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The art of finding your voice without knowing what you want to say

Decisions are not always innately right or wrong; the way they are presented affects their intrinsic quality.

It is conference season: political reputations are being made and revised. But which reputational shifts will endure and which will morph back into their original shape? The most eye-catching performance was that of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. His speech was a paradox: he was strikingly different, and yet very much himself. That is the key to understanding how he has evolved.

Until now, Miliband’s major speeches have been awkward, sometimes painfully so – he seemed to be almost outside his own body, watching rather than being himself. No longer. The central difference about his speech in Manchester was not content, coherence or even clarity. It was tone. He spoke with what seemed to be his own voice. That impression will endure.

In an insightful editorial, The Times argued that Miliband “announced himself as a politician not to be written off”, but the speech remained“ a missed opportunity” because it failed to articulate why people should vote Labour.

Political insiders may share that reading. But for the wider public, the lack of detail will not matter at this stage. As an essential first step, Miliband had to change the perception that he was ill at ease with leadership and, crucially, the means by which he achieved it. In the past, his faltering public performances have exposed him to the damaging interpretation that he still felt lingering guilt about pushing aside his elder brother as leader. The more he struggled to be himself, the more vulnerable he became to the damning verdict that he would never escape the shadow of political fratricide.

Looking good

In Manchester, Miliband looked relaxed and sounded confident. Above all, he seemed authentic. He urgently needed to demonstrate those essential qualities. Without them, other political virtues won’t even come into play. In this instance, body language, tone of voice, the projection of self-confidence – they were the signal rather than the noise. People watching on the television who made the snap judgment, “He now looks the part,” were exactly right.

So, what made the difference? How did Miliband find his voice? Practice and training, certainly, played a part. But it is not true that media training is necessarily about spin and concealment. The best type of public persona is a recognisable version of the private man. You do not become a good communicator by pretending to be someone else, but instead by becoming an enhanced version of yourself. It is revealing that some leading Conservative pundits acknowledged that the Manchester conference speech was the first time Miliband demonstrated in public the qualities he often shows in private.

But it is a mistake to assume that authenticity follows from rigorous and forensic analysis of what we believe and why. People are often at their most authentic without quite knowing how or why it was achieved. “When she speaks without thinking,” Norman St John-Stevas said of Margaret Thatcher, “she says what she thinks.”

Indeed, Miliband’s least authentic moments came when he laboured to tell everyone “who” he was. In contrast, his best moments followed when his character and personality were allowed to emerge for themselves.

As Matthew Arnold put it in this untitled poem:

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel – below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel – there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep, 
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

Politicians can stumble upon their best themes not through logic, but because they sound most natural. Argument sometimes follows from tone, rather than vice versa. “How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?” asked W H Auden. It is possible to find your voice without knowing beforehand quite what you want to say.

Can you really lead without knowing where you are going? It is here that the complexity of leadership works against simplistic rules. For there are several strands to leadership, strands that are both uncorrelated and yet intertwined.

First, a leader is a decision-maker, he must decide on a course of action – and it obviously helps if he is proved right more often than he is wrong. Secondly, a leader must also be an advocate of his decisions: he has to persuade others that he is right (even when he isn’t).

View to a skill

Furthermore, those two skills are entirely different – there is little evidence that good decision-makers are naturally good at persuasion, or that good persuaders are inevitably good at decision-making – and yet they are inescapably interlinked. In a human sphere such as politics, the degree to which you can persuade people to implement a decision affects whether the decision will be proved right or not. Decisions are not always innately right or wrong; the way they are presented affects their intrinsic quality. As the theatre director Peter Hall said to the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley: “I’ve heard bad directors give excellent advice and get terrible results, and I’ve seen good directors give awful advice and get excellent results.”

Where does all this leave Miliband’s speech? He showed a gift for inhabiting an argument without articulating the shape of the argument itself. Perhaps he didn’t feel able to scrutinise his general perceptions too closely: had he dug more deeply, and followed his own logic further, he might no longer have been able to have such confidence in it. It is one thing for Miliband to gain easy clap lines by criticising Tory unfairness, quite another to keep Labour supporters happy when he tries to explain how he will make their lives better without having any money to spend. The right tone takes you only so far.

When Miliband left the stage at Manchester, one thing had become clear, though. David Cameron, who often performs best when he is in a tight corner, knows there has never been a more important moment to find his authentic voice as Prime Minister.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.