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!

Going for Laughs in a Speech is no Joke

A joke is a blunt instrument. If it works, there’s laughter; if it flops, there’s an embarrassed silence. A misfiring joke can can spell disaster for the rest of your speech.

The public persona – or ethos – created by your speech can also be compromised by the use of jokes. After all, jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously and – by implication – neither are the people who tell them. We use phrases like, “it’s just a joke,” or, “I’m only joking” to play down the consequences of things we say and do. And if we don’t respect someone, we describe them as “a joke.”

But if jokes are to be avoided, what are we left with? The answer is wit. Wit is a rapier to joke’s bludgeon. Wit is a sophisticated intellectual compared to its naive country cousin, the joke. Wit isn’t bothered about making you laugh, it has a greater ambition, it wants to make you think.

Wit is the ability to find just the right words to express similarities between things that would usually be thought of as very different from each other. And when wit hits the mark, humour – even laughter – often follows in its wake, but is never its main purpose.

Winston Churchill was a man noted for his wit; and following his humiliating defeat to Clement Attlee in the postwar election of 1945, he unleashed his scathing wit on his victorious opponent. The two men were opposites. Attlee was slight, very quiet and unassuming, and had the look of a pen-pushing minor bureaucrat; while Churchill was a big, outgoing man with a larger-than-life personality.

Churchill famously quipped that, “an empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and when the door was opened Attlee got out.” The juxtaposition of ideas is startling because on the face of it a person and an empty taxi don’t appear to have much in common. But Churchill’s metaphor perfectly expresses the idea of insignificance.

A criticism packaged into a witty image is great way of making sure people remember what you say because images are very effective mnemonic devices. And when a witty image captures an essential truth about a person or real situation, its impact can be incisive – as well as long-lasting.

A recent example, from November 2007, is Vince Cable’s witty criticism of Gordon Brown in which he reflected on Brown’s, “remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.” Brown had only recently taken over as Prime Minister after Tony Blair’s resignation, having previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

During his ten years as Chancellor, Brown had established a reputation for being decisive and authoritarian (Stalinesque). When he took over as Prime Minister it wasn’t long before he faced a critical decision about whether or not to hold a snap general election. He prevaricated (Mr Bean) and almost overnight he undermined his image as an iron Chancellor.

Vince Cable’s remark summed up Brown’s fall from grace in a witty juxtaposition of two very different images. The consequences for Brown were dire – the remarks were to haunt him to the end of his premiership, and hasten it.

The following day, writing in the Guardian newspaper, Simon Hoggart described Cable’s attack on Brown:

A great howl of laughter seemed to fall from the very ceiling. Even Labour members desperately tried to hide their amusement from the whips. Apparently many stab victims feel no pain at first, but know how much it will hurt later. This one is going to hurt.”

And it did hurt! Cable’s witty hatchet job did produce plenty of laughter, even from Brown’s embarrassed supporters – but it was certainly no joke!

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.

Drowning your story in a sea of detail

Talking is a very ineffectual way of communicating detailed information – it’s like trying to collect water from a well with a colander. When you give a speech or presentation always imagine yourself writing with a thick waxy crayon, not a slender mapping pen.

If you choose to make a point with a story, make sure you’re clear in your own mind what the point you’re making is. Ideally you should be able to express it in a single word or short phrase.

Our clients often find that their expertise can be a handicap when it comes to sharing knowledge. The client knows too much and is reluctant to simplify because they’re afraid of being inaccurate and misleading.

Such punctiliousness is admirable in the drafting of an official – or technical – document, but totally inappropriate when speaking to an audience. However fascinating your audience find what you’re saying, there’s only so much they can take in – the rest is white noise.

Take the following example:

“I was instrumental in highlighting the exploitation of internationally recruited overseas domestic workers and worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

If you’re in the audience when a speaker hurls a pile of official-sounding abstract words like these at you, you’re likely zone out immediately. Truth is, they’re difficult enough to make sense of on the page.

“Instrumental in highlighting” draws us into a labyrinth of beffudlement – it leaves us yearning for a simple verb to guide us towards enlightenment. Everywhere we turn we’re besieged by trees – but there’s absolutely no sign of the wood!

It’s especially ironic that these words should leave us feeling as empty and confused as they do because they were written with the sole intention of establishing the ethos of the speaker. Their purpose was to establish the speaker’s credibility, achievement and trustworthiness.

Instead they have the opposite effect – leaving us feeling confused, unmoved and increasingly irritated by their opacity. This is a real pity because buried just beneath the verbiage is something really positive and impressive.

The first thing we need to do is to connect the “I” with the simple verb we’ve been craving for – in this instance the verb “develop”. Next we look for some kind of object for develop to get its teeth into. This gives us a promising start:

“I developed a Code of Practice…”; but this begs the question, what Code of Practice? In the original it’s a Code of Practice to close off the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers being brought into this country by disreputable agencies and employers.”

The problem here is the euphemistic phrase “to close off”. If we substitute something more direct like “stop” or “put an end to”, the cloud cover of bewilderment falls away dramatically. “Put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”

 

Our final version reads like this:

“Working with the Department for Work and Pensions, I developed a code of Practice that put an end to the discrimination and exploitation of domestic workers recruited from overseas by disreputable agencies and employers.”

 

We’ve reduced the number of words by over 25% from 47 to 32. We’ve cut out the deadwood – e.g “instrumental in highlighting”. And we’re left with a clear statement that has impact, and increases our respect for the speaker. It may not reach the acme of oratorical art, but it does the trick!

How Martin Luther King’s words inspire us

The words of a skilled speaker or writer create light in the minds of others. We instantly ‘see’ what they mean, we are enlightened. Their words grab our attention by stimulating our imaginations and touching our hearts. How is it that some people can do this while others leave us stumbling about in the dark wondering what they’re talking about?

The other day I listened to Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and immediately fell under its spell. His language is full of imagery. His words spring into life as a series of tableaux that tell a compelling story about the African-Americans’ struggle for social equality. It’s clear that King recognises the persuasive power of imagery.

He magically transforms an abstract phrase like, ‘racial injustice’ into something palpable when he says, ‘now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.’ Instead of confining his appeal to our intellect, King broadens the persuasive power of his argument by hitting us in the solar plexus. He succeeds in making us feel the rightness of what he’s saying because standing on solid rock is always going to feel safer than sinking into quicksand.

The speech remains positive to the end, despite the catalogue of suffering it describes. King shares his dream with us, not his nightmare. The high point of the speech is an image of prodigious positive power – one that seems capable of single-handedly healing the wounds of history. ‘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.’

Again, abstract words like ‘slaves’ and ‘slave owners’ are humanised by making them characters that play out a dramatic episode. A simple dash of colour – ‘red’ – brings the ‘hills of Georgia’ to life; you can almost feel the roughness of the sandstone between your fingers. A vague aspiration like ‘brotherhood’, is miraculously transformed (echoes of the Eucharist) into a solid and achievable thing – a table – something we can see and touch, something comfortable and familiar. A solid reality where enemies can meet, break bread together and make peace.

In a study of historic presidential speeches, titled ‘Images in Words’, Professor Cynthia Emrich and colleagues discovered that U.S. presidents now thought of as charismatic by historians used lots of image-based words in their language – and were also considered more effective leaders. These findings are in line with other research that suggests that effective leaders and communicators use more picture words and imagery in their language than other people.

Martin Luther King’s speech shows us that even abstract words and concepts can be made more pictorial and memorable by presenting them as part of an image or metaphor. We are rarely persuaded by reason alone. When advertisers want to make us buy, or politicians want to attract our vote, they tap into the vast power of our visual brain by using images to make their pitch. Part of the power of images is that they can make us feel and think in the same instant; they cast their net wide by appealing to the head and the heart.

George Orwell, an acknowledged master of clear thinking and communication, believed that it was probably ‘better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.’

So how about trying this when you’re about to write or explain something. Instead of starting with words, begin with images. Explore what you’re trying to say by picturing it in your mind’s eye. Try drawing it, and let your doodles lead the way. Relax, take your time and eventually – sooner than you think – you’ll happen upon an image that just feels right. As you begin to explore and unpack it, you’ll discover that it works precisely because it’s also a rich metaphor for what you want to express. Once the right image is in place, the hard work is done. Words will come to it like moths to a light.

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/

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

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.

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

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