Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gordon Brown and the MediaCoach Law of Microphones

The MediaCoach Law of MIcrophones states "Any microphone, at any time, is live, and will pick up an unguarded remark".

Alas, Gordon Brown forgot The Law today in Rochdale. After a five-minute discussion with a local resident, Gillian Duffy, he turned to get into his car, saying "It was nice to meet you".

However, once he thought he was out of earshot of all but his closest aides, he was recorded as saying "That was a disaster. You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?"

An aide responded "What did she say?"

Mr Brown replied: "Oh, everything, she's just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to vote Labour."

The conversation was recorded and reported by Sky News. It's probably the biggest gaffe of the campaign so far. The Prime Minister has since apologised, when interviewed by Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2, after listening to a recording of his remarks.

The Tories have siezed on the issue to make political capital. Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader has declined to comment - wisely in my view.

The incident is an embarrassment. However, it's hardly surprising, given the stress of the campaign. I know that in their suppsed "private" moments, members of all parties express frustration with people. I've heard many of them say things (as we all do at times) that we wouldn't want recorded and broadcast. Unfortunately for Labour, it adds to the perception of an out-of-touch Government past its sell-by date.

John Major had a moment in a TV studio when he referred to three cabinet colleagues as "b**tards". During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush called New York Times reporter Adam Clymer a "major league a**hole" just before a speech, but not far enough away from a mike.

So remember, the mike is always on. The camera is always rolling, and there's always someone in earshot

Monday, April 26, 2010

Advice to Gordon, David and Nick - How to perform well in a debate.

Debates are obviously in the news because of the UK election, and the novelty of having three party leaders live on stage. It may be the impact of the X Factor generation, but nevertheless, I believe that it has some merit. In the US elections, the head-to-head debates produced some fascinating tussles between Barack Obama and John McCain (and some dreadfully dull moments too). If you find yourself in a debate, here are some tips that may help you to come out on top.

* When you are speaking, you are in control. Make sure that you finish your point strongly.
* Keep your points brief, with rehearsed phrases emphasised
* Know in advance of the debate what impression you wish to create
* Never lose your temper. If your opponents do, stay even calmer
* Ask for the right to reply to false accusations
* Allow yourself to be interrupted only on your strongest points
* Short, concise points can be deadly. Use them well
* Stand tall, and look at the audience
* Have a short, strong, well-prepared closing statement

It's all about calmness, confidence and getting a clear message across. That's what wins debates.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bird Flu, Swine Flu and Nobody Flew

It's a relief that planes are flying in the UK skies again, unless of course, you live under a flight path. But was it really necessary to institute a six-day blanket ban on airlines, causing massive disruption and financial loss? I imagine there will be an enquiry in due course (post-election, of course). I'm no vulcanologist, nor am I an aviation expert, so I rely on others to make the right decisions regarding air safety. Only yesterday, I was listening to a "Professor of Geoclimatology" (try saying that when you're eating a cream cracker) on BBC Radio 5 Live. He was explaining that any plane flying through the ash cloud would have its windscreen "etched black" and the "engines would fill with molten glass in seconds". He argued that the ban would need to be in place for "weeks at least". Less than 24 hours later, the ban was lifted, with Dame Deirdre Hutton, of the Civil Aviation Authority saying "Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas." In other words, it wasn't as big a problem as people thought.

Now, I'm all in favour of keeping people safe. A few years ago, we heard dire warnings that Avian Flu (or Bird Flu, as the tabloids called it) was about to sweep across the world, killing millions of people. Although millions of birds have become infected with the virus since its discovery, 262 humans have died from the H5N1 virus in twelve countries according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data as of August 31, 2009. Maybe we were lucky, or have been so far.

But hang on a minute. Swine Flu was the next pandemic (a word that we've learned is like an epidemic, only much much worse - at least in theory). Countries around the world stockpiled millions of pounds worth of vaccines, making a tidy sum for pharmaceutical companies in the process. A recent report by the Council of Europe's health committee has criticised the WHO for its reaction to swine flu. Labour MP Paul Flynn, vice chair of the council's health committee, said "In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health initially announced that around 65,000 deaths were to be expected. In the meantime, by the start of 2010, this estimate was downgraded to only 1,000 fatalities. By January 2010, fewer than 5,000 persons had been registered as having caught the disease and about 360 deaths had been noted"

Of course, no-one wants to be caught unawares by disease or natural disaster. But the problem now seems to be that the scare tactics are making people more suspicious of the predictions. The next time a pandemic is predicted, some people will regard it as simply a "scare", and not bother to get vaccinated or take precautions. The next time there's a dire weather warning, people may think "it wasn't that bad last time, and ignore advice to stay indoors or avoid travel.

It's always going to be a tough call, but would it be too much to ask for a realistic assessment of risk, rather than a vision of doom and disaster that turns out to be a damp squib?

(By the way, thanks to Andy Headworth for the inspiration for this headline)

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Power of Speech

I've refrained from blogging on the UK Party Leaders' debate (until now). There was so much post-debate discussion it seemed churlish to add to the chatter. However, now that I've had some time to reflect, I would like to offer a perspective that I haven't seen discussed a great deal.

While we live in a digital age, with social media burgeoning, the debate was judged largely on what the leaders said, and how they performed live on stage. It was similar, though clearly not the same, as the two-handed US presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. A three-way debate operates differently, but there is still no teleprompter, no editing, and no hiding place.

Great speeches have always been part of politics and both global and national events. For a while, it seemed that rhetoric was being outshone by digital noise. Maybe the tide has turned a little.

It remains to be seen how much impact the debates will have on the real ballot on May 6th. In the US, it seems that the effect of the debates was minimal, and they were more about damage limitation than establishing leadership. Here in the UK, the initial debate has boosted the ratings of the LibDems, and given Nick Clegg more airtime as a result.

Personally, as President-Elect of the Global Speakers Federation (the 7,000-strong global body of qualified professional speakers), I'm delighted that the spoken word is having an impact on political debate. Long may it continue.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Frankie Boyle: Comedy Hero or Villain?

For the third time in recent months, Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has provoked a storm of protest. His comments in a stage show, to a mother of a child with Downs syndrome, have been widely condemned as "going too far".

But how far is "too far" in comedy? We already have laws that ban racist and (to some extent) religious jokes. Jokes against women, or mothers-in-law, have become unpopular, unfashionable and unliked.

Back in 1978, stand-up comedian George Carlin (one of my all-time comedy heroes) performed a monologue called "The seven words you can't say on TV". I won't repeat them here, obviously. You can google them if you wish. For my money, it remains an act of sheer genius, even though it offended many, and led to arrest and a court appearance for George. The Supreme Court eventually cleared him, citing the "right to free speech".

Recently, Jimmy Carr and Billy Connolly have both suffered protests and public anger about gags in their acts. The late Bill Hicks (another hero of mine) often had police in his audience making notes, after public complaints about his material.

In my opinion, the point of comedy is to rattle the cage, occasionally shock and question the status quo. Sometimes people will be offended. However, unlike the racist or the bigot, the comedian is not motivated by hate, but by the need to challenge and question everything - a kind of ultimate cynicism.

Personally, I'm not a great fan of Frankie Boyle, and I wouldn't pay to go and see his show. But if he stays within the law, and people know what to expect, I believe he has a right to make jokes about anything. I realise may be in the minority in that view. I wonder what others make of it?

Friday, April 09, 2010

May I make my point!

When you are being interviewed, you need to get your point across. You need to do it with politeness and clarity. You should never lose your temper, complain or raise your voice. If you do, you have already lost the argument. Sometimes you may be in a panel debate, or with another interviewee who dominates the discussion, leaving you unable to deliver your message.

If you find yourself in a debate, here are some tips that should help you to get attention.

* Always have a pen and paper handy to jot down points you wish to respond to
* Treat each answer as a "mini-speech" with an opening, closing and one strong point
* Develop an "informal conversational" style
* If there is an audience, feel free to play to them and react to them
* Never interrupt. If you are interrupted, pause and then say "If I may continue"
* Never insult another panel member, but argue with their stance if you wish
* Have a prepared final statement ready

Maybe I should send this to Clegg, Cameron and Brown

Monday, April 05, 2010

Tiger's Pre-Masters Press Conference

Tiger Woods has just made his third appearance in front of the "media" (a ticket-only audience) since his night drive in Florida five months ago. How did he do this time? Here's my assessment:

He looked and sounded a little more relaxed than in his previous two appearances. He referred to his pals on the course in affectionate terms, and was clearly glad to be back in golf. He constantly referred to the fans, and how he needed to acknowledge them, which he admitted he had "under-appreciated in the past".

He had some prepared phrases "I did everything to the letter of the law", and was clearly well-rehearsed. He complained of "constant harassment" to his family, and said it was "hard to heal".

The questioning was not exactly tough, and it appeared as though Tiger may have known some of the topics in advance (hardly difficult to guess).

Asked how he lived a "secret life", he responded by saying it was "terrible to his family", and that winning golf tournaments was "irrelevant compared to the damage he caused". Not exactly an answer to the question.

Tiger denied ever taking any illegal drug, but admitted that he had "PRP injections of plasma" into injury sites to help them heal. He also revealed that he had treatments in hyperbaric chambers.

He looked decidedly uncomfortable when questioned about his wife, who will not be joining him at the tournament. He was also clearly annoyed about a question about his state of mind at the time of the accident, and simply said "I was fined 166 dollars, case closed"

Overall, we saw more of the "real" Tiger Woods, but this was hardly a grilling. He referred to most of the journalists by their first name (a mistake in my view), and there was rarely a supplementary question. Once more, this press interaction was tightly controlled and stage managed. Many of the questions were easy shots, and he was never in a tough position. As part of his rehabilitation, it was another step on the road. As far as answering any of the questions about why he did it, or what happened on that night in Florida, the world is none the wiser. The man remains an enigma.