“The Power of Public Speaking”: An Interview

Dukascopy Bank is a Swiss online bank that provides trading services, particularly in the foreign exchange marketplace. One of its subsidiaries, Dukascopy TV, broadcasts taped and live shows about business matters on the Internet.

Recently, Dukascopy invited me to stop by their studio and give a short interview on “The Power of Public Speaking”. Here’s the result:

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 185) – Phil Mickelson

Phil Mickelson – American Professional Golfer

“It has been a lot of work. I still feel as though there is a lot of value in the proper preparation.”

— Phil Mickelson

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Design your presentation like Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was not just a master of art; he was a master of human nature. Of all the things that we can learn from him, one of the most important is the power of simplicity. 

“Art,” said Picasso, “is the elimination of the unnecessary.” And he actively practiced what he preached. Perhaps the finest example of his artistic and philosophical approach can be seen in his series entitled, simply, Bull.

From 5 December 1945 to 17 January 1946, Picasso worked on 11 lithographs, the images of which can be seen in the slideshow below. (Hover the mouse over the image and use the arrow keys to find Plate 1. The slideshow runs automatically but you can pause any time.)

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According to Artyfactory, a website offering free art and design lessons,

In this series of images, all pulled from a single stone, Picasso visually dissects the image of a bull to discover its essential presence through a progressive analysis of its form. Each plate is a successive stage in an investigation to find the absolute ‘spirit’ of the beast.

So what does this have to do with public speaking? One of the main reasons why so many presentations fail to hit their mark is because the speaker tries to cover too much in too little time. The result is often information overload and an unclear message. Picasso’s series of lithographs offers us a guideline when it comes to designing our presentations.

In Plate No. 1, Picasso starts with a clear, realistic image of a bull. Similarly, when you create a presentation, you should have a clear idea of what your message is and how you are going to support it (stories, examples, exercises, images, data, etc.).

In Plate No. 2, Picasso beefs up the bull—so to speak—adding much more detail. In the same vein, you should collect as many ideas as possible that could go into your presentation. Be creative; be flexible. The beginning of process is not the time for editing; it is the time for generating as many ideas as possible.

In Plate No. 3, Picasso begins to take away from the bull. We can see the first lines that begin to dissect the bull into its component parts such as the rump, the flank and the chuck. Likewise, once you have all your ideas for your presentation on the table, you have to prioritize them and organize them, thus giving structure to the presentation.

In Plates No. 4 to 8, Picasso progressively simplifies the bull, making it smaller and more compact. In the same way, you should endeavour to simplify your presentations and remove any unnecessary material. If your subject is complex, acknowledge the complexity at the outset of your presentation but only focus your talk on a few key aspects. One way to get rid of the urge to add more and more to a presentation is to prepared a detailed handout for the audience. In this way, it will be easier for them to follow your presentation and they can always read more details later.

BullsIn Plates No. 9 to 11, Picasso continues to remove lines and details until he “captures the absolute essence of the creature in as concise an image as possible.” And this should be the objective of every presenter. Of course, you cannot remove everything from your presentation and some topics are inherently more complex than others. As Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.”

But never underestimate the power of simplicity in a presentation.

There is another benefit to distilling a presentation down to its essence. If you find that your allotted time has been reduced, you will have a much easier time of adjusting in the moment and knowing what to cut and what to keep. For other helpful ideas in this regard, have a look at this post.

A final observation. Notice how, as the bull evolves, Picasso plays with the head and the tail. Think of this as adjusting your opening and conclusion, two critical moments in any presentation. As you work on your presentation, think of ways in which to craft a compelling opening and a powerful conclusion.

So there you have it. The next time you have to prepare a presentation, spare a thought for Picasso and his lithographs. It takes courage to move away from complexity and toward simplicity. But if you do, you’ll end up with a leaner, cleaner, more effective presentation.

And that’s no bull. 

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A Lesson from Germany’s World Cup Victory

One month, 64 games and 171 goals, including Mario Götze’s brilliant effort in the dying minutes of extra time to give Germany a 1-0 win over Argentina and a World Championship. The World Cup tournament, hosted by Brazil, was thrilling from start to finish, and captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the games played over the past 32 days. But one in particular struck me as relevant for public speakers. It has to do with the long path that the Germans took en route to the championship.

Today, Germany is, without question, a football powerhouse. But reaching the pinnacle of the sport did not happen overnight. In fact, before last night, it had been 24 years since Germany had won the World Cup (as West Germany in 1990 when, coincidentally, they also beat Argentina 1-0). And, as recently as 2000 and 2004, Germany failed to get past the group stage at the European Championships. So how did the Germans do it?

Quite simply, they worked at it. In the early 2000’s, Germany began a long-term programme to find and develop football talent and build the strongest national team possible. Years of effort began to pay dividends. From 2006 to 2012, Germany made it to at least the semi-finals in the previous two World Cups and European Championships. But the ultimate prize still eluded them. Until last night.

When asked about Germany’s success, here’s what their coach, Joachim Löw said:

We’ve been together now for 55 days, but this is a project we started 10 years ago. So this is the result of many years’ work, beginning with Jürgen Klinsmann [his predecessor as coach].

Our biggest strength is that we improved throughout the years even if we missed taking that last step at tournaments. We knew we would take that last step and believed in it and today it finally worked.

We were disappointed at times in the past but today there was only a deserved winner. This team. It is a special moment because it was not just these days here but the entire 10 years.

It has been a long journey with setbacks and disappointments. It has been countless hours of focus and practice and adjustment and more practice. It has been a steady and consistent process. It has been a decade of work. And it has all been worth it.

It is exactly the same with public speaking (or any skill). If you want to become a better speaker, you have to speak. Not once. Not a few times. But many times over a long period. You have to get feedback, make adjustments and practice. You have to speak in front of different audiences: big; small; colleagues; strangers; in different venues; on different topics. And you have to keep at it.

Becoming a good speaker is possible but only if you commit to the process 100%. And only if you are prepared to go the distance. That’s what Germany did and now they are enjoying the payoff for all that hard work. You can too.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 184) – Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett (1906 - 1989) Irish Novelist and Playwright

Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) Irish Novelist and Playwright

“Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett

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The Elements of Eloquence

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my series on rhetorical devices. Figures of rhetoric such as anaphora, epistrophe, epizeuxis and others, when used properly, can set a speech on fire so that it blazes in the memories of those who heard it long after the speaker has left the stage.

ForsythThus, I was delighted when the good people at Icon Books sent me a complimentary copy of Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. In his book, Forsyth takes us through 39 chapters, each one devoted to a specific rhetorical device. Now, you might be thinking: “Thirty-nine chapters of rhetoric? I’d rather have bamboo shoots shoved under my fingernails.” But you’d be mistaken.

Forsyth has a writing style that make you feel as though you are having a chat with a good friend over a beer. (And when good friends get together for a beer, what else do they talk about besides rhetoric?) He also has a wry, and often wicked, sense of humour. Take, for example, this commentary on alliteration:

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has been sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, “Full fathom five your father lies”, you will be considered the greatest poet that ever lived. Express precisely the same thought in any other way – e.g. “your father’s corpse is 9.144 metres below sea level” – and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.

Or this remark on syllepsis (when one word–often a verb–is used in two different ways, or applied to two different things):

But the commonest form [of syllepsis] is the simple contrast of the concrete and the abstract. When the prophet Joel told the people of Israel to “Rend your heart and not your garments” he was using the same trick that the prophet Mick Jagger employed when he talked in one song [Honky Tonk Woman] about a lady who was not only able to blow his nose, but his mind, although for rather different purposes. Indeed, one suspects that Mr Jagger was planning another syllepsis based on blow that would have got the song banned on radio.

Although Forsyth frequently draws on examples from the usual suspects such as the Bible, Shakespeare and Churchill, he also welcomes rhetorical devices from singers, such the Beatles, Supertramp, Leonard Cohen, INXS and Alanis Morissette, and movies such as Dirty Harry, Pulp Fiction, Austin Powers and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

You might think that a 39-chapter book on rhetoric makes a good reference guide that sits on your shelf until you need of inspiration or clarification, and you certainly can use it that way. However, with a writing style that is so light that it borders on the conversational, and with chapters that average only four to five pages in length, The Elements of Eloquence can easily become a page turner. Indeed, Forsyth cleverly ends each chapter with an example of a new rhetorical device that is the subject of the ensuing chapter. So the reader is always tempted to read just a little bit more.

I highly recommend The Elements of Eloquence to anyone who is looking to spice up his speeches (or writing) and to anyone appreciates seeing the English language stretched to its full potential. Will I refer refer to Forsyth’s book in future posts on rhetorical devices? Indeed I will; of that you can be certain; indeed I will. (And that’s hypophora and diacope.)

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