One = Three religious questions in Obama's Connecticut speech

For students of rhetoric and oratory, there's always a silver lining to the horrific mass shootings that have become such a regular feature of American life - because one thing that's certain is that we'll get to hear yet another example of President Obama making a masterful speech that catches the mood of the nation.

The  full video and transcript of what he said at the interfaith Prayer Vigil in Newtown, Connecticuton on Sunday can be seen below. But one line that particularly intrigued me was this one, in which he set up  "a simple question" that turned out to be three questions:

"All the world's religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? "

Nor has the fact that no one seems to have noticed or raised any queries about this apparent inconsistency surprised me. As I noted four years ago, his speech in Chicago on winning the presidency for the first time contained 29 three-part lists in just over ten minutes. Nobody noticed that either, nor did it stop people from being impressed by the 'quality' of the speech.

Much the same, it seems, applies to this speech, even to the extent that some commentators have been hailing it as his 'Gettysburg Address'.

The full transcript of President Obama's speech at the Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 16, 2012:

Thank you. Thank you, Governor. To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests — Scripture tells us: "…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands."

Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we've pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown — you are not alone.

As these difficult days have unfolded, you've also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school's staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate. Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy — they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying "wait for the good guys, they're coming"; "show me your smile."
And we know that good guys came. The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm's way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and trauma because they had a job to do, and others needed them more. 

And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, "I know karate. So it's okay. I'll lead the way out." (Laughter.)

As a community, you've inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for one another, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God's grace, that love will see you through.

But we, as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child's very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won't — that we can't always be there for them. They'll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.

And we know we can't do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can't do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we're all parents; that they're all our children.

This is our first task — caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change.
Since I've been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we've hugged survivors. The fourth time we've consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

All the world's religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it's wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we're trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God's heavenly plans.

There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that.
That's what we can be sure of. And that's what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That's how you've inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that's what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

"Let the little children come to me," Jesus said, "and do not hinder them — for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."
Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.

God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory.

May God bless and keep those we've lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America.

Parliament Week trailer: Ashdown & Atkinson in conversation

Tomorrow evening, Paddy Ashdown and I have been invited to an event organised by the UK Speecbwriters' Guild as part of Parliament Week 2012 (details HERE).

It's given me an excuse to rummage through some ancient video clips, and it occurred to me that those who won't be there tomorrow might like to see them.

A promising newcomer?
The first one dates from 1981, when he was still the prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil, and John Heritage and I were in the process of recording all the televised output from that year's three main political party conferences.

At this stage, Paddy wasn't really aware of how rhetoric works and has to break off when his three-part list prompts a burst of applause - looking vaguely surprised that it had brought so positive a response from the audience.

Nor, it appears had he given much thought to wearing a jacket and tie - and maybe he'll be able to tell us tomorrow night whether the lectern was hiding sandals.

1987 General Election
After becoming an MP in 1983, Paddy was transport spokesman for the Liberals and had been lent a copy of my book Our Masters' Voices (1984) by a mutual friend (now Lord Bradshaw) who introduced us with a view to my helping the new MP with his speeches.

By the time of the 1987 General Election, Paddy had become the education spokesman for the SDP Liberal Alliance, which meant that he would have to speak when they launched their campaign at the Barbican.

So this was the first speech that we worked on together to be televised. A puzzle with an alliterative three-parted solution was among the lines that got the desired response. And one of these 'Rs' came from a Scrabble dictionary, which can be a useful resource for searching lists of words quickly and without being deflected by definitions.

Although Our Masters' Voices had quite a lot to say about rhetorical devices like contrasts and three-part lists, it said little about the importance of imagery and story telling as ways of getting your message across. However, having by this stage become more involved in coaching people to make speeches and presentations, I'd become much more aware of how effective metaphors, similes, analogies and anecdotes could be.

And it was a contrastive simile that won both laughter and applause in this sequence:

Liberal Party merger debate, 1988
Having fought the 1987 general election as two parties in an alliance, the Liberals and SDP turned to the question of whether they should become a single party.

Paddy was keen that they should, and planned to speak in support of merger at the special assembly early in 1988. I wrote a speech but did not go to the conference. On the train to the venue, one of his other advisors persuaded him to leave out every sentence I'd written - except for one.

To my great delight, it was the Tower of Babel/tower of strength contrast that  only line that was selected as a sound bite on prime-time news programmes. One of the commentators even claimed it was a 'clear statement' of Ashdown's intention to run for the leadership if a new party were formed (which it wasn't).

Leadership campaign, 1988
Once Paddy had decided to run for the leadership of the new party, we spent weeks working with him on the speech in which he would announce his candidacy - not realising at the time that, for the next three weeks, he would need at least one new speech per day.

Amidst the ongoing panic that followed, I remember getting a note from one of the other writers saying "My price is a peerage, what's yours?" - but, for some strange reason, neither of us has (yet) been elevated to the House of Lords.

But I was quite pleased that a widely played sound bite from the speech was a simple three-part list in which yesterday, today and tomorrow were used as metaphors for past, present and future:

The new leader
A few days before the result was announced, it became clear that our candidate was going to win. By then, the gains of the two parties at the 1987 election had been largely whittled away, and Paddy was well aware of the need to remind the public that the Alliance was still going strong (?) in a different form.

Reflecting on my brief to cook up some lines to get this across, I was stuck in one of those traffic jams on the M6 where there's so little movement that you have to turn the car engine off. 

Reaching for my pen and pad I started trying different possibilities and came up with a contrast between being "not only back in business, but mean business", which BBC political editor John Cole seem to think good enough to headline his introduction to live footage - of yet another three-part list.

Who's helping?
I've often likened speechwriting as an occupation to being rather like robbing banks, in that you can't go around advertising your wares by boasting which speeches you wrote for whom. Nor, usually, can you expect a client to tell all his friends that he'd got someone else to help him.

But on this, Paddy had a different and refreshingly open approach. During his leadership campaign, he asked me if I would mind if he told the media who'd been helping him with his speeches. 

Initially, I wasn't convinced that this would be a good idea from his point of view, as my involvement in coaching someone to win a standing ovation at the 1984 SDP conference had earned me the name 'Dr Claptrap' in some quarters. But his line was that it was as rational to consult an 'expert' on speechmaking and rhetoric as it was to consult 'experts' on IT or any other field he felt he needed help with - 

At around that time, the director of communications of a large multi-national company told me it wouldn't do my business any good if it became known that I was associated with such losers as the Liberal Democrats.

Ten years later, I was still in business, Ashdown had more than doubled the number of Liberal Democrat MPs but the company of the director of communications had gone into liquidation a few years earlier.

As for why I got involved, I had been a keen supporter of the SDP and believed then (as I still believe now) that, if Ashdown didn't win the leadership of the new party, it would be the end of three party politics in the UK for at least a generation.

How much?
Party members who worry about how much I was paid by the Lib Dems during the twelve years I worked with Paddy will be relieved to know that it was a grand total of £0.00. In fact, given that I never charged for travel costs, it was actually a substantial minus figure - not least because, in those early years, all the Sainsbury cash had stayed with David Owen's rump SDP (before being diverted to 'New Labour').

For those of us whose journey to the Liberal Democrats was via the SDP, the Blair years were arguably  pretty much what the gang of four had been hoping for all those years ago...

If John Nott & Peter Mandelson can walk out of TV interviews, so can the BBC's acting Director General

If his last interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme was what finally did for George Entwistle's stint as Director General, you'd think that his successor (albeit only 'acting' DG) might have had a little coaching on media interviews before venturing forth to speak to wider audiences.

But if he did, he doesn't seem to have been given, or at least didn't take, any advice either on the wearing of ties or the negative impression likely to be given by walking out of an interview (especially with 24 hour news competitor Sky News).

So here, on Tim Davie's second day in office, we have a welcome addition to my small collection of interviewees walking out of TV interviews.

What's in a tie?
Andy Turner has, perfectly reasonably, entered a comment asking what's the advice about ties (below)?

While it may be the case that wearing a tie is becoming more optional in the world of business and management than in the past, my advice is that the safest option for someone in charge of such a huge public organisation as the BBC is to wear one - not least because a very high percentage of licence payers are quite old and expect 'top people' to be 'properly dressed'.

This was brought home to me at a lunch today in our village hall at which the age range of those sitting at our table was between 65 and 80. Asked their impression of the BBC's acting Director General, all of them had noticed and disapproved of the fact that he wasn't wearing a tie. Some thought it too casual of him to be seen carrying a cup of coffee to the interview. And, those who saw the interview from which he walked out (above) were thoroughly appalled by his conduct.

So, Mr Turner, my advice to the BBC would be to make sure that Mr Davie not only buys a tie, but is seen to be wearing it when he goes on television...

And from Twitter:
Since posting this, some of the comments on Twitter support my view, including these:

@edstaite: "Also, in crises don't turn up for work brandishing coffee as if all OK. Not exactly 'getting a grip'"

@nigelfletcher: "Needed to step out of a car. in suit and tie, carrying a BBC portfolio. First impressions count."


President Obama's victory speech & the return of rhetoric

It's four years since I posted 'Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech' (HERE), based on a line-by-line analysis of a piece that was originally commissioned by the Independent on Sunday. It is still by far the most frequently read post of the 961 that have appeared on this blog since it first started.

Now we have another victory speech to analyse, which will obviously take time to complete. In the meantime, this fascinating article from The Washington Post is well worth reading:

Obama’s victory speech: Behind the return of the president’s rhetoric
Posted by Ezra Klein on November 7, 2012 at 2:31 am

Judging from Twitter, President Obama’s rousing victory speech left most everyone with the same question: Where’s that guy been during the 2012 campaign?

There’s an answer to that question. The Obama campaign pored through the focus groups and the polls and came to believe that though voters were disappointed with Obama, they didn’t really hold the disappointments of the last few years against him. They figured no one could have delivered the kind of hope and change Obama had promised against an economy this bad, a Republican Party this intransigent, a world this dangerous.
But if they were willing to cut Obama some slack, they weren’t willing to let him make the same promises a second time. It was understandable that Obama couldn’t change Washington, but it was only forgivable so long as he stopped promising to change Washington. Fool me once, and all that.
The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They’d lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals. Rather than stopping the rise of the oceans — which sounded rather more fantastical before Sandy — Obama promised to train more teachers and boost manufacturing jobs.
What you saw tonight, however, was that Obama didn’t much like being that guy. He still wants to be the guy he was in 2008. He still wants to inspire and to unite. He still wants Americans to feel that the arc of history is bending under their pressure.  He still wants to talk about climate change and election reform and other problems that the Senate is not especially eager to solve.
This has been the tension at the center of the Obama White House for four years now. Hope and change don’t go together. The legislative process doesn’t leave people feeling very hopeful. But it’s the only mechanism the president really has to make change.
Tonight, however, President Obama wasn’t trying to get 60 votes in the Senate or to swing a few undecideds in Ohio. Tonight, he had finished the long grind of his last campaign, but he hadn’t begun the hard work of his second term. Tonight, he could be the candidate of both hope and change, if only for a little while.

Clegg's reply to the Tory rebels weakened by lack of rehearsal

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As a former MEP who has worked for an EU commissioner, Nick Clegg is obviously better informed about Europe than most of our MPs.

Given yesterday's anti-EU vote in the House of Commons, it was therefore quite fortunate that he was booked to speak this morning at the Chatham House think-tank on international affairs - even if there wasn't much time to write much of a critique in time for today.

What a pity, then, that the Deputy Prime Minister didn't allow more time to rehearse what he wanted to say a few times before he said it. Had he done so, he wouldn't have had to spend so much time looking down at his script and might have even have managed a rather livelier and less 'wooden' delivery...

"I couldn't wash his smell away" - Jimmy Savile's great niece

This interview is not pleasant listening, but it does give a sense of what it must have been like to have been been one of Jimmy Savile's victims - and how remarkably easy it was for him to get away with such flagrant abuse.

Blacking the names of Adam Boulton, Jeremy Paxman & the American judicial system

From time to time this blog features interviews in which the conduct of the interviewer or the interviewee (or both) are of special or unusual interest.

This week, Conrad Black sparred with Adam Boulton of Sky News and Jeremy Paxman of BBC Newsnight, both on the pretext of plugging his new book.

If you missed these two gems, here they both are:

In both cases, 'sparred' was the operative word. Few of those interviewed by Boulton have to ask him what his name is and Paxman doesn't often get accused of 'bourgeois priggishness'.

American readers may be specially impressed Lord Black's views on the US judicial system, which starts about 42 seconds in and features some interesting statistics:

"...99.5 % of prosecutions in the US are convicted. The whole system's a fraudulent fascistic conveyer belt to the corrupt prison system, that's what. Let me tell you something. 5% of the population of the world are Americans, 25% of the incarcerated people are and 50% of the lawyers are... six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Japan. How do YOU explain that?"


Why did the BBC's Director General keep nodding in agreement with himself?

Watching George Entwistle giving evidence to the House of Commons select committee on culture media and sport reminded me of something my late sister-in-law used to do, the meaning of which we never managed to work out.

Sometimes, she would mark the end of what she'd just said with a rather emphatic "Hmmm!". The nearest we got was that it meant something like "that's it and I don't want to be asked anything else about it" - because we all took it as indicating something final about her comment on which she'd rather not have any more discussion thank you very much.

My followers on Twitter may have noticed that I became rather preoccupied (and seriously distracted) this morning with Mr Entwistle's obsession with nodding in agreement with what he'd just said (e.g. 28 and 1:06 seconds in the above). It wasn't just that he did it occasionally, but did it after almost every 'answer' to every question.

It may have been his way of telling the committee that he'd no more to say on that particular matter, but suggestions and/or enlightenment from readers would be very welcome.

This sequence also includes the only question of the morning that prompted raucous laughter from those in the room (about 1:10 seconds in). It prompted an embarrassed-looking grin from the Director General, and was enough to prompt one contributor to Twitter to describe it as 'humiliating'.

Speaking without notes: why watch Miliband or Cameron when you can watch Julia Gillard?

A speech is occasionally so stunning that it's worth watching all the way through for pure enjoyment and/or instruction.

So I'm grateful to Jim Kelleher (@UncleBooBoo on Twitter) for drawing my attention to this gem from Australian prime minister Julia Gillard - which he rightly describes as "an amazing smackdown" and "a  masterclass in speaking without notes."

Much more powerful and effective than recent attempts at 'notelessness' by British politicians and, as an added bonus, it's also a masterclass in the finely honed insult.

Are members of all our political parties getting older?

On Friday, we went to a dinner organised by our local Liberal Democrats, at which Simon Hughes M.P. was the guest speaker - and very good he was too.

But what's been worrying me ever since is the average age of the audience. Not quite as ancient as the average age of the congregation at our local church (C of E), perhaps, but not far off.

Last week, Labour Party Conference organisers showed off a rather youthful group of audience members behind Ed Mildband during his speech.

And the Conservative Party Conference, as seen on TV today, seems to be largely made up of people who are far younger than the average age of Conservative Party members. 

So my questions for today are:
  1. Is the age of political activists in all parties on the increase? 
  2. If so,  does it matter?

Ed Miliband's tour de force

It's not often that a party leader's conference speech gets as widespread a thumbs-up as Ed Miliband enjoyed yesterday - even though what seems to have impressed the media most is his new-found ability to speak so fluently (and for so long) without any apparent reference to a script.

Could it be, I began to wonder, that our broadcast media are themselves so dependent on scripts and teleprompters that they're all too easily impressed by a style of speaking that they rather wish they could master for themselves?

Or did David Cameron really set a new standard when he won his party leadership by speaking without notes at a 'beauty parade' in 2005, underlining the power of an unscripted conference speech two years later by deterring Gordon Brown from holding a general election at a time when Labour would almost certainly have won?

Subsequent attempts by others, like Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, to emulate David Cameron's skill at speaking without a script have not met with anything like as favourable a media response as Ed Miliband attracted yesterday.

Scriptlessness or better than expected?
It's not clear to me whether this was mainly the result of scriptlessness, a more relaxed delivery than usual or, perhaps most likely (?) because Miliband's previous performances had set such low media expectations.

The trouble now is that he runs the risk, if he reverts to using scripts again, of being denounced for not speaking from the heart and/or having employed someone else to write his speeches for him.

Other quibbles
Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm still not convinced by this walkabout management guru style of delivery for political speeches. Other quibbles include:

  • Glum-looking backdrop: I still don't see the point of having part of the audience behind the speaker. Although reasonably well-behaved, this particular group looked very glum for much of the time and were, on occasions,  rather slow to join in the applause. 
  • Too youthful a sample*Some viewers (e.g. me) were quite shocked by how very young a sample of voters they represented, with no one much over 45 anywhere to be seen among those behind him.
  • Hands: Finally, if you're going to wander about the stage, what to do with your hands and how to respond to applause can pose problems for a speaker. On the whole. Mr Miliband coped quite well on both these fronts. However, he might like to note that there were some on Twitter who took exception to the fact that he spoke for quite long periods with one hand in his pocket. If it's any comfort to him, the complainants probably went to a public school where you weren't allowed to put your hands in your pockets until you reached the sixth form...
P.S. Thanks to Simon Atkinson of IpsosMORI for pointing out via Twitter (@SimonMAtkinson) that  53% of electors are aged 45+!! (his exclamation marks). Perhaps he or one of his colleagues should alert the Labour Party (or whoever selects their backdrop audiences) to this important fact...

Does Ed Milband have anything to gain by banging on about which school he went to?

Call me old fashioned, but I really don't get this "I went to an even more ordinary school than you did" stuff that we're being promised from the leader of the Labour Party in his speech later today.

Nor do I get why he's apparently going to tell us (yet again) the story of his parents' flight from the Nazis and their successful upwardly mobile life in Britain.

The point, Mr Miliband, is that none of us has any control over who our parents were, or where they came from or which school they decided to send us to when we were children - whether our surname happens to be Cameron, Clegg or Miliband.

Nor, dare I say it, is your attempt to affiliate with the ordinary very convincing when the school in question turns out to be Haverstock Comprehensive, which strikes me (who went to a prep school in Doncaster) as being rather close to a posh suburb called 'Hampstead'.

The embourgeoisment of the Labour Party may have become a source of embarrassment to all you MPs who've been parachuted into safe Northern seats. But is all this "more ordinary than thou" a sensible way to address the problem?

Related posts

Ed Balls may be a better speaker than he was, but...

James Forsyth's assessment of Ed Balls as "a vastly improved platform speaker" (Spectator) was quite widely echoed by other journalists today on Twitter.

Michael Crick of Channel 4 News (@MichaelLCrick) told us that Mr Balls had "rehearsed his speech in his hotel room with an ironing board" - adding, rather unkindly: "which may explain why, in the end, it was a bit flat."

Looking on a brighter side, I think it's quite impressive these days to hear that our politicians take the trouble to rehearse their speeches at all, especially when they've taken the apparently daring decision to use a hard copy script rather than read from an Autocue.

But there were two things about this particular speech that puzzled me:
  • First, quite a few tweets on Twitter noticed and commented on the Labour Party's unexplained decision to abandon a red background completely in favour of making it look as though they'd stolen the Conservative's erstwhile monopoly on blue.
  • Second, although I can see why today's Labour hierarchy prefer saying "conference" to "comrades" (as in the past) was it really necessary for Mr Balls to repeat the word 33 times during his speech - especially when both words draw attention to the fact that he has trouble saying his 'r's and pronounces the words as "confwence" and 'comwades"? 
For me, at least, I found the excessive, and in my view pointless, repetition of "confwence" so distracting and annoying that I stopped watching the speech when he was only about half way through - which is presumably not what he hopes for from his audiences.

A generous audience for Clegg - but why on earth draw attention to it?

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In previous years, I've criticised Nick Clegg (and/or those advising him) for the decision to go for the management guru stye of delivery in his leader's speech - i.e. wandering around the stage pretending that he's not using a teleprompter.

So the big plus this year was to see the Deputy Prime Minister looking rather more statesmanlike than usual by the simple device of staying firmly at the lectern.

But there's another important lesson he still has to learn: if a particular line goes down well with your audience, don't comment on it or otherwise draw attention to it.

This particular joke (scroll in about 20 seconds) was, perhaps predictably, the first sound bite from the speech to be tweeted by BBC television's @daily_politics shoe - and will probably make it on to some of tonight's prime-time news programmes.

It was so successful that it triggered a massive 23 seconds of applause (i.e. 15 seconds more than the standard 8 seconds burst).

But surely it's far better to leave the audience to draw their own (positive) conclusions about what they've just seen and heard than to comment on the difference between what you'd expected and what had happened. All that achieves is to highlight the scripted calculated nature of the line in question - and perhaps also gives away that there'd been a good deal of discussion about it beforehand with your aides:

"I thought you'd groan rather than clap at that one, but anyway [slight laughter] what a generous audience."

It reminded me of a line Mrs Thatcher once used in the early 1980s, when she based her commendation of her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, on a television beer advertisement of the day: "Yes, he really is the peer that reaches parts thaat other peers can't reach."

This prompted much laughter and applause, during which she could be seen (and just heard) saying "Oh, it did work, then..."

In this particular case, Nick Clegg's good luck is that, in order to include the unfortunate line, the the television news shows would have to play the whole 23 seconds of applause that comes before it - so it's unlikely to be seen by anyone other than anoraks like me (and/or readers of blogs like this one).

Is Vince Cable (BA Cambridge, PhD Glasgow) really a pleb?

Unlike his audience at the Lib Dem conference, I'm not at all convinced that Vince Cable's BA from Cambridge and PhD from Glasgow qualifies him as a 'pleb'.

Nor do I think he would have got away with his attempt to affiliate with the working class if he didn't still have the remains of a Yorkshire accent...

A neat contrast wins applause for Obama's talk show point about Romney

I may have been rather critical of President Obama's rather uninspiring (for him) acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, but was rather more impressed by his performance on the David Letterman Show last night, prompting as it did an interruptive burst of applause (scroll in 40 seconds) - just after he'd used a nice simple contrast:

"My expectation is that, if you want to be President, 
"you got to work for everyone, not just for some,  [APPLAUSE STARTS] 
"and thee uh--"[APPLAUSE  CONTINUES]

As noted elsewhere on this blog (and in my books), the contrast is one of the most important rhetorical devices for triggering applause in political speeches. And, as is evident from this example, it can work in the same way in other settings too (e.g. TV interviews).

Does Mitt Romney's mouth move faster than his brain?

I've not studied Mitt Romney's style of speaking in much detail, but there may be a clue in his latest gaffe (above) as to why I'd felt there was something a bit odd about him.

It's the sheer speed at which he speaks.

Speeches by effective public speakers are delivered at about 120 words per minute, which is much slower than the 180 words per minute found in conversations between native speakers of English (see my books).

But in the sequence that got him into so much trouble, Mr Romney manages about 200 words per minute - i.e. 20 words per minute quicker than conversation.

Apart from the fact that this is abnormally fast for a conversation (let alone a speech) it raises two intriguing quetions:

  1. Is he speaking too quickly for his brain to be able to produce carefully considered and/or 'elegantly stated' opinions?
  2. How, in American culture, is 'fast-speaking' likely to be regarded by the wider public?

For what it's worth, to my British ears, 'fast-speaking' tends to have mainly negative connotations...

B- for the Duchess of Cambridge's second speech (and/or her PR team)

After the Duchess of Cambridge's first speech (HERE), one of the comments on YouTube said: "Extremely annoying how she reads the script every 2 seconds, that was most likely written by her PR team."

But the overall consensus was that, for a first effort, it wasn't too bad at all.

Second effort though this one may have been, the rather carping comment above seems even more appropriate than last time - or at least raised a number of questions.
  • Had she rehearsed the speech and, if so, how many times?
  • How was the speech laid out on the two pages she was using?
  • Why hadn't the height of the microphone been fixed before she started to speak?
  • Had the sign in the background been properly secured?
  • Why was there a gap on the left of the sign that allowed a police woman disguised as Princess Anne (and various other people) to peer out an distract the wider audience?
Or, to put it more bluntly, with the resources available to the royal households, why on earth don't they bother to get the basics right>

A silent Hillsborough apology from The Sun's current editor

Last night's TV coverage of the Hillsborough disaster report included what looked like a rather amateurish self-filmed statement by Dominic Mohan, the current editor of The Sun.

Curious to see it again, I looked it out on YouTube, but all that was there was this silent version of the said statement, raising the question of whether it could by any chance have happened by accident...

With sound
Since posting the above, I've tracked down the complete version on The Sun website - where the 'amateurish self-filmed' appearance of the above is explained: it was produced by The Sun for posting on their own website.

However, it still sounds as though it were hastily scripted or poorly rehearsed - or both. I'm also not very impressed by the fact that the Sun's current editor still seems to be trying to pass the buck to the South Yorkshire Police:

A classic of barnstorming speechifying from Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan

Compared with some of the speeches he made in the run-up to the last presidential election, Barack Obama's acceptance speech at last week's Democratic Convention deserved little more than a B-.

I know this because BBC World got me to watch the whole thing and make a few comments on it the morning after he made it (and "few" was the operative word).

But there had been some quite startling speeches that were never seen on this side of the Atlantic, one of which was brought to my attention by my old friend John Heritage of UCLA, who's still keeping an eye on speeches and referred to this one as "a small classic of truly barnstorming speechifying!"

Mitt Romney's US = Unbearable Smugness

On the day of President Obama's inaugural speech in 2009, I blogged about a line I didn't want to hear in his speech (here):

"If there’s one thing that irks me about speeches by American presidents, it’s their tendency to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world."

And, to be fair, he obliged by avoiding any such extremes of smugness.

But there will, I fear, be no such luck if Mitt Romney makes it to the White House.

Having watched his acceptance speech a couple of times, I'm finding it difficult to decide which of the following I find more annoying: the fact that he uttered these lines at all, or the rapturous response they triggered from the audience:

"like all  Americans who went to bed that night knowing that we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world" (scroll in 9:40 minutes).

"When the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American." (Scroll in 10:20 minutes).

(See also: 'Mirror mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest democracy of all?')

Speeches in a common language for a fistful of voters?

If proof were needed of a point I made a while back - that actors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, are often hopeless public speakers - look no further than Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican Convention (above).

And, although I'm quite a fan of some US orators past and present (e.g. Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama) my main reaction to what I've seen so far from Tampa has been "pass the sick bag".

Watching Mr Eastwood and Mrs Romney made me think that George Bernard Shaw was dead right when he said "England and America are two countries separated by a common language":

This extraordinary speech by Clint Eastwood reminded me of earlier blogs in which I've noted that, with a few notable exceptions like Ronald Reagan, actors tend not to be very competent public speakers.

Assange speaks out

Julian Assange may have attracted world attention via WikiLeaks and his alleged sexual behaviour in Sweden but I doubt if he'd ever have been noticed if he'd relied on public speaking as his main form of communication .

His speech the other day from a balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London may not have been too badly written, but his delivery left rather a lot to be desired.

An expressionless face, peculiar pausing and repetitive gesticulating with his fist made me wonder whether he'd read it through at all beforehand, let alone taken the trouble to rehearse it a few times.

In fact, the only place where he appeared to come alive was during the rather odd sequence when he recited a long list of Latin American countries (3:46 minutes in) famous for defending human rights (?).

As for what else Mr Assange had to say, I was left wondering who he thinks he is to make such grandiose demands from the USA and the UK, while conveniently forgetting to say anything about his unfinished business in Sweden.
Julian Assagne's speech from the Ecuadorian embassy in London the other day may not have been too badly written, but his delivery left much to be desired. His expressionless face, peculiar pausing and repetitive gesticulating with his fist made me wonder whether he'd read it through at all, let alone at several rehearsals. The only time he showed signs of coming alive was when he recited a long list of names of Latin American countries (3:47 minutes in)

Great Britain has as many gold medals as the Soviet Union

As one who was brought up to expect Great Britain never to win more than a tiny handful of Olympic gold medals, our current haul of 16 golds, 11 silver and 10 bronze got me wondering how this would have compared with the score of what used to be a major Olympic player, the Soviet Union - if its constituent countries still counted as one.

The answer is that they too would now be at 16 gold medals:

(Gold Silver Bronze)
Russian Federation  4 16 15
Kazakhstan  6 0 0
Belarus  2 2 3
Ukraine  2 0 5
Lithuania  1 0 1
Georgia  1 0 0
Azerbaijan  0 1 2
Armenia  0 1 1
Moldova  0 01
Uzbekistan  0 0 1

... which sounds like encouraging news for those of us of a certain age!

All Greek to me: but how much do native speakers gesticulate?

Just back from a fortnight's sunshine - yes, every single day - on a Greek island, here are some holiday snaps that got me thinking (again) about a theme touched on from time to time on this blog, namely the question of whether some languages are inherently more long-winded than others, and the implications this may have (if any) for things like gestural activity while speaking.

1. My first specimen, with 5 syllables of Greek being translated into 3 syllables of English hardly qualifies as decisive enough:

2. But, on an Olympic Airways flight, 13 syllables of Greek was translated (condensed?) into 6 syllables of English suggests the former may be rather more long-winded:

3. And another handy message on the same flight was translated (condensed?) from 17 syllables of Greek into 7 syllables of English:

Latin v. Greek?
In the first of the posts below, I suggested that there may be a good reason why speakers of Latin-based languages like French, Italian and Spanish are alleged to wave their hands about a lot when speaking - and that it might have something to do with it being more challenging to hold the attentiveness of speakers of/listeners to long-winded languages.

On the basis of this small sample, Greek appears to be far more long-winded than English. Yet I've  never heard Greeks included in lists of keen Mediterranean gesticulators. 

So today's question is whether there are any native speakers or observers out there who can shed light on this intriguing issue?


Down in the mouth about dental costs?

It's never been clear to me why dentists, unlike doctors, have never pretended to provide treatment that's 'free at the point of delivery'. Nor, in my experience, does dentistry seem to be very keen on supplying detailed estimates of proposed treatment costs, or even invoices that retrospectively tell you what their handiwork has just set you back.

I write this after completing a sequence of two dental appointments, after which I realise that I only have the vaguest idea what has been done to me.

As for costs, all I was told in advance came after the first appointment when the receptionist informed me that I "might as well wait to pay until after the second one was over."

No numbers were mentioned. Nor did they say what the cost of cleaning up my teeth would be, even though this was 'included' (without my asking for it) as part of the second appointment.

Although the cost of the treatments came to a grand total of £163.00, I have no idea at all how the figure was arrived at, let alone whether it was cheap, expensive or about average. This is for the very obvious reason that I wasn't given an invoice or a receipt with any such details on it.

Which brings me to what strikes me as really odd about the way we customers behave towards dental costs: I never even bothered to ask for an estimate before the treatment, just as I never thought of asking for an invoice or receipt after it was over.

Obviously very different from the way I behave when getting my house or car fixed, but is it normal, is  it just me or is it that my dentist a bit more laid back than he ought to be?

Treasury lamb to the Paxman slaughter

Just occasionally, from the plethora of forgettable TV and radio  interviews that punctuates our day in this age of 24 hour news coverage, one will stand out as being so memorable as to be worth watching again.

As I've noted in other blogposts, they never work in favour of the the politician being interviewed. And, when they appear on programmes with very small audiences (like Newsnight on BBC 2) we my never get to see them unless someone, as in this case, has bothered to upload it to YouTube.

This particular specimen was to be seen last night when Jeremy Paxman tried to find out when a junior treasury minister had actually heard about the government's latest U turn on the budget, namely the decision to defer the increase in fuel duty for a few months (to see what happened, you'll have to scroll in just over 6 minutes).

Free ammunition for pundits
If you sit through the first 6 minutes, you'll no doubt be amazed at HM Treasury's willingness to provide yet more data for the likes of Messrs Mason and Nelson to pontificate on how it all proves that the government has lost its way.

Free ammunition for Paxo
Then, after 6 minutes, we get to the finale, as a young and inexperienced minister is left to mercy of an old and highly experienced interviewer.

As you watch Ms Smith struggling to fend off Paxo's onslaught, you may well find yourself asking just who at the Treasury had taken the decision to leave it to so junior a minister to field such awkward barrage of questions from the master of awkward questions?

Who at the Treasury (if anyone) is in charge of briefing and coaching ministers before they go on air - or do they just not bother?

Or is someone in the higher reaches of the Treasury or Tory Party out to destroy Chloe Smith's career before it's really got off the ground?

If, like me, you're less than convinced by this and other recent performances by Paxman, have a look at this, which came out on the Spectator Coffee House blog after the above was posted: 

Chloe Smith was bad, and so was Jeremy Paxman