It can hardly have passed anyone's notice that one of the big media stories over the past few days has been Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's claims about the number of our aged population who are 'chronically lonely' (see above clip).
For me, his casual use of statistics brought back a vivid memory from more than forty years ago of an event that had made me deeply skeptical about the validity of treating such numbers as 'hard facts'.
Tony Benn sets up a research fellowship
A not so well-known fact about my early research is that I once held a Post Office research fellowship that had been created by the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn, at the University of Essex - which led to my conducting a survey of just over 1,000 randomly sampled respondents in the UK who were aged 65 and over.
In those pre-privatisation days, the Post Office (GPO) still ran our telephone system and Harold Wilson's Labour government was under pressure to supply free telephones to the country's elderly. But then, as now, research into a problem is always a much cheaper option than doing anything about it.
Mr Benn was a friend of Professor Peter Townsend, who was already well known for his definitive books on isolation in old age and who had just become the first head of sociology at the new University of Essex. So that's where the money for the GPO research fellowship went - and, as a lowly research assistant, I was in the right place at the right time to be lucky enough to get the job.
'Objective' and 'subjective' isolation
Townsend and other researchers in the area had distinguished between two types of isolation:
Saturday's news that someone had interrupted a Bulgarian politician's speech by mounting the stage and pointing a gun at him made me realise how little I know about Bulgarian politics -- as well as how unusual (thankfully) it is for audiences to respond to speeches in this particular...
(The main part of this blog was originally written two years ago, since when, despite my best efforts, the British Legion is still using the same old collection boxes).
The Royal British Legion, like so many charities, issues its collectors with boxes on which the slit in the...
It's not often that a party leader's conference speech gets as widespread a thumbs-up as Ed Miliband enjoyed yesterday - even though what seems to have impressed the media most is his new-found ability to speak so fluently (and for so long) without any apparent reference to a script.
Could it be, I began to wonder, that our broadcast media are themselves so dependent on scripts and teleprompters that they're all too easily impressed by a style of speaking that they rather wish they could master for themselves?
Or did David Cameron really set a new standard when he won his party leadership by speaking without notes at a 'beauty parade' in 2005, underlining the power of an unscripted conference speech two years later by deterring Gordon Brown from holding a general election at a time when Labour would almost certainly have won?
Subsequent attempts by others, like Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, to emulate David Cameron's skill at speaking without a script have not met with anything like as favourable a media response as Ed Miliband attracted this week.
Scriptlessness or better than the media expected?
It's not clear to me whether this was mainly the result of scriptlessness, a more relaxed delivery than usual or, perhaps most likely (?) because Miliband's previous performances had set such low media expectations.
The trouble now is that he runs the risk, if he reverts to using scripts again, of being denounced for not speaking from the heart and/or having employed someone else to write his speeches for him.
I may have been rather critical of President Obama's rather uninspiring (for him) acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, but was rather more impressed by his performance on the David Letterman Show the other night, prompting as it did an interruptive burst of applause (scroll in 40 seconds) -- just after he'd used a nice simple contrast:
"My expectation is that, if you want to be president, you got to work for everyone, not just for some, [APPLAUSE STARTS] "and the uh--"[APPLAUSE CONTINUES]
As noted elsewhere on this blog (and in my books), the contrast is one of the most important rhetorical devices for triggering applause in political speeches. And, as is evident from this example, it can work in the same way in other settings too (e.g. TV...
I've not studied Mitt Romney's style of speaking in much detail, but there may be a clue in his latest gaffe (above) as to why I'd felt there was something a bit odd about him.
It's the sheer speed at which he speaks.
Speeches by effective public speakers are delivered at about 120 words per minute, which is much slower than the 180 words per minute found in conversations between native speakers of English (see my books).
But in the sequence that got him into so much trouble, Mr Romney manages about 200 words per minute -- i.e., 20 words per minute quicker than conversation.
Apart from the fact that this is abnormally fast for a conversation (let alone a speech) it raises two intriguing questions:
For what it's worth, to my British ears, 'fast-speaking' tends to have mainly negative...
In the internet age, we can often can read a speech, free from any 'embargo', before it's actually been given - as with one we'll be hearing from Ed Miliband later today (posted on Politics Home at 9.53 a.m. this morning).
At the end of my previous blog post, I complained that the Western media - including newspapers like The Times, which used to boast that it was a 'newspaper of record' - hadn't bothered to publish an English translation of Vladimir Putin's victory speech (HERE).
So I gave up...
These days, you can watch party political broadcasts before they've even been broadcast, as with this one from the Labour Party that's scheduled to appear on television tonight.
It has at least two irritating features that I've blogged about before. One is ghastly background musak - for more on which, see Is the sound of music on TV getting more and worse?
The other is that we no longer have to put up with television reporters telling us what politicians are saying during speeches in the background but can now listen to a party leader doing the voiceover to films of his own silent speeches in the foreground - for more on which, see Politicians and broadcasters in the UK: collaboration or capitulation?
Something very unusual happened today.
Yesterday's conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild was another stimulating treat, for which founder Bran Jenner deserves the thanks of all of us who were lucky enough to attend.
Last night, Mary Ann Sieghart (@MASieghart) tweeted 'Does this actor in #Birdsong have any look other than a long meaningful one?
Today I have to thank Diane Abbott MP for adding to my small collection of politicians walking out of an interview (for others, see below).
This is the first one in which the interviewee's mobile phone came to the rescue at a particularly awkward point in the questioning - silent though the ring seems to have been.
A few weeks ago, after hearing a presentation by Melvyn Bragg, I made the point that effective broadcasters aren't necessarily as effective when it comes to public speaking (HERE).
I've also commented on how famous actors, with the notable exception of Ronald Reagan, aren't always particularly effective at making speeches either:
'After all, their skill is to deliver other people's lines in a way that portrays characters other than themselves, which is a very different business from writing your own lines and coming across as yourself.
'Politically active thespians like Glenda Jackson, M.P., and Vanessa Redgrave may be admired for their successful acting careers, but neither of them is particularly impressive when it comes to making political speeches.
'In fact, the only example of an actor who did become a great public speaker that I can think of is Ronald Reagan, but he'd already been rolling his own speeches on the lecture circuit for General Electric long before he became Governor of California...' (more HERE)