Archive for the ‘Speaking matters’ Category

Three important things that final year students need to do before they leave school.

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Escape Children!

Education isn’t fully preparing students for the future. Homework is largely a waste of time and you don’t need to work hard to be a success—and that’s before I even get onto the three important things students need to learn.

I mean you can work hard to be successful if you really want to—and you will achieve success from working hard—but I didn’t want to work hard, I wanted to have fun, so I played hard instead. I’m not playing with words here – the distinction is important, someone playing hard is far more productive than someone working hard— that’s a scientifically proven fact. So the trick is to get paid for doing something that you love doing, something that you would do for free if that were the only option.

Here’s my story about how I managed to make a living from doing something that I love doing. I only wish my school had taught me this stuff before I left, I could have gone so much further, much faster if they had. Don’t get hung up on the details here, I talk about art but I could just as easily be talking about performing music or designing apps. The principles are the same. Just apply the principles …

1. Make something happen.

In my case, it was a picture. But in your case it could be a website, a film, a rap song, whatever.

I made a picture. I was very young and there was nothing special about the picture. But I liked drawing pictures so I kept producing them. Then slowly people started to like my pictures and so I made more pictures that I spent a great deal of time on. I would have made these pictures anyway, even if other people didn’t like them, because drawing was what I loved to do. I discovered that if people can see you’re passionate about something, they tend to encourage you and this makes you want to keep doing it and so inevitably, you get a lot better at it. This is why homework is generally a waste of time. If you’re passionate about something you’re already doing it at home! If you’ve no interest in a subject, why extend the misery with homework? Homework should be optional at school.

So people kept encouraging me to draw. Eventually, a school friend asked me to draw a picture of his girlfriend. This was significant. People wanted my pictures now. In order to make sure he got his picture, my friend offered to pay me for it and in an instant the future had revealed itself to me: I could get paid to draw.

Now I played much harder. I actually wanted people to like my pictures – a lot, and they did! The harder I played the more they wanted to use my skill.

You see how this works? It’s a virtuous circle: the better you become, the more they want you.

2. Establish your network.

Make contact with people who can help you. These might be people who do what you do and can offer you advice or show you new techniques or they might be people with influence – these could be mentors or connectors or administrators. When you associate with like-minded people, you tend to absorb their ideas and you become more creative as a result. When you collaborate with them you become inspired to try new things and explore new territory so always look for opportunities to do that. By the way, this works in reverse too – if you mix with negative people you’ll become more negative as a result, so pick your group carefully.

After a time, people at school started to talk about my skill. As a kid, I didn’t realise how important this was; it was good for my ego of course but more importantly, it established me as some kind of expert – I was the ‘go to’ guy for any kind of artwork. Teachers would seek me out and ask me to take on artistic projects. This is crucially important if you’re going to make a career out of something you love doing; become the expert.

And something else happened; my art teacher introduced me to other members of staff who were interested in art. I cannot tell you how important this part of the process is – you’re increasing your network with people who can help you in a much bigger way. One of the teachers at school (who I didn’t take a subject with) was particularly keen on one of my pictures that I was working on. My art teacher had shown it to him whilst it was in progress and this teacher subsequently bought it. Don’t wait for others to take the initiative, be proactive where you can.

Pretty soon I was famous as an artist inside my school and that gave me a certain amount of license regarding my behaviour and artworks.

Then one day I had a life-changing experience.

I’d been exploring the works of dissident writers and artists as part of my voluntary homework and I decided to do a ‘protest’ picture (remember what I said about getting inspired by the things that surround you?). What I came up with was a portrait of myself in school uniform being hung from the neck by my tie. This was being officiated by a teacher dressed in an elaborate gown and witnessed by an orderly faceless audience. In the audience I had hidden an oblique reference to one particular unpopular teacher. It was a ‘dangerous’ picture executed with my tongue firmly in my cheek and my art teacher (unbeknown to me) decided to frame it and hang it in the school on a stair landing that experienced a lot of footfall. As I came down the stairs to the landing during a break I could see an excited crowd of students viewing something on the wall in a gleeful way. When I realized that they were looking at my picture and I had caused their excitement I knew then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: entertain people.

It was assumed by everyone that I would leave school and go to art college, which I did. But this was a double-edged sword because art school opened my eyes to other possibilities within the creative industries and I became fascinated with film making and acting. My picture making suddenly got a lot more ambitious.

Now, it’s generally best to stick with one thing only if you want to achieve ’success’ as defined by society. If you become the best that you can be at this one thing, your dedication and talent will impress people. However, you should always be aware of what you need as a human being rather than what you think society expects of you. In my case, I was curious about the world and I wanted to explore EVERYTHING even if that meant doing some of the activities I undertook rather badly.

As soon as you dilute your talents, the level of financial success you can expect becomes diluted too. But you can define success on your own terms, so follow your own path if that makes you happy. By the way, despite what may happen to you at school, you should always remember that your parents, guardians and teachers—generally—want more than anything for you to be happy in what you’re doing.

So in my creative career I explored writing, film making, music, performance and comedy. I always had enough money to live on and I always had fun. And I’m still having fun. And still collaborating and increasing my network – curiosity and experimentation never stops (sign up to receive my podcasts to see what I mean).

3. Learn presentation skills.

My latest creative output called Bettakultcha, is a collaboration with various people and it’s an event consisting of enthusiastic people giving five minute talks illustrated with 20 slides that last 15 seconds each. I’m the compère of the event and after five years of doing it I’ve learned to be confident and relaxed on stage. With a lot of people being terrified of public speaking, having a skill like that is a passport into a lot of jobs. Everyone has to pitch ideas to other people at some point – sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing it—if you’ve just discovered a new video game and you want to tell your friends about it so they’ll play it too, you’re pitching the idea to them. The same applies to a company wanting to launch a new product in the market place, someone has to pitch the idea to an audience that is usually spoilt for choice. And here’s a startling prediction: by the year 2020 – that’s like five years away – 50% of the working population of the UK will be self-employed. Think about that. 50%. That means half of you in any classroom right now will have to find your own work. Which means you’ll have to pitch for work. Now, if most of you have the same skill-set, how will a client decide on whom to give the work to? Maybe the pitch that inspired confidence, enthusiasm, efficiency, imagination, and good communication? And, right now, I don’t see these presentation skills being taught anywhere in schools, which means that if you learn them now, you’re already ahead of the game.

So to recap, these are the three things that you really need to know if you want to make a living from your skills:

1. Make something happen – when most people are passive consumers, this immediately makes you stand out from the others.

2. Build your network – find like-minded people, collaborate and share with them if you can, they’ll help you grow. Utilise your network – any chance you get for furthering your career, no matter how small, take it!

3. Learn presentation skills. Unfortunately, I learned this last crucial lesson too late to maximize on the opportunities that were presented to me earlier in life. Who is your biggest advocate throughout your life? You, of course, so it makes sense for you to be confident, articulate and concise when you want to impress someone who could be a future employer or patron of your talent. Being confident about yourself will be your biggest asset. The world is hypnotized and beguiled by confidence. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that fact – confidence is conquest. But don’t confuse cockiness with confidence, that’s an entirely different thing.

Oh, and keep plugging away. The longer you stick at something, the luckier you will get and the breaks will fall for you. Talking of which, tell your instructors about me. Tell them you want me to speak in person at your establishment so you can learn more about making life rewarding and fun (see what I did there? Always be proactive).

Thanks for reading. Stay curious.

Why isn’t public speaking taken seriously?

Monday, July 14th, 2014


I recently attended an award evening at the school my children go to and they had a motivational speaker in the middle of the prize giving.

He was an Olympic swimmer and he had fifteen minutes in which to tell the hundreds of children and parents how great they can be if they apply themselves.

His message (I garnered) is to be the best version of yourself that you can be and work hard to achieve that goal. By working closely with his coach, he told us, he had managed to reach the Olympics.

He began his speech by telling us that as he drove to the school, he’d changed his mind about what he was going to talk about and how he was going to approach the subject. He kept repeating bits of his story unnecessarily and had a nervous habit of fiddling with the microphone lead. There were lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in his delivery and his fractured story ended in a muddled conclusion. He overran his time by a considerable margin and even commented upon the fact from the stage. He then mentioned (to my dismay) that he would be taking questions after he’d finished! I assume it was an alarmed disapproving look from the head that made him amend that statement to, he would be available for questions after the event if anyone wanted to ask him anything. I sensed some relief from the audience in the hot and stuffy assembly hall when he finished his speech.

The thing is this; throughout his speech he kept referring to his coach and how important he was in disciplining him and guiding him through his career. Presumably, he wouldn’t have got to the Olympics without a coach.

So why didn’t he have a coach for his speaking career? He said he travelled the country giving speeches so public speaking must be a career of sorts for him (I’m guessing that he doesn’t have a speaking coach because any decent one would have sorted out of his fundamental mistakes immediately).

I couldn’t help but compare his approach to speaking with his approach to swimming.

He changed his mind about his speaking strategy on the drive to the school - did he do the same before a swimming race?

He kept repeating bits of his story - when he was swimming in a race, did he think to throw in some unnecessary strokes or was he going to make every stroke count?

He didn’t seem aware of his nervous habits - did he not exhaustively study video footage of his swimming technique to discover where improvements could be made?

He didn’t read his brief - if he’s racing in the 100m butterfly, does he turn it into a 10,000m breast stroke just because he feels like it?

He was determined to be the best version of himself that he could be - except when he’s speaking, presumably?

As a professional speaker myself, these contradictions were glaringly obvious but I sensed that the audience, in the sultry heat, simply weren’t engaged with his narrative. I asked my daughter afterwards if she liked his speech and she shrugged her shoulders and said she wasn’t interested in sports. This told me everything I needed to know: the speaker didn’t realise that his sport story is meant to be an allegory for his much bigger message – be the best version of yourself that you can be. His technique needs to improve if he’s to compete in the race for the hearts and minds of school learners.

So why didn’t an Olympian realise that public speaking is a different field of excellence and that its skills can be learned? Why didn’t he know that experienced practitioners can help other speakers avoid basic errors? Every top sports-person has a coach, no matter how good they are, why is speaking so poorly regarded by many practitioners?

Those Bettakultcha story tellers, they just make it up as they go along…

Friday, December 23rd, 2011
Christmas BettaKultcha 2011. Quality.

Christmas BettaKultcha 2011. Quality.

In the colorful history of Bettakultcha, two pivotal moments have occurred  which have polarised the audience. The first happened a few months ago when a controversial film was shown during the interval. In that instance, Bettakultcha emerged bigger and stronger. The second moment has yet to reach a defining conclusion.

Here is the story of the second incident.

At the Christmas Bettakultcha event in the Corn Exchange, Martin Carter, a drag artist,  did a presentation which involved miming to a musical track about vegemite. Martin displayed images and lyrics on his slides and performed in flamboyant burlesque style. The result was hilariously entertaining. I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t like to follow that presentation’.

As it happened, the acts that followed Martin were more than capable of holding their own and the evening finished on a massive high.

So what’s the problem? Well, it appears that afterwards in various hostelries around the Corn Exchange, the audience discussed this performance and divided themselves into two distinct camps. On the one side was the traditionalists who argued that miming was, cheating and shouldn’t be allowed at the event. The other side argued that the event was more of a cabaret and shouldn’t be restricted by simple rules about speaking. It was also related to me in despatches (I was not present in the pub but unglamorously de-rigging and tidying up in the Corn Exchange despite my boast to the audience earlier in the evening that after the show I was going to go to a sex and cocaine party thrown by the Krankies) that some people actually thought that the Random Slide Challenge should be dropped!

Here are my thoughts on the matter.

When I started Bettakultcha with Richard Michie I used to joke to the audience that we were making it up as we went along. Except I wasn’t joking. We really were making it up. If something worked we kept it for the next event, if it didn’t, it was dropped. The fact that the concept was based on talking presentations didn’t limit the potential creativity; talking presentations was just the start. In fact the template of twenty slides lasting fifteen seconds each is just a good way of creating a start point for people who might otherwise be overwhelmed when faced with the entire world to explore. The possibilities for innovation with this format are endless, five minute plays could be written, rap songs performed, comedy sketches… we just needed the adventurous people to explore them.

Most people stick to the tried and tested formula of talking over twenty slides. I have no problem with this. If their idea or passion is strong enough, then the template works every time. However, when someone attempts an innovative variation on the template, I rejoice; creativity, originality and innovation is what will set Bettakultcha apart from all the other speaking events that currently exist—it should be encouraged.

So I was amazed that some people actually wanted to halt the development of Bettakultcha at a particular stage in its evolution (sure, we’re running strongly now but imagine if we could fly too). How could anyone imagine that Martin was cheating? Let’s look at the Bettakultcha rules again;

Did he use twenty slides?

Did they last fifteen seconds each?

Did he do a sales pitch?
Erm, he did mention vegemite but in a negative way, so, no.

No cheating there then.

But I can see the objection raised by the people in the pub. If you allow miming, what’s to stop someone from just playing their favourite music track, whilst showing pictures of their favourite band and they played air guitar for five minutes.


We would allow that because anyone who imagines that such an act would entertain the audience is either genuinely good or comedically deluded. Either way, it would be interesting to watch and bound to get a reaction from the Bettakultcha audience.

Oh, I forgot to mention one caveat (which fortunately we haven’t had to exercise yet), if Richard or myself don’t like the way something is being presented, then we pull the plug on them. We’ll use our common sense and intuition for the benefit of all. This approach has worked well so far and as Bettakultcha is a story in the making, we’ll continue to employ the same strategy.

*We wouldn’t be able to post the video of the performance on any internet sites though, because of copyright infringement of the music. Martin’s performance therefore, will have to remain a memory for those who were there on the night.

Why Bettakultcha has to replace Motivational Speakers

Thursday, October 13th, 2011


Before I explain Bettakultcha, let’s look at the business of motivational speaking. The speaker’s brief is usually to ‘motivate’ the audience into working harder or smarter for the organization that hired them. The speakers are generally flown into an organization at great expense and with great fanfare. They are usually ‘experts’ of some kind in their field, but that expertise can be limited to just themselves—they have climbed a mountain or were born with some kind of disability. During their presentation it is their intention to beguile, harangue, seduce, enthrall, advise, inspire and lift the audience with their stories into a feel good, ‘can do’ mood. The very best are paid huge fees and speak internationally.

But how does this help the people in the audience? If the speaker has a unique story to tell then it can only be relevant to the typical audience member in an oblique and abstract way—if I can do it, you can too. The speaker is also, more often than not, a stranger to the organization that they’re speaking to and has no knowledge of the culture that exists within the organization.

If the speaker is able to raise the energy in the audience then they go away with their cheque and with their ego suitably bolstered. They have done something that is motivating in itself. The feel good mood in the audience, however, dissipates almost as soon as they re-enter the workplace—or the real life situation that they were seeking help for or were distracted from—by the presentation. Occasionally the speaker comes back to run various workshops to try and maintain some sort of momentum from their initial visit but the truth of the matter is this: just paying attention to people is what makes a difference—what kind of attention is largely irrelevant—it is the attention which gives the result. There’s even been a study done of the phenomenon and a name given to the effect: the Hawthorne effect.

If this is true, then you might as well hire a comedian as opposed to a motivational speaker for your conference (and in truth, most in-demand speakers are just good entertainers with aphorisms thrown in). The other truth is this: motivational speakers are motivating themselves. Motivational speakers get off on showing off their own motivation, by climbing a higher mountain than their competitors, by getting a higher fee than their competitors, by getting louder applause that their predecessors. That is not to deny that some are well intentioned, and genuinely want to help their fellow human beings.

The other problem with motivational talks is that we all like to be told what we want to hear: yes, you can be a millionaire… yes you have what it takes to climb a mountain… yes your value systems are correct… Well, if you only tell people what they want to hear, then you can’t be telling them anything new, you’re simply reinforcing old ideas but delivering them in novel packaging.

So how does Bettakultcha revolutionise motivational speaking?

The people who attend a Bettakultcha event can testify to the transformational power generated by the experience although they’re not quite sure what that power is. This is because the entire focus of the event shifts from ‘appointed speakers’ to volunteers from the audience. The audience, therefore, motivates itself.

Who are the experts?

If you are in an organization, then the person who is most qualified to speak to you about your organization is you… because you work there. The only consultants you should be hiring into your organization are facilitators, not speakers. Outside consultants have to start from scratch: any useful advice about the practical running of an organization that they can give is totally predicated on the culture existing within that organization, so they have to study the culture first. You already know the culture.

How does Bettakultcha motivate people?

The way you motivate people is by giving them real power, not by giving them a speech.

Good speakers follow certain techniques to engage with an audience and one of the best is direct engagement with an individual member of the audience. They ask a general question and then have a short conversation with whoever answers their question. They engage like this because they know it keeps the audience on their toes and involves them personally. From the audience member’s point of view, they will feel good about themselves for contributing to the proceedings and because they do actually mean something to the event – they count as a person.

Bettakultcha gives the audience real power because it actually lets them speak.

Bettakultcha empowers the audience by making them responsible for the event. If the good speaker is so concerned about making a connection with the audience, about empowering the audience, about motivating the audience, why doesn’t he or she relinquish control of the event? Become a spectator rather than a contributor? Surely, this is the desired outcome of a perfectly successful motivational speech? “A great leader makes the people think they had achieved everything by themselves”? The greatest outcome that any good speaker could wish for is to think ‘that was a good presentation; my work is done here; I have given the organization the tools to be able to progress without me.’

And as for the members of the organization who contribute to the event by presenting, how much more powerful is it to have these people in your organization for months on end inspiring and motivating the other workers instead of someone who visits for a couple of hours every year or so? Imagine the sense of community that this will engender—the workers will learn more about themselves and feel inspired by some of the stories they will hear from people they can chat with on a day-to-day basis.

And as previous presenters from Bettakultcha have told me, their sense of achievement after their presentation is intoxicating and gives them the confidence to attempt other things outside of their comfort zone.

From a managerial perspective, the presentations could give an indication of the morale within the organization and highlight some of the issues concerning the members. The management could even be alerted to potential skills and experience within their organization, which they had no idea existed and which might be utilized in the future.

The key to having a successful event, however, is the curation and delivery. It has to be perceived as a fun activity and one that is generally outside of the formal structure of the organization. The facilitator of the event then becomes crucial in this regard. To simply lift the format without regard for the above considerations is a recipe for disappointment.

If the future is going to require adaptable, capable, confident members of society, then there is no better place to find them than at a Bettakultcha event.

Pimp my presentation!

Thursday, January 20th, 2011
The fuel of change

The fuel of change

So you’ve been to a Bettakultcha event and been inspired by a presenter who cared passionately about something, and wanted to tell the world about it. And you thought, “I care deeply about, something, and no-one knows much about it, why doesn’t someone tell the world about that?”

Well, this article is for you.

I’ve spoken with a number of people who have been to a Bettakultcha event and they said exactly that to me and when I asked them, “Why don’t you tell the world?” they replied, “I don’t have the confidence to speak in front of a crowd.”

Let me tell you a story…

There’s a reason why a group of, ex-public school millionaires, run this country. It’s largely because of what they learn in those schools. Aside from the socialising and squash, they also learn supreme confidence and towering ambition. This means they can strut into a roomful of people and tell them all what to do, even when they have little, or no idea of what they are talking about. And the weird thing is, that roomful of people will generally do what they are being told to do because the speaker has the authority of confidence and ambition – it’s a self fulfilling prophecy!

Now if you don’t happen to like what they’re telling you, what are you going to do about it – we’re supposed to be living in a democracy remember? Well, if you tell yourself, you know they’re wrong but don’t have the confidence to speak out, then you get the government you deserve and you need to hurry up and follow your orders.

But if you realise that confidence is, in fact, a learned skill and that there are willing people out there who could help you, you could build your confidence up to the point where you felt capable of making your voice heard. This is how democracy is supposed to work, so why isn’t presentation skills taught in ALL schools?

Anyway, before I get too passionate, here’s my message; if you care about the community you live in and you want to make a difference there, or you just want to be able to share your passion with the people at Bettakultcha but lack the confidence, you can get some help and advice from some of the past presenters at Bettakultcha.

At this stage, we’re just getting an idea of numbers, so if you are interested in a confidence building ‘playshop’ (like Bettakultcha, we want it to be fun and informative!) DM me (@ivortymchak) with your name and email address and I will start a mailing list, then together, we can begin generating some real people power.

UPDATE: The Round Foundry in Holbeck, Leeds, have kindly agreed to host the event.

The boiled frog fallacy

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
Frogs just want to make more frogs.

Frogs just want to make more frogs.

A popular story in motivational talks goes something like this; if a frog is put into a pan of boiling water it will leap out of the pan immediately but if the frog is put into a pan of tepid water and the pan is then heated, the frog will stay in the pan until it is boiled to death.

Well, you know me, I question everything, so I thought I would do a little experiment. But rather than harm an innocent frog, I thought I would experiment on myself. So I took a bath, a hot one. Here are my findings.

When you go to sit in the bath, you move from the temperature of the air into the temperature of the water. Your body quickly detects the change and calls various bodily responses into action. If the temperature change is slight, very little stimulus is experienced – the body is more aware of sensation rather than temperature . If it is extreme, an overload of stimulus is experienced and you are forced to take some sort of action – like jumping out of the bath. So the first part of the frog story holds good.

If the temperature change is just within the pain parameters, something interesting happens. A rush of stimuli is experienced which tells the body that a significant change has occurred. This rush can be extremely pleasant as the body makes adjustments for the new temperature. The intense feeling of warmth can last for several seconds and the effects of it, for a few minutes. But after that time, the body has made the necessary adjustments to the new temperature and attempts to accommodate the new temperature as, ‘the norm’. This is done by sweating and sending blood to the extremities. Quickly then, the rush is replaced by a new norm and we are pretty much back to the lack of stimulus we experienced before we stepped into the bath except that we are several degrees hotter. To perpetuate the rush we have to introduce new sensations which make demands on our body to adjust to the changes. We can either add more hot water to the bath, in which case we might cross the threshold to pain and burn ourselves or we can add cold water and experience the cooling adjustment. Or we can simply lay in the bath and do nothing (as per the frog in the story).

My experiment so far, tells me that my particular organism seeks a comfortable existence whilst at the same time, maintaining an element of adventure for such times as changes in the environment demand action.

So lets go back to our motivational speaker. They usually exhort you to make a significant change from your habitual experience of life – climb that mountain, change that thought, go on a diet etc. And yes, should you make the effort, there is an initial rush of adjustment to the change, both physically and mentally. But over time, your body seeks to normalize any changes. So once climbing a particular mountain is achieved (or whatever) you are back to where you started in terms of stimuli (assuming, of course, that the weather remains uneventful on the mountain). In order to experience the rush of adjustment again, you have to climb a different mountain, usually higher or more difficult. Eventually, your hunger for stimuli will be comparable to a drug addiction – greater quantities will be required to produce less satisfactory results. The obvious  corollary of this is that you attempt to achieve a stimulus too great for your organism to bear. In other words, you step into a bath of boiling water and die.

Your body will attempt to make the new change, the new norm, that’s how we adapt as a species. If we take the motivational idea to its absurd conclusion then, the perfect way to live your life, would be to watch paint dry for several hours before playing Russian roulette or maybe have sex continuously with the irregular interruption of a wild beast hunting you or you, it.

Most people don’t live their lives like that, so what else is missing from this story?

Well, in the frog’s case, its main goal is to make more frogs, so it will avoid boiling pans of water because that does not help it in its cause and luckily, it rarely encounters boiling water in the wild. In our case, we want to make more humans too but we have the added complication of ideas and intellect. The motivational speaker appeals to the intellect and sells the idea of ‘positive change’. But not everyone likes climbing mountains, or working harder, etcetera. And here is the key.

The trick is to find what you like doing. You generally like doing something because you have a talent for doing it (but not always). Our prime motivation is still the desire to make more of ourselves. This used to be literally through babies, but today it can be achieved intellectually through fame and reputation. You can make more of yourself through the aggrandizing culture of our society.

Unfortunately, most motivational speeches don’t explain that simply attempting to do something positive is not enough, change for its own sake is nonsensical, you have to like what it is you are attempting to do, you have to like taking hot baths… And certain talents are unrecognized in today’s lop sided society – you might be a genius at not spending money or avoiding hard work.

This story of the frog is, of course, totally misleading and largely apocryphal. Common sense tells you it simply isn’t going to work in reality. It is a symbolic generalization, but do not accept symbolic generalizations, they are fallacious and dangerous. They can make you mistakenly believe that the map is the territory*

And anyway, you are not a cold blooded amphibian, you are a hot human being – demand higher standards, demand better stories, demand relevance.

* Alfred Korzybski

Professor Raymond Tallis talking at Leeds Salon

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

According to the blurb I was emailed by Leeds Salon, he’s one of the world’s top polymaths – philosopher, poet, novelist, clinical scientist.. the list went on and on. Basically, he’s clever. Before he started the formal part of his presentation, he warned us that when he gets excited, the rapidity of his speaking increases significantly. Oh boy, I do like to see a presenter get excited!

Then he launched into his er, script. Which he hadn’t bothered to memorise. So he kept his head down as he read every word of his essay from the printed out pages piled on the lectern. He hadn’t even bothered to familiarise himself with the spoken delivery of the text either as he frequently tripped up over the convoluted sentence structure.

He did have some slides to accompany his script though. Ah, no, wait a minute, they were largely slides of the dense text he was reading, sometimes verbatim, sometimes not. This made for a distracting, ‘spot the difference‘ game and I found myself wandering from his argument. You see, Mr Tallis may be a genius in many disciplines, but when it comes to the art of presentation, he’s a simpleton.

He is predominantly a writer and as any writer should know, ‘writing’ is not speech. It is the difference between fantasising about sex and actually performing sex; different organs are used. And as he progressed in his recitation, my tumescent interest slowly drooped. If this was him being excited, boy, I’d hate to see him when he’s feeling off colour.

One of his complaints, highlighted in his diatribe, was that interest in knowledge for its own sake was waning during these modern times in the general population. Well, on the evidence of his presentation it was easy to see why. Knowledge presented in this manner is about as interesting as reading the UK’s Twitter stream during the broadcast of an x-factor episode. When today’s youth have wifi connected video games that engage them totally at all emotional levels, the choice between searching out fascinating knowledge in a hit and miss fashion and being engrossed in a virtual world is a pretty simple one. Maybe someone should invent a philosophy video game that asked youth how we should live and forced them to make moral decisions. That might get them engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

The purpose of a live presentation is to persuade the audience to do something differently – even if it is to think about something differently. If you want to persuade someone, you need to engage with them, make eye contact and display some passionate belief in your message. Mr Tallis read from his script. I can read a script from my computer screen – just send me the sodding pdf. What was the point of him being there?

It was mentioned by Mr Tallis in his preamble, that he and Michele Ledda, the host for the evening, had a brilliant conversation in the pub beforehand and he hoped his impending presentation was a fraction as good. Clearly the main event happened in the pub because nothing sparked when I was listening. Why was that? Maybe it was because Mr Tallis wasn’t reading from a prepared script when he was in the pub, maybe it’s because he and Michele engaged with one another in a natural and spontaneous way.

On his entry into the building, Mr Tallis wore a striking, bright red felt hat with a black band, so he clearly acknowledges the need for good presentation in his wardrobe. Why then, does he stop when he closes the wardrobe door? Is he unable to extend the metaphor into public speaking?

He did manage to change my attitude though in one area that evening. In the Q & A that followed his presentation, polite exchanges were made about his argument. I resolved henceforth to make it my mission to criticise publicly any presentation that falls way short of the respect I am due for giving up my valuable time and attention to listen to it.

You have been warned.

I’m also going to get me one of those bright red felt hats.

How can we measure ideas?

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010


“We owe almost all of our knowledge not to those who have agreed, but to those who have differed.” Charles Caleb Colton

At a recent speaking engagement, I noticed the evaluation forms neatly distributed around the seats of the room. The audience were to measure my presentation. My immediate and unconscious reaction was, ‘I hope they like me.’*

But then I started to think…

What are they measuring? The fact that the forms were neatly laid out and had exactly the same questions on them, spoke volumes about how we view our society and how it should be run. They could only be measuring a narrow band of data from the entire experience of hearing me speak. Who decides if that narrow band is the ‘best’ one to measure?

Should I have studied the evaluation form and then attempted to modify my message in whatever way I could, so that I could score more highly in the areas the client seems interested in? If I am a professional speaker, it makes sense to please the client so that they will recommend me to others or even hire me again. To do this, I need to know what the client really wants to hear, and to give them what they want in an attractive package. A high evaluation score would result and I would be pleased.

But should I be pleased?

If I tell them what they want to hear, am I not just confirming prejudices, misconceptions, and false confidences? If you are following my reasoning, you will have noticed that I just made an assumption. How can we be sure if they are prejudices, or misconceptions or false confidences? Well, who is asking the questions that re-examines cherished and long held beliefs? If none of your values and beliefs are challenged, how can you be certain that they are sound?

You can’t.

So what is the job of a professional speaker? If it is to ‘motivate’ the workforce to work harder, research has shown that any kind of attention will do the trick, in which case, forget the expensive speaker and just take the workers out for a meal or provide free massages in their break times. If it is to facilitate change or to improve productivity in the long term, then the speaker will have to address significant aspects of the world views held by the audience members and get them to re-examine them. This can be uncomfortable and challenging. People hate change, even if that change can be of benefit in the long run.

Thus, if a speaker proposes something unpleasant to an audience, how is that going to affect their evaluation score? Does a low score mean more has been achieved? Is a high evaluation score a badge of anodyne blandness, and a lack of originality?

Or is the mark of a truly great speaker, the ability to make the difficult seem desirable, and render any sort of evaluation irrelevant?

* A natural mistake. Being liked, has nothing to do with the job of communicating ideas.

Michael Angelo meets Stanley Milgram

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

In the middle of a presentation by a successful professional speaker, a slide came up which illustrated his next point. It was a quote that read;
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Michael Angelo

My immediate reaction was one of amusement but as his presentation continued, something remarkable happened, my amusement turned to doubt.

This particular speaker is incredibly successful at what he does and commands a lot of respect (and fees) as a result. He was on stage in front of a large audience and his voice was amplified. This meant that he had authority over us. We, the audience, had given up our valuable time to listen to him and gain the benefit of his wisdom.

At the end of his presentation, he asked for any questions. I was on the cusp of asking him. “Who is this ‘Michael Angelo;? I had heard of Michelangelo the artist, is it the same person?” But his authority stopped me.

If I asked this question, somebody was going to look stupid, and I wasn’t 100% sure, it was going to be him. His position of authority had sown the seeds of doubt in my mind.

Although I was familiar with the art works of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni,  I was not familiar with his writings, and so I couldn’t be sure that the person referred to in the quote was the same Michelangelo. The possibility remained that there was another Michael Angelo who is a professional speaker and has an improbable name, just as Zig Ziglar has.

At the presentation, I remained silent.

When I got home, I was straight onto the computer. An internet search revealed that there is indeed a Michael Angelo. His fame though, lies in being a heavy metal guitarist who plays an improbable looking twin necked guitar. Further searches did not reveal him to be a professional speaker on the side, with a history of producing memorable quotes.

Interestingly, more research showed that, nine times out of ten, the quote used in the presentation was attributed to Michelangelo, but the tenth one was incorrectly attributed to Michael Angelo. It became apparent that the speaker had seen the quote somewhere, thought it would be useful in one of his presentations, and so copied and pasted it verbatim. Unfortunately, because he was not familiar with the artist, he took the attribution on trust and copied an incorrect one. I guess most people have done this kind of thing at some point in their careers.

The dangers though, are apparent;

In terms of his presentation, as soon as I noticed the error, he had lost me. Not only was I preoccupied with the veracity of the quote, I was also questioning the entire content of his presentation – if he had got that wrong, what else had he simply copied and pasted without thinking.

His apparent authority of his own subject matter made me doubt my own knowledge. I was reluctant to bring up the point in discussion because of the hierarchical nature of speaker presentations. Despite what anyone might say, it is not an equitable exchange of ideas and knowledge. It is his job to speak, therefore he must know what he is talking about. A recent example of acceding to authority, is the way ‘financial experts’ managed to convince seemingly ‘intelligent’ bankers that sub prime mortgages were an infallible way to make money. Experiments by Stanley Milgram, confirm this tendency of ours to submit to any sort of authority.

On a philosophical note, short of travelling to Italy and seeing original documents, I cannot be absolutely sure that Michelangelo made that quote or that his name is spelled as most books have it. So is my knowledge of Michelangelo any more certain than the speakers?

Perhaps I should end with this quote, allegedly attributed to Buddha;
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

How to feed your audience

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Often a keynote speech has to be adapted for different audiences and for different time constraints. If the presentation requires shortening, the temptation is to simply include the most sexy bits of your speech to keep it as punchy as possible. This can sometimes work against you.

The best way to look at preparing a speech is to imagine you are serving a meal to a hungry audience. No matter how short or long your presentation is, the demands of hunger remain the same.

Here are a couple of starter incidents to whet your appetite.

The first was when I was showing Paul Thomas, a friend of mine, my latest slide show presentation. I described a visual trick I do with a cup and spoon to demonstrate how inept we are at predicting outcomes. I then showed him a couple of slides which basically illustrated similar illusions. Paul warned me to be careful about overwhelming my audience with too much stuff, they only have a limited capacity for new information. Good point.

The second incident involved a conversation I had with David Hyner earlier today. We were talking about a presentation he had made to a school a couple of weeks back and which I had attended. The only real criticism I could find with his excellent content and delivery was the lack of some gravitas, some profound bit of meat to chew over. David acknowledged this feedback as valid and described the scenario as mentioned in my first paragraph.

This set me thinking about how to avoid this seductive trap. If you always think of the meal analogy, it should help you give a balanced presentation.

You are feeding the audience
It’s about them, they’re hungry, not you, so don’t feed your own ego.

They have limited appetites
Their stomachs can only hold so much food and they are probably used to particular foods so presenting them with a huge banquet, no matter how tempting it looks, is just wasteful and some people will subconsciously feel frustrated that they couldn’t taste it all. Also, exotic spicy foods can upset delicate stomachs so if your ideas are radical and challenging they may need to be watered down a bit with a suitable sauce.

They need sustenance
Remember it’s the food they need, not the wrapper.

They need quality
A lot of presentations try to appeal to the immediate demands of hunger and are full of sugar and saturated fats – in effect fast food. This gives a quick sugar rush of energy but it is not long before the audience will require another quick fix and their health in the long term will decline.

They need a varied diet
Give them a tasty starter or two, serve the main dish somewhere in the middle or near the end, garnished with suitable examples and anecdotes then finish with something sweet or minty.

Your audience will feel satisfied and probably come back again to enjoy another fabulous meal.

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