When it comes to communication, remember that design is everything

MY next-door neighbour has Pomeranians.

Now, a Pomeranian is a particularly yappy breed of dog with a sense of its own entitlement, power, and influence that goes beyond the normal.

That its bark is worse than its bite is only because it never stops barking long enough to sink its teeth in anything other than its dinner. A Pom will allow you to pet it but reserves the right to be permanently pissed off and to express itself with the volume button turned way up. No Pomeranian has ever had an unexpressed thought.

If Michael Ring TD were a dog, he would definitely be a Pom. (Leinster House is full of politicians whose gait and manner immediately suggest their canine equivalent. Suggestions welcome.)

I was kind of sorry when Deputy Ring became a minister of state, although I figured I was on my own in this and that he himself was taking a no regrets position on the matter, giving the impression that he saw it as the parliamentary equivalent of being assumed into heaven. The problem is that with a government the size of a woolly mammoth, his opportunities to appear on radio and TV have reduced somewhat from his days in opposition, when any programme, ringing him on a slow news day could be sure he’d go from nought to high doh in three seconds on almost any issue.

Ring can talk with equal verve when he’s breathing in as when he’s breathing out and he can get three references to his constituency into any sentence in any interview, even if the topic is the biology of bats. Interviewers can ask him a question, go off to the loo, have a cup of coffee, and come back knowing they’ll have to fight him into brief silence in order to get in the next question.

Nor is he intimidated by the EU Council of Ministers. He came over all Pomeranian in Brussels last week, yapping at them for reading scripts and rightly pointing out that if they couldn’t deliver the three-minute input on their country’s sport and drug policies without a prepared script, they shouldn’t be in their jobs. And so say all of us.

But what’s significant is that so said all of them — 27 sports ministers cast aside their scripts and spoke without them. Call it the Mayo Pom’s Miracle: Getting experienced politicians for just one day to aim at good communication rather than lazy habit.

Another strike for good communication happened last week at a commencement ceremony in a US university. Richard Saul Wurman, one of the founders of the TED lectures, made such an address — without notes — at the graduate school of design in Harvard. Not having notes allowed him to move around while having a look at the way the conference hall was set up, and he didn’t like it.

Not enough aisles, for starters. This is a constant failure of conference organisers, who divide their audience into three or sometimes even just two major chunks of humanity, thereby ensuring that the poor microphone carrier, when it gets to the question-and-answer bit, has to have arms like a gorilla or get a serious leg thing going with a row of participants in order to get the mike to a speaker and — just as important — get it back from them when they’re done. Lots of aisles, lads. Pretty please. It has the added advantage of allowing late-comers to get into a seat without forcing a line of 90 people to do a Mexican wave stand up in order to let them pass.

Richard Saul Wurman — the first edition of whose book Information Anxiety should be on the shelf of anyone who cares about communications — also took issue with the podium, which was fetchingly located to one side of the stage rather than in the middle.

“Why was it put there?” he demanded. “Are the people on that side more important than the people on this side?”

Just in case anyone thought this was merely a 78-year-old getting ratty over details, he told the audience that these were precisely the kind of questions everybody should ask, because, as he put it, “everything is design”.

And, of course, everything in design is in itself a communication. Including the design of the podium. A special place in hell is reserved for whatever twisted creative mind dreamed up the transparent plastic podium, which magnifies the speaker from mid-chest down. But the lucite podium isn’t the worst. The worst is the podium where both shelves slant. The speaker who doesn’t use PowerPoint finds the top shelf occupied by a PC, and because the lower shelf slants, has nowhere to put a necessary glass of water.

Conference organisers believe that if you don’t use a PowerPoint, you won’t do your homework and will come unprepared. The reality is that the non-PowerPoint speaker has to prepare much more than those who are led along by slides, but conference organisers want the tedious evidence that you’ve done your homework, even if the homework disimproves the presentation, as PowerPoint, except where it illustrates physical complexities, always does.

Profr Edward Tufte nicely sums up PowerPoint as giving guidance and reassurance to the speaker, rather than enlightenment to their audience.

The big disadvantage for non-PowerPointers is that, in many venues, if the massive screen behind them is not filled with their bullet points, it may be filled instead with a 2m-high close-up of the speaker’s face. Some of us feel badly about inflicting that on an audience.

RICHARD Saul Wurman, who, like Tufte, has spent his life identifying great ways to communicate, eschews PowerPoint. Which means he gets to observe his audience much more than PowerPointers do. The early minutes of any PowerPointer’s presentation always involve flashdrives and foosthering and the usually vain hope on the part of the watchers that this presenter won’t use one of those laser pointers delivering a red dot that circles each point like a deranged neon bee.

Last Wednesday in Harvard, when Wurman noticed that his audience was scattered all over the place, with very few down at the front, he ordered the ones up at the back to come down closer to him, creating a commonality a scattered audience never gets. Conference organisers should never put out the last two rows of seats until the seats close to the front are filled up. That creates greater density at the front and lets latecomers slide in without being disruptive.

Then, finally, Wurman, like Ring, broke with tradition, refusing to take questions at the end on the basis that he’d either get bad questions or speeches, because nobody concentrates on teaching people to ask good questions.

Wurman describes himself as “abrasive”. I don’t know how Michael Ring describes himself. But in terms of trying to improve public communication, they’re heroes.

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