I am Canadian
A jogging reminder on the importance of simplicity

Ted Stevens and the art of the ramble

Donotspeak We can't be an expert on everything. All of us are supremely ignorant about some things. One thing that makes an individual wise, though, is the knowledge that we all know actually very little in the whole scheme of things. Of course, advertising our own ignorance is still something we'd like to avoid doing, especially when speaking publicly. Yet still worse than not knowing is thinking (or posing) that we know or understand something but demonstrate, through our explanation or presentation, that we do not. Is it not unforgivable to pretend to know what we are talking about when we do not? Is it not professional suicide to try to fake it, digging a hole so deep and filling it with so much redundant, contradictory nonsense that we lose all credibility to speak on the issue again?

DonottalkmuchWe always talk about how to become a better speaker, but the first step to becoming a better speaker is becoming a better listener. And to do that requires us to slow down and to remain silent so that we may hear. Remaining silent is quite hard for many of us, yet we learn very little while speaking; we learn when we listen. By listening more and speaking less we can be better performers when it is our chance to openly articulate our message.

Do not speak unless it improves on silence
No matter how good of a speaker we may think we are, there are times — many times in fact — when it's wise to keep quiet. Perhaps you've heard this line before:

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Many people have uttered this phrase, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, ...my high school football coach. It's an ideal that is good for us to remember, verbose Americans in particular. Lao Tsu said, "He who knows does not speak. He who speaks, does not know." I want to thank US senator, Ted Stevens, for reminding me of this passage, one that I first read as a Philosophy student so many years ago. We all appreciate the well-spoken man or woman, yet we also remain politely skeptical of those who appear too smooth, too slick, or who, on the other hand, ramble on and on (and on...) with a kind of faux confidence. In today's insanely busy world, the "rambling man" is the most intolerable of all.


Worst attempt ever at extemporaneity?
Tedstevens US Senator, Ted Stevens (Alaska), has generated a lot of buzz this month due to his "interesting" remarks in opposition to net neutrality made at a committee meeting at the end of last month. The senator was speaking in opposition to the amendment that would have inserted strong network neutrality mandates into a bill. Many people feel that Stevens' "rant" indicates that the man has formed a very strong opinion about a topic he seems to know very little about. Quite worrisome for most people when you consider the senior position of the senator. The rambling 11-minute "speech" looks like it will be part of the senator's legacy. You can now get t-shirts with his "tubes" quote and the "series of tubes" riff has now become a kind of meme. Again, sometimes our parents really did have good advice for us: "Remain silent and be thought a fool, or speak up and remove all doubt."

Hear Ted speak

DailyshowListen to the 11-minute speech by Ted Stevens. After you listen, you may want to listen again if you are still confused about the net neutrality issue. But if you really want to get to the essence of the matter — the heart of the net neutrality debate — then you really need to ask a ninja. Stevens needed 11 minutes, a ninja can sum up the issue in far less time (and then disappear into the night).

Listen here on Publicknowledge.com to Ted Stevens' "lecture." You can download the mp3 file here as well.

Listen to the same 11-minute talk unedited but with laidback music and soothing visuals added (kind of eases the pain if you know what I mean).
Hear the entire talk in context along with rebuttal the Committee website
Hear John Stewart breakdown the senator's talk.
John Hodgman (comedian), appearing as an expert with Jon Stewart also summaries the issue pretty well.
Still confused? Then let a ninja cut right to the heart of the matter in a little over a minute.
DJ Ted Stevens Techno Remix: "A Series of Tubes"
Original Ted's Techno Tubes (audio only)
Another remix, this time with voices from Looney Tunes (Bugs, Elmer, etc.)
Here's a short excerpt (just over two minutes) from the middle of talk with photo.
Proof that this "tubes" thing has hit a nerve with "the kids." (Watch this at your own risk; I do not recommend viewing while eating or drinking...or at any other time).
Jon Stewart gives you a little background on the senator in a bit called "Who the F**k is Ted Stevens."

It's not easy
Speaking extemporaneously is hard, much harder than delivering a well thought out, rehearsed presentation with slideware or a speech at the podium. But the ability to give solid impromptu talks or engage thoughtfully in debate is a skill that will carry you far in this world. We would hope law-makers too would be skilled at this. Stevens has passion and energy, but as he demonstrated so well for us, you've got to really know what you're talking about as well. And if we truly do not know the issue well enough to debate it without making ourselves look foolish, it is a far better thing to remain silent. In Japan for example, it is usually the younger staff who deliver presentations at an important meeting with clients. Middle managers (the 40-somethings) will do most of the talking. The older, senior staff sit mostly in silence. The senior staff have the power, however, and they make the final decisions. But they have learned long ago not to speak unless doing so improves on their silence.

Related links
"A Series of Tubes" on Wikipedia
Boing Boing on Ted's tubes
New York Times piece on the Stevens buzz
This Week in Tech discusses a bit on this issue
Get your Ted Stevens Net Neutrality t-shirts
John Dvorak - PC Magazine
Your own personal internet (Wired)
Jello Biafra breaks it down
Save the Internet dot com

Thanks to my buddy, Nathan Bryan, who turned me on to Ask A Ninja (weird stuff). Nathan sits perched ninja-like high above Kobe at the tope of Mount Rokko. Checkout his Rokko House site and say hello.


Robert Smelser

Though not entirely related, this post made me think of Kathy Sierra's post on the dangers of the "glib."


The fast answer is indeed seldom the best answer.

Jennifer Lueck

Your engaging perspective really illuminates an important message, one that is so often overlooked.

Thank you for an excellent post!


You've probably already seen the further proliferation of this meme: http://www.boingboing.net/2006/07/23/best_series_of_tubes.html

Ryan Solomon

After reading this, I decided to use Ted Stevens "lecture" in my writing class to show my students what to avoid when constructing an argument. The students loved it, and I could see them thinking back to their own work to see if their own ideas were just as incoherent - which fortunately they weren't. But it made for a great object lesson about the importance of coherence and structure in our communication. Thanks for leading me to this little gem.

Ravi Slakan

Slightly OT, but I am dying to know how you are creating those awseome paper cuts on the slides?

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