NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity cartoon

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity

NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity discovers it’s running the wrong software…

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Click here to learn about Ayd’s Ideastorm workshops.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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How to be funny

Graham Davies the Presentation Coach

Graham Davies signing his books

I was honoured to be at the launch of Graham Davies’ book launch last Thursday in Mayfair in London. Graham Davies is not only a great presenter, ex-barrister, brutally funny after-dinner speaker and MC, he’s also the UK’s greatest presentation skills coach.

Which is why the book is usefully titled, ‘The Presentation Coach’. Anything else wouldn’t have said ‘presentation coach’ in quite the same way.

Nearly 200 people attended the book launch including, I’m told, lots of top new MPs and some very rich and successful people who were treated to champagne (in the form of a speech from Neil Sherlock) and then a sausage on a stick in the form of a speech from Mr Davies himself.

Comedy, as they say is a funny thing; the business of being funny is actually quite serious. Getting laughs with your presentation is only relevant if you want your talk to be remembered, and get paid lots of money.

What I’ve learnt from Graham is simple: take your presentations seriously: plan, prepare, research, enhance your performance persona, practice and continuously find places to perform. But don’t take yourself too seriously. You can tell from watching Graham Davies that he is so accomplished, he is able to be totally spontaneous and yet totally in control of the platform, while at the same time, punctuate each point he makes with an outrageously funny gag.

To be ‘funny’ on stage you can’t just rely on just being funny.

I’ve found, quite painfully, that being humorous is a wonderful thing to be but it’s not enough to be ‘funny’. Fortunately there are no recordings of my standup shows from the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006. All of my talks are humorous. It’s how I am all the time. It’s a state I find natural. It is the right-brain techniques I’m good at which allow me to cope with unexpected sudden change or problems when I’m on stage. It allows me to cope with heckling and to engage and win over audiences. But on its own it’s not enough to be actually ‘funny’ as my first audience found out back then. I spent the whole of the next day writing gags for the following night and performed a whole new show to claw back a tiny bit of self-respect by getting the greatest of gifts any ego can every receive: laughs from an audience.

Being funny is not a right brain skill as you may expect. It needs the addition of the cold, ruthless discipline of the logical left brain to be able to analyse and pinpoint the right one-liners, well timed gag setups and short routines. It’s the planning and detail that allows you to move from humorous to funny. To be funny we need both right and left brain working together.

And that’s why I’m reading ‘The Presentation Coach’ and that’s why you should too.

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Copyright violation: bad news for comedy parody?

The Newport video I mentioned in my previous blog reached around 2.5 million hits on YouTube before being removed by EMI for copyright violation. because the song was clearly based on an EMI recording, even thought it was a whole new recording with parody lyrics, the law states that permission from the writers must be sought. It wasn’t.

These seems obvious and fair – but it could mean the end to parody using music if it’s able to be fully enforced. Many songwriters who are ripe for being parodies are serious ‘artists’ who may not be likely to want to have their song parodied, even if it doesn’t poke fun directly at them (as in the case of Newport).

I’ve had a parody version of Sinead O’Conner’s hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ removed from YouTube for the same reason. The recording was from a single performance in a comedy club 2002. You’re not likely to be able to see it ever again.

Millions of people enjoyed the Newport parody. But we should really never have had the chance to see it. I don’t know if the people involved in it made any money from it directly, it’s unlikely since their version was not for sale anywhere. So if they didn’t profit financially or take sales away from the Jay Z original, was it wrong to do the parody? It certainly has raised the profile of the original to an audience it may not have ordinarily reached as people wanted to see and hear it for the comparison.

So is it right that copyright enforcement should ban comedians and humorists from creating parody versions of other people’s material – provided they don’t offer their version directly for sale?

Is it right and proper that a parody song, piggy-backing on someone else’s creativity should not be allowed?

Does the use of copyright enforcement in this way reduce creativity as we won’t be able to create such parody songs, or does it enhance it as we will have to be cleverer at writing new songs to poke fun at other songs? (Neil Innes’ ‘The Rutles’ flew very close to the wind in creating a new batch of Beatle parody songs that sound like but were not direct copies of Beatle songs).

I would love someone to create a parody of one of my serious songs if it raise my profile or helped me sell more copies of my version. Are some people and some companies just being killjoys and taking themselves far too seriously? Or should any form of copyright, however well intentioned or funny the parody of it may be, be protected at all costs to maintain the integrity of original work and secure the income for its creators?

What do you think?

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Newport, Town Planning and How to Win the World Cup

Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind) is the latest viral YouTube sensation. It’s an excellent production of an excellent idea, very nicely done. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll have to have a poke around the internet as it’s now been removed from YouTube by EMI. It’s a parody of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, a duplicate of that song and video but with all references changed to Newport and Wales. The result is very funny. The humour comes from the fact that it is so self-effacing. In that most British of ways, it appears to celebrate the shortcomings of Newport alongside its triumphs in a way that is so subtle that it walks the line between being straight, being ironic and being sarcastic. The result is that there is no ‘nod to the camera’, no explanation of what is really meant (as in the American trend of confessing sarcasm by adding ‘not!’ to the end of a sarcastic statement). It’s very funny.

It’s difficult to explain why the line ‘access from the A4042’ or references to leeks and shopping centres are so funny. It’s due in part to that juxtaposition in the lyric of we would expect to be profound, poetic or meaningful with the mundane and everyday. It also professes a lack of pretension on the part of the singers as they reveal their ordinariness. This sort of humour has been a staple part of British comedy as far back as we can trace. Charlie Chaplin perfected and personified it; the ordinary man with whom we can laugh with and at his ignorance (and of course our own). Laurel and Hardy continued it with dialog (Stan Laurel was the main writer and British). The Goons moved it into radio and Morcambe and Wise and Monty Python perfected it on television. Acts like Vic Reeves and the League of Gentlemen continued this idea of ordinariness, the lack of glamour and being ‘a little bit rubbish’ as being very funny. Today you’ll find it in sitcoms like ‘The IT Crowd’ and at the core of new Zealand’s ‘Flight of the Conchords’, the struggling inept novelty folk duo.

So while we in Britain and other similar like minded places like New Zealand and of course Ireland, are so keen to laugh at ourselves, which is such a good thing, it also has a possible dark side. Unlike the general attitude of the US, we are quite able to settle for second, third or even last place. Just think about the nation’s attitude to the World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest. We’d love to win, but don’t really expect it and are almost relieved when we fail.

Let’s return to Newport. The songwriters choice to replace New York is inspired not just because of the similarity of the words and the syllables. Newport can be thought of in many ways as the antithesis of New York. Where New York is big and impressive, important globally and culturally, Newport is perhaps a bit obscure and ordinary. It’s the same reason that Slough was chosen as the setting for the sitcom ‘The Office’ and that the other town mentioned in that show is Swindon. Both towns are unrelentingly uninspiring and unimportant compared with Britain’s larger metropolises or cathedral cities.

And here lies the rub. How did Newport (and Slough and Swindon) get to be so architecturally random, sprawling and lacking in cultural or historical character? I wonder if it’s the other side of this ‘acceptance of mundanity and failure’ coin. All towns have town planners and yet almost all British towns that have had new building work since the 1950s seem unplanned, ugly and disconnected. Towns like Basingstoke and Bradford, once attractive market towns have been ripped up, flattened and totally re-built twice since the mid 1960s (although in Bradford they still haven’t put it back together again yet) with all original character lost.

Like other nations, Britain had a brief flirtation with ‘Modernism’ that replaced rather than renovated Victorian slums in the post war era. Many of those concrete tower blocks have themselves since been pulled down and it seems Britain’s planners have even less of a plan and identity now.

Knowing what a desirable and beautiful town is not as subjective as you think. If it was we wouldn’t have the same kind of towns listed as British or World Heritage Sites such as Saltaire in Yorkshire (right next to Bradford incidentally) and Bath in Somerset. We have all agreed what a good town is, so why don’t we build new towns, or renovate towns in that same way?

Let’s widen that statement. Why don’t we build ‘World Heritage Sites’ instead of looking at the glories of the past that have miraculously survived?

Do we have, just as the Newport song suggests, a low expectation of what’s possible in this country? If this is the case nationally, it’s very likely that it extends to how we feel and think personally, on some level. When it comes to our own work, our own creativity, our own businesses and all our own projects, do we have an in-built criteria of ‘that’s good enough’, ‘I’m not worth it’, ‘we don’t deserve any better’, ‘we can’t really succeed’, ‘don’t aim high then we won’t be disappointed’?

I believe it can be traced back to the end of the First World War and the despair, debt and depression that followed it and the dismantling of the British Empire. Suddenly we weren’t number one and were now reliant on other nations for help and support.

As a nation I think it’s time to create a new paradigm. There is no Empire to fall back on to create old fashioned Saturnian paternal and militaristic pride, but there is our broad and complex and wonderfully multi-faceted culture, our freedom, our rich history, our shared struggle and our achievements, to create a new kind of national pride.

When I wrote a song about the World Cup and the psychic octopus that correctly predicted the outcome of the matches, I was asked why did I think that England didn’t just not win, but got placed lower than ever in World Cup history. Were the players to blame? Were they too affluent and arrogant? Was it bad management or poor coaching? Was it because the players were too old? Are their too many foreign players in the Premier League hence supplying a smaller pool for the nation team to chose from? What was it?

I believe that the core reason is the same reason that I’ve been alluding to in this article. This nation is no longer programmed to win and we are resigned to that. Children are not educated to win at school. We don’t have a success ethic in business. We’re ashamed to make a lot of money. We’re frightened that competition means that it labels someone else as a ‘loser’.

If we want to win the World Cup, trying to pick better players and intensive coaching is too late in the process. That’s just trying to treat the symptoms not the cause. If we want to win we need to learn how to win again. We’ll need to encourage players at the very youngest age. We’ll need coaches and great players training the next but one generation, children who are starting school now. And it’s not just about football. The same techniques of success need to be applied to tennis and cricket. They need to be applied to music and painting. They need to be applied to languages and writing. They need to be applied to maths, the sciences and engineering. Possibly most of all, they need to be applied to creativity and attitude. If we can teach our children confidence in their creativity, we will have taught them how to be successful without arrogance. We will have taught them pride without vanity.

Why shouldn’t we aim high? Why shouldn’t we build ‘World Heritage’ works in whatever project we are working on?

And of course we shouldn’t worry about losing our comedy and humour. We can always laugh at how useless we all USED to be.

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My Psychic Octopus song on the Radio

My fun video and song posted on YouTube two weeks ago has now passed 1500 views. Not an monster viral hit, but interesting non-the-less. A lot more people have seen it than I could hope to reach live or using pre-internet methods in the same timeframe.

I was also invited to appear live on BBC Oxford Radio. I was at Kings Cross station on my way to do some gigs in Bradford so we did the interview live on the phone. They played a few clips from the song and I even featured as the last item on the 9 o’clock news!

I talked about creativity in business and how we should all find a way of bringing our talents and interests into what we do as work. You can hear the full interview here:

Ayd Instone on BBC Radio Oxford

You can watch the video here:

and even download the song as an mp3 for free here.

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For the Record: Paul the Psychic Octopus

Click here to watch the video: Paul the Psychic Octopus song

Every now and then I manage to think of an idea good enough to turn into a slightly funny song and see if people on the internet want to run with it. The last one was about the MPs expenses scandal. My new song about the World Cup oracle, Paul the Psychic Octopus has eclipsed that. At time of writing the hits on YouTube have passed the 1200 mark.

For the record, here’s what I did.

I was bashing around some chords on the guitar on Sunday night and had the idea, but no real lyrics. The next gap in my schedule when I could work on it was Wednesday 14th. That morning I got all my recording equipment set up: guitars, amps, mic and stand, cables etc. This was the intent: I was going to write, record and film a song today. Nothing else. So I sat down with the guitar and wrote the first two verses and chorus. When you tune in your creativity, set the intent, it can flow. I called my good friend and football expert Jeremy Nicholas to make sure I didn’t cause a faux pas by using the incorrect pronunciation of vuvuzella (which nicely rhymes with paella). After a coffee I finished off the last verse, typed it up and printed off the lyrics. I then had a think through about what video footage I might be able to shoot that day to illustrate the lyric. I jotted down a few ideas; the egg, the boxes with lids and the saucepan.

Then the recording began. I fired up Logic Pro on my MacPro and recorded the acoustic guitar (my Rainsong WS1000) in one take, leaving a gap for the did-did-did-did break I planned to play later on bass and electric, inspired by the Vanilla Fudge rendition of ‘You keep Me Hanging On’ which I felt suited the song.

Then I recorded the main vocal, again in one take with an SM58 mic and pop screen. I decided that I should only apply harmonies to certain lines in the verse and the chorus so rehearsed a few variations and recorded in two takes for the first backing and four takes for the second harmony.

Then it was time for the bass. Spent 30 minutes devising a suitable bass line and then recorded it in two takes. Then it was the turn of my Epiphone Casino. I miced up the amp set to a mild overdrive and worked out and recorded a lead line in four takes based in the twidle I’d played one on the acoustic at the start of the song. Again, I didn’t want to make the recording sickly by covering it in a wall of sound so I played the riff every other bar.

The hardest part was the drums. The first time I’d every played drums was at Christmas so I knew I’d have to do something really simple. I worked out a rhythm first for the verse and chorus and then started playing along, trying to keep in time and get the changes right. But I couldn’t get the MIDI to work properly. It wasn’t registering the closed hi-hat, no matter which sound bank I used, there was also some ‘latency’ – an annoying delay due to the digital to analogue conversion. So I gave up on that and took a stereo line out from my Roland TD4 and that worked fine.

So the song was finished. I left it for an hour before mixing it, then started on the video. The first shoot was me miming to the song in front of the camera. But since the song was so new I hardly knew the words so actually only gained a small bit of footage. I made up for it by shooting the previous ideas I’d had with the toy octopus and Ferrero Roche boxes after printing out flags for the containers, plus a few extra ones with a football. I didn’t have any mussles so used gurkins for the octopus food. The only part of the whole process where I needed help was with throwing the ball at my head which my wife gladly did.

Then I converted the footage to Quicktime and used Final Cut Pro to put it all together. By the end of the day it was ready and was uploaded to YouTube first thing Thursday morning.

You can hear the finished song, read the lyrics and download the mp3 here.

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A Pinch of Salt

Another high profile British celebrity figure has upset all and sundry by saying something rude. Jeremy Clarkson expressed his own opinion about the economic crisis and prime minister Gordon Brown’s handling of the situation by saying “we’ve got this one-eyed Scottish idiot.” What he said was clearly a bit rude and he has since apologised. But like the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross incidents, the context seems to have been misread by other groups making a bigger crisis than was necessary.

The only person who should really have taken offence to the comment should have been Gordon Brown (by all accounts he didn’t, having more important things to concern him). And he should only really been offended by being called an idiot (and only if he felt he wasn’t one). He is Scottish and he is blind in one eye, those are true descriptions. So why the Royal Institute for the Blind need to make a fuss or why Scottish people need to be offended is untenable. I don’t make a fuss when Chris Evans is described as ‘ginger’.

The worst bit is so called ‘public figures’ such as Labour MP Gordon Banks saying what Clarkson said was “unforgivable”. No. If anything is “unforgivable” then we need to reserve such damnation for the holocaust or the abuse of children. This attitude of being so quick to be offended, especially when it doesn’t concern us, contributes to the reason that we will never have peace in the world. As Obama said “unclench your fist”. It doesn’t just apply to dictators but to us all. We’re all so quick to judge, so prickly and jumpy. And we wonder why our youth are involved in street crime and violence.

Well I’m ‘offended’ by that MP not being prepared to forgive such a minor, irrelevant incident. He and the media that percolates this offended attitude not only counters the ‘sticks and stone may beak my bones but names will never hurt me’ stiff upper lip and firm resolve to be able to control one’s own emotions in the face of aggression but also continues to spread the message that it’s ok to demand ‘an eye for an eye’ and that a lack of respect should be met with anger and violence instead of understanding. It perpetrates the notion that society is ruled by retribution (which it isn’t) and that there isn’t room for freedom of speech or freedom of thought, forgiveness, or turning the other cheek.

People seem to forget that Clarkson made the comment in his irreverent show, Top Gear where he is famed for his particular style of brash and rude entertaining humour. Comedians are still reeling from the backlash from the Brand-Ross incidents: is it safe to make jokes anymore in case someone is offended on someone else’s behalf? Are we entering a 1984-style thought policed world where creativity is stifled?

I find it deeply offensive that these people can’t laugh it off or simply ignore it and I demand an apology from all the soft-headed weasels that can’t take a joke or an insult and hold them entirely responsible for holding back humanity from its advancement into a higher plane of consciousness and from preventing world peace. (I apologise in advance to the weasel species for any pain or loss of earnings incurred by comparing them to scum).

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I’m Having a Laugh

All humans in all recorded cultures have the ability to laugh, to find something ‘funny’ and have what is generally called ‘a sense of humour’, that is the faculty to perceive comedy. It’s part of being human.

Some people are nervous about putting humour or comedy in their presentations. There’s a joke in the public speaking world that says you should only use humour in your presentations if you want to get paid. This reminds us how important it is in a presentation to appeal to the audiences emotions. Comedic elements are more memorable than dry facts and that use of comedy in education aides retention of information. This could be borne out by the way teenage children are able to recall word for word comedy routines from television comedy sketch shows and sitcoms (like Monty Python, the Fast Show or Blackadder) but are not so able to do so with dry drama and struggle to remember anything from more formal presentations.

But comedy is totally subjective and its success depends on a variety of factors such as the setting, culture, language, delivery and context. This is why in most cases ‘jokes’ should be avoided as few jokes transcend all barriers to appeal to others without extensive translation or explanation. For comedy to work a shared history is also needed between the comic and the audience.

An excellent way of increasing your creativity and lateral thinking capabilities is to analysise what you find funny (or what you find unfunny where others are laughing!). Take a joke and break it down, see how it works, what does it play on, what information is needed to ‘get the joke’?

There are a few key concepts that categorise comedy which include incongruity, repressed desires or fears and an establishment of superiority.

The concept of superiority is perhaps the most primordial form of comedy with humour derived from failures, weaknesses or deformities or either the comedian or another group. This also forms the basis of ‘slapstick’ (physical comedy and clowning) where the audience laugh from relief at someone else’s misfortune or idiocy. Repressed fears and desires have been a common feature of both the sexist joke (such as jokes about ‘the wife’ or ‘mother-in-law’) as well as homophobic and racist jokes which play on peoples fear of the unknown.

It’s clear to all but an idiot not to use possibly offensive material in your presentations. The rule is – if it’s possible an interpretation could offend – leave it out. The same goes for using profanity. Although a staple diet in most stand-up clubs, big business deals have been lost because most people do not want to hear rude words in a business context. One story goes that when a speaker was turned down for a training session he explained that he would obviously take out the swearwords from his material for that particular client. The client replied that they wanted to book a trainer who didn’t have swear words in there in the first place.

Incongruity of either language or action involves the surprising, illogical or unexpected juxtaposition of ideas or situations which are often referred to as ‘surreal’. The comedian Vic Reeves is possibly the ultimate expression of this type in his UK 1990-91 television programme ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ which was so incongruous that it divided the nation into those who gave him comedy god status and those that thought it was shoddy rubbish. Witnessing ‘Noodles the Comedy Duck’, an obvious glove puppet regurgitating prawns when one of the ten commandments was recited or listening to a man with a stick wearing a paper helmet covered in complaints to his local ombudsmen about coloured lights coming out of his taps requires a certain lateral thinking mindset in the audience. One of Reeves’ catch-phrases was the interesting “very poor” which confessed the obvious shoddy nature of the presentation which added an extra ‘in-joke’ to the faithful which drew them in even more.

Memory plays an important role in comedy. The comedian Harry Hill’s trademark routines involve setting up an enormous number of running gags with seemingly no point to them, only to refer back to them much later in the act. An example is he would mention that he saw three bunches of roses available for sale for a pound. Much later he would say, incongruently, in the middle of another story, “great big bunches they were” and then much later, again out of the blue, “three bunches for a pound? Where’s the profit margin in that?”. The comedy comes from the fact that the audience feel pleased to have been able to be ‘in’ on the joke, having remembered the references from earlier. This works because Hill is imprinting each chunk of gag using deep processing by getting the audience to question its meaning and look for a correlation with something he may have said earlier. He’s playing on the shared history concept.

Humour is useful because it allows the audience to relax into behaving as a single unit were laughter can become contagious. In many ways the comic works a form of hypnosis on the audience. Being a group, the audience will take greater risks and may even feel comfortable ‘heckling’ or participating where they would not in a non-comedy or less collective group.

As mentioned earlier, humour enhances creative problem solving. Other claims have also been made of the physiological effects of observing or listening to comedy such as the strengthening of the immune system, increasing pain thresholds and reducing stress. It has even been found to reduce ageing.

All good reasons to look into livening up your presentations with humour or going to see some stand up yourself – for the sake of increasing your income and improving your health!

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