Archive for the ‘Speaking matters’ Category

Worcester breakfast club

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Professor Ivor Tymchak

So. After Wetherby High School came the Birmingham Professional Speakers Association master-class group. The audience was made up entirely of experienced professional speakers. I delivered the original SatNav for the Soul® presentation verbatim including the slides I had shown at Wetherby plus some extra ones I had devised.

The feedback was disheartening and painful.

‘You talk about talent’, they said, ‘but where is your talent, your artistic skills?’

‘You talk about passion’, they said, ’so where is your passion, why do you constrict yourself with a straight jacket of memorised lines?’

It was not all one way though, the SatNav metaphors were absolutely brilliant, they said, why don’t you concentrate on them?

But their criticisms undermined the very foundation of my working model, namely, to learn a speech word for word. They were suggesting that I abandon this model and improvise. It seemed I had learned nothing from the Wetherby experience.

Afterwards I spoke with Clive Gott, a successful and experienced speaker, about the feedback I had received and about my doubts about the speaking model I had adopted. After much soul searching on my part Clive crystallised the experience by summarising that what the Birmingham audience had been asking of me was to be authentic, that was all, and by being authentic I could then connect with them.

This made a lot of sense and after I had finished speaking with Clive I felt a whole lot better about the next speaking engagement coming up which was the Worcester breakfast club. It was an unpaid gig and Clive convinced me that I had nothing to lose by throwing out the script and improvising.

The next few days saw a frantic preparation of new slides which showed my artwork and various creative avenues I had explored during my life. ‘Tell us your story’, the master-class group had advised, so I intended to.

Ten minutes before I was to deliver my speech to the breakfast club I felt surprisingly relaxed, even eager. I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my lines because I was going to make them up as I went along. And the collection of slides I had put together gave me confidence – even I was impressed with the array of creative ventures I had undertaken.

So the speech now contained all my triple A grade material distilled into thirty minutes. I had even plundered my other keynote speech, ‘Assume Nothing’ for its best bits. It all made sense though, nothing was gratuitous or arbitrary.

I felt pretty good as I finished my last line and sat down to my half empty cup of cold coffee to wait out the remaining minutes of the meeting. I felt good but not good enough to prepare me for the feedback from the well wishers who came up to congratulate me afterwards. I was astonished. Every single accolade was offered. A man introduced himself and said it was a pleasure to meet someone who knew how to use PowerPoint properly (boy, that felt good). Another said that he was already sitting up during my presentation but when my first slide came on of my own work he sat up even more (what a master stroke it was to follow the master-class advice). A couple of people asked if they could have a copy of one particular slide which was a caricature of me as a mad scientist concocting a distillate of creativity (see above).

Driving home I was higher than the moon. It felt like my speaking career had just experienced the orgasm of its conception and was on its journey of development into a fabulous creature that had its own glittering destiny ahead of it. Success is the most powerful aphrodisiac known to creativity. Today has seen an orgy of ideas that danced and mated with each other and produced offspring that will enhance and improve the presentation even further.

I kid you not, SatNav for the Soul® is now a killer presentation who’s time has come. Its message is pure crack cocaine to those people stuck in the senseless loop traffic around the Capitalist city of Consumerism.

I’m ready.

Speaking in schools

Monday, April 6th, 2009

The map is not the territory

The road to Wetherby was my road to Damascus. On this journey I saw the light. A blinding light.

Wetherby High School had booked me to speak to their Key Stage 4 students. I had no idea what Key Stage 4 was. I had never spoken in a school before.

I was to deliver my new keynote presentation, SatNav for the Soul®, which basically points out to people that consumerism has us imprisoned and is slowly starving us to death spiritually and creatively. The keynote was originally written for adults caught up in corporate purgatory but after I had presented it to a Rotary club and an audience member told me afterwards that he wanted his teenage son to hear it, I wondered if adolescents would find the message instructive too. It was then that I looked to present it in schools.

Getting into schools though proved incredibly difficult and it was only through Richard McCann, a fellow speaker, that I managed to get the Wetherby gig.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day was understandably wary of letting anyone run loose with the young minds of her impressionable charges and so she asked to see a transcript of SatNav for the Soul®. which I duly sent her. After reading it, she acknowledged it was a good message but thought it might be too erudite for fifteen and sixteen year olds and suggested that I ‘dumb it down a bit’. As I had learned the speech by rote, I resolved to change one or two words for simpler ones where I could remember to do so. There wasn’t enough time to memorise an alternate version. She then asked me if I had any slides to go with the speech. I said no, I was simply going to deliver it verbatim as the transcript. She balked at this and suggested I source some images as teenagers today are largely visual and holding their attention without them would prove a major challenge. There was only a couple of days to go before I was supposed to deliver.

I had deliberately avoided using any slides as I wanted to keep the presentation as simple as possible technically but I took her advice and looked at developing some memorable slides. This was the first flash of light.

When I started to think about how I could enhance an important section, the images began to take on a life of their own. It was fun creating alternative ways of looking at things. I ruthlessly followed the basic ground rules of slides; no more than six words per slide, avoid just repeating what you have already said, etc and I started to collect an impressive collection of images. Many a difficult concept was magically simplified with a well thought out cartoon, something I could execute in a few minutes being an accomplished artist. I also discovered slides were a great aide memoir should I forget where I was in the speech. I was ready.

On the day, I was to present two sessions, one immediately before lunch and one immediately after lunch. The morning session I delivered as I would do for an adult audience, reciting the speech as I had memorised it but changing the odd big word here and there for a simpler one. I could see that the four or five teachers present in the audience were thoroughly absorbed in the speech and following every word but some of the kids looked blank. By the end of the presentation the students started to get restless and I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to hold their attention throughout.

Over lunch I spoke to Peter Muddiman, the teacher who booked me, and he said the language was still too dense, the speech would have been fine at a conference of teachers but adolescents were an entirely different box of frogs. The epilogue, he said, sounded like poetry and went way over the heads of the kids. The next group were a year younger and they were going to find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow any of that.

A year younger!? My heart plunged to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. I would never hold their attention; a year can make a huge difference to someone’s understanding of the world. I realised I would either have to present it as rehearsed and subject them to forty minutes of incomprehensible ‘poetry’ or… or what?

I didn’t want to do the second session, I wanted to go home and debrief. But then a strange thing happened. I decided that I had to do it, no matter what. I couldn’t let people down. But I couldn’t present it as it was, I had to change it radically and I had five minutes in which to think up how. The light started to get brighter.

I decided to throw out the script and speak from the heart using my slides as a reference. This was frightening for me because I wanted to present certain complex concepts in a particular order using precise language, that is why I had learned the speech by rote. Improvising was a dangerous, unknown quantity. An eerie calm flooded through me as I realised I was crossing the Rubicon. I was perfectly relaxed as the children filed into the hall and I prepared to deliver the second session.

One of the teachers from the first session spoke to me as he walked past and said, “I’m looking forward to hearing this again”.

“Oh, it will be different this time.” I answered somewhat taken aback.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day came in last and told me that she had had good feedback (I reasoned this has to be from the teachers, as a lot of students looked indifferent) and that she would sit in on this one.

“…and so give a warm welcome to Ivor Tymchak…”

Still calm, I dived in. And hey! the water was warm! I launched into my subject matter. And what’s this? Hey! I can swim!

I felt like a session musician who had only ever followed the dots previously but suddenly learned, to his astonishment, that he could play improvised jazz. Because I had to rephrase practically everything in simpler language, the words were fresh and vital and I could look directly into the childrens’ eyes and divine if they had grasped the concept or not. If they had not, I explained the concept again using a different analogy. I left out huge chunks of the presentation which I thought were just too far removed from their everyday experience to be of any relevance. When I had finished, I was astonished to discover that the length of the second session was still forty minutes long – how come?

Speaking to Peter Muddiman afterwards (who listened to both sessions) he said the second session was far better for the kids and that I took the time to explain the concepts until they were understood. As an adult, he preferred the first session but from a child’s point of view the second session was much more accessible.

He told me he was impressed with way I had managed to shift gears so suddenly and come up with virtually, an entirely new presentation.

I must confess, I surprised myself too with my new found ability to improvise. It was one of those life enhancing moments, where you let go of something precious, only to discover that by letting go you have found something even more precious.

I’m already working on the revised version of the presentation. It will have more interaction, practical demonstrations and challenging puzzles. It will be ten times better than my last presentation, for on that day in Wetherby, I put away manish things and became a playful child.

Under new management

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

When listening to a speaker who is an expert in her field, I am always amused when she trots out some ’science’. In my field of creativity, for example, an expert will usually mention the concept of left brain thinking and right brain thinking. I won’t go into the specifics of the concept because it is largely a waste of time.

If I show you a diagram of a brain with neurons firing on either side of it, how does that help you? If I described the structure of bacteria and the rate at which it can reproduce, how does that help you avoid disease? If I told you that empirical evidence showed that washing your hands before handling food reduced the incidence of food poisoning you could act on that information. That information could make a significant difference to your life.

It is so unfortunate that most people are willing to be impressed by useless ’science’ and even more unfortunate that a lot of scientists promote the view that we should be impressed, as a lot of science prizes are awarded on how impressive a discovery is, not how useful it could be.

Similarly, a sign outside a building which says ‘under new management’ does not help anyone except the new proprietor and her ego.

Demonstrate that it is under new management by improving the exterior, service, food, or whatever. That kind of information could make a significant difference to my social life.

The art of writing great comedy material

Monday, December 1st, 2008

The first rule is to find common ground. The broader the appeal of your subject matter, the more likely people will have experienced your points of reference and the more successful your jokes will be.

For example; a lot of comedians use the Star Wars products as their source material. For any of their jokes to work on this topic, you have to have experienced these products. Now, I have only experienced one film (which I found boring – there, yes, I’ve said it!) and so none of their jokes make me laugh – who are they talking about? Usually there isn’t even a visual gag within their Star Wars routine which I can appreciate without needing the cultural reference. By narrowing your cultural reference you lose more of your audience.

One of the best exponents of using this rule is Peter Kay. Not only does he use subject matter which is familiar to the demographic sample of your typical comedy audience (pretty much the same as a cinema audience) but it is familiar to practically any demographic in the country. How many of us have been to a fair or a wedding? Even if you are not familiar with these experiences, there is enough visual humour in his performance to make the cultural reference irrelevant.

The best way to adhere to this rule is to monitor your own routine then, assuming you aren’t an astronaut or something, most of what you do will be familiar to everyone else.

For example; if you work, you probably travel to work either by public transport or by car. The next trick is to observe what you do and what everyone else does on that journey. Do this dispassionately. Look for inconsistencies, oddities and patterns. make a note of them. If you don’t write them down you will forget (you will, trust me).

Once you have gone through your entire routine for a week you should have enough notes to make a start. Pick a subject then look at the experience from a different angle. Some work is involved here and you may need to resort to creative thinking techniques such as the Lotus Blossom technique. Any decent book on creative thinking will have various exercises for you to use.

The trick here is, to adopt a different perspective. You don’t have to agree with the perspective, just adopt it and see where it takes you. Most people will have an accepted opinion about something, so if you can show the contrary or demonstrate the stupidity of such a view, humour will arise.

For example; in the days before I had a dishwasher, I would wash up by hand in a bowl in the sink. Quite often the empty bowl would be hooked onto the protruding metal nipple that anchored the chain of the plug. As the bowl filled up with water the plastic on the edge of the bowl would eventually give way and the bowl would suddenly drop an inch or so into the sink causing the water in the bowl to splash up and soak me with dirty water. This was never a gag of mine but I remember complaining to a friend about the frequency of the occurrence. As I told them the story they found it hilarious. Afterwards, I pondered on why they found it funny and the reason, I decided, was because it was so insignificant. The listener had obviously done this themselves and thought nothing of it, precisely because it was so trivial. In effect, they had no opinion about it. By complaining vociferously therefore, I had elevated it to a major issue and it was this absurdity that forced the humour.

Rhod Gilbert has a routine about a torch with a million candle power. Most people just accept the claim on the box but Rhod takes it literally and plays around with the concept – what if it only had 900,000 candle power, is that inadequate? etc.

Note also that with the increase in dishwasher sales, my story about the washing up bowl becomes less familiar to people. Eventually, if I tried to tell it, it wouldn’t make any sense to those people who had only ever experienced a dishwasher.

Next, extrapolate. By that I mean play around with it, apply whatever modification you can think of. Any modification is usually preceded with a ‘what if..?‘ question – ‘what if I exaggerate this incident, what if I take away the people, what if this principle was applied to a similar, unconnected social custom etc. Thus, even my comment about someone not being an astronaut could be utilised; what if you were an astronaut going to work, how would things be different?

By the way, if you’re an entrepreneur looking for a gap in the market, this approach will work for business as well.

Inspirational speech premiere

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Having premiered my SatNav for the Soul® speech at the Professional Speakers Association, it prompted several discussions afterwards with people from the audience.

One of these discussions concerned my reference in the speech to Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator, who discovered that money and fame were not what he imagined (as he confessed in his blog). My fellow conversationalist disagreed with the sentiment of the story and argued that if these successful people are that unhappy with the result of their success, why don’t they give their money away?

I did not have time to explore this point fully with him there and then but I can clarify things here.

Of course some successful people do give huge amounts of money away but this misses the real point. The ‘problem’ with money and success is that those who strive for it have a preconception about what it will do for them, as if it were some kind of drug or cosmetic surgery.

Money and success don’t ‘do’ anything. As I make clear in my speech they simply increase our options, so if you choose to, you can buy these drugs or cosmetic procedures with the money you have acquired.

Thus, if you are anticipating some magical transformation from acquiring financial success, you will be disappointed. Once you have been disappointed and realise that only your options have been increased, you can then readjust your expectations.

Assuming that giving the money away will return you to happiness (if that is where you started from), is making the same mistake as assuming that it will bring happiness in the first place. The point of the Scott Adams story was to illustrate that most people have an unrealistic belief about success.

Look after the beginning…

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

I had a speaking engagement tonight and something odd happened.

I had learnt my presentation thoroughly but it overran my alloted time by two or three minutes so I had to cut something from it. Unfortunately I was still undecided as to what to cut up until I was about to go on but then hurriedly made my choice. As I was delivering the speech I was trying to multi task in my head; there was the delivery and then there was the other train of thought that was observing my performance and trying to remember which bit was going to be cut. Mid way through the presentation I improvised slightly (always a temptation) and that slight change in word order threw me off the ‘automatic’ track and stopped the flow of words. I didn’t know what came next. The ‘conscious’ train of thought had to come into play then and try and help me remember. Fat lot of good that was. As the silence extended, the ‘conscious’ voice was trying to negotiate a tactical withdrawal, a cut and run strategy but I came somewhat to my senses and referred to the sheet that was supposed to cryptically jog my memory. Unfortunately I wasn’t cryptic enough with the long list of complex sentences scrolling in front of my eyes like an auto-cue stuck on high speed. I found it impossible to relax sufficiently to read with understanding and I might as well have been scanning a sheet of exotic hieroglyphs from Mesopotamia.

In the end I decided I was going to have to reason my way out of this impasse – what had I last said, so what could possibly come next?
This kind of worked and I came out with the right words but in the wrong order which then started to confuse me about where I was in the logic of my argument.

Eventually I got back on track and slid into my end piece with renewed confidence (mentally letting go of the nagging doubt that I had missed something important out from the speech). The expressions on the faces of the audience members didn’t give anything untoward away so I wrapped up with a flourish to their genuine appreciation.

Afterwards I was talking with some of the audience and apologized for the lapse in my concentration. They looked surprised and said they thought it was all scripted and part of the presentation – ‘assume nothing, so expect the unexpected’ kind of thing.

The irony of it! I had just been thinking to myself I needed a ‘get out’ if that sort of thing happened again and their reaction had given me one; I just pretend it was meant to happen and say something like “don’t assume I’ve learnt this”.

I then remembered a famous musician saying that if he hit a bum note while playing in front of an audience, he would hit the note again to make the audience think he had intended it all along.

The great lesson here was that if you take care of the beginning and the end (which I did), the middle will take care of itself.
Of course I had magnified the incident to several times its actual size in my imagination but it demonstrated that if you deliver your message with enough conviction and energy, one or two errors will be generously ignored.