Improvising authenticity – has the written speech had its day?

Last week’s UK Speechwriters’ Guild London conference was a triumph for its founder Brian Jenner and a delight for its participants. Brian’s recipe for success is based on keeping things simple. He chooses a broad mix of contributors – often from very different backgrounds and with very different points of view – and just lets them get on with it. The result, last week, was a conference that was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

One presentation in particular rattled the speechwriters’ cage and littered the conference floor with feathers. It was given by Russian ‘presentation guru’ Alexei Kapterev who raised the provocative – but important – question of whether the written speech has had its day.

The day after the conference, Max Atkinson blogged his thoughts on Alexei’s presentation, and the following day Alexei wrote a blog in response to Max’s post. I encourage you to visit both posts because they are well worth reading, and what follows is my take on some of the issues raised.


At the heart of Alexei’s argument is the idea of ‘authenticity’. He argues that, in the digital age, the gap between the informality of the spoken word and the formality of the written word is narrowing with each passing day. And he makes an interesting observation when he writes that the blog style of writing is closer to the style of everyday speech than it is to the more formal writing style of the article or essay.

So far so good, but the next step in his argument proves more contentious, because he moves from the influence of everyday speech on writing to its influence on public speaking. He asserts that when we speak in public we always sound ‘a bit odd’. But, do we?

There is, I think, a broad spectrum of situations in which we find ourselves speaking in public. At one end of the spectrum is the grand occasion – a political speech, a funeral eulogy, a Commencement speech, etc, – which we prepare for in advance; and at the other end of the spectrum is the impromptu circumstance – a colleague’s leaving do, a meeting, a dinner party, etc, – where we unexpectedly find ourselves speaking in front of a group. Alexei makes it clear that his preference is for presentations at the impromptu end of the spectrum, and his reasons are as follows:

  • They don’t involve a script, which means there is nothing to distract the speaker from connecting with their audience
  • Being impromptu they are, by definition, more conversational in tone than a written speech
  • They are more authentic because the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice match the words more than they might with a written speech (I detect a whiff of the Mehrabian myth here – i.e. the myth that words only account for 7 percent of the meaning of a spoken message)
  • Compared to impromptu speaking, speeches are too safe and dull.

Alexei’s concept of authenticity starts to take shape when he tells us that we see ‘the real (Steve) Jobs when his clicker breaks down or when his demo doesn’t work the way it should.’ This crack between preparation and performance is far more authentic, in Alexei’s view, than, for example, Jobs’ much-lauded Stanford Commencement speech, which he delivered from a lectern, and read from a script. In fact, Alexei goes on to say that though Job’s speech was brilliant, it ‘could have been much, MUCH better.’ (Now that’s quite a claim!)

Is improvisation the answer?

For Alexei, improvisation lies at the very heart of authenticity. Which is why, as far as he’s concerned, Jobs is at his most authentic when his equipment breaks down.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that Jobs had abandoned the idea of writing a Commencement speech and instead had simply turned up and started riffing on the podium, as he walked up and down. How do you think that would have gone down with his audience? Do you think they would have responded even more positively because of its heightened ‘authenticity’? I suggest not.

I think that Jobs’ academic audience would have been shocked and even insulted. Just as it would be absurd to turn up for a chat with a friend with a script, it would have been wrong for Jobs to have improvised on such a grand and formal occasion.

Jobs established his authenticity – or ethos, as Aristotle might have put it – by taking great care over what he said, and making it as personal and appropriate to the occasion as he could. The informal, yet artful construction of Jobs’ speech serves to remind us that ‘authentic’ is a style like any other – but with a difference: in order to work, the authentic style has adapt itself to the circumstances in which it is being used.

Nowadays, on the grand stage, the authentic style requires an Obama approach, whereas at a speechwriters’ conference, a more informal, less-polished, Alexei Kapterev approach will do very nicely! But the important point to bear in mind is that both styles involve a great deal of forethought and practice if they are to succeed.

Preparing to be authentic

A couple of years I ago, I saw the chief executive of the NHS Sir David Nicholson give a riveting talk without notes (and apparently off-the-cuff) to a conference of health professionals. As he finished, someone behind me turned to a colleague and commented on its brilliance. His colleague agreed, but added that he’d seen Sir David give the same outstanding speech, word-for-word, the month before at another conference.

Now did this revelation somehow tarnish Sir David’s authenticity in my eyes? Not at all, if anything he went up in my estimation because I felt honoured that he’d taken such pains to give his audience such an engaging and lively experience – we ‘give’ speeches, a speech is a speaker’s gift to an audience.

The other day, I heard a well-known comedian talk about the huge amount of time it takes to work up a modest twenty minutes’ worth of material. Comedians work hard to look as though they’re making it up on the hoof, and they also have to build up a great deal of experience and confidence before they can throw in the odd genuine improvisatory remark as they perform their act.

Authentic is a style

The bottom line is this: authentic is a style. If you believe that it contains essential truths about the speaker, you probably also believe that Sir Richard Branson is a hippy who keeps getting bullied by the nasty people at British Airways; and that Steve Jobs was a joy to work with because he was so laid-back and easy-going. (I note too that Alexei helps people in corporations present in a more authentic style – all I can say to him and them is, be careful what you wish for!)

Everything in the realm of public speaking is artifice – the art that conceals art. And without artifice we’d be exposed to many more boring presentations and speeches than we are already. The written speech has existed since antiquity (see Classical Rhetoric by George A. Kennedy, chapter 6) and I believe there’s still life in the old dog yet – after all, against the odds, well-written speeches succeeded in opening the doors of the White House to its first black incumbent.

Reading from a script is not the problem – speeches can be either read well, or badly. Speakers can either be rehearsed and coached well, or badly, Politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron are masters at looking down at a script at just the right moment and looking up again at their audience at just the right moment too.

Great speeches depend on great writing – body language, tone of voice, though a welcome support, won’t take you very far by themselves. Let’s not forget that despite his speech impediment, Churchill’s brilliantly written wartime speeches inspired the nation despite being heard as radio broadcasts – so much for the myth that words only account for 7 percent of a spoken message.

And finally, speeches don’t have a monopoly on rambling, embarrassing and dull – improvised presentations can be rambling, embarrassing and dull too. But I still contend that a well-written speech full of interesting ideas, language and imagery can still be one of the most exciting and inspiring experiences an audience can have. And if you harbour any doubts, take another look at Obama’s outstanding victory speech.


Ed Miliband’s bargain basement speech

Barack Obama’s greatest speeches are full of images and stories. Ed Miliband’s effort on Tuesday was piled with abstractions and cliches, taking us into the bargain basement of oratory.

“We need a new bargain…the big challenge of building a new bargain…the Tories aren’t building a new bargain” – how on earth do you build a bargain? In a speech criticising our materialistic society, the choice of language showed a tin ear. “Bargain” conjures up images of Poundland, not of an optimistic future.

At the heart of every great speech is a proposition: a clear and strong statement of what the speaker believes. Miliband’s speech didn’t have one, which is why it appeared to lack shape and purpose.

Great oratory opened the doors of the White House to Obama. If Miliband is to follow a similar path, he should sack his language experts and get hold of an accomplished wordsmith.

(This piece appeared in the London Evening Standard newspaper on the 29th September 2011)

How to be an outstanding communicator

The message from recruitment agencies, employer surveys and the like is familiar, loud and clear: you must be an outstanding communicator if you want to get to the top of your profession. Technical audit skills and practical experience are, of course, essential, but they will only take you so far up the greasy pole; to make it those extra few slippery feet to the very top you’re going to have to find a way of transforming yourself from a good communicator into an outstanding one.

Keep it simple

Outstanding communicators distinguish themselves by the way they use language. The first thing that strikes you when you listen to an outstanding communicator speak is the simplicity of their language: they use words you can understand in a way that makes it easy to follow what they’re saying.

But simple is hard, and takes courage. It takes courage because it goes against the grain of workplace communications. In organisations, language is often used as a protective veil whose main purpose is to cover the speaker’s back rather than enlighten their audience. A concoction of jargonistic words arranged into convoluted sentences is an effective way of covering up ideas that are half-baked, obvious, or trivial.

Many people mistakenly equate this kind of overcomplicated, difficult-to-follow language with cleverness. The following example – though satirical – makes the point:

“Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.” Masterson, J. and Brooks Phillips, W., Federal Prose, 1948, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina

What effect does language like this have? It intimidates, it excludes, it frustrates, and, ultimately, it wastes time (and therefore money!). It embodies everything that is the antithesis of outstanding communication. It is puffed up, self-serving – and, in the final analysis, like the emperor’s new clothes it leaves its author looking naked and foolish. Translated into the language of clarity and simplicity, the same gobbledygook becomes:

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Beyond plain English

Clear, plain English is an essential part of good communication. It is the language of instructions that are easy to follow, intelligible contracts, and business letters that read as if they’ve been written by an articulate and sympathetic human, not a machine. But outstanding communicators, although masters of plain English, come into their own when they move beyond it.

Clear explanation is the forte of the good communicator. But clear explanation alone isn’t going to be enough to persuade people to vote for you, or to inspire them to follow you into the heat of battle. You need something more: you need to be able to communicate in a way that appeals not just to minds, but to hearts as well. When Barack Obama began his bid for the US presidency in 2007 he was a rank outsider, an unknown. It was the power of his oratory that opened the doors of the White House to him. Writing back in 2008, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote that, moments after listening to Obama’s New Hampshire campaign speech, “the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days.”

Warming up your language

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that we feel our way into decisions. Numerous case studies have shown that people with damage to the parts of their brain responsible for emotional reactions are unable to make decisions at all. It seems that the rational mind working by itself dithers endlessly as it weighs up the various possible reasons for taking one course of action rather than another.

So, to be an outstanding communicator you have to begin by engaging people’s feelings. Once people care about what you’re saying, you have their attention. And the key to making people care is your choice of words. Words are the wrapping for your communications, and if you want your audience to unwrap what you say, you need to warm up your language.

The notion that words can be warm or cold might sound strange, but let’s test it out by returning to the piece of gobbledygook I quoted earlier. Like a lot of organisational speak, it’s crammed full of long words of Latin origin: words like ‘multiplicity’, ‘personnel’, ‘assigned’, ‘concurrently’ and so on – I‘m sure you get the drift.

Imagine for a moment that you’re at a friend’s party and you find yourself chatting with someone you’ve never met before, over a glass of wine. How would you feel if your new acquaintance (another Latinate word) spoke to you using long Latinate words. I suspect that, like most other people, you’d experience him as distant, cold and, given the context, weird.

But what makes ‘friend’ a warmer word than ‘acquaintance’, and ‘many’ a warmer word than ‘multiplicity’? Well, here’s a clue: say the word ‘acquaintance’ to a young child and they’ll give you a blank look. But follow it with the word ‘friend’ and their eyes will light up as the word conjures up an image of someone they love.

Words like ‘friend’, ‘cook’, and ‘dog’ are common everyday words; and, like most common everyday words, their origins lie in Old, and Middle, English. These also happen to be the first words we learn as children – they mark our entry into the realm of language, and verbal communication. Our relationship to them is a visual one, because our first encounter with them is one of pointing, touching or physically interacting with the thing they represent. They embody that magical moment when things become words.

Visual language

By contrast, words of Latinate origin are latecomers to the English language party – both historically, and in the language acquisition of an individual. This explains why a word like ‘dog’ brings to mind an image, while a word like ‘canine’ probably doesn’t. Outstanding communicators favour words of English origin because they are warm and visual – they help other people ‘see’ what you mean.

A quotation ascribed to Winston Churchill offers a good rule of thumb for choosing warm, visual words: “broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” It’s no accident that the final lines from one of Churchill’s most famous and stirring speeches (“we shall fight on the beaches”) is full of “old words” – “beaches”, “landing grounds”, “fields”, “streets” and “hills”.

The multisensory power of concrete language

Latinate words are cold and abstract; Old English words are warm and concrete. Concrete words aren’t just visual, they are multisensory – they engage all our senses. When Churchill used words like “beaches” and “fields”, he knew that they would invoke a variety of sensory responses in his audience: the sight of the sand and the azure blue sky; the sound of the waves lapping on the seashore and the shriek of the gulls; the smell of the sea; the salty taste on their tongue; and the feeling of warm grains of sand on the soles their feet.

Advertisers constantly exploit the power of multisensory concrete language. They don’t try to sell us just any old generic chicken. No, it’s not just chicken: they tell us it’s actually farm-reared, organic, golden Wiltshire farm chicken. Carefully selected picture words like these are designed to give us an experience – one that appeals to our tastebuds and stomachs, as well as our intellects.

Outstanding communicators don’t tell, they show. Statistics are abstractions that leave us cold. If you want to bring home the full horror of a natural disaster, you don’t talk about the thousands of people who have perished, and the unimaginable scale of the humanitarian disaster visited upon those who’ve survived. Instead, you put the disaster into a human context by making it concrete, and you do this by focusing on the story of a single family.

Story and metaphor

Study after study shows that people are very poor at understanding risk. And disasters like the financial meltdown and the BP oil spill raise the question of just how effective risk experts are at communicating what they know about risk to non-specialists. Outstanding communicators understand the limits of statistical data – they know that in most instances it just goes over the heads of a lay audience.

The most effective way of communicating risk is to get people to feel it, and the way to do this is to use story and metaphor to create an imaginative experience of what the risk is like – one that make sense in terms of what people already understand. To most lay people, a statistic like: 50 million acres of rainforest are cut down every year, doesn’t mean too much. It doesn’t sound good, but it’s far too abstract for a non-specialist to grasp.

Most people don’t know what an acre looks like, and they certainly have no experience of quantities as large as 50 million. On hearing a statistic like this neither their brains nor their emotions are engaged. So the chances of keeping their attention are slim at best. Al Gore faced the problem of communicating this statistic in his campaign to save the rainforest, and being an outstanding communicator he chose to dramatise the statistics by transforming them into a story-like metaphor.

This is how he did it:

“We lose one acre of rainforest every second. Imagine a giant invader from space with football-field sized feet, clomping across the rainforests of the world – going boom, boom, boom every second. Would we react? Well, that’s essentially what’s going in the rainforests right now!”

Putting it all together

Gore’s transformation of a dry statistic into a story metaphor that helps people experience as well as understand the enormity of the situation, exemplifies all the elements that make an outstanding communicator. From the outset, Gore doesn’t allow his expertise to act as a barrier between himself and his audience – after all, the word “communication” originates from a Latin word meaning “to share”.

Rather than blinding them with science, he puts himself into his audience’s shoes and looks for a way of helping them understand what they don’t know (the statistic) in terms of something they’re familiar with (football fields and B movies about invaders from space). He uses familiar, short, concrete, visual words – and he makes the simple complex without compromising its integrity.

So the key to transforming yourself into an outstanding communicator is to make your language as visual and concrete as possible. And the best way of doing this is to heed Churchill’s advice and go for short, everyday words, rather than difficult-to-understand long ones. Always think carefully about who you’re speaking to, and never allow your expertise to shroud your message in fog. Finally, use story and metaphor to bring what you say to life – and always remember that outstanding communicators move hearts as well as minds.

(This article was published in August 2010 in the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors’ magazine. Shortly after it appeared, the IIA’s Keith Labbett – Head of Audit at British Waterways – invited us to give a two hour interactive plenary session on ‘Outstanding Communications’ to the IIA’s South West Conference, which we did on 12th May 2011. Delegates loved our session and found it both stimulating and practical.  We could do something similar for your conference, so please get in touch if you’d like to talk things over.)

This metaphor ain’t dead, it’s just restin’

Judging from a list of the ‘most annoying clichés’ in the English language compiled by the Plain English Campaign – one of the greatest examples of modern oratory might never have seen the light of day, if they’d had anything to do with it.

For the most part their ‘most annoying clichés’ list is unexceptionable. It contains many of the usual linguistic suspects: words that are misunderstood and misused; words and phrases that are used as fillers to bulk up the vacuous and trivial – like literally and the fact of the matter is; euphemisms – like to be perfectly honest and I hear what you’re saying; professional jargon that has spilled over into everyday use – like the economist’s value-added; slang expressions that have been flogged to death – like awesome and 24/7; and confusing slang – like diamond geezer (confusing because in US English geezer means an old person, especially an eccentric old man).

So far, so good. But I begin to feel uneasy when I notice that nearly half their list is populated by metaphors like move the goalposts and glass half full (or half empty). Metaphors like these are condemned by the plain English brigade because they breach George Orwell’s famous dictum: “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

The dictum comes from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language – an essay, published in 1946, about the causes of and possible cures for the decline of the English language. I share with advocates of plain English an admiration for the essay’s incisiveness and brilliance, but I part company with them when it comes to deciding which bits of Orwell’s advice matter most.

Politics and the English Language contains many riches – unfortunately, this particular dictum isn’t one of them. At best, it’s a spur to original thought and expression; at worst, it’s an unattainable, and unrealistic, ideal. A newly coined metaphor – one that perfectly captures a familiar experience and helps us appreciate it in new and insightful ways – is always welcome; but even the most gifted writers and speakers only manage a sprinkling of such felicities in their writings and speeches.

Even if such an ideal were attainable, I suspect that a piece of writing using only unfamiliar metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, would be utterly exhausting and challenging to read. After all, inventiveness stands out best against a background of the familiar and predictable.

What worries me more is that Orwell’s most interesting insights about metaphor don’t appear to figure in the Plain English Campaign’s edicts about what constitutes good writing, speaking and thinking. In the essay, Orwell’s principal concern is the relationship between words and thoughts, and his main criterion for diagnosing the health of a piece of writing is whether its words reveal thought, or obscure it.

The great enemy of clarity is abstraction. Orwell’s advice is to put off using words for as long as possible “and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations,” because it’s always tempting – and far easier – to miss out this demanding first stage of writing and let words do the work of choosing your meaning for you. Orwell is unequivocal on this point, “…the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”

He argues that “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image”, and the measure of a metaphor’s effectiveness is its power to assist thought “by evoking a visual image.” When a metaphor loses – or begins to lose – this evocative power, Orwell describes it as dead, or dying.

But many commonplace metaphors would be better described as dormant, rather than dying or dead, because all it takes is a nudge to remind us that they’re napping, not comatose. As you lower a metaphor like, “I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes” into its grave all it takes is a slight prod to have it miraculously sitting up in its coffin: “the thing about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is that you need to take your own shoes off first.” I find it difficult to imagine reviving a metaphor like “he’s in a bit of a rut,” in quite the same way.

This is because the ability of words to conjure up images arises from their origins in the physical world. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “language is fossil poetry.” It’s just that you have to dig a lot deeper for the origins of some words than others – those buried deepest tend to be the ones we encounter later in life. A metaphor based on a familiar word like ‘shoe’ is going to have greater evocative power than one based on a less familiar word like ‘rut’. ‘Shoe’ is one of the first words a small child encounters; ‘rut’ isn’t.

As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Barack Obama’s inspiring acceptance speech is jam-packed with the kinds of everyday metaphors that prop up the Plain English Campaign’s ‘most annoying clichés’ list. A cursory glance at the transcript reveals a string of crimes: “a man who campaigned from his heart”; “without the unyielding support”; “the unsung hero”; “our campaign was not hatched”; ”a determination to heal the divides”; and I could go on.

Language has changed a great deal since Orwell wrote his essay; the gap between spoken and written language narrows with each passing day. The Plain English Campaign’s condemnation of the commonplace metaphor betrays a lack of sensitivity to the poetry and evocative power of everyday language. To get the best out of words you have to love them, not distrust them. And when it comes to rules about good English it’s vital to use your personal and aesthetic judgement to respond to their spirit rather than their letter. Orwell encapsulated this spirit perfectly in his final rule: “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

The premiere of our latest animation

Crack open the champagne and pass the canapés – we’ve just finished our first ever custom animation! And after you’ve watched it, I’d like to share a few thoughts about it with you.

Last July when we uploaded our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ to YouTube we had no idea just how much of a splash it would make. We certainly didn’t expect a niche video on the subject of nonverbal communication to attract nearly 28,000 viewers (and rising) in less than a year. And the thought of making custom animations hadn’t crossed our minds.

But a lot has happened over the last year. Our ‘Mehrabian’ animation has proved a boon for our business – and brand visibility – and has created a number of unexpected opportunities for us. In January, for example, we ran a two-day communications workshop in Athens for one of Greece’s leading executive coaching companies. It was a wonderful experience that came about simply because someone in the company had come across our video while surfing the net.

The popularity of our animation has also helped us link up with other communications professionals around the world, as well as giving a healthy, and sustained, boost to the flow of traffic to our website. Last September we were invited to give a talk and show our animation at the inaugural Speechwriters’ Guild Conference, and we’ve been invited to contribute to this year’s conference too.

However, one of the most exciting – yet unexpected – things ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ has done for us is to generate a steady stream of custom video enquiries. The thought that making animations could become an important part of what we offer to clients has taken a little time to sink in but having now successfully completed our first custom animation, we’re open for business. In fact, we’re already working on our second custom animation for another client.

Please add a comment to this blog after you’ve watched ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ because we’d love to know what you think of it…cheers!

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.

Synaesthesia is the Communicator’s Greatest Ally

Sometimes it’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Take, for instance, the discredited theory of learning styles. It may have no basis in science, but its influence on communicators and teachers has surely been a positive one, hasn’t it?

After all, doesn’t the theory ultimately boil down to the very useful and practical insight that the key to good teaching, and communication, is variety? It reminds us that people are different and that they learn in different ways; so if you want to ensure that they’ll understand what you’re on about, the way to do it is to make sure you present to them in ways that appeal to their different sensory predilections.

The picture that emerges from categorizing people into distinct sensory types in this way is of a brain in which each individual sense occupies a separate silo – cut off from its sensory brothers and sisters. Therefore if you want to cast the net of understanding as wide a possible, your best bet is to package each point you make in a variety of sensory wrappings: images for the visual learners, sounds for the auditory learners, and some physical activity for the kinaesthetes.

But there’s a serious problem with this way of looking at the senses: it’s simply not borne out by the evidence. In fact, it’s a view that’s contradicted both by everyday experience, and by what recent studies of the brain tell us.

Neuroscientist Edward Hubbard* says that “as the infant brain grows into the adult brain, regions that were connected to each other at birth are slowly separated or pruned.” Studies of the brain indicate that when we’re born our senses are mixed up or cross-wired to a certain extent – a condition known as synaesthesia.

For most of us the condition is temporary but for a small number of people, known as synaesthetes, it persists throughout their lives. For synaesthetes, days of the week can be coloured, textures can have tastes and words can have odours.

For the rest of us though, as we grow up our senses gradually become more separate and our synaesthetic sensibility fades. But our early synaesthetic phase leaves its mark, and although our senses become more differentiated as we mature, they never completely disentangle.

Many everyday expressions like ‘a loud tie’, ‘a sharp cheese’, ‘bitter cold’ and ‘sweet music’ show just how commonplace the synaesthetic experience is. There are neuroscientists like V.S. Ramachandran and Hubbard who even argue that the study of synaesthesia may one day lead to a deeper understanding of the creative process by revealing how the sensory cross-wiring of the brain is related to our ability to think metaphorically.

Ramachandran and Hubbard maintain that “far from being an oddity, synaesthesia allows us to proceed (perhaps) from a single gene to a specific brain area… and perhaps even to metaphor, Shakespeare, and the evolution of language, all in a single experimental subject.”**

When we move beyond the simplistic learning styles model of discrete sensory modalities, we find ourselves in a richer, more complex multi-sensory world. A world in which words – spoken or read – have the power to conjure up pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, bodily sensations and memories. A world where Shakespeare’s words – in the chorus of Henry V – can miraculously transform a bare stage into the “vasty” battlefields of France – and summon up the deafening  sounds of horses “printing their proud hoofs I’th’receiving earth.”

A familiar and exciting world in which a father can tell his daughter a story that sets her “imaginary forces” playing and which transports them both to another time and place. Experiences that remind us that the reality of the synaesthetic brain is the communicator’s greatest ally.

*For a more detailed account of synaesthesia, see Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, in Scientific American, May 2003

**Synaesthesia A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language by V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard

The Dangers of Co-opting Scientific Explanation

As non-scientists plying our trade, I believe we should be wary of justifying our practice on the basis of scientific research.

Don’t get me wrong, science intrigues me as much as it does the next layperson. But the problem for laypeople like us is that all our scientific knowledge necessarily comes predigested – usually second, third or even fourthhand. Not surprising really given that primary sources in the field of science are a closed book to us.

Many of the people who write most clearly and entertainingly about science aren’t scientists either. I’m a big fan of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and Rita Carter, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t hold a single science degree between them.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when the knowledge itself is decidedly dubious. Pop scientific explanations in the field of public speaking have a tendency to go awry. A little reading turns us into experts, and soon we find ourselves making bold claims about the connection between certain behaviours and specific brain regions – claims which would make a genuine expert cringe.

What’s the problem with having a bit of harmless speculative fun, you might ask? Well, my first response is that it’s far from harmless: it begets an endless supply of half-baked pseudo scientific monstrosities that damage our professional standing and brand.

We find our professional practice polluted with “scientifically proven” ideas like 93% of communication is nonverbal; or the notion that each of us learns best according to their preferred learning style; or the contention that educational kinesiology (brain gym) is considerably more than a ragbag of pseudo scientific tosh.

The first thing that using the phrase “scientifically proven” reveals about you is that you’re not a scientist – which means that what you’re telling me should probably be taken with a giant pinch of salt.

Science doesn’t prove things. Research can strongly support a hypothesis, it can suggest relationships or causality, it can even be convincing – but it can’t prove things. It can however disprove things.

Scientists validate their research through the process of “peer review”. They submit their research papers to other experts in the field who assess their validity, their significance, their originality, and their clarity.

Experiments in various fields are being carried out all the time. But most of them aren’t peer reviewed, so we should be extremely wary of using their findings to justify what we do.

I would also argue that though science can throw light on some aspects of our professional practice, we’re not dependent on it to explain and justify what we do. Let me give you a recent example in the field of language.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a fascinating programme called ‘Why Reading Matters‘. In it, science writer Rita Carter told the story of how the use of brain imaging in modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the effects of the act of reading on the brain.

In one part of the programme Shakespeare scholar, professor Philip Davis, tells the story of how he’d sought the help of neuroscientist, professor Guillaume Thierry, to explain what was happening in his brain when he responded to Shakespeare’s rhetorical inventiveness.

The rhetorical device that interested Davis was the way that Shakespeare occasionally surprises his audience by turning an adjective, or noun, into a verb. In the film he gives an example from King Lear in which the adjective ‘mad’ is transformed into the verb ‘madded’ – “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.”

Davis describes the effect of this device on him as “primal”, “exciting”, “electric”, and “visceral”. And he asks the neuroscientist to use brain imaging techniques on him to see if the shapes in front of his eyes have an effect on the shapes behind his eyes – i.e. his brain.

This visceral view of language is central to our ‘Words that Move Mountains” approach to communication, but my point is that though I find the brain science intriguing, our practice does not depend on it anymore than an audience’s delight in the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language would.

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