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

Is it really 5 years since my blogging (or vanity) began?

Today this blog marks its fifth anniversary.  

Blogging hadn't really occurred to me until Michael Crick, then of BBC 2's Newsnight programme, and now at Channel 4 News, suggested to me that it might be a good idea.

I suppose he must have already known that the rise of the internet and social media, etc. had severely limited the chances of 'specialists' like me to get their output published in the mainstream media.

But I have to admit that it's rather a mixed blessing to be able to 'publish' anything you feel like writing without any kind of editorial comment, feedback or control..

A few of the 998 blogposts (so far) were based on material that had already appeared in newspapers. But the vast majority never did.

There was, of course, a time when to publish you own writings was referred to as 'vanity publishing'.

But a big difference between 'vanity publishing' and blogging is that this costs you very little other the hours you spend on it.

Whether or not it's proof of my vanity, I'll leave others to decide. To help on yout way, I've decided to mark the anniversary by putting links to old posts from the archives on Twitter - the first one of which outlined some tips for Gordon Brown's party conference speech in 2008.

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

How well does English really work as a 'common language' of communication?

(Script of my presentation at last week's European Speechwriters Conference).

This talk has been prompted by a number of experiences running courses on speechwriting and presentation in various parts of Europe.

Like some of my previous presentations at UK Speechwriters’ Guild conferences, it poses more questions than it answers. But at least it may open a discussion of possible interest and relevance to many of you here today.

All the courses on speechwriting were conducted in English

None of those attending was a native-speaker of English.

But all of them had the job of writing speeches in English, to be given by other non-native speakers of English to audiences of yet more non-native speakers of English.

We who have been native speakers of English since acquiring language in the first place (and who have little need to develop a command of any other language) cannot help being full of admiration for the fact that they can do it at all. But the challenge they face brings three true stories to mind, and raises at least three questions worth discussing.

Speaking to non-native speakers (1) 
The first time I ever spoke to an audience of non-native speakers of English was more than three decades ago at an academic conference in the Council of Europe chamber in Strasbourg.

It was long before I'd developed a technical interest in how audiences react to public speaking. when my main experience had been listening to academics read out papers at other academic conferences.

I was to present a 30 page academic paper, for which I had been allocated 5 minutes.

So I decided (very unwisely) to read it aloud as quickly as possible and see how far I got - which wasn't very far. After about half a minute, the chairman interrupted me. 

The  simultaneous interpreters had complained that they couldn't keep up with me speaking at such a pace, so he asked me to slow down.

Speaking to non-native speakers (2) 
Later on, at another academic conference at the University of Konstanz, I could tell that my audience was looking increasingly puzzled by what I was saying.

By then, I had become a bit more sensitive to the needs of my audience and came up with what might have been a suitable strategy: simplify, simplify, simplify.

Suitable strategy it might have been if only I hadn't use more colloquialisms and slang to 'simplify' my points. And that, of course, was no solution at all, as it made my talk even more unintelligible to the audience than it had been in the first place.

Speaking to non-native speakers (3)
In the third example, I wasn’t actually speaking but was in an audience of mixed,  nationalities, mainly from Europe, at a conference in Urbino.

It was a memorable lecture analysing a letter by Pliny the Younger by the well-known semiologist and author, Umberto Eco - though memorable more for what happened than for what he said.

He had just started his lecture when a group of locals demanded to know why he was speaking English in an Italian university. His response was impressively democratic and he asked the audience:

“How many of you can only speak English?”

I was one of the tiny minority of 5 or 6 native speakers of British and American English who raised their hands.

In response to which Eco quickly rephrased his question:

“For how many of you is English the only foreign language you can understand?”

The vast majority of hands now went up, to which Eco turned to his compatriots and said:

As my lecture was advertised to be in English and the only language most people here understand is English, I shall give my lecture in English” – at which point, the rebellious Italian minority walked out.

Lingua Anglica
So, although English may have become Europe’s new Lingua Franca its dominance is not always without its problems.

Speaking more quickly and simplifying via colloquialisms and slang are obviously no solution.

And there is quite a lot of good news. For one thing, the same rhetorical techniques are just as effective in getting messages across in any particular language – and have been for at least 2,000 years since the classical Greeks began teaching and writing about rhetoric.

For example, I remember when writing Our Masters Voices, Francois Mitterand had just been elected President of France – and the one line that was widely quoted in the British media was a poetic contrast with alliteration.

In English his aim was translated as: “My aim will be to convince, not to conquer.”

The original French version must have arguably sounded even more poetic, with its simple rhyme:
á convaincre, pas á vaincre." 

Stories & imagery
Nor is it just rhetorical techniques like contrasts and three-part lists that work effectively to get messages across in any language. The same is true of using stories or anecdotes to illustrate your key points.

Other forms of imagery can also work effectively in any language, but metaphors do sometimes need handling with care, especially in the case of sporting metaphors.

As a native speaker of British English, I often find myself bemoaning the fact that we have imported so many baseball metaphors from American English,  even though it’s not a game that's played or understood by most British adults.

But that doesn’t stop us having to listen to fellow British presenters telling us about “Going up to the plate” or “getting past first base”.

Cricketing metaphors may be fine for speakers of English in Australasia, the Caribbean or the Indian sub-continent, but they're not much use in  the USA, or indeed in the rest of Europe.

What do they really mean?
All of which brings me to some rather obvious questions, about which I'm curious, but to which I have no obvious answers.

Although English is so widely spoken around the world, how well is it actually understood?

Or, going back to my opening comments, how effectively are non-native speakers of English who give speeches written by other non-native speakers of English to audiences of yet more non-native speakers  of English?

I used to do quite a lot of work with the director of communications at a British company that had recently been taken over by a Dutch company.

When I made some remark about how lucky they were that the Netherlands was part of the English-speaking world, he replied:

“Yes, their English is very impressive – but there are times when we’re not quite sure whether they’ve really got the point.”
The crunch question
It was a similar story from a Japanese student in Oxford who was studying for a PhD.

As she had spent many of her teenage years growing up in the USA, she was fluent in Japanese and English, which enabled her to pay for her studies by doing simultaneous translation at high level business meetings.

After one such meeting between Japanese and British motor manufacturers, I asked her how it had gone – to which she replied:

“OK as far as it went, but I do think that they should pay me for an extra hour after the meetings so I could tell them what I think they really meant.”

Her point, of course, was that the simultaneous literal translation was all very well, but she was also noticing and interpreting a good deal more than the words that were actually coming out of the Japanese mouths.

And what she thought they really meant was a potentially valuable asset in the negotiating process.

Three questions 
Many of you in this audience will have had first hand experience of such issues, so I'll end with three questions in search of an answer.

How important do you think the problem of translating what speakers really mean is.

Does the use of English as a common language mean that there’s something unavoidably cloudy about the way the countries of Europe – and the wider world - are communicating with each other?

And if listeners are not quite understanding what a speaker really means, how much does it matter?

The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler

(I've just noticed that a link from today's earlier blog post wasn't working, so the original from five years ago is reposted here).

Here's something at the other end of the scale from previous blogs about Barack Obama's brilliance at oratory.

At the State Opening of Parliament on 3rd December, the Queen, as she does every year, will be reading out her government's legislative plans for the months ahead. Most commentators will be listening to the Speech to find out what Gordon Brown is going to be putting on the statute book in 2009.

How not to speak inspiringly
But you can also listen to it as a model of how not to give an inspiring speech.

Public speaking at its best depends both on the language used to package the key messages and the way it is delivered. Using rhetoric, maintaining eye contact with the audience, pausing regularly and in particular places, stressing certain words and changing intonation are all essential ingredients in the cocktail for conveying passion and inspiring an audience. This is why it is so easy to ‘dehumanise’ the speech of Daleks and other talking robots by the simple device of stripping out any hint of intonational variation and have them speak in a flat, regular and monotonous tone of voice.

When it comes to sounding unenthusiastic and uninterested in inspiring an audience, the Queen’s Speech is an example with few serious competitors. She has no qualms about being seen to be wearing spectacles, which underline the fact that she is reading carefully from the script she holds so obviously in front of her. Nor is she in the least bit inhibited about fixing her eyes on the text rather than the audience. Then, as she enunciates the sentences, her tone is so disinterested as to make it abundantly clear that she is merely reciting words written by someone else and about which she has no personal feelings or opinions whatsoever.

This is, of course, how it has to be in a constitutional monarchy, where the head of state has to be publicly seen and heard as obsessively neutral about the policies of whatever political party happens to have ended up in power. The Queen knows, just as everyone else knows, that showing enthusiasm, or lack of it, about the law-making plans of her government would lead to a serious crisis that would be more than her job is worth. So, even when announcing plans to ban hunting with hounds, she managed not to convey the slightest hint of disappointment or irritation that a favorite pastime of her immediate family was about to be outlawed.

The Queen’s Speech is therefore an interesting exception to the normal rules of effective public speaking, and her whole approach to is a fine example of how to deal with those rare occasions when you have to conceal what you really feel about the things you are talking about. Another master of this was Mr McGregor, an official spokesman for the foreign office during the Falklands war, who made regular appearances of on television reading out progress reports in a flat, deadpan monotone – presumably because a vital part of his job was to give nothing away that might have encouraged or discouraged viewers, whether British or Argentinian, about how things were going in the South Atlantic.

How to prevent a civil war
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.

Displaying neutrality
So as well as listening to the content of the Queen’s Speech on 3rd December, it is also worth close inspection as an object lesson on how to address an audience if you’re ever in a position of having to convey complete neutrality and detachment. Or, if you’d rather rise to the much more usual challenge of trying to inspire your audience, pay close attention to the way she delivers it -- and then do exactly the opposite.

'I was flattered' 'to be told' that my thoughts on the passive 'had been noticed'...

One thing I've noticed about unsolicited comments on one of my books is that I'm often surprised by what a reader had actually noticed, especially when it's a passage that you'd forgotten you'd ever written - which is what happened in this particular case: a short section on when speakers might find the passive tense useful and occasionally ignore the blanket recommendation against it by the designers of grammar checkers like the one that comes with Micosoft Word.

Twitter's response:
Another thing I've now learned is that Twitter can generate some interesting and unexpected interpretations of whatever it is that you've written.

About a week ago, Brad Phillips posted a blog asking 'Why passive language isn't as bad as you think'. In a later tweet, he asked "What did you think of @maxatkinson's arguments for strategic times to employ the passive voice?" which prompted Ned Barnett (@nedbarnett) , to whom thanks also, came back with the following series of tweets (with my reaction to each one in red):

"No offense to Mr Atkinson, but I thought his example of research was weak and straw-manish, deflecting... (reading it again, I didn't think what I wrote about its use to convey 'generality, objectivity and detachment' was too far off the mark). 

"There are uses for the passive voice, but not in PR, speechmaking or to the media - it's a responsibility dodge... (Agreed).

"his most telling examples were the bureaucratic ones, where responsibility must be avoided at all costs... (Agreed, but I thought that's more or less what I'd written)

"In the real world. there aren't many cases where passive voice statements can't be improved by active voice." (Maybe, but I'm less than fully convinced by this).

As I have no problem with most of what Mr Barnett said, I was a bit disappointed that there was very little for us to have an argument about.  I was also disappointed to realise that he (and presumably other readers) might have fewer grounds for complaint if only I'd been taken more care about how I had worded the original.

On the plus side:
But I'm still very grateful to Messrs. Philllips and Barnett, not only for spreading the word about my book to a much bigger English-speaking market than there is in the UK, but also for getting me to think more closely about two other speeches where detachment and neutrality definitely did matter or does matter.

I'm referring to Nelson Mandela's speech on release from prison and those of the annual Queen's speeches to the UK parliament. I hadn't inspected the texts of the speeches to see whether or not the passive features in them, but it's something that may now be well worth doing - as background to which, see The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler).

(Details of my next open course on Speechwriting & Presentation are HERE).

Is Paddy Ashdown reverting to type after 32 years?

Paddy Ashdown's speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference earlier today made me wonder whether he might be reverting to type after the 32 years since he made his first televised speech at a Liberal Assembly.

Although not wearing a tie may have recently become the fashion among top politicians (and business leaders), it certainly wasn't in 1981 - even if you were a prospective parliamentary candidate who was going to have wait another two years before knowing whether or not you would succeed in becoming an M.P.

But that didn't stop the young PPC for Yeovil, who spoke sans tie and sans suit - though, as I noted in my original post of the clip, 'the podium unfortunately prevents us from seeing whether or not he was also wearing sandals' (HERE):

In the same post, I also noted 'This was Ashdown in post-military mode, barking out his lines to the troops' ,  and I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be quite a lot of 'barking' in the way he delivered his lines to the troops this morning (see the above clip).

But in one aspect of his delivery this morning he was not reverting to type, as he seems to have taken a leaf out of Nick Clegg's book when it comes to the apparently unscripted 'management guru' style of delivery - which, as regular readers will know, I regard as something of a mixed blessing, at least until the jury returns...

Other posts on the 'management guru' style of speaking:

George Osborne speaks into thin air at a building site somewhere in London

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Readers will know that I've been mystified by the locations at which the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have delivered some rather important recent speeches (see list of related posts below).

Finding out exactly where, when and to whom he made his speech on the economy this morning has been quite a challenge.

The Daily Express tells us that he was at a building site in East London and, according to Sky News, he was "addressing an audience of academics, think tanks and businesses in London'.

As usual at such events, there was no hint of a response from anyone in the audience, if indeed anyone was there at all.

Also as usual, there's a weird backdrop of a blank window with a bar chart to the left that looks like a rather creative use of scaffolding - unless, of course, it's the latest in templates from PowerPoint...

Related Posts:

Two speakers speak at the same time in the New York mayoral election: exception that proves a rule?

This extraordinary 'conversation' between a voter and Anthony Wiener, a New York City mayoral candidate, is making me think again about one of the most basic rules of turn-taking, namely: 'one speaker speaks at a time'*.

New Yorkers may of course be an exception that proves the rule.

But, as I lack the transcription skills of the late Gail Jefferson, my chances of demonstrating that it's merely an extreme case of 'overlap competition'**,  in which they were actually closely orientating to what each other said on a turn-by-turn basis, are minimal.

* A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation by: Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A Schegloff, Gail Jefferson,Language, Vol. 50, No. 4. (1974), pp. 696-735.

**See also 'Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them.'

(Next open course on Speechwriting & Presentation details are HERE .