Oxford puts degrees (and gowns) from other universities in their place

The annual College Record of the Oxford college where I was a Fellow for twelve enjoyable years has just arrived via snail-mail, revealing that one of the more bizarre manifestations of the university's superiority complex is still very much in evidence.

MA, Oxford?

I had arrived there after teaching at 'plate glass' (Lancaster) and 'red brick' (Manchester) universities, having previously acquired a 'red brick' BA and a 'plate glass' PhD. Such qualifications were not, however, enough for me to be allowed to supervise graduate students in as hallowed a place as Oxford. For that, I also had to acquire a locally awarded 'MA'.

For graduates of Oxford University, the normal route is pretty straightforward: all you have to do after your first degree is not to take any more exams, wait around for a few years and pay a fee for your BA to be automatically 'upgraded' to an MA.

For the rest of us to be allowed anywhere near a graduate student, we first had to be elevated to 'MA Status', achieved by the even simpler procedure of signing a form, returning it to the university offices and paying nothing at all.

MA Status, Oxford?

The year before this happened to me, my name in the College Record was followed by 'BA Reading, PhD, Essex'. The following year, the actual degrees were relegated to their proper place, i.e. in brackets after the more important news: 'MA Status (BA, Reading, PhD, Essex)'.

In the latest College Record, the brackets after names are still there, but 'MA Status' has been replaced by 'MA' - thereby implying that the person in question had been a proper Oxford graduate all along and in the first place, even if s/he had had to spend a few years somewhere else to pick up another degree or two.

One name on the current list caught my attention as something that might amuse (or annoy) American readers and/or graduates of Cambridge (England), followed as it is by: 'MA (BA Harvard, MSA George Washington, PhD Cambridge)'.

Q: What to wear for tea on an Oxford college lawn?

Nor was the elevation of fake local 'degrees' above proper degrees from other places the only evidence of Oxford asserting itself. 'MA Status' also entitled you to wear proper dress for formal dinners and other official occasions (i.e. an Oxford MA gown and hood - top right).

Each year, those of us blessed with 'MA Satus' would also get a luxurious-looking invitation, edged in gold leaf, to Encaenia (the honorary degree ceremony), followed by tea and strawberries on the Vice-Chancellor's college lawn.

At the bottom there was another invitation inviting you to turn over the page - where there was a reassuring message that, if my memory serves me correctly, went as follows:

'Graduates of universities other than Oxford and Cambridge may like to know that, on this occasion, they are permitted to wear the academic robes of their originating institutions.'

A: Robes by Essex man

So one year, mainly for my own amusement and education (as I'd never seen them before then), I went to the expense of hiring Essex PhD robes (above left) - designed in the 1960s by Hardy Amies, a local Essex boy who'd become dress-designer to the Queen.

That, you might think, should impress the locals with a real touch of class - except that I'm pretty sure it didn't...

Hugh Grant: more articulate as himself than in the parts he plays

A few weeks ago, after hearing a presentation by Melvyn Bragg, I made the point that effective broadcasters aren't necessarily as effective when it comes to public speaking (HERE).

I've also commented on how famous actors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, aren't always particularly effective at making speeches either:

'But then why should anyone expect actors to be any good at speech-making?

'After all, their skill is to deliver other people’s lines in a way that portrays characters other than themselves, which is a very different business from writing your own lines and coming across as yourself.

'Politically active thespians like Glenda Jackson, M.P., and Vanessa Redgrave may be admired for their successful acting careers, but neither of them is particularly impressive when it comes to making political speeches.

'In fact, the only example of an actor who did become a great public speaker that I can think of is Ronald Reagan, but he’d already been rolling his own speeches on the lecture circuit for General Electric long before he became Governor of California...'
(more HERE)

An articulate spokesman
Hugh Grant's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking (e.g. above), as well as some of his earlier performances on Newsnight and Question Time, suggests that he might be another interesting exception that proves a rule, namely that a professional actor can sometimes come across as far more articulate in person than as the stuttering bumbling characters they've become best known for playing in their films.

In fact, having watched him doing both, I'm beginning to think that he must be a rather better actor than I'd originally thought:

700th blog post: English and the problem of communicating with foreigners

First, a very big thank you to everyone who came up with ideas after my Twitter appeal about my 700th blog post. There were so many good ones, plus some funny and some verging on the obscure, that I was initially tempted to reproduce the list (below) and leave it at that:
  1. What, in your opinion, is the greatest speech ever - and why? @MartinShovel
  2. Sound-bite culture and the death of political oratory? @lordbonkers
  3. Relationship btw written text and spoken word? @dirkvl
  4. How should scientists address the public? @nhsgooroo
  5. How to keep your presentation fresh after you've done it 700 times @podiumcoaching
  6. How about something involving 7 - like your 7 favourite posts from the last 699, or your top 7 tips for a public speaker? @philpresents
  7. What about great female speakers? Or what attributes women have to be powerful speakers versus their male cntrprts. @frankluempers
  8. "Why?", "10 things I learnt thru blogging", "If I started again...", "The next 300..." ... ;-) @cuchullainn
  9. 1400th century history as it was 700 years ago. @campbellclaret
  10. Speeches that aren't famous but should be. What have we missed that was amazing? @karinjr
  11. The impact of luck on your life -- Lucky #700 or reverse the no's & be cryptic as in 007. @wendycherwinski
  12. Something I've always remembered from 1 of yr books - why audiences pay less attention than indivs. Always stuck with me @DillyTalk
  13. Speechmaking in multilingual events @HadleighRoberts
  14. Using religious imagery/metaphors in public speaking? @carlquilliam
  15. A recap of your favorites or most popular posts @TravisDahle
  16. How about a post highlighting your 10 favorites? It would be nice to "unbury" those posts & give them new life @MrMediaTraining
  17. Studyof rhetoric in The Lord's Prayer @aaronwood
  18. "The 7 Deadly Sins of The Lonesome Speaker"? @MarionChapsal
  19. After 700 posts, what haven't you written about? @johnwatkis
  20. Something hearkening back to order in the court? Categorisation in the production of contrast pairs? @Edward_Reynolds
  21. "On lists of 10, counting, numbers and facts" @Edward_Reynolds
  22. Consider issues raised in my field e.g a speaker makes a joke, the EN audience laugh, the FR needs interpret. & laughs... @HadleighRoberts
  23. Also, given your emphasis on words and structure, does interpreting (meaning and concepts) ultimately ruin a speech? @HadleighRoberts
  24. There's an idea for your 700th post: write it in French! @philpresents
  25. Voilà une idée qu'elle est bonne! @MarionChapsal
  26. What about guest bloggers from all around the world? The 7 Continents Blog Post! @MarionChapsal
  27. Blog in Franglais? Will look forward to seeing where you put the "Focus" @spek2all
  28. Speeches delivered in langs other than English/translated great speeches? @nhs999
  29. How about something on comic timing? Just enjoying fellow Liverpudlian Ken Dodd on TV @LordRennard
So plenty of inspiration there to keep me blogging for a while.

I'll resist the temptation to blog in French, as suggested by Phil Waknell (24) and Marion Chapsal (25). But the question of how we ever manage to communicate effectively with people who speak different languages is an interesting one, especially for native speakers of English who tend to assume that everyone else speaks it too.

'Simplification' isn't always the answer
The first time I ever spoke at a conference where most of the audience were non-native speakers of English, I quickly became aware that they weren't understanding much of what I was saying. So I started to make it simpler - or so I thought.

In retrospect, I realised that my pitiful attempt to make things 'simpler' had led me to use more and more slang and colloquial expressions than I would ever normally do in an academic lecture. These may have made it easier for the native speakers of English to understand, but had made it far more more difficult for everyone else.

Translate jokes or tell the audience to laugh?
A former colleague of mine, who was a fluent speaker and teacher of Russian, used to be hired to do simultaneous translation for visitors from the (then) Soviet Union at major civic events. One of his problems was that the speeches by 'locals' often included jokes that he found quite impossible to translate.

His solution was to say in Russian something along the lines of "he's just told a joke that I can't translate into Russian, so you had all better start laughing - NOW" - which apparently worked well enough for the locals to think that their guests had both understood and appreciated the joke they'd just heard.

What did they really mean?
I once worked with a graduate student, whose bilingual abilities in English and Japanese enabled her to earn fees that more than paid for her higher education. On one occasion when she got back from a high level business meeting where she'd been doing simultaneous translation from Japanese for her British clients, I asked her how it had gone.

"OK as far as it went - but I do think that they should pay me for an extra hour afterwards to tell them what I think they really meant."

Does it matter?
With so much hanging on recent meetings between Euro-zone leaders, not to mention other important 'conversations' taking place elsewhere in our ever more 'globalized' world, a question that comes to mind is: how much should we worry about our reliance on simultaneous translation and/or the pretence that everyone speaks or understands English as well as we do?

Baby talk on BBC daytime television?

As our dog likes watching television (day and night), she sometimes introduces me to the wonders of daytime TV.

In one of these shows - BBC's Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is - the random intonation of the unseen presenter's voice struck me as being bizarre enough to be worth a quick trawl through YouTube for a specimen:

My researches also led to a TV Guide, where the first comment on the show was headed 'Rubbish voice over'. Others included:
  • Still same rubbish, inane voice-over on this new series.
  • Childish voice over.
  • Can anyone do anything about the patronising and childish commentary?
  • An interesting programme which is spoiled each day by the childish voice over and empty nicknames.
So I wasn't alone in thinking that there was something odd about the commentary. Nor was I altogether surprised that some were describing the stresses on random words and intonational shifts up and down as 'childish'.

But I'm not completely convinced that it's quite the same as 'baby talk' or 'motherese' (HERE), which is supposed to help infants in language acquisition. That presumably involves exaggerating stress and intonation in ways that are relevant to the context and the particular words being used - which is not, as far as I can hear, the case with the voiceover in this show.

The only possible explanation I've been able to come up with is that he has perhaps been coached by the same person as Robert Peston and Rory Bremner:

Sepp Blatter lands on a racist snake

In previous posts on the snakes & ladders theory of political communication (e.g. HERE and HERE), I've made the point that interviews (unlike speeches) hardly ever generate anything but bad news for politicians.

Strictly speaking, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter may not be a politician, but his ill-chosen words about racism in football are a classic example of the way in which a few seconds from a ten minute interview (which, if you can bear it, you can watch in full HERE) can land anyone on a snake that becomes damaging headline news.

Nor, of course, is it the first time that this master of the gaffe has made a fool of himself in front of a mass audience. I still think that the way in which, having appointed himself to present the World Cup to the winners in South Africa, he pushed President Zuma out of the way should have been grounds for his instant dismissal (below - and for more on which see HERE).

But he's still there eighteen months later and is, I fear, likely to remain as irremovable as ever...

Rick Perry and the Spanish Inquisition

Last week, I was so busy preparing a keynote address for the annual conference of the UK & Ireland Toastmasters that I missed this spectacular failure to remember a third item in a list.

There are quite a lot of posts on this blog showing speakers making rather more effective use of three-part lists than Mr Perry, as well as a brief summary of the late Gail Jefferson's work on their recurrence in everyday conversation Why lists of three: mystery, magic or reason?

The above clip also reminded me that classic comedy shows have also sometimes played on a speaker's failure to remember all the items in a list, as in this excerpt from the Spanish Inquisition sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus - where all goes well until Michael Palin makes the mistake of trying to add a fourth item:

Presentation tip: beware of flip charts on wheels

In previous posts (and books), I've written favourably about writing on blackboards and flip charts (e.g. HERE + links).

But on Saturday, in the middle of a lecture to 200+ people, I suddenly realised that there was a rather important point that I'd failed to mention, namely: if the flip chart has wheels, make sure you LOCK THEM before trying to write anything on it.

Disaster averted
As the chart began falling backwards, the screen (on which I was about to show video clips on which the rest of my lecture depended) started to follow suit. Total disaster was only kept at bay by the weight of the curtain behind the stage and the quick reflexes of one of the organisers, who pushed the flip chart back on to the stage and locked its wheels.

A stunt worth repeating?
The huge amounts of laughter prompted by its sudden reappearance have now raised the question of whether such a stunt might be worth developing (and rehearsing) for use on another occasion?

I'm pretty sure that my blood pressure isn't up to risking it again - but, if anyone else would like to try it for themselves, I'd be delighted to hear whether it achieves a similarly positive impact.

Murdoch, the Mafia and the manufacture of a misleading soundbite

There were two reasons why I was amazed to see the above highly edited clip being played on ITN's News at Ten this evening.

One was that ITN had cut out - without any mention of the fact that they had done so - two whole minutes of what had happened between Tom Watson's first and last question in this particular sequence.

The other was that, within seconds of the exchange, Twitter had been alive with news that this would be the sound bite from the 2.5 hours interrogation of James Murdoch by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee.

And so indeed it turned out to be.

But, for the benefit of those who only saw ITN's News at Ten (and/or anyone else who hadn't been following the whole story during the day), shouldn't there have been at least some indication that the sequence portrayed did not take place in quite the way they were making out?

You can compare ITN's version (above) with the full sequence (below) - in which the 'second' question from Tom Watson comes almost two minutes after the first one:

Communicator of the Year acceptance speech: Hitchcock or Hogan?

At first I thought that the way to solve a problem that's been haunting me in the days before receiving the 'Communicator of the Year, 2011' award from Toastmasters International (UK & Ireland) on Saturday would be to emulate the model brevity of Alfred Hitchcock's two-word Oscar acceptance speech in 1967: "Thank you".

However, as I'll be using video clips in my lecture, an alternative would be to add this one from Paul Hogan's advice to Oscar winners on the "three Gs" - which, as the conference is taking place in Glasgow, might just do the job...

P.S. Problem solved
Thanks to a comment on the previous post from Julien, to whom many thanks, the solution is now obvious: "I think you should do a Keira Knightley but with PowerPoint slides showing (with bullet points) exactly who you're thanking and their relationship to you in a series of hard-to-read-on-screen diagrams."

Toastmasters International UK & Ireland: Communicator of the Year, 2011

A few months ago, I accepted an invitation to do a keynote lecture at the Toastmasters International conference in Glasgow this coming weekend.

Then I discovered that they had a surprise in store and were going to elevate me to Communicator of the Year, 2011 - "awarded by Toastmasters to individuals who have either helped promote public speaking/leadership or helped to develop understanding of the speaking and leadership worlds."

To say that I was surprised to the point of speechlessness would be an understatement. But, having just posted a clip of Lyndon Johnson saying "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president", I'm pleased to say "I did not seek, but gratefully accept the nomination of Toastmasters for this award."

When writing hits the mark
From my point of view, what's particularly gratifying is that the award is apparently in recognition of the fact that quite a lot of members of Toastmasters have found my books on speech-making and presentation quite helpful.

As I've said to some who've written positively about them in the past, without such unsolicited comments, authors never quite know whether what they've written has hit the mark(s) they was aiming for. So to receive an award like this comes as both a welcome bonus and as an honour - for which I'm as surprised as I am grateful.

The only trouble is that two sources of stress will now be haunting me for the rest of the week.

One is that the audience at the conference lecture on Saturday will no doubt be checking to see if my performance comes anywhere near to matching up to the title Communicator of the Year, 2011.

The other is that I might have to give a Toastmasters' equivalent of an Oscar acceptance speech - which, depending on how many people I decide to thank and whether or not I break down in tears, could take up longer than my allotted time...

LBJ elected on this day in 1964: underrated president & underrated speaker

Today is the anniversary of Lyndon B Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater in the US presidential election of 1964.

Although presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and Obama have all been recognised as great communicators, LBJ was no mean performer either. I hadn't realised this until seeing a clip shown by David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of The Day, in his presentation at this year's annual conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild.

I haven't been able to find the actual one he showed on YouTube, but the ones above and below are both historically interesting and well worth watching.

Had LBJ not become bogged down in the Vietnam war, his domestic political achievements, especially on civil rights, would have arguably earned him a place among the greatest of all American presidents. And, although he may not have been in the same league as Reagan or Obama in the oratory stakes, he was better at it than most.