The audience don’t need to know stage directions

You’re watching a film. It’s a ghost story and the film begins with thick fog, an isolated house and sinister music.

The scene is set.

A young woman dressed in a smart jacket and skirt enters the frame and approaches the house. As she walks towards it she speaks aloud to herself, “It’s a lonely road. I am looking nervous and afraid. I look to my left and to my right. I am suddenly startled by a hidden bird noisily taking off from the grass verge as I approach.”

In the film, a hidden bird then bursts noisily from the grass verge.

No doubt, if you were watching this scene the dialogue of the young woman would puzzle you. You would probably be asking yourself ‘why is she speaking the normally hidden script directions in the film? How is this adding to the suspense of the story?’

The truth is, of course, it’s not adding to the suspense of the film – it’s ruining it.

That’s why any decent director would tell her not to do it and to just say the lines that are needed.

As someone watching the film it would also be obvious to you that it’s ruining the story experience. You don’t need to hear the screen directions because you can already see what is happening on screen.

So why do so many speakers make this exact mistake in their presentations by including their script on a slide?

Two reasons:

  1. They write their original script using a slide program. They make a storyboard that lists titles, headings, bullet points, subtext and notes. This is their script along with their structure, which is fine at this stage. What they forget is, their final performance needs to be rehearsed and memorised so the audience finds it believable. Having their script on a slide reminds the audience that the speaker is still rehearsing their part.
  2. They don’t have a director who objectively watches what they do and advises them on what is working for them and what isn’t. A director would say “always having your script in your hands reminds me you’re an actor rehearsing your part whereas I want to believe the character you’re portraying so please learn your lines.”

If you have slides full of bullet points and text that is your rehearsal script and it should not be in your actual performance. If you keep it in, you’ve not learned your part properly and the audience will know this.

It’s advisable to get a ‘director’ to observe your performance and criticise it honestly. Remember you will be both working towards making the story more believable and more powerful for the audience.

Finally, getting some training for your performance is also advisable, as you’ll then know what your strengths are and how to make the most of them.

So, to avoid creating moments of unintended horror in your presentations get in touch with me now and together we can construct a happy ending.

Text on slides


You can talk. That means you can say the words that appear on the slide. If you can say them, then the text is mere duplication. You can talk. That means you can say the words that appear on the slide. If you can say them, then the text is mere duplication (see how annoying this duplication is?)

As any astute businessperson will tell you, if two partners have the same set of skills, one of them is surplus to requirements and you get rid of one. In this instance I’d get rid of the text because:

You’re already there and can talk but the slides are useless without you.
You can add emphasis to your voice whereas text on a slide is deadpan.
You can add dramatic pauses to the words whereas text on a slide is wooden.
You don’t need to worry about the technology if you don’t use slides at all.

If you can do so much more with your voice, why would you choose to use a device that produces inferior results? Are you pretending to be an incompetent villain in a pantomime?

People are inherently lazy. Reading text requires more energy than listening to the spoken word. Why would you ask the audience to do more work than necessary – are you the sales prevention officer for your cause?

Reading text on a slide requires the reader to exclude all other stimuli whilst they read – including listening to the spoken word. So if you are trying to verbally explain something whilst a slide with text is being displayed you’re competing with the audiences urge to read the text. Why are you deliberately sabotaging your own message? Are you demonstrating the saying ‘shoot yourself in the foot’?

Most audiences are simply too polite to express their true opinions of your talk in such an honest way. I however, get paid to tell speakers what does and doesn’t work in a presentation. I won’t charge you for this piece of advice because I’m actually a nice guy and I want to help you (OK, I also want to experience better presentations from speakers in the future too).

THINK before you even consider using images in your talk and SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP if you’re ever tempted to put text on a slide (keep my number handy – 01924 278434).

Don’t panic!


Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Here is a lesson I learned the other day.

I was organising and presenting at an event in the performance space of a local radio station. The event was going to be streamed and broadcast live. Two other presenters were going to contribute to the event using the Bettakultcha format (twenty slides that roll over automatically every fifteen seconds).

I’d put all the presentations on one file and checked the timings – at home. The plan was to use my laptop as the machine that generated the slides and also to use it as a monitor for the presenters.

As a backup, I transferred the file over the internet to the venue the day before as well as copying it onto a memory stick.

On the night of the event I arrived at the venue to set up. It turned out a hdmi connection was required for the projector and my laptop didn’t have one. The technician decided to use his laptop instead and the file was copied onto that via the memory stick.

As I quickly checked the file on his machine I noticed two slides that weren’t displaying properly  so the technician fiddled with them until they were. I re-checked the file and was happy with how they displayed.

My presentation was first and I started my slide set with a remote that I carried. I delivered my practiced lines and waited for the slide to change automatically. It didn’t.

I was live on air and my slides weren’t progressing as planned. As my mouth continued to produce hesitant sounds of prevarication, my mind was racing as it considered the possible options.

My instinct was to stop presenting and start again after I had fixed the file but as we were live I realised that wouldn’t be an ideal option as it would take too long. Slowly, (I’m sure in reality the time was only a couple of seconds but it always feels like it’s much longer) my mind decided that as I was holding the remote I could advance the slides manually. It also concluded that I shouldn’t worry if the intervals weren’t exactly fifteen seconds as the audience wouldn’t be listening with stopwatches in hand, they just wanted an interesting presentation.

Eventually I arrived at the decision to carry on with the presentation and manually advance the slides with the remote. As I had thoroughly practiced the presentation I knew where the slide change should take place in relation to my vocal delivery.

After three or four slides I satisfied myself that I had control of the situation again and from then on I devoted all my energies to the presentation.

When I finished, the event continued so I didn’t have time to check what had happened to the file and I was anxious about the other two presentations that were to take place later.

As it happened, the middle presentation worked perfectly and the slides advanced automatically but the third presentation had the same problem as mine and didn’t change automatically. Fortunately I still held the remote as I sat in the audience section so I was able to advance the slides after an approximate count of fifteen seconds in my head. The presenter wasn’t even aware that anything was amiss.

I discovered later that the two slides that were edited affected the slide transition instruction in each of the presentations that they appeared in even though the technician hadn’t been in any of the transition menus. This was a new discovery for me so the lesson I learned here was that once a file has been safely transferred onto different technology, the entire file needs to be checked for crucial operations.

The other lesson is, don’t panic!

I can promise you another world…


You may have come across a speaker at a convention who promises you that anything is possible if you just try hard enough or that things will come your way if you adopt the right frame of mind – ‘wishful thinking’ I think it’s called. There are even speakers who propose they have uncovered some kind of secret that enables the discoverer to attract material goods and incredible luck to themselves just by imagining it.

Any rational mind would consider these claims to be unlikely at best and outrageous lies as worst. Of course, no scientific evidence is ever produced to back up these claims only stories that usually turn out to be apocryphal or highly selective if investigated.

They are the equivalent of the miracle stories from any holy book. So many people of authority have repeated them so often that people believe they must be true.

How did these stories come about? There is an ineluctable logic to their origination.

Let’s start with religion.

In the days before print, word-of-mouth was the dominant mode of communication and as any student of language will know, the relating of information through story is subject to any number of alterations, omissions, additions and hyperbole. Hyperbole is the important device here. As a creative person, when I tell a familiar story to a group of friends I will search for ways to tell the story so that it is more attractive to the listener and more enjoyable for me to tell it. One of the techniques I might use is metaphor – “she had transformed into a swan…”

We can immediately see how the use of a metaphor can be misinterpreted as being literal when spoken by an over enthusiastic speaker and misheard by a poorly educated listener.

Add to this the ineffable, unquantifiable nature of religion and the ground is fertile for storytellers to enhance their authority with even grander claims.

Now let’s move onto psychology.

The owner of a factory is constantly looking for ways to make the workers work harder or more efficiently. Many incentives might be tried including hiring a motivational speaker. These speakers are there to motivate the work force into executing some kind of action or embracing some kind of belief. Things may have started fairly modestly at first; if you do an activity like this instead of this you can save so many seconds off the procedure or if you adopt a mindset of what is possible rather than what is impossible solutions might be easier to come by.

Clearly, this approach had an effect, even if it was only the Hawthorne effect, so motivational speakers decided they could improve their own effectiveness by offering bigger claims, maybe the seconds saved were extended into minutes, maybe ‘impossible’ could be redefined – they were operating in a competitive market after all. And as they were operating more and more in the realm of psychology rather than physics, their claims could become more inflated without being seriously challenged.

Eventually, some motivational speakers decided that in order to differentiate themselves sufficiently from other speakers they would make the biggest claims of all and their version of psychology started to edge into the realm of religion and magic. Their brand was so powerful, so effective (they implied) that it could overcome any obstacle or barrier that life could throw at it (which is why a company had to hire them over another speaker who promised so much less).

Another example of this would be the crowd at an event sat watching the proceedings. Someone in the audience decides they want the best view of all so they stand up to watch the action. This position is a lot less comfortable for them than the sitting position but it gives them a distinct advantage. Of course, the people behind this person are now overshadowed and so they have to stand just to have the same view as before but in a more uncomfortable position. Eventually, the whole audience is forced to stand and any early advantage for the first standing members is lost and the result is an uncomfortable position for everyone.

So now we have a situation in the 21st century, supposedly dominated by science and big data, where people can be highly paid for making wild claims that can easily be disproved if anyone in science could be bothered to take the claims seriously enough but which less educated people are gullible enough to believe because it makes them feel better.

These high priests of motivational speaking are employing a trick that is as old as humanity itself – promise the congregation rewards in a world that is beyond their physical reach but is within the reach of their imaginations.

Well today we have rocket science to get to other worlds and you don’t get the rocket if you can’t do the science.

Does this post push any buttons with you?


I was visiting my sister many years ago and my young nephew was in the room playing happily on the floor with his toys. As we chatted, a radio tuned to Radio 4 played quietly in the background. Suddenly the theme tune for the Archers came on and something extraordinary happened. My nephew stopped playing with his toys, leapt up as if electrocuted and started to dance in time with the music. I looked at my sister with raised eyebrows and she explained that he always did this when that particular piece of music came on – he found it irresistible. As soon as the music faded out, my nephew flopped back onto the floor and continued to play with his toys as if nothing had happened.

I remember this incident because it was the most vivid demonstration of a Pavlovian response that I had ever seen from a human being. Presumably, if we’d had a recording of the music we could have played it over and over and again and my nephew would have responded to it in exactly the same way – dancing with complete abandon.

It was like he had a button inside of him that could be triggered by the music.

Since that time I’ve noticed music having an equally powerful effect on some of my adult friends; when certain tracks are played, they have to get up and dance (where appropriate).

It must be common then to have a set of buttons in our brains that are mostly beyond the reach of the rational part of it and these buttons only need to be pressed with the right stimuli to make us ‘dance’ in a particular way. These buttons vary, of course, from person to person and the combinations will differ depending on many factors but they do exist in each of us. Music is an obvious example but there are other stimuli that can produce similar results – aromas, sounds (like birdsong), texture, objects and of course, stories. Movies combine as many of these buttons as they can (yes, sometimes even with aromas) to produce a compelling narrative. When the story is also ‘true’, as with a documentary, the effect on us can be devastating – just watch any crisis appeal to see how moving they can be.

These stories aren’t powerful by accident—the creators have learned that we are machines with pre-programmed algorithms that can be activated with the right stimuli and thus we can be controlled to a certain extent. This is why pictures of cats dominate the Internet, why vulnerable children provoke the strongest emotional response in most people and why stories of great sacrifice affect us deeply. On a much larger scale we see this button-pressing being exploited by propagandists; they know that certain stimuli will provoke a certain response from a certain group of people – so a picture of ‘x’ depicting the use of ‘y’ will probably produce an angry response from the ‘z’ demographic of society and move them to action, etcetera. If you need convincing of just how predictable we are, read Influence by Robert Cialdini.

Of course, we’re probably the most sophisticated machines ever to exist in the universe so we’re not simple robots but at the heart of it, we still have a set of buttons that literally, move us in some way – shocked by surprise, we will jump in response every single time.

As a professional speaker I’ve made it my business to study these buttons, as I need to know how to employ them during my presentations in order to achieve a particular set of responses. And as emotion is the most powerful tool available to me, I’m going to use it whenever I can.

Now, this is where it gets complicated. You can view these emotive buttons as ‘tricks’ used by any speaker. Each audience is different, of course, but there are certain ‘tricks’ that work with most audiences – and human emotions are universally understood; a tear, for example, is unequivocal in its meaning. So if a speaker cries whilst telling a moving story, it is almost certain that their audience will empathise with those tears and be more inclined to believe the speaker even if they don’t fully understand the language being spoken.

Where am I going with this?

I recently had a discussion with a woman who told me that she saw a speaker who was an expert in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and who cried during her presentation. The problem she had with the speaker was that she didn’t quite believe that the tears were genuine and that they were being used as an emotive trick – she sensed that the emotion was stage-managed.

This raised a fascinating philosophical point about speaking: where does passion stop and manipulation begin?

In the same way that a chiropractor attempts to manipulate your body, a speaker attempts to manipulate your thoughts and emotions – that’s their job. If the NLP expert had been more convincing with her tears, would that have made her speech more acceptable as well as more successful?

If you knew which buttons to press with members of a certain group to get them to do what you wanted them to do, how do you examine your own motives? If you’re being paid to deliver the speech, do you examine your motives at all other than ‘I’m just following my orders to the best of my ability’?

Here’s a thought experiment: say you are in the audience to see a speaker who is a famous actor and who you know is also an expert in NLP, hypnosis, oratory, psychology and magic and is lachrymose to boot. They’re pitching for a way of life that you are dubious about—should you discount their speech entirely because you know they are deliberately trying to manipulate you? Or is being forewarned, forearmed?

The greatest orators in history were masters of button selection with their audience.

Whether their motives were for good or evil, only history decides.

Success in Business is Short-sighted


So many of today’s seminars, conferences, speeches, workshops etc. are sold on the promise of ‘success in business’.

Why is success in business so widely admired in society?

Because that’s how most people become rich, I hear you answer. Which forces the question – why is being rich so desired by people in general?

Why isn’t ‘success in life’ the most popular topic for business people? Business people are already in business, so ‘success in business’ is simply more of the same. What these people really want, if they’re not enjoying what they’re doing, is a happy life. To have a happy life though, requires knowing what makes you happy in the first place and in my experience most people don’t even know how to articulate the question, let alone answer it.

What makes me happy is asking hard questions – I’m just wired that way – so I’ve investigated the subject of money and here are some of my findings.

What is it about money?

What is money anyway? Economists say that money is a medium of exchange. Money has no intrinsic value – if you were alone on a desert island with a million pounds in cash, it might make a good fire on a cold night but that’s about all.

Money is a trick, an illusion of options. When it is a medium of exchange it has huge potential because it can buy anything that is for sale within its purchasing power. The power of the money increases exponentially with all the goods and services known to you as a purchaser. On a desert island it has little potential because there is nothing to buy; on Oxford Street in London it has huge potential.

As Alfred Korzibski said, ‘The map is not the territory.’ You can look at a map of Europe, and imagine all the places you can visit. In reality you can only be in one place at any one time and what you imagine a place is like is never the same as the reality of actually being there – at least not in my experience. The map is not the place. It’s the same with a bank note. A bank note is a kind of map.

The idea of money therefore is many thousand times more powerful than the reality of money. It is a trick played by our imaginations; money promises so much but it actually delivers very little.

Our problems start here because we begin to believe money is so powerful that it can even buy intangibles such as happiness, security, friends, purpose…And when the entire consumerist structure of our society keeps telling us it can, we start to believe it. This is what keeps people in a job they hate.

And when we buy whatever it is we desire, all the alternatives that we considered buying are gone – the power of the money has been spent – literally. However that shouldn’t really matter because we have what we wanted – right? That shiny, thirsty, highly desirable, liability of a car (or whatever) is just what we needed, right? Except for this; what part of us really needed it, and what happens when a newer shinier, more desirable model appears on our neighbours’ drive?

The answer lies in one of the greatest tricks ever played on the human mind – the trick of desire.

Imagine desiring a person. When you desire someone you want something from them, even if it’s only to get to know them better, so you become nervous around them. That person now has a power over you.

So desire is about control. Desire puts someone or something else in control of your life. That car you want, that house, that job, that lottery prize—it’s controlling you.

All that money can do is increase your choices; that’s it. And option fatigue in today’s consumerist society is becoming more and more of a curse.

So having desire transforms the goal into a gaol. When we badly want something we are imprisoned by our desire for it. It holds us to ransom. So who is the gaoler? It can only be ourselves.

This is an extract from SatNav for the Soul®, an illustrated keynote presentation by Ivor Tymchak.

Why Bettakultcha has to replace Motivational Speakers


Before I explain Bettakultcha, let’s look at the business of motivational speaking. The speaker’s brief is usually to motivate the audience into working harder or smarter for the organization that hired them. The speakers are generally flown into an organization at great expense and with great fanfare. They are usually experts of some kind in their field, but that expertise can be limited to just themselves they have climbed a mountain or were born with some kind of disability. During their presentation it is their intention to beguile, harangue, seduce, enthrall, advise, inspire and lift the audience with their stories into a feel good, can do mood. The very best are paid huge fees and speak internationally.

But how does this help the people in the audience? If the speaker has a unique story to tell then it can only be relevant to the typical audience member in an oblique and abstract way if I can do it, you can too. The speaker is also, more often than not, a stranger to the organization that they’re speaking to and has no knowledge of the culture that exists within the organization.

If the speaker is able to raise the energy in the audience then they go away with their cheque and with their ego suitably bolstered. They have done something that is motivating in itself. The feel good mood in the audience, however, dissipates almost as soon as they re-enter the workplace or the real life situation that they were seeking help for or were distracted from by the presentation. Occasionally the speaker comes back to run various workshops to try and maintain some sort of momentum from their initial visit but the truth of the matter is this: just paying attention to people is what makes a difference what kind of attention is largely irrelevant it is the attention which gives the result. There’s even been a study done of the phenomenon and a name given to the effect: the Hawthorne effect.

If this is true, then you might as well hire a comedian as opposed to a motivational speaker for your conference (and in truth, most in-demand speakers are just good entertainers with aphorisms thrown in). The other truth is this: motivational speakers are motivating themselves. Motivational speakers get off on showing off their own motivation, by climbing a higher mountain than their competitors, by getting a higher fee than their competitors, by getting louder applause that their predecessors. That is not to deny that some are well intentioned, and genuinely want to help their fellow human beings.

The other problem with motivational talks is that we all like to be told what we want to hear: yes, you can be a millionaire; yes you have what it takes to climb a mountain; yes your value systems are correct. Well, if you only tell people what they want to hear, then you can’t be telling them anything new, you’re simply reinforcing old ideas but delivering them in novel packaging.

So how does Bettakultcha revolutionise motivational speaking?

The people who attend a Bettakultcha event can testify to the transformational power generated by the experience although they’re not quite sure what that power is. This is because the entire focus of the event shifts from appointed speakers to volunteers from the audience. The audience, therefore, motivates itself.

Who are the experts?

If you are in an organization, then the person who is most qualified to speak to you about your organization is you… because you work there. The only consultants you should be hiring into your organization are facilitators, not speakers. Outside consultants have to start from scratch: any useful advice about the practical running of an organization that they can give is totally predicated on the culture existing within that organization, so they have to study the culture first. You already know the culture.

How does Bettakultcha motivate people?

The way you motivate people is by giving them real power, not by giving them a speech.

Good speakers follow certain techniques to engage with an audience and one of the best is direct engagement with an individual member of the audience. They ask a general question and then have a short conversation with whoever answers their question. They engage like this because they know it keeps the audience on their toes and involves them personally. From the audience member’s point of view, they will feel good about themselves for contributing to the proceedings and because they do actually mean something to the event they count as a person.

Bettakultcha gives the audience real power because it actually lets them speak.

Bettakultcha empowers the audience by making them responsible for the event. If the good speaker is so concerned about making a connection with the audience, about empowering the audience, about motivating the audience, why doesn’t he or she relinquish control of the event? Become a spectator rather than a contributor? Surely, this is the desired outcome of a perfectly successful motivational speech? A great leader makes the people think they had achieved everything by themselves; The greatest outcome that any good speaker could wish for is to think that was a good presentation; my work is done here; I have given the organization the tools to be able to progress without me.

And as for the members of the organization who contribute to the event by presenting, how much more powerful is it to have these people in your organization for months on end inspiring and motivating the other workers instead of someone who visits for a couple of hours every year or so? Imagine the sense of community that this will engender the workers will learn more about themselves and feel inspired by some of the stories they will hear from people they can chat with on a day-to-day basis.

And as previous presenters from Bettakultcha have told me, their sense of achievement after their presentation is intoxicating and gives them the confidence to attempt other things outside of their comfort zone.

From a managerial perspective, the presentations could give an indication of the morale within the organization and highlight some of the issues concerning the members. The management could even be alerted to potential skills and experience within their organization, which they had no idea existed and which might be utilized in the future.

The key to having a successful event, however, is the curation and delivery. It has to be perceived as a fun activity and one that is generally outside of the formal structure of the organization. The facilitator of the event then becomes crucial in this regard. To simply lift the format without regard for the above considerations is a recipe for disappointment.

If the future is going to require adaptable, capable, confident members of society, then there is no better place to find them than at a Bettakultcha event.

Why isn’t public speaking taken seriously?


I recently attended an award evening at the school my children go to and they had a motivational speaker in the middle of the prize giving.

He was an Olympic swimmer and he had fifteen minutes in which to tell the hundreds of children and parents how great they can be if they apply themselves.

His message (I garnered) is to be the best version of yourself that you can be and work hard to achieve that goal. By working closely with his coach, he told us, he had managed to reach the Olympics.

He began his speech by telling us that as he drove to the school, he’d changed his mind about what he was going to talk about and how he was going to approach the subject. He kept repeating bits of his story unnecessarily and had a nervous habit of fiddling with the microphone lead. There were lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in his delivery and his fractured story ended in a muddled conclusion. He overran his time by a considerable margin and even commented upon the fact from the stage. He then mentioned (to my dismay) that he would be taking questions after he’d finished! I assume it was an alarmed disapproving look from the head that made him amend that statement to, he would be available for questions after the event if anyone wanted to ask him anything. I sensed some relief from the audience in the hot and stuffy assembly hall when he finished his speech.

The thing is this; throughout his speech he kept referring to his coach and how important he was in disciplining him and guiding him through his career. Presumably, he wouldn’t have got to the Olympics without a coach.

So why didn’t he have a coach for his speaking career? He said he travelled the country giving speeches so public speaking must be a career of sorts for him (I’m guessing that he doesn’t have a speaking coach because any decent one would have sorted out of his fundamental mistakes immediately).

I couldn’t help but compare his approach to speaking with his approach to swimming.

He changed his mind about his speaking strategy on the drive to the schooldid he do the same before a swimming race?

He kept repeating bits of his storywhen he was swimming in a race, did he think to throw in some unnecessary strokes or was he going to make every stroke count?

He didn’t seem aware of his nervous habitsdid he not exhaustively study video footage of his swimming technique to discover where improvements could be made?

He didn’t read his briefif he’s racing in the 100m butterfly, does he turn it into a 10,000m breast stroke just because he feels like it?

He was determined to be the best version of himself that he could beexcept when he’s speaking, presumably?

As a professional speaker myself, these contradictions were glaringly obvious but I sensed that the audience, in the sultry heat, simply weren’t engaged with his narrative. I asked my daughter afterwards if she liked his speech and she shrugged her shoulders and said she wasn’t interested in sports. This told me everything I needed to know: the speaker didn’t realise that his sport story is meant to be an allegory for his much bigger message – be the best version of yourself that you can be. His technique needs to improve if he’s to compete in the race for the hearts and minds of school learners.

So why didn’t an Olympian realise that public speaking is a different field of excellence and that its skills can be learned? Why didn’t he know that experienced practitioners can help other speakers avoid basic errors? Every top sports-person has a coach, no matter how good they are, why is speaking so poorly regarded by many practitioners?

The starfish story

For some strange reason I keep coming across references to this story all over the place. I’d never heard the story but apparently, it is so overused it is now a cliché.

So having familiarised myself with the story just now, I immediately noticed a flaw in it (damn these critical thinking skills!).

The story is about a bloke who is throwing starfish back into the sea. Another bloke asks him what he is doing. He tells him he is saving starfish. The other bloke looks at the miles of coastline and says he can’t possibly make a difference to the overall population of starfish. As the starfish guy throws another starfish into the sea he says “I’ve made a difference to that one.”

All very twee but as with all cliché’s nobody stops to think about it before they repeat the story parrot-like. Here is a conscientious guy going out of his way to help a species that can’t even evolve a basic survival strategy. What sort of design is it to have a salt water species getting stranded at every low tide? It’s doomed from the start. Unless, of course, the stranded starfish are sick or disabled and cannot get back into deep water before the low tide. In which case, by allowing the possibility of these sick starfish to breed with healthy specimens, this bloke is simply diluting the fitness of the starfish gene to survive in a hostile environment. Instead of saving an individual starfish, he is potentially threatening the survival of the entire species – the exact opposite of what he intended!

I’ve complained before about this idiocy in an article, where I bemoan the use of an incandescent light bulb to graphically illustrate a good idea.

The boiled frog fallacy


Frogs just want to make more frogs.

A popular story in motivational talks goes something like this; if a frog is put into a pan of boiling water it will leap out of the pan immediately but if the frog is put into a pan of tepid water and the pan is then heated, the frog will stay in the pan until it is boiled to death.

Well, you know me, I question everything, so I thought I would do a little experiment. But rather than harm an innocent frog, I thought I would experiment on myself. So I took a bath, a hot one. Here are my findings.

When you go to sit in the bath, you move from the temperature of the air into the temperature of the water. Your body quickly detects the change and calls various bodily responses into action. If the temperature change is slight, very little stimulus is experienced – the body is more aware of sensation rather than temperature . If it is extreme, an overload of stimulus is experienced and you are forced to take some sort of action – like jumping out of the bath. So the first part of the frog story holds good.

If the temperature change is just within the pain parameters, something interesting happens. A rush of stimuli is experienced which tells the body that a significant change has occurred. This rush can be extremely pleasant as the body makes adjustments for the new temperature. The intense feeling of warmth can last for several seconds and the effects of it, for a few minutes. But after that time, the body has made the necessary adjustments to the new temperature and attempts to accommodate the new temperature as, ‘the norm’. This is done by sweating and sending blood to the extremities. Quickly then, the rush is replaced by a new norm and we are pretty much back to the lack of stimulus we experienced before we stepped into the bath except that we are several degrees hotter. To perpetuate the rush we have to introduce new sensations which make demands on our body to adjust to the changes. We can either add more hot water to the bath, in which case we might cross the threshold to pain and burn ourselves or we can add cold water and experience the cooling adjustment. Or we can simply lay in the bath and do nothing (as per the frog in the story).

My experiment so far, tells me that my particular organism seeks a comfortable existence whilst at the same time, maintaining an element of adventure for such times as changes in the environment demand action.

So lets go back to our motivational speaker. They usually exhort you to make a significant change from your habitual experience of life – climb that mountain, change that thought, go on a diet etc. And yes, should you make the effort, there is an initial rush of adjustment to the change, both physically and mentally. But over time, your body seeks to normalize any changes. So once climbing a particular mountain is achieved (or whatever) you are back to where you started in terms of stimuli (assuming, of course, that the weather remains uneventful on the mountain). In order to experience the rush of adjustment again, you have to climb a different mountain, usually higher or more difficult. Eventually, your hunger for stimuli will be comparable to a drug addiction – greater quantities will be required to produce less satisfactory results. The obvious  corollary of this is that you attempt to achieve a stimulus too great for your organism to bear. In other words, you step into a bath of boiling water and die.

Your body will attempt to make the new change, the new norm, that’s how we adapt as a species. If we take the motivational idea to its absurd conclusion then, the perfect way to live your life, would be to watch paint dry for several hours before playing Russian roulette or maybe have sex continuously with the irregular interruption of a wild beast hunting you or you, it.

Most people don’t live their lives like that, so what else is missing from this story?

Well, in the frog’s case, its main goal is to make more frogs, so it will avoid boiling pans of water because that does not help it in its cause and luckily, it rarely encounters boiling water in the wild. In our case, we want to make more humans too but we have the added complication of ideas and intellect. The motivational speaker appeals to the intellect and sells the idea of ‘positive change’. But not everyone likes climbing mountains, or working harder, etcetera. And here is the key.

The trick is to find what you like doing. You generally like doing something because you have a talent for doing it (but not always). Our prime motivation is still the desire to make more of ourselves. This used to be literally through babies, but today it can be achieved intellectually through fame and reputation. You can make more of yourself through the aggrandizing culture of our society.

Unfortunately, most motivational speeches don’t explain that simply attempting to do something positive is not enough, change for its own sake is nonsensical, you have to like what it is you are attempting to do, you have to like taking hot baths… And certain talents are unrecognized in today’s lop sided society – you might be a genius at not spending money or avoiding hard work.

This story of the frog is, of course, totally misleading and largely apocryphal. Common sense tells you it simply isn’t going to work in reality. It is a symbolic generalization, but do not accept symbolic generalizations, they are fallacious and dangerous. They can make you mistakenly believe that the map is the territory*

And anyway, you are not a cold blooded amphibian, you are a hot human being – demand higher standards, demand better stories, demand relevance.

* Alfred Korzybski