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?

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