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.

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.

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.

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.