N.T.Wright – about as good as can be.

Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. When he retired that See (succeeded, incidentally, by someone called Justin Welby) he went into academia and authorship under the name of Professor N.T.Wright. It is in the latter guise that we find him in November 2014 delivering a lecture to Duke Divinity School. The lecture is entitled Why and How Paul Invented Christian Theology.

After a very brief introduction by (I believe) Richard Hays, Dean of the School, he begins at 1:15, and ends at 45:55. The rest is questions.

My word, but this man is good!  He does pretty-well everything right, or at least he does everything as I teach it should be done – which of course is the same thing.

In his introduction we have been told that he is on a very tight schedule, and will be whisked away immediately after this lecture to his next engagement. Before walking to the lectern he has already looked and seen that there is not a clock visible. I know this because before the applause has died enough for him to start speaking, he has already removed his wristwatch and placed it on the lectern. This is such a small thing that it presses my excitement button. If he takes such care of the micro details I know he will be well on top of the macro ones.

Readers of this blog know that I prefer speakers not to use a script. Readers of The Face & Tripod also know that I concede that there are occasions when a script becomes necessary: I even have a section of rights-and-wrongs concerning the physical layout of a script. I make the point that those who have learnt to speak without paper invariably handle paper better, because the script is merely a tool not a master, still less a comfort-blanket. Wright is a copy-book example of all of the above. We have been told that he is rushing from engagement to engagement, and I think we can assume these all to be speaking engagements. He will certainly have tailored each speech to each audience, so scripts are necessary. Nevertheless he gives the audience the full benefit of his eyes, just glancing down from time to time.  The sheets of paper have writing on only one side (makes page turning less messy). They are not fastened together (ditto). He is doing everything right. And he is so much in command of himself that a couple of times he produces a pen and annotates the script – or possibly even edits it – on the hoof without breaking stride.

His enunciation is as good as it gets. Readers of Every Word Heard will know that I am allergic to ‘consonantitis’, that self-conscious, staccato, over-delivery of every consonant, making the speaker sound like a prat. I also hate over-enunciation that makes each word sound as if it came individually wrapped. Wright goes nowhere near either of these errors yet not a single syllable goes AWOL. His intonation is wonderfully expressive, but some expressive speakers add emphasis to certain syllables by stealing it from others. Examples are here and here. Wright does not make that mistake. (Nit-pick alert: listen closely to his first two sentences and you will hear him kick-start his platform-enunciation with a tiny bit of deliberate consonantitis before settling into his normal stride. It’s a professional trick.)

He conforms to W.B.Yeats’ urging to “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. Some streetwise colloquialisms are used to make points more eloquently – even occasionally rubbing shoulders with Latin in the same sentence. Perhaps he is also conforming to a Kiplingesque walking with kings nor losing the common touch.

If I were to move into serious nit-picking, I would address a tiny detail concerning his gestures. They are beautifully, unconsciously expressive, so no problem there; but I would urge him to adopt the habit of ‘mirroring’. When, for instance, his hands indicate a progression of some sort he moves them from left to right – his left to his right. If he did that the other way around, the progression would go from our left to our right.

He tells us that his lecture is based upon his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Whether you are promoting a book to potential readers or presenting a big report to your company’s Board of Directors, the classic error is to attempt to precis it when you should be trailing it. You want your audience to read it: you don’t want to preempt their need to do so. Wright trails it. He picks a section from it, and then tells you just enough both to teach and to tantalize you. It’s very skillful.

At least I think that’s what he does; but to be honest I am so smitten that my rhetor hat has stayed firmly on my head. I’ve been sitting and luxuriating in the magisterial magnificence of the performance at the expense of my actually paying much attention to what he is telling me. I shall now watch the whole thing over again. It will be a pleasure: I could listen to him all day.

I know even less about the admin of the Church of England than I do about theology, but I wonder how big a blow to the church his retirement from the episcopacy was. It was undoubtedly a huge boon to his students and indeed the rest of the world. I find myself pondering on whether he made the ecclesiastic equivalent of moving to the back-benches in order to broadcast more freely his particular piece of apostolic succession. I shall look out more of his pronouncements.

Danah Zohar leaves us wanting more

Danah Zohar spoke at the India Today Conclave 2008. If you have happened upon this post of mine concerning Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and if you clicked the link to the second half of the speech in question, you might have seen that following him was the speech that we are going to examine today. Zohar begins at 15:50.

Danah Zohar is a very skilled speaker. She structures her material very clearly: she shoots principally from the hip and speaks with passion. She adeptly deploys a range of rhetorical figures of speech, in particular anaphora, thus giving her delivery an elegance that is almost poetic. By any standards this is good speaking.

Why then do shots of the audience show us too many people fidgeting, and obviously not absorbed? Could it be that the assertion she quotes at 16:05 – “in India we love controversy” is mere wishful thinking?

I don’t think so. This is not controversial. It could be: it should be, but it comes out as frankly rather banal. Having given you, in one paragraph, my rhetor’s summary of the quality of her actual speaking I shall now doff my rhetor hat and look at her message from the standpoint of a seeker after truth – me. Her message is muddled and unconvincing.

At 16:30 as part of her opening she says –

“I don’t accept the division between the spiritual and the physical, and much of my words will be about how to use the dynamic interaction between the spiritual and the physical …”

I wonder whether she – or anyone else – can explain how there can be a “dynamic interaction” between two things which, not being divided, are therefore one.

Watching it, I mentally brushed this question aside, as I wanted to learn what she had to say; and at first I was thirstily soaking up the theory. I felt that here was a great deal upon which to ponder. I still think there is a great deal upon which to ponder, but that somewhere along the line she has partially lost her own plot – or at least she had on this day in 2008. I found myself developing an impression that the purity of her message had become contaminated by her need to develop a brand for the corporate speaking market.

As she worked her way down twelve essential principles, and as muddles and self-contradictions continued to appear all over the place, I began eagerly to hope that before the end she would draw threads together to explain. But midway through principle 8 – independence of thought – the video ran out in the middle of a sentence.

There is a well-established showbiz principle that I never tire of quoting to my trainees: “Always leave them wanting more”. Nevertheless I’ll bet you anything you like tha

Ian Percy is good with chickens.

In my travels I have periodically heard about Ian Percy. Trainees and also readers of this blog have mentioned him to me. I have been told that he is a ‘certified speaking professional’ (certified by whom?). He has been inducted into both the Canadian and U.S. Speaking Halls of Fame. He has been described as “one of the top 21 speakers for the 21st century”.

That’s some billing! Shall we see if he lives up to it? Here he is, speaking at the Center for Spiritual Living, Capistrano Valley, California, in January last year. His talk is entitled “Free the chickens”.

He is introduced by Rev. Dr. Heather Dawn Clark, and my senses suggest that Percy wrote his own introduction. (If he didn’t, he should have done: it saves so much trouble for everyone. At any rate, whoever wrote it, I like the alliterative triad in it.) I don’t know what makes Dr Clark laugh as we join her, but it adds warmth and charm to the proceedings. Dr Clark makes just one mistake. Leading or joining the applause when standing at the lectern feels so right but it looks and sounds wrong. Ian Percy begins at 1:20.

You may notice a sort of bell-like singing sound, impinging on your consciousness from time to time. It started during Dr Clark’s introduction and it doesn’t stop when Percy begins. This is from automatic microphone adjustment (AMA). I cannot be certain whether the live audience heard it or whether it is interference in the interface between the Center’s sound system and the camera’s microphone. The Center’s sound system is so good in every other respect that I suspect it is the latter and just one of those unfortunate things that happen.

Percy needs AMA. He uses such a huge range of tone colour with his voice that without it there’d either be passages that were inaudible or others severely distorted.

His inconsequential opening chit-chat shows tiny signs of hump, but you have to look pretty hard for it. This guy’s reputation is well earned. So good indeed is he that I instinctively reach for my nit-picking tweezers.

The camera operator, later in the speech, pans across to the screen to show us Percy’s visuals; but with the early slides we just have to guess what is there. The guess is easy so why the slides? Without them he would not be periodically looking around at the screen and surrendering his claim on the audience’s focus. If I were advising him I would tell him to ditch the slides – all of them. They add virtually nothing to what he is saying and he is quite compelling enough to not need those things as a crutch.

He has cue-cards of some description above his eye-level behind the audience/camera, but he uses them only for when he needs to quote precise figures. The rest of the time he is shooting from the hip and doing it well. If advising him I would recommend having those details on a card in his hand. Being seen to refer to hard copy when quoting statistics strengthens verisimilitude. I have trainees like Finance Directors whose lives are so absorbed in the figures they quote at presentations that they could quote them to the penny in their sleep; but they look at a card when they quote them so that their audiences are not tempted to suspect that these figures are ball-park. Sometimes the cards are blank…

And really those are the only nits I’m going to pick.

It’s an absorbing presentation, engagingly delivered, and though the message may be less than ground-breaking it is thought-provoking and I certainly do not think of the half hour it took to watch as being time wasted. This guy is good.

Sam Parnia – soul speaker

On 11 Setember, 2008, Dr Sam Parnia addressed an audience at the United Nations in New York. The title of the talk was Unravelling the Mystery of the Self.

Dr Parnia, a critical care physician, has had considerable experience in the revival of cardiac arrest patients and therefore exposure to the accounts of those who have had Near Death Experience. His interest and study of this brought him to the attention of the Nour Foundation, who work to find the distinction – if there is one – between the mind and the brain.

Among the comments under one of Parnia’s talks, posted on YouTube, someone has asked “Can a light-bulb analyse electricity?”.  It’s a valid question, highlighting the circularity of the attempted process. Because of that circularity we may never know all the answers, but that is no reason to stop seeking.

I have made no secret in this blog of my interest in matters metaphysical. Therefore, with pen poised over my pad, I wait and see how long I can keep my dispassionate rhetor hat on.

The start disappoints me, not because of all the thankings which are mere courtesy, not because Parnia is showing me subtle but clear symptoms of nervousness – who  wouldn’t? – but because at 1:13 the camera cuts away to show us his visual slides. For two minutes and twenty seconds we see nothing but over-worded Power-point slides that add nothing to what he is saying and would be an irritating distraction if we could see him and are maddening when we can’t.

Also I want to strangle the sound-engineer who is allowing enough audio feedback through the system to make Parnia sound slightly tinny. Is it asking too much for the United Nations to operate their sound system at least as well as a reasonably competent English village hall?

I am slightly anxious that he is patronising his audience by speaking down to them, and hoping that he is just setting the stage for meatier stuff to follow, when he hits us with a lovely anaphora at 3:40 (“If you …”). I had thought he was reading the speech (yet was pleased that it appeared to be written in spoken English) but now I change my mind. That is a laptop on the lectern, and I believe it is a slave screen for him to see the slides without having to look round. If I am right, he is shooting from the hip and that anaphora was spontaneously uttered, which promises well. We are still very early in the speech, and once he settles down I am expecting him to be good.

And that is where my notes peter out almost entirely. The talk becomes fascinating, and I am riveted to it. Combine what he is saying with the revelations uttered by Dr Eben Alexander in one of my fairly recent postings, and the possibilities are wonderfully provocative.

Where is the ‘self’ (what I unfashionably still want to call the ‘soul’) when there is evidence that it may be distinct from the brain? He doesn’t pretend to know: he and his colleagues are working on experiments to verify or falsify evidence that there is any distinction. Once warmed up he recounts it very well, though a few little notes on my pad indicate that it could have been better.

I love a section at 19:40 where he performs a little act for a few seconds. That was brave, and good enough to be worth it; but the effort appears to throw him for a few seconds.

He repeatedly uses the word ‘phenomena’ as a singular, which sets my pedantic teeth on edge. He also repeatedly uses the phrase “if you think about it…”. I advise trainees to avoid this phrase as it implies to the audience that they don’t think enough. That may be true, but it’s not polite … if you think about it.

These are quibbles, because he delivered most of his talk well enough to sweep up a grumpy old rhetor with a story that absorbed and thoroughly excited him.

There is for me an interesting aside to this posting. I know of Dr Sam Parnia’s very existence only because he treated a close relative of mine a few months ago.

Hans Rosling: a wizz with visuals

TED boasts 1500+ talks. That represents a serious amount of time that someone like me can spend, looking for examples that have particular interest for this blog. The trainee that suggested that I should look at Hans Rosling therefore did me an enormous favour. Merely for interest and entertainment the man is great value; but today I want to examine something that he does with particular skill. Rosling is a master at the development, use and application of visuals.

When I go through the routine of embedding a video here, I never know in advance what still picture will be used to illustrate it. You may think that the above picture was a happy chance, in view of what I said would be my theme for this posting, but you could pause this video almost anywhere and have a picture of Rosling in some galvanic pose with a visual.

His talk is on the impact of religion on birth rate, and he has some quite surprising revelations that I shall not spoil: this talk is worth watching for its own sake.

Before I home in on his use of visuals, I’d also like to draw your attention to his excellent use of a hanging thread at 2:04. In fact he begins spinning this thread at around 1:30. Hanging threads are very useful when you are torn between wanting to say something early in a speech, but don’t want to pre-empt a kindred point that you are planning to cover later. By telling the audience that you will return to this you not only solve the problem but you also hook them into paying more attention so as not to miss it. This latter quality is often covered in how-to books, with the regrettable result that too many speakers dangle too many arbitrary and meaningless threads. It’s a powerful device when used sparingly and judiciously, but badly used it can be tedious as hell. Rosling applies the principle beautifully.

The joy of Rosling’s visuals is in the synergy that he achieves between his voice and his pictures. They are never a distraction from what he is saying, nor does his voice prevent you from absorbing exactly what you need from the pictures.

At 2:40 he begins weaving a fascinating demonstration. At the beginning he is merely showing you a map of the world, indicating religious distribution, but this is in order that you might understand the iconography that will follow. A minute later there appears a graph, a chart. He spends yet another minute taking you through and explaining the chart, and we see how comprehensively he has made the chart interactive; but the real magic is yet to come. At 4:45 the chart starts moving to indicate the passage of time, and what it shows is extraordinary.

At 5:20 the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause. What are they clapping? What he has discovered? No, it is the way he has demonstrated it. The applause is well-deserved: that chart is a wizz! Together with his commentary it makes its point with complete clarity.

We are merely halfway through the talk and what is still to come is as fascinating as what has passed.  He plays more with the interactivity of his chart, and he plays with those boxes that you can see in the picture above. He also picks up the hanging thread.

And he plays with something else! He has a pointer. Not a laser pointer, but a great long pole with a bobble on the end. The juxtaposition of his high-tech graphics and this low-tech pointer makes for very appealing theatre. This is a clever guy who has thought everything through with considerable care. I can see myself wasting lots of time watching his talks.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev preserves my doubt

My theme for this Sunday comes from St Mark chapter 9, verse 24.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief

Whenever asked about my religion, if I am feeling charitable I describe myself as a devout doubter; if uncharitable I tell them to mind their own business. ‘Devout doubter’ may seem like a smart-arse cop-out, but actually I mean it literally. I am devoted to my doubt: I love my doubt: I cleave to my doubt. Theologians can burst a blood vessel trying to persuade me as to the correct meaning of that quote above, but I choose it to mean that I want help to maintain my doubt. When I stop doubting I’ll stop seeking the truth.

Gopi Krishna in a comment to a posting I did on a speech by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev supplied a link to the following NDTV programme.

I find the entire discussion riveting. The quality of the beautifully chaired debate is outstanding. All the speakers have something worth saying, and they say it well.

It includes the following quote from Vasudev –

Belief will give you solace: belief will not give you solutions

As a mantra for a devout doubter, that takes some beating.

The Dalai Lama needs a screwdriver…

Read biographies of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama and you will be told of his many lecture tours and of his inspirational speaking. I have spent some time seeking out his pronouncements and, although I have discovered some excellent aphorisms, actual speeches on line in English are relatively rare. In Tokyo on 6 November, 2012, he addressed an audience of Japanese scientists to open a two-day dialogue on “Buddhist Inner Science and External Science”. He was speaking in English, and begins at 3:20.

For a man whose life is dedicated to matters of the spirit, HH is famously fascinated by mechanical matters. It is said that when he was a boy he repaired a movie projector without the aid of a manual. To this day he repairs watches for a hobby, and has been quoted as declaring that had he not been a monk he would have liked to have been an engineer. I mention this because if I were advising him I would tap into that interest.

He needs to understand and follow a relatively simple range of speaking principles that are – as it were – mechanical.

My admittedly sketchy impression of his life is one of being publicly fawned upon while privately retreating into contemplation, meditation and deep thought. In that latter environment ideas and concepts fly on strong wings unhampered by the need for articulation; but then taking them and trying to deliver them to an audience by merely voicing a stream of consciousness is not enough. Nowhere near enough.

The trouble is that no one among the fawning courtiers appears to have told him.

Dare I say that this speech is excruciatingly boring? We can’t blame it on a slight language barrier; others cope with that better. It’s partly those huge pauses which are not dramatic flavour-enhancers but more a case of “what shall I say next?” or “how am I going to put this next bit?”. Mostly I think it’s the flitting around disjointed themes with all the agility of a butterfly on crutches.

There’s no discernible narrative, or if there is I lost it on one of the numerous times I dropped off; and without that thread the audience’s attention is as manipulable as a herd of cats.

For me this is a speaking disaster, made particularly frustrating because all the best ingredients are there. He has masses to say that deserves to be said: he scorns paper: he has the inner calm that nearly everyone else craves. Oh for three hours with him! In that time I could transform his speaking beyond recognition, without compromising any of that lovely, jolly, avuncular character.

I need to go and lie down in a darkened room!