Don’t Ban PowerPoint: Learn to Create Thoughtful Presentations Instead

Ban PowerPointThere are few things so irredeemably bad that they are banned outright, no exceptions. You would think that torture should be, but our own government has found a workaround for that by redefining the word when it’s convenient. Killing endangered animals seems like an obvious candidate for a ban, but every few months I see stories about someone defending their right to pay to “hunt” elephants, rhinos or giraffes. We can’t even stop Adam Sandler from making movies. But should we ban PowerPoint?

A Washington Post piece by Katrin Park (self-consciously illustrated with PowerPoint slides) argues that PowerPoint should simply be banned. While I agree with most of her points about how the seemingly inescapable software is misused (and many of her examples are eerily similar to posts I’ve previously written), a ban isn’t the answer. Lots of tools can lead you to a bad result if you don’t know how to use them. Chainsaws. Nail guns. Ladders. That doesn’t mean we should just get rid of them.

Park points to TED talks as examples of presentations that have moved away from slides (which she calls “presentations”) to storytelling, but many TED talks are accompanied by slides. The difference is that the speakers have learned (or been coached) not to let their slides take the focus away from themselves. And, sure, there are other great products to help you create visual aids for your presentations, like Prezi, but they won’t make your presentations better if you don’t put in the effort. It’s just as easy to make an awful presentation with Prezi as it is with PowerPoint. Actually, Prezi is the only presentation software I’ve know to make people physically ill. Some presenters get so excited about its ability to swoop and spin around the screen that they literally make their audiences nauseous.

So what should you do?

First, don’t ban PowerPoint. Simply eliminating a tool, one with which many people are comfortable and that has been useful to them for a long time, doesn’t make sense. Besides, a lot of these “bans” just don’t work. As Park points out, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found that PowerPoint was so ingrained in the culture of the Pentagon that even he couldn’t root it out.

But maybe it’s time to take a break.

A PowerPoint hiatus could be a great idea at your organization to help bring out creative responses to the problem of presenting and teach people that they don’t need to approach every presentation the same way. Try eliminating PowerPoint during one meeting, at your office for a week, or at your next company retreat to see what happens. But make sure that everyone knows what you expect from them and provide examples of other presentation software or formats that they might try. Otherwise they may have a serious panic attack. Remember, the only way many people know how to give a presentation is with slides.

So try other presentation software. Or try doing without slides and use storytelling, a whiteboard, or a demonstration instead. But don’t blame PowerPoint itself for lazy, un-engaging, and ineffective presentations. Those are the speaker’s fault, not the software’s.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to create better presentations, this blog is a good place to start.

Katrin Park: PowerPoint Should Be Banned

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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

Sherlock’s Toughest Case: How To Write An Unforgettable Best Man Speech

sherlockIt turns out Sherlock Holmes is human after all. The proof? Public speaking torments him as much as it does the rest of us.

Holmes has been unmasking murderers, saving the Crown Jewels, and exposing nefarious secret societies since 1887. He’s traveled to the 22nd Century and battled his nemesis Moriarty on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (well, Data did in a Sherlock Holmes costume). But his biggest challenge? Writing a speech for John Watson’s wedding.

The recent BBC episode The Sign of Three opens with Sherlock calling Detective Inspector Lestrade away from a crime in progress for help with an emergency. Lestrade arrives at Baker Street to find Homes staring at his laptop screen in anguish.

“This is hard,” Sherlock says. “Really hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Then he holds up a pamphlet he’s been studying called How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “Do you know any funny stories about John?” he implores Lestrade. “I need anecdotes.”

Sherlock believes he is especially tormented by having to write his speech because of his self-diagnosis as a “high-functioning sociopath” and because he’s not good with people and their emotions. But his experience creating this speech is pretty consistent with what the rest of us go through in a similar situation. We agonize about these important moments because we want to do a good job for the people we love and not embarrass ourselves in front of an audience.

Faced with a challenge that feels insurmountable, Holmes approaches it the same way he would any other case: with research. And apparently How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech is full of good advice because (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler), Sherlock does an outstanding job. He even manages to solve another murder in the process.

Once you take out all the flashbacks and murder-solving distractions, it turns out that his wedding speech is pretty conventional. Of course, every wedding is different and every speaker has to write a talk that suits the specific event, their abilities as a speaker, and their relationships with the couple getting married. But many of the tactics Sherlock adopts would be useful any time you find yourself in the nerve-wracking position of having to prepare a wedding speech.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the text of How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. But, based on Sherlock’s performance, we can make some pretty good guesses about the advice it offers. My own powers of deduction tell me that the pamphlet’s suggestions look something like this:

Control Your Nerves

Public speaking makes almost everyone nervous. Even, it turns out, Sherlock Holmes. For most people the worst symptoms of their fear come right at the beginning, so it can be hard to get started and find a comfortable rhythm. But taking a few deep breaths, trying to speak slowly, and realizing that the worst will soon be over can help make your fear manageable. One of the great things about speaking at a wedding is that chances are pretty good you know a lot of people in the audience, so it should be easy to pick out some friendly faces in the audience and speak to them.

In Sherlock’s case, his nerves seem apparent as he struggles to write the speech and as he fumbles around a bit at the beginning of his performance, opening with “Ladies and gentlemen. Family and friends. And others….” But this turns out to be part of his plan. More on that in a bit….

(For other suggestions on dealing with fear of public speaking you can look here, or elsewhere on this blog).

Acknowledge Tradition

Are you speaking at a wedding with a Catholic mass or one being held on the beach in Santa Cruz? Both have rules and expectations that need to be followed, but those involved in either one would probably be wildly out of place at the other. Being aware of what everyone (especially the bride) expects from a wedding speech is critical. Are there rituals that need to be performed? How are you supposed to be dressed? What kind of humor is appropriate (if humor is appropriate at all)? Getting it right is incredibly important. The wedding speeches that go most horribly awry are usually the ones where the speakers simply don’t understand the context in which they are being given.

Aside from his formal wedding suit, the main gesture Sherlock makes to tradition in his best man’s speech is his attempt to read the “telegrams,” which he points out aren’t really telegrams at all but notes from loved ones who can’t be there.

“Big squishy cuddles. Oodles of love and heaps of good wishes,” he reads before quickly flipping through the note cards and then tossing them aside in discomfort. “Love, love, love. You get the general gist. People are basically just fond,” he finally summarizes. It may not be the most traditional performance, but at least people in the audience can think Holmes has made an effort.

Personalize Your Speech

When you’ve been asked to give a wedding speech, it should be because you have a close relationship with the bride, the groom, or both. At least one (and hopefully both) of them feel you have personal insight into them and their relationship. If that’s not the case and you find yourself asked to speak at the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, find an excuse to be out of town that day. Quick! Move overseas if you have to.

Every presentation needs an objective, and the objective of any wedding speech is to say something that will please the new couple and that they will remember for years to come. Even more specifically, your goal should always be to say something that makes the bride happy. In the end, she’s really the only one who matters.The danger here is in falling into the trap of talking about yourself too much, or focusing on just the bride or groom. Remember, the whole point of the wedding is bringing them together. You need to show some insight into them as a couple, something that you’ve personally observed.

Here’s where the Watson wedding gets really interesting. After Sherlock has made an effort with the traditional “telegrams,” he starts to personalize his speech. But he goes about it in an unexpected and circuitous way. Instead of talking about what great people John and Mary are and how happy they are going to be, Holmes plays to the audience’s expectations of him. It suddenly looks like he’s bombing the speech as he insults the bridesmaids, the vicar, and says this about the institution of marriage itself:

All emotions–in particular, love–stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.

Then he follows up with a barb at Watson:

If I burden myself with a little helpmate during my adventures, this is not out of sentiment of caprice. It is that he has many fine qualities of his own that he has overlooked in his obsession with me. Indeed, any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes, in truth, from the extraordinary contrast John so selflessly provides.

But not even Holmes is insensitive enough to say this at the wedding of a friend and mean it. He’s just playing on the audience’s expectations of him in order to create a genuinely memorable and dramatic speech and….

Do Something Unexpected

Of course, you could just stand up to make a speech, say a couple of nice things about the couple and be done. People make these kinds of speeches all the time. But it wouldn’t last very long, and it wouldn’t be very memorable. If you want to make a really great speech, you need to do something unexpected or tell a story that the audience doesn’t know. This is true of any presentation, really. Your talk has to stand out from all the other presentations people have to sit through if you want it to be truly memorable, and the element of surprise is a highly effective way of getting people to pay attention.

(A caution here. This doesn’t mean that you need to aim to create a speech that could go viral on YouTube. Remember that you’re there to celebrate the bride, not steal the spotlight from her).

Sherlock Holmes certainly excels at providing an unexpected twist with his speech. After seeming to trash the institution of marriage and insult much of the audience, he reveals that he’s been playing the role of “Sherlock Holmes the Sociopath” all along and that he completely understands what he needs to do in order to make a great speech.

“The point I’m trying to make,” he says:

is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

Sherlock, it turns out, has played up his own deficiencies in order to contrast them with John’s virtues. You can see the light bulbs come on in the faces of the wedding guests as they start to understand that they’ve been tricked. But it’s not something they’re going to be angry or annoyed about. They actually get a great deal of pleasure from figuring out what’s going on. Sherlock’s not so cold after all.

(Letting an audience figure out something on their own is one of the best ways to make any presentation memorable. People like to feel clever, that they’ve accomplished something, and it makes them feel much more invested in any talk.)

Create An Emotional Connection

The final, mandatory, element of any successful wedding speech is to make an emotional connection between the audience and the happy couple. There are lots of things you could do that would be “unforgettable” but still wouldn’t be good ideas for a wedding. Getting falling-down drunk before your speech. Stripping off your clothes as you talk. Making out with the maid of honor at the head table. These things are all overdone, anyway.

But making a wedding speech memorable in a good way requires you to say something that prompts a positive emotional response from the guests. How you do this will be different in every situation because every wedding and every relationship are unique, but it’s critical that you find appropriate emotional content. Otherwise you’re just saying nice things that no one is likely to remember.

Here’s how Sherlock creator Steven Moffat, who actually wrote the wedding episode, imagines Holmes’ thought process in planning the speech and the importance it has for him:

I thought what Sherlock would do is he’d sit there and think, ‘Everyone’s gonna think I’m gonna make a right c***-up of this. Everyone thinks I’m going to screw it up. So I’m going to make them think that, and then of course I’m going to say something lovely.’ And I always thought he’d do it well because he’s a genius and he cares about his mate–he wouldn’t let his mate down.

So what does Sherlock actually say? He makes a direct appeal to the bride and talks about how they share their love for John:

Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable. John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss—so sorry again about that last one. So know this: Today, you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved. In short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that. Now, on to some funny stories about John….

After his initial ruse of being completely insensitive to the feelings of others, the emotional impact Sherlock makes in the end is so strong (and I admit I may have had a tear or two in my eyes) that the audience has to stop him from proceeding with his speech so they can enjoy the sentiment as he tries to rush ahead and tell the funny anecdotes he’s collected.

Make Them Laugh (Optional)

When people start thinking about giving a wedding speech, often the first thing they worry about is being funny. And Sherlock does too. His initial response was to call in Lestrade and beg for funny anecdotes. But, while some of the best wedding speeches certainly make people laugh, humor should be entirely optional. It is sincerity that is required for a great wedding speech.

Remember that a wedding is not an open mic night or your chance to practice a standup routine. The spotlight on this stage should stay fixed on the bride and groom. If you have funny stories to tell, great, as long as they help the guests get to know the bride and groom better. If you have to search hard for funny anecdotes, however, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t depend on humor. And don’t try to be funny if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you have a hard time remembering a punchline. Much better just to be genuine and tell a good story.

Unfortunately, we may never know what, if any, anecdotes Sherlock came up with since the wedding party doesn’t give him a chance to tell them. I suspect, though, that he may have been trying to generate some during the disastrous two-man bachelor party he tried to orchestrate for Watson.

Solve The Murder (Sherlock Only)

Chances are pretty good that you will not be called on to solve a murder, so there’s really no need to over-prepare for this situation. Probably best to leave the sleuthing to the professionals anyway and spend your time coming up with the right stories for your wedding speech. Now that you know How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech, it should be easy.

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

https://bulletproofpresentations.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Presentation Tips: Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

One of the great–but frequently ignored–truths about presentations is that they require you to entertain your audience. That doesn’t mean that your presentations should be frivolous, that you have to sing, tell jokes or do magic tricks. But it does mean that you have to engage your audience enough to hold their attention, to give them a good reason to keep listening to you. And there’s no better way to do that than by telling them a story.

Storytelling and presentations are a natural fit. They’re the best way to connect with your audience and help them understand what you’re talking about. And they don’t even have to be that complicated. The simplest way to create a story for your presentation is just to ask yourself “why should my audience care about this?” If you can’t quickly come up with that story you really need to reconsider your whole presentation. But there are lots of ways to construct a story for your presentations. I’m always looking for a “hook” for my presentations? What will make my talk different enough for it to be memorable to an audience? How would they describe it to someone who wasn’t there? That’s a story, too.

If you want to learn more about storytelling, there may be no better place to spend 20 minutes of your time than this TED talk from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton. Pixar, of course, is one of the best and most successful storytellers of our time. The silent montage at the beginning of Up is one the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched it I kept having to wipe the tears from my 3-D glasses. And Stanton has played a leadership role in Pixar’s films since the beginning, including as the director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo.

Just a warning, though. The joke he uses as an icebreaker to open the talk is not something you would find in a Pixar film. Kids and delicate souls may want to stay away. Everyone else can learn a lot here. Most of the examples of storytelling techniques he uses come from films, but everything he says about connecting with an audience and creating a successful story applies to presentations as well. Here’s a brief summary of some of the key ideas that link the two:

Storytelling is joke telling: There’s a good reason that Stanton begins with a joke. Storytelling, he says, is joke telling. They both engage an audience in an immediate way, and they both require you to know the ending you’re working toward. A joke moves towards its punchline and the stories you use in your presentations need to work toward achieving your goals.

Stories give meaning: The stories that we tell each other confirm deeper truths and help us understand who we are as human beings. Because of this people love stories and are inherently drawn in and entertained by them. I’d also add that stories are effective in presentations because they help you be more persuasive. Studies show that people are more likely to believe something you tell them in story format than they are when you simply provide them with facts. Storytelling causes an audience to suspend much of their critical thinking and simply absorb what you say as true.

Stories are what connect us to others: If you want people to care about something, tell them a story that illustrates why they should. Stories activate our emotions in powerful ways that are hard to duplicate otherwise. Stanton tells a story about how Mr. Rogers carried around a quote that said “there isn’t anyone you can’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” In the TED talk this is illustrated in the slide (which you can see in the video preview about) that says, “Make me care.” You need to show why every audience should care, whether you’re trying to get them engaged with your movie, your characters, or the projects you’re involved with at work. The minute they decide they don’t care you lose them and they start changing channels in their heads.

Stories have to lead an audience somewhere: This should be obvious in presentations, but it isn’t always. You have to demonstrate that what you’re telling them is going to lead somewhere, that there will be a payoff and you’re not just wasting their time. Stanton calls this the “promise” of a story and says that “a well-told promise is like a pebble pulled back in a slingshot” that propels your story forward. What “promise” can you make to your audience to keep them interested? Have you created anticipation? Made them wonder what’s going to happen next? Will we find Nemo? Solve our IT problem? Creating this kind of tension is the surest way to make sure that they’re still paying attention.

Stories should require something of their audience: Audiences are much more likely to actually do what you ask them if they feel like they have a stake in what you’re talking about. In my own presentations, I like to involve the audience by asking them lots of questions and having having them come up with the answers themselves. That way they actually become part of the presentation and want it to succeed. Stanton talks about this in the context of the wordless sections of WALL-E, where the audience has to pay attention, figure out what’s going on. We’re born problem solvers, he says. “Audiences want to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. Your job as a storyteller is to hide that you’re making them work. Give them two plus two, but make them come up with four.”

Stories must be about change: There needs to be a primary driver for characters, and there needs to be a goal, an objective, for your presentations. Change is the force that propels all stories, and it should be the driver for your presentations. Otherwise, why are you there? One of the simplest kinds of stories, one that can be as simple as two pictures, is “before” and “after.” The basic story behind many presentations can be as elegant as “here’s the current situation, here’s where we want to get to, and here’s how we’re going to do it.”

“Wonder” is the secret sauce of storytelling: Stanton uses the example of the scene of Bambi and Thumper sliding across the frozen pond to illustrate the profound power of storytelling, the feeling of wonder that another human being can create in us simply by telling a story. Chances are that most of the presentations you attend (or give) don’t provoke that kind of emotion. But why not? Connecting with an audience in a meaningful way, telling them something that makes them feel like they know or understand you can be incredibly powerful and make it much easier to win them over to your cause. Making them laugh is a good start. Making them cry isn’t always appropriate, but it would be amazing!

Stanton himself tells a story about how he was born prematurely, which can’t help but make an audience empathize with him, then shows the clip from Finding Nemo where Marlin the clownfish finds the egg that will grow to be his son and promises to always protect him. Stanton says that this is an example of “using what you know” in storytelling. I think it’s even better as an example of using your own story to bond with and influence an audience.

The next time you have to give an important presentation, start by asking yourself “what story do I want to tell?” Then figure out how you can incorporate some of the terrific ideas from this talk.

Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

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

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.