Archives for posts with tag: public speaking

The world of inspirational speaking is a popular (and lucrative) part of modern culture – particularly in the fields of motivation, success, health, wealth and leadership. People will spend huge sums just to hear the best speakers tell us how we can change our lives for the better. Some of it may indeed be useful, but much of it is just, well, bubblegum.

There is a world of a difference between how persuasive something is, and whether the key messages are in any way true. A very skilled storyteller could easily convince you of something that is factually inaccurate – perhaps even an outright lie – and you would not necessarily know.

Establishing whether something is true takes quite a lot of work, most of it far removed from the world of public speaking and presentation. It’s done in the back rooms, through hard work, testing, studies, experiments, draft publications, criticism, argument, peer review, detailed scrutiny, and most of all – good evidence. It requires specialisation and familiarisation with the field and a readiness to accept that new evidence might upset what is known. It requires expertise – something that the vast majority of us will never have. Nobody can be an expert in everything, so we are all vulnerable to the messages we are given. We even fail in distinguishing proper experts from pretend experts. It’s a minefield.

Fortunately, there is a difference between most pretenders and people who actually know what they are talking about. Where experts are usually tentative, pretenders are certain. Where experts will cite exceptions, pretenders will dismiss them out of hand. Where experts will qualify their remarks, pretenders will have no such qualms.

The best we can do is to recognise the tricks. Here are 5 red flags to be on the look out for.

Anecdote over evidence

Anecdotes are nicely packaged stories designed to support the points being made. While they can be very compelling, they are not considered to be good evidence. Anecdotes can be very subjective (one person’s testimony only) and selective (leaving out details that do not support the point being made). They are lacking in any rigour and ignorant of alternative factors. They can be coloured and adjusted through time and practice. What they are good at is creating a powerful emotional response in an audience. The more perfect the anecdote seems, the more wary we must be.

Style over substance

It’s amazing what we can do nowadays to deliver the perfect message. Presentations can be enhanced through powerful imagery, humour, appeals to emotion and common sense. Music and sound-effects can be used. The colour, the font design, the transitions – it’s all at the fingertips of the skilled presenter to enhance the message. The presenters themselves can use vocal variety, body language and simple stories to get through to us. It’s an art in itself and the more swish it seems, the more we should be looking for the underlying substance. The basis of the presentation is still important – if it’s not there, or justified merely through common sense or “everyone knows this” – our suspicions should be raised.

Too Good to be True

Experts are aware of the many pitfalls in declaring a breakthrough too hastily, so they tend to qualify their arguments, preferring to publicise their small advances rather than one big denouement. Discoveries tend to build up over time, as alternative possibilities are systematically closed off. Often, we are unaware that a great breakthrough has been made because the underlying work was revealed in dribs and drabs. It’s only when we look back that we can see progress. The pretender has no such qualms. To them, their discovery is the best thing since the wheel. The worst of them compare themselves to Newton or Einstein. They have an unshakable belief that they are right, and that their critics are deluded or malign. Seemingly amazing or stunning announcements require a great deal of support to be accepted.

Sciencey Super-words

Many pretenders will abuse the scientific lexicon if they feel it will help their ideas gain legitimacy. We need to be very careful of words like “quantum”, “multiverse”, “laws of attraction”, “neural”, “magnetic”, “epigenetic” and many other words, particularly when they are used in medical or motivational contexts. Similar words we need to be careful about are “organic”, “natural”, “healing”, “chemical”, “genetically modified” and “toxic” – as their impact is often more emotional than factual.

Perfectly Parcelled Evidence

Finally, pretenders love science when they can make it suit their aims. If a scientific study is found, even obliquely, to agree with the message being promoted, you can be certain to see it mentioned as they make their claims. No mention is ever made about whether the study actually supports the points being made, or whether the methodology was poor, or any other study that contradicts the message. We have to be careful, particularly if the message is rather extraordinary. In new fields of study, there may be an enormous debate still raging, where no strong conclusions can yet be made. In older fields, it is likely that the study being mentioned has long been debunked and a consensus reached. A small amount of research on the Internet might tell you more.

I participated in a “Speakathon” over the weekend in aid of the local Marymount Hospice.

Toastmasters clubs around Cork each got an hour long slot, and each member got a few minutes to speak on any topic they wished to discuss. Because I am president of two Toastmasters clubs, that meant I needed to come up quickly with two speeches.

In the evening session on Friday night, I spoke about how I had entered into a DNA study that will help determine the origins of Irish people. All my great-grandparents come from the same part of Ireland, so I would be an ideal candidate for such a study.

In the morning session the following day, I spoke about how you can improve your presentation skills by applying some very simple techniques. I hate traditional Powerpoint “bullet point” templates. By adding some images and animation you can bring any presentation to life, making it interesting for the audience.

In the evening I hosted a Cork Skeptics meeting in Blackrock Castle. We had two talks. Síle Lane, from Sense About Science spoke first, and talked about what her organisation was doing to address misinformation in the media. The efforts here have been admirable. Sense About Science have recently kicked off a campaign called “Ask For Evidence” which seeks to encourage ordinary people to request peer reviewed evidence from companies when presented with extraordinary claims.

The second speaker was Brian Hughes from NUI Galway. He is a lecturer in psychology and a prominent sceptical blogger. He spoke about how normal people are particularly bad at statistical reasoning, and how we tend to consistently overestimate our abilities and ignore data that contradicts our world-views. He discussed some interesting studies that indicate that depressed people can often be more realistic in their estimation of themselves, and suggests that fantasy and misconception might be an evolutionarily necessary condition for humans. Quite fascinating stuff.

So, a busy and thoroughly enjoyable weekend. A lot of time spent on my feet, talking and thinking about things that interest me.

I’ve been in Toastmasters for over 20 years and the greatest conclusion I have come to is that it is all about practice. The more you have the opportunity to speak in front of others, the easier it becomes.

The key problem is nerves. Why is it that we can speak easily and confidently, using natural body movements, facial expressions and vocal variety in front of friends and family, but when we are put in front of a large group of strangers, all that ease and confidence disappears? Nerves, adrenalin – whatever you want to call it – kicks in and makes us very uncomfortable. It’s a protective response, designed to make you feel you should run for the hills. The other side of the coin, however, is that it make you feel alive and in the moment. If you can use nerves to your advantage, they can actually enhance your speaking delivery.

Nerves are not an intellectual problem. You can’t “switch them off’, or find the answer to nerves in a book, or by think them into non-existence. The “imagine the audience as all naked” thing never worked for me. Breathing techniques, relaxation, etc. all help, but I have found that the best way to overcome nerves is to speak in public as often as you can. You will never lose nerves – and neither should you want to – but with time it just gets more manageable.

I have a bit of a bug-bear about Powerpoint presentations, in that much of the time they are used as a crutch for the presenter, and not as an aid to understanding for the audience. Let me make this plain: I hate bullet points. I hate complex diagrams. I hate word laden slides. I hate slides with no apparent purpose. Powerpoint presentations should, if at all possible, be full of vivid imagery, with minimal use of text. The audience came to hear you and the focus should therefore be kept on you, and what you have to say.

The structure should also be simple. The best speeches use a simple narrative style: the speaker tells a story. They might start in the past, move into the present and talk about the future. Alternatively, they might stay in the past, and what was learned from the story. Or they might have a purpose, backed up by a few small stories to demonstrate why you think the way you do. Either way they make use of narrative: moving, where possible, through time in order to reach a conclusion. Make use of storytelling. It’s the gift we were given by our distant ancestors to retain knowledge and audiences appear to be particularly well disposed to it.

As for making mistakes – I’m all for it. When you have an interesting story to tell, you shouldn’t worry too much about slip-ups. The audience will ignore them. The audience is extremely forgiving if you are saying something of value to them. Your missteps, forgotten lines, technical hitches, momentary amnesia, ems, ums and ahs, will be quickly forgotten.

The bottom line: do it. Do it again. Then, do it again. It’s all about practice.

I must be the slowest person ever to join Toastmasters.

My first meeting was in 1988, when I was a student in University College, Cork. I was terribly shy, somewhat socially inept and going through a very difficult period of adjustment in my life. Why I went along, I am not quite sure. Toastmasters just seemed like something I needed to do.

Having arrived late at Moore’s hotel in the centre of Cork city, I blushed awkwardly while asking the receptionist where the meeting was. I clearly remember her gawking at me and giggling as I self-consciously made my way to the meeting room. The people there were a bit older than me, but from the first day, they made me feel welcome. I joined up soon afterwards and very quickly I set myself the task of presenting an Icebreaker speech – the first speech you will do in a Toastmasters club. It was one of the most unnerving things I have ever done. Talking to the audience was almost like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe that this was my voice and that I was commanding the attention of a roomful of people.

Over the next two years I worked through more speeches, performing different roles in the club. I barely missed one meeting during that time. Toastmasters offered me something that I was not getting from college – a chance to express myself, to follow my own interests and to interact with friendly people from all different ages. It just seemed to suit.

After leaving college, my work found me in Belfast for a few years, then Prague and finally Dublin. Five years had passed since my last Toastmasters meeting, but despite the crazy hours I was doing in work, I had a yearning to go back. I joined the Dublin Toastmasters club in Buswells Hotel and I spent 3 years there, slowly grinding my way through the remaining speeches in the manual. I completed my tenth and final speech just before I relocated back to Cork.

It was now 1997, and marriage, babies, a house and new job opportunities were to take pride of place in my life until 2003, when I joined the local club in Midleton. I’ve been there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Despite having served in all sorts of roles in the club and entering every competition that has been going, I’ve taken the advanced manuals at my own slow pace. I’ve yet to get any Advanced Toastmaster qualification. What I have gained, however, are great friends, a good deal of self-confidence and a relative proficiency in public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve gone on to set up a skeptics club in Blackrock Castle Observatory and to dabble in podcasting in my spare time. I am currently president of two clubs: Midleton and the club at my workplace.

Toastmasters for me has been a great experience. No two meetings are ever quite the same. You never know what is going to pop up that might give you a laugh, a jolt, or a pause for thought. The people who attend the meetings, irrespective of their backgrounds, all have fascinating stories to tell. I have learned to underestimate nobody. I have also learned the secret of good presentation skills: practice. The more you present in front of people, the easier it gets and the more polished you become. Toastmasters offers nothing except an opportunity to improve your abilities in a supportive environment. It’s the best way to learn.

I have only the vaguest of ideas where I go from here. I’m hoping to complete my first advanced stage in the next few months and to complete my presidency with two reasonably strong clubs by the end of the year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Maybe a new and scary challenge will present itself. I still have lots to learn and new challenges to take on. Here’s to the next 23 years.

Find a Toastmasters club in your area. World / UK Ireland

Here’s my vision of hell.

I’m sitting through a presentation with 50 slides in it. Actually, make it 80 slides. I’m pinching myself to stay awake. It ticks all the boxes. Lots of bullet points? Tick. Sub-bullet points? Tick. Font size 12? Tick. No discernable pattern or storyline? Tick. Monotone delivery? Tick. Clip Art? Tick. Distracting animation? Tick. No possibility for audience interaction? Tick. Presenter faced back to the audience like some Tridentine priest? Tick. I apologise if you feel sick now.

It should be legislated against. Motivational speaker Jay H. Lehr has an answer: “Failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning”. (He has many other things to say about presentations here)

There is no law that says that presentations must be boring, but somehow many of us have been sucked into this morass of bad PowerPoint. I am as guilty as anyone, having inflicted the most awful presentation on college students in Dublin some years back. Complex consultancy diagrams, impenetrable business jargon, rambling storyline, the lot. Some of the students fell asleep in front of me. It was terrible. I still shudder to think about it.

I learned from the experience. I had no choice. I now use a fairly simple technique that seems to work, so here goes..

First of all, I start by taking everything away. I delete everything from the page – titles, bullet points, page numbers, everything. When I am left with a completely blank page, I think about what I want to say and then I see if I can summarise it in as few words as possible.

Then, I think about a simple picture or a photo (not clip art, please, please not clip art) that conveys this message. And that’s pretty much the essence of it – a picture and a few words. There are some great shareable pictures available on the Internet via photo sharing sites.

I find that if I give the audience strong visual cues that reinforce my message, then it helps to make the presentations more interesting and memorable. It really is that simple.

The thing about presentations is that they are not meant to be used as a crutch. They are not meant to help the presenter remember his lines. Instead, they are meant to enhance and clarify the messages that the speaker wants to convey. They can also help add variety and leave the audience with an image they are unlikely to forget quickly. Presentation slides are there for the benefit of the people you are speaking to, not you.

That’s the basic principle. You can elaborate from there as much as you want. You can use video, graphics, appropriate animation, or physical props to emphasise your points. You can even turn off the presentation at times during your talk to allow the audience interact with you alone. There’s no law that says that you must be a slave to slideware.

You are limited only by your imagination by what you can do. Just don’t make it boring. Some of the audience members might be packing stones.

My first presentation at an academic conference is over. I think I did a good job of it. The audience were clearly engaged throughout my presentation and I got a lot of relevant questions at the end.

I tried my best to do as good a job of it as I could. I avoided bullet points as much as possible. I added many relevant photos throughout the presentation. I started my commentary with a strong “wake up” statement which was well memorised in advance. I positioned myself outside the lectern and into the audience, using eye-contact to connect with them. I used a narrative style to tell a story. I relied heavily on my passion and interest in the subject to bring it alive, and I brought the story to a close by relating it in some way to how I started my presentation. It helped that my subject rocked!

If there were any areas to work on, I would love to interject a little bit more humour into my presentation style. It’s a fantastic tool that really helps to build up a rapport with your audience. Those to whom it comes naturally have a precious gift that shouldn’t be belittled. I also had some technology issues (porting my presentation from a Mac to a PC was much trickier than expected. However it was all resolved before the presentation. 

My Toastmasters training and my keen interest in blogs such as Presentation Zen really came to the fore today.

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