Prince Andrew cool under fire on Sky News - except that he wasn't under fire at all!

Looking at the latest selection of video clips on the Sky News website a few moments ago, I was struck by three things that seemed a bit odd about this one.
  1. Prince Andrew didn't seem as defensive as I expected him to be after the Wikileaks allegations about his being rude about various people, newspapers and countries at a business brunch in Kyrgyzstan.
  2. He seemed much more careful about what he was saying than the Wikileaks story suggests that he sometimes is.
  3. No interviewer puts in an appearance, let alone one who might have exploited the rather long silences by coming in with a challenging question or two.
Then all suddenly became clear when I noticed the box in the top right hand corner of the screen - revealing that this was recorded nearly a year earlier than any of the other nineteen (current) videos featured on the same web page.

Or rather his coolness and the absence of any interrogation was what became clear. What didn't was why Sky News replayed it alongside all their other clips about Wikileaks without so much as a word of explanation.

Ed's weekend Miliramblngs

Yesterday, I was struck by a line in an interview with Ed Miliband by Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 live (partly transcribed HERE), in which he said something that seemed a bit short in the precise and decisive departments:

"I think I can fairly sort of certainly say to you now, Nicky, that's unlikely to be the biggest priority for the country."

Part of that interview was trailing the speech he was going to make today at Labour's National Policy Forum (transcript HERE). So stand by, I thought, for a bit more precision and clarity in his first major speech since paternity leave.

A seasoned reporter has trouble following him
Just after Mr Miliband had started speaking, I noticed that Sky News reporter Alistair Bunkall (@AliBunkall) had suddenly got busy on Twitter whilst listening to the speech - with a series of tweets that included the following:
  • Miliband speaking without notes. Multiple accusations that govt is arrogant.
  • Miliband. There are 5 things we (Labour) need to do.
  • 1. "Need to reconnect. Talk to people" Must be one of the most over-used phrases.
  • 2. Need to give a voice to Labour Party members. Will help create better policy.
  • Finally a spot of clapping. Thought the audience might have dropped off..
  • Sorry, lost track, I can't count. Apparently must-do number 2 is the need to change the economy.
  • Miliband: "We have to under-promise and over-deliver." Is that a subtle address to the criticisms of lack of substance?
  • Miliband jokes about Cameron going 2 arctic with huskies early in his leadership. But it got Cameron headlines & Miliband needs some of that.
  • Summary: Miliband wants Lab Party to reform and focus on economy, climate change and liberties. Party must hold conversation with voters.
I was intrigued that a professional television news reporter was losing track of the five-part structure Miliband had announced and didn't include all of them in his summary. Maybe the structure would be easier when reading rather than listening - so I turned to the transcript (HERE).

Clearer for readers than listeners?
But the written version also seemed to be a bit lacking in the precision department - and actually sounds, at least to this reader, rather rambling and incoherent as you're reading through it. Keeping track of the five-part structure announced at the start is quite hard work and involves having to re-read some of the segments to check whether he's on to a new point or still on the previous one.

As you'll see from the following outline of the structure as it unfolds, things really start to go astray after the 4th one starts with a "But". And is the "one other thing" the fifth or an extra one that he's added to the fifth?

"So I want to talk to you about the five things that I think we need to do....

"First of all we have to be a party rooted in people’s lives....

"Secondly we have to change our economy and we have to understand how we need to change our economy....

"Thirdly we need to change our approach not just to markets, but to government as well....

"But fourth we also need to think about not just the relationship of the individual to the market and the relationship of the individual to government but also the thing that probably matters most to all of us in this room, the relationships between individuals....

"There’s, one other thing which is the way we do our politics....

(Miliband's summary of the 5 points)
"We’ve got to change in terms of the way we are rooted in people’s lives, and you are essential to making that happen. We have to change in the way we think about our economy, the way we think about government, the way we think about community and indeed in the way we think about politics too."

Two tips for Mr Miliband
  1. Stop trying to copy the walkabout 'script-free' style of speaking that played such an important part in David Cameron's surprise victory in the Tory leadership beauty parade. The PM is pretty good at it, but most politicians are not (on which, see also HERE, HERE & HERE).
  2. Do some homework on how to structure a speech so that your audience will find it easy to follow, on which Chapter 9 of my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations might be as good (and cheap) a place to start as any.

Sarah Palin's North Korean slip of the tongue: what we heard and what we'll make of it

For American politicians, talking about North Korea seems to be a bit of a minefield.

When Hillary Clinton threatened North Korea with "consequences" for its misconduct, she prefaced her dire warning with a large number of 'pre-delicate hitches' (HERE).

Now we have Sarah Palin telling us that she wants to "stand by our North Korean allies".

As she's also trying to convince her fellow Americans that she's a credible presidential candidate, it's hardly surprising that her gaffe was not only noticed, but has also become a big news story around the world.

But however much her opponents may be hoping that it will damage her reputation, the most likely explanation of it is that it was a rather common type of 'slip of the tongue' - i.e. what the late Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, described as a 'category-formed' error (HERE)

Sound-formed errors
Two years ago, a similar gaffe from Gordon Brown attracted widespread media attention when he claimed to have saved the world.

However, as I pointed out at the time, there were four 'w' sounds in the sentence that ended with "world", which he quickly corrected to 'banks' (video and comments HERE). In other words, it looked like a fairly typical example of what Jefferson had described as a 'sound-formed' error, namely one that was triggered by a repeated sound in the words spoken just before the 'wrong' one came out.

Category-formed errors
A similar type of conversational 'error' described by Jefferson was what she called the 'category-formed' error. This is when the word that comes out means something that's related to the one intended - a common example of which involves selecting a word that means the exact opposite of what we meant, e.g. right instead of left, hot instead of cold, black instead of white, etc.

Viewed in these terms, Palin's use of North for South therefore sounded like a fairly typical example of a 'category-formed' error.

Freudian slips or slips of the tongue?
The trouble is, of course, that media commentators (and other experts) love to find deeper meaning in such errors, regardless of how they were formed. As Jefferson pointed out in her original paper, many alleged 'Freudian slips' turn out to be 'sound-formed' or 'category-formed' errors.

But, as I discovered when doing a radio interview on Gordon Brown's 'saving the world' gaffe, the media isn't very interested in a such mundane explanation of slips of the tongue when there are alternative that are 'deeper', more sensational or more damaging.

Once it's out, it's anyone's
In case opponents of Mrs Palin think that I'm trying to offer her a neat way of getting off this particular hook, I should mention that there is also some encouraging news for them from one of the other founders of conversation analysis, the late Harvey Sacks - who used to say about talk: "Once it's out, it's anyone's".

He didn't just mean that you can't 'un-say' words after they've already been said, but that they're available for anyone to analyse and interpret in whatever way they like. And that is precisely what the media is doing in this particular case.

Blueprint for a truly representative House of Lords

Regular readers will know that I take a very dim view of the way members of the House of Lords are selected - and actually think that the half-baked changes that Labour dragged itself into making during its thirteen years in office have made it an even greater embarrassment to a modern democracy than it was before 1997. As I wrote in a post nearly two years ago:

'...there’s still unfinished business and more work to be done. To take but one example, the Blair government finally got around to abolishing the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of the House of Lords, but has left us with entry qualifications to the upper house that are as far removed from any democratic principles as could be imagined.'

Before that, we could at least mount a sort of defence - namely that the House of Lords was a feudal anachronism that successive governments had never quite got around to doing anything much about.

A 'predominantly elected' House of Lords?
Then, for all the coalition government's talk of major constitutional reforms, David Cameron's prime-ministerial debut at PMQ held out little hope for radical change when he declared his support (twice) for a "predominately elected" House of Lords - which sounded suspiciously like an assurance to the undemocratically selected miscellany of former MPs and party cronies that they needn't worry about being forced to vacate their cosy retirement home in the other place.

I do recognise, of course, that there might be a problem with a completely elected House of Lords - especially if its members were elected by a more proportional system than that used for electing MPs to the House of Commons - as it could set off a power struggle between the two houses as to which one had the more democratic mandate.

Listening to me banging on about how to bring real reform to the Lords is something my unfortunate family and friends have been forced to put up with for years.

The most interesting solution so far has come from one of my daughters-in-law. And, with the spectacle of yet more cronies being parachuted on to the red leather benches, it seems as good a time as any to share Anne's proposals with a wider audience.

Membership that's fair and representative
The principle of public service is at the heart of her system for allocating seats in the House of Lords - which would be as representative of the general population as it's possible to imagine and has the following advantages over all the other proposals I've ever heard mooted:
  • Equal numbers of male and female members would be assured.
  • The age distribution would be an accurate representation of that in the population as a whole, thereby eliminating the current bias in favour of the elderly.
  • Representation of different ethnic groups would reflect the proportion of them in the general population, unlike at present.
  • The occupational and socio-economic background of members would also reflect that in the population at large.
  • Members would hold their seats for a fixed term, and not for the rest of their lives.
  • Political motivation to obtain a peerage would be eliminated.
Too good to be true?
Er, no. We already have a well-proven, practical and efficient system that's been achieving all these benefits simultaneously - and has been doing so for a very long time.

Until now, however, it's only been used to select members of the public for jury service.

So why not also use it for selecting members of the public for service in the House of Lords? After all, if juries are capable of playing such an important part in applying the laws of the land, the same people would presumably also be just as capable of revising new laws.

The next step?
A few important modifications to the way jury members are recruited would obviously have to be introduced - e.g. geographical representation, number of members, length of service, how frequently should new members be appointed, remuneration, training, etc.

But it's surely not beyond the wit of government to appoint a Royal Commission, chaired perhaps by a judge or constitutional lawyer, and including at least one psephologist and the CEO of IpsosMORI (and/or other polling companies who know about sampling) to sort out the details and devise a system that would work.

I'd be more than willing to serve on it myself. Unfortunately, however, I don't think it will ever happen.

Other posts on the House of Lords

Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, 20 years on from her resignation...

When I was doing the research that led to my first book on public speaking (Our Masters' Voices, 1984) Margaret Thatcher was the leading British politician of the day and provided me with much of the data analysed in the book - for which I was and still am extremely grateful.

Later on, when I was writing speeches for former LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown, she provided much raw material for lines that were more or less guaranteed to get rapturous applause.

But those were only two of my debts to her. Another was that I've often summed up my professional life by saying that it came about as a result of being both a victim and a beneficiary of Thatcherism.

Victim of Thatcherism
This was because of the appalling damage her governments inflicted on higher education and research in the UK, not to mention what they did to my standard of living or the two years of insecurity that came to a head in 1981 - when her Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph commissioned Lord Rothschild to investigate my then employer (the Social Science Research Council) with a view to making a case for closing it down.

Luckily, he didn't oblige, concluding that it would be a 'gross act of intellectual vandalism' to do so. The compromise accepted by Thatcher and Joseph was to delete the word 'science' and elevate the importance of their favoured discipline with a new name: the Economic and Social Research Council.

Beneficiary of Thatcherism
A few years later, the benefit from Thatcherism came when Nigel Lawson's budget of 1988 reduced the top rate of income tax to 40%. That was the moment when and the reason why I decided to risk leaving the groves of academia to become a self-employed consultant and author (links to a fuller story of which can be found in the final post of the Claptrap series HERE).

To that extent, I can claim to be living proof that the official economic case for Thatcher-Reagan tax reductions, namely that they would unleash entrepreneurial zeal, worked in at least one case.

The cricketing simile that put an end to her innings
To mark the twentieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher resignation as prime minister, links to some of my writings about her, both from Our Masters' Voices and this blog, are reproduced below.

I also thought it appropriate to mark the occasion with a clip from the speech that fired the starting gun for what turned out to be a rather quick sprint to the end - coming as it did only 21 days later.

In his speech on resigning as Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who wasn't renowned as a brilliant speaker, deployed a vivid cricketing simile to describe what it had been like working with Mrs Thatcher.

"It's rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

The speech ended with a fairly explicit invitation to other discontented colleagues to stand against her for the leadership:

"The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long."

Three weeks later, she resigned.

There was a rumour at the time that this particular sequence was actually written by Sir Geoffrey Howe's wife - a claim that, so far, I've never managed to verify.


Prince Charles knew that what he said about Camilla becoming Queen was extremely delicate

Yesterday, I blogged about how the 'pre-delicate hitches' in some of the questions put to Prince William and Kate Middleton by ITN's Tom Bradby could be heard as indicating that he was rather more nervous than his interviewees (HERE).

Little did I expect that more pre-delicate hitches from Prince Charles were about to feature in a big news story on both sides of the Atlantic.

Newspapers don't often print detailed transcripts of what someone said in an interview. But several of the reports of the way Prince Charles answered the much publicised question from NBC's Brian Williams - about whether Camilla would ever become Queen - provided rather more detail than usual, accompanied as they were by dots along with comments to the effect that he'd been 'hesitant' or 'caught off guard'.

Daily Telegraph
Asked by NBC’s Brian Williams if the Duchess would become queen, the Prince, who seemed taken aback by the question, said: “That’s, well…we’ll see, won’t we? That could be.”
Although aides insisted the Prince had been caught off guard and there had been “no change” in the official position, the comment will be seen by many as an indication of his inner thoughts.

Daily Mirror
In a shift from previous statements, the Prince of Wales did not contradict an American interviewer who asked: "Does the Duchess of Cornwall become Queen of England, if and when you become the monarch?" Until now, the official position has been that the Duchess of Cornwall would have the title Princess Consort.
Hesitating, the prince replied: "That's well... we'll see won't we? That could be."

The Guardian
During an interview with the American network NBC, due to be aired tomorrow, Charles did not correct the presenter of NBC's Dateline programme, Brian Williams, when he asked: "Does the Duchess of Cornwall become Queen of England, if and when you become the monarch?" The prince hesitated, then replied: "That's well … we'll see won't we? That could be."

More hitches than a few dots
As you'll see from the video clip, the dots used in these news reports hardly do justice to the extraordinary number of 'pre-delicate hitches' - i.e. at least eleven of them (in blue) - that led up to his most widely reported sentence: "that could be":

"Wehh -uhhh-that's-umm that's (1 second pause) well (0.5 second pause) let's see won't we. But-uhh (1 second in-breath) Ummm (0.5 second pause) that (0.5 second pause) could be."

Hardly surprising, then, that his 'hesitancy' featured in news reports. But one interesting question is whether 'the comment will be seen by many as an indication of his inner thoughts' (Daily Telegraph), or whether it became headline news because of the way he led up to and made the comment - as is implied by the inclusion of dots in the rather inadequate media transcripts.

Whatever the answer, research in conversation analysis suggests that Prince Charles was displaying an awareness that he knew perfectly well that he was about to say something that would be heard by others as very delicate indeed.

Was the royal engagement interviewer more nervous than his interviewees?

It was quite a coup for Tom Bradby, ITN's political editor, to be favoured by Prince William and Kate Middleton for the first interview after the announcement of their engagement (as for why they chose him, see HERE).

The couple also did viewers a favour by sparing us from having to watch either of the Dimbleby brothers, let alone rival BBC or Sky News political editors, Nick Robinson or Adam Boulton, doing the job.

Who was the most nervous of them all?
But I was surprised to see various interviews with Mr Bradby about his encounter with them, in which he told us how nervous the couple had been during the interview - because there were a number of places where he seemed more nervous than either of his iterviewees.

This was especially evident in the way he giggled as he put some of the more 'delicate' questions.

Take, for example this one about whether they plan to have lots of children - to which Prince William's response is rather more assured than Bradby's question:

More giggles, a few pauses and hesitations came from Mr Bradby when he asked Miss Middleton about what it had been like meeting the Queen for the first time - to which her reply is rather more fluent than his question:

These are only two examples of something evident in quite a number of Mr Bradby's questions during the interview and on which I've blogged about before, namely what conversation analysts call 'pre-delicate hitches' (see links below for more examples).

Taken together, they gave the impression that he was much more nervous and less confident than he usually is when interviewing politicians.

Anyone interested in exploring this further can watch the whole interview below and/or access a transcript of it HERE.


0% of viewers remember all the points made in a BBC PowerPoint-style news presentation

Last night, I discovered that after dinner speeches don't always take place after dinner. I'd been invited to talk about PowerPoint to the Council of the Management Consultancies Association between the starter and the main course, with a Q-A session scheduled to take place after the diners had finished eating their main courses.

As after-dinner speeches are normally expected to be vaguely entertaining, it was a chance to combine a bit of amusement with some opportunistic research into something that, as regular blog readers know, is one of my recurring obsessions - namely the increasing use of PowerPoint-style presentations during British television news programmes (for more on which, see 'Related Posts' at the bottom of this page).

So I ended my talk with the following clip from a BBC Television News broadcast on the financial crisis, in which business editor Robert Peston gives us a 36 second presentation from the other side of the studio.

Research design
The diners were given no advance warning that, about half-way through the main course, they would be issued with a short quiz aimed at testing their retention of Peston's words of wisdom.

If you'd like to join in, don't read down to the questions below, watch the video first and then wait 10 minutes before coming back to have a go at answering them.

MCA Council Dinner Quiz
  1. How much is the recue deal going to cost the government?
  2. How much is that as a proportion of GDP?
  3. How much a year will it cost each tax-payer?
  4. How does Peston describe the recovery in bankers' willingness to lend?
  5. What reason does he give for that?
  1. No conferring.
  2. To be completed before the end of the main course.
  3. In te event of a tie, the result will be decided by the judge.

As there was only one prize (a signed copy of Lend Me Your Ears), I had to allow for the possibility that everyone might score 100% - which I did by preparing a few tie-breaker questions.

It came as something of a surprise, even to me, that none of the 40 or so participants was able to answer all 5 questions correctly.

Only three of them (7.5%) managed to answer 4/5 correctly - so it didn't take long for the tie-breaker questions to produce a winner.

So what?

I wouldn't want to give too much weight to a research design that was intended partly as entertainment and partly to illustrate one of the themes of my talk. But I do think it's interesting that 92.5% of an audience of highly educated professionals - with far more experience of watching PowerPoint presentations than most ordinary viewers of BBC Television News programmes - were only able to remember three (or fewer than three) of the main points in Peston's report/presentation.

P.S. to visitors from countries outside the UK:
I've been trying to find out whether this trend towards PowerPoint-style TV news reports is a peculiarly British trend, or whether it's also happening in other countries. If you've any information on this, please let me know.


What happened when a student demonstrator met a former revolutionary in 1968

Today's student demonstrations have got Twitter and the blogosphere going with people recounting their memories of student demos from bygone days. So here's my two penneth.

Essex, 1968
 I was at the Essex University demonstration when some mustard powder was thrown over a visiting scientist and set off a train of events that led to the temporary closure of the university.

After it had opened again, I was also present at a seminar in the sociology department where the visiting speaker was the distinguished sociologist, Professor Amitai Etzioni (above), who was visiting the UK from Columbia University.

Question time
At the end of his talk, one of the students, fresh from the heady days of closing down the university, sought to put Etzioni in has place with such arrogant confidence that both the question and the answer are still with me - more or less verbatim - more than 40 years later:

"Professor Etzoni. One doesn't have to be a theoretical genius to see that your approach is an essentially conservative one. I'd like to ask if you've ever taken a more revolutionary position and, if so, what made you change your mind?"

Unknown to the student (and many others among us at the time), the young Etzioni had been a member of the Palmach, an elite commando group of the Haganah during the years leading to the establishment of the state of Israel.

This is no doubt why he paused for quite a long time before answering:

"I don't normally talk about these things, but as you ask, I will give you my answer. Yes, I was once a revolutionary. But when I was a revolutionary, we didn't occupy university libraries and laboratories. We used bombs and guns and we used to kill people, mainly the British. As for why I gave up being a revolutionary, it was because I saw at first hand what happens to revolutionaries. They end up falling out and killing each other."

His interrogator had no further questions, and the discussion returned to Professor Etzioni's latest book.

The cost of PowerPoint presentations wastes the UK economy even more than I thought

In an attempt to work out out how much boring presentations were costing the UK economy, I came up with the figure of £7.8 billion a year (HERE).

I was aware that this was probably a serious underestimate of the actual wastage, as it was based entirely on the estimated salary cost per hour of audiences listening to such presentations, and took no account of the time spent preparing slides, hiring venues, audience travel costs getting there and back, tea, coffee, meals, accommodation, etc.

But a recent news story highlights yet further costs that I missed in my earler estimate: management consultants McKinsey & Co were paid £500,000 for a report on the Welsh National Health Service described as 'a compilation of slides', an 'appalling waste' and 'the most expensive PowerPoint presentation ever' (at £6,500 per slide) - for more on which, see HERE).

PowerPoint pioneers?
Although I noted in a recent post that I'm beginning to think that the PowerPoint problem is getting worse, with more and more companies and organisations trying to kill more and more birds with one stone (HERE), what intrigued me about this particular story was that the alleged culprits were top management consultants.

Such companies were not only among the first I ever saw using PowerPoint to collapse two key communicational tasks (written detail + spoken summary) into one, but were also completely resistant to any news or advice about how audiences react to such presentations, let alone how they could improve things.

They know best
On one occasion, I did my best to explain all the obvious problems for speakers and listeners during presentations like theirs - and made the equally obvious point that readers find slides made up of shorthand sentences arrayed as bullet points far less readable than conventionally structured written prose.

"It would work much better" I ventured to suggest "if you got one of the recent MBA graduates on your staff to prepare a detailed written (and readable) report for the client, and then give a presentation to them summarising the main findings and recommendations, and doing so in way as to motivate them to read the detailed material for themselves afterwards."

"Oh no" came back the reply. "That would take far too much time."

The real costs
I remember being amazed by the thought that the cost of this alternative approach would be a miniscule fraction of the daily rates the company was charging their clients - and that the gains being missed out on by both parties were potentially immense.

The news that one such company has just inflicted 80 slides on a public sector client at a cost of £6,500 per slide suggests that, 20 years later, little has changed.

It also points to a serious omission from my original calculation of the annual loss to the UK economy from boring presentations as a mere £7.8 billion and points to an important question that I'd failed to take into account:

How much a year are UK companies and organisations wasting on paying other companies and organisations to have their staff bored, baffled and bewildered by slide-dependent presentations?

Further research is clearly needed...

A competitor for the US landing card as the most ridiculous questionnaire of all time

Back in June, when I asked the question 'Is the US landing card the most ridiculous questionnaire of all time?', I'd seen few serious competitors.

But I hadn't then seen the latest issue of Your Mendip, a magazine distributed free to 45,000 homes (where 'free' = £0.30 per copy 3 x a year) by Mendip District Council, who are trying to get readers to fill in a questionnaire - tempting us by giving us a chance to win £100 of shopping vouchers.

CAPITA, Mendip District Council's 'business support partner', boast that they design and print the magazine. If, as seems likely, they also designed the questionnaire, it looks as though their market researchers could do with a bit of methodological training.

Look no further than Q5 in this set of options and ask yourself how you would be able to insert a tick if you hadn't read it and had already thrown it away.

The only good news is that it rather looks as though Mendip District Council and/or their 'business support partner' are hoping to discover that no one will notice if they stop publishing the magazine, thereby saving us about £40,000 a year in council tax.

Whether they get enough replies to justify such a daring decision will, I suppose, depend on how many people read far enough to put a tick in box 5. Even then, there would be a serious methodological problem - as anyone who puts a tick in the box would obviously be lying on both counts.

Maybe Mendip should now commission their 'business support partner' to do some further research into the matter ....

Would Monty Python's merchant banker have spent £1 on a poppy?

All the poppy-wearing that leads us towards Remembrance Sunday seems to make us rather more conscious of charitable giving than at other times of the year.

A couple of days ago, I found myself blogging about how the Royal British Legion could increase its revenue from poppy sales by the simple device of redesigning its collection boxes (HERE).

Today, Stephen Tall's blog raises a related question - 'How do you get young City execs to give to charity?' - that also reminded me of the Monty Python sketch, in which a charity collector tries to get a merchant banker to donate £1 (still the 'going rate' for a poppy 35 years later) to a worthy cause.

An exaggerated case of miserliness perhaps - but anyone who's ever done any collecting for a charity will know that the correlation between the wealth of donors and the generosity of their donations is, to say the least, rather weak.