My publication, DON’T RISK IT, REHEARSE IT, is now available to download as a PDF.
To many, Sir Anthony Jay, is remembered as co-writer of the wonderful political satire, Yes, Minister, first aired in the eighties. It was brought back as Yes, Prime Minister, and is still a regular on the rerun circuit.
A lesser number will know Jay as the founder, alongside John Cleese, of Video Arts in the seventies. He brought his considerable experience as a television writer and producer to the company, a pioneer of famously entertaining training programmes for business. To help his often inadequately prepared clients, he wrote one of the best books of its kind, Effective Communication.
Whilst much of the book was written in the days before PowerPoint the principles of good communication have never been better expressed. His thoughts on rehearsal never more valuable. To put these in context he prefaced his book:
“It is no more than a brief and very humble operating manual for those who, at some time or another, have to present ideas, decisions, facts or proposals to others in a context which demands something slightly more prepared and worked out than a chat over a drink, and who believe that is worth spending some time and effort to achieve maximum clarity, conciseness, impact and persuasion: or at least to avoid alienation, catastrophe and humiliation.”
He saw visual aids as a means not an end. At the time of writing the commonly used aids were the flip chart, the overhead projector (OHP) and carousel driven slides. Remember them? Of the latter he said, “I can think of none that is used more ineptly than slides.” I wonder what he might have said about (the curse of) digital slide technology. **
To him, avoiding errors with visuals was what rehearsal was all about. The same errors are still common today. Errors like putting a slide on and taking it off without referring to it, standing between an audience member and the screen, constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the right slide has come up, talking to the screen not the audience, not removing a slide once there is no point to it.
Rehearsal, he suggested, should also be used to check against the ‘unnecessary slide’, (less is more) the ‘missing slide, the impact slide’ (was it given its proper share of exposure) and he hated the purely verbal slide! “It’s a killer, because words are what presenters are there for and what they are uniquely equipped to utter.” He ends by saying “I honestly believe I have never seen a slide that had too little visual or verbal information on it.”
On delivery, he is adamant that “you should not read a paper” (that anyone might have delivered in your place) and that “the best talkers are those who are the most natural, easy, fluent and free from the fetters that seem to bind others to small pieces of paper. They are talking only to us, and basing what they say to our reactions as they go along. Such a talk cannot, by definition, be scripted.”
How do we achieve this? His answer lies in the difference between written and spoken English. If you write it out as written English and rehearse enough, you will have it by heart but it will sound like a memorised document. If you start with spoken English, it will sound like an informal talk.
Professional broadcasters learn to write scripts in spoken English. For the amateur, a good way to ‘translate’ into spoken is to work on the script by rehearsing aloud, alone or to someone. Listen to your conversational self. “Are you using short words and short sentences? Don’t worry about grammar. Use your own words and phrases, the sort you actually use in conversation. Use active rather than passive verbs. Avoid anything that would sound oddly formal or stilted in normal conversation.”
Rehearsing to someone is also the way to spot the common speaking errors:
“Mumbling, hesitancy, gabbling, catch phrases (the point is …. sort of thing) poor-eye contact, mannerisms, dropping the voice.” Rehearsal will also reveal what he sees as the chief problem to overcome, “speaker’s rigidity.” This stems from “using written English instead of Spoken English and failure to realize that good speaking consists of addressing a large number of people as if they were a single person.”
He ends with a ‘thought- starter’. “Do the presenters you most enjoy listening to work from scripts or notes, or do they just speak spontaneously?’
Footnote. Jay brought his script writing skill together with his years of rehearsals, good and not so good, to a legendary and hilarious scene from Yes, Prime Minister. The hapless PM, Jim Hacker, in rehearsal. Worth seeing one of the Greatest Moments
* * In my ‘Rehearse It’ guide, I wrote ‘how it is too easy to alter, it allows us to tinker with words, redesign slides, reorder the presentation and change content while eating up every second of rehearsal.
This celebratory yell has been called the Siren Song of football, the world’s most popular sport. It originated in the early days of radio broadcast in Brazil. There, it was known as ‘pelegrin de gol,’ meaning ‘danger of a goal.’ A warning call to listeners who may have strayed from the set. Today on television, goals around the world share the unmissable celebration. Apart from Britain- is this our so-called reserve, not evident on the terraces.
An article in the New York Times captured its essence. “The cry of “goooool” is the exclamation point that captures a story’s heart-pumping passage, the announcer’s voice rising and falling harmoniously, and continuously whenever any team scores. If turned into a drawing, it would look like an arch. If it were a person, it would be the biggest guy in the room.”
It takes skill and lungs. To succeed, soccer broadcasters must know how to scream their own version of the long drawn-out ‘gooool’, often for over 30 seconds. Some practice, in much the same way that opera singers do, rehearsing before they go on stage. One famous Brazilian broadcaster compared the cry to a tenor’s high C and said, “there’s a big dose of artistry involved.” Another claimed, “It’s your crowning achievement, or your moment of defeat.”
Andres Cantor, perhaps today’s outstanding exponent, said: “I think we all have the same feel for the game, the same passion, the same love and we call it pretty much the same way.”
This shared feeling and passion is true of all good live broadcasters, across all sports. There may be no ‘siren song,’ but each sport will demand of their broadcaster levels of passion and deep understanding. In the early days of live television, when a few channels held a monopoly of viewers, Dan Maskell (“oh I say!”) was known as the ‘voice of tennis’, Sid Waddell for bringing darts to middle England (“They’ve got Shakespeare on Radio 2, but you can’t beat this!”) All knew David Colman, as the voice of BBC sport, his voice lending an extraordinary sense of occasion to any event, including major News bulletins.
In today’s multi-channel, multi-platform world, it is harder to stand out, but the good broadcaster can still be the voice to many. To achieve this, their own authentic voice, they need study, practice, and rehearsal.
Stuart Storey, a former voice of BBC Television athletics, learning his craft covering ten Olympics, has this advice for would be commentators. “On preparation, you can cut no corners. For example, you need to know all there is to know about each athlete on the starting line, (you will have less than 8 seconds talk for each as they wait for the starter’s pistol.) The commentator must decide which of the huge amount of information provided by the statisticians is relevant to each round of each event in a major Championship in particular.”
In team sports the commentator should learn all available data on the players of each team, as well as the substitutes who may come on to play a vital tactical role, even scoring a last-minute goal. “Expect the unexpected.” It’s what makes sport compelling and it’s what challenges the spontaneity of live commentary. It carries over to the venue. Be ready to ‘fill in’ when the lighting fails or the television picture all of a sudden in the commentary position is no longer available. “Knowing how to switch from Television commentary to Radio is important as they are different skills. From letting the picture tell the story to describing every detail to create a picture in the mind of the listener is an art form.”
For the live commentator, Stuart’s overarching advice is this: “Say what the picture does not say” and do this with a few well-chosen words. And, when you talk, “use voice intonation and intensity, along with pace of delivery, to create atmosphere. The voice alone can let the viewer know how important a particular moment is.” His final advice is the dramatic use of … SILENCE. Know when to pause … to let the action, do the talking.
In an interview in the Guardian, Laura Woods, one of the only women who covered the 2022 World Cup, said broadcasting might look simple but it’s not. “It’s ‘brutally’ competitive.” She started out by making You Tube videos in her garage, ‘such brilliant practice… and confidence comes with practice, it really does.’ Her final words in the interview were eloquent and perceptive.
“The one thing I learned is that a listener or a viewer can all smell any inauthenticity, and I figured that out really quickly. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying to be me; it was that I was struggling with the confidence bit. But eventually I kept doing it over, and over again and I got much more comfortable in my own skin. And that is the only thing you have got that no one else has, your own personality, your own way of doing things. It sounds like a cliche – just be yourself- but you really have to do that.”
She was not, however, called on to cry “Gooooooooool!
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too …”
These words were spoken nearly five hundred years ago by Queen Elizabeth 1 to her troops, assembled in the early morning mist at Tilbury Docks. They were readying to do battle against the invading Spanish Armada. Her inspirational speech is recognised as one of the greatest in history.
We have first-hand evidence from certain ‘noble footmen and great lords’ of what she said. Several of their written accounts record similar versions of the speech. We know she was, probably, on horseback, (at any rate, that’s how she is portrayed by Cathleen Blanchet in the movie Elizabeth) clad in armour as befitted a warrior monarch. We don’t know what she sounded like or even if she could be heard among the jostling soldiers. We do know she inspired her troops to victory. (Her offer to pay wages due may have played a part).
To understand her remarkable performance, it helps to see her life as one of constant rehearsal of proving herself as a woman in a world of men, as a monarch deserving of loyalty.
Her early childhood was not easy. When she was two years old, her mother Ann Boleyn had been beheaded by her father and she was declared a bastard, unable to inherit the throne. That same father, Henry VIII, did however encourage her education. Extremely intelligent, she studied six languages including Latin and Greek as well as grammar, theology, history, philosophy, mathematics, literature, geometry, logic, and rhetoric. She learnt how to persuade.
Her final tutor, Robert Ascham, pushed her further. He would give her original texts by Demosthenes and Cicero, make her turn them into English, then translate them back into the original language. His aim was that she ‘gain purity of style, and from her mind derive instruction that would be of value for her to meet every contingency of life.’ At that time, becoming Queen was not an anticipated contingency.
However, when unexpectedly in her twenties she ascended to the throne, she was prepared. Her well-rehearsed skills in oratory allowed her to negotiate with her powerful, all-male Privy Council and to hold sway over Parliament on the rare occasions she allowed them to sit (only thirteen times in 44 years).
She employed the rhetorical weapons of pathos, logos and, most tellingly, ethos, the appeal of character. Throughout her reign, her well-practiced use of ethos established her credibility as a leader, able to connect with her people as one of them, despite the attitudes against women at the time.
At Tilbury, she faced the huge challenge of rallying her soldiers. A lifetime of rehearsal enabled her to rise to the occasion. And an understanding of kairos, ‘timeliness.’ Has a speech ever been better suited to the moment of its speaking and the expectation of its audience?
No wonder they trusted their “Good Queen Bess.”
Two of the greatest orators of the last century were enemies. One wanted to create a Reich to last a thousand years. The other, to lift his people facing defeat. Both held surprisingly similar views on the power of oratory, of the spoken word.
Hitler in his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, wrote :
“I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great orators and not to great writers.”
Churchill, in his novel, Savrola, (the central character is a self-portrait) writes:
“Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world.”
Not surprisingly both spent years of their lives studying, preparing, and rehearsing oratory to ‘win’ over their very different audiences. The Germans to suspend all doubt, to follow the Fuhrer; the British to ‘never surrender.’
Hitler, unlike Churchill, was a natural orator, initially rousing fervour in the small beer halls of Munich. However, to fulfil his dream of converting mass audiences who would respond to his personal charisma, he would need to perform in huge arenas. This called for a different level of practice and rehearsal.
He studied Wagnerian opera stars, to emulate their command of a stage, and their dramatic gestures. He understood his body language, his naked emotion, and sense of raw power was key to capturing his audience, more than his words. Every facial expression was practiced with the help of a photographer, taking hundreds of thousand shots to identify the strongest, the most compelling gestures, the optimal body movements. He would then rehearse these endlessly to a mirror.
He wrote the speeches himself, often rewriting five times, working through the night. He would practice them out loud, as secretaries edited changes, from the always quiet opening to the screaming crescendo of (apparent or real?) rage. He practiced the silences, the pauses, keeping the crowd waiting in suspense. He was ‘a rhetorical genius of not talking.’ Above all, he kept the messages simple.
He was a showman, and like today’s superstars on tour, his speeches were rehearsed and choreographed to extract maximum audience response. Audiences in their thousands, searchlight displays, dramatic stage entrances , heroic choreography, “I gradually transformed myself into a speaker for mass meetings [and] I became practiced in the pathos and the gestures which a great hall, with its thousands of people, demands.”
Did this rehearsal pay off? With 5000 speeches in ten years, Hitler turned a party with a mere 3% of the vote into the Government party. In the words of Dr Joseph Goebbels “He rouses the tired and lazy, fires up the indifferent and the doubting, turns cowards into men and weaklings into heroes.”
Winston Churchill was not a natural orator, but he made a lifelong study of rhetoric and the art of public speaking. He read widely ranging across the ancient Greek classics to Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, William Gladstone, and Oliver Cromwell. He often saw his father, leader of the House of Commons and a renowned orator, in action.
Aged just 23 he wrote, but never published, a paper titled The Scaffolding of Rhetoric. It’s five principles still hold good. In summary: Correct diction. Use “the best possible word . . . short, homely words . . . so long as such words can fully express the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.” Rhythm. ‘Create a rhythmic flow of sounds with long, rolling, sonorous sentences and balanced phrases.’ Accumulation of argument, ‘leading the audience convincingly to the climax by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures”. Analogy. “Apt analogies are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician.” Extravagance of language. “Some expression must be found that will represent all they are feeling.”
Putting these principles into practice was a challenge for Churchill. He suffered speech impediments of both a stammer and a lisp. A throat specialist advised that only practice and perseverance would help. He practised diligently, rehearsing aloud “The Spanish ships I cannot see since they are not in sight” to stop stumbling over words starting with ‘s’. He spoke as often as possible, and even though the lisp persisted, he overcame his nervousness and inhibition.
He wrote all his own speeches, some 3000 of them in 55 years. Typically, he would do several handwritten drafts, before having them typed up in a manner that helped delivery, with breaks in sentences to indicate the deliberate pauses, or the changes in tempo and emphasis. He rehearsed aloud, often in front of a mirror, practising every aspect of delivery, from tone and pace to body language and expression. As he practiced, he was always seeking ways to project his unique personality, his character and sense of purpose to best engage with his audience. In his words:
‘His ideas began to take the form of words, to group themselves into sentences; he murmured to himself, the rhythm of his own language swayed him; instinctively he alliterated. . . That was a point; could not tautology accentuate it? The sound would please their ears, the sense improve and stimulate their minds.’
Did his rehearsal pay off? He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his writings and ‘brilliant oratory.’ We did not surrender.
‘It was the most feared half-time weapon in football – and Sir Alex Ferguson’s players all dreaded being on the receiving end of it. Fergie’s ‘hairdryer’ became a legendary force of discipline at Manchester United, and few were spared his wrath.’
His was a unique approach to persuasive communication, but the half-time team talk is a staple of any manager’s armoury. How do you raise the morale of a group of individuals who are losing badly, or change their defeatist mindset, or accept direction, or warn against complacency? And do this in a few minutes.
How do you prepare what to say, when late goals may have changed the game from a winning to a losing one, and the team from feelings of elation to despondency, just before the break. How do you rehearse to perform at your best, knowing your performance can turn the team from a losing to a winning one?
The talk maybe in a sweaty dressing room, but it calls for the rhetorical concept of kairos. It is the timeliness of a talk, suited to the moment of speaking, fitting in words, and body language, to the mood and expectation of the audience. The experienced manager may not know kairos as a term, but he understands it.
Considered preparation and rehearsal is not possible in the time it takes to hurry from the dugout to reach the dressing room. Instead, the manager will be drawing on his experience of hundreds of other half time team talks, learning from each. Every talk in effect is a rehearsal for the next one. Experience and instinct channel use of the three ‘weapons’ of communication when it matters.
Aristotle defined these as ethos, the appeal from the character, logos, the appeal to reason and pathos, the appeal to emotion. The manager seeking a change of tactics will call on logos, giving clear reason for the change. If a fighting spirit is needed, then pathos, emotion takes over.
However, these appeals count for little compared with ethos, the appeal of the character. It is the force of a personality and the trust of the players that creates truly powerful communication. Pep Guardiola, arguably the best manager in England, is captured in a leaked video that’s gone viral. It shows a critical halftime talk and the team are losing. He says a few words, not easily heard. He actually speaks with his body. He puts himself on the line, every movement, every gesture, an out pouring of passion that is mesmerising, irresistible. The team won.
Another legendary coach, from the eighties, was Brian Clough, a larger than life character who broke the mould of the dour ‘cloth cap’ managers of the time. He was a brilliant, often outrageous communicator. He brought a touch of theatre and a few words to the shortest and, possibly, best team talk ever. His team, Nottingham Forest was playing badly and losing 2-0 at home. At half time, the players waited, nervously, in the locker room. They waited and waited and, just before they had to go on for the second half, Brian Clough appeared and said:
“Sorry boys, my fault, picked the wrong team”. The ‘wrong’ team won 3-2.