Presentation Strategies: Start With a Shock

Writer Kelly Corrigan starts her TEDx talk with a couple of jokes and a shocking fact: 33 percent of high school graduates never read another book. Surprising people and making them laugh are both great strategies for engaging audiences whose attention spans are challenged by the idea of reading a book, sitting through a meeting, or even watching a nine-minute video like this one. Once their focus is on her, Corrigan can go on to explain in her charming way why it’s so important that we all read more.

But I’ll let her tell you….

Kelly Corrigan at TEDx Sonoma County

Presentation Lessons From An Actor: Lauren Graham’s Someday, Someday, Maybe

Someday, Someday, Maybe

These days I read more business books than fiction, and the novels I do read are usually in Spanish. I like to pretend that reading Spanish will someday flip a switch in my brain so that I’ll actually be able to speak it, despite the fact that it hasn’t happened after all these years. But I just finished reading Lauren Graham’s Someday, Someday, Maybe and totally enjoyed it. To be honest, I only picked up the novel because Graham is one of the guests at the always amazing Notes and Words benefit for Oakland’s Children’s Hospital this Saturday. But it turned out to be a completely enjoyable use of my time.

I’ve always felt that a novel is a success if it alters your mood–whether that’s to make you laugh, swoon, or so depressed that you can’t imagine ever leaving the house again. So it was a good sign when I caught myself whistling aloud in the cafe where I hang out in the morning after racing through the last couple chapters.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is the story of Franny, a young actress in New York struggling to find success before she hits her self-imposed deadline and has to move back to where she grew up, marry her old boyfriend, and start a “normal” life. I know that we’re not supposed to conflate authors with their characters, but if you know Graham from her roles on Gilmore Girls or Parenthood it’s easy to imagine her as Franny since they are both smart, beautiful, funny women who seem like they’d be great people to hang out with. The book includes some hilarious show-business situations, Franny and her friends are charming characters, and the central romance–though predictable–turns out to be totally satisfying entertainment.

But there’s more to this novel than that. We also get to share in some of the wisdom that Franny picks up once her acting career starts taking off. Even though I have zero acting experience outside of one Tom Stoppard scene (what a place to start!) I had to perform with classmates in a literature class, I’ve been interested in the connection between acting and delivering presentations for a long time. Because they aren’t trained as professional speakers, most presenters tend to get nervous and neglect the performance part of their talks in favor of just trying to get out the words. The effect is often the same as if actors in a play got up on stage and read from a script while standing in one place the whole time. It’s not very satisfying. You’d ask for your money back if you’d paid for a ticket.

So it’s useful that much of what Franny learns applies to presenters as well. I especially like the bit she hears from her agent, Barney Sparks, a character who is a throwback to an earlier showbiz era. After telling her that there’s no secret, no one thing that is going to make an acting career easy (good advice for almost any goal!), Barney offers her the advice that his father “the great Broadway director Irving Sparks” always gave to his actors: “Remember, kids. Faster, funnier, louder.”

At first she’s disappointed. Franny has heard this saying before and taken it as a joke. But Barney explains:

“FASTER–don’t talk down to the audience, take us for a spin, don’t spell everything out for us, we’re as smart as you–assume we can keep up; FUNNIER–entertain us, help us see how ridiculous and beautiful life can be, give us a reason to feel better about our flaws; LOUDER–deliver the story in appropriate size, DON’T be indulgent or keep it to yourself, be generous–you’re there to reach us.”

This is great advice for any performer, including presenters. Translating slightly so that it works just as well for the lectern as it does the stage might look like this:

Faster–Know you audience. Target your message at their needs and their experience. Challenge them a little–audiences love to be given something to figure out. Respect them and their time by keeping your talk as short as possible.

Funnier–If they’re not listening to you, you’re not accomplishing anything. Entertain your audience to keep their attention. People are best won over to your cause by stories, new ideas, and enthusiasm. But this doesn’t mean to be fake. Audiences respond to insincerity they same way they do to a bad actor.

Louder–Share something of yourself with your audience. Make them like you, feel they have something in common with you, and they are much more likely to come over to your way of thinking. Be clear about what you want to accomplish. People resent presentations that feel like mysteries–they start to wonder why they are there in the first place. Give them next steps so they know how they can get started on your agenda.

Try thinking of your presentations as performances if you want to give more successful talks. If you’ve done something like join Toastmasters in the past, think about taking an acting class to polish your skills. It can’t hurt, right?

Someday, Someday, Maybe on Amazon

Book Review: Daniel Pink’s “To Sell is Human”

To Sell is Human

This is a great book for anyone who is interested in learning how to be more persuasive.   Buy it if you want to be more influential and successful.

The longer version:

One of the first ideas I try to impress upon people when I teach presentation skills and public speaking is that we’re all presenters. You don’t have to speak to packed ballrooms or create huge decks of PowerPoint slides to be in the presentation business. If you’re not a hermit or a shut-in chances are you give several presentations every day, even if you are just demonstrating that you’re competent at your job, getting your kids to eat their dinner, or earning a free upgrade when you check in at your hotel. Every interaction should be thought of as a presentation because each one should be persuasive. Otherwise you’re wasting an opportunity.

In To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Daniel Pink approaches the same idea from a different angle. Not only are we all presenters but “we’re all in sales now.” Technological changes and the rise of entrepreneurship have required each of us to be more involved in persuading, influencing, and “moving” others. But Pink doesn’t mean that we should start behaving like the stereotypical used-car salesmen so many of us loathe and fear. To the contrary, those smarmy techniques don’t really work anymore.

Using engaging anecdotes and scientific studies, Pink shows us the kinds of strategies and specific tactics that DO work when you need to be persuasive. Things like understanding the perspective of the people you want to persuade, being flexible in making your pitch, and working to honestly meet the needs of your “clients”. He even provides sample cases at the end of each chapter to show exactly how you can apply these ideas.

I look at a lot of these kinds of books, and this is really one of the best. It’s a good read and provides advice that you can start using right away. I’ve said it before, but buy this book if you’re interested in being more influential and more successful.

Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Using Storytelling to Make Your Presentations Memorable

I’ve mentioned before that storytelling may be the closest thing to a secret weapon when it come to creating a great presentation. Telling your presentation in narrative form gives it a natural structure, makes it more memorable for your audience, and helps you overcome any fear that you might have about not being able to remember your talk.

One example I’ve used is the storytelling techniques that competitors in memory contests employ in order to recall seemingly impossible quantities of information and Joshua Foer’s account in Moonwalking with Einstein of how he used these methods to become a memory champion. Now everything seems to have come full-circle and Foer has a TED talk describing the experience. You should still buy his book, but this is a great introduction.

Public Speaking Lessons from The Hunger Games: Be Yourself

For centuries, human beings have turned to literature for lessons about life. Homer (of both The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Simpsons). The Bible. Shakespeare’s plays. The Art of War. More than anything else, it may be our literature that makes us human.

At least that’s my excuse for using The Hunger Games to teach public speaking.

There are public speaking events scattered throughout all three Hunger Games novels. We see many rallies, speeches and interviews, and we’re told that Peeta’s real talent isn’t for fighting, but persuading an audience and winning allies. Unfortunately, it’s Katniss who finds herself being turned into a spokesperson for the rebels in Mockingjay, while Peeta is held as a prisoner of the Capital.

Readers of the previous books already know that public speaking has never been Katniss’s strength. She requires a lot of coaching. So the first step in preparing her to film rebel infomercials is, of course, to give her an elaborate makeover. After all, these are novels where Katniss’s outfits are often more detailed than the characters.

But her new look and the slogan written for her to shout fall flat on camera. No one finds Katniss convincing, so her former mentor convenes a meeting to talk about why:

“All right,” Haymitch says…. “Would anyone argue that this is of use to us in winning the war?” No one does. “That saves us time. So, let’s all be quiet for a minute. I want everyone to think of one incident where Katniss Everdeen genuinely moved you. Not where you were jealous of her hairstyle, or her dress went up in flames or she made a halfway decent shot with an arrow. Not where Peeta was making you like her. I want to hear one moment where she made you feel something real.”

When they do come up with examples of times when Katniss has done something touching, brave or kind, Haymitch asks what they all have in common.

“They were all Katniss’s,” says Gale quietly. “No one told her what to do or say.”

The lesson for public speaking is a good one, both in the universe of The Hunger Games and in real life. It certainly works for Katniss. Afterward she goes off to visit a rebel hospital (the occupants of which are almost immediately incinerated in a bombing raid), shoots down some hovercraft with her bow, and wins a huge PR victory.

You may never excel at archery, but remembering to be yourself can be a powerful weapon when you want to speak persuasively. Unless you’re a seasoned performer, playing a role when you speak to an audience is almost always too difficult to do convincingly and can actually turn an audience against you. Much better to let them see the real you.

As a bonus, being yourself should also render makeovers, stylists, flaming dresses and jumpsuits with wings unnecessary. Just pick something nice from your closet.

He Used to Speak for the Trees. Now He’s Selling Truffula Pancakes at IHOP.

Now He Speaks for Denny's

Now He Speaks for IHOP

Whatever idea you are representing as a public speaker, it’s critical that you behave in a manner consistent with your message. If you’re preaching family values it’s a bad idea to have a second family stashed away somewhere. And if you’re telling your employees you’re imposing an austerity program and you’ll have to cut back on their benefits, it’s a bad idea to arrive at the office in a limo every morning. Saying one thing and doing another can destroy your credibility and make it impossible for you to be an effective advocate.

Which is why it’s so disturbing to see Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, that icon of 70’s environmentalism, being used to sell kids’ meals at IHOP. After all, the Lorax and his fight to save the Truffula trees is often the first conservation message children hear. Now, as part of a tie-in with a Lorax movie, IHOP is offering Green Eggs, Ham (possibly from one of those exploding factory pig farms), and Truffula Chip Pancakes. Having never encountered a Truffula chip before, I have to assume that it’s a byproduct of logging and milling all of those Truffula trees, kind of like the redwood mulch that I use in my garden.

I know that these big movies depend on licensing deals in order to be profitable, but it’s hard to understand how this one came to pass, though I suppose there is only so much money to be made in children’s bedsheets and promoting “energy-efficient” cars. But this seems especially strange since the estate of Dr. Seuss used to be known for being so protective of his legacy. It’s a bit like Al Gore opening a Hummer dealership.

Remember that any time you’re speaking to a group it’s your job to persuade them. As the face or voice of your message, it’s crucial that your actions match your words. If you’re going to speak for the trees, you probably shouldn’t appear to be selling them out. Even if, as my five year-old nephew Felix suspects, Truffula chips are really just donut sprinkles.

Once you’ve lost your credibility, it’s really hard to earn it back.

Writing Fiction in Slides: Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” PowerPoint

One of the biggest problems with relying on PowerPoint for all of your presentations is that it’s not a very good format for the storytelling that needs to be a part of any persuasive argument. The interruptions between slides and the relentless onslaught of bullets aren’t very effective at creating a coherent narrative. At least that’s what I tell the people in my presentation training classes.

Here to prove me wrong is a chapter from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad told entirely in PowerPoint. I guess winning a Pulitzer will teach me a lesson!

You can read (view? play?– we may need new language for these kinds of things) the entire chapter here:

Imagine my surprise when I turned (flipped? swiped?) a page of the novel expecting to find the next chapter and found myself staring at a PowerPoint slide instead. Because I was reading on my iPad it was even more startling than it would have been if I’d been reading the hardcover. It was almost as if I’d accidentally switched programs and was suddenly  working on a presentation instead of just enjoying a good story by the pool. My brain had to come to a full stop and switch gears in order to recover.

By the way, I’m not a big fan of e-readers, despite many peoples’ attempts to convince me of their benefits. Maybe it’s just my age, but I think it also has something to do with my academic training and the way I learned to love the physical elements of books at the same time I was learning to appreciate their contents.

My skepticism isn’t even about the technological limitations of e-readers– the advantages of certain kinds of screens or the limits of their battery lives. I like to own the concrete book itself, to be able to browse them on my shelves, hoard them, lend them to people I trust, smell the fresh ink when they are new and the dust they collect when they aren’t.

But mostly I like to be able to write in them. As a child I never would have written in my books out of fear of “ruining” them. But more than a decade of college and grad school put me in the habit of making notes in everything I read. I underline sections I think are important, put stars next to big ideas, make lists, brainstorm and note important page numbers on the inside covers.

It’s not like I’m planning to do any work on most of the things I read; I’m not going to write book reports about them. I just like being able to interact with my books this way and feel like it helps slow down my reading so I actually pay better attention and retain more of what I’ve read. Without a pen in my hand it’s too easy to just pass my eyes over the words and feel like I’ve read something and wind up with only a vague recollection of it later.

But last week I was on vacation in Santa Barbara (coincidentally where I picked up my habit of scribbling notes in college) without a book of my own to read and mark up. I did have my iPad, however, and downloaded a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that I’d given to my mom for Christmas but hadn’t read myself. It’s a good read, cleverly constructed of interlocking chapters that tell the stories of a group of characters from different perspectives.

Not having a hard copy was actually kind of a fortuitous accident. I don’t know if Egan had given much thought to the added impact that PowerPoint would have when the novel was viewed on an e-reader, but it was the first time that I felt I was having a more powerful experience reading something on a screen than I would have in a book.

Confronted with slides, my brain just had no idea what to do and I was suddenly jolted out of my normal reading experience. There was the familiar slide format, the default layout of a title slide, the uninspired choice of font. But what was it doing in the middle of a novel? I even had to turn my head sideways to read the text since the slides weren’t rotating correctly on my iPad.

While the inspiration to write fiction in PowerPoint is brilliant and handled here with great skill, it also gives us an idea of how hard it is to actually tell a story this way. The biggest issue I find with following a narrative in PowerPoint is figuring out how to read the slides. Without a live presenter to connect the dots, how do you know at first glance how one slide follows another? What connects them? Transitions– the ideas, not the animations– are really hard to create between slides when you want to propel a story forward. And how do you even know how to read the elements in a slide? Do your read left to right, across then down? Clockwise? How do you interpret the graphic elements and how do they relate to the words? It’s a totally different way of reading then simply following the sentences that make up a normal narrative.

These issues are something that we all need to remember when we’re creating our presentations. We “read” slides differently than other kinds of texts and, despite the habits of many presenters, we shouldn’t create slides that are covered with paragraphs of text. Slides should be treated as visual aids that support what you have to say as the speaker, not as your script itself. By design, your slides should leave out a lot of what you plan to say. Slides are a framework– as the speaker you need to provide the connective tissue.

Egan talks about this discordant effect that including a chapter written in PowerPoint has on her book in an interview that’s posted on Amazon.
 Writing in a non-traditional and “difficult” format like PowerPoint highlights the gaps, awkward spots and changes of style and tone throughout the whole novel. She even says that she didn’t really understand the overall structure of the book until the rest of it was already written and she was working on the PowerPoint section, that the whole novel is about the kind of discontinuity exhibited in this one chapter. PowerPoint lets her really highlight this effect.

“PowerPoint is not continuous,” she tells her interviewer:

“It is not a flow. It is a series of images and moments.  Which is really how the whole book works.”

“This book is all about the pauses.  A lot of the action takes place during the pauses and we visit people at other moments after these pauses or before they begin.  I think it really is the lynchpin.”

The challenges of telling a story in PowerPoint, the problems of making transitions between slides and bullet points, are exactly what she’s trying to demonstrate.  They’re at the heart of the book.

There are at least a couple of things that presenters can learn from this novel experiment.  First, despite my insistence that PowerPoint isn’t the right tool for telling a story, it can be done. But it requires a lot of thought to do it well. It also helps to be an experienced and much-awarded novelist like Egan.

Second, it can be really useful to think of the pieces of your presentations that you don’t put up on screen in the way that Egan talks about the “pauses” that contain much of the action from her story. As the speaker you have to tell a compelling story, but you don’t have to put everything up on the screen.

Actually, an experiment in storytelling through PowerPoint makes a great exercise if you feel like giving yourself a little homework. Think about a story that you know really well. It could be anything: a fairy tale, the story of your prom date or the plot of a Seinfeld episode. How would you tell it in PowerPoint? What resources would you use? Visual aids? Bullet points? Sound effects or video?  What would you put on the screen and what would you just tell your audience in the “pauses”?

The bottom line is to figure out which parts are really important and are likely to be interesting and influential to your audience. Then try to create all your presentations by telling your stories that way. It’s not always easy, but finding a way to structure your presentations as stories is one of the best ways to ensure your success.

Egan on Amazon:

Bossypants: Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation

I expected Tina Fey’s Bossypants to be funny, and it is.  Honestly, I don’t know when I’ve laughed out loud so often while reading a book.  What I didn’t expect  is that it would also be one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time.  Bossypants is full of great stories about what Fey has discovered about collaborating with others and how she’s learned to manage people through trial and error.  Of course the errors are the funny parts….

But what really jumped out at me were the Rules for Improvisation she lays out and how well they can be applied to so many things we do– especially how well they apply to presenting. Fey’s “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” include:

Agree and Say Yes, which she explains doesn’t just mean following blindly, but finding a way to keep an open mind:

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says.  But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place.  Start with a Yes and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no.  “No, we can’t do that.”  “No, that’s not in the budget.”  “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.”  What kind of way is that to live?

Yes, And, which tells you to find a way to contribute:

Always make sure that you’re adding something to the discussion.  Your initiations are worthwhile.

Make Statements, which tells us to offer our own opinions and suggestions:

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.”…. In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.  Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.  We’ve all worked with that person.  That person is a drag.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities, which doesn’t mean that things can’t go wrong, but that it’s your job to make the best of the situation you find yourself in.

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?  Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel.  I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike…. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.  And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.  I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

“Wait a second,” you may be telling yourself.  “Presentations aren’t improvisational.  There are topics, agendas, outlines, even scripts and visual aids involved in most of our presentations. That’s hardly improv!”

True. But there also has to be an improvisational element to any presentation you deliver.  None of us are capable of anticipating everything that can happen and therefore every presenter must be capable of thinking on their feet.  It would be crazy to keep trying to give your talk without changing gears if the projector dies or a major earthquake strikes.  But it’s also misguided to keep giving the presentation you’ve planned if it’s obvious that it’s not going over well with your audience.  As the presenter you need to keep an eye on your audience so you can gauge their reactions and, well, improvise.

Presentations, like life, require some flexibility.

Fear of Public Speaking: Storytelling and Memory Tricks

Almost all of us experience fear of public speaking to one degree or another; and one of the most common things that people are afraid of is that they’ll be talking to an audience and forget what they want to say.  I always try to remind people (and myself) that a presentation isn’t something that you want to memorize any more than you would want to memorize a conversation that you’d have with your husband, your mother, or your best friend.

Instead of trying to deliver a memorized speech– which almost always comes across as boring or phony anyway– you’re much better off creating a presentation that has a natural flow to it where you can easily recall your main ideas and just fill in the details as you’re speaking.  Your talk will seem more natural, conversational, and be much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than something that seems “canned.”

Of course not memorizing your presentation doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be able to recall its broad outlines.  What’s your opening?  What examples are you going to use?  How will you close and send your audience back to the comparatively dull world of their everyday lives?

I always suggest that people create their presentations in a narrative format, that they organize them as stories in order to help make them easier to remember and more engaging for their audiences.  Picking the right narrative format can instantly give your presentations structure.  Are you telling a before and after story?  The history of a project?  A tale of overcoming adversity?  Use any of those forms for your talk and your audience will have a much easier idea understanding what you’re talking about.  Our brains are built to organize information through narrative; stories allow us to make sense of information, help us remember things and, above all,  entertain us.

Just think about the powerful ways that stories are etched on our brains through the nursery rhymes, religious stories and episodes of Gilligan’ Island that we experienced as kids.  These are things that you’ll never forget. Try to take advantage of some of that power any time you can by using storytelling in your presentations.

For more on how creating stories can be used to shape memory, check out Joshua Foer’s story Secrets of a Mind Gamer:  How I Trained My Brain and Became a World-Class Memory Athlete.  It’s fascinating stuff (even if it isn’t directly about presentation skills) about how participants in memory competitions still use ancient techniques to build powers of memory that seem superhuman to “normals” like us.  It’s not a short article, but there is even a longer version available in his book Moonwalking with Einstein if you’re interested.