Blair – bad, not so bad, and splashing.

Today I am once again on the subject of talking heads . It’s a term I use rather disparagingly to refer to the speaker being merely a voice-conduit for a piece of literature. When a speaker just reads a script it will usually be a huge turn-off for the audience, and the ‘better’ the writing the bigger the turn-off.

You may wrestle with that, so let me explain. I put the word ‘better’ in quotes, because good literature has a tendency towards formality. Speaking, because of today’s fashion for a more casual style of conversational sincerity, tends the opposite way so better writing makes for worse speaking. On those occasions when a script becomes necessary we have to write it with speaking in mind. Remove its tie: loosen its collar!  There are guidelines for this which I don’t usually cover in a course unless specifically requested, but I did in the book.

I bet your experiences as an audience member confirm this; and if you have ever read transcripts of great speeches you have probably met with the converse – great speeches don’t make good reading. You needed to be there. Lord Roseberry said in his Life of Pitt,

“Few speeches which have produced an electrical effect on an audience can bear the colourless photography of a printed record.”

Let’s look at a debate held in Canada between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether Religion is a Force for Good. To watch the whole thing you would need an hour and three quarters, but I should like to refer you merely to small sections.

Blair’s first offering goes from 14:00 – 21:02. It is scripted and, though Blair handles a script better than most, he is being a Talking Head – even down to the occasional piece of smart-alec writing that just doesn’t work in this medium!  Later he and Hitchens each have two four-minute rebuttal slots, and those of Blair can be found here –

  • 26:40 – 31:13
  • 36:05 – 40:13.

Now he is shooting from the hip, and the improvement in delivery is huge.

I shan’t comment on what either of them is saying, because that’s not my brief today. Blair in his rebuttals may be reverting to the old touchy-feely, schmaltzy stuff that we remember so vividly from him; but even in the guise that so many find emetic he relates much better with his audience when unhampered by paper.

That’s why I don’t like Talking Heads: that’s why I metaphorically tear paper from out of the hands of trainees: that’s why I show trainees how to structure and prepare their material so that they can securely ‘shoot it from the hip’: that’s why I go to lengths to show them that they are – often to their amazement – perfectly able to do it: that’s why I wrote the book . This paragraph was anaphora, in case you hadn’t noticed.

I am also today returning to the subject of microphone problems. Usually I am castigating the speaker for bad microphone technique, but Blair in that recording was blameless. When a speaker is working so hard on what emerges from his mouth, it enrages me when the technology fails to deliver it properly. Blair in that debate had a lapel microphone attached to his shirt. With those things you are entirely in the hands of the sound engineer. The sound system disgracefully distorted and ‘splashed’ all his sibilant consonants. That sound engineer needs to take up an occupation better suited to his talents. Like sweeping streets.

[added in 2017: the video embedded in this posting was since taken off line and replaced with one that appears to have had its sound quality cleaned up.]

Rudyard Griffiths, the chairman of that debate was wearing an earset mic – one of those things that they try to blend in with your skin-colour. If you stick a ball of foam over the end – and they usually do – the colouring doesn’t hide it and it looks as if you have a boil on your cheek. The advantage of earsets is that if you turn your head you don’t go off-mic. They don’t need that foam-ball. It is theoretically there as a wind-break to lessen popping, but if you fit the thing right you won’t get popping and if you fit it wrong that foam won’t save you. He’s slightly sibilant, but he’s not splashing like Blair.

Two paragraphs ago it may not have escaped your notice that I suggested rather forcibly that the sound engineer was incompetent. There may be another less charitable explanation for Blair’s terrible sound quality. I have sometimes idly speculated that most audience members might not even notice these aberrations, because their brains filter them out.   Just for a moment suppose that this little theory is right, and that most listeners just vaguely register that one speaker makes for more pleasant listening.

Listen closely to Hitchens.  Do you hear the same scale of sound problems from him? This was a debate on a matter which polarizes people.  If the organisation staging the debate favoured one side of the argument, what a sneaky way that could be of subliminally handicapping the opposition. Am I being too fanciful?  Perhaps, but it’s a thought.

As a matter of interest, who was it that staged this debate in Canada?  There may be a clue in the introduction spoken by Rudyard Griffiths.


Yesterday I explained and enlarged upon my impatience with the practice of reading a speech from a script. I also told how there would be more examples in the next couple of weeks of speakers who would illustrate how much better they performed when shooting from the hip.

Today I want to focus on another matter that seems to have trended in this blog – and is destined to trend some more. I hate microphone popping. This is the name given to the little explosive sounds made by your percussive consonants – particularly ‘P’s – if you speak too directly into the microphone.

I’ve been trying to cast my mind back more than two decades to the days before I was trained for working on radio. One of the key things we were taught was how to prevent popping. I undoubtedly then became more sensitised to the sound; but how much did I mind it before?  I don’t remember. The reason this concerns me is that it may be that most people never consciously notice popping – till a busybody like me comes along, points it out, and ruins everything for them.

Nevertheless, even if they do not consciously pick it up, their subconscious will register whether one speaker just makes a more pleasant sound than another. My trainees quickly pick up on my argument that it is as easy to do things right as wrong; and because many of them are senior business people who are delivering presentations whose success or failure could make the difference of huge amounts of money, the few percentage points either way, made by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, can  be pretty critical.

The key to correct microphone technique is not to speak into a microphone, but to speak across it – or at least anywhere into its arc of sensitivity except into the thing itself. It’s the sudden assault of a column of your breath that makes the pop. Don’t do what Boris did in that example speech covered last week. The stereo mics had been aimed at his eyes – which should have been fine – but at the beginning of the speech he wrenched them down to point at his mouth. Aaagh! Wicked man!

You’ve seen microphones with sponge balls on them. That sponge is designed to make the mic more forgiving of bad technique than it would be otherwise. But it won’t forgive the worst; and anyway why not develop habits that give it nothing to forgive? Right is as easy as wrong.

If you find yourself in a TV studio, and a sound engineer has clipped a lapel microphone on you, microphone technique no longer applies: you have no choice but to put yourself in that engineer’s hands. Likewise if they equip you with an ear-set – one of those things that look as if you have a boil on your cheek. You will be asked to say something for a level check. The only thing you have to worry about is that the volume you use for that level check is near enough the same as you use when on air. Seems simple, but I could tell you stories…!

At any rate you should stand by for a severe rant coming soon in this blog, because someone who used to be the British Prime Minister, speaking at a conference, is wearing a lapel mic. He is not popping, but badly ‘splashing’. That is another horror, wherein sibilant consonants – particularly ‘S’ – cause distortion in the sound system. As I stated earlier, with a lapel mic you are in the hands of the sound engineer who, in that case, should have been put out of our misery.

As you might have gathered, we have fun and games coming soon!  I hope you find them entertaining and helpful.