Powerful “Stories of Unlimited”

This morning, I was rereading the chapter on storytelling in one of my favourite books, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Health. (To see the seven-part series that I wrote on the book, you can find all the posts here.)

Our brains are wired for stories. Stories add meaning; stories contain wisdom; stories are effective teaching tools; stories are memorable. As the Heaths write:

Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems. …

The story’s power, then, is twofold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). Note that both benefits—simulation and inspiration—are geared to generating action. [W]e’ve seen that a credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. [T]he right stories make people act.

By coincidence, I also came across a brilliant advertising campaign by Western Sydney University called “Stories of Unlimited“. It features 90-second videos of alumni and shares the stories of their background, challenges, passions and current status. Each video is beautifully crafted and inspirational. The university’s messages to prospective students:

“We believe in a world of unlimited opportunity for those with talent, drive, confidence and ambition. It’s about what’s inside you, not where you’ve come from. Your future success starts here.

Kudos to Western Sydney University for tapping into the power of stories to encourage prospective students to apply. What stories can you tap into for your next presentation?

For now, please enjoy the following three “stories of unlimited”.

Posted in Making it Stick, Stories and Storytelling | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 216) – Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) American Diplomat and Activist

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt

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My Podcast Interview on “Time to Shine”

Time to Shine is a podcast hosted by Oscar Santolalla, who speaks to the world from Helsinki, Finland. As of the writing of this post, Oscar has interviewed over 50 successful public speakers who share their experiences and insights into the world of public speaking. Guests recount personal stories, share best practices and recommend books and other resources.

Time to Shine LogoI recently had the pleasure of speaking to Oscar on his podcast. It was a wide-ranging conversation that covered the following topics, among others:

  • Why the opening of a speech is important and a story about how I worked with a client to help her come up with a powerful opening for an important speech.
  • Four rhetorical devices that anyone can use to make their speech or presentation more persuasive.
  • Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™. This is the board game that Florian Mueck and I created to help people improve their public speaking skills and have fun at the same time. People around the world are having fun playing RHETORIC in businesses, at Agile conferences, in schools and at home.
  • Some inspiring quotations and recommended books.
  • A simple, but effective exercise you can do at home to improve your stage presence.
  • And more.

Here’s the interview:

Time to Shine is a great podcast with a growing audience. If you would like to listen to other podcasts in the series, visit this page and scroll through the guests to find someone whose topics interest you. If you would like to subscribe, you can do so for free on iTunes or Android.

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Barack Obama’s Speech on Gun Control

President Barack Obama began the final year of his presidency with a speech on gun control. In it, he discussed a number of measures that he proposes to take by Executive Order to reduce gun violence in the United States.

ObamaIt was a solid speech on many levels. Obama usually speaks with a teleprompter but as far as I can tell from the video, he did not use one in this case. Yes, he had his notes, but he spoke freely and even improvised from time to time. The result was very human and very powerful.

Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, let’s take a look at some of the things that he did well in his speech. It is below in its entirety. At 36 minutes, it is not short, but it is worth watching in full.

In the interests of time and space, I have not examined every aspect of Obama’s speech. Nevertheless, I set out below several reasons why I liked it.

  • Masterful pauses.
  • Excellent eye contact.
  • Good use of rhetorical devices:

Asyndeton: “Fort Hood. Binghamton. Aurora. Oak Creek. Newtown. The Navy Yard. Santa Barbara. Charleston. San Bernardino. Too many.” (1:20)

Aporia: “How did we get here? How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” (15:00)

Comparison: “We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some. Just as we don’t prevent all traffic accidents but we take steps to try to reduce traffic accidents.” (16:40)

Diacope: “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage but they cannot hold America hostage.” (20:00)

Anaphora: “So all of us need to demand a Congress brave enough to stand up to the gun lobby’s lies. All of us need to stand up and protect its citizens. All of us need to demand governors and legislatures and businesses do their part to make our communities safer.” (30:34)

Antimetabole: “The reason Congress blocks laws is because they want to win elections. And if you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they’ll change course, I promise you.” (32:05)

  • Strong, quotable statements. For example:

“I reject that thinking.” (15:45)

“And for those in Congress who so often rush to blame mental illness for mass shootings as a way of avoiding action on guns, here’s your chance to support these efforts. Put your money where your mouth is.” (25:45)

“If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” (26:45)

“They had rights too.” (29:00)

  • Statistics to support his arguments:

“Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.” (4:27)

He also uses statistics to draw a nice comparison between the decline in gun deaths in Connecticut and the rise of gun deaths in Missouri. (17:30 to 18:05)

  • Quotes, especially those from Republican politicians that can be used to support his case: George W. Bush (14:25), John McCain (14:40) and Ronald Reagan (17:00).
  • Appropriate use of humour. Obama is talking about a very difficult subject. Many people in the audience were either victims of gun violence or had lost loved ones to gun violence. And yet, even in such circumstance, humour—used appropriately—can lighten the mood for a few moments before the speaker returns to the main, serious topic. Examples include:

“That’s a long distance call.” (3:00)

“And you know what? Research, science, those are good things, they work.” (18:40)

“That’s why we made sure that the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare …”. (25:47)

“If there’s an app that can help us find a missing tablet — which happens to me often the older I get …”. (27:00)

  • Not being afraid to show emotion. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.” (30:00)
  • Telling stories, including the tragic story of Zaevion Dobson, (33:40)

I don’t know how successful Obama will be with his initiatives, given the potential opposition that he faces from Congress and others. Indeed, as I write this post, the sniping has already started and it is fierce.

But I am glad to see him continue the fight for saner gun control laws in the United States. I am not American but I like Americans, I have many American friends and relatives, and I have traveled a fair bit in the U.S. I find it incredible that this issue continues to plague that country. I wish Obama success.

Posted in Analysis of a Speech | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 215) – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 - 1894) American Poet and Author

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894) American Poet and Author

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

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Where the streets have no name

For years, the phrase “where the streets have no name” has always brought to mind one of my favourite songs by the rock band U2. After today, however, it will remind me of something else as well.

Japan Address

This sign in Tokyo shows the town address (Kamimeguro 2 chōme), block (21) and building (9). The top plate is the district name (町名板, chōmei ban) and the bottom plate is the residential number (住居番号板, jūkyo bangō ban).

While listening to a discussion on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, guest Derek Sivers mentioned something  about the streets in Japan that grabbed my attention: most of them don’t have names! Apparently, for the Japanese, most streets are nameless spaces between the blocks of houses, buildings, etc. Instead, the Japanese give numbers to the blocks. Each building within a block has its own building number. (See an example in the photo on the right from Wikipedia.)

At first, this convention struck me as utterly confusing. But as I thought about it, I became intrigued and did some digging. Sivers has written this post (with maps examples) that explains the phenomenon simply and clearly. Here’s another post on the same subject.

If you would rather hear Sivers explain it himself, just watch the first minute or so of this two-minute talk that he gave at TED India in 2009.

I have not yet been to Japan—it is on my list of countries to visit—but I can well imagine how confusing this classification system must be for anyone who, like me, has lived in locations where streets have names. And now, I can also imagine the confusion that some Japanese experience when traveling abroad for the first time.

This issue got me thinking about presentations and I believe that a useful parallel can be drawn. Just as Canadians and Japanese do not necessarily look at street addresses the same way, so too an audience (or different members within an audience) will not necessarily look at a presentation the same way the speaker does.

For example, suppose a CEO announces that the company is going to invest millions of dollars to automate a process that will increase production once completed. Potential suppliers will be delighted at the prospect of a lucrative contract; employees might be fearful for their jobs; shareholders might be enthusiastic about the prospect of greater profitability or nervous about the company spending so much money in an uncertain economy. The list could go on, but the point is that not everyone is going to regard the initiative in the same way as the CEO.

Remember this the next time you have a presentation. Perhaps your audience will be familiar with the topic and will also be on the same page as you. But perhaps not. It might be a new subject for them; they might be confused or doubtful or opposed to your ideas. Knowing that your audience might not see things the same way you do is one of the best incentives that you have to prepare thoroughly. Think long and hard about your message, how to get it across and why the audience should care.

Remember, it’s always about the audience. Speakers need to adapt their presentation for the audience just as visitors to Japan must adapt the way in which they navigate around Japanese towns and cities.

To close this post, a flashback. We return to 27 March 1987 at the corner of 7th and Main Streets in Los Angeles. It was then and there that U2 surprised a lot of people by performing Where the Streets Have No Name on the top of the Republic Liquor store. I do love this song!

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 214) – Epictetus

Epictetus (55 - 135) Greek Stoic Philosopher

Epictetus (55 – 135) Greek Stoic Philosopher

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

— Epictetus

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Five Lessons from the 2015 Miss Universe Mix-up

If you were looking for an awkward television moment to close out 2015, Steve Harvey has handed it to you on a silver plate.

At the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant, it came down to the final three contestants: Miss Colombia, Miss Philippines and Miss USA. Harvey, who was hosting the show, announced that the final votes had been tallied. A representative of the accounting firm, Ernst & Young came on stage and handed him the envelope with the results. Harvey then announced the 2nd Runner-Up, Miss USA. So far, so good.

Harvey then called the remaining two contestants to the front of the stage to announce the winner: “Miss Universe 2015 is … Colombia!” The audience erupted in applause; Miss Philippines was escorted to the side; Miss Colombia was given a big bouquet of flowers, a sash with “Miss Universe” on it and a beautiful crown. She was all smiles and tears. Someone handed her a Colombian flag which she waved with pride.

There was just one problem: Miss Colombia was not the winner; Miss Philippines was. Steve Harvey had announced the wrong person as the winner in front of a worldwide audience of millions. Like I said, awkward.

You can see how it all unfolded below:

Now, it was not a life-and-death situation, but it was still pretty painful to watch. Miss Colombia had the crown taken away; Miss Philippines did not get to enjoy the moment; and Steve Harvey was visibly crushed by the mistake. The story has gone viral on social media.

So what are the lessons that we can learn from this fiasco?

1. Mistakes will happen but there are some things that you cannot get wrong.

Like announcing the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant! This incident reminded me of Rick Perry’s famous “Oops” moment when he could not remember one of the federal government agencies that he was planning to shut down. I would be amazed if the organizers did not go over a sample card with Harvey several times before the event to make sure that he knew how to read it. There are some things that you have to know cold.

2. Make sure your written documentation is clear.

Speaking of the card with the winners’ names on it, here is a photo of the card that was handed to Steve Harvey.

The fateful card.

The fateful card.

This card is terrible for several reasons.

  • The title is too long and contains unnecessary information: “Elminination Card” [sic]? “Show”? “3 to 1”? How about “Miss Universe 2015 – Final Results”?
  • The names of the winners should be in bigger font or bolded. It looks like they were labels that were stuck on. Make better labels.
  • It contains three typos! The word “runner-up” is hyphenated. And “Elimination” is misspelled. Come on people, it’s the bloody Miss Universe Pageant. Don’t be sloppy. Be a yardstick of quality.
  • Most significantly, why are the names of the three finalists on different sides of the card? They should be in a single column, one below the other. I can understand how, in the excitement of the moment, someone might overlook the name on the right side of the card.

3. Simplicity is almost always the better option.

Notice the wording on the card above: “1st Runner Up”. I have already pointed out the missing hyphen, but the bigger concern is “1st”. I have never been a fan of “1st runner-up” because it can easily be confused with “1st place”. Did you notice the repetition of “1st”? There is a very simple solution: 3rd place; 2nd place; 1st place. Or, if you prefer: 3rd place; 2nd place; Winner.

4. Writing the same information in different ways increases the chance that a mistake will be made.

There is a story circulating on the Internet that Steve Harvey announced Miss Colombia as the winner by reading from a teleprompter, and that the information on the teleprompter was wrong. If true, this was an epic failure on the part of the production crew. And it begs the question: If you are handed a card with the information on it, why not just read from the card?

Having multiple copies of something is fine for back-up purposes. But for something like the announcement of the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, there should be one card only. By the way, if the information is so secret and thus in a sealed envelope, how did it get on the teleprompter?

5. If you make a mistake, accept responsibility.

Regardless of how the mistake happened, I cannot begin to imagine how humiliated Steve Harvey must feel. As mentioned above, social media is having a field day with what happened. My favourite has been this Tweet from Canadian comedian, Mark Critch. Simple, funny but also tasteful.

At the same time, I have to tip my hat to Harvey. After the error was announced, he said, “I will take responsibility for this. It was my mistake. It was on the card.” He seems like a decent guy and he owned the moment, painful as it must have been.

But even there, it could have been done better. At first, he just announced the mistake and then named Miss Philippines as the winner. As a stunned Miss Philippines walked on stage to stand beside an equally stunned Miss Colombia, Harvey then invited Miss Philippines to take her first walk as Miss Universe. While Miss Colombia was still wearing the Crown! Were they supposed to walk together? Was Miss Colombia supposed to hand over the Crown and the sash and the flowers?

It was a bad idea and it just wasn’t the time. What happened next proved it: All three of them stood there for 35 seconds, not knowing what to do; meanwhile, the audience was losing its collective mind. It was only when last year’s Miss Universe came on stage that the spell was broken and Harvey attempted to regain some semblance of control.

And, after taking responsibility (which could have been done more elegantly), it would have been better for Harvey to remain on stage and even say a few private words to the two women instead of walking off. Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines continued to twist in the wind and an awkward moment became even more awkward.

If you speak often enough, mistakes are going to happen. Some will be small; some will be big; some might even be epic. It happens. When you make a mistake, accept responsibility, try to fix it as best as you can and be professional. And when the event is over, move on.

My contribution to the 2016 Miss Universe Pageant

Taking all of the above into account, I have redesigned the card that should have been handed to Steve Harvey. I offer it, at no cost, to the organizers of the Miss Universe Pageant. Should they adopt it, it would be nice to receive free transportation and tickets to the event next year. I’d even be willing to host it.

Miss Universe 2015 – Final Results

3rd Place: USA

2nd Place: Colombia

WINNER: Philippines

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 213) – Lady Bird Johnson

Claudia Alta Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson (1912 – 2007) American Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Former First Lady

Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912 – 2007) American Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Former First Lady

“The way you overcome shyness is to become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid.”

— Lady Bird Johnson

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Acronyms can seriously suck

The importance of simplicity in a presentation cannot be overstated. One way to simplify is to eliminate jargon. One way to eliminate jargon is making sure that the audience understands any acronyms in the presentation.

These days, acronyms are everywhere. Here is one list of business and finance acronyms. Some of them (CEO – Chief Executive Officer; B2B – Business-to-Business; YTD – Year to Date) are fairly well known; others less so.

Regardless of the level of sophistication of the audience, the chance for misunderstanding increases with the use of acronyms. For example, some people know COB (close of business) but not EOD (end of the day) and vice versa. Thus, COB—which is close to COD (cash on delivery)—may or may not be clear to the recipient of an email requesting that a product be delivered COB.

Indeed, people often make mistakes with acronyms that they use all the time:

As I write this post, I am in the middle of Ashlee Vance’s terrific biography of Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX and one of the most brilliant minds of the 21st century. The book is engrossing and offers many insights into the man and how he is reinventing the way in which business is done.

I particularly enjoyed Vance’s recounting the time, in May 2010, when Musk sent an angry email to all the employees at SpaceX. He was concerned about the excessive use of acronyms in the company. The subject line of the email was “Acronyms Seriously Suck” and this is how it read:

There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees.

Elon MuskThat needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action—I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past.

For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS-3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name!

The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, e.g., MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C-Vacuum or Merlin 1C-Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.

This passage struck a chord with me. I worked for five years as a lawyer at the World Health Organization. The organization has hundreds of acronyms for different departments, processes and systems and I was probably able to remember two dozen or so at most. My favourite was GSM, which stands for Global Management System, an important online administrative tool. The acronym GMS was already taken, so a modified acronym was created.

Think about acronyms in the context of your presentations. It is one thing to use them with people who understand them; it is an entirely different matter when speaking to an outside audience. What is obvious to you will not necessarily be obvious to them. And if your audience is confused, the chances of you getting your message across are diminished.

Here are eight tips when it comes to using acronyms in a presentation:

  1. As Elon Musk wrote, “The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication.”
  2. Keep the number of acronyms in a presentation to a minimum.
  3. Well-known acronyms (e.g., USA, CEO, SOS) can usually be said or written without further explanation.
  4. The more sophisticated the audience is with regard to the topic, the more leeway you have using acronyms.
  5. Notwithstanding Nos. 3 and 4 above, it is still possible that people from the same field or profession will be confused by an acronym. Thus, err on the side of caution.
  6. The first time an acronym is used on a slide, it should be written out in full and then defined by the acronym; e.g., “We need to hire a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).”
  7. Once a term has been defined, the acronym may be used on subsequent slides. However, it is a good idea to repeat the name in full, at least from time to time, to ensure that the audience understands.
  8. Be especially careful when using acronyms or abbreviations that can have multiple meanings. For example, “n/a” (also written “N/A”) can mean “not applicable”, “not available” or “no answer”.

Acronyms can be very useful in a presentation. Just be sure that they are a help and not a hindrance. Otherwise, you might well get a question from the audience like this one from Robin Williams in a classic scene from Good Morning Vietnam.

Posted in Language, Slide Presentation | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments