It’s graduation time around the United States, and while many speeches are forgettable, some of them stick. Dean James Ryan’s speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education ceremony was one such speech. Dean Ryan’s central message is that developing an ability for asking good questions is key to one’s path to success and fulfillment. "I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask,” he says. The entire 24-min speech is here, but it is this six-minute section below that resonates most with me and many others. In this section Ryan says he believes there are five essential questions that we must regularly ask ourselves. Ryan's claim is that, if we get in the habit of asking these questions, we’ll have a great chance of being both successful and happy. And, he says, we’ll be in a better position to answer “I did” to the bonus question at the end of his list of five. (A summary of his list of five follow the video.)
(1) Wait, what? "Wait what is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding,” Ryan says. "The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.” Many of us often have an unconscious bias toward information which confirms our own views about the world. In the 21st-century where social media allows completely made up “facts” to be circulated unabated, it's more important than ever to slow down, and to stop, and to question anything which seems too good (or bad) to be true.
(2) I wonder, why/if? "Asking 'I wonder why' is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking 'I wonder if' is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world. As in, I wonder why our schools are so segregated, and I wonder if we could change this?” This is perhaps the most fundamental question of all. This is one of the most powerful questions an educated person—regardless of their schooling—can ask. Questions such as: Is it so (I wonder)? Is it really true? How do I know that it’s so? What would happen if__? We begin tackling the really big problems in the world—and the big problems in our personal lives—with the smallest of questions: I wonder why/if?
(3) Couldn’t we at least? "It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in 'couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about strategy?'” This is a way to obtain some common ground and make progress, no matter how small. Ryan says that it’s also an approach for getting unstuck or for getting started in the first place. I have found this to be a mind-hack of sorts. One of our biggest obstacles to progress in our work is procrastination. Most of us procrastinate because we focus on the enormity of the project or on it’s conclusion, a conclusion about which we are uncertain. So instead of focusing on finishing the project, simply concentrate on getting started instead. Just start it, you tell yourself, don’t worry about how it progresses or about the long road to finish it. Simply start. When you tell yourself that you’ll just get started for a bit and not worry about the size and perceived difficulties of the entire project, it’s very easy to sit down and just have a go at it. Often, we’ll surprise ourselves which just how much progress we make when our only aim was merely to "at least get started."
(4) How can I help? "We shouldn’t let the real pitfalls of the savior complex extinguish one of the most humane instincts there is,” says Ryan, "the instinct to lend a hand.” A yearning to help and to make a difference in the lives of others is what fundamentally drives most of us. But, says Ryan, we must remain humble and truly listen with our eyes, ears, and heart to see where we can help best. “…how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask 'how' you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction."
(5) What really matters? "This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions.” This is a question that we need to ask ourselves more than only occasionally. These days, professionals and students are asked to do more (or at least are enticed to do more). It’s easy to get pulled in many directions and to attempt to do too much. I say it a lot but if everything is important to you then nothing is important to you. Life is about making hard choices. This is true for business and it is true in life. We must learn to remove that which is not essential to our answer to the question “What really matters to me?” Clarity, simplicity, and focus are crucial for staying on your own path to what really matters.
Bonus question: “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” Here Dean Ryan recalls a passage in a poem by Raymond Carver that reads: "And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?” The “even so” tag, says Ryan, is a reminder that life even at its best is filled with pain, sorrow, and disappointments. Still, even so, are you living a fulfilling life? "My claim is that if you regularly ask: wait, what, I wonder, couldn’t we at least, how can I help, and what really matters, when it comes time to ask yourself 'And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?' your answer will be I ‘did.'"
Brett Ledbetter is a former college basketball player and author of the book What Drives Winning. I stumbled upon his TEDx talk somehow recently and I’m glad I did because it’s well worth watching. Brett's presentation showed good preparation with a useful message, effective use of visuals, and a passionate, engaging delivery in front of a group of young people. Anyone will find the content useful, but younger people (and teachers) may find it especially helpful, even if only as a reminder. Brett talks about Basketball, but that is not the message. The message is not even just about sport, the message can be applied to life and work in general. Watch the video below or on TED.
Brett captured my interest in the first two-minutes by discussing the idea of each individual’s inner voice or private voice (or internal monologue). He asked us to question just how helpful our private voice really is. Here he introduced through video Dr. Jim Loehr. Loeher asks us if we would be proud to have the words of our inner voice broadcast on a wall for everyone to see, especially in tough times. He asks us to question whether our private voice is the kind of person that is really helping us out or is it breaking us down. I have to admit that this idea really made me think and feel a bit ashamed that often my inner voice is often not the kind of person I’d want to be around even today. When I was much younger — like the people in his audience — my inner voice was not a positive contributor all too often. So right away I was interested in Brett’s message.
I also loved the way he introduced the idea of process vs. results/goals by showing a basketball coach who maintains the same reaction to great failure and great success all within seconds of a thrilling finish of a basketball game. (Very effective use of the video.) Focusing on the process and the moment rather than worrying about victory or failure reminded me of this old Daisetz Suzuki quote: “The waters are in motion all the time but the moon retains its serenity." (See: Steve Jobs and the art of the swordsman).
“Winning is not a result. Winning is a process that is driven by character.” - Brett Ledbetter
Brett’s message may not be a new one, but the way he laid it out simply, clearly, and passionately was a nice refresher. I like the way he inserts video, quotes, and images/text into his talk. He does a great job, although a remote control would have helped him free himself from the computer. Still, a great message and a wonderful short-form presentation.
Many years ago I spoke of Bill Evans and his great appreciation of simplicity, and his capacity for tremendous amplification through honest simplification. Recently I stumbled upon a rare, 45-minute interview from the 1960s which Bill Evans did along with his brother—also a wonderful pianist—Harry Evans. If you can find time to sit down and watch the entire interview, it may be the best thing you see all week. But to give you a feel of the message, let me place the videos here and highlight the key points along with my comments.
Above in the first clip Evans speaks of people’s tendency to approach a problem in its entirety in a vague, abstract way instead of just taking a small piece and focusing on that and really getting to know it and build from there. This, says, Evans is more honest. Here are just a few key quotes that stood out.
"It’s better to do something simple which is real. It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it."
"No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength."
"They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance."
The key, too, is learning to enjoy the struggle that comes from taking a part of the complicated whole and getting better at those little bits step by step.
"It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and knowing that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure."
This is not to say that you should not be adventurous and take risks and experiment. Playing it safe is not what Evans is suggesting. What Evans is saying is that you need to understand the frame work and the rules and principles so that you can know for yourself what works (through your experiments) and what does not.
In the second clip above, Evans talks about the fact that it took him many years of playing before he really felt he was able to freely express himself. Evans could sight read from an early age but could not play even a very simple song he says without sheet music. He spent a good part of his teens and 20s learning on the job and working hard on deepening his understanding of music and developing techniques.
“The whole process of learning the facility to play jazz, is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense conscience concentration level, until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more…"
Many people see only the end result, instead of the long path and all the richness the journey will provide them. You don’t learn anything meaningful or accomplish anything worth contributing if you approach it thinking in terms of how can I get to that style or approximate that result in the easiest, fastest way possible. No journey, no lessons. No struggle, no learning. (But one must practice well.)
Also, he touches on an idea you often here in the Zen arts where one only begins to be free after many years of studying the methods and forms to the point where one no longer thinks about technique at all. Technique is important but your style and self expression will come out in time when the principles and techniques are not held consciously in the moment. An athlete or a musician just does it. Don’t think—Do. But this ability comes only after a very long journey of study and practice.
Here in clip three Bill Evans begins by recalling a time most of his students wanted to get right to creating their unique style and foregoing the hard work that others had done before them because they did not want to be imitators.
"This is pretty naive, and an attempt to circumvent the great problems in music. But never the less, it does bring to light, the fact that if you’re going to try to teach jazz, you must try to teach principles which are separate from style. You must abstract the principles of music which have nothing to do with style, and this is exceedingly difficult. It ends up that if the jazz player – if he is going to be a serious jazz player, teaches himself, but the thing is, a jazz player I think ultimately must select and discard according to his own self."
Don’t worry about style. Your style will arise naturally, unconsciously as a result of you being true to yourself and sharing your art — whatever your art is — in the most authentic, honest, passionate way possible. Of course, you can carefully study the masters, but better than copying them is allowing yourself to be inspired by them to find your own voice. Your own voice may have elements of the masters who came before, but those elements came about naturally after studying the principles and being influenced over time by those who came before.
The role of the teacher There is an old proverb that says "Teachers open the doors, but you must enter by yourself." Here Harry Evans and Bill Evans touch on the idea of telling/showing a student an answer to a problem vs. the idea of letting the student discover an answer themselves.
Harry: “… the first question always is: well, I can’t stay in the F chord for four measures. What am I gonna do? You see? You can give them four avenues, eight avenues, twelve avenues…”
Bill: “Or you can say: find an avenue.”
Harry: “...But if you just say, find an avenue, you’ll be fired as a teacher.”
Harry: “I just can’t say "Find an avenue” because he’s gonna say “you’re not teaching me anything!”
Bill: “Well, maybe that’s the way to teach though. Maybe if you say "you must find an avenue. Next week, I’ll show you an avenue, but this week, find an avenue!”
Harry: “Oh, that way, yeah! You know, the essence of teaching is to get the student excited about the subject and explore on his own. This is the essence of teaching.”
In this classic interview from the 1960s Bill Evans is speaking about the art of jazz, but the principles can be applied to almost any endeavor where great learning, effort, and discovery are required. There are no quick formulas for excellence. Achieving excellence is a struggle and it's not always fun by a long shot, but one can and should enjoy the journey.
One of the most interesting books I read last year was Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker’s book is a thoughtful, clear, and useful discussion on how we can make our writing simpler and clearer by avoiding muddy, confusing prose otherwise known as corporatese, legalese, academese, medicalese, bureaucratese, and officialese. Pinker explores what is called the Classic style of prose, a style of non-fiction writing which Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner dedicate an entire book to explaining in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. "The feature of classic style that makes it a natural model for anyone is its great versatility,” Thomas and Turner say in their book. "The style is defined not by a set of techniques but rather by an attitude toward writing itself. What is most fundamental to that attitude is the stand that the writer knows something before he sets out to write, and that his purpose is to articulate what he knows to a reader.” (Emphasis mine.)
"Classic style is in its own view clear and simple as the truth. It adopts the stance that its purpose is presentation; its motive, disinterested truth. Successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity." — Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner
As I read Pinker's book I couldn't help but notice that much of his advice about writing also applies to presenting more effectively as well. Presenting and writing are different skills, but they are alike in that when done well both reflect a clarity of thought in both preparation and delivery. If you do not have time to read the book, Professor Pinker has several talks about the contents of his book available on YouTube, such as the video below. The video is well worth your time, but if you also do not have time to watch the video just yet, I have highlighted many (though not all) of his key points from his talk (and book) below. Along the way I’ll relate his advice about writing in the Classic style to the art of presentation.
Classic style at a glance Pinker early on presents key aspects of Classic style. (1) The writer has seen something in the world. (2) He positions the reader so she can see it with her own eyes. (3) The reader and writer are equals. (4) The goal is to help the reader see objective reality. (5) The style is conversational.
Non-classic styles are many. Academics, he says, write in a Postmodern or Self-conscious style in which “the chief concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naivete about his own enterprise." Classic style is not interested in talking about the tools and structure of the subject but rather the subject itself. And yet, Classic style is not Plain style, Pinker says. You do not have to go to a bare bones, stripped down style. Classic style does not have to be Plain. It has to be CLEAR and words are chosen for a good reason. But the writing does not have to be absolutely plain — your character needs to come out. While Plain style is not the ideal, Pinker says (in many cases), it is nonetheless better than academese, and other forms of difficult-to-read prose.).
More aspects of Classic prose Pinker lists some more aspects of the Classic style. (1) Focuses on the thing being shown (discussed) not the activity of studying it. (2) Assumes reader understands that concepts are hard to define, problem is difficult, etc. The reader wants to see what the writer will do about it. (3) Minimizes hedging (common for academics): somewhat, fairly, relatively, apparently, perhaps, etc. (4) Does not overly use quotation marks. Minimizes compulsive hedging (i.e., cover-your-ass qualifiers) (5) Classic prose: "it’s better to be clear & possibly wrong than muddy and not even wrong." (6) Counts on the cooperative nature of ordinary conversation. People read between lines and connect the dots themselves so that everything does not have to be said with absolute precision.
Four ways your writing (and speaking) can be better Pinker goes through several reasons why a lot of professional writing is muddy and unreadable and offers many tips for improving one's prose. For example, Pinker says it's OK to break a grammar rule from time to time, however, we must first know the rules. Rules and correct usage do matter very much, but more important is expressing coherent ideas, sound arguments, and logical structure with simplicity and clarity. (See "Steven Pinker’s 10 grammar rules it's OK to break (sometimes)" published in the the August 15, 2014 issue of The Guardian.) Below I touch on just four items from Pinker's lecture/book that I think are key and apply as well to the art of presentation or public speaking.
(1) Avoid “The Curse Of Knowledge” The Curse of Knowledge refers to knowing something so well that it’s hard to imagine what it's like not to know it. Pinker says this is the number one reason for opaque writing. One symptom of this is using jargon without explaining the meaning, for example. My friend Physicist Jean-luc Doumont has said something similar (see his Stanford University talk here). The book Made to Stick also identified The Curse of Knowledge (see key points of Made to Stick here). The cure, Pinker says, is to always strive to empathize with your reader. However, the problem is we are not always very good at seeing things from the other's point of view or to imagine what they don’t know. So one solution is to present the material to a representative reader (listener) first. When you do that you may be surprised that what was clear to you is not clear to others. Another idea is to show a draft to yourself after a bit of time has past. Then rewrite with the single goal of making the copy more understandable to your particular audience.
(2) Be Visual The old chestnut "Show it, don't tell it" applies here. This does not mean you need to include images such as photographs or quantitative displays when you write or present, though those visuals can be extremely useful. Yet even if you do not include actual images, your writing or speaking itself can paint a picture and help your audience to see what your are talking about. In the Classic style, Pinker says "The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself." Of course, sometimes we do indeed need to present abstract ideas, yet "what classic style does," says Pinker, " is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.” In this way we look at our writing or speaking as a kind of window onto the world we are sharing. Classic style avoids metaconcepts (concepts abut concepts) and aims to help the audience see the idea for themselves. "Classic style minimizes abstractions, which cannot be seen with the naked eye," Pinker says. "This doesn’t mean that it avoids abstract subject matter only that it shows the events making up that subject matter transparently, by narrating an unfolding plot with real characters doing things, rather than by naming an abstract concept that encapsulates those events in a single word.” Pinker cites astrophysicist Brian Greene as someone who is skilled in presenting complicated ideas and explaining them in a way that allows people to visualize the world he is showing. The interview below where Greene discusses the basic idea around the discovery of gravitational waves, is a good example. Here is a 3-minute version of Greene sharing much of the same information.
(3) Be Conversational "A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation," Pinker says. I've always said that a conversational approach to communication is preferred when clarity, engagement, and understanding are the aim. I'm not suggesting that one should be overly casual or folksy, but when someone speaks in a natural, down-to-earth manner, we are more inclined to listen. Brian Greene above speaks in a conversational style.
"A concrete and conversational style does more than make professional verbiage easier to read," Pinker says, "it can be a matter of life and death." Here Pinker offers an example from a warning label:
"Mild Exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme Exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms. Infants, children, older adults, and people with health conditions are more easily affected by Carbon Monoxide and their symptoms are more severe."
This warning label does not give one the feeling, Pinker says, that anything bad will happen. A much better warning sticker was created for subsequent models with this prose:
"Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES. Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell. NEVER use inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open. Only use OUTSIDE and far away from windows, doors, and vents."
The second version is more concrete and emphasizes the point right away—this can kill you quickly if used indoors. The tone is much more like something your friend or parent would say in conversation. Would you ever say to your friend, for example, that using a charcoal barbecue indoors "may result in accumulated damage over time or may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms"? Of course you wouldn't. You would say something like "never, ever, EVER! use a charcoal barbecue indoors! It can kill you in minutes without warning!"
(4) Embrace Simplicity (not simplism) Good writing like oral presentation results from clear thinking and an authentic effort to share in a way that is as simple as possible without being oversimplified, trivial, or foolish. "The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth," Pinker says in his book. "It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity." Many people confuse simplicity, which takes work by the writer/speaker to achieve, with simplism, which is often a result of laziness or a desire to obfuscate. This does not mean that you can not use sophisticated language, for to communicate simply does not mean to dumb-down, but we should choose words carefully. George Orwell's writing advice (from Politics and the English Language) such as "Never use a long word where a short one will do," or "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out" or "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent" are worth remembering. Simplicity does not only concern choices of vocabulary. Simplicity refers to structure and our decisions about what to include and what to exclude as well. Cutting the superfluous is one of the hardest things for writers to do. But clear communicators make careful considerations during the preparation stage about what is important to include and what is not. Good writers and effective presenters know that if everything is important then nothing is important. Exclusion of the nonessential is not a panacea, but it goes along way toward achieving simplicity.
The work of Hugh Herr and his bionic legs is such a remarkable story that it got me thinking about the possibilities. I immediately thought of the bionic hand Luke Skywalker received at the end of The Empire Strikes back (called a Mechno-arm I believe). Luke’s hand was science fiction, but the technology that is being developed these days is approaching the level of that pictured in the world of science fiction. I’ve been researching issues related to generative design and 3D printing recently so I did a quick search to see if anyone was doing work in bionics directly inspired by the Luke Skywalker hand. This is how I found the Luke Hand project and a wonderful presentation by designer Shalom Ormsby at Autodesk'sPier 9. This is not a flashy presentation nor a dynamic TED talk. It was never meant to be. This low-key, authentic talk was given to a small group of peers at Pier 9. But Ormsby's cause is a great one and this talk deserves to be seen by a large audience. I hope you'll watch his talk and share it with others. It's fascinating and inspiring to imagine the possibilities.
Luke getting his bionic hand. How long before something like this becomes real?
What is the Luke Hand? At the moment it's fiction, just an idea, an artist's ideal of what a prosthetic hand could look like. In the presentation below, Ormsby says that the current state of prosthetics aim to make the hands appear real or to provide only basic functionality. But Ormsby insists "we can do better than this." And why not? Ormsby reminds us that technology has created remarkable things. We put men on the moon and brought them back safely to earth—and that was almost 50 years ago. Surely, Ormsby is suggests, human ingenuity can solve the problem of creating fully functioning prosthetic hands, something that can enrich the lives of millions, including many children. Technology has helped create amazing achievements, but "has been fairly deficient in terms of bionics, in terms of prosthetic development," Ormsby begins. So here Ormsby has stated what is and is hinting at what could be. Then he states the organization's objective in simple terms, almost Kennedy moon-speech clear: "To create an open source bionic hand that matches the functionality of a human hand, built for a four-year old within four year." Pier 9 Presents: The Luke Hand Project with Shalom Ormsby from Pier 9.
Ormsby does a good job of zooming out to show the general and zooming in to illuminate the particular. Stated another way the objective is clear: "It's time to make science-fiction bionics science fact." While Ormsby explains the WHAT and the HOW, as much as you can do in a brief short-form style talk, he steps back to state the WHY. Remember, while the what, how, when, etc. are crucial to understand, what audience really need to hear—and what is often missing—is the why. Why do you care? Why should we care? And why is this important locally and globally? The question an audience may have is "Why should the Luke Hand exist? For this Ormsby begins with something personal and emotional. I'll let you see for yourself what that is.
Recently, while researching the issue of generative design, I came across a short presentation on bionics by Bionics designer and MIT Professor Dr. Hugh Herr. The 8-minute talk was part of a keynote for Autodesk University 2015 on topics related to augmented cognition, generative design, additive manufacturing, etc. The things that people are able to do now with advanced CAD and other digital tools is remarkable. But when Dr. Herr took the stage to show a genuine, real-world example of human-robot collaboration, I was blown away by what I saw. When his talk was finished, I thought this was just the kind of thing that should be featured on TED. Sure enough, Dr. Herr had already spoken on the subject at TED in 2014. Watch the talk below or on Youtube.
Inspiring words Dr. Herr's journey began in 1982 when both of his legs were amputateddue to tissue damage from frostbite he incurred during a mountain-climbing accident. Doctors thought he'd never climb again. Herr aimed to prove them wrong. "At that time, I didn't view my body as broken," he says. "I reasoned that a human being can never be 'broken.'Technology is broken.Technology is inadequate.This simple but powerful idea was a call to arms,to advance technology for the elimination of my own disability,and ultimately, the disability of others." Herr shared his own story to make a larger point:
"Every person should have the right to live life without disabilityif they so choose --the right to live life without severe depression;the right to see a loved one, in the case of seeing-impaired;or the right to walk or to dance,in the case of limb paralysis or limb amputation.As a society, we can achieve these human rights,if we accept the proposition that humans are not disabled.A person can never be broken.Our built environment, our technologies are broken and disabled.We the people need not accept our limitations,but can transcend disability through technological innovation.Indeed, through fundamental advances in bionics in this century,we will set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience,and we will end disability."
This is such a great example of the power of the visual to amplify the narrative. If we think of story as the struggle to overcome an obstacle, we can see how this kind of application of technology really lends itself to storytelling. The technology behind the solution and all the information, facts, and data are obviously important. Correct information & data are crucial. But people remember most the stories they hear…and see. Therefore, we have an obligation to make certain those stories are authentic, honest, and true. Dr. Herr’s story has all of that. It’s not about being slick or perfect on stage, it’s much more important to be real and to show and tell your story from the heart while at the same time supporting the narrative with a logical framework.
To be human is to be imperfect. Yes, we expect absolute perfection and precision when it comes to things like airplanes, automobiles, or the engineering behind the bridge we drive across everyday. And people naturally assume that the products they purchase will perform to at least the standard advertised. But with aspects of life that require a degree of human expressiveness, absolute perfection is not only impossible to produce, it usually would not lead to better results even if it were. Consider a musical performance, a form of human expression that has much in common with interpersonal communication, including presentation and public speaking. Today computers can generate music that sounds virtually indistinguishable from music created by actual musicians. Yet in study after study, when people are asked to choose between two versions of a song, they almost always choose the version played by human beings. But why? A 2013 New Yorker Magazine article exploring the mysteries of sound and music addresses this question. In this article, Adam Gopnik reports on the work of Daniel Levitin who found that people prefer listening to the sound of a human playing a musical piece—even though the human-created version had tiny errors—over that of a computer perfectly playing the same piece.
The New Yorker piece says that Daniel Levitin measures the imperfections by looking at Vibrato (not landing perfectly on the note) and Rubato (not keeping perfectly on the beat).
"Expressiveness is error. Just as, at a subliminal level, Choueiri could make music come alive in space by introducing tiny errors into the amplitude and timing of the XTC wave, Levitin could show that what really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace. (Too much imperfection and it sounds like a madman playing; too little, and it sounds like a robot.) Ella singing Gershwin matters because Ella knows when to make the words warble, and Ellis Larkins knows when to make the keyboard sigh. The art is the perfected imperfection."
Perfect imperfections We can see the attraction humans have to "expressiveness as error" in many art forms. In his classic work The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura discusses the affinity that the Tea masters had for asymmetry and irregularity as reflections of the natural world. Naturalness is essential, and imperfections are seen as important aspects of the natural world. Soetsu Yanagi, in his 1972 book The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, says the Tea masters found depth in the irregular and imperfect. But again, why? Yanagi suggests that the answer is related to the idea of freedom.
"Why should one reject the perfect in favour of the imperfect? The precise and the perfect carries no overtones, admits no freedom; the perfect is static and regulated, cold, and hard. We in our own human imperfections are repelled by the perfect, since everything is apparent from the start and there is no suggestion for the infinite. Beauty must have some room, must be associated with freedom. Freedom, indeed, is beauty. The love of the irregular is a sign of the basic quest for freedom."
The aim is neither to be perfect nor imperfect In the realm of art, such as the art of Tea, beauty is not to be found in the perfect or the imperfect, Yanagi says. Instead beauty can be found "...where such distinctions have ceased to exist, where the imperfect is identified with the perfect. If we apply this to the art of a presentation we can say that an authentic, engaging delivery is one which is perfectly imperfect.
In a sense, people are not attracted to the music because it’s perfect, their attracted to it because it’s not. People are attracted to you not because you are perfect, but because you are not.
Dave Grohl's 2012 Grammy acceptance speech Dave Grohl often speaks on the power of the imperfect human element in good music. His words ring true for musical performance, and they apply to other arts such as public speaking and presentation.
“To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do… It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [your heart] and what goes on in here [your head]." (Emphasis mine.)
Later Dave Grohl clarified things in a press release. He is not anti-digital, he says.
"The simple act of creating music is a beautiful gift that ALL human beings are blessed with. And the diversity of one musician’s personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and…..human. That’s exactly what I was referring to. The human element. That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became 'bad' things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily 'fixed.' The end result? I my humble opinion…..a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place." (Emphasis mine.)
"Sounds perfect, but lacks personality." This I think is what Soetsu Yanagi was referring to when discussing art. That "perfect sound" seems cold, hard, and impersonal. There is no room to move in the perfect, there is no freedom. I do not know exactly what it is that is attractive in the irregular or the imperfect but it may have something to do with our natural attraction to freedom. "Freedom, indeed, is beauty," Yanagi said.
All this talk of imperfection is not to suggest that you wing it or that you take a cavalier approach to presentation delivery. Yes, we prepare well and we aim for perfection as best we can in the moment, knowing full well that real perfection is not attainable. But if we strive for that which we may call perfect, we may just be able to achieve excellence. Salvador Dalí apparently said "Don't be afraid of perfection. You'll never attain it.” We will not attain it, but by aspiring toward it we may just attain a level of excellence that is a worthy contribution to the audience before us. And knowing that perfection is not actually possible helps us to relax a bit, which in fact helps us to be in the moment and that much closer to something approaching "perfection."
On making mistakes Usually when we talk of imperfections, naturalness, and engagement we are talking about tiny errors, imperfections that may not even be noticed by the audience. But sometimes bigger errors, when dealt with honestly and with good humor, can bring you closer to an audience as well. In the video clip below you can see the great Sir Paul McCartney forget chords at the beginning of a song he's played thousands of times before. I loved his way of dealing with it. When it's live, stuff happens. That's life. Relax, you are only human. If Sir Paul can make mistakes, you can too. Besides, people do not want your perfection, they yearn to see your humanity.
Interesting Reads You will find that the lessons in these books go far beyond art and beauty.
Ideas on Stage will hold more Presentation Zen Experience seminars, beginning in Washington DC, March 21-22. The first seminar was held last October in Paris and it was a big success. Participants loved it; the feedback was fantastic. The facilitator for these seminars is once again the incomparable Phil Waknell, co-founder of Ideas on Stage, the premier presentation design and training company in Europe. I will not attend these workshops personally, but the content is all designed by me in cooperation with Phil and his team of storytellers and designers at Ideas on Stage.
I have been impressed by the team at Ideas on Stage over the years and they do a great job facilitating the seminar. The content will cover (1) Preparation techniques of a live talk, (2) How to design simple and effective visuals, and (3) Tips and tricks for delivering your talk in a way that is natural yet dynamic.
Phil Waknell facilitating the Presentation Zen Experience seminar in Paris.
Participants work on developing their presentations in analog style first.
The great thing about seminars like this is not just the content that you get, but it’s also about the relationships that you make while there for the day (or two). The seminar is interactive and there are opportunities to get to know the other participants who are coming from all over the world. Get more details and register here. If you know of someone who could use some presentation training, please pass this information along.
Future Presentation Zen seminars by Ideas on Stage
Where ever you may be in the world, I wish you very happy Christmas and wonderful, peaceful, inspiring year ahead. This two-minute advert for John Lewis is an evocative message and an important reminder. I love it. Perhaps you will too.
Metaphor Interestingly, many people look at a story like this and all that they can see is the impossibility of a man living on the moon with out oxygen (not to mention the ability to see such detail on the Earth with a simple telescope). But this story is, of course, metaphoric. Someone may feel deeply alone, isolated, cut-off from the world as if they were living alone on the moon. Indeed, there are millions of people who surely feel as lonely as the man pictured here.
The emotional touch points in the short story are many including loneliness, separation, compassion, kindness, hope. The theme — that is, the key message — is a reminder that each of us can make a difference in the lives of another. Even a very small gesture of kindness and compassion can make a world of difference for someone. The message is spelled out explicitly at the end: “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas.” But it was not necessary. The tagline was redundant. The message was clear. Slow down, reach out, and share an act of kindness with a fellow human being. That person may be a loved one, an old friend, or a complete stranger.
The imagery is evocative. No one can look at an image like this and not feel for this man. We’ve all felt abandoned, lonely, or lost at one time or another. Maybe even now. We also see ourselves in him. “Will I too be alone in my old age?” we ask ourselves.
Yes, it's just a TV commercial so it’s easy to be cynical and see this as manipulative or even cliche, but I think it’s a lovely little piece of art. A simple Christmas message.
A metaphor can reveal a powerful and evocative truth. Literal interpretations of a metaphor kill the message and replace it with something far less illuminating.
Have a remarkable and illuminating 2016...and beyond.
Data and information are not inherently boring. The key is to select the appropriate (and accurate) data to support your message. Yet, it also matters how you bring the data alive, giving it context and meaning. One of the masters of displaying data in live talks is Swedish medical doctor and researcher, Hans Rosling, whom I've talked about often on this site and in my books (we were both keynoters at Tableau 2014 in Seattle as well; he's a wonderful man). His latest short presentation was posted this week and it's a great reminder of how to present a visualization in a simple, clear, and engaging way. Back in the US, a certain presidential candidate made quite a ruckus when he said some inflammatory things that, to put it mildly, may not be an accurate representation regarding the economic and social vitality of the country of Mexico. Given the media fracas, Dr. Rosling must have thought this was as good a time as any to shine a little data-visualization light on just how much Mexico has changed over the last couple of generations. For many, the change may be surprising.
Take your time, set up the visualization Dr. Rosling consistently does something that few presenters ever do. That is, he takes the time to set-up for his audience the display of his data before revealing the actual visualization to them. Most people show everything all at once—without ever pointing out what we should look for or explaining the variables—and rush to their conclusion about what they say the data shows without us ever getting a chance to really see it with our own eyes. Note, however, here how Dr. Rosling introduces the problem and what he'll be measuring. One way he often compares the progress of countries is by measuring the change over time of the variables life expectancy (in years) and family size (number of babies per woman). He explains the horizontal and vertical axes. He then explains the starting point and gives context, pointing out the dramatic difference between the US and Mexico in 1968. Then he says, "now, I'll show you what has happened." Dr. Rosling recommends explaining the meaning of movement as it is happening (see more tips by Hans Rosling here.)
These are not the only variables one could use, of course, but it gives us one window into a problem. A single chart or visualization will not tell the whole story, but even this one measure gives us an illuminating glimpse