It has been a couple of weeks since I posted something on this blog that wasn’t either related to a new “segment” of my book on project/programme management, or my weekly news digest.
So, this post will contain news, links, and few ideas that recent news from Italy, Europe, and beyond inspired me to recollect from the “back burner”.
The title? Well- let’s say that it will make sense after you will have watched two short videos and read a little bit more of this post.
The videos? A musical video with a made-up language within an English language song, and one with a made up, English-sounding monologue from an Italian Nobel Prize winner
Yes, we are in the times of grammelot- also if sometimes local contemporary rethorics in Italy and Europe echoes something closer to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisencolinensinainciusol than https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammelot
But both are quite out of tune with the current trend in rhetorics: it has actually more in common with something else, a bit of political/poetry/cultural/marketing dating from the early XX century, the beginning of Futurism.
Incidentally, bits and pieces of its seminal texts ended up within the… manifesto for the Italian fascists (see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sansepolcrismo), that was magnificently shredded by a journeyman in a funny 1960s Italian movie (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0144294 “La marcia su Roma”), where, in their travel from Northern Italy to Rome in order to join the march, he keeps removing line after line (I should say “promise after promise”) on the manifesto even before they arrive in Rome…
I will skip the reason why routinely in Italy assertive politicians, demagogues, and mere assorted talking heads are compared with the 1922-1943 Prime Minister of Italy, but there are few points in common, including the overall self-styled assumption of being what the country needs, extreme short-termist opportunism masquerading as a long-term strategy (delivered in daily twists-and-turns), and a whiff of over-theorization and over-confidence in the leader’s ability to “convert” all those that join the bandwagon to the superior logic of his (as so far we had just men covering that role) predestination to success.
Oh, yes, I did an (apparent) digression, and did not share what I was referring to:
Yes, Marinetti&Co seem to be inspiring the current rethoric about “speed, efficiency, decisionism” now as much as they did in the early XX century.
And this doesn’t extend just to the Italian Government (it isn’t just PM Renzi- also everybody bothering to talk about Italian politics seems to have gone to the same communication consultant :D)
Also from “new” political parties, in Italy and abroad (look at the “decisionism of the day” of the Tsipras&Varoufakis magic duo), and, in their own ways, other countries and institutions.
I wrote (the book is in Italian but the draft articles were both in Italian and Englis- see the “tag cloud” showing what it is about or read it online at http://robertolofaro.drupalgardens.com/content/5-strumenti-la-comunicazione-e-promozione-di-idee-dirittodivoto-%E2%80%93-01%E2%80%9D-isbn-978-1505281521) few years ago about how new media and the continuous communication that they allow between leaders and followers (or just plain potential voters) require a different way of communicating, but nowadays everybody sounds like a story teller.
Actually, whoever worked with me since the 1980s (and even some of those that saw me in political activities before that) know that, beside being a bookworm, I am a bookworm that likes to “blend” knowledge (be it based on experience, acquired through others, or obtained by reading) into short stories that confirm and underline points that I want to deliver.
The risk is always that, if you have or develop that instinct, you “manipulate” your audience, as storytelling isn’t (despite what politicians and others would like to make you to believe) about the truth- it is about “imprinting” the audience.
Let me give you a not-so-short example of the difference between “storytelling” and “reporting the facts”.
A couple of days ago, I met classmates and I was asked about a small accident at my left shoulder that I had talked about a couple of months ago over the phone (it was actually something that happened two months before that- but there was no reason to talk about it before).
Time flies- and storytelling is also about keeping the “tempo”- as I learned by teaching lessons, selling, and political activities… even before I ended high school.
What is the “tempo” while telling a story? The one that makes sense for your audience and environment, at first; once you have “captured” their attention, then maybe you can expand on that, and convert it into your own “tempo” (or something in between- it depends also on your role, motivation, and “why” you are telling the story).
At least, that is my experience.
So, I had a choice: as our prior exchanges on multiple “story threads” had been on the 1-2 minutes (or less) timeframe, I could either keep the tempo (and ensure attention), or deliver the same long explanation that I shared online (in writing- or the slightly shorter version over the phone).
If you read books on scriptwriting or even just the older “Poetics” of Aristotle (more about this later in this post), you know that storytelling isn’t a police report- you can skip, skim, or “fudge” details if that keeps the delivery “balanced”.
Therefore, I focused the story on what happened to the shoulder, not on how I happened to fell in the first place, just shortening it into a “I probably slipped on…”.
This way, every few seconds there were “visual images” that underlined each point of the story, allowing the others to visualize, follow, and interact, instead of doing a long digression/monologue.
Obviously, while delivering a course or speech sometimes you are looking for less interaction- but when storytelling is part of a negotiation, you want to make the story “relevant” for and absorbed by the audience, notably when you are not the only one make the offer to sell products or services (or asking for their vote or support).
It is a common business practice, as countless times I saw customers trying to bring (into the evaluation parameters that they used to select suppliers) something that was blatantly a strength of a competitor, and therefore part of my role was to present my case in such a way our strenghts would become the “terrain” of our discussion- or, at least, we moved onto “neutral dialectical ground”.
Before moving onto current politics and few ideas about that, let’s see instead some (light) “theory”.
If you want a more detailed discussion on scriptwriting and general storytelling, you can read what I wrote in 2009 (https://gettingaroundtheworldnet.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/gmn2009-scripting/): it was an article within a series (you can read it online, it contains also links to books and other material), referring to Aristotle and (a more modern) Syd Field.
I will just share the quote from Aristotle’s “Poetics” that I shared there:
“But most important of all is the structure of the incidents.
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.
Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.
Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.
Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.”
As I wrote above: it is a matter of “tempo”- and relevance.
In designing the “depth” of a story, I used in the past various tools, but CeltX (free, unless you want to use additional services and components) is useful in connecting all the pieces (I used it in the past, and look forward to use it when I will shift to fiction or “visual writing”)- from designing the story (e.g. by collecting pictures, short notes, sketching cartoons to represent key turning points in your story), to developing profiles for each scene and personage within your story.
Storytelling is obviously a recurring element also in business (yes, we consultants always try new “lingo” to sell our service more than once :D), as I see once in a while articles about the subject- the latest one yesterday.
Anyway, it is true that when you deliver change, you have to build a consistent narrative for the change, as well as make that narrative part of everyday business life- moreover when you want to change the culture of the organization.
The risk? As I wrote few times in the past, in my largest and longest “cultural change initiative” the CEO of a customer said that he had had reports of meetings where managers said “Lofaro said”, or “Lofaro would say”- or something similar, and half-jokingly said that I was converting his people into a sect of “Lofariti”.
Actually, as I studied and observed organized groups for fun well before I did it for business, I must say that this is a risk in any creation of delivery of a new narrative: the storyteller can have an undue influence (or be used as a fig leaf by those resisting change).
The point is, obviously, to keep a balance- and ethical standards: you aren’t there to massage your ego, but to help your customer or your audience achieve some objectives.
And this is were current rethorics in politics is most often failing: the leader is so convinced of her/his own “manifest destiny”, that (s)he never moves from telling the story to convincing the audience.
I will just keep the focus on Italian politics- but you can extrapolate from my discussion what might be relevant to you (or spot the telltale signs of a forthcoming change into that direction).
The current crop of leading politicians (age is irrelevant, in this case) lived through few decades of private TV, and adopted some of the “riposte-based” communication habits delivered by 1980s shows (that they either saw as kids, or saw along with their own kids).
Somebody obviously say that this is the fault of Mr. Berlusconi- but, in my view that I shared repeatedly in the past, it is a matter of confusing cause and effect.
Well before the 1980s Italian politics had degenerated into a series of tactical games and ploys- with no long-term coherency and vision shared with the audience.
If you talk with 10 Italians, they will probably let you know 12 different “long-term strategies” (elsewhere those explanations would be called conspiracy theories) that, according to them, our politicians or our government are following to support somebody else’s nefarious purposes.
The problem isn’t really the lack of a strategy, but the lack of shared, supported strategy, or even the attempt to build such a support, not even by just using the “storytelling tempo” trick that I described above.
Or: start with something that is accepted or acceptable, and then “convert”- isn’t what political leaders are supposed to do, to lead?
Unfortunately, as I discussed above, in Italy we are never short of leaders who are good at storytelling, but keep postponing the time when you have to go beyond the mere entertainment, and move onto convincing.
Yes, they keep “preaching to the choir”- pity that (and I observed this first-hand at least since the early 1980s) it doesn’t take long for the initial enthusiasm on the storyteller to turn into boredom for hearing the same story time and again- until the local instinct for conspiracy theories takes over.
But moving from storytelling as “pied piper” to storytelling as “evangelist” requires building on something that makes sense for the audience- and this usually implies delivering (as in “Poetics” above).
Delivering, in its turn, implies making choices.
And, as you can guess, making choices implies setting priorities (and often disappointing somebody).
It is a matter of “tempo”, and also a matter of timing: do the shift of your “Leit Motiv” to the background too early, and you will confuse your audience about what you stand for (the “flip-flopper” appearance); do it too late, you and you will already have started to lose credibility- and it is easier to get new followers than recovering those that you lost.
The “Zang Tumb Tumb” approach to communication in politics is represented by an obsession with efficiency that turns into superficial guidelines that, not being based on more than jingles, are difficult to expand into convincing communication.
If you want: “cults” replacing “ideologies”.
The trouble is, obviously, that if you get people used to quick wins instead of using the latter when it makes sense to keep your “tempo”, eventually you run out of quick wins.
Usually, this happens before you have time to adapt your audience to the new “tempo” that you know that will be required.
Moreover, based on your prior results, you build up an irrational expectation for a continuous string of quick results- actually, an increased speed of delivery of those results.
If this seems too simple or “structured” to be real life, think again, and observe reality, not your perception of it.
The easiest way is actually to observe past reality, or analysis of recent events.
It is true that history is written by the victors, but nonetheless it can be useful to read it to understand what makes up a good “history to tell”- as in the quote of “Poetics” shared above.
And you can also spot patterns that you can recycle in your own environment- obviously, adapted to your own time and cultural context.
Anyway, as I wrote above, remember that you are into storytelling, not writing a lab report: you have to convey more than describe, outline more than detail.
Personally, while in the past most of my storytelling was verbal, for few years I had to convert my business/social/political storytelling into mainly writing (OK- except for the checks from my local Circus of formal and informal interviewers, checkers, investigators about whose boringly repetitive “patterns” I complained in past blogging).
Beside pure history books, there are other sources of good “patterns” for storytelling- ranging from religion, to philosophy, to conspiracy theories, to comics, to political analysis, and anything else that represents “patterns” of human behavior, provided that it is a “niche”, as this obviously generates an internal coherence in communication, i.e. it has to be “recognized” by those receiving any new instance of communication.
Example: if you publish a magazine for fans of Star Trek, you cannot insert “patterns” that would be more acceptable for Harry Potter readers- Star Trek is about science and technology sometimes so advanced that looks like magic, but usually that is associated with a culture that is more advanced than ours.
As for fiction… often isn’t the right source for your simple, “backbone” story and variations that you can build on top of that, as you need a storyline that has an internal coherence, not just an assembly of details built around a “hero(ine)”, as most often fiction is; better to read as if it were fiction conspiracy theories, as usually those stories involve a more varied cast of characters, or biographies, as anyway to tell the story of somebody a good biographer has to make understandable to the reader the context where and when that individual life unfolded .
So, a “Zang Tumb Tumb” business, political, social communication has to be complemented with something that gives “depth”.
I did few tests over the last couple of decades, as part of my activity in change management, and I saw that if you “embed” some cultural references that transcend the specific business-oriented skill that you are trying to help others to develop, you can actually give them some elements of “depth” that they can build on, in their own personal way.
What matters is: having something that can work as a reference framework.
Incidentally (yes, I use it often, to highlight small “detours”): I do not think that developing a purely liberal art culture as a kid is as useful as having a “recurring” approach.
As an example: I read a lot as a teenager, mostly history, fiction, science-fiction, social sciences, science, technology.
In high school, while doing political activities, I read books and material on the precursors of the European Union (yes, Brussels was a “paper mill” also in the early 1980s :D).
Then while in the Army, in between office activities, I “absorbed” the books from the officers’ school of artillery that my Lieutenant had left piled up in the office.
Then in business from the late 1980s read a lot of business and technology books, but as I was travelling often, the IHT and books on politics, as well as “travel fiction” (from war to spy to thriller to political thriller).
I saw today that the small share of my library that I posted online on librarything.com/catalog/aleph123 contains over 1,100 books- all book that I read or re-read.
No, don’t ask me for a summary: I absorb some data that relates to other, data and information on people that I can visualize, and patterns about organizations, people, cultures- but both with movies and books, usually when I get a “catalyst” information, it retrieves other information from somewhere in my brain- so, I start re-reading books, and then keep skimming through pages fast whenever I remember 😀
So, I know what each book is about, some key information and patterns (sometimes more than that), and when I open it I start recollecting but, otherwise, I rely on books to retrieve the details- better to use the brain as a connecting machine (albeit developing memory skills is useful to remember what makes sense to remember: a human connecting machine isn’t just a “lifetime table of contents”!)
Currently, beside writing books and improving my language skills, as I wrote online recently I started to re-read “classics”, using as a source a 52-volumes (out of copyright) published as “Harvard Classics in the early XX century (you can find it on archive.org).
It is my past experience that is true that some “classics” have a different meaning if you read then at 20, 30, 40- so let’s see what happens when you re-read them all at 50 (albeit in many cases it will be the first time that I will read them).
Meanwhile, I will continue to “collect” from online sources links and material, to read now or soon in some cases, in most cases I will just browse the material when I find it, just to remember where is what, and what it contains, and often I just collect samples- except when I see a story or set of patterns unfold that might make sense to follow at least once, maybe just by quickreading.
As I wrote above, it is a matter of personal choice and approach: but get used to the concept that, in the XXI century, “career” is not something that others build for you, and “education” is not something that you build only in school, or while you are a teenager.
I posted today on Linkedin:
“You have to know the content of your field, but you also have to be a complete person, the kind of person that other people want to deal with” http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2015/06/10/goldmans-blankfein-on-skipping-school-work-wishing-to-be-chinese/ – or: thinking, not just collecting data points 🙂
If you do not have time or willingness to follow courses on oyc.yale.edu, ocw.mit.edu, Coursera, or others, use archive.org, issuu.com, or YouTube to sample material.
But, please, consider that those who wrote “Zang Tumb Tumb” and similar material had a much, much deeper knowledge of their own culture than most Ph.D. develop nowadays.
In order to be “fast and furious” without being superficial you need to have depth- not to show it every few seconds 😀
No matter how much you read, learn, watch: use it only when it is relevant, to highlight or support specific discussion points, not just to show off.
Or: if you can say something in few seconds that clarifies an issue, why should you deliver a 10-minute lecture? Just keep it ready if your clarification is challenged…
A knowledge-worker is actually a knowledge-fighter: and no fighter can be successful unless trained.
To close on a lighter tone: a video on an example of “getting ready for a fight”
For the time being: my latest book is on robertolofaro.com/QuPlan (another “episode” of the fictional case study on a compliance programme), and the next will be out soon, while the last one will be published in November 2015.
Have a nice Sunday evening!