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Here’s my vision of hell.

I’m sitting through a presentation with 50 slides in it. Actually, make it 80 slides. I’m pinching myself to stay awake. It ticks all the boxes. Lots of bullet points? Tick. Sub-bullet points? Tick. Font size 12? Tick. No discernable pattern or storyline? Tick. Monotone delivery? Tick. Clip Art? Tick. Distracting animation? Tick. No possibility for audience interaction? Tick. Presenter faced back to the audience like some Tridentine priest? Tick. I apologise if you feel sick now.

It should be legislated against. Motivational speaker Jay H. Lehr has an answer: “Failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning”. (He has many other things to say about presentations here)

There is no law that says that presentations must be boring, but somehow many of us have been sucked into this morass of bad PowerPoint. I am as guilty as anyone, having inflicted the most awful presentation on college students in Dublin some years back. Complex consultancy diagrams, impenetrable business jargon, rambling storyline, the lot. Some of the students fell asleep in front of me. It was terrible. I still shudder to think about it.

I learned from the experience. I had no choice. I now use a fairly simple technique that seems to work, so here goes..

First of all, I start by taking everything away. I delete everything from the page – titles, bullet points, page numbers, everything. When I am left with a completely blank page, I think about what I want to say and then I see if I can summarise it in as few words as possible.

Then, I think about a simple picture or a photo (not clip art, please, please not clip art) that conveys this message. And that’s pretty much the essence of it – a picture and a few words. There are some great shareable pictures available on the Internet via photo sharing sites.

I find that if I give the audience strong visual cues that reinforce my message, then it helps to make the presentations more interesting and memorable. It really is that simple.

The thing about presentations is that they are not meant to be used as a crutch. They are not meant to help the presenter remember his lines. Instead, they are meant to enhance and clarify the messages that the speaker wants to convey. They can also help add variety and leave the audience with an image they are unlikely to forget quickly. Presentation slides are there for the benefit of the people you are speaking to, not you.

That’s the basic principle. You can elaborate from there as much as you want. You can use video, graphics, appropriate animation, or physical props to emphasise your points. You can even turn off the presentation at times during your talk to allow the audience interact with you alone. There’s no law that says that you must be a slave to slideware.

You are limited only by your imagination by what you can do. Just don’t make it boring. Some of the audience members might be packing stones.

I’ve just posted this article to some local newspapers as part of my job as PRO for our local Toastmasters club, but I thought I would post it here also, as it’s a subject that interests me greatly. Please let me know what you think. Would you have anything to add?

One of the most important life skills is the ability to start and hold a conversation with new people. Conversation is an art that requires tact, understanding and self-knowledge.

When starting out on a conversation with strangers it usually works to think small. Small-talk on topics such as the weather, the immediate surroundings, a recent news or sporting event or a pleasant comment about what the other person is wearing can be a very effective way of beginning a dialogue between two people. Small talk is particularly good for two reasons – it will help you both start from a common, neutral position and it will also give you an indication if the other person is interested in a conversation at all. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not want to talk and that’s OK. A flat response to an innocuous topic is signal enough to end the conversation and move on.

Things that get most people talking are topics to do with themselves. You can use the FORE technique – Family, Occupation, Recreation and Education. How are the kids doing? What project are you working on? What sports are you interested in? Where did you go to school? All these questions may open doors to the other person’s life, making it easy for them to talk with ease.

A useful approach in conversations is to use open ended questions. Questions starting with “Did”, “Are”, “Can” or “Is” are fine in a court of law, but might not move the conversation forward as they may only elicit “yes” and “no” responses. Instead, you should ask open questions that require the other person to elaborate. “What”, “How”, “When” and “Why” type questions are often much more appropriate if you want to get a conversation moving.

When conversing with strangers it is good practice to keep the conversation positive and to avoid negativity as much as possible. Criticism or sarcasm, whether direct or implied, can have an immediate effect of putting others on the defensive and closing them down. If your aim is to get the other person talking, but you disagree with what they have just said, you are often better off staying quiet or perhaps adding a different perspective, than flat out contradicting them.

Finally and most importantly, you need to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Repeating, paraphrasing, building on what the other person has said or adding an anecdote or a bit of humour helps to make people feel at ease and keep the conversation flowing.

You might note from this article that the art of a good conversationalist is to focus on the interests, opinions and experiences of the other person, not you. People will often leave with a good impression of you when they feel they have been truly listened to and not subjected to a monologue about your thoughts and attitudes. Economy can sometimes be the key to a successful conversation.

The following is a story that I wrote for my club’s Tall Tales Competition.

—————————————————————————-

TICK TOCK TICK TOCK

Bobby went over to the grandfather clock.

He looked up at it. It seemed to climb into the distance. He had many years to go before he would be able to look straight into the strange dial with all its pointers and numbers.

BING BONG, BING BONG..

The clock struck five o’clock. He giggled with glee and jumped for joy. He loved this tune, as it reverberated around the house.

BING BONG, BING…

No BONG ever came.

He waited.

Just silence.

Everything around him had gone completely, utterly, quiet.

Bobby shuffled into the kitchen. Not a sound. No hum from the fridge. No flies buzzing around the ceiling light. He was about to leave when suddenly he noticed the kitchen sink.

A drop of water had left the tap, but instead of splattering against the sink, there it was, suspended in mid air. A tiny orb, shining in the sunlight. Bobby stood there a while. Fascinated. Taking it in from all angles. Eventually he reached out and allowed it to splash gently against his fingers. A tiny droplet ran from his hand, landing quietly against the bottom of the sink.

He jumped up to look out the kitchen window.

He could see trees outside. They were motionless. Then he saw the bird.

Bobby yelped with glee and rushed outside. There it was, wings outstretched, feet off the ground. It had just taken off. It was absolutely rigid. Levitating, as if by magic, just centimetres above the ground. He gazed into the small bird’s eye. He admired the beautiful feathers – a multicoloured hologram, green, blue, red.

He reached out and touched one tail feather. FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP it suddenly came to life and lifted itself into the sky, shrieking all the while. Bobby never let it out of his sight until it was a small dot against the blue background.

Silence returned. Not a sound, not a movement.

Stillness.

Something else had been looking at the bird. Just a short distance away, Bobby noticed his cat. Its eyes were focused, its back was coiled, its legs were bent. It was about to pounce on a creature that was not there any more. But this cat remained utterly inert. It looked like an animal in that Museum that mum and dad brought him to last year. Very gently he set his hand down on the animals back. MIAAAOOW! The cat took fright and launched itself at the nearest tree – disappearing into the branches.

Bobby was confused and delighted at the same time. He walked out into the front garden.

There he saw a wonderful thing! The sprinkler! Everywhere he looked, thousands of little frozen droplets filled the air. It was a magnificent crystal display. A glittering chandelier. He looked on the scene in awe. As he gazed, his foot stepped on the hosepipe. SSS SSS SSS SSS! He yelped with glee! The sprinkler suddenly burst into life and Bobby was splattered with myriads of tiny balls of moving water.

Running away he glanced over the front gate. On the road there was a car. A car he knew well. He launched himself over the gate and ran towards it. Inside the car was his father. But his father looked different. He had a vacant expression on his face, not the usual big wide smile that greeted him every time they came in contact. And he too was rigid, like a wax dummy. The car was not moving and made no noise.

Bobby tried to get his dad’s attention. He ran to the front of the car, gesticulating and waving.

No response.

Bobby was getting frustrated. Then an idea formed in his mind.

What if he touched the car?

Maybe, then, that would move too.

With one small hand, he reached out to touch the front bumper of the car.

BONG. BING BONG.

A single sound. From inside the house. Just barely noticeable above the sound of the sprinkler.

The Grandfather Clock.

Bobby looked at his dad. He looked back towards the house.

He made a decision.

He ran back into the house, towards the clock. His dad would have to wait a little bit longer.

Last night, I attended the Division A finals of the Toastmasters International Speech and Evaluation Competition (quite a mouthful – sorry!). I was the winner from our local area evaluation contest. (This means that I had to evaluate another speech – to find the strong points and areas of recommendation, then deliver a mini-speech on this to the audience. Preparation time: 5 minutes. Speech duration: about 3 minutes).

The speaker this time was a very humorous one – actually he was as close to a stand-up comedian as I ever have heard in Toastmasters. A big goofy smile on his face, impeccable timing and great use of words. Short, three or four word phrases that had the audience on the floor with laughter. The subject of his speech was how he did a marriage proposal for a bachelor farmer up the country. Quite a hoot, let me tell you.

It was actually quite a difficult speech to evaluate. “How to improve that?” I kept asking myself. Anyway, I managed some (rather weak) things to say, but the way I delivered my message was good, even if I say so myself. I felt quite calm and confident up there in front of the audience. It was a lot different to my previous evaluation contest.

I won a very nice glass trophy for my efforts and I’m chuffed. Not having been very sporty in my youth, this is something rather novel for me.

The next step would have been a trip to Portsmouth to attend the Division Finals (UK and Ireland Finals) – which is a big honour. Unfortunately  I’m unable to go, as my sister is getting married in Toronto on the same day.

I got a few strange glances from people when I told them I couldn’t go.  To be honest, I never expected that I would win. This was the first time I had done so well and the experience of getting so far and speaking in front of such a large group meant more to me than trying to win the competition outright. It was a decision I thought I would never have to make.

Anyway, there’s always next year. I know I can do it now, so perhaps the chance will come again. Next time I’ll make sure my calendar is cleared, though!

Hands up who isn’t familiar with these problems! Real nuggets of wisdom here…

Life After Death by PowerPoint

Our Toastmasters club ran a poetry and prose evening tonight and for the first time ever, I recited some of my poems in public. I got a particularly good reception to my poem He lies there still. We had about 12 contributors tonight. A few guests spoke, including two visitors who have never been to a Toastmasters meeting before. One guest even told us that she wanted to join the club through the medium of poetry!

For me, the comment of the night was “I couldn’t write poetry. Poetry is far too profound. Nobody should ever underestimate the depths of my shallowness”.

The club has been thriving this year. We have signed up our 7th new member (more than the previous 3 years combined) and all our meetings have been varied and interesting. We made a key decision last year to move to a new venue. We moved from the formal surroundings of the local hotel to the more intimate setting of a pub and this has played a part in making the club more accessible to ordinary people.

I’m really enjoying it this year. Compared to this time last year, it’s like a different world.

I gave a speech last night on the subject of my twins. It was part of a Toastmasters humorous speech competition, and I came second (of two speakers). I had put in some effort into getting the speech ready, so coming second was a bit of a slap in the face. Mind you, I don’t blame the guy who won, and neither do I blame the judges. It’s the realisation that I had a false view of my own abilities that grates a little bit. While the subject I chose was both interesting, relevant and quite funny, my delivery didn’t get too many laughs.

After the meeting I pretty much resolved not to enter a humorous speech competition again, only to find that my colleague with the winning speech can’t make the next round, and so I will have to give the same speech again at another, bigger, meeting. Oh the joys….

I have started to read Robert Harris’s “Imperium”. It concerns the life of Cicero, the great Roman orator who lived during the “interesting times” at the end of the Roman Republic. A memorable quote, allegedly from his teacher, was that only three things counted in public speaking: delivery, delivery and delivery. This is quite a challenging observation, because delivery is by far the toughest part of public speaking. It requires practice, control of nerves, attention to detail and control of hand and body movements.

I think I learned a lesson last night. I don’t want to let myself down in the next speech, so I probably need to practice some more and do what I can to make the funny bits funnier. Easier said than done, I think.

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