Clint Smith conveys yesterday beautifully

A friend, and subscriber to my monthly newsletter, emailed me a link to a TED talk by slam poet and teacher, Clint Smith. The talk is currently featured on TED’s own home page.

Is this a talk or a recital of poetry? I went to raise the same question with my friend; and then found that in my haste to click on his link I had skimmed over some of his email and overlooked his asking me almost the same question.

As far as I am concerned, there is no doubt that this is a recital of poetry. If you follow the link I have added to Smith’s name in the first paragraph, you will find yourself on the home page of Smith’s own site. There you will find embedded yet another TED talk, and that is a recital of poetry also.

I have met many whose way of not using paper on the speaking platform is to write a script and learn it. I dislike and disapprove of the practice, partly because they are dealing in written, rather than spoken, words; but more crucially because they are proffering a time-capsule. The words they speak are not of now but of yesterday or last week or whenever they wrote the script that they learned. Without my getting bogged down in the details, let me explain that the paperless technique I teach involves mind-map structures that are so clear and secure that the speaker can shoot from the hip, using words that are genuinely spontaneous.

Spontaneous words have a sound and feel of their own; and they also carry an invaluable subtext of sincerity.

I believe Smith is relaying a time-capsule. We are listening to the words of yesterday. The words may be just as true today, but they are not today’s words.

They are beautiful words. I love the energy and staccato urgency that he generates through the use of asyndeton – there are numerous examples, not least the four core principles he lists at 1:08. I love the iambic rhythms that repeatedly appear. I love the tone colours in his words and phrases. I just don’t think it is spontaneous, in which case it is yesterday not now.

I may be wrong: I readily concede the possibility that when you live, breathe, dream and teach this medium you could develop the ability to generate it spontaneously. It doesn’t feel like that to me, but if that is what he is doing I take it all back.

No I don’t: I don’t take back what I said about the beauty.


Professional acting is not for adults

Sir Alec Guinness, so the story goes, had just delivered a talk to a school when a boy rushed up to him. “Sir, sir,” said the boy eagerly, “I want to be an actor when I grow up.” The Great Man looked at him a little pityingly.   “My dear boy,” he said, “you can’t do both.”

When I was a stagestruck teenager, I saw a TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock. He made me bridle at his patronizing attitude to actors. These were my gods, and he referred to them as if they were not very bright children. It was not till I became a professional actor that I found he was right. That was one reason that, despite having enjoyed a certain measure of success, I packed the profession in: I wanted to spend my working hours in an environment of more intellectual weight.

There were exceptions, of course. but in general I found that actors who lived by artifice were so focused on skin-deep appearance that they held opinions that were built on sand, opinions that were as shallow as damp linoleum. “All you need is love” rather summed it up. It was not that my opinion sometimes differed from theirs, it was that they were incapable of backing up their arguments with anything more substantial than what made them feel good.

I said that there were exceptions, and I know that the shallowness of the theatrical existence is a source of pain to many pros. A hugely successful actor with whom I worked in the 60s was recently quoted in an interview as saying the whole business was bullshit. This morning we awoke to the tragic news that Robin Williams had apparently taken his own life. I would not dream of claiming that it was shallow showbiz rather than pathological depression that caused him to die by his own hand, but I don’t suppose it helped.

Daniel Hannan, who is no stranger to readers here, recently tweeted a fresh link to an article he blogged in April 2011. In it he pondered why actors get treated by the media as omniscient, and get invited to pronounce on so many unsuitable topics.

The answer is simple. They are unusually articulate. Articulacy is their stock-in-trade. That, coupled with the fame that will cause viewers and listeners to pay attention, makes them a gift to producers. Who cares that they have nothing worth saying when they say it so beautifully? And the relationship is symbiotic: performing fleas can keep their names and faces in the public consciousness by popping up all over the media.

The ones who actually have something worth saying tend to keep their own counsel.

I now have the best job in the world. I get to work with people of substance who are bright; who create things and wealth and jobs; who may have opinions at odds with mine but who defend them with data. My role is to liberate their latent coherence and make them at least as articulate as any actor. And I am told I am good at it. So when I drive home after delivering coaching, and if on the radio I hear some tiresome luvvie elegantly spouting hollow drivel, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am redressing the articulacy imbalance, one person at a time.

Hyberbaton – to rhyme with Surbiton

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Over the past few days I have heard those words many times, and in all but one of those occasions it was recited incorrectly. In the first line the words “grow” and “not” were reversed.

It’s called Hyperbaton - pronounced to rhyme with Surbiton. Words the order of monkeying around with it is. Yoda-speak. It’s done to grab your attention. Laurence Binyon did it with that first phrase.

You may think “They shall not grow old” sounds better, and you are entitled to your opinion, but it’s not what Binyon wrote. I think I would have preferred “remain” or even “abide” instead of “are left”, but it’s not what Binyon wrote (actually, surely he was indirectly glorifying the dead by prosaically classifying the living as the left-overs). “At sunset and dawn” would unquestionably have been snappier than “At the going down of the sun and in the morning”, but it’s not what Binyon wrote.

As this season of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I recedes, so will recitals of that verse from For the Fallen. So we await November and Armistice Day for the next flurry of its outings. Do you suppose we can try very hard to get it right?

James Sorensen doesn’t quite bang

At the 2013 Electric Universe Conference in Albuquerque, there was a talk by James Sorensen. He was supporting the pronouncements of the late Halton Arp in being critical of the scientific consensus of the Big Bang Theory.

I like mavericks, and not just because trainees sometimes describe me as one. I warm to those who plough their own furrow and spurn the knee-jerk following of the flock.

Sorensen begins with an amalgam of laying-out his stall mixed in with a bit of ethos – or rather, lack of it.  He isn’t a scientist: he wasn’t even a particularly good student: he has read a lot of books. Sorensen’s ethos is that of a maverick.  One of the books that strongly influenced him was Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. This is turning into a mavericks’ convention.

Sorensen is a member of Toastmasters. He tells us so just before the turn of the 8-minute mark.

I am often asked about Toastmasters, and my opinion of it. I have no real answer. I have seen some good speakers and some bad speakers emerge from their membership. I simply don’t know how much the quality of their clubs varies. I don’t know whether there is any real tuition and if so by whom. I understand that much of the members’ speaking development comes through simply getting up and doing it. That is certainly a start, but it’s only a start.

Once when I was driving I heard a radio interview with some bigwig from a Toastmasters club. He was holding forth about one of their impromptu speaking tests, and was invited to give a demonstration. He was ghastly! He was so bad that I had to pull into the side, stop, and bury my head in my hands. What was worst about it was that I knew I could improve him immeasurably in one minute with one tiny hint.  Back to Sorensen.

Sorensen’s speaking could easily be improved because already he has a very good, relaxed relationship with his audience – which could easily have been given him by Toastmasters. He has yet to decide whether or not he needs that script on the lectern. He doesn’t: every serious stumble comes when he is reading. He has some nifty technology for his visuals, but he over-uses it. His material needs structure – tighter structure. That would make his presentations more digestible.

I suggest that, unless you are rabidly interested in his subject matter, this presentation is actually rather soporific.

Robert Carter frustrates with brilliance.

The Heartland Institute hosted ICCC9 – the ninth International Conference on Climate Change – in Las Vegas from 7–9 July 2014. On 8 July, Prof. Robert Carter delivered a talk entitled Why NIPCC Matters.

As far as I am concerned, NIPCC matters because it shows its workings. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you didn’t read my previous posting.

In my late sixties, I still have a full head of hair. Sometimes I wonder why. Too often I am faced with something that fills me with hair-tearing frustration. This brilliant speech is just such an example.

It is persuasively, authoritatively and articulately argued. He backs up his arguments with chapter and verse. He has structured it all around a beautifully conceived narrative theme of pieces of legendary art, ranging from Salvador Dali to Antony Gormley. He delivers it all with a voice that is clear, expressive and confident. As far as I can establish, he has no paper on that lectern. And yet…

Well, just look at that ‘still’ from the video! That picture shows you two of the three things that have me writhing. In that previous paragraph I very carefully implied – but did not say – that he has no script. He does have a script.

It’s on his bloody slides! 

What is worse he has no slave screen in front of him; so he has to turn away from the audience in order to read all those bloody words off the bloody slides on the bloody wall behind him. Ye Gods!

And the missing thing? – the other irritant that causes me to writhe, the third one that the picture doesn’t show? He is popping. Every so often an explosion detonates as he speaks directly into the microphone. It almost makes me want him to turn his head back towards the wall. And as if that weren’t enough, a hand periodically collides with the microphone to make a still louder noise.

Let us be clear here, and give credit where it is due. This is a brilliant and important speech, delivered by a man who oozes learning, sincerity, charisma and a wealth of obvious speaking ability. The concept of using examples of art to illustrate points is elegant and inspired. The structure of the speech is somewhere between good and very good. The ending perhaps needed something more – and not the final crash from the microphone.

But the staging of this wonderful speech is an abomination! Any trainee of mine watching it would be in hysterics. They have all had paper torn from their hands and verbiage torn from their slides. I know some that have virtually sworn off slides altogether (though Carter definitely needs some slides, if only to show his pieces of art.) They have all experienced the liberation of facing nothing but their audience and breathing the oxygen of that connection.

Getting rid of the microphone problem is slightly more complicated. A clip-on radio mic would have removed the popping; but the unruly hands that sometimes hit the microphone are part of his ebullient personality. An ebullient personality is something you monkey with at your peril. I can’t come up with an answer to that at this distance.

Oh how I’d like an hour alone with him!

Patrick Moore – the climate realist

The Heartland Institute hosted ICCC9 – the ninth International Conference on Climate Change – in Las Vegas from 7 – 9 July 2014.

With a debate like the climate one I find my sympathies instinctively tending towards the side that shows its workings. I want to be able to take my own look at the data in question. Many years ago I noticed (it was not hard) that whereas sceptics fell over themselves to cite chapter and verse to support their theories, alarmists tended to restrict themselves to unsubstantiated assertions and infantile name-calling (often aimed at anyone who dared protest that they weren’t showing their workings). Part of the name-calling involved the term ‘anti-science’. This was rather rich coming from those who were never prepared to engage in a debate on the science, preferring to hide behind the risible debate-killer “the science is settled”. At any rate I looked at the source data as hard as a non-scientist is able, and closely followed the debate from the standpoint of a rhetorician. I also followed the money. The alarmists’ assertions collapsed before my eyes. As far as I am concerned the game was up many years ago. The global warming movement has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with politics – and pretty questionable politics at that. With any friends who continue to espouse this dead hypothesis I no longer bother to argue: I merely invite them to look more closely.

Greenpeace’s most famous dropout, Patrick Moore, spoke at ICCC9 on 8 July.

I believe this is the first time on this blog that I have failed to attach to the first mention of the speaker’s name a hyperlink to biographical material. There is a good reason: nothing you can read will give you a more comprehensive overview of Patrick Moore’s environmental career than the beginning of this speech. Till 5:15 it is wall-to-wall ethos.

His slides during this section are purely wordless pictures, which is good, the words he speaks are scripted, which isn’t. He doesn’t seem to be reading from the lectern, so why do I believe it is scripted? It’s in the rhythm. The pauses and links between sentences are unnatural in their duration. Also it’s in the stumbles and self-corrections which have ‘script’ written all over them. He appears not to be reading, so he is reciting: he has learnt it. He did not need to. He is perfectly capable of speaking all of this spontaneously. For some reason he just does not dare. Reciting a learnt script is not true shooting from the hip: it doesn’t have the sparkle that so seduces audiences.

Then he turns to why he left Greenpeace and to the main message of his speech, the essential climate-realism that he preaches. Now – disastrously – his slides are smothered in verbiage. Watching the video of this speech, we can pause it to read it all; but the audience in the hall cannot do that. They can listen to him or they can read the slides, but not both. He has set up his slides in competition to himself. Why, in heaven’s name, do so many speakers make this mistake?

Curiously, just as the slides get submerged under words, Moore starts to sound spontaneous. Now I believe that he is shooting this from the hip.

At 8:35 he gets into a muddle over his slides, Things start coming up in the wrong order. This may not be his fault, but having too many slides is his fault.

I am not anti-slides: I am anti-words-on-slides. I know that in speeches like this speakers feel they need to give chapter and verse to back up what they are saying. They are right: look at my second paragraph above. Therefore consider something along the lines of …

The IPCC in their report said on page xxx, “///////////////”.  

You will find the precise quote and its context on page y in the conference program.

By all means show pictures and graphs, but wherever possible restrict your words to graph labels only. You will be astonished how liberating that is. The fewer slides you have the less chance there is for things to go wrong. A trainee of mine had to conduct an all-day workshop the day after attending my course. He later told me that during my course he was mentally pruning down his dozen slides. By the time we parted he was determined to use just two. In the event he didn’t use even those – or a script, or notes. He shot the entire day from the hip with no slides, and received ecstatic feedback.

There is absolutely no added credibility or emphasis in the audience’s being able to read the words you are speaking.

Back to Patrick Moore! This is a very good speech. From 10:36, just after the hiatus with the mixed up slides, he gets into his stride. His speaking is now spontaneous and impassioned, and his slides get much sparser with words. At that point he becomes, frankly, awesome. He knows his stuff inside out, and it pours out of him with all the authority which his 40 years of experience as an ecologist have generated.

Just compare this with Al Gore’s ghastly sci-fi film, An Inconvenient Truth. Go check the facts.

Go figure.

Alan Mendoza can speak, but doesn’t

The Cambridge Union Society, in June 2013, held a debate on the motion, This House Believes the Two State Solution is the Only Solution. In case there be any doubt, let me make it clear now that the two intended states to which the motion refers are Israel and Palestine. One of the speakers for the proposition was Alan Mendoza.

If you follow the hyperlink which I attached to Mendoza’s name you will see that he is “a frequent speaker at high-profile national and international events and conferences”. Yet, he can’t speak (or at least he almost doesn’t). He writes well, and reads his writing back reasonably well, but that is not speaking. Granted he is at least as good as most people who deliver speeches at “high profile national and international events and conferences”, but that merely supports what I have frequently observed, namely that when it comes to public speaking the world sets its bar pathetically low.

Close your eyes, and just listen to a little more than the first minute of his delivery, and you will hear him obviously shooting from the hip some jokey comments concerning the debate thus far; and then unmistakably you will hear him begin reading his script.  You can hear the change, because spoken English is quite different from written English. The content certainly becomes more meaty at that point, but the audience-engagement deflates appallingly.

It might be tempting to conclude from this that hip-shooting is fine for ribald dross, but when you get to the serious stuff you need to read it, even at the expense of a little audience-engagement. It is a widespread, almost universally held, fallacy. I have friends and acquaintances who – bless them – have solemnly made this assertion to me; but my trainees never do, because they have had it proved to them that this is nonsense.

As it happens, Mendoza elsewhere in this speech makes my point for me. He proves to us that he can shoot strong, meaty, data-rich stuff from the hip with more fluency, more conviction and much better audience-engagement than when he reads a script. That is why I chose this speech for this posting.

At 4:02, someone in the hall asks to intervene and Mendoza allows him. Afterwards, from 4:56 to 5:34, Mendoza clinically and compellingly unpicks the argument in the intervention – shooting entirely from the hip. Those 38 seconds show us how good this speech could have been had he learnt how to structure his material in order to shoot all of it from the hip.

He could do it, without losing any of the essential elegance of the wording. There is a pleasing little tricolon at 7:30 which could just as easily have been there. Sadly though, at 5:34 he returns to his wretched script and his audience engagement falls off a cliff.

I called it a wretched script. It is actually well written and would make a good read. But as a piece of speaking it is lousy. It is comparable in lousiness to most of the offerings you get at “high profile national and international events and conferences” with successions of ‘speakers’ reading drearily to each other.

We need to raise the bar.