Sympathy for Gerald Ratner

Public speaking horror stories don’t come any better than Gerald Ratner’s fall from grace at the Institute of Directors on 23 April, 1991. He ran a cheap and cheerful jewellery chain, which was an incredible retail success.

He made a speech with a few one-liners of questionable taste, which were given front page tabloid coverage. It resulted in a dramatic public reaction against his shops and the collapse of his business. But if you read his defence in his biography, it sounds very plausible that he could never have predicted the response. He was just throwing in a few tried-and-tested jokes.

Supposedly the Financial Times printed the jokes a few years earlier. Comments like: “Diamonds are a very bad investment – especially ours.”

The ones he actually used in the speech were good for a private audience. The comment that their earrings were “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.” And the statement: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95.”

People say: “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say: “Because it’s total crap.”

In a way this is what people want from famous public speakers, the inside story, the insight into how it really is. I’m sure his audience thought he was a hoot.

These days you have to be a lot more careful and with mobile phones and other devices, you can be exposed in almost any context for speaking without due consideration.

Other comment on the speech points out that Ratner’s mistake was to make a 1980s speech in the 1990s. How true. Stirring up envy of Ratner’s ostentatious wealth was a good seam for the tabloids to mine during hard times.

Reading the account of how he put the speech together, asking friends and family if certain things were appropriate, gave me some sympathy for the man who gave the name to the phrase, “doing a Ratner”.

Have you got a Hook?

Chris West from Verbal Identity spoke at a conference I attended last year and opened his presentation by saying he’d been discussing what to say with one of his former colleagues. He told us how the colleague had given him a great NLP tip on presenting. He then didn’t tell us what the tip was.

Only later did the ingenuity of the aside come across because a member of the audience asked him during questions about the tip. And Chris said, always leave an unanswered question, it keeps the attention.

A great hook arouses your curiosity and makes you want to listen carefully. I was reminded of hooks recently when I started listening to some 80’s pop music. Replaying Fine Young Cannibals – Johnny Come Home, or Tears for Fears, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, or Eurythmics, There Must Be An Angel, you can spot within seconds what the song is, and what the hook is doing. It’s so simple and contrived, sometimes it’s easy forget that a speechwriter has to do the same thing in every speech.

Here’s a clever way of arousing curiosity. In his TED talk, ‘Spaghetti Sauce’, Malcolm Gladwell describes a character in hyperbolic terms.

 I would (like to) talk about someone who I think has done as much to make Americans happy as perhaps anyone over the last 20 years, a man who is a great personal hero of mine: someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce.

Howard’s about this high, and he’s round, and he’s in his 60s, and he has big huge glasses and thinning grey hair, and he has a kind of wonderful exuberance and vitality, and he has a parrot, and he loves the opera, and he’s a great aficionado of medieval history.

This laconic opening sets up one of the most popular TED talks of all time.

Steve Jobs needed eleven words to get us to sit up for his Stanford University commencement address.

Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.

Another way to steer the audience is to replay a conversation. Brené Brown did this in her TED talk on shame.

..a couple years ago, an event planner called me because I was going to do a speaking event. And she called, and she said, “I’m really struggling with how to write about you on the little flier.” And I thought, “Well, what’s the struggle?” And she said, “Well, I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come, because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant.”


And I was like, “Okay.” And she said, “But the thing I liked about your talk is you’re a storyteller. So I think what I’ll do is just call you a storyteller.” And of course, the academic, insecure part of me was like, “You’re going to call me a what?” And she said, “I’m going to call you a storyteller.” And I was like, “Why not magic pixie?”



Blake Snyder wrote a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. In it he bemoaned the loss of the ‘Save the Cat’ scene. He said they’ve stopped putting it in films. It’s the scene where we meet the hero, and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him. It’s the scene that makes you root for the character.

One of the easiest things for a politician or a business leader doing routine speeches is to forget how important it is to be liked. A good speechwriter will put a ‘Save the Cat’ line in the first couple of paragraphs of every speech.

The psychologist, Robert Cialdini, lists physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments and association as key traits that make people likeable.

We know from TV that we like to watch beautiful people. Hence Boris Johnson was told to lose weight for his Mayoral campaign by his advisor, Lynton Crosby. We prefer our politicians without paunches.

Margaret Thatcher used her experiences as a housewife to say ‘I’m just like you’ and to persuade people a national economy is just like a household budget. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, used his pint of beer as a symbol of how he’s more like the ordinary man, than another one of those lying politicians.

The former Chief Rabbi would pay warm compliments to the institution and key characters hosting him before starting his speech. George W Bush used a technique of pointing to someone in the audience and acknowledging them as a devious way of creating rapport.

Comedians often tell the audience how great they are. Guy Browning has a line,

It’s very rare that I talk to an audience as good-looking and intelligent as this one. Hands up who is sitting next to someone good-looking and intelligent?

This has the benefit of flattering the audience, and getting them involved.

Sporting success is something that people feel deep emotions about. So it’s smart to associate yourself with any recent national victories.

Daniel Pink described how he used local knowledge to endear Al Gore to audiences.

…say he was speaking in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. We’d find out the most popular coffee shop in Sheboygan and its most popular pastry. Then somewhere in the speech, we’d include a place for him to say matter-of-factly, ‘If you’re talking about health care down at Charley Café’s – and maybe eating one of those cherry-walnut scones – you might wonder whether our Medicare plan covers.. People love that sort of touch. Homework pays.

You want to avoid delivering bad news. Cialdini talks about a weatherman who got death threats because the rain wouldn’t stop. Isaac Asimov pinpointed the reasons why likeability reaches so deep.

All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality…and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you and when he wins, you win.