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.

Nicole Stubbs and mobile profiles.

On Friday 25 October, Nicole Stubbs, Co-Founder and CEO of First Access,  spoke at PopTech 2013. I knew it was coming, and I watched it live on line. I knew it was coming because Nicole has consulted me. We have had Skype sessions, both before and since this speech.

That opening is fabulous! Some sort of dramatic physical action like this is an excellent way of grabbing the audience’s attention, and it also is a sound hump-busting device.

This is a wonderful example! I love the cavalier way she takes these precious items and strews them around her on the floor. It puts me in mind of a supermodel on a catwalk, dragging a priceless coat behind her on the floor. Oh, how I’d love to lay claim to that brilliant piece of theatre, but I cannot! She showed it to me the first time we spoke. I loved it then, and I love it still.

I might be able to lay some claim to the steadiness of her hands during it: the camera closes in for a tight view, and at the height of her hump there is no trembling. There is a way to make sure of that, and she has read my book, The Face & Tripod. She has really read it: she quotes lumps of it at me with frightening fluency.

  • 0:43 I think I’d like one more sentence. I say, “I think” because my already knowing what all this about, it’s difficult for me to know whether the point she is making is completely clear to those hearing it for the first time. The point is made clear very shortly afterwards, but I felt it possibly needed a headline.
  • 2:48 – “awkward if you don’t…” got a nice laugh. I wonder whether adding “humiliating if you do” might have introduced a bitter-sweet tinge.
  • 4:09 beautiful pause.
  • 6:08 we on-line are given a long shot and we see the slide behind her. It’s a good one – an alliterating triad and she’s doing the right thing by speaking through it without looking at it and surrendering her focus.
  • 7:22 A hiatus! Or is it? Has something gone wrong, or is this a huge dramatic pause? If the latter, does it work?

Shall we try to find out?

Michael Sandel owns his audience.

My godson, a psychologist and himself a university lecturer, posted on Facebook a link to this TED talk by Michael Sandel; so I had to go and look.  A Harvard professor should be comfortable on the speaking platform; and a political philosopher should fulfil Cardinal 1 – have something to say.

Though we don’t see his introduction, so cannot guarantee to catch the very beginning of his talk, we do see someone (presumably his introducer) exiting downstage right. My eagerness to see the very beginning of any talk is because of my keenness on what I call the bald opening – going straight in without lame preambles.  I think he has a bald opening. He also has adopted one of my favoured default hand-strategies – one hand in pocket, the other gesturing.   He is comfortable with it: I know because the pocket hand, of its own subconscious volition, emerges in seconds .This is promising well.

As a university professor he should be comfortable on his feet in front of an audience, but still there are tiny symptoms of hump if you look for them.  So let’s not.  His hump-busting tactic is to have this opening well-prepared. He gives us a Contents Page by setting his agenda. At 0.25 he says, “We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate”. There’s the Face!  Has he read my book?  This is straight down the middle of the fairway of my orthodoxy.  There’s a pleasing anaphora sequence at 0.50, using the word ‘over’ as the repetition key. To round off his agenda-setting he announces a discussion on the validity of applying Aristotelian principles to the issues at stake. At precisely the 2-minute point he seems to have shrugged off the hump, has set the scene and is well set.

Lovely clear structure – I’m enjoying myself! So will you. It’s excellent.

Having announced a discussion, he is as good as his word. Almost immediately he is working his audience. He calls for opinions, discusses opinions, stages differences of opinions between members of the audience, generates laughter, gets people thinking. He owns that audience right up to his closing; and the reasons are simple.

I’d like to refer you to two things. In my book I discuss the importance of using a judicious mixture of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know; and I give various reasons that I will spare you here. In my critique a few days ago of Matt Ridley’s TED talk, I discussed the value of causing the audience to apply their own critical faculties to issues being covered. The way Sandel structures this discussion fulfils all of that. While audience members are throwing up opinions in a relatively light-hearted fashion the diet cannot get too rich. Therefore they are very receptive when Sandel then piles in with something quite meaty. Furthermore, while he is inviting their opinions they get drawn deeper into the issues at hand; and that means their increased attention.

Suppose you are addressing department heads in your company on the importance of their getting their new fiscal year’s budgetary requirements submitted on time (I have deliberately recalled a scenario with which a Finance Director once challenged me on the basis that it was impossible to make such a talk interesting). I suggest you could use Sandel’s template quite effectively in that situation.

By the way, did you spot asyndeton three paragraphs ago?  Check the glossary if you don’t know what the hell I’m on about.  The third sentence in that paragraph is a list of items with never a conjunction. It makes the list cleaner somehow.

Tim Smit looks the right way.

Tim Smit or, to give him his full title, Sir Timothy Bartel Smit KBE is the man behind the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project in Cornwall. I first heard him speak when he presented the prizes at Moreton Hall School. My sons had been there. I directed the school’s annual play for more than twenty years, and Tim’s son starred in one of them. Having witnessed two decades of prize-giving speeches of varying quality by a succession of peers, prelates and parliamentarians, I tell you confidently that Smit easily eclipsed them all. Therefore when a reader of my Auracle newsletter sent me a link to a speech he had done for Do Lectures I eagerly clicked myself to it.

My main reason for featuring him here is because he epitomises the doctrine that I repeat often in The Face & Tripod, and that I bang on about on courses. He is looking “the other way”.

He couldn’t care less about himself and how he looks (the way he dresses is also evidence of that). He is concerned only with his audience, and the manner of getting his message across to them; and this makes him compulsive watching. Anyone can be made to speak with the same aplomb if they only will abandon themselves to the same degree. And nearly all those on courses with me come very close to that before the end of one session.  While watching this speech, just as I did when watching that prize-giving speech, I find myself ticking off all the mistakes he’s not making.

And of course he is shooting from the hip.

This is for me a rare speech critique inasmuch as I have no complaint about sound quality, which is excellent. But you may be expecting me to castigate him (or someone) for the dark areas into which he disappears, for instance at 2:52. It’s true that the lighting of that stage is a little stripy, with over-bright areas giving him a dazzle-frown and then apparently stygian patches elsewhere; but note the word “apparently”. We, through the camera lens, are eavesdropping on a live talk. The lighting was set for the live talk. The camera is exaggerating the contrast of light, by squeezing down its iris against the bright spots. The human eye would be more forgiving. Look what happens when we cut to another camera at stage left (2:58): you’ll see he’s not actually speaking in pitch darkness.

But there is a more significant factor to all this. Look how he seems to seek out those dark spots, staying in them once he finds them. To us watching the video, it seems at first to be perverse. Doesn’t he want to be seen? Why does he appear to cling to those dark areas? The answer is very simple, and returns us straight to two paragraphs above. He likes those areas because there, in the absence of dazzle, he can focus more easily on his audience. Therefore I warm to this habit of his: it is symptomatic of exactly the right speaking mind-set.

In The Face & Tripod I discuss the rights and wrongs in using humour, and explain at length the value of the early throw-away. Smit has a beautiful example at 0:28 – “all called Nigel”. He gets everything right with this: right timing, right wording, right rhythm, and thrown away during the first minute of the speech.

Other than that I’d rather not say too much about this speech, other than exhorting you to relax, enjoy and watch it all.

There are more examples of him here and here. Essentially they are very much the same speech: at least they use the same modules. In my latest Auracle Newsletter – emailed last week – I discussed all three speeches and how best you can use this form of modular construction. I may in the New Year adapt that for this blog.

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.

 

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Talking Heads and Popping

Goodbye November: hello December.

Regular readers – if such a new blog can actually yet be said to have regular readers – will probably already have noticed two distinct trends emerging in the speech critiques so far posted.  They are my impatience with those who read their speeches from scripts (what I call ‘talking heads’) and with those whose microphone technique is so poor that their percussive consonants cause popping sounds to punctuate their speeches.

If you had begun to wonder whether this indicated that I was possessed with a narrow range of just two obsessions, then kindly stand in line behind me.  I have long wondered that also.  But the more speakers and speeches I hear – and, as you might expect, I have already heard more of both than any sane person should expect in several lifetimes – the more I find that these are by far the two most widespread errors.  Furthermore, to add to my frustration, they are both easily remedied.

Talking Heads.

In these critiques I always try to find examples wherein you get the comparison of seeing the same person both reading his speech and then at some other time ‘shooting from the hip’ as I call it.  I hope that you thus get to see and marvel at the transformation.  It is not just a minor detail: it puts the speaker immediately into another class.

When people are asked about speakers or speeches that impressed them, a comment that nearly always comes out is along the lines of, “He spoke for twenty minutes without once referring to any notes.”  That suggests it to be a rare skill and therefore a premium bonus.  It is not – or should not be – a premium bonus.

I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following said to me, “You’ll never get me to be able to do without a script”.  (This comes out often at the preliminary meeting that I usually have with a prospect trainee.)

For more than twenty years I have uttered the same reply – and it remains true to this day, “If I don’t, you’ll be the first.”

The skill boils down to two simple principles –

  • You need to know how, and
  • You need to know you can.

It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you learn the first of those, you are never going to dare try it ‘in anger’ unless and until you know you can.  So if I conduct a course with you I not only explain how, but also I very thoroughly prove to you that you absolutely and easily can.  In my book The Face & Tripod I cover the first element, and make suggestions on how you can deal with the second.  I admit that the result may not be as secure as doing a course with me, but it is one hell of a lot cheaper!

I don’t care who you are: you – reading this – can make a speech without using paper.  I say that with total confidence.  You could make a twenty-minute speech without reference to any script or notes.

So what price now “a premium bonus”?   It’s not a bonus: its absence is a grotesque failing.  And as you have already seen in this blog the failing is appallingly widespread – even among those who are actually paid money to speak!.  I’d love to change the universal attitude to paperless speaking.  It should not be regarded as a rare skill belonging only to special people: it should be the norm.  Those who make speeches from scripts should be regarded as sad numpties beyond the pale.

I admit in my book that there are occasions and good reasons when there is no escape – you have to use a script.  But those who have learnt to do without manage scripts better.  Look back at Boris from a couple of days ago.  He was using a script, but I forgave him.  It wasn’t because he was Teacher’s Pet (remember I bollocked him for popping his microphone): it was because he spoke as if spontaneously.  And there was a reason for that.   It sounded spontaneous because it was spontaneous.  Look back at his video and you’ll see he manages with only occasional glances at the script to keep him on his speech-writer’s track.  He is shooting from the hip.

In the next week or so we’ll have an example of a sitting British MP, with videos of two speeches: one where he had to have a script and one where he didn’t   The difference is dramatic.  We also have two examples from a recent British Prime Minister, one speech with a script and one without.  The difference is even greater.

Tomorrow I hope to look at microphone popping.

 

 

Brendan O’Neill – should shed the paper.

This is from the Auracle newsletter of July ’12

As I sometimes do I was browsing one evening in a desultory fashion through YouTube, wondering whether I might happen upon interesting material.  I did.  What caught my eye was the name Brendan O’Neill. He is the editor of Spiked, one of the online newspapers that I sometimes read; and though I don’t always agree with what he and his paper say I enjoy the maverick muscularity with which it is argued.

I was eager to discover whether he carried that characteristic through into his speaking. I like mavericks. I came across two speeches that he made in the past year.  Firstly let’s look at one he delivered at St Stephen’s Club in Westminster on 7 September.

He’s a talking head. He’s reading a script. His natural medium is writing so he has written this speech as a script, enjoyed turning some well-crafted sentences, and now he’s regurgitating it orally. Anyone who has done a course with me, read The Face & Tripod, or just read this blog knows how ferociously eager I am to tear paper props away from speakers. This speech contains some pleasing bits of writing and I would have enjoyed reading it, but I absolutely don’t want to hear it.  I want him shooting from the hip.  He wants it too, though he doesn’t know it.  Look how uncomfortable he is. He never stops fidgeting; and it’s that particular brand of fidgeting that indicates a want of inner calm. You may remember I pointed to Boris Johnson’s unwittingly displaying stress by rubbing the back of his head. O’Neill does it at 1.55, and again later several times.

Shortly after the 8-minute mark he begins lifting his eyes for longer periods from his script, and every time the quality of his speaking lifts also. As he passes 10 minutes there’s very little dependence on the script, and the delivery becomes immeasurably better. Look how well he narrates the Notting Hill Carnival incident. He is following Cardinal 1: he has ‘something to say’ and he is shooting it from the hip. He could not be illustrating more clearly the case that I repeatedly make to trainees, and also made in The Face & Tripod, for throwing away your paper.

Now let us examine a speech he made in a debate at last year’s Wilderness Festival. The motion is “New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving”, and O’Neill is speaking for it. My comments are largely the same as for the previous, except this time with added microphone popping. This last point is not entirely his fault. As he begins, someone is still crouching in front of him adjusting the microphone. He speaks too loudly for a microphone and, though we might sympathise with his having to cope with speaking in a tent, he spoke too loudly also in the previous speech.  He needs to work on microphone technique.

He concludes his carefully scripted-and-read presentation, and then from 7:35 onwards he is cross-examined. Essentially therefore we are into Q&A. Now he has no choice but to shoot from the hip; and of course he becomes a different speaker, a much better one. Now he is absolutely proving that scriptless he is not only coherent and articulate but also that he still spontaneously trots out the well-turned phrases.

Using a script is for him worse than useless, because not only is it unnecessary not only does it rob him of his spontaneity, but it acts as a screen between him and his audience.  He does not need to read his speeches. He does not need paper.  He needs to learn how to do without it.  He needs The Face & Tripod.