Jim Cook … retains more than data

In June 2013 in Las Vegas, the IBM Edge conference for 2013 was entitled Cloud Storage for a Virtualized World. One of the speakers was Jim Cook, CEO of Arkivum.

At this point I think it is appropriate for me to declare an interest. Jim is a trainee of mine. I asked him at the time to let me know how well it went. This is from his email –

Just finished. Numbers around the 500 mark I would guess. Went well thanks, particularly pleased with the opening, could have done better with the coherent story but was pretty good.

Shall we see what we think?

Probably the most widely recognised symptom of nervousness in a speaker is talking too fast, so I urge my trainees to set themselves a measured pace from the start; and for the very start I point out that the slowest thing they can do is… nothing. I can cite numerous excellent examples of speakers starting with a long pause: I seem to remember William Hague doing it when he was Conservative leader, with his ‘Commonsense Revolution’ speech in October 1999. Jim here pauses for six whole seconds! That is brave and, under the circumstances, would have felt like a week. He had evidently listened to that part of his course with me. He followed the pause with a bald opening.

He was also listening when I said that going in through the front door of the topic is intrinsically boring, and that opening by outflanking the subject in order to enter through a side-door, thus having the audience wondering where this is leading, is a good way to get their attention. Yes, Jim is right to be pleased with the opening.

Thanks to this speech I have learnt that a petabyte is a thousand terabytes; therefore 1,000,000,000 megabytes. The petabyte seems to be Jim’s basic unit of currency.

A couple of blog postings ago I deplored the practice of looking over your shoulder at the slide on the big screen because it surrenders and redirects some of your audience’s focus. You see Jim change a slide, and he’s looking at a slave screen near his feet. From the pause involved in this process I think he’s using the slide as a signpost, and ideally I’d like his structure to be so clear in his mind that signposts are unnecessary, but I’ll forgive him this small transgression. I am less forgiving of all that verbiage on his slides. While the audience are reading that, they are not paying full attention to his voice. Actually it appears that we don’t see all his slides: there seems to be one of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley that doesn’t make it to the video…

All my trainees shoot their speeches from the hip, so it comes as no surprise that Jim uses no paper; and listen to how expressive his voice is as a consequence! This could so easily be a dry and tedious subject, yet without a script or notes to drag him down he makes it lively and absorbing. And every word is heard.

His parting shot was to thank and congratulate IBM on an excellent conference.  I am persuaded to return to it to examine other speeches.  Meanwhile …

Fareed Zakaria – so nearly excellent that it’s frustrating!

When a man has been editing for more than a decade serious international periodicals like Newsweek and Time,  all the while writing articles in a range of other distinguished organs, when he has published several books including two best-sellers, and when moreover he has hosted two TV shows and been a regular contributor to others, you could be forgiven for thinking that he must have a skill like public speaking completely cracked. You’d be nearly right. Fareed Zakaria comes close, but he could very easily be closer. I found this speech by him at the 2010 Forum 2000 conference.

Whatever possessed him to utter that first sentence that way round? I can’t believe it was deliberate, so I put it down to Hump. In fact I rushed to add to my glossary an expression of mine that I haven’t used for some time. It’s a “Neil Armstrong moment“! In fact he is seriously hump-ridden for about a minute.  I say it in courses: I say it in my book: you should always have the hump-period completely nailed, so that if the ceiling fell in you’d still cope under auto-pilot.

There are in the video footage a few small edit-points that puzzle me. In each case what is said seems to flow on smoothly enough (though any competent editor should achieve that). What did they cut out? There’s one at 1:25, another at 2:27, and several more, and they make me wonder whether he had something like a paroxysm of coughing that they decided posterity didn’t need to see, or whether he just got even more boring for a bit.

One day I shall devote an entire posting on this blog to the differences between the written and spoken word. I’ve touched briefly on the subject before, but never enough fully to cover an area that is not well enough understood by too many people that absolutely should understand it. Zakaria, it seems to me, well-used to expressing himself brilliantly on paper or speaking to camera with that particular glassy stare that typifies TV presenters when they are using Autocue, has not bothered to explore the matter further. Autocue eyes somehow absolve their owners from the sin of uttering stilted speech; but utter the same stilted speech from a speaking platform and you do yourself no favours. Writing natural-sounding speech is so enormously difficult that I teach people the simplest of shortcuts. It’s simple: but at first it takes courage. You learn to create structures: you follow your structures: you trust yourself to speak spontaneously through your structures. And that sentence was epistrophe.

Dip into this speech for instance just after the 2-minute point and what you get is stilted, halting and – frankly – tedious. Suspicious that you might be looking at the remnants of a hump you might look again shortly after 4:00 and very much the same greets you – and there’s an edit point at 4:18.  Almost slap in between, at 3:20, he briefly gets seized by the urge to talk about inflation.  For that short period he is fulfilling Cardinal 1.  He has something to say and Real Speech comes flowing eloquently out of him. The contrast between this section and its neighbours is very marked.

Overall this young man, with a meteoric track record as a communicator simply seems to lack speaking-platform-savvy.  And this extends even to his repeated popping on that damned microphone. If I’d trained him he’d be a hell of a lot better, and he’d not be popping. After a while I became so frustrated that I went searching for another example of his speaking.  I found this. He is speaking at an IBM Think Forum.

What a contrast! Here we have the best part of 17 minutes of Zakaria shooting brilliantly from the hip. He is able to do it because now he has a rock-solid mind-map structure. It’s chronology. He merely relates and discusses the economic fortunes of the globe in general and USA in particular over a series of decades. There’s even a parallel to die for at 9:45! In technical speaking terms it is fabulous stuff.

If ever there was an argument for understanding the importance, both for you and for the audience, of knowing how to create and use structures, here it is in the comparison between two speeches from the same man.  The second one appears to have been delivered a few months later than the first. Had he learnt the skill in the interim, or is he still today playing hit-and-miss Russian Roulette?

If the latter he should contact me.