Posts

Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura-Estonia-Environment-Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

trump Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Shock horror: simple language reaches people

trump-Mike-Licht-CC-by-2.0

Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, have shown that Donald Trump, Republican front runner for the nomination as US President, uses the simplest language of all the presidential hopefuls is a gift for mocking headline writers. But it is no surprise to me.

I love the company of intelligent people. I enjoy interesting and diverse conversation. But honestly; do I like it if I feel people are using long words or long sentences that I’m not sure I understand? [My son is very good at this!] I am sure a psychologist would have a fancy term for it, but it makes me feel small. It also makes me feel that the clever person is ‘not one of us’.  In fact, it is clear that sometimes the clever person is deliberately using language to make the point that he or she is not one of us but in fact much cleverer!

Why do I draw attention to this? Because the 101 of media and presentation training is to speak in layman’s language as much as possible (I often say colloquial language but don’t want to fall foul of my own rules).

[In crisis media communications, we teach that being colloquial, not sounding like you have just swallowed some procedural handbook, is pretty essential to winning the sympathy of your audience.]

Usually, when we point out that jargon, acronyms and conceptual language (think access, product, solution) should be replaced by more down-to-earth phrases, people get the point quite quickly. But one in ten, on my reckoning, will push back with one of three resistance lines:  perhaps ‘ I want to speak to the FT not the Sun’, or ‘What will my colleagues think’ or ‘Isn’t this just dumbing down?’

The reality is that if you want to speak to a non-specialist audience, and I would include here most external stakeholders, they will hear you, understand you, and feel more sympathetic towards your argument, if you make the message simple. It needs to be instantly understandable. You do not need to add arrogance, aggression or rudeness (à la Trump).  You just need to talk the way you would talk to your Mum or an intelligent 14-year-old. It is fine to introduce some technical terms in, say, a business presentation or interview, but just make sure you explain them.

Being able to tell a story simply is an amazing gift. The world would be a better place if more people could do it.

Simple language is far from the whole story. Donald Trump is not a good guy, or fit for President, because he uses simple language. But those of us scratching our heads and asking why he is still in the race, should try and learn what we can from his extraordinary and rather frightening success.

Photo credit: Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Hilary Benn s Impassioned Speech Ahead Of Syria Airstrikes Vote YouTube

A great speech dissected

The speech of the week in the UK was without doubt the one by the shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn in parliament in favour of air strikes in Syria.

He spoke for just under 15 minutes:  here is a sample of the reaction to what he said:

Reaction

The Telegraph called it ‘spine-tingling’ and ‘inspiring’. The Guardian found it ‘riveting’. The Daily Mail said it was ‘electric’ and ‘one of the great Commons speeches’. Huffington Post said it was ‘eloquent and poetic’. And perhaps most telling of all, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary – the man who sits opposite Benn on the political benches – called it ‘one of the truly great speeches in parliamentary history’.

So for us students of effective communication it is worth analysing why this speech had such impact, both in parliament and across the nation.

Not a rabble rouser

The first thing I would observe is that the speech is inclusive. This is not a rabble rouser. Instead Benn carefully builds affinity with his key audiences.

He does this first by giving the Prime Minister a very strong telling-off for insulting Jeremy Corbyn and suggesting he was a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. Benn restates his respect for his boss, saying he is not a terrorist sympathiser but  an ‘honest, principled, decent, good man’.  This establishes the fact that although Benn is going to disagree with Corbyn and side with the Conservative government, he is not changing sides and the issue is not personal.

Then, in a rather long-winded way, he makes reference to other speakers in the debate, praising contributions from both sides of the argument. More evidence of inclusiveness.

Key Message 

His key message comes at about five minutes in: ‘I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria’.

Tower of Logic

This is followed by a fairly detailed and very logical look at whether the proposed military action is legal. This is tedious but a crucial foundation of his argument as many in the House of Commons today question whether Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was legal. ‘Proving’ that airstrikes in Syria would be legal is the first brick in the tower of logic Benn seeks to build through the speech.

Emotional appeal 

After the legal question he shakes things up with an emotional appeal. As he expresses horror at the actions of ISIL (or Da’esh), we get to a very powerful part of the speech. Benn uses three ‘colourful’ examples first:

– Four gay men thrown from the fifth storey of a building.

– The beheading of the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra.

– And the mass graves of Yazidi women killed because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.

Having delivered the ‘colour’ he then delivers the numbers – people killed by Da’esh:

– 30 British tourists in Tunisia

– 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane

– 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc

– 130 people in Paris

…ending this section ‘they could have been our children’. (Note the ‘our’; not ‘your’ or ‘anyone’s’, or ‘British’.) People who have worked with us know that we always look to build in both colour and numbers to our client’s arguments.

Benn then continued to take on, one by one, the other key pillars of the debate: why Britain should not stand aside; why the argument that ‘air strikes achieve nothing’ is wrong, and how Britain could both continue to work for peace in Syria and send bombing forays against Da’esh. Each step was clear and logical, building brick by brick the case for extended military action.

Fascists and contempt

The final few minutes of the speech are the most powerful. Much of the comment has focused on Benn’s evocation of the Second World War fight against Fascists.

‘Here we are faced by Fascists…’ he says. It is strong but I was more struck by his repeated use of the word ‘contempt’. Somehow it was this that, in the moment, stiffened my sinews and evoked my disgust.

‘They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.’

Benn finishes the speech with a short, staccato rallying cry, couched in simple, colloquial language.

And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.’

Rhetoric can change history

Expert rhetoric does not mean the argument is right. But those of us spending our lives trying to find the right words, the right analogies and the right tone to build arguments must pause and reflect when someone hits the mark as Hilary Benn did last week. It is also a reminder of the power of rhetoric. This speech probably did not change the outcome of the debate but it may well have changed the trajectory of Hilary Benn’s career and the future of the Labour party.

juncker1

Juncker disappoints: We want more from EU speakers

This article first appeared on Hearings.Digital-Diplomacy.EU

What is the purpose of a speech?

Judging from some of the conversations I’ve been having with people on Twitter, I have been unfair to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, because I wanted him to deliver his State of the Union speech in an engaging and convincing manner.

When I make comments like this, people in Brussels often assume that this is somehow a dig at the speaker’s English (which is usually perfect) and that I should cut them some slack because they are often talking in their third or fourth language.

So before I start this blog in full I want to make a number of things clear.

I am in awe of people who work in several languages

As a Brit who works almost exclusively in her mother tongue and speaks passable (but not professional) French and Spanish, I know how hard it is to work at an effective and nuanced level in other languages.

Doing speeches in multi-lingual environments is tough

This is partly because of language but also genuine cultural differences which exist over what makes an authoritative public speaker. Personally I think speeches should be banned from EU policy environments because they don’t add anything and almost all policymakers do better when taking questions rather than delivering set piece speeches which they aren’t good at.

I don’t want everyone to sound like Tony Blair

 

Or Angelina Jolie.

Far from it. I want them to be the best possible version of themselves if they are going to convince an audience to listen to their message. This does not make me superficial and unduly fixated on metaphors.  Nor does it mean I overlook substance in favour of rhetorical flourish (whatever that is). Rather, it means I accept that all public speaking is an exercise in creating and sustaining a convincing connection with an audience over a set period of time.  The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago when they were using speechmaking to cement ‘democracy’ in Athens. And not being boring matters more than ever in the increasingly impressionistic digital age we now live in.

So, caveats aside, the speech was a game of two halves. It was beautifully crafted, with lovely soundbites, great numbers and sticky stories but delivered in such a flat and listless way that it made me want to put a biro through my eyeball.

Quite simply, you wouldn’t have known this was the make or break speech it had been trailed as.

juncker

Juncker’s well written State of the Union was undermined by his flat delivery

The Good

Beautifully written: lots of sizzling soundbites such as  ‘There is a lack of Europe in Europe and a lack of union in the European Union’ and ‘Europe cannot house all the world’s misery’. Chapeau to Juncker’s speechwriters, who have done a very good job in focusing the content on the audience.
Great numbers – such as 20mn Poles live outside Poland – helped create a strong narrative arc and context for discussing the refugee crisis.
Strong storytelling and examples to help make the speech visual and real. There was also very little jargon. Good, good, good.

The Bad

Just one major point: the delivery was flat with terrible energy  and no light or shade (in all three languages, not just English). This is not a language issue. It’s a performance issue. No speaker will be convincing if they do not seem interested in and engaged by their own subject. Most of us have to fake energy and enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking. It does not mean you have to be a fake to do it.
I am a broken record on the energetic delivery point. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can have the best or worst content in the world but if you have no ooomph as a speaker  then you will always fail to ignite or even connect with your audience.
A strong speech certainly helps. But performance, passion and conviction are everything

 

Brussels-Speaking2

The Brussels challenge: how to deliver better speeches

On Wednesday 9th September, Jean-Claude Juncker, will deliver his first State of the Union (#SOTEU) speech as President of the European Commission.

Despite being a comparatively recent addition to the EU’s political calendar (the SOTEU was introduced less than a decade ago), in its short life the speech has nonetheless managed to attract the kind of political sniping and rhetorical mockery (gentle or otherwise) that is usually reserved for much higher profile events.

To tune in to this have a look at some of the fun Jon Worth (euro blogger and creator of JunckerBullsh*tBingo) and Craig Winneker (a journalist at Politico EU) have been having ahead of the speech.

In a way, these digital digs are a back handed acknowledgment that the SOTEU has ‘arrived’ as an event.  But behind the perennial moans about mutated metaphors, stiff delivery and awful Eurish phrases lies a broader point – doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is fiendishly hard.

More broadly, what continues to amaze me about Brussels is that despite the amount of money sloshing around in communications and public affairs, very little gets spent on improving the actual quality of public speaking. And much of it is really quite awful.

Unfortunately, it’s also prolific – a partial inversion of Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall Joke in which his comedian Alvy Singer tells the following anecdote:

‘There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”‘

Only in Brussels, the portions are big.

juncker

Doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is tough

I am not going to go into detail about the reason for the bad public speaking – although it does have to do with some non-natives speaking in their second or third language and a political culture that has long divorced policy expertise and substance from performance, as well as the fact that many policy experts are not natural orators.

However, whether it’s a roundtable, keynote speech, expert panel or Parliamentary hearing, there is no excuse for boring your audience to tears and leaving them hating you and your organisation.

So, here are a few tips specifically aimed at those who have to write or deliver speeches for EU policy audiences.

The speaker must put themselves in the audience’s shoes

Remind your speaker that a speech is a piece of theatre and that their job is to keep the audience’s attention throughout. No one can or should assume that an audience will be persuaded by or remember a piece of text that has been read in a dull and passionless way. This does not mean they have to turn into Laurence Olivier but it does mean getting your speaker to acknowledge that more is expected of them than simply turning up to read a speech that could otherwise have been e-mailed. If it means getting them into the ‘zone’ 10 minutes beforehand by taking them to a quiet room and going through the opening paragraphs, then do it. It can make all the difference for concentrating the mind on the task ahead.

Play to your speaker’s strengths

Not all cultures favour boldness in public speaking. Many take a more low-key approach and if your speaker is of the humble variety then work with it. If they are uncomfortable using imagery, tricolons or other kinds of rhetorical devices, don’t fight to include them while the text is being prepared. It will look much worse if they are clearly uncomfortable during the speech and it is your job to make them feel comfortable with the material, not to turn them into something they aren’t. But jargon should be removed and I think relevant anecdotes and examples work well for all personality types and should be included, provided they are authentic.

Help them improve eye-contact

Break the speech up into chunks and consider organising it onto numbered index cards rather than pages. Ideally each card should only have one or two paragraphs on it but I appreciate this may be too radical for some. Breaking up the text not only helps the speaker to make appropriate pauses and allow the audience to digest but also encourages them to look up because they have fewer words to read on the page.

Highlight key phrases

Embolden key words that you want the audience to take away from the speech. Add the verbal connectors such as ‘for example’ or ‘however’ to introduce new ideas. You could also write (PAUSE) and (BREATHE) at the points where you want your speaker to pause for effect or to allow the audience some space before introducing new ideas.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Get your speaker to rehearse several times, ideally on camera, then play back their performance and give honest but constructive feedback (if you can’t be that person then get someone who can be honest with the speaker). If they aren’t convinced that rehearsal is essential, getting them to look at the hard evidence of the video tape can make all the difference. It will also help to weed out fast or monotonous delivery, as well as words that are hard to pronounce or get lost if the speaker has a particularly strong accent.

Less is usually more

Brussels-Speaking

Mid career many of us are expected to speak in public

Not many speakers can hold an audience’s attention for as long as they think they can. Just because you know a lot about a subject does not mean that you have to say it all on every occasion. Persuade your speaker to make the point he or she wishes to make, with power and passion, and then sit down.

These are just a few tips. What others do you have?