Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A great day for rhetoric

I don’t normally use this blog for opinion, but whatever your politics, the new Prime Minister should improve the rhetoric in Australia’s public life.

The tone of any enterprise comes from the top, and good government needs good language. Why? Because good expression takes clear thinking. If you are clear about what you say you must know what you’re doing. Speak up, speak well and people will follow you. The reverse is also true - don't speak well and somebody else may get your job.

The former PM's speaking record began to go south on Day 0, with his acceptance speech. As David Marr puts it – he claimed his victory and killed the party. Supporters wanted a rallying call, something to get behind. ‘Great days! Dawn of a new era!’ or at least Meryl-Streep-gets-an-Oscar... ‘Thank you thank you thank you!’ They were desperate to exult, but the joy just never came.

That night was prophetic. With Kevin Rudd there never would be a speech that sang, never a speech that even really held our attention. He spoke with no feeling. Never mind his policies, it was Kevin Rudd’s lecturing, his insipidity, his carefulness, the monotony of his voice and immobility of his expression that were the real turnoff. As a speaker, he was dull.

Rudd’s best effort was the apology to the stolen generations, and ironically, the speech he made announcing that he’d been ‘asked’ to hold a leadership ballot. On both occasions we sensed emotion. He was sorry, he was angry. We could relate.

Aristotle named 'Ethos, Pathos and Logos' as the three pillars of public speaking.
Modernize them and you have ‘credibility, connection and content’. In public life you need all three.

Kevin Rudd was short on ethos (credibility) because he lacked pathos (connection). As PM his credibility should have been assured, but his connection to us was false and this undermined him. Think of the pseudo-ocker sauce bottle, the ‘we’ve got to zip!’ exit line.…These remarks were inauthentic. They made us cringe. Rudd may have been long on content (logos) but that couldn’t save him because he didn’t rate well on the other two scales.

Contrast Rudd with Julia Gillard. Even in this honeymoon period her speechmaking has caused comment, not because of what she says but because of the voice she says it in. Her timbre is low and resonant, her pace is measured, her demeanour collected. It’s her accent some people are commenting on. True, it is not an accent we hear much in public life. True, her pronunciation of some vowels is pure Strine. But an accent is no indicator of the calibre of a person. It won’t undermine her, because Prime Minister Gillard is being herself.

Gillard is clear about what she stands for (ethos). Her ability to connect appears natural (pathos). People feel a real presence, she’s authentic. Aristotle said people are more likely to do what we want if they are well disposed towards us. Gillard’s Ethos and Pathos are a great head start for a public figure.

The 7.30 Report’s Kerry O’Brien had been challenging in his first night interview with her. He signed off saying ‘An historic day’, and she countered with ‘A great day for redheads’. He cracked up. It was funny because he has red hair too, deft because it deflected both the gender and the knife-in-the-back issue (implicit in his compliment), and smart because it showed she’s not afraid to have fun. In Aristotle’s terms she’d positioned herself perfectly. Everybody was feeling well disposed toward her.

For more on Aristotle see

Read a discussion of why language matters in government.

Watch Kerry laugh his red head off.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Strength training for Speakers.

Five steps to starting (or restarting) your speaking career

Like playing the piano or maintaining your golf handicap, it’s regular practice that keeps your speaking and presentation skills sharp. If you’re starting out, or you’ve had a break and you want to get back to it, here are a few steps to help you get going.

1. Play it safe. You need to gain confidence and get used to the self-exposure of presenting. At first, speak on occasions where the consequences of your talk are not vital to your career, your relationships, or your ego.

2. Keep it short. Begin with a ‘talkette’ or ‘mini-prez’. Maybe there’s a family event where a few words and a toast are needed. You could make an announcement or deliver a report at a team meeting. Or why not be a functionary? Offer to take the chair at a meeting, introduce a guest, or lead the Q&A at a conference.

3. Set specific goals. Any opportunity to speak is a chance to develop your skills. So make a plan. For example: ‘Today I will make a comment which shows I know my audience’s interests’, ‘ At this meeting I will make eye contact with five people‘, and - most important - ‘I will prepare my points in advance’. I tell my clients that one point is powerful, two create contrast, three give a feeling of well-rounded completeness.

When you’re ready for the real thing:

4. Rehearse in front of an audience. The idea is to simulate the pressure of a real event – much like the dress rehearsal of a play. You can do it for the folks – but family may be too easy on you (or too hard!), so invite the neighbours in. Many workplaces have ‘lunch and learn’, a semi-formal opportunity for a presentation and discussion. Do one. Use the response of your colleagues to refine your presentation for future use. I once rehearsed a presentation for a women’s education conference over lunch, and as a result of my colleagues comments I redid the whole thing - to much better effect. If you have a youth audience handy they’re always up for it. Teens and young people love the role reversal when an adult asks for their feedback – and they certainly give it to you straight!

5. Go public. If you’re the kind who does karaoke or theatre sports or improv – go for it! It’s a wonderful way of learning to command an audience’s attention. You could attend a public lecture or shareholders meeting, take the mike and ask that VIP a question. You could suggest a debate or speech competition to address a major issue at your next corporate retreat (I know of a company who got execs engaged in a discussion of a major corporate threat by formally debating it) - and put yourself on the bill of course. It’s invaluable ‘strength training’ for speakers.

Check out a whole bag of great suggestions at The Eloquent Woman (one of my favourite blogs, and thanks to Denise Graveline for including my post in her blog carnival).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Presentation Skills Courses!

Speaking Skills for Scientists and Technical Experts

Your career and your organization’s success are built on your knowhow. People are hungry for your help–but experts can be hard to understand. The passion and intellect that made you an expert can make you a great public speaker as well. Come along to discover how.

Presentation Skills for University Students

Is there a buzz in the room when you present? No? Want to know the secret?
For many students, speaking in public is a nightmare. Learn how to be confident, calm and collected. Discover tricks to win your audience over. Be remembered the next time you speak!

How to write winning proposals

Are you confident you know the best way to write bids, tenders, applications and proposals? In this course you’ll discover what to do to and what not to do. You’ll learn to plan and scope. You'll master the art of persuasion, build compelling arguments, learn reader-centred writing and produce documents people want to read. You’ll win the work, get the grant or have the green light for your next project!

Professional Policy Writing Workshop
Organisations need good operational policies. The good news is that the art of writing policy is not too mysterious to master. With lots of practical tips and how-to’s, this one day course will equip you to write policy documents that impress. Learn to say what you mean in professional language, and compile documents that look good, read well and are user-friendly.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Too Much Information !!!

No I’m not talking about your parents’ sex life or the details of your dental dramas.

I’m talking about how to avoid the ‘TMI’ ….which is THE most common of all public speaking mistakes.

Speeches and presentations are either intended mainly to inform, persuade, or entertain. In fact, you need a combination of the three styles for the presentation to be both memorable and effective. The trouble is that this is not always understood.

The common speaker’s mistake is to focus too much on what they know, and not enough on presenting that knowledge in ways that the audience will engage with and remember.

Take a look at this venn diagram.

Whether you’ve found a cure for cancer, or have a new economic model that will rescue Greece, the art of presenting effectively requires mixing and mingling all three modes. If you don’t, your audience will wind up with information overload – and that’s going to start an epidemic of mind-wandering, day dreaming and going to sleep.

The art of being a great presenter is to balance load between the three channels so that you get the results you want.

When we smile we feel good – give your audience that experience. Entertain them with humour, stories and illustrative anecdotes so they are relaxed and receptive.

Persuade them by being emotionally engaging - your own passion and conviction will be infectious. And they’ll want to agree with you.

Inform them in ways they can make use of. Information doesn’t all have to be delivered verbally, it can also be provided in writing, as a report or supplementary paper. Choose only the most useful points of information to talk about and make it clear what you want them to DO as a result of what they’ve heard. That gives your presentation a purpose.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nuke those nerves

No matter who the workshop is for, when I ask participants what brought them along, the answer is always along the lines of ‘I want to be more confident’, ‘I need to manage my nerves’, ‘public speaking terrifies me’.

When I probe a bit I usually find that everybody suffers from more or less the same set of symptoms: shaking, sweating, blushing, forgetting words, being tongue tied, tummy turbulence, butterflies, a racing pulse, the ‘white light’…. Twice I have seen speakers actually pass out.

So why is it so scary? The answer is that deep down we are fearful of making ourselves look foolish. We dread the judgement of others. And we still have that primitive fight-or-flight mechanism that tells us we’re in danger when we’re exposed on stage with the lights in our eyes, and a bunch of other critters have us in their sights.

No matter that it’s normal to feel this way – if it remains a disturbing experience you won’t want to do it. But if you don’t do it you may miss out on some other things that you DO want – career advancement for example, or to be able to say lovely things at your daughter’s 21st.

There is a basic set of strategies for managing this. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has been beneficial to people if there’s a really great fear. Deep breathing just before speaking helps to calm the mind. Exercise can be a good way of working off some anxiety and adrenalin before the event. When you’re on stage try fixing an audience member with a stare – talking to one person is easier than talking to many, and after a minute or so your terror will abate. (Then look at a new person so the first one doesn’t feel victimized.)

The very best way to deal with nerves is to be well prepared and thoroughly rehearsed. Why else do performers practice in private and rehearse in the venue before the show? Why do the military do reconnaissance before mounting an operation? Because when you are doing an activity you’re familiar with you are more confident and more competent.

Ok, we’re not in a war zone, but public speaking is a live gig. You should give it the same kind of preparation you would if you were an actor or a musician. Don’t throw it together the night before and expect it to work. Do allow enough time to think and plan and prepare and revise and rehearse. Be very familiar with your material and with the place you’ll be presenting it. Then, as you do a few more presentations and speeches, over time you’ll find that you get used to it. And ultimately you’ll love that adrenalin rush and discover that speaking in public can actually be a joy.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

How to get a politician to pay attention...

Give them something they want!

It’s election year in Australia, and the lines of lobbyists are lengthening.

Why? Because getting a politician to support your interests in the leadup may get you an election promise. Then if they win, you’re going to benefit.

Let’s assume you are not a party insider with hands on all the right levers. You’re a community or business group with an issue that deserves attention. You need to get the politician’s ear, and to cut through the competition.

Let’s say step one is in the bag - you’ve set up a meeting.

What are you going to do with it?

Talking to a politician is concentrated communication.

You can speed past a billboard ad and get the gist in 2 seconds right? The politician is like you behind the wheel, travelling at speed. Don’t overwhelm.

If you have 15 minutes it will likely turn into 5 – or possibly 2. It’s an ‘elevator pitch’. It has to be succinct, memorable and relevant. Be clear, bold, and simple.

All the usual rules for public speaking apply.

You need
one clear message that connects everything you say.
• an attention getting opening,
stories to make it live,
• just enough data to convince
• a goal – or takeaway call-to action.

Your ‘ask’ has to work for them. Say enough to interest and entice. Show that both of you will benefit if s/he takes up your idea. Demonstrate that you know what’s important to them and that your project is right in line.

Paperwork and leave-behinds

Your personal presentation is just one type of communication. You should round it with what you put down on paper. This is the place for backup: the denser, more fact-laden information. It’s also where summary arguments and contact information can go.

The politician may not read this, but their staffers often will. Make it easy for them. Three pages max, strong headings, bullet points and white space will all aid readability. And of course, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Geeks who can Speak

It is always a pleasure to find an inspiring Australian female speaker. And it's always a find to come across a scientist who communicates well. Here's two-for-one. A fantastic speaker who is young,female,and a scientist.

I was privileged recently to see award winning researcher Nicole Kuepper receive a grant to continue her inspiring work into photovoltaics. Kuepper's aim is to bring low cost energy to the developing world. She's class act in many ways - and she can really speak well.

Kueppper is a 23 year old PhD student at the University of New South Wales who - as well as having formidable intelligence and an outstanding track record, has great charm, an unassuming manner, the ability to simplify the complex and command an audience's attention. She's a natural presenter.

She's already been acclaimed at the Australian Museum's Eureka awards, featured on UNSW's speed learning channel, spoken at Poptech, and been marked out as a Nobel Laureate of the future. (No pressure Nicole). Her acceptance speech was flawless - simple, arresting, moving. A mix of light hearted ("I'm a nerd"), plus serious messages and simple explanations that made her research make sense to us all. She so impressed me that I asked how she did it (the public speaking, not the research!). She said she's figured out what works, and that when she's finished her PhD she's happy to think about using her speaking skills to inspire other young women on the path of scientific research. She's one to watch.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lights, Mics and Lecterns

For people who don't do presentations frequently,being on stage is often the most daunting part of the process. Why? We are not used to being all alone in an open space with many eyes upon us. To paraphrase Scot Berkun (read his 'Confessions of a Public Speaker' for lots of good stories), it's the mammal in us which knows instinctively that this is a situation we should get out of. Hence the nerves and the feeling of dread.

Add to this any unfamiliarity with the setup and you have a recipe for things going awry. Nothing throws you off more than the unexpected. If you put some forethought into it, know your 'stagecraft', and are comfortable with the technology, you'll be fine.

Stagecraft? That means making it all flow smoothly. Just as actor's moves are blocked out and planned, you need to know where you're going and how to get there.

Always, always (and that means always) check the venue before you start. Make sure the room setup is conducive to what you have to say. Work out how you'll get on and off the stage. Decide whether to wait in view of the audience while you're being introduced. Figure out where your control panel is and where your notes, glasses, water, pointer etc are going to be while you speak. Plan your eye contact route so you connect to everyone in the room.

Remember that stage lighting will blind you, and the audience may even be in darkness. If you can't happily speak without seeing your audience (and who can?)ask for the house lights to go up.

A microphone, if it's on a stalk or at the lectern, needs to be about 30cms from your mouth. Tall people should try not to crouch over it, and shorties should not stretch. Let the audience wait while you adjust it to the right height - it will make everybody more comfortable if the speaker isn't straining.

The lectern is the safe haven for most speakers. You can hide behind it, but once your initial discomfort has passed you should not necessarily stay there. Keeping your presentation lively is really important, and walking away from the lectern out into the open on a particularly interesting or important point is a good way to do that. You can return to it when you're ready. Just make sure you're wearing a lapel mike!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can I be a public thpeaker if I lithp?

I have from time to time, coached clients with speech disfluencies. 'This is good!' you say? 'Well, maybe' I say. Some of these people have been unaware of their mispronunciations, and some have been aware, but didn't care. Their problems ranged from a pretty pronounced lisp, to habitually transposing sounds - saying 'd' or 'v' instead of 'th' for example. It's a sensitive issue to raise with someone - but having done so, I found these clients did not want to do anything about the disfluency.

To me as an oral presentations coach, this was surprising. After all, my job is to bring clarity to their communications. But for the client it was beside the point. They wanted to work on all the other stuff - what to say and how to say it, but the disfluency was staying.

I accept that this is a cultural construct, but if a person wants to develop their professional presence, I want to know how they can do that if they lisp, or say 'v' not 't'? Rightly or wrongly, in this culture, those sounds say 'baby talk'. To be serious about sounding professional (ie mature, intelligent, capable) they need to be reduced, or better still, overcome. I have an associate who is a speech pathologist and I refer people on - but only if they agree to it. Am I old fashioned?

Speak up girls!

We’re hearing once again about the imbalance between women and men on company Boards. A while back, the Sydney Morning Herald broke the news that female MPs ask fewer questions than males. I think the two things are connected. Granted it's a complex cocktail but after thirty years of affirmative action you've got to ask 'what's going on?'

My observation is that women underestimate the verbal powers they need for leadership. There's evidence that if you speak well you can do well, but for complex 'Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-not' reasons, women are not getting onto it. When the time comes and they're positioned to step up, they squib it. Then they're (unfairly) overlooked next time round.

I spend a lot of time with young people, school debaters and public speakers, and it seems to me that in primary school the genders are about even, but somewhere round year 10, girls start to de-select themselves. Older girls don’t even put themselves forward. If you look at the list of winners of major speaking competitions in the last thirty years it's 2:1 to blokes. Winners of the Sydney Morning Herald Plain English Speaking Award include several names now familiar in public life, but only ten out of all 32 winners are female.

For some reason, as women, we just count ourselves out. Maybe it’s easier than dealing with the difficulties we’ll face.

However, I hope that things are set to change. The Australian Schools Debating Team for 2010 was all girls - a first, and as individuals they ranked 1-4 in the World Schools debating championships last February. In last year's Rep debating competition the all-girls teams didn't lose once. They trounced the boys and the co-ed teams. These impressive young females are working their way to the forefront of a traditionlly male domain. They should be encouraged and respected for their guts as well as their ability.

The silly thing is, acquiring solid speaking skills ought to be a no-brainer. Never mind being a Director of a company or getting into Parliament. I know of no-one who can get through LIFE without verbal skills. Not while you get a job by going for an interview, or get a loan by talking to your bank manager, or have to talk your way through meetings, phone calls and the thousands of daily transactions that are salt and pepper to our existence. But I know plenty of people who are paralysed by the fear of making a fool of themselves if they speak at a meeting, give or accept congratulations, take the leadership role they’re offered, or deliver a conference paper on a subject they may be an expert on. Many of these people are female.

Oral presentations are now part of the school curriculum, thankfully. It’s a very small start to what really needs to be a wholesale change. Let’s hope the all-girl Australian debating team signals a genuine shift: the emergence of an authoritative, powerful but distinctly female voice that we’ll hear much more of in public life in future.