Today's North Korean triumph - how to clap visibly

After posting Alexander Solzhenitsyn's warning about never being the first to stop applauding, here's a  clip from today's Kim Jong-il anniversary with a number of weird aspects for serious students of clapping behaviour (and/or agents of the North Korean secret police).

One is the apparent reluctance of Kim Jong-un to do much applauding at all.

The other is the curious position in which the applauders hold their clapping hands - too high to look or feel  'natural', or just the right height to be visible to anyone monitoring who is clapping when and for how long?

As for the speech, you don't have to be able to speak the language to be able to tell at a glance what a pitiful performance it was...

Last words on Australia regaining the Ashes by Geoffrey Boycott?

Geoffrey Boycott's verdict on Australia regaining the Ashes in Perth. But will anyone who matters take any notice?

Or will it appear on Twitter as yet another #QTWTAIN from @johnrentoul ?

Don't ever be the first to stop applauding

File photo: Chang Song-thaek (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (right) at the People's Theatre in Pyongyang, 15 April 2013

The barmy list of 'crimes' for which the uncle (top left) of North Korea's supreme leader (top right) was executed included half-hearted clapping that apparently 'touched off towering resentment' among those in the audience:

'When his cunning move proved futile and the decision that Kim Jong Un was elected vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea at the Third Conference of the WPK in reflection of the unanimous will of all party members, service personnel and people was proclaimed, making all participants break into enthusiastic cheers that shook the conference hall, he behaved so arrogantly and insolently as unwillingly standing up from his seat and half-heartedly clapping, touching off towering resentment of our service personnel and people' (more on the offences of this 'despicable human scum' HERE).

The accountability of not clapping or not clapping vigorously enough is something I've blogged about before HERE and HERE.

But the most alarming, if slightly less ruthless, precursor to last week's execution in North Korea was the fate of any audience member daring enough to be the first to stop clapping Stalin in the former Soviet Union, as described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago (pp. 60-70):

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name).... For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the 'stormy applause, rising to an ovation,' continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop?... After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first!... At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly - but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?... With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers!...

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.’

Will Geoffrey Boycott's sporting similes be enough to save England's batsmen?

After Adelaide, England are two test matches down and Australia only have to win the third match in Perth to win back the Ashes.

At the close of play on the first day, our bowlers haven't left us in a very promising position and we still have to wait to see whether or not our batsmen take any notice of Geoffrey Boycott's profound advice after the second test match (above).

I was rather less impressed by his statements of the obvious - such as "You can't win a test match if you can't bat"than by his use of sporting similes:

"We're playing cricket like a 50 over game: crash, bang, wallop - and out."

"It's like climbing a mountain without any shoes and socks on" 


"it's like playing chess: you can't win a chess game in the first few moves; you can sure as hell lose it."

My fear, alas, is that the question at the top of today's blog will turn out to be what Twitter followers of @johnrentoul will recognise as a #QTWTAIN...

How Obama the student discovered he could move a crowd at an anti-apartheid demonstration

In his speech at today's memorial service for Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama referred to his first political experience at a student anti-apartheid demonstration.

He did not, however, mention the fact that it also appears to have been the moment when he discovered that he had an ability to move and interact with an audience - as described in his own words (Chapter 5 of his book Dreams from my Father - with some key passages highlighted in italics):

   It was around that time that I got involved in the divestment campaign. It had started as something of a lark, I suppose, part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain, a subconscious end run around issues closer to home. But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role-contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy-I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn’t fail me.

   Let’s see, now. What was it that I had been thinking in those days leading up to the rally? The agenda had been carefully arranged beforehand-I was only supposed to make a few opening remarks, in the middle of which a couple of white students would come onstage dressed in their paramilitary uniforms to drag me away. A bit of street theater, a way to dramatize the situation for activists in South Africa. I knew the score, had helped plan the script. Only, when I sat down to prepare a few notes for what I might say, something had happened. In my mind it somehow became more than just a two-minute speech, more than a way to prove my political orthodoxy. I started to remember my father’s visit to Miss Hefty’s class; the look on
Coretta’s face that day; the power of my father’s words to transform. If I could just find the right words, I had thought to myself. With the right words everything could change-South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.

   I was still in that trancelike state when I mounted the stage. For I don’t know how long, I just stood there, the sun in my eyes, the crowd of a few hundred restless after lunch. A couple of students were throwing a Frisbee on the lawn; others were standing off to the side, ready to break off to the library at any moment. Without waiting for a cue, I stepped up to the microphone.
“There’s a struggle going on,” I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up, and I waited for the crowd to quiet.

   “I say, there’s a struggle going on!” The Frisbee players stopped. “It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we
know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No-it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong...”

   I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. “Go on with it, Barack,” somebody else shouted. “Tell it like it is.” Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone’s hands grabbing me from behind. It was just as we’d planned it, Andy and Jonathan looking grim- faced behind their dark glasses. They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.

   But my part was over. I stood on the side as Marcus stepped up to the mike in his white T-shirt and denims, lean and dark and straight-backed and righteous. He explained to the audience what they had just witnessed, why the administration’s waffling on the issue of South Africa was unacceptable.... 

Thanks to Nelson Mandela for making an uninspiring speech on release from prison

Having been wondering for weeks how to mark the 1,000th post on this blog, the death of Nelson Mandela has solved my dilemma. 

The speech he made on release from prison initially stunned me by what an unimpressive example of how to inspire an audience it was. - until I realised that, had he done otherwise, it would have triggered the start of a civil war in South Africa. 

His genius was, among other things, to have understood exactly what had to be done to accommodate his (and FW de Klerks') dreams of getting rid of apartheid by holding things together long enough to allow time for the successful and peaceful reconstruction of the country. 

So, for my 1,000th post, here's what I wrote on the 20th anniversary of his release from prison:

None of the news reports on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison that I've seen have replayed any excerpts from the speech he made at City Hall in Cape Town.

This doesn't really surprise me, as it was far from being the barnstorming piece of oratory that many (including me) were expecting at the time.

Speaking into a microphone held by someone standing next to him, a bespectacled Mr Mandela clutched closely to the clip board holding his script - from which he read extremely carefully (see video below).

Given what might have happened had he done otherwise, it reminded me of the Queen's Speech as an example of the relatively rare occasions when there are very good reasons for not conveying any passion about what you are saying.

Something I posted a while back on The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler included the following thoughts about Mandela release-day speech.

Why such a 'low key' speech?

A much more surprising case was Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. Here was a highly effective communicator, whose words at his trial 27 years earlier are to be found in most books of great speeches, and who had had the best part of three decades to prepare an inspiring and memorable text.

But it was not to be. As if modeling his performance on the Queen’s Speech, he buried his head in the script and spoke in a flat measured tone that came across as completely lacking in the kind of passion everyone was expecting from someone who had suffered so much and was held in such high regard by his audience.

Having waited for years for this historic event, anticipating something on a par with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, I remember being disappointed and surprised by what I saw and heard from the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was another case where rousing rhetoric would have been completely counter-productive.

The political situation in South Africa was poised on a knife-edge and his release from prison had only happened at all because the apartheid regime was crumbling. It was a moment when anything more inspiring from Mandela might have come across as a call to arms and could easily have prompted an immediate uprising or civil war.

But the political understanding with the minority white government was that the African National Congress would keep the lid on things for long enough to enable a settlement to be negotiated.* As when the Queen opens parliament, Mr Mandela knew exactly what he was doing, how to do it and that he could not have done otherwise.

(* On which it's interesting to note that, at the end of this clip, the reporter actually comments on Mr Mandela's concern for keeping things orderly among the crowd).


The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.

Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters' roll in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.

In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are as true today as they were then. I wrote:

'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'

The battle for audience attention (3): Why audiences fall asleep

Sleeping studentThis is the third of a three part series of posts, prompted by last week's news that proceedings of the Court of Appeal were being televised for the first time.

Earlier parts were (1) The battle for audience attention and (2) Why stay awake in conversation.

Why audiences fall asleep

Speeches and presentations are much longer than turns in a conversation
Compared with the talk we’re used to listening to in conversations, the most unusual thing about a speech or presentation is its sheer length. In essence, all forms of public speaking involve the production of exceptionally long turns at talk, in which one person is given the floor for far longer than anyone ever gets to speak during a conversation. Rather than having to pay attention to short conversational turns lasting an average of seven or eight seconds, members of an audience are faced with the daunting prospect of having to listen to one person speaking continuously for 10, 20 or 30 minutes – and often for even longer than that.

Audiences know they won’t have to speak for a while
This may seem a grim enough prospect in itself, but it’s only part of the attentiveness problem we face when sitting in an audience. What makes life really difficult is that our only job is to listen. We can therefore relax in the knowledge that we’re not going to have to speak for however long the speech or presentation lasts. The absence of any immediate threat of having to say something at a moment’s notice amounts to a massive reduction in the incentives to pay attention that work so efficiently in everyday conversation. This goes a long way towards explaining why we are so much more likely to fall asleep when in an audience than when participating in a conversation.

If audiences get confused, they stop listening
Another extremely important and taken-for-granted feature of conversation that also changes dramatically in speeches and presentations is the relative ease with which we’re able to deal with any difficulties we may have in understanding what someone just said. If, at some point in a conversation, we’re unclear about something, we can use our next turn to ask for clarification, and get an immediate solution to the problem. But, when sitting in an audience, most of us are much more inhibited. For one thing, it involves interrupting, and therefore runs the risk of offending the speaker. Not only that, but a request for clarification can all too easily sound like a public complaint about the speaker’s incompetence at explaining things clearly enough.

Our reluctance to intervene may also be fuelled by a fear of exposing our own ignorance in public – because, for all we know, everyone else in the audience may be finding it perfectly easy to follow the argument. So the safest and commonest option is not to ask for clarification. Instead, we start reflecting on what the speaker has been saying in a bid to disentangle what it was all about for ourselves. The trouble is that trying to make some kind of retrospective sense of what we’ve just heard takes priority over concentrating on whatever comes next. And if we miss some or all of that, we become even more muddled and confused, sometimes to a point where we simply give up on making any further effort to understand, listen or stay awake.

Presentations and speeches are not always designed so that audiences can follow them
Our reluctance to ask for clarification from a speaker is only one deviation from routine conversational practice that poses problems of understanding for audiences. Another is the way the subject matter is selected and managed. In conversation, there are no restrictions on the topics we can talk about, and everyone involved can play an active part in influencing the direction it takes. As a result, the subjects covered in conversations are constantly changing, and can suddenly take off in completely unexpected and unplanned directions.

Compared with the more or less infinite range of topics we can talk about in conversation, the subject matter of speeches and presentations is much narrower and more restricted. As members of an audience, we may not even be particularly interested in the topic to begin with. Worse still, and unlike in conversation where we can do something about our lack of interest by changing the subject, we have no control over how the subject of a presentation or speech will be developed. It’s the speaker who has sole responsibility both for selecting the material and organising it into an orderly sequence.

Nor do we have much idea about exactly what’s going to be included, or how the subject matter is going to be divided up – until or unless the speaker gives us advance notice of what’s to come, and the order in which the points will be covered. In other words, having a sense of sequence and structure plays a crucially important part in helping us to make sense of what we’re hearing. All too often, speakers either fail to do this or, having done it, make no further reference to how any particular item under discussion fits in with the overall structure announced at the start. And if we’re confused about where things have got to in relation to where they were supposed to be going, our ability to understand and keep on paying attention will go into a progressive decline.

The problems of understanding faced by audiences and the difficulty of doing something about them are therefore very different from the way they arise and are dealt with in conversation. This means that the speaker’s main challenge is to make sure that the subject matter is presented in a way that the audience can follow. If our problem as members of an audience is trying to pay attention to a continuous stream of talk many hundreds of times longer than anything we ever have to listen to in a conversation, the parallel problem for speakers is producing such an abnormally long turn.

To make matters worse, they are deprived of a very efficient means of checking on understanding that we use continuously during conversations. This is the way in which we routinely inspect other speakers’ responses to gauge whether or not our previous turn was understood in the way we intended. If it was, we can safely carry on; if it wasn’t, we can elaborate, revise or otherwise expand on the point we were trying to get across.

Ideally, of course, a speech or presentation should be designed so that anyone in the audience will be able to follow it. This is why the selection and structuring of the subjects to be covered is (or should be) at the heart of the preparation process, and why it is an important enough topic to have the whole of Chapter 9 in Lend Me Your Ears devoted to it.

The battle against boredom
The greatly reduced pressure on audiences to listen means that winning and holding their attention can never be taken for granted. It poses a far greater challenge than many speakers realise, and is a battle that has to be fought relentlessly for the entire duration of a speech or presentation....

(Continued in Lend Me Your Ears pp. 30-371)

The battle for audience attention (2): why stay awake in conversation?

Yesterday's televising of Supreme Court proceedings got me thinking about my attempts to use recordings to study courtroom language - and how conversation analysis had led my later works to focus on public speaking and presentation more  generally. 

This is a continuation of yesterday's excerpt from 'Lend Me Your Ears':

… becoming an effective public speaker depends on having as clear a picture as possible of the key differences between conversation on the one hand, and speeches and presentations on the other. The most important of all of these is the dramatic change in our motives for paying attention that occurs as soon as we stop conversing with other members of the audience, and settle down to listen to the speaker of the day. When I ask audiences if any of them ever find it difficult to stay awake during speeches, presentations, lectures or sermons, a typical result is that 100 per cent of them put up their hands. When asked how many have trouble staying awake listening to what someone is saying during conversations, the typical result is zero per cent.

The first statistic is proof that everyone knows that speeches and presentations have a tremendous capacity for boring audiences out of their minds, and that holding the attention of an audience is a major challenge for speakers. The second statistic points to something that people know when they think about it, but probably never give much thought to most of the time: most of us have little or no trouble in staying awake while engaged in conversation with a small number of others. This is because there are powerful incentives to pay attention built into the way conversation works. And these incentives are underpinned by implicit
rules that are not written down and formally taught, but are understood by everyone capable of having a conversation.

One at a time
The most obvious feature of conversation is that we take it in turns to talk: one speaker says something and, when that one’s turn comes to an end, a next speaker starts, and so on until the end of the conversation:

Speaker A: ——————|
Speaker B:                       |——————|
Speaker C:                                             |———————|

If someone else suddenly starts speaking when you are still in the middle of your turn, it’s natural to feel annoyed. In fact, you’re likely to regard anyone who trespasses on your space as ‘rude’ or ‘impolite’. You are not only within your rights to complain, but are equipped with the necessary vocabulary for referring to the
misdemeanour: the words ‘interrupt’ and ‘interruption’. When you complain of being ‘interrupted’, you are actually drawing attention to the fact that a basic, though implicit, rule of conversation has been broken: only one speaker should speak at a time, and others in the conversation should wait until the end of any current turn before starting the next one.

Occasional failures to observe this rule may be tolerated, but anyone who makes a regular habit of starting to speak in the middle of other people’s turns soon finds that there’s a heavy price to pay. Your reputation will go into a nosedive. At best, you’ll be regarded as impolite or inconsiderate; at worst as a pushy, domineering
control freak who’d rather ‘hog the conversation’ than listen to what anyone else has to say. If you’d rather not be seen like this, you have a strong incentive to pay attention at least closely enough to know when the previous speaker has finished, and when you can launch into a turn of your own without being accused of interrupting.

Coming in on cue
The incentive to listen during conversations isn’t just a matter of paying close enough attention to notice when a speaker gets to the end of a turn, as there is another rule about when you can start the next turn. Fail to get this right, and people will have another reason for wondering about your manners and motives. You only
have to think of how you react if, after greeting someone with the turn ‘Good morning’, the other person doesn’t reply at all.

Charitable explanations are that they must be half asleep, or perhaps a little deaf. But you’re much more likely to start worrying about why they aren’t speaking to you, what you’ve done to offend them or what’s gone wrong with the relationship. So the only way to stop other people from thinking such negative thoughts about you is to make sure that you start speaking before the silence has lasted long enough to be deemed ‘awkward’ or ‘embarrassing’.

This raises the question of just how long you’ve got before the silence starts to make things difficult? The answer is that you can’t afford to let the silence last for more than a split second. Research into conversation shows that silences of less than half a second are not only long enough to be noticed, but are enough to start us thinking that some kind of trouble is on its way. Studies of how people respond to invitations, for example, have found that an immediate reply usually means that the speaker is about to accept, whereas a delay of even a fraction of a second means that a refusal is on its way. The same is true of the way people reply to offers of various kinds: positive replies start straight away, and negative ones are delayed. So the safest way of preventing people from getting the wrong impression is to pay close enough attention to be able to start speaking as soon as possible, and certainly before the silence starts to get embarrassing.

Showing you were listening
Another extremely important reason for listening in conversation is that you have to be continually at the ready to say something that relates directly to what was said in the previous turn. Even a small lapse in concentration can cause you to say something that leads the previous speaker to conclude that you had not been paying attention, are not in the least bit interested in what they were saying, or that you are just plain rude. It often prompts accusations, arguments and conflict – so much so that it may well be at the heart of large numbers of domestic rows. If these could be traced back to their original source, many of them would
surely be found to have started just at that moment in a conversation when one speaker says something – or perhaps says nothing – that gives their spouse or partner the impression that he or she had not been listening.

The threat of having to say something
Conversational success and failure obviously depend on our continually maintaining a very high level of attentiveness to what others are saying. We have to keep listening closely enough not to interrupt, closely enough to come in on time and closely enough to be ready to say something that relates to the previous turn. In short, the ever-present threat that we might have to speak next amounts to an extremely powerful incentive for us to stay alert and wide-awake during a conversation. It also points to a fundamental reason why audiences will be in a very much lower state of attentiveness when listening to a speech or presentation.

(To be continued with 'Why audiences fall asleep')

The battle for audience attention

A general view shows Court One during the opening of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in London, October 16, 2009. REUTERS/Gareth Fuller/Pool

History is being made today with the televising of court of appeal proceedings.

And about time too is my reaction, because the prohibition on video and tape-recording in courts once stood in the way of my attempts to study court-room language. American colleagues had no problem in assembling large collections of tape-recorded hearings - and were generous enough to supply us with copies - on which, more HERE.

My interest in working out what turned jurors on and off led me to start recording political speeches and to focus on bursts of applause - as clapping was fairly concrete evidence that listeners were not only awake but also approved of what had just been said. This led to publication of a book that was to take my life in a different direction - and, later on to books aimed at showing people how to use what we had learnt about the main techniques in their own speeches and presentations.

So, to mark the day when I ought to be thinking about collecting video-tapes of court of appeal proceedings (but probably won't), I thought I'd post the beginnings of what became of some of the original research when applied to speaker-audience interaction more generally - from Lend Me Your Ears, Chapter 2...

The Battle for Audience Attention
Keeping Listeners Awake and Engaged

Most of us find it easy enough to discuss aspects of our life or work with one or two colleagues, friends, or even with complete strangers. But it’s a very different story when it comes to standingup and talking about the same subjects to an audience. Confident communicators suddenly find themselves crippled by nerves, the normally articulate sound muddled and confused, and enthusiasts for their subjects come across as dull, boring and monotonous. You will almost certainly have seen this happen. It may even have happened to you – but you may not be quite sure exactly why
it happens.

This difference in our level of confidence and effectiveness, depending on whether we’re speaking in a conversation or to an audience, is so great and so debilitating for so many people that it demands an explanation. The chapters in Part I set out to provide an answer by showing that there is what amounts to a ‘language of public speaking’. Less complicated and much easier to learn than a foreign language, it involves subtle deviations from everyday speech that can make life difficult for anyone who isn’t fully
aware of them. Knowing what these deviations are is an essential
first step towards understanding and mastering the techniques of
effective speech-making.

Different ways of speaking
Speaking in public is obviously different from just about any other form of communication we ever get involved in. The sense of unease experienced when making a speech or presentation tends to be accompanied by a vague realisation that our normal, everyday style of speaking doesn’t seem to be working in quite the way we expect. Speaking to an audience seems to require skills otherthan those that serve us so well during the rest of our talking lives. The trouble is that it’s not always immediately obvious what these are, or why our normal resources are failing us. This is why we can find ourselves, often good communicators in every other way, struggling and bewildered against the tide of polite indifference washing over us from an audience who would clearly rather be somewhere else.

One reason for this is that our ability to speak is something that we have taken for granted since infancy. Speaking to an audience requires different skills from those that serve us so well during the rest of our talking lives.  The trouble is that it is not immediately obvious what these are, let alone why our normal resources are failing us.

Apart from academic researchers who specialise in the study of talk, hardly anyone ever gives much thought to the detailed mechanics of how speech works. Most people’s technical understanding of conversation is similar to their technical understanding of what’s involved in riding a bicycle. Both are things we can do, without so much as a second thought, but the basic principles of how to do them are far from easy to put into words.

An ability to use language is often cited as the crucial factor distinguishing humans from other animals. But it is probably more accurate to say that the crucial factor is an ability to converse – and it’s more than mere ability. As conversationalists we are absolute experts. We listen, we understand, we contribute, all within fractions of a second. And we’re able to do this because
we start learning to converse from the moment we make our first sounds.

The type of speech we first learn as infants is conversation. As we grow older, it is the speaking skills of conversation that we spend most time practising and developing. In effect, we become specialists in conversational techniques, and it’s as conversationalists that we spend the vast majority of our talking lives. Only very occasionally do we have to speak in ways that are clearly different from conversation, such as in classrooms, courtrooms, places of worship, interviews, meetings, debates, speeches or presentations. As narrow specialists in conversation, it’s hardly surprising that we feel so uneasy when we have to speak in these less familiar situations. Nor is it surprising that the few who do develop these more specialised speaking skills – such as teachers, lawyers, politicians or clerics – come to be viewed as (and paid as) professionals....(to be continued).

Majorspeak revisited?

Regular readers will realise why, given my regular posts on the peculiar times and places selected by today's politicians (see below), I was greatly frustrated by yesterday's news headlines being dominated by a former Conservative prime minister making what the Daily Mail described as a 'wide ranging and passionate speech' to a real audience in a suitable location - without any media camera crews being present.

So you can't see it on YouTube or anywhere else, and, for once, all we can do is look at are those parts of it that were quoted in the media, such as this from the Daily Mail.

Improved mastery of rhetoric and imagery?
Compared with what I wrote in 1993 ('Majorspeak: observations on the prime minister's style of speaking'), some of which is touched on in the above video clip, there was some evidence that his command of rhetoric and imagery has improved - probably because of his experience on the lucrative US speaker circuit in the years since he left office.

There were, for example, some impressive contrasts:
"Governments should exist to protect people, not institutions"

The Conservative Party "is at its best when it is tolerant and it is open and at its worst when it's hectoring and censorious"

He said it was wrong that so many families would have to choose between keeping warm and eating this winter.

There was at least one three-part list in which the third item contrasted with the first two:
"and it is very easy, criminally easy, to overlook these silent citizens, they don't demonstrate, they don't make a fuss, they just get in with their lives.

There was a puzzle with a 3 part list in the solution":
"How do I know about these people? Because I grew up with them. they were my neighbours, the silent have-nots."

He also made some interesting use of imagery:
"If we Tories only navel gaze and only pander to our comfort zone, we will never win general elections. All the core delivers is the wooden spoon."

Majorspeak revisited?
An observation at the time of the 1992 general election was John Major's tendency to speak very 'formally' (See Chapter 19, Crew & Gosschalk, 1995). This was evidenced partly by his choice of words that are rarely, if ever, heard in everyday conversation (e.g. 'whomsoever', 'wayside inn', 'on the morrow', badinage, etc.) and partly by his reluctance ever to use the elided forms for negatives and certain tense constructions (e.g. he was more likely to say 'we do not' than 'we don't', 'we had' rather than we'd' etc.

In yesterday's speech, "hectoring" and "censorious" suggest that his preference for obscure words lives on.

But the fact that he said "they don't" twice in quick succession is perhaps evidence that he has started to break away from his former preference for using the full forms. 

The bad news is that, without the video-taped evidence, we may never know.

Related Posts:

How does Jeremy Hunt (or anyone else) know how many old people in the UK are 'chronically lonely' ?

It can hardly have passed anyone's notice that one of the big media stories over the past few days has been Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's claims about the number of our aged population who are 'chronically lonely' (see above clip).

For me, his casual use of statistics brought back a vivid memory from more than forty years ago of an event that had made me deeply skeptical about the validity of treating such numbers as 'hard facts'.

Tony Benn sets up a research fellowship
A not so well-known fact about my early research is that I once held a Post Office research fellowship that had been created by the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, at the University of Essex - which led to my conducting a survey of just over 1,000 randomly sampled respondents in the UK who were aged 65 and over.

In those pre-privatisation days, the Post Office (GPO) still ran our telephone system and Harold Wilson's Labour government was under pressure to supply free telephones to the country's elderly. But then, as now, research into a problem is always a much cheaper option than doing anything about it.

Mr Benn was a friend of Professor Peter Townsend, who was already well known for his definitive books on isolation in old age and who had just become the first head of sociology at the new University   of Essex. So that's where the money for the GPO research fellowship went - and, as a lowly research assistant, I was in the right place at the right time to be lucky enough to get the job.

'Objective' and 'subjective' isolation
Townsend and other researchers in the area had distinguished between two types of isolation:

  1. Objective: How often did respondents see their family and friends?
  2. Subjective: How many respondents said they felt lonely?
In the questionnaires, the second of these was measured by asking respondents: "Are you often, sometimes or never lonely", to which the results came out as remarkably similar from one survey to another*. For mine, if memory serves me correctly, the results were:
  • Often lonely: 7%
  • Sometimes lonely: 23%
  • Never lonely: 70%
So, by lumping "sometimes" and "often" lonely together, we could conclude that just under one in three elderly people experienced a degree of loneliness.

While piloting the draft questionnaire, I interviewed an 80 year old woman who quite severely disabled and more or less housebound. She had no trouble answering the key questions with an immediate and emphatic "Never lonely"

As I packed away her completed questionnaire in my bag and explained that I had to be going,  she begged be to stay a bit longer, and launched into a series of sad stories about relatives who never came to see her and about how her  disability prevented her from going to see the few of her friends who were still alive. How could I refuse her insistence that I must have enough time for a cup of tea?

Yet the 'hard fact', already recorded in my questionnaire, was that she was one of the 70% who were "never lonely".

This contradiction between her answers to the question on the questionnaire and what she said over tea afterwards made gave me serious doubts about the validity of such apparently 'hard facts'. 

All these years later, thanks to Mr Hunt, the doubts have come back - and I'm no less suspicious of his 'hard facts' today as I was of my own 'hard facts' then. 

"Chronically lonely" sounds even worse than "very lonely" - which raises the question of whether more or fewer than the 7%  who confessed to being "very lonely" in 1967 would admit to being "chronically lonely" in 2013? Mr Hunt may have meant well by raising the issue with a wider audience, but to imply that such figures are 'hard facts' worth taking seriously is to assume rather a lot.

P.S. A missed opportunity?
It wasn't as if this experience were the only thing that had made me start questioning the methodology of what I was doing. It was at a time when important debates were getting under way in in academic sociology: quantitative research and survey methods were coming under attack from qualitative researchers; positivism, the hypothetico-deductive model of science and the collection of 'hard facts' were being challenged by approaches like symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. And  Thomas Kuhn had just taught us the new phrase 'scientific paradigm'.

My own PhD research was already veering in this latter direction, as central theme was a critique of the paradigm established by Emile Durkheim's 1897 classic Le Suicide (eventually published as Discovering Suicide: Studies in the Social Organizatin of Sudden Death, 1978).

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues at Essex, Dorothy Smith had just heard from Erving Goffman at UC Berkeley that he had a rather promising graduate student called Harvey Sacks who was writing a PhD thesis based on live tape-recordings of telephone calls to the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Agency, and even suggested that I might do something similar rather than the conventional survey research that was being planned.

Ignoring such excellent advice, I played safe by remaining loyal to the methodology favoured in Peter Townsend's books on the elderly and poverty. 

By the time I had finished my PhD, however, Sacks had put in quite an important appearance in my thesis. And later on, much of the motivation and inspiration for my later work on public speaking and presentation (books at the bottom of this page) came directly from him and the other main founders of conversation analysis, Emanuel Shegloff and Gail Jefferson.

P.P.S. The same results yet again
Less than 24 hours after posting this, I was fascinated to learn that a figure very close to the 7% saying they were 'often lonely' in my survey appeared in this bar chart, showing the percentage of 'over 60s reporting frequent loneliness' in the UK.

My thanks to @FlipChartRick for drawing my attention to his blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales, which featured the chart - and where you can read more comments about what Mr Hunt said.

Loneliness in Europe

Graphical domination of BBC TV News goes from bad to worse?

Huw Edwards - News at 10

For a while, you'll be able to enjoy, if 'enjoy' is the right word for a series of PowerPoint style presentations, last night's BBC News at 10 on iPlayer HERE.

It starts with a seated Huw Edwards reading out the headlines for about 1:30 minutes. Then, he reappears standing in front of a screen, where distracting dollar bills float into heaps in front of the Capitol in Washington DC behind him.

As he clutches a sheet of paper that doesn't seem to serve any useful purpose, numbers about what he's telling us start appearing behind him. Occasionally he makes as if to look at them before handing us over to their Washington correspondent.

Plenty more graphics follow until a flip chart suddenly appears at 14:41 minutes in, with people sitting behind it. But don't worry, our economics correspondent isn't going to write on it, as the numbers and words plop on to the chart, giving the game away just before she's had time to tell us the news about them.

Scroll on to 21:01 minutes, and Huw's back on his feet again with paper in his hands again and more pictures behind him again - soon to be followed by a series of bullet points zooming threateningly in behind his back.

But the barmiest sequence of all comes in at 22:25 minutes into the news, when our medical correspondent suddenly reappears in the middle of a series of concentric circles next to what could be some towers. And towers they turn out to be - tall enough to hold a list of 10 bullet points. As if that weren't enough, the next two towers are tall enough to accommodate 11 bullet points.

23:09 minutes in, we learn why the concentric circles are there. Our medical correspondent is actually standing in the middle of a pie chart, that starts whizzing around him as he tries to point out the numbers that have appears

Regular readers know that I've complained about the BBC's assumption that PowerPoint style presentations are just what viewers who've spent the day suffering from PowerPoint want to see in the evenings.

I've wondered about how much such expensive-looking graphics cost and whether the BBC ever does any research into how audiences respond to news that's presented in this way.

If so, it's surely time they published the results. If not, I'd be glad to offer my services...

Other posts on TV news via PowerPoint:

Cameron's speech: who thinks he should be seen pretending not to use a script?

It is very well-known that technology can have a marked impact on how effectively speakers come across to an audience - as anyone who's ever been at a PowerPoint presentation knows only too well (see also HERE).

So a matter, if not the matter,  arising from this year's party conference season is just how effectively do speakers come across when they pretend not to use a script?

Three 'scriptless' leaders
Because this year, we saw Ed Miliband repeating the feat of memory that worked so well for him last year, while Nick Clegg and David Cameron relied on huge teleprompter screens that were hidden towards the back of the audence - as did  George OsborneJeremy Hunt and no doubt a few others .

Of the party leaders, Miliband showed us that he could indeed do it again and Clegg showed us (as I've long suspected) that standing at a lectern works better for him than wandering about the stage like a management guru.

But Cameron was more disappointing than usual, not least because he's a talented enough public speaker, whether speaking from a script or from memory, not to have to rely on such gadgets. You don't have to watch very far into the above to notice that his head and eyes don't always move in time together: his head sometimes turns slightly while his eyes stay firmly glued to the screen directly in front of him - rather like some of Margaret Thatcher's problems when she spoke from Autocue screens.

Where is the advice coming from and what's the evidence for it?
As has often concerned me about the BBC's obsession with PowerPoint style news and current affairs coverage, what gave them the idea that audiences like it and can they point to any research that actually supports such a claim.

So for Messrs Miliband, Clegg and Cameron (and their aides), I have a similar question or two.

Who has advised you that it's a good idea to be seen to be pretending not to have a script and have they shown you any empirical evidence that supports their claim. If so, what is it and where can I see it?

If not, why on earth are you taking any notice of their advice?

(P.S. And some questions for Mr Miliband: who thinks it's a good idea to have some of the audience behind you and do they have any evidence to support their claim? If so, what is it and where can I see it? If not, why are you taking any notice of their advice?)

Related posts

Did George Osborne get away with reading his speech from the back of the hall?

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Gigantic screens at the back of the hall, big enough for speakers to read their scripts from, seem to be replacing more traditional teleprompters (like Autocue) this year.

The picture above was posted on Twitter earlier today by Paul Waugh during George Osborne's speech at the Conservative Party conference - and retweeted as follows by John Rentoul, who had presumably also noticed similar goings on at the Liberal Democrat conference:  

"Very Nick Clegg RT @paulwaugh: Autocues in the audience for Osbo speech.. Helpful for any soundbites we miss."

This raises at least two questions that our politicians might like to consider.
  • Do they really want comments on their latest gadgets to become a focus of attention for journalists?
  • Does this technological gadgetry help them to improve the delivery of their speeches?
The answer to the first of these questions is presumably "No" - unless, of course, they're quite happy about reporters being distracted away from the content of the speech.

And, on the evidence of today's performance by Mr Osborne, the answer to the second is also a resounding "No" (but you can judge this for yourself below).

As for why this should be, I suspect that the technology and/or the script aren't in place soon enough for the speaker to get enough practice at using it before making the actual speech itself - for which he, his aides and the gadget operators would all have to make extra time when the hall was deserted..'

Some related posts on teleprompters:

Lincoln the movie: 'too many words' and 'too American' for British ears?

Last night we went to watch the film Lincoln in our local village hall - and, as something of a speech and communications nerd, it was something I had been looking forward to for quite a while.
But, from a few minutes in, I found it increasingly difficult to get two rather negative thoughts out of my mind.

1. Too many words?
One was a memorable line from the film  Amadeus, when Mozart is confronted by the complaint that his latest composition suffered from having had "too many notes." From discussions afterwards, I know that I wasn't the only person in the audience who thought that Lincoln suffered from having "far too many words".

Among other things, this had the effect,  of making it the film too long. For example, when individual members of Congress started to vote on the crucial amendment one by one, I wondered just how many hundreds of these we were going to have to sit through.

2. Too American?
I'll admit that our village hall film shows do have a problem with the sound quality, so it was also a relief to learn afterwards that I hadn't been to only one there who had trouble hearing the dialogue. Leaving that to one side, however, there was something else that was difficult to get out of my mind -  that I'd implicitly touched on in a recent presentation on on how well does English work as a common language.

This was the fact that differences between American and British culture may have ensured that Lincoln was unlikely to impress British audiences as much it had apparently impressed audiences on the other side of the Atlantic.

Before the film started, another member of the audience had already said to me "I don't know much about American history and I've really only come because I felt I ought to - I might learn something."

Too Ethnocentric for a British audience?
And here lies the rub. We Brits really know very little about the history of the USA, let alone its constitution or how it works.

We do know that they had the audacity to declare their independence from us, that they had a civil war that led to the end of slavery - though not the end of segregation (HERE) - and that they had opted to have a president rather than a monarchy.

But most of us know very little about the separation of powers between the legislative and executive arms of government, nor about the differences between the individual constituent states of the USA and the federal government - or the machinations between them that this gives rise to.

So for us, some of the basic assumptions at the heart of the film were at best culturally strange and at worst, completely foreign to us.

Vices & virtue as drama?
Apart from the characters of Lincoln and his family, it was never really made clear who everyone else was and we were left guessing who they were and which side they were on, whether in the ongoing debate or the civil war itself. All too often conversations sounded more like a succession of speeches or soliloquies, as when Mrs Lincoln had a row with her husband.

But, however unrealistic, unclear or plain boring the script might have been to British-English ears, the superb acting of Daniel Day Lewis not only deserved  all the acclaim and awards that he received for it but was main thing that made it worth seeing at all,

Now we've had an Anglo-Irish actor making such an excellent job of playing a US president so soon after an American actress (Meryl Streep) apparently played a British prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) rather well, we may even be witnessing a promising trend that might actually bring our two cultures a bit closer together.

But that may depend on whether screen-script writers on each side of the Atlantic take note of the famous line that's widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw - England and America are two countries divided by a common language - but which he apparently never said...

Next open course on Speechwriting & Presentation. 10-11 October