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Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story
Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story
by Randy Olson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Arouse, withhold, fulfil - tools for presenting science compellingly., 12 Feb. 2016
Scientists urgently need to understand narrative, and Randy Olson has developed a set of tools to help them. But the tools can easily become empty formulae, so Olson offers a strategy to help scientists develop narrative intuition.

That summary uses one of those tools. Olson calls it ‘ABT’: And, But, Therefore. Could be useful. And not just for scientists.

Why does science need narrative? Partly, says Olson, because scientists tend to communicate by offering “piles of facts” Partly because science is failing to engage a non-scientific audience. And partly because a lack of narrative awareness is damaging science itself. (Most papers in scientific journals prefer significant results to sound ones, because reviewers are seduced by narrative but don't understand it.)

What's worse, scientists don't even *notice* narrative. Like dark matter, it's invisibile to them.

And so they get hostile whenever the word 'story' is mentioned. True, stories can deceive, fabricate and exaggerate; but they can also be “accurate, honest, true and reliable”. Storytelling itself, says Olson, is as value free as E=mc2.

To help scientists use story, Olson offers tools on three levels: word, sentence, paragraph.

ABT is the shaping tool at the sentence level. At the sentence level, he offers what he calls the Dobzhansky template, which goes:

Nothing in ___________ makes sense except in the light of __________ .

(Fill in the blanks.)

And at the paragraph level, he resorts to Joseph Campbell's (in)famous Hero's Journey.

Use the models, says Olson, perceptually rather than mechanically. (Think of all the screenwriting courses that generate stories using the Hero's Journey. Result. bland, bland, bland. Scientists can use the models to spot the structures inherent in their material, but they shouldn't bend the science to fit the story.

Olson’s richly detailed and practical book – despite its slightly cheesy title – will benefit speakers in any field – and not just scientists.

A longer version of this review appears at:

Winning Minds: Secrets From the Language of Leadership
Winning Minds: Secrets From the Language of Leadership
by Simon Lancaster
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.76

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Appearances are everything, 10 Aug. 2015
Books for leaders – and for aspiring leaders – need to combine pragmatism, intellectual credibility and flair. Simon Lancaster manages all three with aplomb. Other political speechwriters have tried to transfer their attention to the broader canvas of corporate leadership, not always successfully. Lancaster at least shows that he’s worked with leaders outside the Westminster bubble.

He wants to link rhetoric and neuroscience. He notes, for example, that figures of speech might have specific psychological effects. But Lancaster wants to go further: he suggests that “new developments in behavioural economics and neuroscience” show Aristotle’s rhetorical theories to have been “astonishingly accurate”.

He chooses a neuroscientific framework that's actually not new at all. Paul MacLean’s theory of the triune brain appeared back in the 1960s. Lancaster seeks to align it to Aristotle’s three musketeers. Logos, for example, maps to the neocortex, and pathos to the limbic, ‘emotional brain’. The fit between ethos and MacLean’s ‘reptilian brain’ – which Lancaster renames ‘the instinctive brain’ – feels more forced, although the point that we expect our leaders to provide security and rewards is well made.

Lancaster fits his various tools and techniques into these three neural compartments. He clearly thinks the ‘instinctive brain’ by far the most important: he devotes 82 pages to it, compared to 47 for emotion and only 34 for the ‘logical brain’. He also touches on Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell’s APET model – without acknowledging them, which is a shame.

Unsurprisingly, language is Lancaster’s forte. The chapters on metaphor and story are among his best. You want to understand a leader? “Analyse their metaphors.” What’s your personal story? How does it demonstrate your values? How do organisations assemble stories into cultures? Any manager seeking to transform themselves into a leader will find Lancaster’s answers useful.

And he understands the great rhetorical lesson is that appearances are everything. If you can’t be honest – and leaders often face that challenge – then you must create “the illusion of honesty”. The logical brain responds, not to actual logic, but to “the appearance of logic”.

Which doesn’t set us up very well for the final section. If the logical brain is interested only in what seems logical – well, what price rational thinking? (But then, rhetoric and logic have always enjoyed a stormy relationship.) It’s hard to see how tricolons have much to do with logic. And the Ciceronian speech structure (Exposition, Narration, Division and the rest) is surely not an exercise in balance (to which Lancaster devotes a whole chapter). When did you ever hear a great leader open a speech with “On the one hand...”?

This final section loses momentum. It’s a pity, because so much of the book is genuinely insightful and readable.

There’s a hidden lesson in this book. It’s never stated explicitly, but Lancaster’s examples of imaginary speeches point up a skill that’s critical for speechwriters, and probably for leaders as well: an endless curiosity about general knowledge.

A longer version of this review appears at:
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2015 1:16 PM BST

Speeches for Leaders: Leave Audiences Wanting More
Speeches for Leaders: Leave Audiences Wanting More
Price: £9.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Political insights from a seasoned insider, 9 May 2015
Read Charles Crawford for his insider tips.

“In a great speech,” he writes, “everything fits like a jigsaw: words, emotional tone, audience, occasion, context, and message.” His aim in this much-heralded and conspicuously praised book is to show how speechwriters can put the jigsaw together, for leaders at the very highest level. “Speechwriting at this level,” he asserts, “is different.”

Crawford comes well equipped to discuss high politics. Years of diplomatic experience yield numerous anecdotes. His insights are entertaining, often gripping and bang up to date. His examples - real and fictional - shine. He also offers solid advice on how to make yourself “the source of authoritative guidance for the whole organization on every aspect of the leader’s public speaking agenda.”

After which, his foray into corporate leadership seems a pallid diversion. The chapter on business speeches opens with Gerald Ratner (much re-heated) and limps through notes on AGMs, conference speeches, thought-leader speeches, after-dinner speeches, crisis response and ‘Making important announcements such as launching new products’. It all feels rather generic, and lacks the acerbic wit he displays elsewhere.

As you wade through the final three pages of testimonials, you’re liable to conclude that the only way to really benefit from Charles Crawford’s wisdom would be to hire him.

Insider Secrets of Public Speaking: answers to the 50 biggest questions on how to deliver brilliant speeches and presentations
Insider Secrets of Public Speaking: answers to the 50 biggest questions on how to deliver brilliant speeches and presentations
by Nadine Dereza
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars It isn't you, it's what you do, 13 Oct. 2014
“Real-world problems,” say the authors, “demand practical solutions." Hence the Q&A format, which also neatly solves the perennial challenge of how to maintain the reader’s attention. Keep the chapters brief (none here, by my reckoning, longer than about 2500 words, and many much shorter); change the subject unexpectedly (from “How do you handle obnoxious audience members?”, we turn swiftly to “How can I remember my words?”); employ the bon mot (there’s hardly a page in my review copy where I haven’t marked something useful).

It all makes for a lively read, especially when the text has such flair. The book feels bang up to date: the authors even reference Mary Beard’s LRB lecture in February 2014. Alongside the stuff you’d expect – breathing, moving, the perils of jokes – they discuss the logistics of presenting: dress, hosting arrangements, technology. They include, unusually, material on developing a career as a public speaker: getting bookings, participating in panel discussions, chairing debates.

The inevitable trade-off for all this variety is a risk of superficiality. You’ll find ideas in abundance, but you’ll need to join quite a lot of dots. (More cross-referencing between chapters would help, and would increase the fun.) The chapter on storytelling stands out because the authors give themselves space to develop their material.

Dereza and Hawkins raise the burning issue of authenticity and tackle it wisely, if a bit obliquely. How to become the best possible version of yourself? “It isn’t you,” they say insightfully, “so much as what you are doing.”

Practical tips on how to deliver “an authentic, heartfelt message” do appear, in the all-too-brief chapter on weddings and funerals. Focus on the task; do the research; take charge; and say something personal. Spot on.

by Jim Davies
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Consider with care, 10 Oct. 2014
This review is from: Riveted (Hardcover)
"Strange as it may seem," Jim Davies tells us, "compelling things share many similarities." In this book, Davies claims to do "something that has never been done before": to show that "the qualities that are common to all these things fit like a key in a lock with our psychological proclivities."

He calls it the compellingness foundations theory. Davies - a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science of Carleton University - posits six foundations for compellingness.

I'll buy four of them.

The first is social compellingness theory. We tend to think that all patterns have something to do with social meaning, intention and agency; and we tend to believe social explanations that we hear from other people. We look for reasons, not causes. Faced with a mysterious or random catastrophe, for example, we assume conscious intent. (Which explains conspiracy theories.)

Secondly, we tend to believe the things we fear or hope are true. Believing in what we fear to be true has evolutionary advantages: it's safer to believe that the shape in the corner is a man-eater rather than a heap of old clothes. Hope is a little more curious: "one of the ultimate reasons we do anything is so that we will have beliefs that make us happy." Thus, we prefer landscapes to abstract art: we like to look at pictures of what's good for us, including food, or *sources* of food, like trees and animals. Constable beats Pollock.

Third, "we love patterns and repetition." We love symmetry because we prefer patterns that are easy to understand. And "we are more likely to like and even believe things that we find easy to understand."

And fourth, we are compelled by incongruity, the flip side of pattern-recognition. Incongruity triggers the desire to understand. In fact, "sometimes people like things because they are confusing and hard to understand. To explain this I created the concept of idea effort justification."

Davies's method in these chapters is breathlessly excitable. It's like riffling through a brimming box file. Connectivity suffers. With no narrative arc or developing argument to hang on to, he must rush us from one instant wonder to another to keep us hooked; we begin to develop a curious kind of attention deficit disorder as we hurry to keep up. "Meditation sounds relaxing," pants Davies as we swerve into Buddhism, "but some, this author included, find it more like taking your brain to the gym. It's hard work." I can believe it.

Nonetheless, those four chapters do provide interesting and useful material. But in the final chapters, his thinking gets worryingly untethered. Where previously he's tied his account more or less to specific loci of attention - social relationships, fear, hope, patterns and surprises - he now starts to drift around the human body, and to clock up the psychological biases without which no popular account of brain activity seems to be complete.

"What I have presented here," we read at the end of his book, "is not a knock-down set of experiments showing us that all things we love are compelling for the same reasons." Well: for most of the book, I'd say that's *exactly* what he's presented.

In the final chapter, Davies lurches into a quite different register. From fevered explanation, he turns to argumentation, engaging in a lengthy quarrel with himself about why religions are so persistently compelling. It's a dangerous rhetorical move, and it threatens to destabilise the book completely.

"Beautiful ideas are not always true," Davies warns us, "and when we encounter a compelling idea, we must take extra care." He wants us to "use knowledge of what makes ideas compelling to help us make decisions about what to believe." It's a big ask. How do we start? I'd say we could start with the four really strong ideas that Davies offers us.

"Be wary of compelling ideas that are framed in terms of people and relationships, are easy to understand, present an intriguing puzzle, or play to our hope and fears."

Ok. I'll try.

A longer version of this review appears here:

Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact
Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact
Price: £14.75

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Acting authentic, 25 Aug. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Nick Morgan’s theme is alignment. Every conversation, he says, is two conversations: verbal and non-verbal. When they’re aligned, we believe the words. When not, “the body language always trumps the spoken content.”

Alignment is the key to authenticity, on which he’s very good. “Authenticity is hard,” he says, “because we think it’s all about being, but it’s really all about doing.” Most of the time, we’re “a jumble of unconscious fears and distractions”. We need to “show up” as the best version of ourselves. And that takes practice. Authenticity is optimal performance.

Morgan promises that we can perform more authentically by following his seven ‘power cues’. People will believe us, identify with us and follow us. Our brains are hard-wired to be social: “we think what makes us human is our uniqueness, but it’s really our commonalities.” We seek community, and we seek leaders with charisma, which he defines as “focused emotion.” Align; focus; lead.

Beneath the promises of miraculous personal transformation, Morgan offers interesting ideas. Some were new to me. I want to learn about the “full-fledged, cat-sized brain” in my gut; and I’m keen to discover my voice’s ‘maximum resonance point’ (you need a piano).

But much material is familiar. Gestures and facial expressions? Cite Paul Ekman. Voice production? Recommend Patsy Rodenburg. Telling stories? Who else but Joseph Campbell?

Each chapter juxtaposes this discursive material with how-to tips. There’s a queasy feeling, sometimes, of bran-tub pick’n’mix and needless repetition. Some practical techniques are useful; others are hazily explained.

One is frankly dangerous.

Chapter Six (“Is your unconscious mind holding you back or propelling you forward?”) flies perilously close to Rhonda Byrne territory (she of The Secret), even as Morgan disavows any connection. “I do think that if you believe that you are a follower, you will always be treated like one... Just simply repeat your mantra every time a negative thought... bubbles up...” Why is such positive programming damaging? Because it’s been shown to do little more than arouse negative emotions.

The real pity is that this stuff contradicts Morgan’s insistence on the need to practise authenticity. “You can work from either the inside out, that is, from emotion to gesture, or the outside in, that is, from gesture to emotion.” He explains Stanislavsky’s Method well, and discusses gesture and voice with the authority of a practised acting coach. Occasionally, he reveals his core competence as a speechwriter with more than a passing knowledge of rhetoric.

Rhapsodising about the Roman amphitheatre at Fiesole, he suggests a more focused topic: “The combination of ancient, amphitheater-tested wisdom and hard science brings us to a place we’ve never been able to reach before: complete mastery of personal communications.”

Now that argument would make for an interesting book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Price: £5.49

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It all makes sense with hindsight, 25 Aug. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Daniel Kahneman is a behavioural economist. He’s spent decades studying the effects of social, cognitive and emotional factors on the decisions we make – economic and otherwise. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, he shares some of the insights of his work in decision science: to stimulate, as he says, “watercooler conversations”, so that we can better understand the systemic errors of judgement that humans are prone to.

Kahneman explains his findings by invoking the fiction of two ‘systems’. System 1 is intuitive, associative and fast; System 2 is rational, logical, slow and lazy. System 1 prefers plausibility to probability; it craves coherent meaning and will do everything it takes to construct it from any scrap of information. It cannot deal with statistics; it prefers causal explanations every time. It hates doubt. System 2 does its best to understand the truth in all its fullness; but it can only work with what System 1 gives it, and it’s lazy: without conscious attention and effort, System 2 will simply ratify the decisions of System 1.

As so often with discussions based on experimental social science, I found myself mildly irritated that experiments seemed merely to confirm what most of us know by experience already. But that, of course, is precisely Kahneman’s point: experience is not an infallible guide to truth. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.

“Everything,” he says, “makes sense in hindsight.”

The penny, for me, dropped with a resounding crash in Chapter 20. At one point, Kahneman and his colleague, Amos Tversky, worked with a group of investment advisers, looking for evidence of skill in their ability to predict movements in stock prices.

They found none. The results of every single adviser, over time, were no better than blind betting.

The conclusion, for me, is inescapable: the livelihoods and self-esteem of thousands of financial professionals depend entirely on their rhetorical skills.

Kahneman delivers over 400 pages of material showing how incapable we are of understanding statistics, how brilliant we are at ignoring our ignorance, how we regularly substitute easy questions for hard ones in decision-making, and other cognitive biases. This book is fast becoming a central reference in the growing conversation about rationalism and intuition. (Check out Ted Cadsby's "Closing the Mind Gap", Guy Claxton's "The Waywrd Mind", and my own "How to Solve Almost Any Problem".)

Getting through the book can be hard work, not least because Kahneman's pessimism can get wearing. My biggest concern is that he seems to ignore one aspect of System 1 that has been highly successful in driving human progress.

Look in the index, and you will find no entry for 'imagination'.

A longer version of this review appears at:

Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Price: £4.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why rhetoric matters, 25 Aug. 2014
If rhetoric is the art of persuasion, how can a speaker be sure that the audience is persuaded? And how can the audience work out what, exactly, the speaker means? "This is what seems to fascinate us,” writes Toye in this excellent book, “although pinning it down is infuriatingly difficult.”

Difficult, partly, because we can’t argue without using rhetoric. When Kennedy famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, the repetition of words in reverse order actually formulates the idea. “Rhetoric,” says Toye, “is not merely the means by which ideas are expressed, it is also the means by which they are generated.”

This is one of his major themes. Another is that rhetorical meaning is generated socially. Too much discussion of rhetoric stalls at geeky chat about figures of speech. Toye deepens the conversation. Rhetoric isn’t solely about style; its reception depends on the norms of the society in which it’s delivered.

Toye outlines the story of rhetoric in a superb potted history. He's particularly good on the great 20th figures, who redefined the terms of the debate in terms of identification rather than persuastion: Richards, Ong, Austin, Burke.

Rhetoric matters. To explicate this shaggy beast in 35,000 words is no small challenge, and Toye succeeds with a consistently light touch. He wants to empower us; but he also warns us about the limits of such empowerment. Above all, he says, understanding rhetoric “helps people to assess the validity of arguments and to avoid being misled by plausible but flawed appeals. It can also provide tools that will help counter them.”

Spot on.

A longer version of this review appears at:

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson
The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Capax imperii?, 25 Aug. 2014
You've seen, perhaps, those books that look more like books than books. Extra thick pages. Big type. Chunky hard covers. The kind of book you might receive at Christmas and put in the loo. Not-quite books.

Boris Johnson reminds me of this kind of book. He’s a not-quite politician.

When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister in May 2004, his response was: "look the point, what is the point? It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it." Rhetoricians - of which Boris is undoubtedly a very practised example - will recognise that he is cleverly using anacoluthon and erotema - interrupting the syntax of the sentence with a rhetorical question - in order to give a carefully calibrated impression of idiocy.

Boris himself calls this style 'imbecilio'.

"Boris," says Harry Mount, in an introduction that's rather more interesting than the rest of the book, "is in fact a brilliant calibrator." In particular, his "magical gift for surreal, amusing apology" works "like a sort of bulletproof armour." When Eddie Mair called him "a nasty piece of work" earlier this year, Boris drew the venom with relative ease. "If a BBC presenter can't attack a nasty Tory politician," he suggested the next day, "what's the world coming to?"


By holding up a mirror to our own prejudices, Johnson implies a level of honesty that actually increases his credibility. He knows that the only politician the public will now believe is a parody of a politician.

Johnson's rhetoric is the fruit of an expensive, classical education. What Eton and Balliol failed, apparently, to instil in our man is any "capacity for long, concentrated periods of work" (Mount's words). When he missed a First, they say he went alone to the cinema and cried. When he was writing for the Daily Telegraph, he consistently failed to file his copy on time. When Mount asked one of Boris's old classics tutors about his chances of making it to Number 10, the man replied:

"Capax imperii nisi imperasset."

This is Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: "He was up the job of emperor, as long as he never became emperor."

What matters is why people vote for him. His style taps into a very British contempt for anything outstanding. "Boris," claims Mount, "manages to pull off the trick of being ambitious and successful, at the same time as implicitly mocking ambition and success. You end up forgiving him his ambition, and not begrudging him his success, because the whole act is so funny and endearing."

Wit and wisdom for our time, indeed.

A longer version of this review appears here:

The Passage to Europe
The Passage to Europe
Price: £12.34

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finding a new language for Europe, 25 Aug. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Luuk van Middelaar is a political philosopher, but he's impatient with scholarly solitude. His hero is Machiavelli, not just because he's a good writer but because he understands that politics is about how events shape our political systems - and not the other way round.

This remarkable book uses all the tricks of the writer's trade to tell the extraordinary story of the European Union. Van Middelaar's approach combines lucidity with a knack for metaphor; as a result, the tale he tells is clear and - shout it loud - deeply enjoyable.

We need, says van Middelaar, a new vocabulary for Europe. The fights in the Union have always been about words. De Gaulle and Thatcher, for example, both resisted the translation of Assembly into Parliament, a word that threatened their sacred notion of sovereign states. They lost.

Since then, says van Middelaar, the European project has been described in terms of what he calls 'two spheres': an outer sphere (the club of nation states) and an inner sphere (the unified community). Van Middelaar draws our attention to a third sphere: `the intermediate space' between the ambitions of the federalists and the scaremongering of the eurosceptics. This third sphere - visible most obviously as the European Council - is potentially the most creative of the three. Van Middelaar knows this intermediate space well: since December 2009, van Middelaar has been a member of the cabinet of Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council's first permanent president.

This middle space is deeply paradoxical. The European Council has no legislative power, but it's charged under the Lisbon treaty with defining "the general political directions and priorities" of the Union. Prime ministers and national presidents can enter this space only if they're members of the Union; but their conversation is not bound by the treaty of membership.

This curious space, van Middelaar suggests, is where new hybrid European institutions and agreements can be made. It's where European and national interests meet; the place - perhaps the only place - where European leaders can rise above the rule-bound institutionalism of the community and their own local agendas.

Van Middelaar detects a kind of invisible glue holding Europe together; a glue manufactured by the language of deliberation and debate, carefully spread by the European Council. And it seems, sometimes, to work; witness the Union's survival of the euro crisis in the last year or so.

"Reinforce the intermediate sphere": that is what van Middelaar has tried to do in his four years at the Council.

Europe's most urgent task currently is to engage with its citizens, for whom the Union remains distant, monolithic and irrelevant. We need a vision for Europe. Many are now calling for a new language to conjure that vision; something more than platitudes, brochures and directives.

If anyone can help us find the words we need, it is Luuk van Middelaar.

A longer version of this review appears at:

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