The Dangers of Co-opting Scientific Explanation

As non-scientists plying our trade, I believe we should be wary of justifying our practice on the basis of scientific research.

Don’t get me wrong, science intrigues me as much as it does the next layperson. But the problem for laypeople like us is that all our scientific knowledge necessarily comes predigested – usually second, third or even fourthhand. Not surprising really given that primary sources in the field of science are a closed book to us.

Many of the people who write most clearly and entertainingly about science aren’t scientists either. I’m a big fan of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink and Rita Carter, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t hold a single science degree between them.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when the knowledge itself is decidedly dubious. Pop scientific explanations in the field of public speaking have a tendency to go awry. A little reading turns us into experts, and soon we find ourselves making bold claims about the connection between certain behaviours and specific brain regions – claims which would make a genuine expert cringe.

What’s the problem with having a bit of harmless speculative fun, you might ask? Well, my first response is that it’s far from harmless: it begets an endless supply of half-baked pseudo scientific monstrosities that damage our professional standing and brand.

We find our professional practice polluted with “scientifically proven” ideas like 93% of communication is nonverbal; or the notion that each of us learns best according to their preferred learning style; or the contention that educational kinesiology (brain gym) is considerably more than a ragbag of pseudo scientific tosh.

The first thing that using the phrase “scientifically proven” reveals about you is that you’re not a scientist – which means that what you’re telling me should probably be taken with a giant pinch of salt.

Science doesn’t prove things. Research can strongly support a hypothesis, it can suggest relationships or causality, it can even be convincing – but it can’t prove things. It can however disprove things.

Scientists validate their research through the process of “peer review”. They submit their research papers to other experts in the field who assess their validity, their significance, their originality, and their clarity.

Experiments in various fields are being carried out all the time. But most of them aren’t peer reviewed, so we should be extremely wary of using their findings to justify what we do.

I would also argue that though science can throw light on some aspects of our professional practice, we’re not dependent on it to explain and justify what we do. Let me give you a recent example in the field of language.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a fascinating programme called ‘Why Reading Matters‘. In it, science writer Rita Carter told the story of how the use of brain imaging in modern neuroscience is beginning to reveal the effects of the act of reading on the brain.

In one part of the programme Shakespeare scholar, professor Philip Davis, tells the story of how he’d sought the help of neuroscientist, professor Guillaume Thierry, to explain what was happening in his brain when he responded to Shakespeare’s rhetorical inventiveness.

The rhetorical device that interested Davis was the way that Shakespeare occasionally surprises his audience by turning an adjective, or noun, into a verb. In the film he gives an example from King Lear in which the adjective ‘mad’ is transformed into the verb ‘madded’ – “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.”

Davis describes the effect of this device on him as “primal”, “exciting”, “electric”, and “visceral”. And he asks the neuroscientist to use brain imaging techniques on him to see if the shapes in front of his eyes have an effect on the shapes behind his eyes – i.e. his brain.

This visceral view of language is central to our ‘Words that Move Mountains” approach to communication, but my point is that though I find the brain science intriguing, our practice does not depend on it anymore than an audience’s delight in the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language would.

What PowerPoint can’t show you

Why does PowerPoint Presentations that Changed the World rank so high on the list of books that will never be written? Perhaps the clue’s in the title.

PowerPoint has been with us for over twenty years but during that time it has gained more of a reputation for sending the world to sleep than changing it.

Great orators, past and present, have managed to get by quite nicely without it – preferring instead to weave their magic with words alone. Would Nelson Mandela’s statement at the opening of his trial have been more powerful, or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech more moving if they’d been delivered as PowerPoint presentations? I think not.

Riffling through his collection of clip-art, and desperately entering multiple search terms in Google, Churchill would have struggled in vain to find a picture of an “iron curtain” to accompany his famous speech. Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.

I just broke off writing for a moment to try the experiment myself. Googling the phrase “iron curtain” produced the image below, which is clever but understandably fails to depict the paradoxical nature of something both soft and hard at the same time. Not surprising really because the brilliance and power of Churchill’s image come from the fact that it’s literally impossible.

It’s what rhetoricians call an oxymoron: that is, a contradiction in terms – a sort of condensed paradox. Other well-known examples of this figure of speech are “darkness visible”, “deafening silence”, and “bitter sweet”.

At first sight oxymorons like these may appear to be little more than a bit of clever, but meaningless, word play. But a second more thoughtful and less literal look often reveals a poetic truth or insight – one that captures not just the look of an experience, but its feel.

How many of us have inadvertently created a deafening silence by opening our mouth and putting our foot in it? Or had a bitter sweet experience during the course of an intense, but ill-starred love affair?

Images in PowerPoint slides are limited by their literalness – whereas the only limitation on an image conjured up by words is our imagination. Mental images aren’t confined and restricted by frames either – they don’t have edges. So in our mind’s eye we can begin to appreciate the full enormity, and sweep, of Churchill’s monumental “iron curtain” as we watch it descend “across the Continent”.

The images that words evoke in our minds are not just pictorial either – they are multisensory. We feel the soft unyielding hardness of the iron curtain in our bodies – it doesn’t just help us understand the tragedy of a divided postwar Europe intellectually, it helps us feel it too.

UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference video

Here’s a video of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild inaugural conference. It was filmed last month in Bournemouth by talented film maker and producer Tim Clague – who’s done a superb job in capturing the flavour, and excitement, of the event.

Martha and I were invited to show our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video and give a presentation about it. It was exciting for us to share the platform with such luminaries of the speechwriting world as Philip Collins (Tony Blair’s Chief Speechwriter), Max Atkinson (Paddy Ashdown’s former speechwriter), and Susan Jones (former UK Cabinet Speechwriter), to name but three.

Here are some quotes from conference participants that give a clear idea of what those who took part in the conference stand for:

“I felt this was needed because I have worked as a speechwriter for about ten years in a very isolated way… that in America they analyse the way people write and the way you can be creative… and they take it extremely seriously. Whereas England is quite old-fashioned in that people are expected to acquire these skills effortlessly along the way… Speakers today have explained that speaking is different from writing – people confuse writing with speaking – and if you know these basic techniques, you’ll transform the way you communicate… I just want to sort of draw attention to the fact that was mentioned earlier today that words – the way words are used – is extremely important” Brian Jenner – founder of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild

“So the question is: why are there so few professional speechwriters?” Martin Shovel – CreativityWorks

“I agree with the premise given in the previous presentation that actually a lot of the focus is on presentational skills – body language, tone – you know you feel very self-conscious and all that sort of thing. Whereas what the focus today has been about is the power of words, and that I think is a bit of a forgotten art…” Paul Harrod – Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West

“All the emphasis in recent years has been all about presentation… actually, you know, the words are valuable, and that’s a good lesson to get out of today.” Roger Lakin – Speechwriter, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

“So there’s a demand for speechwriters. In industry I have estimated that the cost to British industry of people attending boring presentations is in excess of eight billion pounds a year… There is a demand for decent speeches – and that means there is a demand for speechwriters.” Max Atkinson – Communications consultant and Speech Coach

“In other countries I think speechwriting is a fairly well-establised profession, so there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case in Britain… Trust in politicians is very low. People want to hear what politicians have got to say. And they want to hear them say it in a credible way… There is a new need and a demand for a more elaborate art of speaking – for people to be actually trained in what to say and how to say it.” Dr Johan Siebers – Leader of a new one-year MA in Rhetoric at the University of Central Lancaster

“Well it’s the first of its kind – and I think it’s long overdue…There is a lot more to speechwriting and speech production than even I thought.” Phillip Khan-PanniPKP Communications

It can all be summed up by the final words of our ‘Busting the Mehrabian Myth’ video: “Words really matter – let’s give them the respect they deserve!”

Why David Cameron is a better speaker than Gordon Brown

Here’s an interesting – and visual – way of looking at the recent conference speeches by Gordon Brown and David Cameron. I visited the Wordle website and pasted the text of each speech into the Wordle “word cloud” generator. The word clouds it creates give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

The word “people” figures prominently in both speeches as does the word “country”, though Brown uses the word “Britain” even more. “Change” is another word common to both speeches, as too are words like “make”, “party”, “NHS”, “want” and “government”.

The high frequency of words like “got”, “get”, “make”, “think”, “want” in Cameron’s word cloud offers us a practical insight into why he is regarded as a much better speaker and communicator than Brown. As his word cloud shows, like all good speakers, Cameron generally prefers to use good old English words rather than their Latinate cousins. For instance, he’d probably “get” something rather than “acquire” it; and “think” rather than “cogitate” or “ruminate”.

Brown, on the other hand, loves long, Latinate words, which is hardly surprising given his academic bent. But the love of Latinate words is a fatal addiction for the public speaker because Latinate words tend to be long, complex and abstract – the kind of words that cool are relationship with an audience, not a warm it up. Gordon Brown would do well to follow George Orwell’s advice: “never use a long word where a short one will do; and never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.”

brownspeechcloud

Word cloud of Gordon Brown's 2009 conference speech

cameroncloud

Word cloud of David Cameron's 2009 conference speech

How not using PowerPoint can make you a better presenter

This morning I began writing a response to a comment posted on yesterday’s blog by Olivia Mitchell but as I did it slowly evolved into a post – so here it is. Olivia’s comment can be seen on yesterday’s post – Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome.

Olivia – thanks for some really good questions that have given me the opportunity to clarify CreativityWorks’ stance on some important issues.

Do I think that it’s better not to use PowerPoint at all? Yes, I do – and I’ll tell you why. In my experience, when clients are encouraged to cure themselves of PowerPoint template thinking more often than not they are amazed to discover that it’s not as essential to the success of their presentations as they thought – a bit like the reformed alcoholic who discovers that enjoying a party doesn’t always depend on having a drink.

Thinking of PowerPoint as your slave rather than your master fundamentally changes your relationship with it. It allows you to spend more time on the important parts of your presentation – the core message (proposition) and words. As a result PowerPower if used at all becomes an occasional accompaniment, not a guiding light. Many presentations, and presenters, find they improve dramatically when they abandon their knee-jerk reaction to the use of PowerPoint.

Martha and I had proof of this recently when we got feedback from a client who had worked with us on the closing keynote for a major conference. He’s a senior government adviser and he excitedly told us that he was the only one of ten speakers who didn’t use PowerPoint. He was delighted by the positive response of his audience – indeed, many of those who came up to talk with him afterwards could remember many of his points word-for-word.

This brings us to your question about exploiting the visual part of your audience’s brain so that they learn more. Visual thinking is at the heart of CreativityWorks’ approach. The best communicators use visual language – people can see what they mean. Just as it’s often said that “the pictures are better on radio”, we believe that the best way to engage the visual brain of an audience is to express your message in visual language.

In November 2007, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable stood up in the House of Commons and criticised new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s vacillation over whether or not to hold a general election. He said: “the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks – from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

The juxtaposition of two such incongruous images – Stalin and Mr Bean – brilliantly encapsulated Gordon Brown’s fall from grace. No one listening had to make an effort to remember Cable’s imagery – and the power of Cable’s metaphor was so great that Brown’s brand has never recovered from it. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that Cables lampoon would have been even more effective if he’d been given special dispensation by the House of Commons to use PowerPoint!

Gordon Brown’s problem isn’t performance – it’s the words!

Let me put myself in the firing line. When it comes to public speaking, I believe that Gordon Brown’s problem has little do with the way he performs.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that when you take stellar performers like Obama and Blair out of the equation, Brown can deliver a speech as well as the next man, or woman.

Before you dismiss me as delusional, let me tell you I am not alone – there are other communications professionals who share my view. In today’s Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington – a man who knows a thing or two about acting – describes Brown’s performance at yesterday’s Labour Party conference as “highly effective.”

And a couple of weeks ago at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, I heard Philip Collins – Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter, not the drummer – say exactly the same thing. Interestingly, Collins went on to tell us that, unlike Blair, Brown insists on writing his own speeches. And there, I think, lies the cause of Brown’s plight.

Brown’s a distinguised academic. But the academic style is about as far away from the language of great oratory as you can get. The problem for Brown, the academic, is his love of abstract words and ideas.

Great leaders express their vision with concrete words, not abstract words. They paint verbal pictures that an audience can see, and feel. Billington puts his finger on it when he writes that having begun his speech with a list of Labour’s achievements, “it would have been rhetorically effective to end on some of its proposed radical changes. Instead, Brown ended up with an appeal to abstract principles that wasn’t nearly as stirring.”

When, at the climax of his hour-long speech, Brown urges us to “never stop believing we can make a Britain equal to its best ideals,” my mind’s eye is blinded by the glare of abstraction, and I am unmoved. Things don’t get any better when he urges me to “never, never stop believing. And because the task is difficult the triumph will be even greater.”

Believe what? Task? Triumph? Abstract words like these don’t grab me. They don’t conjure up images – and without images, I’m struggling to see, feel or get excited by what I’m hearing.

A key theme of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech is reconciliation. But the abstract word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t make a single appearance throughout the speech.

King’s lesson for Brown is simple. The best way to inspire people with an abstract idea is to find a way of describing it concretely. Don’t use a word like reconciliation when you can have a much more powerful impact on your audience by showing them precisely what reconciliation looks and feels like.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Over to you Gordon!

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