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?)

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