Category Archives: speaking

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Finding something worth talking about

"I don’t know what I’d talk about," people often tell me when I encourage them to think of topics for conferences and events. "I don’t know what to write about," they say when I encourage them to blog. "I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything."

I get that imposter feeling as much as anyone else. I wonder what I know and why people are interested. I worry that the next presentation, the next article is when I’ll be unmasked as just another newbie. Sometimes I think that my enthusiasm is the main reason why people listen, because they already know everything I’m saying. I hate wasting time by not adding anything new.

You might recognize these things as reasons that stop you from standing up and speaking. Before you can think of improving your presentation skills or even becoming comfortable in front of the crowd, you need to find your _why_–your reason to speak, something worth talking about.

I struggle with this every time I see a call for participation or come across a conference I want to attend. These questions are helpful:

  • Who will be at the event, and who do I want to get into my session? This gives me an idea of the audience.
  • What do they care about that I also care about? If I can’t find something that I’m passionate about and the audience is probably interested in, then it’s not worth presenting. I’d like to avoid presenting on things I don’t particularly care about, and no one’s going to listen if I’m passionate about something and I can’t show people what’s in it for them. If I can find something we all care about, though, then it’s easy to go forward.
  • How can I help them? What can I do to save them time or help them work more effectively? If I spent a lot of time learning about something, I can save lots of people time by summarizing what I’ve learned, pointing out good ways to do things, and helping people avoid the pitfalls.
  • What do I want to learn more about? Teaching helps me learn something new or deepen my knowledge of something I’ve learned. Every presentation should stretch me at least a little, even if it covers similar ground as a previous presentation. Each presentation is a good excuse to learn. I’ll often submit stretch presentations where I know maybe half of the material, and this helps me learn even more in the process of preparing the presentation.

The next time an opportunity to share comes up–a call for participation, an educational community meeting–ask yourself:

  • Who will be at the event?
  • What do they care about that you also care about?
  • How can you help them?
  • What do you want to learn more about?

Chances are that you’ll find something you want to share. Good luck and have fun!

Keeping things fresh; Analyzing session feedback

One of the best ways to keep yourself enthusiastic and engaged when you’re presenting a topic that you’ve talked about a number of times before is to keep changing it, whether it’s by tweaking the content of your presentation or opening it up for more discussion. For my four GBS Learning Week sessions on “The Top 10 Web 2.0 Tools Every IBM Consultant Should Try” (available on the IBM intranet on Pass It Along), I decided to vary the structure. The first two times I presented it, I added a new tool to the list and consolidated two other items. For the third and fourth times, I presented it as a survey or quiz instead of a straight list of recommendations.

The third and fourth times felt a lot more effective for me because the new structure made it easier for people to reflect on their current practices and see the potential benefits of these new tools and new ways of working. I made sure that the session feedback for the third and fourth sessions were kept separately, so I could look for any differences.

Then it was time to put on my (very small) stats geek hat. The quantitative feedback didn’t show any statistically significant differences, which I didn’t mind because my average satisfaction rating was around 3.5 out of 4 (midway between “satisfied” and “very satisfied”).

How satisfied were you with this session? (4 – very satisfied, satisfied, neutral, dissatisfied – 1)

  1st/2nd 3rd/4th
Mean 3.49 3.73
SD 0.60 0.46
SEM 0.10 0.12
N 39 15

I got practically the same ratings for the question: How relevant was this topic to your current role and/or interest for your career development?

The comments were:

  • Well done, Sacha!
  • Very enthusiastic. Well done!
  • Partly about saving time, partly about filling your day 24/7 with work stuff–what about downtime?
  • Great job, Sacha!
  • So much good stuff presented in such a short period of time! Wish we could have had a little more time to see a short practical demo of each of the 10 tools. Very well presented.
  • Pretty good list of tools.
  • Excellent presentation by Sacha
  • Good session
  • Sacha made this dull topic interesting with practical examples. Thanks.
  • Very informative.
  • Very informative and good info on how to find and use some great tools. Instructor made topics interesting and had a good pace (not too slow)
  • Good delivery, very enthusiastic
  • Enthusiastic presenter, passionate about her subject. Good approach by question and answer.
  • High energy! well done
  • Sacha is very enthusiastic! Great job!!! Super tips!!!
  • Fantastic–Sacha is a very engaging speaker!
  • Super presenter – perfect length

I also changed the follow-up strategy for the third and fourth sessions, promising to e-mail people afterwards instead of just directing them to where they can download the presentation. We’ll see how well that works. I might yet see significant differences in adoption and retention. =)

Speaking of session feedback, I’ve been meaning to post my speech feedback from the Technical Leadership Exchange session I gave on I.B.Millennials: The Net Generation and Those Who Recruit, Hire, Manage, Work With, and Sell to Us.

NSI Rating Scale:

Excellent: 85 – 100
Good: 75 – 84
Fair: 65 – 74
Poor: 55 – 64
Severe Problem: below 55

The value of the content       
Total Responses: 43    NSI Rating: 87.21 (Excellent)   Ranking: 64 of 317
The speaker’s ability to deliver the material       
Total Responses: 42    NSI Rating: 92.86 (Excellent)   Ranking: 47 of 317
Your ability to apply what you learned       
Total Responses: 43    NSI Rating: 70.93 (Fair)   Ranking: 115 of 317
This session will help me achieve my business goals       
Total Responses: 43    NSI Rating: 63.37 (Poor)   Ranking: 164 of 317

Comments were:

  • Good background of case study. Questionable general recommendations may have missed pluses and minuses.
    more statistics, Study references?
    Quite interesting for an older generation and I think more info to get and retain employees should go out to IBMers
    Sacha is a fabulous presenter and handled everything thrown at her wonderfully.
    Very touched.
    Very well spoken, excellent presenter. Great energy.
    Great dynamic speaker, interesting topic. Will check out her  blog I am sure it will be interesting and informative.

I’ve got the “interesting and engaging overview” part down pat, and it would be even more effective if I can directly link it to people’s next actions and business goals. That particular presentation was more about talking about issues and setting the stage for a discussion rather than helping people make immediate changes in terms of recruiting/hiring/managing/collaborating with/selling to Generation Y, though, so that’s understandable. Presentations like “Top 10 Web 2.0 Tools ___ Should Try” are much more focused on next actions, and those seem to be okay.

So what’s the next step from here? On the “building on your strengths” side, I’m working on more visual communication. You can check out my attempts on my Slideshare page. Three of my six public presentations have been featured on Slideshare Presentation of the Day, so I must be on to something here. =) On the “shoring up your weaknesses” side, I’ve been thinking about presentation topics that can lead to immediate next actions. I didn’t feel that “Sowing Seeds: A Technology Evangelist’s Guide to Grassroots Adoption” was as effective as it could’ve been. Reminds me of this:

Zander goes on to say “…if the eyes are not shining you have to ask yourself a question: who am I being that my player’s eyes are not shining?” This goes for our children, students, audience members, and so on. For me that’s the greatest takeaway question: who am I being when I am not seeing a connection in the eyes of others?

“Benjamin Zander: Who are we being?” Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen

Kaizen: relentless improvement. I want to learn how to help people’s eyes shine with possibility.

What teachers make

Someday I’m going to be able to speak truth like that.

GBS Learning Week: First set

I think it’s amazing that I get to talk about my favorite tools and encourage people to try things out. I’m at the GBS Learning Week in Niagara-on-the-Lake in order to present "The Top Ten Web 2.0 Tools Every IBM Consultant Should Try," and I’m scheduled to do it four times over two days. I’m also giving part of the keynote presentation–a short segment on the demographic revolution, given twice over two days. Oh, and I’ve got an early-morning presentation on Tuesday, an unconference session to facilitate, and another Web 2.0 teleconference workshop on Friday.

I am so going to earn that massage.

I did the first set of presentations today. About thirty people attended the first session, and about fifteen people attended the second.

Back-to-back sessions are tough. I felt more comfortable with the first session because I could chat with the audience before starting. The second was a bit more difficult because I didn’t want to wait too long, but that meant that people filtered in during the start of the presentation. Next time, I’m going to give myself more time between presentations so that I can grab a drink of water, chat with people, and reset myself.

Good stuff, though. I’m tempted to radically restructure the presentation as a story. Might be worth trying–and it’ll be fun! I should ask the organizers if I can get the feedback forms from the first day separate from the feedback forms from the second day. After all, how many times will I get to test presentation styles with the same layout, same type of audience, same timeslot, and things like that? =)

Ooh, this will be fun.

How to scale presentations up or down – the art of timing

(More braindumping – not quite at the article level yet! =) )

When I plan presentations, I always start by coming up with the key message based on the objectives and the expected audience. The key message needs to be something I can explain in at most 30 seconds, and it needs to answer the audience’s question: “What’s in it for me?” The key message also needs to give people a way to act on that message. (Yes, even FYI presentations.) If I can’t explain what I want to say in 30 seconds, I mindmap and brainstorm and turn things over until I can.

There’s no point in working on the rest of the presentation until you know what you want people to take away. If you can’t say what you want to say in 30 seconds, think about the topic until you understand it well enough to say it in 30 seconds. When you figure out what your 30-second pitch is, you can use that as your abstract and you can use it in networking conversations at the conference/event/wherever. Very useful.

After I determine the key message, I pick three or so supporting points. This is also where I try to find a clever navigational structure or mnemonic to help me remember my points and to help the audience remember my points. Alliteration and acronyms are my favorite tools, but I occasionally come across a good metaphor, too. If I can’t find anything that fits, I try to at least get the rhythm of the words to sound right. (No, I haven’t given a presentation in iambic pentameter yet – but I’m tempted to! ;) ). A thesaurus helps me find synonyms that fit, and a dictionary (I usually use a kid’s dictionary) helps me spark the creative process with random associations and browsing. (Flip it open to a random page, pick a random word, and see if that’s useful.)

Resist the temptation to cram lots of points into your presentation. Find the minimum that you need to support your key message, then get those across clearly.

So there’s the 30-second pitch, the supporting points can be summarized over three minutes or so, and you can wrap it up and explain the next actions in another minute. When the presentation works as a 5-minute talk, it’s time to flesh it out to a 15-minute to 30-minute talk. You can do that by adding stories to the supporting points, keeping the key message in mind. Stories can take varying levels of detail, so they’re pretty flexible.

To take a talk from the 30-minute mark to the 60-minute mark, add more interaction and deeper stories. Good interaction tends to require a longer presentation slot because you need some time for people to shift into discussion mode (and you have to be comfortable with silences), and you don’t want to cut discussions off too early. If you’re doing interaction, don’t make question-and-answer the end of your presentation. Move question-and-answer into your presentation, then take advantage of the opportunity to summarize both your presentation and the discussion with a strong ending, emphasizing the next steps.

Longer timeslots such as 1.5 hours or 4 hours or even days need to be broken up with more interaction and variety. From my university classes (both attending and teaching), I learned that attention tends to flag after about 20 minutes. Mix things up and give people time to process the information. (And to stretch!) Resist the temptation to structure your presentation as one loooong presentation. Break your presentation up into more presentations, because it’s important for people to have review and closure.

In this approach, you’re building up from the core message. As long as you can make that point, you don’t have to worry about leaving material out. If you don’t overload your slides, you can quietly trim material in order to accommodate a particularly good discussion (or a long rant about something else) and people won’t feel cheated. =) If you find out that you have to talk for longer than expected (say, the next speaker is having technical difficulties), then add more detail or more stories or more interaction. If you find out that you have to talk for shorter than expected (say, the previous speaker had technical difficulties ;) ), focus on the key message and the supporting points.

Try it out for your next presentation. Start with your 30-second pitch, then build on it. When you get used to adjusting the timing on the fly, you’ll always be able to end on time.

Storytelling in presentations

Angelina Gan asked me if my storytelling approach is based on Peter Orton’s (wonderful!) presentation on using storytelling in business, so I thought I’d share how I started telling stories and what my favorite resources are.

I don’t know exactly why I started telling stories instead of listing bullet points. Maybe it was because of the never-ending march of bullet-ridden presentations. Maybe it was because I kept skimming through business books that were all numbers or pithy sayings without anecdotes to make those statements come alive. Maybe it was because I watched terrific presentations highlighted on the Presentation Zen blog. Maybe it was because of the books I read about telling success stories to deepen your relationships with people, influencing change through story-telling, and telling effective stories. Whatever it was, I started collecting stories and sharing my own.

I’d taken up writing flash fiction (really short stories, typically 55 words long) in 2005, and that turned out to be surprisingly useful. Reading other people’s flash fiction stories taught me that you could tell a story with conflict and character development in a paragraph or two, and that it was fun keeping an eye out for story material. I had originally gotten interested in flash fiction because it felt like a code optimization challenge, and because the stories were short enough for me to write during lunch or a subway ride, on pieces of paper or even on my cellphone. I never felt particularly literary (and in fact had gotten Ds in my English classes in university for lack of effort), but finding and telling stories (or in this case, making them up!) turned out to be a lot of fun.

So when I came across the business applications of storytelling–from social networking to influencing technology adoption–and I saw how it dovetailed with my passions, I jumped right into it. I started collecting stories. For example, I started my master’s research by collecting stories about how people used Dogear (an enterprise social bookmarking system by IBM) so that I could figure out how people were using it in their work and how they could use it even more effectively. I collected stories to help me not only convince people to try out new tools but also give them models to follow and people they could relate to. I also told stories about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and that helped me get to know a lot of people as well. Besides, I love “catching other people doing well”–telling other people’s success stories, especially when they don’t realize they’re doing well.

The results? People act on what I share. They make my stories their own. Not only that, people also tell me that they enjoy my presentations and that my enthusiasm is contagious. Giving presentations – telling stories, having conversations – has become a lot more fun.

How do I find stories? I keep an eye out for things that happen in real life, like this conversation I had with J-. There’s a seed of a story in there, and by telling part of the story, I make it easier to remember later on. I also enjoy reading people’s blogs, because they tell stories from their experiences as well. I read a lot – it certainly helps to have a public library within walking distance. Whenever I come across a particularly good story in any of these sources, I write it down, I bookmark it, I add it to my notes. When I work on presentations, I’ve got a general idea of relevant stories that I’ve come across, and then I use my notes to look up the details.

For example, I was preparing a presentation about University Relations and the Net generation. I didn’t want it to be a boring list of bullet points or advice. I could’ve rehashed the presentation I gave at the Technical Leadership Exchange, but I wanted to make the most of my opportunity to speak with a group that could really make the most of Web 2.0. I remembered that some months ago, I had come across a terrific internal blog post about how a demonstration of IBM’s internal social tools got an audience of university students really interested. I had bookmarked it as a story about Web 2.0 and recruiting, knowing that it would be useful someday. Well, that someday had come! I checked my bookmarks, went back to the blog post, refreshed my memory, and added it to my presentation. I’m sure that the story will make my point more effectively than a list of bullet points.

How can you get started with storytelling? Keep an eye out for story material. Develop a system for filing those stories so that you can find them again when you need them. Tell stories. I’ve linked to some of my favorite books in this post – check them out for more tips. Storytelling is effective and fun. Enjoy!