Halloween Storytelling: Presenting the Fireside Roots of Public Speaking

by Peter Watts

Through story-telling we express history, we express culture, and we construct the metaphors by which we understand our world. Two festivals lend themselves to the art: Halloween and Christmas. Both should involve spine-tingling tales to bring tribe and family tight together around the fire. It’s public speaking in the raw, and this week I’ve been reminded of this in two ways that I would like to share:

First, my fellow blogger and presenter, John Zimmer (@zimmerjohn) posted this wonderful article via his twitter-feed: “The Psychology of Storytelling” “The Psychology of Storytelling”

Second, I encountered “Beyond the Pale”, a project to consolidate and redistribute the great radio horror stories of the 1940’s and 50’s. You can hear all about “Beyond The Pale” with WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook by following this link. The show is about an hour long, but does include generous clips from Halloween horrors past; Seasonal listening should you find yourself at an audio loose-end while carving the pumpkin.

The tradition of the spoken word and storytelling returns us to public speaking in it’s most native form. What more pleasurable way to practice our skills than by deploying a well chosen tale to raise a scream, this Halloween.

Trick or treat!

Presentation Skills Training

by Peter Watts

To become a great presenter, presentation skills training might be the last thing you need.

  •  Can you read basic notes?
  • Can you speak?
  • Can you answer yes to both those questions? Excellent. You’ve got what it takes to speak in public.

Public speaking has little to do with the frills of body language taught in presentation skills classes, which often do little more than help you become a more effective PowerPoint clone.

The fact that you are Googling presentation skills shows that you have a drive to get out there and speak. Your challenge now isn’t to paddle around the edges. Your challenge is to get out there and do it!

Here’s the thing: When you stand up to speak, it’s because you want to persuade, inform, or inspire a group of people. The major focus is to forget about how you are saying things, and focus instead on what you are saying!

When public speaking works it’s about having your own thoughts, your own opinions, and the confidence to express them.

It’s about being able to think, and then having thought, be able to convey those thoughts to others. It’s about message, and knowing how to convey that message. Finally, it’s about being natural and true to your own individual style. Don’t let anyone tell you to change that style. It’s yours, and it’s your own true strength.

There is an interesting article in the New York Times that touches on this. Mitt Romney, nominee assumptive in the Republican race for the the White House, is winning the television debates by having jettisoned the starched, over-prepared approach he took in the 2007 race, and has adopted a more natural, easy going approach. He’s released the presentation skills, and reached for the message.

Let’s compare this to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK’s own debates a couple of years ago. A combative and devastatingly effective speaker, Brown should have blasted his way through the debates. Instead he came across as clumsy, with an odd habit of suddenly breaking into a deaths-heads grin rather than his usual scowl. It was the exact opposite of the Romney approach. Brown allowed his normally clear, belief-led style, to be maimed by an overdose of technique; presentation skilled to the point where the presentation’s killed.

What does this mean for the best way to build your presentation skills?

The most effective way is to get out there and present! There is no better forum for developing your skills than the forum itself. Here are some ideas:

Step One: Create Your Opportunity

When pushing your boundaries, the main rule to follow is safety first. You want a safe learning environment where you can experiment a little.


ToastMasters are a worldwide group who provide an excellent practice and training environment for presenters

Team Presentations:

If you work within a team, ask the person who normally chairs your team meetings if you can make a presentation. Choose a topic of relevance to the team and one where you have something to offer

Existing Customers

To get used to making customer presentations, you can start off with a presentation either to one of your existing customers who represents a safe environment

Local Schools & Colleges

Check with your H.R. Department. You may find they have a sheaf of requests from local schools for people to speak on Careers Day.

Step Two: Create Your Presentation

Within The Presenter’s Blog, you’ll find ideas for many aspects of presenting. Try the following articles for some ideas:

Always ask: “ Why should my audience care?”

Twitter headlines creates compelling presentations

Presentation structure

Coaching yourself after a presentation

Don’t allow waiting for a chance to attend presentation skills training to delay you. The best way to become a presenter is to have an opinion and to get out there and own it. That’s what public speaking is all about; to persuade, to inform, and to inspire. To inspire yourself out onto the stage, is the all important first step.

One for all, and all for one

by Peter Watts

“If you’ll excuse me, I think my bottom’s going to explode!”

It was our final university exam and the imminent paper was the big one! Fail this, and four years of study would end with a fail grade. As the curtained-off examination hall was opened to receive us, the friend standing to my side verbalised one of the classic fight or flight responses that manifest at moments of stress; a resounding need for the bathroom.

I’ve shared this story to illustrate the symptoms of presentation stress with audiences across the world. It receives a laugh and instant recognition. At some stage or other in our lives as presenters, we have all felt that same reaction.

This week I had the privilege of being able to share my tale with a group who not only had stood in that exact same examination entrance hall, but who had also witnessed those exact same curtains swishing back, and who also all knew where those exact same bathrooms were!

My audience were alumni of my old university, Oxford Brookes. The shared reference points we held as a group made the experience of presenting into a very great pleasure. Here was a group of people who with whom I felt an immediate sense of identity, and who I hope were able to feel that same sense of identity with me.

Negotiators term this feeling as “Common Ground” and list it’s identification as essential to successful negotiation between parties. The same is true for successful presentations.

Part of the task of the presenter is to be at one with the audience. Audiences are tribal; they coalesce around common factors such as purpose, heritage, or values. The presenter therefore helps themselves if they establish common ground with those factors.

When planning your next presentation, consider ways in which you have common ground with your audience and plan how you can communicate that within your presentation.

Shared reference points break down the barrier between speaker and listeners to create the subtle intimacy that can make presenting a joy.

Thank you Ceri and Victoria and everyone who came to the Oxford Brookes Alumni event for making it such a great evening.

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