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.