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)

The Other Prism Scandal: Ugly Slides

prism-slide-1

The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.

When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.

But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?

The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).

Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.

Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.

And a couple of other things from this one slide:

  • More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
  • Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
  • Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?

Spionage PrismHere’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.

Other things to notice:

  • The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
  • The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
  • The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?

3.1Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:

  • It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
  • “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).

4.1The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:

  • There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
  • This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.

See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.

Redesigned slides

Presentation Planning: Be Ready For Detours

Detour

Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.

Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.

And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.

And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.

That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”

A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.

Proposition 8 Supreme Court Arguments

Visual Aids: The Danger of Oversimplifying with Bullets

Boehner slide

Click to embiggen

I’m not going to touch the politics of whether the looming sequestration is a good idea or who is responsible for it. But I am comfortable declaring that this slide used by House Speaker John Boehner to summarize the issue is a great example of what’s wrong with the way people use PowerPoint. There’s far too much information on this slide, and the widescreen format makes it really hard to scan the individual bullet points without losing your place. But the worst thing about this example is that it tries to condense an extremely complicated issue that will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people into one easy-to-digest slide.

Robert Gaskins, one of the original developers of PowerPoint, has said that the biggest problem created by its overuse is that it has essentially made people lazy, that creating bullet points has led us to simplify things that we shouldn’t. People in business, he says:

have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.

Boehner’s slide is meant to distill the sequestration process into little bits that are easy for House members to process. But that’s the problem–each of the bullets on this slide represents a complicated idea that you’d hope the people voting on our laws would take the time to master. And the fact that the sequestration–designed to be so painful that it would never actually happen–now seems imminent shows that our representatives clearly didn’t see the implications of what they were considering. Edward Tufte has argued that reliance on PowerPoint slides hid the gravity of the threat to the space shuttle Columbia and ultimately helped lead to its demise. PowerPoint in the hands of politicians can be just as dangerous.

Boehner Debt Framework Slides

Edward Tufte: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science

State of the Union: Thirsty

Scripted events like the State of the Union are generally so dry and predictable that they’re best remembered when something unusual happens. Right after President Obama’s speech last night, many news analysts suggested that this State of the Union only really stood out for the emotional pull of the “they deserve a vote” refrain at the end.

But today it isn’t Obama’s speech that’s getting the most attention on the morning shows, it’s the Republican response from Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Specifically, the fact that he suddenly lurched out of the television frame to grab a water bottle and take a drink. So far he’s handled the response with such good humor that I really don’t think it’s the “disaster” that some people are making it out to be. But it certainly isn’t the kind of attention that anyone wants. Especially since there was already talk that the opposition response was cursed.

Instead of leaving it up to chance (or accident), it’s always a good idea to plan what you can do to make your presentations memorable. What will stand out in the sea of colorless talks? What will keep your audience’s attention focused on you so they won’t be tempted to sneak their phones out of their pockets? How would you want an audience member to describe your presentation to someone who wasn’t there? Figure out a “hook” for your talk so it isn’t forgotten the moment everyone leaves the room.

And keep your water bottle within easy reach.

Marco Rubio’s Dry Mouth

Public Speaking Tips: It’s OK to Use Notes

Remember the minor scandal that erupted when President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the lines of the Oath of Office in 2009? Afterward I suggested that it would have been wise for Roberts to have used a script or at least had some notes handy if he needed to consult them. The problem with reciting legalistic language like an oath–or wedding vows, for that matter–is that you have to get it exactly right, even though it doesn’t exactly sound or feel natural. Otherwise you run the risk of having to redo the ceremony (like they did at the White House in 2009), just to make sure it takes.

So I was excited to see that the official swearing on Sunday went off without a hitch, and that Roberts had come to his senses and used notes. Too bad they didn’t leave it at that. Unfortunately, the big ceremonial oath that was televised on Monday didn’t go quite as smoothly. Obama gets a little lost and swallows his words on the phrase “the office of President of the United States.” It wasn’t a disaster, but I’m sure it wasn’t the performance he wanted to give. Especially after what happened four years ago. At least this time they had the sense to hold the legal ceremony the day before.

It just goes to show you that even talented people who are used to speaking in public can get flustered by the stress of important events. If you have to make a public statement that you have to get exactly right, if the stakes are high or if the words you have to say are complicated or hard to remember because they aren’t your own, there’s no shame in using notes to help you keep your place. If you’re introducing someone and there’s even a remote chance that you’ll get their name wrong, please just write it somewhere that you’ll have it in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as “Corey.”

You certainly don’t want to read an entire speech to an audience without ever making eye contact with them, but notes, an outline, or a short text that you want to quote verbatim can be very helpful. Just try to use them unobtrusively and naturally. Chances are people won’t even think twice about it, and using a few notes are definitely better than potentially provoking a constitutional crisis.

2013 Inaugural Oath of Office

Don’t Bomb Like Obama: Even The Best Speakers Need To Be Prepared

This Times recap of the 2012 election has some really interesting behind-the-scenes information about the first presidential debate and how President Obama essentially botched it by underestimating his opponent and not being well-enough prepared. At one point he even ditched his debate prep sessions in Las Vegas to tour Hoover Dam! The problem became clear to the President’s team almost immediately in Denver:

Shortly after the debate began, Mr. Obama’s aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Mr. Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Mr. Obama’s mock debates with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Kerry drew Mr. Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Mr. Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Mr. Obama’s advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but also of the political process itself. Mr. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Mr. Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.

Preparation is critical for any public speaking event, and it’s important no matter how good or comfortable you are at talking to an audience. It may be hard for us mere mortals to understand, but the failure to prepare is a common mistake of talented speakers like our president. They’re so sure of their own abilities that they don’t do the necessary work and they can bomb like Obama did in his first debate with Mr Romney.

Whatever your own skills and experience as a public speaker, don’t let this happen to you. Make sure that you know what you want to say, that you understand your audience, and that you’re setting the right tone and projecting the right image for your message.

How a Race in the Balance Went to Obama