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Boris

Boris at his best

Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister under huge pressure, yet he delivered a witty, clever and rousing speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday. As I said last week, there are benefits to talking to your own party: you have a supportive audience and you can speak for as long as you like. Nevertheless, it is a showpiece that will be remembered. Particularly if it is your first as leader.

I am going to add my usual disclaimer. I am not commenting in this blog about politics; I am commenting on the science and the art of communicating in public. Whatever you think about Boris Johnson as a Prime Minister, as a Brexiter or as someone who is accused of having a tenuous relationship with the truth, the man can deliver a speech.

The full speech is available here but if you want to see a few highlights The Guardian has helpfully provided a short version:

What can we learn from Boris’s barnstorming?

So, what are the lessons? Here is my list.

  • Be entertaining. The political situation could not be more serious – some might say chaotic, but Johnson chooses to be upbeat, not downbeat, as well as funny.
  • Be relevant to your audience. The whole speech is peppered with political ‘in’ jokes which makes everyone feel part of the same tribe. Building that feeling of ‘our tribe – your tribe’ is a well known ‘trick’ of public speaking. I wrote about this in a blog entitled ‘PR and the role of the enemy.’
  • Use your voice in different ways for different parts of the speech. If you want to emphasise something, say it slowly and punch the words as in ‘’voted out of the jungle by now” (12 seconds into the edited version). The next sentence “At least we would have had the consolation of watching the Speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle” is delivered fast and relatively downbeat, almost as a throw-away. That made it funnier than if it had been over-egged.  At 2’ 19” of the edit, we get a very heavily emphasised punch line to the long joke about Scottish fish. This light and shade, sometimes fast – sometimes slow, sometimes loud – sometimes quieter, makes the speech much more interesting to listen to.
  • Use the pause – I wrote about this at great length last week so it doesn’t need repeating.
  • At 2’ 27” we have the clever use of two examples. Those who have worked with me know that I am apt to bang on about the benefits of finding tangible stories, anecdotes and examples. Johnson was making the point that Britain has some very successful exports to countries outside the EU: He mentions an Isle of Wight shipbuilder who is exporting catamarans to Mexico and others who are exporting Jason Donovan CDs to North Korea. He could have talked about banking, insurance or Fintech but he chose something that people could picture. The takeaway – find examples that are tangible.
  • By adding the joke line “we recently briefly exported Nigel Farage to America but he seems to have come back” he delivered a third (mock) example. This allowed him the benefit of using a ‘power of three’. Lists are almost always best as threes. Again, it is a trick or device of public speaking known as a tricolon: the rhythm of it is attractive to the ear. There is nothing original about it, whole books have been written about ‘the power of three’. But here it is used with great effect.
  • Alliteration is always fun. 1’ 12” on the edit: “Can you think of a Communist Cosmonaut we Can Coach into the Cockpit?” It is difficult to think how one could get more hard Cs into a sentence. Someone had fun writing that.
  • Use colloquial language. At three minutes (3′ 00″) into the edit, we get: “I remember a time when people said solar power would never work in the cloudy UK and that wind turbines wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding…” It was a serious point but made in a highly colloquial way.
  • Make fun of yourself. He said, “I paint bad pictures of buses”. I also think when he said “look it up” after making an obscure reference to the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, he was acknowledging that he sometimes makes very obscure references.
  • End with a call to action. “Let’s get Brexit done, and bring this country back together.”

One thing that I think is not so good, Johnson is reading from a script rather than using autocue, which means he breaks the eye-line with the audience for quite a lot of the speech. This seems unnecessary in this day and age. Should you want to read his script you can find it here. As mentioned in a previous blog, good speeches do not need to have brilliant grammar and proper sentences and looking at it typed out you can see this is more a list of connected thoughts.

Finally, I feel compelled to add some balance and point out that over at the Politics Home website, some at least think the speech was not at all impressive. 

But for me (and apologies to all those that can’t get past Boris the buffoon who is ruining the country) I think it was an excellent speech whatever one’s politics.

 

Scehma1

A good number goes a long way with the media

This morning, the UK’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger did an interview on the BBC’s Today Programme in which she argued that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present because we know:

“A single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than in a typical house.”

The interview (which you can listen to here for the next 7 days) and figure Ms Berger quoted have been picked up almost verbatim by the mainstream media including The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

As someone who does a lot of work on risk communication I was immediately struck by the 23x figure, partly because of its numerical value and partly because of the visual picture it conjured up of smoky cars and houses.

When humans assess a new risk the brain initially does so by generating images (also known as mental models). This goes some way to explaining why some experts or campaigners are better at explaining risks than others.  Numbers are important as proof – but numbers which create pictures or explain relationships are even better because they allow the bit of the brain that deals with risk to process them more meaningfully. This is something that scientists or other ‘rational’, evidence based professions often overlook when talking about the risk posed by issues as diverse as fracking, GM or chemicals.

Scehma

The brain assesses risk in pictures

But it’s a lesson that can equally apply to other number-heavy professions when preparing experts for interview. Ms Berger only used two figures in her interview (the other was 500,000 children a week) but they were simple, meaningful and clear.

Picking a few clear numbers and taking the time to put them in context is a far better use of interview preparation time than digging out 20. I have no idea where Ms Berger got her figures  (nor am I implying that they aren’t true). But clearly, they made enough of an impact on the mainstream press who picked them up unchallenged thus ensuring even more free PR for the policy and presumably more exposure for Ms Berger.

A good number counts for a lot with journalists: and some might say its value can’t be measured.