Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Talk Normal

All posts tagged: MPs

Avoiding the question

Mon, 21 Dec 2009


People had excellent specs in the 1980s

I’ll be updating occasionally until the new year, but meanwhile click on the link to use iPlayer to catch up with Jon Sopel’s 15-minute nugget from Radio 4, “Avoiding the Question“, about how politicians do everything they can to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question.

I wish the spokespeople that I meet would not try to copy the politicians that they heard on the radio that morning. Please stop doing this, not least because you’re not very good at it. In my experience it goes like this:

Spokesperson: While this type of tittle-tattle may be of interest to a small group of journalists back in the real world what we should be talking about are the enormous strides that we have made this year in delivering a world-class inkjet printer cartridge replacement service under enormous and frankly unreasonable pressure from people like yourselves.

Me: So you’re not going to tell me your job title then?

Two reasons to listen: Dr Peter Bull, a psychologist from York University, has identified 35 different ways that politicians use to avoid answering a question. And Daniel Finkelstein recalls the story that Dr David Owen once fell asleep on TV. The interviewer asked what he thought of the point that Geoffrey Howe had just made. He woke up and said:

"That’s not the real issue in this election."

changed the subject, and carried on. Now that’s a class act. Just please don’t copy it.


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.