Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev questions

On 2 January 2017 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube the video of a talk and Q&A by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. He had delivered it on 15 November, but they held up online publication in order to present me with a New Year gift.

I jest, of course, but it was a very special New Year discovery. Since I first critiqued a speech of his on this blog on 5 April 2013, I have featured him several times; but I have sought out videos of his teaching very many more times. I have seen him impart wisdom to questions, and I have seen him deliver big, set-piece speeches. He is particularly comfortable with the former, but can also be very impressive with the latter. Usually I watch him merely to soak up wisdom, but occasionally I don my rhetor hat. Having watched many hours of him I have found what I perceive to be a chink in his formidable speaking armoury.

This is not a set-piece speech. For one thing he is sitting, and for another he habitually precedes set-pieces with a brief chant which I understand is not exactly a prayer but a device for self-focus. Here he merely begins talking.

If I were in his shoes, I should do the same. This is not a conference with a clearly defined theme on which he can hang a message. His teaching is so wide and far-reaching that he could take his pick of scores of messages without knowing whether they would chime with this audience. Far better to deliver a decorum-creating homily, and then address questions. The homily lasts for a smidgeon over 27 minutes.

I mentioned a chink in his armoury. He often asks rhetorical questions, not expecting an answer and not getting one. But suddenly sometimes he does demand an answer. What is strange is that this often happens when the answer is glaringly self-evident. Nearly all questions, even the rhetorical ones are followed by –

…isn’t it – yes or no?

If you have your audience under your spell and they are immersed in deep thought, a question with an obvious answer is likely to be treated by them as rhetorical because they want to stay with their deep thoughts. Why then toss a stone onto the glassy surface of that beautifully still pond and break the spell? Most speakers would give their proverbial right arm to get an audience in that receptive mode. Yet I’ve often seen him break his own spell – including on this occasion.

Were I to confront him on the subject I have no doubt he would give me a string of reasons; but I think it’s a mistake and that he should not pursue unnecessary answers. And even up against a Great Teacher, when on the subject of speaking I am – naturally – always right…

Do yourself a favour and watch the whole thing. You may not agree with all of it. I think I may have issues with his position in relation to the question that begins at 47:20 and intend to apply some serious thought to it. I also believe him to be profoundly misguided with the ending of his preliminary homily: I fear that he is lazily following a fashionable piety. But an opportunity to stop for an hour and fall under that spell is always spiritually refreshing.

And I shall be forever grateful to him for having clarified a personal conundrum with which I struggled till I first heard him in 2013. I stopped struggling and began embracing it. He addresses it again in the final question which begins at 58:30.


Nate Staniforth – wonderful!

Magician Nate Staniforth recently gave a talk at the Oxford Union. The title of the talk was Wonder. He spoke for a little more than ten minutes during which he did not perform a single illusion.

When I saw this talk listed I was keen to watch it.

I have been known to describe myself as an ‘audiencologist’. It’s an absurdly trite little made-up word, but it does say what I want. I have a lifelong obsession with audiences and what makes them tick. Consequently I have enormous admiration for magicians. Other types of entertainer can make audiences laugh, cry, think and more. They can cause a wide range of feelings and emotions. Only magicians, however, also make audiences see what they did not see and believe what they know to be unbelievable. They are the ultimate manipulators of audiences. So how well does this one speak? I was sure I already knew the answer.

I was right: he is excellent.

Bald opening, and provocative enough to grab you.

The opening leads clearly into a narrative thread to which anyone can relate. He picks you up and sweeps you along his ordained path, talking about wonder and mystery. His structure seems at the outset to be just chronological, a sort of potted life-history, but he has decided that would not quite make his point concerning wonder; so there is a little jumping around to strengthen it. He leaves the narrative thread hanging while he digresses for a while, returning to reclaim it at just the right moment and in the right way. It is good: very good.

As for his delivery, well what did we expect? Any idiot with a cheap book can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but it is the performance surrounding the illusion that singles out the star. Watch how Staniforth varies the decorum to hold our interest and add definition to the points he is making. One minute he is animated, the next he slows right down, varying the tone of his voice accordingly. Many people could do that, but there’s more. There’s the intended laugh that never came when he mentioned a couple of people that seem to mean little to this British audience. In less than a heartbeat, he’s thrown it away and moved on. It happened at 2:50, and I guess barely a single person in that hall noticed. I don’t suppose any regular reader of this blog will be surprised that he shot the whole speech from the hip. I should have been devastated had he not.

He is very skilled at disguising how skilled he is. He puts across supreme relaxation, but watch the intensity with which he is constantly scanning his audience. He misses nothing. A short while ago in a posting on this blog I argued a distinction I choose to make between perfection and excellence. Staniforth epitomizes excellence.


Redmond O’Hanlon: still crazy after all these years

There is a quotation attributed to Danny Kaye –

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.

I had a school friend. In fact we were together at two consecutive schools. That means we spent the best part of a decade being educated at the same establishments. On balance I’d say he was marginally less naughty than I, though it was a close thing. In half a century since then I have periodically caught sight of his distinguished career as a naturalist, explorer and author, throwing more paint on his canvas than would be good for most people’s health. He is Redmond O’Hanlon, and having one day online caught sight of a video of his making a speech, I had to go and look.

For heaven’s sake! Whoever posted this video could have chosen a better still picture.

The absence of ethos tells me that either he has been introduced or that he is so well known to this audience that introduction and/or ethos is redundant. The easy-going opening, together with his casual garb, rather reinforces the opinion. A warm decorum is established: he and his audience are comfortable with each other. If I am wrong and he was previously unknown to these people, I doff my cap. Nothing can relax an audience more quickly or thoroughly than a speaker treating them like old friends. The tactic is not speaker-proof: unseemly over-familiarity can be counter-productive. O’Hanlon has got it right.

There follows a stream of fascinating and delightful anecdotage.

It is idle and wrong to assume that if you have been to interesting places and seen interesting things and had interesting experiences then anecdotage just falls into place. To be a raconteur requires real skill.

You have to play to your strength. Peter Ustinov, for instance, was a superb mimic and used that ability to make his stories sparkle. O’Hanlon has written several successful books recounting his travels, so he is practised at painting word-pictures to make his stories come alive. Nevertheless, as we have observed very many times in this blog, writing is not the same as speaking and being good at the one does not automatically make you good at the other.

O’Hanlon has one particular quality on his side: he is prepared to make a fool  of himself. He waves his hands around, he makes silly noises, and the audience enjoys it. But still, lest any reader thinks that I’ve revealed a golden secret, that tactic is not speaker-proof either. I don’t know whether he had to die a few times before he got it right, or whether it was always a natural ability, but he’s got it right now. This is a lovely piece of speaking and great fun to watch.

Speaking personally I am delighted to find that age has not wearied him nor the years condemned. More importantly, he remains as charmingly bonkers as I remember. That is (you might say) satisfactory.

Peter Lovatt – cerebral terpsichore

I have a nephew, Dr Oliver Robinson, who lectures in Psychology and is the author of Development through Adulthood: An Integrative Sourcebook. He it was who alerted me to a wild TED talk by fellow psychologist, Peter Lovatt.

Lovatt is not your run-of-the-mill academic psychologist. His having been a dancer, and now doing research into the psychology of dance, his audience was in for a spot of exercise.

His hump shows through in his opening, which is a little clunky. He talks his way to his speaking position, which is good, but what he says is lame. “Amazing, amazing!” is red-coat talk, and too fluffy at this stage for this audience. Worse is that he devotes half a minute to telling us what he is not going to talk about – a classic error. I know why: this is an attempt to establish his ethos, but he needs to do that another way.

He asks the audience to shake their shoulders. Some do: too many don’t. It’s too early in the proceedings. He is madly trying to entrench a decorum, but it’s not working as well as it should. There’s going to be much more of this, with the audience on their feet being lead through a series of simple dance moves. They’re going to enjoy themselves, but right now they are in their own hump and resisting him. He needs to revamp this opening.

There’s a serious core to all this terpsichore. He has researched the effect of dance on the hippocampus, looking at possibly arresting or even reversing the way it shrinks with a person’s age. His focus is the effect that shrinkage has on Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. This is valuable stuff, and makes all the audience’s dancing important as well as fun, but it doesn’t get mentioned till 2:30.

If I were advising him I would get that serious significance to peep through sooner, as the corner stone of the ethos building. It needs only a tiny peep – holding back proper discussion of it till 2:30 is actually wise, as 2:30 is typical hump-length (his evaporates at 2:30). All the early loosening up stuff is a hump-busting routine,and I applaud him for that, but it needs adjusting.

His opening begins to work at 0:57. The decorum drops into place as soon as he introduces groovy music – his audience is more prepared to move with it. When he asks them at 1:40 to stand up, they all do – whereas they didn’t all shake their shoulders a few seconds earlier. This is not only because their own hump is receding, it’s because it is easier to sit still while others are shaking shoulders than it is to keep your seat while all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you. His having got them on their feet they merrily follow him through a simple preliminary routine that they enjoy so much that when at 2:25 he invites them to sit back down he gets wild applause.

Thereafter he’s away!  The talk is a roaring success – with one small exception. At 14:00, just before the dancing climax when all the routines are going to be strung together, he invites anyone who wants to join him on the stage. No one does. I would bet big money on there being several people itching to do so, but not daring to be the first. He handles that wrong. He should have started building that invitation twelve minutes earlier.

At 2:00, when the groovy music first starts, he picks out, and congratulates, ‘a groover’ up in a gallery – excellent! He should also have picked out one (or more!) near the front of the stalls – and ideally near an aisle. Thereafter he should repeatedly have referred to how good they were – “if in doubt, follow the lady in the pink shirt – she’s brilliant!”  Or better still, develop a relationship with the lady in the pink shirt – ask her name. Thereafter, “Come on guys: see if you can do it as well as Yasmine!”

Then at 14:00, instead of issuing an open, and relatively cold, invitation it should have been, “Yasmine, are you going to join me up here to demonstrate? Anyone else going to join us? Yes, come on up sir! etc.” Working an audience is not easy, but he is already good at it. He just needs a nudge or two to be brilliant.

Enjoy this speech: the audience did!

So did I.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and decorum mismatch

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has featured several times here, indeed my critique of the speech he delivered at the 2008 India Today Conclave has attracted more views than any other posting on this blog.

He delivered a talk at TED India 2009.

Ted talks, as uploaded online, have a distinct style; and generally it’s a good one. It’s not that they edit out introductions and preambles; it’s not that they are professional and slick enough to have a wandering camera to supplement the fixed front-of-house shots; it’s not just that they dress the stage appropriately to the talks; it’s not that in the video editing they tend to cut away completely to any slides being shown; etc.  It’s more a general feel that comes out in the pace and rhythm of the 18 minute talks. They come across as tight and business-like, which is ideal for nearly all speakers.

I spotted some months ago that Vasudev had delivered a TED talk, and I delayed watching it because I feared a clash of decorum, that TED’s house-style rhythm would be incompatible with Vasudev’s. The latter has a very particular decorum: he habitually begins with some chanting that sets a very slow, almost somnolent and very unTED-like, pace for what follows.

I was right to be anxious. Vasudev is an outstanding speaker, and with outstanding speakers I get picky as hell – that’s my job. Here the tuning of his engine seems constantly to be slightly wrong.

Did he omit his habitual chanting, or did he include it and they edited it out of the video? I shall stick my neck out and suggest the former. Chanting would have established a more Vasudev-style rhythm.

It is uncharacteristic for him to begin with such an aggressively overt gag. Furthermore, as every trainee of mine knows, it is a mistake – I haven’t the space here to explain why. The tittering while the gag is being recounted sounds nervous, and the laugh at the punchline is rather lacklustre. That is all entirely predictable.

The link from the gag to his theme is slightly clunky, as is the rest of the talk, and the decorum throughout is wrong for the content.

The gears are grinding: he is not himself. Watch that speech I mentioned in the first paragraph, or watch this one (wherein he begins at 2:50), and you witness an inner stillness that makes you hang on every word. Not only is he here galloping along too quickly, look how much he is fidgeting: his feet never stop moving. I have no problem with speakers who move, but Vasudev is not a fidget.

Do you hang on every word, or does your mind wander?  Mine wanders, and it is so frustrating! His subject and message fascinate me, but still I have to fight to stay with him. This is entirely because of decorum mismatch.

Some twenty years ago I recorded a radio interview with the late English comedy writer, Frank Muir. He recalled a book promotion speaking tour that took him to the USA. Before his first talk the American booking agent urged him to add some zip and pzazz to his delivery. Frank, realizing that zip and pzazz were not to be found in his armoury, delivered as he would have done to an English audience – and stormed them!

You have to be yourself. You are the best, most interesting, most engaging, most compelling you can be when you are being yourself. If your style is incompatible with that of the conference organizer, one of you has to give way. If you are as good as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev it should definitely not be you.

Dennis Skinner – a class act.

When Tony Benn died in March 2014, his obituaries in the British main stream media were remarkable for the uniformity of their post mortem affection for him. To the political left he was a hero: to the political right he was mad, but everyone recognized the sincerity of his beliefs. He was widely heralded as one of the last of a dying breed of conviction politicians who actually meant what they said, and the absolute last of the left-wing firebrand parliamentarians. This was incorrect. There remains Dennis Skinner, who delivered a remarkable eulogy to Benn in the House of Commons.

The halting nature of his opening: is this genuine reluctance to speak or a clever piece of decorum creation? You decide. I rather think the latter.

Thank heaven for TV cameras in Parliament (I am old enough to remember the ferocious opposition to them). The meagre attendance in the Chamber means that this wonderful piece of speaking would have been largely wasted without this video making it available to posterity.

It really is outstanding.

I realize that there are times when some readers might find him so difficult to understand that they’d like subtitles. This will be particularly true of readers from outside the UK – but by no means exclusively. Skinner would not be Skinner without his Derbyshire accent, though his enunciation is excellent.

Essentially what we are watching is raconteurism of a very high quality. He narrates incidents connected with Benn, and does so with wonderful changes of tone-colour, rhythm, pace, volume, intensity, etc. One minute his fellow members of parliament are in hysterics, the next you can hear a pin drop.

I have nothing further to add. Enjoy it: it’s brilliant.

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.