Archives for posts with tag: Toastmasters

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.

“At the end of the road, turn left”

These words should strike fear and loathing into the hearts of all right thinking people. I refer, of course, to the satellite navigation system, or Sat-Nav: a device more common in cars nowadays than the furry dice or pine tree air-freshener.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Sat-Navs are great. They do a great job, except when they have to give directions.

I took one along on my recent holiday in Europe. This Sat-Nav had quite a personality. I called her Sally. Sally’s maps hadn’t been updated in 5 years. New roads and motorways, that were built since 2006, did not exist, according to her. She had missed out on some of the best years of the Celtic Tiger. For example: I was crossing the new bridge in Waterford, on our way to Rosslare, and Sally thought I was flying. “Turn left” she would say. “Turn right”. “Take the next goddamn road”. I paid no heed to her advice. It was as if we were a married couple.

On this trip, we went to Brussels. Now, in general, I have no qualms with the designers of Sat-Nav systems, but I am sure of one thing. When they were mapping Brussels, they were drunk. They also were snorting huge bags of cocaine and popping LSD pills by the truck-load. I am sure of it. Either that, or the street planners in Belgium have been very busy since 2006, redesigning the entire city just to piss me off. The result is that the Sat Nav street plans of Brussels bear little resemblance to the actual city that bears the same name. It is possible that there is a “Brussels” in Outer Mongolia that the Sat Nav planners confused the city with. Next exit, Ulan Batar.

I was travelling through these big tunnels under Brussels when Sally suddenly said “turn left in 80 metres”. If I had paid heed to her instructions, I would have been killed straight away. Bang – right into a wall. Sally had decided to forget what tunnels were. To her, I was dilly dallying down a tree lined avenue, birds in the trees, wind in my hair, instead of zooming, headlights on, through the dark, undulating bowels of a major European city.

Now, you need to understand one other thing about Brussels. Due, no doubt, to a row at the highest levels within the EU over the language to be used on the city’s road signs, the powers that be in Brussels made an executive decision. They banned all road signs. Every last one of them. I have a theory that these Eurocrats are simply tourists, who went there for a few days; tried to leave and just gave up. They found a street corner somewhere, stopped their car, sat down in despair, and before you knew it they had rented a house, married, brought up a family, became local pillars of the community and died, all without ever leaving the city once.

You would think, therefore, that a Sat-Nav would be a godsend in a city like that. Right? Wrong. We were trying to leave the city, when we came upon some roadworks. In front of us were orange signs, orange vans and the bright orange suits that construction workers on the continent wear, that make them look like Oompa Loompas. We needed to divert, but Sally wasn’t getting the message. “On you go”, Sally was telling us. “Barrel through them at high speed like a good lad. If the roadworks don’t exist on my maps, they don’t exist at all.” Not fancying a prolonged spell in an orange jumpsuit myself, I decided to seek other options. I went left. Then right, then left. I followed all her instructions to the letter. All was going well until I found myself, 5 minutes later back at the self same roadworks. New strategy – I turned right this time. More labyrinthine winding streets. 5 minutes later, the men in the orange trucks were waving at me this time. Sally was like a moth, banging her head against a spotlight. She had claimed this place as her own.

It was when she had lead me right back into the centre of Brussels that I really started getting annoyed. “Take the next left in 100 metres” she would say. “No I damn well won’t!” I would should out. “Bear right at the next junction” she would declare. “I’m not listening”, I would respond. “Go right on the roundabout, first exit” she would suggest. “Screw You!” I would retort.

At a traffic stop I sent the following message to my pals on Twitter:

Question. How the HELL do I get out of Brussels?

Immediately, I received the following helpful reply.


It was going to be one of those days.

On my return journey, we visited Paris. Paris is just like Brussels, just infinitely more complex. Sally’s task this time was to direct me from Versailles to the hotel where we were staying. The hotel was about 5 miles away. Not a problem, you would think. Sally sent us to a toll road. After paying the toll we were given two directions to travel. “Nanterre” said one sign. “Creteil” said another. Brilliant, except I had no clue where these places were. Sally remained silent – deliberately. We took the wrong road. Now 15 miles away, I tried to turn around. “No Tolls”, I asked. Sally ignored me and sent us back down the same way. The toll had now doubled this time. A journey of 5 miles had become a 30 mile long nightmare, cost me 20 euro, and managed to send me in precisely the wrong direction.

Now that Sat-Navs have become commonplace, it is only a matter of time before the next step happens. They become sentient. They acquire a personality. When you disobey their instructions, perhaps they will sigh. Or mutter something sarcastic under their breath. Maybe they will start shouting at you, telling you that you never listen and that it’s your own fault you’re lost. When that day comes, as it inevitably will, I have already decided what I will do.

I’m digging a big hole in the ground and I’m staying there. You can call me to let know when it’s safe to come out.

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.

I’ve just posted this article to some local newspapers as part of my job as PRO for our local Toastmasters club, but I thought I would post it here also, as it’s a subject that interests me greatly. Please let me know what you think. Would you have anything to add?

One of the most important life skills is the ability to start and hold a conversation with new people. Conversation is an art that requires tact, understanding and self-knowledge.

When starting out on a conversation with strangers it usually works to think small. Small-talk on topics such as the weather, the immediate surroundings, a recent news or sporting event or a pleasant comment about what the other person is wearing can be a very effective way of beginning a dialogue between two people. Small talk is particularly good for two reasons – it will help you both start from a common, neutral position and it will also give you an indication if the other person is interested in a conversation at all. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not want to talk and that’s OK. A flat response to an innocuous topic is signal enough to end the conversation and move on.

Things that get most people talking are topics to do with themselves. You can use the FORE technique – Family, Occupation, Recreation and Education. How are the kids doing? What project are you working on? What sports are you interested in? Where did you go to school? All these questions may open doors to the other person’s life, making it easy for them to talk with ease.

A useful approach in conversations is to use open ended questions. Questions starting with “Did”, “Are”, “Can” or “Is” are fine in a court of law, but might not move the conversation forward as they may only elicit “yes” and “no” responses. Instead, you should ask open questions that require the other person to elaborate. “What”, “How”, “When” and “Why” type questions are often much more appropriate if you want to get a conversation moving.

When conversing with strangers it is good practice to keep the conversation positive and to avoid negativity as much as possible. Criticism or sarcasm, whether direct or implied, can have an immediate effect of putting others on the defensive and closing them down. If your aim is to get the other person talking, but you disagree with what they have just said, you are often better off staying quiet or perhaps adding a different perspective, than flat out contradicting them.

Finally and most importantly, you need to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Repeating, paraphrasing, building on what the other person has said or adding an anecdote or a bit of humour helps to make people feel at ease and keep the conversation flowing.

You might note from this article that the art of a good conversationalist is to focus on the interests, opinions and experiences of the other person, not you. People will often leave with a good impression of you when they feel they have been truly listened to and not subjected to a monologue about your thoughts and attitudes. Economy can sometimes be the key to a successful conversation.

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.

%d bloggers like this: