Arthur Smith and the Italians

I was entertained yesterday to an extent that I decided a bonus posting today was in order. We went to see Arthur Smith in a local theater. He is quite well known in the UK as a stand-up comedian, raconteur on the radio, frequent contributor to “Grumpy Old Men” on TV and general-purpose cockney chappie. He told jokes, recounted stories and recited poems. He even did a Leonard Cohen impression. All very entertaining, but I was particularly impressed by his strategy for generating new material.

I recently posted my ideas about good ways of working – sharing and reusing material. I notice this technique is widely used in the media. For example, the Guardian newspaper is jammed with opportunities for readers to send in stories, pictures – anything really, which reduces the editorial team’s need to do any work. I discovered last night that Arthur Smith is an expert at this. Just before the interval, he invited the audience to hand in a slip of paper, noting what was making them grumpy today, and he would read them in the second half. This worked like a charm and gave him at least 20 minutes of good [and free!] material. I noticed that he threw most of them on the floor after he read them, but pocketed a few, particularly good ones, presumably for future use.

He started to tell a story about how, many years ago, he attempted to impress a cultured girlfriend by memorizing the start of Dante’s Inferno. He casually asked the audience if anyone was familiar with it and said he would give £10 to anyone who could recite the text. This was initially met with silence, then a woman just in front of us put up her hand a recited a few lines in flawless Italian. Arthur was struck dumb for a second and then handed over the cash. Some conversation ensured and he discovered that the lady was not Italian, but had a degree in the language. He that commented that the big thing was to know what the lines meant. Then, someone piped up from further back in the audience with a translation. He said that Worcester is clearly a more culturally rich city than he might have anticipated. His genuine surprise and delight at this interaction was all part of the entertainment for me. There is no way he could have set this up. He is clearly just very skilled at using his audience.

I think I need to apply this approach in technical seminars and, thus, offload work onto the audience. Maybe: “Can anyone tell me how a Linux driver is initialized?” …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/07/02/arthur-smith-and-the-italians/