Dada Gunamuktananda and lessons in humour

At TEDx Noosa, Queensland, Australia, on 30 January 2014, Dada Gunamuktananda delivered a talk entitled Consciousness — the final frontier.

Once the initial surprise, at the apparent mismatch of the gentle antipodean vowel sounds and the speaker’s appearance, has worn off this is a fascinating talk and I commend it. The subject matter is one that I constantly hunger to explore more.

This blog though concentrates chiefly on speakers, their triumphs and disasters, so I feel compelled to make two technical observations. If that aspect of life does not interest you by all means cut to the chase and simply watch the talk.

He is nervous. There is a telling symptom to which I will draw your attention in a short while. Yet something, perhaps his yogic self-discipline, enables him to stand still with his hands hanging at his sides as if completely relaxed. This is very impressive. I usually advise trainees against hanging their arms at their sides because it invites their nerves to show themselves through the finger-tips fiddling with each other – a very conspicuous nerve-symptom. Yet his hands are still.

So what is it that tells me, beyond doubt, that contrary to appearance he is very nervous? He is suffering from dry-mouth. Listen, and you will hear the tell-tale clicking caused by saliva that is abnormally viscous. I could give him an absurdly easy and rapid solution to the problem – in fact he could learn it through my book. By the way, it does not involve water.

The other observation concerns humour. I always tell trainees to avoid overt gags, as they are not stand-up comics nor would they want to put themselves through the hell that is the comics’ apprenticeship. Instead, any humour that they elect to use should be applied incidentally as throw-away lines in the narrative. In this talk he illustrates both points very clearly.

He gets good laughter, even applause, with incidental,.throw-away lines at 0:46 – 0:57, 1:45 – 2:00, 9:45 – 10:00, 10:17 – 10:21 and 10:58 – 11:03. Some of these fly by so fast that they are easy to miss, but still they get laughs.

On the other hand, beginning at 7:15 there is a “funny story” that he actually trails as such. It bombs. There is an important lesson there.

Hans and Ola Rosling: Wizz and Son.

I am so pleased I spotted the title of a TED talk that had fairly recently been published. What caught my eye was the name, Hans Rosling. He has been featured in this blog before. In his previous outing I described him as ‘a wizz with visuals’. I still stand by that. On this occasion he is in double harness with his son, Ola. The talk is called How Not to be Ignorant of the World.

I said that they are in double harness, but actually it’s a relay.  Hans kicks the thing off, and Ola takes over at 8:30.

Hans is not just a wizz with visuals. He is brilliant at conveying statistics in a way that has impact and memorability, and most importantly is very funny. A big part of the secret is the huge amount of energy he pours into the process, but there’s a lot of science (I mean speaking science) there as well.

He piles straight in at the beginning, firing at the audience three multiple-choice questions which they must answer on electronic keypads. I shall not spoil your enjoyment by revealing here what the questions are, nor what the audience’s answers are, and least of all the blindingly hilarious tricks with which he spices up the analysis of the answers. Of these last, one in particular (involving primates) is brilliantly creative, and should inspire any speaker to seek out equivalent ideas. I am desperate not to say anything here to spoil your enjoyment; but in the interest of teaching I will point out that in a fraction of a second he takes the rather banal concept of randomness and transforms it in a way that has his audience in hysterics. This man is fantastic!

In my courses I strenuously advocate that if you use humour in your presentations, then throw-away humour is the best type, particularly if early in the talk. Also I made reference to it repeatedly in a recent article on a speech by Black Rod. At 6:03 Hans produces a prop which harvests an enormous laugh. He could have done all sorts of things to try to stoke up the joke, whereas he does nothing at all. He throws the joke away completely, and by doing so I contend that he maximizes the laugh.

He also at 8:30 throws away the introduction of Ola, his son, and thus makes the passing of the relay baton relatively seamless.

Suddenly the comedy warm-up is over, and Ola is delivering the serious academic explanation for what is under discussion – universal ignorance. We stop laughing, but the talk continues to be fascinating. I think Ola is rather too diplomatically charitable to the purveyors of skewed information, absolving them of any guilt, but perhaps that’s my bias.

There we have four paragraphs for Hans and only one for Ola (who speaks for slightly longer), and you might conclude that I am dismissing Ola as boring. Not so: he just isn’t yet as fabulously brilliant as his father; and anyway for the academic lesson to get across, the decorum needs to sober up a bit. Watch, listen and learn.

This TED talk has chalked up more than three million views since it was posted in mid-September, and I am not in the least surprised.