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Hello, hello, it's Malcolm Gladwell. I've been deep in the audio minds of Pushkin Industries working on a couple of things I can't wait to share with you, not to mention season six of revisionist history coming later this summer. But meanwhile, season two of Pushkin's great show, Cautionary Tales is underway.
Tim Harford doing what he does best, bringing us stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes and hilarious fiascos. I wanted to share one episode in particular because it concerns a question I've thought a lot about. What are the risks of improvising a speech? You know, I do a lot of public speaking and there's always a trade off. One approach is to memorize and get everything perfect but risk seeming stilted and disconnected from your audience. Or you can try speaking off the cuff and take a different kind of risk, resulting in the kind of disaster Tim is about to explore, but always with cautionary tales.
There's a twist. If you enjoy this episode, and I know you will go subscribe to cautionary tales wherever you're listening right now. One late summer day in 1963, thousands upon thousands of people gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., they had come to America's capital for jobs and freedom to show the Kennedy administration that civil rights legislation must be pushed through Congress and to hear the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. The official program had been long packed with speeches, but a quarter of a million people defied the heat.
As they waited, the crowd stretched back from the Lincoln Memorial, packing the sides of the famous reflecting pool swirling around the base of the Washington Monument and extending toward the intransigent capital itself. The mall usually dwarfs anything on a human scale. Not that afternoon. The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sang: I've been beaten up in school. Anticipation was building. All three television networks switched to live coverage. Dr. King stepped forward to speak to address not only the sweltering crowd, but a national audience he had never had before and might never have again.
Dr. King had spent the night laboring on his speech with a few trusted aides weighing every word of what he would say for a few minutes, the nation, even the world, would be focused on those words from the Lincoln Memorial steps. Dr. King knew that those words had to be perfect.
But now let's leave this iconic scene behind us and travel across time and across the Atlantic. 28 years later, a very different man would give a very different speech in front of a very different audience.
Good afternoon, Mr. President. This man's name was Gerald Ratner, and he didn't have a dream. He had a nightmare. I'm Tim Harford and you're listening to Cautionary Tales. Gerald Ratner's speech, to be clear, wasn't about civil rights, it was about selling cheap jewelry. It became iconic because it didn't go well. And as you've probably figured out by now, I'm fascinated by things that didn't go well. But I'll let you into a secret. I'm also fascinated by the art of public speaking.
I love doing it and I love studying it. Public speaking is such a strange thing as natural as talking and yet wrenchingly difficult and how it was approached by these two men, Gerald Ratner and Martin Luther King. And what happened to them could teach us a lot. Dr. King and Mr. Ratner are a study in contrasts, Martin Luther King took the high road through education, earning a doctorate in theology. Gerald Ratner took the low road. Ratner was born in London in 1949 and expelled from school at the age of 13.
When he was 15, he joined the family business, a group of six jewelry shops. Ratner worked behind the counter for 10 years, but noticed that he didn't have many customers his age or younger. Those people had no interest in gold and diamond rings. They were spending plenty of money on clothes and music. Shopping malls were busy, jewelers were not. They were dusting and intimidating. Nothing had a price tag. The doors would be locked behind you when you entered.
Young Gerald soon had a management role and steered the family business towards more informal shops selling products that would appeal to young shoppers on a budget, it was a canny move. By the age of 35, Ratner was a millionaire. He began a series of ambitious takeovers. By the age of 40, he was running fifteen hundred stores in the UK and a thousand in the US. His brands included K watches of Switzerland and Ratner's itself. Gerald Ratner had built the largest jewelry group on the planet and then he destroyed it in a matter of seconds.
Gerald Ratner had been asked to address the Institute of Directors, a prestigious audience of 6000 British business leaders. The venue was the Royal Albert Hall, fast and trimmed with gold and red velvet, perhaps the grandest auditorium in London. Understandably, Ratner started his speech looking nervous. He was a self-made man, a school dropout who now stood in front of business royalty. And in fact, there were actual royalty in the audience to Ratner was rich and successful, to be sure.
But did he fit in?
Three minutes after starting his speech, he finds his theme mocking his own products.
We've got this imitation book that you lay on your coffee table. These pages don't actually open, but they're beautiful, curled up corners with imitation antique dust. I know it's you might say it's not in the best possible taste, but we sold a quarter of a million of them last year.
The audience love it. They laugh, they clap. Ratner looks braver.
We also do this nice sherry. It's a cancer. It's cut glass and it comes complete with six glasses on a silver plated tray that your butler could bring you in is serve your drinks on.
Oh, you're too funny, Gerald. Some of the people in the audience would have employed butlers, but Ratner's customers certainly couldn't afford one any more than they could afford. A genuine antique book, a decanter and a silver tray for your butler. Nice one.
And it's really only cost four pounds. Ninety five pence. That's about twelve dollars.
In today's money, people say to me, how can you sell this for such a low price? I say, because it's total crap and more laughter, more applause.
Ratner's killing it on stage.
He's also just killed his own business empire. He didn't realize it at the time. The speech had gone down very well with the audience in the Royal Albert Hall. But the newspaper reporters in the room smelled a story.
The jokes that had played so brilliantly on the day did not go down so well when served up cold on the front page of the morning papers. At the time the UK was in the middle of a recession. Ordinary people didn't take kindly to a multi-millionaire standing in front of his fellow one percenters and mocking his own customers for their crass taste. And who would buy an engagement ring from a company whose own boss had declared that products were crap? Sales ebbed.
Ratner's group shares fell nearly 90 percent between the speech in April and Christmas, Ratner was sacked from his own company. Inevitably, they changed the company name. Ratner's was a toxic brand, forever tarnished. To this day in the U.K., doing a Rattana is part of the language universally understood as committing a humiliating career ending gaffe, Ratner's name became its own one word cautionary tale.
The lesson seems obvious enough if everyone's watching, choose your words with care, don't wing it. But what if that lesson has the story completely backwards? In retrospect, the Reverend Dr. King had been preparing his whole life to give the speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His memory had always been prodigious. At the age of five, he was learning Bible passages by heart. He told his parents that when he grew up, he was going to get some big words.
So he did. Martin's father was a preacher, and the boy took to the craft of speech-making early for the age of 14. Martin traveled across Georgia on a bus to compete in a public speaking contest on the way home to Atlanta. Things went sour, very sour. King and his friend were sitting near the front of the bus with their teacher, Sarah Grace Bradley.
At a busy stop, a rush of white passengers got on and the bus driver, also white, ordered King and his friend to give up their seats.
You boys move in, get yourself to the back of the bus. There was a pause. Dr. King later said we didn't move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us. The driver was now hurling every racist slur you can imagine and threatening to call the police. Ihram Martin, please do what he says.
So we walk to the back of the bus and I had to stand all the way to Atlanta. It was dark outside for 90 miles. There was nothing to look at but the seats on the bus filled with white people. It was late at night and I was tired.
But that wasn't the point. It was the humiliation. Martin, remember, was just 14 years old that night, will never leave my memory. Was the angriest I've ever been in my life. Suddenly I realized you don't count. You're nobody but Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't destined to be nobody for long, and the journey on the way to being not just somebody, but somebody who made his mark on history arguably began not with that unforgettable humiliation, but with the triumphant day that had preceded it.
The long and infuriating bus journey of Martin Luther King Jr. had been on the way home from a public speaking competition, Martin had won a prize at the contest, delivering his speech titled The Negro and the Constitution entirely from memory. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. That speech showed off the teenage king's approach, he would research, draft, redraft, memorize, finally deliver with passion.
King used the same principles three years later, preaching for the first time in a small meeting room at his father's church. He was spectacular. The crowds kept coming until young Martin had to move to the main auditorium. Martin won an oratory prize in college. He used to practice imagined court testimony in front of a mirror, dreaming of becoming a lawyer. Instead, he applied for a job as a minister at a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, as part of his application.
He had to give a sermon and of course, he used something meticulously crafted, a sermon he preached several times before practice. Don't just make it up as you go along. Once he secured that job, he stuck to that winning formula. King's responsibilities as a minister had to be fulfilled while he was still finishing his doctorate in theology. So he rose at half past five each morning, made coffee, shaved his stubborn bristles into a neat moustache, then worked on his doctorate for three hours before his pregnant wife, Coretta, woke to join him for breakfast.
All the while, King lavished enormous effort on his sermons. He would begin drafting on Tuesday and continued to research and draft throughout the week, drawing ideas from Plato, Aquinas, Freud, Gandhi. As Sunday approached, he would write it all out on yellow lined paper and commit it to memory, just as he had done at the age of 14. He would bring the script to church with him, but as he ascended to the pulpit, he would leave it in his chair and speak without notes for half an hour or more.
He was fantastic. People said the congregation adored him and the way he spoke with style about matters of substance. And to achieve this mastery, the young Reverend King spent 15 hours or more crafting each sermon. Martin Luther King was one of the greatest speech makers to grace the English language, and at first it might seem obvious why, as well as being educated and prodigiously talented, he ensured that every syllable of his oratory was meticulously prepared.
Gerald Ratner could have learned from Dr. King's example. Could be. Well, the truth is way more interesting than that. So why would a public speaker set aside the script or memorized remarks and speak off the cuff? I asked Charles Limb.
He's a neuroscientist, a surgeon, a jazz saxophonist, and one of very few people who's actually studied the improvising brain.
Limb research has people as they improvise inside brain scanners called fMRI machines. Imagine sliding on your back so that your head is surrounded by a giant white plastic doughnut with a feel of a vintage iPod.
The scanner is generating powerful magnetic fields to illuminate the contrast between oxygen rich blood flowing to different areas of your brain and the oxygen depleted blood flowing away again. Your head is held perfectly still. If you're a hip hop artist, you then have to spit some rhymes in response to random words, if you're a jazz musician, you have to tap out riffs on a plastic keyboard lying across your knees, no metal.
Otherwise, the magnetic field would rip the keyboard apart and pull the shrapnel into the scanner with your head. It's a tough gig. Through these experiments, Lemonde and other neuroscientists have been discovering hints of what goes on in an improvising brain. There's a distinctive pattern in the prefrontal cortex, which seems to be the seat of consciousness, memory, morality, humor and even the sense of self.
But the pattern isn't that the prefrontal cortex is lighting up during improvisation. On the contrary, broad areas of it shutting down the dorsolateral areas, either side of the top of your forehead and the lateral orbital areas behind your eyes. Improvisers are escaping their internal restraints. They're letting go. Most of us go through our days holding back our mental impulses to swear or lash out. All this requires a degree of self-control so that filtering is a good thing, but you could have too much of a good thing, says Charles Limb.
Too much filtering can squash our creativity. Improvisers shut down their inner critics and allow new ideas to flow out. The improvising brain is disinhibited, although not so crudely as the drunk brain.
That is why improvisers can produce flashes of pure brilliance.
It's also why improvisation feels so risky.
A script can seem protective, like a bulletproof vest, but sometimes it's more like a straight jacket, improvising unleashes creativity. It feels fresh and honest and personal. Above all, it turns a monologue into a dialogue. Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpeter, talked about improvisation as the freedom and space to hear things, that's a fascinating turn of phrase, not the freedom and space to play things or to do things, but to hear things, to be more open to the sound of your own instrument, the sound of the group.
And that matters for more than just music or rhetoric, because we're scared of improvising and we're not just afraid to improvise on stage. We're also becoming afraid to improvise face to face. The sociologist Sherry Turkle has been interviewing young people about their communications through smartphone apps. It wasn't just because the apps were convenient or addictive, although they could be both. Texting is attractive because traditional conversations feel scary.
I'll tell you what's wrong with conversation, one high school senior told Sherry Turkle. It takes place in real time and you can't control what you're going to say when you're.
This student is so used to being able to proofread every message that he's become scared of simply talking and seeing what happens.
But then perhaps he's right to be scared. We should ask Gerald Ratana. Gerald Ratner learned to laugh at himself a long time ago, but he rejects the idea that somehow his mistake all worked out for the best.
People ask me if I'm glad I said what I said. They're ridiculous. How could I be grateful? I lost everything. Ratner plunged into depression. He has bounced back. In some ways. He had some success setting up a chain of health clubs and even an online jewelry business. But the truth is that there was nothing he could do, no success that he could achieve that would ever be as famous as his gaf. The search for a good joke destroyed his business and it nearly destroyed him, who would want to risk the fate of Gerald Ratner when they could follow the meticulous example of the young Martin Luther King?
It seems obvious that when speaking in public, we should prepare as diligently as King did when he drafted and memorized his sermons. But the truth about Gerald Ratner's impromptu remark about his products being total crap is this.
It wasn't impromptu, he chose those words with care after circulating drafts of the speech to get comments. He'd used the total crap joke before without running into problems. And as he prepared to deliver the speech on a larger stage, he sought advice. His wife told him to be careful. But others, including a friend who was one of the most influential figures in the advertising industry, encouraged him to tell even more daring jokes. They thought Ratner would sound self-deprecating and that his audience would love the gags, which was true.
Those in the hall that day did love it.
But in the newspapers the next morning, Ratner simply sounded like a millionaire, mocking his struggling customers. When I listen back to Ratner's speech, I don't hear the mockery at all. I hear something else. Immediately after saying his own products were crap Ratner says are Ratner's shot, will never win any awards for design.
They're not in the best possible taste. I admit that. In fact, some people say they can't even see the jewelry for all the banners and posters smothering the shop windows.
There's a different tone. Suddenly there's a note of defiance, even anger.
So it's interesting that these shops that everyone has a good laugh about take more money per square foot than any other retailer in Europe.
The hall is hush now. Nobody's laughing.
Why? Because we give the customer what they want.
Gerald Ratner wasn't laughing at his customers. He identified with them. He thought the business royalty in the hall were laughing at his customers and his business ideas and him. This was his response.
You laugh at us, he was saying. But my customers are happy and I'm rich. So who's laughing now?
Ratner's downfall wasn't caused by a lack of preparation, but by a lack of judgment.
Ratner did exactly what he planned to do. He had simply failed to foresee the consequences. Improvisation was not to blame, improvising does expose us to new and different risks, but even careful preparation cannot remove risks entirely. In December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man. As a local church leader with a reputation as an orator, Martin Luther King was asked to organize a boycott of Montgomery's buses.
He hesitated. He was exhausted. His newborn baby daughter, Yoki, wouldn't stop crying. In the night, King asked for time to mull over the idea of a bus boycott, but an influential local activist, Eddie Nixon, would have no delays. You ain't got much time to think, said Nixon. You're in the chair from now on. So it was that King found himself bounced into leading the Montgomery Improvement Association. He had to give an inaugural speech and he had to give it immediately.
Rosa Parks was news. The bus boycott was news. There wasn't time to spend days redrafting or consulting the sayings of Plato or Gandhi. Dr. King arrived home from the meeting with Eddie Nixon and the activists at half past six. He had to head to the speech venue Holt Street Church at ten to seven.
I had only 20 minutes to prepare the most decisive speech of my life. I became possessed by fear.
King knew that newspapermen would be there, perhaps even television crews. And yet, just as the stakes were highest, the habits of meticulous preparation that had served him so well all his life was useless.
He couldn't research, draft, redraft and memorized. He had no time. King looked at his watch already. Five minutes had ticked away while he fretted. Every Sunday, he delivered a sermon based on 15 hours of hard work.
Now he was about to deliver the most important speech of his life, and he had just 15 minutes. He sketched a couple of thoughts with his handshaking, pondering the delicate balance he had to strike between militancy and moderation. And he prayed that was all the preparation he could spare before driving to the Holt Street Church. 10000 people stood outside, unable to cram themselves in, listening to the proceedings via a loudspeaker on the roof of the Montgomery police were there in force.
So were the television cameras pointing at the pulpit as King stepped up and began to speak.
My friends were here this evening for serious business. The speech is brilliantly described in Taylor Branch, his biography of King. Instead of the usual careful script, lovingly prepared and committed to memory, King was groping his way towards the right words.
I think I speak with with little authority, not that I have any legal authority, but I think I speak with little authority behind me that the law, the ordinance, the city ordinance has never been totally clarified.
He had never in his life delivered a sermon with a line as weak and confused as that one. 15 hours of preparation always ironed out every wrinkle. But King was finding something more valuable than time to prepare in Miles Davis, his phrase, the freedom and space to hear things. As he spoke, King listened to the crowd, filling out their response. Speaking in the moment, his early sentences were experiments grasping for a theme, exploring how each sounded and how the crowd responded.
Each phrase shaped the phrase that followed.
His speech was not a solo. It was a duet with his audience. After a cautious opening, King talked of Rosa Parks of her character and Christian commitment, and just because she refused to get up, she was arrested.
The crowd murmured their assent. After a pause for breath, King changed direction.
You know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron fist of oppression.
And suddenly the avalanche began. A few yells of support became a roar of approval and anger. The spirit of the crowd was self-sustaining, a torrent of emotion and sound which grew stronger just when it seemed the sound must fade further. Waves crashed in from the thousands of voices outside. The cheering was everywhere. Then King spoke up again with the help of the crowd. He found his theme.
There comes a time when people get tired of getting pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.
Amid the sound of feet thundering on the church's wooden floor boards, King was forced to pause. As with any extemporaneous performance, King's was imperfect, with some meandering lines and a limp conclusion. Despite all that, these improvised remarks were easily the finest speech that King had yet given. People had seen him speak many times were astonished. He spoke with so much force, nobody, said one witness. Nobody dreamed of Martin Luther King being that sort of man under these conditions.
King himself, one suspects, had not truly understood what he could unleash once he let himself go. He didn't want to improvise. The speech preferred the script, but when the situation gave him no alternative, he came to understand what older preachers had told him.
Open your mouth and God will speak for you. Seven and a half years later, in 1963, he found himself faced with speaking to a quarter of a million people who'd marched on Washington, D.C. He knew he'd be live on every national television network. This speech demanded the preparation of old. It was too important to be left to chance. Dr. King and his aides had prepared a typewritten script, unpromising, titled Normalcy Never Again. King's team was trying to navigate complex waters with the text of this address, King needed to reach out to white allies to rebut the hard line approach of Malcolm X and others and to respond to President Kennedy's civil rights bill.
Was the bill to be criticized as inadequate or welcomed as progress? There was much politicking behind the scenes, and each speaker had been allotted only seven minutes. There was no exception for Martin Luther King. All of these constraints called for precise drafting.
He knew that he would be speaking with a vast statue of Abraham Lincoln behind him 100 years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had declared the enslaved people of the United States to be free. So King decided to open with an artful echo of Lincoln's great Gettysburg Address and referred to the Emancipation Proclamation as a promissory note on which America had defaulted as a script. Normalcy never again was over. Formal and flawed parts of it read like poetry. Others were clumsy legalese as King read out the speech.
It did not stir the soul. But then toward the end came a biblical flourish.
And we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. And as King said, those words approving cheers rippled up and down the mall. Then King looked down at his script. The next line was pretentious and limp. He couldn't bring himself to say the words. And so instead he started to improvise, telling the crowd, go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama behind him, start his friends and colleagues. They knew that King had stepped away from the script.
And at the moment of maximum danger and maximum opportunity, the climax of his speech, he was looking for something to say.
Something that would touch the people there at the mall and watching across the country, tell them about the dream. Yelled the singer, Mahalia Jackson. It was a reference to something Dr. King had been preaching of late to church congregations, a dream of a brighter future in which whites and blacks lived in harmony. And as he stood facing the television cameras and the vast, expectant crowd looking for inspiration, Martin Luther King heard Mahalia Jackson and he began to create on the fly.
One of the most famous speeches of the century about how he had a dream. A dream that America would live up to the words all men are created equal. A dream of an oasis of freedom and justice. A dream that little black boys and black girls would be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. Normalcy never again was forgotten. The conclusion to the speech that shook the 20th century wasn't in the script.
The best things usually aren't. Key sources for this episode include Taylor Branch, his book Parting the Waters, Martin Luther King Junior's autobiography, and my own book, Messy The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For a full list of references, see Tim Harford Dotcom Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford with Andrew Wright. It's produced by Ryan Dilli and Marilyn Rust. The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wise. Julia Barton edited the scripts starring in this series of cautionary tales by Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey, right alongside Nezar Elder, Rasi Edcon, Melanie Gutteridge, Rachael Hanshaw, Kobana, Halbrook Smith, Greg Lockette, Masayo Monroe and Rufus.
Right. This show wouldn't have been possible without the work of mislabelled Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, John Sonar's, Carly Migliore, Eric Sandler, Emily Rosty, Maggie Taylor, Angela Lakhan and Maya Karnig.
Cautionary Tales is a production of Pushkin Industries. If you like the show, please remember to write, share and review.