Time the Tories learnt from Mrs Thatcher's stage managers?

During the party conference season, I commented on the peculiar backdrop behind platform speakers at last year's Conservative Party conference, and pointed out that Mrs Thatcher, under the guidance of Harvey Thomas, had revolutionised the staging of conferences.

A major innovation was to make sure that the main camera angle hid everyone but the speaker from view, so that television viewers couldn't see anyone looking bored with, or disapproving of, what she was saying - a detail that was eventually latched on to and copied by Labour Party conference organisers:

For some strange reason, today's Tories seem to think that it's a good idea to have their leader speaking with his back to his shadow cabinet colleagues, as he did at today's Spring Forum in Brighton.

But, however much they may have been briefed to look attentive and nod in the right places, it's not just that it looks odd (and arguably completely unnatural) to see someone making a speech with his back to so many members of the audience, it's also a risky and distracting strategy.

Unless, of course, I'm the only viewer who can't help keeping an eye on how the audience is reacting and is continually on the lookout for yawns and/or heads shaking in disagreement. The inevitable result is that you don't listen as closely to what he's saying as you otherwise would (which could possibly be the reason they do it) - while the possible ever-present risk is that someone's inappropriate reaction might prompt the beginnings of a negative news story.

P.S. Just noticed a delayed burst of applause 36 seconds into this clip - shadow cabinet members behind him had been nodding their heads, but didn't get their hands apart to join in until after the audience in front of him has started clapping. Not a negative news story, perhaps, but is anything gained by exposing such hesitant stuff to a wider audience?

P.P.S. (1 March): Since posting this, I've announced details of a St Dave's Day (prize) competition HERE.

How to prepare a televised speech, Part (1): appearance, posture & content

Yesterday's post marking the 30th anniversary of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister seemed to go down quite well with a lot of visitors, especially from the USA where it was apparently never broadcast.

After Jim Hacker's promotion in the Yes Prime Minister series, there was an episode with some essential guidelines for anyone who ever has to help a speaker preparing for a televised speech.

As it's quite a long sequence, I'll be posting it in three parts, of which this is the first two minutes:

Bleak news from the bush: Kenya one year later

At about this time last year, we were in Kenya and spent a couple of days at the Amboseli game park. Our guides were clearly concerned that the amount of snow on the summit of Kilimanjaro had been getting less and less over the last few years, as melting snow plays such a crucial part in supplying the swamps below with enough water to keep the animals alive.

I was therefore astonished to learn from an article in the Daily Telegraph how quickly disaster had struck and how little wildlife we would have seen had we been there in the same week this year as we were there last year -when, almost wherever you looked, there were scores of wildebeests, zebra, elephants and buffalo, not to mention quite a few lions and giraffes.

But, according to the article in The Telegraph:

'it only took last year's deadly drought to apply the coup de grace... When the rains finally did fall in December they came too late to save the game and two thirds of Amboseli's wildlife population died including all but two percent of the park's6,000 wildebeest. The rest perished, along with most of its zebras, 75 per cent of its buffaloes and every elephant under two years old' (my emphases).

I find it shocking and depressing to think that 98% of the wildebeest and so many of the other animals we saw a year ago are now dead - and that, if the photograph above had been taken this February, it would have been a completely blank landscape with no animals in it at all.

Just as shocking and depressing are the effects of all this on the peoples of East Africa. The drought has not only killed off their own domestic livestock and plunged them into a large scale food crisis, but it's also threatening to kill off economic development in countries that rely so heavily on tourism - that in turn depends on there being plenty of animals for tourists to see.

Even more shocking and depressing is the fact that the climate change deniers keep on telling us that global warming is nothing to worry about. But then Nero didn't think that Rome going up in smoke was anything to worry about either.

30th anniversary of 'Yes Minister' - and a top tip for public speakers

Thirty years ago today, the BBC broadcast the first programme in its brilliant Yes Minister (later Yes Prime Minister) comedy series. Not only was it Mrs Thatcher's favourite programme, but one of its authors (Antony Jay) was also one of her speechwriters.

To celebrate the anniversary, here's a clip showing Mr Hacker marking another anniversary - with the wrong speech and an important reminder for all public speakers.

More topically, as today's politicians from Obama to all our current British party leaders keep banging on about change, the environment, conservation, pollution, etc. it's fascinating to see that the Rt. Hon. James Hacker had beaten them all to the post - 30 years ago!

PM apologises!

I could hardly believe my eyes a few minutes ago when I saw the words 'PM apologises' on a BBC website headline - until I saw that they were followed by the words 'to child migrants'.

Am I alone in being irritated by the sight and sound of him apologising so piously for a policy for which he had no responsibility whatsoever (the barmy child migration scheme) when it never occurs to him to apologise for the damage done by policies that definitely were conceived and implemented by him?

As regular readers may already have guessed, I'm referring to the ruthless raid on pension funds that left so many of us with massively reduced life savings, triggered the end of final salary pension schemes and discouraged those younger than us from saving as much as they should be doing - for a more extended rant on which, see Time for Gordon Brown to say sorry to savers.

The 'snakes and ladders' theory of political communication and the power of imagery strike again

I spent part yesterday expounding the Snakes & Ladders theory of political communication (which proposes that broadcast interviews seldom deliver anything but bad news for politicians) to a leading television journalist (for more on which, see HERE & HERE) - only to be confronted by some instant supporting evidence for the theory, as Alistair Darling landed on a snake in an interview on Sky News (video 1 below).

It was so newsworthy that, by the early hours of this morning, the BBC has posted a video clip from Sky News its own website, since when it's been raised at Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons (video 2 below) and has been headline news for much of he day.

An interesting footnote is the question whether the interview would have been so widely picked up had Mr Darling used a less powerful image than than his reference to having the forces of hell unleashed against him by Mr Brown.

VIDEO 1: Yesterday's Sky News interview

VIDEO 2: Today's Sky News report on PMQ

Did 'The Godfather' feature the longest pause and most blatant lie in the history of movies?

Watching The Godfather again the other day reminded me that the first time I saw it was when I'd just started getting interested in conversation analysis (c. 1974) - which meant, among other things, that I'd become fascinated by the way in which pauses can work in everyday conversation.

From that point of view, the most riveting scene in the movie came in the last few seconds, when Michael Corleone allows his wife to ask 'just one question' about his 'family business' (see below).

In conversation, pauses don't happen very often or for very long
As I've suggested in some of my books, one of the reasons why so many public speakers feel uneasy about pausing is that 99.99% of our talking lives is spent in the much more familar world of conversation, where we collaborate with others to minimise silences - therefore avoiding the awkwardness and embarrassment that so often come with them

As a result, inexperienced presenters often find it uncomfortable, if not unnatural, to pause far more often and for much longer than they do in everyday conversation - which is one reason why some of them carry on using the conversational practice of killing off silences with frequent "ums" and "uhs".

Delay as a warning of coming trouble
The early work on turn-taking in conversation showed how a very slight delay between the end of one turn and the start of another often works as the earliest warning that the speaker is having some difficulty in producing an appropriate response.

An example of this is when you say something that limits the next speaker to making a choice between two alternatives, as when you're looking for yes/no, agreement/disagreement, acceptance/refusal, etc.

Quite often, one or other of these options is, in the jargon of conversation analysis, 'preferred' -which is to say that the speaker and respondent both know perfectly well which one is expected and which one is not.

For example, in the case of invitations, acceptance is 'preferred' over refusal. And that's what we're implicitly taking into account when we lead up to issuing an invitation by checking out whether or not the recipient will be able to reply with the 'preferred' option (i.e. accept) if and when the invitation comes.

So a question like "are you doing anything on Saturday night?" is hardly ever heard or treated as a neutral enquiry about your plans for Saturday night. Much more usually, you'll hear it both as a signal of what the speaker has in mind (i.e. an invitation) and as providing the you with a chance to say whether or not you'll be able to take the 'preferred' option (i.e. accept) before any firm invitation is actually made.

'Preferred' options tend to come straight away
Once an invitation has been issued, the 'preferred' option (acceptance) is much the easier of the two options to deal with, and normally comes within a split second. But if the option taken by the invitee is not the 'preferred' one, their refusal will be delayed and constructed very differently from an acceptance.

So, if you invite someone to dinner and they haven't started speaking within about a fifth of a second, you can be pretty sure that they're going to refuse.

And the actual refusal itself will typically be delayed beyond the initial 'warning' that came with the pause, and will be pushed back towards the end of the turn so that the eventual 'dis-preferred' response is cushioned by preliminary expressions of thanks and appreciation, and/or an explanation for the upcoming refusal - as in the following:

[0.5 second delay] - "Well - I'd love to - but unfortunately - I'm baby-sitting on Friday night - so I won't be able to make it."

In this case, each of the components (between the hyphens) progressively confirms that the initial delay did indeed mean that the 'dis-preferred' option (refusal) is on it's way (but not before suitable statements of appreciation, disappointment and explanation have been made).

The general point is that taking the option that's not preferred (refusal) is more complicated and involves considerably more time and effort than taking the option that is 'preferred' (acceptance).

The peculiar impact when a 'preferred' option comes after a long pause
At the end of The Godfather, Michael Corleone has just finished 'settling family business' by delegating his minions to bump off everyone who's betrayed it. His sister has just become 'hysterical' (his word) in accusing him of having had her husband murdered.

Michael's wife, Kay, has heard the argument with her sister-in-law and now wants the truth from her husband.

He knows and she knows (and we in the audience all know) that the 'preferred' answer to her question "Is it true?" is No. And we also know that the true answer is Yes. If we were in any doubt that Kay suspects and fears that this is so, the long delay of eight seconds before she braces herself to whisper the key question confirms that this is exactly what she is afraid of.

But, before he eventually comes up with the 'preferred' option, Michael delays for another eight seconds - again, far longer than would ever happen in a real, rather than a dramatised, conversation.

The suspense presumably comes from the fact that the pause implies that he might be about to select the 'dispreferred' option (Yes). The longer the silence lasts, the more it implies that this is where he's going - as he would, after all, need plenty of time to work out an apology, explanation, justification and/or whatever else might be required to cushion the journey towards the dreaded "Yes".

His blatant lie lets those of us in the audience know for sure that the respectable college graduate and war hero at the start of the film has gone forever, and that Michael Corleone has now fully committed to a career of crime and deception.

Kay's apparent acceptance and relief when he goes for the 'preferred' option makes us feel sorry for her and appalled that even his long-suffering wife is now included in his web if deceit.

Then, when she sees his murderous underlings paying homage to him as the new Godfather and shutting the door on her, the expression on her face leaves us wondering whether she's finally got the point:

BAFTA award winners' speeches

Earlier posts on actors' award winning acceptance speeches can be seen HERE & HERE.

Followers of this gripping subject can now review a selection from last night's BAFTA award winners' speeches HERE.

In the gratitude to all and sundry stakes, best actor winner Colin Firth deserves an additional special award for originality (not to mention his neat demonstration of the effectiveness of a simple anecdote) for thanking the man who came to repair his fridge.

You can't judge what's in Nelson Mandela's book by its cover

I used last week's post on you can't judge a book from its cover to advertise the fact that the Russian translation of my book, Lend Me Your Ears, is being published in Moscow TODAY - making it available to a potential market of about 170,000,000 new readers.

The day after that, I posted some comments on and a video clip of Nelson Mandela's speech after being released from prison in 1990, which reminded me that I have further proof that you can't judge a book from its cover.

Here's the cover of my copy of the illustrated edition of Mr Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom:

Open it up, and the first thing you see inside is a handwritten note from the great man himself:

Unfortunately, I wasn't there when he actually signed it. But a close relation did have the privilege of meeting Mr Mandela during his visit to London in November, 2000 - and got him to sign what was by far the most memorable Christmas present I received that year.

(N.B. Burglars and/or book thieves should note that this particular volume is not to be found on any of my book shelves - and that they would have to graduate to robbing banks to get their hands on it).

A weep in politics

Every now and then, Private Eye comes up with a cover that makes you want to show it to people who aren't regular readers of the magazine.

The current copy features a nice sequel to yesterday's post on the Morgan-Brown TV interview - though I do wonder how many of their readers are old enough to remember that it was Harold Wilson who famously said that 'a week in politics is a long time' (c. 1964).

Click on picture for bigger easier-to-read bubbles:

Gordon Brown's dirty dozen (as confessed to Piers Morgan)

Having commented in previous posts on Gordon Brown's inability to answer questions in interviews (HERE & HERE) and his tendency to pack far too much information into his speeches (e.g. HERE), I suppose I should give him points for slight improvement on both counts in his encounter with Piers Morgan.

But, about half-way through the interview, he reverted to type when asked about the delicate matter of his relationship with Tony Blair after the Labour party leadership became vacant on the death of John Smith in 1994 (and after Blair had become leader and won three general elections).

A thin slice of meat
Although it was arguably the most revealing part of the whole show, this short sequence of less than four minutes (see below) doesn't seem to have attracted much attention - perhaps because it was such a thin slice of meat that some deft editing had sandwiched between the early banter about student days, wine women and song, etc. and the later harrowing sequence about the death of Brown's infant daughter.

Or maybe it wasn't picked up on because it merely repeated what everyone had already known (or at least suspected) for well over a decade.

After much laughing and giggling in the first half hour, Gordon's smiles suddenly disappear for a good three minutes before he managed another one - which only comes when Morgan turns to the "big rows" alleged to have taken place between him and Tony Blair - that had the effect of restoring the jocularity in time for the last 40 seconds before the commercial break to be conveniently rounded off in an amiable mood of good humour.

The Dirty Dozen
But, in a mere 3 minutes and 40 seconds, Brown had managed to make 12 points that confirm the worst fears of anyone who might worry about the character of a man who so resented the success of his charismatic colleague that he spent the best part of 16 years sulking about it:

1. Brown did believe that he, rather than Blair, would be and should have been the next Labour leader after John Smith.
2. He was angry that Blair won, but "got over it pretty quickly" (er- 14 years later?)
3. He found it painful.
4. There was no deal between him and Blair at the Islington restaurant (but actually there was a deal that had been agreed elsewhere).
5. Blair had agreed to stand down and support Brown "w- when that was the case".
6. It was up to Blair to decide when to deliver on the deal.
7. He "has to remember" that Blair had won a general election (er- 3 actually) whereas he hadn't.
8. They did have fights that caused tension.
9. It's good to be open and honest that there were disagreements about certain things (!?).
10. In spite of all that, they "managed" to "get things sorted out".

After 3 minutes, we get Brown's first smile, which prompts Morgan to switch to a lighter mood, during which we learn:

11. Brown never actually threw anything at Blair.
12. He had been been tempted to do so.

(Historical/comparative footnote: you can watch some action replays of Mrs Thatcher in a chat show in 1983 here).

Why does 'The Times' think Brown's interview has 'eroded the dignity of his office'?

A fleeting review of media and blog reactions to the Piers Morgan interview last night points to a consensus that Gordon Brown more or less got away with it.

This doesn't really surprise me, as I can't see that he had anything to lose from doing a 'soft' chat-show interview - any more than Mrs Thatcher had when she appeared on Aspel & Company during the miners' strike in 1983 (see previous post)

The most baffling exception to the consensus I've seen so far is in a leading article in The Times under the headline:

Private Grief, Public Persona

Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan eroded the dignity of his office

But, unless I'm unusually dense this morning, I can't see anything in what follows that makes any further mention of the interview having 'eroded the dignity of his office' let alone any explanation of how, why or in what sense it's supposed to have done so.

Nor did it make much of a case for another of its definitive-sounding conclusions, namely that 'for Mr Brown, it was a mistake.'

I don't think it was (and don't seem to be alone on that).

What's more, I don't remember The Times accusing Mrs Thatcher of having 'eroded the dignity of her office' by agreeing to be interviewed by Michael Aspel (or as a regular on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show).

Piers Morgan interviews Gordon Brown: shades of Michael Aspel & Margaret Thatcher?

I've been intrigued by the way the media has been getting so wound up during the build up to Gordon Brown's appearance in a TV interview with Piers Morgan on Sunday night (and wondering what, if anything, I'll have to say in an interview about it on BBC Radio Bristol on Monday morning).

There is, after all, nothing new about embattled prime ministers taking the opportunity to appear in 'soft' talk shows.

Did the the idea come from Margaret Thatcher?
Maybe Mrs Thatcher gave him the idea when she went to number 10 for tea not long after Mr Brown had arrived there - as she was the one who had pioneered the strategy in an bid to 'soften' her image during the miner's strike in 1983. As Ian Hargreaves put it on the BBC website a while back:

'Meanwhile, the politicians hade their own ideas for diversifying the interview market. Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's crusty press secretary, says he wass opposed to the decision to put the prime minister on Michael Aspel's ITV chat show in 1983, but was over-ruled by her image consultants.

'But she did so well - softening the Iron Lady image assembled in the miners' strike - that even Ingham became a convert to chat show politics. Soon Mrs T was in and out of Jimmy Young's Radio Two studio as often as the Today Programme.'

For me, her appearance in Aspel & Company had at least three memorable moments:

1. Where to sit?
The first came right at the start, when Mrs Thatcher pretends that she's not sure where to sit. Yet here was someone who never went into a television studio without the advice of former TV producer Gordon Reece, who had decided that, wherever possible, her left profile should be exposed to the camera.

Also note how 'dolled up' she is - which is thoroughly consistent with a point about her 'unambiguously recognisable femininity' that I made in an earlier post on the evolution of charismatic woman.

2. Thatcher & Aspel were quite open about the rules of the game:
Early on in the interview, Aspel notes how unusual it is for a prime minister to appear on a show like this. Mrs Thatcher concludes her reply by saying how 'very grateful' she was to have been invited - whereupon he reassures her by confirming that he's after "different kinds of answers" to those she has to come up with at prime minister's question time:

3. The audience's reaction to "I'm always on the job."
Whether or not Mrs Thatcher realised why the audience laughed and applauded when she announced that he was always "on the job"* is not altogether clear - though Aspel's sideways glance leaves little doubt that he knew perfectly well how they'd taken it.

I also suspect that her choice of those particular words may have been triggered by the fact that Aspel had just mentioned that she lives "over the job" at number 10 - in a similar way to that in which I suggested Gordon Browns gaffe about 'saving the world' might have been triggered by sounds in the words had had just used (for more on which, see HERE).

(* Native speakers of American English may not be aware that, in British English slang, 'on the job' is commonly used - depending on context - to mean 'having sex').

Nelson Mandela's speech on the day he was released from prison

None of the news reports on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison that I've seen have replayed any excerpts from the speech he made at City Hall in Cape Town.

This doesn't really surprise me, as it was far from being the barnstorming piece of oratory that many (including me) were expecting at the time.

Speaking into a microphone held by someone standing next to him, a bespectacled Mr Mandela clutched closely to the clip board holding his script - from which he read extremely carefully (see video below).

Given what might have happened had he done otherwise, it reminded me of the Queen's Speech as an example of the relatively rare occasions when there are very good reasons for not conveying any passion about what you are saying.

Something I posted a while back on The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler included the following thoughts about Mandela release-day speech.

Why such a 'low key' speech?

A much more surprising case was Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. Here was a highly effective communicator, whose words at his trial 27 years earlier are to be found in most books of great speeches, and who had had the best part of three decades to prepare an inspiring and memorable text.

But it was not to be. As if modeling his performance on the Queen’s Speech, he buried his head in the script and spoke in a flat measured tone that came across as completely lacking in the kind of passion everyone was expecting from someone who had suffered so much and was held in such high regard by his audience.

Having waited for years for this historic event, anticipating something on a par with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, I remember being disappointed and surprised by what I saw and heard from the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was another case where rousing rhetoric would have been completely counter-productive.

The political situation in South Africa was poised on a knife-edge and his release from prison had only happened at all because the apartheid regime was crumbling. It was a moment when anything more inspiring from Mandela might have come across as a call to arms and could easily have prompted an immediate uprising or civil war.

But the political understanding with the minority white government was that the African National Congress would keep the lid on things for long enough to enable a settlement to be negotiated.* As when the Queen opens parliament, Mr Mandela knew exactly what he was doing, how to do it and that he could not have done otherwise.

(* On which it's interesting to note that, at the end of this clip, the reporter actually comments on Mr Mandela's concern for keeping things orderly among the crowd).


The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.

Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters' roll in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.

In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are as true today as they were then. I wrote:

'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'

You can't judge book by its cover

One of the things that vaguely irritates me about Twitter is that famous (and not so famous) quotations are constantly being launched into cyberspace for no apparent reason.

The only reason I'm making an exception today is because I have some clear, if shamelessly self-promotional, reasons for posting 'you can't judge a book by its cover':
  1. To celebrate the publication of Lend Me Your Ears in Russia on 19 February.
  2. To advertise my wares to British, American, Spanish and Russian audiences.
  3. To prove that famous quotations are sometimes literally true, as when 4 different covers = the same book within.
  4. To invite publishers in languages other than English, Spanish and Russian to write to me asking for a free copy to consider whether it might be worth translating.
To quote a phrase from Mrs Thatcher there are grounds for "cautious optimism" about the possibility of a forthcoming French edition.

My only worry at this stage is about the cover - because, if Marion Chapsal* has her way, the cover of a future French edition of the book might end up looking like one (or both) of the following:

On second thoughts, they might be preferable to the ones used so far - on which, of course, authors are allowed no say whatsoever.

Business Communicator of the Year 2010

Brian Jenner has just announced that the UK Speechwriters' Guild 'Business Communicator of the Year, 2010', is Martin Broughton (right), Chairman of BA and former President of the CBI.

Further details of the citation can be seen HERE, where, the news is introduced as follows:

The judges said: "During his tenure as President of the CBI Martin Broughton's speeches were witty, direct and controversial, making headlines and entertaining audiences. He can craft a phrase, select a great quotation and crack a good joke, which is extremely rare among top British executives and almost unheard of from a man trained as an accountant. His speeches should be studied by corporate communications departments as models of excellence."

The runners-up were Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England and Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

Snakes, ladders & the folly of Q-A campaigning

I began the year by raising the question of whether interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences, since when I've posted some illustrative videos, like yesterday's example of a gaffe from Mrs Thatcher in her final interview during the 1987 general election.

My concerns arise from what John Heritage and I dubbed the snakes and ladders theory of political communication, which proposes that speeches are like the ladders in the board-game with the potential for generating positive sound bites and news that take you up the board - whereas interviews and other Q-A formats are like the snakes that at worst trip you up, and at best leave audiences with an unmemorable sense of blandness and/or boredom.

As we move towards a general election that promises little in the way of speeches, rallies or excitement, here's a reminder of just how tedious Q-A campaigning can be.

Ask the Alliance rallies
Although Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock made some pretty impressive speeches during the 1987 general election (e.g. HERE), the SDP-Liberal Alliance thought they knew better than to hold traditional campaign rallies, opting instead for Q-A sessions with the two Davids (Owen & Steel).

As far as I remember, these generated no quotable quotes from either of the leaders - but the format itself became the news story, resembling as it did:

Gardeners' Question Time on a bad day

NEWS: Is the format working?
So, about half way through the campaign, and in the absence of much to report, the mass television audience is being told that the Q-A format has itself became the main news story.

And here, from the same programme as the one above, we're taken to a park bench, where two Alliance MPs (John Cartwright, SDP, and David Alton, Liberal) are earnestly discussing the problem and what to do about it:

Rochdale to the rescue
Two MPs would hardly have agreed to be filmed worrying about campaign had the Alliance parties themselves not been having second thoughts about the Ask the Alliance rallies.

And sure enough, the next clip showed that another Liberal MP, Cyril Smith, was doing something about it and had invited Liberal leader David Steel to make a speech from a trailer at an open-air rally in Rochdale.

But, as the reporter implies in winding up the story, by then it was too little and too late:

Lessons for 2010?
Nearly a quarter of a century later, the current Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has been touring the country to speak at Meet the People meetings that have a remarkably similar format to those of the ill-fated Ask the Alliance rallies.

Meanwhile, the political parties are locked in continuing discussions with the BBC, ITV and Sky about exactly what form the Q-A sessions with party leaders will take in the televised 'debates'.

My hope is that those who are cooking up the rules - as well as the parties' campaign strategists - are old enough and wise enough to have learnt something from the tedium generated by the Ask the Alliance rallies.

My fear is that the TV debates - and much of the rest of the campaign - will do little more than make Gardeners' Question Time on a bad day the daily norm, rather than the dreary exception that it was in 1987.

The day when Mrs Thatcher apologised (twice) for what she said in an interview

I've made the point in an number of recent posts (e.g. HERE and HERE) that radio and television interviews seldom generate anything but bad news for politicians - but only hit the headlines if the interviewee slips up and says something that the rest of the media thinks worth reporting.

One of the most spectacular cases of such a gaffe came when David Dimbleby was interviewing Mrs Thatcher two or three nights before polling day in the 1987 general election - in which she referred to people who "just drool and drivel they care".

Dimbleby immediately picked up on her choice of words, in response to which she apologised (twice) whilst revising what she had said.

The drool and drivel sequence was quite widely replayed and reported elsewhere in the media but, luckily for her, it happened so close to polling day that there wasn't time for a big story to brew up and it had little or no impact on the eventual result.


· Do interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences?

· Will the 2010 UK general election be the first one to leave us speechless?

· Two more straight answers from Mandelson - about failed coups and the PM's rages

· Mandelson gives two straight answers to two of Paxman’s questions

· Rare video clip of a politician giving 5 straight answers to 5 consecutive questions

· Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

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

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

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

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

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

· Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

Nobel Prize for Economics (& Atkinson Award for Imagery): Joseph Stiglitz

Today's Independent has an interesting interview with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in which he is described as having 'the veteran teacher's ability to put the intellectually inferior at their ease'.

Unlike the economics teachers of my undergraduate days (who only inspired me to drop the subject in favour of sociology), Stiglitz has quite a way with words that I've blogged about before.

How good an economist he is, I have no idea, but this isn't the first time that I've been impressed by the ease and frequency with which he uses imagery to make his points intelligible to wider audiences.

Here are some samples from the article in today's Independent, followed by video clips of him from televised interviews over the past year or so.

Garbage disposal service
The US government, Stiglitz says, was reduced to the role of garbage disposal service for the banks' toxic assets, bad loans and worthless securities they themselves had created.

Safety net
The safety net should focus on protecting individuals; but the safety net was extended to corporations, in the belief that the consequences of not doing so would be too horrific. Once extended, it will be difficult to withdraw.

The world-weary response of the media and the politicians, after the immediate horrors have passed – to give in to the financial sector's blackmail.

A gun to our heads
He reminds us that the banks have effectively tried to keep "a gun to our heads", that says that if we don't keep them going on their terms then they will "kill the economy".

The market is a crazy man
"You're dealing with a crazy man, you're asking what I can do to placate a crazy man: Having got what he wants he will still kill you."

The Great American Robbery
His sheer indignation at what he calls "the Great American Robbery" – that multi-trillion dollar bailout for the banks sanctioned by the Bush and Obama administrations – is as awesome as the sums involved, and as understandable.

Calm sea of financial stability
According to Stiglitz, far from free markets delivering a calm ocean of financial stability, they have delivered us a financial crisis, on average, every year or two.

Stiglitz on 'tail-spins', 'diseases' and 'party-poopers':

(If you're interested in how effectively imagery can be used in speeches and presentations, see Chapter 7 of Lend Me Your Ears: 'Painting Pictures with words: the use of imagery and anecdotes', pp. 215-240).

Televised debates about televised debates really would be worth watching!

It was, I suppose, only to be expected that debates about the format and rules for the televised pre-election leaders' debates would hot up as the election draws nigh - no matter how pointless and unenforceable such rules are almost certain to be.

The Guardian is warning that the party leaders' election debates are in danger of 'being negotiated to death', and today's Times is reporting that Brown is calling in 'the Obama team for help with television debate'.

As readers of this blog will know, I'm fully expecting the 'debates' to be as boring as all the other interviews the media will be inflicting on us during the election.

But all this talk about the debates about the debates has given me an idea:

Why don't the BBC, ITN and Sky insist that all further negotiations with the main political parties about the rules and formats for the debates must be conducted in front of the cameras?

That would surely make for such riveting viewing that it wouldn't matter very much whether or not the actual 'debates' ever get to take place at all.


'New Statesman' on political speeches & speechwriting

An interesting article by Sophie Elmhirst on political speeches and speech writing has just appeared in the New Statesman magazine.

I can't complain about her quotes from me being inaccurate, even if some of them do make me sound like a grumpy old man recycling themes that will be all too familiar to regular followers of this blog.

However, given my extraordinary generosity in allowing her to spend half a day at one of my courses (without charge) I confess to being disappointed that none of my books got a mention.

So, by way of reciprocity, I've provided the above link so that you can read the article without actually having to buy a copy of the magazine!

Translation news: Выступать легко: Все, что вам нужно знать о речах и презентациях

I've just heard today that the Russian translation of Lend Me Your Ears will be published on 19 February 2010.

If you can read Russian, you can check for further details of the publishers, availability, etc. HERE & HERE, and I'll be posting more details as and when I have them.


Two slight worries
  1. The name of the originating Russian publishing house is 'Nofun Publishing', which, at least to English ears, doesn't sound too promising.
  2. The title of the book, according to Google's automated literal translation, is To come out easily (with the same sub-title as the English version). Even though this might take it into new and unexpected markets, I'm rather hoping that the version given to me by the books translator - Speaking in Public is Easy is nearer the mark.
  1. News from my brother, who speaks Russian, about the mysterious title: "vistupat is a compound verb - 'vi' (= 'outwards') + 'stupat' (= 'move') - and it can mean 'walk out' but more usually 'speak out', 'make a speech'. "
  2. 250 Roubles = £5.24 (i.e. about half the price it is in the UK!).

Макс Аткинсон

Ronald Reagan's master class on how to cope when the teleprompter lets you down

May 08, 1985

President Left Speechless by TelePrompTer

STRASBOURG, France — President Reagan, often spoken of as "the great communicator," was noticeably at a loss for words when his TelePrompTer broke down during his major speech before the European Parliament today.

White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan's TelePrompTer cut out three times, causing the President to lose his place.

I don't agree with this 25 year old headline from the Los Angeles Times, as I saw it as a master class on how to recover from the worst thing that can happen when a speaker is using a teleprompter.

As Reagan started to speak, I'd just pressed the 'record' button on my Sony Betamax (!), little expecting the potential disaster awaiting him about half a minute into the speech.

All went well until the French "swarmed on to the boulevards of Paris, rallied under the Arc de Triomphe and sang the Marseilleise...." at which point disaster struck.

But it only took three seconds for the 'great communicator' to see the problem and come up with a solution: an unscripted ad lib - "In the .." Five more seconds and he completes it with "they were out there in the open and free air" - continuing to look at his audience until looking down and continuing from the lectern as if nothing had happened.


Quick though his recovery was, it lasted long enough for me to wory about two things before he carried on.
  1. Was there a hard copy of the script on the lectern?
  2. Was he wearing the right contact lenses to be able to read it without glasses?
The answer to both was "yes" - and the the only difference made by his having to read from the lectern was that it slowed him up so that the speech lasted about five minutes longer than had originally been scheduled.

400th post: Oratory and the Sound of Music

As this is the 400th post since the blog began, I wanted to post something a bit special. And there is, I believe, something very special about the two short clips I've chosen to mark the occasion.

For one thing, they're the only ones I've ever seen in which musical backing is added to excerpts from political speeches.

For another, they show that there was a time, a little more than 20 years ago, when our two biggest political parties still believed that making speeches at rallies not only had an important part to play in election campaigns, but also that they make for effective television - otherwise, why else would they have included excerpts from their leaders' speeches in their own party election broadcasts?

I was struck at the time (and still am) by how effectively the music works to lift the mood of what the speakers are saying - and you can see what you think by watching these two clips.

Both were broadcast within a week or two of each other during the 1987 general election.


The first comes from the PEB directed by Hugh Hudson, the successful advertising film-maker who'd graduated to become a feature film-director who'd been nominated for an Oscar for Chariots of Fire a few years earlier.

American readers might also be interested to know that this particular segment from Neil Kinnock's speech was the climax of the sequence that was later lifted, more or less verbatim (and with disastrous consequences), by US Vice President Joe Biden during his failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1988.

Notice how the theme from Brahms's first symphony comes in just as Kinnock concludes with"it was because there was no platform upon which they could stand" - and then builds as the camera pans along the Labur logo through the standing ovation and freezes on a final victory salute to the applauding audience as the music ends.


Such was the impact of the film that Labour decided to replay it in another of their allotted PEB slots later in the campaign. And, even though the Conservatives were well ahead in the polls, Hudson's film rattled them at least enough to borrow this particular idea for one of their own PEB slots.

This time the music comes from Holst's Jupiter - the well-known tune of the patriotic hymn "I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above ..." - but what follows suggests that imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

As in the Kinnock movie, the sequence builds through shots of the standing ovation and fades as the film freezes into a still of Mr and Mrs Thatcher smiling and looking towards her applauding supporters.


The first time I used these clips was in a paper that John Heritage and I presented on the 'Snakes and Ladders theory of political communication' at a conference held at Essex University after the 1987 general election (the gist of which was that speeches are 'ladders' that bring positive news and interviews are 'snakes' that only bring bad news - for more on which, see HERE).

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the next UK general election looks like being the most 'speechless' one in history (HERE).

A few months ago, in The Lost Art of Oratory' by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place, I suggested that this was partly the fault of the British media.

But why our politicians have gone along with the idea that speeches somehow don't work on television (and that endless interviews actually do them some good) continues to baffle me - especially when we (and that presumably includes any of our politicians and media with as much as half a brain) have just seen a brilliant orator come from nowhere to the White House, aided and abetted by televised speeches

Thatcher and Kinnock both excelled at making powerful speeches at rallies that came across as lively events - from which both the passion of the leaders and the enthusiasm of their audiences were communicated way beyond the conference halls into our living rooms.

It's a liveliness that I fear we may never see again - unless or until one of our political parties bites the bullet and forces the camera crews out of the television studios and on to the stump.

Given the relative speaking skills of the current leaders, David Cameron would surely have most to gain from emulating rallies of the Thatcher-Kinnock era.

But I don't suppose he will - which means that my own audiences will have to carry on having to watch increasingly ancient clips from general elections that more and more of them are too young to remember.