Hans and Ola Rosling: Wizz and Son.

I am so pleased I spotted the title of a TED talk that had fairly recently been published. What caught my eye was the name, Hans Rosling. He has been featured in this blog before. In his previous outing I described him as ‘a wizz with visuals’. I still stand by that. On this occasion he is in double harness with his son, Ola. The talk is called How Not to be Ignorant of the World.

I said that they are in double harness, but actually it’s a relay.  Hans kicks the thing off, and Ola takes over at 8:30.

Hans is not just a wizz with visuals. He is brilliant at conveying statistics in a way that has impact and memorability, and most importantly is very funny. A big part of the secret is the huge amount of energy he pours into the process, but there’s a lot of science (I mean speaking science) there as well.

He piles straight in at the beginning, firing at the audience three multiple-choice questions which they must answer on electronic keypads. I shall not spoil your enjoyment by revealing here what the questions are, nor what the audience’s answers are, and least of all the blindingly hilarious tricks with which he spices up the analysis of the answers. Of these last, one in particular (involving primates) is brilliantly creative, and should inspire any speaker to seek out equivalent ideas. I am desperate not to say anything here to spoil your enjoyment; but in the interest of teaching I will point out that in a fraction of a second he takes the rather banal concept of randomness and transforms it in a way that has his audience in hysterics. This man is fantastic!

In my courses I strenuously advocate that if you use humour in your presentations, then throw-away humour is the best type, particularly if early in the talk. Also I made reference to it repeatedly in a recent article on a speech by Black Rod. At 6:03 Hans produces a prop which harvests an enormous laugh. He could have done all sorts of things to try to stoke up the joke, whereas he does nothing at all. He throws the joke away completely, and by doing so I contend that he maximizes the laugh.

He also at 8:30 throws away the introduction of Ola, his son, and thus makes the passing of the relay baton relatively seamless.

Suddenly the comedy warm-up is over, and Ola is delivering the serious academic explanation for what is under discussion – universal ignorance. We stop laughing, but the talk continues to be fascinating. I think Ola is rather too diplomatically charitable to the purveyors of skewed information, absolving them of any guilt, but perhaps that’s my bias.

There we have four paragraphs for Hans and only one for Ola (who speaks for slightly longer), and you might conclude that I am dismissing Ola as boring. Not so: he just isn’t yet as fabulously brilliant as his father; and anyway for the academic lesson to get across, the decorum needs to sober up a bit. Watch, listen and learn.

This TED talk has chalked up more than three million views since it was posted in mid-September, and I am not in the least surprised.

Henry B. Eyring struggles with 20%

In November 2014, in the Synod Hall at The Vatican there was staged Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman

Let’s not beat about the bush: this colloquium was a response by religious leaders to the astonishing, sudden, almost violent railroading-through of unheralded, unmandated and unrequested legislation all over the western world to permit homosexuals to get married to each other. It was a puzzling and deeply suspect political initiative that one day I will find the time to examine in depth. Meanwhile it remains a sine qua non fashionable piety for those who seek to burnish their right-on image by being seen to adhere to such things. That is clearly what the politicians were banking on.

We have previously examined a speech from this colloquium delivered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Today we will look at a speech by Henry B. Eyring, representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Oh dear: here we go again. Eyring is subservient to a script.

I’ve heard his first minute just a couple of times and already could shoot it from the hip with more conviction than he does here.  More importantly, so could he. He just doesn’t know he can. This is one of those times I find this blog almost insufferably frustrating to write.

Eyring goes on to read out an impassioned and emotional account of the happiness of his own marriage and family life and, to head off accusations of basing his research on a sample of one, he proceeds to spread the story much wider. In passing I do wonder how the Roman Catholic priests in his audience (remember, this is in The Vatican) are responding to this – with envy?

The entire account of his own family is chronological – probably the easiest structure that exists. If you sat him down with a cup of coffee across a table from you, and asked him simply to tell you about how he met his wife, how his family has built over the years, how it represents the bedrock of his personal well-being, I absolutely guarantee that he could speak for five minutes more fluently and with infinitely more engagement than he does reading here for five minutes. He could have done that in this speech, it would have taken care of nearly half of it, and it would have been so much better.

The remaining time would have required slightly more sophisticated structuring, but again the same truth needs shouting from the hills –

He absolutely does not need a script.

Nor does anyone else: I’ve proved it countless times. He has a powerful message to put across, and he has assembled his arguments very effectively, but in then reading the thing he has sliced away easily 80% of its persuasiveness.

At 6:20 he turns to a pronouncement, published by leaders of his church. That is a perfectly appropriate thing to read, indeed it is better to read than to learn-and-recite. Otherwise I want to tear up his script and, by showing him how to do without it, showing him how much more compelling he becomes without it, showing him how easily he can manage without it, set him free to work with 100% of the power of his message rather than the 20% he struggles with here.

Black Rod holds me spellbound

On 8 October 2014, there was a UK Open Parliament lecture from Black Rod. He was speaking about his job. If you know even less about Black Rod than I do (or did), then stay tuned. His full title is Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. The current incumbent, the man who delivered this lecture, is Lieutenant General David Leakey.

Wearing my rhetor hat I was eager to watch this lecture for a particular reason. I have worked with many executives who had previously had military careers, and have always been impressed by their stage presence, their natural unassuming authority, and their ability to home in on the essence of a message. That said, I have worked with very few generals; so I was eager to see how well he performed.


(Whoever posted this video on YouTube needs shooting for choosing such a lousy still picture to illustrate it.)

The first thing Black Rod does is to cross to stage right to fetch the item from which his title derives. Having retrieved it he doesn’t immediately return all the way to the lectern but begins speaking a yard or two ‘off mic’. What is impressive is that he is barely less audible there. We’re dealing with a good microphone and good enunciation.

He very quickly establishes a decorum of informal conversation that is almost avuncular. There are many who believe that ‘informal conversation’ is a style that is suitable only for a limited type of audience. In my experience it has a far wider application than most believe, principally because it conveys sincerity. Overblown oratory is often a turn-off for modern audiences. Though we are told nothing of how this audience is constituted, we quickly get a good idea from the way Black Rod handles it. Note in the first couple of minutes how he uses his fingers to illustrate the word ‘nano’ rather than explaining it. Thus he ensures that everyone understands, while not patronizing them. In the next sentence he uses the word again, but this time he doesn’t illustrate it.

The audience is nervous, perhaps over-awed. The most telling symptom is the lack of reaction to his first piece of humour which he throws away (correctly) at 4:10. He throws away another piece of humour at 7:16, and they are still reluctant to show much reaction. At 9:15 he throws away yet another, and this time there is the slightest stirring of those daring to laugh. That’s how long they took to relax.  Are we surprised therefore at how gently he has been leading them through his narrative?

He shoots the entire lecture from the hip, and if any regular readers of this blog think I bang on too much about this, I invite them to watch and understand. He is not reading to his audience; he is not speaking at them; he is speaking with them and the difference is huge. It does mean that here and there he appears to lose his place, and I shall have more to say about that, but this is a small price to pay for the sheer quality of the delivery.

My rhetor hat slips off for a while of its own accord. When he describes the history of his post, and its connection with the Order of the Garter, I am mesmerized. It takes an apparent error of Latin to shake me out of it. He claims that the title of ‘Usher’ derives from the Latin usarius meaning doorkeeper. No, usarius is a particular type of slave: a doorkeeper is ustiarius. It is not impossible that in late vulgar Latin the two words (which are similar) became interchangeable, particularly if usarii were used as ustiarii. This warrants further investigation, but not now.

Black Rod does occasionally treat us to a pause while he considers what he will say next. It is a little too simple merely to conclude that he needs to work on his structure. He explains during the thirteenth minute that these talks are usually only ten minutes long, but on this occasion he can expand. It thus becomes clear that he is using a modular principle, bolting on extra modules as he finds time. It’s a tried and tested device, but two precautions need to be taken. You need to have established in your mind a clear macro-structure within which you will operate, and you need to have a supply of ‘bridges’ to take you from module to module. He has observed both those needs, but perhaps not quite firmly enough particularly with bridges for those modules that are less ‘road-tested’. The module on the history and office of the Lord Great Chamberlain is a little clunky.

Having described the medieval history of his post (since 1348 he is only the 69th incumbent) he goes on to talk about how the job has evolved over the centuries, how his time is occupied today and he also takes us on a verbal tour of the Palace of Westminster. The whole thing is riveting, and I commend it as a constitutional history lesson.

As I said at the beginning, I have worked with many people of a military background. They tend to speak with that calm assurance that Black Rod displays, so my work with them is usually restricted to very particular techniques for preparing material. Could I help him? Possibly, with tinkering round the edges, but he’s demonstrably capable of sorting things out for himself.

David Carpenter confirms the Bury St Edmunds connection with Magna Carta

2015 will see, and has already seen, much fuss being made about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, sealed on 15 June 1215. A new £2 coin has been minted showing King John holding the charter in one hand and a quill in the other, thus perpetuating the howler that he signed it. He didn’t of course: he put his seal to it. And where did he put his seal to it? On the bottom, of course.

Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk held its own Magna Carta 800 celebration last year, because local legend has it that the Barons met in the great abbey on St Edmunds’ Day in 1214 to swear an oath at the shrine of St Edmund to force the king to accede to the demands in the charter. For a time Bury people believed that the charter was actually drawn up then and there, but historians give this honour to St Albans a year earlier in 1213. How much truth therefore remains in the legend of the barons’ meeting?

Last Saturday, 17 January, David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College in London, who has published a new translation of Magna Carta and who has made at least one TV documentary on the subject, gave a talk at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds. The audience was eager to know whether the Bury connection was true. I know this because Bury is my local town, and I was there.

Carpenter explained that it was Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans abbey, who had chronicled much of the goings-on behind the scenes prior to the historic day at Runnymede. He it was who had asserted that the barons had sworn their oath at St Edmunds’ shrine, though he was somewhat sketchy as to when. Sir James Clarke Holt, one of the greatest of Magna Carta scholars, had declared that this legend had to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Carpenter took the audience through a timeline of events which were contemporaneously chronicled, and authoritative because they principally concerned the movements of the king, the meetings he held, and those of his subjects who had their heads chewed off in such meetings. On the basis of this timeline Carpenter declared that he found that the indications pointed very strongly to a meeting of the barons in Bury, not on 20 November (St Edmunds’ Day) but on or around 19 October 1214.

It was a fascinating talk and, my being there out of interest in the subject, I was absorbed in what he had to say rather than in his manner of saying it. Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never far away. He shot his talk from the hip, only consulting notes when he had other people’s writings to quote. It was a thoroughly professional piece of speaking, well structured, well argued and well delivered. You might think that this would be a ‘given’ with a professor – but in my experience you would be wrong. Essentially he committed only one error: he put the Q&A in the wrong place, but nearly everyone does that – even N.T.Wright made that mistake.

Was I convinced by his argument? Yes I was, I really was. You may wonder whether this is a case of Confirmation Bias, but of course I am uniquely immune to such things. It was a great relief, because if the whole thing had turned out to be a fairy tale, a lot of people in Bury wasted a great deal of time last year.

Mark Steyn, Islam, Europe and free speech

The blurb accompanying the YouTube video of today’s speech gives us little information other than it is an old bit of film, that its subject is “Islam and the end of Europe“, and the speaker is Mark Steyn. It goes on to give you the otherwise illegible wording that covers the screen at the beginning. If you wish to read it you can find it here. Meanwhile I find myself fishing around for more information.

The backdrop tells us that he is speaking to The Heritage Foundation. When John Hilboldt is introducing the session we have a long shot of the platform and see that the banner on the front of the lectern is the artwork for the cover of Steyn’s book, America Alone, published in 2006, whose subtitle is “the end of the world as we know it”. If you pay close attention to what he says you will find that it emerges that this speech took place in 2007. Steyn begins speaking at 5:34 and finishes at 31:11. The rest is questions.

Before someone starts jumping up and down, accusing me of jumping on the publicity bandwagon accompanying the appalling and tragic events in and around Paris last week, let me hasten to plead guilty. Yes, of course. The subject matter is almost constantly in the news in some way or another, but at this time it is more sharply in focus. I have had this speech up my metaphorical sleeve for some time, holding back on covering it principally because there are no very striking lessons to be learnt in respect of public speaking. What has always been interesting about it – and it is always interesting about Mark Steyn anyway – is the Cassandra factor. When we have a clear record of unheeded prophesy, we need to recognize it. There is a particularly prescient passage here, in the Q&A beginning at 35:25.

Steyn carries pre-publicity baggage. Everyone ‘knows’ that he is a wicked ultra-right-wing hawk. He acknowledges this reputation at 16:25. The interesting thing is that it’s not altogether true. Yes he dares to address what too many commentators duck. Yes he is prepared to be very blunt, particularly in his dealings with those whose adherence to fashionable pieties causes them to snipe at him; and the power of his articulacy causes Steyn’s bluntness to be very sharp.

Listen to this speech, read what he writes, and unless blinded by prejudice against him you quickly learn that his target is not really Islam. It is the willful refusal by too many to realize that there are issues to be addressed, and the only way to address them is in open debate. That debate could be tough but it won’t be as tough as the consequences of ignoring it for political expediency, or burying it under asinine ‘hate speech’ laws.

We’re talking about free speech here. On Sunday there was a huge march through Paris. Everyone knows that it was set up by a tsunami-like popular movement in favour of free speech. Television shots of that march were heart-warming till ruined by the sight of that dreadful front row.

The march had its front row hijacked by politicians and its purpose hijacked by the main-stream media. Why did the media call it a ‘Unity March’? Where did that preposterous name come from? Was it dreamed up by pathetic spin-doctors for those politicians, most of whom have a record on free speech that bears no scrutiny? If ever there was something whose momentum could achieve something really important, this is it. It still could. As a fervent believer in people I think people untrammeled by the establishment have a better chance of pulling something good out of all this than all the self-serving politicians, their cheerleaders in the media, and least of all the dismal offenderati. What is needed is openness, fresh air and sunlight. What is needed is free speech.

I’ll give you an example of how the establishment consistently makes things worse. Every time something like this happens there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction in the media from some politico-jerk about ‘islamophobic backlash’. The interesting thing is that it never actually happens. The reason is that people in general don’t hate or blame Muslims in general, just the pricks that foment appalling stuff like Paris and Nigeria. People know Muslims and like Muslims.

Right now, my favourite Muslim is Aboutaleb, the Mayor of Rotterdam.

N.T.Wright – about as good as can be.

Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. When he retired that See (succeeded, incidentally, by someone called Justin Welby) he went into academia and authorship under the name of Professor N.T.Wright. It is in the latter guise that we find him in November 2014 delivering a lecture to Duke Divinity School. The lecture is entitled Why and How Paul Invented Christian Theology.

After a very brief introduction by (I believe) Richard Hays, Dean of the School, he begins at 1:15, and ends at 45:55. The rest is questions.

My word, but this man is good!  He does pretty-well everything right, or at least he does everything as I teach it should be done – which of course is the same thing.

In his introduction we have been told that he is on a very tight schedule, and will be whisked away immediately after this lecture to his next engagement. Before walking to the lectern he has already looked and seen that there is not a clock visible. I know this because before the applause has died enough for him to start speaking, he has already removed his wristwatch and placed it on the lectern. This is such a small thing that it presses my excitement button. If he takes such care of the micro details I know he will be well on top of the macro ones.

Readers of this blog know that I prefer speakers not to use a script. Readers of The Face & Tripod also know that I concede that there are occasions when a script becomes necessary: I even have a section of rights-and-wrongs concerning the physical layout of a script. I make the point that those who have learnt to speak without paper invariably handle paper better, because the script is merely a tool not a master, still less a comfort-blanket. Wright is a copy-book example of all of the above. We have been told that he is rushing from engagement to engagement, and I think we can assume these all to be speaking engagements. He will certainly have tailored each speech to each audience, so scripts are necessary. Nevertheless he gives the audience the full benefit of his eyes, just glancing down from time to time.  The sheets of paper have writing on only one side (makes page turning less messy). They are not fastened together (ditto). He is doing everything right. And he is so much in command of himself that a couple of times he produces a pen and annotates the script – or possibly even edits it – on the hoof without breaking stride.

His enunciation is as good as it gets. Readers of Every Word Heard will know that I am allergic to ‘consonantitis’, that self-conscious, staccato, over-delivery of every consonant, making the speaker sound like a prat. I also hate over-enunciation that makes each word sound as if it came individually wrapped. Wright goes nowhere near either of these errors yet not a single syllable goes AWOL. His intonation is wonderfully expressive, but some expressive speakers add emphasis to certain syllables by stealing it from others. Examples are here and here. Wright does not make that mistake. (Nit-pick alert: listen closely to his first two sentences and you will hear him kick-start his platform-enunciation with a tiny bit of deliberate consonantitis before settling into his normal stride. It’s a professional trick.)

He conforms to W.B.Yeats’ urging to “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. Some streetwise colloquialisms are used to make points more eloquently – even occasionally rubbing shoulders with Latin in the same sentence. Perhaps he is also conforming to a Kiplingesque walking with kings nor losing the common touch.

If I were to move into serious nit-picking, I would address a tiny detail concerning his gestures. They are beautifully, unconsciously expressive, so no problem there; but I would urge him to adopt the habit of ‘mirroring’. When, for instance, his hands indicate a progression of some sort he moves them from left to right – his left to his right. If he did that the other way around, the progression would go from our left to our right.

He tells us that his lecture is based upon his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Whether you are promoting a book to potential readers or presenting a big report to your company’s Board of Directors, the classic error is to attempt to precis it when you should be trailing it. You want your audience to read it: you don’t want to preempt their need to do so. Wright trails it. He picks a section from it, and then tells you just enough both to teach and to tantalize you. It’s very skillful.

At least I think that’s what he does; but to be honest I am so smitten that my rhetor hat has stayed firmly on my head. I’ve been sitting and luxuriating in the magisterial magnificence of the performance at the expense of my actually paying much attention to what he is telling me. I shall now watch the whole thing over again. It will be a pleasure: I could listen to him all day.

I know even less about the admin of the Church of England than I do about theology, but I wonder how big a blow to the church his retirement from the episcopacy was. It was undoubtedly a huge boon to his students and indeed the rest of the world. I find myself pondering on whether he made the ecclesiastic equivalent of moving to the back-benches in order to broadcast more freely his particular piece of apostolic succession. I shall look out more of his pronouncements.

Jonathan Sacks delivers a beautiful treatise.

In November 2014 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth, addressed Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman. The conference was held in the Synod Hall at The Vatican.

Austen Ivereigh, writing in Catholic Voices Comment, describes his speech as the standout and supplies a full transcript. Apparently the audience was brought to its feet. What particularly caught my eye was Ivereigh’s claim that Sacks used ‘dazzling oratory’. Shall we see whether we agree?

Sacks is in huge demand as a speaker, which is hardly surprising when he is one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders. Why then has he failed to master possibly the most important skill connected with the process of public speaking (and in many ways the easiest)? Why is he wedded to his script? Why does he think he is unable to shoot the whole thing from the hip?

I worded that last sentence carefully. He is able to dispose of his script – anyone is. He merely thinks that to do so is beyond him. Or, perhaps more likely, he believes that to do so would be too great a risk to be undertaken in a circumstance as important as this. Possibly he has assembled for himself a great many reasons to justify that bloody paper, but they are all wrong.

This is a beautiful treatise, wonderfully put together and argued. It deserves so much better than to be delivered by the top of a head. If you want to get some idea of how good it would have been, then watch carefully and feel how the sun comes out on the all-too-few and all-too-short occasions he lifts his face, bypasses that wretched script, and just speaks with us.

It should all be like that, and it so easily could be.

One of his rationalizations for the script probably concerns timing – it’s a commonly offered excuse. It didn’t work though. I’m assuming a half-hour slot that over-ran by nearly a minute and a half. Furthermore he knew it was going to: why else was he rushing – particularly in the early stages? And that was never going to work either: speaking more quickly and truncating pauses sounds wrong and makes a negligible difference to running time. The only way to save time is ruthlessly to cut something out. Murdering part of your own creation is difficult, though never hurts as much in the execution as in the expectation. After the deed is done, the missing bit is quickly forgotten. Ten minutes later you’ve forgotten where it was.

My frustration over Sacks’ reading of this speech reaches its peak when he does. The passion with which an auxesis heralds his peroration  at around the turn of the 26th minute merely makes his script an even more unwelcome impediment. And then finally he turns to a re-interpretation of three verses from Genesis. Now at last his face lifts to us and, in the main, stays there. I described this earlier as the sun coming out, but still it keeps going behind the clouds. The final couple of minutes of this speech would have been sublime – if not marred by those eyes still occasionally flickering unnecessarily downward instead of holding ours.

Was this dazzling oratory, as claimed by Austen Ivereigh? Not unless you enjoy drinking champagne through a veil.