Matt Ridley – optimism justified

Matt Ridley is the author of many books, perhaps the most famous of which is The Rational Optimist. Indeed, he has even used that name for his website. He is hugely in demand as a speaker. This month I’d like to take a look at a speech he delivered in Oxford in July 2010. It was a TED Talk.

First thing first: we appear to have a ‘bald’ opening. If you are not familiar with my use of the expression, I mean that he goes straight in without any preamble e.g. “Ladies & Gentlemen”. I like bald openings: they convey confidence and eagerness to get on with delivering the message. They also are very good for the speaker’s nerves (I’ll spare you the reasons here). I say that “we appear” to have a bald opening, because we do not see his actual start. Therefore I went looking for other Ridley speeches and indeed found that he habitually starts without preamble.

What’s the second thing I notice? I think that everyone who has ever done a course with me will remember how together we found a personal ‘happy home’ for their hands. This is intended to be their hands’ default position that they are satisfied both looks good and feels comfortable. All this also features in The Face & Tripod. They will also recall that I warned against holding hands too low, because it looks nervous. Ridley begins with his hands clasped low down. I – or someone – needs to go through that ‘happy home’ process with him. He is not happy with his hands low: he would be much happier clasping his hands high enough for his forearms to be horizontal. How do I know? That’s where his subconscious sent them – and where they largely stayed – from around 1:30 onwards.

And at that point an interesting thing happened. My notes petered out. And the second time I watched the speech my notes were pretty scant also. And the third time. It took a lot of watching and a degree of self-discipline before I got any notes of substance about the main body of this speech at all. And that in itself is a lesson. The purpose of a speech, or any sort of presentation, is to put across a message – just as the purpose of any sort of stage performance is to tell a story. I’m often telling actors that if a member of the audience is sitting and admiring the quality of your performance, you’ve failed him because he isn’t swept up in the story. The equivalent is true of making a speech. You can dress the process up in any fancy way you like, but you still come back to that fundamental purpose – putting across a message. Ridley was repeatedly sweeping me up and carrying me along with a message that so absorbed me that my pen remained frozen over my notepad.

What an important lesson that is! The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else. I tend to boast that when it comes to speeches I don’t miss anything; yet I did. Repeatedly!

But let us see what I did eventually discover. How, for instance, was he grabbing and holding my attention? I’m not altogether sure, and you may disagree, but here’s my take.

For one thing he seems to recruit his audience’s assistance, by inviting us to join with him in addressing questions. Even though he’s dripping with degrees and doctorates in the subject matter he offers, rather than decrees, answers – e.g. at 4:05, “I think the answer is exchange.” He’s treating us as grown-ups by plying us with data and then suggesting a solution that seems to make sense to him. He doesn’t invite anyone to stand up and argue: he doesn’t ask for a show of hands. Yet there seems to be this tacit implication that we are somehow a part of the thought process. That’s damn clever! We find ourselves concentrating just a little harder on the data, almost as if we are going to be invited for our opinion. Can you and I find a way of harnessing that principle? Take another look at my previous paragraph.

All right, so I tricked you! By feigning uncertainty I persuaded you to look a little harder for yourself. It’s a tried and tested device, both on the speaking platform and on the theatre stage. If you want the audience to get more absorbed in what they are hearing, spoon-feed them a little less and persuade their brains to work a little harder. Instead of my merely explaining it, I decided to stage a little demonstration of the principle. That said, I wasn’t kidding you when I said a few paragraphs back that he completely absorbed me in his message. He did.

So… back to the speech.

There’s a glorious moment when he beautifully fulfils a favourite quotation from W.B.Yeats, “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. He says, at 10:30, “ I’m not dissing the Neanderthals”. His live audience appreciates that too.

There are also some wonderful sit-up-and-blink statements – e.g. at 11:20, “Trade is ten times as old as farming.”  Yes, isn’t that a show-stopper!

I said earlier, “The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else.” If Shakespeare could mix metaphors with “to take arms against a sea of troubles” I can; but let’s examine what else igniting that much interest can do. It very effectively hides one thing, and it astonishes me that I did not spot it immediately. He seems to be riddled with nerves! His hump never seems to end. I mentioned the way he is holding his hands rather low for the first minute: at 11:50 he has a period when his hands again are at a loss for a short while. There are periods when he is speaking almost aggressively quickly, falling over occasional words and not allowing natural pauses their full life – a nerve symptom (although his enunciation is so good that he’s always crystal clear) . He gets slightly breathless on occasions – another nerve symptom. There are more such, but I’ll spare you the full catalogue.

I’ve never met him, and it could be that this sort of constant outpouring of nervous energy is his natural style. Also it comes across as overwhelming enthusiasm for his message, which is attractive and may be another instrument in sweeping up his audience. It’s just that when I see a speaker apparently in slight distress I itch to help.

At any rate Matt Ridley is very good. His website claims that this speech has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and I’m not in the least surprised. I’ve just downloaded the kindle edition of The Rational Optimist for my Christmas reading.