I want to sell you a story …

Those of you who are now being coy about their age, or who watch very elderly repeat programmes on cable, may recognise the title as a pun on a Max Bygraves quote. (Well, actually a pun on a pun on a Max Bygraves quote, as he was sent up by the impersonators of his prime era with the line ‘I want to sell you a Tory’.) If you have a taste for bad taste, The Daily Mail used the same pun as the headline for an article that displayed historic political posters that would nowadays inspire only mirth or scorn – so unlike their modern counterparts, which might inspire mirth and scorn but miraculously attract votes too. If your memories go back only to 2010, you might recall The Guardian’s spoof “Step Outside Posh Boy” poster, which was such a hit that it’s still available as a t-shirt.

My point? Essentially that inspiring others is never as straightforward as we might hope: people take their inspiration from extraordinarily diverse places, and quite often not from those who might be most eager to inspire them.

Indeed, we sometimes inspire others without intending to – or possibly even being aware that we’ve done so. While it’s probably that he was setting out to provide light entertainment, good will and a general sense of feelgood factor, it’s fairly improbable that Dave Lee Travis was broadcasting with the express intention of maintaining the spirit and will of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Mail Online, surely to its shame, could not resist a sneer or two when the two finally met at BBC recently.

In Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance, we are asked to believe Marilyn Monroe explaining the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein using toy trains, torches and balloons. Amusing? Undeniably. Probable? Hard to say: Monroe’s charms and difficulties both conspired to conceal her IQ. But was Einstein an inspiration to her? Quite possibly: it’s rumoured that an autographed photo of the physicist was found among the effects of the widow of playwright Arthur Miller and it’s far from impossible that their paths crossed.

But if we can inspire without meaning to, can we guarantee that we inspire when we mean too. The reviews of one book that clearly intends to inspire – Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – at Amazon put me off the idea of reading it before I’d even started. Although the reviews are overwhelming favourably, I’m always intrigued by the handful of 1 or 2 star reviews for books that are generally in favour. (Most people don’t buy books they don’t like, don’t finish them if they do, and probably don’t go to the bother of posting reviews on Amazon.)

It struck me that the problem was two-fold: the disappointed readers hadn’t anticipated the nature or agenda of the author, and the author possibly hadn’t anticipated that not all their readers might share their world view. Inspiring others, like other aspects of leadership, might need a modicum of self-awareness. Here – and in the interests of fairness, I’ll remind you there are many favourable reviews – are excerpts where the readers took their inspiration from Dave Lee Travis and awarded the book a verbal ‘Quack Quack Oops’:

Anne Lamott’s book has some useful advice for writers. Unfortunately, this could be summed up in about 500 words. The rest of the book is supposed to contain profound and insightful advice on life. I suppose whether you like this will all depend on whether you want advice from a self-absorbed neurotic. I would suspect that if you are fairly well adjusted and can deal with life’s ups and downs with dignity, you will find the author becoming more and more annoying as you progress through this book.

Lamott believes in God. Very much. There is far too much stuff here about what God wants for each of us and what each of us wants from God, for this to work for me, or anyone else who doesn’t not share or wish to share Lamott’s faith. If I wanted a book about fluffy Christianity, I would not have bought a writing book.

While neither criticism is quite as harsh as a review of another book on a similar theme that I’ll grant the cover of anonymity (“I actually consigned this to the rubbish bin as I would have been far too embarrassed to pass it on, even to a charity shop”), any inspirational arrows the author thought she was firing high into the air plainly didn’t always reach their targets. And I get the feeling Ms Lamott might have done well to follow the example of another writer who often divides opinion, Alastair Campbell, who did recognise that not everyone who might join their hands in applause would be equally as keen to do so in prayer when he famously advised Tony Blair that “We don’t do God”. As Campbell himself has subsequently pointed out:

My ‘we don’t do God’ was simply part of a view that in UK politics, it is always quite dangerous to mix religion and politics, not least because the electorate are not keen on it, and the media and politicians tend to misrepresent it whenever it happens.”

Something that even modern media can fall into the habit of doing, despite the alternatives available to it – broadcasting – can also be part of the problem. Broadcasting – whether online or just speaking to (by which we really mean at) a small audience face-to-face – conveys em> your love for something, but it can’t guarantee someone else is automatically going to start sharing it. Your challenge is to make me love it (or at least to understand that there’s a possibility that I may grow to love it in the future), not to make me understand you think it’s simply fabulous.

As many a survey has shown, engagement comes with a sense of contribution and voice – of being a part of the idea, rather than merely accepting it. Connection and inspiration require inclusion – another point our political leaders, and particularly those exercised by worries about social exclusion, sometimes register and sometimes not. Presumably those that do register have remembered time-worn expressions about where various parties are standing in relation to the metaphorical tent and in which direction they are urinating.

As a splashguard for the metaphorical tent, might we suggest an understanding of the nature of rhetoric? It was the theme of an earlier post here if you’d like to revisit it: like technology, rhetoric isn’t inherently a bad thing. It definitely has its uses, but the world is a better place where rhetorician and audience both acknowledge the game that’s in play. As a sense of belonging is something that most of us wish to experience, many of us look for the feeling without necessarily questioning the depth to which we are actually experiencing that belonging or that act (rather than the sense) of participation.

In an uncertain world, engagement can become another role that we perform to give ourselves a greater sense of security about a possibly precarious future. Recent surveys are distinguishing between transactional engagement – commitment to the task in hand – and emotional engagement, and warning that the former can be damaging to organisations. (These topics – and the role of affective elements in modern working life – were also explored recently.)

Reflecting on this contradictorily shallow, disengaged form of engagement, I then read an article about The Cult of TED at the BBC website. The article seemed to be light-heartedly poking a little fun at something (the Technology Entertainment and Design conference) that’s become the online LOLcat equivalent for the geeks’ version of the chattering classes. (And as the article points out, the @RandomTEDTalks Twitter feed is sometimes spot on in its skewering of typical TED content. “Stealing The Ancient Wisdom Of Introverts” and “Open Source Learning Disorders” would probably pass undetected.) TED is undeniably cool right now, but some of the nuggets of knowledge from the article gave me as much pause for thought as any typical TED contribution:

  • TED may have two million “likes” on Facebook, but its own online social network, TED Community, has only 120,000 members
  • Annual membership costs $6,000
  • Your £6,000 doesn’t give you the opportunity to ask questions, merely to listen to/watch presentations. The lectures are just that: lectures

I don’t have particularly strong opinions on TED, beyond thinking of it as in some ways an ego-massage for some of its ‘star’ presenters (does Stephen Fry really need more airtime?) and for its online viewers. Having TED in your Bookmarks folder is a 21st century equivalent of that bookshelf full of Camus and Dostoevsky that marked you as an intellectual before the web winked into being, and I don’t doubt that it provides education and entertainment (even if the balance in individual contributions to it may not always be 50:50). There’s a modern/rationalist/scientific/technocractic badge of honour element to it, nicely summed up by one of the BBC’s interviewees:

“People like to feel like they’re part of a tribe,” he says. “It’s about how you identify as a person. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

“I’ve heard people say it’s a bit like a cult. But the difference between TED and being in church is that all the talks are verifiable by science – it’s done within the spirit of critical thinking.”

But any specific inspiration it engenders can be only scattergun. ‘Inspiring’ is one of a set of adjectives you can click on to rate its online videos, but in what way? With what end result? (Equally, I can flag any of its video clips as ‘obnoxious’, ‘longwinded’, ‘unconvincing’ or ‘confusing’, but the site is reluctant to let me find videos flagged in these ways by others. This is more like a beauty contest for memes than a detailed rating service. Indeed, TedTalks hosts a video about how to compile the ultimate TEDTalk. It’s very witty and clever, but then it’s about a site that thrives on making its viewers feel witty and clever for watching it. TED is, if you like, QI for people who think QI is too lightweight: it doesn’t insult our intelligence, except perhaps to the degree we like to think it might change the world.

TED is also, in its own way, in danger of becoming – in the same way as LinkedIn – a competitive sport among its most fervent users. Once you’ve become all too easy to lampoon, every additional ounce of self-awareness is critical to prevent a fatal lapse into parody. I’m not yet reminded of those ‘discussion groups’ on LinkedIn that are run by social media specialists talking about the power of new media to support and transform business but actually desperately flogging their own freelance services of fledgling products that, despite the all-embracing power of SocMed, have yet to support them moving out of their bedsit in an unfashionable suburb. (I’m allowed to say that: I live in Milton Keynes. Cool has passed me by.) Twitter is likewise becoming partly lost to the tribes (word chosen knowingly) that look for what’s trending and then tweet about it: surely that’s putting the #band before the #wagon?

TED is also free from any requirement to inspire anything specific in anyone specific – a luxury leaders don’t typically share. TED just needs to remain cool enough to sufficient people to attract the membership fees that pay for its other activities. It’s not necessary to actually inspiring the whole of Row 27 to re-engineer the principles of cats eyes to work on dirt tracks to cut road deaths in developing countries (I’m typing words almost at random here, so no doubt this has been done – if not, you all have a new task): TED can survive without that.

A manager that needs a customer support team to be inspired by a new product roll-out where product training is behind schedule, there are identified product issues and the call centre technology is still in beta has a very specific need to inspire in a very specific way.

But his or her audience is potentially just as diverse. And it’s not self-selecting: they’re probably not there because their friend said it was ‘cool’. They can’t click away when it doesn’t pan out as planned. And they are more likely to be inspired by a manager that uses not just their mouth but their ears too.

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