Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

03 APRIL, 2013

George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright

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“The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.”

The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from the great oratory schools of Ancient Greece to the TED era.

In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster, and James Dickey’s beautiful essay on how to enjoy poetry — legendary Paris Review editor George Plimpton shares his secrets of combating the fear of public speaking.

He begins with an emphasis on doing your homework, with a grounding reminder of what research meant a generation before the age of Google, email, and Wikipedia:

The more you sweat in advance, the less you’ll have to sweat once you appear on stage. Research your topic thoroughly. Check the library for facts, quotes, books, and timely magazine and newspaper articles on your subject. Get in touch with experts. Write to them, make phone calls, get interviews to help round out your material.

In short, gather — and learn — far more than you’ll ever use. You can’t imagine how much confidence that knowledge will inspire.

He advocates for setting the tone quickly and purposefully, in line with the main objective of your speech:

An audience makes up its mind very quickly. Once the mood of an audience is set, it is difficult to change it, which is why introductions are important.

[…]

There are four main intents in the body of the well-made speech. These are (1) to entertain, which is probably hardest; (2) to instruct, which is the easiest if the speaker has done the research and knows the subject; (3) to persuade, which one does at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town meeting; and finally, (4) to inspire, which is what the speaker emphasizes at a sales meeting, in a sermon, or at a pep rally.

Plimpton stresses the importance of sounding spontaneous and — ironically, but without irony — offers some tips on staging spontaneity:

The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized. I’ve found it’s best to learn a speech point by point, not word for word. Careful preparation and a great deal of practicing are required to make it come together smoothly and easily. Mark Twain once said, ‘It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.’

“No speech was ever too short,” a duo of legendary admen famously advised, and Plimpton agrees: He wrote this the year TED was founded and, like any great oracle of culture, he intuited the format-meme that TED would eventually rein in, arguing for the supremacy of the 20-minute talk over the hour-long academic-style lecture:

As anyone who listens to speeches knows, brevity is an asset. Twenty minutes are ideal. An hour is the limit an audience can listen comfortably.

In mentioning brevity, it is worth mentioning that the shortest inaugural address was George Washington’s — just 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison’s in 1841. he delivered a two-hour, nine-thousand -word speech into the teeth of a freezing northeast wind. He came down with a cold the following day, and a month later he died of pneumonia.

He shares a counterintuitive insight about the size of the audience:

The larger the crowd, the easier it is to speak, because the response is multiplied and increased. Most people do not believe this. They peek out from behind the curtain, and if the auditorium is filled to the rafters, they begin to moan softly in the back of their throats.

Plimpton concludes with a few related words of wisdom on stage fright:

Very few speakers escape the so-called ‘butterflies.’ There does not seem to be any cure for them, except to realize that they are beneficial rather than harmful, and never fatal. The tension usually means that the speaker, being keyed up, will do a better job. Edward R. Murrow called stage fright ‘the sweat of perfection.’ Mark Twain once comforted a fright-frozen friend about to speak: ‘Just remember they don’t expect much.’ My own feeling is that with thought, preparation and faith in your ideas, you can go out there and expect a pleasant surprise.

And what a sensation it is — to hear applause.

How to Use the Power of the Printed Word is fantastic in its entirety, featuring more wisdom from John Irving, Tony Randall, Jane Bryant Quinn, and other luminaries.

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02 APRIL, 2013

Mapping Manhattan: A Love Letter in Subjective Cartography by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Yoko Ono & 72 Other New Yorkers

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“Maps are the places where memories go not to die but to live forever.”

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation … so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul,” E. B. White memorably wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York. And indeed what a canvas of glorious shared eclecticism Gotham is — city of cats and city of dogs, city of beloved public spaces and beloved secret places, of meticulous order and sparkling chaos, but above all a city of private memories woven together into one shared tapestry of belonging.

Maps, meanwhile, have long held unparalleled storytelling power as tools of propaganda, imagination, obsession, and timekeeping. From Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typo-cartographic subjectivity maps impel us to overlay the static landscape with our dynamic lived experience, our impressions, our selves.

The convergence of these two — New York’s extraordinary multiplicity and the emotive storytelling power of maps — is precisely what Becky Cooper set out to explore in an ongoing collaborative art project that began in an appropriately personal manner: The summer after her freshman year of college in 2008, Cooper became an accidental cartographer when she was hired to help map all of Manhattan’s public art. As she learned about mapping and obsessively color-coded the locations, she considered what it took to make “a map that told an honest story of a place” and was faced with the inevitable subjectivity of the endeavor, realizing that an assemblage of many little subjective portraits revealed more about a place than any attempt at a “complete” map.

And so the idea was born — to assemble a collaborative portrait of the city based on numerous individual experiences, memories, and subjective impressions. She painstakingly hand-printed a few hundred schematic maps of Manhattan on the letterpress in the basement of her college dorm, then walked all over the island, handing them to strangers and asking them to draw “their Manhattan,” then mail the maps back to her — which, in a heartening antidote to Gotham’s rumored curmudgeonly cynicism, they readily did. Dozens of intimate narratives soon filled her inbox — first loves, last goodbyes, childhood favorites, unexpected delights. In short, lives lived.

Off The Grid (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The finest of them are now collected Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) — a tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring contributions from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including Brain Pickings favorites like cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, The Map as Art author Katharine Harmon and Paris vs. New York creator Vahram Muratyan, as well as prominent New Yorkers like writer Malcolm Gladwell and chef David Chang.

Malcolm Gladwell, writer (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Yoko Ono, visual artist, musician, and activist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Cooper writes of the project:

The maps were like passports into strangers’ worlds. … I talked to gas station workers, MTA employees, artists, tourists, and veterans; to Columbia med students, Mister Softee drivers, city planners, San Francisco quilters, bakery owners, street cart vendors, Central park portraitists, jazz musicians, Watchtower distributors, undergrads, can collectors, and mail carriers. … These are their maps. Their ghosts. Their past loves. Their secret spots. Their favorite restaurants. These are their accidental autobiographies: when people don’t realize they’re revealing themselves, they’re apt to lay themselves much more bare.

[…]

I hope to show Manhattan as a cabinet of curiosities, a container of portals to hundreds of worlds; if I’ve succeeded, this portrait of the city will be as true as any of the seventy-five others.

Vahram Muratyan, French graphic artist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Katharine Harmon, author of The Map as Art and You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The inimitable Adam Gopnik — a New Yorker’s New Yorker — writes in the foreword:

Maps and memories are bound together, a little as songs and love affairs are. The artifact envelops the emotion, and then the emotion stores away in the artifact: We hear ‘All the Things You Are’ or ‘Hey There Delilah’ just by chance while we’re in love, and then the love is forever after stored in the song. … This attachment requires no particular creative energy. It just happens. … Maps, especially schematic ones, are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever.

Sea-Attle (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Gopnik pads the metaphorical with the scientific, echoing Richard Dawkins, who famously speculated that drawing maps may have “boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross,” and turns to the brain:

Cognitive science now insists that our minds make maps before they take snapshots, storing in schematic form the information we need to navigate and make sense of the world. Maps are our first mental language, not our latest. The photographic sketch, with its optical hesitations, is a thing we force from history; the map, with its neat certainties and foggy edges, looks like the way we think.

Matt Green, former civil engineer and champion of walking (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E. B. White wrote. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” It is this poetry of the internal engine — the emotional excess necessary for creativity, the compressed feeling bursting out of the poet’s soul like a rocket — that Gopnik, too, observes in reverence:

A remembered relation of spaces, a hole, a circle, a shaded area — and a whole life comes alive. The real appeal of the map, perhaps, is not so much that it stores our past as that it forces our emotions to be pressed into their most parsimonious essence — and, as every poet knows, it is emotion under the force of limits, emotion pressed down and held down to strict formal constraints, that makes for the purest expression. These maps are street haiku, whose emotions, whether made by the well known or the anonymous, are more moving for being so stylized.

[…]

Each map in this book diagrams the one thing we most want a map to show us, and that is a way home.

Becky Cooper (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

In this lovely short film, which the fine folks at Abrams have offered Brain Pickings exclusively, Cooper tells the story of the project’s genesis:

The final page of Mapping Manhattan contains a blank map, inviting you to draw your Manhattan and mail it to Cooper. This is mine:

Complement Mapping Manhattan with Teresa Carpenter’s indispensable New York Diaries, one of the best history books of 2012.

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02 APRIL, 2013

Marriage Equality for Kids: The True Story of Central Park Zoo’s Gay Penguin Family, Illustrated

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“We’ll call her Tango … because it takes two to make a Tango.”

The recent historic marriage equality hearings reminded me of an old favorite: And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, with charming illustrations by Henry Cole. It tells the heartening true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies.

But nothing happened. Then, Mr. Gramzay got an idea:

In 2005, however, just after And Tango Makes Three was published, Roy and Silo parted ways and Silo coupled with a female penguin. Meanwhile, Tango formed a same-sex relationship with another female penguin named Tanuzi. Tango and Tanuzi have remained together for every mating cycle since.

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