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From Pericles to JFK to Natalie Bennett – how to be a great communicator

Everyone’s talking about communication skills. Music to my ears, of course. I’m never happier than when debating presentation techniques, nuances of language, intonation and body language. I really must get out more! Mary Beard has been all over Newsnight, lamenting the fact that modern politicians have lost the art of classical rhetoric. Carmine Gallo, the American author and columnist who’s analysed 500 TED talks (so that we don’t have to) was with Chris Evans on Radio 2; and Radio 4 ran an excellent hour-long programme, Read My Lips, on Valentine’s night, looking at politicians’ communication styles over time. It’s all because of the election, of course. Here’s a précis of all that’s been said and how it’s useful to us.

Mary Beard criticises politicians who speak in sound bites/slogans rather than taking time to develop an argument, as famous orators like Socrates, Asquith and Churchill did. But they are compelled to speak thus because audiences have changed and because we now better understand their needs and tolerances – they have shorter concentration spans (average sound bite in the US – nine seconds; average clip viewed on YouTube – 2 ½ minutes); they ‘consume’ content in different ways, on different devices, at their convenience; speeches are replayed, repackaged and re-edited; and there’s a plethora of other content vying for their attention. So, speakers of all types have had to respond to this and are quite rightly delivering material to audiences in a manner that is likely to resonate with them. Interestingly, Alastair Campbell suggests that politicians should go back to a pre-sound bite style, be more expansive and trust audiences more. Presumably he’d like Conservative politicians to test his theory!

But are sound bites such a modern and sinister phenomenon? Rename them ‘memory bites’ and consider how many short phrases Shakespeare bequeathed to us, and we might look at them more favourably.

Focusing on the audience’s needs is a key theme from Frank Luntz, the influential American pollster and political consultant. “They’re the ones that matter, not you”. Hurrah to that – it’s one of the principles of my training. Moving the focus from you, the speaker, to them, the audience will make your ideas more relevant, your performance more engaging, your confidence greater.

And, talking of ideas, according to Read My Lips “It’s the substance that counts. Policy comes first, packaging second”. It’s simply not enough to be a polished performer – your ideas need to be appealing.

No doubt to the delight of Mary Beard, there’s plenty of classical ‘packaging’ still in use, including ‘the power of three’, rhyme, and anaphora (the deliberate repetition of the first part of a sentence). Tony Blair used the latter to great effect at his 2005 party conference, talking about terrorism. Classics professor Edith Hall tells us how Pericles’ funeral address to the Athenians – one of the most famous speeches in antiquity – has influenced many a modern presentation. Interesting to note also that JFK’s speech writer Ted Sorensen studied classics (“Ask not what your country …….”).

Another concept understood by the great classical orators, but underemployed by many today, is the power of emotion. Socrates suggested that “persuasion may come… when the speech stirs their emotions”. Politicians in the 21st century will reach voters better if they combine emotional and intellectual/factual content. We should do likewise, whatever product/service/ideas we are peddling. Are we not all, essentially, in the persuasion business?

Not surprisingly, it’s emotion, alongside novel and memorable content which Carmine Gallo identifies as the secret of a great TED talk (and therefore any piece of communication). That and talking at 160 words per minute which, interestingly, is practically the same pace at which we continuity announcers tend to speak on BBC television (three words per second).

One of the key ideas which Read My Lips explored, and which has always been close to my heart, is authenticity – the notion that speakers must be real, human, genuine. Johnson and Farage stand out in this respect, in “the land of the bland”. Audiences and voters value authenticity but, a word of warning here, they also recognise when it’s feigned. I wonder if Natalie Bennett might have fared better in her car-crash interview if she’d displayed more authenticity rather than trying to bluff her way through? Would we have forgiven her for saying that the dog had eaten her notes? I wonder what Pericles would have done?