The spotlight falls on Boris Johnson tonight as Michael Cockerell’s documentary airs on BBC 2, and it has already highlighted a few uncomfortable truths for the Mayor on the Andrew Marr show preview.
Whatever you think about Boris Johnson he has some great achievements to his name despite, or perhaps because, he is such an extraordinary figure. As is often the case with extraordinary people it is not necessarily a good idea to copy them in your own quest for success. A generation of schoolboy cricketers, for instance, was advised against trying almost anything they ever saw the legendary Ian Botham do on a cricket field.
Arguably it would be counter-productive to give Boris any kind of training, but a study of his communication style does throw up a few nice examples of how not to do it – if you are anyone except Boris. His use of negatives, for instance, has been known to be so extreme that it resulted in an ‘award’ from the Plain English campaign.
The principle here is that negatives need to be avoided because they impede clear communication; any sentence including a negative needs to be unscrambled before it can be properly understood. If, for instance, I were foolish enough to give a tray of drinks to a small child, I might say: “Don’t drop it”. The way their brain is going to interpret that information is as follows: 1) Drop it – that’s the general concept, then 2) Don’t. By this time they have probably done exactly what I told them not to do, because all the attention has been on dropping. If, instead, I said: “Hold it steady”, the instruction is immediately clear, there is a certain amount they can actually do about it and they can certainly visualize what is required.
The best example I have ever see of this principle in action – because I saw the impact immediately - was when my son received his half-term report. It concluded: He is making every effort to be efficient and well organised, not without success. My son was in tears; all he could see was ‘not’ and ‘without’, connected to the word success. His little 11-year old brain couldn’t or wouldn’t unscramble the message to what his teacher meant, which was ‘with success’.
Now look at the quote that won Boris a rather dubious award:
I think he is saying that he agrees, but you have to unscramble and unscramble to get through to the meaning.
One proviso I make to the increasingly international make up of the business executives I coach in presentation skills is that I believe this mis-use of negatives to be largely a British problem, that tends in particular to afflict those who have been to English public schools and can’t quite face up to saying what they actually mean. People, in fact, like Boris who have trouble in saying what they really mean when continually asked questions such as “Do you want to be Prime Minister”?
Extracted and adapted from Nick Fitzherbert's book Presentation Magic, published by Marshall Cavendish.