What PowerPoint can’t show you

Why does PowerPoint Presentations that Changed the World rank so high on the list of books that will never be written? Perhaps the clue’s in the title.

PowerPoint has been with us for over twenty years but during that time it has gained more of a reputation for sending the world to sleep than changing it.

Great orators, past and present, have managed to get by quite nicely without it – preferring instead to weave their magic with words alone. Would Nelson Mandela’s statement at the opening of his trial have been more powerful, or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech more moving if they’d been delivered as PowerPoint presentations? I think not.

Riffling through his collection of clip-art, and desperately entering multiple search terms in Google, Churchill would have struggled in vain to find a picture of an “iron curtain” to accompany his famous speech. Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.

I just broke off writing for a moment to try the experiment myself. Googling the phrase “iron curtain” produced the image below, which is clever but understandably fails to depict the paradoxical nature of something both soft and hard at the same time. Not surprising really because the brilliance and power of Churchill’s image come from the fact that it’s literally impossible.

It’s what rhetoricians call an oxymoron: that is, a contradiction in terms – a sort of condensed paradox. Other well-known examples of this figure of speech are “darkness visible”, “deafening silence”, and “bitter sweet”.

At first sight oxymorons like these may appear to be little more than a bit of clever, but meaningless, word play. But a second more thoughtful and less literal look often reveals a poetic truth or insight – one that captures not just the look of an experience, but its feel.

How many of us have inadvertently created a deafening silence by opening our mouth and putting our foot in it? Or had a bitter sweet experience during the course of an intense, but ill-starred love affair?

Images in PowerPoint slides are limited by their literalness – whereas the only limitation on an image conjured up by words is our imagination. Mental images aren’t confined and restricted by frames either – they don’t have edges. So in our mind’s eye we can begin to appreciate the full enormity, and sweep, of Churchill’s monumental “iron curtain” as we watch it descend “across the Continent”.

The images that words evoke in our minds are not just pictorial either – they are multisensory. We feel the soft unyielding hardness of the iron curtain in our bodies – it doesn’t just help us understand the tragedy of a divided postwar Europe intellectually, it helps us feel it too.

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!”

Why David Cameron is a better speaker than Gordon Brown

Here’s an interesting – and visual – way of looking at the recent conference speeches by Gordon Brown and David Cameron. I visited the Wordle website and pasted the text of each speech into the Wordle “word cloud” generator. The word clouds it creates give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

The word “people” figures prominently in both speeches as does the word “country”, though Brown uses the word “Britain” even more. “Change” is another word common to both speeches, as too are words like “make”, “party”, “NHS”, “want” and “government”.

The high frequency of words like “got”, “get”, “make”, “think”, “want” in Cameron’s word cloud offers us a practical insight into why he is regarded as a much better speaker and communicator than Brown. As his word cloud shows, like all good speakers, Cameron generally prefers to use good old English words rather than their Latinate cousins. For instance, he’d probably “get” something rather than “acquire” it; and “think” rather than “cogitate” or “ruminate”.

Brown, on the other hand, loves long, Latinate words, which is hardly surprising given his academic bent. But the love of Latinate words is a fatal addiction for the public speaker because Latinate words tend to be long, complex and abstract – the kind of words that cool are relationship with an audience, not a warm it up. Gordon Brown would do well to follow George Orwell’s advice: “never use a long word where a short one will do; and never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.”

brownspeechcloud

Word cloud of Gordon Brown's 2009 conference speech

cameroncloud

Word cloud of David Cameron's 2009 conference speech

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!

Two lessons in public speaking from Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown’s speeches are easier on the eye than the ear. Which suggests he might be doing one or two things wrong. So what can Brown’s oratorical oversights teach the rest of us about getting things right on the podium?

The right length for a speech

Today’s conference keynote was nearly 6,500 words long and took a shade under an hour to deliver. That’s way too long! What’s going on? Has Brown’s prodigious memory failed him? Has he forgotten about his recent talk to the TED conference in Oxford?

The TED speaker challenge is to give the talk of your life in 18 minutes or less. Incredibly Brown rose to the challenge delivering his in less than 17 minutes. The TED site is a must for anyone interested in the art of speaking because it has a number of videos of outstanding speakers wowing their audience in 18 minutes, or less. And it’s testament to the first rule of showbiz: “always leave ’em wanting more.”

However good a speaker you are, and no matter how fascinating the content of your speech is, audiences have very limited powers of concentration. The last thing you want to do is offer them a gem only to look up and discover they’re either comatose or staring trancelike at the ceiling.

The best use of rhetorical devices

Today’s speech didn’t get off to too bad a start. From the outset Brown left us in no doubt about what we were going to hear. He was going to lay before us a stark and momentous choice – a choice that would have important consequences for the future of our country. A choice that would ultimately boil down to which way we decide to vote in the coming general election: a choice between two parties.

Antithesis, or contrast, is one of the most powerful and widely used rhetorical devices we have at our disposal. The problem for Brown is that like some star-crossed lover he appears to be besotted with it, to the exclusion of all others. And like many of his other speeches, the rhetorical structure of today’s speech was dominated by it.

But over-reliance on a single rhetorical device in a speech is the cardinal sin of rhetoric because the key to speaking, and writing, that keeps an audience on its toes is variety. The repetitive use of the same rhetorical scheme – like tricolon (patterns of three), alliteration and contrast – results in monotony and boredom. It’s all too easy for speakers to forget that audiences are people, just like you and me – and just like us they understand that variety is the spice of life. I love chocolate but if I had to eat it as part of every meal, I think I’d soon tire of it.

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