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The Week that Was – On Camera

The fine art of persuasion is never as tested as it is on television. Passionate advocates for causes, ideologies and organisations are placed in an alien environment and asked to form, change or reinforce our opinions in a few short minutes. The result  often has less to do with the worthiness of the message than the performance of the advocate.

If you want excellent examples of a) how not to do this and b) how to do it extremely well, you only have to look at a couple of examples from the box this week both, incidentally, delivered by academics:

On The Nation last weekend, Dr Rod Carr from the University of Canterbury put forward the notion that public funds should be directed towards education, particularly tertiary education, rather than supporting ‘the old,  the sick and the dying’.  As a long-term societal argument it may have intellectual merit – in the budget before last the government pumped $1.2 billion into the latter and only $300 million into education – but as delivered by Dr Carr it did not persuade me. Instead I was led inexorably towards the conclusion that both the man and his views were far too Prussian for my taste.  

Contrast this with the performance of Dr Phil Bishop, a senior teaching fellow and ‘frogologist’ from Otago University on Close Up. The plight of the endangered Archey’s Frog has never concerned me in the past. I’ve skipped over headlines and ignored stories. However, this charismatic champion of the tiny frog won me over completely, and I’ll be with him, sitting in front of the bulldozers, if mining in the Coromandel threatens their habitat.

The difference lay not in the merit of their arguments, it lay in their ability to persuade the viewer of that merit. One was cool, aloof and superior; one was charming, humorous and  quietly passionate. I care a great deal more about education than I do about frogs, but a good performer can change the way we feel and sometimes the right spokesperson on paper is altogether the wrong one on camera.

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