Ed Miliband talks during his own speeches set to music in Labour's latest PPB

These days, you can watch party political broadcasts before they've even been broadcast, as with this one from the Labour Party that's scheduled to appear on television tonight.

It has at least two irritating features that I've blogged about before. One is ghastly background musak - for more on which, see Is the sound of music on TV getting more and worse?

The other is that we no longer have to put up with television reporters telling us what politicians are saying during speeches in the background but can now listen to a party leader doing the voiceover to films of his own silent speeches in the foreground - for more on which, see Politicians and broadcasters in the UK: collaboration or capitulation?

Ed Miliband seems pleased enough with this effort to have tweeted a link that invited us to have a preview last night.

It leaves me wondering why - and short of long words....

News broadcast of a speech read out in full for 3 minutes: too much & too inauthentic?

Something very unusual happened today.

Presenter Eddie Mair told us on BBC Radio 4's early evening news programme PM that they were going to play the whole of Charlotte Church's statement after she and her family had settled their case for phone-hacking damages against News International's now defunct News of the World (above).

It lasted about three minutes - far longer than most clips from political speeches replayed on radio and television news broadcasts these days.

Regular readers will know that the British broadcasters' reluctance to play extended excerpts from political speeches and their preference for having their reporters tell us what speakers are saying is something I've been complaining about for quite a while (see, for example, Politicians and broadcaster in the UK" collaboration or capitulation?).

They'll also know that I don't believe that reading a written-speech aloud always means that the speaker is doomed to come across as 'inauthentic' (see To read or not to read? That is the question for speechwriters - or is it?).

Charlotte Church may not be a politician, but this unusually long clip gives us a chance to check on both these issues at the same time.

Was it too long for listeners and did she sound inauthentic?
I first heard the clip on the car radio, so you'll have to close your eyes or look away to experience it in more or less the same way as I did (though without the added bonus of the beautiful Somerset countryside).

Having done so, see what you think.

For what it's worth, I thought she made rather a good job of it - even though I could tell that she was reading from a text).

Nor did my attentiveness to what she was saying lapse for a moment - even though we're all supposed to have such short attention spans that we're incapable of listening to a speech for anything like as long as three minutes.

So I'm still wondering why it is that our broadcasters no longer allow us to listen to excerpts from speeches by politicians that last as long as this...

P.S. Fellow anoraks won't be surprised to know that the sound bite singled out for the headlines was a simple contrast: "They're not sorry, they're just sorry they got caught" (e.g. http://t.co/PjUzYQYQ) - which reminded me of my sons' Sinclair Spectrum computer chess game, which used to say after you'd played an obvious move: "I expected that!"

Are all animals right or left handed?

Now for something completely different - a video sequel to Basil's Book Launch plus a question for zoologists, ethologists or anyone else who might know about such important matters.

However noisy and irritating Basil's impatience may be when demanding (yet again) to be fed, he is utterly consistent in one notable thing: never have we seen him using his right paw to rattle the dish.

So the obvious question is whether or not this is 'normal' and, more generally, are all cats and other animals right or left-handed/pawed?

P.S. Apparently most cats are left-handed
Thanks to Lisa Brathwaite (@LisaBraithwaite) for tweeting news from a vet in California suggesting that Basil is not, as we'd suspected, unusual in preferring his left paw.

She writes: "Our mobile vet told us the other day that most cats are left-handed. We have one who pats us for attention; always left paw" (7th March, 2012).

Further inspection reveals that Basil also uses his his left back paw for scratching himself during a rest from rattling his dish:

To read or not to read? That is the question for speechwriters - or is it?

Yesterday's conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild was another stimulating treat, for which founder Bran Jenner deserves the thanks of all of us who were lucky enough to attend.

As with the last one (HERE), he'd pulled yet more rabbits out of the hat, including speakers from Russia and the Netherlands, rounding it off with a memorable double act starring Graham Davies and Phil Collins (even if it was an extended plug for a forthcoming book that might eventually compete with mine!).

But, had there been more time, an interesting argument might have developed between some of us who were there and some of the speakers.

For me, the most worrying buzzword of the day was 'authenticity'. Although several speakers had it high on their agendas, I doubt if I'm alone in remaining unclear about what exactly it's supposed to mean - other than different things to different people.

It was certainly curious (and vaguely challenging) for an audience of speechwriters to be told that it's not a good idea to write speeches at all. Nor was it particularly encouraging for people who make a living by writing speeches to be told that it's not a good idea to let your clients read scripts either - whether from pieces of paper or a teleprompter.

So what were they on about?
As far as I could tell, the prophets of doom were giving voice to some rather misconceived and misleading concerns about some well-known facts about the experience of public speakers and audiences.
  1. The language of the written word often sounds stilted and conceals the personality of the speaker in a cloak of formality when read aloud - i.e. they don't come across as themselves (sincere, passionate, etc.).
  2. Reading from a script can sometimes (though by no means always) result in an unacceptable loss of eye contact and rapport with your audience.
  3. The answer to these problems is not to use a script or notes.
To which my reactions are:
  1. True (but easy to remedy).
  2. True (but easy to remedy).
  3. False.
There's obviously no point in my trying to substantiate these by reproducing the sections from Lend Me Your Ears that deal with these issues (Chapters 1-3: 'The Language of Public Speaking' - on how the languages of everyday conversation, the written word and the publicly spoken word differ).

But a few famous examples (and thousands of not so famous ones that I've seen over the years) might help to reassure any colleagues whose confidence might have been dented by yesterday's claims that writing a speech will inevitably lead you (and your unfortunate clients) down the road to inauthenticity.

Freedom from scripts?
I don't deny, of course, that there are a few business and political speakers (e.g. Tom Peters, Steve Jobs, Tony Benn and David Cameron) who have impressed a lot of audiences with their apparent ability to speak without referring to notes or scripts. Nor do I deny that this might be a worthwhile objective for speakers to aim for.

But for most people, it's safer to regard it as a longer term goal, not least because it depends on their having enough time to work on the techniques for doing it effectively - which most don't have.

Exceptions that prove the rule?
Although Steve Jobs may have excelled at ex-temporising when speaking at Apple product launches (e.g. HERE), he was quite open about reading out his brilliant Stanford Commencement Address (HERE) - which would hardly have attracted more than 15 million YouTube viewers had he dismally failed to be authentic and/or 'come across as himself'.

The point is that, if you get the language of public speaking right, it works. Some extreme cases from my own experience even suggest that, if you get the script right, your client has to be virtualy dyslexic to fail

And if the timing of looking up and down from a script is roughly equivalent to the way gaze works in everyday conversation (where eye-contact is spasmodic rather than continuous), audiences hardly even notice it.

Nor, in the hundreds of courses I have run, would the vast majority of delegates have found that they feel more comfortable and easier to 'come across as themselves' when using notes than when they were pretending not to have any (while trying to ad-lib from headings on PowerPoint slides).

And, if being seen to use notes were such a terrible sin, how, in later life, would former UK prime minister Harold Macmillan have captivated so many of his audiences at after dinner speeches by pretending to use notes on cards that were in fact completely blank (and when he was, in any case, almost blind)?

Writers: keep on writing
As Martin Shovel (@MartinShovel) pointed out in one of the discussions, if speechwriting were such a waste of time, how had Barack Obama and his team of writers got away with it?

And how were so many of those at yesterday's conference managing to make a reasonable living by pursuing such a pointless exercise as writing speeches?

The answer is as simple as it is obvious: it isn't pointless.

Nor should anyone seriously believe that the problem of authenticity is an insurmountable one for writers or speakers. It might be so if the world were populated by brilliant actors, all of whom were equipped with the technical skills to act out parts that were different from themselves.

Fortunately for all of us (and I don't just mean professional speechwriters), that isn't the case either.

P.S. Since posting this, one of the speakers at the conference, Alexei Kapterev (to whom, many thanks), has taken the trouble to write a reply HERE. He was not, however, the only speaker who seemed to have doubts about writing and reading out speeches - so maybe we can look forward to a continuing debate on the subject...

P.P.S. Also just posted is a chance to judge for yourself whether or not you think that a speech read out for 3 minutes on TV news came across as 'inauthentic' (HERE).

Great speakers aren't always great singers: the case of President Obama

News that President Obama has taken to singing in public reminds me that it can be a seriously damaging pastime for political leaders - as James Callaghan found out in the aftermath of his rendition of Marie Lloyd's Waiting at the Church before the 1979 general election (HERE)

My impression from the above is that the president would be well-advised to concentrate on his public speaking and to avoid any more temptations to sing in public.

It may show what a jolly good sport he is to join in the fun. But even as dubious a character as President-to-be Putin can do that - and, on this evidence, has a rather better singing voice (or has spent more time rehearsing) than President Obama:

Or maybe Putin's just miming...?

A new Manhattan in the sand?

Feudal though the government of countries like Dubai may be (for more on which HERE), you can't help but gasp at how much can be done so quickly with access to plenty of capital and a huge reservoir of ex-pat cheap labour.

When I was last in the UAE about ten years ago, Dubai Marina (viewed above through an iPhone from my hotel room) didn't exist and was still part of the desert.

But dig out out a canal, let in sea-water from the Persian Gulf and you can create a 21st century version of Manhattan, complete with its own 3 miles of waterfront.

In 2009, construction work temporarily stalled in the wake of the world financial crisis, but now seems to be have revived again.

The buildings will no doubt survive longer than the 30 years I predicted for Dubai's political status quo (HERE). But whether or not the Arab spring will speed up the process of change remains to be seen...

Gaping models and open-mouthed actors: which came first?

Today's Daily Telegraph magazine (above and below) reminded me of earlier posts on open-mouthed acting (HERE & HERE).

What on earth is going on?

Do they have adenoidal problems that make it difficult for them to breathe through their noses?

Are they about to say something or are they just gaping into thin air?

Surely it's time for a body-language explain it all for us....

How long-winded is Arabic and how much do its native speakers gesticulate?

In previous posts, I've suggested that the long-winded nature of Latin-based languages like Italian and French are more long-winded than Nordic and Germanic ones and that this may have an impact on how much speakers of such languages use gestures when speaking (HERE & HERE).

I don't read a word of Arabic, nor do I know what an 'IDF Room' is. But I was intrigued enough by this notice on a wall in my hotel in Dubai to get my camera out:

On the face of it, it looks like a serious competitor to one from an Italian notice posted last year (HERE):

But, whereas three syllables of English were enough to translate nine syllables of Italian, I have no idea how many beats are depicted in the Arabic writing above (or whether the English version 'cheats' by using an acronym that defies translation).

Nor do I know whether native speakers of Arabic are reputed to gesticulate more vigorously than native speakers of English.

So today's question is to ask whether anyone can shed any light on these intriguing questions?

UK Business Communicator of the year, 2012: Gillian Tett

Brian Jenner of the UK Speechwriters' Guild recently announced that the title of UK Business Communicator of 2012 has been awarded to Gillian Tett of the Financial Times.

For me, as a former sociologist, it is particularly pleasing to see someone with a PhD in social anthropology, another allegedly 'useless' subject, making a mark with much wider audiences than those in academia.

The full citation is reproduced below between the two clips of her in action.

The world economy is choked with thorns. Few commentators seem to be able to tell us how or why it’s happened. The financial journalist, Gillian Tett, has emerged with a simple and compelling story explaining what went wrong.

The UK Speechwriters’ Guild has awarded Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times, and author of Fool’s Gold, the prize of UK Business Communicator 2012. This is for three reasons.

The first is that she is an excellent public speaker. Her voice suggests that she’s not a natural, but her delivery is measured and clear.

The second reason is that her content is excellent. The key story she tells again and again is how she attended a conference of bankers at the European Securitisation Forum in the Acropolis Centre in Nice in 2005 to find out what was going in the credit world.

Despite being an experienced financial journalist, she had no idea what the speakers were talking about.

‘Finance was presented as an abstract mathematical game that took place in cyberspace replete with concepts such as ‘Gaussian copula’, ‘delta hedging’ and ‘first-to-default basket’.’

The bankers’ PowerPoint presentations did not inform or entertain. They had more in common with the Tajik wedding rituals she had studied at university. These rituals were about asserting identity and status within a social group. The bankers spoke a language totally unintelligible to anyone outside the clan.

Tett became determined to unpick the world of collateralised debt obligations. As a journalist with a background in social anthropology, she was able to find similes to describe what was going on. She presents her findings with a wry but appropriate sense of humour.

There is no mystery to how her speeches work.

Tett makes simple analogies everyone can understand (comparing derivatives to sausages). She uses anecdotes involving human beings acting at specific times in specific places. She self-deprecatingly refers to herself as a ‘hippy’ in a world of mathematics and astrophysics geeks. Despite being in a world overflowing with acronyms, she uses words that are familiar to everyone.

The third reason that Gillian Tett has won the award is that she has highlighted a problem that preoccupies the UK Speechwriters’ Guild.

Tett has warned of the ‘silo curse’. Groups of people get together in finance, medicine, engineering, the military and Government bureaucracy. They innovate at an extraordinary pace but they learn to speak a language that nobody else understands.

If everyone outside these organisations becomes convinced that their activities are dull, boring and technical, they will avoid scrutiny with potentially catastrophic results for the rest of society.

To counter this Gillian Tett has identified the ‘urgent need for a large cadre of ‘cultural translators’’, who can explain what is happening in the silos to everyone else. ‘We need people who can join up the dots and present the big picture.’ The UK Speechwriters’ Guild is such a cadre.

Brian Jenner
Chairman of the Judges, UK Speechwriters’ Guild
February 2012


Is the sound of music on TV getting more and worse?

Many outstanding movies have been greatly enhanced by outstanding music. Famous film scores by composers like John Willams, Enno Morrikone and John Barry have deservedly won a much wider audiences among listeners around the world.

And, as I've noted before, even political speeches can occasionally be enhanced by suitable background music (e.g. HERE).

But what do we hear from our television screens these days? Is there more music than there used to be? Is it louder, less appropriate and more poorly chosen than it used to be?

The recent BBC drama serialisation of Birdsong has already prompted me to complain (again) about 'the open-mouthed school of acting' (HERE). But just as irritating (to me at least) were the repetitive few bars of plinky-plonk piano music in the background (which you can sampleHERE for a few more days).

Music in factual and documentary films?
It got me wondering whether I'm alone in finding background music an annoying and unnecessary distraction to whatever it is we're trying to watch?

Nor is not just to be heard in dramas, as it now seems to be infecting more and more BBC factual programmes.

For example, viewers of Countryfile on BBC1 have to put up with it week after week, as in the following examples from a discussion of proposed badger-culling. :

Frozen Planet
And, as if viewers of the Frozen Planet might otherwise have objected to David Attenborough's commentary on the brilliant film footage, the producers apparently thought it necessary to impose the continual distraction of irrelevant and more or less continuous backgound music - as in this sequence on polar bear mating behaviour:

Or do the makers of these programmes really believe that irrelevant music adds significantly to our enjoyment and appreciation of the films?

If so, I'd very much like to know why and to see what evidence (if any) they have to support their case...

P.S. Aurorora borealis au musak
I'm very grateful to Keenan Malilk (@kenanmalik) for posting a link to this video on Twitter earlier today, along with a comment - "..annoying music but astounding video all the same" - that suggests I may not be alone in my dislike of pointless musical backgrounds to otherwise impressive film-footage: