Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Speechwatch; Ed Milliband, Labour Party Conference 2011

Ed Milliband is not the greatest political speaker of his generation, by quite a long way, but I thought his performance today showed that he''s improving fast.

I felt he overdid the opening bonhomie, with references to his wife and sons, but perhaps it gave him a chance to overcome his nerves. It sounded as though a speechwriter had written "icebreaker" at the top of the sheet, and then they'd decided how to fill a couple of minutes with family-friendly welcomes, like the father of the bride at a wedding.

Once he was into the speech proper, he aimed a few shots at Nick Clegg, but the audience were slow to pick up the pace. Even though the speech was short on policy, there were several clear themes. Firstly "New bargain". He used the phrase a dozen times throughout, and delivered a fine piece of anaphora in his closing remarks;

"The fight for a new bargain. A new bargain in our economy so reward is linked to effort. A new bargain based on your values so we can pay our way in the world. A new bargain to ensure responsibility from top to bottom. And a new bargain to break open the closed circles..."

A secondary theme was the "predator and producer", where he likened the bankers in general (and Fred Goodwin in particular) to the former, and manufacturing industry, like Rolls Royce, to the latter, No prize for guessing which he preferred.

Thirdly, there was the "closed circles" at the top of society, a clear reference to the backgrounds of much of the current cabinet. He linked this to tertiary education, though I'm not entirely sure what he meant by a "competitive university"

Overall, I think it's the best speech he's delivered so far as Labour leader. He rallied the faithful with "You can't trust the Tories on the NHS", and the audience warmed to him as the speech went on. Competent but not brilliant, with no obvious gaffes.

I'll give him 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Speechwatch: NIck Clegg. LibDem Conference Sept 2011

Nick Clegg had a tough speech to deliver in Birmingham today. Support in both his party and the country at large has fallen away in the 500 days since the election.

"Not easy but right" was a phrase he used often. He used the old ply of "this conference hall stands on the site of...." to link his speech to Liberal history. Barack Obama used a similar gambit in his brilliant "more perfect union" speech in Philadelphia in March 2008. Nick Clegg is not a great orator (nor is Barack Obama in my view), but he knows how to deliver a political speech to an audience outside the hall.

He indulged in plenty of Labour-bashing, but said barely a word about his coalition partner, for obvious reasons. The Tories have taken a lot of stick from other conference speakers, but the Deputy PM was having none of it. He tried a few lines of humour, such as the gifts exchanged between him and the French President (Kendal Mint Cake). Alas, the jokes were weak, and his delivery somewhat wooden. There was also the conference cliche of the personal story ("One young woman called Chantal told me..."). There was a good line about being "in nobody's pocket" that drew prolonged applause.

It was a fairly sombre speech overall, without any specific promises, and it was received well, if not rapturously. Paddy Ashdown, a party darling, received several mentions and praise.

He closed with a good triplet-based crescendo about the riots: "Britain is our home. We will make it safe and strong. These are our children. We will tear down every barrier they face. And this is our future. We start building it today."

Overall, a steady-as-she-goes speech, which was competent rather than spectacular.

MediaCoach Speechindex : 6 out of 10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Bad, The Good and The Indifferent: Gordon Ramsay, Hyatt, BA

Brands are all about perception. Allow me to tell you a story in three parts about my weekend, that illustrates the point rather neatly.

I flew to Dallas, Texas, to attend a conference of Meeting Professionals International (MPI). I was booked to fly BA out of Heathrow Terminal 5, and I arrived in time to grab some food before boarding the flight. Like all new airport terminals, T5 is more of a fly-by shopping mall, so there is the usual mix of luxury shops and fast food outlets. Last time I passed through, I had a very pleasant huevos ranchos in Giraffe, the eco-friendly world music restaurant. This time, I spotted Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food (Geddit?) so wandered in to sample some fine fast dining, or so I thought. I was shown to a bench seat that stretched past several tables. Alas, a waiter was cleaning the same bench seat two tables down, so I was rocked back and forth for about thirty seconds as he scrubbed the beige vinyl. Not a great start. I ordered eggs Benedict (my regular travelling breakfast, by which I compare restaurants) and black coffee.

The food arrived fairly quickly, and was placed in front of me. I regarded it with suspicion. A large white plate had on it what appeared to be something like eggs Benedict, as conceived by a five-year-old. The base was half of an untoasted, cold, white bap. Several thin slices of cold supermarket ham covered it, with two tiny hard-poached eggs perched on top. The whole thing was covered in a yellow sauce with a darker colour, and different taste, to hollandaise sauce. The taste was unexpectedly bland, and unlike any other eggs Benedict I have ever tried. I ate two bites and gave up. The waiter returned for the "Is everything OK?" question and I reported "No, the food was awful". He replied "How strange, we've served lots of those today". That was it. No apology, no reduction, no concern. I wonder what Gordon would say?

On arrival in Texas, I took a cab to the Hyatt Regency, North Dallas. The service was of a standard I have rarely encountered. The staff were attentive without being overbearing, the food was tasty and healthy, and everything worked perfectly. I couldn't fault it. It was such a pleasure to be relaxed and comfortable.

On the flight home, I was reflecting on the contrast betweem my experiences of the Gordon Ramsay and Hyatt brands. They couldn't have been more different, but the difference was mainly the attitude of the staff. It's often said that service is better in the US because people work for tips. It's much more than that. It's an approach that is regarded as the norm, regardless of whether tips are involved. As I pondered this thought, my in-flight meal arrived. I will spare you the details, but every element was inedible. As the flight attendant collected my uneaten food she said 'I'm sorry about that - we have no control over this". Fair enough. She was doing her best, but the food production and quality control had failed.

So there we are. Three brands; Gordon Ramsay, Hyatt and BA. The Bad, The Good and The Indifferent. It's the small things that matter.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

What are social networks good at?

Someone asked me the other day "What are the really good things about social networks?" it made me stop and think. Like you, I use social networks on a regular basis. I make connections, find out interesting stuff, and let others know what I do. I've never really considered why I find social networks so useful. So here are three things that I think are really handy:  

1) Speed. News stories often break on Twitter, which is why all journalists have Twitter accounts, and alerts set up on their topics of interest. However, speed is just speed. It's not analysis. Social media is really useful in alerting you to something that just happened, so that you can look into it on more detail. If you're the kind of person who needs to know stuff first, social media is brilliant. But there's a caveat. Because you don't usually know the source of the information, there may be no validity check. It's probably better to say that social media can alert you to something that may have happened, and you need to find a trusted source to be sure.

2) Structure There's more and more random information flying around the web. Social media tends to facilitate hubs and groups of interest that provide structure to that information. Again, you need to be aware of the possible bias of the curator. However, getting a current view of a topic you don't fully understand is much easier than it used to be.  

3) Mood Finding out what people think about an issue is also made much easier by social networks. Online campaigns and petitions are now seen as reliable indicators of the public mood. Once again, the usual warnings apply, but if a few hundred thousand people feel strongly enough about an issue to comment online, there must be something going on.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Not quite beyond the fringe...

I’m sitting in my hotel room in Edinburgh, looking out on a glorious Scottish morning, reflecting on an interesting experience. Last night, I performed a stand-up comedy gig to an audience of around 150, some of whom had just wandered in off the street, having seen the “Bright Club – one night only – free show” signs outside the Informatics Building at Edinburgh University, where the event took place. It came about after a phone call three days ago from UCL (University College, London). A friend asked me if I might be free on Saturday evening. Thinking it might be an invitation to an event with free beer, I checked the diary, checked with my family, and told him I was. “Great” he said “We’ll book your hotel and cover your train tickets. We’d like you to do a stand-up comedy routine in Edinburgh on Saturday night”.

OK, I thought. I do the occasional spot of stand-up, and being a speaker, use humour in my speeches. But I’m not a career comedian, and the Edinburgh Fringe is full of cracking performers. Would anybody come to watch? If they do, how will it go? But there was more. “By the way” said my pal “the other comics are all scientists. Can you do a science routine?” So now I’m right in it. I’ve agreed to the gig, and I’ve got three days to write a ten-minute set of science gags, to be performed at an Edinburgh Fringe event. I pick up my pencil. Nothing occurs to me at all. I go for a run, and return with an idea for a riff about astronomy, featuring Patrick Moore and a few puns (“It may be no constellation to you….”). I work on it and find I’ve got about three minutes of material. I try it on my wife and daughter, and they both laugh. That’s a very good sign.

I then get an idea for a running gag based on songs with scientist’s names in; “What a day Faraday dream, Darwin-er takes it all, You were made Fermi…”. Alas, I get so interested in thinking these up that by the time I board the train to Edinburgh, I’m still around six minutes short, and I haven’t rehearsed. Luckily, it’s a four and a half hour journey, so by the time the train pulls into Waverley station, I’ve enough to fill the set, though I haven’t tested it on anyone (testing is a vital part of comedy). The gig is still 24 hours away, so I meet up with a good pal for drinks at a Fringe venue (he lives in Edinburgh and is a comedy veteran). We swap some stories, I try a few lines, and he suggests a couple of scientist song puns.

The next day, I wander around Edinburgh, buy a few gifts for my family, browse bookshops and linger over some strong coffees. It’s a very relaxing day, but my mind is still on the gig. As always, I wander over to the venue hours ahead of time (mid-day to be precise) to check it out for acoustics, lighting and “feel”. Like many Fringe venues, it’s somewhat rudimentary. I decide not to worry about it and at 3pm, head back to my hotel to rehearse the routine in my room. I find it helpful to run through routines out loud three our four times – the same discipline I adopt for speeches. Then I discard my notes and head off to the venue.

We’re due to start at 6.30, so I arrive at 5.30. The other performers arrive. None of them is even half my age, and they’re full of confidence. I agree to be the opening act, since they’re all local, and have their pals coming to watch, whereas I’m just the old guy from out of town. At 6.25, there are ten people in the audience. The MC, who appears to have just left school, suggests we delay until 6.40. It turns out to be a good call, as by then the barkers have managed to persuade around 150 people to come in out of the rain. I must admit, despite speaking to much larger audiences on a weekly basis, I’m a tad nervous. I need to nail this. The MC does a ten minute opening session, and it’s clear that he’s well known to the crowd. He picks out a few familiar faces and has some saucy banter with them. I realise that there are a number of other fringe performers in the audience. Fine.

Then I’m introduced, so I leap on stage and go into the astronomy routine. The line about Patrick Moore being so large he has his own gravitational field gets a small laugh. Things pick up when I ramble about new names for constellations (Three stars – the Bacon Sandwich…Four points of light, all dim – Cheryl Cole). Then I’m into a story about the time I played a Scottish shopkeeper in an Italian soap opera (absolutely true). I can feel the crowd is onside now. I decide to drop the running gag about song titles, and finish with a longer story about getting my MSc in 1975 with a disastrous research project. They love it. I’ve found their funny bone. I finish with a gag from a pal of mine (which he offered to me for this gig – I would never use it without permission). It’s about the male morning-after pill. “It changes your blood group”. It gets a huge laugh and I’m off stage with a wave of thanks.

The other comics perform well. The gig ends at 7.30 and we repair to a restaurant for a meal of faggots and gravy washed down with single malts. All the performers, including me, are high on adrenaline. I’m pleased that it’s an early finish so I’ll at least be able to get to sleep after the euphoria wears off. In the event we head off to the castle and watch the military tattoo and fireworks at midnight before more whiskies.

In the morning (now as I write this) I’m amazed not to be hungover. Maybe it hasn’t hit yet. So that was it. I managed to pull off a good gig at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’m not switching to a career in stand-up. It wouldn’t be an easy life. Bob Monkhouse used to say “My friends laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian, but they’re not laughing now”