Author Archives: Rob Norris

The Power of 3

Three FingersHave you ever noticed how many things come in threes? There are three blind mice, three little pigs, three Musketeers, and three Stooges. Donald Duck has three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. Goldilocks meets three bears. King Lear has three daughters. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts. Children learn to stop, drop and roll. They learn their ABCs.

We seem to rely a lot on things that come in threes. We’ve been doing that for a long time. The Romans even used to have a saying, omne trium perfectum: all that is three is perfect.

There’s probably a reason they said so—items grouped in threes tend to stay with us. An attorney once observed that juries can remember as many as three points; if you give them more, they tend to forget them all.  If someone repeats a list of numbers to you, you’re more likely to remember them if you break them down by groups of three as you listen. Try to memorize them in one long sequence and you’ll probably fail.

Items grouped in threes are balanced.  They are ordered. They are simple. That’s why “three” has power. Speakers can use that power to good effect.

Try it. Tell your audience that there are three important things to remember about your subject and hold up three fingers to emphasize the number.  Then shift to one finger to indicate you’re about to describe the first one. If they’re taking notes, they’ll begin writing at that moment. They know three points are easy to nail. But if you tell your audience there are ten important things to remember while spreading all ten fingers out, you’ll get a much less enthusiastic response. There may still be some note takers, but there will be fewer of them and they will not be eager. We dread long lists. We like sets of three.

So consider fashioning your content around the number three. You’ll find your audience retains the three points your present long after your presentation is over.

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What About my Nerves?

A nervous young male holding papers to give a speech and appears to be sweating very bad from his nerves.No one has ever really nailed down the nature of stage fright. It can affect both beginners and veterans. It can put you a little on edge or it can debilitate you. In most cases, it can be handled. In some, it’s not so easy.

The term “stage fright” is said to have originated with Mark Twain, but examples of it go clear back to Moses, who needed his brother, Aaron, to speak for him. Even experienced performers including Lawrence Olivier, Olympia Dukakis, Mariah Carey and Adele have been troubled by it.

So what are we all so afraid of?

There are anthropologists who have suggested a theory. They think it may be about the eyes—all those eyes looking at us at the same time.  Down through human history, the theory goes, everyone looking at you at the same time generally has not been good news. It meant you were about to be hunted/eaten/accused/judged/sentenced. Stage fright prepares you to survive the threat your psyche tells you you’re facing, even though the audience is harmlessly sitting there. All we can see is the judgment we seem ready to undergo, and that can bring some speakers to their knees.

Most of us know the symptoms—the racing heart, the clammy hands, the dry mouth, the nausea . . . and the wish we were anywhere else but here. I don’t really believe people would choose death over public speaking, as so many surveys report, but I do believe stage fright can be a deal breaker.

To combat it, I can offer two tactics and one strategy.

Tactic one is to get all that excess adrenaline out of your system. It’s the adrenaline that’s making your hands shake and your voice quaver. Work it off. Go someplace no one can see you and run in place, do pushups off the basin, shadowbox. At least flex your muscles. You’ll find your hands and voice are steady again, which may help your confidence when you get up to speak.

Tactic two is not to scan the audience when you’re up there facing them. Every time you look at a new face you’ll evaluate how that person feels about you. That will fuel your anxiety. So pick out one, friendly face and talk to that person for awhile, just as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve reached your point, stop and find someone else. Talk to that person for awhile. Keep doing this. You’re more likely to calm down if you do.

The strategy part is simple, but it may take awhile for you to perfect it. The idea is to look at the audience and think, “What do those people need from me? How can I help them?” When you stop worrying about what they think of you and begin worrying about your message, you’re thinking like a speaker. And that’s the best way to calm your nerves.

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Humor on the Podium

It’s hard to get a laugh; askBusiness audience laughing any comedian facing a paying audience.

So should you try for a laugh in your next presentation?

Well, the tired, old-school advice is to open with a joke to relax the audience and get them to like you. Then, the wisdom goes, they’ll be receptive to your message.

Well, humor does do all those things, it’s true. It does relax the audience. It does make them like you, and it does make them more receptive to what you have to say. It does all those things–if they’re actually amused by what you’ve said. If they’re not, you’ve just crippled your talk for nothing.

The problem is that not many jokes are sure-fire. If you tell a joke and they don’t laugh—what then? Do you swallow and go on? Laugh and act as though they loved it? Either way you look pathetic.

Humor has to be real to work. And in the context of a talk, the most reliable humor is based on something that actually happened to you. Self-deprecating stories—where the joke was on you—tend to go over best of all. If that story is also an example of some point you want to make in your talk, that’s even better. Then you have an easy out. If no one laughs, you can just smoothly bridge to the point the story was meant to illustrate.

There’s a ton of advice out there on how to tell a joke well, but unless you’re a comedian with several audiences on which to try your material, I’d stick with this simple rule: laugh at yourself.

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Avoid this Route to Failure

HiRes-minThere is a swift route to failure in presentational speaking. It’s called not knowing your audience.

Before you begin even begin writing, you need to gather some intelligence about your listeners, for they are the key to everything.

It works like this: your audience is now at point A. When your talk is over, you want it to be at point B. Clearly, your strategy must be to take listeners from A to B.

So where’s point A? Until you know that, you can’t begin.

What do you know about your audience generally? The people attending your talk will all be individuals, of course, but they probably have some similarities. Do they all work at the same place? Are they are about the same age, or do they follow the same cause? Maybe they live in the same neighborhood or belong to the same organization. Find out what they have in common so you understand them and relate to them better.

Obviously, what really unites them is the fact that they’ve never heard your talk. That’s why you now need to find how much they know about your subject.

It’s not uncommon to find that knowledge is mixed. If you’re there to talk about global climate change, for example, you may find that some follow the subject closely, while others have been listening to the debate with only half an ear. If so, you may need to bring the laggards up to speed before you hit your main points. Tell the audience that’s what you’re doing so those already in the know don’t lose patience.

Another great advantage to knowing your audience is that you may learn in advance who the decision makers are. Then it’s just a step to learning how they make decisions. Do they respond well to facts? Are they all about the money? Are there causes close to their heart? You may find four or five decision makers in the same meeting, each of whom needs a special approach. Learn that approach and you’re halfway home.

Now, how do they feel about your subject? Is your subject controversial or politically charged?  Is your audience likely to be open to your position? If they’re on your side, it’s often safe to begin with the conclusion you reached and then cite the evidence behind it. If there’s controversy, it may be better to lay out the evidence before revealing your conclusion.

When you prepare a talk, there’s a lot of homework to be done. Your subject aside, the most crucial piece is knowing your audience—not so you can pander to them, but so you can treat them intelligently and with the respect they deserve.

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Where to begin . . .

Blank canvasSo you need to prepare a presentation. If you’re like most people, you probably feel like an art student standing in front of a huge, blank canvas, hesitant to make the first brushstroke.

Well, here’s the trick: you don’t begin with brushstrokes. That comes later. You start by determining something much more basic.

You start by sitting down and thinking what it is you want to accomplish. What difference do you want to make?  What do you want to be true after your presentation that was not true before you delivered it?

That forms your objective, and it’s worth considering with care because your objective forms the foundation of everything that will follow. Hash it out until you’re satisfied. And when you finally are, chances are that the answer will fall into one of three buckets:

I want the audience to become aware of something

I want the audience to accept something

I want the audience to do something

You’ll find that you more or less have to take it in that order. If your audience never heard of the issue, you’ll have to make them aware of it before they will accept it. And until they accept it, they’re not likely to get up and do something about it.

Yes, it’s possible to accomplish all three in the same presentation, but only if it’s a pretty compelling issue. Don’t overreach. Do what seems reasonable in the time you are allotted and save the rest for another time.

So planning your talk doesn’t begin with animated slides any more than a painting begins with paint on canvas. Both begin with a subject.

What’s your subject? What’s your presentation about? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you’ll have walked a mile in the right direction.

[Next post: knowing your audience]
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Be Prepared

Disaster Plan Key Showing Emergency Crisis ProtectionOne of my partners was recently asked to present a workshop during the 2015 Leadership Symposium of a fine national organization.

“Give us your PowerPoint in advance so it will be loaded and ready on conference room equipment,” said the organizers. That’s typically done when there are several programs on the docket; it makes organizational sense. But it can also set up a treacherous situation.

For the laptop they provide may run an earlier edition of PowerPoint, so half of your special effects won’t work. It may run brighter, so your vibrant colors will fade to pastels and your words may disappear completely. Or it may run darker, so contrast disappears along with your message. Their equipment may mess up your aspect ratio, so everything is stretched and your pie charts look like ovals. If a connecting cable is bad, your slides may all appear to be yellow or magenta. The slides may even be re-positioned on the screen, so the audience sees only part of them.

My partner did as directed and sent organizers her PowerPoint in advance—but she also came prepared. And that made all the difference.

When she got up to speak, she found her PowerPoint had not been loaded onto the laptop in the conference room, the one already hooked up to an overhead projector system. The AV technician whose services had been promised was nowhere in sight as the minutes ticked away, and neither was the production assistant whose job it was to track him down.

No slides, no help, and an audience waiting. What do you do?

If you come prepared, you pull out the flash drive you brought along, the one that includes a second copy of your slide presentation. You plug it in to the laptop, fire up the application, and begin your program. You do this without fuss or comment, for your mission isn’t to get vengeance on the negligent, but to do your job and make the presentation you came to give.

The sad truth is that mistakes—often, multiple mistakes—happen at every event. Knowing that, my partner was not only ready with a spare flash drive, but also with her own laptop loaded with yet a third copy of her PowerPoint.  She would have hooked that up in case the organizer’s laptop failed. She was also equipped with several connecting cables of her own to fit a variety of situations.

The best way to prepare for a presentation—and I’ll admit we don’t always have a chance to do this—is to perform  a dry run on the very equipment that will be used in front of your audience. And even then, a wise speaker is prepared with alternate equipment in case something fails.

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Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.

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So we now have the attention spans of goldfish. What’s that mean?

gold fish isolated on white backgroundThe goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.

The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now.  Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.

But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!

  • There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
  • Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
  • And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.

Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.

So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.

Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.

Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.

Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.

Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.

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Beware the Humblebrag

Young cheerful Indian businessman relaxing at swimming pool side (Little Soft Image)You’ve probably heard the term—humblebrag. It’s a rhetorical device that wraps pride in a cloak of false modesty.

A Fortune magazine article recently included several examples, like this Tweet attributed to former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher: “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

So Ari was important enough to fly in Air Force One. Why do I think the complaint about the delayed flight was largely an excuse to remind me of that?

Other examples, easily found on the Internet, include, “Can we start a media campaign to question how I got into Columbia, too? Still scratching my head about how I got accepted & demand answers!” Not a brag, of course.  You’re being self-deprecating. Everyone can see that.

Or this: “It still amazes me that I can be in Prague, London and the Paramus Whole Foods all in one day Travel and technology boggle my mind.” Yes. Great shout-out for travel and technology.

Those who humblebrag consider it a good self-promotion strategy; the sympathy elicited by the complaint or the modesty demonstrated by self-effacing words will provide a good context for the self-promotion—the best of both worlds.

But a Harvard study published last April by Harvard Business School Professors Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and graduate student Ovul Sezer says different.  If you humblebrag—if you deliver a mock-complaint—people see the ulterior motive. They see it clearly. You come off not as accomplished or important, but as conceited and insincere. You’re actually better off with an outright brag, which at least is seen as authentic. Humblebragging is a self-promotion strategy that is guaranteed to backfire.

While a lot of humblebragging occurs on social media, it can also find its way into job interviews and talks, as well. And it does no better there than it does on Tweets.

So when you’re reviewing a talk, your own or anyone else’s, scan it not just for jargon and arcane knowledge, but also for humblebrags. It’s an extra step that can keep the speaker from making an embarrassing  mistake.

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The curse of knowledge

Don't look like thisThe best moment in a game of charades happens for me when time runs out. That’s when the exasperated guy who has been silently cavorting around the living room for three long minutes explosively blurts out the secret phrase in a heartfelt release of emotion. It was this! That gesture meant this! Why didn’t anyone pick up on his signals? They were so obvious!

It’s hard to imagine others don’t see the same things we do. It’s called the curse of knowledge.

And it’s a recognized phenomenon. Economists started talking about it back in 1989. When two parties bargain, the one with more information should do better. But if you know that the used car you’re selling was in an accident you’ll ask less for it even though the buyer who sits across from you has no idea. If you know that the dress you made has a high level of workmanship, you’ll ask more for it, even though it looks like a normal dress to the buyer. Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine yourself—or anyone else—not knowing it. Knowing more than the other guy can distort your point of view, which can work to your disadvantage.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology came up with a game that shows how it works. She asked subjects to tap out on a tabletop the rhythm of a well-known tune. Before the subjects began to tap, they were asked to estimate how many of those listening would be able to identify the tune. On average, tappers estimated that 50% would guess correctly. In actual practice, it was fewer than 3%. That’s because the tapper was running the music full blast in her head as she tapped. To her, the answer was obvious. But the audience, who heard no music at all, hardly had a clue. (Try it. Tap out the Star Spangled Banner. Now tap out the Birthday Song. Challenge a listener to hear any difference.)

Now, when you’ve been working in your field for 20 years—or just a special project for 6 months—you’ve had plenty of time to absorb and internalize all kinds of complex information. Things that were once strange have become familiar to you. You may not even think about them anymore. Steven Pinker, a cognitive neurologist, points out that we build up our knowledge one step at a time. A child knows that when someone exchanges items with someone else, that’s called trading. When it involves exchanging money for an item, that’s called buying. When many buyers and sellers gather, that’s called a market. Many interacting markets comprise an economy. And by now, the child has been left far behind. Central banking, quantitative easing, derivatives—those are terms used up at the next level, where economists live.  Economists understand everything behind those terms because the music of economics runs strongly in their heads. But pity the audience that never learned the tune.

The curse of knowledge is especially dangerous when you present to an audience. I mean, the whole reason you’re up there is that you know more about your topic than anyone else in the room.  So now you have the added task of imagining what it’s like to be back in a state of ignorance. You have to pitch your talk from that less informed point of view.


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