Max Atkinson
Max Atkinson's original research into public speaking and presentation skills training first came to public notice when a televised experiment showed how he coached a novice with no previous experience of public speaking to win a standing ovation at a political party conference (the film of which can now be seen HERE).

He was formerly a Fellow of Wolfson College, and a lecturure at the Universities of Lancaster and Manchester. He has also held visiting professorships at the Henley Management Collage and other universities in Europe and the USA. He has acted as a consultant on presentation skills, public speaking and speech writing for numerous companies and organisations in the UK and abroad, often working individually with CEOs and other board level executives.

In 1985, he ran a training seminar on speech writing in the Reagan White House and, from 1987-1999 was a close advisor on presentation and speech writing to Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

His books include Our Masters' Voices: the language and body language of politics, London & New York, Methuen, 1984; Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, London, Vermilion, 2004 & New York, Oxford University Press, 2005; Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy: Seven Essential Steps to Success, London, Vermilion, 2008.

Entries by Max Atkinson

How Does Jeremy Hunt (or Anyone Else) Know How Many Old People Are 'Chronically Lonely'?

(0) Comments | Posted October 20, 2013 | 7:01 AM

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:

  1. Objective: How often did respondents see their family and friends?

  2. Subjective: How many respondents said they felt lonely?

In the questionnaires, the second of these was measured by asking respondents: "Are you often, sometimes or never lonely", to which the results came out as remarkably similar from one survey to another. For mine, if memory serves me correctly, the results were:

  • Often lonely: 7%

  • Sometimes lonely: 23%

  • Never lonely: 70%

So, by lumping "sometimes" and "often" lonely together, we could conclude that just under one in three elderly people experienced a degree of loneliness.


While piloting the draft questionnaire, I interviewed an 80 year old woman who quite severely disabled and more or less housebound. She had no trouble answering the key questions with an immediate and emphatic "Never lonely"

As I packed away her completed questionnaire in my bag and explained that I had to be going,  she begged be to stay a bit longer, and launched into a series of sad stories about relatives who never came to see her and about how her  disability prevented her from going to see the few of her friends who were still alive. How could I refuse her insistence that I must have enough time for a cup of tea?

Yet the 'hard fact', already recorded in my questionnaire, was that she was one of the 70% who were "never lonely".

This contradiction between her answers to the question on the questionnaire and what she said over tea afterwards made gave me serious doubts about the validity of such apparently 'hard facts'. 

All these years later, thanks to Mr Hunt, the doubts have come back - and I'm no less suspicious of his 'hard facts' today as I was of my own 'hard facts' then. 

"Chronically lonely" sounds even worse than "very lonely" - which raises the question of whether more or fewer than the 7%  who confessed to being "very lonely" in 1967 would admit to being "chronically lonely" in 2013? Mr Hunt may have meant well by raising the issue with a wider audience, but to imply that such figures are 'hard facts' worth taking seriously is to assume rather a lot.

P.S. A missed opportunity?

It wasn't as if this experience were the only thing that had made me start questioning the methodology of what I was doing. It was at a time when important debates were getting under way in in academic sociology: quantitative research and survey methods were coming under attack from qualitative researchers; positivism, the hypothetico-deductive model of science and the collection of 'hard facts' were being challenged by approaches like symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. And  Thomas Kuhn had just taught us the new phrase 'scientific paradigm'.

My own PhD research was already veering in this latter direction, as central theme was a critique of the paradigm established by Emile Durkheim's 1897 classic Le Suicide (eventually published as Discovering Suicide: Studies in the Social Organizatin of Sudden Death, 1978).

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues at Essex, Dorothy Smith had just heard from Erving Goffman at UC Berkeley that he had a rather promising graduate student called Harvey Sacks who was writing a PhD thesis based on live tape-recordings of telephone calls to the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Agency, and even suggested that I might do something similar rather than the conventional survey research that was being planned.

Ignoring such excellent advice, I played safe by remaining loyal to the methodology favoured in Peter Townsend's books on the elderly and poverty. 

By the time I had finished my PhD, however, Sacks had put in quite an important appearance in my thesis. And later on, much of the motivation and inspiration for my later work on public speaking and presentation came directly from him and the other main founders of conversation analysis, Emanuel Shegloff and Gail...

Read Post

Should We Have the Right to Bear Arms During a Speech?

(1) Comments | Posted January 21, 2013 | 8:23 AM

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...

Read Post

Time the British Legion Redesigned its Poppy Collection Boxes

(3) Comments | Posted October 25, 2012 | 11:55 AM

(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...

Read Post

Why Were the Media So Impressed by Miliband's Speech?

(0) Comments | Posted October 4, 2012 | 7:11 AM

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.

Other quibbles:

  • Glum-looking backdrop: I still don't see the point of having part of the audience behind the speaker. Although reasonably well-behaved, this particular group looked very glum for much of the time and were, on occasions, rather slow to join in the applause.
  • Too youthful a sample: Some viewers (e.g. me) were quite shocked by how very young a sample of voters they represented, with no one much over 45 anywhere to be seen among those behind him.
  • Hands: Finally, if you're going to wander about the stage, what to do with your hands and how to respond to applause can pose problems for a speaker. On the whole. Mr Miliband coped quite well on both these fronts. However, he might like to note that there were some on Twitter who took exception to the fact that he spoke for quite long periods with one hand in his pocket. If it's any comfort to him, the complainants probably went to a public school where you weren't allowed to put your hands in your pockets until you reached the sixth...
Read Post

Talk Show Audience Applaud Obama's Presidential Advice to Romney

(5) Comments | Posted September 20, 2012 | 5:36 PM

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...

Read Post

Does Mitt Romney Speak Too Quickly for His Own Good?

(1) Comments | Posted September 19, 2012 | 10:01 AM

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:

  1. Is he speaking too quickly for his brain to be able to produce carefully considered and/or 'elegantly stated' opinions?
  2. How, in American culture, is 'fast-speaking' likely to be regarded by the wider public?

For what it's worth, to my British ears, 'fast-speaking' tends to have mainly negative...

Read Post

More Verbs Needed in Miliband's Latest Speech?

(2) Comments | Posted April 12, 2012 | 7:57 AM

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).

One thing that struck me about it...

Read Post

First English Translation of Putin's Victory Speech

(1) Comments | Posted March 6, 2012 | 3:57 PM

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...

Read Post

Presidential Victory Speeches: Putin Versus Obama

(0) Comments | Posted March 5, 2012 | 6:48 AM

If you've been following the debate about scripted versus unscripted speeches (HERE), Putin's victory speech gives us a chance to review two comparable examples.
Those of us who don't speak Russian, of course, have to make allowances for any loss of impact arising from our having to rely on the simultaneous translation.
According to those who believe that speeches read from a written script sound (and/or look) 'less authentic' than those that don't, Putin is presumably the clear winner over Obama when it comes to delivering an effective presidential victory speech.
But that, predictably, is the exact opposite of the impression I got from these two specimens.
I also know that I don't feel in the least bit motivated to do a line-by-line analysis of Putin's speech along the lines of the one I did of Obama's back in 2008 (HERE).
Nor am I at all surprised that no national newspaper (or any other media outlet) has approached me for a technical comment on Putin's speech - and would be more than a little surprised if any of them bothered to do so.
Read Post

Miliband Does Voiceover to His Own Speeches in Labour's Latest PPB

(0) Comments | Posted February 29, 2012 | 5:27 AM

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?

Ed Miliband seems pleased enough with this effort to have tweeted a link that invited us to have a preview last night.

It leaves me wondering why - and short of long...

Read Post

Was Charlotte Church's Speech Too Long and 'Inauthentic'?

(0) Comments | Posted February 28, 2012 | 4:53 AM

Something very unusual happened today.

Presenter Eddie Mair told us on BBC Radio 4's early evening news programme PM that they were going to play the whole of Charlotte Church's statement after she and her family had settled their case for phone-hacking damages against News International's now defunct News of the World (above).

It lasted about three minutes - far longer than most clips from political speeches replayed on radio and television news broadcasts these days.

Regular readers will know that the British broadcasters' reluctance to play extended excerpts from political speeches and their preference for having their reporters tell us what speakers are saying is something I've been complaining about for quite a while (see, for example, Politicians and broadcaster in the UK" collaboration or capitulation?).

They'll also know that I don't believe that reading a written-speech aloud always means that the speaker is doomed to come across as 'inauthentic' (see To read or not to read? That is the question for speechwriters - or is it?).

Charlotte Church may not be a politician, but this unusually long clip gives us a chance to check on both these issues at the same time.

Was it too long for listeners and did she sound inauthentic?
I first heard the clip on the car radio, so you'll have to close your eyes or look away to experience it in more or less the same way as I did (though without the added bonus of the beautiful Somerset countryside).

Having done so, see what you think.

For what it's worth, I thought she made rather a good job of it - even though I could tell that she was reading from a text).

Nor did my attentiveness to what she was saying lapse for a moment - even though we're all supposed to have such short attention spans that we're incapable of listening to a speech for anything like as long as three minutes.

So I'm still wondering why it is that our broadcasters no longer allow us to listen to excerpts from speeches by politicians that last as long as this...

P.S. Fellow anoraks won't be surprised to know that the sound bite singled out for the headlines was a simple contrast: "They're not sorry, they're just sorry they got caught" (e.g. - which reminded me of my sons' Sinclair Spectrum computer chess game, which used to say after you'd played an obvious move: "I expected...

Read Post

To Read or Not to Read: Speechwriting and Authenticity

(0) Comments | Posted February 24, 2012 | 1:55 PM

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.


Read Post

Gillian Tett: UK Business Commincator of the Year, 2010

(0) Comments | Posted February 7, 2012 | 2:47 PM

Brian Jenner of the UK Speechwriters' Guild recently announced that the title of UK Business Communicator of 2012 has been awarded to Gillian Tett of the Financial Times.

For me, as a former sociologist, it is particularly pleasing to see someone with a PhD in social anthropology,...
Read Post

Obama's State of the Union Speech: Enhanced By PowerPoint?

(0) Comments | Posted January 30, 2012 | 10:00 AM

When I first started watching the version of President Obama's State of the Union speech posted on YouTube by the White House, I wondered what the blue rectangle on the right hand side was for.

But all quickly became clear: it was for PowerPoint style slides and they, presumably, were what transformed it into an 'enhanced version'.

So we got to see a picture and the wordds MORE THAN 1 MILLION AMERICAN TROOPS SERVED IN IRAQ BETWEEN 2003-2011

Then a wanted poster for Osama bin Laden with a big red cross through it.

Then more pictures of US troops followed numbers of how many of them had fought in various wars.

And so on and on and on, through pictures, bar charts, graphs, diagrams lists of bullet points, on the US economy, education, etc., etc., etc.

Enhancement or distraction?
Watching this, I was left gasping, wondering who on earth in team Obama believes that his speeches are actually enhanced by such distractions, unless it was the same person who thought that background musak 'enhanced' the film of his speechwriters preparing the speech (see previous post).

Does it mean we can now expect President Obama to take a slide projector along with him during the forthcoming presidential campaign?

I think not - for the obvious reason that he's a good enough communicator to know that the words in his speeches and the way he delivers them are enough on their own to get his messages across.

What's more, I very much hope that this White House model of an 'enhanced presentation' doesn't give other lesser speakers (e.g. most British politicians) the idea that this is the way to improve their own speeches 'going forward'.

See for yourself
If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth watching all the way through - and coming to your own conclusion as to whether the visual aids enhance or distract from what he...

Read Post

Obama's State of the Union Speech: Behind the Scenes With the Speechwriters

(2) Comments | Posted January 26, 2012 | 9:44 AM

Few British political speechwriters though there may be, anyone who writes any kind of speech is likely to be interested not only in this film but also by the fact that it had nearly 400,000 views on YouTube within 24 hours of being posted there.
A cunning part of team Obama's communication strategy perhaps, but there's something very refreshing about a top politician openly admitting that he gets help with his speeches and being willing to give a public platform to those who help him.
So far, I've only watched it once and found the most annoying part was the awful background musak -- but the producers of the film maybe know something that I don't about how distracting noises can enhance the impact of such propaganda...
The State of the Union address itself seemed to go down pretty well. But the video posted by the White House had another major distraction -- on which more shortly in Part...
Read Post

BBC Birdsong With an Open Mouth and the Wrong Bird

(0) Comments | Posted January 23, 2012 | 9:54 AM

Last night, Mary Ann Sieghart (@MASieghart) tweeted 'Does this actor in #Birdsong have any look other than a long meaningful one?

I knew exactly what she was referring to, as last night's hero (Eddie Redmayne) had already reminded me of a question I'd asked back...

Read Post

Michael Gove speech sends students to sleep

(0) Comments | Posted January 6, 2012 | 10:13 AM

Yesterday I was thanking Diane Abbott for adding to my collection of interviewees walking out of interviews (HERE).

Today, my thanks go to former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (@johnprescott) for re-tweeting this gem posted by Political Scrapbook (@PSbook), where some interesting comments have already begun to appear.

For me, it poses at least three questions:
  1. If the first thing to be done when preparing a speech is to analyse the audience (see my books), one has to ask who writes this stuff?
  2. As taxpayers, are we getting value for money from the speechwriters at the Department of Education?
  3. And, as a former president of the Oxford Union and debating adjudicator, shouldn't Gove be able to do rather better than this when it comes to addressing an audience of school children?
More on our esteemed Secretary of State for Education

Read Post

Interview Exit Strategy: Diane Abbott's Mobile Phone to the Rescue

(0) Comments | Posted January 5, 2012 | 11:15 AM

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.

Could it, I wonder, be a neat ploy that becomes a precedent for many more such 'escapes' in the future?

Classic interview exits:

Read Post

English and the Problem of Communicating with Foreigners

(0) Comments | Posted November 27, 2011 | 6:03 AM

First, a very big thank you to everyone who came up with ideas after my Twitter appeal about my 700th blog post. There were so many good ones, plus some funny...

Read Post

Leveson Inquiry Shows that Hugh Grant is Not the Bumbling Oaf He Often Plays

(0) Comments | Posted November 24, 2011 | 12:38 PM

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:

'But then why should anyone expect actors to be any good at speech-making?

'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)

An articulate spokesman Hugh Grant's appearance at the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking (e.g. above), as well as some of his earlier performances on Newsnight and Question Time, suggests that he might be another interesting exception that proves a rule, namely that a professional actor can sometimes come across as far more articulate in person than as the stuttering bumbling characters they've become best known for playing in their films.
In fact, having watched him doing both, I'm beginning to think that he must be a rather better actor than I'd originally thought:

Read Post