Why Political Debate is so Dull

It’s election time, and once again we find ourselves feeling like exhausted Artic explorers on the edge of calamity as we plough through a blizzard of political arguments. Economic arguments, strategic arguments, arguments of every conceivable kind are fired at us relentlessly from the TV, the radio, the newspapers, the internet and the people around us.

Given the argumentative fervour that engulfs us in a run-up to a general election, it seems odd that our experience of political argument should be so predictable, dull and frustrating. And perhaps it’s no surprise that many of us lose interest and switch off.

Take, for instance, the viewing figures for the historic leadership debates. The first one attracted over nine million viewers, while the second debate, a week later, saw viewing figures plummet to four million.

Even the astounding surge in Nick Clegg’s popularity following the first debate couldn’t be traced to a set of enlightening and cogent arguments. Clegg’s success wasn’t based on arguments at all, it was created instead by the unpopularity of his two opponents – and the incontestable fact that he isn’t either of them.

Mind your lip

I know, of course, that it is the vagaries of the floating voter that make our democratic system work. Some people will refuse to vote for Cameron, whatever he says, because they’re disturbed by the thinness of his upper lip. Another group find Brown’s facial tics a bit of a turnoff. While others can’t wait to stick a cross next to Clegg’s name because they think he’s got an honest face… and so it goes.

But what about those of us who take the time and trouble to examine the various arguments in detail, and think of ourselves as considerably more sophisticated than your average floating voter? Surely our political arguments have solid foundations which help us make more informed and open-minded choices – don’t they?

Ironically, I think political debate is at its most tedious when it’s conducted by well-informed partisans – and this is because the better informed and more politically committed a person is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by counter arguments.

Beyond belief

How believable, for example, is the following about-face? Picture two well-lubricated dinner party guests launching into a heated political debate – one a lifelong Conservative, the other a traditional Labour supporter. As their discussion gathers momentum, it becomes increasingly apparent to the other guests that the Labourite’s superior grasp of logic, coupled with her ability to marshal facts, is helping her clinically dismantle her opponent’s position – and credibility.

As the Labourite’s unremitting assault continues, her opponent’s resistance begins to crumble. Suddenly, in the face of his adversary’s superior fire-power, he waves the white flag. After a brief pause for thought, he plucks his Conservative Party membership card from his pocket and rips it into tiny pieces. Taking a deep breath, he announces solemnly to the gathering that from that day forth he will commit himself to the Labour cause with every fibre of his being.

Hang on a minute – in real life this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, does it? Political beliefs run deep and no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to shake them. We feel their rightness in the core of our being and even when they’ve been given a bit of a mauling, like those of the hapless Conservative diner, our usual response is to go off and hunt for more evidence to back them up – alternatively, we might put some of the arguments that have been used against us under the microscope so that we can discover their cracks and expose their weaknesses.

But just as Alice couldn’t see the point of a book without pictures, I struggle to see the point of two people having an argument if there’s little – or no – chance of either of them being persuaded to change their mind. Surely, the goal of debate is persuasion, isn’t it?

You can’t have everything

We know you can’t have everything in life, and this was never more true than in the realm of political debate. Floating voters are persuadable but eccentric – well-made arguments are of less interest to them than the shape of candidate’s nose, or the cut of their suit.

The well-informed, conviction voter will happily argue the night away with you as long as you’re willing to accept that they are unlikely to shift their position one iota. Their knowledge surrounds them like an impregnable castle wall – they know what they think, and they’re prepared for battle!

So if we choose persuasion, we have to abandon argument; and if we choose argument, we have to wave goodbye to the thought of persuasion. And this is frustrating – because an argument without the possibility of persuasion is just plain dull!

Obama’s Rhetoric – The Art That Conceals Art

Something shocking happened to Barack Obama on Thursday the 5th of June, 2008. He was addressing a meeting of the local community in Bristol, Virginia, when in the midst of his usual rhetorical flow, the wheels of his speech suddenly flew off and he ground to an inarticulate halt.

Here’s a transcript of Obama’s slip up: “Everybody knows that it makes no sense… that you send a kid to the emergency room for a treatable illness like asthma, they end up taking up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave up a hospital bed, it costs… when… if you… they just gave… you gave ‘em treatment early and they got… some treatment… and… er… a breathalyzer… or an inhalator… not a breathalyzer… (audience laughter)… I haven’t had much sleep in the last forty-eight hours or so…”

What had gone wrong? Had lack of sleep really caused Obama’s muse to nod off momentarily? Apparently not, what had happened was that his autocue had broken down for a couple of minutes.

Not surprisingly, the incident was enthusiastically seized upon by right wing critics as a stick to beat Obama’s presidential credentials to a pulp. The doyen of American right wing commentators, Rush Limbaugh, was unmoved by Obama’s lack of sleep excuse. As far as he was concerned, the fiasco proved beyond doubt that, shorn of his autocue and speech writers, Obama just didn’t have what it took to be president.

But Limbaugh was mistaken to accuse Obama of being nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy for his speech writers. Obama is a fine writer who takes a very active role in producing his own speeches in collaboration with a small team of speechwriters; and he is arguably the most accomplished wordsmith to have entered the White House since John F. Kennedy.

The illusion of spontaneity

I first became aware of Obama’s autocue (or teleprompter, as the Americans call it) habit while watching television coverage of his rousing victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago. There was a sudden cut from a head-on shot to a long shot of him behind the lectern; and in that instant the spell was broken for me.

The abrupt change of perspective revealed the narrow edge of an autocue glinting in the glare of the floodlights. A little rooting around on the Internet confirmed the shocking truth: it appeared that whenever Obama and his team hit the campaign trail, his trusty autocue was always top of his packing list.

I felt like a child who’d just found out there’s no Santa. Despite being a professional speech coach, it looked as though I had allowed my enthusiasm for Obama’s eloquence to blind me to the simple fact that his greatest oratorical gift amounted to little more than being a brilliant reader of autocues.

But my disappointment was, of course, unreasonable. After all, Obama’s Republican opponent John McCain was a slave to his autocue too; and his running mate Sarah Palin would have been lost without hers. Last year, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg seemed to have bucked the trend when he gave a conference speech without notes while walking up and down the stage. The excitement was short-lived though when it was later revealed that the illusion of spontaneity had been sustained by the use of a radically new kind of autocue.

So it would be unfair to criticize Obama’s dependence on the autocue given that nowadays autocues are part and parcel of almost every important political speech – when you’re talking on the record, the detailed arrangement and choice of words matters. But we’ve all been to conferences and seen speakers amuse and charm an audience for an hour or so without any technical assistance whatsoever – not even a set of cue cards.

A few months ago I watched in admiration as a high-profile chief executive gave a Nick Clegg-style sixty-minute conference address. Unlike Mr Clegg, though, this speaker pulled it off without resorting to a single artificial aid. He appeared to be speaking ‘off the cuff’, yet managed to give a well-structured, entertaining and inspiring speech. As the performance drew to a close and the applause started up, one of the delegates turned to me and whispered, “yes, he is a very good speaker but I wish he’d vary it a bit – I heard him give exactly the same speech a month ago.”

Practice makes perfect

Even the very best public speakers are only flesh and blood. Like the rest of us, they have to rely on either a good back-up system (such as an autocue, a set of notes, even a script) or, if they have enough time, a great deal of practice to prime their memory and polish their act. Of course, part of the art of public speaking is to cover this up – to create the illusion that it all comes naturally. But, rest assured, the world-renowned keynote speaker who effortlessly seduces her audience has perfected the telling of her tales over many years. And the comedian who has them weeping in the aisles with laughter has honed his word-perfect routine in front of many tough audiences.

Our keynote speaker and comedian were fortunate in having had enough time to try out their performances on a variety of audiences and practise them until they became second nature. Obama didn’t have this luxury; his victory speech in Grant Park was a one-off watched by an audience of millions, just like his other great campaign speeches. In truth, without the help of an autocue, his punishing schedule of campaign speech-making would have been an impossibility.

If we want to learn from Obama and other great speakers, we must take care not to be blinded and overawed by their brilliance – which can have the effect of intimidating the rest of us, and feeding our anxieties about our own performance. Instead we should look beneath the surface of what they do to the technique that underpins it. Great oratory is always founded on sound technique and plenty of practice. Understanding this helps us to overcome our fear of public speaking because, when it comes to being an outstanding orator, knowledge really is power.

Mehrabian Nights – an informative tale about (mis)communication

A happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to all our readers, Twitter followers and clients. We’re ending 2009 with some good news: we’ve just found out that the TrainingZone community have voted my Mehrabian article the best feature of 2009 - and it has been read 20,564 times, so far. This is the article that inspired our Mehrabian animation, which is also about to reach 20,000 hits. In case you missed them, here they are again…

Here’s an urban myth about communication that’s harder to swallow than a whale. It’s one of the most influential and widely quoted statistical stories around, and it goes like this:

When someone speaks to us, only 7% of what they mean communicates itself through the words they use.

You have probably come across this figure before. It’s based on research which apparently demonstrates that most (55%) of what a speaker means is conveyed through their facial expressions and the rest (38%) is communicated through tone of voice. In one fell swoop, words are relegated to the role of bit-part players on the stage of communication. They hardly seem to matter at all.

But as with most urban myths, when you chew the story over, the alarm bells of common sense start ringing. Is it really possible that if I get lost and ask a passerby for directions, I’ll have to work out the correct route mostly from their facial expressions and tone of voice, and not from the words they use? As Mr Spock might say, “it’s communication, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Google the name ‘Mehrabian’ and you’ll discover any number of websites eager to inform you that these statistics are based on research done by Professor Albert Mehrabian. But – surprise, surprise – his research proves nothing of the kind, as he’d be the first to tell you.

The devil’s in the detail

On his own website, Mehrabian expresses the results of his research in the form of an equation:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

He goes on to explain that “this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

What the pedlars of the urban myth version of Mehrabian’s statistical story don’t make clear – or perhaps don’t know themselves – is that Mehrabian’s research was concerned with a very specific, and limited, aspect of nonverbal communication – it’s not about communication in general. His work relates only to inconsistent messages about feelings and attitudes, that is, face-to-face exchanges in which the meaning of what we say is contradicted by our body language and tone of voice.

Mixed messages

Imagine a situation in which you’ve had a disagreement with a colleague but they insist they’re not annoyed with you despite the fact that they’ve got their arms tightly crossed, their head is turned away from you, they avoid eye contact and they deliver their words through clenched teeth.

Or you tell a friend a joke and they respond with a stony face but tell you they think your joke is really funny. Chances are you’ll be more influenced by their impassive look than their encouraging words – and you won’t be telling that joke again in a hurry!

As a result of his experiments, Mehrabian concluded that when we’re faced with a mixed message like the ones above, we’re much more likely to believe that the real meaning is contained in the nonverbal signals the person is giving off, rather than in the words they’re saying. His famous statistic is his attempt to express this kind of experience in the form of an equation.

But – and this is the crucial point – we must not lose sight of the fact that Mehrabian’s statistic only makes sense when applied to the very narrow range of communicative experience that he was investigating, ie the ambiguous expression of feelings and attitudes. The attempt to apply it to all face-to-face communications is both wrong and ridiculous.

The appeal of the urban myth

So why has the distorted version of Mehrabian’s statistical story been so eagerly embraced? Well a large part of its appeal – as with other urban myths – is that its message is simple, credible and, above all, surprising. It belittles the power of words and, in an instant, it turns everything we think we know about communication on its head. Could this be why so much current thinking about presentation skills exaggerates the significance of the finer points of delivery while underplaying the fundamental importance of getting the words right?

We should always bear in mind that words are the main ingredient of presentations, talks and speeches. But they have to be the right words, used in the right way, by the right person, at the right time. So maybe it’s no wonder that many of us would rather embrace the false comfort of a spurious statistic than face up to the creative challenge of trying to discover those right words.

A Gift for Speakers and Would-be Speakers

The holiday period is a time to relax and recharge your batteries for the challenges to come. If you’re a professional speaker, it’s an opportunity to think about what you do and how to do it even better. And if you’re someone who’s new to public speaking, it’s a time to seek advice about how to do it well.

One of the most demanding stages of preparing to speak in public is working out what you want to say, and turning the material you come up with into something that will interest and inform your audience. With these thoughts in mind, I offer you a modest holiday gift: a medley of tips on how to prepare – and write – a speech or presentation that will make an audience sit up and listen.

Purpose

Think about why you’re giving your speech or presentation. What do you want your audience to do, know, or feel, as a result of experiencing it? Is this the best format for achieving your aims? For example, speeches and presentations are a very inefficient means of sharing lots of content – consider an emailed pdf instead!

Audience

Who are you talking to? What’s in it for them to listen to you? Think about what will interest them, and start planning your presentation from there.

Message

Don’t drown your audience in content. Work out your key message, and stick to it. Write it out in the form of a proposition – a brief sentence that asserts or denies something about your content. ‘My day at the zoo’ is not a proposition. ‘All zoos should be banned’ is a proposition. Propositions make content interesting because they express a point of view. Use your proposition as the spine for your whole speech or presentation.

Beginnings, middles and endings

Begin with something that grabs your audience’s attention and keeps them listening. Never make more than three points. And end by repeating your key message.

Signposts

People are easily bored, so keep your audience with you from start to finish by summing up, clarifying and using verbal signposts throughout.

Write your script

Even when speaking ‘off the cuff’, write out a draft in full first. And then break it down into sections and keyword notes later. If you read from a script, design it in short, well-spaced sentences, and use a large font.

Keep it concrete

Avoid abstract language. Give plenty of examples, and use stories, case studies and analogies to illustrate and clarify your points.

Visuals

Your speech or presentation will almost certainly be better received if you avoid using PowerPoint. But, if after writing it you feel the need to show some slides, use PowerPoint sparingly!

Rehearse

Rehearse out loud, and time yourself. Don’t memorise word-for-word, but practise speaking from your notes and looking out at your audience.

Anticipate questions

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and write down any questions you think they will want to put to you when you’ve finished speaking. Prepare your answers, but be ready to deal with the unexpected, too!

PS This post is one of a number of contributions to Angela DeFinis’s first “blog carnival” Visit her website to read the other guest blogs – http://www.definiscommunications.com/blog/public-speaking-and-the-holidays/

UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference video

Here’s a video of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference. It was filmed last month in Bournemouth by talented film maker and producer Tim Clague – who’s done a superb job in capturing the flavour, and excitement, of the event.

Martha and I were invited to show our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video and give a presentation about it. It was exciting for us to share the platform with such luminaries of the speechwriting world as Philip Collins (Tony Blair’s Chief Speechwriter), Max Atkinson (Paddy Ashdown’s former speechwriter), and Susan Jones (former UK Cabinet Speechwriter), to name but three.

Here are some quotes from conference participants that give a clear idea of what those who took part in the conference stand for:

“I felt this was needed because I have worked as a speechwriter for about ten years in a very isolated way… that in America they analyse the way people write and the way you can be creative… and they take it extremely seriously. Whereas England is quite old-fashioned in that people are expected to acquire these skills effortlessly along the way… Speakers today have explained that speaking is different from writing – people confuse writing with speaking – and if you know these basic techniques, you’ll transform the way you communicate… I just want to sort of draw attention to the fact that was mentioned earlier today that words – the way words are used – is extremely important” Brian Jenner – founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild

“So the question is: why are there so few professional speechwriters?” Martin Shovel – CreativityWorks

“I agree with the premise given in the previous presentation that actually a lot of the focus is on presentational skills – body language, tone – you know you feel very self-conscious and all that sort of thing. Whereas what the focus today has been about is the power of words, and that I think is a bit of a forgotten art…” Paul Harrod – Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West

“All the emphasis in recent years has been all about presentation… actually, you know, the words are valuable, and that’s a good lesson to get out of today.” Roger Lakin – Speechwriter, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

“So there’s a demand for speechwriters. In industry I have estimated that the cost to British industry of people attending boring presentations is in excess of eight billion pounds a year… There is a demand for decent speeches – and that means there is a demand for speechwriters.” Max Atkinson – Communications consultant and Speech Coach

“In other countries I think speechwriting is a fairly well-establised profession, so there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case in Britain… Trust in politicians is very low. People want to hear what politicians have got to say. And they want to hear them say it in a credible way… There is a new need and a demand for a more elaborate art of speaking – for people to be actually trained in what to say and how to say it.” Dr Johan Siebers – Leader of a new one-year MA in Rhetoric at the University of Central Lancaster

“Well it’s the first of its kind – and I think it’s long overdue…There is a lot more to speechwriting and speech production than even I thought.” Phillip Khan-PanniPKP Communications

It can all be summed up by the final words of our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video: “Words really matter – let’s give them the respect they deserve!”

Gordon Brown’s problem isn’t performance – it’s the words!

Let me put myself in the firing line. When it comes to public speaking, I believe that Gordon Brown’s problem has little do with the way he performs.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that when you take stellar performers like Obama and Blair out of the equation, Brown can deliver a speech as well as the next man, or woman.

Before you dismiss me as delusional, let me tell you I am not alone – there are other communications professionals who share my view. In today’s Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington – a man who knows a thing or two about acting – describes Brown’s performance at yesterday’s Labour Party conference as “highly effective.”

And a couple of weeks ago at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, I heard Philip Collins – Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter, not the drummer – say exactly the same thing. Interestingly, Collins went on to tell us that, unlike Blair, Brown insists on writing his own speeches. And there, I think, lies the cause of Brown’s plight.

Brown’s a distinguised academic. But the academic style is about as far away from the language of great oratory as you can get. The problem for Brown, the academic, is his love of abstract words and ideas.

Great leaders express their vision with concrete words, not abstract words. They paint verbal pictures that an audience can see, and feel. Billington puts his finger on it when he writes that having begun his speech with a list of Labour’s achievements, “it would have been rhetorically effective to end on some of its proposed radical changes. Instead, Brown ended up with an appeal to abstract principles that wasn’t nearly as stirring.”

When, at the climax of his hour-long speech, Brown urges us to “never stop believing we can make a Britain equal to its best ideals,” my mind’s eye is blinded by the glare of abstraction, and I am unmoved. Things don’t get any better when he urges me to “never, never stop believing. And because the task is difficult the triumph will be even greater.”

Believe what? Task? Triumph? Abstract words like these don’t grab me. They don’t conjure up images – and without images, I’m struggling to see, feel or get excited by what I’m hearing.

A key theme of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech is reconciliation. But the abstract word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t make a single appearance throughout the speech.

King’s lesson for Brown is simple. The best way to inspire people with an abstract idea is to find a way of describing it concretely. Don’t use a word like reconciliation when you can have a much more powerful impact on your audience by showing them precisely what reconciliation looks and feels like.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Over to you Gordon!

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