John Bird is magnificent

In October 2015, the founder of The Big Issue was elevated to the House of Peers.  He is John Bird, and in February 2016 he made his maiden speech.

In future, if anyone asks me what I do, I think I might refer them to this speech. Acquaintances, relatives, even quite close friends seem to have a vague notion that I earn my crust by polishing up people’s accents, or getting them to stand ‘correctly’ and orate. Anyone with whom I have worked on public speaking will greet such thoughts with the same wry smile, because actually I bully people into being themselves. There’s a little more to it, for instance in terms of structuring your material for optimum digestibility for your audience and optimum memorability for yourself etc., but the foundation is always being yourself.

I tear scripts out of their hands because that bloody paper is a screen between them and their audience, but also because it is a screen between them and themselves.

I repeatedly tell my trainees that the most engaging, compelling and persuasive they can be is when they are being themselves, warts and all, and speaking spontaneously.

Yes, there is such a thing as appropriateness; but once a speaker has learnt to come out from behind one of those ghastly but ubiquitous self-imposed masks, they are better equipped to steer an appropriate course while still being themselves.

Watch this speech, and see what I am talking about. For a start there’s no paper: the words he speaks are always the words that come to him at the time – genuinely spontaneous. He pushes the boundary of appropriateness by describing someone (affectionately) as a bugger; but he doesn’t sleep-walk into it because a little earlier he  correctly referred to a fellow Peer as “the noble Lady”. He knows what he is doing, makes his own policy decisions, and trusts himself to speak spontaneously.

I have had people challenging my position by stating that pre-scripting a speech enables a better choice of words and phrasing. My reply tends to refer to round objects.

Listen to Bird, shooting from the hip from his bald opening to his courteous close, and you will hear for instance an elegant and lengthy anaphora (“when I was…”) beginning at 3:40, and there are more such. You will hear very accomplished comedy timing. You will hear a wide variety of rhythm, pacing and vocal tone. You will, in short, hear an exemplary piece of public speaking: well conceived, well structured, well delivered.

Yes you will also hear stumbles, slips of the tongue, and other mistakes – but who cares? Listen to someone reading a script and you will likewise hear all those things, but they have a different, lamer, more toe-curling quality than from spontaneous speech.

The most important people at any speech are in the audience. We can hear their appreciation from time to time, but there is one who is almost constantly in view. I refer to the Noble Lady we can see over his right shoulder. I wish I knew who she was because she has a wonderfully expressive face. He can’t see her, but he has her in the palm of his proverbial hand. Never once does she doubt his sincerity.

What a magnificent speaker!

Don Tapscott talks freedom

Recently published on YouTube by TED is a talk by Canadian Don Tapscott. It is entitled How the blockchain is changing money and business.

Cryptocurrency fascinates me.  It is dragging commerce into something approaching the modern age, and bypassing the orthodox banking system in general and central banks in particular that have made such a pig’s ear of matters in recent years. Also, because it can’t control it, the establishment hates cryptocurrency which is another factor in its favour. I went and watched this talk for reasons that have nothing to do with my work.

Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never very far away, and immediately I am conscious that Tapscott is effectively hiding quite a serious hump, though it lasts barely a minute. Nerves connected with public speaking are unpredictable because they are largely irrational (though being irrational doesn’t make them any less real). Tapscott has done a huge amount of speaking, so why should he be nervous? Because it is irrational.

I always keep to myself the subtler manifestations of nerves, and I have been accused of being miserly with my professional secrets. There is something in that, but my main reason goes much further. The most effective antidote to speakers’ nerves is a relaxed audience. Therefore if the speaker successfully hides nerves, the audience relaxes so the speaker relaxes. If audiences became too conscious of subtler symptoms they would be more difficult to relax, and that benign circle would be broken. I’ll keep my secrets on behalf of all speakers and all audiences.

Shortly after the first minute has passed he is more relaxed, and when he explains the double-spend problem at 1:32 he gets a nice little laugh from the audience. That’s two points to him: one for relaxing them and one for explaining so clearly. The two are totally intertwined.  That hurdle, however, is as nothing compared with some of the concepts he still has to explain.

I must say that he makes a pretty good fist of them. There are a couple of moments that I find myself asking “Wha…?” but in the main he keeps me with him, and I feel that his audience in the hall likewise understands enough to get a pretty good idea of what this is all about.

One of the strongest messages I receive is that every person operating with cryptocurrency is freely dealing with every other person, and the entire process is independent of any controlling body.

And then, beginning around 9:25, he says something that stuns me. While bemoaning a world of increasing levels of all manner of regrettable things like anger, extremism, protectionism, etc. he cites the latest example as being Brexit. I am astonished that someone as smart as he has fallen for that sort of lame EU propaganda. Has it not dawned on him that Brexit is another example – like Blockchain – of people scrambling out from under the dictatorial control of a distant and unaccountable central authority? Is it really so extremist to want your vote to mean something? He is making exactly the same idle mistake as the person who said to me that Bitcoin was all about arms sales and organised crime. He should seek to smell the coffee on this matter. Ignorance is not necessarily his fault, but …   Oh, let’s move on.

Time will tell whether Blockchain really is the future of commerce. In my time I have seen too many cases of brilliant ideas being the vanguard that got swallowed up by even better imitators to assume that this is home and dry, but…

I do like any blow for freedom – which is why I voted Brexit.

Edward Tufte – read his books

In my latest monthly newsletter to past trainees, I explored the presenting of data in ways that would better grab the attention of the audience. Subsequently one reader enthusiastically told me about the work of Edward Tufte, so I went looking for him. I was told that he fills auditoriums to capacity with people paying high prices for tickets, and that he is a genius at the conveying of data in new and interesting ways. I couldn’t wait.

I found this speech that he made at the 9th MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday February 27, 2015 in Boston, MA, and settled down to learn.

What I found was probably the prime example in my experience of how not to speak in public. He may be the world’s top expert in packaging data for optimum effect, in fact he must be. To draw audiences as he apparently does, there must be something of phenomenal value to compensate for his abysmal delivery. In terms of relating to an audience he is a stranger to basic principles.

This speech is stupefyingly boring, and for one reason only. It is not a speech: it is a reading. Whenever I see a speaker reading a script, I want to tear it away. That script represents a huge gulf between the speaker and the audience.

There are a very few sections when his eyes lift from that bloody paper, and suddenly that gulf is bridged. At 6:19 there are a few glorious seconds. At 7:26 a few more. At 12:15 he sustains it for around a minute. At 29:50 he actually indulges in an anecdote. He narrates an anecdote: he does – not the wretched paper. It makes the communication so much better

Whoever filmed the video refuses to show us his slides. Perhaps there are copyright issues. At any rate the chance to relieve the tedium is squandered. The irony is that Tufte is on record as saying that PowerPoint sucks, yet the only thing that would salvage this disaster for me would be sight of his slides.

And I’m afraid that even when he does look up from his script we are too conscious that Antaeus-like he perceives a need to return to his paper to recover his strength; so there is always an underlying feeling of negative stress getting in his way.

For me the most frustrating thing is that paperless speaking is ridiculously easy, and everyone can do it – I’ve proved it countless times. It improves the bond with the audience to an infinite degree.

This video is just so awful that I went hunting for other online examples of his speaking. Surely he can’t always be this bad! There is a keynote speech at a Microsoft summit where at least we get to see some slides. Sadly I was too short of time to watch that one, though I skimmed enough to see that he was still looking down at his script. I was also faintly amused that the script was on a MacBook.

Edward Tufte cannot possibly have developed his reputation without being very good at his specialist subject. His speaking being of Olympic standard dreariness, I conclude that the way to learn from him is to read his books. I might give that a try. It could not but be an improvement on this.