Informality as a mode of official communication

Get a load of the UK Cabinet Office Minister’s delivery.

It’s fabulously low key, informal, indeed intimate compared with the formal bullshitting mode of almost all political utterance, and straightforward. It is of course ‘spin’, as it couldn’t be anything else. The Gettysburg Address was spin. But what I find thoroughly delightful about it is the way in which it simply dispenses with the entire genre of the public statement.

Of course there’s a reason for the genre of the public statement, because a public statement is not an intimate statement to a single person. However it is now so thoroughly debased by Orwellian corporatespeak “The Government is committed to a fairer Britain for all Britons”, that it’s a breath of fresh air to start again.

Reminds me of this issue I drew attention to in a previous post:

One of the things that intrigues me about the world is that acting is never ‘realistic’.  For instance whenever you listen to a documentary and some scene is ‘reconstructed by actors’, you can always tell that they’re actors.  They say their lines like they’re in a play or a movie, yet they’re acting real life. Strange isn’t it? They’re professionals at feigning life, and yet, when their only job is to feign life, not to ‘put on a play’ which is understandably a kind of hyper-real-life, they can’t do it. I’d like to understand why this is so. I’m sure it’s not a reflection on actors that their acting is not fully ‘realistic’, just as a TV presenters speech to camera is not like they speak normally, and just as when we give a speech to a group it’s not the same voice we use to speak to each other. Still I think it is a very telling reflection on actors that they show little sign of doing something completely realistic on the rare occasions when it’s called for.

13 thoughts on “Informality as a mode of official communication

  1. Actors are not trained in how to ‘act normal’ , they are trained in how to communicate/represent common (and subtle) emotions in a very artificial environment – a stage/film-set in front of a audience .

    In my profession you quickly learn than white is not light , it is titanium dioxide.

  2. What Maude is doing is terrific, and something more people should aim for when communicating to the public. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to do:

    1. It’s very difficult to appear completely natural in front of a television camera or microphone, while delivering a pointed and lucid method. You need to have not merely command of your subject, but a very clear understanding of how it relates to people’s day-to-day problems. You also need to strip away all sorts of mannerisms which people lean on in media interviews This is harder to work out than it sounds.

    2. It’s very hard to get an organisation to agree to presenting a narrative (which people will listen to) rather than a series of dot points (which they will almost immediately tune out unless the dot points are relevant to their own circumstances).

    Maude’s greatest achievement here may have been his decision to talk about one thing in a clear progression from problem to solution. It is definitely not something that’s easy to reproduce.

  3. Actors in a doco “reconstruction” are:

    -not usually very good actors
    -being filmed by a documentary film crew, with crappy lighting, crappy sets and a single camera
    -being ‘directed’ by a documentary maker

    It’s not really fair to compare that with, say, a high-budget biopic.

    • Expect that they are also not well paid or especially motivated by the the great script.
      Actually do the ‘actors’ in docos get a credit line?

      • I don’t think that FDB’s or John’s analysis is correct. It’s a genre thing. They see themselves as participating in the genre of acting – and what you see is an illustration of why acting is not the replication of real life – any more than a newsreader is just reading something out. They’re doing a particular kind of performance, just as reading a bedtime story to one’s child is also a kind of performance.

        It’s just odd that so few actors have ‘simulating real life’ in their repertoire, even though it’s (presumably) what’s called for in reconstructing a scene for a doco.

        • But what do you expect people to act like ‘in real life’, Nick? Is there seriously an acceptable way to be ‘real’? And, by corollary, an unacceptable way of being ‘real’?

          Truth is formal modes of address, like the political oration, or the television newscaster voice, or the business powerpoint presentation, are as much part of the real world as supposedly informal modes of address. I’m not sure if that should even be an issue because raising the question of what is real (by discussing how people act in ‘real life’) seems to be quite possibly raising a fairly pointless distraction.

          Observe a person living their life absent from these obvious formal constraints – and you will see their conversations and gestures are full of artifices. That doesn’t mean they’re lying, just that they are communicating or playing with ideas.

          Indeed I suspect that it’s at times when people are most caught up in the moment that their expressions tend to be the most blatant and full of obvious formal rhetorical devices – when they’re excited their voices will rise, they will repeat themselves to emphasise important points, etc.

  4. Maude is famous, even in the UK where this sort of mode is more common, for exactly this sort of delivery. He is a renowned communicator, and his skills exceed those of his peers. There’s also a cultural thing here, the Oz style of parliamentary “banter” would probably get you locked in the Tower at Westminster.

    (Maude is, in his own way, held in regard higher than his peers in the same way that Keating’s “can-strip-paint-at-25-meters” style exceeds that of his peers)

    • Pretty sure I didn’t miss your point Nick – it just strikes me that your idea that actors can and should be able to act as people do in ‘real life’ is very problematic indeed. Hence the questions I raised above.

      It’s a side issue in this post really, just one that interests me.

  5. TimT,

    You say this “it just strikes me that your idea that actors can and should be able to act as people do in ‘real life’ is very problematic indeed.”

    I’m not sure what’s problematic about it. As a photo and certain kinds of painted art replicate a retinal image, so an actor acting ‘real life’ would do so in such a way that their goal would be that if I saw an ‘amateur’ looking film of them so acting – perhaps pretending to be in a focus group or reinacting an emergency in a house or a critical phone call or a police interview – the viewer would not immediately know that it was an actor’s reconstruction.

    At present I can tell when something’s a reconstruction almost immediately almost always. I’d hazard to say that, at least if I could act myself or someone like me, I could do a much better job of the ‘acting’ than most of the examples I see. My goal would be the simulation of how it ‘really was’. My sentences wouldn’t be perfect, I’d guard against being too stagey. I might start the odd sentence and end up rearranging it half way through.

    etc etc.

    This is not philosophy here – it’s just a simple thought.

    • I probably shouldn’t bang on about this topic or I’d get too pomo anyway :) I agree with John Walker at point one, too – especially when you’re watching a news report or whatever with actors ‘recreating’ realistic situations, it would probably be counterproductive for them to really act how they would in those situations. Their job in that role would be principally to communicate to an audience of viewers – not to appear superficially realistic.

      BTW Maude’s video here is interesting but is also highly artificial. You see this same style used in a number of ads; it’s another way of relating to an audience.

      • I made the point that Maude’s video is artificial – another form of spin. It’s just that it’s such a good example of the genre.

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