Sunday, July 25, 2010

11 Paradoxes of Public Speaking

I'm pleased to present a guest blog from fellow writer and communicator Mike Brown. Mike is the founder of The Brainzooming Group, which helps organizations become more successful by expanding their strategic options and creating innovative plans they can implement efficiently. A friend forwarded to me Mike's recent post titled "The 11 Paradoxes of Public Speaking." I was taken by it for two different reasons: Either Mike listed advice that I always give my own clients (hey, I need validation sometimes, too!), or he brought up an entirely new point that I will steal, I mean, borrow for the future. Mike kindly gave me permission to present his blog post with my own comments and observations added (in red italicized type). You can click here if you want to see Mike's original post, unadulterated.

We’ve all heard how frightened nearly everyone is of public speaking. Maybe that’s understandable, but it creates the potential for lots of misinformed conventional wisdom spread by people who have to make presentations but haven’t had the opportunity to learn what really works.
To help correct some misperceptions about what creates better presenters and presentations, here are eleven public speaking paradoxes for reluctant presenters to accept, embrace, and follow:

1. Minimize your public speaking nerves by looking for as big an audience as possible. My theory on nerves and speaking? We all have a certain amount of nerves getting up in front of a crowd: the more people in the audience, the smaller the amount of your nervousness each audience member has to absorb. The theory may sound silly, but with more people in the audience, there’s a greater likelihood of spotting individuals who get your message and show it in their eyes – always a comforting sign for a speaker. The more people, the more likely someone will find your jokes funny and start laughing or be moved by your remarks and start applauding (and trust me, it takes somebody being the first to applaud). These nerve-settlers all benefit from having a bigger crowd.
I was influenced to speak to big audiences as often as possible by the great Toastmaster Champion, Darren LaCroix. For many of us in public speaking, Darren's mantra is well known" "Stage time, stage time, stage time." I have occasionally accepted many low- or no-paying gigs just to get in front of an audience, just as many burgeoning stand-up comics may do. I also advise this.

2. If you’re concerned about forgetting what you’ll say, take all the words off your slides.
The typical crutch to avoid forgetting your presentation is to put every word on your slides so you can turn around and read them aloud – which always makes for a deadly presentation. Putting everything on-screen also allows the audience to stop paying attention to you since they can more efficiently read your slides themselves. With only images (or at least very few words) displayed, however, if you forget your remarks or cover something different from what was originally written, nobody knows because the audience has no visual reference to spot the variation. You enjoy all kinds of freedom to change up what you say and how you say it, making it much easier to cover your forgetful moments.
There are countless reasons to eschew PowerPoint, and this is one. If you want to learn to walk without a crutch, throw the crutch away! Following Mike's suggestion will encourage you to learn your speech. One other tip I give speakers with PowerPoint: Hit the "B" or "W" buttons on your presentation laptop from time to time, as this will make the screen go black or white, respectively. This throws the attention to YOU rather than your slides, making YOU the center of the audience's attention.

3. To compare more favorably to the great motivational speaker on the agenda, ask to speak right after them.

Unsure speakers try valiantly to stay as far away as possible on the agenda from exciting speakers because they think they’ll seem worse by immediately following a keynoter. That’s simply a bad strategy. There’s invariably a buzz among the audience after an exciting, engaging speaker, and it’s wonderful to bask in it as the agenda’s next presenter. Not only do you get a free pass to lunch off the audience love the previous speaker created, you can always refer back to a point your predecessor made to refresh the audience’s glow while you’re onstage.
Wow, this is a new one on me. I never heard this before, but the logic is perfect. As a speaker, you want to have buzz in the room. Generally you should do your best to create that sense of excitement yourself. However, if it is there regardless of the source, just take advantage of it and enjoy the ride.

4. To satisfy audience requests for presentation materials, refuse to provide slide printouts.
Handing out your slides before the presentation creates a distraction as audience members are tempted to look at them and ignore you. Plus if you’ve taken the advice to primarily use graphics on your slides, having them won’t be of much learning value anyway. Instead, write an article with your presentation’s key points and invite the audience to visit your blog to review it. If you don’t have a blog, write your presentation summary to share with the event organizer for its blog or website. You’ll expand your reach, providing both your in-person audience and others interested in your topic the opportunity to learn from what you have to say.
I totally agree with Mike that handouts will distract the audience from you. The thought behind this advice matches my disdain for PowerPoint. If the audience want to have notes, they are free to create their own. Also, giving away handouts for a paid presentation is a controversial topic among many professional speakers, as it may cause you to lose control of your intellectual property. I am in that camp. However, I make one exception: I do a good deal of pro bono speaking for certain groups, mostly the unemployed. I am happy to give such disadvantaged people the benefit of my work.

5. When you want the whole presenting experience to just be over as quickly as possible, show up way early and make a day of it.
One of the best things you can do as a nervous presenter is to arrive early since it provides several advantages. You can see where you’ll be speaking, determine where to stand, and figure out solutions to challenges the equipment or conference venue create. You’ll also be able to arrange the setup so your computer will be in front of you – serving as a monitor – eliminating the tendency to turn away from the audience to see what’s on the screen. Being there early allows you to meet and interact with audience members, learning what interests them. Finally, you can watch other presenters so you can amplify or avoid points they’ve made, as appropriate. All these benefits will help make your presenting time seem to pass much more quickly.
I have frequently written and advised speakers to show up early to introduce themselves to their audience. That creates a bond with them that you may not have otherwise. Like Mike, I also agree that you need first to put your feet on that stage, survey the room and get a feel for your audience. Finally, you can only learn from the other speakers, even if it is to avoid some egregious behavior that they exhibited. It's all good.

6. If answering questions makes you nervous, encourage lots of them.

Questions are a giant opportunity to customize your content to what’s most relevant to the audience. They also provide a chance to catch your breath and drink some water as you turn the attention over to the audience momentarily. To get questions started, plant a few with people you’ve met before the talk so you begin with ones you are ready to address. Plus always remember: if you’re stumped for an answer, ask other audience members to share their perspectives on the challenging question.

Mike articulates a very important point here: "Customize your content to what's most relevant to the audience." Isn't serving the audience the reason behind why we are there in the first place? Also, I have used Mike's strategy of including the audience when I'm stumped for an answer. However, I have also asked audiences to ask questions throughout my presentation, time permitting. I share this philosophy with my listeners:
"I think it's the height of arrogance for me to talk at you for (whatever time), and expect you to simply listen passively. So please feel free to join in with your questions and your own observations."

7. If you have a really loud voice, demand a microphone.

So many people, especially self-conscious men, try to avoid using microphones because they talk loud. Use the microphone. With a microphone, you can speak at your normal volume while also raising and lowering your voice as you’d like to create continued interest in what you’re saying and how you’re delivering the message.

This is good advice, as many speakers do not learn to use a microphone properly. Some wave their heads and mouths all over, and the sound gets lost. But used properly, a microphone adds consistency to the volume.
A microphone also works for a speaker who uses the voice for dramatic effect. In my own case, I can get to my low tones to convey emotion without losing volume.

8. Stand up while you present on a conference call or webinar because no one can see you.

Suppose you’re doing a webinar or other phone-based presentation. The natural tendency is to sit at your desk since the audience isn’t watching. True, but the wrong move nonetheless. Standing up and “presenting” your comments gives your voice more energy, which translates to a better phone-based talk. Bonus tip: don’t speak in the same volume you normally would for a phone conversation. Instead, over-emote since the phone dampens your delivery style. Delivering your message in this manner creates a much more engaging audience experience.
I agree with Mike, but again for a slightly different reason: I used many of my singing techniques to my speaking, and I have learned to stand while singing to extend my diaphragm. This is also important in speaking, too. I advise that you avoid speaking under all circumstances, whether in person or in an off-site medium,

9. Since presentation mistakes are embarrassing when they’re noticed, point them out and have fun with them.
Some speaking mistakes are small and go unnoticed. Others (the computer or projector fails, a video doesn’t play) are apparent to the audience. Rather than dreading them, here are two things to do. First, anticipate what might go wrong and have a funny (ideally self-deprecating) comment to share for each one. Secondly, have a backup plan for each of the potential disasters. When you handle presentation adversity with a laugh and a quick recovery, you’ll win an audience over even faster than by delivering a seamless speech.

This sort of improvisation brings your speech alive. I am confident that your audience will not see themselves as great speakers, so your vulnerability brings you down to earth and helps them identify with you. This technique also works during technical problems. Remember my disdain for PowerPoint? Whenever the system has problems -- and I guarantee you that it will -- I have the opportunity to feign indignation, wink at the audience and say, "See? I told you!"

10. If you don’t like the sound of your voice, record it and listen to it over and over. The single best investment I’ve made as a speaker has been a digital audio recorder to capture every presentation I do. While it can be tough to listen to yourself if you’re uncomfortable speaking, the gaffes you’ll hear quickly pinpoint areas to improve your skills. Another advantage? Next time you’re speaking on the same topic, you can review your previous presentation while rehearsing to remind yourself of what parts worked best and effective ad-libs that weren’t planned in your original remarks.
Referring back to Darren LaCroix, he advises speakers to record every speaking occasion for this very reason. It is a chance to review what you said, how you said it, and how to make it better. In my case, I also look for the occasional slurring of speech or tripping over vocal diphthongs.

11. Deal with your anxieties about audience reactions by rewarding them for immediately sharing opinions.

While most conferences survey attendees, it’s often weeks later, and speakers frequently never receive results. That’s why the second best investment you can make in becoming a better presenter is creating your own simple evaluation form. Offer audience members a chance to win a book or give-away relevant to your presentation for sharing one thing they liked, didn’t like, found interesting, and would recommend about your talk. These four points from each presentation provide incredible feedback and reactions you never could have anticipated. The total cost of the books I’ve given away has paled in comparison to the improvement opportunities this strategy has yielded – especially from things people didn’t like.

I totally agree, and I have to say honestly that most of my speeches are marked by good participation and involvement with the audience. I also encourage participation with a treat that I learned from speaker Sharon Bowman. I keep a dollar bill handy at the lectern or some other place close to me. When a person in the audience raises a question or makes an additional point, I say, "I really appreciate your question/participation. To show that appreciation, Mary, here is a dollar!" The audience laughs, and I have given them permission to participate. When the NEXT person chimes in, I say, "Joe, thank you for your participation. Mary, give him your dollar!" Then the dollar goes to Joe and is passed to everyone who speaks up. The last person to take part keeps the dollar, but in the meantime, you often have more participation than you might have otherwise. (I encourage all speakers to get Sharon's book, "Preventing Death By Lecture!")

There you have it. If you don’t enjoy speaking, these eleven paradoxes may seem very unnatural, but using them to your advantage will allow you to make dramatic improvements in your abilities as a public communicator!

And thank you, Mike, for sharing your knowledge and allowing me to participate in it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Shirley Sherrod Show Shames All of Us

A race-baiting journalist named Andrew Breitbart (shown here) took less than three minutes of a 43-minute video and tried to embarrass the NAACP with it. In that time, he created a firestorm as surely as a careless Tenderfoot Scout with matches could bring down a forest. He did it with the help of Fox News, who so far has expressed no remorse or culpability in the matter. In this entire process, he nearly ruined the career of a hapless government official named Shirley Sherrod, and the unwitting, cowardly accomplices in this crime were the Obama White House and the NAACP.

This blog is dedicated to communication, but this particular post is about a danger that has long been with us in the U.S. That danger reared its ugliest head ever in the last 24 hours. The danger is communication by zealots who want to further their agenda without facts, yet are armed with the viral power of the New Media. In their own way, they are as dangerous as the faceless, uniformless terrorists who threaten our country.

The Danger of Out-of-Context Edits
To begin, I ask that you watch the entire speech by Mrs. Sherrod

Mr. Breitbart says he posted a portion of the video as an angry reaction to the NAACP's recent accusations of racism among members of the Tea Party. He says even now that his video that is evidence that the NAACP looks the other way when there is racism among their own. Enter his evidence: Shirley Sherrod, a official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia, is supposedly shown making anti-white statements at an NAACP event, where the audience "laughed" at what she said.
Any of us might have thought the same if we had watched only this edited clip from the dinner (about 17 minutes into the video), which appeared on the web
. This clip purports to show Sherrod's disdain for white farmers and how she did not fully serve them as part of her job.

The Real Reel Story
If you watched the speech in its entirety, you would have learned that Sherrod was ashamed of her racism and learned from it. She did not want her audience to be racist toward white Americans, and she asked them not to be so.
Furthermore, you would have caught some nuances that could not have been captured in the edited version. For example, Sherrod expressed gratitude to God for her position the crowd responded by saying "amen," and then applauding. Furthermore, the crowd acknowledged her when she said that she learned from her experiences that many of the problems of the farmers she served was due to being poor, not their skin color. Finally, she said that she "came a long way. I couldn't live with hate."
Sherrod lamented that there were only African Americans in the room hearing her. "We have to overcome the divisions that we have," she said.
Sherrod went on the exhort the younger members of the audience to work hard and not let life pass them by. More specifically, she encouraged them to go into agriculture, a profession not usually embraced by African Americans. She went on to plead with the young people in the audience to "reach back and help somebody" once they have become successful. "It seems to me that the more, the better we (African Americans) do (i.e., accomplish), the more free we are, the more divided we become."
As a speaker, I did not find Sherrod particularly skilled or articulate. However, her words and her message engaged me, and I believe her speech was heartfelt. It also strikes me that belief in God's grace, personal responsibility, and caring for others less fortunate are virtues to be celebrated, not ignored. But those sentiments did not make it on the air.

The Role of Fox News
This story did not see the light of day until it was aired by Fox News, their disingenuous denials aside. They aired it, and then they exploited it. After all, Andrew Breitbart is a contributor to the network. But as I often do, I watched Fox cover the story today. It struck me in the hour that I watched their coverage of this story, the network's commentators made villains of the NAACP and the White House for jumping on the story, yet they never once commented on the fact that Andrew Breitbart presented an edited, out-of-context snippet of a longer speech. This, after all, was the cause of the story.
Equally damning was their lack of introspection at their own role in the matter. What has been more typical is this smarmy, self-serving review by commentator Charles Krauthammer.

Overreaction by White House, NAACP
Smarting from all the criticism that they have received of double standards, it appears that both the NAACP and the Obama White House did all they could to act quickly and decisively against Sherrod, who did appear to be racist in that selected segment. However, neither body did their homework first. Instead, they acted like hanging-judge and jury, declaring Sherrod guilty without sufficient evidence. This was incredibly naive on both their parts and does not speak well of their judgment. But this is particularly disturbing of the White House, which is the chief administrative body of the U.S. government. For all of the alleged media savvy of Obama and his staff, they made a decision quickly and with little factual basis.
"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced today. "Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology." In response,
political media expert David Gergen asked on CNN, "Where was the due process?" Indeed, could we expect the administration to make other, more important, decisions in a similar matter?
Furthermore, is this an indication of how thin-skinned Obama and his White House could be? If so, he has many hardships ahead. I suspect that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ilk smell blood in the water, and they will bait him as often as possible.
Candidate Obama decried the 24-hour news cycle. President Obama allowed himself to be victimized by it.

I am reminded of a story that occurred in 1989, when Charles Stuart of Boston, Mass., left a maternity class with his pregnant wife, Carol. Stuart drove his car to Mission Hills, a predominantly African American neighborhood, and he shot Carol in the head and stabbed himself. The black citizens of Boston had their civil rights violated for several days. They were stopped, questioned and accused indiscriminately by the police until Stuart's ruse was uncovered. It was a shameful moment for all involved.
Similarly, a minor, insignificant player named Andrew Breitbart has now dominated the news for 24 hours because we as a people allowed him to do so. We gave this weasel a platform and credibility that he did not earn or deserve. As a nation, many of us should be ashamed of the way we reacted. At the very least, we should be wary, as this is an indication of bigger blowups that may be ahead.

There are other instances like this playing out around the country, questioning the histories of public officials and twisting their words. I have written extensively about the lack of civility in our public dialogue. Now our nerves are becoming so frayed that we are beginning to believe the worst in any of us with the flimsiest of evidence. The slightest intimation of racism, however unfounded, cost a good-hearted woman her job, even if for only a day. It is strikingly, frighteningly similar to the hysteria of the 1950s, where one could be guilty by accusation.

We have been warned. What will we do with this information?

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Power of Images: Nine out of 10 Doctors Know for Sure!

Are you old enough to remember this iconic shot of Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare on the old NBC TV series? Perhaps the average member of the American Medical Association (AMA) doesn't remember either, but surely they understand the power of the image of a white lab coat. Facing a 21 percent Medicare physician pay cut that was to take affect on June 1, AMA members signed white lab coats and delivered them to Congress as part of an effort to convince the legislators that they should reverse the cut. The so-called "Write Coat Rally" was part of the organization's annual conference, held this year in Chicago.
Kudos to the docs. They understood that the symbol of a white lab coat would cut through the cerebral clutter of the average Senator's mind in a unique way. It is similar to the symbol of the anti-abortion movement: a badge of the soles of tiny feet, illustrating the size of an aborted fetus. It is a striking and sobering image.

Oh, by the way, did the letter-writing... I mean lab coat-writing campaign work? Not really. Instead, the physicians got a mess through Congressional ineptitude. Although the U.S. Senate passed a bill rescinding the cut in the Medicare payment rate on June 18, the House has yet to act on the measure, allowing the cut to remain in effect and creating a complicated payment situation for physicians. But I guess that's a story unto itself.