Common Spelling and Grammar Errors: Don’t Lose Your Credibility

Are you a grammar stickler? Does it grate on your nerves every time you hear “nuclear” mispronounced in the style of George W. Bush? Does the abuse of “literally” make you figuratively want to rip someone’s tongue out? Do your eyes roll whenever you hear someone proclaim they “could care less“?

I’m one of those people. This morning I heard Matt Lauer talking about how topping-out the spire of One World Trade Center today was “an historic event.” It annoyed me so much that I briefly thought about writing him an email explaining that the only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you have a cockney accent and don’t pronounce the “h.” Go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.” I actually do send messages like that from time to time. Sadly, I never get a televised correction. Or, actually, any response at all.

I’ve noticed my teacher friends passing around this video of common spelling and grammar mistakes over the last couple of days. We’re clearly enjoying it, but the problem is that we aren’t the people who need these tips. And the people who do either don’t know that they have a problem or they don’t care.

But if you’re not interested in spelling and grammar, you probably should be. Especially if you ever have to present to an audience. Here’s the thing. Even if you’re not a grammar stickler, chance are high that some of the people you’re speaking to are. And we’ll sit there judging you. Make enough mistakes–or just one really bad one–and we might decide you don’t have any credibility and stop paying attention to you. Spelling and grammar mistakes are especially bad if you use slides and project your errors for everyone to see, then distribute them as handouts. I’ve sat through some presentations that I only recall because of the typos, which is not how you want your talks to be remembered.

If you want to seem authoritative and maintain your credibility with an audience, take the time to get your words right. It’s a great idea to have someone else double-check your work, especially when the stakes are high. There’s no shame in asking for a little help. I taught writing for years and I still like to have another set of eyes look at my writing whenever I can. It can mean the difference between being taken seriously and being ignored, or worse.

(I sure hope there are no typos in this post. Those spelling and grammar people can be mean.)

38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors

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

Create More Engaging Presentations: Prezi’s Experts Program

Do you want to create presentations that really stand out in the sea of PowerPoint slides? I’ve been recommending Prezi to people who want to create engaging visual aids for three years now. But one of the drawbacks to using Prezi was that there weren’t a lot of resources available for anyone who needed training or help doing the design work for their presentations.

Now Prezi has rolled out an Experts Program to help overcome that problem by recommending trainers and designers who can help you make the most of Prezi in your talks. I had fun browsing some of the examples from the different designers, especially those from Barcelona’s with their clever graphics and jaunty music. There are experts available in Europe, China, Australia, and the US. I can personally recommend Angelie Agarwal at Learn Prezi. I worked with her when she was Prezi’s Chief Evangelist and she’s absolutely terrific.

If you haven’t already tried Prezi, give it a shot. You can use it for free!

What You Lose When You’re Not There: “The Trouble With Online Education”

I felt guilty when I started teaching at UC Santa Cruz because students (or their parents) paid tuition expecting that they’d be taught by an actual professor. Instead they got me–a graduate student instructor with a fresh college diploma and no real training as a teacher. But at least I was there with my students at every class, working with them to help improve their writing. If I were a parent of student today I’d be concerned about paying fees and getting a URL or a recording instead.

This morning I was writing an article about the challenges posed by creating and delivering remote or recorded presentations when I came across this op-ed by Mark Edmundson in The New York Times. Part of the fallout from the recent ouster (and reinstatement) of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, the piece argues that the current focus on online education is ultimately short sighted because online courses are rarely (or never) going to provide a first-rate educational experience.

If you think none of this applies to you because you’re not a college student, think again. Meetings, training and presentations in the business environment have moved online far faster than classes have at universities. And they suffer from the exact same kinds of problems.

All the conference calls and videoconferences you sit through, the recorded (and mandatory) sexual harassment training, the Excel classes, are plagued by the same failures that occur when events aren’t held live and in person. People fail to engage and their attention wanders. Speakers can’t take advantage of the physical presence of their audience in order to amuse, charm, scare or cajole them into believing their agenda. Presentations are reduced to bullet points and “facts” instead of dialogue.

Have you ever found yourself on a conference call and so bored out of your mind that you start surfing the web, replying to email or even leaving the room to go get a cup of coffee? I know I have. That’s the kind of failure we’re talking about. How much do you learn in those sessions?

As someone who started teaching at a university more than 20 years ago, back when email accounts were brand new and computers were almost unheard of in classrooms, I may be a little old-fashioned about education. Still, I can’t imagine how online courses can begin to replicate the interactions that great teachers have with their students, or even the the relationships that engaged students have with each other.

Edmundson’s piece seems so spot-on that I’m tempted to just paste the whole thing below. But I’m going to resist, so please click on the link and go read it in it’s entirety. Below are a few of my favorite bits, like when he points out that it’s impossible to recreate online the experience of having a teacher who is able to “read” the room and adjust their material to fit the audience (something I called being “obectively engaged” when I wrote about it before).

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

As Edmundson points out, teaching is a dialogue, a relationship with the audience, not something that can be broadcast to any random group to achieve the desired effect. In fact the nature of recorded presentations, whether they’re college classes, corporate trainings or sales presentations, mean that they are targeted to the broadest possible audience and not tailored for specific needs. Which should be a problem for anyone hoping to get a first-class education online.

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Online classes tend to be reduced from a collaborative effort between the students and their teacher to a collection of facts that they might just as well read from a book on their own. It seems unlikely that anyone is ever going to fondly reflect back on the great online class they took in college when the audience doesn’t get a real chance to participate.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

The big push behind the effort to move so many presentations online, whether they’re university classes or corporate events, is to save money and make them available to more people. But it’s all a waste of time and resources if the result is substandard or no one is paying attention. After teaching at UCSC I spent many years managing the training department at a huge law firm and talked to many trainers and training managers who had invested huge sums of money in online training only to find out that no one actually used it.

Unfortunately, the stakes are different in the business and educational environments. If a meeting turns out to be a waste of time people can adjust and try something new. But if students graduate from (or drop out of) an online program and find they haven’t learned anything useful, they often don’t get another chance.

Yoga Instructor Fired Over Cellphone Ban: Can You Control An Audience?

Photo From SFGate

Maintaining control over an audience can feel a bit like trying to calm the ocean’s waves. Just ask Alice Van Ness, who lost her gig as a yoga instructor at Facebook after admonishing her students to turn off their cell phones and focus on her lesson.

If I had my way I’d insist that there were tiny lockers where people had to leave their electronics outside of each conference room. But that’s not going to happen; people are far too devoted to their devices. Everyone who teaches, trains or speaks in public has to deal with distracted and inattentive audiences, and figuring out how address the issue is a real problem. I personally think that humor works best. Kidding someone about their inability to tear themselves away from their iPhone is a good strategy, but humiliating them is not.

As with most public speaking challenges, it all comes down to being aware of the relationship you have with your audience. I’d be entirely comfortable insisting that an employee of mine turn off their phone, but I’d never do that with a client. I was teaching a class once where the president of the state bar association fell asleep while sitting in the front row. There was no way I was going to embarrass him by drawing attention to the fact that he was starting to gently snore. Luckily, his secretary happened to be sitting next to him. I was able to make eye contact with her and she was able to nudge him without causing a scene. She had the kind of relationship with him where she could do that. I didn’t.

There are different ways of asking someone to put away their phone, and I don’t know how well Van Ness handled the situation. Without having been there it’s impossible to know whether the “look” she says she shot at her student was appropriate or not. This case seems to have received extra attention because Facebook is such an object of fascination and because it’s a little ironic that it was a yoga session that was interrupted. But any time you’re dealing with an audience it’s your job to understand your relationship with them and what’s acceptable in their environment. Understand that there may be serious consequences if you don’t judge them correctly.

Yoga instructor fired over cell phone ban at Facebook

How to Hold a Large Audience’s Attention for a Long Training Session

We recently finished an engagement where we provided a full day of presentation skills training for a group of 80 attending a corporate retreat. In most situations I’d be worried that training so many people for that long was too ambitious, but we had enough lead time to prepare that we thought we could come up with a program that would work. And I love a good challenge.

Happily, it all turned out great. Everyone seemed to have a good time and the client was thrilled with the result. But it wouldn’t have turned out that way without a lot of planning and work.

As a general guideline, I’d normally suggest that 20 or 25 is the maximum number of people you should attempt to train interactively at once. Sessions with more people than that tend to turn into lectures. Bigger audiences make it hard to connect with people, ensure that they’re following along, or keep them from falling asleep. And the longer you ask them to sit there the harder it is to keep their attention

So we knew training a group of 80 was going to take some effort, especially when we learned that we had the final time slot in their three day retreat. People had come in from all over the world and would be looking forward to heading home after sitting in a ballroom forever. What we couldn’t know until right before we started first thing that morning was that everyone had been out drinking until 2:00 the night before.

Whatever your training or presentation topic, having the right material is critical. But so is keeping up the energy level in the room and making sure that the audience is actually paying attention. If they’re not, you might as well just be talking to yourself.

Here are some of the things we did to make it work and that you can use in your own training and presentations:

Having more than one speaker is a huge help when you have a big audience or a long session. It’s easy for a single speaker to lose their energy or enthusiasm and start to drone if they have to deliver a long monologue. Having more than one speaker allows you to present in a conversational way that is much more engaging. It also allows one person to speak while the other hangs back to take a little break, hands out materials, or records ideas from the audience. During exercises having two facilitators lets you cover more of the room to check in with people and make sure that everyone is on track. Don’t just team up with anyone, though. Make sure that you work well together before making any commitments.

Keeping it entertaining allows the audience to forget that they’re being trained. We try to make all of our training fun for the audience, but it’s even more important when you have an audience that’s in danger of getting bored because they’ve been there for a long time. Especially when they were out late the night before. If you can manage to be entertaining while you’re teaching them you can be confident that they’re listening to the material you want them to learn. Be aware of what’s appropriate for each specific audience, though. What’s fun for one group may seem frivolous or even offensive to another.

Covering lots of material keeps training fast-paced and doesn’t allow an audience’s attention to drift. There’s nothing worse than a training session that’s been stretched to fill time because the presenter doesn’t have enough useful material. Schedule your presentations and training programs so you have just enough time to cover your topic and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. You don’t want to completely overwhelm people by throwing too much at them, but giving an audience a lot to think about keeps it interesting. Just make sure that you actually have enough time to cover what’s essential. No matter what, don’t get to the end of your session and find yourself saying “sorry, I don’t have time to go through the last 20 slides I prepared.” They’ll assume that your best material was in there and feel cheated.

Shifting gears often keeps blood flowing to the brain. Never leave your audience just sitting there and listening for an extended period of time and allow them to tune out. For this full day session we did something different every hour, with lots of little interactive pieces, questions and exercises to keep everyone engaged throughout. The first hour was full of exercises to get them involved and get their brains working that morning. The second hour had us looking at video examples and critiquing them. The third was mostly discussion. After lunch we did an extended exercise where everyone had to play an active role, and we used the final hour to wrap everything up with 150 rapid-fire tips for improving presentations.

Giving an audience something to do can be a great way to mix things up. Getting them involved makes them feel like they have a stake in what you’re telling them and makes them much more likely to be persuaded by what you have to say. Whatever you do, don’t just let them sit there and listen. In that situation chances are that they aren’t listening at all.

Keep Your Presentations Brief: William Henry Harrison’s Deadly Boring Inaugural Address

We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(Harrison): I died in thirty days!

The Simpsons‘ “Mediocre Presidents” Song

Despite all the complaints about “death by PowerPoint,” I’ve never heard of a murder  definitively pinned on a boring presentation, though I’d probably love that as a Law and Order plot. There is pretty good evidence of a bad presentation killing its presenter, though. A president, even. And he didn’t need slides or any other technology to do himself in.

William Henry Harrison, aka "Old Tippecanoe"

March 4th marks the anniversary of William Henry Harrison’s fatal inaugural address in 1831. Widely regarded as the worst inaugural speech in history, it was also the longest. He spoke outdoors for more than two hours despite the fact that, at 68, he was the oldest president to date (another record he held until Ronald Reagan came along). It was snowing during the ceremony and Harrison wasn’t wearing a hat or coat. Eventually he caught a cold, then pneumonia and died 32 days later (not 30, as The Simpsons tells us), giving him yet another record–shortest time in office of any president.

You have to wonder if there was still an audience when he finished. Let’s hope they at least had the sense to wear coats, or there may have been other casualties. The speech really is boring. You can find it here, but I wouldn’t  recommend it. The first sentence alone is 99 words long and is probably enough for anyone who isn’t looking to harm themselves:

Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

From there he goes on to talk at length about the Romans.

Don’t make the same mistake as Harrison. Just because people are there to hear you doesn’t mean they want to hear you talk for hours. Remember that everyone’s time is valuable (at least to them) and that they may not be as interested in your topic (Romans, for example) as you are. Be brief, say what you need to, and wrap it up. Your audience will appreciate the discipline.