Nicole Stubbs and mobile profiles.

On Friday 25 October, Nicole Stubbs, Co-Founder and CEO of First Access,  spoke at PopTech 2013. I knew it was coming, and I watched it live on line. I knew it was coming because Nicole has consulted me. We have had Skype sessions, both before and since this speech.

That opening is fabulous! Some sort of dramatic physical action like this is an excellent way of grabbing the audience’s attention, and it also is a sound hump-busting device.

This is a wonderful example! I love the cavalier way she takes these precious items and strews them around her on the floor. It puts me in mind of a supermodel on a catwalk, dragging a priceless coat behind her on the floor. Oh, how I’d love to lay claim to that brilliant piece of theatre, but I cannot! She showed it to me the first time we spoke. I loved it then, and I love it still.

I might be able to lay some claim to the steadiness of her hands during it: the camera closes in for a tight view, and at the height of her hump there is no trembling. There is a way to make sure of that, and she has read my book, The Face & Tripod. She has really read it: she quotes lumps of it at me with frightening fluency.

  • 0:43 I think I’d like one more sentence. I say, “I think” because my already knowing what all this about, it’s difficult for me to know whether the point she is making is completely clear to those hearing it for the first time. The point is made clear very shortly afterwards, but I felt it possibly needed a headline.
  • 2:48 – “awkward if you don’t…” got a nice laugh. I wonder whether adding “humiliating if you do” might have introduced a bitter-sweet tinge.
  • 4:09 beautiful pause.
  • 6:08 we on-line are given a long shot and we see the slide behind her. It’s a good one – an alliterating triad and she’s doing the right thing by speaking through it without looking at it and surrendering her focus.
  • 7:22 A hiatus! Or is it? Has something gone wrong, or is this a huge dramatic pause? If the latter, does it work?

Shall we try to find out?

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev preserves my doubt

My theme for this Sunday comes from St Mark chapter 9, verse 24.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief

Whenever asked about my religion, if I am feeling charitable I describe myself as a devout doubter; if uncharitable I tell them to mind their own business. ‘Devout doubter’ may seem like a smart-arse cop-out, but actually I mean it literally. I am devoted to my doubt: I love my doubt: I cleave to my doubt. Theologians can burst a blood vessel trying to persuade me as to the correct meaning of that quote above, but I choose it to mean that I want help to maintain my doubt. When I stop doubting I’ll stop seeking the truth.

Gopi Krishna in a comment to a posting I did on a speech by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev supplied a link to the following NDTV programme.

I find the entire discussion riveting. The quality of the beautifully chaired debate is outstanding. All the speakers have something worth saying, and they say it well.

It includes the following quote from Vasudev –

Belief will give you solace: belief will not give you solutions

As a mantra for a devout doubter, that takes some beating.

Lord Peter Hennessy – paper dependent!

The Michael Young Memorial Lecture this year was held on 21 October. The speaker was Lord Peter Hennessy. The theme of the lecture was Meritocracy Revisited, looking back at Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). I confess that I have not read the book, and also confess to some unease with the word, ‘meritocracy’. It seems to me that however you define ‘merit’ you will come up against subjective disagreement with someone else’s definition. Accordingly I am looking forward to this…

Hennessy was a professor of rhetoric. It seems sensible, in view of the name of this blog (with its strange misspelling whose explanation is too long a story to go into here – though you may get a clue here), to point out that, though in colloquial use ‘rhetoric’ tends to refer to the business of speaking, the art actually encompasses argument and persuasion in all its forms. Nevertheless we are entitled to expect a professor of the art to be a pretty good speaker.

Take a look at the still picture (above) and guess what I am going to address. Hennessy is a talking head. He spends nearly the entire time with his face buried in his script. As the script is resting not on a lectern but a desk this means that his head is tipped right down, his face essentially out of sight. What a disaster!

It gets worse: even if the script were raised to lectern-height it would not help much because the script has been prepared in written- rather than spoken-English. We’ve explored the distinction on this blog often enough for me not to rehash it all here, but close your eyes for a bit. You can tell just by listening to him that he is reading. Ye gods! When will they ever learn?

The frustration for me is in the hundreds of people over the years whom I have freed from their dependency on paper. Not one, not a single one of my trainees has failed to be liberated. And the difference in their whole performance has been dramatically improved as a consequence.

Do you want to see how much better Hennessy would be if he binned that bloody paper? Watch him from 2:23 to 2:50, beginning with the words, “Do you remember them…” That section stands up, head, shoulders and torso, above its surroundings. The section even harvests a satisfactory laugh. There is nothing to stop him speaking that well throughout, except his not knowing how and not realising he can.

That section is not the only time his face rises to his audience. He frequently looks up to add asides and digressions; and the asides and digressions are accordingly much better than the main stream. The principal ones occur at –

  • 09.07 – 09:33
  • 25:05 – 25:40
  • 25:57 – 26:14

I have had it said to me that a script enables the speaker to include beautifully conceived sentences. Hennessy has a choice little phrase when he speaks of ‘meritocracy’ being one of those words that have “stuck to the Velcro of collective memory”. I maintain, and have proved it often enough, that anyone that can conceive something like that can as easily trot it out when shooting from the hip. Oh, how I’d like to liberate Hennessy from his paper-dependency!

As to ‘merit’, I glean the impression that Young’s book explores its definition. I think I might read it.

The Queen and country debate: a summary

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of the famous 1933 “King and country” debate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wording of this motion – “This house would not fight for Queen and country”. This means that if you argue for not fighting you are for the proposition, and if the reverse you are in opposition. I just thought I’d clarify that, because it seems counter intuitive. Whoever posted the videos on YouTube certainly found it so: the captions consistently used the words proposition and opposition the wrong way round.

This debate was not about the 1933 one. Had it been so, one of the speakers in opposition might have noted that pacifism was a Fashionable Piety at that time. Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, J.B.Priestley, A.A.Milne, and many others of the intelligentsia claimed noisily that if Britain had no aspiration to military strength it would present no threat and would therefore not be attacked. Bertrand Russell in Which Way to Peace argued this at length. Beverley Nichols, in Cry Havoc, likewise.

And this sort of attitude was not merely passive: Bernard Shaw, visiting the USA that same year, actually went out of his way to sing Hitler’s praises and claim that the Fuehrer was doing wonderful things for Germany.

They were all shown by events to be profoundly wrong. Fashionable pieties are usually wrong: like other forms of fashion, what seems self-evident today is manifestly absurd tomorrow. Perhaps I shall address this phenomenon in greater depth in a future posting. For now I’ll just say that you should always be suspicious of any opinion held by a consensus of ‘clever’ people. Seek empirical evidence: you will probably do so in vain. These pieties owe their short life to a diet of no more than peer approval.

The situation today is slightly different. People have been made cynical by the Iraq war. All six of the speakers at this debate were against it. The huge popular disquiet in Britain before the Iraq invasion was barely mollified by Blair’s assurances that the world was in danger from Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction. It says a great deal about the low esteem in which politicians are currently held that there was no great surprise when it was revealed that those WMDs were fictional. An illegal war, waged upon a lie!

There’s an old Music Hall joke that goes like this –
I say, I say: today I saved a pretty girl from being molested.
How did you do that?
I controlled myself.

I think of that gag whenever I hear political leaders boasting about how they have presided over peace. I can’t think of a single war that was not started by the ruling classes. People don’t start wars: people play football between the trenches on Christmas Day.

I’m not calling for the abolition of politicians, though sometimes with most of the current bunch the idea has appeal. A friend of mine in a pulpit yesterday told us that we should not fear chaos (I probably should not have brought him up: he wouldn’t ever stoop to mentioning me in his sermon); but someone has to run things. Nevertheless politicians should be kept on a tight rein of accountability. They have of late been striving with alarming success to loosen those reins. We should increase our vigilance and resist. We obviously understand that their work puts them in possession of a wider picture than we are permitted to see, but still they are our servants not our masters. Back to this debate.

What made it so good was the robust articulacy of the arguments. Ben Griffin was particularly robust, even intemperate; but having walked the walk he was entitled to talk the talk. The empathy he expressed for civilians caught in crossfire surely struck a chord with his opponent Rory Stewart who in his relatively young life has gone so far out of his way to meet and learn about those civilians – literally by walking the walk. He seemed to scorn the Iraq war by virtually ignoring it and pointedly holding up Bosnia as an example of justifiable conflict. What an outstandingly accomplished speaker Stewart is! Nikolai Tolstoy changed the thrust completely when he examined the argument in its historic and constitutional context. Gareth Porter, being American, expressed alarm at American militarism; and I chose to interpret that as American politicians’ militarism. Malcolm Rifkind concluded the debate with some laughs punctuating some pithy and well-argued points.

The only other debates that this blog has covered in this depth were the God debate and the China debate. This one, in the choice and balance of speakers and the consequent quality of both speaking and argument, was best. Tribute must be paid to those who put it all together. As the Union’s librarian and as the one who opened the debate, I’d like to think that Ben Sullivan had a hand in its organisation. I was not very polite about his contribution, and with good reason – his speaking was inept and his arguments puerile, so I’d like to think he warrants a bouquet that might slightly modify my brickbats.

Malcolm Rifkind concludes the Queen & Country debate

For a couple of weeks we have been working our way through the speeches that comprised a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most famous debate the Union has staged. In 1933 the motion, “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was carried. What would happen when a similar motion was proposed in 2013? We have heard from Ben Sullivan, Ben Griffin and Gareth Porter for the proposition, and from Rory Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy for the opposition. Now it is the turn for Malcolm Rifkind to conclude the debate with one more speech for the opposition.

As I prepare to watch his speech I find myself considering how many different ways he could choose to follow, summarise and conclude what has already been said, and to what extent he will vary his tone to blend with the decorum set by his predecessors. The golden rule, when in doubt, is to trust your own game. A seasoned performer as he is, and the decorum’s having varied so much already, I expect him to grab the proceeding by the throat and bend it to his will.

He starts by making the audience laugh. I know every one of the jokes, but then I am a great deal older than this audience. There’s a moral here: if you are addressing students you can afford to dust off and recycle material that you thought had completely run out of steam.

He also recalls that he has been here before, when he took part in the 60th anniversary debate on the same motion. I wonder whether he is going to recycle some of that material also. I wouldn’t blame him – if it works.

It is at 3:19 that he finally gets down to cases. “The choice we are being asked to make…” At this point he seamlessly moves into a higher gear. He claims that the other side had essentially condemned all wars, despite their attempts to qualify their declarations. He names justifiable wars, citing The Falklands and of course World War II. He hits us with a startling statistic to the effect that – the 1933 debate notwithstanding – when WWII broke out, of the 3,000 Oxford students eligible to fight, 2,600 volunteered.

He concedes that there are unjust wars, and he is the one that identifies the elephant that has been quietly growing in the room. All six of the speakers, he included, were against the Iraq War: it was unnecessary and illegal. Yet the previous Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was quite different, being unanimously sanctioned by the United Nations. His speaking tone and power have grown to oratorial dimensions; so it is highly unexpected when suddenly he introduces two more jokes, just as old as the others and just as successful at harvesting laughs. But he hasn’t finished with the serious stuff: he is still beating the drum for the war that is last-resort and just. He even cites St Augustine. But he is cleverly keeping the audience receptive by occasionally mixing in the unexpected laughs. He knows what he is doing.

So ends the debate.

The motion “This house would not fight for Queen and country” is carried.

Gareth Porter fascinates to distraction

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition. Nikolai Tolstoy then added a well conceived historical and constitutional context.

The next speaker was the American author and journalist, Gareth Porter.

The first impression is the complete absence of paper. He will shoot from the hip; and accordingly I mark him as knowing what he’s doing.

We might expect his arguments in favour of the proposition to be that of a pacifist., but immediately he puts us right. He lays out his stall as being not a pacifist but a realist. He will address this issue not in the abstract, but through analysing specifically the merits of the current conflicts and those we can reasonably expect to emerge in the coming decade.

The audience will have been supplied with his potted biography, which I suspect is more of a bibliography – he has published several books on the subject of war. He fleshes out this ethos by explaining how he graduated from college just before America entered the Vietnam War. In his own words –

Being of draft age powerfully concentrates the mind.

That was why he became a student of American militarism; and now watches as that same militarism has caused the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes involved in these conflicts, he says, are much greater than the news media and our governments have allowed us to know. He believes the threat to the American and British people is as great as that from Nazi Germany. So he lays out his arguments quietly and soberly. It is arresting, alarming stuff. And yet…

I repeatedly find myself thinking tangentially. My mind shoots off in its own direction, causing me often to have to scroll back to where he lost me. I suspect it will also happen with you.

It is an easy, common, but wrong assumption that if this happens to your audience you must be boring them. More often, as in this case, he says fascinating things that trigger lively constructive thoughts that whisk me away somewhere. Porter is being a victim of his own success, stimulating me so much that I miss important stuff. The audience in that hall could not scroll back as I did, so they would forever have lost important portions of his speech. What is to be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes. There are several devices that hook and retain an audience’s attention without the necessity of watering down that stimulus. It amounts to a judicious mixture of structure and a few devious tricks. Essentially, though Porter has mastered the speaker’s key skill of speaking spontaneously without notes and he exercises it with expressive and inventive turns of phrase, he hasn’t mastered a speaker’s (as distinct from writer’s) structure rules. How I’d like a quiet hour’s conversation with Gareth Porter!

It’s a good speech, an important speech. I was glad every time I scrolled back.

Nikolai Tolstoy enters the ‘Queen and Country’ fray

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition.

Today, speaking against the motion, we hear from Nikolai Tolstoy.

Dandified though he may be (Where did he get that collar? For that matter, why did he get that collar?) Nikolai Tolstoy is nobody’s fool. He is following two speeches whose power would eclipse most offerings. He knows the rule that you should always play to your strength. His strength is very clear. He is a historian with a string of books to his name, many dealing with war.

He launches straight in to an analysis of the 1933 Oxford Union debate with particular reference to its background, the most immediate ingredient in which was The Great War which had ended merely fifteen years earlier. He holds that Britain entered it for a noble cause, and supplies us with a wealth of reasons. In the process he readily concedes that war in general is horrible and that not all wars are for a noble cause. Not for the first time in this debate we are steered towards the unmistakeable inference that Iraq and Afghanistan are ghastly errors.

Not only dandified, but patrician and speaking in opposition to the motion!  How easily could we assume him to be a mindless Establishment glove puppet. Big mistake: the author of Victims of Yalta is not blind to his country’s capacity for moral crime.

Queen and Country! Tolstoy turns to the first of these, and immediately seems to make the distinction between the institution and the person. The institution – the Crown – supplies the focal point by which to identify the nation. Its existence also holds at bay any overweening political ambition with ideas above its station. When turning to the person who currently wears it, he admits to having been in love with her. He narrates a story from his days in the army. I shall not spoil it, except to congratulate him on the excellent laugh it harvested from what could easily have been a resistant audience.

He closes with a well chosen quotation. Up to that moment he had prompted himself with merely occasional glances at paper beside him on the box. Now he unashamedly picks up the paper to read words by Hilaire Belloc. That is the correct way to use paper if you use it at all.

This is a good speech: well considered, well balanced and well delivered. It maintains the gratifyingly high standard this debate has set.