Rose Goslinga triumphs

If you were a very assiduous follower of this blog, and also equipped with a good memory, you might recall this posting from the end of May 2013. Rose Goslinga had delivered a Pop Tech talk about her relatively new business, insuring African farmers against drought. The link will enable you to go back and look at that posting if you wish, but essentially I restricted myself to expressing concern over fussy, distracting visuals, and her own inner confidence that I felt was a little fragile.

In June of this year, in Berlin, she delivered a TED talk.

Inevitably I find myself looking for the vulnerability I spotted previously; and I delight in the dazzling smile with which at the very beginning she bathes the audience. Is it a completely confident smile?

Even before the video started I could answer that. Like every other speaker in history she is experiencing a hump, so there absolutely has to be an element of artifice in that smile. I congratulate her on how well she does it.

Her opening is driven by slides with almost no words on them, so her voice and the pictures complement each other to set the scene and create her required decorum. It lasts a smidgen more than 90 seconds, so her hump will now be receding fast. She swings into ethos, with again wordless slides, and we are given a clear picture of the background to her business. This lasts another minute, so by the time she gets to the nitty-gritty her hump is history and her voice is good and strong.  Excellent construction.

When she is explaining the way her business works, she is much more sparing with her slides, and still they are almost completely wordless. Her visuals never compete with her: that is the key.

I shall not spoil her story by trying to precis it. It’s a good story and she tells it very well. It reaches its punchline with a visual that begins at 8:36 and progresses. That visual, as part of the overall narrative, is simply brilliant. This hardened old cynic actually got the warm fuzzies from it, and it triggered a spontaneous round of applause from the audience.

Her closing is paired with her opening: she closes the circle.

Rose Goslinga is not a trainee of mine, though our having shared acquaintances it is not impossible that she has read my book. If she were my trainee I would be proud as hell.

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.

Clint Smith conveys yesterday beautifully

A friend, and subscriber to my monthly newsletter, emailed me a link to a TED talk by slam poet and teacher, Clint Smith. The talk is currently featured on TED’s own home page.

Is this a talk or a recital of poetry? I went to raise the same question with my friend; and then found that in my haste to click on his link I had skimmed over some of his email and overlooked his asking me almost the same question.

As far as I am concerned, there is no doubt that this is a recital of poetry. If you follow the link I have added to Smith’s name in the first paragraph, you will find yourself on the home page of Smith’s own site. There you will find embedded yet another TED talk, and that is a recital of poetry also.

I have met many whose way of not using paper on the speaking platform is to write a script and learn it. I dislike and disapprove of the practice, partly because they are dealing in written, rather than spoken, words; but more crucially because they are proffering a time-capsule. The words they speak are not of now but of yesterday or last week or whenever they wrote the script that they learned. Without my getting bogged down in the details, let me explain that the paperless technique I teach involves mind-map structures that are so clear and secure that the speaker can shoot from the hip, using words that are genuinely spontaneous.

Spontaneous words have a sound and feel of their own; and they also carry an invaluable subtext of sincerity.

I believe Smith is relaying a time-capsule. We are listening to the words of yesterday. The words may be just as true today, but they are not today’s words.

They are beautiful words. I love the energy and staccato urgency that he generates through the use of asyndeton – there are numerous examples, not least the four core principles he lists at 1:08. I love the iambic rhythms that repeatedly appear. I love the tone colours in his words and phrases. I just don’t think it is spontaneous, in which case it is yesterday not now.

I may be wrong: I readily concede the possibility that when you live, breathe, dream and teach this medium you could develop the ability to generate it spontaneously. It doesn’t feel like that to me, but if that is what he is doing I take it all back.

No I don’t: I don’t take back what I said about the beauty.


Professional acting is not for adults

Sir Alec Guinness, so the story goes, had just delivered a talk to a school when a boy rushed up to him. “Sir, sir,” said the boy eagerly, “I want to be an actor when I grow up.” The Great Man looked at him a little pityingly.   “My dear boy,” he said, “you can’t do both.”

When I was a stagestruck teenager, I saw a TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock. He made me bridle at his patronizing attitude to actors. These were my gods, and he referred to them as if they were not very bright children. It was not till I became a professional actor that I found he was right. That was one reason that, despite having enjoyed a certain measure of success, I packed the profession in: I wanted to spend my working hours in an environment of more intellectual weight.

There were exceptions, of course. but in general I found that actors who lived by artifice were so focused on skin-deep appearance that they held opinions that were built on sand, opinions that were as shallow as damp linoleum. “All you need is love” rather summed it up. It was not that my opinion sometimes differed from theirs, it was that they were incapable of backing up their arguments with anything more substantial than what made them feel good.

I said that there were exceptions, and I know that the shallowness of the theatrical existence is a source of pain to many pros. A hugely successful actor with whom I worked in the 60s was recently quoted in an interview as saying the whole business was bullshit. This morning we awoke to the tragic news that Robin Williams had apparently taken his own life. I would not dream of claiming that it was shallow showbiz rather than pathological depression that caused him to die by his own hand, but I don’t suppose it helped.

Daniel Hannan, who is no stranger to readers here, recently tweeted a fresh link to an article he blogged in April 2011. In it he pondered why actors get treated by the media as omniscient, and get invited to pronounce on so many unsuitable topics.

The answer is simple. They are unusually articulate. Articulacy is their stock-in-trade. That, coupled with the fame that will cause viewers and listeners to pay attention, makes them a gift to producers. Who cares that they have nothing worth saying when they say it so beautifully? And the relationship is symbiotic: performing fleas can keep their names and faces in the public consciousness by popping up all over the media.

The ones who actually have something worth saying tend to keep their own counsel.

I now have the best job in the world. I get to work with people of substance who are bright; who create things and wealth and jobs; who may have opinions at odds with mine but who defend them with data. My role is to liberate their latent coherence and make them at least as articulate as any actor. And I am told I am good at it. So when I drive home after delivering coaching, and if on the radio I hear some tiresome luvvie elegantly spouting hollow drivel, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am redressing the articulacy imbalance, one person at a time.

Hyperbaton – to rhyme with Surbiton

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Over the past few days I have heard those words many times, and in all but one of those occasions it was recited incorrectly. In the first line the words “grow” and “not” were reversed.

It’s called Hyperbaton – pronounced to rhyme with Surbiton. Words the order of monkeying around with it is. Yoda-speak. It’s done to grab your attention. Laurence Binyon did it with that first phrase.

You may think “They shall not grow old” sounds better, and you are entitled to your opinion, but it’s not what Binyon wrote. I think I would have preferred “remain” or even “abide” instead of “are left”, but it’s not what Binyon wrote (actually, surely he was indirectly glorifying the dead by prosaically classifying the living as the left-overs). “At sunset and dawn” would unquestionably have been snappier than “At the going down of the sun and in the morning”, but it’s not what Binyon wrote.

As this season of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I recedes, so will recitals of that verse from For the Fallen. So we await November and Armistice Day for the next flurry of its outings. Do you suppose we can try very hard to get it right?

James Sorensen doesn’t quite bang

At the 2013 Electric Universe Conference in Albuquerque, there was a talk by James Sorensen. He was supporting the pronouncements of the late Halton Arp in being critical of the scientific consensus of the Big Bang Theory.

I like mavericks, and not just because trainees sometimes describe me as one. I warm to those who plough their own furrow and spurn the knee-jerk following of the flock.

Sorensen begins with an amalgam of laying-out his stall mixed in with a bit of ethos – or rather, lack of it.  He isn’t a scientist: he wasn’t even a particularly good student: he has read a lot of books. Sorensen’s ethos is that of a maverick.  One of the books that strongly influenced him was Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. This is turning into a mavericks’ convention.

Sorensen is a member of Toastmasters. He tells us so just before the turn of the 8-minute mark.

I am often asked about Toastmasters, and my opinion of it. I have no real answer. I have seen some good speakers and some bad speakers emerge from their membership. I simply don’t know how much the quality of their clubs varies. I don’t know whether there is any real tuition and if so by whom. I understand that much of the members’ speaking development comes through simply getting up and doing it. That is certainly a start, but it’s only a start.

Once when I was driving I heard a radio interview with some bigwig from a Toastmasters club. He was holding forth about one of their impromptu speaking tests, and was invited to give a demonstration. He was ghastly! He was so bad that I had to pull into the side, stop, and bury my head in my hands. What was worst about it was that I knew I could improve him immeasurably in one minute with one tiny hint.  Back to Sorensen.

Sorensen’s speaking could easily be improved because already he has a very good, relaxed relationship with his audience – which could easily have been given him by Toastmasters. He has yet to decide whether or not he needs that script on the lectern. He doesn’t: every serious stumble comes when he is reading. He has some nifty technology for his visuals, but he over-uses it. His material needs structure – tighter structure. That would make his presentations more digestible.

I suggest that, unless you are rabidly interested in his subject matter, this presentation is actually rather soporific.