Why isn’t public speaking taken seriously?

July 14th, 2014

Lifebelt

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 school - did he do the same before a swimming race?

He kept repeating bits of his story - when 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 habits - did he not exhaustively study video footage of his swimming technique to discover where improvements could be made?

He didn’t read his brief - if 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 be - except 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?

Anti-homeless spikes

June 10th, 2014

I got an email today that invited me to sign a petition calling for the removal of the Anti-Homeless spikes. As soon as I read it, all sorts of alarm bells started ringing.

Firstly, the spikes are a symptom, not the disease. Messing around with spikes misses the point. The point is; why are people homeless in the first place? Where is the safety net of benefits? What has happened to these people that they’ve fallen through the net?

Secondly, getting a petition up to bully a property developer to modify a part of their building sited on their land is hypocritical.

Now, my view on land ownership is this: you can’t own land you can only defend territory. The law is there to defend this territory. It’s not a perfect system but if everyone agrees to abide by a set of rules then I expect everyone to do so – without exception.

Of course, inequality is predicated on hypocrisy – the rich don’t play by the rules, they break them or ignore them – which is why banks have to be bailed out whereas anyone else would go bust. We all know this, which is why it is even more important that those fighting inequality adhere to the rules at all costs because if no one plays by the rules then we have chaos (anarchy is something entirely different and misunderstood).

If it is agreed that someone can buy a piece of land and do what they want on it (subject to approval from an official body), then that is how it should be for everyone. If a property owner wants to put a gate on their property, fine. If they want to put spikes, fine – it’s their property.

If you don’t like it, you should lobby your parliamentary representatives to change the law on land ownership. If you don’t like the idea of homeless people then you should lobby your parliamentary representative to do something about it (or ask them why it’s happening when it’s not supposed to). Setting up petitions to remove spikes is short sighted, misguided and achieves nothing in the long run. I’m disappointed in the activist group that precipitated this action, I thought they’d be cleverer than that.

And no, I won’t be signing their petition.

Soul Kitchen, Wardrobe, Leeds

May 6th, 2014

Menu

I was invited for a free brunch at this new venue. I know what you’re thinking ‘there’s no such thing as a free brunch’ and you’d be right; I was required to give feedback (see what I did there!) about the meal and write a blog post about my experience.

Firstly, let me congratulate Soul Kitchen for doing their homework – to talk directly to customers about their experiences is a strategy that is vastly underused in these days of algorithms and ‘like’ buttons, but it is surely the best way to get a true reaction from people.

They are aiming their brunch menu at people who’ve had a wild night out and in the late morning are looking for something to eat that won’t be too demanding on a delicate stomach so eggs feature prominently.

My first impressions weren’t too good when I looked at the menu. I wasn’t sure if it was ‘designed’ to look distressed or they hadn’t replaced their toner cartridge for a while. And you would think that with the success of programmes like ‘Masterchef’, the visual aspect of the food would be critical to enticing customers, but could I find a photograph of any of the dishes on offer? No, I had to use my imagination or hope to spot someone’s order being served and guess what it might be if I liked the look of it. Still on the menu, I’m not a fan of being a perpetual ‘gameboy’ constantly having to decipher cryptic clues from obtuse signage – what does ‘5.5′ mean: kilojoules, pounds, minutes? Imagine if road signs followed the same trend: ‘10 miles’ – yes, but to where!?

eggs

My beef with the menu turned to pulled pork with the meal and I started to calm down. I normally like my eggs firm but they were runny when they were served and I must confess, the meal tasted better for it. However, the wooden slates seemed an odd choice of serving tableware – as the runny yolk soaked into the grain of the wood my brain demanded ceramic plates.

As regards the meal, it fulfilled the venue’s brief perfectly: easy to digest, filling enough and comforting flavours. Coffee was good too.

Will, the man in charge on the day, came to my table afterwards with his notebook in hand and chatted with me. I mentioned everything I’ve listed in this post to him and he actually seemed to make a note of what I said, so well done Will for going down this route.

Would I recommend to others? Yes.

Why climate deniers can safely be ignored.

January 25th, 2014

The loudest voices in the debate about climate change belong to the rich and powerful lobby groups representing the energy companies.

Why are they so against any legislation restricting the emissions of carbon?

It seems to be something to do with cost – not science or facts, but cost. They argue that climate change legislation will eat into their profits for no good reason. The ‘no good reason’ is a shill, of course.

What they object to is someone else trying to appropriate revenues from the wealth of a nation. The multinationals feel that the existing wealth is carved up amicably enough between themselves and that no one else should be allowed at the table. These upstart environmentalists are siphoning off money for their own scams when that money could be flowing into the coffers of the energy companies.

So let’s look at the climate deniers objections:

i) the environmentalists are scamming the governments
even if they are, they’re only copying the business model of the banks. How come the climate deniers don’t make a fuss about them or tax evaders etc.? And isn’t it good to have a counterbalancing power in any system?

ii) the environmentalists are wrong
even if the long-term predictions prove to be inaccurate, the essence of the environmentalists message is ‘the polluter pays’. How can you argue against something as fundamental as that unless you’re a sociopath?

iii) it will all be for nothing
it’s a struggle to see how improving the health and sustainability of the planet is a waste of time. Ever.

So there you have it; however you look at the climate deniers arguments, ignoring them produces a win-win result.

The oil and gas companies are having their abusive empires threatened and they don’t like it, just like every abusive empire that has ever existed throughout history.

What have we traded?

January 21st, 2014

Hand

Consumerism is like a giant parasite latched onto our creativity.

When we were hunter-gatherers, we would experience novelty and adventure by moving territory and encountering new plants and animals, maybe other tribes, beautiful landscapes. We would look at what was on offer in the huge malls of the savannahs and tall forests until we spotted what we were looking for – bush meat. This was our bargain hunt! We’d hunt it down in adrenalin filled chases and despatch the animal in ingenious and daring ways.

Later that evening, we would rejoice in our successful shopping expedition by feasting on our catch and round the camp fire we would regale each other with stories of daring-do, of incredible displays of courage and show off the scars of our campaign. Later still, music and dancing would spontaneously be spirited out of the bones of the dead animals. The pounding rhythms and hypnotic movements shadowed by the dancing flames of the fire under the shimmering stars would intoxicate everyone.

Then some of the hunters would disappear into the bowels of a cave, armed with torchlight and pigments. Deep inside the rock, they would attempt to communicate with invisible others and tell them of their joy of living in the connected web of things.

Tens of thousands of years later we re-visit those caves and in the startling colours and lines, we uncomprehendingly marvel at our own history. It is like a fantastic dream of impossible highs.

This was the life we had. This was the life of purpose and ineffable magnificence.

And what have we traded it for?

Like simple savages, we have traded our entire way of life in exchange for a few gewgaws offered by the corporate adventurer. From them, we have accepted the safe routine of herded shopping instead of the risky, unpredictable hunt, they have sold us the idea of cinema instead of our own campfire stories, and we accept their worthless celebrity gods instead of our own priceless wonder at the thrill of existence.

In this way we have learned to deny our creativity. We have learned to reduce our ambition to one of browsing online; we willingly starve ourselves of any nutrition so that we become mere shadows of what we once were. Our heritage has been obliterated by the parasite that we invented. In the same way that entire species were wiped out by the appearance of human hunters, so now those hunters themselves face extinction from a new species of corporate parasite that kill you softly and slowly with the numbing venom of all consuming ennui.

Creativity is a remembering of the time before the parasite. When we allow ourselves the pleasure of creative play we begin to recall some of the rhythms and movements that we must have enjoyed under the shimmering stars only a heartbeat ago. Life had greater purpose when we made our own lives. We can still reclaim that territory.

We’ve had the industrial revolution, the information revolution; the next revolution will be creative.

How to appreciate art

December 20th, 2013

Appreciating art is a process that is both intellectual and visceral. The more an artwork operates on the following levels, the better it is.

1. Do you like it?

This should be your immediate response upon seeing it for the first time. You can like it for many reasons – something in the shape, colours, movement, composition, materials, context etc. it doesn’t really matter at this stage. What’s important is that you are encouraged to investigate the work further. If the piece looks no different from anything else you might encounter in everyday life then the work has not succeeded with you – you don’t like it.

All art is subjective though and what might intrigue you could leave another person totally indifferent.

You can, of course, always change your mind about liking an artwork for whatever reason. It’s also possible not to ‘like’ an artwork but be fascinated enough by it to progress to other levels.

2. Does it invoke new ideas for you?

The novelty of a new idea is a sign of good art. A fur-lined cup and spoon is a brilliant joke, one that explores the function of utilitarian goods in an interesting way. Conceptual art is all about ideas and can usually be assessed in the same way that an audience considers a joke: if it teases the mind in a satisfying way, then it’s funny (good art). Many conceptual artworks are simply the equivalent of bad jokes – they juxtapose disparate ideas but the new connections created between the ideas don’t work in an interesting or surprising way.

Being the first to do something different usually guarantees a place in art history and is at least interesting from that perspective.

3. Is it something you could make, or think up yourself?

This is a crucial question not just for art but also for all forms of entertainment. We only admire that which we can’t do ourselves. Thus, if you’re a representational artist, not many people could begin to emulate what you can do even though they would like to do it themselves so any work has an immediate value in terms of their admiration. However, this in itself does not mean it will be good art, just as being able to spit further than anyone else does not automatically command the respect of all sportspeople.

Some artists answer the criticism that anybody could create one of their artworks with “but they didn’t, did they? I did.”

Such an argument exploits their privileged position as an established artist and can be disregarded as a valid criterion for making the artwork, art.

4. Did it take long to make?

Despite all the modern developments in technology, this still carries a lot of weight. Someone who has spent many years creating one piece of art is going to command respect from a lot of people simply for having the patience to complete the work. Subconsciously, time adds a minimum value to the piece; three years of work multiplied by £x per hour equals, etc. This aspect is paradoxical – the length of time spent on an artwork bears no relation to the quality of the art but the more work that is involved produces more fascination from the viewer about the artist herself – what made her spend so such time on it?

It should also be remembered that technology can now replicate a lot of work very quickly, so what appears to be many hours of labour can be achieved with the press of a button. This is like admiring an original masterpiece and then being informed that actually, it’s a fake. All that has changed is the perception of manufacture.

5. Has an individual made it?

Collaboration dilutes the value of an artwork. This is an incorrect view in my opinion but many people still cherish the auteur theory – a tortured artist working in their garret impervious to criticism. The public imagines that such artists have explored exotic mental worlds that they themselves are forbidden to visit and so the created images provide glimpses into an unfamiliar realm. In modern music, many producers influence a sound as much as the musicians supposedly do in writing the songs and many bands themselves are a song writing team. ‘All along the Watchtower’ written by Bob Dylan and performed by Jimmy Hendrix is a masterpiece of music and my enjoyment of it is not diminished by the knowledge that several artists were involved in its creation.

The Art World has a problem with this concept (artists assistants are never credited with any contribution to the making of a finished piece). However, it should not affect your appreciation of any artwork and you can safely ignore this element.

6. Does it inspire you?

Good art inspires more art. As an artist myself, if I attend an exhibition of wonderful paintings then I can’t wait to leave the gallery and start painting again. Poor art does not encourage any enthusiasm for creativity. For non-artists, the inspiration may express itself in the form of a desire to find out more about the artist or to buy the artwork (this is a cultural conditioning, non-artists can be inspired to create art too).

7. Does it work on many levels?

The more levels that the piece works on, the more likely it is going to resonate with more people and therefore find greater acceptance as a worthwhile piece of art. This is because you can spend longer contemplating the piece and discovering new things about it (and thus yourself). There is also a correlation between the longevity of artworks and the greater levels of appreciation to be had from them.

8. Does the work represent a new development in the continuing language of art?

The history of art is a development of an art language. Fluent speakers of this language can appreciate nuances and interesting sentence constructions created by knowledgeable artists. Sometimes new words are invented or even an entire patois is developed. You don’t have to speak this language to appreciate art but for those that do it’s an important part of their art appreciation.

9. Is the work time sensitive or will it outlive its era?

If the artwork references ephemeral things then it is similar to a topical joke; as soon as the context is forgotten then the power of the joke is lost. It can still be a good work of art however if other levels such as 1, 4 and 5 come into play.

10. Does the work tell you something about yourself (the human condition) that you were unable to access without the piece?

If an artwork moves you in an ineffable way, then this is the surest sign that you’re viewing good art. However, this should not be confused with tapping into your emotions as a skilled craftsperson can do this fairly easily using sentimentality for example. Great art contains all the elements listed above and when combined together elicits a feeling of rapture in the viewer. Great art makes you see the world differently, at least for a time.

How to bury a king

November 26th, 2013

Leicester and York are arguing over who is going to have the privilege of keeping some bones of a dead human being. They have employed lawyers in fact to argue for both of them, which means that parasitic members of society will be the main beneficiaries in this stupid affair.

The human being in question is allegedly Richard III (hey, just because some authority figure tells me science has proved that the bones are ‘special’ doesn’t mean I have to believe it) so the bones are a tourist attraction and could generate quite a bit of revenue. But who has them?

Here is my win-win solution.

The inspiration for the solution is Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal. The original was lost and so several replacements were created and housed in art galleries around Europe. Which is the original? All of them.

Yep, that conceptual art business isn’t so useless after all.

Instead of only one city benefiting from the bones, why not have both of them benefiting? Have an exact copy of the bones made by highly skilled specialists (so you pay craftspeople rather than endlessly arguing parasitic lawyers) and then have the original bones and the copy involved in an elaborate randomly generated switch around (more pay to useful people for devising this).

After the switch, each city is assigned one of the packages and no one knows which one has the original bones.

The bones are then buried and tourists will have to visit both sites in order to satisfy themselves that they have definitely visited the original bones. A tourist trail could even be created by the very novelty of a deliberate duplication of artefacts, thus more revenue could be realised than was originally envisaged by having only one genuine site for the bones.

This is genius. Thank you, Marcel Duchamp.

An open, unbiased news gathering site

October 12th, 2013

The problem with news reporting is that an individual editor with prejudices, political friends and vested interests has to decide which story to report. This obviously leads to a distorted view of the world and is relevant only to that group of people that falls into the editor’s chosen bias. It’s surprising how few people realise this simple fact.

With the advent of open technologies, it occurred to me that it might be possible to democratise the news gathering process. An open newspaper could exist on the internet that operated on a similar basis to Reddit but instead of people posting stories there that they’ve already read, they could post stories that they have directly experienced but which have not been officially reported yet. As more people add their concerns to the site, the story would get prioritised and moved up the list. The site could be called ‘Reportit’ or something.

In this way, if an issue affects many people in different ways and they choose to report it (think NHS) then that story will dominate the news site. This should eliminate the bias of a single editor and all the baggage that they bring to the job.

How those stories are then reported is another issue. Whether qualified journalists use the site as an indicator of what is actually concerning people and then use the lead stories to write a report for their own media is an option (assuming they don’t work for mainstream media). At least such a site could alert the public that certain issues are being ignored (for whatever reason) by the mainstream media if they’re not reporting it.

It would probably work best on a local community level and possibly engage an indifferent populace if they thought that their ‘news vote’ actually achieved something.

Sex, Death and Breaking Bad. A review of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse

October 4th, 2013

large_sweeney_new

Maybe Breaking Bad isn’t such a modern tale after all. Sweeney Todd has a similar story arc: a talented man wrongly denied his full potential by an uncaring society seethes with resentment. He accidentally meets an amoral criminal character who encourages him to become more ambitious in his crimes. After he is forced to commit his first murder he finds the subsequent crimes easier to execute. His crimes also turn him on sexually.

This is a long performance, two and a half hours no less and it is a musical of two halves.

The first half is paced a fraction too slow and during the interval I contemplated the second half with some trepidation—it was uncomfortably warm in the theatre— but I need not have worried, the second half flew by in a spell-binding flash.

The production values for this show are impressively high: clever set designs (with some Health and Safety issues!), dramatic lighting, complex choreography and quality musicianship – I only heard one bum note during the whole show.

All the cast members were excellent except for Niamh Perry who played Johanna and was merely good. It is unfortunate that the weakest member of the cast takes on such a pivotal role; her voice just isn’t on a par with the rest of them.

Sweeney Todd however, played by David Birrell, more than makes up for this dip in quality with his terrific voice and utterly convincing performance.

I particularly liked Sebastien Torkia who played Pirelli but he has the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G) so when he formed part of the chorus again later in the performance he kept interfering with my suspension of disbelief.

I confess that I’m not a regular theatre-goer so certain aspects of the structure of the play confused me and I found myself asking questions like “why do the slaughtered victims have bloody bandages on their throats when they rejoin the chorus” and “why is one of the chorus present at this intimate scene?”

After the show I asked James Brining, the artistic director, what the bandages were all about. He told me it was a detail, Brechtian in execution, not important. Ah, but James, to me it is important. I thought I had missed some profound symbolism.

The second half is nothing short of sensational. Much darker in tone than the first half it brilliantly builds to its hellish climax—a demented Sweeney Todd sat in his barbers chair, caught in the high-intensity spotlight.

Judging by the wild cheering for the first time the chair and trap door swallowed their first victim and the rapturous applause at the end, the audience loved the show.

I loved the second half too.

Tour de France 2014

August 27th, 2013

Is Leeds a tourist destination? It should be next year when the Tour de France embarks from Leeds. Perhaps some kind of tourist trail can be organised before then.

One idea could be to have bicycles dotted around the city that have been customised by local artists. These bikes could vary in size and shape and be situated on buildings as well as in shopping centres and pedestrian precincts. Leaflets can be printed that show where all the bicycles are and distributed around the city. Perhaps an actual bicycle from the race itself can be secured from the organisers and placed in a prime location.

The beauty of a bicycle (as opposed to an owl, say) is that it can be sat on so tourists can take pictures of themselves on the bikes and thus they can help promote the city when they post their pictures on social media.

I’m guessing that such an obvious idea has been thought of already. Has it?