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Author Archives: Rob Norris

Pitching for a chance

Rise of the restTen entrepreneurs, 10 pitches, $100,000 for the best one.  And there were some good ones.

Rise of the Rest with Steve Case is a nationwide effort to encourage entrepreneurs in startup “ecosystems”—emerging markets where high-growth companies can start and scale.  On Oct. 12, Indianapolis was in the spotlight. When You Leave The Room joined some 300 spectators to watch the contestants perform.

Here’s what we saw that was great:

  • Some well-rehearsed speakers who presented smoothly and convincingly
  • Proof positive that “it takes a whole lot of practice to sound spontaneous”
  • Some very simple graphics that made it easy for the audience to understand the concepts
  • One very effective use of an emotional appeal
  • Expert uses of humor to convey messages and build rapport with the audience
  • A video included in one presentation – which actually included audio that could be heard. Hooray!
  • Easy completions within the four-minute time limit by nine out of the ten presenters

Next post: what we heard and saw that was not so great.

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Phoning it in

woman speaker consulting cell phoneHow handy. You have a phone, much more compact than a piece of paper, and much smarter. With this, you can scroll through page after page of notes as you talk, never having to shuffle through cards or paper and never getting anything out of order.

But there’s a big problem with that technique: the audience will hate it. They came to hear you speak, not to watch you read. You squint, you scroll, and you let everyone know how poorly you prepared. Whenever you focus your attention on anything but your audience, you lose a measure of their respect. When they see you looking down at a smart phone, it’s even worse.

Though only about 10 years old, smart phone technology is notorious for cutting its users off from reality. We harshly criticize drivers who consult a phone while behind the wheel. We disparage people who take a phone call during a dinner date. We demand everyone silence their phones in class or when viewing a play. We have been conditioned to despise the sight of anyone gazing at a phone when they are supposed to be looking at us.

I recently saw a speaker do that very thing, using a smart phone as reference for his talk. It was off-putting and did not help his talk in the least.

This is not to say that you can’t prepare a script. As a speaker, you should plan, make your case, plot your stories, and craft language that appeals to the senses. But once you have done that, you should practice it until you no longer need the script.

When you deliver a talk, have nothing on hand other than your talking points, written on 3 x 5 cards that can be drawn discretely from your pocket, briefly glanced at, and put aside as you do what you came to do: make eye contact and speak to those you came to persuade.

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Becoming a better public speaker

Mature businessman using a microphone to talk to his colleagues with focus on the businessman

Don’t think you’re a very strong public speaker? You’ve got lots of company. In a recent Logitech survey of 1,500 office professionals, nearly 64% said they were not strong public speakers, even though they believed their salary would increase if they were.

About 66% of those surveyed think that no one with poor presentation skills could ever be an executive at their company; yet more than half have walked away from a chance to present because they felt they were not good enough.

They avoid public speaking. They avoid it even though they believe they’d benefit if they got better.

Some believe that good public speakers are born that way, so what’s the point of trying? But that’s a lame rationalization. It may be true that some bring more talent to the table than others, but not one of us starts out strong. We get that way with coaching and practice.

Public speaking is a skill like any other. Like learning a foreign language, it seems daunting at first. Then you learn the rudiments and see there are rules. You learn to follow the rules and identify exceptions to those rules. Your vocabulary grows. And, with practice, you put it all together.

So it is with public speaking. The primary rules are these:

  1. Know your subject
  2. Believe what you’re saying
  3. Know how to present

The first two are on you; a speaking coach will be glad to help you with the third.

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Overcoming “um”

Um3Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re in front of an audience and you’re concerned with the next thing you’re going to say. That’s when you shovel in a filler word. You say “um” or “uh” or “so” or some other filler, just as we do in casual conversation. But when you’re speaking to an audience, filler words detract from your talk—they’re uninformative, repetitive, and, before long, irritating.

Psychologists say that we use fillers because we don’t like awkward silences. At some level we’re trying to reassure listeners that we’re sailing toward the next idea and will be there in just a moment.

Practiced speakers don’t do this. They know their subject so well that they step nimbly from idea to idea without hesitation. But even a practiced speaker can get caught on the shoals of “um” if she sails into unknown waters. If you go off subject, you lose your confidence and resort to filler words that betray the fact you’re groping your way along.

How do you get rid of the fillers? It’s not easy. Speaking coaches say this is one of the hardest bad habits to eradicate. But there are techniques that lead you in the right direction:

  • Record yourself. You’ll hear yourself using “um” and other fillers just as the audience does–not as you do, when your mind is elsewhere. This will make you aware of the habit and conscious of the need to overcome it.
  • You may know your subject cold, but have you rehearsed how you will express it? The need to use a filler word feels greatest when you’re grasping for a thought. Don’t grasp. Know what you’re going to say and you’ll feel less pressure to resort to a filler.
  • Inhale when you’ve finished a point. You can’t say “um” when you’re inhaling. Then go directly to your transition: “Now we should move on to . . . .” or “A third point has to do with . . .”
  • Just say nothing. Silence is your ally. It impresses the audience with the importance of what you’ve just said. As one successful speaking coach observed, when you stop talking, they start listening.
  • Make eye contact. You’re less likely to resort to a filler if you’re looking someone in the eye.

As with any speaking technique, practice makes you better. Go to war against the “um,” and don’t give up. Chances are that you will be victorious.

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“I’m sorry, but . . . .”

Businessman and woman standing so shadows look like she's giving him a giftDo you always find yourself apologizing? Even when some would say you’ve done little or nothing to apologize for?

Studies suggest that if you answered “yes,” you’re probably female. That may be a stereotype, but it’s apparently one grounded in reality. Women do indeed apologize more often than men.

But wait. It goes deeper. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science 1) suggests this pattern has nothing to do with egos (i.e., men refuse to apologize because it makes them look like losers; women apologize because they’re not assertive).  Both women and men apologize when they feel an apology is warranted. It’s just that men seem to have a higher threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Research conducted by Carol Kinsey Goman 2) about communication in the workplace noted a consistent strength in female communication: the ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues. Males, she found, are less sensitive to audience reactions. Thus, it may be that women perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people. They are also more likely to use tentative speech forms—qualifiers, hedges, and fillers—when speaking (e.g, “kind of” or “sorry to bother you”) because they are more sensitive to the possible effect of their words.

Males, on the other hand, may have a higher threshold for social pain. They are less likely to apologize because they are less likely to perceive that an offense has been committed. When they use a tentative form it is more likely meant to take the edge off a direct statement (“Perhaps if you turn to page 2 of your text you will see what I mean”).

The point of this is not to admonish either women or men to change their ways—just to be aware of this key difference in communication. When women apologize they are not necessarily being self-effacing, just displaying the empathy they may feel is warranted. When men seem overly blunt and direct it’s not necessarily that they’re trying to be overbearing, just that they see no reason to be less than direct and to-the-point.

As you prepare to address any audience, it’s worthwhile to learn whether it will be exclusively male, exclusively female, or some proportion of the two. That can have a bearing on how you present your information. It can also have a bearing on how well you understand your next workplace interaction with a member of another gender.

 

1) Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive BehaviorPsychological Science, 21(11).

2) Goman, Carol Kinsey (2016). Is your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender? Forbes online:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2016/03/31/is-your-communication-style-dictated-by-your-gender/#3d2b99bfeb9d

 

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Will You Read or Listen?

Male anatomy of human organs in x-ray viewIf you get a handout and read it as the speaker goes on speaking, will you remember anything the speaker has said when you look up again? Is it possible to comprehend the written and the spoken word at the same time?

Most agree that it can be done, but it’s really hard. Try it. This is multitasking on a scale most of us can’t handle.

Why is that? We have no problem listening to someone as we gaze at a picture. Most of us have no problem listening to music as we hold a conversation. But it seems that reading and listening at once is just about impossible.

Neurologists believe that our brain architecture is probably responsible for this. Music is interpreted in the cerebrum. Vision is interpreted over nearly half of the brain. But language has an area all its own. Just above and a little behind your left ear is a special region of the brain called “Wernicke’s area.” Those suffering disease or injury to this area have a hard time understanding anything people say to them—via the written or spoken word, or even via sign language. Although other parts of the brain are apparently involved as well, Wernicke’s area acts like the Grand Central Station of language interpretation. Reading and listening are both sorted out there. So if you try to read during a talk you’ll get an “all circuits are busy” signal, and face a choice—keep listening or shift over to reading mode.

That’s why it’s such a bad idea to give your audience a handout while your talk is underway or to stuff your PowerPoint slides with words. You’re asking your audience to listen and read at the same time. They read much faster than you talk (250 words-per-minute vs. about 125), so they’ll almost always opt to read and be done with the slide before you’ve reached even the third bullet point. In the meantime, you’ve derailed the continuity of your talk.

People have no choice in their brain architecture, so don’t ask them to make one. If you’re delivering a talk, use visuals to emphasize and clarify what you have to say. Then your audience can focus easily and exclusively on you. And that places you in control.

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Getting ’em back

Engage Your AudienceWhat do you do when your audience begins to drift away from you? Of course, no audience will be riveted on every word you speak, but when they start fidgeting, murmuring, and checking their watches, you may be losing them.

And it can get worse. Conversations may begin breaking out. People may grow uncivil, and some may begin to leave.  This most often happens during the question-and-answer session, when things loosen up, and it may lead to a classic fail. Even at that point, though, it’s possible to get back in control.

You do it by leading.

Leadership comes with speaking. When you get up there you become the captain of the ship. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking to the union rank-and-file or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The audience will take its cue from you.

So remind them who’s in charge, but don’t do it by raising your voice or demanding attention. Be quiet. If you are behind a podium, step away from it. Walk toward the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Do this calmly and deliberately. Say nothing. Gaze at them. You’ve now broken the pattern of speaking, which is unexpected and therefore attention-getting. Chances are that everyone will fall silent and every eye will find its way to you to see what you are about to do. They will suddenly feel like children in a classroom.

This moment—and you can only invoke it once—is now yours. Use it wisely. Remind the audience why your message is important to them. Tell them a story. Have something to say, and then keep the initiative by continuing to talk as you return to the podium.

The important thing is not to relinquish command. Audiences can mutiny, just as ship’s crews can, but they don’t do so lightly, and they won’t do so if you remember who you are and why you are there—and if the audience clearly sees that you are in charge and have something valuable to say.

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Pitch vs. Presentation Decks

Cropped shot of a mature businessman working at his deskhttp://195.154.178.81/DATA/i_collage/pi/shoots/806194.jpgIt was more than 20 years ago that I first heard a set of presentation slides called a “deck.” Back in the ‘90s we stacked up the transparent acetate sheets used for presentation like a deck of cards. People today still call a slide presentation a “deck,” even though the slides are digital.  But when they talk about a “pitch deck” vs. a “presentation deck,” what’s the distinction there?

Although the terminology isn’t really settled, many today say a “pitch deck” is the set of slides a startup company sends to potential investors via email. The pitch deck, which can be read at leisure, gives the investor a chance to assess the startup and decide whether to go ahead and grant a meeting. The “presentation deck” is what you show when you get the meeting.

The two are very different.

A pitch deck must be self-explanatory. Because you won’t be there to take the audience through it, it must stand on its own. Even though the pitch deck may be a PowerPoint, Keynote, or some other commercial slide management application, readers can pause and re-read any part of it they want to, proceeding at their own pace and absorbing information at their own rate. You’re free to fill a pitch deck with written words and detailed information because it will be acting in the role of an introductory report.

But a presentation deck (also known as a demo-day presentation) should, by contrast, be chiefly visual. Since a human being will be standing there moving the slides along while speaking, the presentation deck should clarify and emphasize the spoken word. Never choke a presentation deck with extensive writing, complex spreadsheets, detailed screenshots, or involved charts. If you do, you’ll likely kill the presentation.

The point is that the slides we prepare aren’t always meant to be projected onto a screen. They may be used as a kind of written report. Before you create them, consider how you intend them to be viewed: individually, like the man above is doing; or by means of a speaker and a projected image. That goes a long way toward determining your content and slide design.

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The public address system

Slider 1How much should you know about sound systems? There’s plenty to be learned, but maybe the first lesson is how they affect your delivery.

The kind of microphone you use—clip-on, hand-held, or podium-mounted—makes a big difference in your speaking dynamics.

A podium mic like this one would be my last choice—it ties you to one spot and forces you to swivel your head around the mic as you address different parts of the audience. It’s better than nothing, but it restricts your movement. I’d ask for something different.

If you’ll be using a hand-held mic, that’s better, because you control its position. Even so, you’ll want to practice with it. Some mics may be held a foot from your mouth. Others you practically have to “eat” to get amplification. In either case, you need to be conscious of where it’s pointed. If you swivel your head but don’t move the mic, then your voice will fade away and listeners will miss something. If you inadvertently point the mic at a sound speaker, the resulting feedback will disrupt your talk.

Lavalier or clip-on mics are probably best—once positioned, they stay positioned and give you hands-free movement. On the other hand, they generally require some cord pulling and adjusting to get you hooked up. A battery pack is required to transmit the signal, and this pack must be hooked onto a belt or a waist band. Most men don’t have to worry about that, but if you’re a woman, you’d better not plan to appear in a sheath dress. In either case, know how to switch the pack off when you leave the stage so you don’t inadvertently advertise a private conversation or—God forbid—a stop in the restroom.

Whatever you use, a sound check is mandatory. And when you are asked to do the mic check, just talk; don’t blow into the mic to see if it’s on. That’s an amateur move that can damage the mic and make enemies of the sound professionals you’re trying to work with.

It all goes back to one of the fundamental principles of speaking: rehearsal. Insist on rehearsing your talk with the very equipment you’ll be using in front of the audience, including the sound system. I’ve seen panel discussions ruined because of feedback squeals caused by the shortsighted refusal to rehearse. Those in charge tried changing the positions of the speakers, turning off one mic after another, and moving chairs around. When it was over, no one remembered a thing that was said. Don’t let that happen to you—rehearse!

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Looking for work? Read this.

Business man making a presentation in front of whiteboard. Business executive delivering a presentation to his colleagues during meeting or in-house business training, explaining business plans.Although it was published just over a year ago, Job Outlook 2016, published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, has something important to say to job seekers—especially those just out of school.

It’s this: know how to communicate verbally, inside and outside the organization. That ranks ahead of technical knowledge, the ability to plan, the ability to work on a team, the ability to analyze quantitative data—even above the ability to solve problems. The survey of 201 NACE employers asked that each skill on a list of 10 skills be given a value between 1 and 5. Verbal communication skills edged out every other category.

Now how can that be? Presentation Skills Expert Ellen Finkelstein suggests there are two reasons:

  • Communication is important for most of the other skills employers seek
  • Employers don’t see good verbal skills in their candidates today

“Believe me,” says Finkelstein, “if they saw great verbal communication skills they’d be worrying about something else.”

And that spells opportunity for the job seeker. If you master the skills of communication, you will have the edge on most other candidates. You will differentiate yourself. If you know how to make effective presentations—including presenting yourself effectively during in an interview—you will, in short, be distinctive.

Remember, marketers have for years practiced the art and science known as “positioning.” They determine where their brand exists in customers’ minds in comparison with competing brands. The goal of positioning is to make your brand distinctive—to make sure it’s nowhere close to anyone else’s brand.

So if most job candidates are lumped in the smart-but-can’t-communicate category, you need to be in the smart-and-can-communicate category.

You won’t have much company—and that’s the goal.

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