Thoughts from a talk part 2: The barrier of British self-deprecation

I wrote yesterday about a talk that I found interesting and inspiring. I’m not embarrassed by the fact that I enjoyed it so much. Even though the content was mostly conceptual and academic, and the immediate applications for me personally are unclear. I just genuinely loved listening to an expert, sharing ideas that intrigued and excited my brain. So, why did the expert, and the speaker before him, seem not to share in my enthusiasm, and instead, seem disinterested at times in their own subject and discoveries? Why? I think, because they’re British…

To be clear, I’m British myself, and so it’s in that classic fashion that I feel entitled to comment harshly on a group that I’m part of. At the same time, I want to be clear that in no way do I mean to be rude about the lovely people at this talk. I don’t know the first two, but they both work at Ustwo, which I hear is a great environment full of inspiring people, and the last speaker, Joe, I know to be a wonderfully enlightened, kind and funny guy. So this is not an attack on them personally, but rather a reflection on how I think certain British traits can impair positive impact.

To begin, here’s some of what the compare said to introduce the talk:

It’s great to see so many people here, really, eh, um, ‘exciting’… Before we get into all the good speakers we’ve got here tonight, I just want to talk  ‘a little bit’ about Ustwo…

Hearing hesitation before and during the word ‘exciting’, felt to me like it undermined the sincerity of saying it. And following that with an apparent apology to ‘talk a little bit’ about the company, that kindly organised and hosted the talk, seems oddly apologetic, and as though the speaker is embarrassed of the situation. Perhaps she was just nervous, or pushed into doing something she’s uncomfortable with. But whatever the background, there is a chiefly British modesty in her tone that I think sadly detracts from the greatness of the evening. Own it I say. Be proud of the company that I bet most people in the audience, like me, are in adoration of.

Next up is the first speaker, Alex Crowfoot, who’s first words are…

I’ve got a feeling that what I’m about to say is gonna be just a crap version of what Joe is gonna be saying later…

😐

Really? That’s the best first thing you can think to say before your talk, in front of a crowd that has gathered to listen to you? I get being nervous, and honest, and modest, but to prime the crowd with such negativity is surely not a good idea for anyone. Especially yourself Alex. And again, you’re from Ustwo. You’re the Head of Product and Service Discovery. I envy you. I kind of look up to you. In this context, hearing you seem so disinterested in what you’re about to say feels almost belittling to me. How does he follow this…

So, um, this, I, actually, if you wanna just doze off, I’m just gonna tell you what the crux of this all is…

😐

… We’re at a point, where we know enough now, to know that we’re living unsustainably. We know that we are using two and half planets worth of resources. So, if we’re still designing as if all of that is endless, then we’re actually designing for a planet that doesn’t exist anymore, which is a planet that believed that resources were endless…

😯

Woah, now you’re talking. That’s interesting. A nice perspective that I’d not taken before. Perhaps his initial modesty was a ruse, subterfuge, to get the listener into a non-expectant position that makes us more receptive to what you’re about to shock us with. Smart. Except the words that instantly follow those above are:

… so you can go to sleep now, and I’ll talk about that in a bit more detail, so, um, I’ve got a few, um, a few, you know, um, “facts”, actual facts, not alternative facts, from our current world, so, um, I guess, I don’t know how many people here are… designers… or working on products and services… and guiding them… in some way… uh, hopefully most of you, because that means you’re the right audience for my message, um, so, uh, you know, we know, we know, we know this, does anyone not know this is happening, like, what rock… um, yeah, and then also, if you are a climate change denier…

And so on. Again, I can only imagine that Alex is a nice guy. You don’t get to be a Head of anything at Ustwo without being a mensch. And his hesitation, which feels almost unfairly transcribed here, seems a clear sign of his nervousness, which is totally understandable. But between the um’s and the clear smarts that he possesses on the subject, there’s that apologetic British modesty, as though what interests him is not going to be of interest to us, that causes the most friction to his message. His talk is more a barrier to entry than an invite to learn, share or understand.

Moving on then, here’s how speaker two, Joe Macleod, starts to introduce his subject of closure experience:

It’s absolutely fascinating. Well at least, I find it fascinating. I hope you guys do. So without further ado, let’s rattle through how fascinating it is…

Damn. Same again. Seemingly apologetic British modesty about his subject, which he knows is fascinating, and which he enjoys, but which he seems slightly unable to present as something of interest to us, the audience that has gathered to hear him talk.

What is it with this disconnect? This most commonly British tendency for self-depreciation. From a user experience point of view it feels like an obvious issue that needs attention. Like a UI that’s deliberately hard to use. Or an error page that expresses disappointment without offering an accessible solution.

I’m not suggesting that the British need to be more like American presenters, such as Tony Robbins, who’s manner and intonation I actually struggle to take seriously. Nor that we need to mimic the entertainingly ebullient nature of Sir Ken Robinson. But I do think, or wish, that more speakers would take confidence in their message and the fact that those gathered in front of them are looking on with interest. Not indifference.

If you’ve not already heard Joe’s talk then, and with pre-warning today that his manner might seem defensive or indifferent, then I suggest again that you give it a listen and consider for yourself how we might incorporate, or reverse engineer the idea of closure experiences, into more complete and sustainable experiences for all.

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