You can fault Harman's ginger' jibe, but you can't fault her rhetoric

Whatever you might have thought about hearing the politically correct Harriet Harman referring to Danny Alexander as a 'ginger rodent', the offending sequence was a technically very effective example of how to use the Puzzle-Solution technique to trigger applause (see HERE for a fuller description and more video examples).

It's based on the very simple principle that, if you say something that gets the audience wondering what's coming next, they'll listen more attentively and, if it's a good 'solution', they'll applaud it.

Combining two rhetorical techniques
It can work even better if you use the second part of another rhetorical technique - the contrast - to set up the puzzle.

And that's what happened in this case: the first part of the contrast refers to something they all love - the red squirrel - and the second part contrasts it with something (yet to be named) that they never want to see again.

Setting it up in this way enables the audience to anticipate where it's going early enough to start clapping when she's only half-way through the puzzle - so that she has to deliver the solution against a rising tide of applause:

[A] Many of us in the Labour Party are conservationists and we all love the red squirrel.
[B] [PUZZLE] But there is one ginger rodent that we never want to see again in the Highlands:
[SOLUTION] Danny Alexander.

Or a contrast can provide the solution to a puzzle:
An alternative way of combining these rhetorical techniques is to pose a puzzle and then solve it with a contrast, as in this example from Margaret Thatcher at the start of the 1987 general election:

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

Time to redesign poppy collection boxes to increase donations to the British Legion

The Royal British Legion, like so many charities, issues its collectors with boxes on which the slit in the top is so small that it shouts out "coins", rather than "notes".

Having just returned from doing her rounds, my wife reports that the 'going rate' is a £1 coin - with three notable exceptions. There was one professional miser, who paid 65 pence (£0.65) in small coins before helping himself to three poppies. One old age pensioner donated a £5 note and another (94 year old) handed over a £10 note for one poppy.

Time to redesign the box
Given the design of the coin box, this doesn't surprise me at all - not only because the meagre slit so obviously encourages meagre donations, but also because it takes determination and a degree of manual dexterity to get a note to go in at all.

With the fiver, our smallest note (both in size and denomination), you either have to fold it long-ways before threading it through the slot, or, if you fold it sideways, you have to fold it again before it will fit into the slit. By the time you've done that, it becomes so fat that it takes yet more effort to push it down into the container.

Two new collection box design features
1. A wider and thicker slit
To urge donors to give notes rather than coins, all that's needed is a slit that's considerably wider and thicker than the present one. I've checked this out, and there's quite enough space on the top of the existing collecting boxes to make the hole long enough to accommodate a £20 note (inserted long-ways from one end).

2 A transparent lid or sides
The pressure on people to hand over a note rather than a £1 coin could be increased by issuing collectors with a float of a few £5 and £10 notes that would be clearly visible to prospective donors through the top and/or sides of the box.

The cost of such a redesign would surely be negligible, but the gains from persuading more people to give notes rather than coins could be very considerable indeed. After all, when our lowest denomination note is 5 times greater than the £1 coin, you only need to collect a few more of them to see a dramatic increase in total revenue.

P.S. 25 October 2011
I wrote to the British Legion about this last year, but received no reply. Collection boxes identical to those used last year have now arrived on our doorstep. So I'll have to try again in the hopes that they'll redesign it in time for next year's poppy appeal.

P.P.S. 24 October 2012
Last year's efforts, alas, failed again and the British Legion is still insisting on issuing  these useless collection boxes. At a local meeting of the Legion a couple of weeks ago, I complained that they never replied to a suggestion that seems to have widespread support. The explanation (from a former officer) was that the organisation is run by NCOs who don't have much of a clue about things like - er - fund-raising...

P.P.P.S. 25 October 2012
Publicity via Twitter has prompted some emails that support the view that all may not be well at British Legion HQ. One said:

'Sadly the Legion is somewhere in the dark ages as to commercial acumen and sense. As always in monolithic organisations, there is strong resistance to change.

'It is clear that there is a marketing department somewhere in its bowels. but they appear to be more concerned with the glitzy bits like getting celebs to do launches and tacky goods like brollys.'

Another says that the official launch in London was a bit short on poppy sellers:

'I was at Trafalgar Square just after the launch yesterday. Hordes of folk about, quite a few wounded veterans, press, celebs, stewards, etc. but only ONE poppy seller... yet another opportunity missed.'

And one defends my position (for which thanks):

'Shameful on three grounds:

  1. Patently obvious simple common sense.
  2. Appalling lack of commercial nous by British Legion management.
  3. Unforgivable lack of courtesy by management's failure to reply - even if they [wrongly] disagreed.'

Free tips for speakers from behind the Murdoch paywall

Having bought a hard copy of The Times earlier today, I'd already read the leaked tips to Labour leader Ed Miliband about how he should handle Prime Minister's Question Time and the various ploys that David Cameron was most likely to use in 'replying' to 'questions'.

But when I saw this Sky News report on PMQ, I began to wonder why I'd bothered to buy it.

I also thought there was something vaguely odd about one Murdoch outlet (Sky News) telling viewers what they could have read had they paid for it by buying another (The Times) and/or by paying to go behind their paywall to read the story online.

Apart from the amusement of seeing David Cameron reading out extracts from The Times, the high spot for me was hearing Ed Miliband (yet again) using one of his favourite youthful lines when he said that the PM just "doesn't get it" (31 seconds in) - unlike Mr Miliband himself, who "got it" no less than six times in quick succession during his Labour Party leadership acceptance speech (HERE).

The tips leaked to The Times had no warnings about overdoing lines that sound as if he's trying to endear himself to younger voters. Nor did they suggest that he should make more effort to pronounce his 't's and cut down on glo'al stops that are unlikely to appeal to anyone but speakers of 'Estuary English'.

For what they're worth, these are the (free) tips that I'd be urging on him in the weeks and months ahead...

Recent Miliband posts:

BIGBOARD: Are BBC PowerPoint-style news reports going from bad to worse?

The increasing use of PowerPoint-style presentations by BBC Television News programmes is something that's been bothering me for quite a while (for a selection of previous posts on which, see below).

We've known for years that there's much about the modern slide-dependent presentation that audiences detest (Lend Me Your Ears, 2004, Chapters 4-5). We know that it's wasting the UK economy billions of pounds a year (HERE). What I want to know now are the answers to four important questions:
  1. Where did the BBC and its television news producers get the idea that it would be a good idea to stand their reporters next to screens a few yards away from the evening's news reader showing slides to the millions watching at home (many of whom will already have quite enough of being on the receiving end of slide-driven presentations during the working day).
  2. Has the BBC done any research at all into what viewers think of such 'presentations'?
  3. If 'yes', can we see the results, please?
  4. If 'no', why not?
Last week, I learnt a new word from BBC Newnight's economics editor Paul Mason, who made the following announcement on Twitter: "OK - am getting ready to go on Newsnight to do bigboard about the regressive impact of the SR2010..."

'Bigboard'? Or did he mean 'Bigbored'? Is this the name of the all-singing-all-dancing graphics package that BBC presenters use in stead of PowerPoint, I wondered. So I tweeted Mr Mason to ask him, and he was gracious enough to tweet a reply: "No - there's no gfx package it is all done by our gfx artists from scratch."

But which comes first, the script or the graphics?
As there were only a few hours to go between his tweet and Newsnight going on air, this got me wondering whether he writes the script before the gfx artists go to work on it, or vice-versa? In any event, I thought, a Bigboard presentation sounded like something not to be missed.

So here's a 60 seconds sample from it - in which there seemed to be a few 'innovations' that I hadn't noticed before. But first, and before you scroll any further down the page, see if you notice anything different from the daily diet of slide-dependent presentations inflicted on us by BBC News programmes:

Innovation (1) A lectern
Whereas BBC reporters usually stand next to the screen during their slide shows, Newsnight has invested in an expensive looking circular lectern for the presenter to rest his hands on. Yes, there is a glass of water and some sheets of paper on it, but Mr Mason doesn't use either of them during his presentation and the sole purpose of the lectern is apparently to provide something for him to lean against.

Innovation (2) Camera angle zooms in from on high
As he starts replying to Gavin Esler's question, the camera cuts away to a different angle from somewhere up on the studio ceiling, before gradually zooming down towards him and the video clips that are starting to materialise on the screen behind him.

Innovation (3) Silent movies replace bullet points
In most BBC PowerPoint-style news presentations, the main focus is on bullet points that variously appear, disappear, whizz around the screen and/or explode before our very eyes (e.g. HERE andHERE).

What made this stand out as different was that 16 (yes, sixteen) silent film clips were crammed into the 45 seconds (at a rate of one every 2.8 seconds) it took for Mason got to his first and only bullet-point slide in the sequence.

So what?
A major problem associated with bullet points (and other slides with nothing but writing on them) is that the audience's attention is split between (1) trying to read what's on the screen at the same time as (2) listening to and following what the speaker is saying and (3) looking repetitively from speaker to screen and back again.

All too often, there is the added distraction of trying to to work out what the connection is between what you're reading and what you're hearing (Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 4), which is one reason why pictorial visual aids tend to be much more helpful to audiences than written ones (Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 5).

Although BBC news producers and designers seem oblivious to the hazards of slide-dependent presentations, there are others elsewhere in the corporation who are perfectly well aware that slide-dependent presentations can make life difficult for audiences: otherwise, why would their website magazine section have asked me to write a short piece on The problem with PowerPoint to mark the software's 25th anniversary last year?

But pictorial material on its own is no guarantee of success and can sometimes be just as distracting as slides made up of words and sentences as, for example, when the visuals don't illustrate or exemplify a point that's being made. Above all, whatever it is that the speaker is showing to the audience should make it easier for them to understand the message (for more on which, see HERE).

How did these clips relate to the commentary?
The sixteen consecutive clips that appeared while Paul Mason was talking did none of these things, and I can't believe that I was the only viewer who found it distracting trying to work out what the connection was (if any) between what we were watching and the commentary - especially when his reference to Nick Clegg was suddenly followed (illustrated?) by film of Iain Duncan Smith (at clip 11 below):
  1. Two people walking along a pavement
  2. Iain Duncan Smith talking to someone on a street corner
  3. Children on a balcony
  4. Two people outside a building with litter in foreground
  5. Four young men looking out of a window
  6. Two people looking at a building
  7. Building in a sloping grass field
  8. Window with white tube hanging out of it
  9. One end of a building with road barrier in foreground
  10. Empty balcony
  11. Iain Duncan Smith meeting some people
  12. Man at with a flip chart
  13. Iain Duncan Smith at a table with two men
  14. Different camera angle on Iain Duncan Smith and people at a table
  15. Another camera angle on Iain Duncan Smith and people at a table
  16. Deserted balcony gets blanked out by brightly coloured slide
If the minds of viewers start to focus on finding some sense or orderliness in the disjointed images they are watching (and how they relate to the words coming from the person they are supposed to be watching and listening to at the same time) there's a very high probability that the points being made by the speaker will pass them by.

This is exactly what happened to me when I saw this sequence for the first time - and a single viewing is, of course, all that the vast majority of viewers (other than the few of us with fingers on the 'record' button) ever do get to see.

Practical exercise
So, assuming that you've only watched this Bigboard show once, see how you get on at answering the following questions:
  • How much of Mr Mason's presentation can you remember?
  • What was his general point?
  • What details did he deploy to support it?
Glimmer of hope from IpsosMORI?
The concluding slide with the latest news from Britain's top polling company left me wondering why on earth the BBC doesn't commission IspsosMORI to do some independent research into what viewers actually think of this style of news presentation. While they were at it, they could also check on whether there's been any decline in audience ratings for news programmes since BBC journalists started reporting from slide screens at the other of the studio.

The cost of such a project would surely be far less than the BBC's daily spending on the production of ever-more elaborate news-related graphics (not to mention expensive and pointless furnishings like designer lecterns).

At a time when the BBC is also having to prune its budget, here's a chance for them to save millions of pounds worth of licence fees a year - with the added bonus of making their news output easier to follow and less distracting than they are at present.


From Alan Firth via link (@diponte - who'd only watched the 'trailer' video posted yesterday - i.e. before any possibility of being influenced by what I'd written above): I couldn't really concentrate on what Paul Mason was saying while the moving images appeared next to him on screen - and I'm wide awake and I'm usually reasonably good at concentrating. It was just 'too busy' - he was talking fast, packing in information, and the images were ever changing. Not a great package, can do better, Paul.

From Cordelia Ditton (@DillyTalk): love this post

From Mary Ann Sieghart (@MASieghart): I so agree! I found that montage of clips incredibly distracting and couldn't remember what Paul Mason had said afterwards.

From Matt Roper (@mattjroper): It's a good post, but I know it's hard to illustrate 'non-visual' stories on television. What would be the alternative?

From Sarah Jones (@SarahTVNews): Good points. It's all far too distracting with pics of no relevance. Yes it may not ... be a picture friendly story but there are creative ways to bring a pkg to life.

From Chris Atherton (@finiteattention): Bottom line: too many pieces of unconnected info at once... If we had the big picture, maybe it'd be easier to retain the individual chunks of information. But there's no real overview.

BBC Newsnight presentation by Paul Mason, economics editor

Something I haven't done before is to post a video clip before making any comments on it.

But I've been thinking about this one since I first saw it on BBC2's Newsnight on Thursday, 21 October, and thought it might be interesting to give readers a chance to ponder on it for a while before I reveal what I think.

Nick Robinson's rage video - and the question of free speech for whom?

I came across the news that Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, had lost his temper via a Twitter link to his blog. To save you looking it up, here is how he reports and explains what happened:

'If you were watching the 6 O'Clock News last night, you may have seen a "Troops Out" sign on a large pole being waved behind my head.

'I have a confession. After the news was over, I grabbed the sign and ripped it up - apparently you can watch video of my sign rage in full glorious technicolour on the web. I lost my temper and I regret that. However, as I explained afterwards to the protesters who disrupted my broadcast, there are many opportunities to debate whether the troops should be out of Afghanistan without the need to stick a sign on a long pole and wave it in front of a camera.

I am a great believer in free speech but I also care passionately about being able to do my job reporting and analysing one of the most important political stories for years.'

As he didn't provide a link to where the video can be seen, you can now watch it here:

My complaint about Mr Robinson
Although I don't have much of a problem with what Mr Robinson did, regular readers of this blog will know that I do have a problem with the fact that he prefers the sound of his own voice to those of the people in the news he's supposed to be reporting on. This manifests itself in his constantly telling us what politicians are saying rather than letting us, the viewers, hear and judge for ourselves what they are saying (for more on which, see selection of posts below).

He's not the only BBC reporter who does this, as I noted during their coverage of the US presidential TV debates (in a post on Mediated speeches - whom do we really want to hear? ) which included the following observation:

'.. the reporter was speaking for 2.4 minutes compared with 30 seconds each for the two candidates-- i.e. the BBC forced its viewers to listen to more than twice as much media commentary as we were allowed to hear from the the candidates themselves.'

If he knows there's a problem, why doesn't he do something about it?
The odd thing is that John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday says that there was a time when Robinson was fully aware of the problem:

'when I worked with Nick at the BBC, we did some reporting on the way in which modern politics was mediated through ever shorter sound bites selected by journalists. Things have changed since, not least because of the internet, which means anyone can watch all of Brown's short speech on their computer. But should we have to?' (full report by John Rentoul HERE).

Needless to say, I don't think that we should have to. The trouble is that Robinson's passionate belief in free speech seems to be rather too narrowly concentrated on preserving his own freedom of speech:

'I am a great believer in free speech but I also care passionately about being able to do my job reporting and analysing one of the most important political stories for years' (N. Robinson, 21 October 2010).

Other posts on Nick Robinson's reportage and mediation:

Osborne takes a leaf out of Gordon Brown's bluffer's guide to budget speeches

If George Osborne's objective yesterday was to pack so much detail into his spending review statement and rattle through it so quickly that no one had time to take much of it in, it must be heralded as a great success: clearly he learnt a lot from having to listen to so many budget speeches by Gordon Brown.

Reading so quickly means that you can't help stumbling on a few words here and there, and makes it too much of a risk to look up from your script very often or for longer than a split second or two. So all Mr Osborne was able to manage were slight glances away about once every 34 words.

On the three occasions when David Cameron raised his right had to his mouth, I couldn't help wondering whether he was trying to hide or suppress a yawn. And there were a number of moments when it began to look as though Nick Clegg was about to nod off, if he hadn't already done so.

As an exercise, you might like have a go at watching this 3 minute sequence through to the end and then try jotting down all the key points you can remember from it ....

Twittering journalists: the much followed reluctant followers

Earlier today, I followed a link on Twitter via @MartinShovel (to whom thanks) that led me to FRIENDorFOLLOW, a useful resource that enables you to tell at a glance which of the people you're 'following' on Twitter are (or are not) following you.

Although I 'follow' quite a number of journalists, it had never occurred to me to check on which of them might be following me. Quite a while ago, however, I'd noticed a couple of things about the way they use Twitter:
  1. They do quite a lot of 'chatting' between themselves.
  2. They don't seem to make as much use of the RT function on Twitter (even between themselves) as many of the other people I follow.
Inspired by FRIENDorFOLLOW, I've just done a bit of research into how journalists are using Twitter. Although they're very keen on tweeting news of their latest articles, broadcasts and blogs, they're not very keen at all on 'following' others.

'Follow' : 'Follower' ratios
The results from ten randomly selected British journalists can be inspected in the table below, from which you'll see that, in absolute numbers, Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer is the most diligent 'follower' - though the 262 people he 'follows' only amount to 2.2% of his 12,810 followers.

Top score on this ratio goes to Steve Richards of The Independent, who follows 4.8% of his 1,806 followers. Bottom score is BBC political editor Nick Robinson, who only follows 1 person (@WilHarris, who describes himself as a 'Recovering journalist. Certified media addict. Alleged entrepreneur').





Steve Richards (Independent)

Benedict Brogan (Telegraph)

John Rentoul(Independent)

Andrew Rawnsley (Observer)

Paul Mason (BBC)

Jonathan Freedland(Guardian)

Daniel Finkelstein (Times)

Jon Sopel (BBC)

Laura Kuenssberg (BBC)

Nick Robinson (BBC)































(Thanks to observant journalist Jonathan Freedland for drawing my attention to an error involving a misplaced decimal point that had put Ms Kuenssberg top of the table when it was originally posted. This has now been been corrected).

Who are followed by journalists?
Although more research is needed on this, the initial results came up with the unsurprising finding that the overwhelming majority of those followed by journalists are other journalists, political bloggers and politicians past and present.

So should the rest of us carry on following them if they don't follow us?
This depends entirely on what you want or are hoping to get from Twitter. But I certainly don't have any immediate plans to go into a huff and 'un-follow' all those journalists who are misguided enough not follow me (i.e. most of them) - for a number of reasons:
  1. Following them is an easy way to keep up with what columnists and commentators are saying (except, of course, those hiding behind The Times's paywall).
  2. Sometimes their articles are interesting enough to inflict on your other followers via an RT.
  3. The possibility of using Twitter's @Journalist'sName 'reply' facility means that you're in with a chance of letting them know what you think about what they're saying.
  4. The same facility also means that you can try to draw their attention to your latest blog posts. Most of the time, of course, they take no notice - but you only need an occasional RT from one of them to see a massive increase in the numbers visiting your own blog, some of whom may actually be tempted to become regular readers.
  5. And that's good enough for me.
P.S. More promising numbers:
Since posting this earlier today, I'm grateful to a number of journalists for responding to and/or showing an interest in the above table. Interestingly, all of them score much higher on the Follow:Follower ratio than any of those in Table (1) above.

Matt Roper - @mattjroper - digital news editor of STV is way ahead of the field and is the only journalist I've come across (so far) who follows more people than those who follow him. Earlier in the day, he'd tweeted "Far too many journalists use Twitter to talk rather than listen."

Mr Roper's only serious contender, Neal Mann - @fieldproducer - who also tweeted '..only following a small number really misses the point of Twitter', is another digital specialist - which probably explains why they are both so far ahead of journalists specialising in print and broadcasting media:





Matt Roper (STV)

Neal Mann (Sky News)

Patrick O’Flynn (Express)

Mary Ann Sieghart (Independent)













Clapping out the conference season

Thirty years on since I first got interested in how applause works in speeches, I'm still adding gems to my collection of video clips. This year's star exhibit came when the accountability of clapping (or not) became headline news with David Miliband's reproach to Harriet Harman for applauding his brother's declaration that something she'd voted for was wrong.

It reminded me of a fascinating moment from the Thatcher era, when the accountability of not applauding in the right places was highlighted by Peter Snow in a Newnight interview with Francis Pym:

Viewing applause as 'anthropologically strange
When people ask me how I came to do the research that changed my life (see Our Masters' Voices and the Claptrap saga, links to which are listed HERE), my answer is that I was merely trying to follow one of the central pieces of methodological advice from the founders of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

According to them, the starting point for escaping from the limitations of the hypotehetico-deductive model of science that had held (and continues to hold) sociology and psychology back was to follow the maxim: try to view the familiar and the ordinary as 'anthropologically strange', no matter how mundane it may be.

To give you an idea of what this means (and by way of bringing my posts on this year's conference season to a suitable close) I've spliced together some close-ups of audiences in action over the past few weeks.

Before watching it, imagine that you're a Martian anthropologist. You've just been beamed down to earth on your first mission of exploration, you've arrived in the middle of an audience at a party conference and this is what you see. Then ask yourself what, if anything, you'd make of what members of this alien species are doing:

A research project?
If, having watched it, you're wondering why it ends with an artificially extended sequence of Michael Gove in action, it's because I think there might be something going on here worth further examination. Having watched it several times (!), I get the impression that there could be a connection between his eye-blinking and the rhythm of his hand movements.

As it happens, I have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue it further. But if anyone else can be bothered, I'd be fascinated to know what, if anything, you come up with.

This year's conference season posts:

Conference season competition results

Blog readers were invited to suggest one object that any of the three main party leaders could use as a visual aid to strike a chord with their audience during their 2010 conference speeches.

Thanks to everyone for submitting so many excellent ideas for objects that party leaders could/should have used as visual aids during their conference speeches. The delay in announcing the winner reflects how difficult the judge has found it to reach a decision.

Most of the entries can be seen in the comments section at the bottom of the blog page where the competition was first announced (HERE).

As you'll see, the year of the Milibands inspired quite a few puns about rubber and elastic. Even more interesting was the recurrence of scissors and shears, as it underlined just how striking the images struck by the Archbishop of York and Margaret Thatcher had been in the pre-competition videos HERE.

Entries via Twitter included:
One from Martin Shovel suggested that David Cameron should use a hearing aid. I appreciate that he may have been trying to make a political point here, but was rather disappointed to see him making the common error of thinking that 'listening' and 'hearing' are the same thing. In any case, his entry had to be disqualified as a flagrant breach of the rules, which were quite explicit in specifying visual aids.

Another from Charles Crawford suggested that Ed Miliband should hold up glove puppets of Sooty and Sweep to symbolise his relationship with the trades unions. Nice idea, Charles, but Miliband's 'new generation' are far too young to remember such ancient TV celebrities, so I fear the point would have been completely lost on them!

Prize winners
  1. Hadleigh Roberts: Labour speaker holds up a copy of LibDem 2010 manifesto and says "Remember this? They don't."
  2. Colin McLean: Ed Miliband holds up an elastic band and says "This keeps the coalition together, for now. To keep the country together you need a Miliband. Better still, two."
  3. Jon Hindmarsh: Cameron brandishes a red banana with a map of Iraq on it - to symbolise the Miliband of Brothers.
Special Brown Nose Award
  • Andrew B: Party leader [of your choice] after rapturous applause holds up a copy of Lend Me Your Ears and acknowledges their deep debt to the author.
Modesty prevented me from awarding Andrew the first prize, but wasn't enough to stop me from sharing it with a wider audience. The least he deserves is a signed copy of his recommended visual aid as a token of the author's deep debt to him.

To receive your prize, please email your postal address address via 'my complete profile' on the left or contact page on the Atkinson Communications website.

The winner of the third prize may opt for a copy of Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy in stead of ВЫСТУПАТЬ ЛЕГКО (the Russian edition of Lend Me Your Ears), as originally advertised.

And if you missed my posts during the conference season:

BIG SOCIETY: little applause

In one of Margaret Thatcher's party conference speeches (probably 1981, but I'd have to crank up my ancient Betamax VCR to check it out), she achieved the stunning hit rate of being applauded, on average, once every thee sentences.

During the last 20 minutes of David Cameron's conference speech this week, his hit rate was one burst of applause every eighteen sentences - a paltry one sixth of that achieved by his illustrious predecessor.

What's more, the more he talked about 'the big society', the more the applause rate fell. In the penultimate 10 minutes of the speech where he starts to move on to the subject (excerpt 1 below), the average applause rate was once every ten sentences.

Then, in the final 10 minutes when he really gets into it (excerpt 2 below), the rate went down to once every thirty sentences - one tenth of that for Mrs Thatcher in her prime.

Why such a muted response?
Closer inspection might reveal that part of the low applause rate could be explained by the fact that Cameron's delivery was more rushed than usual - and therefore didn't leave enough slots for the audience to come in. But that wouldn't account for more than a tiny fraction of the absences.

So, if the Conservative leadership's idea of the 'big society' is supposed to assert brand differentiation from Thatcher's 'no such thing as society', it's difficult not to conclude that their activists in the hall were neither impressed nor convinced by the concept.

But they, of course, may not have been the primary audience that he's trying to bring on board.

Excerpt 1: Penultimate 10 minutes

Excerpt 2: Final 10 minutes

Other posts on the 2010 party conference season:

Delayed applause for Cameron's government - from the Conservatives!

During David Cameron's speech at the Conservative Party conference, quite a few mainstream journalists were tweeting on Twitter about how much applause he was getting. But although they'd all suddenly become experts on the subject, none of them had much of an eye or ear for detail.

Applause delay and duration
So, as in all the other speeches by top party speakers this conference season, they missed the year's most intriguing and recurring trend, namely the way in which some very key points that might have been expected to get instant or early applause that then lasted beyond the standard norm of 8±1 seconds (i.e. an above average display of enthusiasm) failed to do so.

These included warm words from Nick Clegg and Vince Cable about the coalition government (HERE & HERE), Ed Miliband's claims on 'the centre ground' (HERE), William Hague's boast about being in government (HERE) and George Osborne's good news about being in government (HERE).

What struck me as fascinating about these glitches was that they all occurred at points where you'd have expected an instant an/or prolonged response - if audience was in wholehearted agreement with what had just been said. Yet, in the case of the parties in the coalition government, the applause for coalition/government was at best luke warm and at worst minimal.

I'd have thought that such obvious evidence that there might be gap between the enthusiasm of party activists and that of their leaders for crucial points would have been worth a comment or two in the mainstream media - and I'm astonished that none of them seems to have noticed it.

The trend recurs in Cameron's speech
Given that Mr Cameron is by far the most accomplished British political orator of his generation, I wasn't expecting to see it in yesterday's speech. But it did - on at least two occasions.

At the end of his opening line, it took the audience the best part of a second to respond, after which they only managed to keep the applause going for the 'standard' burst of 8 seconds:

Exactly the same thing (1 second delay + 8 seconds of applause) happened again when he told them why they should be proud of what the coalition government had done:

The 'big society'?
If Tory activists were as muted as LibDem activists in showing their enthusiasm for the coalition government, how did they respond to what their leader had to say about the 'big society'? The answer to this will take a bit more time, but watch this space.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of footnotes about yesterday's speech.

Skewed eye-contact
If you haven't noticed it already, watch the clips again to see one of the few weaknesses in David Cameron's oratory: like Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown, he spends far more time looking to the left than to the right.

I've blogged about this before (HERE & HERE), and am surprised that he and his advisors have yet to do anything about a problem that's so easy to fix (Lend Me Your Ears, pp. 41-42).

Booby prize for journalistic banality
Cameron's speech came to an end with a classic and utterly reliable three-part list, in which 'Let's (...) together' was repeated and the third item was longer than the first two:

Let's pull together.
Let's come together.
Lets work together in the national interest.

On this, we were then authoritatively informed by the BBC's Andrew Neil (about 20 seconds in) that the PM was "trying to finish on an upbeat note".

Er, no Mr Neill, he wasn't 'trying to finish on an upbeat note' at all. He was finishing on an upbeat note. And if you knew anything at all about rhetoric and oratory, you might have noticed that he wasn't taking any technical chances when it came to ensuring that the ovation didn't just start instantly but got under way just before he'd finished.

Other posts on the 2010 party conference season:

Delayed applause, poor speechwriting & delivery strike again in George Osborne's speech

This year's curious trend of party conference audiences delaying applause at points where you'd have expected an instant or early response was on show again in George Osborne's speech at the Conservative Party conference.

In this first exsmple, they waited more than a second before showing their approval at being in government again after so long in opposition - and then failed to keep it going for the standard 8±1 seconds (for more on which, see HERE or Our Masters' Voices).

This looked less like the activists being less than enthusuastic in their response than a result of poor speech writing and poor delivery, aided and abetted by poor use of the Autocue.

Poor speech writing
Having set up the puzzle of what's the good and bad news, Osborne started with the key point - "we are in government" - and left the negative thought of the country being on the brink of bankruptcy to the end:

The good news is that we are in government after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Had he put the negative first and the positive second, the audience would have been ready to applaud as soon as he got to "we are in government" (and possibly even before that):

The good news is that, after 13 years of a disastrous Labour administration that brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy, we are in government.

Delivery and teleprompter troubles
You may also have noticed that two indicators that he'd come to the end of the sentence were missing.

There was little in the way of emphatic downward intonation on the final syllables. Add to that the fact that his eyes remained gazing up into the air rather than returning downwards to look at the script on the lectern (c.f. Mrs Thatcher HERE), and the uncertainty about whether or not he'd finished was amplified.

Later on, when it came to one of his best lines, the same problems messed up a neat piece of imagery (that provided a solution to the puzzle about what they'll say at the next election) - greeted by another delay and a meagre 5 seconds of applause:

Practical implications
If you watch the whole speech, you'll see numerous other examples of the same problems, which have two rather obvious implications:
  1. For teachers and students, it's a useful resource for analysing how and why things can go wrong in speeches.
  2. For George Osborne, his speech writers, speech coaches and anyone else trying to improve the performance of a client, it's a rich source of data on how and how not to speak effectively.

Tories 'Bomb Middle England' - by Banksy

News from the Conservative Party conference about government plans to abolish child benefit for higher earners is neatly summed up by graffiti artist Banksy in his picture Bomb Middle England, in which fizzing bombs are being propelled towards the target on a bowling green:

What a peculiar Tory conference backdrop, Part 2: What do the flags mean?

In a post during last year's Conservative Party conference - What a peculiar Tory conference backdrop - I reported being baffled by what the leafy suburbs that kept moving backwards and forwards behind the speakers ware supposed to be telling us.

This year's backdrop (above) certainly looks slicker, but two aspects of it have got me as stumped as i was last year.

One is that the blue striped background (especially when appearing in close-up behind a speaker) reminds me of the Greek national flag, raising the possibility that the subliminal message is something along the lines of: if we don't do what we say, we'll end up with as big a financial mess as Greece.

The other is the question of why the Union Flag on the right is split up into tatty-looking fragments? Is this supposed to be telling us something about the broken society, or what?

Whatever the answers, the main distraction is essentially the same as last year, namely why are they taking the risk of diverting our attention away from what's being said by posing such intriguing mysteries for us to think about when we're supposed to be listening?

Delayed applause for William Hague's boast about being in government

Well, well well - this year's party conference season gets curiouser and curiouser when it comes to audiences delaying applause at key points where you might have expected them to show more instant and enthusiastic agreement.

It took the Liberal Democrats 2-3 seconds to get their hands apart for positive references to the coalition government by Nick Clegg (HERE) and Vince Cable (HERE).

The Labour Party withheld applause altogether when Ed Miliband said that he aimed to "shape the centre ground of politics" and then delayed their applause for his second set of warm words about the 'centre ground' (HERE)

Yesterday, when William Hague reminded the Conservative Party that this was the first time since 1996 that they'd met as the party of government, it took them the best part of 3 seconds to respond - even though 'boasts about us' have a tremendous track record when it comes to triggering applause in political speeches (for more on which, see HERE).