Friday, October 31, 2008

Avoid Mirrors

No, this is not anything to do with superstition, it's to do with rehearsal. Yes, you have to rehearse, but never, never stand in front of a mirror to practice your speech. I know that many presentation experts will tell you that mirror rehearsals are a good idea. However, as a regular reader of these tips, you will know that I don't always agree with conventional wisdom.

Allow me to explain. When you speak to a mirror, you are trying to do two things at the same time - assess your speech at the same time as delivering it. That puts you in the odd position of trying to be both audience and presenter. Even worse, if you follow the good practice of making eye contact with your audience, you won't see someone reacting to your ideas, you will see yourself trying to remember your lines. All in all, it's a waste of time.

What about videoing yourself? Well, that can work, but it can lead to focusing on small gestures, such as how often you scratch your nose, which would pass unnoticed in front of a live audience. Also, people tend to behave differently in front of a camera.

What's the answer? You guessed it. Find someone to rehearse with. It should be someone you trust to give you honest feedback. You don't need to take up too much of their time, since one or two rehearsals are sufficient. You want to sound fresh when you speak. If you are in a hotel room, on your own before a speech, you can rehearse your lines over the phone to a friend. But please, not the mirror.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand are Innocent, OK?

Well, not totally innocent. They went too far in a bit of comedy banter last week, and have rightly apologised. But the reaction from both their employers at the BBC, and a number of licence-payers, has been both clumsy in inappropriate, in my opinion.

The radio show in question was pre-recorded, which is a wise precaution given the nature of the presenters. The same is true, for the same reasons, of BBC shows such as Have I got News for You?, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and The Graham Norton Show. Prior to broadcast, BBC editors and lawyers are supposed to check the content. This is where the failure occurred.

Only two listeners complained when the show was broadcast. Thousands have complained since, some of whom, by their own admission on air, have not heard the 20-minute routine. Seems to me more like a chance to beat the BBC than to be outraged by something they heard.

I assume that after a few days cooling their heels, both presenters will be back on air, and we can get back to reality. About time too.

Now there's a funny thing

There's an old story about an aspiring professional speaker who meets a speaker at the top of the profession.

* Young Speaker "Should I use humour in my speeches?"
* Top Speaker "Only if you want to get paid"

It's true. OK, there are a few occasions when humour is not appropriate, but even in a funeral oration a light touch and a smile does no harm. None of this means that you have to be a stand-up comedian, though learning a few comedy skills is very helpful. However, you do need to prepare, so here are a few tips

* Don't tell jokes you found online (or anywhere else)
* Use stories that happened to you - self-deprecation is good
* Keep it clean
* It's OK to be simply amusing, not trying for the big laugh
* Rehearse your lines and timing
* If no-one laughs, move on quickly

If you aren't naturally funny, get some help. There's a great comedy writer called Benjamin Marks who is based in Australia, but can spice up your material wherever you are. If you contact him, tell him I said Hi.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Did a man really walk on the moon?

Yes, of course. Twelve men did, to be precise.

Is there any doubt? Well, apparently, according to a conversation I had with a pal from Australia a few days ago. Despite being an intelligent bloke in his mid-40s, he is totally convinced that the whole thing was faked, having read some "evidence" on the Internet.

Which brings me to my point. The great thing about the Internet is that it allows everyone to express a view. The bad thing about the Internet is - er - that it allows everyone to express a view. Without getting into a philosophical discussion about "what is truth", I'd just like anyone viewing a "conspiracy theory" website to take a pause for thought. Conspiracies, of their very nature, require groups of people to act together and not reveal their activities to others. The more people involved (or the more complex the alleged conspiracy), the more difficult it is for everyone to keep the secret. In fact, it doesn't happen. Someone always gives the game away, for reasons of conscience, bravado, or money.

So, the moon landings did happen, there is no New World Order and the planet is not governed by shape-shifting lizards. What we see really is what we get.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sarah Palin - the precriminations begin

Republican politicians in the US are already starting to apportion blame for the failure of the McCain-Palin ticket. A number of influential political bloggers are talking about "precriminations" (ugly word, but we know what they mean). Some Republicans, notably Colin Powell, have already endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

In one of their recent joint TV interviews, with Brian Williams of NBC, John McCain and Sarah Palin did not look exactly like a united team, and Ms Palin gave a rambling and barely comprehensible answer about preconditions for talks with rogue states.

Now senior Republicans are distancing themselves from her selection, noting that McCain spent less than three hours in her company before announcing her as his running mate. The lesson seems clear - if you are going to work with someone, get to know them well, otherwise it can go very wrong, very quickly.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Mind your language

No, this is not about whether or not you use swear words in your speeches, though I assume that you don't. This tip is about choosing the right words for your speech. The important thing is whether the message that your audience hear is the one that you intend to convey. If, after your speech, you talk to members of your audience and hear yourself saying "that's not what I meant", then you have failed in your mission.

In short, you need to use language that -

* is clear
* supports your message
* is authentically yours

Clarity should not be a problem. There is no trade-off between short words and great speaking. In fact many of the most powerful messages have been delivered in the most simple language - "I have a dream..", "We will overcome.." "The lady's not for turning".

Using words that support your message is very important too. The recent turmoil in financial markets may have been addressed more quickly if US politicians had stopped discussing a "bail-out package" and started talking about a "rescue plan", as they did recently.

Lastly, being authentic is important for every speaker, in every speech. Try to avoid clich├ęs. Make up your own comparisons, based on your own experiences. Tell your own stories. That's what people want to hear.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tory spokesman loses the plot

This morning, over breakfast, I was listening to BBC Radio 5 Live, as I often do. On the back of the news, presenter Shelagh Fogarty was interviewing the Shadow Business Minister, Alan Duncan. It was an extraordinary interview. Mr Duncan was outlining Tory plans for small business, when he was asked how long he thought the recession might last. "What a silly question" he said. Ms Fogarty asked him again, in a slightly different way. "Are you a serious interviewer?" said Mr Duncan. Ms Fogarty tried again "Look" said Mr Duncan "You'd better get your head around this crisis and start making sense. Ask me the right questions"

Oh dear. Mr Duncan committed two of the primary sins of media interviews; complaining about the question and insulting the interviewer. It was a poor tactic, and seriously detracted from his message, which (for all I know, since I can't remember it) may have been very good. You should always be polite and respectful when being interviewed, and never, ever complain about a question. All you need to do is state your case.

By contrast, a few minutes later, Government minister Yvette Cooper gave an excellent interview, also with Shelagh Fogerty. It was a fine example of how to deliver a message.

It's nothing to do with political allegiance. I carry no torch for Labour or for the Tories. Nor is it, as people sometimes allege, a "left-wing bias" from the BBC. Shelagh Fogarty was impartial throughout. The point is, if a Shadow minister can't deliver a message on prime time radio, someone is not doing their job properly.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Joe the Plumber - oops McCain

Anyone who watched the McCain-Obama debate on Wednesday, or heard about it's aftermath, will know about Joe the Plumber. John McCain told a story about Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio plumber and handyman who confronted Obama at a rally last weekend. The point of the story was that Joe would pay more taxes under the Obama plan, according to McCain, and therefore Obama's plan to "spread the wealth around" was flawed. Joe clocked up several more name-checks from each candidate during the remainder of the debate.

Naturally, the news media were keen to track down Joe and find out his story. Unfortunately for McCain, it turned out that Joe is a tax defaulter, with no plumbers' licence, who earns less than $40,000 a year, so would be better of under Obama's proposals. Oops.

If you are going to use a personal story - whether about yourself or someone else - make sure that you get the facts right. Otherwise you risk looking foolish, since the truth will nearly always emerge. It doesn't matter if you are running for president or talking to a small audience of potential customers, you need to do your research, and tell the truth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No sugar, no Marmite, no tomato ketchup - no freedom?

News filters in today that a school in Wales has banned 11-18 year olds from having sugar in tea, because of the "risks to health". This follows other bans in Welsh schools on Marmite (too salty) and tomato ketchup (too processed).

I'm glad my daughter is not at school in the principality. Though we eat healthily as a family (even the Wii Fit thinks we are fit), Marmite, tomato ketchup, and yes, even a bit of sugar are definitely on our menu. We eat them in moderation, just like we have the odd glass of wine (not my daughter, obviously), rare steak, an occasional bar of chocolate and (whisper it gently) sticky toffee pudding and cream.

I'm well aware of the effects of diet on health. My father, a heavy smoker and eater of a fatty diet, died of a heart attack when I was 9 years old. I keep myself pretty fit. My wife was, for ten years, Education Director of the British Heart Foundation, She knows a healthy meal when she sees one.

But banning everything that may cause health problems is ludicrous. Schools should be educating children about healthy choices. Pass the Marmite.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sarah Palin "bumped the edge of the law" - Eh?

A new euphemism (or at least new to me) entered the political lexicon yesterday, as a Republican party spokesman said that their VIce-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, had "bumped the edge of the law" in the Troopergate affair. Ms Palin was found guilty, by an independent investigator, of abusing her power when she sacked a state official who refused to fire her former brother-in-law, an Alaskan state trooper involved in a messy divorce from Ms Palin's sister.

As aways happens in politics, it's the cover-up that seems to be doing the damage, not the original offence. Republican officials, for obvious reasons, tried to block the enquiry from reporting before November 4th. They failed. It's all getting very messy. They are now accusing the enquiry of being run by Obama supporters, in an effort to limit the damage.

Whether it will really have much of an impact on the outcome in November is debatable. The McCain-Palin camp are losing ground, and are looking for ammunition. The attempt to link Obama with sixties radical Bill Ayres (saying "Obama is close to terrorists") is also looking pretty feeble. These days, Bill Ayres is a respected education official, and everyone knows him.

McCain, to his credit, answered a question at a rally this week by praising Obama. A questioner asked hi, "Should I be afraid if Obama wins?" McCain reassured him that though he would rather be in the White House himself, there is no need to fear his opponent, who is a "nice guy". Maybe McCain has had enough of his party's tactics.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Has Obama reached the tipping point?

Last night's Presidential debate failed to set the world on fire. But I think we saw a shift that may be significant. The "Town Hall" format was supposed to suit John McCain, who has always prided himself on being "close to people". However, Barack Obama performed well, and on most assessments (including mine) won the debate, albeit on points rather than with a knock-out punch.

McCain had to do well in this debate to reverse his sinking numbers. He failed. There is no doubt that the campaign will now get dirtier as the Republicans attempt to make up the seven or eight point gap in the last few weeks before the poll that counts.

I felt that the most telling moment in the debate was when McCain, who was looking away from Obama, jerked his thumb at his opponent and referred to him as "that one". That single moment of disdain and disrespect may come back to haunt McCain. He clearly does not like Obama, and there isn't much love in the other direction either. However, when, in any debate, one side starts to show such an attitude to the other, it's a sign that they are in serious trouble. It may well have been the tipping point.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Ja? Nein? Well. maybe...Merkel in a Muddle

The world financial turmoil has not been helped by the apparent announcement over the weekend that the German Government was guaranteeing all private savings deposits. Ireland and Greece have already done so, but the decision of the European heavyweight would be much more significant. But hang on a minute. At the weekend, Mrs Merkel said, "We tell all savings account holders that your deposits are safe. The federal government assures it."

It now appears that this is a political assurance, not a legal one, reports the BBC website today. No new legislation will be passed in Germany. In fact, it's no different from the assurance offered by Alistair Darling last week.

Unfortunately financial markets thrive on rumour and speculation, not ambiguity. Just like in business, leaders have to make it very clear what they mean. Many of the news websites are still reporting that Germany has given a legal guarantee that savers money will be protected, and stock markets are acting on the news. It would be a shame if things got worse simply through a communication failure, wouldn't it?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

200 men, 300 miles, 72 years ago today

On October 5th, 1936, two hundred unemployed men left their homes in Jarrow to march to Westminster, three hundred miles to the south. The Jarrow Crusade was a response to 85% local unemployment, but more than that, it was a crusade for respect.

My grandfather, Edward Scott, was one of the marchers. He died 30 years ago, but I still remember his stories of what he regarded as the greatest event of his life. The marchers received support, food, water and lodging from well-wishers along the way, and gathered 12,000 signatures on a petition. It wasn't a party political protest. There were Labour, Tory and Liberal marchers, as well as a few Communists.

More information about the march, and the names of all the marchers, can be found here (click on Crusades).

I frequently return to my grandfather's home town (often I'm there for the Great North Run - also today, co-incidentally). I'm immensely proud of his role in one of the greatest citizen protests in the last hundred years. Well done, Ted.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

What's in a name? Maybe confidence in a bill...

So the 700 billion dollar plan has been approved. Now we have to see if it will restore confidence to a fragile and jittery financial system. It was touch and go for a while, but I wonder if things would have gone a little more smoothly if some thought had been given to presentation and branding. As a former politician myself, I'm not sure if I could have put my hand up to vote for a "bail-out bill", whatever was in it.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines bail-out as "an act of giving financial assistance to a failing business to save it from collapse"

On the other hand, the OED definition of rescue is "an act of saving or being saved from imminent danger or distress"

Maybe that's why both presidential candidates are now talking about the "rescue plan". A pity that the politicians on Capitol Hill didn't take a bit of branding advice lat week.

The name that something is known by is very, very important. As Juliet says in Romeo and Juliet "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.". True my dear, but would people vote for it?

Friday, October 03, 2008

As Joe Kinnear says - "**** you ******* *****"

My Geordie grandfather must be turning in his grave. He was a devoted Newcastle fan, having been born in the shadow of the ground, and although he lived most of his life in London, left much of his heart on Tyneside. How he would have been depressed by the reports today of temporary manager Joe Kinnear's first encounter with the local press.

Kinnear, who will (probably) be in charge until the club is sold, and a permanent manager is found, mounted a hairdryer attack on the local hacks, delivering a torrent of 46 swear words in a matter of a couple of minutes. It was all over a story that he had given his players a day off on Monday - his first official day at work. His outburst came only a few days after the BBC apologised on air for Kinnear's swearing on Football Focus.

Ironically, while Kinnear was berating reporters and suggesting that he may not talk to them again, he also identified a lack of communication as the main source of the club’s problems, with Spanish full-back Jose Enrique now deployed as a translator for some players.

What a silly man Joe Kinnear is. In his position, getting the press on his side is important, since he also needs to win over the club's fans, as well as improving the team's performance. Prime rule of media management - never,ever, blame the press for your problems. As soon as someone does that, whether a politician or football manager, they're on the slide. Joe Kinnear's tenure may be even shorter than expected.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Conference speechwatch number 3 - David Cameron

I spent the afternoon in a small studio at Sky News, commenting live on David Cameron's speech to the Tory party conference.

It was a much longer speech than those from the other two party leaders, with a different tone. Clearly, the financial turmoil had to be addressed, and he paid it due attention, in a very sober opening passage. The story had been put about that the speech had been hastily re-written in the last 24 hours (which may be true, but the same story is "leaked", every year, about every party leader's speech).

It was a speech designed to present David Cameron as a Prime Minister in waiting. He used the term "prime minister" several times, as a "dog whistle" (subliminal message) to potential supporters. The main theme of the speech was "responsibility", and I lost count of the number of times the word was used. the staging of the event was markedly different from last year - a larger hall, the shadow cabinet on stage (he was bracketed by Hague and Osborne, who looked rather serious throughout), and a static Cameron, with his speech in note form on a lectern.

The "memorised speech" of last year was probably deemed to lack the gravitas required. In fact, last year's speech was also from notes, but the camera cutaways to the applauding audience took place as he consulted his notes. The big difference was staying in one spot. Personally, I think Cameron is more effective on the move, but his advisors clearly thought otherwise.

I think he was stung by Gordon Brown's jibe about being a "novice". He was at pains to point out that "experience often means doing the same things". Of course, that isn't true, but it helped him to make the point that the Tories are about "change" - a word used about as often as "responsibility". There was an echo of Obabma in this, and I know that Cameron's speechwriters have studied the US campaign closely.

Overall, it was a low-key and somewhat defensive speech, I thought. Some of it could easily have been delivered by Tony Blair, in much the same words and tone. That's how politics is these days.

After the dust has settled, I doubt whether any of the conference speeches have altered opinion in the country very much. But no-one dropped a clanger.

The event I'm really looking forward to is Palin v Biden in the early hours of Friday morning.