Handling the question that mustn’t be answered

by Peter Watts

Have you stopped beating your wife?

Where do you go with a question like that? Only two equally damning answers appear open, but you would be cursed by a yes or condemned by a no.

Sometimes as presenters, questions are put to us such as the famous “have you stopped beating your wife” example, that are based on false prepositions. Whether intentional or innocent, they are unanswerable, and indeed, must not be answered. If you do, then you confirm the preposition, and the trap snaps shut around your ankles.

The first discipline when dealing with false propositions is to identify them. Pause before you answer questions. From a stage-craft perspective it makes your answer appear considered. From a thinking-time perspective it gives the opportunity to consider the question and check that it’s basis is factually correct.

Listen-before-you-leap. Expose questions that you shouldn’t answer. For example, watch a political interview to observe masters at work:

“How do you explain the failure of your administration’s economic policy?”

If the interviewee attempts to answer this question, they create a talking point around perceived economic failure. Therefore the legitimate route, is refute:

“I don’t agree with the proposition of your question. Amongst the many economic achievements we have produced are………”

The interviewee is now telling the audience what they, the interviewee, wants to say. They effectively answer their own made-up question. Is this fair? Absolutely. It’s not just fair, it’s essential.

Media Consultant Ann Wright, from Rough House Media, comments that the same techniques are equally important in both presentations, and during media interviews:

“Aim not to repeat the question as you refute the answer. If you reply with ‘I don’t accept that I have ever beaten my wife / I have never beaten my wife’ then this will re-enforce the question in the listeners mind. They could miss the fact that you are denying it.”

Like strategic chess-moves, false preposition questions are placed to trip us into check-mate. It’s fully justified to respond by pivoting back out of the trap.

Ann Wright of RoughHouse Media can be followed on Twitter at @roughhouse01

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

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.

Positive word of mouth spreads your presentation message

by Peter Watts

The movie “Avatar” is well on it’s way to becoming one of this highest grossing movies of all time.

Avatar absorbs its audience into a wrap-around world of story-telling and imagery. When director James Cameron set out to create Avatar, his mission was to change the way that movies are made, and he succeeded.

What has been peculiar about the Avatar success however is the relatively low-key marketing that went ahead of it. Compare it to the pre-launch hype of a “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” for example, and Avatar’s marketing machine seemed almost silent. So what is that has propelled the crowds at the box-office?

The answer is “word-of-mouth”. The film, with its compelling story-line, has launched a chain-reaction of positive commentary. It is almost impossible to see Avatar without then telling as many of your friends and family as possible that they too have to be a part of the experience, one that is encapsulated by the fact that this is the first movie in a longtime where as the closing credits roll, the audience are on their feet applauding!

So what does the Avatar experience have to do with the activity of presenting?

Avatar reminds us of how powerful word-of-mouth can be. A simple message, when passed from person to person, will spread like wildfire. As presenters, we need to ensure we are crafting a message clear enough, and simple enough to spread in the same way.

For a message to spread it has to be short and to the point. It can feel a little daunting to continuously edit and refine your slides and words, pursuing a simple headline that your audience will grasp, believe, and then spread. We take security from the weight of the information we bring to a presentation but frequently it is this very weight that drags our presentations down.

Beware of facts and figures. Quite rightly we include them to back-up our case, but at the risk of losing sight of the case itself. The denser your “evidence”, and the more packed into the presentation it is, the more your audience will drift away from the point.

To have an Avatar experience, with your message spreading out like a fire across a savannah, challenge yourself to say less, not more, and let that message surge through loud and clear.

And go see “Avatar”. You’ll be amazed!

Time waits for no man, and in controlling presentation timings, neither should you!

by Peter Watts

Presenting involves a contract between audience and presenter, and clearly stated starting and ending times are a key part of that contract. Compliance with these requirements is an important indicator of the health of that contract and the respect that both sides have for each other.

Start on Time

As presenter you control the room. You are going to be that group’s leader for however long you keep the stage. As with all groups, there is an initial period of gentle testing where the group explores the behavioral boundaries around them. “How firm is the leader going to be?” “Do they stick to their promises?” “Who is in charge?”

Although frequently sub-conscious, these questions are all hanging around the room, and there is no truer way of testing out the answers than by testing the area of time! If members of the audience are late, and you wait for them, then you allow power to transfer from yourself, to them. If you stick to your guns however and start regardless, then you retain the power balance for yourself, and late-comers become merely that; late!

Courtesy

If you hold up proceedings till all the laggards have assembled then the individuals who did extend you the courtesy of an on-time arrival rapidly learn that there is no reward for being on schedule. Your priority is to those who were on time. Don’t keep them waiting for others.

Finish on time

As important as starting on time, is finishing on time. While the start time is all about the audience extending courtesy to the presenter, it is by respecting the stated finish time that the presenter repays that respect. If the presentation is to last 30 minutes, then keep it to 30 minutes! Presenters who over-run are rewarded with seat-shuffling and increasingly exaggerated watch-checking.

What about the VIP?

I started out this blog by talking about power, and how within the presentation environment you are the leader. Where does this leave VIP members of the audience and what to do if it’s the head-honcho who is the tardy one?

The subject of the power dynamic between presenters and VIP’s would take up a whole extra blog, so I will restrict this point purely to the area of time-keeping.

If you are presenting, and you know that there is an especially important person in the room who must be there to hear what you have to say, then it would be foolish to start without them. The mere fact that someone in authority is abusing that position by being late rather than setting a positive example by being on time already indicates that they have a powerful sense of ego, so it would be a mistake to deliberately attempt to deflate that ego, tempting as it might be.

There is however, a half-way house that will allow you to start on time, while still waiting for the late VIP. The technique is to start a discussion with your audience while you are waiting so that the awkward gap becomes productively filled.

  • Welcome your audience as you would normally, thanking them for attending, and briefly outlining the presentation agenda and objectives.
  • State that you are going to wait a few more moments for Mr or Ms X to arrive, and then immediately tell the audience that in order to use this time productively, you would like to go around the table and find something out from them.
  • Use the ensuing discussion time to find out something relevant to your presentation. You have full control of what this subject will be; It could be their past experience with a product or process, their key objectives for the presentation, or their opinions about key challenges and opportunities faced.
  • Select a subject area that supports the thrust of your presentation, and avoid contentious areas that might detract from your message.
  • As you facilitate the discussion, capture key points onto a flip-chart so that they then remain visible for the rest of the session.

When the late VIP does then arrive, you can welcome them cordially, gently close down the discussion, and move into the planned body of your presentation. What has happened though is that you are now starting from a position of vastly increased strength. By being late, the VIP has given you the chance to work the room and develop a rapport with their team. You now have comments and people that you can refer back to for support as you present.

Above all, you kept control of the process, and without inflaming anyone’s egos, remained in charge of the room!


Watch and learn for how to improve your presentation skills

Watching other people presenting is a great way to improve your own presentation style

by Peter Watts

Frequently when we find ourselves sitting in meetings and watching presentations, we regard it as something of a chore, quietly checking our watches to see how long it is to the next break. Instead, every time we are sitting in an audience it is an opportunity to observe the presenter, build up ideas about what works and what doesn’t work, and then apply that to our own style when it comes to being at the front of the room.

The next time you attend a presentation try to analyze how the presenter is conveying, or not conveying, their message. Pay close attention to:

The structure

Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end to the presentation? As an audience member, do you feel comfortable that the presenter has provided you with a clear route-map of their goals and objectives?

The message

Is there a consistent message running through the presentation so that the content all hangs together logically?

The style

Does the presenter have body language and voice control that serves to underline the message and bring emphasis to key points, as well as making the presentation vivid and easy to listen to?

When you see something that you admire, make a note of it and try to model it in your own  sessions. The very fact that you admire it indicates that it is something of which you yourself are fully capable. At the same time, if there is something you don’t like, or that you find confusing, you are seeing something that you should be working to avoid.

In this way, presentations in which we sit in the audience, be they in business, at PTA meetings, or even in places of worship, all become informal training opportunities. Every presenter has their strengths, and indeed, their weaknesses. Observing these strengths and weaknesses with our full attention is a great way to literally, watch and learn!

In large audience presentations, a microphone lets your voice be heard

by Peter Watts

When speaking to an audience, it’s not only important that the people at the back of the room can hear our words, they need to be able to hear our voice as well.

It might sound like these two elements are one and the same thing, but they are actually different.

Our voices convey our message with a variety of nuances. There is the light and shade of our tone, the emphasis of our volume, and the indicators of our pitch. All of these attributes combine to make the voice into a rich and infinitely varied tool.

When speaking to a moderately sized group of up to 30 people, then it’s within the power of most of us to project the voice while maintaining it’s quality. As groups and rooms become larger however, that ability starts to break down.

If the opportunity arises, stand at the back of a large group of people and listen to the voice of someone presenting to them. You’ll notice that although you can probably hear what they are saying, the distance involved means the voice has become thin and drawn out, with a slightly uncomfortable echo as the speaker tries to force up the volume and reach the back of the room. All the bass notes have become lost along the way, and it’s difficult to feel any connection to the person delivering them.

At the same time, for the poor speaker, the effort of speaking at full volume is tiring them, making the voice become ever more difficult to hear.

If these presenters had the opportunity to go back in time and plan their sessions again, they would have requested a microphone. It’s a remarkably simple thing to overlook and many of us, never having heard ourselves from the back of the room, wouldn’t realize how much a large group of people can dissipate sound.

If you are being asked to speak at a venue that can hold more than thirty people, then the chances are that they will also have a sound system available. If you have a choice, use a radio microphone rather than a handheld or fixed version that will interfere with your freedom of movement. As with all aspects presentational, it’s a good idea to arrive at the venue early and have a sound check first, so that from your first words the volume is correctly set.

Many presenters are accustomed to spending time ensuring that their slides are going to be clear and visible at the back of the room. It’s equally important to ensure that our voices are too.


Presentation mission + belief = PASSION

by Peter Watts

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…..”

These words launch many a spy story. The key elements I would like to pick out for your consideration are:

“Your mission”

and

“Choose to accept it”

Every presentation is a mission, and for that mission to succeed you must bring your total commitment to it.  We want audiences to believe in us and the case we are making. For this to happen, we need to do two things:

  • Know what our mission is
  • Choose to both fully accept it, and own it

Your mission

The word “mission” sounds similar to “envision”, and we want audiences to be able to clearly envision the positive outcomes that our recommended course of action will produce.

In doing this, we can sometimes be tempted to believe we can let “the facts speak for themselves”, but this is a mistake. Facts and figures are merely secondary indicators of something else; they are evidence that we have achieved a mission, but are seldom the mission itself. For example, achieving a 100% customer satisfaction rate is a great metric, but why? What does that gain? A 50% increase in sales is very worthy, but why? How does that help the business?

Supporters rally to a flag, never to a number. What is the mission you are waving before them?

Choose to accept it

The mission must be whole-heartedly embraced. Where does this mission connect with either our organization, department, or with ourselves as unique individuals? If you share that connection with the audience then you reveal a part of your own belief system that adds tremendous weight to your message. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner state in their book “The Leadership Challenge”:

“You can’t believe the messenger if you don’t know what the messenger believes.”

The best public speaking is always accompanied by passion; and passion is conjured from mission and belief as surely as the name Martin Luther King conjures the words “I have a dream”

Presentation horrors: Technology

by Peter Watts

In the spirit of the Halloween season, this week’s blog invokes a dark horror that is lurking to ensnare even the most practiced presenter.

Technology!

Presentations are both boosted and blighted by the marvels of technology. Nothing else puts so much power at the disposal of so many presenters, and yet nothing else also has the power to so lethally silence quite so many presenters.

I once attended the opening of a resort hotel at a major theme park. Without mentioning brand names I could say that it’s principal star is a mouse whose girlfriend’s name rhymes with “Vinnie”. The hotel wanted to enthuse staff and customers with a vision of all the theme park was going to offer. First to speak were executives of the hotel group, all of whom delivered compelling visions of the property’s future. Next came executives from the theme park operator themselves, a corporation famous for being the masters of all things visual.

The executives mounted the rostrum, plugged in their laptop, and then looked puzzled. There was a hurried conversation. The words “sound jack” and “where?” drifted down from the platform. Oops! Their presentation had been promised as a visionary sound and light show, except that all the sound had just been silenced by the lack of a $5 cable!

It turned out the executives would actually have to speak and for this they were completely unprepared. They had fallen into the trap of becoming reliant on the technology. Take away that technology, and they had no idea what to do. The trap had sprung shut!

If you are planning to make a presentation that in any way involves technology, here’s how to avoid the same thing from happening to you:

Check the hardware early

Check early with the organizer what technology will be available to you at the venue. Assume nothing! If you require sound, will there be speakers? If presenting from your laptop, will there be a projector? Even go so far as to check what type of projector; Data projector? Overhead projector? Slide projector? Assume nothing! Just because you are technologically in the 21st century doesn’t necessarily mean the customer or venue are.

Check the presentation software, and the version

If you will be required to share a common laptop with other presenters, find out what presentation software it is running. Also be sure to check which version they have and if necessary “save-down” your presentation to the standards of that earlier product.

If your presentation requires products such as Adobe Flash, then check the availability and versions of these as well.

Arrive early, load-up early

Never walk up to the rostrum with your presentation on a data-key and expect it to simply load. Even at best, there will be an awkward delay and a mess of icons to deal with while the audience mutter amongst themselves.

Arrive early so that you can see your presentation successfully loaded before the audience sits down. Take this opportunity to also make sure you know how to use any other tools such as remote mice or touch-pads to advance your slides.

Know how your video settings work

The commonest issues usually come with video settings. Your presentation looked just fine at the previous venue, but all of a sudden you plug into a strange projector and everything distorts all over the screen. If there is no one available to help, and you can’t fix it yourself, then this will indeed will be one of those moments when no-one can hear you scream!

Be prepared to invest in your own tech

The most fool-proof way to make sure everything works is to carry it all yourself. In the past the size and cost of projectors were prohibitive, but today projectors have become small enough and cheap enough to fit the budget and travel bags of frequent presenters.

These are just a few of the measures that can be taken to avoid the horror of techno-failure. There is one more however that we should consider; the true way to put a stake through the heart of technology:

Leave the technology resting silently in it’s coffin!

The most compelling and powerful presentations are made without any technology at all, save for the possible necessity of a radio microphone in front of the biggest audiences.

Look at some of the greatest presenters such as Steve Jobs. Here we have a man whose very fame is based on the technology sector, and yet when presenting he uses the barest minimum. Jobs understands the foundation skills of public speaking; having a clear message, a clear path through that message, and techniques such as metaphor and simile that bring light and depth to that message.

He is a technology guru who when given his choice, uses as little technology as possible; a case of the high-tech keeping low-tech!

Great speakers like Steve Jobs know that the best way to avoid the horror of being trapped by technology is to avoid being overly reliant on technology in the first place.

Happy Halloween!!!!

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.


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