Don Tapscott talks freedom

Recently published on YouTube by TED is a talk by Canadian Don Tapscott. It is entitled How the blockchain is changing money and business.

Cryptocurrency fascinates me.  It is dragging commerce into something approaching the modern age, and bypassing the orthodox banking system in general and central banks in particular that have made such a pig’s ear of matters in recent years. Also, because it can’t control it, the establishment hates cryptocurrency which is another factor in its favour. I went and watched this talk for reasons that have nothing to do with my work.

Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never very far away, and immediately I am conscious that Tapscott is effectively hiding quite a serious hump, though it lasts barely a minute. Nerves connected with public speaking are unpredictable because they are largely irrational (though being irrational doesn’t make them any less real). Tapscott has done a huge amount of speaking, so why should he be nervous? Because it is irrational.

I always keep to myself the subtler manifestations of nerves, and I have been accused of being miserly with my professional secrets. There is something in that, but my main reason goes much further. The most effective antidote to speakers’ nerves is a relaxed audience. Therefore if the speaker successfully hides nerves, the audience relaxes so the speaker relaxes. If audiences became too conscious of subtler symptoms they would be more difficult to relax, and that benign circle would be broken. I’ll keep my secrets on behalf of all speakers and all audiences.

Shortly after the first minute has passed he is more relaxed, and when he explains the double-spend problem at 1:32 he gets a nice little laugh from the audience. That’s two points to him: one for relaxing them and one for explaining so clearly. The two are totally intertwined.  That hurdle, however, is as nothing compared with some of the concepts he still has to explain.

I must say that he makes a pretty good fist of them. There are a couple of moments that I find myself asking “Wha…?” but in the main he keeps me with him, and I feel that his audience in the hall likewise understands enough to get a pretty good idea of what this is all about.

One of the strongest messages I receive is that every person operating with cryptocurrency is freely dealing with every other person, and the entire process is independent of any controlling body.

And then, beginning around 9:25, he says something that stuns me. While bemoaning a world of increasing levels of all manner of regrettable things like anger, extremism, protectionism, etc. he cites the latest example as being Brexit. I am astonished that someone as smart as he has fallen for that sort of lame EU propaganda. Has it not dawned on him that Brexit is another example – like Blockchain – of people scrambling out from under the dictatorial control of a distant and unaccountable central authority? Is it really so extremist to want your vote to mean something? He is making exactly the same idle mistake as the person who said to me that Bitcoin was all about arms sales and organised crime. He should seek to smell the coffee on this matter. Ignorance is not necessarily his fault, but …   Oh, let’s move on.

Time will tell whether Blockchain really is the future of commerce. In my time I have seen too many cases of brilliant ideas being the vanguard that got swallowed up by even better imitators to assume that this is home and dry, but…

I do like any blow for freedom – which is why I voted Brexit.

Edward Tufte – read his books

In my latest monthly newsletter to past trainees, I explored the presenting of data in ways that would better grab the attention of the audience. Subsequently one reader enthusiastically told me about the work of Edward Tufte, so I went looking for him. I was told that he fills auditoriums to capacity with people paying high prices for tickets, and that he is a genius at the conveying of data in new and interesting ways. I couldn’t wait.

I found this speech that he made at the 9th MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday February 27, 2015 in Boston, MA, and settled down to learn.

What I found was probably the prime example in my experience of how not to speak in public. He may be the world’s top expert in packaging data for optimum effect, in fact he must be. To draw audiences as he apparently does, there must be something of phenomenal value to compensate for his abysmal delivery. In terms of relating to an audience he is a stranger to basic principles.

This speech is stupefyingly boring, and for one reason only. It is not a speech: it is a reading. Whenever I see a speaker reading a script, I want to tear it away. That script represents a huge gulf between the speaker and the audience.

There are a very few sections when his eyes lift from that bloody paper, and suddenly that gulf is bridged. At 6:19 there are a few glorious seconds. At 7:26 a few more. At 12:15 he sustains it for around a minute. At 29:50 he actually indulges in an anecdote. He narrates an anecdote: he does – not the wretched paper. It makes the communication so much better

Whoever filmed the video refuses to show us his slides. Perhaps there are copyright issues. At any rate the chance to relieve the tedium is squandered. The irony is that Tufte is on record as saying that PowerPoint sucks, yet the only thing that would salvage this disaster for me would be sight of his slides.

And I’m afraid that even when he does look up from his script we are too conscious that Antaeus-like he perceives a need to return to his paper to recover his strength; so there is always an underlying feeling of negative stress getting in his way.

For me the most frustrating thing is that paperless speaking is ridiculously easy, and everyone can do it – I’ve proved it countless times. It improves the bond with the audience to an infinite degree.

This video is just so awful that I went hunting for other online examples of his speaking. Surely he can’t always be this bad! There is a keynote speech at a Microsoft summit where at least we get to see some slides. Sadly I was too short of time to watch that one, though I skimmed enough to see that he was still looking down at his script. I was also faintly amused that the script was on a MacBook.

Edward Tufte cannot possibly have developed his reputation without being very good at his specialist subject. His speaking being of Olympic standard dreariness, I conclude that the way to learn from him is to read his books. I might give that a try. It could not but be an improvement on this.

Martin Vander Weyer. Jolly but nebulous.

On 29 January, 2014, the York Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Thatcherism Must Be Abandoned To Save Britain’s Economy”. 

This blog has visited the Oxford Union countless times, and the Cambridge Union quite often, but it took a specific search for an example of a speech by Martin Vander Weyer for me to discover the York University equivalent, of which I see he is Patron. I feel rather ashamed at my laziness in not having found it before. Ferreting now around their website reveals a rich seam for me to mine, and I look forward to doing so.

I searched for an example of Vander Weyer’s  speaking because I enjoy reading him in The Spectator, where he is business editorIn this debate he is speaking in opposition to the motion.

What a super opening! It is not just that it is funny, it is not that he pokes jovial, unmalicious fun at previous speakers, but what causes the audience to laugh and keep laughing is that not once does he beg a laugh or even pause. He just ploughs on through the hilarity till suddenly you realise that he has turned serious. It is one of the finest examples of brilliantly executed throw-away opening humour that I have found. There is a lesson here for all speakers, if they encounter the right circumstances.

I do wish he weren’t using paper. He manages it very well, not letting it spoil his rhythm; but paper, even if it isn’t a script but merely notes, imposes a negative force on any speech.

In order to shoot a speech from the hip, you need two things. You need to know how to, and in order to dare to do it you need to know you can. (Vander Weyer knows he can: he proves it during that excellent opening.) In order for it to be feasible you need to apply a series of very strong structural rules to the content. The rules are simple and once learned can be easily applied. With practice it is also very quick – quicker than writing notes.

But here’s the clincher argument. That structure, making the whole route of the speech crystal clear in your mind, makes it simultaneously more digestible for the audience. Digestible makes memorable. I’ve watched this speech a couple of times, and although I obviously know the general gist of it I am not sitting here knowing precisely what I’ve heard. The message is slightly nebulous. If he’d applied the right discipline to the structure it would be starkly clear.

It’s the paper’s fault: it excused him that discipline.


Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Michelle Obama’s voice wobbles

On this blog we have already examined the acceptance speech made by Hillary Clinton at the recent Democratic National Convention. There was also glowing praise in the media for another speech, this time by the USA’s current First Lady, Michelle Obama. This was not a surprise: she can do no wrong for the mainstream media, and could probably get away with a turkey of a speech. Nevertheless, I thought I’d lay cynicism aside and view it for myself.

That still frame has a title over it, claiming that she cries when speaking of her daughters. I do hope not.

After nearly three and a half minutes of video and adulation from the crowd, which is absolutely to be expected and under the circumstances fair enough, she begins speaking. Within seconds I am reminded why I do not work in this sort of sphere. I am rather averse to political speaking. My stamping ground is with speakers who have to sway tough cynical audiences without recourse to political smoke and mirrors. A business person caught lying is sacked (unless in the public sector, in which case will probably be unobtrusively promoted). A politician is expected to lie.

I’m not accusing Mrs Obama of lying, but she is playing a rôle in a show that is of necessity built from deceit. Look at the syrupy phoniness of the way this thing is stage managed. Look at the shots of audience members gazing with worship. I try not to.

Though she will have received training she doesn’t cope very well with a teleprompter. You can see that rather glassy stare when the eyes focus just south of the camera. Nevertheless she forges on like a trooper.

The schmaltz concerning her daughters begins immediately, and I admit that it is difficult to conceive what else she could talk about. The First Lady can’t wade in on matters like the systematic dismantling of those parts of the US Constitution that protect the people’s freedoms. She can’t talk about how the country is markedly less safe, less free and less prosperous than it was eight years ago. She absolutely has to stick to how her heart sings with joy when watching her daughters playing on the White House lawn.

That essentially is this speech in a nutshell, and she makes a reasonable fist of it. The audience laps it up. The voice gets a bit of a wobble for a brief moment, and I find myself wishing that her coach had spent that time on the teleprompter instead.

At least she doesn’t cry.

Milo Yiannopoulos likes it two ways

At the Conway Hall in London on 16 August there was held the launch of the Young British Heritage Society. This society appears to be an attempt at an antidote to the National Union of Students. The NUS hasn’t impinged on my life for a decade or four, though I occasionally read their pronouncements in the press.  These indicate that an antidote of some sort might be a good idea.

As the launch-event keynote speaker they had booked the services of one whom they described as “the most fabulous supervillian on the internet”, Milo Yiannopoulos. I featured him on this blog not long ago, but not very satisfactorily. The speech in question dissolved into shambles as many members of the audience staged a noisy walk-out.

Milo has made himself into something of a phenomenon. With his carefully studied OTT campness, he has become a considerable cult-figure. In a sense he is using the same “ain’t I pretty!” tactic as a young boxer called Cassius Clay in the early sixties. It’s a very powerful device to polarise the public into loving or hating you and hence to inflate your box-office value.

But you have to be good enough to deliver. Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) certainly delivered, and Milo in his field also delivers. He writes well, and has the gift of the gab. Think hind legs and donkeys. As well as being very thoroughly briefed and replete with data, he is remarkably quick-witted. You could put up the most feared interviewers in broadcasting and I wouldn’t back them against him, because whether by accident or design he is possessed of one particular characteristic which is devastating. I may return to that later.

None of the foregoing necessarily makes him a good public speaker, even though he does a lot of it. Let’s have a look.

It’s a tiny bit more than an hour long, one third speech and two thirds Q&A. I’ve watched it all, several times, and now I have both bouquets and brickbats to bestow. Let’s get the brickbats over…

The first third is the weakest. During the 23rd minute he begins Q&A, and at that moment this thing takes off. I mean it goes into orbit. I mentioned earlier how good he is in interviews, so we should hardly be surprised that two-way conversational traffic is his comfort zone – even if he’s the one doing all the talking. Questions are mother’s milk to him.

Preceding the Q&A is a speech. That is one-way traffic; and comparatively it’s clunky as hell. He’s using many of the same modules as during the Q&A, but the bridges between them are non-existent. The reason is that he apparently believes, as far too many do, that the substitute for being asked questions is using a bloody script. Will they never learn!

Also, for one who makes many speeches, his audience-handling is startlingly inept. Too often when one of his outrageous statements triggers a laugh he fails to capitalise. This is sometimes because the laugh is spontaneous and surprises him. The set-piece humour is too contrived and seldom works. Let’s quickly move to the bouquets…

Dip at random into the Q&A and you’ll get the impression is that here’s someone who loves the sound of his voice so much that he just gabbles uncontrollably. Completely deceptive. His answers are actually very disciplined and tight. Consider this statistic. The last 44 minutes end in a six minute peroration (it’s very good), and the previous 38 minutes contain 12 questions and their answers.  Allow ten seconds for each question, and the average answer therefore takes three minutes. Each is laden with hilarious and inevitably outrageous anecdotage, yet still provides its serious answer. The man is brilliant.

He just needs to learn how to make speeches.

Barry Poulson isn’t fluffy

In my previous post, which was on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I made reference to the current USA administration – of which Mrs Clinton has been a key part – having presided over that country’s being indebted to the tune of “$20-odd trillion”. I am not in a position to know the true figures, but here’s a man who is.

Dr Barry Poulson delivered a talk to the Heartland Institute. It was entitled How Can Fiscal Rules Fix the American Government? 

How indeed? He begins at 04:19. There are severe sound-problems prior to his beginning: persevere.

I do nearly all my work with business speaking. It has particular demands on the speaker, like precision and conciseness. It is also perceived (often wrongly) to be rather hard-edged; and for this reason I enjoy helping people package tough issues in a way that makes them seem relatively fluffy.

Here we have a speaker from an academic environment. His first impression is an avuncular one. Almost immediately we are made to feel that he has all the time in the world, and reckons we have too. He even wanders off to get a drink of water, and is gone for ages; later he becomes inaudible for a time when he takes root on the wrong side of the screen. This man, we tell ourselves, doesn’t need fluffy packaging: he’s already fluffy. Beware! From what I’ve seen of academia it can be every bit as cut-throat as the business world, so ignore sheep’s clothing. The only licence that academics could have over business-people might be freedom from immediate and terminal accountability. Get it wrong and usually you can go back to the drawing board.

Poulson is dealing with an issue (national debt) that everyone has been getting scandalously wrong, and he quickly makes the point that neither of the presidential candidates is talking about it, presumably because there are no votes in it according to the pollsters (remember pollsters? – they’re the people that keep getting it wrong). This is where the $20 trillion number comes up. It exceeds GDP. On this matter Poulson isn’t fluffy: Capitol Hill is. The Executive seems to regard Venezuela as a rôle model.

His message is that without fundamental changes of fiscal direction the USA is toast. That may be unthinkable, but it is feasible and doesn’t have fluff.

There is a way out, and he spends half an hour telling us what it is. Here’s a clue: it’s a little more grown up than taxing the ‘super-rich’, which is why politicians might prefer to see their country gurgling down the drain than put it to the people. Politicians seem to be convinced that people are stupid. That’s why they call themselves ‘leaders’ and expect to be followed by sheep. They are not leaders, they are representatives. They have been delegated to attend to matters, like the nation’s finances, and to do so with competence or be booted out.

The US Constitution begins with its three most important words,

We    The    People.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but on 23 June We The People were presented with a rare chance to exercise a vote that made a difference. They rose to the opportunity, exercised grown-up judgement, made it clear they were the masters, and what their command was. Their command was the one that would keep them in charge. This was in the teeth of flawed [that’s a euphemism] arguments and judgements being fed to them by ‘leaders and experts’ of all descriptions, including the current US President. They showed they were not sheep to be led, but delegators of responsibility. The sheep among them have been bleating piteously ever since.

Politicians really do need to wake up to the probability that We The People are at least as bright as they, and do something really revolutionary like telling the unfluffy truth. Then possibly they might find that their candour wins them votes, and the USA might just be saved.