Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Language matters

Earlier this year, while I was studying part-time for my MA in Applied Linguistics, I attended a lecture by a well-known feminist linguist who has a chair at Oxford.  It was shortly after Nigel Farage had described travelling on a train through South East London and hearing no English spoken.  The lecturer’s response was to sneer, whipping up laughter from the audience.  She also sneered at Labour’s commitment to ensure new immigrants could speak English.  ‘I hear different languages every day I walk across Gloucester Green, hwa hwa,’ she scoffed.

A student put his hand up.  A former factory worker, he said he was funding his PhD, by returning to his home in the north to do shifts at the factory.  He admitted to the feeling of alienation Farage had described because most of his former workmates had left and had been replaced by a workforce made up of East Europeans.  They didn’t speak English so he was unable to have conversations with fellow-workers.  He put it in linguistic terms: ‘I don’t feel part of the in-group any more.  I find it quite hard.’

The student’s assertion caused a problem for the academic.  He had all the credentials she would endorse: a working-class lad, paying his university fees by hard graft in a factory …but here he was sounding like Nigel Farage!  She hesitated and you could sense her computing how to deal with his point.  Then she did what most politicians do: she acknowledged his ‘interesting experience’ and moved on.  In other words, she fudged it.

There is no doubt that the lack of English among shop workers, waiters and even staff at university libraries can be infuriating when we go about our busy lives in London.  This isn’t racism or – more properly – xenophobia.  It’s just another hindrance, like delays on the Northern line.  However, it can lead to people feeling alienated – part of the out-group.  The way to address expressions of alienation isn’t to sneer; sneering leads to people suppressing their annoyance - and articulating their feelings at the ballot box.

After the lecture I had a conversation with the PhD student who had described his ‘out-group’ feelings.  We agreed that sneering at people’s sense of alienation would simply deliver them into the arms of UKIP which none of us wanted.  That was in March.  Seven months later, it looks as though we’ve been proved right. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Amnesia versus autocue? The perils of delivering a conference speech

Much fat has been chewed over the Ed Miliband conference speech debacle when, having shunned the autocue, he omitted to mention the deficit or immigration.  Why memorise a speech if you’re going to forget two of its most important sections?  He claims it is more natural.  However, it didn’t help him deliver his excruciating jokes.  And it didn’t help his anecdotes about the ‘ordinary’ (normal?) people he said he met while hanging around Hampstead Heath.  So why take a risk when the autocue will ensure you never forget?

A glance at George Osborne’s conference speech gives us one reason for avoiding the autocue.  Osborne with his Peter Pan hairdo rarely cuts an authoritative figure.  His voice is light, his hand gestures weak but add in the autocue (other brands are available) and he becomes glassy-eyed and frozen-faced.

Autocues aren’t easy to use.  In TV studios they’re screens that slot onto the front of the camera.  Someone who later became a war correspondent once told me about his brief, abortive attempt at studio presentation.  One day, when the camera swung back taking with it the autocue, instead of reading his paper script he climbed onto the desk in an attempt to follow the camera across the studio – in full view of the audience.

As someone who needed glasses but was too vain to wear them, I struggled with the autocue until I discovered that you could change the font and the background.  The text ended up looking more like a shopping list but at least I could read it.

Rookie newsreaders can always be identified by the rabbit-in-the-headlamps look as they desperately cling to the autocue.  For some reason, people always fear that if they blink, they’ll lose their place.  They often do not realise that the autocue operator will adapt to their pace so they speed up or slow down until their delivery sounds wholly unnatural.  Which brings us back to George.

Normally, conference speakers have up to three transparent screens onto which the speech is projected.  Cameron seemed perfectly at ease with the set-up for his conference speech.  However, Osborne’s autocue seemed to be projected on the wall at the back of the hall, above the heads of the audience.  He therefore looked not just glassy-eyed but appeared to be gazing above his audience into the middle distance.  It isn’t a good look for anyone.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.  Having experienced the dangers of the autocue live on air, I feel well-placed to advise.  If you have to use autocue, get some proper training; give yourself time to get used to it; and learn that if you blink or look away you will be able to pick up the words again.  One client asked me to train the Chief Nurse of a major Trust to use autocue for their awards ceremony.  Presenting off autocue is certainly not on the RCN list of nursing skills and no-one would expect her to do as well as she did.  However, with advice and guidance she performed like a pro.  It helped that I wrote the script.  Dickensian passages are out for autocue speeches.  Writing needs to be natural, composed in short sentences and devoid of complex clauses.  

These days, no exec presenting to a major conference should fear the autocue. The trainer can provide a simple bit of kit that fits on the camera and is operated via an iPad.  It can also be operated by a foot pedal which is surprisingly easy to work – even if you’ve never been a seamstress - so you control the speed.  But it is a new skill and one to be learned and polished.  It is never worth the risk of looking gormless.  Even when your audience is the adoring Tory faithful.