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.

The Secret of a Steve Jobs Sales Pitch

This article is my contribution to the latest Angela DeFinis Blog Carnival which is on the topic of “The Impact of Public Speaking on Top Sales Performance.”

Steve Jobs is a laid-back, softly spoken, jeans-wearing, middle-aged geek. So what makes him one of the best salesmen in the world? You could argue that he doesn’t have to try too hard because his company, Apple, designs such fantastic products. But great products don’t sell themselves. No, the key to Steve Jobs’ success is his way with words, and his consummate skill in using them to work a crowd.

Over the years, his Macworld keynote presentations – in which he announces his company’s latest products – have become legendary. He makes it look easy, but there’s a great deal of careful thought and artifice behind his masterful performances.

Take, for example, his historic 2007 Macworld keynote presentation, which launched the iPhone. Despite his understated delivery style, Jobs succeeds in drawing us in from the outset by quietly telling us that he’s been looking forward to this day for two and a half years.

In just three minutes he takes his audience from a state of hushed expectation to a crescendo of delight. He accomplishes this by repeating three key words: change, introduce, and revolutionary. These words leave us in no doubt that something amazing is about to happen.

Jobs is using the rhetorical technique of climax, and it’s interesting to note that the English word climax comes from the Greek word klimax, meaning ladder. It’s as if he’s leading his audience up the ladder of anticipation, one rung at a time.

Great political orators like Barack Obama appreciate what a powerful effect a word like change can have on an audience – and so does Jobs. And the juxtaposition of the word introduce – with its promise of delivering change – eventually whips his audience into a frenzy of applause; one that is sparked by the final curtain-raising phrase, “today we’re introducing…”

“…every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…Apple’s been very fortunate; it’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world. In 1984 we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry. In 2001 we introduced the first iPod. And it didn’t just change the way we all listen to music, it changed the entire music industry. Well, today we’re introducing three revolutionary products…”

Apple is of course one of the most powerful – and instantly recognised and understood – global brands in the world; and the three words encapsulate its essence: “introducing revolutionary change”.

Having taken his audience almost to the top of the mountain, Jobs then pulls off a masterstroke. He uses the classical rhetorical device of the three-part message to trick his audience. Having already told them that one would be very fortunate to get the chance to work on even one revolutionary product in the course of a single career, Jobs starts the drum-roll by announcing not one, but three such revolutionary products: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device.

Next, in another carefully choreographed climax, he repeats the list four times; and then in final sleight of hand he uses a puzzle – or enigma, as the ancient rhetoricians would call it – to focus his audience’s attention before they finally set foot on the summit.

“An iPod (applause), a phone (applause) and an internet communicator… Are you getting it? (puzzle)” And in a final coup de foudre he removes the veil with a flourish. “These are not three separate devices. This is one device. (cheers!) And we are calling it: iPhone. (more cheers). Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!”

It’s no accident that Jobs uses the present tense here, because it adds to the thrill of the occasion by fostering the illusion that the revolutionary new phone is literally being invented before his audience’s eyes. Now there’s showmanship that even the great P.T. Barnum would happily have doffed his hat to.

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 to be an ‘interesting’ speaker

Most speeches and presentations are dull affairs. Soporific experiences to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Part of the fabric of everyday life; like a visit to the dentist – but more frequent.

But why should this be? After all, there are plenty of interesting, articulate people around. So how is it that so many of them are rendered boring when called upon to stand before an audience and speak?

Ask a colleague what they think of PowerPoint and you’ll find a clue. Chances are they’ll tell you that in their experience most PowerPoint presentations are about as stimulating as a general anaesthetic. However, if you ask them about the presentation they’re currently working on, don’t faint from shock when they tell you it’s going be a PowerPoint one.

Could this apparent contradiction be explained away by the fact that they are brilliant at using PowerPoint? Surely if that were true, we’d already be living in PowerPoint heaven. No, the usual response is that they use PowerPoint because everyone else does. It’s just the way things are – like taxes and computer crashes.

We humans are inherently paradoxical creatures. Within our hearts we dance to two very alluring but contradictory tunes. One expresses our overwhelming need to be part of the herd, while the other gives voice to our acute desire to discover and assert our individuality. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.

Take, for example, the history of stock market bubbles and crashes. From time to time the herd becomes caught up in the frenzied buying, or selling, of shares, irrespective of whether or not it’s a good time to do it. This is a powerful demonstration of just how much the herd’s behaviour is driven by the heart, not the head. The greed of the herd inflates the bubbles, while its fear pops them, and creates the crashes. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of this mayhem, it’s the handful of individuals moving in the opposite direction who amass the profits.

It may seem like a giant leap from the stock market to the writing of a speech, or presentation – but it isn’t. Interesting speeches and presentations are written by individuals, not herds. So always ask yourself: “what kind of speech, or presentation, would the herd produce in this situation?” And then do it a bit differently.

The key word here is ‘bit’, because you’ll find that even the slightest deviation from the predictability of the herd will result in a disproportionately substantial benefit. There’s no need to go mad and turn everything on its head. Think instead of chaos theory and the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil setting off a tornado in Texas.

In your next presentation you could decide to surprise, and delight, everyone – including yourself – by not using PowerPoint at all. Or, you could try using it sparingly: a small number of slides as an accompaniment to your script, rather than as the main course.

The problem with herd slides is that they usually have far too many words and bullet points in them. You could experiment with slides that contain no words at all, just an image. And the image you choose could be one that acts as a visual mnemonic for one of the small number – ideally not more than three – main points you want your audience to take away with them.

When you’re writing your script make an effort to avoid over-used words and phrases, because the herd is addicted to them. So try not to be ‘passionate’ about things. ‘Passionate’ is a perfectly respectable word that’s had the stuffing knocked out of it by years of over-use and abuse.

Genuine passion is associated with intense emotion. Nowadays the herd is passionate about everything from ice-cream to plumbing. But if you’re passionate about everything, you end up being passionate about nothing.

So give praise to the herd, because thanks to its existence, being interesting isn’t half as difficult as you might think. It’s simply a matter of learning to trust your individual impulse, and allowing it free rein. And, finally, remember to pay attention next time your individual impulse asks the question, ‘why?’

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.

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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 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/

Saving A Speaker From The Death Sentence

The professional speechwriter needs many skills, and chief among them is the ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. In this post I want to share a few ideas on what to do when the first draft of a client’s speech is so impenetrable, it makes your eyes water.

It’s all too easy to find yourself overwhelmed when faced with a draft that appears to be written in Klingon. It’s a bit like the feeling of bewilderment you get as you gaze up at the night sky and experience the infinite magnitude of the universe.

The way forward is to hold your nerve and begin the task of making things better by thinking small. The key is to ignore the muddled lunacy of the whole and concentrate instead on applying semantic and stylistic first-aid to individual sentences.

Think of the sentence as the basic unit of meaning in a piece of writing. In a speech that that flows well – one that an audience finds easy to follow – every sentence expresses a complete thought. Occasionally the thought expressed is a complex one, but generally it’s a good idea to confine yourself to no more than one thought per sentence.

The alternative is the ‘Jewish Mama’ approach to sentence construction. Bloated sentences that are indigestible because they’re packed with too many ideas. The impulse may be a generous one, but it results in sentences that are as unwieldy as supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels. Here’s an example:

Thank you for inviting me to take part in the final stages of your conference because it is a real pleasure to have the opportunity to make a contribution about how to best to tackle the vitally important subject of global warming and what practical steps British industry can take to prevent the situation getting even worse than it is now.

The most obvious problem with this sentence is its great length: it’s sixty-one words long! A good rule of thumb is to avoid using more than twenty words per sentence.

A sentence is a map that reflects the shape of a thought; like any good map, it should help you find your way easily. Imagine how frustrated you’d become if you found yourself in unfamiliar territory using a map that kept doubling back on itself. The speaker who talks in obscure sentences is like a street vendor flogging dodgy maps to an unsuspecting public.

Speaking in clear, easy-to-follow sentences warms up your relationship with an audience and establishes your ethos as a trustworthy person. Recently we worked with a senior civil servant who is warm and humorous in private but struggles to convey these qualities when speaking in public. Like many public servants he is bilingual: he speaks everyday English in private; and bureaucratese in public.

We encouraged him to write in short, easy-to-follow sentences, made up of simple, non-jargonistic, concrete words. The impact on his public speaking was immediate and profound: he was transformed in an instant from a faceless bureaucrat into a warm, engaging and inspiring leader.

The qualities that make a good sentence are the same qualities that make a good speech, or presentation. If your sentences flow, so will your speech. If your sentences are clear and easy to follow, your speech will be too. The poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand: the macrocosm in the microsm – the whole reflected in the part. In much the same way, the good speechwriter sees the whole speech reflected in a single sentence.

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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