Matt Ridley and optimistic greenery

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, has appeared in this blog before. Last year we looked at his TED Talk entitled When Ideas have Sex. In February 2013 he delivered a short talk at Reason TV with the provocative title How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet. I rather like being provoked in this way, so I thought I’d watch.

This has a very informal, almost chummy opening. It’s possible that Reason TV have chopped off the opening seconds, in the manner that TED does, and that there were in fact lots of dreary preambles (though I doubt it). But even if it wasn’t actually a bald opening it looked like one and I invite aspiring speakers to see how appealing and audience-friendly a bald opening is. My trainees, when they try it, invariably find it liberating.

Ridley’s chummy informality continues. He is dealing with serious stuff, but putting it across as if chatting over a lunch table. His open-necked shirt suggests that the decorum of the occasion is already informal, but again I invite you to see that this detracts not a jot from the impact of the message.

Ridley is very good and expressive. In fact I have really only one problem with his speaking. Having started off brilliantly, he comes to a grinding halt at 2:55. His eyes go down to a card in his hand in order to see what comes next. The pit-stop continues for just a few seconds, and then off he goes again shooting from the hip. That is probably the most egregious of his pit-stops, but it is not the only one: his eyes regularly seek refuelling from that card.

Of course I concede that this is infinitely preferable to talking heads who read their speeches; but when I see a speaker as good as Ridley, it is so frustrating that this small detail is between him and excellence. What he needs is a better structure, a mind-map which will render those pit-stops redundant. It is the creation and use of such structures that take up most of the theory part of my training courses, and indeed my book, The Face & Tripod.

I regularly refer to ‘shooting from the hip’ in this blog, and the casual reader might interpret that as my advocating a speaker merely ‘winging’ a speech. No! Absolutely not so. The speeches delivered by my trainees are far too critical to risk anything so foolish. When my trainee goes out in front of an audience, paperless, without notes and sometimes without slides, and speaks for twenty, thirty or more minutes, delivering an important data-rich speech, he or she can perform this apparent miracle in absolute safety because the speech is under-pinned by a rock-solid structure that enables them to know, at any moment, exactly where they are and where they are going. And then they can say what needs to be said, speaking spontaneously the words that come to mind as they go.

Ridley does all of that except for those wretched pit-stops!

Sermon over. Enjoy the speech. It’s fascinating and – characteristically for Ridley – wonderfully optimistic.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby and two mistakes

In November 2012, the appointment was announced of the (then) next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham. He duly delivered a statement in Lambeth Palace.

It is well known that Welby, before being ordained, had a career in the oil business. Both industry and the church help their executives with skills such as speaking in public. I was eager to see whether, and how well, he had been trained.

[I wonder why whoever posted this speech on line used a ‘still’ from another occasion. He’s dressed differently.]

In a past posting on this blog I marvelled at how none of the speakers in the Oxford Union God debate had begun with a prayer. Welby did not show the same neglect.

Followers of this blog will expect me to be scandalised by Welby’s reading this speech unless they recall, in this posting, the following sentence, “There are occasions when a script is unavoidable“. If the occasion of your speech is of such high profile that the press corps has been or will be supplied with a transcript, you have little option but to utter what they will report. This is one such occasion. Welby has to have a script.

I have also been known say that those who have learned to speak without the assistance of paper, tend to cope with scripts better and with more assurance than those who haven’t. It is not always that simple: habitual shooters from the hip, when one day confronted with a script, often find that their timing suffers. I shall venture the guess that Welby comes into that last category. As far as I am concerned he makes just two crucial errors in a speech that otherwise is not at all bad.

Repeatedly, particularly in the early stages, the audience stubbornly neglects to respond as they were evidently intended. 0:28 – Someone laughed. We heard him. Mark that!  It means that the microphone can pick up audience response: the following 2 minutes could make us doubt it. 1:35 – Here, surely, the audience was intended to applaud, or show some courteous agreement. Nothing. Welby pauses, and tries to prompt gently by naming the person they were expected to acknowledge. Still nothing. 2:03 – Again the audience yields zero response. Welby expects some semblance of laughter. How do I know? 2:05 – “…to be fully serious…” No! NO! NO! Never tell an audience you just tried to be funny. Those words are disastrous. If the audience had been laughing their heads off it would have been lame. As they hadn’t even tittered, he wiped egg all over his face. That’s one mistake.

[Here is a Rogues’ Gallery of phrases which should never, after humour, be uttered by any speaker (except, possibly, with heavy irony) – 

  • Be that as it may…
  • But seriously though, folks…
  • Anyway…
  • Any derivative or equivalent of the above]

This is a lousy audience that responds to nothing; and it puzzles me because his performance deserves better. The speech is good. It’s a little bland, because when you reach these stratospheric altitudes of profile any perceived gaffe results in a media feeding frenzy, but I’ve known blander.

10:35 – In the closing words we learn the other mistake, and I believe it explains a huge amount. This is essentially a Press Conference to which he is making a statement. As he finishes, he tells them that they will be receiving a copy of it. If he at the beginning, or better still if someone else before he even entered the room, had told the audience they would receive a transcript, they would have sat, listened, enjoyed and made a few notes. Instead, I reckon they were feverishly taking shorthand while he spoke.

And that’s why they didn’t respond as they should.

Diarmaid MacCulloch – so very close.

In October 2011, as one of its Roland Bainton lectures, Yale Divinity School presented a talk by Diarmaid MacCulloch from Oxford University.

Prof. MacCulloch, specialises in The Reformation; but his theme here is the medieval church, the influence on it by the Arian heresy and the particular significance of Martin of Tours. More than half a century ago at school I won a class speaking competition with three minutes on Martin of Tours; therefore perhaps I should clearly lay out here everything I already knew about what we shall now be learning from MacCulloch …

Good.  I’m glad we’ve clarified that. If you want to skip the introductions (though they are interesting) MacCulloch begins at 5:40.

Regular reader of this blog will have spotted on that still image where MacCulloch’s eyes are directed, and therefore at least one thing I am going to say. Nevertheless I’d like to begin at the beginning.

In the beginning is The Hump. Always. My trainees often seem slightly surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences the hump (“you mean I’m not the only one?”). Certainly many speakers disguise it very effectively, but it is always there. MacCulloch, a professional and experienced communicator – not just in the lecture room but on TV – displays distinct signs of vulnerability for a little more than a minute, particularly when he changes horses between speaking of Roland Bainton and about his own book on the Reformation. He was marginally more relaxed when speaking of his book, enjoying uttering his phrase “rivalling the conceit of Icarus” and his audience likewise enjoyed it, so if I had been advising him I should have got him to open with that and stick with it for at least 90 seconds. That would have seen out the worst of the hump, allowing him, in a relatively relaxed fashion, to swing into something parenthetic like “…and one very important source on which I drew was Roland Bainton’s book on Luther…[etc]…so I feel particularly privileged to be standing here today…”

It is not often that I allow myself to get so specific and picky in this blog; but there is a reason. MacCulloch is so good that he does not give me much else to get my teeth into. Except…

Except what we observed earlier, namely that he appears to have a script.

He looks repeatedly down to the desk through the speech (and each time he does so he loses just a little of his audience engagement) but he often does it at times when he distinctly does not need prompting. This suggests to me that the paper on that desk is a comfort blanket, and that theory is supported by symptoms of shyness that I am picking up. Shyness can be a crippling handicap and, when accompanied by obviously high intelligence, gets little sympathy from the world at large because the combination seems so irrational. I have worked with many victims of it.

I am delighted to say that, script or no, he speaks for the most part in spoken- rather than written-English. This could mean that he has conscientiously learnt how to write speeches that way, or it could mean that he is partly reading and partly speaking spontaneously.

So much for speculation. What should he be doing? You know my answer if you have read this blog before. He should learn to dispense with a script completely. He could do it easily. I know this talk is laden with data, but so what? He knows his subject inside out. At most he needs a few bullet points for occasional reference.

If he kept his eyes up, shooting the lecture from the hip, the engagement with his audience would be infinitely better. Would that cure his supposed shyness? No, shyness doesn’t get cured. It might well help him to live better with it, but I would not attempt to generalise here with trite claims or recommendations.

The talk is really fascinating, and he delivers it very expressively. He is as good a communicator as I have seen, but for this small but crucial and frustrating detail.

Bernard Kouchner – Médecin Sans Papier

On 17 February, 2014, Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde addressed the Oxford Union. The talk was entitled How to Prevent Massacres.

He is not speaking in his own language and, though his English is a lot better than my French, it’s not perfect. But for two minutes he engages and addresses this young audience in an exemplary fashion. I am pleased and impressed, and the audience is captive also. They are completely silent.

Then he picks up a sheaf of papers.

Still he engages the audience, merely glancing periodically at his papers while he tells us that 7 April 2014 (yesterday, as I write) sees the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. Still the audience is silent.

Bit by bit his talk moves from stark, broad brush-stroke statements into a more detailed account of atrocities. Bit by bit his eyes linger longer and more often on the paper in his hands. Bit by bit he loses his audience –  not completely: they are still there and still listening, but with not the same rapt attention. I hear the first cough in the audience at 2:54.

He reads out an horrendous account of what happened in Rwanda, with statistics to turn your stomach, and all the while the coughing gradually increases. It’s as if that sheaf of papers represents a glass screen that has now been placed between him and his audience. Despite the importance and power of what he is recounting, those young people – who had been in the palm of his metaphorical hand – are now somehow further away.

At 16:00 he puts his paper back down on the table, and continues to read – bent over – for a minute. At 17:00 he lifts his head, comes back around the table towards the audience and begins recounting his own personal experience – shooting from the hip. The difference is startling. Suddenly he has regained his audience, and he very movingly recounts the circumstances of the founding of Médecins Sans Frontières.

On my website is a page of speaking tips. Among them I make the point that it is more important to put across your message as clearly as possible than it is to dot every i and cross every t.

At the beginning and end of this talk Kouchner is in the driving seat and giving us his message with superb clarity, made all the more compelling with the occasional stumbling search for the right words. In between, paper in hand and reading no doubt vitally important information, he dots and crosses every i and t – but to what purpose? I reckon all the students in that audience will barely remember anything from that middle section.

He’s made my case very graphically.

Eamonn Butler – what a pity!

On 13 February, 2014, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion, This House Believes Thatcher Saved Britain. Speaking for the motion was Eamonn Butler.

The audience enjoys his opening gambit. Hard on its heels, he makes a reference to something a previous speaker had said, and he harvests an even bigger laugh. He plays the audience a little more, tickling them with some gently quirky stuff, letting them recover themselves, and when they are least expecting it he hits them with an absolute beauty, and floors them! This is seriously skilful use of humour. Very few people – and I include stand-up comedians here – will reap a round of applause for a joke this early. What a fabulous opening! I don’t remember seeing better.

And then he turns to his cue cards, and a huge amount of the impetus he has wonderfully created goes gurgling down the drain.

Watch carefully, and you will see that whenever he looks down at his cards his fluency suffers. Over and over again he lifts his head, shoots a short section from the hip, regains some momentum thereby, looks back down again and immediately it’s as if he has hit the brake pedal. That use of paper is disastrous.

Why do I keep banging on about this in this blog?  Because they nearly all do it. Why do they do it? Because they think they have to. Why do they think they have to? Two reasons –

  1. they don’t know how to structure their material well enough to make paper redundant, and
  2. they don’t believe that even then they could manage without it.

But they could. Anyone can.

Butler isn’t anyone: potentially he is phenomenally good. His use of humour – not just the selection of excellent material, but the superbly timed delivery – show that. Incidentally he doesn’t use up all the humour in his opening: he hits them several more times – and always unexpectedly.

A month or two ago, when dealing with a speech by Dan Hannan in this same hall, I stressed how important it is to be scrupulously courteous when dealing with heckling – or the more subdued equivalent that you get in this environment. Watch how Butler handles an interruption. Yes, it is courteous … isn’t it? Or is getting an enormous laugh at the expense of the questioner by use of a single word a form of discourtesy? You decide.

In my wake, as a speaking coach, there are several hundred people – very few of them with anything approaching this man’s natural skill – who have cheerfully waved goodbye to the use of script or notes. You may therefore imagine with what frustration I see this speech so sadly diminished by the speaker’s dependence on bloody paper.

What a pity!

Patrick Moore – The Sensible Environmentalist

At a TEDx gathering in Vancouver in November 2009, Patrick Moore was one of the speakers. If you have clicked the link on his name, or looked at the picture below, you will know that we are dealing here not with the late, English, wonderfully eccentric, amateur astronomer and xylophone player, but with the Canadian environmentalist, the co-founder of Greenpeace who left that organisation in disgust when it conspicuously lost its way a few years ago. He now calls himself The Sensible Environmentalist, and spends much of his time campaigning on behalf of Golden Rice.

I am not an environmentalist but I have read a few books on the subject, been around the block a few times, and watched enough speakers to have developed a nose for, and allergy to, bullshit. The field of environmental activism tends to be so deep in the steaming stuff that in order to critique most speeches I’d need to be equipped with a JCB. So I usually don’t. Let’s see whether I was justified in hoping that Moore would be worth my making an exception in his case.

There’s something that bothers me about his voice and the manner of his speaking. The urgency he conveys is not a problem for me because it indicates a willingness to get into the driving seat. It’s not exactly the speed with which he speaks, because it doesn’t feel like undue nervousness. It is as if he were driving in too low a gear: the voice is working too hard. I bet he gets sore throats after big presentations. If so, it’s absurdly easy to prevent it.

At 2:35 there’s a lovely catalogue of names. If you don’t understand why I like it, you have neither had a course with me nor read The Face & Tripod.

There are a few occasions when he stumbles and momentarily loses his place. Some might blame this on his shooting the speech from the hip, but a couple of small stumbles are a tiny price to pay for the audience engagement that goes with being paper-free. The stumbles don’t bother me, and I’d lay money that they don’t bother his audience; but if they trouble him, there are a few improvements that could be made to his structure to make the mind-mapping easier.

I enjoy his summary dismissal of fallacy after fallacy connected to the global warming scam. At the time of writing we have just been treated (if that’s the word) to mounds of garbage in a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Proper scientists having over the years deserted the IPCC in disgust over being misquoted, it is now mainly a nest of political activists still trying to masquerade as scientists. The main-stream media, either too idle to check or in politico/economic thrall to the alarmist nonsense, make up an eager team of cheer-leaders. I’m old enough to remember when the BBC, for instance, was a respectable organisation employing proper journalists. Others of a similar age who seem to swallow this tripe show themselves too trusting or too busy to check any details. At least I hope that’s the case: the alternative is too depressing.

The most depressing thing is when people start clamouring for ‘deniers’ to be silenced, sectioned, or imprisoned. They might as well burn books like they did in Berlin in 1933. People behave like this only when they know their own argument to be weak. It is weak because its scientific basis is flimsy, and was always actually political rather than scientific.

If you want one reason why I believe this, just go and see how many attempts by sceptical scientists to join in public debate with warmists have had the warmists scurrying for cover. Christopher Monckton has repeatedly challenged Al Gore. Gore has made increasingly pathetic excuses; and who’s to blame him? He’d be slaughtered.

Watching this speech, I find myself wanting to endorse Patrick Moore’s description of himself as The Sensible Environmentalist. He could easily be a better speaker, but meanwhile he’s quite good enough for most markets. And what he says is suitably coloured with doubt as to persuade me that he is a genuine seeker after truth.