Alain de Botton lacking structure

A past trainee of mine co-sponsors periodic business lectures in Cambridge, and I have attended some excellent ones. I wallow in the luxury of being able to listen without needing to criticise. One such that I remember enjoying (though I don’t remember what it was about) was by Alain de Botton; so when I came across a TED talk by him I was eager to go and sample it. It was this lecture, entitled A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.

We don’t see the very beginning, unless he is accustomed to starting halfway through a sentence, but when we join him he is travelling like an express train. He talks of his misery on occasions when he judges the degree to which his achievements are dwarfed by his ambitions; and he therefore seems to be castigating our culture for belittling those it perceives to be losers. I decide first, before donning my rhetor hat, to listen to the talk.

  • He confuses career with life – a common but critical error.
  • He bases his arguments on a shallow and narrow definition of success – even when he says he doesn’t.
  • He mixes with the wrong people.
  • He goes to the wrong parties
  • He seems almost to conclude that something should be done about this perceived problem. Legislation? What a hideous prospect!

Regardless of the above (and with this talk so far scoring 1.8 million views, he should worry what I think!) let’s look at how well he put it across, and how it could be improved…

He can speak: he is very articulate. He can shoot from the hip: so can anyone (I’ve proved it countless times) but he knows he can so he does. He speaks very quickly and nervously; but in his case it represents an outpouring of nervous energy as distinct from fear, so to the audience it’s appealing. He is intelligent, well-read and bursting with ideas, even if to my mind some of them might be a little half-baked. The only thing he really lacks is structure.

The talk, though reasonably absorbing, has no real after-taste. Five minutes later you are likely to have forgotten it, or at any rate what he said. What did he say? In my mini-summary, above, my last comment begins, “He seems almost to conclude…” because I was not quite sure what his conclusion was. He flits from idea to example to argument like a manic butterfly.

His lack of structure is also evinced by his needing to hold (and regularly refer to) a palm-top as a prompting device. For a lousy seventeen minutes, that’s really pathetic. I could show him a range of ways he could give this thing structure and shape and narrative and an overall coherence that would make it memorable both to the audience and to him.

As I often say to trainees, if you can’t remember what you are planning to say to them, how can you expect them to remember what you said?

Cameron: wall-to-wall weasel words.

I am unable to describe this as a speech critique, since that title implies disinterest in the content. I have made it clear in the past that I chose to work on the skill of public speaking in the business rather than the political world as the latter’s oratorial requirements tend to fill me with contempt.  While driving to catch a train I listened on the radio to some of Cameron’s speech, and I was relieved to arrive at my destination and have a good reason to switch it off.  I have since forced myself to watch the whole thing.

At first I was puzzled at the wholesale joy with which the speech was greeted by even the most cynical and euro-sceptic members of the Conservative parliamentary party. My puzzlement was short-lived. Taken at its face-value the speech can be seen as undiluted triumph to any euro-sceptic. Any concern that remains hangs directly upon the Prime Minister’s credibility; and no parliamentary party member will publicly impugn his leader’s integrity except under circumstances far more immediately crisis-laden than this.

Nevertheless privately they will have spotted the plethora of weasel words. The nature of these critters is that they are tiny, thrown away, easily missed yet crucial.  For instance at 2:55 he talks of the EU needing to “retain” the support of its peoples. Retaining something assumes that it currently has it. Does it?  I don’t know, and neither does he or anyone else. The indications seem to be that it doesn’t. After all when France and the Netherlands held referenda on the European Constitution, both countries emphatically threw it out. The EU re-branded it as a ‘treaty’ and refused to ask them again. Blair and Brown tied themselves inside out, finding spurious arguments to avoid asking the British people, and I had the impression that similar pantomimes were being enacted in other countries also. The exception was Ireland whose own constitution insisted upon a referendum, and we all remember what happened there. The Irish voted ‘no’ and the same EU that always scorns referenda suddenly converted long enough to insist upon another. Assuming therefore, in defiance of available evidence, that the EU currently has the support of its peoples requires an Olympic leap of faith; yet with that tiny word “retain” Cameron did just that.  Weasel!

At 3:45 Cameron describes  the EU as “the anchor of freedom and democracy”. Democracy?  See my previous paragraph, and then also factor in how they unseated the elected premiers of both Greece and Italy in favour of their own placemen. Weasel! That democratic deficit, 500 million European people being disenfranchised by a few hundred bureaucrats, is for me the strongest case against the EU. EU apologists never address it. Cameron, of course, even implied the opposite.

The above came in addition to the oft-repeated, preposterous assertion – encapsulated in the ridiculous Nobel Peace Prize this year – that the EU had anything to do with the peace that has reigned in Europe since 1945. Are they really claiming that, but for the Common Fisheries Policy, we’d all be gripped by an uncontrollable urge to invade Poland?  When the EU’s devotees trot out this sort of demonstrable rubbish I find it very difficult to believe they are sincere, because I’d rather not believe that they are stupid.

At 5:10 he starts in on an analysis of the British national character. Do my ears deceive me or is he saying that being locked into the EU, which has raised protectionism to an art form, is indicative of Britain keeping its face open to the world?  Weasel!

This is the vein in which this garbage continues to spew out.

With my rhetor hat on I cringe at the sort of florid catalogues to which his speech-writer has subjected him and us.  At 4:20 is an example I can hardly bring myself to quote, but here goes, ” …from Caesar’s legions to the Napoleonic Wars, from the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to the defeat of Nazism we have helped to write European History…” If I had included that in an essay at school it would have come back with a red line through it. Quite right too: it’s ghastly!

Also with my rhetor hat on, I have sadly to report that he resurrected that emetic device that appalled me at his 2011 Party conference speech. He periodically utters what he fondly believes to be purple passages straight to camera. That just oozes smarm! Watch him doing it, if you can bear, at 4:45. And it it is repeated often

The overall speech actually says nothing constructive. Though he does speak the dread words, “in/out referendum” the ifs, ans, and buts are so prolific that he has more escape routes than a black and white war-film. His record suggests that he’d use them too. I’d advise no one to hold their breath.

I have no political affiliation, rather disliking the party system – though understanding its practical advantages. I am old enough to have got the vote when ballot papers did not even include the party affiliations of candidates (I seem to remember it was not permitted till 1969).  I am passionate about democracy, and I have watched the political class salami-slice it away. A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, if it happens, will be a chance for the British demos to flex its muscles, rap the Establishment over its smug little knuckles and demand that they have the arguments put properly before them – rather than being palmed off with the bland assertions to which we have become accustomed. The gaping democratic deficit is probably enough to make me unswayable, but still I want a reason to open my mind enough for them to try.

I mentioned that Cameron’s speech has allowed him too much wriggle-room. Expect him, on his past record and that of the EU itself, to use it. But just suppose we do reach the day when a referendum actually gets officially put in the calendar. Stand by then for an acceleration of weasel. Cameron does here hark forward to that time. At 31:20 he actually attempts to equate leaving the EU with leaving NATO. How dare he!  The one involves every detail of our lives being subject to the petty whims of unaccountable pen-pushers: the other concerns solemn mutual defence treaties between independent sovereign countries against third party aggression. They are not remotely equivalent, and he knows it. I say again, how dare he!  It is that sort of thing that causes this speech to disgust me.

And there’s one further thing. At 37:00, in closing, he says that he will campaign to stay in “with all his heart and with all his soul”. What about all his whips? I wouldn’t put it past him.

Douglas Carswell spoke for this week – 16 months ago.

This is my one chance to post on this blog this week: I shall be working away for the rest of it. I read that it has been announced that the British Prime Minister’s postponed speech on the UK’s relationship with the EU is now scheduled to take place in London this Wednesday morning. Therefore this offering by Douglas Carswell seems pertinent. He was speaking at a meeting of the Tax Payers’ Alliance at the Conservative Party Conference in September 2011.

First sentence: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we need an in/out referendum”. Not a lot of ambiguity is cluttering up the landscape at this point. He has something to say, and seems to have given the speech a Face. The opening statement is immediately followed by statistics concerning the support it has; and that in turn is hotly pursued by perhaps his most telling theme at this juncture. He prepares us for a lengthy paralipsis.

He makes the point that this should not be merely a drive for us to leave the EU, that the expected result of a referendum should not have any bearing on whether it takes place, but that a referendum should be held simply because it is the right thing to do. And then comes that paralipsis. For the above reason we must “put to one side”… and there follows a long list of what we must “put to one side” and not here discuss.  Each item in the list has just a sentence or two attached to it, with just enough there to make his sympathetic audience bridle each time a little more at the way the EU interferes wrongly with our lives. That process lasts more than a minute. If you want an illustration of paralipsis as a rhetorical device, here it is. It also represents a pleasing example of anaphora, because for each element in that list he begins with, “we must put to one side…”

There follows an extended argument concerning why it is the right thing to do – Conservatives, Labour and Libdem leaderships have all in the past promised it, all have reneged, so the question can hardly be settled by a general election. All those parties contain plenty of supporters for a referendum. The democratic deficit must be cut. The AV referendum demonstrated how easily it could be done.  Etc. He also points out what a mess the Westminster elite have made of it so far.

Any regular reader of this blog is likely to be wearily familiar with my hate for paper-driven speaking. For the first three and a half minutes Carswell’s notes on the table persist in occasionally drawing his eyes, and every time his rhythm suffers. Thereafter he warms to his theme and is transformed. The argument just pours out of him that bureaucrats, practitioners of top-down design, can hardly be trusted to make a balanced judgement on bowing to the will of the people. He’s magnificent then, so why does he not so arrange his material that all the speech has the fluency of the last seven and a half minutes? It is not difficult to do.

[I’m going to beat a personal drum here on the theme of this speech. I want an in/out referendum for a reason that none of these people ever seem to raise – Carswell didn’t, though he did urge his audience to “trust the people”. I want it not so much for the referendum but the attendant campaign. I am sick of being metaphorically patted on the hand and told by some monumentally unimpressive SW1-type not to worry my pretty little head about it. I want both sides’ arguments right out there: the cost/benefit analyses, the proper on-air debates between equal and opposite heavyweights, the blithe assertions properly challenged. I couldn’t give a tuppenny toss that some dreary plutocrat (still less a dozy bureaucrat) wants us to stay in, unless we have his/her reasons properly argued. And the more the referendum is deferred the more I infer that the above is exactly what the eu-phile camp wants to avoid.]

Carswell closes by obliquely pointing out that the UK is not the only country suffering a democratic deficit from the EU, and that an initiative by Britain might generate a domino effect so that half a billion Europeans, currently disenfranchised, might finally have a say.

Who’s up for a game of bullshit bingo on Wednesday?  Is anyone making a book on the weasel-word-count? Will I, next weekend, be writing a critique on a brilliant bit of statesmanship or another spineless cop-out?  Will the speech, indeed, be delayed once more? Let us see.

Jodie Foster – a speech analysed by everyone else

So there I was yesterday evening, settling down in the cinema to watch Quartet (a lovely film, by the way). As part of the pre-performance routine I dug out the mobile to switch it off, and happened to see that I had an e-mail from Rick Turner, CEO of Empiricom Technologies, a past trainee.  He is a regular reader of this blog.  He wondered whether I had spotted that in The Guardian online edition someone had done a speech critique along the lines of one of mine?  Furthermore he’d even copied my habit of identifying things like anaphora and polysyndeton!  My immediate reaction was that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, and that I would have a look in the morning.

It was only when I finally had the offending item on the screen, flexing my fingers to tear into it, that I discovered the interloper’s identity.  The critique is written by Sam Leith, author of the excellent You Talkin’ To Me?  I carry the book around with me in e-edition.  Its subtitle is Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.  Though his writing style is light and enjoyable, the book is less for the casual student of speaking; more for sad gits like me. You think that in this blog I sometimes overdo the smart-arse words for figures of speech? His book takes it much further.  I’ve a suspicion that we could bore at Olympic level, arguing over the difference between occultatio and occupatio and whether the former should more correctly be called paralipsis or whether indeed that word should more correctly be spelled paralepsis.  Wake up at the back!

Let’s turn to Jodie Foster. It is not the sort of speech that I would habitually study, as my niche is very specifically the business world and not only is this not a business speech but there’s not a great deal for business speakers to learn from it. She is accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes a couple of days ago. Here it is.

If you clicked on the link a couple of paragraphs back to read Leith’s critique, you will have seen a video embedded there also. They are slightly different. I have used the YouTube posting. The version that The Guardian has on its site is somewhat cut down. The most telling cutting is at the beginning: they removed the first minute and three quarters. That’s why Jodie Foster seemed to have no hump. In even the full version the hump is brilliantly hidden. She busts it very effectively by waving her arms and repeatedly shouting, “I’m fifty!” That sort of device is very effective, though your audience might get slightly bewildered if you stuck that on the front of a presentation to launch your third quarter results. The Guardian’s video not only excised the hump, it also spared us the eternal, schmaltzy, Hollywood-imperative Thankings. Therefore, apart from the neat hump-busting I rather prefer the cut-down version.

After delivering a hugely important presentation, when you are sitting, running through it in your mind, how would you like the version offered to posterity to have all the boring bits cut out?  Ah, wouldn’t we all!  And if subsequently on the website of a national newspaper there appeared critiques by Sam Leith and also another of their contributors – Patrick Strudwick – wouldn’t it be great if they were both working with the judiciously pruned version?  And then Brian – the bastard – comes along and shows warts and all!

You will have noticed that, apart from the hump, I haven’t critiqued the speech. Why should I, when Sam Leith has done such a comprehensive job?  I say that without any irony. He’d be welcome to write a guest posting here any day.

Jo Nova – sabotaging herself with paper stripes

Joanne Nova is an Australian who describes herself as “a greenie who grew up”. The blog on her website attracts two million hits a year. The website is subtitled “tackling tribal groupthink”.That makes her a maverick. I like mavericks. On YouTube I found this speech where it is described by whoever uploaded it as ‘Joanne Nova’s Most Convincing Speech Yet’. With a testimonial like that, how could I resist?

When we join the video she is being introduced at a Perth election rally in September 2011, in the windy open air on a makeshift stage. My interest quickens: this is proper, raw, unsterilised speaking terrain! Her introduction takes 57 seconds, That’s something I always note, because of my wanting to time her hump.

If you’ll forgive the cliché she hits the ground running. What a relief! In this environment there’s no room for suave, pretty, urbane openings. You have to grab your audience hard and quick and by the throat. She does just that with three-quarters of a minute’s barrage of uncompromising statements and statistics, shot from the hip. What hump? It’s there all right but she isn’t merely busting it, she’s beating it into submission. This is very impressive. Is she self-taught or trained? Who cares? It’s working.

And then at 1:40 her eyes go down to her script and immediately she becomes a talking head. The spontaneity instantly diminishes and gets replaced by carefully written, stilted sentences. Pauses appear where pauses shouldn’t when her eyes having lifted to the crowd then have to search for her place again. At 2:11 she reads out a statistic with which she is so familiar that her head rises and for a time stays risen with only occasional glances at her script, and immediately that opening impetus returns.

And so a fascinating pattern forms which continues throughout the whole speech. The speech is stripey!  Now compelling and captivating through being shot from the hip: now limp and emasculated through being script-driven. It is a very dramatic illustration of the effect of paper on the quality of delivery.

Luckily she is so steeped in her subject, and so fiercely driven by it, that the paper-driven stripes are relatively few and narrow; but they devastate her momentum when they appear. Not for the first time in this blog I just want to tear that paper away.  All she needs is the ability to create simple mind-map structures that would enable her to look the audience permanently in the eye and shoot from the hip. When she does that her impact is fantastic! And those structures are so easy, both to create and to use.

A few paragraphs ago I mused whether she was self-taught or trained. I think I have the answer. She’s got a long way already: now she just needs a little extra help. F&T would help.

N.B. Her closing passage is the one bit I would permit her to read.

Danny Moore – in a few hours I could transform him.

At the Dublin Web Summit, in October 2011, one of the keynote speakers was Danny Moore. His company, Lough Shore Investments, nurture high-potential start-ups and have a stated goal of bringing ten great companies to exit or IPO by 2025. I have corporate clients in that line of business: his company is not one of them.

Whoever edited and posted this video decided that we should join it shortly after the beginning, replacing Moore’s opening with a slide telling us that his talk was entitled, “Entrepreneurship: seven core pillars“.  Why?  Why did they do this? Was his opening so tedious or garbled that they felt a half-seen slide could do the job better? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s a dismal start to the video. It’s doing no favours at all for Moore nor Lough Shore Investments nor Dublin Web Summit. Whoever stuck this on the web needs his bum kicking.

When we do join him Moore is delivering a very downbeat resume of his education. Would you be able to tell me the name of your school and your hometown without having to look them up?  I thought so. Why then did he need to look at the lectern before naming these things? The answer is hump. At the beginning of a presentation like this, when you are assailed by nerves, there’s a temptation to look anywhere but at the audience. He surrendered to the temptation.  First impressions are very important, and this first impression is dire.

Which is a pity, because we find that Moore has plenty to say.  The trouble is that he has little idea of how to say it.

Many might have trouble with his northern Ireland accent: it is undeniably a robust example. Nevertheless we should remember that his live audience is in Dublin where ears will be easily in tune with it. If I were advising him, and conscious of the wider potential audience from a YouTube posting, I would work with him on clarity of enunciation without losing the essence of his accent.  Part of the problem is that Co. Antrim produces not just distinctive vowel sounds, but a style of intonation that to non-Irish ears implies a monotone.

I am unable to read his slides, but I am fairly certain that he is not regurgitating precisely what they say – which is good. On the other hand they are smothered in verbiage – which is dreadful. Does he want his audience to read his slides or listen to him? If he absolutely had to have any slides at all I’d restrict him to showing only the headline sentences. If I were being really assertive I’d kick all the slides into touch, and the pillars too. My problem with the pillars is that he is straying into the realm of those lame book titles, beloved of the mass self-help industry, “The five errors made by most coracle repairers“. His business surely is with bright revolutionary innovation, yet he’s selling it with the aid of the stalest of cheap cliché.

The closing is simply appalling.  He runs out of time, weakly mentions a reading list and then falls off the end. This is a keynote speech in a flagship tech conference, for heaven’s sake!  What a waste of a fabulous shop-window!

I itch to help.


Fareed Zakaria – so nearly excellent that it’s frustrating!

When a man has been editing for more than a decade serious international periodicals like Newsweek and Time,  all the while writing articles in a range of other distinguished organs, when he has published several books including two best-sellers, and when moreover he has hosted two TV shows and been a regular contributor to others, you could be forgiven for thinking that he must have a skill like public speaking completely cracked. You’d be nearly right. Fareed Zakaria comes close, but he could very easily be closer. I found this speech by him at the 2010 Forum 2000 conference.

Whatever possessed him to utter that first sentence that way round? I can’t believe it was deliberate, so I put it down to Hump. In fact I rushed to add to my glossary an expression of mine that I haven’t used for some time. It’s a “Neil Armstrong moment“! In fact he is seriously hump-ridden for about a minute.  I say it in courses: I say it in my book: you should always have the hump-period completely nailed, so that if the ceiling fell in you’d still cope under auto-pilot.

There are in the video footage a few small edit-points that puzzle me. In each case what is said seems to flow on smoothly enough (though any competent editor should achieve that). What did they cut out? There’s one at 1:25, another at 2:27, and several more, and they make me wonder whether he had something like a paroxysm of coughing that they decided posterity didn’t need to see, or whether he just got even more boring for a bit.

One day I shall devote an entire posting on this blog to the differences between the written and spoken word. I’ve touched briefly on the subject before, but never enough fully to cover an area that is not well enough understood by too many people that absolutely should understand it. Zakaria, it seems to me, well-used to expressing himself brilliantly on paper or speaking to camera with that particular glassy stare that typifies TV presenters when they are using Autocue, has not bothered to explore the matter further. Autocue eyes somehow absolve their owners from the sin of uttering stilted speech; but utter the same stilted speech from a speaking platform and you do yourself no favours. Writing natural-sounding speech is so enormously difficult that I teach people the simplest of shortcuts. It’s simple: but at first it takes courage. You learn to create structures: you follow your structures: you trust yourself to speak spontaneously through your structures. And that sentence was epistrophe.

Dip into this speech for instance just after the 2-minute point and what you get is stilted, halting and – frankly – tedious. Suspicious that you might be looking at the remnants of a hump you might look again shortly after 4:00 and very much the same greets you – and there’s an edit point at 4:18.  Almost slap in between, at 3:20, he briefly gets seized by the urge to talk about inflation.  For that short period he is fulfilling Cardinal 1.  He has something to say and Real Speech comes flowing eloquently out of him. The contrast between this section and its neighbours is very marked.

Overall this young man, with a meteoric track record as a communicator simply seems to lack speaking-platform-savvy.  And this extends even to his repeated popping on that damned microphone. If I’d trained him he’d be a hell of a lot better, and he’d not be popping. After a while I became so frustrated that I went searching for another example of his speaking.  I found this. He is speaking at an IBM Think Forum.

What a contrast! Here we have the best part of 17 minutes of Zakaria shooting brilliantly from the hip. He is able to do it because now he has a rock-solid mind-map structure. It’s chronology. He merely relates and discusses the economic fortunes of the globe in general and USA in particular over a series of decades. There’s even a parallel to die for at 9:45! In technical speaking terms it is fabulous stuff.

If ever there was an argument for understanding the importance, both for you and for the audience, of knowing how to create and use structures, here it is in the comparison between two speeches from the same man.  The second one appears to have been delivered a few months later than the first. Had he learnt the skill in the interim, or is he still today playing hit-and-miss Russian Roulette?

If the latter he should contact me.