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Big Tech does not like small talk


Technology writers fell over themselves to praise the “extraordinary,” “powerful,” and “magical” virtual reality headset Apple unveiled last week.

But some also admitted that they felt “strangely lonelyand perplexed after wearing the $3,499 glasses, which apparently can change the experience of watching a home video or a movie.

“This is not something I’m going to do with my partner,” wrote a reviewer after sampling the device’s cinematic charms. “This still gives a user-friendly vibe.”

The thing therefore seems to me to be about the last thing needed in a world where technology already provides fiendish levels of distraction and disconnection.

However, if history is any guide, we will let this new wave of technology, or something like it, roll over us just because we can. This is all a reminder that, from the boardroom to the schoolroom, you can never learn enough about how to communicate well.

I was made aware of this recently when a friend abruptly asked if I considered myself a radiator or a drain.

She talked about the persistent idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: radiators that radiate heat and energize those around them, and self-centered, negative drains that do the opposite.

The concept is enticing because it seems so recognizable. We can immediately think of bosses, colleagues and friends who radiate or deflate.

At least, we think we can. In fact, both types of behavior can occur in the same person. As my significant other will attest, I can be quite the drain when I get home after a long day of blasting at work.

What matters is having the self-awareness to understand the impact of your behavior and how to moderate it.

Corporate executives have long paid good money to learn such skills from corporate leadership coaches like Elke Edwards.

She has spent decades training FTSE 100 clients and, as she told me last week, “Any kind of leadership development worth doing teaches people this concept of conscious choice.”

Gaining this knowledge probably doesn’t seem to be improved by sitting for hours with Apple glasses on your head. Ditto the hours we already spend texting, posting and scrolling on the small screens we’re glued to.

And that raises a question for the schoolchildren who are among the most distracted technology users. While it’s important for leaders at the top of their careers to communicate well, shouldn’t this skill also be taught in the classroom?

As it happens, it is, to an extent. Edwards’ company, Ivy House, runs leadership courses at Eton and other major private schools. But it also has a corporate sponsorship program that offers training at several public schools.

Edwards says the results could be life-changing for underprivileged students.

She tells the story of an apprentice with a Saturday job in a shop who used what she had learned about using ‘radiator energy’ to talk about herself with a customer who turned out to run a large local organisation. The client was impressed enough to offer the student work experience that she otherwise would have had difficulty obtaining.

Clearly it would be better if every school could provide such help, and hundreds across the UK now can, largely thanks to the efforts of charities that promote “oracy,” or the ability to use spoken language effectively.

But many more are needed, according to advocates such as Neil Mercer, professor emeritus of education at the University of Cambridge.

He rightly says that eloquence should be taught as broadly as the mathematical skills Prime Minister Rishi Sunak advocates. “I wish I had learned oracy in school the way I learned math. I never learned how to give a speech in public, but I do it all the time.”

Mercer says oracy teachers don’t talk about radiators and drains. But they do believe that transformative levels of self-confidence come from learning to speak, listen, and converse well.

Many oracy skills will sound familiar to any executive who has taken a leadership course. Speak convincingly to a large audience. Lead a meeting effectively. Have a chat with strangers. And one more thing: really listen to people and make them feel heard.

Preferably without headphones.


Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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