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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.