Commencement Season Commences: George Saunders On Kindness

It’s almost that time again.

Each year commencement season gives us some of the most memorable, funny, and thoughtful speeches that we’ll hear all year. To kick things off, here’s a version of George Saunders’ 2013 speech at Syracuse that has now been turned into an animated video and a book called Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. Obviously the video here isn’t the live performance from the commencement speech, but it provides a great example of economical storytelling.

Saunders is one of our best writers, though he’s often a lot darker than what you see in this video. If you don’t know him from his stories in The New Yorker, check out Tenth of December.

George Saunders on Kindness

Presentation Tips: Dealing With Fear Of Public Speaking

Stage fright and fear of public speaking aren’t exactly the same thing, but they are so closely  related that suggestions for coping with one are often helpful for dealing with the other. This short and entertaining TED Talk by Joe Kowan is great because it shows the specific tactics he uses to lessen his fear of being on stage: things like writing a song about his fear (which he performs here) and planning for the fact that his nerves will make his singing voice higher than usual.

While Kowan’s strategies may not apply directly to your own fear of public speaking (few of us get the chance to write songs for our presentations), I like the model he provides for coming up with a personal plan to deal with anxiety. Almost everyone experiences fear of public speaking to some degree, and few presenters completely overcome it. (In this sense I think the title of the talk is slightly misleading–I don’t think Kowan has “beat” his fear, he’s just found some ways to cope).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always a little nervous about speaking to an audience. So I’ve adopted several strategies of my own to help lessen my anxiety. Here are a few of the tactics I use:

Being Prepared: I don’t want worries that my talk isn’t finished, that my computer won’t work, or that I’m not going to get there on time to make my nerves any worse than they already are. So I make sure that I’m never writing a presentation at the last minute, I double-check my computer to make sure I have all the files and AV connectors I need, and I plan so I have enough time to arrive early. If you’re not great at managing these kinds of details, a checklist can be very helpful.

Getting Comfortable: One side benefit of arriving early is that you can use the time to familiarize yourself with the room and get comfortable. One of the most terrifying moments for most speakers is when they suddenly have to stand up, walk over to the lectern, and start talking. But arriving early gives you a chance to make sure everything is ready, to chat with people as they come in, and start to feel like the room is yours instead of an alien environment. If you’ve already been talking to people as the room fills you can often just ease into your presentation in a conversational way and avoid that feeling of having the curtain going up, leaving you alone on the stage.

Thinking of the Audience as Individuals: It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of an audience as a homogeneous group like a mob. If a speaker sees one person in the audience who looks unhappy, they often start to assume that everyone hates them. But it’s important to remember that any audience is made up of individuals with different ideas and experiences. Don’t let one person ruin the whole thing. Also, focusing on someone you know in the audience, someone who seems to be nodding in agreement, or just a friendly face, can go a long way toward calming your nerves and helping you forget about the rest of the crowd.

Staying Hydrated: Nerves often give speakers a dry mouth, so have water handy in case you get thirsty or find yourself with a scratchy throat. Taking a sip of water is also a good way to pause for a moment to collect your thoughts without looking as if you’ve frozen like a deer in headlights. But a couple words of caution. Try to put your glass or bottle out of the way so it’s unlikely to get knocked over. And try to avoid ice in your water: condensation dripping on your outfit can make an embarrassing impression. Finally, try not to look too desperate for a drink.

These are just some of the things that I find work for me. Before your next presentation, take a few minutes to sit down and think about some strategies that might help you minimize (if not “beat”) your fear. Coming up with a few ideas can make your fear seem less overwhelming and more manageable.

Joe Kowan: How I beat stage fright

Great Presentations: Steve Jobs Introduces The First Mac

In honor of its 30th anniversary, here is Steve Jobs presenting Apple’s Macintosh computer for the first time. Many, many things have changed over the intervening years, but one fact has remained constant: wearing a bow tie is always a risky wardrobe choice.

Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Memorizing you own speech is almost never a good idea. Reciting something word for word usually sounds stiff and unnatural, and can be a disaster for speakers who forget their place in the middle and can’t get back on track without starting over from the beginning.

But this video accompanying Ken Burns’ “Learn the Address” project is a good way to introduce kids (and the rest of us) to a bit of history by encouraging them to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Which is a pretty manageable exercise since it’s less than two minutes long and so much of the language is already familiar to most people. It’s also kind of fun to see who does well with their line readings (generally the newsreaders and politicians) and who doesn’t quite manage the gravitas (Taylor Swift) to pull it off.

You can also spend time browsing all the other videos people have posted of themselves reciting the speech. Didn’t know what Vicki Lawrence has been up to lately? She’s been learning the Gettysburg Address!

Gettysburg Address “Mashup”

Learn The Gettysburg Address (But Don’t Try To Memorize Your Own)

Clifford Chance’s Dubious Public Speaking Tips For Women

A leaked memo from the giant law firm Clifford Chance has been getting a lot of attention for offering its female lawyers (just the female lawyers) public speaking tips, including these bits of wisdom:

  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t giggle
  • Avoid the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage
  • Project power by visualizing filling a fat arrow extending 10’ out
  • Don’t take your purse up to the podium
  • Practice hard words
  • Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky
  • Move your mouth when you speak
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe

I know it’s hard to believe, but those bullets are directly quoted from advice to highly accomplished lawyers at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Some of the responses to the memo have come from sources that usually cover the legal industry, but the controversy has taken on a broader life in the general media, too. As I’m writing this, the story is currently the top item you get when you google “Clifford Chance” (which can’t be a happy result for the firm’s marketing department). But I’ve been waiting to write about it for a little while because there’s so much wrong with this document that I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

Is it sexist? Sure.

Is it surprising that the lawyers receiving the memo were insulted? Nope.

Do the condescending tone and sloppy writing detract from the writer’s message? They do!

Is it especially troubling that this was written by a female lawyer and distributed by the firm’s Women’s Committee? You bet!

But on top of everything else, what I find really shocking about the advice in this document is how shallow most of it is. Sure, there are many helpful tips included among the more mystifying suggestions (“Make nose contact”), things that would be helpful for speakers of any gender. Of course you shouldn’t read your slides to your audience. Yes, you need to make sure that people can hear your voice. But almost all of the tips in this list are about surface effects: how you look; how you sound; what you should wear. And very little of it is actually concerned with making sure you have something interesting, important, or useful to tell to your audience.

I’m not saying that the surface details don’t matter–they do. It’s hard to have credibility with an audience if you don’t look and sound the part. But the content of any presentation should be given much greater priority than it’s appearance should. One of the reasons that this document comes across as sexist is because it focuses so relentlessly on how female presenters should look without giving them much guidance on what they should say. After all, if you don’t have something important to say and a good reason to take up peoples’ time and gather them in a room, you really shouldn’t be giving a presentation in the first place.

During my presentation training I always ask the audience for examples of the best presentations they’ve seen and what made them so great. In every single case, the elements of great presentations that audiences bring up are things like expertise, sincerity, storytelling, humor, commitment, emotional content, and making a connection with the audience. No one has ever mentioned what a speaker looked like or how they sounded.

When you’re putting together any presentation, the strategies you will use to engage your audience are what you should plan first. Yes, it’s important to give a polished performance. But it’s much more important to figure out what you have to say and how you’re going to persuade your audience to see things the way you do. The only good reason to have a presentation in the first place is because you want to take advantage of having the live audience there to interact with them. So you have to give them a good reason to show up and listen to you. Once you’ve done that you can worry about the polish, the surface elements that the Clifford Chance document tried to address.

There’s nothing wrong with offering speakers tips about how they can improve their performance. Even experienced presenters need to be reminded of the basics sometimes so they don’t get sloppy. Because the way you present yourself does matter. You might have great material, but people won’t hear any of it if you mumble through your talk or if the audience is distracted by a big stain on the front of your shirt. But the content of your presentation has to come first.

If I were going to offer a quick list of tips for creating substantial, effective presentations, I’d suggest that any speaker start with these questions:

  • What do you want your talk to accomplish?
  • What is interesting about what you have to say?
  • Why should your audience care about this?
  • How are you going to engage your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re well on your way to knowing what your presentation is about. Then you can start to worry about how you’re going to say it.

If you’re interested in much more extensive advice on creating better presentations, some samples of the handouts I’ve created for law firm and legal department clients are here, and embedded below.

And here are the Cliffford Chance tips:

Bulletproof Presentations Handouts

Click to access bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Great Storytelling Examples: Snap Judgment

I like to share examples of great storytelling because they can teach presenters so much. Engaging storytelling requires many of the same qualities as engaging presentations, including clear organization, self-awareness of voice and physical presence, and–most importantly–something to say in the first place.

If you listen to enough stories you can start to get a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. In the past I’ve recommended programs like This American Life and The Moth as places to hear a wide variety of people tell their own stories. So it’s unforgivable that I haven’t mentioned Snap Judgment, which is based right here in Oakland. It was first recommended to me as a more “diverse” This American Life. That may be true. It also feels a little younger, a little more rough around the edges. But the stories can be just as absorbing.

Above, Noah St. John gives the Snap Judgment Performance of the Year.

Noah St. John

Snap Judgment

Bill Clinton’s 2012 DNC Speech

Here’s a pretty amazing document, a redline showing the difference between Bill Clinton’s prepared speech (which was what he saw on the teleprompters) and what he actually said in the best-reviewed speech of either convention this year. What’s most impressive is how he was able to embellish what was already there while keeping the flow of his argument intact and making the whole thing sound natural.

Despite the disapproval from some corners of the political universe, speeches like these are typically read from teleprompters for a reason–it’s very difficult for most human beings to deliver an extended speech without losing some details or rhetorical flourishes in the language. Of course it’s possible to memorize a speech word for word like an actor might, but the result usually sounds robotic and stilted. But this speech has none of those problems and probably does a better job of engaging the audience than what he had written would have.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of riffing as a strategy for beginners. Clinton’s ability to take the script in front of him and augment it on the fly shows what a pro he is, and how confident he was that no one would mind his going a little long…

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/09/what-bill-clinton-said-vs-what-he-wrote/56562/

Michelle Obama’s 2012 DNC Speech

Despite the fact that an election season like this one provides a wealth of material, I usually avoid commenting on political speeches. But I’m going to make an exception for Michelle Obama’s speech last night because, even if you didn’t understand or agree with a word of what she said, it would be difficult to argue that she didn’t deliver an incredible performance. She was warm, funny, and seemed comfortable on that huge stage. Best of all, she used personal stories to illustrate her ideas instead of making political attacks.

Back in July the President said that his biggest failure had been his inability to tell the story of his first term. Maybe he should have let his wife do it earlier and more often.

Create Amazing Visual Aids For Your Presentations: Mars Rover Prezi

Here’s a great example of how you can use presentation software to create beautiful and engaging visual aids for your presentations. This illustration of the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity created using Prezi is slick enough that it wouldn’t look out of place on a major newscast, and it does a terrific job of explaining the spacecraft’s descent without requiring any real scientific expertise. Think how easy it would be for a high school teacher (or even a student) to use this presentation to lead a classroom discussion.

But what I like best about this presentation is that it’s created with tools that are readily available to anyone. You don’t have to be a programmer, animator or graphic designer to create a Prezi like this. All you need is a free Prezi account, a little time spent getting to know the software, and some free images that are easily accessible on the internet. While some of the more impressive Prezis that you’ll find online incorporate tricks like Flash animations and video clips, there’s none of that here. The impact of this presentation is created solely with tools built-in to Prezi: zooming, fade-in animations and 3-D backgrounds.

Imagine how you could use a Prezi like this to describe a process that you’re involved with at work. Think about how easy it would be for your audience to follow what you’re talking about step-by-step. Then go create one!

(Click the arrow in the viewer at the top of the page to start the Prezi. If you’re viewing this in an email, click on the link below to view the Prezi in your browser)

Mars Rover Prezi

Previously: Prezi’s Experts Program

Planning Your Presentation: Stand It On Its Head

One of the main reasons that most presentations are bad, boring and ineffective is because we learn from bad examples. We see lots of slides full of text, so we create some of our own. We’re bored by talks that don’t try very hard to be interesting, so we don’t try very hard ourselves. And we sit through so many meetings where everyone just tries to make themselves look good that our own presentations start to lose touch with reality.

Sometimes what you need to do to make your talks and meetings truly interesting, memorable and effective is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. Take the routine, typical presentation that everyone expects you to give and stand it on its head.

Have you ever had this experience?

You’re sitting in one of those big status meetings where everyone goes around the table and talks about all the projects that they’re working on. And every project, it seems, is a smashing success. Ahead of schedule, under budget, beloved by all.

But you know better. You were just talking to the guy from Accounting about how their new expense system was going to have to be totally rewritten. The Human Resources people had been in a panic the day before because of an open rebellion over changes to the electronic time card used by every employee, and the people who run your network are frantically banging on their laptops throughout the whole meeting because the link between your Seattle and Portland offices is down. But somehow none of this is mentioned. Everything, you’re told, is going great!

This is one of the main reasons that people hate sitting through meetings and presentations so much. These meetings aren’t just a waste of time, they’re dishonest. Instead of talking about issues so they can be solved, everyone uses meetings like this to make themselves look good.

My friend Marti and I had an experience like this at a conference where we heard one speaker after another talk about how smoothly all of their projects were going. We were working on the exact same kind of initiatives and in our experience they were always much more complicated and, well, painful than what we were being told. After hearing over and over again how great everything is you start to think that either you are a total idiot or what you’re hearing is less an honest appraisal of a project and more resume polishing. Marti and I chose to believe the later. Call us crazy, but we want to get something useful out of a presentation when we’ve paid conference fees and struggled out of bed to get to the session after the disco party the night before.

So Marti and I decided that it would be easier to learn from peoples’ failures than their successes. We wound up proposing a conference session the next year called The Worst Mistake I Ever Made. The idea was that we’d have a panel that would talk about the worst project each speaker had ever been responsible for and what they’d learned from the experience. If nothing else, hearing stories about disasters would be more entertaining than listening to people talk about how great they were.

Not everyone was as excited about the idea as we were. The conference organizers didn’t put our session on the schedule the first year we proposed it. Or the second. The third year they finally found a slot for us though, worried that the topic was too “negative,” they changed the title to “Lessons Learned.” And they gave us what may be the worst time slot for any conference–the very last one. After a week of sitting in ballrooms all day and carousing all night, people tend to be ready to head home or to spend the afternoon by the pool. We figured we needed to do something out of the ordinary if we were going to get anyone’s attention.

So we handed every audience member a questionnaire as they entered the room asking  about their biggest professional disaster. After we had shared our own traumatic and hilarious stories of our biggest mistakes and what we had learned from them, we asked people in the audience to share their own stories. You’d think that people might be unwilling to tell 80 other people about their failures, but we had more than enough volunteers to fill the time we’d been given. The stories were great, everyone laughed, and our session received the best audience evaluations of the whole conference.

Why did it work?

  • Each of the stories had a clear “lesson learned,” even if that wasn’t my first choice of a title. The logical next step from “what went wrong?” is “what could we have done better?”
  • It was easy for everyone there to recognize mistakes of their own in the stories told by other people. We all tend to commit the same errors, so it’s useful to learn from each other.
  • The stories tended to be really entertaining and funny in the same way it can be to watch someone else fall down once you know that they aren’t really getting hurt. Entertaining an audience is the surest way to win them over.
  • Having people share their own stories made the whole audience feel like they were involved in the presentation themselves.
  • The stories were clearly honest.
  • The presenters were fantastic!

But more than anything, I think the session worked because it was different from all the other talks that people had already sat through that week. No one else built their whole session around things going wrong. No one else asked them to fill out a survey as they entered the room. And certainly no one asked them to stand up and share their biggest, most embarrassing mistake with a room full of their peers.

Next time you have to give a talk, try to do something different to grab the audience’s attention. Sometimes the best thing you can do is exactly the opposite of what people expect. Think about what that would look like in your environment and try to do something that will catch people by surprise and make a real impact.