You Have Earned the Right to Speak

April 17th, 2014
Throw them out and get to work

Throw them out and get to work

I had to answer a question yesterday about tricks to overcome being nervous before a presentation, and it sparked the thought that one of the main reasons people get nervous is that they often are presenting to an audience that has far more experience and knowledge than they do. My answer to that is not a “trick”, it is a simple but deep truth: you have earned the right.

I have a friend who is the head chef of one of the excellent seafood restaurants here in town. Every Christmas, we host his family for dinner, and I cook the main course, which is tenderloin with my own secret marinade. Other friends have asked me if I’m ever intimidated by the fact that I have to cook for a chef, and I always answer no. The reason is that I’m not trying to show I’m a better cook than he is. That would be ridiculous. In fact, if he wanted to he could probably cook a steak way better than mine. But on that particular day, I am serving my own specialty, I know it’s wonderful, and I know it’s exactly what everyone wants.

You should think of that presentation you’re about to deliver in the same way. Maybe others have more experience or technical knowledge than you do, but you know more about that specific topic, on that given day, than anyone else in the room – otherwise, someone else would be speaking about it. And even if that were not true, you have your own opinion or perspective on the topic, and you have earned the right to voice that point of view through your deep and thorough preparation. You have earned the right to be the top expert in the room for the time you have the floor.

As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth. Throw all the other cooks out of the kitchen – at least mentally – and get to work!

Will You Make a Difference Today?

April 16th, 2014

A friend’s young daughter had an accident last weekend and doctors had to reattach the tip of her index finger. Fortunately, it looks like it will turn out well.

I was reflecting that the doctor must have gone home with a sense of satisfaction. He had done something that day that made a big difference in one little girl’s life. In his line of work, he probably has a lot of days like that.

Do you ever have days like that? Can you go home at the end of the day with that sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing you have made a real impact on someone’s life?

I do get a call or an email occasionally in which someone tells me that my coaching or my class made a big difference to them, and I treasure every single one. Last year, I taught a presentations class in Shanghai and at the end of it urged the participants to join a Toastmasters club if they were interested in continuing to work on their skills. One of the students went even further – he started a club, and judging from the occasional notes I get from him, it is making a huge impact on him personally.

Later today I will deliver a speech on presentation principles to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. Maybe one or two will pick up an idea that gives them just that slight edge in their pitch to a venture capitalist. I hope I make a difference.

Will you make a difference today?

Don’t Bring a Fire Hose to A Presentation

April 15th, 2014
They're not that thirsty

They’re not that thirsty

Have you ever attended a presentation that felt like you had to drink from a fire hose? Even worse, have you delivered one?

Our minds contain a vast store of information accumulated over a lifetime of living and learning. But every new bit of information we have, first entered our minds through our working memory.

Think of working memory as a mental scratchpad. It’s not just the short term memory we might use to keep a telephone number in our heads for the few seconds it takes to find a phone and dial it, it’s the capacity to retain and manipulate that information, such as if we had to add the digits together before dialing the number. The problem with working memory is that we have a severely limited capacity which can easily be overwhelmed.

It’s easy to see how limited we are. For example, if I ask you to add 24 + 17 in your head, you probably won’t have too much trouble. But if I asked you to add 247 + 175, I might start overloading your working memory, because as you are adding the digits in your head you are also trying to remember the numbers I gave you. For years, it was thought that working memory was limited to about seven chunks of information at one time, but more recent research has shown that the more realistic estimate is three to four items. Remember that it’s an average, and some people can go higher while some can’t manage even that much.

What does this mean in terms of presentations? When your listeners receive information from you, they are not simply trying to remember the data as if it were a phone number. They are actively processing the information: contrasting it to what they already know, comparing it to other ideas, and considering its implications. Depending on the unfamiliarity or complexity of the new information, they may be stretching their working memory capacity to the limit.

We progress in our knowledge of a particular topic by “chunking” bits of information together, so that the new combination then becomes one piece of information to remember. For example, if I gave you directions to get to my house, I might have to give you a dozen or more instructions if you were from out of town. But if you live here, I could simply say, “Head east on 17th Street from Federal, turn right at the bridge, and left at the traffic circle.” That’s only three chunks. Fortunately for the human capacity to learn, the definition of chunk is very elastic. A chunk can be quite elaborate and contain a lot of information.

When you learn a topic, you gradually build the details into larger and larger chunks, which is the only way your mind can manipulate ever larger bodies of knowledge to make sense out of them. But the problem is that we forget how difficult it was for us to grasp the material at first, so we skip over the parts that now seem obvious. Psychologists call this the Curse of Knowledge. In one study, six programmers were asked to teach the steps they used in a debugging task. No one expert was able to describe more than 53% of the actual steps they used.[1]

So all that learning can cause a communication problem when you’re feeding chunks to someone who is not yet familiar with them—they’re too large for them to swallow at once, and when you overload them they just shut down.

Because it’s not obvious to the listener, they start behind in the conversation and then have trouble catching up because while they are trying to make sense of what you have said, you’ve already moved on to the next phase.

Besides leaving out information that listeners need to make sense of our message, there are two other common ways of going too fast for them: speaking too fast and overloading slides with way too much information.

As it relates to personal credibility, a too-rapid rate of information transfer is double-edged. It can certainly give listeners the impression that you know what you’re talking about, but they may be turned off by your seeming lack of concern for their understanding.

How do you find the right rate?

Link to what they already know. You first have to know how familiar your audience is with your topic, to know where to start. Then figure out ways to relate the new material to what they already know, using analogies and comparisons.

Limit how much you try to say at one time. Sometimes you save time in the long run by doing short sessions or conversations, either in stages, or in deeper detail each time.

Organize your material into meaningful categories. If you have to provide a long list, for example, group the items into three or four main categories. Give the categories first and then fill in the detail.

Be clear on what they need to remember. A lot of material that you provide to people does not have to be memorized; they may just need to know where to find the details if they need them. For example, you can tell them the dates of the next six project milestones, or just tell them it’s in the handout.

Use the pull system. In lean production, manufacturers use the pull system to ensure that inventory is only produced when the downstream client needs it. The analogy for communication is to give them the bare minimum you think they need, and let them pull out additional information through questions if they need it. Or, supposing you have seven benefits to talk about, give them only the top three and only add others if necessary.

Don’t speak too fast, and pause to gauge whether they are getting it. Eye contact and “listening” to your audience is your best defense against working memory overload. Be especially alert to signs that someone is getting confused or tuning out, because they will be reluctant to speak up.


[1] Building Expertise, Ruth Colvin Clark, p. 78.


Say It Like You Mean It

April 11th, 2014

If you want others to believe you, you have to sound like you believe it yourself. That’s common sense, which is unfortunately not as common as it should be. A big reason is the near-ubiquity of three verbal habits that can make you sound as if you are unsure of yourself.

Let’s pick on the younger set first. It’s hard to sound like you mean what you’re saying when you question yourself at the end of every statement. That’s what you do when you engage in uptalk, which is a rising intonation at the end of a sentence that makes it sound like you’re asking a question? It used to be something I only heard in California, but now it seems to be everywhere?

Like is the next one. It has, like, replaced um as the universal, like, filler word. Don’t tell me what something is like, tell me what it is. The cliché is not, “it is what it is like”, or “it is like what it is”. You sound as if you don’t completely believe in the actual thing, so you want to float a trial balloon by telling the listener what something resembles and then seeing how they react.

The third one is you know, and ironically the people who use it the most are the least likely to know. It’s probably just coincidence, but I’ve heard this one more often recently in my coaching sessions. People are being told they need to communicate more credibly, and when they call me to talk about it, it’s one of the first things I notice. In every single case, when I ask them if they know what their crutch word is, every single person has been unaware of it.

Kids should sound different than their parents. It’s their way of expressing their own individuality and separating their generation from the one that came before. But when they enter the workforce, it’s time to put away childish things and fit in with the team.

But at least young people have the excuse that they pick up the habits early in life and haven’t yet made the effort to reform them. It’s the older folks who don’t have an excuse. I’m referring to people in their 40s and even 50s who sound like they’re channeling their inner child. Like some of the senior citizens you see on Fort Lauderdale beach wearing swimsuits that they might have borrowed from their grandchildren, it’s just not credible, to put it kindly.

Like, I think you should, you know, say it like you mean it?