Pico Iyer and the art of stillness

Pico Iyer is a renowned essayist and novelist who is best known for his travel writing. He has been to some of the most far-flung places on the planet and his writings have appeared in leading newspapers, magazines and literary journals.

Pico Iyer

In the TED Talk below, Iyer discusses a theme that some might find counterintuitive coming from a famous travel writer: the importance of going nowhere, doing nothing and just being still.

Iyer’s gentle approach belies a powerful truth. Technology is making things move faster and faster. It is thus increasingly important for our well-being to slow down and just be still.

The same holds true when we speak to an audience.

I have frequently written about the importance of slowing down and pausing when we speak, such as here and here. And one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain is all about the power of the pause. In his talk, Iyer delves into this theme:

Like many in Silicon Valley, [Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine] tries really hard to observe what they call an Internet Sabbath, whereby for 24 or 48 hours every week they go completely offline in order to gather the sense of direction and proportion they’ll need when they go online again. The one thing perhaps that technology hasn’t always given us is a sense of how to make the wisest use of technology.

And when you speak of the Sabbath, look at the Ten Commandments. There’s only one word there for which the adjective “holy” is used, and that’s the Sabbath. I pick up the Jewish holy book of the Torah; its longest chapter is on the Sabbath. And we all know that it’s really one of our greatest luxuries, the empty space. In many a piece of music, it’s the pause or the rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. And I know that I as a writer will often try to include a lot of empty space on the page so that the reader can complete my thoughts and sentences and so that her imagination has room to breathe.

The last part of the last sentence — “… so that her imagination has room to breathe” — is fundamental to public speaking. When a speaker pauses, audience members can reflect on what she has just said; they can find the relevance of the speaker’s remarks in their own lives. That is how you get your message across, because it is always about the audience.

Keep Pico Iyer in mind the next time you have a speech or presentation. As he says in his concluding remarks,

[I]n an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

Photo courtesy of TED Conference

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

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John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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