Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

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Books that will help you give a superb talk

Nobody ever mastered a skill by reading books – with the possible exception of reading itself. But books can help. Below are a few that I’ve found helpful over the years. But first, a few observations.

First, a good speech needs to have a purpose. All too often people view speeches the way my daughter sometimes views her school homework: “I’ve got to write an essay about the Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, and it’s got to be at least two pages long.” “I’ve got to give a talk about information security and it’s got to fill 25 minutes.”

If that’s how you look at things, you’re well on your way to a tedious speech. The starting point will be to sit down with a piece of paper (or worse, to fire up PowerPoint) and start listing all the things you can think of that might fill the void.

Instead, start with the question, “what’s the one thing I want people to learn, or feel, or do, as a result of hearing this?”. Everything else – jokes, stories, visual aids, supporting arguments – flows from that.

Second, deliberate practice helps. Each good speech you give tends to improve every future speech: set yourself the task of giving a truly sensational talk just once in your life. You’ll learn a lot. And when you’re preparing for a speech, practice in front of the mirror, or record yourself on your phone, or recruit a friend to listen. Yes, it’s painful, but even one run-through will make an enormous difference.

Third, distinguish between your speaking notes, your handouts, and your visual aids, and decide whether you need any of them. Your speaking notes are a series of bullet-point prompts; PowerPoint is a perfectly decent tool to generate these but they should be on 3×5 inch cards in your hand, not projected on the screen behind you. Your handouts provide a reminder of what you’ve said, or references, further reading, extra detail. You may not need them at all, but if you do, this is the place for the small print and the footnotes – not on the screen. The only thing that should go on the projector screen is the bona fide visual aid – a graph, image, movie or diagram that makes a genuine contribution to the purpose of your speech (remember that?). If no visual aid is appropriate, insert a blank slide or press “B” or “W” to turn the screen blank black or white.

Okay – lesson over. Here are my recommendations.

The single best book on public speaking I’ve ever read is Chris Anderson’s TED Talks (UK) (US). I reviewed it here; my only caution about the book is that it’s focused on giving the talk of your life. Anyone looking for quick tips to perk up the monthly sales meeting won’t find them here.

A great companion to Anderson’s book is Jonathan Swabisch’s Better Presentations (UK) (US). This is a workmanlike book aimed at academics, and covers all the basics – structure, visual aids, delivery. It’s smart and comprehensive and even an experienced presenter will learn a thing or too.

A more touchy-feely effort is Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen (UK) (US). Contains lots of good advice, wrapped up in all kinds of talk about “mind of a swordsman” and “being present”. It would annoy some people but it’s actually full of good advice.

If you want to do the McKinsey slide-deck thing with 50 data-packed slides, but do it well, I would suggest Gene Zelazny’s Say it With Charts (UK) (US). This is not the way I present, but it is appropriate for some contexts.

Finally, good advice on design in general, which will perk up any slide, comes from The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (UK) (US).

 
My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – coming soon! If you want to get ahead of the curve you can pre-order in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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22nd of May, 2017MarginaliaOther WritingComments off
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Undercover Monday 2

What I’m reading: How To Books!

Better Presentations (UK) (US) by Jonathan Schwabish. This is the book you need to substantially improve the run-of-the mill presentation you were going to give anyway – in contrast to Chris Anderson’s excellent TED Talks (UK) (US) book, which is about how to give the talk of your life when you have all the rehearsal time in the world. Schwabish runs through all the key topics – visual aids, slide design, structure, etc. – and is packed with practical advice. Strongly recommended.

How to be a GURPS GM by Warren Wilson. If you have no idea what that means, don’t bother clicking. But it’s a very good book – aimed at beginners but full of useful advice.

Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss have published Visions of Numberland (UK) (US) – which is a mathematical colouring book. I know, I know. But it’s rather beautiful and there’s proper maths in it. Enjoy!

 

Elsewhere

William Baumol has died before receiving the Nobel memorial prize that many economists felt he deserved. “A Fine Theorem” has an excellent appreciation.

The FT Management podcast has challenged FT writers to nominate and discuss “books to help in turbulent times”. Some people have picked management books, some have picked classic novels. I was rather literal, I’m afraid, and went for the excellent Designing Your Life (UK) (US). You can subscribe here; I think I’m up next, on Friday.

8th of May, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Monday 1

Reading this week

I’m re-reading The Lady Tasting Tea (US) (UK) – which is a fascinating history of statistics by David Salsburg, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (US) (UK) – which is just full of interesting ideas.

Also Designing Your Life (US) (UK), the 21st century answer to the evergreen What Color Is Your Parachute? (US) (UK) Both are remarkable and humane careers guides. Parachute helped me a great deal twenty years ago. Designing Your Life has some fascinating new ideas for figuring out what you really want to do with your days, hours and minutes.

And Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns (US) (UK). Delightful, tender and funny poems.

 

On my pile

Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (US) (UK) is next up. Cory and I are doing an event together at Blackwell’s in Oxford on 22nd May. Come along!

And I’m planning to read Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (US) (UK).

 

Other suggestions

Hugely enjoyed Adam Buxton’s two-part interview with Brian Eno. They covered a lot of ground and were fun to listen to.

Sheryl Sandberg has written an op-ed about “How to Raise Resilient Kids“. It moved me.

In memory of my mother, I’m cycling from Windsor to Oxford in a few weeks to raise money for Beating Bowel Cancer. Donations to this worthy cause would be very much appreciated – thank you in advance.

1st of May, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 9

Podcasts to seek out

A terrific long interview with Anne Case on the FT Alphaville podcast – Dr Case has been making waves with a series of research papers with Angus Deaton studying the contrast between the mortality rates of 45-54 year old American whites (which are rising, or depending on the details, not falling) and mortality rates of African Americans (high but falling) and Hispanic Americans (low and falling) and Europeans (low and falling). Important topic, important interview.

More or Less is back on air, 4.30pm UK time on Fridays, Radio 4. The podcast is here – please send us your thoughts via email hidden; JavaScript is required. We’ll be fact-checking the UK election campaign, of course, but plenty of other stuff too. (This week: who is the better mathematician – Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, or George Harrison?)

Planet Money had a charming podcast asking – who exactly invents “National Caramel Day” or “National Splurge Day”? The answer surprised them, and me.

The latest episode of Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy unveiled the underappreciated joys of The Elevator. There will be a book this summer – you can pre-order here (UK) or here (US).

Fictoplasm, my favourite lo-fi podcast, has just tackled Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and asks what gaming ideas the novels inspire.

If you’re a fan of podcasts, do spread the word by telling a friend or two about a podcast you’ve enjoyed.

 

What I’ve been reading

Andrew Lo’s Adaptive Markets (US) (UK). Just arrived – looks amazing. Lo is a fascinating thinker.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea  (US) (UK). Magnificent, of course – although the fourth book, Tehanu, does rather repudiate everything else. The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might just be the most perfect fantasy novel imaginable.

Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly (US) (UK). Fun survey of cognitive biases.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (US) (UK) – I wrote about some of the ideas in Tyler’s book here in my FT column, but there’s a lot more too it. Very interesting indeed, and original. It made me think about the world in a different way.

 

My columns

They’ve moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday newspaper. Online, you can find them all here (subscription required) and I’ll be putting them on this website after a delay of a month.

21st of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 8

Books on my pile

Michael Shermer The Believing Brain (UK) (US) is intriguing and well-researched with lots of good storytelling. Shermer is the founder of The Skeptics Society so devotes a lot of time to fringe beliefs – UFOs, cults, ghosts, that sort of thing. I would have liked to read more about the less extreme forms of belief formation – why people believe in Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, for example, or why people believe in brands such as Coke or BMW. Still – a good and thought-provoking read.

Tyler Cowen The Complacent Class (UK) (US) – not yet read it, and it seems quite focused on a US audience, but Tyler is always interesting.

Ali Almossawi Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier. (UK) (US) Frustrating book, I’m afraid. It’s short and chatty but not actually terribly clear. Plenty of cases where some kind of diagram would have helped but instead we get cartoons and jokey graphs – which are fine, but not nearly as helpful. Your mileage may vary of course. I think Algorithms To Live By (UK) (US) is much more successful at explaining how computer science works and is relevant to life. 

Robert Cialdini Presuasion. (UK) (US) Very interesting book about how the context or the preliminaries to a request can make all the difference. The FT Alphaville interview with Cialdini is worth a listen.

 

More or Less

The longer Radio 4 edition of More or Less is back on air next week. Tune in 4.30pm Good Friday, 8pm Easter Sunday, or pod to your heart’s content here. And send your questions and comments to moreorless at the bbc.co.uk domain.

 

7th of April, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 7

You might have missed…

“Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” is airing on BBC Radio 4 in a run of 15 daily programmes just after noon. (This project has been such fun to work on.) Loyal listeners will already be subscribing to the podcast, however – and if you’re enjoying it, please spread the word. I meet a lot of “More or Less” listeners who aren’t aware that “Fifty Things” exists.

The Problem With Facts – my long FT Magazine feature (or here on my own website) has been doing the rounds. Thanks to everyone who has been sharing it.

Given the horrific attack in London yesterday, I found myself revisiting a piece I wrote about the real costs of terrorism. These attacks are always so appalling; we need to remind ourselves that that’s by design. They’re meant to appal us and they are aimed at provoking an over-reaction.

 

 

Book recommendations

I’ve had a productive reading week this week.

I enjoyed Richard Nisbett’s Mindware (UK) (US) – it’s a good overview of various thinking tools and traps such as hindsight bias, dialectical reasoning, various statistical errors and techniques. However it does feel pretty familiar if you enjoy this sort of thing; I was also struck by how the fact that Nisbett, writing in 2015, cites a number of psychological studies that have since failed to replicate. A sign of the times in social psychology?

My praise for Caroline Webb’s How To Have A Good Day (UK) (US) is similarly tempered by the fact that again, some of this stuff is familiar and some of this stuff does not replicate. Still, I found it a very valuable book – I had a meeting this week that would have gone very badly but instead ended up going very well, and Webb deserves all the credit for that. She does a great job of taking familiar insights from psychology and economics, and turning them into practical nuggets of advice. Bravo.

Even better is Designing Your Life by Burnett and Evans (UK) (US). I don’t even know why I picked up this book, to be honest. It would have come in very handy when I was 19, or 23, or 29, and staring down the barrel of painful life and career decisions. Right now I’m lucky enough to have a life and career where no big changes seem needed. And yet – the book was still useful. And I’ve already handed copies to two friends contemplating a career change. It’s really a very useful and fresh take on thinking about careers, creativity, family and work-life balance. Very, very good.

Finally, a nod to Maria Konnikova’s brilliantly-written The Confidence Game (UK) (US) which I’ve recommended before but found myself dipping into again. Fascinating science and great storytelling.

Oh – and finally finally, I recently had the chance to play Roll For The Galaxy. Lots of fun – and while a little complex for younger children they do love the buckets of dice. Check it out. (UK) (US) – or my local store Gameskeeper.

 

Column news

My “Undercover Economist” column has moved from the FT Magazine to the Saturday FT newspaper. If you like to read online, it’s here – and you can click “Add to My FT” to be updated whenever it appears. (I’ll continue to post my writing on timharford.com after a delay.) This week’s column contrasts two different types of innovation:

The idea that developed economies can A/B test their way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one. An alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures. The marginal gain is a heated pair of overshorts, the long shot is the Fosbury Flop. If the marginal gain is a text message nudging you to finish a course of antibiotics, the long shot is the development of penicillin. Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet.

FT subscribers can read the whole thing here.

 

 

My book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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24th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 6

I’ve been on the road, but a few recommendations…

Gameshow: Stephen “Freakonomics” Dubner is having a lot of fun with “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know“, a wonderfully nerdy gameshow podcast. I recorded an episode at 6th and I in Washington DC on Monday. Not sure when it will air, but what a wonderful atmosphere. And I got to meet this remarkable lady.

Podcast episode: I loved Sebastian Mallaby on macro-musings; fascinating detail on the life of Alan Greenspan. Mallaby’s Greenspan biography is The Man Who Knew (US, UK).

Books: I’ve been reading Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking (US, UK) (good, although more philosophical and less practical than I was expecting) and from Gilovich and Ross The Wisest One In The Room (US, UK) (popular social psychology; easy to read and plenty of stuff I didn’t know). Both recommended.

Long Read: I’m on the cover of the FT Magazine tomorrow with The Problem With Facts, a feature article on post-truth politics and why fact-checking is such a thankless task. Enjoy!

 

10th of March, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 5 – A healthy media diet

 

Pondering filter bubbles…

Is there, in fact, a filter bubble? Here’s the man who coined the term, Eli Pariser. We need to remember that the biggest filter bubble isn’t Facebook’s algorithm’s or Google’s personalised search. It’s you and me.

…coup or Keystone cops?

Here’s George Bush’s speechwriter David Frum on How to Build an Autocracy.  It’s a chilling read. So is the more excitable take that suggests last weekend was preparation for a coup. But there are two sides to every story, and here’s the view that what we’ve seen is just incompetence. Or perhaps there are three sides to every story: here’s the excellent Timothy Taylor describing the details of the “border adjustment tax” proposal. The tax looks like it’s punishing offshorers and encouraging exporters, although after the currency adjusts the main effect www.bestxanaxcomparison.com should be – if it works – to make tax harder to dodge. In other words, Donald Trump just proposed something that well-qualified mainstream economists think might work rather well.

 

Books

Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps (UK) (US) is a great read – a bit more philosophical and a bit less self-help than I was expecting. But in any case, good stuff.

And check out Michelle Baddeley’s Very Short Introduction to Behavioural Economics (UK) (US) – a good short survey covering lots of ideas and practical examples.

And another shout out to William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything (UK) (US)Fascinating book and a key source for my piece on the warrior-monks who invented banking.

My own book “Messy” is now out and available online in the US and UK.

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3rd of February, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 3 – Neroli

A brief post today, because I’ve been working hard on a book manuscript. Details to follow, but here’s a hint. I’ve had a wonderful time writing the book.

Nevertheless, a few bits of news and some links. I discussed the question “should economists be more like plumbers?” with my FT colleague Gemma Tetlow on Facebook Live.

Terrific feature article from Oliver Burkeman, Is Time Management Ruining Our LivesI don’t agree with every word (here are my 10 email commandments) but I think that there’s an enormous amount of wisdom underneath the clickbaity headline.

This week I’ve been reading For Whom the Bell Tolls (US) (UK). Turns out Hemingway can really write. Who knew?

And if these strange times are stressing you out, try Brian Eno’s Neroli. Magic. (US) (UK)

 

20th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Undercover Friday 2 – Resolutions and Recommendations

 

A resolution

My resolution this year is “more social, less social media”. I’m sure I’m not the only one. As we all know, social media can work wonders but it can also be addictive. And of course the comments can be toxic: it only takes one mean tweet to ruin anyone’s day. (Many people suffer far more than the occasional mean tweet, alas.) On the other hand, I continue to find email perfectly functional: when people email me to comment on what I’ve written or said, I don’t always agree but I usually learn something. And I do manage to read and respond to my email, which is quite impossible on Twitter or Facebook. I stopped trying a long time ago, realising that I would never write another book if I spent my time reading the mentions on Twitter.

If you’re trying to spend less time on social media too, the “Note to Self” podcast has had some good advice recently – particularly the episodes with Marina Abramovic. I believe in shaping your environment to help you. So: I don’t take my phone to bed with me, I don’t have Facebook on my phone, I’m logged out of Facebook on my computer so I don’t click over as a reflex, and I don’t have a “mentions” stream active on Tweetdeck. Every little helps. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to spend more time with my friends – in person, on the phone, even by letter.

On the other hand, if you’re loving your social media use, good for you. I’m on Facebook and Twitter – but email me if you actually want to get in touch.

 

Some recommendations

Debatable” was a life-changingly good episode of RadioLab. Please listen to it if you haven’t already – and then check out this interview with the journalist who reported the story, Abigail Keel.

My favourite gift from Father Christmas was the absolutely brilliant graphic novel Vision: Little Worse Than a Man (UK) (US). It’s about struggle of a superhuman artificial intelligence to live a normal suburban family life. Remarkable.

Check out Brad DeLong’s essay on secular stagnation if you want to become smarter.

I’ve been enjoying Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things (UK) (US) – a magisterial history of shopping and consumerism – and found myself going back yet again to Marc Levinson’s excellent The Box (UK) (US), a history of the shipping container. All part of the research for 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.

 

And a review

I think most authors look at their reviews with trepidation; I certainly do. But occasionally the fear turns to joy. Writing in The Age, Peter Martin opines: “The best pop songs start by giving you what you want, and then build up to so much more… Now there’s Messy, a book that presents itself as an impossibly simple account of the virtues of a messy workspace, then builds to something extraordinary.”

What delighted me so much about the review was that Mr Martin saw exactly what I was hoping to do – but like any self-critical author I was always afraid that I hadn’t succeeded.

Enough self-promotion – have a good weekend.

13th of January, 2017MarginaliaComments off
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Books

  • Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy
  • Messy
  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
  • Adapt
  • Dear Undercover Economist
  • The Logic of Life
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