Friday, 27 November 2015

Talk Normal

All posts tagged: conferences

The Vincenator

Tue, 6 Oct 2009


Hail to the Vince. Let’s give thanks for the continued presence of Vincent Cable, MP for Twickenham, and 2008 Parliamentarian of the Year.

You might say that it’s not a vintage crop of parliamentarians right now; but I’ve noticed a new question in the last 12 months from the people on my media training courses. How can I sound more like Vince Cable?, they ask me, dolefully. The obvious answer is that you need to get a PhD in economics, work overseas and at a high level in international business, get elected to parliament while developing an independent set of opinions, work hard, mostly in obscurity, for a number of years, and then arrange some kind of global crisis in which you are an expert, but about which almost everyone else knows nothing.

Of course, if it was that easy, we’d all be doing it.

I was thinking about the Cable effect on Wednesday when I was listening to him speak at the Association for Qualitative Research Trends Day. He spoke for 45 minutes with (no notes) about the economic crisis, why British people are obsessed

Cable: in real life, surprisingly athletic

Cable: in real life, surprisingly athletic

with pets and houses, the role of markets and the nature of identity. Most conferences I go to make me want to stab my hand with a pencil. But we keep going back to these PowerPoint-crazed snoozefests, because every now and then a Vince Cable shows up.


So, to the original question: how do you sound more like the Vincenator? I came up with a list while I was listening.

1. What’s the problem? It’s more important to identify a problem accurately than to pretend you have all the answers. I think there’s got to be a some element of peril if you’re ignored. So when he warned us that the next British parliament might be run by a conservative government with no Scottish MPs, in conflict with a nationalist Scottish parliament and tells us “it’s an unsustainable tension”, you start thinking. He wasn’t saying there will be a war or anything, just waking us up. At least, I don’t think he was.

2. Not the usual stats. Did you know that in the recession, employment in the UK among pensioners had actually increased? That in many parts of London the average house price is 100 times average earnings? Neither did I. I could have looked the second one up, but Cable saved me the effort.

3. Now I get it. His stats don’t just sit there, they are part of a story. So he points out that UK public spending is 49 per cent of GDP and that taxation is 35 per cent and sinking: “Scandinavian type public spending supported by American levels of taxation.”

4. Small-BIG-Small. Take a small point, explain the big picture, then explain how that affects something else personal. Moving between big and small is the mark of someone who really knows what they’re talking about. So Cable riffs on bonuses and MP expenses, gives some insight on how we rightly feel the world is unfair, and warns it will seem even more like that when entitlements that we expected (free university education, for example) are denied to our children.

5. Bite the hand that feeds you. You only root for an underdog when your underdog bites a bit. “After I made my speech advocating a mansion tax I went to the press room and there were about 50 of them and they were like piranhas. Then I realised almost all of them have £1 million homes”.

6. You sow before you reap. Any bugger can tell you now that liberalised markets and the pursuit of risky profits were destructive for Northern Rock. But only Cable can say that he was leading a campaign against demutualisation of building societies 10 years ago. Anyone can be wise after the event, but the high ground goes to people who were wise before it. To do that, you have to have opinions today that don’t follow the herd. This is thought leadership, not what everyone else pretends it is.

For all this, I'm awarding Mr Cable one of my Talk Normal mugs to celebrate his achievement: a reward that makes others seem mere trinkets. Of course, if he doesn’t say thank you, I’ll put up a post saying how over-rated he is. He’s a politician, he’d understand.


Self-styled experts like me

Tue, 6 Oct 2009

A few years ago I wrote a book about counterfeiting and piracy called Knockoff. Since then I’ve acquired two regular gigs: people interview me when there’s a counterfeiting story for their TV shows or radio programmes; and I get invited to counterfeiting conferences to say things that the people who attend the conferences won’t say to each other, even though they tell me afterwards that they agree with me.


This week there’s an example of the first one – I’m one of the experts on Black Market Britain, ITV, 10.35pm on 6 October. I’d love to tell you what I say, but it’s been stuck in legal for such a long time that when they called me to tell me the transmission date, I’d clean forgotten the interview.

It won’t make what I’ve said obsolete. The anti-counterfeiting/anti-piracy business has a sort of Groundhog Day consistency. The people whose job it is to market anti-counterfeiting (at least 30 organisations, last time I counted), all say the same thing every year. Their figures are pretty consistent, because they’re more or less made up by these organisations for the purpose of lobbying. The terrific work done by journalist Felix Salmon here and here to highlight this deserves to be recognised, not least by other journalists. “The fact is that the statistics AREN’T generated, as opposed to simply conjured out of thin air,” he told me.

I used some of these stats in my book, and I now know I should have asked more questions. What troubles me more is what goes on at the conferences organised by the people who come up with the stats, and the law-makers that they lobby. It’s not that they’re making agreements in secret that are undemocratic, unaccountable and might have negative impacts for developing countries – they have the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement for that. It’s what’s never mentioned that bothers me.

Almost all anti-counterfeiting and anti-piracy conferences I have attended, and it’s quite a few by now, are from the group hug school of conferences: experts quote their own figures (and each other) and lament the state of the problem, but no one involved will blame anyone who might be in the room, for example. And so it goes on: an identical conference, with the same people involved and a different sponsor, will be held a few months later in a different hotel.

Talk Normal’s going to get on to the appallingly low standard of trade conferences as soon as I get the time. But for now I’m thinking about something that Felix Salmon said to me: "It never ceases to astonish me what the press will print if it’s asserted with enough bravado from a self-styled expert."

It occurs to me that on this subject I’ve occasionally been both the credulous hack and the self-styled expert. I’m hoping that I’m neither on Tuesday night.