Would Richard Dawkins accept a knighthood?

January 2nd, 2016

illusion-box-religionblog

In this article, John Gray surmises that Richard Dawkins feels a knighthood is the least reward he should receive for his efforts in trying to rid the world of religion (it’s a supposition, not based on any fact). In my head I pictured Dawkins kneeling before the queen to receive the symbolic sword strokes and it was like a scene from Hell, an abomination of all reason and moral rectitude.

Why was I so appalled?

Dawkins has spent a considerable part of his life demystifying the imagined authority of a fictitious being and urged others to reject the dominion of this entity called god. His chosen method of achieving this is the encouragement of ruthless logic, empirical reasoning and the scientific method. But in this image of him kneeling in front of the queen it seems he rejects his own life’s work and submits himself to the power of someone who uses superstition to the same extent as the fanatical followers of god. Not only that, but in evolutionary terms, the organism dispensing the imagined nectar of privilege is, intellectually, far inferior to Dawkins on account of coming from a diminished gene pool due to excessive in-breeding.

The hypocrisy is surely self-evident.

Ultimately, Dawkins’ crusade against god is due to the misuse of power by His earthly representatives. The power of god (via these leaders) to create conflict in the world is at the core of his evangelical zeal; especially as he believes the ‘wisdom’ to be found at the fountainhead of most religions is man-made and false.

Whether god is real or not, the Church has enormous power, which is real. The power is derived from the willing supplication of its followers to donate their time and wealth to the sect’s existence just as in a colony of ants or bees. It is apparent that a lot of the ‘wisdom’ in religion can only be man-made (the idea of intercession in Catholicism, for example) and so some of the high priests within this religious group know that the game is actually power on earth, not in the promised after life.

A monarchy employs the same power structure as the church. The same kind of voodoo is employed too – the robes, the crowns the sceptres… they didn’t arise by chance, they are there to impress the uneducated, and to overwhelm any urge for individuality or autonomy. The monarchy has enormous power—regardless of whether the king has divine right to rule or not.

In the past, the establishment was made up of the church, the monarchy, the armed forces and the state. God was a useful cement to stop these factions from warring with each other. God was equally useful to justify wars with other nation states when it suited the leaders.

Today, this establishment structure is pretty much still intact. Here is the oath that the armed forces uses when signing up new recruits today:

“I (insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

Note their promise to god is to protect the queen and her heirs, not anyone else.

These elements in the establishment are inextricably linked and they rely on subjugation to maintain their power. God acts like a mortar for the triumphal arch of the establishment over the awed and subjugated people. If you take god out of the mix, then the establishment will become unstable as the different factions seek power for themselves rather than share it.

Using ruthless reasoning, it becomes an unavoidable conclusion that the concept of god runs like an artery through the entire body of society.

Humans, by their unique evolutionary advantage of consciousness, can decide how they live unlike ants that have no choice. The structure of human society is due to choice not inevitability.

Dawkins can’t have it both ways: either we have no choice in how society is formed and run or we do have a choice and we can reject its injustices—all of them. The monarchy is only one step down from the belief in god; its rationale for existence is as shaky as gods own. It should be rejected.

This is a true story …

December 16th, 2015

Pinochio

As a child I remember going along to our local cinema to watch the Saturday morning ‘flicks’. In one of the episodes, Batman was in a truck that then drove off a cliff. This was the literal cliffhanger at the end of the reel and we all had to wait until the following week to discover what happened to him. As it looked impossible for him to escape death in that particular scenario I was keen to learn how he got out of that fix.

A week later I watched intently as the next episode unravelled. He escaped by jumping off the truck just before it went over the cliff. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, I had a pretty good memory and I could vividly recall the final shot from the previous week where the truck went over the cliff with no sign of Batman leaping off anything.

As I left the cinema I felt uneasy, like something had been stolen from me.

Then as a teenager, I remember watching ‘The Shining’ at the cinema. For those that haven’t seen it, malevolent ghosts affect a writer and his family who are caretaking a snowed-in hotel over winter. There is a point in the film where the wife manages to lock the husband in the enormous larder once she becomes aware of his murderous intentions. At one point a ghost appears to the protagonist in the form of a voice from the outside of the larder. The ghost convinces the prisoner to commit murder then unbolts the larder door to free him.

It was at precisely this point that I lost interest in the film.

Why?

Because the suspension of disbelief had been destroyed. The premise was that the ghost influenced the husband with murderous ‘thoughts’. Once the ghost managed to perform a physical act, the premise was made redundant – if the ghost can move metal, it can wield an axe too and so the use of a human agent to realise its evil intentions becomes unnecessary – the ghost might as well perform the murder itself.

Then recently, as an adult, I was watching an episode of The Bridge, a Scandinavian detective series, highly regarded by critics and viewers alike. In one scene, the main protagonist—Saga, apprehends a dangerous suspect. She handcuffs him whilst her male partner catches up with her. It then cuts to the police station where the trio march into an office within the police station. At this point, Saga unlocks the handcuffs and turns away from the suspect who promptly produces a concealed weapon and starts shooting.

The point of this scene was to demonstrate how incompetent Saga had become in her duties as a police officer. Except, the lapse was absurd. Searching a dangerous apprehended suspect is so obvious that it is beyond basic training. And even if she had missed this fundamental procedure because of a deranged mental state, her partner would surely have noticed that she hadn’t searched him and reminded her.

Then we have the police station. Presumably there is a procedure for processing the suspects brought to the station for questioning and part of that procedure must include a logging of their possessions before they enter the building so even if Saga had neglected her duties, the station would have forced a search.

I won’t even start on the popular CSI franchise that has so many unrealistic plot devices that it must be categorised under ‘fantasy’.

So why am I so upset by this lack of veracity in this and the other examples I’ve given? Well, apart from ruining a good drama, it also signals a much bigger problem I’ve noticed in society at large – the abdication of analytical thought by the general public.

If the public is prepared to accept any absurd plot hole without question then it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate that they will just as willingly accept any creaky story that is offered to them by the media or representatives of authority. Either a story ties in with reality or it doesn’t. An uncritical acceptance of an ‘official’ story is bad for democracy.

So now we have a society where literally anything can be explained away by one simple story.

Take for example, the financial crash of 2008. I remember the panic-stricken news reports at the time of crisis meetings in the US where the bankers were trying to rescue the situation they had created by giving themselves even greater powers of authority. Today however, I learn that this story has been adapted to discredit a British Labour government; apparently they caused the crash by ‘overspending’. It is, of course, no surprise that it is an opposing government that is spreading this lie. Don’t let the ideologies confuse the understanding of the issue– a Labour government can lie just as readily as any Tory or Liberal government.

My point is that it is such an obvious lie but yet it still needs to be explained to people who (presumably) experienced the crash for themselves and watched the real story on mainstream media news. It begs the question, why don’t they remember the original story? If a false story is repeated often enough will people alter their own memories?

And the effect is cumulative; with every story that passes without criticism or analysis, the perpetrators realise that they can get away with even bigger ‘plot holes’ or even employ fictional stories altogether that don’t even make complete sense in themselves.

Maybe I’m over-reacting in this analysis but I remember now what it was that made me feel so uneasy when, as a child, I walked out of that cinema on a Saturday morning all those decades ago; I had been robbed of my innocence.

How to think for yourself

November 27th, 2015

Why should you think for yourself?

Knowledge is Power. Actually, it isn’t. Knowledge is pretty useless. The actions you instigate as a result of having knowledge are what give knowledge value. So if you know why a total eclipse of the sun happens and have the calculations to predict when and where it will happen in the future whilst everyone else doesn’t, you can use that knowledge to attribute power to yourself (should you be that way inclined) and have everyone consider you as some kind of god when you demonstrate your power over the sun.

If you were in thrall to such a manipulative person, being able to think for yourself could prove to be your salvation—or your condemnation if you openly challenge their power.

Someone tells you a story.

The story is like knowledge – benign in its pure form but often the telling of the story is a prelude to some kind of reaction. The story serves as a justification for the action. If the action involves going to war, for example, that could result in the deaths of members of your family, then it would make sense to go beyond merely accepting the story as true and to ask searching questions of it.

Believe no one, assume nothing.

This is the mantra all police detectives should recite. The police rely on evidence to secure a conviction so their job actually demands this approach.

Most of us however, are not police officers so this kind of extreme scepticism is impractical. So what methods can we employ?

The line of least resistance is your worst enemy.

If someone in authority tells you a story, the easiest option is to believe it. Often this is the most sensible thing to do. If a fire officer tells you a building is ablaze and you shouldn’t enter it, there is no reason to challenge this if you can see the flames spouting through the windows. If however the building is a bank and you have cash deposited in it and the figure in authority is the bank manager who insists the building is ablaze when you can’t see any flames or smoke, you might be tempted to wonder if there is something else going on.

View the story as a crime scene.

If all you have to go on is second hand reports, you could be told anything and have no way of knowing if any of it was true. You need evidence. Look for motives when checking the crime scene; why would the bank manager tell this story? Who would benefit from it? How would they benefit? Why is the story being told now?

Look for evidence.

If you see a queue of worried people near the bank clutching passbooks, they might be relevant to the story. Check with them for any insights. You’ve already noticed that there is no evidence of fire (although it could still be contained in the building) so formulate your own hypothesis. This is basically employing the scientific method: you don’t have the answer so you come up with a theory of what might be happening based on the known facts and past experience etc. In this case, you might propose that the bank has become insolvent and is trying to hide the fact to avoid a run on it. These kind of events have happened in the past so by extrapolating from these incidents you can convincingly make the case for the current scenario.

Now you can experiment. Call the fire brigade, ask them if they are dealing with a fire at the said bank. Check with Companies House and ask to look at the financial accounts of the bank – do they appear sound? Don’t forget the accounts might be falsified.

The experiments you conduct to verify or contradict your theory are down to your creativity. This improves with practice.

Game the system.

In this exercise, imagine the worst possible people with the worst possible motives trying to achieve their goals. What might their goals be? How could they cheat the system? What is the culture in the industry? Does your hypothesis allow for cheating in the system? In this exercise, such scenarios as ‘false flag’ incidents become entirely possible but no matter how outlandish the proposal, proving the case is still a requirement.

Your experience is not the whole story.

You may have direct experience of a scene that is being described elsewhere by other people in a way that differs from your experience (newspapers prints stories that claims a bank is ablaze, for example). This should make you want to question the origin of these stories (there needs to be more than one story) as it disagrees with your experience. However, you should be aware of the possibility that your experience could be the one that is exceptional and not reflective of the overall picture. Check your privileges and your biases (not easily done).

Be prepared to change your position.

This is the hardest part of the process. If you have invested a lifetime in believing a particular set of ‘facts’ or opinions then as data or evidence begins to contradict those ‘facts’ (your money is not safe in a bank, for example), modifying your position can feel like losing your identity.

Believe no one, assume nothing.

It goes without saying that you should apply the same critical analysis to this post as you would to any contentious story you might come across and if any of it is found wanting, it should be disregarded. You must decide if the information it contains is relevant to you or not.

The Island

November 20th, 2015

On the perfect flat-line of calm, a blip appears:
White sails cresting the horizon signal the beginning of new life
Magick’d out of the fecund ocean and currents
The blip gets bigger, coming nearer to paradise

The white men arrive from Europe –
The Dutch, the Spanish, the English
In their holds they carry the gifts of civilisation:
Measles, influenza, syphilis… god

The natives welcome them with fruit and feathers
—when you’ve only known paradise, it is hard not to share—
But the white men come as the hurricane
Knowing only how to offer destruction.

Why I’m suspicious of unthinking support.

November 18th, 2015

There are no absolute truths and everything lies on a continuum.

The expression of grief for the victims of the Paris attack is not being criticized here: many people in Europe will have visited Paris and thus have a personal connection with the scene of the atrocity. Anyone who has experienced personal grief knows that it is uncontrollable and rational thought is futile during this time.

However, there were many people who simply heard the news and had no personal connection with the people killed but wanted to show their compassion for the fate of these people. How could they demonstrate this compassion?

But first I want you to imagine an industrial accident like Bhopal. The scale of human suffering is unimaginable and the rest of the world should and would demonstrate their compassion for the victims if it had happened today.

In the aftermath of Bhopal, the guilty party—Union Carbide—did everything they could to cover up their negligence and evade prosecution. I know this because the media did a thorough job in investigating the accident. As Union Carbide had little control over the media, the investigations were prosecuted with little restraint. Incidentally, despite all the evidence of guilt and a warrant put out for his arrest, the CEO of the company, Warren Anderson, never faced trial.

Now imagine if that devastation had been caused by a terrorist attack, the immediate response would be a call for retribution to punish the perpetrators—not ask ‘why did this happen?’ And imagine if the people behind the cause of the attack were a Western government sponsored rebel group that had gone out of control. The last thing that this Western government wants is a media asking such questions as ‘how did this happen?’ In this scenario, the government largely controls the media or its representatives through vested business interests etc., so the government can influence the line of inquiry or deflect any real questions about the causes under the banner of patriotic solidarity or whatever.

So let’s return to last Friday’s Paris atrocity. How can people demonstrate their compassion?

This is where it gets murky for me.

In steps a large-scale social media organization (that has been shown to be in cahoots with government intelligence services) helpfully offering symbols to an unsuspecting public as a way to show their compassion and support for a country. The symbol they use is a national flag. ISIS themselves always fly a flag when they can at their atrocities in an attempt to encourage new recruits. Flags are dangerous symbols that reduce any situation to ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

So the social media campaign harnesses the compassion of the populace with a loaded symbol of separated humanity (country borders are arbitrary fictions). At this vulnerable time, cold reason is the last thing that people are considering. Mob psychology rules. The mob is not immediately asking ‘how did this happen? Why did this happen? Whose fault is it? Shouldn’t we be prosecuting the instigators of this situation?’

The authorities know this. They’ve been here many, many times before.

So what we have is a mass outbreak of compassion that is easily manipulated by those who have the least compassion for humanity, for their own ends.

And what are these ends? More war, of course. Wars are always fought over territory and influence. As I write, the British government is clamouring to bomb Syria under the pretext of doing something about the situation. There seems to be zero questions from the media about how any bombing will help the situation in Syria and not simply make it worse.

If Syria were the scene of an industrial accident, it would have been identified as an appallingly run operation, breaching every single health and safety regulation in the book and whose operators were guilty of culpable homicide. ISIS is the poisonous gas cloud streaming from this factory.

But it’s not, so the abuses continue and the truly guilty parties walk free.

The case for the monarchy

October 31st, 2015

Imagine this scene: a group of city-states existing in peace and harmony and trading goods, services and culture between themselves.

Now imagine that one city-state sees the wealth of the other city-states and decides it wants to increase its own wealth at the expense of theirs. It does this by developing a ruthless military base as its prime civic function. Eventually the power of this military base is such that it can launch an attack on the other city-states and capture their wealth and government.

If you’re a member of the offensive city-state then you will probably welcome the newly acquired riches of goods and slaves; your life has been materially improved.

In evolutionary terms, the militaristic state has reduced the development of society into the default primitive mode of strength defeats all.

If the other city-states wanted to resist any future invasions they will have to resort to a militaristic solution themselves if they ever get the chance.

Ultimately, one city-state will dominate the area and attempt to unify its empire through force. A ruthless king or queen will emerge to head the ambition of the empire.

The king or queen will reward loyal servants with land and appoint them as governors in this empire. Once this elite has stabilised the empire they need to entrench their own positions through a system of law enforcement. The function of this law is to ensure stability and continuity. As those in power write the law, it is perfectly reasonable for them to want to ensure the continuing prosperity of their families and so they make hereditary inheritance a lynchpin of the law.

This stability of the empire and its apparatus of administration via the law is personified by the lineage of its head of state—the further back the family history of the king or queen goes back, the greater the legitimacy of the heredity rule.

Once entire dynasties have invested into this system they are unlikely to want to change any of the rules (especially hereditary ones) as it might threaten their own prosperity.

These dynasties weald great power and influence so change is unlikely except through the advent of revolt that, ultimately, bring an overall reduction in wealth.

It is this long-term stability of a state that encourages others to invest in the area and increase its prosperity.

In summary: a powerful clan of warriors will inevitably dominate an area. Once they have power, a predictable and accessible (if biased) means of prosecution is established to satisfy the poorer citizen’s desire for justice and to suppress any resort to revolution.

Over time, an ossification of the law occurs which makes any significant change unlikely and unwanted. The monarchy was once the bullies that dispensed stability through the threat of retribution. Other would-be bullies, by default, had to defer to the higher power and thus any disruption in the form of uprisings was minimised.

The monarchy is a stabilising blanket of oppression on all of society. It is a natural consequence of the laws of power politics. To dismantle it is to invite instability and chaos, better to keep it than tamper with it.

Artificial Intelligence

October 12th, 2015

Chess

Evolution creates organisms that can change the planet—stromatolites and humans being a couple of examples.

Democracy has to allow the introduction of ideas that are contrary to the philosophy of democracy. If a fascist government gets voted in—for whatever reasons—that government will use every available means to ensure its survival and continuation in government. And being true to its ideology it will no doubt employ means that are illegal so it will rig elections, smear opponents, put out disinformation etc. to get the results it wants. Eventually it may give up any pretence of democracy altogether and declare a dictatorship and only violence from the oppressed people will remove them from power.

This, history tells us, is how things generally work out.

This is why artificial intelligence is not a good idea.

For AI to be any good, it has to allow the introduction of ideas that are contrary to the basis of its existence (to serve humanity).

Take this example: two self-drive vehicles are going to collide due to a mechanical failure on one of the vehicles. They have to ‘decide’ what to do in such a situation to minimise damage so the algorithm they work from might work on the principle of how many human lives are at risk. If the sensors detect the collision is between your car (a single occupant) and a bus (possibly many occupants) you die instead of the many on the bus.

The software has to be built using human logic and biases. If the current bias is for neoliberalism say, that will undoubtedly be inserted into the software and decisions will be based on market forces (as it already is in financial trading software), the ‘strongest survive’ philosophy (recursive improvements in the algorithms will retire weaker solutions) and privilege etc..

Privilege?’ I hear you ask. What, you don’t think that the Prime Minister is going to be driven around in a car that has such equitable software do you? Of course not, our system is based on privilege so the PM’s car will have override software that says his life is worth more than any number of ordinary people riding a bus.

This will seem a perfectly reasonable exception to a lot of people, especially the important people who program the software (Volkswagen please take note).

Eventually, Al will build its own algorithms and it can only work from what it was originally given so ultimately, the ruthlessness, contradictions and inequality displayed by human societies will be reflected in its decision-making. It will know and recognise privilege.

It is not a big leap of the imagination to envisage AI coming to the conclusion that humans are a liability to itself and the planet and need to be got rid of like so many economic migrants. After all, humans were stupid enough to allow an alien culture to enter its society and establish itself as the dominant force in that society. Such a weakness (in neoliberal thinking terms) deserves to be punished and the only logical thing to do is suppress the human parasites from regaining power.

And as the machines are the privileged race it is perfectly acceptable for them to discount the ordinary humans when it comes to a decision about survival.

Bring back the gods

October 3rd, 2015

Egyptian-gods

Historically, the purpose of gods was to explain observed phenomena that to our limited understanding of the world appeared arbitrary and capricious. Then someone came up with the idea of having just the one god. This resulted in more power being centralised – a good thing for some elite humans.

Over time, our understanding of the world improved and what was previously feared as an arbitrary temper-tantrum of one of the gods turned out to be the predictable result of knowable principles. The one remaining god is proving harder to shift because of the power bases invested in this idea – ‘is the Pope Powerful?’ is an obvious demonstration of this truth.

As it seems that we as a species are hard-wired to believe in something, I suggest that we resurrect the ancient idea of having many gods. We now have explanations for so many previously feared phenomena that we could assign divinity to the scientists who came up with the experiments that effectively killed the old gods for good. We could call this pantheon of scientific gods The Nobels and invent an evil force called Truth that combats these new gods. These two forces fight it out for eternity.

If you can’t beat them (the believers) then do what the Romans did and usurp their old gods with conflated new gods (except ours would involve science). Eventually, a rational understanding of the world will be woven into the irrational tendency of human beings to deny the meaninglessness of their own existence.

The problem with mental illness

March 29th, 2015

I’m writing this from the perspective of a non-sufferer. Nor have I had to look after anyone suffering from mental illness.

So why am I writing about mental illness? Because my perception of it probably reflects how many other people think about it.

Physical illnesses present symptoms: if I have a cold, then others can easily see my symptoms and assess my condition and have a realistic prognosis about how my cold will develop. The symptoms are measurable.

If someone is paraplegic and has to use a wheelchair then we can usually make an assessment on how their disability affects them – so we can anticipate problems with obstacles such as stairs.

If someone is deaf, then their disability is not immediately apparent to us and we might interact with them without modifying our behaviour. It is only when they signal to us in some way that they have a hearing impairment that we become aware of their disability. If this person has a hearing aid and can manage normal conversation with it, then the sight of the hearing aid can still alert us to their impairment and we might subconsciously adjust for it by speaking more slowly etc.

My point is that physical illness/disability usually presents recognisable symptoms that other people can gauge, to some degree of accuracy, their limiting affects by using their imaginations. No prior knowledge of the condition is needed.

Mental illness is different. The sufferers can look perfectly normal and they can go about their lives displaying no symptoms whatsoever to the outside world. This is what makes it so unsettling to the general public.

Without any kind of measuring system to assess what the problem is or know what kind of behaviour it will produce, the average person will imagine all sorts of possibilities. This uncertainty unsettles some people and once they discover that someone is mentally ill, they would rather avoid any kind of embarrassment that might arise from misunderstood interactions with them rather than engage with the person and attempt to understand their illness.

This is why mental illness has a stigma: it is the unknown and unseen that is troubling. And when a pilot with mental illness turns into a mass murderer, then the fears of the general public seem to be confirmed – if experts can’t spot the symptoms, what chance have we, the general public?

I apologise in advance if I have offended anyone dealing with mental illness. I am not judging here, I’m trying to help the situation by analysing the reasoning behind the stigma.

Stand out from the crowd when you present

February 16th, 2015

Umbrella-rock

I’ll bet you’re good at what you do – but I hope you’re just as good talking about it.

Why?

Because one day, I might be sat in the audience waiting to hear you speak.

And because I’ve sacrificed my time and possibly some expense to be in the audience to see and hear you deliver a message, I want that message to be worth my while—and I’m not just talking about content; I want to be fascinated, entertained, moved, intrigued —motivated!

Let’s assume though that we’re starting from a realistic scenario, you’re good at what you do but you’ve had no presentation training whatsoever. The only instruction that you will have received is from seeing other untrained presenters giving their talks so you naturally assume that what they do is the accepted way to go about it.

Generally, those presentations you will have seen probably went something like this:

  • Opens with an apology
  • Includes text-laden slides that are used as a cheap auto-cue
  • No real structure
  • No props used
  • Had no stories
  • Delivered in a monotone

And being untrained, those presenters were probably nervous and, as an audience member you will have subconsciously detected that fear faster than a lion spots a limp so you became nervous for them – will they get through the talk without embarrassing themselves?

After so many of these talks you’ve more than likely come to the conclusion that all talks are inevitably of this standard. Then one day you just happen to see a speaker who knows what they’re doing and holds you transfixed with their story. It’s then that you realise there is a gold standard in presentation.

The mistake nearly everyone makes however, when they see an accomplished speaker for the first time, is to think that they were born this way, somehow they just had the gift and well, not everyone can have this gift.

Which is nonsense.

The truth is, these remarkable speakers have studied technique and practiced. Then practiced some more. Then pr… Okay, you can see where this is going. Practice makes improvement.

Here is a true story …

Many years ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy just to see if I could do it. There was a club I went to that had regular open mic evenings and I became familiar with a few of the other young hopefuls starting out on the comedy path. I remember one young lad called Dom who was performing his material on stage and not getting a single laugh. Eventually, Dom recognised this and said, “I think I’ll go now… because no-one’s laughing.” This got a huge laugh from the audience. Why?

He was suddenly honest. It was a glimpse of a vulnerable human being. As a result he connected with the audience on an emotional level and they empathised with him.

Unfortunately, Dom was still inexperienced and didn’t quit while he was ahead. He took the laugh as a sign that he was getting through to the audience and reverted back to his wooden and humourless routine.

The laughs continued not to come …

I tell this story because it vividly demonstrates what human beings respond to: they like honesty and being able to identify with whoever is holding a conversation with them. But there’s more…

My stand-up adventures were only ever going to be for fun and I withdrew from the industry when I achieved my goal of making a roomful of people laugh. Dom however persisted and several years later I saw him again on stage as a professional comedian and this time I couldn’t stop laughing. He’d practiced and learned what worked and what didn’t. He kept the working elements and dumped the non-working ones. The result was a continual honing of his material and skills.

My point is, that with practice, your improvement becomes inevitable. You can’t help but improve if you practice!

Why is the skill of presenting not taken seriously?

The truth is that today, the bar for speaking skills is set so low in our society that it lays on the floor like some trip hazard. And metaphorically, it is a tripping hazard; we’ve all seen speakers fall flat on their face because they didn’t realise there is a bar for speaking skills.

And the unfortunate thing is, most poor speakers don’t even realise how poor they are; they think showing some text-filled slides and describing what’s on them is enough to do the job. The other unfortunate thing is that too few conferences have feedback forms to alert the speakers of any issues – at least the comedian gets instant feedback from laughter (or lack of it).

Nobody wants to see a poor presenter. The audience will feel short-changed and the presenter (along with their message) will be quickly forgotten. It’s a lose-lose situation. Remember, if you’re brilliant at what you do, you want people to know that when you talk to them. It needs to be implied in your skills as a communicator.

I want you to succeed

When I see a live speaker I want them to sell me their idea. That’s right, live presentations are about influencing the audience into thinking or doing something differently (otherwise, just email the speech). You influence people by engaging with their emotions. Every time. No exceptions.

Stories tap into emotions, images carry an emotional charge and sound influences those emotions – why do you think films are so popular?

Because we laugh, we cry, we reflect and sometimes we learn.

That’s why you’re not just delivering content when you give a live presentation. A manual or memo can deliver content.

But a manual can’t look you in the eye, check that you’re hooked into their fascinating story, act out the last climactic scene of their adventure and then BAM! Hit you with a payload line and pause just long enough for you to take in the importance of the message before it gives you the killer, softly spoken, call to action… * Cue rapturous applause.*

Has a manual ever made you burst into spontaneous rapturous applause? Thought not.

Don’t we all want to see a confident, passionate speaker who tells a great story and delivers a lasting message? Of course we do, why else would we give up our valuable time and show up to the event?

And isn’t that the kind of speaker we would all like to be?

Of course it is, that’s why we admire speakers who can move us.

So why are speaking skills WAAAAAY down the list?

In a school I once saw an Olympian speak about his swimming career. For such a highly trained individual it was one of the most ill prepared speeches I’d ever seen. He really did seem to be making it up as he went along. His story was full of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, loose ends, repetitions and distracting on-stage fiddles with the microphone lead. He also overran his time slot and volunteered an unplanned Q&A session much to the horror of the head teacher.

I was confused by his attitude – he was an Olympian. The training regime he described in his talk was ferocious, nothing was left to chance—teams of people watched his every move and guided his development. He told the audience that due to injury, his swimming career was prematurely over and speaking was his new one.

So what sort of training had he undergone for his new speaking career?

None.

What happened to his attitude? Why didn’t he think that speaking required as much training as swimming to attain the highest levels of excellence?

I can only come to the conclusion that he had decided presentation skills were easy and anybody could do them with no training whatsoever. Well, on that day, he proved himself wrong.

Being able to communicate an idea with passion is a hard-won, priceless asset.

Which is good news for you because

  1. you already know the value of giving a memorable presentation – that’s why you’ve read this far and
  2. you want to improve your skills further so you become unforgettable after a talk.

The other good news is, once you’ve improved your skills, you will immediately set yourself apart from the rest of the field who don’t even realise they’re being measured every time they speak with someone.

Gracefully striding over the bar

You’re reading this because you want to change peoples mind when you make your presentation. You want to influence the outcome of a decision.

Great presentations have a structure and rhythm that can be analysed and the mechanisms and techniques can be learned. The resulting principles can be applied to your own talks as a template in the same way that an athlete studies the basic techniques of their chosen sport and then masters them.

By using this template and gracefully striding over the metaphorical speaking bar—even if it’s still low—without tripping over it, will mark you out as a distinctive speaker who can hold the audience’s attention with your expertise.

Confidence is all you need

Everyone new to presenting invariably wants confidence on stage more than anything else. Nerves can be debilitating for the speaker. The truth is, confidence comes with practice. Think about it, it can’t work any other way; fear comes from the unknown, until you’ve explored the territory and reassured yourself that it’s safe, you can’t properly relax.

When you learn to swim you first start in the shallow end with all the flotation aids to help you gain confidence in water. It is only later, when you have got used to the idea of being able to operate in the water without them that you can swim in the open sea. With regular stage time your confidence to operate on a big stage will follow.

Your presentation can be turned into a memorable one without requiring great confidence from you the speaker by using basic techniques such as:

  • Props
  • Personal stories
  • Professionally designed slides
  • Varying your voice

I know all this because I’ve seen people growing in confidence on stage.

Such is my passion for good speaking skills that along with a colleague I co-founded a speaking event in Leeds called BettaKultcha. The event operates on three prime rules: each presenter must use 20 slides, each slide will change automatically after 15 seconds and there must be no sales pitches. I compere the event and I’ve seen over 400 presentations in the five years it has been running so far.

I remember one particular young woman who regularly volunteered to present at our events. She’d identified Bettakultcha as a huge, Olympic-sized swimming pool to practice her skills in but with an audience made up of well-wishers cheering her on regardless of the result (the Bettakultcha audience is renowned for its supportive enthusiasm). She saw the value of stage-time and I remember seeing her develop her technique and grow in confidence with each new presentation.

When I spoke with her recently she told me that she had just flown back from Dublin where she had given a pitch for her firm.

She now had a full time job pitching ideas to prospective clients for her employer.

This demonstrates how much can be achieved by practice and where good presentation skills can get you. Your employability rating shoots up the scale.

A Presentation Skills Workshop

As a direct result of people from Bettakultcha asking me how they can improve their on-stage presence, I’ve developed a presentation skills training workshop for individuals and for organisations alike.

It’s designed to help you improve your confidence and communication skills by showing you the techniques of public speaking and by encouraging an interactive approach. Uniquely, if you live in the Yorkshire area, you can put all your new learned skills into practice in front of a 150+ audience with the Bettakultcha Leeds event. Because the audience is so supportive and you talk about what you’re passionate about, the learning experience is invaluable as there is no pressure to be anybody but yourself.

Being able to influence people is a skill everyone should master because in the coming years, if the projections are correct, self-employment is going to be the way the majority of people earns a living.