As speakers and trainers, we always want to arrive early. There are just so many potential things that need fixing that I want to have at least an hour, just to be on the safe side. Projector, audio, light, microphones: they usually take the bulk of my time. But there is also the room itself.
Recognise this? You walk into the room where you are going to give this inspirational workshop, full of interaction and participation, and… it’s a square, or U-shape of tables. Blocking interaction, taking up your valuable space, basically set up ideally for the attendants to zoom out as fast as possible.
The tables need to go.
We need space – to walk around, to see and be seen, to interact, to be creative. But sometimes it’s hard to get them out of the way.
Last Thursday I gave a training in a small, cosy and creative room. Full of table. People could hardly reach their chairs. The tables needed to go. But where? No place to stack them, no hallway to move them to.
But here was a balcony. And with the help of some volunteers, that’s where they went. We had a fun workshop.
That was an easy one.
Just the day before I arrived early at another venue to prepare for a full day workshop. I walked into a horror. The picture above is from the actual room.
This room was booked within an organization with a standard booking system. You need a projector? Sound? Lecture room 4. Not that the other lecture rooms were any better. Or even available.
That room may have a great setup for computer classes, but I don’t do computer classes. For presentation skills this is, let’s say, slightly less than optimal. So…. what would you do?
What did we do? We moved.
We managed to find a small cosy conference room. Without projector, but with a flip chart. I had to give up my slides, but that was a small price to pay. Priorities are priorities.
There’s a lot more to say on setting the room, but for now, let me close with these 3 tips:
Tip1 : ask for pictures of the room Tip 2: arrive early to change things to your liking Tip 3: have someone from the organisation arrive early
Never make the mistake to think that your presentation starts the moment you open your mouth. It starts way, waaaaay earlier. Assuming you have your materials prepared, these are the phases I consider to be important to prepare for as well:
Pack your stuff
This is the topic of a blog topic of its own. What do you need for your presentation? Laptop? Connectors? Paper? Presenter? Specific clothes? Boarding pass? What you need differs from person to person, and from assignment to assignment. Tip: make yourself a list of default articles to pack. Go through your list every time you pack. This is a time where you often have too much on your mind, so you’re going to need the support.
Include checks in your list: do my batteries still work, does my clicker work with the software I just updated?
Prepare your trip
Make sure you know your itinerary, whether you just need to walk across the street or need to take a flight. Write it down.
I simply put this information in my agenda. The address of the venue (and of the hotel if need be), how to get there, which room I’m in, who I need to ask for. And most importantly: the phone number of my last minute contact person, in case anything goes wrong.
Enter the building
Before I get in I usually check who I need to ask for, who I will speak and who else is important. People. Names. If you have a better memory than I have you might not need this step, but I find it important to remember the people I’m there for.
Then when I meet them the first thing I want to do is setup, but the first thing I have to do is connect. Do some smalltalk, find out if anything changed, or how they planned to prepare. Get a feeling for the organization and the context you’re going to be speaking in.
The reason why I always try to be an hour or more early is this phase. Connecting my laptop through some cable to some projector. Getting the sound to work. Checking the lights. On lucky days I’m ready within 2 minutes, on bad days this may take an hour. Even with a professional crew. It’s just mind boggling how many things can go wrong. And everytime, it is something new.
One last thing…. or two actually
There are two important things to do before you get on stage. The first is a warming up. Have you ever seen a top sporter starting their race without a proper warming up? You just can’t perform at your peak if you don’t warm up your muscles and your voice.
But the other thing might be even more important: talk with your audience in advance. Have a chat with a few people to find out what they know, what they expect, what they need. You might need to change your talk to fit their needs better.
Your stage time starts the moment the audience knows you’re the speaker. Which is usually before you get up when you’re called to the stage. Be aware of the fact that people can be watching you. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You make that impression before your presentation starts, before you even get on stage. Or if they haven’t seen you up to that point, when you walk on stage.
What you see from public speakers is usually just the outside. The self-assurance, the exuberance, the flashy pictures.
The recommendations, the Facebook and Twitter posts.
Everything is going great, audiences love them, full agendas, interesting locations, deep messages and connections.
I call bullshit
We all have our off days. We all have presentations that don’t quite go as we had wished for. Feedback forms with some nasty comments. Clients telling they didn’t like your message. Lukewarm audiences. Audience members that didn’t like your topic, your style, your face. Being called out when you were wrong. But most of all: that voice in your head telling you it wasn’t good enough.
Now there might be some speakers who are able to shrug that all off but I feel devastated afterwards when any of the above happens. To the point that I sometimes wonder why I don’t just go back to a secure desk job instead of putting my neck out there time and time again if I’m no good. Then I remind myself of impostor syndrome, I remind myself of my love for what I do, of my cause. And I start climbing out of the pit.
Because as a speaker, the show must go on.
Ever had the feeling that you don’t really belong where you are? That your accomplishments were mere luck? That you’re actually not good enough to be doing what you do now? That may be impostor syndrome. Here’s the good news: The fake, the cons and the real imposters never have this feeling. Impostor syndrome is the ‘privilege’ of people who are actually good at what they’re doing.
But even if you are generally good at what you’re doing, how do you handle the bad days?
What keeps you going?
Reason. This works better the more experienced you are. For me it helps to remember the times things went excellently, and juxtapose these with the bad performance. To analyse the bad performance to find out that it really was just one moment where I lost them but the rest was just fine. To realize that it is impossible to please 100% of your listeners, because we’re all different, and that’s ok.
Love. The love for what you’re doing, and the people in your audience. One smiling face should be enough reason to go on.
Cause. As a speaker you want to invoke change, you want to reach a goal that is bigger than you. You have a dream you believe in. If that doesn’t keep you going I don’t know what does.
Over the long term, I believe that these days where things didn’t work out help me improve my art most. I believe that the best reaction to negative comments, both from outside and inside is: work hard to get better. Analyse the problem and fix it.
Off days are great reminders that the art of public speaking is a mountain without a peak. Keep climbing!
In upcoming posts I will share some of my own experiences with “bad” presentations. I’d love to hear about yours, and how you handled them. Let me know!
There. I spoiled it. Drink water. You can go back surfing the web now.
Speaking is hard on the vocal cords. Doubly so in an airconditioned environment. Your voice needs lubrication. Water does the trick.
Although I wonder why…
The water you drink travels down your esophagus (the food pipe), while your vocal cords are located in your trachea (the wind pipe). And never the twain should meet – as anyone who ever choked will know.
But water it is.
Why not coffee?
Most speakers tend to be a bit nervous before getting on stage. Some people more than a bit.When you’re nervous your hormonal glands excrete a whole hormonal mix to keep you alert. Cortisol. Adrenaline. Norepinephrine. They’ll make your heart pump, your cheeks color, and your sweat glands sweat. No need to add caffeine to the mix, thank you very much. Enough is enough.
How about alcohol?
As seen on TV… Some (stand up) artists need a drink to be able to perform. Some keep drinking on stage. Alcohol calms the nerves, right? It loosens the mind.
It does come with some problems though. Addiction (as seen on TV…), a full bladder (alcohol is diuretic), and a perception filter: you think you’re speaking better, but you might be the only one thinking so.
Cola! Orange juice!
Sugar? Rush and crush.
There’s enough going on inside your body when you speak. No need to add anything to the mix but water. Although I still wonder how it works to lubricate the vocal cords…
In 1947 Kurt Vonnegut, who would later become a well known writer, wrote his master thesis for anthropology. It was rejected. Too simple. Looked like he had had too much fun creating it.
15 years later Vonnegut eventually did receive his masters, and in 2014 computer aided research on an enormous part of English stories and literature showed his thesis to be absolutely true.
The thesis was about story arcs. Almost every story can be categorized into one of six simple graphs, plotting the character’s happiness over time. One of the simplest story arcs is the ‘man in hole’. Somebody gets into trouble, and gets out of it again.
It starts out with the hero of the story on known territory, happy, no problems. And then he loses control, has a crisis, and reaches rock bottom. Through some outside help he climbs out the hole, and ends a bit happier than where he started. With a lesson learned.
This format is great for mini stories to spice up your presentation. Many sitcoms follow this simple pattern as well.
The man in hole, together with two other popular story arcs, is explained in a fun way by Vonnegut himself in this old video:
Shoutout to Kai-Jürgen Lietz! He has written a book on the concept (in German).
If you’re asked to speak somewhere, arrive early. It can make a huge difference. Why? Let me give you three reasons:
If you leave early you have extra time to handle disasters. The most common disasters I have encountered are traffic jams and delayed planes. By the way, iif you’re flying in, do so the day before.
Other disasters can happen after you’ve arrived. No parking. The speaker before you didn’t show up (this happened to me once, I was able to take his slot) Logistical changes.
Technical support can make or break your performance. If you use slides or sound the configuration needs to be tested. I mostly present from my own laptop, and getting it to work with the system takes anything between a minute and an hour. Usually I’m finished within 5 minutes, but I’ve had several occasions where I got to work with a very professional tech crew and it still took us an hour to get things working.
You want to arrive relaxed and on top of your game. Speaking itself is stressful enough and you don’t want to start cold from the trip. That shows in your performance, and not in a good way.
Arriving early may mean getting up early and forfeiting that wonderful sleep time. But it pays off in less stress and a better presentation.
Are you a professional?
But the fourth and most important reason is that you will be perceived as a professional if you show up early and prepared. Your reputation is important, and congress organizers do remember those speakers that show up late, try to plug in their laptop and then start shouting at the tech crew if it doesn’t work.
If you might be late
But of course, there are situations where you just don’t manage to build in enough time. Apart from trying to avoid those, here is how you can minimize the risk: preparation and communication.
Get to know as much as possible about the projector and sound system. I found that if they have a HDMI and VGA connection, I’m safe. VGA, although outdated, never gave me any trouble.
Send a backup presentation the day before that they can install on their computer. Since I present using Keynote that usually means transforming it to Powerpoint, which makes the slides look slightly less professional. But who cares if things go wrong and it saves your presentation.
Be ready to present without slides. This might need some training, but it might be your best investment ever.
Keep the organizers posted on where you are, what’s happening, and what your estimated time of arrival is. Always bring the phone number of an organizer that is present at the location.
Things happen. One day you might be too late for your speech. If so, be professional, take responsibility. Do what you still can for the organization, and don’t charge your fee. Save your reputation. But better is to do everything you can not to get there.
One of the most common traps speakers fall into is called the curse of knowledge.
They assume that the audience knows the same things they know.
It happens to all of us. We tend to forget the time and energy we put into acquiring the knowledge we have, we forget there was a time when we didn’t have that knowledge. We can no longer even imagine that people don’t have that knowledge.
One way to explain the curse of knowledge is with the tapping experiment:
Take a song that other people will know. Tap the rhythm on the table while you hear the melody in your head. Let the other people guess what it was. Most of the time, they won’t guess it. (Famous exceptions: Happy birthday and We will rock you)
This is the curse of knowledge: the melody is so clear in your head that it’s hard to imagine they won’t get it from the mere taps.
Now tell them the title of the song. If they know the song, and you tap it again, they will now hear the melody in their head as well.
And this is the way out: tell them. Explain. Give examples. Lead them to the melody.
How do you break the curse of knowledge?
So how do you overcome the tendency to speak about things they don’t know in a way they don’t understand?
Don’t assume. Write out your speech and read it over with the mindset of a beginner. Ask the questions: what does this mean? Is it explained when it gets introduced? Better yet – let someone else read it.
Talk to people in your audience before you start your presentation. Gauge their level of knowledge.
Ask your audience during your presentation. Make a habit of asking if they can follow along, know what it is you’re talking about – if not, or when in doubt, explain.
Of course, when preparing your material you always need to make some assumptions. But that’s the material of another blog post.
Deep inside you lives an undividable soul, the real you, a core that knows what you feel and what you really want. Right?
Well, that view is a bit outdated.
As psychology advances we find that people seem to be more of a gaggle of different subsystems. You’re not a person. You’re a committee. No hidden homunculus.
It is late, but tomorrow you have a lot of work. No problem, you say. I just set the alarm clock early and eat a big chunk out of my work first thing in the morning. I can do it!
Next morning. You wake up from the alarm. Grumpy. Put it on snooze. 9 minutes later: snooze again. I do NOT feel like getting up. What was I thinking yesterday?
The storyteller and the experiencer
Let’s look at two characters in the mind of our audience that are particularly important to speakers: the storyteller and the experiencer.
Your experiencer knows only one timeframe: now. It doesn’t care about past or future, all it does is measure how things feel now. Experience! It can be elated, satisfied, sad, enamored. But whatever it feels, it’s always there. In the moment. In the now. Fully.
And then there is the storyteller. The storyteller tries to make sense of your life. We can’t just be surrounded by random input, random thoughts, random encounters. Surely there needs to be some deeper meaning, some plan, some bigger story?
So the storyteller invents one – whether it’s right or not doesn’t matter. The storyteller uses the weaving loom and ties all the threads of your life together. That tapestry is what you remember, and the strings that didn’t fit are simply lost.
While the storyteller weaves your memories, the experiencer meanwhile forgets all about the original experience. But the storyteller’s memories can make it experience again.
Who is more important?
Obviously, both are important. But imagine this choice:
You are offered a free holiday. Either:
A week to a somewhat interesting location with somewhat interesting things to do and somewhat interesting people to meet. In other words, it’s better than nothing but far from stellar.
The holiday of your dreams, whatever it is – that cruise to the south pole, the safari, a trip into low earth orbit, you name it.
One caveat: if you choose the second option, upon return all your memories (and photos) will be wiped, so you will have no recollection whatsoever of what you’ve experienced.
Which one do you choose?
Your audience is split as well
As a speaker you should be aware that every single member of your audience also has an experiencer and a storyteller. What does this mean for your speech? Do you cater for both? Which one should you serve first, and how?
The answer is simple.
First, your speech needs to be an experience for them. The experiencer hands the threads to the storyteller to create the memory after all. If you fail to engage it, you fail to reach your audience.
In order to be an experience you don’t need to be good. You need to be different.
And then you feed the storyteller. Indirectly, through the experiencer. You want your message to be remembered. And what does the storyteller remember best? Stories! What kind of stories do you feed it? Lively stories! Because the storyteller gets fed by the experiencer!
The storyteller’s secret
In order to get to the secret of the storyteller in your head, I will need to share a bit of a dirty story. In a study in 1996 Kahneman and Redelmeier did research on colonoscopy patients. Colonoscopy, without going into further depth (oops), is known as a quite unpleasant experience.
In one group the catheter was removed as was the norm: immediately.
In the other group catheterization lasted about twice as long, but the last minutes the experience, though still unpleasant, became somewhat less so.
Overall, the experiencer experienced more pain in the second version. However, when asked afterward, the second version was considered a lot less painful by the storyteller.
It is called the peak-end rule, and it’s the storyteller’s secret. What the storyteller remembers of what you tell is the peak and the end, the rest will likely be forgotten. That’s life.
So what does that mean for your speech or your presentation? Pay special attention to the apotheosis and to the end. Let it flow like a good story, like a fairy tale, like a movie. If you work towards a climax and have a happy ending your audience will love it…
The last laugh
As over time your speech slowly fades in the memories of the audience, your story merges into their own stories. Funny enough, there is one thing that lasts: the memory of the experience.
As Maya Angelou put it so nicely:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.