A not so distant mirror

Donald j TrumpEleven years ago today I launched this blog with a posting about the cultural differences between England and America. Back then George Bush was President, Barack Obama was an ambitious Senator, Donald Trump was hosting Season 5 of The Apprentice, and Alistair Cooke would be broadcasting his Letter from America on the BBC for another eight years. It was on April 27, 1990 that Cooke made an offhand, but eerily prophetic, statement:

Throughout the 1980’s, the non-fiction lists were headed by the autobiographies of self-made men, by titans like Lee Iacocca, the phoenix of the automobile, by Donald Trump, the young, bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities — why not the country? — appear to be boundless.
(Letter from America, 1946-2004, p. 339)

Cooke did not live to see the day.

Of the people, by the people

I wonder what that cultured Englishman, who was an outstanding observer of America throughout his career, would make of President Trump? No doubt he would have commented on Trump’s obvious eccentricities as a sui generis political phenomenon. He would also, I’m sure, have visited the red states to talk to some of the 63 million who voted for him. As the French philosopher said “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” And the people have spoken, there’s a new sheriff in town.

What the millions wanted was a change. And change is what we’ve got. They expressed a forceful desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ (now a Twitter hashtag #MAGA). Trump reflects these desires. He mirrors them.

Mirror, mirror

I can remember back around the millennium being in the audience at an avant garde theatrical performance where a series of photographs were projected onscreen, accompanied by loud music. Meanwhile, elegantly dressed young women walked around in the audience holding large mirrors that reflected us, watching the screen, back to ourselves. When a woman happened to stand both behind and in front, then , like in the barbers chair, an infinite series of images of the audience cascaded around us, simultaneously distracting from, and supplementing, the images on the screen we were reacting to. The light from the mirrors illuminated the audience, brighter than the screen was illuminated by the projector. We reacted to reflections of the reality we’d come to see. Watching ourselves watching. Like Narcissus at the pond, we were entranced by our own reflection.

Just so, Trump has taken the image voters have of themselves — channeling their anger and frustration with established politicians — and superimposed it onto the political process. He has ridden their waves of their frustration from the Rust Belt to the Beltway. And he has illuminated politics with the re-tweets of his 20 million Twitter followers.

Trump Tweet

He assumes the voice of ‘the people’, claiming to speak for them, as only a billionaire on his third marriage can.

He reflects the Americans who are about to get the President they deserve. His supporters are illuminated and emboldened by the reflected glory of his success.

As time goes by, following his Inauguration on Friday January 20, this light might fade, or, heaven forbid, it might shine brighter than a thousand suns.

A Distant Mirror

Some have compared the rise of Trump to other demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini. Others see parallels in the transition of the Roman Republic to an Empire.

Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a compelling narrative of the 14th century that highlights how, in a time of chaos and pestilence, rulers found opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, enjoying an opulent life while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants. They had their 1% back then. Other periods of human history are distant mirrors to our own.

Thing is, they did not have the nuclear codes.

Bookmark and Share

John Berger: uncompromising visionary

John BergerI was saddened to hear of the death (at 90) of Marxist art historian John Berger.

I vividly recall reading Ways of Seeing as an undergraduate and, later, his sociological writings A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man about migrant workers in Europe, years before the current crisis hit. His essays in the collection Portraits covers 74 artists who worked from 30,000 BC (the Chauvet Cave Painters) to the 20th century.

I was impressed by his collaboration with the Swiss director Alain Tanner. Indeed, the 1976 film Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 is the only movie I’ve ever watched six times in all. It formulated a good part of my world view as a young man.

Even more influential was his 1972 prizewinning novel simply titled ‘G‘. I read it the year it came out, in my second year at University. It’s a novel of sexual adventure and political awakening, heady stuff for any undergraduate. The closing paragraph, describing the sunlight on the ocean waves is a beautiful, trippy way of seeing:

The sun is low in the sky and the sea is calm. Like a mirror as they say. Only it is not like a mirror. The waves which are scarcely waves, for they come and go in many different directions and their rising and falling is barely perceptible, are made up of innumerable tiny surfaces at variegating angles to one another–of these surfaces those which reflect the sunlight straight into one’s eyes, sparkle with a white light during the instant before their angle, relative to oneself and the sun, shifts and they merge again into the blackish blue of the rest of the sea. Each time the light lasts for no longer than a spark stays bright when shot out from a fire. But as the sea recedes towards the sun, the number of sparkling surfaces multiples until the sea indeed looks somewhat like a silver mirror. But unlike a mirror it is not still. Its granular surface is in continual agitation. The further away the ricocheting grains, of which the mass becomes silver and the visibly distinct minority a dark leaden colour, the greater is their apparent speed. Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflections becoming ever faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit. The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.

His BBC series Ways of Seeing on which the book was based is available in multiple parts on YouTube. Here’s the first episode

Berger was an uncompromising visionary who was a major influence on my life.

Bookmark and Share

Toastmaster transformations

TransformerA recent This American Life podcast broadcast a piece I’d missed when it first went out a year ago. It’s the remarkable story of how Ricard Pierce, a prison inmate, transformed his terminal shyness by enrolling in Toastmasters (yes, they have chapters that meet behind bars).

He tells how he gave his ‘Icebreaker’ and ‘Get to the Point’ manual speeches in front of other inmates, and realized that his own self-evaluation was much harsher than how members of the audience perceived him.

After the speech, Rich was really hard on himself. In his self-evaluation, he wrote down three words– “Horrible, needs practice.” But his peers were more forgiving. “Excellent job,” they wrote. “Great progress, very good eye contact, very welcoming.” They called him “Winning and funny.” One inmate said they should have storytelling every Saturday night on the cell block with Mr. Pierce. Another told Rich he had nothing to fear. He was just as good as anyone else. Rich had been nervous, trembling even. And no one noticed.

Listen to ‘Act 3’ of the episode that starts 31:30 into the program.

I’ve seen this so many times. Speakers who are nervous, panic-stricken even, think everyone picked up on how they feel. This is usually not the case.

The best advice is to forget your own feelings, fake it till you make it, and listen to what other people tell you for a true appreciation of how you were seen. Formal evaluations are one of the hidden benefits of Toastmasters, as Rich discovered.

Bookmark and Share

Why consider a career in Marketing

My son recently graduated with a degree in International Business and Marketing and is looking for an entry-level position in this area. I met today with a group of marketing professionals who shared the many reasons young people should consider a career in this field.

To hear what they told me, click on the podcast icon below.

Oh, and if you know of any entry-level marketing jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area let me know! Neil’s Dad will thank you…

Bookmark and Share

Guest Posting: How to Write and Deliver a Great Speech, by Simon Lancaster

Simon LancasterSimon Lancaster is one of the world’s top speechwriters. He first became a speechwriter in the late 1990s, working for members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet. Today, he writes speeches for the CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world, including Unilever, HSBC and Intercontinental Hotels. Simon is a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University and an Executive Fellow of Henley Business School. He regularly appears on BBC and Sky News and writes guest columns for The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Total Politics. He is the author of two best-selling books on communication: Speechwriting: The Expert Guide and Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership. You can follow him on Twitter @bespokespeeches

How to Write and Deliver a Great Speech

Emmeline Pankhurst’s speeches led to women winning the vote. Winston Churchill’s speeches inspired a nation to stay strong at a time of war. Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches persuaded the American Government to grant everyone equal rights, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Speeches change the world. Throughout history, whoever has held the gift of eloquence has held power: from the Roman Emperors to the kings and queens to politicians.

In the past, we all used to learn public speaking at school. In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, rhetoric was a core part of the curriculum. In London, right up until the 19th Century, it was possible to gain a free education in rhetoric but not in maths, such was the importance that was placed on the topic. The thinking was clear: you could not have a fair society unless everyone had a fair opportunity to express themselves.

Today, teaching of rhetoric is restricted to a narrow elite. It is no coincidence that 19 of Britain’s last 50 Prime Ministers went to Eton. Eton has always invested in the teaching of rhetoric. Indeed they have just invested 18 million pounds in a new debating chamber.

Developing tomorrow’s leaders starts in today’s schools. The good news is that all the techniques in great public speaking from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece remain just as relevant today. Aristotle taught us there are three essential ingredients to a good speech.

Aristotle said a good speech must have:

Character (ethos)
Emotion (pathos)
Argument (logos)

First, the speaker must demonstrate good character (ethos). A speech represents a chance to look into someone’s eyes and see the strength of their conviction. This means that when the person delivering the speech stay true to yourself. It doesn’t matter if they speak too quickly, wave their hands around a lot or um and ah. Great speakers can, and do, get away with all of this. The most important thing is that they believe what they are saying. That is something that just can’t be faked. A speaker must speak from the heart.

The second thing a great speaker does is speak about an issue everyone cares about (pathos). Too many speeches are boring. A speech should be as exciting as a film or a great television programme if it is to hold people’s attention. A great speaker will stir feelings within their audience that even their audience can not wholly explain: feelings of pride, passion or pain. They will tell stories, use emotive points of reference and explain why it is that something matters so much.

The third thing a great speaker must do is sound right (logos). The Ancient Romans used to talk about the rule of three. If you put your argument in threes, people are more likely to believe that it is true. There is something in the human brain that loves arguments that come in threes. ‘This, that and the other.’ ‘On your marks, get set, go!’ ‘Ready, aim, fire!’ Great speakers always use the rule of three – over and over and over again. They also combine it alliteration, rhymes and contrasts. It makes them sound more credible, compelling and convincing.

The world is in a state of flux at the moment. It is scandalous that at a time when such gargantuan issues are being debated – like climate change, security, religious freedoms – debate is being restricted to such a narrow minority.

Instead of teaching our children to sit down and shut up, we should be teaching them to stand up and speak out. Let’s put oracy right at the heart of the curriculum, for today’s children, for tomorrow’s world.

What shall we call this grand initiative? Well, here’s an idea. How about democracy?

Some great speeches to watch and discuss in the classroom:

TEDx talk – Speak like a leader by Simon Lancaster

This post originally appeared in First News Schools UK and is reproduced here with Simon Lancaster’s express permission.

Bookmark and Share

Big speeches of 2016 reviewed

Here’s a concise review of the major speeches of 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic by FT columnist Sam Leith

Bookmark and Share

All the news…

Now in my 8th week of fasting from the daily news (for reasons I explained back in October) I’m nevertheless fascinated by the stories I hear people around me discussing (many of which seem to involve the surprise election of a New York property developer). It’s obvious that most of my family and friends are caught up in the drama that is played out 7×24 on multiple channels.

Here’s a great infographic courtesy of Jeff Herrington that David Murray posted to his awesome Writing Boots blog that helps make sense of the available options.

The one world-class news source he omits is the Financial Times which I would place firmly in the top ellipse on the ‘Mainstream: minimal partisan bias’ axis — or perhaps ever so slightly to the liberal side (at least when compared to the WSJ which in my opinion skews further to the right than this graphic shows).

News Outlets

Click to enlarge..

Bookmark and Share

Are you passionate about your job?

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway gave the closing keynote at the International Capital Markets Association (ICMA) conference in Dublin this last May. Her presentation starts by asking the audience ‘how many feel really passionate about what you do?’ and then reminds those who raise their hands that the dictionary definition of ‘passionate’ is either (a) intense feelings of sexual attraction, or (b) the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, and that it’s enough to really to like a job, not to feel passionate about it.

Lucy continues by highlighting many of the examples of corporate bullshit she satirizes in her weekly FT column.

The full 20 minute keynote is well worth a listen.

Bookmark and Share

Guest Posting: Rhetoric Revisited: FDR’s “Infamy” Speech, by Robert Lehrman

Former Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore in the White House, Bob Lehrman has written four novels, the highly praised The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQ Press 2009), and has now co-authored and co-edited a new book: Democratic Oratory from JFK to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University.

Rhetoric Revisited: FDR’s “Infamy” Speech

Really, he’d hoped to spend that afternoon up in the second floor study, magnifying glass in hand, working on the stamp collection that since boyhood had taught him about the world. But FDR was president, with work to do. He was talking policy with one of his aides when Navy Secretary Frank Knox called.

“Mr. President,” he said, sounding doubtful, “it looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”

Perl Harbor
USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. By an unknown photographer, December 7, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Roosevelt had no doubts. He knew it was true—and what it meant: war. And a war many Americans did not want, including Charles Lindbergh, whose America First campaign had blocked FDR’s attempt to build up America’s military. Three hours later, FDR called Grace Tully, his secretary, and dictated a speech he would deliver to Congress. The next day, he sat in the House Chamber, wheelchair carefully hidden from photographers, and uttered the words Americans remember about a day “that will live in infamy.”

It’s one of the most famous speeches in American history, though it’s safe to say most Americans remember only that phrase. But on 75th anniversary of the attack, it’s worth asking: What makes it so famous?

It’s not just because the United States would declare war. Who remembers a word of other speeches by presidents asking for war—in 1812, 1846, 1898, or 1917? In fact, I wrote a speech for my boss, Democratic Majority Whip, Bill Gray, during that 1991 debate on the First Gulf War. I remember sitting in the House Chamber watching an incredible sight: Members speaking, then actually sticking around to hear others. I don’t remember the declaration at all.

Is FDR’s speech memorable for its eloquence? No. The language is mostly flat. The readability statistics our computers now provide tell us it’s full of passive voice, with long sentences copyeditors today would think wordy—”In the intervening time,” not “meanwhile.” Even the word “infamy” is a little off; originally he had dictated another word: history. Roosevelt clearly didn’t want to sound neutral, but his usage of ”infamy” was at odds with conventions of the day; a descriptive word, ”infamy” usually appeared the way people talking about FDR often misquote him: “day of infamy.”

Neither was it substantive. FDR rejected the suggestions of those who wanted a longer speech giving listeners context. He wanted to convey urgency to Americans opposed to war.

Did it offer concrete detail—visceral specifics of the attack and casualties? That’s a rule of good speechwriting. Barack Obama used it effectively in 2013, when he told Americans about the Syrian use of chemical warfare: “The images are sickening … a father clutching his dead children, urging them to get up and walk.” Here, FDR gave listeners bland abstractions— “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”

But if “Infamy” isn’t notable for its eloquence, it’s still a fascinating speech. Its intrigue lies not only in what FDR told Americans then, but what he didn’t tell them—and what the speech tells us now.

Speech Notes
The first typed draft of FDR’s speech spoke of a “date which will live in world history.” Roosevelt later changed it to the more famous “date which will live in infamy.” Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Looking back, for example, the speech gives us a glimpse into how technology could and would influence a nation.

When Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917, only those in the House Chamber heard and saw him. It took weeks even for the stereopticon slides of his appearance to reach American families. But by 1941 almost 90 percent of American homes had radio. That day four of five families with those radios tuned in to FDR’s noontime speech. The vast acceleration of technology had—literally—electrified a country, and given presidents a way to electrify its people.

Roosevelt’s brevity also exposes the rhetorical devices leaders often use in times of crisis. Take the five-step structure so popular with speechwriters it now has a name: Monroe’s Motivated Sequence (Google it!). In ”Infamy,” Roosevelt uses all five.

First, win attention. Right away, FDR tells us the bad news. ”Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Second, present a problem. FDR shows us why the news is bad—not just loss of life, but the threat to Democracy and the evil of the other side. ”The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.”

Third, offer a solution. FDR assures us the country will fight back. ”As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.”

Fourth, envision the future: He not only predicts victory but shows absolute certainty about it. ”With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

Fifth, utter a call to action: FDR calls for one specific act: that Congress declare war. ”I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

FDR Signs
FDR signs the Declaration of War against Japan on December 8, 1941. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

They are the steps of many such declarations—and many moments of crisis. In fact, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s artful speech let Ronald Reagan make the same points, not about fighting a war but exploring space.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about this speech is what goes unsaid. Let’s be honest—while Roosevelt prided himself on using direct language, as if wanting us to know his views, he was hiding some. He presents a picture of himself taken by surprise—”looking towards the maintenance of peace.” There is no evidence for the allegations that FDR maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. But he did know war lay ahead. According to the diary of then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson, two weeks before the attack, he asked aides how to provoke Japan into “firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” The only surprise was where the first shot would be.

And his certainty of the “inevitable triumph”? FDR had many doubts. He didn’t know whether the United States could handle a war fought on two fronts, and told Eleanor he expected many losses.

But when a president declares war, one should expect to hear confidence, not candor.

The decisions about this speech were largely Roosevelt’s own. That was unusual for this president — the first to use speechwriters for most of what he said. Except for a few phrases added by aides, and one echo of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the language and strategy for this speech mostly came straight from his mouth into Grace Tully’s manual typewriter.

Would it work? FDR could not be sure.

But three hours after his speech, Congress passed its declaration with only one dissenting vote. It gave FDR the money he needed to rearm. The isolationists gave up the fight. “We have been attacked. We must fight,” Lindbergh said. In the weeks ahead, young Americans filled recruiting stations to enlist.

FDR’s doubts were reasonable. There were many defeats in those opening months. But Americans planted victory gardens, sent sons to fight, and kept in office a president who before the war had been very unpopular.

Dying less than three years later, FDR didn’t live to see the results of those decisions. But the 520 words he dictated then thundered out, set in motion a united and long-lasting response to the threat of Japan and Germany much more dangerous and uncertain than he could let on. FDR didn’t get to spend that afternoon organizing the stamps he loved. But by focusing on the future—he put his stamp on it.

This post originally appeared on the PBS American Experience website and is reprinted here with Mr. Lehrman’s express permission.

Bookmark and Share

Past provincial life

Half asleep on the evening ferry after a long day at work, half listening to a podcast of a recent episode of Start the Week, I was startled awake by a remarkable poem:

In Wales, wanting to be Italian

(from Over the Moon, by Imtiaz Dharker)

Is there a name for that thing
you do when you are young?
There must be a word for it in some language,
probably German, or if not just
asking to be made up, something like
Fremdlandischgehörenlust or perhaps
Einzumandererslandgehörenwunsch.

What is it called, living in Glasgow,
dying to be French, dying to shrug and pout
and make yourself understood
without saying a word?

Have you ever felt like that, being
in Bombay, wanting to declare,
like Freddy Mercury, that you are
from somewhere like Zanzibar?

What is it called? Being sixteen
in Wales, longing to be Italian,
to be able to say aloud,
without embarrassment, Bella! Bella!
lounge by a Vespa with a cigarette
hanging out of your mouth, and wear
impossibly pointed shoes?

Mod on his Vespa

I knew that truth in my own life, back when I was sixteen and looking for a way to shake the dust of Crewe off my heels, sitting on the back of my friends’ Vespa’s, looking for a way out. Which came for some of us, didn’t it? When we went off to Universities (even ones in Wales), and on to other places in the world than that dirty old town, where we’d met our love, by the gasworks wall n’all.

Bookmark and Share