Speaking of the moon: Gingrich v. Kennedy

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has told us that, by the end of his second term (about 2 minutes into the above), there would be Americans living on the moon. With enough of them there, they'd even be able to become a state of the USA.

And why not?

After all, in 1961, President Kennedy had made the first of two famous speeches about American plans to send a man to the moon. The first was to Congress (below), followed up a year later by his "We choose to go to the moon" speech at Rice University (HERE).

So if Kennedy could get away with such an ambitious goal, why not Gingrich?

Er, at least 3 reasons:
1. Kennedy had already been president for more than a year when he went public with his proposal.

2. Before that, he'd already had time to consult with the relevant experts and no doubt had a pretty good idea that a man on the moon within a decade was entirely possible.

3. Kennedy never made any colonial claims on the moon. Nor, though he may have left a US flag there, did Neil Armstrong - or anyone else.

Obama's State of the Union speech: (2) Enhanced by PowerPoint?

When I first started watching the version of President Obama's State of the Union speech posted on YouTube by the White House, I wondered what the blue rectangle on the right hand side was for.

But all quickly became clear: it was for PowerPoint style slides and they, presumably, were what transformed it into an 'enhanced version'.

So we got to see a picture and the wordds MORE THAN 1 MILLION AMERICAN TROOPS SERVED IN IRAQ BETWEEN 2003-2011

Then a wanted poster for Osama bin Laden with a big red cross through it.

Then more pictures of US troops followed numbers of how many of them had fought in various wars.

And so on and on and on, through pictures, bar charts, graphs, diagrams lists of bullet points, on the US economy, education, etc., etc., etc.

Enhancement or distraction?
Watching this, I was left gasping, wondering who on earth in team Obama believes that his speeches are actually enhanced by such distractions, unless it was the same person who thought that background musak 'enhanced' the film of his speechwriters preparing the speech (see previous post).

Does it mean we can now expect President Obama to take a slide projector along with him during the forthcoming presidential campaign?

I think not - for the obvious reason that he's a good enough communicator to know that the words in his speeches and the way he delivers them are enough on their own to get his messages across.

What's more, I very much hope that this White House model of an 'enhanced presentation' doesn't give other lesser speakers (e.g. most British politicians) the idea that this is the way to improve their own speeches 'going forward'.

See for yourself
If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth watching all the way through - and coming to your own conclusion as to whether the visual aids enhance or distract from what he said.

Obama's State of the Union speech: (1) Behind the scenes with the speechwriters

Few British political speechwriters though there may be, anyone who writes any kind of speech is likely to be interested not only in this film but also by the fact that it had nearly 400,000 views on YouTube within 24 hours of being posted there.

A cunning part of team Obama's communication strategy perhaps, but there's something very refreshing about a top politician openly admitting that he gets help with his speeches and being willing to give a public platform to those who help him.

So far, I've only watched it once and found the most annoying part was the awful background musak - but the producers of the film maybe know something that I don't about how distracting noises can enhance the impact of such propaganda...

The State of the Union address itself seemed to go down pretty well. But the video posted by the White House had another major distraction - on which more shortly in Part (2).

Birdsong: open-mouthed acting by a male of the species

Last night, Mary Ann Sieghart (@MASieghart) tweeted 'Does this actor in #Birdsong have any look other than a long meaningful one?

I knew exactly what she was referring to, as last night's hero (Eddie Redmayne) had already reminded me of a question I'd asked back in 2009: Is there an open-mouthed school of acting?

'...I don’t know if it’s just me (and the small, unrepresentative sample of people I’ve consulted so far), but it does seem that film and television actresses are spending more and more time with their mouths open – both when there’s no dialogue and when they’re listening to one of the other actors saying something – than used to be the case. Nor are those of us who’ve noticed it particularly impressed by it' (more HERE).

Men too?
Whereas I'd been prompted then by the likes of Keira Kinightley, Eddie Redmayne has now shown that men can do it too - and his open mouth is featured in 17% of the short BBC trailer posted on YouTube (above - or full version HERE).

I was intrigued to discover from the comments that I wasn't alone in having noticed the trend, and some interesting discussion emerged. If you've any more thoughts, here's a reminder of the five main questions I posed then:

'For one thing, once you’ve spotted someone doing it early on in a film, it becomes a big distraction - because you go on noticing the same actor doing it again and again. For another, it can be quite confusing trying to work out just what emotions and feelings all these open mouths are supposed to be conveying

'So here are five questions on which I'd welcome feedback:

1. Has anyone else noticed it?
2. Is it a recent trend?
3. Am I alone in finding it irritating/distracting?
4. Is open-mouthed acting being taught in drama schools?
5. If so, why?'

And another thing: an inappropriate continuity error

In the background to the pastoral scenes in early 20th century France, the only birdsong to be heard was the cooing of a dove that didn't arrive there until the 1940s (HERE).

The distinctive repetitive cooing of the collared dove has been an irritating distraction in large numbers of televised dramas set in periods long before this annoying bird had arrived and settled in the UK.

Presumably producers of television drama and nature programmes never bother to communicate with each other about such things.

Needless to say, I think it's high time that they did.

Is it wise for Ed Miliband to play snakes and ladders with Jon Snow?

I'm grateful to Neill Harvey-Smith (@nhs999) for drawing my attention to this fascinating video clip via Twitter, where he tweeted "From the Ed Miliband treasure trove, media training lesson #24: don't do this."

The board had already been set up for the game by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls with his Fabian Society speech and related interviews over the weekend (HERE) and now, three days later, his leader lands on this whopping snake - posted on YouTube very soon after the end of the Channel 4 News on which it appeared (as for what I mean by 'snakes and ladders', see HERE).

It vividly demonstrates the risks faced by an inexperienced interviewee when trying to hold his own against an old hand like Jon Snow and I suspect that Mr Miliband and the Labour Party must be very glad that Channel 4 News doesn't reach a mass audience.

I also think that a more technical analysis of Mr Milband's performance may well reveal some of the reasons why he's so far failed have a more positive impact on the wider public.

Watch this space...

Continued (18 January)
Jon Snow turned out to be one of several top political journalists who had been queuing up to take it in turns to interview Ed Miliband yesterday - all, judging from the background on the BBC, ITN, Sky News and Channel 4 News, in the same room.

ITN was able to edit out Tom Bradby's questions from the version posted on YouTube (below) - which would hardly have been possible with the frequency of Jon Snow's interruptions on Channel 4 News (above).

In the absence of any such things to irritate or distract Mr Miliband, he was able to produce a performance that came across as a good deal more articulate, coherent and assured than in his joust with Jon Snow.

YouTube scorecard so far:
Channel 4 News version: 3,201 viewers (22 Jan)
ITN version: 167 viewers (22 Jan)

The 'John Lewis economy': What to make of today's speech by Nick Clegg?

Regular readers will know that I worry about how little from political speeches are shown on prime-time television news programmes these days - as compared with interviews (examined in more detail HERE).

In the discussion after my UK Speechwriters' Guild Christmas lecture last month, someone made the interesting point that was it's no longer necessary for TV companies to do this in the internet age, because keen anoraks can watch as many speeches as they like online.

Another innovation is the close coordination of 'on message' speeches and interviews, as was demonstrated rather skillfully over the weekend by Ed Balls (HERE).

But does anyone watch the speeches?
One problem with some of the speeches that appear online is that they are so earnest or uninspiring (or both) that it's difficult to imagine prime-time news programmes - even in the glory days of the past - managing to select suitable quotable quotes for transmission to a wider audience.

One such example was Nick Clegg's speech at the Mansion House earlier today. It seems to have generated two main sound bites:
  1. a John Lewis economy
  2. The 1980s was the decade of share ownership. I want this to be the decade of employee share ownership.
But what he actually meant by either of these (not to mention the rest of the speech) was a question being widely asked on Twitter during the day.

As I've noted before (HERE), Clegg's communication skills continue to interest me - and this video and transcript look like promising data for closer analysis - comments and suggestions welcome...

Text of this video-clip from the speech:
...we don’t believe our problem is too much capitalism: we think it’s that too few people have capital. We need more individuals to have a real stake in their firms.

More of a John Lewis economy, if you like.

And, what many people don’t realise about employee ownership is that it is a hugely underused tool in unlocking growth.

I don’t value employee ownership because I somehow believe it's it's “nicer” - a more pleasant alternative to the rest of the corporate world. Those are lazy stereotypes. Firms that have engaged employees, who own a chunk of their company, are just as dynamic, just as savvy, as their competitors. In fact, they often perform better: lower absenteeism, lower staff turnover, lower production costs. In general, higher productivity and higher wages. They even weathered the economic downturn better than other companies.

Is employee ownership a panacea? No. Does it guarantee a company will thrive? No of course not. But the evidence and success stories cannot be ignored, and we have to tap this well if we are serious about growth. The 1980s was the decade of share ownership. I want this to be the decade of employee share ownership.

Britons win gold and silver in the transatlantic rowing race: an omen for the Olympics?


On 5th December, we watched 17 rowing boats leave the harbour at San Sebastian La Gomera at the start of a transatlantic rowing race and, after getting home, have been following its ups and downs ever since.

Last night (40 days later), first and second places went to British rowers who arrived in Barbados 26 minutes apart - with the next boat more than 100 nautical miles away.

Rowing across the Atlantic may have yet to qualify as an official Olympic sport, but it would be nice to think that their success will be an omen for more medals for our competitors later in the year.

At the time of writing, the bronze medal contenders are only 47 nautical miles from the finish and you can keep up with the race HERE.

A gentleman who is for turning: snakes or ladders weekend for Ed Balls?

Thanks to a speech to the Fabian Society (above) and endless interviews by Ed Balls (e.g. below), this weekend has been alive with the sound of turning in the mainstream media, blogs and on Twitter.

Under a headline 'This is new all right. it just isn't enough', John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday tells us 'Ed Balls caught up with where the Labour Party should have been 16 month ago. It was an important moment...' (more HERE).

The New Statesman is rather less optimistic, with an article by Owen Jones telling us 'Ed Balls' surrender is a political disaster' (more HERE).

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the unions aren't too pleased by what looks like rather sudden U turn from Mr Balls - see Unions criticise Ed Balls's pay freeze comments on the BBC website HERE.

Snake, ladder or both?
For me, I find myself wondering how the speech and interviews by Mr Balls fit in (or not) with the snakes and ladders theory of political communication, which proposes that interviews work like snakes for politicians (by attracting negative news coverage) and speeches work like ladders (by attracting positive news coverage) - for more on which HERE.

But here we have an example of a politician staying consistently 'on message' - and a highly controversial one at that - both in a speech and related interviews.

There's no doubt that a message has got across (though to how many over a weekend?) and, given how little of the speech was actually to be seen or heard on broadcast news programmes, this probably had more to do with the interviews than his Fabian Society lecture.

However, whether it's had (or will have) a positive or negative otcome for Mr Balls and the Labour Party, only time will tell.

Polish lawyer shoots himself while waiting for Miliband's speech

While I was waiting to hear Ed Milband's speech earlier today, I was seriously distracted by a macabre piece of news footage, in which a Polish lawyer shoots himself during a five minute break that he'd just requested.

And if that wasn't bizarre enough, he missed and, at the time of writing, is still alive (more on which HERE).

So anyone expecting to read about Miliband's 'relaunch' speech will, I'm afraid, have to wait...

Update, 11 January:
Injury 'not life-threatening' - interview from hospital bed HERE.

The 'fluent but insincere and shallow' Kelvin Mackenzie at the Leveson Inquiry

This particular sequence from former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry is [was - see below] featured on the websites of both the BBC and Sky News today.

Are we supposed, I wonder, to be impressed by his brilliant 'analysis' of the difference between the verbs 'to lob' and 'to chuck'? And is anyone convinced that it aptly illustrates his point that "we thought about something and then put it in"?

I suppose it would be too much to expect him to tell us which 'online dictionery' he consulted to get his definition of the verb 'to lob', but it's an easy enough game for anyone to play.

So, having just looked up the word 'glib' in the Oxford online dictionary, I can report that the definition looks like a fairly accurate description of Mr MacKenzie (and his words):

(of words or a speaker) fluent but insincere and shallow.

P.S. Since this was first posted earlier today, the clip has been removed from the Sky News website. But you can still watch it on the BBC website HERE and HERE.

In the absence of any explanation of why it was withdrawn, one can't help wondering whether this is a case of one Murdoch-owned media outlet (Sky News) retrospectively altering its news coverage to protect the former editor of another (The Sun) - in which case, it should perhaps be reported to the Leveson Inquiry forthwith.

Michael Gove speech sends students to sleep

Yesterday I was thanking Diane Abbott for adding to my collection of interviewees walking out of interviews (HERE).

Today, my thanks go to former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (@johnprescott) for re-tweeting this gem posted by Political Scrapbook (@PSbook), where some interesting comments have already begun to appear.

For me, it poses at least three questions:
  1. If the first thing to be done when preparing a speech is to analyse the audience (see my books), one has to ask who writes this stuff?
  2. As taxpayers, are we getting value for money from the speechwriters at the Department of Education?
  3. And, as a former president of the Oxford Union and debating adjudicator, shouldn't Gove be able to do rather better than this when it comes to addressing an audience of school children?
More on our esteemed Secretary of State for Education

Interview exit strategies (3): Diane Abbott's mobile phone comes to the rescue

Today I have to thank Diane Abbott MP for adding to my small collection of politicians walking out of an interview (for others, see below).

This is the first one in which the interviewee's mobile phone came to the rescue at a particularly awkward point in the questioning - silent though the ring seems to have been.

Could it, I wonder, be a neat ploy that becomes a precedent for many more such 'escapes' in the future?

Classic interview exits:

Putin speechwriting competition result: nepotism rules, OK...

The 'Prose for Putin Christmas speech writing competition' was launched on 15 December (HERE) and invited contestants to 'write a short speech outlining Mr Putin's message to supporters and/or opponents for 2o12.'

I suppose there was something inevitable about the fact that it would take a fluent Russian speaker to catch the language and mood of Mr Putin with the precision achieved by David Atkinson (@dsa99uk), winner of the first prize.

The fact that he also happens to be my big brother (and knows where I live) is surely an added bonus, implying as it does that a degree of corruption may have influenced the judge's decision - with the possibility of more corruption to come: as the lucky winner already has signed copies of Lend Me Your Ears (both in English and Russian), he may be disappointed if he thinks he's going to get yet another free copy...

Winner of the second prize, Daniel Sandberg need have no fears about getting his copy of Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy. Nor was his footnote - 'If my English is not always up to scratch, the reason is that I am Norwegian' - in the least bit necessary.

FIRST PRIZE: David Atkinson
People who describe my party as the 'party of thieves and crooks' should go f**k a sheep and use one of their stupid white ribbons as a condom.

For Hillary Clinton, before she gets in too deep, I’ve just two words. She should listen, and stop paying prostitutes to parade round Moscow wearing white ribbons that look like condoms.

The words for Hillary are ‘Monica Lewinsky’.

I have an agreement with Prokhorov, who is standing against me as President, same as I told Khodokovsky, keep out of politics and keep out of f***ing jail.

That Islamist arselicker of a French journalist who asked me about innocent Chechens getting killed should remember what happens to journalists in our modern Russia. If he comes to Moscow we’ll have him circumcised and when he’s under the knife castrate him as well.

And while we are on the subject, if anyone else says I’ve had plastic surgery, I’ll send the boys round and rearrange their faces for them.

I’ve got some words for the citizens of Londongrad, who thought they were clever voting for the Rotten Apple Party. I know how to stuff ballot boxes better than you. You won’t be coming home to Mother Russia while I am in charge, unless you want nailing to the wall of a Chechen shithouse.

As for that corrupt former Lada salesman, who can’t decide whether he lives in SW3 or Tel Aviv - He calls himself an oligarch with only a couple of billion left - Why is he suing Roman in London? I’ll tell you why. It’s because he knows he’d lose in Moscow.

Come on home Boris. There’s a room waiting for you at the Moscow Lubyanka. Then you can join that son of a Boris (Khodorkovsky) in the Novy Gulag.

Just remember Rotten Apple voters of London, I know where you f***ing live.

SECOND PRIZE: Daniel Sandberg
Citizens of Russia,

On the eve of a new year, we like to reflect on events which have passed. And we ask ourselves what is to come. Paradoxically, looking back in time often helps us to see the future in a clearer light. This year, we marked the 20th anniversary of the demise of the Soviet Union. I once called the breakup of the Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century. I stand by those words. With the end of the Soviet Union came a period of instability which had agonising effects on Russia. It severely hurt our economy, our security, and our international reputation. Yeltsin’s breakneck economic policies enriched a few, but shattered the lives of ordinary citizens who lost their life savings. Many of those who benefited the most now sit in prison or abroad in their multi-million ruble mansions, criticising us who stayed behind to clear the rubble after Yeltsin’s failed attempts to govern our country. Civil wars threatened to unravel Chechnya and former countries of the Soviet Union. Our armed forces were thrown into disarray. Internationally, Russia became an object of ridicule, a drifting ship with a drunk captain at the steering wheel. And so came a unipolar world, a world where one Western country thought it could decide what was right and wrong, and intervened as it liked. A world where other countries seemed to be more concerned about our internal affairs than their own. When I became president – twelve years ago to the day – I decided that I would right these wrongs.

I promised to rebuild our economy. Today, it is as strong as ever. We have been able to protect our economy from the economic crisis. Our neighbours envy us our economic growth. Every day, we replenish our stabilisation fund, so that we will not have to relive the economic disaster of the 1990s.

I promised to restore peace. The transformation of Grozny into a thriving capital speaks for itself. We have helped our friends and partners in South Ossetia and Abkhazia secure their independence. Our fighters and strategic bombers are again flying above and along our territory. Our brave sailors are protecting Russian merchant ships against pirate attacks in the Indian ocean. And our peacekeepers have calmed tensions in many parts of the world.

I promised to restore Russia’s reputation. Over the past years, I have attended countless meetings in the UN, in the OSSE, in the NATO-Russia Council. And I can tell you: nobody ridicules Russia anymore. We are again a respected international player. We again live in a multipolar world. We can again be proud of being Russian.

Fellow citizens,

If the demise of the Soviet Union has taught us one lesson, it is this: uncontrolled change leads to chaos. Of course, the thought of change can be refreshing. Who does not like to see change from time to time? But change brings uncertainty. Uncertainty carries risk. And when risk materialises, the impact can be devastating.

Why do I say this? I have, of course, taken note of the demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few other places. I know that many of you do not identify with the protesters, who only make up a small percentage of our population. But I also know that some of you do. I am your prime minister, and I take you seriously. I have to admit that I struggle to understand the protests. When I listen to the allegations, they describe a reality which I do not recognise. When I read the slogans, I cannot see any solutions being offered. When I watch the demonstrators, I fail to see any leaders. Still, we have noted your grievances. President Medvedev has ordered an investigation into concrete complaints of election fraud. I have proposed that regional governors again be elected by the people. We have announced plans to make it easier to establish political parties and to register as a presidential candidate. And I have decided to renew my political team. Some of you may say that this is not enough. I agree. It is not sufficient. We face serious challenges: A declining population. An economy which needs modernisation. An army which must be further professionalised. These are daunting obstacles, but they can be overcome. What is needed is stability, firmness and – most of all – an experienced leader. That is why I have announced my candidacy for President in March 2012. Where others offer division, I offer you unity. Where others offer promises, if offer you results. Where others offer you uncertainty, I offer you a future.

Fellow citizens,

Twenty years ago, it was not clear which way Russia would take. After a period of aimless change and confusion under Yeltsin, we managed to restore Russia to its former greatness. It has been an honour to serve as your prime minister during the past four years. It will be an even greater honour to serve again as your President. Whether you are a citizen of Kaliningrad or Vladivostok, whether your home is in Murmansk or Irkutsk, I want you to know that I shall work tirelessly for you, for your family, for your future. We are united by the love of our history, our traditions and our culture. Together, we can achieve things our ancestors could only dream of.

I wish you a happy new year.