilience to take into the next election.
He told the Daily Telegraph: "I think we've got the right leader in Gordon. He's the man who stopped us going from recession to depression in Britain and around the world."

Mr Balls - regarded by most as the prime minister's closest ally - insisted there was "all to play for" in the next election as he geared up for the conference which begins on Sunday in Brighton.
He said the party needed "more fighters, not quitters".

Mr Balls told the Guardian the prime minister should not worry about lacking "razzmatazz". "Gordon is who he is. Gordon is at his strongest when he is being authentic," he said.

Mr Alexander suggested any televised debate could be part of a series between Labour heavyweights and their opposite numbers ahead of the next general election.

'Game on'
"I don't think Gordon has anything to fear from a TV debate,"
Mr Alexander, who is also Labour's election co-ordinator, told the Daily Mirror. "I hope this campaign provides the opportunity for serious debates at every level of the party.

He said the conference would demonstrate that "it's not game over, it's game on".

According to the BBC report, the only leading Labour politician who’s ‘off-message’ is John Prescott:

'Meanwhile, ex-deputy PM John Prescott has accused Labour MPs of defeatism. He told the Independent there was "something lacking" at the top of the party and no direction in campaigning, adding: "We are drifting"… in his interview, Mr Prescott suggested there was a lack of talent and experience among the party's team of advisers. He said: "Those who have responsibility for campaigning - it is not reaching out to the depths of the party. "We've got a whole bank of MPs, but everybody seems despondent. There's too much defeatist thinking. There's no central direction to campaigning."

Reading posts like this makes you wonder how the BBC website goes about compiling such material. Does a reporter, spend an hour or two reading today's newspapers and then cobble together a 'detached' summary on his/her own initiative?

Or does some Labour Party spin doctor prompt them into doing it?

Whatever the answer, it gives the party with a great deal more coverage than appeared on the same website one day last week during the Liberal Democrat conference (i.e. none) - which also makes you wonder just how 'impartial' the BBC really is.

What's wrong with saying "Hi"?

One of the (many) things about Twitter that irritates me is that messages from would-be 'followers' start with 'Hi' - and presumably anyone I decide to 'follow' gets an identical 'Hi' from me - even though it's a word I do my best to use as rarely as I can.

This isn't just because I don't much like imports from American English into British English, but is because "Hi" is so much less efficient as a greeting than alternatives like "Hello" or "Good morning" - especially if you're making a phone call and can't see the person who's answered it.

Some of the early work in conversation analysis took a detailed look at greeting sequences, and came up with the idea that the first thing we do when we hear a voice on the other end of a phone is a 'voice recognition test'.

The rule is: if you can recognise the voice, you should immediately let the other person know that you've recognised who it is.

So, if someone answers the phone by saying "Neasden 456789", you have quite an extended voice sample (9 syllables) on which to do the voice recognition test before the answerer reaches the end of the number. By then, if you have recognised it, you should promptly acknowledge the fact by saying something along the lines of "Hello Ron" or "Hello Mr Knee."

The advantage of this for Mr Knee is that he doesn't have to go to the trouble of introducing himself or explaining who he is or where he's from, because you've already established that you know perfectly well who he is.

Like quite a lot of rules in conversation, the rule has an 'if you can' clause to it. In other words, there's a preference for showing instant recognition over failing to show recognition - so the first option is to show that you've recognised the answerer - if you can.

This is why the word "Hi" is such an inefficient or inadequate form of greeting when you can't see the person who's speaking - for the obvious reason that a single syllable on its own may not be enough for you to be sure who it is within the split second before they've finished. As a result, you'll have to admit to them that you didn't recognise their voice, which can sometimes have quite embarrassing consequences.

This might seem a rather trivial reason for suggesting that multi-syllable words and phrases like "Hello" and "Good morning" are more efficient than "Hi". But it's not at all trivial when you're on the phone, or if you happen to be blind or visually impaired.

I know this because the person I've heard objecting most strongly about people greeting him with "Hi" is someone who's been blind from birth. What's more, the reason he gives for detesting it so much is precisely because it doesn't give him enough time to know who it is that's speaking to him - and makes him feel impolite for having to confess that he'd failed to recognise them.

Clegg’s conference speech: ‘definitely OK, absolutely fine, without any doubt not bad’

The last thing party leaders want when making their annual conference speeches is for something in the news to knock coverage of them down in the list of the day’s headlines.

So it was bad luck for Nick Clegg that he was wrapping up the LibDem conference at the same time as President Obama was speaking to the United Nations in New York, one result of which was that Sky News opted for live coverage from across the Atlantic rather than from Bournemouth. Another was that, if you look at the online versions of today’s newspapers, it’s actually quite difficult to find any references to his speech at all on their home pages.

But the fact that much of the reaction was as feint in its praise as the quote from former Blair speechwriter Phil Collins in today's title can't just be put down to 'bad luck'

Noticeable absences
Something else that party leaders should be aware of is that ‘noticeable absences’ from their speeches don't make good headlines.

The concept of a ‘noticeable absence’ is a simple but important one in conversation analysis. It refers to instances where conversationalists notice that something that had been expected to be (or should have been) said is missing – e.g. if you don’t say “hello” in response to someone who’s just said “hello” to you.

Speeches are obviously different from conversation, but you really don’t want the media giving higher priority to what you didn’t say than to what you did say, as happened in the following headline and opening few lines in The Times (which wasn’t the only paper that highlighted the absences):

Nick Clegg ignores Lib Dems' week of woe with pitch for Downing St
Nick Clegg urged voters yesterday to elect him Prime Minister in a brazen attempt to put a difficult and divisive pre-election conference behind him.

Speaking in Bournemouth Mr Clegg failed to discuss his promise of “savage cuts”, he ignored the dispute over tuition fees and made only a fleeting mention of the “mansion tax” proposal for properties worth more than £1 million, which was intended to be the flagship policy for the week.

Walkabout woe?
Given Mr Clegg’s obsession with not being regarded as a clone of Tory leader David Cameron, repeated in yesterday’s speech with jokes about Brad Pitt, I remain baffled as to why insists on aping the management guru-apparently unscripted-walkabout style of delivery that made Cameron stand out at the Tory leadership beauty parade in 2005 – and set him on course to win the top job.

If you want to assert how different you are from someone else, why on earth would you copy that person’s distinctive (for a British politician) style of delivery? Why would you do it if you aren’t as good at it as him? And why would you do it when even Cameron has increasingly given it up in favour of looking more ‘statesmanlike’ at a lectern? (For more on which, see HERE and HERE).

I’ve asked a number of LibDem insiders why he does it, whose idea it was and what the advantage is supposed to be, but they either don't know or won't tell me.

Time to abandon autocue?
One comment submitted to The Times ‘Live chat’ feature on Clegg’s speech raised an important question:

‘Does he have an autocue problem or does he just talk that way?’

This could well be at the heart of what's holding him back – because without giant teleprompters, he wouldn’t be able to pretend that he’s speaking off the cuff (you can see another LibDem MP wrestling with the huge autocue screen HERE).

One problem of wandering about, with or without autocue assistance, is that you have to find something to do with your hands. Another is the question of what to do when the audience applauds – an issue touched on previously HERE and HERE.

The trouble is that how you handle such apparently trivial details is likely to be noticed by reporters, and you really don’t want valuable column inches being wasted by such distractions, as in the following accurate observations (in italics) from Ann Treneman in The Times:

“I want to be prime minister,” said Nick Clegg, hands clasped as he stood in a spotlight. Nick, basking in their love, stepped back for a moment, preparing himself to deliver his next bombshell announcement.

Similar details also got a mention in the Daily Mail: 'Captain Clegg looked neat and tidy and waved his hands about ... He spoke fluently, strode around the stage and clasped his palms together at appropriate moments ... Once or twice he waggled a forefinger in a way that reminded me of John Major'.

I’m not sure how far his insistence on walking about and reading from autocue screens at the same time is diminishing his performance. But his delivery does seem to attract a good deal of feint praise like that from Phil Collins in today's title and other similar reactions to yesterday's speech, like:

'he gave a workmanlike version of what a modern Opposition party leader's speech tends to be these days. But that is as far as it went', a decent performance’, ‘fluent but strangely unpersuasive’, ‘there is no change in timbre in his voice, no rise and fall’, ‘I don't get the sense he really believes this’, ‘it makes you nostalgic for the rabble-rousing charisma of, er, Menzies Campbell’.

However, one thing I am sure of is that, if I were advising him, I’d get him to have a go at speaking from a lectern to see if it helped him to lift his performance beyond 'OK' and 'not bad'.

(P.S. It's great when other blogs like Liberal England pick something up from here, but I wish their readers it would take the trouble to read the whole story. From comments on the Liberal England blog so far, their complacency about media coverage of Nick Clegg's speech makes me wonder if they really are living in a world of their own).

25 years on, and all I remember about the day is baldness and chewing gum

Twenty five years ago today, Methuen published Our Masters' Voices and Granada Television began a new season of their World in Action series with the film Claptrap (which can be seen HERE).

The story of how the book came to be written, published and eventually used as the basis for a televised experiment is continuing in the Claptrap posts on this blog, and I'd been vaguely aiming at getting to to the end of it by today. But it's turned out to be a rather longer story than I'd expected and there are at least two or three more episodes that will be posted during the next week or so.

The curious thing about today is that the main things I can remember were two details in the way Ann Brennan and I reacted when we saw the film for the first time at the London offices of Granada for the press preview before the film went on air later that day.

Ann was upset by a close-up shot of her chewing gum just before going up to make her speech. She never chewed gum, didn't like the sight of people chewing gum and certainly didn't want people to think that chewing it was a normal part of her everyday behaviour.

The only reason she was chewing it was that Cicely Berry, then head of voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, had given it her to help relax her jaw and moisten her mouth before making the speech. But that wasn't mentioned in the commentary and it was far too late to change anything before the film went out.

I experienced a similar shock about my appearance that was beyond repair. When congratulating her at the end of the speech, the camera brought the top of my head into view, revealing the beginnings of a bald patch - that has progressed a great deal further during the 25 years since then.

Apart from these two trivial details, I remember hardly anything else about what happened that day.

Given some of my posts criticising over-stated claims about the importance of body language and non-verbal communication, I find it rather depressing that, 25 years later, the only things I remember clearly about that day had to do with what we looked like, rather than anything either of us actually said in the film!

Beware of mobile phones and 5-part lists

If you're looking for sample clips of how not to do it, go no further than the BBC Parliament Channel during the party conference season - if you can bear to sit through one dire speech after another.

Its apparently random editing as the picture switches from speaker to audience also throws up the occasional gem - or maybe it's not so random, but is deliberately done to show that some people in the audience have more important things to do than hanging on the speaker's every word.

Tonight I spotted this one, which highlights a problem with mobile phones that's all too familiar to those of us who regularly speak in public.

It also illustrates the kind of response you're likely to get if you're rash enough to use a 5-part list (i.e. none) and the fact that using an autocue doesn't guarantee a brilliant delivery.

Not the LibDem Conference – BBC website news

The title of yesterday’s post ‘Not the LibDem conference in Bournemouth’ was not intended to imply that the Liberal Democrats are not holding their annual conference there this week, but to highlight another conference in the same town.

But if I had anything to do with LibDem communications, I’d be very worried indeed that there isn’t a single reference to the conference in the top 11 stories being headlined on the BBC website a few moments ago, which gave the following stories higher priority than anything going on in Bournemouth:
  • Attorney General is fined £5,000
  • Killer mother jailed for 33 years
  • Autism rates back MMR jab safety
  • Police clear French migrant camp
  • Baggott to 'take police forward'
  • Building companies fined £129.5m
  • Rape victims treatment reviewed
  • Airlines plan 'to cut emissions'
  • UK rivers failing new EU standard
  • 'Open internet' rules criticised
  • Gilbert the whale dead on beach
I’d also be quite worried by the results of yesterday’s poll about their leader’s recognisability (also from the BBC website):

'More than one third of British people have not heard of the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, a poll conducted for BBC Newsnight suggests. The 1,056 UK adults canvassed were asked for their opinion of him. Thirty six percent had a favourable view of Mr Clegg, but an equal number said they had never heard of him.'

Nor is this the first time that media coverage of the LibDems (or lack of it) has got me wondering whether the party has a communications department at all (see also HERE and HERE).

However, as this is a 'non-aligned' blog, my interest in the problem is entirely 'academic'.

Claptrap 5: In the right places at the right times

This is the fifth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap, which you can watch HERE.

Part 2: Eureka! is HERE
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre is HERE
Part 4: How to get a book published is HERE

If a chance meeting on a Croatian beach had broken the deadlock of 22 rejections slips (Claptrap 4), another similar encounter resulted in Our Masters’ Voices being promoted to a much wider audience than expected.

How it happened and where it happened made it difficult not to believe that fate was working in mysterious ways – as it’s unlikely that any of it would ever have happened if I hadn’t been a research fellow at Essex University more than fifteen years earlier.

Another chance meeting

I mentioned in Claptrap 4 how easy it had been to get academic books published during the 1970s – so easy, in fact, that my PhD thesis had been published, more or less verbatim, by the Macmillan Press (Discovering Suicide, 1978).

Although I knew that sociology students, from ‘A’ level to universities, were all required to know about Emile Durkheim’s classic Le Suicide (1898), it hadn’t occurred to me there was therefore a market for secondary reading on the subject, especially if it was cheeky enough to question the methodology of such a famous founding father of the discipline.

One result of this was that some of my earliest publications had penetrated as far as the ‘A’ level syllabus. A spin-off from that was that I found myself being invited to speak at sixth form conferences, where bus-loads of reluctant school children were treated to the dubious pleasure of listening to some of the authors whose work they were supposed to know about.

At one such conference, I bumped into someone I’d known from when I was working at Essex University. By then, Ivor Crewe (left) had become a professor in the department of government, and his work on elections meant that he too was getting invited to speak at sixth form conferences.

When I told him about the clapping research, he became interested enough to ask me to send him some samples of what I’d written so far – which I did.

An invitation to meet the media
A few months later, he invited me to speak at one of the most fascinating conferences I’d ever been to. In those days, Ivor Crewe and Tony King used to organize a weekend at Essex University on ‘Political Communications’ during the most recent general election campaign.

They were planning the one on the 1983 election, which was scheduled for the early spring of 1984. A paper from me comparing the performances of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot during the campaign, they thought, might give a novel angle on their usual proceedings.

What made their conferences so different from all the other academic conferences I’d ever been to was that it wasn’t just attended by academics, but also attracted people from politics, the media, opinion polling, etc. So speakers at that first one I attended included Cecil Parkinson, fresh from presiding over Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory, Austin Mitchell, M.P., Robin Day and Peter Snow from the BBC, Gus Macdonald from Granada Television, Bob Worcester from MORI, representatives from the advertising agents used by the main political parties - as well as leading academics from politics and government departments around the country.

The mood of these conferences was best summed by the delegate who told me that what newcomers had to understand about them was that all the academics there wanted to be on the media and all the media people there really wanted to be academics.

'Opening Pandora’s box'
As no one there knew who I was, let alone anything about this still unpublished research into clapping, the comparison between Thatcher and Foot depended on my starting off with a selection of introductory video clips illustrating the main rhetorical devices that trigger applause in speeches.

Before the session was over, two notes had been passed up to me at the front. One was from someone asking for a copy of (the yet to be published) Our Masters’ Voices to review in his column in The Times. Another was from someone asking me to go on his TV show.

By the end of the weekend, people were saying that what I’d shown them had been like watching someone opening Pandora’s box, and I’d been approached by five different producers and/or presenters about my work being featured on five different television news and current affairs programmes.

It was as if the media interest in that first lecture I’d given a few years earlier (Claptrap 3) had suddenly started to explode. It also reminded me of the secret vow I’d made not to go on television again until I’d published a book on the subject.

A kindred spirit?

It wasn’t just his unusual background – a former ship builder from the Upper Clyde with little in the way of a formal education – but he was the only person there who’d spotted that there might be a connection between what I was doing and the work of one of my heroes, Erving Goffman. Gus, it turned out, was a Goffman fan too and one of our meal-time conversations must have made those nearby wonder what on earth we were talking about.

I was also intrigued by his parting words as we were all leaving. He shook me firmly by the and said “Don’t sign up with any of these other bastards until you’ve spoken to me.”

There’d been no promises and no hints about what he might have in mind. But he sounded so emphatic and decisive that I couldn’t get his words out of my mind when some of the ‘other bastards’ did start phoning a few days later (on which more in Claptrap 6).

Coincidental domestic footnote
The Essex post-election conferences eventually became part of the EPOP group of the Political Studies Association. One of the co-organisers of the last one I went to was my son, Simon Atkinson, who has worked for MORI (now IPSOS-MORI) for nearly twenty years.

Bob Worcester, the founder of MORI, assures me that no nepotism was involved in his appointment. Sociologists who know of my early diatribes against survey research and quantitative methodology will find this very easy to believe - and will no doubt appreciate the irony of my having a son who was to became a senior manager of the UK's leading polling company.

Not the LibDem conference in Bournemouth

Before last week, I'd only ever been to Bournemouth to attend LibDem annual conferences - and I haven't done that for at least 10 years.

But I did go to another conference in Bournemouth on Friday, the first Annual Conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild, whose founder, Brian Jenner, is to be congratulated for making it possible for about fifty people with this apparently esoteric interest to spend a day together.

One of the most fascinating talks was by Phil Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair, who had an interesting and plausible line on the main theme of the conference, 'Why is there no British Obama?' - which he developed further by explaining why he thinks it unlikely that there will ever be a British Obama.

But for speechwriters, one of his more interesting revelations was about the difference between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their approaches to speechwriting.

Blair was not only a good writer (as we've all known since long before he became leader of the Labour Party) who wrote quickly and effectively with a fountain pen, but he also understood the importance of using other people's material as well.

The more computer-literate Brown apparently prefers DIY and makes little or no use of material from other writers. In stead, he's continually composing, reworking and storing his own lines about different subjects on his hard disk, and then cuts and pastes different sections according to whatever his next speech is going to be.

For me, this shed interesting light on some of the comments I've posted over the last year, and especially those bemoaning his tendency to pack far too much information and far too many numbers into his speeches (see below).

If he had a better understanding of the importance of keeping things simple, or listened to and/or used speechwriters who do, this might be less of a problem for him.

And, in the unlikely event of his still having to give so many speeches at this time next year, he might pick up a few helpful tips if he came along to the second annual conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild.

Gordon Brown’s G20 address ignores an important tip from Winston Churchill
How many numbers can you get into a minute?

Open course on speechwriting

Anyone interested in coming to one of my speechwriting courses might like to know that the next open one is being held on 2nd November at the National Liberal Club in central London.

The programme and booking details can be seen HERE.

Gordon Brown tries out a 4-part list at the TUC

Well, Mr Brown's now given the speech that had been widely circulated before he got anywhere near the TUC in Liverpool.

And here's what Sky News singled out as the sound bite of the day - because the much trailed news was that he was going to say the word 'cut' for the first time.

In fact, he used the 'C' word four times in a row, deploying a curious combination of rhetorical techniques that I've seldom seen before: a fifth item being contrasted with the previous four (very different from the much commoner form, favored by speakers like Churchill and Obama, where the third item is contrasted with the first two).

Nor did it seem to go down all that well, as there was a significant delay before the applause finally got under way - prompted, it appears, by Mr Brown leaning back from the lectern to let them know that he jolly well wasn't going to go on until they responded.

(You may have to watch an advert or two before GB comes into view).

Edmund Stoiber: A charismatic Bavarian?

Whilst running a course last week, I met a German who asked me if I’d heard about Edmund Stoiber, former premier of Bavaria, who's well known in the German speaking world for his incoherent speeches and frequent faux pas.

As I hadn’t, he’s kindly sent me a specimen from YouTube with English subtitles, that, as you can see HERE, makes George W Bush and John Prescott sound like amateurs in such matters.

All of which prompted me to find a bit more by typing ‘Edmund Stoiber+gobbledygook’ into Google - which quickly came up with the following background information (fuller version is HERE):

The gentleman that he is, Stoiber was going to compliment German Chancellor Merkel on her tough stance against US President George W. Bush. But that's where things got a little complicated.

"I found it refreshing," Stoiber said, "that the Chancelor criticized Guantanamo in front of US President Brezhnev."

US president Brezhnev? Hello, Bavaria, this is earth speaking! What was Edmund Stoiber thinking when he mixed up Bush – himself a master of the Freudian slip – and Brezhnev – a man who loved vodka as much as communism?

He's done it before

Stoiber is known for not always saying the right thing. The country is laughing to this day about the time he addressed Sabine Christiansen – the people's princess of German political talk shows – as "Frau Merkel."

Admittedly, not all of his faux pas were equally entertaining. The entire population of eastern Germany, for instance, was not in the least amused when Stoiber – during the 2005 election run-up – called them "the frustrated ones" and said he was not leaving the country's fate to them.

Stoiber has raised his inability to form complete sentences to the level of rhetorical bravado. One of his speeches about the transrapid railway system, for example, has inspired numerous music geeks to remix his staccato gobbledygook into a musical and poetic firework that became an instant success on the German-speaking internet.

Very few politicians get to have their speeches set to cheap techno or German rap. But Stoiber is not like other politicians. He could easily make the transition from Herr Prime Minister to MC Kool Dawg Eddie and land a contract with a major record label, without even trying.

Hilarious stuff that gets you wondering what other gems we students of rhetoric and communication in the English speaking world are missing out on because of our linguistic incompetence.