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.


Why Ed Miliband’s Speeches Need More Heart

Ed Miliband continues to have trouble getting his message across, and he knows it. In the wake of a poor conference speech and a 2011 beset with difficulties he attempted to stop the rot by appointing a new chief-of-staff and speechwriter.

However, on the evidence of last week’s speech on the economy, things are going from bad to worse. It was billed as the relaunch speech that wasn’t a relaunch, which is just as well as it appears to have sunk without trace.

My fellow speechwriter, and friend, Max Atkinson questioned whether it was even accurate to describe Miliband’s address as a speech at all. Commenting on Twitter, Max wrote, “speeches like @Ed_Miliband’s today aren’t so much political speeches as lectures”. He went on to tweet, “speeches to non-partisan audiences (e.g. Miliband now) generate no applause and come across as very, very dull…”

Max’s observations get to the heart of the matter: speeches and lectures are very different creatures, and a speech that lectures its audience is invariably a bad speech. The problem is, that like many leaders on the left, Miliband’s speeches are infected by what I call the Enlightenment fallacy: a blind faith in the power of reason – and evidence – to affect people’s beliefs.

Miliband would do well to read Drew Westen’s insightful book on of the role of emotion in politics, ‘The Political Brain’. Westen makes the counterintuitive point that, in the first of the presidential debates with George W. Bush, Al Gore shot himself in the foot by using (accurate) facts and figures in an effort to undermine his opponent’s credibility. Bush’s riposte was simple and devastating, “Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math.”

Even now, if you view the debate from an Enlightenment perspective, Bush comes over as an affable, if somewhat dim, Average Joe, who is way out of his depth when it comes a grasp of the facts and figures of policy. So why is it that, despite Gore giving Bush a beating on all the rational arguments, this debate marked the beginning of a decisive shift of public opinion in favour of Bush?

The answer is that Bush’s persona helped him win the emotional argument. Despite being a scion of one of the US’s most privileged families, Bush succeeded in playing the role of an ordinary guy who understands, and sympathises with, the trials and tribulations of other ordinary guys who struggle each day to do the best for themselves and their families.

By comparison, Gore came over as a remote, privileged, East Coast intellectual who was more concerned with numbers than people. Bush was a regular guy you’d be happy to have a beer with; Gore, on the other hand, appeared to be part human, part calculator. Miliband’s advisers would do well to recall this debate next time they’re tempted to post a story about Ed being able to solve a Rubik’s Cube in one minute 20 seconds.

My BBC Radio 4 ‘Word of Mouth’ interview

In July 2010 I got a call, out of the blue, from a BBC radio producer. An article I’d published way back in back in 2007, with the catchy title, In Praise of Jargon, had caught his eye.

He was working on an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth – a series about words and the way we use them. Having read my article, he couldn’t believe his luck – he was sure he’d found someone foolhardy enough to appear on radio and argue that business language isn’t nearly as bad as it’s painted.

He had, of course. And a few days later I found myself alone in a tiny, airless basement studio in BBC Brighton, with only a headset and microphone for company. Chris Ledgard (the presenter) was in a BBC studio in faraway Bristol, from where he would be conducting the interview.

I’m a big fan of Radio 4, and I often drift off to sleep at night listening to its podcasts on my phone. So it was a slightly surreal experience to find myself in this stuffy closet of a studio, listening to the restful sound of Chris’s voice coming through the headphones, while doing my damnedest to stay awake and focus on his questions.

But just as the interview was getting into its stride, the sound of drilling started up. I took my headphones off, and discovered the racket was coming from the other side of the studio wall. Chris called Brighton, and I went upstairs to see if I could help.

Eventually the source of the noise was traced – and the drilling came to a halt. An apologetic, and embarrassed, Chris Ledgard asked if I’d mind doing the interview again.

The second interview went even better than the first, and we finished it without interruption. However, just as I was about to leave, a barely audible voice emanating from the discarded headphones on the table asked me to hang on. Chris could hardly believe it, but apparently the sound equipment in Bristol was playing up and it looked as though our second interview had gone up the spout too.

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. We were both a little tired, and going over the same ground for a third time took the edge off our conversation. On the plus side, the third interview was completed without incident, but it wasn’t a patch on the previous two.

Fortunately for me, the producer, Miles Warde, managed to cobble together the broadcast interview from rescued bits of the first two interviews. The programme was first aired on 10th August 2010 and the reaction to it has been very positive. So my blushes were saved – and my budding broadcasting career lives to fight another day!

Showcase your idea, service or product for free

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Philosophical niceties aside, it doesn’t matter how good your idea, service or product is – if no one sees it, it might as well not exist.

In a world dominated by social media and the internet, the golden fleece of visibility is the viral video. Creating an online video that others enjoy, and want to share, is the communications equivalent of winning the lottery.

But can a viral video be made to order? Is there a magic formula we can follow that will enable us to produce one? Of course not, because a viral video, by definition, is always going to be something that stands out from the crowd.

Creating viral videos may not be an exact science, but it’s not an entirely random activity either! When we worked on our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ animation we intended to create something that would appeal to specialist and non-specialist alike. In line with our communications ethos, we attempted to make an animation that was engaging, persuasive and memorable.

Almost a year later, I think we can claim a modest success. ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ has been viewed nearly 30,000 times in less than a year – which is pretty good going for a niche video about a relatively obscure piece of communications research. And when we started working with our client on ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ – the custom video I blogged about last week– we had the same aim in mind.

And yesterday the client who commissioned ‘The Project Manager’s Story’ called us with some encouraging news. She had just sent the animation to Project Manager Today – one of the industry’s leading magazines – and they liked it. In fact, they liked it so much they immediately posted it on their website and offered her the chance to write a piece about her company, which would feature the animation too.

So what is it about our animation that opened the door to such valuable free publicity for our client? I have a hunch it may be more than just the cartoon element…

Here are a few of the tips we give our clients when we begin the process of writing a script with them – they don’t add up to a comprehensive answer, but they’re a useful start:

The gift
Offer your audience something of genuine value – with no strings attached. Share a useful technique or insight with them – or simply set out to give them an enjoyable and amusing experience.

Keep it Simple
Turn the fact that you’ve only got one or two minutes to make your point into a positive advantage – think of the video as your online elevator pitch. Step outside your professional/specialist mindset and put your audience first. If your video can hold the attention of a twelve year old, you’re probably on the right track. Keep your language simple and visual – and avoid jargon!

Use metaphor
Translate your specialist knowledge into everyday analogies that are capable of conveying the idea and feel of what you’re saying to a non-specialist audience. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in our experience fellow professionals/specialists appreciate this approach too – think of Project Manager Today’s enthusiastic response to ‘The Project Manager’s Story’.

And finally,
Tell a story
We all love a story – and stories are a great way of shaping content, and making people care about it. The classic problem/solution – headache/aspirin – narrative structure can be an effective way of creating interest in your product or service.

Whether you’re writing a video/animation script or working on your elevator pitch, if you apply these tips, it’ll give your message a fighting chance of distinguishing itself from the competition – and, who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to produce something that infects your audience and goes viral!

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!

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