Archive for April, 2009

Newswipe

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Here is an admission. At the end of an evening I sometimes sit in front of the television and surf the channels in a desultory manner. I have a forlorn hope of finding something of interest.

Then last night a strange thing happened. I came across a channel that had a man appearing to surf television channels in a desultory sort of way and making pithy comments about the crap he found on them. This got my interest and I allowed myself to watch more than my usual 1.5 seconds that is usually sufficient to gauge if a programme has any merit whatsoever.

Fifteen minutes later I was still watching and even disappointed that the programme was ending and then dismayed when I was informed it was the last in the series.

The programme was Newswipe, (10pm, on BBC4) hosted by Charlie Brooker who is a columnist for the Guardian I now discover through Google. The format is loosely based on the Daily Show which is hosted by a sarcastic comedian. However that show is American which makes it er.., American in substance. Newswipe is decidedly British and Charlie Brooker is irreverently British in his acerbic cynicism. There is lots of swearing and amusing analogies and sketches and, get this, damning disclosures from insiders. Last night, for example, had an insider talking about the ‘dark arts’ that newspapers use to get some of their information. These ‘arts’ are all illegal and corrupt.

Then there was an ex MP (I think) who explained the collusion between the newspapers and the government. The newspapers make something out to be spontaneous and ‘people’ inspired (the actual item discussed was immigration control) which forces the government to act. In reality, the entire scenario is pre planned and scheduled with the newspapers. Frightening stuff.

I was surprised that such scurrilous and damning revelations had managed to get onto mainstream television, you would have thought someone in a position of power and privilege would have wanted to stop it.

However it got there, I would like to congratulate the people who put it there. What a refreshing change it was for television to have some precocious child in the audience hooting their amusement at the naked emperor trying to assert his pathetic superiority.

I look forward to the next series.

Worcester breakfast club

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Professor Ivor Tymchak

So. After Wetherby High School came the Birmingham Professional Speakers Association master-class group. The audience was made up entirely of experienced professional speakers. I delivered the original SatNav for the Soul® presentation verbatim including the slides I had shown at Wetherby plus some extra ones I had devised.

The feedback was disheartening and painful.

‘You talk about talent’, they said, ‘but where is your talent, your artistic skills?’

‘You talk about passion’, they said, ’so where is your passion, why do you constrict yourself with a straight jacket of memorised lines?’

It was not all one way though, the SatNav metaphors were absolutely brilliant, they said, why don’t you concentrate on them?

But their criticisms undermined the very foundation of my working model, namely, to learn a speech word for word. They were suggesting that I abandon this model and improvise. It seemed I had learned nothing from the Wetherby experience.

Afterwards I spoke with Clive Gott, a successful and experienced speaker, about the feedback I had received and about my doubts about the speaking model I had adopted. After much soul searching on my part Clive crystallised the experience by summarising that what the Birmingham audience had been asking of me was to be authentic, that was all, and by being authentic I could then connect with them.

This made a lot of sense and after I had finished speaking with Clive I felt a whole lot better about the next speaking engagement coming up which was the Worcester breakfast club. It was an unpaid gig and Clive convinced me that I had nothing to lose by throwing out the script and improvising.

The next few days saw a frantic preparation of new slides which showed my artwork and various creative avenues I had explored during my life. ‘Tell us your story’, the master-class group had advised, so I intended to.

Ten minutes before I was to deliver my speech to the breakfast club I felt surprisingly relaxed, even eager. I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my lines because I was going to make them up as I went along. And the collection of slides I had put together gave me confidence – even I was impressed with the array of creative ventures I had undertaken.

So the speech now contained all my triple A grade material distilled into thirty minutes. I had even plundered my other keynote speech, ‘Assume Nothing’ for its best bits. It all made sense though, nothing was gratuitous or arbitrary.

I felt pretty good as I finished my last line and sat down to my half empty cup of cold coffee to wait out the remaining minutes of the meeting. I felt good but not good enough to prepare me for the feedback from the well wishers who came up to congratulate me afterwards. I was astonished. Every single accolade was offered. A man introduced himself and said it was a pleasure to meet someone who knew how to use PowerPoint properly (boy, that felt good). Another said that he was already sitting up during my presentation but when my first slide came on of my own work he sat up even more (what a master stroke it was to follow the master-class advice). A couple of people asked if they could have a copy of one particular slide which was a caricature of me as a mad scientist concocting a distillate of creativity (see above).

Driving home I was higher than the moon. It felt like my speaking career had just experienced the orgasm of its conception and was on its journey of development into a fabulous creature that had its own glittering destiny ahead of it. Success is the most powerful aphrodisiac known to creativity. Today has seen an orgy of ideas that danced and mated with each other and produced offspring that will enhance and improve the presentation even further.

I kid you not, SatNav for the Soul® is now a killer presentation who’s time has come. Its message is pure crack cocaine to those people stuck in the senseless loop traffic around the Capitalist city of Consumerism.

I’m ready.

Blogging clichés

Monday, April 20th, 2009

The internet is just a macrocosm of the pub.

In any pub there are cliques. Usually those cliques are job-centric or club-centric; everyone either works for the same firm or is in the same industry. Or maybe they all belong to the same family.

If you are outside a clique, it can be hard to enter it, sometimes even when you are from the same background.

The thing is, these cliques have a self congratulatory feedback loop. Look at the blogroll of any prominent blogger from any industry and they mostly point to blogs of their friends or colleagues who are in the same business and who’s blogrolls all point back.

Seems reasonable enough, you might think. You look for what you are interested in and discount that which you are not or disagree with.

This worries me though when it is applied to critical thinking of any sort, especially science. Science is at its best when it looks for contradictions or evidence which challenges a theory and addresses them. Most scientists though just look for confirmation of their theory and try to ignore anything which looks like an anomaly. Darwin was brilliant at checking apparent anomalies, this is why the theory of evolution is so robust. This can save a lot of time and effort in the long run because it could mean the original premise of the theory was wrong or incomplete.

Human nature doesn’t work like that though. We like to congregate with our chums, with people who think like us. It takes an effort to be curious about other cultures, about other disciplines, about other ideas.

If you are in the creative industries, your blogroll should reflect your wide ranging tastes and interests. Beware the creative practitioner who has a blogroll that leads back to himself.

Better check mine I suppose.

Match of the day

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Red top banner

THOSE MUPPETS AT THE BBC, WHAT DO THEY THINK THEY ARE PLAYING AT? DON’T THEY KNOW HOW TO PUT A PROGRAMME TOGETHER?

I WATCH MOTD TO SEE EDITED HIGHLIGHTS OF A GAME AND FIND OUT WHO WON, LOST OR GOT SENT OFF. AND THAT’S WHAT I GET, EXCEPT, AFTER THE HIGHLIGHTS, THEY THEN INTERVIEW THE MANAGERS WHO USUALLY DESCRIBE WHAT WE HAVE JUST SEEN!

“WE SCORED LATE ON.” ONE MIGHT SAY. YES WE BLOODY KNOW THAT, IT IS THE ONE REASON WHY WE WATCH THIS PROGRAMME, TO FIND OUT WHO SCORED AND WHEN! WHY DON’T YOU TELL US SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW?

SOMETIMES THEY INTERVIEW A PLAYER WHO IS HIGHLY PAID FOR PLAYING FOOTBALL AND NOT FOR GIVING INTERVIEWS. WATCHING THEM DRIBBLE IN THIS CONTEXT IS NOT AS ENTERTAINING.

WHY DOES THE BBC WASTE MY TIME WITH THESE STUPID INTERVIEWS? AAH.. IT ALL BECOMES CLEAR. WHAT ARE THOSE BOARDS BEHIND THE INTERVIEWEES? THEY’RE PLASTERED WITH LOTS OF LOGO’S FROM RICH AND POWERFUL COMPANIES. I GET IT, THE BBC ISN’T SUPPOSED TO ADVERTISE SO IT KEEPS THE SPONSORS SWEET BY STICKING THESE BOARDS BEHIND THE DINGBATS BEING INTERVIEWED.

SO IT’S NOT ABOUT INTERVIEWS AT ALL, IT’S ABOUT KEEPING A LOGO ON SCREEN FOR AT LEAST ONE MINUTE. AND WE’RE TOO STUPID TO NOTICE. DARN IT, THAT BBC IS TOO CLEVER FOR ME!

Oiling the wood

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Hardwood chair

I love this time of year. Everything is burgeoning with joyful life. The promise of fecundity is palpable. Hope springs eternal in the lengthening days.

It’s at this time of year that the garden furniture comes out. I’m ashamed to say, that we have a table and four chairs made out of hardwood. We bought the set several years ago before my environmental standards rose to a level that would now forbid me to buy such a precious resource. At the time though, my standards were such that I ensured the furniture at least had a ‘wood from a sustainable forest’ logo.

And so, to bastardise a popular slogan, hardwood is for life, not just for a summer (or two). As I now have this precious resource it is incumbent upon me to preserve it and make sure it does last a lifetime, hence the annual tradition of oiling the wood.

Such is the joy of getting out the furniture and basking in the early summer sun that the hour or two I spend impregnating the wood with the oil is more of a recreational pursuit than a chore. The oil preserves the colour of the wood, is good for the whole summer and if it means several more hardwood trees remain in the forest then I will sleep a little better in the balmy, tranquil nights of a warm summer.

Someone will spoil it now by leaving a comment about the oil being environmentally unfriendly or something. Well, better to know than not.

Speaking in schools

Monday, April 6th, 2009

The map is not the territory

The road to Wetherby was my road to Damascus. On this journey I saw the light. A blinding light.

Wetherby High School had booked me to speak to their Key Stage 4 students. I had no idea what Key Stage 4 was. I had never spoken in a school before.

I was to deliver my new keynote presentation, SatNav for the Soul®, which basically points out to people that consumerism has us imprisoned and is slowly starving us to death spiritually and creatively. The keynote was originally written for adults caught up in corporate purgatory but after I had presented it to a Rotary club and an audience member told me afterwards that he wanted his teenage son to hear it, I wondered if adolescents would find the message instructive too. It was then that I looked to present it in schools.

Getting into schools though proved incredibly difficult and it was only through Richard McCann, a fellow speaker, that I managed to get the Wetherby gig.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day was understandably wary of letting anyone run loose with the young minds of her impressionable charges and so she asked to see a transcript of SatNav for the Soul®. which I duly sent her. After reading it, she acknowledged it was a good message but thought it might be too erudite for fifteen and sixteen year olds and suggested that I ‘dumb it down a bit’. As I had learned the speech by rote, I resolved to change one or two words for simpler ones where I could remember to do so. There wasn’t enough time to memorise an alternate version. She then asked me if I had any slides to go with the speech. I said no, I was simply going to deliver it verbatim as the transcript. She balked at this and suggested I source some images as teenagers today are largely visual and holding their attention without them would prove a major challenge. There was only a couple of days to go before I was supposed to deliver.

I had deliberately avoided using any slides as I wanted to keep the presentation as simple as possible technically but I took her advice and looked at developing some memorable slides. This was the first flash of light.

When I started to think about how I could enhance an important section, the images began to take on a life of their own. It was fun creating alternative ways of looking at things. I ruthlessly followed the basic ground rules of slides; no more than six words per slide, avoid just repeating what you have already said, etc and I started to collect an impressive collection of images. Many a difficult concept was magically simplified with a well thought out cartoon, something I could execute in a few minutes being an accomplished artist. I also discovered slides were a great aide memoir should I forget where I was in the speech. I was ready.

On the day, I was to present two sessions, one immediately before lunch and one immediately after lunch. The morning session I delivered as I would do for an adult audience, reciting the speech as I had memorised it but changing the odd big word here and there for a simpler one. I could see that the four or five teachers present in the audience were thoroughly absorbed in the speech and following every word but some of the kids looked blank. By the end of the presentation the students started to get restless and I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to hold their attention throughout.

Over lunch I spoke to Peter Muddiman, the teacher who booked me, and he said the language was still too dense, the speech would have been fine at a conference of teachers but adolescents were an entirely different box of frogs. The epilogue, he said, sounded like poetry and went way over the heads of the kids. The next group were a year younger and they were going to find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow any of that.

A year younger!? My heart plunged to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. I would never hold their attention; a year can make a huge difference to someone’s understanding of the world. I realised I would either have to present it as rehearsed and subject them to forty minutes of incomprehensible ‘poetry’ or… or what?

I didn’t want to do the second session, I wanted to go home and debrief. But then a strange thing happened. I decided that I had to do it, no matter what. I couldn’t let people down. But I couldn’t present it as it was, I had to change it radically and I had five minutes in which to think up how. The light started to get brighter.

I decided to throw out the script and speak from the heart using my slides as a reference. This was frightening for me because I wanted to present certain complex concepts in a particular order using precise language, that is why I had learned the speech by rote. Improvising was a dangerous, unknown quantity. An eerie calm flooded through me as I realised I was crossing the Rubicon. I was perfectly relaxed as the children filed into the hall and I prepared to deliver the second session.

One of the teachers from the first session spoke to me as he walked past and said, “I’m looking forward to hearing this again”.

“Oh, it will be different this time.” I answered somewhat taken aback.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day came in last and told me that she had had good feedback (I reasoned this has to be from the teachers, as a lot of students looked indifferent) and that she would sit in on this one.

“…and so give a warm welcome to Ivor Tymchak…”

Still calm, I dived in. And hey! the water was warm! I launched into my subject matter. And what’s this? Hey! I can swim!

I felt like a session musician who had only ever followed the dots previously but suddenly learned, to his astonishment, that he could play improvised jazz. Because I had to rephrase practically everything in simpler language, the words were fresh and vital and I could look directly into the childrens’ eyes and divine if they had grasped the concept or not. If they had not, I explained the concept again using a different analogy. I left out huge chunks of the presentation which I thought were just too far removed from their everyday experience to be of any relevance. When I had finished, I was astonished to discover that the length of the second session was still forty minutes long – how come?

Speaking to Peter Muddiman afterwards (who listened to both sessions) he said the second session was far better for the kids and that I took the time to explain the concepts until they were understood. As an adult, he preferred the first session but from a child’s point of view the second session was much more accessible.

He told me he was impressed with way I had managed to shift gears so suddenly and come up with virtually, an entirely new presentation.

I must confess, I surprised myself too with my new found ability to improvise. It was one of those life enhancing moments, where you let go of something precious, only to discover that by letting go you have found something even more precious.

I’m already working on the revised version of the presentation. It will have more interaction, practical demonstrations and challenging puzzles. It will be ten times better than my last presentation, for on that day in Wetherby, I put away manish things and became a playful child.