The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘oratory’

A Balls Examination

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 26, 2010 @ 13:08

Won't be seeing him with one of these for a while. If ever...

In government, Ed Balls was always one of my least favourite ministers. He was patronising, dictatorial and a little bit shifty.

In Opposition, Ed Balls seems to have found his perfect niche.

That’s the thing about a lot of these Labour figures we’ve known and loved for many years now. A lot of them have known nothing other than government. Until very recently, none of us actually had any idea what the likes of the Milibands and the “Blair’s Babes” generation were going to be like on the other side of the House. Whoever made that transition to the very different skillset of Opposition was always going to be able to get their nose in front…

And, to me, the man who has done that most effectively, and impressed on every opportunity, is Ed Balls.

He is helped too by his sheer opportunism. Such language is invariably pejorative, but in these days of democracy, it is a plus point. Ed Balls has wasted no time in executing an impressive series of u-turns on immigration, on schools and is now also looking very strongly at the idea of a graduate tax instead of up-front tuition fees. I like it. There is no better time than straight after electoral defeat to jettison dodgy policy areas or retune to the opinions of the mass market; the defeat is the perfect cover, and the post-election melee means it’s soon forgotten anyway.

The best aspect of him seems to have been his attitude to the coalition. He is always talking about the “risks” they are taking, and is taking that aspect of his attacks to extreme levels. It is a risky strategy in itself, but it is important to plant the seed of doubt in people’s minds. If the cuts do falter, Balls will reap the harvest.

Like it or not, he is also the one succeeding most in making himself seem the most “normal”. He has shed his wonkery of years past, and always looks suitably embarrassed whenever one of those nasty journos try to blame him for “Neo Endogenous Growth Theory”. He has a neutral accent without too many silly quirks or weird pronunciations (see Gordon Brown). He doesn’t have that “other wordly” look and sound of the Milibands, and his delivery and diction put him streets ahead of Andy Burnham.

Better still, he seems to be developing a good sense of humour. It doesn’t win you elections, as William Hague proved, but it’s important not to take yourself too seriously in the job of Leader of the Opposition. Witty barbs at PMQs keep the troops fired up, as does being able to think up smooth retorts in the heat of a debate. And, yes, it does make you appear normal.

Labour don’t really have a very good choice ahead of them. But they could do a lot worse than Ed Balls.


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The Third Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 30, 2010 @ 10:25

Time for our final instalment of fun – with the third debate transcript this time. Before I begin, if you’re really into this stuff, you might want to look at my equivalent post from the first debate, and the second debate, for comparative purposes.

After calling this debate for Cameron last night, that impression has only been confirmed by the little exercise that follows. Executive summary: Cameron was less verbose, and hence had to be slower, more dignified… more prime ministerial.

Here go the Wordles…

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

I’ve been doing this long enough now to know that these guys are pretty robotic when it comes to the language they use. Cameron’s message is all about “people” – and it has featured prominently in all three of his Wordles. His other favourite word appears to be “need” – in the sense that “we need” to do X, or we need noun. It’s typical opposition talk: highlighting what he would do differently.

He also continues his trend for the word “actually” – an everyday word we all use – and in this final debate took the time to hammer on the word “government”, something he hadn’t previously done to this extent. Getting home his message about the end of this government and its failure, I suspect.

Nick Clegg’s Wordles, unlike David Cameron’s however, show more of an evolution across the series. Nick’s favourite word across the three was “think”, which seemed to work well in the first debate, but perhaps it got tired in the subsequent two. But in this debate, his “think” was outshone by “people”. Not good at all, especially as it’s clearly what Cameron was already doing. In fact, as the debates have progressed, Nick’s use of “think” declined as his use of “people” increased. It meant he lost his distinctiveness.

Nick’s keenness for talking about tax in this debate cannot have been an accident. While the questions gave him the opportunity, and there was much talk about “tax credits”, it was clearly designed to get the message through on the £10,000 personal allowance. That is sensible, as it is a well received policy, and if it has stuck in some viewers minds, perhaps it may be his saving grace from a disappointing performance.

Nick has also let himself down by getting too stuck in. It was illustrated in his “yes or no?” exchange with David Cameron on immigration. The electorate don’t like it. It smacked of more of the same. I highlighted this last time:

  • Debate 1 : “David” – 5 times; “Gordon” – 5 times
  • Debate 2: “David” – 14 times; “Gordon” – 18 times
  • Debate 3: “David” – 16 times; “Gordon” –  14 times

His excuse may be that he was largely ignored in the first debate. But most of it is in his hands. He actively chose to challenge the others. Time and time again, those wiggly lines show it invariably reflects badly on the attacker.

As for Gordon Brown, his decision to attack David Cameron is reflected in the Wordle by the prominence of it. He referred to “David” 31 times and “Nick” just 11. A remarkable reversal from the first debate, where he referred to them equally (11 times), and, as we all know, most of those referrals to Nick were positive. Again, this must be deliberate.

Gordon Brown went negative on everyone yesterday. “risk” “recovery” “inheritance” “cut”… the messaging was clear and coherent. Either his training worked, or the distraction of yesterday led to a slightly less well-prepared Gordon Brown, who went back to good old Labour instincts: attack the Tories for being the party of the rich. He was on message, but it just doesn’t seem to capture the electorate’s imagination. Like I said, negativity doesn’t really work. Or in this case, maybe it’s because of the messenger…

Moving on…

Third Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 5216 5087 5350
Sentences 256 295 283
Words per sentence 20.3 17.2 18.9
Flesch Reading Ease 60.8 68.7 67.5
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 9.8 7.9 8.5

Out of the three debate’s statistics, this one is the most interesting. The main reason is that Nick Clegg showed that old habits die hard. Too many words. Too much waffle. When you consider that they all must have roughly got the same time to speak, to chuck in an extra 300 words over Cameron must mean Nick Clegg spoke faster.

And yet, if you put it into the context of the other two debates, this was the least Nick Clegg spoke (1: 5476; 2: 5940). The problem is that it doesn’t matter in absolute terms. It’s only the comparison on the night between the three. And I did get the impression that Nick wasn’t as disciplined, and as focused as he had been in the previous two. That is borne out by the numbers.

David Cameron, instead, shows how he has steadily grasped the debate format. Shorter sentences – the shortest by far out of all nine transcripts (3 each per debate, of course) – and always speaking at an easier to understand level.

Especially in contrast to Gordon Brown. His longer sentences and penchant for multi-syllabic words like “inheritance”, “Conservatives” and “manufacturing” are responsible for nearly getting a 10 in the grade level, by far the highest out of all the nine transcripts, and a big rise on last week. Maybe that’s why despite his punchier performance, he lost people in the detail. But that’s Gordon Brown all over: a details man in a big picture world.

There’s so much more that could be done with these numbers, but that’s me for the day. I could draw some graphs comparing all these numbers side by side across the three debates, but why bother? No one’s reading anyway.

Instead, as per tradition, we finish with the moderator’s Wordle. Mr David Dimbleby:

David Dimbleby

Just look at that supreme example of BBC impartiality. Almost every name identical size. Perfect.


Please note my transcripts for each individual are cleaned up, no paragraphs, no line breaks, and no markers for where one part of the debate conversation began or ended. That’s the most useful form for textual analysis, and I share them with you above.

If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.

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Paxman v Cameron

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 23, 2010 @ 21:41

Shamelessly stolen from elsewhere. The Twitterati loved this yesterday.

Having just finished watching Paxman’s little chat with David Cameron, I thought I’d put out some observations.

First of all, Cameron would not have been doing the Paxman interview were it not for the fact that the election is so close, courtesy of the momentum gained by the Liberal Democrats. After all, Clegg did his interview nearly two weeks ago, at the end of which Paxman only expressed a “hope” that there would soon be interviews with Brown and Cameron.

But he did it, and to be honest, I’m not really sure why he wouldn’t have wanted to do it. Cameron generally does well in interviews like this. He doesn’t get flustered by Paxman’s attacks, and you can see his brain whirring as he processes through his focus grouped soundbites to get the most appropriate one in. He generally gets it spot on.

Paxman tried his best to flummox Cameron, and his best shot was on the issue of equality, namely because Paxman did what he always does: highlight inconsistencies. Though David Cameron is a mere 43 years old, he is a career politician, and has nearly 20 years of record to trawl through.

And trawled through it was. Cameron insisted that he had always been interested in the issue of equality, in spite of all evidence to the contrary during the fun of the 80s and early 90s. He distanced himself from Thatcher by continually drumming home his “big society” theme. It’s remarkable how he only brings this topic up though in interviews or press conferences, while in the debates it gets the briefest mention…

He never looked particularly evasive though. He did his best honest guy face, and I think he pulled it off. Paxman’s sneering is sometimes self-defeating, however, and when the politician being grilled hits back with a zinger of their own, as Cameron continued to do when attacking Gordon Brown’s wrecked economy, you almost forget for a second that you’re cheering the wrong guy. Almost.

Other topics covered were the bizarre inheritance tax plan, whether Cameron has an ideological desire to cut the public sector (he claims not to, but he’s a Tory), abortion, and the pathetic plans for transferring tax allowances between married couples. He had numbers, had his arguments, and made a good account of himself.

The part that most media are picking up was his inability to give a Sherman pledge regarding “plans” not to rise VAT in an emergency Budget. It was a typical politician’s reply, in truth, so it doesn’t really deserve the response it’s getting. Neither is the question of whether he’d work with the Lib Dems in a hung parliament. We expect our politicians to tell little white lies to further their own agendas. We accept it, with a nod and a wink, and get on with it. You’ll see.

Overall, it was Cameron being Cameron. He got his fair crack of the whip, he didn’t get ganged up on, he didn’t get shown up by a young pretender. He dictated how he was going to reply to each question, and came across very smoothly.

The Cameron that, until 10 days ago, was going to achieve a modest but very decent victory, in other words.

The Conservatives would do well to keep him at this kind of level.

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The Second Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 23, 2010 @ 11:17

Time for some fun with the second debate transcript. Before we begin, might I suggest opening my post from this time last week, because it’s very useful for comparative purposes.

There are a few surprises in store for this week’s word analysis of the debate. Last week we discovered Gordon Brown likes the word “got”, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg like to think. We also found out that Alastair Stewart did a great job of ensuring everyone got the chance to say about the same amount.

But first, the bit that we all enjoy, the Wordles!

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

What I found most striking this week compared with last is the fact that clearly some big lessons have been learned. Whilst Gordon Brown still has difficulty telling us what he thinks, he is now a bit more balanced. The similarity between the kind of words being used is also telling: they’re copying each other’s best bits to some degree. And no one did that more than Gordon, stealing Nick Clegg’s best lines from last week on several occasions. Squabbling children?

Starting with Nick Clegg, my first point is that he seemed to deviate from his winning formula from last week: merely setting out his stall. This time, it was more about the people. Not a mistake, but it clearly hasn’t worked as well. If you look at last week, that’s what both Cameron and Brown were doing, and Clegg’s difference from that path worked well. This time , he chose to be much broader, more scattergun, and it has caused his coherent message of “What I think” or “What the Liberal Democrats think” to be diluted. The prominence of the word “change” too clearly shows the Lib Dems have been watching Obama’s debate performances too much.

He also failed by getting too involved in what he would term the old politics. There is some evidence from the wiggly lines, both when I watched last night and from the 2008 US debates, that direct attacks on a person don’t really work, and can reflect badly on you instead. In the first debate, Nick hardly referred to the other leaders. This time, he said the word “Gordon” 18 times, and “David” 14 times (cf. 5 and 5 last time). That was a mistake. The winning formula for him is to ignore their pathetic attempts to bring him down to their level, and rise above it. That’s what I suggested yesterday, and I think that’s borne out here.

As for David Cameron, his performance was much more controlled. Thematically, he did better. Look at the size of the words “make”, “need”, “want” and “country” relative to the others. That has to be deliberate. A very careful strategy to set out the difference his party would make.

But guess what? Cameron learned from Clegg. References to Gordon? 8 (cf. 16 last time). References to Nick. Believe it or not, just 4. It’s such a reversal that it can’t have failed to influence the way the debate proceeded, and it too must have been deliberate. Now David Cameron was the man rising above the other two. His messaging was clearer. He likes the word “actually”. Clichéd, yes. Normal sounding? Most definitely. That’s what Clegg did last week. Cameron stole it from him.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown was still Gordon Brown. He said the ugly words “got” or “get” a stunning 94 times (Clegg: 47; Cameron: 69). He is a clunker in every sense of the word. He implores. He demands. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that. It’s all very authoritarian. And yet, he definitely enriched his speaking this week. He talked about more issues, and had a more balanced approach. That’s not how I remember it; he seemed to repeat himself a lot last night, but the numbers here don’t lie.

To finish, let’s look at what has provided me with the biggest shock…

Second Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 6077 5599 5940
Sentences 319 295 299
Words per sentence 19.0 18.9 19.8
Flesch Reading Ease 66.4 69.3 65.9
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.7 8.2 8.9

Last week, all three of them managed about 5,500 words. This week, only David Cameron got that. Gordon Brown managed to speak an extra 500. No wonder he got more issues in, being more balanced.

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg also spoke nearly 500 more words, after speaking the least last week (5476). That didn’t work out for him. It allowed him to say too much on some issues. He tried to be more robust, and get more involved. He was, I suppose, responding to the challenges that Brown and Cameron were demanding of him, whereas they largely ignored him last time. Their plan worked, but they dragged Clegg into their bearpit in the process. This week, he did not look and act sufficiently different to the others. He became more of a brawler. Hence the different, less positive, response from the electorate.

Clegg’s sentences also became longer, suggesting he got tied up more by trying to explain himself and complicated ideas. It doesn’t work. The electorate tune out.

David Cameron can feel a little hard done by, having not been given as fair a crack of the whip as the others. Which then makes it all the more remarkable that he did less with more. Verbosity is never rewarded in politics, and Cameron gets the plaudits here.

As last week, they all spoke at roughly the same level, with an almost uniform increase of about 0.4 in the grade level. Maybe the topics this week were more complex, making for slightly longer sentences, and definitely more syllables.

But that’s enough number crunching from me. I could go on, but this is long enough already.

So let’s finish with Adam Boulton’s wordle…

Adam Boulton

He clearly likes thanking people more than Alastair Stewart, anyway.


Please note my transcripts for each individual are cleaned up, no paragraphs, no line breaks, and no markers for where one part of the debate conversation began or ended. That’s the most useful form for textual analysis, and I share them with you above.

If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The First Election Debate: Wordled And Numbered

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 17, 2010 @ 10:21

Though I’m terribly excited about last night’s 30% poll rating for the Lib Dems, it worries me that we have peaked too early and will run out of gas before the finish line. I will wait for more polling developments before commenting further…

In the meantime, I’ve had a bit of fun with the debate transcript. For your viewing pleasure, the Wordles of the speeches of the three main party leaders…

Gordon Brown

Nick Clegg

David Cameron

This is genuinely fascinating stuff. Gordon Brown barely ever tells us what he “thinks”, whereas Nick Clegg and David Cameron were always doing it. I can’t believe that this is deliberate, but it would certainly highlight a lack of self-confidence on Gordon’s part.

The fact that Gordon’s favourite word was “got” also says something for his manner of speaking. “Got” is an ugly word to begin with, but to say it 65 times (Clegg: 20; Cameron: 24) is remarkable. It highlights Gordon Brown’s method of continuously imploring other people, agencies or departments to do something. Not entirely convincing after 13 years in office.

Note, too, that Cameron and Brown both referred to each other, and Nick, so many times that it appeared in their top 100 words. Cameron said the word “Gordon” 16 times. Nick Clegg, on the other hand, barely referred to them at all (David: 5; Gordon: 5). This lack of personalising his opponents, dismissing them as representatives of a broken system is very illuminating about how Nick portrayed himself as the outsider.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions and share them in the comments.

Finally, just so we can put to bed any accusations that Clegg got too much coverage in the debate, here are some more statistics…

First Debate: Vital Statistics
Gordon Brown David Cameron Nick Clegg
Words 5588 5560 5476
Sentences 298 302 294
Words per sentence 18.7 18.4 18.6
Flesch Reading Ease 67.0 70.8 66.7
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 8.4 7.9 8.5

These numbers are slightly less exciting, but they do point out that Alastair Stewart was incredibly fair. They were following the rules perfectly behind the scenes, ensuring that Alastair got the balance exactly right. Though there may have been slight variations in time, they all roughly managed to say the same amount of words. Clegg even said slightly less than the others, and yet still is perceived to have won. It’s wot you do with them that counts, remember.

They all speak so the average American 8th grader could understand: roughly 13 or 14 years old. The figures for reading ease also bear that out. That’s no surprise, but probably isn’t all that deliberate either. Most politicians have been doing so all their lives and consequently know no other way of talking to the public. Then again, average speech is never particularly challenging anyway.

For comparative purposes, I stuck one of my academic essays through the grinder, and got a remarkable 15th grade score. 15th grade doesn’t exist, but basically means only academic fools would follow the ludicrously long sentences and mega long words with multiple syllables. Oh, how pretentious I feel now. A 28 word sentence average is enough to drive anyone to despair. That’s why politicians, also trying to explain difficult concepts and get across their views, keep the sentences shorter. That’s why they all got 18 word sentences. Clever buggers.

That’s enough, I think, but let’s finish with just a bit of fun. How did Alastair Stewart do?

Alastair Stewart

Suffice it to say, “MR CAMERON!”, “MR CLEGG!” and “MR BROWN!” should become the catchphrases of the election.


If you do anything else funky with this stuff, please place a link to it in the comments. I’d love to read it.

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Paxman v Clegg

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 13, 2010 @ 18:54


Last night’s Paxman interview with Nick Clegg was one of the more interesting parts of the election so far. I say that not because I’m a Liberal Democrat, but simply because it was the first prime-time, national prominence (no one else has yet had 30 mins at 8:30pm in BBC1) any of the party leaders have got since the starting gun was fired last Monday.

The interview itself was typical Paxman, though he was not quite at the top of his game. He was cocky, assertive, and the trademark sneer was very much in evidence. But he was very much kept in check with what was a commanding performance by Nick Clegg.

Lib Dem member in party leader worship shocker. I know, I know.

Paxman lead quite an interesting sweep through several issues. Discussing hung parliament strategies, immigration reform, the economy, the NHS and education, Clegg had answers for everything. But not only did he have the answers, he was thoroughly in control of the interview. He didn’t let Paxman interrupt too frequently. He stood his ground. He stood up for the policies, and at one point (on the £10,000 personal allowance) defended them so strongly that he gave Paxman a good dressing down.

The best way to survive these interviews is to stay calm and confident. Five years ago, Charles Kennedy did well, but Paxman was at his manoeuvring best, trying to catch Charles out in a typical Lib Dem dilemma of two contradictory policies. Charles looked a little lightweight as a result, and not a serious contender for the leadership of this country.

This time, however, Clegg handled it very differently. I’m not lying when I say he looked like he could be a Prime Minister. He was detailed, authoritative and assertive. His knowledge of the Lib Dem gamut of policies was complete. He kept his calm, and continued to restate his case when Paxman tried to catch him out.

The policies themselves… they can wait till another day. I agreed with almost everything Clegg said, which is a first for me. But elections these days are all about personality. How did Clegg fare here?

Nick Clegg’s personality has always been a bit of an enigma. He looks and sounds a bit like Cameron. That is a big worry. He uses words like “golly” – which to a Northerner like me is very posh, and very dated. He can get a bit petulant at PMQs, and on TV can come across a little arrogant and aloof.

These are the negatives of Clegg. He is no street-fighter. He is very much a public schoolboy in his demeanour. The country is clearly happy with that regarding Cameron. He is a Tory after all, and very much fitting in the natural stereotype.

But we Lib Dems need something different. A radiant personality that will stick out in the miasma of mediocrity that passes for parliamentarians these days. Charles Kennedy was that, but his grasp of policy was poor. Clegg is no Kennedy. He’s not a man you’d stop in the street to strike up a conversation with.

Clegg did his level best to overcome that shortcoming last night. He came across as intelligent, articulate, thoughtful and enthusiastic. And he did indeed look confident and competent.

Is that combination sufficient enough, and in sufficient quantity, for him to have the magical “electability”?

Just about, I’d say. He’s doing the party no harm at all right now…

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The Politics Factor

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 14, 2009 @ 09:59

Love him or hate him, he's obviously doing something right. But will the magic work in politics?

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of The X Factor. But I am in the esteemed company of maybe 15m other people. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The X Factor is one of life’s guilty pleasures for me. I generally dislike reality TV, finding it too corny and too forced because of the desperate lengths people will go to to get on the media.

However, I love music, of all different kinds, and The X Factor has always intrigued me in that respect. There’s no doubting that year on year, they unearth incredible performers and singers who had largely gone unnoticed. And in any event, it’s an entertaining night in.

The real winner of X Factor though, of course, is Simon Cowell.

And when he tells the media that he plans “a series of big prime time shows leading up to the election in which the public would hear two sides of the argument about several issues” (not a direct quote, but from Kirsty Wark, who interviews Cowell tonight on Newsnight) they are going to sit up and take notice.

And so too are the politicians.

The concept is intriguing to me. Surely trying to make politics meld with the glitz and glamour of the reality TV genre is going to be a fail of epic proportions?

But at the same time, if anyone can do it, it’s Simon Cowell.

It’s clear the plans for this are already advanced. The next election could be just months away. ITV1 is sure to be the location of the “bear pit” (Cowell’s words)… and that would put them right at the heart of the election, which would be extremely unusual for them.

Apparently, it was Nick Griffin’s escapade on Question Time that convinced Simon Cowell that this was something the public would enjoy. The tone would obviously have to be more serious than the usual reality TV fayre, but that would only notch up the populist rhetoric as a counterbalance. Gotta give the viewers something to watch.

Is that healthy for democracy? After all, us liberal lefties would get a bit upset if a show turned into a lynch mob talking up the joys of bringing back the rope, the birch and maybe even that belt reserved only for special occasions. Weren’t some headteachers sickening?

Cowell hopes politicians would phone up and get involved. I suspect the goal is purely to engineer live, vitriolic conflict about an issue on TV. Would politicians want to throw themselves amongst that?

Of course they would. A new breed of fiery rhetoric-spouting orators is waiting to be born into this next generation of the political class; the next phase of personality politics will begin. The rest of them will either have to adapt or die.

If it works, if Cowell can produce a watertight concept, it will be worth watching out for. It may just influence the media narrative in the run up to the next election.

And losing control of that would not be a good thing for any of the main parties. Certainly not Mr Cameron…

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In Awe of Keith Olbermann

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 27, 2009 @ 07:50

The man in action; it's all about the Special Comment...

The man in action; it's all about the Special Comment...

In case it wasn’t already obvious, one of the things I’m interested in is the power of oratory. As everyone knows, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, many of Obama’s speeches are not filled with anything particularly revolutionary, but his style of delivery, the timbre of his voice, the song-like qualities he brings to the delivery, make him all the more pleasing on the ear.

But there is one man whose speaking-style is more akin to an Alan Partridge sports journalist type. And yet, when he’s on fire, I could listen to him all day…

His name is Keith Olbermann. British politicos may not have heard of him, but Americans will know exactly who I’m talking about. He is the presenter of Countdown on MSNBC. His politics are distinctively liberal: but with plenty of fire in his belly. It’s often been commented that the only good shock-jocks are on the right, but in recent years pundits like Olbermann, Franken (before he became a Senator!) and Rachel Maddow have turned that preconception on its head.

And they owe it all to the trail-blazer, and very funny, Jon Stewart.

These people are razor sharp, quick witted and coherent. Their powers of reasoning are often brilliant…

But there’s just something about Olbermann that puts him ahead of the pile. About a week or so, he demonstrated his brilliance in a 20 minute “Special Comment” on the topic of US healthcare reform. If you have time to spare, watch this from start to finish – but even a couple of minutes will show you what I mean…

What is it that makes him so good? Like I said, his speaking voice and style is nothing particularly new. Indeed, he might even be compared to Gordon Brown in the speed and knockout nature of the delivery. Brown’s speeches tend to consist of pummelling you with wave after wave of statistics and soundbites – a style which makes him come over as appearing bold, confident and self-assured.  Olbermann is the same.

But the true shining quality of Olbermann is in the force of his argument. While Brown argues in prose, Olbermann argues in poetry.

Olbermann is the master of all those techniques that we once all listened to in GCSE English and got bored stiff of… and then quickly forgot once the exam was over.

Well, I was supposed to forget them but I didn’t.

Olbermann uses imagery, metaphors, hyperbole, alliteration, rhyming, rhetorical devices, rhythm and perfectly placed pauses for effect, He tears into his opponents by going for the most emotional response possible, and brings in concepts from other arguments and philosophers by referencing them to build up his case.

But the greatest asset is his ability to bring it all together to make it feel more like a poem or a song than a thesis. It feels like the paragraphs are short and direct, each one building towards a conclusion that you actually enjoy heading towards. The sentences are easy to digest and break down. There are no Charles Kennedy-esque 100 word sentences using colons, semi-colons, ellipses, commas, hyphens… filled with digressions and asides.

And the final thing that I like so much about him, the thing that makes him such a joy to listen to is the quality of his diction. Every single consonant, every single vowel, every speech-like noise is perfectly enunciated. At no point is there ever any doubt about what he has said. His voice has depth, richness and clarity. No annoying quirks of accent or anything else to catch the ear. Just unambiguous confidence and erudition.

Do we have anyone comparable over here? Am I wrong in thinking that we have a real paucity of public speakers in this country

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Will You Be Watching?

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 20, 2009 @ 08:17

A Face For Radio?

A Face For Radio?

It seems the most anticipated political event of the moment has got to be the BNP’s presence on the BBC’s flagship political programme Question Time.

It’s also the one that’s generated the most hot air.

To me, it’s pretty simple. They are a political party. They are not illegal. OK, there’s a little hooha with their constitution, but let’s be realistic, whether they admit minorities into membership is totally immaterial, since they are so evidently racist. I can’t imagine there are many blacks champing at the bit to sign up once the party’s rules have been amended…

From that premise, they have a right to freedom of speech, just like anyone in this country. Naturally, there are limits on freedom of speech, more than I would like in a truly liberal society. But broadly, as long as they are not soliciting violence or inciting racial hatred, they are just as entitled to that speech as you or I.

However, one might argue that they often do cross that. Well… yes, but that’s not for us to judge. That’s what the police are there for. I’ve no doubt they will be watching carefully. Even if they aren’t, some clever sod in one of the political parties will be firing off a complaint if Nick Griffin uses the airwaves to call for the slaughter of all ethnic minorities living in council houses. And, naturally, since the programme isn’t live, the BBC’s legal team will ensure that anything dodgy doesn’t make the final edit.

Indeed, if Griffin pushes it too far, the whole programme might consist of the other politicians on the panel and members of the public attacking Griffin endlessly without an obvious right to reply – which would seriously backfire.

They are a political party with elected representatives. Like it or not, they have councillors across the nation, and members of the European Parliament. They represent their constituents, and clearly have a mandate to voice the concerns of the tiny minority of people who have cast a ballot in their favour.

Consequently, just as the Greens and UKIP get their moment in the sun on Question Time, so too should the BNP.

It will be an entertaining affair, I’m sure. There will be much playing to the gallery. There will be a typical BBC-orchestrated moment when an ethnic minority asks the first question (on immigration policy, no doubt), and David Dimbleby will give Nick Griffin the first reply. There will be pantomime groans and cheers from the audience.

And, one thing’s for certain, the ratings will be higher than they have been for Question Time in a long time. This one has been so hyped to death (something politicians always seem to do where the BNP are concerned) that it would be amazing if there was anything less than a 50% rise in its audience.

Nick Griffin is no pushover oratorically, though. I just hope the rest of the panel are up to the challenge without pouring the usual establishment disapproval on them.

That would only play right into their hands.

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Cameron’s Speech: The Verdict

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 9, 2009 @ 09:54

The end of Cameron's speech. It made me cringe just a little...

The end of Cameron's speech. It made me cringe just a little...

Even after ruminating on the speech overnight, I’m still unsure of what to make of it.

Let’s get the obvious out the way: it was a dignified, restrained speech. Perhaps a bit low-key for a man who is very likely to be the next Prime Minister of this country. That must have been intentional; it has, after all, been something of a theme this week. Nevertheless, it was good to see a little less of the theatrics that Blair in the equivalent situation would have brought.

The key theme of the speech, I think, was his message of “family, community, country”. Each part was tied to these three pieces in one way or another. The other message was his attack on big government and the “culture of irresponsibility” fostered by it.

The speech also contained a Grand Tour of the Shadow Cabinet, in which each aspect of his agenda was connected to one of the people who would serve in a future Conservative administration. That worked quite well, better I think than the way Nick Clegg did it in his speech.

There was also a section on his personal circumstances over the past year, which was genuine and heart-felt, and anyone who says otherwise must be even more cynical than me. I’m always suspicious of bringing something like that into a keynote address, but it was done well with grace and tact.

But in many respects, it was a very Conservative speech. Marriage, family values, EU bashing, patriotism, enterprise. There was even a grumpy old man moment when he shook his fist at those pesky kids with their rights: we need to treat children like children and adults like adults. That got the Conference audience to their feet, surprise surprise.

The problem was that the logical consistency of the speech was lacking. At numerous occasions during it, he chopped and changed subject, coming back to an earlier point, starting a new one, then leaving it, returning later… it felt a bit slapdash. Like a box ticking exercise to ensure they had covered all the policy announcements of the previous days. I don’t think this was helped by the various anecdotes that he kept incorporating from letters and e-mails. It was all a bit too “man of the people”.

This, I think, was an attempt to answer the criticisms of a lack of policy. But, in doing so, it turned the speech into a scattergun, going for so many targets in so many areas: education, welfare, Afghanistan, defence, civil liberties, business, regulation, a defence of the Union, the EU, parliamentary reform, devolution, accountability, taxation, deficit, spending cuts… and I could go on. Each was touched upon briefly, but in some parts so brief as to have been a waste of time. It lacked clarity in a speech that needed a razor-sharp focus.

As to the delivery, it was classic Cameron… but with some surprising flaws. The most obvious was his rather poor autocue skills, constantly looking down at his notes. This was bizarre because we’ve seen him give a speech without notes on previous occasions, prowling around the stage with no props (message: I need no crutches). That ruined the necessary eye-contact of a good speech.

And there was also a shocking lack of passion. It was just a bit too somber for my tastes. The only points at which Cameron tried to raise the volume and tempo were when he talked about poverty – the first time jabbing his finger on the lectern (contrived) and the second time giving Labour a good old handbagging – and when he tried to finish the speech with some rhetorical repetition: “I see a country”.

The only problem with the conclusion was that it just didn’t resonate in the hall. If this speech were delivered in America, those final few lines – refraining “I see a country” –  would have been delivered, soaring, booming, over wave after wave of tumultuous applause. That energy would have been used by the speaker to lift them higher, injecting a note of populism and belief that this is what people want.

Instead, it was delivered over silence. And then, when they did clap, Cameron stopped speaking, interrupted at the wrong moment. Then there was that slightly embarrassing stuff to close, with the “YOU made it happen” to a wide open arms gesture. It just didn’t feel right to me.

Parts good, parts bad. Some sunshine, mostly cloud, but no rain. The overall themes were good and delivered strongly, but the specific details lacked colour, passion and focus.

He did succeed with one thing though. Probably the thing that is most important of all.

He looked electable. He sounded like he could make a convincing Prime Minister.

The election campaign has begun.

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