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Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Is it ever ok for organisations to talk about themselves in the third person?

Any media trainer will almost certainly say no, adding that nothing de-humanises a spokesperson faster than those who say ‘Organisation X’ rather than ‘we’ when speaking on behalf of their company, institution or NGO.

From Churchill to Martin Luther King to Boris Johnson, effective public speakers have always known and understood the importance of ‘we’ for building empathy.  And, more recently, as Lindsay blogged in December, part of the spine-tingling power of UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn’s ‘Syria’ speech was in its appeal to ‘our children’ and ‘our values’.

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Don’t let brand placement make you sound like a robot

Clearly, these are examples of rhetoric designed to quickly persuade and carry an audience with the speaker.  But if you need convincing at a more mundane level, consider these two statements. Which one builds trust and makes you think the spokesperson is comfortable and open in the way they represent their organisation at a day to day level?

‘Company X does not believe the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B. Company X worked for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives.‘

OR

‘We do not believe that the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B.  We have been working for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives’.

Clearly, (unless you are a robot), you are going to pick answer B.  It seems an incredibly basic thing for companies and public institutions to get right.  And yet, many do still overlook the all-important ‘we’, with its overtones of collective responsibility and inclusiveness.

Why? How could they?

Part of this is almost certainly down to branding. In our sardine-tin of a digital landscape, many organisations probably believe the best way to stand out is to name-check themselves as often and as loudly as possible.  There are also those who think using the third person adds gravitas, objectivity and even distance to sensitive or weighty issues.  And while all of these arguments are understandable, they shouldn’t automatically be favoured over ‘we’ or ‘us’.

And finally, in certain (ahem) policy towns, the persistent over-use of the third rather than the first person may well be a hangover from the adaptation of written materials to oral ones i.e. where lines/messages are prepared on paper by subject matter experts working in their second or third language and without forethought about how the words will sound coming out of an actual human being’s mouth.

Which is why it’s even more essential for spokespeople to rehearse (or, at the very least, read) their work aloud before doing a press conference or green-lighting a press release.  Otherwise, they run the risk of sounding like automatons who aren’t actually connected to the organisation they represent. And if they don’t sound like they care about their organisation, then how can the rest of us be expected to?

 
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.

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How to bring numbers to life

I am posting here a link to a brilliant bit of radio that brings to life the impact of the Syrian civil war by relating it to the UK.

The opening sentence gives you a chilling flavour of what is to come.

“Say you are one of the two and a half million people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester, and then you leave; all of you.”

The Syrian cause is close to our hearts here at The Media Coach. We have more than one client working in this now dangerous and desperate country. People we have trained in the last year, daily put their own lives at risks to provide a desperately needed lifeline to others.

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Have of all Syrian children are no longer in school

But this is a blog about bringing numbers to life. Particularly large numbers. Getting an audience to really understand huge numbers of people can be done visually – by an arial shot of a vast refugee camp, for example, or most memorably in the past few weeks by the sea of ceramic red poppies around the Tower of London to represent the dead solders from the First World War. But to do it on radio, giving your audience something they can relate to is a surefire method and this is great example. Much later in this two and a half minute clip Michael Blastland of BBC Radio 4s More or Less programme, turns his attention to the millions of children in Syria who are no longer getting an education. He asks us to imagine this happening in the UK.

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Michael Blastland, author and BBC Radio Presenter

“Go to every school in the land and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be. About five million of them, to correspond with the fifty percent of children in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.”

The ability to make numbers mean something is a real skill and one that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Michael Blastland for bringing these particular numbers to life.