Monday, April 16, 2012

I no longer blog here

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Presenting Data and Statistics

Statistics are the heart and soul of any data communication.
Who has not seen a slide like this one in a presentation? We know we hate them but we just keep on producing them. When the numbers are the primary thing you need to communicate to your audience that does not mean the numbers should overwhelm.
When communicating your data to others, there are a few important tips to remember:
• Don’t overload your audience with statistics. Tell them the story that the numbers reveal, don’t dwell on the numbers themselves. Give them just enough to get the point across. You can always give them additional data if they ask for it.
• Choose meaningful data. When narrowing down your data choices, try to choose the ones that show the magnitude of the problem, data that provide context or meaning, and data that are new or noteworthy.
• Avoid statistical terminology when there are simpler ways to explain results. Most people have low maths literacy, even the highly educated. Unless you’re communicating to scientists, the term “statistically significant” is rarely meaningful. Instead, say “more likely” or “less likely.”
• Avoid data terms like p-value, confidence limit, correlation, regression, and chi square. Instead, try to say things like number, count, percent, rate, and average. These are data terms almost anyone can understand.
• As much as possible, try to turn numbers into words. For example, instead of presenting an odds ratio as 2.0, say that smoking doubles the risk of having a heart attack. Even with relatively simple data, like percents, it can be useful to turn the data into words. Instead of saying "25% of children do not wear seatbelts," say "one out of every four children does not wear a seatbelt." This is a more clear and helpful way of saying the same thing.
Slides and Handouts
In a presentation you have three channels of communication available to you. One is you, the speaker and your words, the second is the slides and the third is the handout. Most statistically heavy presentations fail because the presenter has put too much data in the slides and forgotten that a handout document is a much better vehicle for carrying this sort of detailed information. Put a few pages on the seats before you start, if you really need to refer to some details. Keep the slides for simple, 'glanceable'images.
Good graphs
Graphs are a fantastic shortcut for presenting data. Edward Tufte is the guru of presenting statistical information visually. He coined the term 'Chartjunk' and his mantra is " Minimise the non data ink" . If you are using a pie chart on a slide keep it to 6 slices. A table should have only 4 lines. Colour scales need to be intuitive - not random or decorative, they carry a meaning, and don't use 3D effects and other decorative fillers and frills unless they serce a communicative purpose.

This post is adapted from

Friday, March 9, 2012

Making the best use of your voice

The mechanics

In an earlier post I talked about why making best use of your voice is important. Your voice is part of your anatomy, so let’s take a tour of the physical apparatus which produces it. Greatly oversimplified, there are four systems at work.

1. Respiration
Inside your chest you have a couple of balloons. The lungs. They imbibe and release the air which is the ‘fuel’ for the whole vocal operation. Mostly we are unconscious of our breathing and that’s the way it should be. Normal speaking uses only tiny amounts of air, and you spontaneously take in what you need – no one in good health ever runs out of breath in the middle of talking. Some pastimes however (swimming is one, playing a wind instrument, singing, acting, and public speaking are others), require you to control your breath consciously. ‘Diaphragmatic breathing’ is how we do this. It also happens to be the way we breathe when we are not breathing consciously, but most people, when asked to take a deep breath and hold it, forget the natural, unconscious breathing that keeps them alive every day. Instead they gulp in a big mouthful of air and hoist their shoulders up around their earlobes, flattening their middles and actually limiting their intake in the process. The term Diaphragmatic Breathing should discourage you from doing this.

To breathe this way all you have to do is leave your shoulders down low and breathe so that your waistline inflates with the intake.

Try it: put your hands on your ribs with your fingertips just touching. Breathe in through the mouth (shoulders down) and the fingertips will part. Breathe out and they’ll come back together. That’s all there is to it. Try holding the sides of your abdomen out while you exhale, just let the front of your belly collapse like an empty balloon as the air leaves you. If it’s hard for you, try it lying down with your knees bent. Now that no brain-power is being spent on helping you stay upright, the easy free flow of breath should come more easily.

You can add a degree of difficulty by breathing in and holding the breath, then letting it out deliberately slowly – by counting aloud for example, or reciting the days of the week or the months of the year at a steady rate. Keep the flow of air steady and see how long you can last. This helps you learn to control the flow of air, and to be aware of your breathing.

Breath control is very important for reading aloud, or speaking loudly. It ‘s essential for managing nerves, and quieting the mind. Although you may not being able to calm your emotions directly, taking control of your breathing is a helpful surrogate.

2. Vibration

Next stop on the tour is the voicebox, or larynx. This is where sound is made, and where the pitch and most of the volume are created. It’s inside your throat, just behind your Adams Apple. Here we find The Vocal Folds (formerly known as chords). Go online and search to have a look at some in operation, they are entertaining. The vocal folds are part of a muscle in the larynx. Two mucousy, stretchy membranes cross your throat in a straight line from front to back. At rest they lie like two sides of a triangle. They are joined together at one end and apart at the other.

To make a sound you send air up from your lungs, the vocal folds snap together, and their thin mucous coating vibrates (more than 100 times a second!) as the air passes through. Loudness and pitch depend on their tightness and the air pressure you’ve applied. Your voice sounds low with thick, long, loose folds, or high with thin, short, tight folds. Just exactly like a guitar or violin string. Volume is the result of strong air pressure on strongly closed vocal folds. Once again, the entire performance takes place unconsciously.

Things can go awry in the larynx, resulting in an unclear sound. It’s possible to tighten up and put a lot of pressure on your throat, and use more than just the vocal folds when you make a sound. It distorts the voice when this happens. Some people do it habitually. If you shouted yourself hoarse at a football match you probably did this. With normal aging the folds become stiffer, like the rest of the body. They can’t close as easily or stand the tension they once could. This is why an elderly person may sound rough and have trouble raising their voice.

3. Resonance
Now you have produced a sound, the next part of the process can be thought of as the amplifier.

Your skull is a box to protect your brain, but it’s full of little holes and tunnels, crevices and cavities, especially around your face. These spaces make wonderful echo chambers where your voice bounces around and reverberates and amplifies itself. Sound intensified in these space develops acoustic overtones (like ‘sub sounds’) which make it warm and interesting. A voice which resonates well is strong and carries, but it sounds balanced, natural - not pushed.

Look at some leading opera singers and note their physical similarities. Most have wide faces with prominent cheekbones, which make large cavities for a voice to resound in. Think of Dame Joan Sutherland’s huge voice, substantial torso and big face with prominent cheekbones. Plenty of space for reverberation! She famously said of herself “if you want to launch a big rocket you need a big launchpad”.

To feel some of your resonators, say ‘mmmmm’ softly, and try to make your lips buzz, when you do. Also try saying ‘ng’ and ‘n’. Lay your fingers gently under your eyes and on the side of your nose and feel the buzz in your sinuses. These are sounds that use nasal resonance. Now hum softly down at a low pitch, lay your hand on your chest and see if you can detect the buzz there as your chest cavity joins in and resonates.

Mostly we want an open sound, not a twangy nasal or deep chesty one. For this we need to use the front of the face or ‘mask’. This is known as ‘ ‘forward resonance’ and it focuses the voice to the centre front, where the easiest and freest resonance can be achieved.

Try this old fashioned elocution exercise, repeating ‘How now brown cow’ with a very ‘proper’ rounded vowel sound. This helps you feel proper forward resonance. Try it a few times, then pinch your nose as you speak. If you’re resonating perfectly, holding your nose will make little difference. Now say it pretending you are the Queen, or try using an exaggerated cockney or very broad Australian accent, and notice the feeling. Repeat this version with your nose pinched – you should get an altogether different result. With your nasal resonance cut off you may not even be able to make a sound at all.

If you must speak in a large space, resonance is vital – unless there’s a microphone. Try imaging the sound coming out of your mouth and physically sending it to the far walls. It’s resonance which enables you to project your voice. You don’t need to force anything, you just need to send it forward. Try calling out “Don’t walk!”, or “Hurry Up!”. Don’t strain your throat. Send the sound into the centre front of your face. With adequate resonance it will penetrate easily.

4. Articulation
Some sounds, like sighs, sobs, and gasps, need no articulation. For speech however, we need to take a raw sound and shape it and finish it off, using the lips, teeth, tongue, palate and jaw. These organs mould and shape sounds much as a potter moulds clay. They all work together to vary the shape of the mouth, and in this way we create the vowels and consonants which are the building blocks of speech.

Look in a mirror and slowly utter the sounds ‘ay’ ‘ee ‘ ah’ ‘oh’ and ‘oo’ without moving anything but your lips and tongue. See what I mean? Your jaw may have opened and closed a bit, but your lips changed shape and your tongue was pretty busy, it curled and lifted or laid down flat - that’s how you varied the sound.

Now lets bring in the lips and teeth to make some consonants. Try saying ‘Lay Lee Lah Lo’ and ‘Loo’; or ‘May Me Mah Mo’ and ‘Moo….’ Or try ‘jog, nog, fetch, glitch, scream’, strength’….any words will do so long as you notice how the vowels and consonants are shaped by your organs of articulation as you speak them.

Traditional tongue twisters are great for helping develop good articulation. Try saying some of these over and over:

Red leather yellow leather
Boom baba boom baba boom baba boom
They are coming with the drumming of a million pinions humming
Thirty-three thieves thrilled the throng on Thursday.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Microphones: a beginner's guide


Mics come in several types. The first clips to your lapel or collar. It has a battery pack, which you wear at your waistband, A lapel mike lets you speak normally, with the same amount of volume and vocal projection you would use to address a small group. The amplifier will do the rest.

A mic can be attached to a stand or podium. You don’t need to eat it. It’s designed to pick your voice up from up to 30cms away so don’t hunch over it, lean into it or alter your body shape to get your mouth closer to it. You should speak OVER these mikes, not into them.

You might have a hand held mic. The rules are the same as for mics on a stand. Keep it 30cms away from your mouth. Holding something in front of your face like this may feel awkward, but it mustn’t sag down to waist height – at least not if you want to be heard. If you have notes you need to be able to hold them in the other hand, and out to the side.

With this type of microphone, popping can be a problem. Popping is caused when "plosives" like 'p','t', and 'd' are spoken and the air from your mouth hits the mic. To prevent popping, position the mic about a hand’s width away and slightly below your mouth so that the air from your mouth does not hit the microphone. Blowing in any microphone (including your mobile phone) can damage it, and really hurts the ears of the listener. You may have experienced this if you try to use your mobile phone outside in the wind.

Mics can screech and whoop and give you feedback that completely ruins the experience for you and those listening to you. If you have rehearsed in advance, you should have a feel for how the mic is best positioned to avoid this. If something does go wrong during your presentation, wait for the rescue party – the IT person or the sound engineer. They can sort it out. Then calmly start again. If time is pressing or it can’t be fixed for any reason, switch it off, step aside, and just speak up.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Shape of Things - How to Structure your Speech

All about structure
The way you arrange your material is one of your most important tools for making an impact. Obviously, speeches need a beginning, a middle and an end. But how exactly should you put those pieces together? What goes where?
A ‘pattern of arrangement’ is a way of ordering the contents of your speech. It provides the listener with a sense of shape and direction, and in this way it assists people to pay attention and stay engaged. Choosing the right pattern is a strategic decision. Your strategy will be influenced by what you want to achieve, the audience’s expectations, the occasion, how much time you have, and your own personal preferences.
Believe it or not, you already know many of these patterns without even realising it.

Patterns of arrangement

Screenwriters talk about ‘the story arc’. It’s the plot architecture, and it’s why you know that the chase scene means the end of the movie is near, or that if the hero is in a cave with his enemy, the rescue party is just about to turn up. If a car salesperson has taken you for a test drive and you’re back in the showroom you know you’ll be asked to buy. If it’s the end of the lesson and you’re a school student you can be sure that ‘Homework’ will be the last thing your teacher mentions. A candidate for election may have knocked your door and had a chat but you know that ‘Vote for Me’ is part of the script. And It doesn’t surprise us that a 30 second TV ad can move us through a cycle of excitement, engagement and interest, to the point where we might actually spend money.

In all these cases there’s a familiar framework underlying the presentation. We sense the tension building and releasing, driving toward a climax or conclusion which we unconsciously know to be there. We recognise the pattern of arrangement.

A speech must do the same thing. A logical, coherent structure , linked by transitional phrases and signposts takes the listener easily from one section the next, maintaining sense and interest as it does so.
There are lots of different patterns available. Always choose what suits your material and the audience best.
Some options include:
• Chronological (past/present/future)
• Cause /effect (or the reverse, - effect/cause)
• Problem/solution
• ‘On the one hand…on the other hand…. My view is….
• “Lessons learned “ Often using a narrative or story followed by a personal reflection or parable.
4 parts = whole

Regardless of the overall pattern of arrangement, there are some basic essentials which any speech must have. Like my grandmothers ‘foundation garments’, these four elements are hidden from view, but they give a speech the shape and support it needs.
1. Introduction: this makes the audience listen, establishes a connection, announces your topic. It gives them an idea of your approach and tone, and foreshadows what you’ll be covering.
You must develop an arresting opening. The audience’s attention is highest at the start so get it then, it and keep it. Here is where you can use surprising facts, rhetorical questions, unexpected information (‘Hey Ma – wait’ll you hear THIS!’) an anecdote, joke, or story. Because it is so important, the opening may well be one of the last things you decide on and polish up.
2. Background: this gives them any information they need to understand the issue, explains why it’s important and for whom, and it states your position. You can use reflection, observation or discussion. What’s the significance? Why does this matter? What does it tell us? What should we do?
3. Development; here is where you can let rip. Explore the issue as much as you need to, and illustrate it using examples and evidence. This is where you prove your case. An audience visibly sits up and pays attention when they here the words ‘for example…’ so make sure you use plenty of them. People LOVE stories. If you are persuading the audience or arguing for or against something you should include some pre-emptive rebuttal of what your opposition might say.
4. Conclusion: this draws everything together in a summary and finalises it in a simple, memorable way. It’s the ‘call to action’ point, where you can state what you want them to do.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tune in to your Audience

The most important thing about any communication is to adjust what you say and how you say it, so it will please your audience. Tuning in to them is your number one priority. There is simply no point in presenting to anyone about anything unless you’ve tailored it to their needs, interests, and approach to the issue. Countless examples of miscommunication occur every day in all sorts of settings because the person speaking and the person listening are not on the same wavelength.
The first step of any talk or presentation must be to consider who they are, what they’re wanting, and how you can connect. Look for ways in which you can make them feel you and they are similar. You want them to feel well disposed towards you so they are receptive to your message. People will pay attention for their reasons – not yours. Even if there are very few connections, this is an important clue to how you should approach the task, as it tells you that you need to work hard to create the links that are essential for your message to get through.
You must also decide how you want to come across, from their point of view. Your style should suit the occasion but must also be a ‘true you’. The character you commit to showing should be real. Authenticity is most important in convincing an audience to go along with you. People have great bulls***t detectors. You may choose to be ‘authoritative’, or ‘appealing’, ‘intelligent’, ‘friendly’, ‘reliable’ - and so on. If you are the life of any party feel free to be amusing and ebullient. If you are thoughtful and introspective, by all means reveal this in what you say and how you speak. If you are everybody’s pal, popular and a team player, let that show.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stagecraft - How to get on and off in style

Getting on and off
Getting on and off is part of the performance. Sometimes you need to arrive early and look at the venue to figure out how you’ll do this. Ask someone in charge to assist you if necessary. Where do you enter and exit? Where do you sit/stand etc. Do you have a lectern to use? Is there a water glass available? Are you going to use a microphone?

If you’re going up stairs to get on stage, do it with your body erect and your head up as much as possible (don’t fall!). Don’t run, or take two stairs at a time, especially at the end when you’re glad it’s all over. Don’t rush, just move purposefully. For some reason, a downward flight of stairs manages to make even the most mature and sensible person skip.

Being seated properly in public means knees are together, ankles (not knees) can be crossed, and there’s a pleasant and interested expression on your face. Stay still. Don’t fidget or put your hands to your face or hair. Don’t communicate in any way with someone in the audience, and if you communicate with anyone on stage remember everyone can see you. Don’t look at your shoes, it makes you look bored.

“Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in they eye”… is the perfect mantra for poise on the podium. Be confident, look at your audience and smile at them when you arrive at your speaking position and are about to start.
When there’s applause, or laughter, pause and wait for it to subside before you continue.

Don’t walk away the second you finish. Count ‘one two’ silently and then make your exit. Eyes up, steady pace.
If you have to move around on stage you should stay out of the way of others. For example, if you get an award, shake hands with the giver and move out of the way for the next person to come forward. If you are the MC, you need to move in and out of position unobtrusively.

Sometimes, you need to have a photo taken. Stay collected and stand still, smile for the photographer, wait, then move on.
If you have papers with you, work out how you’ll keep them tidy and not drop them. A folder you can hold in one hand, or clipboard are both good ideas. You need to hold this away from your face so you don’t hide yourself from the audience.