Public speaking

While talking just now about excellent public speakers, I remembered that I had heard a superb speech last year at a University of London graduation ceremony.  In the USA, these ceremonies are often the occasion for great speeches from invited public figures.  My experience is that this is far less often the case elsewhere in the anglophone world – the speeches tend to the routine or mundane, and outsiders are not always invited to give addresses.  Perhaps this relates to the fact the American universities, alone among those in the anglophone world, still have Departments of Speech, with serious study of argumentation, rhetoric, and oratory.  Since the switch from oral to written mathematics examinations at Cambridge in the 18th century our universities mostly no longer train or exercise people in public speaking skills, despite their evident value for so many careers.  Moreover, writing speeches is often a form of policy formulation, as experienced speech-writers attest.

At a graduation ceremony last October in the Barbican I was fortunate to hear a superb speech by Thomas Clayton, President of the Student’s Union of King’s College London, speaking in his official capacity. The speech was original, clear, inspiring, and amusing, and was pitched just right for the audience and the occasion.  Clayton himself was enthusiastic and engaged, and his speech did not sound, as many at these events do, as if he was merely going through the motions. He is evidently someone to listen out for in future.


Zimbabwe's cohabitation

Robert Mugabe is a superb public speaker.  I have been fortunate to hear him speak in public many times, from large ceremonial public addresses on state and official occasions, to speeches at ZANU-PF political rallies (ranging from a few hundred to several scores of thousands of people at Rufaro Stadium, and with both sophisticated urban and traditional rural participants), to addresses to foreign investors and business leaders, to quiet, grave-side orations at funerals of mutual friends.  And I have expressed before my admiration for his rhetorical skills, his superb command of different registers, his intelligence, his Jesuit-trained casuistry, and his guile.  I have never met him, but from accounts of people who have, he can also be very charming when he wishes.

Despite claims by some that he has become diminished with age, and even falls asleep during official meetings, the opposition ministers in his Cohabitation Government say that he is just as charming, intelligent, and wily as ever.  From a  report this week in the Guardian:

Welshman Ncube, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Commerce and Industry and leader of one of the factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), lost his grandfather in the 1980s Gukurahundi. The Gukurahundi was a violent campaign in which thousands of opposition Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu) party supporters were killed and beaten by a brigade owing allegiance to President Robert Mugabe’s government.
Ncube shares his experience working with Mugabe in a unity government since 2009: “Ninety percent of the time, I cannot recognise the Mugabe I sit with in cabinet with the Mugabe who has ruled this country through violence. He shows real concern for his country and people, like a father. And he can master detail over a wide range of government matters. If I had only this experience with Mugabe in government and had not lived through the Gukurahundi and seen him denouncing Zapu with anger and belief on television, and you told me he carried out the Gukurahundi, I would say ‘no, not this man, he is not capable of it’. But I saw him.”
Another MDC minister, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, also struggles to reconcile the man she thought Mugabe was, before entering government, with the one she knows today. “I did not think Mugabe believed in things. Now I know that Mugabe actually believes in things, ideologically, like that the British are after regime change in Zimbabwe. When he believes in something he will genuinely defend it. If he believes in an action, no matter how wrong it is, he will not apologise. That is one hallmark of Mugabe. He is loyal to his beliefs.”
On Mugabe’s personality, Misihairabwi-Mushonga says that she had not known that he was “a serious charmer around women. A very, very, very good charmer . . .  He also has an exceptional sense of humour. You literally are in stitches throughout cabinet. But he also has an intellectual arrogance. If you do not strike him as someone intelligent he has no time for you. There are certain people who, when they speak in cabinet, he sits up and listens, and others who, when they speak, he pretends to be asleep.”
Nelson Chamisa, the MDC Minister of Information and Communication Technology, once thought Mugabe was “unbalanced”, but adds: “sitting in cabinet with him, I admire his intellect. He has dexterity of encyclopaedic proportions. He is bad leader but a gifted politician. Why do I say he is a gifted politician? He has the ability to manage political emotions and intentions. But leadership is a different thing. The best form of leadership is to create other leaders who can come reproduce your vision after you. Mugabe has not done that.”

I add a note to clarify this post: None of the above should be seen as an endorsement of Mugabe’s policies, many of which have been motivated by malfeasance, peculation, and plain, old-fashioned, evil.  Unfortunately, his administration, unlike many in Africa, has been overwhelmingly competent, with even the policy of hyperinflation aimed – deliberately and very successfully – at enriching a few thousand people having foreign currency holdings at the expense of every other Zimbabwean.   The pinnacle of this deadly-effective malevolence has been the enrichment of the political and military elite by use of the state’s military forces to operate protection rackets in foreign countries  – eg, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with whom Zimbabwe shares no border nor any strategic interest.

Public lectures

I expect that Bertrand Russell is the only person in history to have given public lectures to both TS Eliot (in lectures given at Harvard University) and Mao Tse-Tung (in a lecture series given in China).  With youtube and the web, we are in danger of forgetting how special an occasion a public speech can be.  And so I decided to list the people whose public lectures I have heard.  I’ve not included lecturers and teachers whose courses I attended, the most influential (upon me) I have previously listed here, nor talks given at conferences or in academic seminars.

Kenneth Arrow (2000), Michael Atiyah (2008, 2013), PK van der Byl (1985), James Callaghan (1980), Noam Chomsky (2003), Thomas Clayton (2012), David Coltart (2016), Joan Coxsedge (1979), Don Dunstan (1976), Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Julia Gillard (2016), Joe Gqabi (1981),  Tim Harford (2011), Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), Anahid Kassabian (2009), Michael Kearns (2011), David Kilcullen (2013), Hans Kung (c. 1985), Kgosa Linchwe II Kgafela (1983), Bill Mansfield (1976-1980, several times), Robert May (2011, twice), Mobutu Sese Seko (1981, at gunpoint), Moshoeshoe II (1982), Robert Mugabe (1981-7, numerous times), Ralph Nader (c. 1977), Robert Oakeshott (c. 1985), Christos Papadimitriou (2009), Malcolm Rifkind (2016), Joseph Rotblat (2002), Rory Stewart (2009), Oliver Tambo (1987), Edgar Tekere (1981), Rene Thom (1979), John Tukey (c. 1979), Moshe Vardi (2010), Gough Whitlam (1975-8, several times), Gerry Wilkes (1975), Elizabeth II Windsor (1980), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).
Continue reading ‘Public lectures’

Writing as thinking

Anyone who has done any serious writing knows that the act of writing is a form of thinking.  Formulating vague ideas and half-articulated concepts into coherent, reasoned, justified, well-defended written arguments is not merely the reporting of thinking but is indeed the very doing of thinking.   Michael Gerson, former policy advisor and chief speech-writer to President George W. Bush, has a nice statement of this view, in an article in the Washington Post defending President Barack Obama’s use of teleprompters, here.  An excerpt:

“For politicians, the teleprompter has always been something of an embarrassing vice — the political equivalent of purchasing cigarettes, Haagen-Dazs and a Playboy at the convenience store.
This derision is based on the belief that the teleprompter exaggerates the gap between image and reality — that it involves a kind of deception. It is true that there is often a distinction between a president on and off his script. With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent; without it, he tends to be soberly professorial. Ronald Reagan with a script was masterful; during news conferences he caused much wincing and cringing. It is the rare politician, such as Tony Blair, who speaks off the cuff in beautifully crafted paragraphs.
But it is a mistake to argue that the uncrafted is somehow more authentic. Those writers and commentators who prefer the unscripted, who use “rhetoric” as an epithet, who see the teleprompter as a linguistic push-up bra, do not understand the nature of presidential leadership or the importance of writing to the process of thought.
Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing — expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order — is essential to governing. For this reason, the greatest leaders have taken great pains with rhetoric. Lincoln continually edited and revised his speeches. Churchill practiced to the point of memorization. Such leaders would not have been improved by being “unplugged.” When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent — practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos. Leaders who prefer to speak from the top of their heads are not more authentic, they are often more shallow — not more “real,” but more undisciplined.
. . .
The speechwriting process that puts glowing words on the teleprompter screen serves a number of purposes. Struggling over the precise formulations of a text clarifies a president’s own thinking. It allows others on his staff to have input — to make their case as a speech is edited. The final wording of a teleprompter speech often brings internal policy debates to a conclusion. And good teamwork between a president and his speechwriters can produce memorable rhetoric — the kind of words that both summarize a historical moment and transform it.”

Anyone (and this includes most everybody in management consulting) who has tried to achieve a team consensus over some issue knows the truth of this last paragraph.   The writing of a jointly-agreed text or presentation enables different views to be identified, to surface, and to be accommodated (or ignored explicitly).   Just as writing is a form of thinking, developing team presentations is a form of group cognition and group co-ordination.

Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Speak now!

Following the US presidential election primary campaigns from afar, I have been struck, as have many people, by the great oratory of Senator Barack Obama.   For those of us with experience in non-governmental sectors or in foreign-aid circles, his style of speaking is very familiar — it is the voice of a community organizer, creating self-awareness and encouraging group action, and doing so superbly! (As an aside, since the nuclear briefcase and the bully pulpit are pretty much the only real powers of a US President, character, judgment and oratory would seem to me far more important as criteria for assessment of presidential candidates than the details of their proposed legislative programs.)

In reading some of the commentary on Senator Obama’s important speech this week in Philadelphia on race, I came across this post by psychologist Drew Westen.  In speaking about race relations and a US national conversation on race, Westen says:

“We can’t solve problems we can’t talk about . . .”

It is hard to over-emphasize just how deeply and profoundly American this view is. There are many cultures in which the majority of the population would take the precisely-opposite view — that we cannot solve problems we DO talk about, that solutions to difficult social or even personal problems can only be found by working in the background, behind the scenes, in the corridors of power rather than in public forums, where it is possible for solutions to be found and agreements reached without any loss of face.   England, despite sharing a common language and a common political history with the USA, is one such culture, as are those of North and East Asia.  Even when people suspect that open discussion may be needed to solve a difficult problem, they may still prefer to keep shtum, since the pain of enduring the problem may be far less than the pain of admitting its existence or of discussing it openly.

What is the relevance of this to business, I hear you cry out (or not, depending on your culture)?    I have worked on multi-national business ventures where this particular cultural difference threatened to overwhelm any other profession-disciplinary, corporate or personal differences.  In one case, a consortium of companies from the USA, Britain and Korea worked together on a joint venture where the Americans always tried to surface any problem and discuss it openly in the weekly project meetings.  Both the Brits and the Koreans recoiled from this approach, and the two would often caucus together before project meetings to try to pre-empt any difficult discussions.   I don’t know if the Americans on the project ever knew of the corridor-caucusing of their two partners, or why so many difficult matters were sent for “off-line” resolution, only to disappear or else be magically resolved, apparently without any discussion.

There are many wonderful qualities of American culture, and, in my opinion, openness and transparency are among these.  But not everyone thinks so, and it would behoove us all in an age of global interactions and inter-dependence to recognize this.

POSTSCRIPT (Added 2008-03-21):  It is also worth noting that some cultures may discuss problems publicly but only in elliptical or indirect terms.   Shona culture (found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique), for example, has a highly-sophisticated use of metaphors, parables, multiple-meaning-layers, and even songs, as a means of somewhat open discussion of sensitive topics.   The use of such sophisticated linguistic devices means that a speaker can intend that an utterance be understood differently by different audiences.  Not an insignificant reason for his political success is that Robert Mugabe is a grand master of these multiple simultaneous registers, of being heard to say different things to different audiences at the very same time, and of clearly being heard to say without actually having said.