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.

Richard Lindzen engages

In March 2009 in New York City, The Heartland Institute held their second International Conference on climate change. Among the climatologists, geophysicists, economists and practitioners of sundry other kindred sciences was Richard Lindzen, atmospheric physicist and Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He delivered this speech.

He was introduced by Joseph Bast, President and CEO of The Heartland Institute, who had a range of other announcements to make. That is why it is not till 7:04 that Lindzen begins.

Two or three months ago on this blog there was a period when every second posting would have me getting exercised about bad microphone technique causing popping. Here the phenomenon returns with a vengeance, though don’t look to me for signs of nostalgia.  I am slightly reassured that someone at least noticed, because at 7:55 a disembodied hand appears from the side to push the mics down, and Lindzen’s voice goes so quiet that cries from the audience cause him to bring them up again, making the popping even worse than before. Shortly afterwards an engineer, probably still trying to cure the problem, turns the volume right down; but this was never going to work: it just makes it more difficult to hear him. The cause is not volume but the tender bits of the microphone being assaulted by percussive columns of the speaker’s breath. Don’t speak into a microphone, speak across it.

(Isn’t it wonderful! That auditorium is lousy with scientific doctorates, but it apparently needed a mere rhetor to tell them how to make a microphone behave itself.)

He reads a script, which is a bit of a pity, though actually this is more the presentation of a paper than a speech.

Despite that and the popping, I found the speech fascinating. He strongly makes the point that global warming was never a scientific or even environmental issue but rather a political one. We have become accustomed, in the climate change argument, for academics to (ab)use their high-sounding titles as a licence loftily to wave away any dissent with cheap phrases like ‘anti-science’ rather than engaging with the arguments. Lindzen soberly engages with everything in sight using merciless rigour. Though it is very clear which side of the argument he favours, that does not stop him castigating his own side when their arguments have fallen short of the intellectual standards he demands.

It is quite difficult for us to read his slides on this video, but I am left in little doubt that his graphs are fed by data that is empirically tested for the purposes of scientific truth and accuracy rather than massaged for the purposes of promoting a pre-written narrative.

It’s an important speech and, because of it and a few like it, posterity will surely be less forgiving of the promoters of global warming alarmism and its monumental cost to Society and the environment. They shall never be able to claim that no one told them.

Michael Pritchard – workmanlike

I came across a TED talk by inventor Michael Pritchard. I have watched a great many Ted talks, and have often been disappointed, but this one is good. I also see that to date nearly 1.6 million others have seen it since it was posted in 2009. It concerns Lifesaver, a flask that can turn disgustingly dirty water into drinking water in seconds, and I’ll leave you to consider the implications of that.

The first observation I make is that Pritchard is not a natural speaker (though assiduous readers of this blog will know that being a natural speaker is not necessarily all that it’s cracked up to be – here’s an example). There is a slight tautness in his delivery that tells me that Pritchard has worked very hard at getting his speaking to the level it has reached. There is also a tautness about the structure of the content that commands attention.

His visual slides are used very sparingly, and have greater impact for that. Also they are used only to set the scene and highlight the problem. When he reaches his answer to it, all the visual aid comes from his own live demonstration. He gleefully prepares a really revolting solution (I would be specific, but you’ll find it more fun to watch); then he pours some into one of his flasks, and seconds later drinks it. It is very impressive.

The next section of the speech is occupied by apparently reiterating the problem, and at first I felt with regret that we were just going over the same ground. I was wrong: the scenarios he now shows are subtly different now that we have seen his magic flask in action. Now we instantly and instinctively work out for ourselves how disaster relief has always had to carry huge and heavy quantities of stuff that is abundantly lying uselessly around – water. Now that very stuff can be put to use.

It’s a good speech, delivered in a workmanlike and businesslike manner. The structure has a very strong narrative which makes it digestible and compelling.

I would have cut out the final two minutes, which for me did not really hang together with the narrative of the rest; but as an example of how to construct a business pitch this is copy-book stuff.

I was not surprised, when I found elsewhere some footage of him pitching another invention on The Dragons’ Denthat he got himself a deal.

Donna Laframboise – surrendered her focus to slides

Donna Laframboise is a Canadian investigative journalist who has a blog called No Frakking Consensus. She is also the author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert. She says that the blog began as notes for the book which is an expose of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’ve read her blog, and she writes well: how does she speak?

In July 2012 she was invited to speak at a meeting of Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs.

She seems not to bother with ethos. We seem not to be told anything about her credentials for standing there, speaking to us. Then again we don’t see her introduction. I have a suspicion that all her credentials were aired before we joined the party. The first we see and hear is about a minute’s worth of humble thanks and tributes to the host organisation – and this gives me an opportunity briefly to ride one of my hobby-horses.

In my experience this is a mistake. However sincerely we mean it – and I have no doubt she does – sticking a thank-fest on the front of a speech is mildly counter-productive. I hold this opinion not through firm knowledge as to why it should be (though you will see I have theories), but through studying audiences. It switches them off.

It could be that it smacks of smarmy Oscar award ceremonies; it could be that the audience is thinking that thou dost protest too much; it could be impatience – “yeah, yeah, just cut to the chase!”. I suspect there’s an element of much of that, but my favoured theory is that you belittle yourself at just the time you should be establishing your authority. Watch the start of this speech and she is thanking them for having bothered to leave their comfortable homes to listen to little old her.

I am certainly not saying that it is wrong to pay these tributes, merely that you should not do it at the beginning. You need to find another way to fill that audience-settling minute, and another place to put the tributes. It isn’t even good for hump-busting because you have yet to seize control of the proceedings. Look at how the first thing she does at the end of the thank-fest is to grab a drink of water. She still has a dry mouth! The audience is eagerly hear-hearing what she said, but they are not yet her audience.

Immediately afterwards she hits them between the eyes with a wonderful opening sentence, delivered with all the authority I could wish. That switches them on. Now they are her audience.

Within seconds she appears to commit an error which I bet any trainee of mine, or reader of my book, will have spotted. She refers to “a professor at the University of Colarado…” without naming him. I seize my notepad. A minute or so later it emerges that she merely deferred naming him until she could display him up on the screen. It was Roger Pielke jr.

Sadly that screen is off-camera, so we cannot tell how Pielke is represented. Is there a handsome portrait, together with a brief list of his accomplishments? Who knows? But this brings me to another of my hobby horses.

Visuals require very careful handling. They very easily break the rhythm of your speech, rob you of your audience’s focus, turn the thing into a slide-show-with-commentary. For us here, the one thing it doesn’t do is rob our focus because we can’t see the slides; but we can see to what extent her flow is impeded by suddenly playing second-fiddle to a bunch of pictures. Also she is surrendering her focus by looking at the big screen rather than at a slave screen in front of her. Were the slides worth it? I can understand why she used them: she wanted a rogues’ gallery. Maybe it worked: I don’t know. I listen in vain for sound clues from the audience, but without seeing the slides themselves I am unable to pass further judgement.

Concerning the speech as a whole, I have essentially one more observation. When referring to Roger Pielke (above) she concedes with respect that though she is sceptical he sincerely believes in the theory of man-made climate change. That sort of intellectual honesty is sadly too often lacking in the climate change debate. That makes her worth listening to. It also makes her worth reading.

When I posted here some weeks ago a critique of a speech by Matt Ridley, I held back on reading his book, The Rational Optimisttill after I’d published my critique. Likewise I have not yet read Laframboise’s book, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate ExpertI note that on its page at Amazon there is a rave review for it from the same Matt Ridley. I really enjoyed Ridley’s book: I’m looking forward to Laframboise’s.