Monday, 4 July 2016

Why I have set up a training company

Zoe, Nick David and Natt
Clockwise from top left: Zoe Battley, me, David Yeoward and Natt Tapley
Last year I started hosting awards ceremonies. That side of things is going well and I enjoy it. Through the awards hosting and some of the corporate media work I do I've spoken to a few people who need public speaking skills as part of their job - either in front of an audience, or whilst someone is pointing a camera at of them.

It's learnable, but it's not something most folk get much practice at. A lot of corporate offices are full of bright young things emailing each other, rather than speaking on the phone. David Hepworth writes about this on his blog. His post immediately reminded me of my first job in London, working at a music PR company in Soho in the mid-nineties.

We had phones, a fax machine and a 28K dial-up modem for two ancient macs which we used mainly as word processors. Watching Tim, Paul, Shabs (especially Shabs), Asha, Shazia, Elliott and Nihal do their thing on the phone gave me an understanding of the performance art of business. The hustle. How to project yourself as a competent, confident, entertaining individual. My colleagues had no problem acting out to me, their peers or their clients. For them it was a natural progression to hold forth at pitch meetings or stand on stage and say clever things to large audiences.

Nowadays it might be entirely possible to go through the first ten years of your career without having to address an audience of any size, let alone appear on camera.

And then suddenly, you're expected to. You pick up a cause, you start a new business, you're made a senior manager. You have to espouse a perspective to groups of people who may not care a fig about you or the idea you're selling. Your career can depend on how well you perform. How do you make that work? What are the tricks? Where do you start?

I am surrounded by self-confident gobby sorts at the places I am lucky enough to work. Telly-land is not a place for shrinking violets. Hosting awards ceremonies plugged me into a world of people who have huge amounts of drive, talent and expertise, but when it comes to standing on stage and addressing an audience, or projecting themselves on camera, some of them have no idea. Why should they? They've never needed to.

But now they've reached a level of seniority which requires them to speak to people or talk on camera, and do it well. And they need someone to teach them either from scratch, or to tweak and refine what they do into something properly inspirational. Hence my new venture.

I've got together with some lovely people (see above - Natt was the nice man who trained me up in comedy writing and performance for Comic Relief - he's now a contract writer on Have I Got News For you) who know what they're doing, and between us, we are helping clients develop everything they need to articulate their stories and give them the right level of impact.

This is not about teaching people how to game a TV interview. That's not the sort of work I'm interested in and it's not compatible with my work as a journalist. This is about helping people with the theories of storytelling, preparing a pitch, winning a pitch, writing skills, engaging an audience, body language, memory techniques, stagecraft, adrenaline management, crowd-wrangling, microphone technique, being funny, speaking notes, what to wear, what not to wear, how to work with TV/AV crews, conducting a technical rehearsal and all the other stuff a lot of people just don't know the first thing about.

On a practical level, it's relatively straightforward. We need a quiet room with access to caffeine. We've got an HD camera, projector and laptop. We make you write. We make you speak. We make you tell jokes. We can film and watch you back as many times as you like. We work you hard, but we can make a positive difference to your public speaking skillset in one day. And we make it fun and friendly, too. If you're hiring us for a specific event, after the initial training day one of us will come down to the venue with you before you take the stage and make sure you're okay.

Yes I'm doing this to make money, but I'm doing it because I enjoy it. It's a joy to help people find a way of confidently speaking with intelligence and clarity about a subject which is often their passion. Showing people how to keep things together and project confidently on camera is something which took me a long time to work out (as many early editors of mine will attest). I'm happy to pass those skills on.

If you want to have a look at our website, please do. If you are able to forward our details to someone who might be looking for this sort of thing, I'd be grateful. We're aiming at senior level corporate clients for one-to-one or two-to-one training, but the whole thing is bespoke. We take your desired outcome and design the training so it works for you. If you have a cohort of people you want to sort out we have an arrangement with an organisation which does company-wide training at manager/sales exec level for the likes of Mercedes and Porsche, and one of our trainers is a founder of Never Second, which does deep level business proposal training. We will scale up according to your needs and pitch accordingly.

Just in case you were wondering, I'm not about to start easing up on the work I'm doing for the BBC and ITN. I have a contract with the BBC and I'm thoroughly enjoying the reporting I'm doing for ITN. Over the last few weeks I've interviewed Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and spent a busy afternoon the day after the referendum on one of the TV gantries outside parliament. It's a good time to be in the news business and I intend to remain part of it for as long as they let me.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The superlification of language

Unless someone has already done so, I'd like to claim the term "superlification" as a process, specifically the superlification of language.
We used to say "right" or "good" or "thanks". We graduated to "great" and "brilliant", and now it's "awesome!" or "perfect!" (seemingly interchangeable terms despite having wholly different meanings). 
There's more, of course. "Epic" still seems popular among my teenage relatives and half decent albums by average bands are routinely (and rather desperately) described as "iconic".
A hotel receptionist recently called my completed registration form (or perhaps the competence with which I completed the registration form) "perfect". I thought I could have done better.
Likewise I am always delighted when someone thinks my agreement with or willingness to do something is "awesome", but it's not really, is it? It's usually the minimum expectation given the circumstances.
"Awesome" tends to exist more in speech. "Perfect" seems to be proliferating wildly in both emails and speech. 
I have no real problem with any of this, language and meaning always changing etc, but I do wonder now we've hit "perfect" where the superlification of language can go next. Will it create a problem that superlification cannot overcome, so we leave that element of our exchanges behind? Maybe emojis and gifs in emails are already doing that. 
Anyway. Whatever. 
Have an amazing day.

I've just remembered I have form on this. Here's something from 2010 called Have a Lovely Day.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

New website, new agent

I have hooked up with Seamus Lyte, from Seamus Lyte Management. He politely suggested that whilst this blog was fine, I needed something a bit more professional looking. So I have built a new website. It has lots of photos of me - like this one...

.... my TV and radio credits, my showreel and a short biog. If you dialled it used to bring you here. Now it takes you to my proper website. I hope you like it.


Monday, 11 January 2016

Meeting David Jones in Bromley, a long time ago.

My wife's uncle Jonathan has a David Bowie reminiscence. He once shared it with me over lunch...

Bromley, the summer holidays of 1958. Jonathan was twelve. He was told by his parents to stop knocking around the house, so he wandered down to the local park, King's Meadow, off Burnt Ash Lane, to play on the swing.

The swing was a big one ("what they used to call a 'Long Lizzie'") which could accommodate several children.

The park was deserted save for a younger boy already sitting on the swing. Jonathan joined him and they got talking.

"He asked me which school I went to and I said Bromley Tech. He became quite animated and said 'I'm starting there this September.'"

Jonathan doesn't remember much more about what they said or did, other than sit idly and chat, watching the trains go past.

"We finished our conversation and I thought no more about it until the first day of school in September. This boy came bouncing up and said, 'Hello do you remember me? I'm David Jones... you know, we met...' And I vaguely remembered, so I said 'Oh yes. Hello.'"

"And that was it, really. It wasn't particularly politic to mix with the first years, so I didn't."

Jonathan kept tabs on David because they had a mutual friend in George Underwood, who Jonathan knew from primary school. George was responsible for giving David his famous eye condition whilst at Bromley Tech when they fell out over a girl.

Jonathan remembers David chose to make a guitar in his woodwork class, which he played in the school band he formed with George.

I don't know why I found this story so affecting when I first heard it, and I don't know why I find it affecting now. Perhaps it's in the moment of humiliation for the guileless young Jones, bursting with enthusiasm on his first day at school, being snubbed by someone he thought might be a friend.

Or it could be the image of that 1950s child, sitting alone in the park on the swing, passing time like any young schoolboy, unable even to conceive of the life he'd one day live.


Thursday, 26 November 2015

Barrister criticises Post Office prosecution

Stephen Mason
Since 2011 I've been in contact with Stephen Mason, a barrister who is the author of a book on electronic evidence and the editor of a journal called the Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review.

Mr Mason has sought and received permission to publish the full transcript of Seema Misra's trial.

Seema Misra used to be a Subpostmaster at West Byfleet Post Office in Surrey. Despite being convicted of the theft of £75,000 from the Post Office by unanimous verdict at Guildford Crown Court in Nov 2010 (and subsequently sent to prison whilst pregnant), Seema has always protested her innocence. Her case is currently being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Seema Misra
It was Seema's husband Davinder who made me aware of alleged problems with the Post Office Electronic Point of Sale and branch accounting system (Horizon) whilst Seema was still in prison. Seema was convicted on the strength of electronic evidence drawn from the Horizon system.

Since the BBC Inside Out South investigation in Feb 2011, alleged problems with the Horizon computer system and criticism over the way the Post Office suspended, sacked and prosecuted a number of its Subpostmasters has been the subject of a Select Committee Inquiry, two parliamentary debates (1 and 2), several more Inside Out investigations, two One Show pieces and a recent Panorama.

We know from the Panorama that the Post Office prosecuted one Subpostmaster for theft despite an internal investigator stating he could not find any evidence of theft. The Post Office says it cannot comment on individual cases due to confidentiality, but that a financial loss and false accounting together is often sufficient evidence for a theft charge. The Post Office maintains the Horizon system works fine and that it's never done anything wrong in any of the cases we've featured.

In his introduction to the Misra trial transcript, Mr Mason warns that the "the reader must take great care in reaching settled conclusions from the transcript of the trial, because the transcript is only one part of the entire record."

This does not stop Mr Mason from making considered, but repeated criticisms of the Post Office prosecution. Here he attacks a fundamental defence the Post Office have always made about the Horizon system - its "robust"-ness:

"To assert that a complex system, which the Horizon software appears to be, is ‘robust’, the prosecution ought to have produce [sic] evidence to establish what was meant by ‘robust’ and the truth of the claim. 
"No evidence was produced to demonstrate that the system was ‘robust’, nor to establish the ‘quality’ of the system – none of the test [sic] set out in chapter 4 of Electronic Evidence seem to have been considered. 
"The Post Office also failed to produce any evidence regarding the operation of the operating environment and the reconciliations, error rates, controls, and relevant internal audit processes used to ensure integrity, and to provide details of the various up- dates that fixed problems with the software."

He then goes on to address the issue of who actually controls the Horizon terminals in a Post Office:

"The comment that the defendant would have been aware of a defect in the software (excluding the specific defect discovered in a post office in Callendar Square in Falkirk) is manifestly incorrect.
"Neither observation was accurate, nor, it appears, sustained by any evidence produced at trial. Moreover, the observation (Day 1 Monday 11 October 2010, 23H – 24A) that Seema Misra was ‘the person responsible for the computer system at this office’ demonstrates the failure of the prosecutor to understand that end users of the Horizon system do not control the computer system: Fujitsu undertake this task."

Mr Mason then goes on to criticise the expert witness for the prosecution:

"Gareth Jenkins, the system architect for Fujitsu Services, was asked about the possibility that a problem that might arise between the systems [Horizon and Riposte], but he considered this was of no relevance, even though he did not know whether the problems encountered with the Riposte software might have affected the Horizon system (Day 4 Thursday 14 October 2010, 97 – 98).
"In effect, the prosecution did not present any witness for the defence to cross examine on this particular and important point, although it was admitted that the Escher software [Riposte] appeared to be the cause of the problem encountered at the post office in Callendar Square in Falkirk (examination in chief: Day 4, Thursday 14 October 2010, 46F – 50; cross examination: 88G – 111). 
"Mr Jenkins relied on a great deal of hearsay in giving his evidence, he rarely obtained and submitted original data, and on occasions spoke to other people in Fujitsu Services to ascertain answers to technical questions – yet none of the people he spoke to were called to give evidence."

The assertion that it was only Seema Misra who was having problems with Horizon appears to have been contradicted during the trial:

"The previous owner of the post office run by Seema Misra claimed that they did not have any problems. It later transpired that this was not correct (Day 5, Friday 15 October 2010, 2 – 9). 
"However, before the first owner of the post office made the additional admission, the prosecutor reached the false conclusion that because the first owner of the post office did not have any problems, it followed that there was no failure of the computer system at a later date (Day 1 Monday 11 October 2010, 50F)."

His conclusion:

"Arguably, the evidence of the software system was not sufficient for anybody to make a decision based on the evidence put forward in the trial [my italics], and it seems that all Professor McLachlan [expert witness for the defence] could do was highlight the fact that he had so little evidence to consider, that he was not able to offer any sensible or conclusive conclusions."

In summary, a barrister who specialises in the presentation of electronic evidence in court believes evidence presented by the Post Office during a criminal trial was "arguably" not sufficient for a jury  (or indeed "anybody") to reach an informed decision. In Seema's case the Post Office didn't offer any other evidence as to her guilt of theft, a point noted by the judge in his summing up to the jury.

A barrister's opinion is just that, a barrister's opinion. But the evidence required to convict someone of a criminal offence must be beyond reasonable doubt. Mr Mason believes the prosecution's evidence was arguably insufficient. The jury, without the benefit of Mr Mason's expertise, disagreed.

I've asked the Post Office to respond to Mr Mason's comments and will post up their reply if I get one.


Further reading:

Ongoing Computer Weekly investigation into Horizon and timeline
Post Office Horizon primer written by me in 2013