Presentation mistakes and recoveries

by Peter Watts

The testimony of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor teaches both how to avoid a self-inflicted presentation pitfall, and also how to escape it.

 

During a week of intense congressional cross-examination, Sotomayor demonstrated herself a model of calm, intelligence, and perceptiveness. Allies who sought to aid her were nurtured, while those who sought to provoke her were defused. 

 

One particular area of the hearings came to dominate media coverage, and at one stage did become a problem for the unflappable nominee, and that was the much covered “Wise Latina” quote.

 

The “Wise Latina” phrase that caused consternation amongst Sotomayor’s adversaries, had its origins in a speech the nominee had made some years earlier to a group of students. When viewed in the context of the audience addressed, it made perfect sense; a clever, humorous phrase that both flattered and encouraged. When taken out of context however, and viewed in isolation, it implied that one group, defined along racial lines, was inherently capable of better judgement than another.

 

The phrase was too narrowly defined, taking a point and stretching it into the realm of hyperbole. It would inevitably return to publicly haunt its creator.

 

When adding rhetorical flourishes to presentations, especially ones that flatter one  group through comparison to another, always ask yourself the question “How would it sound if this was later quoted in isolation, away from the group for which it was intended?”

 

If the quote suddenly sounds clumsy, or even worse, prejudiced, be sure to leave it out.

 

Having fallen into her own rhetorical pit, Sotomayor then elegantly demonstrated how to escape it; she apologized.

 

Many of us would have attempted to explain the phrase and then defend it. We would not have wanted to so publicly admit we were wrong. Sotomayor did the exact opposite. Having explained the origin of the “Wise Latina” comment and placed it into context, she  made a modest statement that she had got it wrong. The phrase had been clumsy, and she regretted using it.

 

Having made such a concession, Sotomayor’s adversaries in the hearings now had nowhere to go. To have kept attacking post-apology would have made them appear petty. Even dedicated detractors are disarmed by a well placed acknowledgement of “I was wrong”.

 

Sotomayor, now secure in her path to the Supreme Court, not only proved to us all the wisdom of the phrase “When in a hole, quit digging”, but also demonstrated that sometimes apology can be more deadly to an opponent than defense.

Poetry as presentation preparation

by Peter Watts

There is a highly effective way in which you can easily improve your power as a presenter:

 

Learn a new poem every week!

 

Taking the time to memorize a poem a week has major pay-offs for presenters:

 

  • Vocabulary development
  • Improvements in speech patterns, rhythm, and diction
  • Improvements in memory function and the ability to concentrate

 

Contained within these three improvements are the critical ingredients of great speaking. When we think of a Martin Luther King, a John F. Kennedy, or a Winston Churchill, it isn’t the grainy, black and white TV pictures of them that we think of first; It is their words, and the power of those words. It is their ability to pack an almighty punch into a small verbal space. It is their poetry.

 

Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, and author of “The Dumbest Generation makes the point that while the internet offers us the greatest information resource mankind has ever known, we are also in danger of forgetting how to think critically as we are swamped by a deluge of information. Within his classes, students are required to regularly learn lengthy sections of poetry by heart which they recite back to the class. Why? Because not only does the exercise deliver the benefits mentioned above, it also teaches critical judgement, and the ability to think in depth rather than simply at surface level, both of which are valuable skills for presenters.

 

It’s also worth remembering that poetry is pleasurable. Dipping into a book, selecting a poem that appeals, and then learning it can be a source of relaxation. Recite that poem back to yourself immediately before your presentation, and immediately you will feel yourself transported back to that calmer, more relaxed frame of mind.

 

Taking time out to learn poetry as a preparation for presenting can sound like a self-indulgent activity, especially if poetry, or even reading, aren’t standard parts of your life. It might even sound like a waste of time, but as Marianne Moore tells us in her poem “Poetry”:

 

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond

all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.”

 

Presenting convincingly is about being genuine, and absorbing poetry can help us with the mental discipline to formulate and express messages that are clear, distinct, and memorable.

 

Try visitingwww.poets.org and find out for yourself how poetry can be a valuable addition to presenting.


Presentation video reviews

by Peter Watts

Video yourself presenting and make an important discovery:

 

You both look and sound far more confident and comfortable that you might have ever believed possible!

 

Imagine a swan gliding along the river. The parts of the bird that are visible above the water-line look serene and elegant. Take a look below the waterline however and you are likely to see two large webbed feet, paddling like crazy!

 

As presenters, it is often the awareness of our own two outsized webbed feet that comes to dominate our perceptions. Surely the audience can see us paddling like crazy to stay afloat! Actually, no they can’t. All the audience can see is that swan gliding along the surface.

 

As with any form of review activity, critiquing our performance on camera has to be done to a formula that starts with expressing the positive:

 

  • What is it about ourselves that we like
  • What is about ourselves that we would like to change
  • What is the one single performance area will we seek to alter next time

 

When we have the opportunity to review our performance on camera, we see ourselves as the audience do, and frequently, the resulting vision comes as a pleasant, and confidence boosting surprise.

%d bloggers like this: