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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What are town centres for? How will Wolverhampton respond to Mary Portas' report on retailing?

A visitor from Pluto would wonder what a British shopping centre was about and what it said of the Earthlings.

It would think that central to our lifestyle was: betting, buying things for a pound, addiction to coffee or swapping our old clothes. Empty shops with graphic designs outside, to give the impression of activity inside, would be an interesting concept to explain away.

Such is the context of Mary Portas’ report on the state of the high street. Low prices, convenience and easy access for shoppers and deliveries alike, enabled the retail park to slaughter its older relative. The town centre will never compete and so it has to find a new role.

There may be glimmers of optimism for a retro town centre. Retail parks do not breathe community spirit and their clonal architecture has all of the ambience of aircraft hangars. These are not places in which to dwell or develop relationships and a sense of belonging.

An opportunity awaits for the town centre if it could reconnect with some of the benign characteristics of earlier centuries. Street markets with their hustle and bustle have a vitality and sense of occasion missing from sanitised multiple chains. Now is the time to reclaim them.

We had a central market in Wolverhampton going back to medieval times. In the 1970s it was demolished and relocated to the fringes of the town centre to make way for council offices. Administrative towers do not have the vitality of a street market and other such decisions cumulatively knocked the heart out of a centre.

We live in little boxes in the suburbs, but in the centre there are no boxes at all. The residential population has been squeezed out and there is no-one to support local convenience shops and cafes. The continental café culture is largely-based on a residential central population living in flats above offices and shops. Now is the time to reconfigure these blighted brown field sites.

Even today, there can be a sense of occasion when visiting a town centre with a wide base of cultural and entertainment attractions. Even better, if shops are encouraged that meet niche markets. Basically, we need to make town centres interesting and accessible.

Now is the time to reassess the benign features of earlier town centres where business, retail, culture and residence supported each other. We need public transportation systems that work and parking policies which do not discourage visitors. Above all, we want a regulatory and planning climate so that entrepreneurs can try out their startup businesses with a reasonable chance of success.

Quite simply, the critical question for councils and government is a basic one. What are town centres for?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Inward investment into Wolverhampton is just what is needed. Now's the time for applicants to sharpen the CV.

CVs have become clichéd and arid productions telling us little about the applicant. Quite simply, they just don't do you any favours. An opportunity to get that job is wasted.

A client came to me yesterday seeking a makeover for her CV. These are hard times, recession, rejection and redundancy making the application process more stressful than usual.

If ever there was a time for one to raise your game it is now. The reality is that the CV has become sterile and predictable. A format full of business management-speak. Something to glaze the eye. We have created surreal CVs where there is a disconnection between overstated terminology and the reality of the person described.

Where does it go wrong? The introductory “profile” sets the tone. The applicant is described in the third person. This is passive writing at its worst. The CV describes the applicant in a distanced manner. It conjures up a style that makes estate agent prose and a MOT report interesting.

Conscientious, enthusiastic, lively, energetic, ambitious, team-player, self-starter, motivation and time-management are just a few of the well-worn terms lifted from a computerised CV word bank. Nothing to give a flavour of the person described: nothing to give an idea of personality and character then.

The CV before me has been produced by a government-funded agency and it is CV writing by tick box. The anodyne tone continues as we move on to sections describing key skills, capabilities and achievements.

What we need is a format, layout and content which emphasises the person. How about, “What I am like, what I am looking for and what I can offer”? It can still be two pages with key facts and experiences woven in to provide a framework for interview.

The skill comes in planting sufficient seeds in the CV so that the reader sees an interesting person. Stereotyped CVs tend to kill this. CVs seem to have forgotten that they are about real people.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rick Perry's gaffe. We all do it so why was there no plan for when things went wrong?

Republican candidate Rick Perry’s recent lapse of memory in the US Republican Primary debate will join the annals of inept political communication. Endless replays of his gaffe will be played back to aspiring future politicians seeking to hone their own presentation skills. Something to go alongside Nixon and Kennedy or Quayle and Bentsen.









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We should stand back a bit and be more measured.

53 seconds of embarrassment may have been the result of tiredness and nerves. Sometimes you just run out of track.

More likely, it is a mixture of over and under-preparation, under-preparation, in the sense of his reported avoidance of interview. He had insulated himself from media and voter scrutiny. Glad-handing and kissing babies are not enough. He had little practice in dealing with real-time questions and what can be thrown up. He delivered the same speech and a monologue at endless stage-managed conversations. He should not have been surprised when confronted with the tighter inquisition in the so-called “televised debates” which are nothing of the sort. Equally, If oratory and rhetoric have disappeared from Parliament in the UK, it is because of the demise of hustings.

Funnily enough, Perry might have come out well if he had adopted the debating strategy seen in the fictional debate in the last series of the West Wing. Candidates threw out the “guidelines” and emerged from behind their lecterns. A fiction but perhaps what the new politics ought to be about.

Perry was probably over-prepared. Candidates use their policy wonks to shape lines of argument and rebuttal. They rehearse detailed responses but the casualties are the sacrifice of spontaneity and character. In their preparations, Perry and his aids forgot to deal with normal human situations when stuff happens: like what to do when you fluff a line.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who let the cat in? A blinder of a strap line from Wolverhampton City Council celebrating investment from Jaguar Land Rover.

In the competitive advertising and marketing world you really need a splash to catch the eye. Most ads just pass over you.

The private sector has the finance and time to buy in the consultancy necessary.

Councils tend to have a back seat when it comes to the creation of interesting copy for marketing their activities. Not so here.

Came across a startling item in the street today which caught the eye. An in-house creation from Wolverhampton City Council, celebrating the investment of Jaguar Land Rover in its new engine plant on the M54.

This is a city looking for all the good news it can get and the council have come up with a blinder here. "Who let the cat in?" is simple, succinct and savvy.

What makes it good? The initial question-answer device followed by the allusion to the Mafia offer for starters. Company logo and the courage not to use all of the space add a further dynamic.

Finally, the bracketing of the whole ad with the puzzle-solution rhetorical device highlighted in yellow is simplicity itself. This is an ad which really works and someone should be putting it up for an award.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The political election leaflet - time for a makeover.

There is a thud on the floor in the hall. The post has arrived. No it hasn’t, it’s an electoral leaflet from one of the main political parties. Normally, I treat these offerings like the latest pizza outlet blurb.

Just for once and because there is nothing else pressing, I give the offering a tighter look. Things are even worse than I thought. This is a literary genre in real need of a makeover.

So what’s gone wrong? Assume that the voter has a cynical and sceptical view of politics and that the time from posting to binning is seconds. What's in it for the reader?

First impressions count. A strong strapline, imaginative use of graphics, colour and layout are the basics. Beyond that a mass of text is a no no – peoples’ eyes just glaze over. Tight copy with short sentences and paragraphs are the order of the day, if only because the reader may have English as the second language. Contrived grainy photos which make the passport variant look good add to the picture.

Cost is a consideration but handing out A3-sized folded leaflets which look as they have just been duplicated on a standard photocopier, is cost-cutting at its worst. They compare badly against a smaller A5 creation on glossy and heavier paper. Cheap business cards set the tone for your company, so don’t be surprised if the same ethic transfers to politics.

Finally to content. Voters can see through the fatuous leaflets dressed up as “surveys”. Politicians should already have a handle on the issues in their areas. A survey is a bit late in the day. Equally, a photo of the candidate with a broom in the hand comes across as crass. How many residents do we see sweeping up public space?

We want tight rhetoric and choice of words. We want a strong image of the candidates and what they stand for. We want the personality of the candidate to hit us.

Critically, we need to know what makes the candidates different as we lend them our votes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Politicians should avoid the passive tense - it can damage your health.

As the Liam Fox affair unravels there is at least one upside. It has highlighted the inadequacy of the passive tense. It is something we should all avoid. It does us no favours and makes us look shabby. Budding politicians should make sure it is not in their toolkits, when they are addressing media and voters or designing their leaflets.

“Mistakes were made…” and “….it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred.” were euphemisms and snowing at its worst. This passive language isolated the speaker from awkward and uncomfortable realities.

The speaker is detached from events. We all became outside observers of situations which seemed to evolve on autopilot. It is academic and sterile language.

The rest of us have to listen to this ducking and weaving. We feel angry that we are being spoken to in a manner beyond our normal conversation. Ordinary language is messy, erratic and personal. The passive: legalistic, objective and anodyne. It gives wiggle room and avoids responsibility for what is being said.

The debacle over military policy and funding in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to phrases such as “We are where we are…” and “It is time to move on.” They were attempts to avoid explaining difficult resourcing and strategy decisions. We felt annoyed that our timetables for making sense of things were being hi-jacked by others who wanted to avoid scrutiny.

The current explanations given to us are doing exactly the same. We want a new type of politics where, for better or worse, we converse actively, precisely and personally.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest blog: Adman and Eve.

They say prostitution is the oldest profession. They, as usual, are dead wrong.

It’s the second oldest.

Let’s go back to the very beginning, to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. His task was a tricky one: to persuade an unconvinced consumer to try a product they had good reason to avoid. His job was to sell the apple; to make it seem so appealing, so tantalising, that Eve would risk a fall from grace for a quick nibble.

But succeed he did and advertising was born.

I pause here, partly for effect, and partly to decide where I’m going with this. As an advertising copywriter by trade, I bump into many people I could place into one of two categories: first, those who believe advertising is the work of the devil, responsible for many of the evils of the world and made by manipulative morons. Second, those who have seen the TV series “Mad Men” and are disappointed I’m not taller and more charismatic.

Both groups are somewhat deluded.

It’s not that the industry is particularly altruistic – it isn’t. It’s simply an industry that reflects society’s wider needs. Here are a few things to consider:

• Despite claims to the contrary, you can’t make people buy something they don’t want; you can make people buy more of something or maybe switch to a competing product, but that’s about it. What about children? Well, what about them - yes, they are particularly vulnerable to suggestion, but there’s a time-tested safeguard against this – it’s called parenting.

• Yes, many “bad” things have been advertised (like cigarettes). But so have many “good” things (like charities and public awareness campaigns).

• Without advertising it would be tough to make informed consumer choices because you wouldn’t know what was available (catalogues can be useful huh?). Also, you would end up buying local products rather than the best products. Why? Because potentially better products from farther afield would have no opportunity to generate awareness in your local market.

• Without advertising revenue, many enjoyable and useful things wouldn’t exist – lots of TV and radio stations, as well as free websites like Facebook, Google and Twitter to name just a few – and all the jobs that go along with them.

What am I getting at? I suppose I'm saying our oldest profession isn't all bad. So, maybe next time you hear someone ranting about advertising, you might spare a few moments to argue the toss.

We’re not the devils people think we are.

(This is a guest blog written by Phil from http://www.pifflepaffle.blogspot.com/)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Whenever something is wrong....something is too big." Leopold Kohr and the broken society.

Next year is the fifty fifth anniversary of the publication of a book which at the time was considered a joke. I am talking of Leopold Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations". In 2011, it is an excellent explanation of our societal and economic ills. More importantly, he provides a solution.

His punch line? That “Wherever something is wrong….. something is too big”. This modest Austrian was writing at a time when "big was best" seemed logical. Witness the high rise flats in the ‘60s, built at the expense of community-focussed terraces. Relationships sacrificed on the altars of progress and development.

This was a prescient theory, which with the passage of time, seems to be gaining traction. He provided an analysis which the political parties should be discussing at their conferences.

Everything is big. Today we talk of globalisation and multinational organisations such as the EU. We know about banks in 2008 which became so big they could not be allowed to fail. We see the power of our supermarkets squeezing out local shops. We have multiplex cinemas limiting film choice. We see the growth of regional shopping centres killing off town centres. We see the centralisation of government in London suffocating local councils. We see parish councils with less to do. We have larger and larger bureaucratic organisations running hospitals, council services, police and education provision. We have takeovers and mergers in the name of agglomeration economies forgetting the longer term downsides.

In the name of efficiency and economies of scale, business and public sector organisations have become removed from the average Joe in the street. Communication technologies with their attendant frustrations and disembodied relationships just add to the cocktail.

There is a pattern here. Families and communities are under threat. Individuals feel they have less of a stake in society. They feel powerless, alienated and the broken society becomes common parlance. Witness the large call-centre providing virtual reality help and how customer-care comes second. We have less face-to-face contact, live in little boxes and adopt virtual reality communities – let’s call them television soaps.

Kohr observed that as organisations get larger, power gets concentrated. This can be abused by those who wield it and the rest of society switches off or engages in deviant behaviour. Declining membership of political parties and electoral turnout is the evidence.

Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe. They are getting through without a central government and yet growth rates compares favourably with the rest of the EU. Kohr might be smiling at this feat.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour logos are all in need of a makeover. Some enthusiasm and passion would help. Lessons from Educating Rita.

Willy Russell scripted a poignant scene in Educating Rita between Rita and her mother. They are in a pub for a family sing-song. Her mother observes: “There must be better songs than this…” A statement of resignation, sadness, predictability, frustration, lack of purpose and going nowhere.

Sums up the dilemma of the parties as they try to work out their analysis of our current condition and struggle for solutions.

In the business world, logos are fought over jealously. They provide instant recognition and identification with the product. See the lengths Coca Cola go to ensure their squiggly line is protected. Compare this to our political world.

We are now in the season of party conferences. Banner logos cascade from ceilings and walls. A backdrop to Newsnight reports, speeches and fringe meetings. Logos appear on every piece of corporate literature and repeatedly readers are influenced by the images before them.

The Liberty Bird, Red Rose and Scribbled Oak (£40000 fees paid) are the results of considered research and planning but they have the impact of magnolia paint. They are passive and do not exude enthusiasm and passion.

Part of the problem for our political branders is that in a state of fluid politics, the parties are finding it difficult to create a coherent analysis of their current condition. If your product is fuzzy what chance the branding? What chance the visual imagery?

Freedom, patriotism, liberty, tradition, choice, environment, strength, endurance, growth, renewal and individuality seem to have been some of the words party strategists sat down with as they brain-stormed for the images we have now.

Perhaps this is the time to get our some new words: enthusiasm, optimism, responsibility, energy, and assertiveness would be good for starters. Wonder what logos we can get out of them?

The digital version did not kill off the traditional watch. Lessons for the newspaper industry facing the e-book reader. The Guardian price increase.

The digital watch did not kill off the analogue timepiece, its traditional face and the circulating hand. A decade ago it was the done thing to have a digital face and a display which looked as if it should be in the airline cockpit. Machismo over-statement of technology worn on the wrist then. The analogue technology was history.

Not quite. We forgot that the analogue display is not only a timepiece but a jewellery item – a fashion statement. The traditional face allowed spatial judgements over how much time had elapsed and how much was to come. We forgot the ergonomics of watches and how we use them.

There are lessons from the timekeeping world which may resonate as newspapers adjust to the emerging competition from e-readers. Quality newspapers are losing readership at 10% a year and advertising revenue falling. Foreign coverage is expensive as are the campaigns to hold other parts of life to account ie expenses and hacking. A lose-lose for the 4th Estate. Not quiet.

We read papers in anarchic ways. We dip in and out as we choose. We want to see the daily fare before we select which articles to read and when. We want to scan our papers whilst multi-tasking over other things such as a conversation or coffee. We want reliability. We hate a screen going down or a glitch showing up. We don’t want to think plugs, batteries and security.

The candour from The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rushbridger, over the paper’s recent price rise may go down well with its readership. It can see the logic of the hike knowing you get what you pay for. Newspaper readership is tribal and by adding extra leaflets, posters and supplements the reader gets a total experience. These add-ons do not lend themselves to the e-reader. This readership values the diversity of input from columnists, whose output alongside editorials and incisive cartoons, creates a thought-provoking read. You don’t get that feel from a tablet.

Daily tabloid, evening and regional papers may be the ones most likely to be at risk from the new media. Shorter articles and a greater use of graphics and other visuals tend to lend themselves to the small screen.

We are likely to see quality newspaper circulation characterised by a narrow and loyal readership willing to pay an increasing premium for the product. A product which may morph into weekly magazines such as The Economist. “Guardian Reader” has been a short-hand swipe in the past to describe a liberal progressive politics. In the future, the term might be extended to describe how they take in their news in the first place

Thursday, September 22, 2011

All we want is government not to squander our money. It's not asking much.

We live in difficult times. The legacy of irresponsible bankers, their financial instruments and their bonuses stick in the throat. To balance things up, the average Joe willingly took advantage of give-away credit facilities and many overstretched households caught a cold.

Now, we are being asked to tighten our belts, stabilise the economy and reduce the deficit. All we ask is that when government gets its tax receipts, they are spent prudently. The reverse is the case and the evidence just keeps pouring in.

Witness today's announcement that the £12 billion NHS Computer Scheme is to be ditched. Add on Labour’s report recognising its incompetence over messed up defence procurement. Andrew Lansley’s PFI interview on this morning’s Today programme, completed the tale of woe of what happens when politicians get their hands on our money. The abortive reorganisation of the fire service was yesterday’s example of wasted monies. How much money has been spent winding up the so-called bonfire of quangos?

Once HMRC gets our money we have the right to expect government to use it with probity, value-for-money and tight scrutiny. Those are the imperatives when you run your own business. Somehow government, council and the public sector don’t apply the same principles in their own decision-making and we all lose. “We are all in it together” became a short-lived political strapline. The trouble is some of us are in it more than others.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Captain Mainwaring, the fictional bank manager at Dad's Army and our present bankers, are as far apart as ever.

Just when you thought it could not get any worse for the bankers, up pops another episode in this squalid serial. £1.3 billion going astray at the Swiss bank, UBS.

I started my career in The City. “My word is my bond”, was an expression one frequently came across. Reputation, trust and probity counted for much.

Bankers' bonuses and dodgy financial instruments had faded into the memory, only to be brought back to life this week, with the Vicker’s Independent Commission on Banking.

Bankers and government hope that separating retail and casino banking will be kicked into touch until after the next election. We are assured everything is in order, but along comes an employee at UBS Investment Bank, to remind us that allegedly rogue traders may still be around. Have we learned nothing since Nick Leeson at Barings in 1995?

Whatever the reality, the perception amongst Joe Public is that still there is something wrong with the ethics and activities of bankers. It may be one of our most important contributors to our economy and pragmatism dictates that we don’t kick it into touch.

The British public has an innate sense of fair play and banks remain on the wrong side of the fence in our perception of their worth and values. Captain Mainwaring may be out of place today, but his sense of values may be just what our society needs now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The fun starts now - the squabbles over the parliamentary seats. What's the point if fewer people turn up to vote?

Boundary reconfiguration has always raised the political temperature – the term Gerrymandering was not coined for nothing.

So what makes things different this time? Well the backcloth is a Coalition government charting uncertain waters to 2015, 50 seat reductions and a short consultation process to retrieve the Boundary Commissioners’ proposals. In Wolverhampton, one of three seats is history.

There are past lessons about the dangers of superimposing boundary changes on existing geographical boundaries. Witness the unstable legacy we created in our colonial scramble for Africa.

Politics is tribal and the colonial metaphor should not be stretched too far, but in seeking fewer seats and creating more equitably-sized constituencies, we might have created unwelcome and unpredictable outcomes for councillors and MPs.

The electorate has an uncanny knack of letting politicians down. Although wards can be moved across boundaries, it does not follow that the voters, in their new home, act as they have in the past.

Voters’ angst may be raised. Activists may see things through their own prisms and not be at ease with newly constituted committees and party structures. They may feel resentment at being divorced from old personalities and loyalties. How will the voter feel if told to move from a constituency with an affective MP to one where there is a dud?

The message is clear – take care for what you wish and don’t underestimate an electorate which may resent being electoral munitions moved around a battlefield.

Perhaps we are getting worked up over nothing. Have just returned from dropping a few leaflets off for tomorrow’s ward election. Met a guy in the street who observed he wanted nothing to do with politics, was not going to vote for anyone and next year had no intention of being on the roll. For him and many others, boundaries are meaningless. That is the really big issue for Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. No point playing with boundaries if fewer people vote.

Of course, there is a silver lining. In the next couple of years we are going to see sitting MPs nursing relations with their constituents to secure their futures, and this Parliament has hardly gone off the ground yet.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Should councils be encouraging us to take our eye off the road?

Should councils be encouraging us to take our eye of the road? I ask the question as it becomes obvious that we now have a troubling addition to our street furniture. I refer to the commercial adverts which now festoon many of our roundabouts. And usually those in the centre of town where traffic flows are at their greatest.

The roundabout has now been sponsored by such and such company. Placards are posted at regular intervals around the circuit. Of course a logo and suitable strapline add to our delights. “ Glasses from 20/20 vision to help your driving” would suit.

Roundabouts were invented to smooth traffic flow, but with increasing traffic densities they have achieved the reverse. They acquired an extra helper - traffic lights. These junctions are places with the potential for real grief. Indeed a location where the heartbeat may rise and wits have to be honed.

This is a place for due care and attention. There are enough traffic signs to absorb as you negotiate white tramlines disappearing under your bonnet.

So how come our councils have been able to square the circle over road safety and the need to nudge motorists into behaving properly? Well they haven’t and it is lolly that tops the list. Sponsoring a roundabout brings in the coins and helps subsidise the traffic department’s budgets. In an age of contingency, risk aversion and health and safety, it is amazing that this advertising genre has even been contemplated.

We can ask what other locations can be found for our cash-strapped councils? Will our public toilets, public seating and litter bins be finding sponsors next? More importantly, who might the sponsors be? Whoever they are, the exercise won't be compromising our safety.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A cameo scene from the West Wing should be required viewing for all of our politicians before the party conferences.

A pattern is emerging across our political parties. They seem to be having a problem remembering who they represent and what they stand for.

Tim Farron for the LibDems observes that his party has “suffered a loss of identity....and support”. Whilst Ivan Lewis at Labour suggests his party “looks like and speaks on behalf of an urban metropolitan elite". Complete the cycle with the Conservatives humbled from their retreat on forests and now succeeding in getting the National Trust to launch a petition over planning. It takes something to upset your natural supporters whatever the party. How has this detachment come about?

Revisiting the second episode ( Series Four ) from the iconic West Wing fictional drama, one is reminded of a scene where White House staffers, Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler, having lost the presidential motorcade, have a conversation with an ordinary Joe in an Indiana bar.

He is not a wastrel just someone caught out by events beyond his control. He wants a little help so that he can keep his head above water. In a slow drawl and gestulating slowly with his fingers, he indicates that he wants just an inch of government support. Ziegler listens uncomfortably and asks if they can talk. It is a humbling piece of drama. The cameo just highlights the insularity of the Washington bubble and ditto Westminster.

So what one might ask? Well, our political elites and the media circus will soon be at their party conferences. As they retire to their hotel bedrooms, perhaps they should put the DVD in the player, start the episode and reflect on what they are doing, why and for whom.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do the descendent technologies from Bletchley Park protect or erode our freedoms?

Sometimes it is the juxta-positioning of events which adds a poignancy to ones experience. Such was the case within the last twenty four hours.

A visit to the famous Bletchley Park war-time code-breaking centre was an introduction to the world of Enigma, Bombe, Ultra and Hut 6. The replicated version of the world’s first semi-programmable computer, Colossus, gave an insight into what this technology could do in a benign context.

Contrast this with a small 21st century cameo today where I sought a replacement registration plate for the car. A simple transaction now acquires the status of something more bureaucratic, ie being asked for the log book and another form of identity, so as to check that bogus plates are not created.

Seems innocent enough, but this is yet another example of the incremental acquisition of data for the state. Turing, Flowers and their mates might be wondering whether sixty years on, they unleashed a technology as great a threat to our individual freedoms, as the causes to which Colossus was being harnessed in the first place.

Monday, August 22, 2011

“Good politics but bad policy”. A phrase from Tony Blair worth keeping.

One phrase in Tony Blair’s Observer article about the recent 2011 city unrest, may be remembered long after the rest of his article has become forgotten. Recalling his own position about moral decline in society and the James Bulger affair, he noted that his 1993 speech was “good politics but bad policy”. It has a ring to it showing a contrition and awareness that was lacking when in office.

Such reflection stands Blair well. But have you noticed how other ex-party leaders seem to grow in stature after leaving office? Iain Duncan Smith, Paddy Ashdown and John Major seem to display a clarity of thought that was lacking in their younger years. Unimpeded by the weight of office they can now articulate a perspective of our present condition which eluded them in younger years. One might even call it statesmanship. Perhaps our aspiring political leaders need to put more time in to acquire a hinterland and sense of perspective before they step forward for the prize they seek.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What happens when the A Level pass rate reaches 100%?

So the A level results are out for another year. The UCAS-fest springs into action. For the 29th year in succession there have been improvements. In any other walk of life, especially business, this would have been met with incredulity as to how this had come about. A Dragon Den’s investor would be in ecstasy. Bonuses would have been showered upon staff, handsome dividends paid out to shareholders and stock market valuations at a premium.

Grade inflation and a devalued educational examination system are words that dare not be spoken. If one puts educational performances under scrutiny, one may be accused of undermining the hard work of teachers and the efforts of their students. An ogre taking sweets from the kids.

And yet there must be something wrong, as our economy faces a skills shortage and many in the educational system struggle to hit basic levels of literacy and numeracy. It is not by chance that skilled economic migrants from Europe seek their chances with us.

A visitor from another planet would be forgiven for thinking that somehow there is an inconsistency between educational performances as measured by exam results (not just A level at that), the performance of our economy and the skill levels of those seeking employment.

Michael Gove and his pals are caught between a rock and a hard place. Criticise the results inflation and you are a killjoy. Praise them and one is participating in the delusion that our economy has a decent skills base. The big question of course is what do we do when in a few years time the pass rate reaches 100%?

Airport departure lounges can damage your health.

Along with duty free and coffee shops, airport departure lounges are where you find bookshops. Purchasing a text to while away the tedium of travel is a given. Take care what you buy though.

What really hits you, is the undue prominence on the shelves of self-improvement tomes, either of the personal relationship or business variety. Travel is a stressful enough exercise at the best of times, without being reminded of how inadequate your emotional intelligence or management skills might be.

The pressure is on you to get an instant solution to your problems by making that purchase. You get a metaphorical MBA or counselling qualification before you reach your destination then.

You are drawn in by the titles which fan your anxieties. You feel insecure when confronted with a number of texts that you think you ought to buy, but from a quick bit of browsing are not sure how to cast your vote. If you buy there is the lingering thought in your mind that you got the wrong one. As you take off you think the right one is still on that shelf.

As I wait in Dubai’s terminal, there is a performance before me from a suitably suited and booted sales guy. He is encouraging passers-by to view a video clip of recently published management texts. Terms such as “extreme leadership” and “massive goals” jump off the screen and invade the sensibilities. No subtlety here then.

With all of the economic and domestic problems facing us, one would have thought that the cumulative reading of these improvement books would have yielded some solutions. A game-changer in our lives. Alas, the reverse is the case and the hyperbole written washes over us. We are suspicious of simplistic solutions which are laid out as “10 Ways to…….”.

One can have an inferiority complex as one starts off for the departure gate. These bookshops should be tendering us something more optimistic as we pull out our boarding card.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

News International, News of the World and the rehabilitation of Vince Cable.

Few winners come out of the News International- News of the World spectacle. The sustained campaign of The Guardian and a couple of tenacious MPs - Chris Bryant and Tom Watson stand out.

Add to the list the Business Secretary: Vince Cable. He took a hammering last December over an unguarded private comment that he had "declared war on Murdoch."





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Perhaps he was indiscrete but, instinctively, many amongst his peers and the public knew he was right. The political elite held its head in the sand and the boat was not to be rocked. He was removed from the decision over the BSkyB bid and his star waned.

As the Westminster Village, press and police sort out their new standards and relationships, perhaps more attention will now be given to those whose instincts in the past were to question what was going wrong. As the Cabinet meets around the table, colleagues may be looking at Cable with an element of envy.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ed Miliband’s surreal interview with Damon Green. Viewers are sick to death of interviews when they are being treated with disrespect by the media circus and politicians.

Ed Miliband’s interview with ITV’s Damon Green about public sector strikes took one into a surrealistic world when it comes to pinning down politicians. We are used to their sliding and slipping as they use straw man thinking and the rephrasing of a question to gain more favourable ground. Miliband’s repetition of the same phraseology to five questions was something to behold. Questions and answers seemed to live in different worlds. Sound bites had to be got out at all costs. The editing processes of the broadcaster circumvented.

There are only so many ways of delivering “when negotiations are still going on…both sides round the negotiation table and put aside rhetoric blah blah.” It made Paxman’s famously repeated Newsnight questioning of Michael Howard over prisons look sane.

In the world of presentations, it makes sense to make few and focussed points, but Miliband’s action replays just took him away from the way the rest of us communicate. You Tube has now fixed the evidence for ever.

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“When things go wrong one tends to do more the same with greater intensity.” is a well-known quote but this usually covers situations where tempers are short and exasperation rules. What makes Miliband’s performance stand out is that it was done with methodical coolness of mind. Unfortunately, the practice is now prevalent across the Westminster Village.

News Corporation’s hacking hiatus puts the press under scrutiny from politicians. When the dust has settled and we have a reconfigured press, let us hope that one of their first tasks is to stop the interview circus we saw with Miliband. Politicians and the media know what is going on as they play out this charade. Viewers and the electorate deserve better.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Indonesia: a country not yet on our radar but one that we should watch carefully.

I am in Indonesia. This has not been a tourist journey to Bali but a visit to the main island: Java and the capital Jakarta. I am sitting in the airport departure lounge waiting for a flight back to the UK. An opportunity to reflect on three weeks of sampling what this SE Asian country is about.

One can become so myopic and self-absorbed over our lives in the UK, that we lose sight of what is going on elsewhere. Whilst we haggle over our insular politics and economy, others are stirring themselves.

Sleeping Giant is an overused cliché but it is an apt description of this emerging country, which quietly accelerates on the outside lane as we hear of China, India and Brazil.

This Asian country may have some hiccups but with a population of 240 million, the fourth largest in the world, it has the critical mass to sustain domestic business. A stable democracy, manageable inflation, membership of G20, mineral resources and a central location in Asia- Pacific add to the mix. Admittedly there are problems and a cocktail of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis hit the headlines.

Overurbanisation and appalling traffic congestion cannot be denied, but after experiencing the dead hand of government trying to kickstart our own economy, it is revealing to see a country where a can-do culture is evident.

It is an eye-opener to see the roadside garages at work where seemingly thousands of skilled mechanics service the millions of scooters and motorbikes. No skill shortages here then. School kids are set the task of talking to tourists so as to sharpen their English skills.

This is a place of activity and energy. Nothing seems to be wasted, recycling is the norm and if one does not have a job there seems to be the entrepreneurial intiative to create one. This is a country where over-regulation and health and safety take a back seat. And yet, in making regular trips across the city I did not see a single accident. And of surveillance cameras? None to be seen.

Whilst we contemplate how to deal with Greek debt, this far away exotic nation which attracted us as the Spice Islands in the 16th century is getting its act together. We should be giving it much more attention.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The ComRes Survey. MPs don’t seem to think that communication skills amongst their staff are that important.

The results of a recent survey of MPs have just been released by ComRes, the London-based polling and research consultancy. The findings are a revelation. In April 2011, 154 members were asked for their top three desired traits when appointing Parliamentary staff.

Academic record, discretion, enthusiasm, organisational skills, personal presentation, political nous, political views and punctuality made up the menu. Inevitably, the data showed differences between party, gender and length of service – but the overall picture fascinates.

Organisational skills ( mentioned by 77% of respondents ), political nous ( 56%) and enthusiasm (57%) headed the pack. Not surprising perhaps, when these are support and backroom roles. And yet these staffers and interns are going to be dealing with constituents, pressure groups and stakeholders, as well as being a sounding board for their employers and potential speech-writers.

The eye-opener came when one looked for the status of communication skills. It was not highlighted as a distinct category in its own right. The nearest one came to it was “personal presentation”. This came a distant last and mentioned by a mere 8% - just 13 of the sampled MPs. Even punctuality rated 17%! One might assume this meant sartorial elegance and not having soup stains down the shirt. Contact with ComRes at Millbank for clarification, elicited the response that it was a category to be interpreted as the MP wanted.

Assuming that “personal presentation” did include verbal and vocal dexterity, then the figures are still horrendous. At a time when Parliament is still toxified by the expenses debacle, one would have thought that professional communication with the electorate would have been accorded higher status by our representatives. After all, whilst you are in the chamber, how your staffers connect to the electorate may have a major impact on your re-election prospects.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cheryl Cole and her accent. Does how we speak have any relevance to success in business?

The recent controversy at the X Factor and Fox TV over Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell and Accentgate, gives visibility to a topic which rarely tops the headlines. Rather surprising in the age of mass communication, celebrity and the mediafest.

In 2011, we are obsessed with lifestyle, perception and image, but somehow this stops when it comes to our vocal dexterity. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of not looking after our teeth.

At school, we get qualifications in reading and writing and later we add business, professional and technical skills. The poor relation is our elocution for which we receive no qualification or training. It is a skill acquired on the hoof, if at all. A couple of hours with a voice coach might be a no-brainer.

How often have we seen a snazzy PowerPoint delivery brought to its knees by poor speaking skills? Makes one realise how good the voice-over artists are on the television documentary.

The debate can be held as to whether Ms Cole should modify her accent – the downside is that she may lose character and become contrived – something out of Pygmalion perhaps.

The casualty of using certain accents is a lack of clarity and diction, and if this goes alongside other deficiencies such as variability, phrasing and volume, then the communication cycle is broken. The punchline is to make oneself understood.

The cut-glass accents of the aristocracy with their emphasis on consonants have largely gone, but the broader vowels of the regions stay in place. People from abroad seem to like an accent which is a downplayed version of received pronunciation (RP), delivered thoughtfully, confidently and with character.

A strength of British culture is the variety to be found amongst its component accents. Whether it be Cornish, Scouse, Estuary, Geordie, Midland or whatever, we have our own views of what is easy on the ear. Irrespective of accent, a criticism of many people is that they talk through their teeth, don’t open the jaws and ignore breathing.

As we record our personalised voicemail salutations or listen to our voices elsewhere, we know what we like. If the answer is a no, then we must spare a thought for our customers and do something about it. Networking, tendering and negotiating count for little if what you say grinds on the ear. Clients will just go elsewhere because they tend to buy from people they like. Accent may be one of the most obvious barriers to business and yet one so easy to rectify.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Perhaps the game is not so beautiful after all. Communication skills in the sacking of Avram Grant and Carlo Ancelotti at West Ham and Chelsea.

Sir Alan Sugar’s recent BBC documentary on the plight of soccer’s premier league, highlighted its precarious financial position. This is a business where normal commercial criteria do not seem to apply. Here is an industry seeking quick fixes rather than more evolutionary, sustained and organic routes to success. We can’t wait for the youth teams to come through – success has to be imported. Results, sponsorship and media income are what it is all about. This is spectacle for Match of the Day.

Not surprising then, that there are some casualties and top of the list are human relationships. With failure on the pitch comes the search for scapegoats – this is a blame culture.

Such can be seen this week with the allegedly rather unedifying spectacle of the sacking of the West Ham and Chelsea managers. In the roundabout world of football management, these guys will soon find another slot and the compensation packages deaden the sense of hurt.

True leadership is exemplified by the way bad news is communicated. We are talking of timing, venue and style. These seem to be lacking as the season closed. Avram Grant was given his marching orders in the tunnel at Wigan and Carlo Ancelotti was dismissed as he left the post-match media fest at Everton. Why the haste? Is it a clumsy way of diverting attention? For sure, the people at the top did not look statesmen-like. Decisions are not of the best when the adrenaline is running high.

Reactive decision-making and curt manners seem the order of the day. One can only wonder as to what other poor communication processes lie elsewhere in a club. Relationships between owners, chief execs and managers are copied by others further down the pecking order.

It will be a remarkable manager who does not translate the way he has been treated to how he works with those below. He may take those very practices and apply them to training, loaning, selection and his communication style. How does the wider pool of players stay motivated when not chosen for the game? Many a player must be asking: “What’s in it for me?” It’s a culture thing. No wonder there is such a high churn rate in the industry and the agents look on.

The mainstream commercial world cannot look on with any sense of superiority. Witness the manner in which those flagged for redundancy, may hear the news with little warning and, without returning to their desk, be escorted to reception.

How we communicate bad news tells us volumes about the health of an organisation. Sadly there are too many that are hospital cases. Perhaps the game is not so beautiful after all. This goes on in the media spotlight and, unsurprisingly, the rest of society watches and imitates.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does the blogozine mean that the blogosphere has joined the establishment?

The blogosphere is an entity with a micromillimetre of history and yet it is rapidly mutating. Such is the case with the announcement by the blog guru:Iain Dale, of his new vehicle “The Daley: Iain Dale and Friends” – a new online magazine fed by 60 “retired bloggers”. Shall we call it a blogozine?

The rationale being that a blog needs a portfolio of contributors to sustain it and to produce sufficient copy. The solitary blogger not having time or energy to do it alone.

This begs the question as to whether a group blog loses its identity, energy and rationale when the fingerprints of many are over it. The emergence of internet-driven blog author-publishers is a welcome 2011 manifestation of an earlier age of pamphleteers. Widespread printing confronted the monasteries and constitutional institutions of the time and the edgy blog carries that on.

Will the new corporate blogs be just a new manifestation of the quality press with its teams of columnists? It was significant that in the recent long-listing of blogs for the George Orwell Prize that of 22 chosen, 11 came from bloggers who worked within the shell of a broader blog entity, either a national media outlet or a corporate political grouping. Was mainstream journalism already taking over the preserve of amateur bloggers with its idiosyncratic views of the world and choice of subject?

The rationale of the blogosphere was to get under the skin of the great and good. The Daley and its ilk may become part of that establishment and gone native. If that is the case, then the scope for the individual blogger is once more opened up to be the grit of sand in the oyster.

The strength of the blogosphere lies in its anarchic content and often questionable prose but we return to the sites to see what happened next. I am not sure that the new blogozine will offer us anything that the 4th Estate is not offering us already.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Calm down, dear" are three words David Cameron will hear much more of as future Coalition politics are played out.

A maxim in football is that one plays the ball and not the player and to do otherwise risks a penalty. Professional politicians are usually adept at avoiding this trap, and it was revealing to see David Cameron recently falling in. Not only was his “calm down dear “ exchange in Parliament with Angela Eagle patronising, but it revealed just one of the many examples of flawed thinking that pervade our lives.

When tackled the culprit usually evades responsibility by suggesting one does not have a sense of humour or one was taken out of context. That just compounds the felony through passing the blame on to the victim. The fact that it is a borrowed strap line from a Michael Winner advert, does not lessen the offence.

The “ad hominem” cannon – may have been the result of tiredness, carelessness and exasperation. It is usually when you have run out of lines of rationale argument and logical thinking. Whatever the reason – the result was unedifying to watch as were the reactions of neighbouring colleagues. Unfortunately, it pervades a great of daily life and just watch how a spat in the family or in customer-care goes down that line.

When political practitioners with their PR minders are exposed, it makes one realise that they are not as skilled in the communication arts as one imagines. As Coalition politics are played out in the years ahead, those three words are bound to be picked up by some creative copywriter. Watch this space. One thing is for sure, the advertising agency responsible for the original advert, must be relishing the fact that their product has suddenly found more legs.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Capello says he only needs 100 words to communicate to his players - some of them are taking steps to do much better.

After working with a Buddhist monk, a candidate at the General Election and a company that had a share in building Dubai’s airport, one never quite knows who the next client will be.

Query solved, as a professional from one of the Premier League football clubs comes forward. An interesting guy planning his exit strategy from the beautiful game once his legs tire. A beacon where the normal imperatives are short-termism, taking a game at a time and conspicuous consumption.

Each profession has its distinctive culture and work regime, but few are literally played out before us under the gaze of Match of the Day. This is as precarious an occupation as it gets. Form, injury and a pool of colleagues waiting to fill your shoes make an unsettling context.

Getting to grips with the world of agents, bonuses, contracts, sponsorship, the media circus and the flamboyance of management is a challenge. Not surprising many go under.

Many professionals have difficulty adjusting to a world where they are not the focus of adulation and celebrity. Not many of us see our lives reported on the back page of the local rag. It can be a distortion. This is a world where decisions are in the hands of others and life ritualised by the club. Makes it difficult to step out and be yourself.

Credit to this professional as he looks at a world after playing, whether it be management, punditry or promotion work. This is a guy whose communication skills will be way beyond the clichés of “being sick as a parrot” or “over the moon”. When some famous names are shouting obscenities at the cameras, there are others crafting more professional presentation skills.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sometimes motivational seminars can damage your health. A day out at the NEC.

I am shattered.

I have just returned from a Motivational Conference/Seminar at the LG Arena at the NEC. My first and probably last. An exercise in showing you how to “Get Motivated” may have achieved the reverse.

The mission statement was "... to ignite that inner passion in yourself...initiate that first step toward powerful change."

Have you ever attended an open-air meat market where the butcher sells his stuff from a van with a microphone-aided commentary? It is a mixture of jollity, irritation, embarrassment and naffness. That is the impression I took away today, after listening to over half a dozen motivational experts at the top of their game.

A surreal day started with a performance by a West End artist, brought up to deliver three of his songs. A backdrop of simulated fireworks completed his contribution. Impressive, but a bit out of place so soon after breakfast. And no connection to what came afterwards.

Our expert motivaters were a mixture of Bruce Forsyth game host bravado and machine-gun staccato delivery. No room for subtlty or reflection here. Key quotes were displayed on large backdrop screens. These gave a hint of sophistication to complement alpha-male stage performances below.

Our presenters then encouraged embarrassing rituals ie getting one to ask a question of your neighbour, shake their hands or give them a hug. I thought this type of delegate engagement went out in the 1960’s with Dale Carnegie.

Soundbite cliches were delivered at a gallop ie “ Is the juice worth the squeeze?” and their impact lost amidst the barrage of rules to achieve success.

Christine Hamilton’s outline of her family’s recuperation after her husband’s political downfall caught the eye. This owed much to her idiosyncratic style. A rollercoaster life is interesting to hear and there was a story to tell. Henry Kissinger’s famous maxim “When options are reduced, it clears the mind wonderfully.” was never more apt.

Effective communicators know about reading audience dynamics so that their listeners do not have the energy sucked out of them. This well-intentioned day did the reverse and a Virgin train home was a relief.

Makes you realise that the best presentations are subtle, encourage dialogue and are not drenched in testosterone.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The George Orwell Blog Prize 2011 - Ad Lib raises its profile or perhaps not.

Since 2009, this annual prize for political writing has added blogging to its traditional book authoring and journalese awards.

Blogging is a solitary activity and it is rare to meet a large group of bloggers in one venue. Who are the personalities behind the postings? Blog conventions have not yet evolved to match a Hay-on-Wye festival.

This week’s evening reception in London was an opportunity to put this right: the long-listing of 20 from 200.

A quick declaration of interest is in order. Even now, I am not too sure as to how and why an invitation was extended to enter.

Ad Lib was one of the hopefuls. Alas, it failed to make an impact. Having been around for less than nine months my expectations were humble. Too little focus, weak imagery, not radical enough perhaps?

Snatched conversations in the evening and sampling a cross-section of the authors was going to be a challenge. These caught my eye.

http://www.complicity.co.uk/blog/ Zoe O’Connell
http://lettersfrommalawi.managementtoday.co.uk/ William Mitting
http://thevoiceofreason-ann.blogspot.com/ Claire Khaw

What did the judges seem to like?

Blogs which had a focus through having a story to tell. Incremental additions updating a personal dilemma.

Mainstream national journalists ( Sky, ITV and BBC ) blogging via their in-house facility received mixed comments. This raises the issue of the cross-over between blogging and the 4th estate. What are the implications of blogs which seem to be a shared outlet for a portfolio of writers eg ConservativeHome and Labour Uncut? Surely, a blogsite should have a personality stemming from the input of one writer. What would the BBC's "Letter from America" have been like if Alastair Cooke had been writing as part of a team?

With more to read and time scarce, we should be writing less and tighter. As the blogosphere expands at an exponential rate, the problem is knowing who is writing what, is it any good and how do we meet each other?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The anorexic telephone directory, communication style and the Big Society.

I hear a thump on the floor - some post through the box. It is the new edition of the BT directory.

Nothing of note, until I pick it up and notice just how thin it is. Business, classifieds and residential – all for less than a centimetre. There was a time when the tome gave me several inches of extra height when a ladder was not around.

So what’s going on? Well, the aneroxic listing shows we are now celebrity ex-directory or we just want to avoid being contacted by someone who might give us grief. Perhaps the geographical boundaries have changed. Comparison with last year’s offering suggests not. Other currents are at work.

The mobile phone in its numerous manifestations is taking its toll of its terrestrial cousin. Apparently, 25% of US households already get by with no landline. If one does have both facilities, it can be a shock when the traditional variant actually rings. It is probably an aged relative. If the answering service is activated, we probably ignore it when we get back, knowing that if someone really wants us they will use the mobile.

Most people under twenty have probably not experienced answering a phone connected by an umbilical cord to the wall. They would have no idea of what to do in a public callbox. Communication is now, anywhere, anytime and literally on the move.

This has crept on us and the implications for society and our communication styles not yet crystallised. The traditional phone was an in-house shared facility and switchboard. Families were aware of who was talking to whom even if the content was hushed. This was a strand of family connectivity which has been knocked away and our communication now becomes more individualistic than ever. Phone conversations are now individual events, a bit like our grazing habits on the food front.

The phonebook was an opportunity to scan who constitutes the local community. We may not have read it for fun, but at least it gave you an idea of who was around and what they did. Electronic on-screen versions do not provide the same sentient experience.

So next year the paper version will be wafer thin. In the meanwhile, our own personalised directory on the mobile lengthens. We have censored and chosen who we talk to. Not having a public listing, the opportunities for others to talk to us have been reduced. Is this the Big Society?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Black Country Enterprise Zone: a stimulus for business or a bullet to kill off enterprise?

Sometimes it is the juxtapositioning of events which adds to the poignancy of a situation. Such was the case today, with George Osborne’s budget announcement of 10 Enterprise Zones to stimulate business growth. This coincided with a letter in the local Express and Star, inviting ex-employees of a closed iron and steel plant, to meet up for a reunion.

What are you talking about you ask? Well this famous plant in the Black Country, and known as Round Oak, closed in the 1980’s. The derelict site was designated by the government of the time as an EZ at Brierley Hill, to stimulate new manufacturing and jobs. Planning controls were to be freed up and favourable tax and rate incentives posted.

Sorted then! Well not quite. A loop hole in the regulations encouraged rapid retail development, often using semi-skilled labour and consumer imports to the detriment of skilled artisans, manufacturing and exports. Nothing for the apprentice to go into then.

Local shopping centres could not compete with this regional shopping giant at Merry Hill. Firms which hitherto were located outside the EZ jumped across the boundary to access the financial goodies. Not much of a net increase in regional jobs to talk about.

The lamentable economic performance of places such as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell today, may in part and ironically, owe their current status to the decision to create the initial EZ in the first place. See how many empty shops there are today with artistic posters outside to encourage you to think otherwise. What is being done to rectify the situation? Another EZ of course and thirty years on.

There is nothing wrong with these zones, as long as we ensure that they act as a stimulus to local enterprise and the benefits are spread. The reverse may be the case as their performance sucks the energy from the surrounds – a bit of a backwash or tsunami. Vicious rather than virtuous circles.

The newly created Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will have enough challenges ahead of it as it removes the barriers to business. George Osborne has now added another ingredient into the mix. The boundaries will have to be drawn very carefully. We are still living with the impacts of the first EZs. The task ahead is to ensure that we have not just been given extra toppings.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jamie Oliver’s Dream School – a Channel 4 media fest or relevant lessons in communication and motivation?

This week sees the start of Channel 4's Dream School, Jamie Oliver’s new television project. Celebrities with a particular subject expertise chance their arm in the classroom. For a while, it will put education on the front burner to compete against the Arab revolt and Coalition politics.

The assumption is that the hitherto poorly-motivated students, will experience a Damascene conversion as well-known experts from a wide spectrum of achievement, parade their wares and instructional skills.

Of course, the project is an artificial one, as the presence of cameras, celebrity teachers and being made a fuss of all kick in.

Nevertheless, the enterprise is worth a second take. It enables us to reflect on what actually constitutes good teaching in the first place. Commentators and reviewers usually deliver their critiques after the programmes have been shown, but bucking the trend here is an unscientific checklist, that we might have to hand as we view from the couch.

Communication is at the heart of good teaching, so how will our celebs perform? Do they have an interesting voice and presence? Do they use the space around them? Can we visualise them delivering 30 sessions a week?

Teaching some Economics ages ago, and not being particularly on top of the subject - even though I had been in The City - I had to go the extra mile in grasping the topics myself. I am sure this enabled a more sympathetic view of what the learners were experiencing and a more thoughtful insight in my preparation. The question before our celeb list of Dr Starkey, Alastair Campbell, Ellen MacArthur and others is quite simply “ What's in it for the students and what are they doing?” It is no good having expertise - the key skill is empathy for the perspective of the learner.

Many students don’t ask questions because they don’t know what they don’t know, and our celebs will have to cover this shortfall. Visual aids,relevant language as well as an understanding that we learn in different ways complete the picture.

Michael Gove is in uncertain waters creating a coherent policy out of academies, free schools, the use of ex-military staff on the payroll and the revelations of Ms Birbalsingh.

The punchline is that memorable teachers were ones with personality and charisma. They were ones who bucked the system and took risks. They have been squeezed out by the treadmill of assessment, clonal lesson structures and the devaluation of grades. It explains why we have such sterile teaching and alienated learners. If Oliver’s series exposes this, then it is to be applauded.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Let us make our politics less sanitised and a little more dangerous.

Blog posts are ephemeral, but occasionally it can be worth revisiting one already written. Here is an update of one from a year ago and written after the General Election.

As a teenager, I recall visiting Downing Street and putting my hand on the famous door. A tangible connection to history perhaps. Returning in my thirties, I was confronted with a wrought iron security gate. I felt saddened at the restriction.

'So what?' you might ask. Well today, we see a street turned into a giant outside broadcast backdrop for the media circus. A metaphor for the distance between the electorate and the political elite, with the Fourth Estate filling the vacuum and filtering what we are to know. We have a political disconnect and the geography of our most famous street exemplifies what has gone wrong. Politicians are now physically more secure behind these gates, but insulated from the approbation and heckling of the public.

The distance between government and the public is as great as ever. The former's misreading over the public perception of forest sales, the Big Society and banking bonuses are cases in point.

The political elite needs to meet real people with all the unpredictability that comes with it. Stop using audiences as patsy backdrops and contrived photo ops to legitimate "consultation". Now that would be real communication. AV electoral reform may signal a return to hustings, MPs widening their appeal, decent oratory, unsanitised debate and politics which is more lively and unpredictable. Now that would be a way of getting more people to vote.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ever wondered why some people are better than others when speaking in public? It could be that they are saying nothing.

Whether it be a small meeting or at a larger more formal venue, speaking in front of others can be an ordeal. Steven Spielberg allegedly commented, that public speaking was in the top three phobias, after a fear of snakes and spiders. Drowning completed the trio.

There are plenty of business and management self-improvement books to buy at the airport departure lounge. Working on your voice is one of them. Accent, volume, diction, tone, intonation, resonance, pitch and variability are all in the toolbox. They come readily to mind as they involve activity. And yet, the most potent skill of all is ignored, because it involves doing nothing – we are talking of the “pause”.

In normal conversation, we speak at about 175 words a minute. A conversation is two people waiting impatiently to interrupt each other. The pause does not get a look in, and if used, can be disconcerting. Has something gone wrong?

Compare this with a presentation which is a one-sided interaction: the performer and the audience. Not getting any feedback from the second, it is easy for the presentation to become one-dimensional.

The pause introduces drama, variability and a sense of anticipation. It enables less to be said and the audience has time to reflect. The presenter has more time to think and be in control of events. Nerves can be handled. Pausing enables rhetorical devices such as rules of three to be optimised. Mastering the pause implies an awareness of timing which opens up the use of wit and anecdote.

Several years ago, I came across one of the BBC’s Natural History producers. We were discussing what made a good programme. Obviously, a stimulating script and visuals were must-haves. Almost as an aside, he noted that the use of pause and phrasing by the voice-over artist could make or break the final edit. Get the wrong narrator and everything is wasted.

There are some voices you just listen to. Think of Paul Vaughan and his voice-overs for the Horizon series and the early Orange adverts: "The future's bright...."

Blair, Obama, Bill Clinton and possibly Hague have it, but what about the rest of our current crop of public figures? Pausing and phrasing can illuminate the football results and a shipping forecast. Saying less, more slowly and with plenty of pauses can be the technique you need to get over that phobia. It worked for George V1!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Big Society and bankers' bonuses - an exercise in hypocritical communication.

Bankers’ bonuses and the relaunch of the Big Society are strange bedfellows, and yet this week they will both hit the media headlines. Contradictory messages from the government - and what will the electorate make of it all?

The Big Society espouses a set of values where giving, voluntary work, charity, community spirit, " we are all in it together" and social responsibility are the drivers. They are the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs ie self-actualisation and fulfilment. Contrast this with the imperatives of our bankers, where financial reward for work done and risks taken are the key words. Bonuses, taking and self-interest are likely to be the word associations that come to mind. Borrowing the language of Maslow again, we are talking of self-esteem, achievement and status as the bankers’ drivers.

The Big Society was a rather metaphysical entity when it first hit the lexicon in the 2010 election. It may be a little clearer now, but the electorate will be confused as to the values of a government encouraging volunteering, localism, social entrepreneurship and giving, yet still condoning the toxic behaviour of banks.

With Egyptian politics recently, western democracies were caught between desiring stability ( aka strong government ) and supporting self-determination. They sent out confused messages, as they tried to catch up with public opinion. In our domestic context, that is what is happening with bonuses and the Big Society.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is this how Canary Wharf and other City addresses earn their bonuses?

An interesting little communication cameo was played out this afternoon.

I took a cold call from someone in Canary Wharf, canvassing me to purchase some advertising space on a social media site.

I have no problem with the sales principle here, but the manner in which it was played out was a revelation. It is said that on the phone, 85% of understanding comes from the sound of your voice and only 15% from what you actually say. First impressions do count, but today my canvasser scored a minus all round.

After an early question to establish that I was the decision maker, I was subjected to a staccato volley outlining how good the advertising opportunity was and that “ is a fact”. A fusillade of statistics followed for what felt like an eternity. No subtle soft schmoozing sale here. Reasoned features, benefits, logic and emotion were not on the agenda.

It is difficult to assess what one’s response should be. I tried telling the caller that he was talking too quickly and not giving me space to reply. The response was an audible gulp and the briefest of pauses followed by: “Well, I am the top salesman and meet my targets.” Not much listening then.

It beggars belief that a time when the economy is in dire straits, this type of arrogance comes out of one of our top commercial addresses. Has the bankers’ hubris just down the road become a contagion? I wished my caller well with his next conversation, but I am sure the irony eluded him and his arrogance moved obliviously onwards to the next name on the list. Is this how they get their bonuses?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"What we really really want." The barriers to business - we want visibility and access.

The government says it wants to remove the barriers to business: an objective of the newly created LEPs ( Local Enterprise Partnerships ). Lubricating finance and the removal of red tape are tentative steps in the right direction. The Grand National in accessing the public sector is a race yet to be won.

What entrepreneurs do not want is to be deluged with advisors. We can work out things for ourselves as and when. Business Link made a life for itself offering consultations when they were not needed, and its replacement online helpdesk may be of equal marginal merit

To coin a phrase what “we really really want”, is visibility and access. We have forgotten that businesses thrive when there are markets. Trade fairs and exhibitions at the NEC, Olympia, Earl’s Court and the ICC come into this category. If business funding could be used to enable start-up firms to have access to these watering holes at subsidised rates, then any entrepreneur worthy of the name will make a success of the opportunity.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cutting the BBC World Service. We are degrading a key asset which projects our culture, influence and language.

On a visit to Beijing a couple of years ago, I was struck by how frequently I was stopped in the street. Those learning English wanted to practise their skills. So what? Well it is a recognition that the world’s largest populated country, values the key communication asset of another. Chinese is a tonal language not easily mastered by outsiders and yet Britain, a pin-prick in size, is home to the world's lingua franca.

All the more reprehensible then of the cuts announced yesterday at the BBC World Service. Cutting Albanian and Serbian services may seem marginal to our lives, but in recent times, these have been areas of instability and we are not to know where the next conflict may be. The World Service enables us to project our interests, values and culture in a cost-effective manner. It is trusted and in a world of variable freedoms respected as an impartial source.

We have a history of punching above our weight and the causes are of historical accident. We are at the centre of the Mercator world map, live on the 0 degrees line of longitude and are the home of GMT. We have a top seat at the UN and for better or worse, are still a financial centre of note. English is the language of air traffic control and it has a heady presence on the Internet.

This budget cut is a short-sighted move. When we have few levers to project ourselves in the global economy, we are degrading a key asset. This is a cut which has not been properly thought out. Our weak communication skills compromise our business and employability abilities at home. It is even worse for a trading nation, when we start dismantling a key asset which promotes us so well abroad.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

King George V1th and Mary Portas, Queen of Shops. Two takes on reaching an audience.

Last week the coincidental showing of an item on television and another at the cinema, made for an interesting comparative take on communication skills - or rather the lack of them.

The King's Speech, with Colin Firth depicting George V1th's stammering, was a rare foray of the silver screen into speech impediment. Here was a man who could not communicate with his subjects, and yet desperately wanted to do so.

Contrast this with the opening episode of Mary Portas' new ITV series: Mary Queen of Shops, where shop assistants had another issue; an ability to communicate when they could, but through poor training chose not to. Welcome to the world of woeful customer-care.

In the challenging business conditions of 2011, there are few levers that a manager can readily pull to make a quick difference to the bottom line. Customer relationship skills is one.

People tend to buy from people they like and yet a basic rule of three: smile, speak and service seems to have departed from the shopping malls. The cause is a debate of its own. One wonders how things may have been different, if George's coach had been let loose in Mary's world.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What riles us is being told to move on. The language of leadership. Bob Diamond, Barclays and saying sorry.

Our banking, political and military leaders have got us into a fine old pickle in the last few years. Bad enough, but what makes it worse is the way they highjack our emotions and seek to wipe the slate clean on their terms and timetable. A case in point is the performance of Barclay’s chief executive: Bob Diamond, who observed before the Parliamentary Select Committee recently, that the “period of remorse needs to be over.”

Unfortunately this tone of communication can be seen elsewhere amongst our leadership cadre. As the military debacle over kit and policy emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq, we heard from our military and political leaders variations on: “ We are where we are”, “Need to draw a line” and “Time to move on”.

We feel cheated that this form of linguistic cop out is used and the electorate looks on with disgust. Political memories can be short, but there is no doubt there is a pattern to this evasion of responsibility, and an underestimation of the emotional intelligence of the citizen.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The BBC Today programme, flowery fonts and getting a message across.

In the midst of the predictable diet covered by the BBC’s Today programme, there are some occasional gems. One such thread today, covered the idea that font style has an impact on a reader’s ability to absorb information. Not rocket science perhaps, but the conclusion is worth discussion.

Intuitively, one assumes that an easier font, makes for an easier read and more information absorbed. Interestingly, Today’s interview with Jonah Lehrer suggested the reverse ie more flowery styles are a challenge to the reader, who has to raise his/her concentration levels and accordingly takes in more of what is written. Elaborate styles may be an irritation but they stimulate the cortex.

Of course in our five second culture, this assumes that the reader wants to read said content in the first place. Assuming they do, there are lessons here for the politician drafting an electoral leaflet, the business crafting its corporate blurb, a student in education or the Kindle reader at home.

As use of e-book readers and the digital world expands, we are going to be hearing hear a lot more about font style.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why do government and quangos offer entrepreneurs the wrong things when it comes to business support?

Mark Prisk's ( Small Business Secretary ) comments today published on (www.conservativehome.blogs.com ), about how the government will help small business, makes depressing reading.

All the right noises are made about how important SMEs are to the economy, but his recipe focuses on telling us that we can get more information via an interactive online facility and a national mentoring programme. No, what we really want is easier access to the supply chain, increased visibility and mechanisms for reaching clients in a cost-effective and timely manner. Entrepreneurs by definition, have initiative and will gain relevant information and peer advice as and when. LEPs ( Local Enterprise Partnerships ) must focus on providing mechanisms whereby provider and client can reach each other. Freeing up and promoting trade fairs and exhibitions would be a starter.