Two lessons from a missed flight

I am writing this post on the last day of a great trip to Singapore and Thailand. My wife and I came here to visit our oldest daughter who is working at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for the summer. It has been a wonderful experience in many ways.

But this post is not about Singapore or Thailand, per se. Rather, it is about the eventful journey that we had to get here. I have written posts in the past about lessons learned at airports, from departure boards to arriving early. This post is another in that vein. (If you fly enough, you learn a thing or two!)

Stormy weather

Our outbound journey on was supposed to be straightforward: (1) Lufthansa from Geneva to Frankfurt; (2) Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Singapore. Simple. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas.

Lightning strikes over Frankfurt meant that our flight (and many others to Frankfurt) were held back and thus could not take off on time. And so, for an hour or so, we had to wait in Geneva which was enough time to ensure that we would miss our connecting flight.

Fun in Frankfurt

When we landed in Frankfurt, it was already 10:30 p.m. We made our way to the Lufthansa ticketing counter, trusting that our checked luggage would manage on its own. There, we were sucked into a vortex of humanity with 500 to 600 people who had also missed their connecting flights. We had to queue down a long hall and wait our turn to be admitted to another room.

Waiting around, waiting around.

Waiting around, waiting around.

After 45 minutes, we were admitted to that room. Upon entry, we received a numbered ticket. When your number was called, you went to the counter, got a voucher for a taxi and hotel, and tried to book yourself a new flight. We got ticket number 667. At the time, they were serving ticket number 542. And things were not moving quickly. So we hunkered down for a long wait. Fortunately there was enough space and plenty of seating. Lufthansa even brought out drinks and snacks for us.

As the minutes ticked by, I began to get concerned that by the time we reached the counter, the best options for a new flight to Singapore would be gone and that our trip would be delayed even longer. As I tried to figure out a way to ensure we got on the next possible flight out, inspiration struck.

A bright idea

My computer was in my carry-on luggage. I have Skype on my computer. Frankfurt Airport has WiFi.  Computer + Skype + WiFi = Connection with the outside world.

Past midnight and still 44 people ahead of us.

Past midnight and 44 more to go.

As people continued to mill about near the ticket counters, I walked to the far end of the room which was empty. I went online, found the Lufthansa customer service number and dialled. And so, while most people were waiting around, I worked with the Lufthansa agent on the phone to arrange two seats for Julie and me on the earliest possible flight on Singapore Airlines. I got the confirmation number and we could relax as we waited for the hotel voucher.

A done deal

Making that call turned out to be a wise move for another reason. Well before our number was called, they announced that because it was late and things were moving too slowly, the agents at the counter would only be giving hotel vouchers and not arranging new flights. People were told that they would have to return to the airport in the morning to make their bookings. Imagine going to bed not knowing which flight you would be on! People were understandably upset.

Not exactly a beach chair.

Not exactly a beach chair.

But when we got to the counter, I told the agent that I did not need a new booking and explained what I had done. I simply asked if he could print our boarding passes and handed him the confirmation number. He looked at the number, looked at his computer, looked back at the number and then looked at me and said, “That was a pretty smart thing to do.” We left with our boarding passes in hand.

How it all ended

By around 1:30 a.m., we finally managed to get to the hotel. The next day we had to get up early, fly to Zurich and then switch to the Singapore Airlines flight. Because of a late cancellation, we managed to get bulk head seats and had a smooth trip over. In the end, we arrived in Singapore only 14 hours or so later than originally planned.

Lessons learned

Missing your flight being stuck in an airport and dealing is not fun. Nobody wanted to be there that night. Not us, not the other passengers, not the Lufthansa staff who had to sort everything out. But if you fly enough, these things will happen. There is no point griping about it. You will only compound the unpleasantness of the experience.

If you speak in public often enough, things can and will go wrong every now and then. It is all part of the deal. The room is not set up properly; the equipment doesn’t work; the organizers have neglected to tell you about some major scheduling or logistical matter; or any one of hundred other things. To be blunt about it: Shit happens.

As a speaker, you must remain calm and professional. You are “on stage” the moment you arrive at the speaking venue. Being angry or acting petulant sends a poor signal. At the airport in Frankfurt, I witnessed two types of behaviour passengers: those who did their best to take things in stride and those who didn’t. Fortunately, there were far more people in the first category.

It is easy to be pleasant and engaging and up when everything is going your way. The real test of a person’s character comes when things are turned upside down.

IMG_0465

A happy ending.

The second lesson is to look for creative solutions to the problem. As noted above, using the computer to rebook the flight instead of waiting turned out to be a great move. When things go wrong with your presentation, look for alternative solutions. Better yet, have back-up plans in place. For example, if you have a presentation for which you need the computer and a beamer, develop a way to present the same material using a flip chart or white board. This post contains a number of tips to consider when things go wrong. And this checklist should come in handy when preparing for your presentation.

In the end, we had a wonderful trip. We spent quality time with our daughter, met many great people and saw some beautiful and interesting sites. I also managed to make a number of business connections and even gave some short, impromptu speeches at a couple of Toastmasters meetings.

The next time something goes wrong with your presentation, remember to stay calm and look for creative solutions. Not bad advice for life either.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 202) – Michael H. Mescon

Michael H. Mescon - American Businessman, Author and Speaker

Michael H. Mescon – American Businessman, Author and Speaker

“The best way to conquer stage fright is to know what you are talking about.”

— Michael H. Mescon

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Arnold Schwarzenegger and little victories

I am currently in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall. It is a fascinating read that offers great insights into the focus, drive and work ethic of the man. Schwarzenegger is not perfect, and he has made his share of mistakes, but his achievements in bodybuilding, real estate, business, acting, politics and philanthropy are admirable and inspiring. (Plus I have a special fondness for the Terminator.)

Working my way through the book, I have been pausing now and then to watch videos online that relate in some way to the section I am reading. In so doing, I came across the interview below. It’s focused on Schwarzenegger’s approach to bodybuilding, but what really caught my attention was when he talked about how he became a more confident public speaker. (The video should start at the relevant part but if it doesn’t, you can skip ahead to 34:57.)

The interviewer asks Schwarzenegger what he would say to someone who wanted to start weight training but was not very confident. Arnold begins by talking about his bodybuilding experience and how the principle he learned in that domain can be applied to anything. From 37:48 to 40:16, he talks about his public speaking experience.

The lesson is clear. The more public speaking you do, the more confidence you’ll have. It’s as simple as that. Think about a skill at which you’ve become adept: playing an instrument; driving a car; becoming a professional in your chosen field. Anything. Now think back to the first time you performed in public, or the first time you drove in traffic, or the first time you met with a client. How confident were you then and how confident are you now? For most of us, the difference will be like night and day.

So start building your public speaking confidence the way you would start building your muscles. In the gym, you would begin with light weights. For speaking, you can begin by giving a short presentation to your colleagues at work or by joining Toastmasters or by offering a toast at a dinner with friends. Another great way is to follow the advice of my friend and fellow speaker, Conor Neill. In this short video, Conor offers a simple, but effective tip that you can use to start speaking as soon as you finish this post.

Little victories add up and that is what ultimately gives you confidence.

– Arnold Schwarzenegger

From there, work your way up. Take on more challenging speaking assignments at work or in your community. Speak in front of larger audiences. Speak on different topics with which you have experience.

In my trainings, I have my clients give short but challenging speeches in front of their colleagues. They groan when I give them the topics, but they always come through with a good (or great) speech. When they are finished, I can see the feeling of accomplishment in their faces. And even though it was only a two- or three-minute speech, that’s two or three more minutes of public speaking experience under their belt. It all adds up.

So take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advice and look for “little victories” in your public speaking. You’ll continue to improve, your audiences will appreciate you, and they might even ask you to speak again. If they do, just say, “I’ll be back.”

Posted in Book Review, Psychology of Public Speaking | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

A brain hack for your next presentation

The brain is a fascinating organ, the most complex in a person’s body. As much as we have learned about the brain in recent decades, there are still so many things that we do not yet understand. I have been spending some time, lately, filling my brain with more information about the brain, both through podcasts and books.

brain-rules-cover-loresFor an engaging and practical read, I highly recommend Brain Rules by John Medina. In his book, Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, shares his knowledge about the brain and offers concrete advice on how to use this knowledge to make fundamental changes in our lives.

One of the many insights that caught my attention is significant for presentations. According to Medina, peer-reviewed studies show that in a typical presentation or lecture, a speaker will start to lose the audience’s attention after around 10 minutes. Nobody is quite sure why this happens, but it means that for the average one-hour presentation, most people have tuned out after 15 minutes.

Medina argues that the brain needs regular breaks if it is to be able to digest new information efficiently. What the brain does not need is to be force fed more information and details. To counteract this propensity of the brain to start tuning out after 10 minutes, Medina, who lectures at the University of Washington School of Medicine, developed the following approach when delivering his lectures.

Divide the presentation into 10-minute segments. Start with a general concept and then provide the details.

During these 10 minutes, Medina covers a single core concept. The concept is “always large, always general, always filled with ‘gist,’ and always explainable in one minute.” He uses the other nine minutes to provide the details of the single general concept.

Medina says that the brain processes meaning before detail. This is why it is so important to give audiences the gist of what we are saying. And, as we get into the details, it is equally important that we clearly explain the relationship between the details and the key concept.

According to Medina, the brain likes hierarchy. “Starting with general concepts naturally leads to explaining information in a hierarchical fashion.” Covering the general idea first, leads to a noticeable improvement in understanding.

Even with this 1o-minute chunking approach, it is important that a presenter explain the outline of the presentation at the beginning of the presentation so that the audience knows where they are going. In public speaking parlance, we call this “signposting”. As the presentation unfolds, the presenter should make sure that the audience understands how each new concept fits into the overall presentation.

At the 10-minute mark, give the audience something that is both relevant and compelling to recharge their brains.

Medina says that after 10 minutes, the audience’s attention is getting ready to plummet and speakers need to do something. But they should not give more information of the same type; nor should they be given a completely irrelevant cue that breaks their train of thought, and makes the information seem “disjointed, unorganized, and patronizing”. Audiences need something so compelling that they “blast through the 10-minute barrier and move on to new ground—something that triggers an orienting response toward the speaker and captures executive functions, allowing efficient learning.”

To do this, Medina sets “hooks” that follow three principles:

1) The hook has to trigger an emotion. It could be fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity—any emotion worked well. In the past, I have written about the power of emotion to help audiences remember information.

2) The hook has to be relevant. It cannot be just any anecdote or a lame joke; otherwise, at best, the presentation will seem unstructured and at worst, the audience might feel that you are wasting their time. But an entertaining hook that is relevant to the content will engage an audience and keep them focused. Of course, telling relevant, compelling stories is one of the best ways to keep the audience’s attention. For more on stories, see here, here and here.

3) The hook must go between the 10-minute modules. Median says that it can be at the end of a module, reviewing what has been covered, or it can be at the beginning of a module, looking forward. I believe that a good hook should also include a bridge from the idea just covered to the one about to be discussed.

Medina says that when he started placing hooks in his lectures, he immediately noticed changes in the attitudes of the audience members. They were still interested at the end of the first 10 minutes, and they could maintain their attention for another 10 minutes, as long as another hook was given at the end. Furthermore, Medina also found that halfway through a lecture, after he had used two or three hooks, he could skip the fourth and fifth hooks and still keep his audiences fully engaged. He has found this to be true for audiences since he began teaching in 1994.

Medina says that he has been able to “win the battle for [his students’] attention in 10-minute increments.” Not only has he won his students’ attention; he has also won the Hoechst Marion Roussel Teacher of the Year award. I leave the final words to him:

Does that mean my model has harnessed the timing and power of emotional salience in human learning? That teachers and business professionals everywhere should drop whatever they are doing and incorporate its key features? I have no idea, but it would make sense to find out. The brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things, and I am as sick of boring presentations as you are.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 201) – Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894 - 1991) American Dancer and Choreographer

Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) American Dancer and Choreographer

“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

— Martha Graham

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