Connect, Don’t Offend!

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One of the (in my opinion) sad commentaries on our society is the free disregard of conventions of politeness used in comedy.  Many leading stand-up acts are filled with the gratuitous use of profanity.  Sexual swear words abound, and while they elicit a laugh, in many cases this comes from the shock value, and often it is more a nervous laughter than a joyful one.

Even Billy Connolly, whose act include such quips as “I felt as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit,” has noted, “I’ve always been fascinated by the difference between the jokes you can tell your friends but you can’t tell to an audience. There’s a fine line you have to tread because you don’t know who is out there in the auditorium. A lot of people are too easily offended.”

Speakers (including comedians) are in the business of entertainment.  If you are offending, you have limited your entertaining.  This is even more pronounced for informational and business communications.  “To inform and entertain” should be the watchwords.

Many have observed that audiences generally only retain three or four points from a presentation.  Do you want that to be an off-coloured joke, or a main selling point of your proposal or product line? Israelmore Ayivor has said, “Be polite in your speeches. Good information rudely communicated will make no positive difference.” How correct he is!

I am not saying you shouldn’t use humour, nor am I saying you need to present yourself as some sort of mid-Victorian prude.  What I am saying is show respect.  Know your audience. Value them, and they will value your message.


[A side note: While my public speaking posts are focused on oratory (including preaching and business presentations), many of the principles apply to the written word as well.]


The Magic of Words

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Humans are endowed with imagination, and this has aided us in the symbolic medium of language.  We can communicate beyond the easily apparent.  We can describe a far-off land, or even better – abstract concepts.

An experiment I try with every first year class is to ask them to show me “one.”  I am then usually presented with an assortment of single fingers, pens, and books.  To which I respond, that is a finger, pen, etc. Some then turn to writing the figure “1,” to which I respond, “Then show me five.”  To this I am offered a “5.”  I in turn say, “There is only one symbol there.”  The end comes with the realisation that one or five are merely concepts.  You can see “one.”  One pencil, yes; “one,” no.

So it is that our language captures the concepts and constructions of our imaginations.  It is indeed a kind of magic.  I can tell you of a peaceful lagoon, with waters that glisten with the lustre of crumpled foil, that has been smoothed out.  The blue is that of a robin’s egg, and the sand a coral white.  Many of you will be able to share this invisible image with me.

There is the wizardry.  We as adepts in our own tongues can create “reality” from nothing!

How absolutely powerful is the creation account of the Judeo-Christian scriptures?  For we in our use of language are “in the image of God.”  God said in Genesis “Let there be . . .” and it was so.  In John’s gospel we similarly see, “In the beginning was The Word . . .” and nothing that was made was made without Him.  God created with words, and so do we.  [Don’t get me wrong, and think I am equating creation with “magic,” I am merely illustrating the power of words, and any verbal creation of ours must by necessity pale to true physical creation].

We then, as agents of this verbal power should create with good intention.  The words we use to paint a sunset, can also be used to bring darkness on the soul of the one we criticise.  With great power verbal magicians, comes great responsibility.



Sell Attention!

Throughout our school careers and beyond, many of us have been exhorted to “pay attention.” As leaders and speakers, however, it is our task to “sell attention.” Your audiences’ time and concentration needs to be earned, not just assumed.

So how do we “sell attention?”

One way to draw your hearers’ attention is by using mini or micro changes to our presentation. This can easily be done by the use of silence (as we have noted in previous posts) as they capture the idea that “something is happening,” or is about to.
Mixing up delivery style is also an attention grabber. Throwing in a short story or anecdote to illustrate a point, not only enriches your content, but it works as a hook to people’s interest, as we are “wired” to respond to stories.

You can also break up the “monotony” (figuratively speaking) of a longer presentation by not only sectioning it into bite sized subtopics, but by making the subtopics clear. This can be done by flagging the transitions. Remember in doing this, however, that markers such as “firstly,” “secondly,” etc. can become boring as well. More imaginative approaches include illustrative examples, “Gandhi’s approach to this was . . . . “Followed by “And then there was the time when John Kennedy . . . .”

The use of visual aids or short videos can also add a spark, and even a short clip, or a single prop can draw a hearer back to your main message.

So when selling attention, go for the little changes in pace, style, and inflection. Mix this up with clear transitions, and enhancing examples, and they will be clamouring to “pay attention.”



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Rhyme and Cadence, Cadence and Rhyme

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The English language is full of rhythms, cadences, and rhymes. These fluctuate with dialect and region, and the variety is truly rich. Whether it is the upward lilt of sentence endings in Liverpool, or the stressing of penultimate syllables in Wales, our language is musical.

Rhyme adds to the music of our words. It need not be “poetry” to be poetic. As Louis MacNeice has observed, children have an innate ability to appreciate and apply rhythm and rhyme. What more proof do we need than the popularity and success of Dr Seuss? But as adults we lose a bit of the melodic is our speech. What a shame.

We can improve on this, however. We only need to think of the natural links of like-sounding words to literally “rejuvenate” (make young again) our speech. So where can we start – to recapture this art? To be fair, just look here or there, for useful rhymes are everywhere. Try it try, and you will see, that rhymes and rhythm come easily.


The Point of PowerPoint

Why use PowerPoint (or Edmodo, SmartNotebook, etc.)? The first and basic answer is to “support” your presentation. Like any other visual aid, it is to enhance your speech, not “be the speech.” So here are a few points to that end.

First, keep the amount of text and bullet points to a minimum. The slides are not an end in themselves. Let your vocal presentation carry your argument or idea. Use the text on your slides only to reinforce key ideas. Why write out the entire findings of a survey, when a simple headline figure will be all that you want the audience to focus upon or remember?

Secondly, try to have a consistent theme in your visuals. It looks more professional and polished to have a harmonious set of graphics and fonts. A hotchpotch of pictures ranging from clip art to modelled photographs looks “thrown together,” no matter how much thought and work you put into it.

Avoid basic templates and pre-made slides where you can. These may not only be familiar to your audience (once again giving the impression of a short-cut or hurried preparation), but also limits your own vision for what you want to relate. So, take time to be original (and yourself), even in your slides.

A fourth consideration is your choice of colour contrast and font. Certain colour combinations may be “natural” in your mind, but they do not always project well. Remember your audience is not looking at your computer screen, but to the image on the main screen. Allow for the fact that the colours may blur with distance. The same is true of fonts. Fancy calligraphy looks nice up close, but is difficult to read, especially at a distance.

Finally, like with your presentation itself, keep it brief. “Death by PowerPoint” may be an exaggeration, but after slide 120, your audience may wish for death (possibly yours).



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Be A Learner First, Then A Teacher

One of the most inspirational educators of the Twentieth Century was Janusz Korczak. He was a doctor, children’s author, and educator.  He believed in the inherent ability of children to learn and to contribute to learning.  He saw his students as fully fledged humans, not just as potential adults.  He even advocated what we now call “student voice” as early as the 1930s.

He became the director of an orphanage in Warsaw, and retained the post until the destruction of the Jewish community there in 1942.  Owing to his fame as a writer and educator he was offered an avenue of escape for himself, but declined it.  He went to his death at Treblinka comforting his young charges along the way.

He offers much for teachers, parents, and leaders to emulate. But, his instructions to teachers were ground-breaking and just as powerful today.  These guidelines have applications to anyone who seeks to instruct others.

He said, “Be yourself and seek your own path.
Know yourself before you attempt to know children [audience, or learners].
Become aware of what you yourself are capable of  before you attempt to outline the rights and responsibilities of children [others].
First and foremost you must realize that you too are a child [learner],
Whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate.” [Square brackets are mine, and offer applications of his words].

Know yourself.  Know your abilities [and weaknesses]. Be honest with yourself. Then speak, teach, and lead.

What wisdom, and humility!  I hope we can live up to the challenge.



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Korczak Memorial Warsaw

Speaking From The Heart

Mohandas Gandhi (1869 -1948), better known as the Mahatma (Great Soul), was one of the most inspiring orators of the 20th Century. He is a classic example, however, that great speakers are made. His first public address in London (circa 1890) was a complete disaster. He was meant to give an address on the merits of a vegetarian lifestyle. He read the first line of his speech but nerves got the better of him and couldn’t go on. A friend read the rest of the speech for him.

Gandhi learned from this experience and found a positive in it. “My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words,” he once said.

This economy of words, as he called it, is a valuable point to remember in day to day communications. As he put it, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.” He believed listening was the better part of conversation. He took this attitude into his public addresses as well. He was against what we would call “spin,” but focused on the straight forward, honest message. He spoke from the heart to the heart, with respect for those who listened.

He had learned to speak only what he thought was important. When he spoke, it was with passion. It was the core of the message that mattered, not his ego when he addressed an audience. A great example of his mature speaking style (and one that sums it up as well) was his reflection that, “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

So what can we learn from the Mahatma? Firstly, good speaking takes work. Secondly, don’t waste your time and that of your audience with the unnecessary. Finally, speak from the heart!



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Painting with Words

A speech or presentation can be like the work of a Dutch Master (a simile). While Rembrandt and Vermeer worked in oil, we orators work in words. The pictures we paint are in the mind, not on canvas, but we should be nonetheless meticulous in our efforts to make them colourful.

I have started with a simile, though I personally favour metaphor. Metaphors are “figures of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” Such phrases as “lost in a sea of nameless faces,” gives an example of some of the imagery that can be conveyed by words. But simile, with its more direct comparison, “As brave as a lion” or “As bright as a button,” provides clear unambiguous images.

I began by referring to Old World artists, but I also like the more home-spun art of the Americans. Grant Wood’s American Gothic is an excellent example. And so it is with words. Home-spun, folksy metaphors can give a colour and dimension to a speech. Here are some great examples of such down-to-earth phrases: “Nervouser than a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory,” “Prettier than a speckled pup,” and “Scarcer than hen’s teeth,” all leave vivid brush strokes on the imagination.

Whatever your preference in art, find the verbal brush that suits your style!



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Keep it Simple

Whether making a technical presentation, or giving basic instructions, simplicity is the way to go. Jargon and specialist terminology are really only appropriate when addressing “the initiated.” Face it “existential manifestations of the charisma,” sounds impressive but will leave many hearers bemused. In fact, even “outward signs of grace” is problematic to many audiences. Forgive the examples from my own field, but they do illustrate the point.

Leadership is about getting things done. If you have an entire team scratching their heads over the latest instruction, then the “done” doesn’t happen.

It is not only the word choice which needs to be simple. Sometimes it is the underlying concepts that need to “go back to basics.” Colin Powell captured this concept wonderfully when he pointed out that, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” Framing an idea in a way everyone can visualise is a win-win approach.
To sum it up – keep it simple! Plain words, clear concepts, and straightforward instructions seldom go wrong.



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Talking Points

Talking points are defined as a topics that invite discussion or argument. These are useful in political campaigns, but also in making presentations more generally. Good talking points challenge and stretch your listeners. These topics can capture imaginations and set the stage for persuading an audience to come over to your point of view.

But how do we use them? A great starting point is to define your main message. What exactly is the issue, and why should your hearers care about it.

That established define key sub-points. Don’t bombard your listeners with hundreds of semi-significant details, but rather give three or four strategic facts to ponder and digest. Then, develop those points with significant evidence and supporting materials.

When organising your presentation use sandwiching with strongest point first and highlight it to make the most of its persuasive power. Place any weaker arguments in the middle and finish with another strong point.

Be sure to stick to the point though. Use only materials which support your case. Don’t use any arguments you can’t substantiate, or deviate from your main topic. Where possible provide specific examples that support your argument. Concrete examples are always best, though real-life anecdotes can give your talking point an emotional appeal.



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