When a man has been editing for more than a decade serious international periodicals like Newsweek and Time, all the while writing articles in a range of other distinguished organs, when he has published several books including two best-sellers, and when moreover he has hosted two TV shows and been a regular contributor to others, you could be forgiven for thinking that he must have a skill like public speaking completely cracked. You’d be nearly right. Fareed Zakaria comes close, but he could very easily be closer. I found this speech by him at the 2010 Forum 2000 conference.
Whatever possessed him to utter that first sentence that way round? I can’t believe it was deliberate, so I put it down to Hump. In fact I rushed to add to my glossary an expression of mine that I haven’t used for some time. It’s a “Neil Armstrong moment“! In fact he is seriously hump-ridden for about a minute. I say it in courses: I say it in my book: you should always have the hump-period completely nailed, so that if the ceiling fell in you’d still cope under auto-pilot.
There are in the video footage a few small edit-points that puzzle me. In each case what is said seems to flow on smoothly enough (though any competent editor should achieve that). What did they cut out? There’s one at 1:25, another at 2:27, and several more, and they make me wonder whether he had something like a paroxysm of coughing that they decided posterity didn’t need to see, or whether he just got even more boring for a bit.
One day I shall devote an entire posting on this blog to the differences between the written and spoken word. I’ve touched briefly on the subject before, but never enough fully to cover an area that is not well enough understood by too many people that absolutely should understand it. Zakaria, it seems to me, well-used to expressing himself brilliantly on paper or speaking to camera with that particular glassy stare that typifies TV presenters when they are using Autocue, has not bothered to explore the matter further. Autocue eyes somehow absolve their owners from the sin of uttering stilted speech; but utter the same stilted speech from a speaking platform and you do yourself no favours. Writing natural-sounding speech is so enormously difficult that I teach people the simplest of shortcuts. It’s simple: but at first it takes courage. You learn to create structures: you follow your structures: you trust yourself to speak spontaneously through your structures. And that sentence was epistrophe.
Dip into this speech for instance just after the 2-minute point and what you get is stilted, halting and – frankly – tedious. Suspicious that you might be looking at the remnants of a hump you might look again shortly after 4:00 and very much the same greets you – and there’s an edit point at 4:18. Almost slap in between, at 3:20, he briefly gets seized by the urge to talk about inflation. For that short period he is fulfilling Cardinal 1. He has something to say and Real Speech comes flowing eloquently out of him. The contrast between this section and its neighbours is very marked.
Overall this young man, with a meteoric track record as a communicator simply seems to lack speaking-platform-savvy. And this extends even to his repeated popping on that damned microphone. If I’d trained him he’d be a hell of a lot better, and he’d not be popping. After a while I became so frustrated that I went searching for another example of his speaking. I found this. He is speaking at an IBM Think Forum.
What a contrast! Here we have the best part of 17 minutes of Zakaria shooting brilliantly from the hip. He is able to do it because now he has a rock-solid mind-map structure. It’s chronology. He merely relates and discusses the economic fortunes of the globe in general and USA in particular over a series of decades. There’s even a parallel to die for at 9:45! In technical speaking terms it is fabulous stuff.
If ever there was an argument for understanding the importance, both for you and for the audience, of knowing how to create and use structures, here it is in the comparison between two speeches from the same man. The second one appears to have been delivered a few months later than the first. Had he learnt the skill in the interim, or is he still today playing hit-and-miss Russian Roulette?
If the latter he should contact me.