Paul Selva – a study in calm

The 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, in Denver, Colorado, took place in early July. Keynote speaker on the first morning was General Paul Selva.

To rise to the second most senior post in the biggest military that the world has ever seen, you need to be quite something. For all my pretensions of cynical seen-it-all, I admit that I approached this speech expecting something pretty special. I was not disappointed.

But the most special thing about it is how it presents itself as so ordinary. No wild histrionics, just an enormous message backed by calm matter-of-fact details. If you didn’t listen carefully you could imagine he was discussing the weekend’s shopping, yet the descriptions, details, data, are mind-boggling. It is that characteristic that makes me think that this would be an ideal copybook example to the senior business people who make up nearly all of my trainees. When you are dealing with resources and concepts on this scale, delivering an all-singing, all-dancing performance is of no particular use. Unless, that is, you happen naturally to be an all-singing, all-dancing type of person, in which case you probably wouldn’t be in his position.

It is all so deceptive: this is technically spot-on. He runs sentences together when he wants to sweep us along; he gives us pauses – sometimes quite long ones – when something needs to sink in; he couches data in terms that anyone can understand; and it all acts subliminally under his aura of calm. This is damn good. He gives added meaning to “owning” an audience.

Regular readers of this blog, knowing my obsession with paperless speaking, will wonder as I did what that small sheaf of papers is doing in his hand. He barely looks at it, and when he does he never needs to, reeling off his data and statistics from memory. He periodically peels one sheet off the top and puts it to the bottom, and seems to do it more often than there seem to be pieces of paper which is puzzling. Is it there simply to supply something for him to do with his hands?

And then, shortly before the end, (at 15:30 actually) he reads a quotation from Albert Einstein. That is an absolutely justifiable use of paper, because it shows us he is not paraphrasing.

I’m glad I watched that speech.

Robert Bryce – about as good as they come.

On 9 September, 2014 – about 3 weeks ago – The Institute of Public Affairs hosted a dinner in Melbourne. It was the setting for this year’s H V Mackay lecture which was delivered by Robert Bryce. His specialist subject, both in his books and in this lecture, is energy.

It took very few seconds for me to get excited about Bryce. Seldom does any speaker set out his stall as clearly as this. Seldom does any speaker present such a distinct contents page. Some might expect me to complain that he lacked a pretty opening, and I certainly discuss with trainees the desirability of pretty openings, but pretty openings are garnish. Given the choice between a restaurant serving mediocre food with pretty garnish and a restaurant serving more simple but fabulous food the answer is obvious. Bryce doesn’t fanny about with garnish but he leaves you in no doubt as to what you are supposed to hear.

And he shows his workings. If you are wondering about the significance of that you obviously missed the second paragraph in this posting.

Virtually all my trainees – being business people – are convinced that their work in general, and numbers in particular, are deadly boring to everyone else. Therefore I explore with them a range of ways to make data more interesting. One such is used extensively and to huge effect by Bryce. Try this for size –

In the last decade the increase in global energy demand has been roughly seven Saudi Arabias.

For quite a sustained period in this lecture The Saudi Arabia becomes his unit of energy production, and crystal clear imagery regarding his message is thereby created. A little later, when speaking not about production but consumption he adopts another unit – The Brazil. In global consumption since 1985 a Brazil has been added per year.

He uses paper, but almost entirely for statistics. Nearly all the time he is shooting from the hip, but when it seems to him important that he is seen to be quoting precise data he unashamedly consults his notes. I have absolutely no quarrel with that.

Nor do I quarrel with him when he says at 14:56, “I don’t use PowerPoint, it gives me a rash.” I don’t use it either, though not for dermatological reasons. I don’t disapprove of visuals – a picture can replace a thousand words – but I conduct 2-hour seminars without a single slide simply to demonstrate how seldom a picture is actually needed.

His vocal delivery has two small flaws. He pops his microphone very occasionally and his voice is placed incorrectly in his face. In this lecture he adjusts the mic when he begins, and needs to learn that if the mic is pointing at your mouth never point your mouth at the mic (and vice versa). He speaks with too much use of his throat. This makes his voice work harder than necessary, so he repeatedly needs to sip water. These are quibbles, but I deploy quibbles only when people are as good as this.

At one point, when discussing the current inadequacy of batteries, the subject of electric cars comes up. Here’s a choice quotation –

Electric cars are the next big thing – and they always will be

For his style of speaking Robert Bryce is about as good as they come.