The Inner Game of Public Speaking

Posted by Barry Flanagan on Apr 4th, 2008
2008
Apr 4

 

Public Speaking is all in your head, literally. You can come to this blog or 10,000 other blogs, web sites, books, videos and seminars to get a step by step formula to becoming a great speaker. Ultimately, you have to execute on what you learn.

 

This point applies to a wide variety of physical and mental skills, of course. Singing, playing a musical instrument, memory, learning, golf, pool, bowling,  coding, video games, basketball, server administration, and tennis all have a wide variety of instructional videos, classes, blogs, web site, forums, and gurus. Some people are a "natural" and learn these skills on their own, while others may be seminar "junkies" and hunt and eat every single morsel of knowledge they can find. For all these skills and many more, utimately your ability to do well is determined in very large measure by what is going on in your own head.

 

Several years back, I played a great deal of tennis. I found that I could do extremely well in practice, and just as poorly in a real match. I was desperate to understand why, and read many books and watched many videos on how to perform each stroke. While I did learn several new ways to hit a forehand or a serve, my results actually got worse. I was cursed with too much knowledge.

 

Long before I came across "Made to Stick" and the concept of the "Curse of Knowledge", I read a fantastic book that has lessons that apply both to tennis and public speaking. That book is "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey.

 

I too admit to overreaching as a new pro, but one day when I was in a relaxed mood I began saying less and noticing more. To my surprise, errors that I saw but didn’t mention were correcting themselves without the student ever knowing he had made them. How were the changes happening? Though I found this interesting,  it was little hard on my ego, which didn’t quite  see how it was going  to get its due credit for the improvements  being made. It was an even greater blow when I realized that sometimes my verbal instructions seemed to decrease the probability of the desired correction occurring.


All teaching pro’s know what I am talking about. They all have students like one of mine named Dorothy.  I would give Dorothy a gentle, low-pressured instruction like, "Why don’t you try lifting  the follow through up from your waist to the level of your shoulder? The topspin will keep the ball in the court."? Sure enough,  Dorothy  would try hard to follow my instructions.The muscles would tense around her mouth; her eyebrows would set in a determined frown;the muscles in her forearm would tighten, making fluidity impossible; and the follow through would end only a few inches higher.At this point, the stock response of the patient pro is, "That’s better, Dorothy, but relax, don’t try so hard!" The advice is good far as it goes, but Dorothy does not understand how to "relax" while also trying hard to hit the ball correctly. (from page 6)

 

The lessons from "The Inner Game of Tennis" for speaking apply both to learning about public speaking AND to the whatever technical topic you are speaking about when in front of the room. I recall when I first began speaking that I was told by a co-worker to never put my hands in my pockets. When I asked "What do I do with my hands?" The answer came back "Just gesture."

 

At the time, I had no idea how to "just gesture".  In my post "But This is a Technical Presentation!" you can see an example where a technical speaker assumes that more text and information is better in a technical presentation. As Gallwey illustrates in this next excerpt, often more instruction leads to worst results.

 

 

Why should Dorothy – or you or I – experience an awkward tightening when performing a desired action which is not physically difficult? What happens inside the head between the time the instruction is given  and the swing is complete?  The first glimmer of an answer to this key question came to me at a moment of rare insight after a lesson with Dorothy: "Whatever’s going on in her head, it’s too damn much! She’s try so hard to swing the racket  the way I told her that she can’t focus on the ball" Then and there, I promised myself I would cut down on the quantity of verbal instructions.


My next lesson that day was with a beginner named Paul who had never held a racket. I was determined to show him how to play using as few instructions as possible.; I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference. So I started by telling Paul I was trying something new: I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations  to beginnings players about the proper grip, stroke, and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind, several times then just let his body imitate. After I had hit  ten forehands, Paul  imagined himself doing the same. Then, as I put the racket into his hand, sliding it into the correct grip, he said to me, "I noticed that the first thing you did was move your feet." I replied with a noncommital grunt and asked him to let his body imitate the forehand as well as it could. He dropped the ball, , took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height , perfect for his first attempt! But wait, his feet;they hadn’t moved an inch from the perfect ready position he had assumed before taking his racket back. They were nailed to the court! I pointed to them and Paul said, " Oh yeah, I forgot about them !" The one element of the stroke Paul had tried to remember was the one thing he didn’t do! Everything else had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!


I was beginning to learn what all the good pros and students of tennis must learn; that images are better than words, showing is better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results.One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try to hard? (from pages 6-7)

 

There are some fantastic nuggets of knowledge in this except that led to much of the things I have learned about speaking. "Images are better than words" (for example) is consistent with the research of Richard Mayer. In Chapter Six (Changing Habits) Gallwey gives the Steps to "The Inner Game Way of Learning".

 

  1. Observe Existing behavior Non-Judgementally.
  2. Picture Desired Outcome.
  3. Let it happen!
  4. Nonjudgemental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning

 

You can see much of this advise in the Six Rs of Communication.

  1. Result – this is very similar to Picture the Desired Outcome.
  2. Rapport
  3. ResponseObserve Existing Behavior
  4. Reflect - Gallwey emphasizes "non-judgemental" observation that isn’t emotional or critical.
  5. Range -
  6. Repeatable - Throughout his book, Gallwey stress the concept that "Inner Game" is more about your overall mental process than it is about drilling on specific skills.

 

 

"The Inner Game of Tennis" is a fantastic book for tennis and for any other skill. Gallwey has other books on Golf, Skiing, Music, and work. I highly recommend his approach.

 

 

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But This is a Technical Presentation!

Posted by Barry Flanagan on Mar 5th, 2008
2008
Mar 5

 I was recently on a call to review a new technical presentation being created for the next release of a software product. I was joined by a Product Marketing Manager and a Field Readiness Manger to discuss the content of the slides and to give my feedback. Overall, the slides had a lot of great technical content and useful insights into the product.  Several of the slides, however, were overloaded with text. I stressed my belief that much of that text could be moved to the notes and that the more we used visuals instead of text, the more effective and engaging the presentation would be. Unfortunately, the person who created most of the content did not take this response as feedback (the Reflect of the Six Rs) but became defensive. When I remarked that one slide had over 100 words on it, the volume and the tension raised considerably. Then he used the fateful phrase – "But this a technical presentation!"

 

I must admit, I have used this phrase several times myself in the past, before I came to understand how heavily I was leaning on the Technical Speaker’s Crutch (more commonly known as PowerPoint). I used that phrase when I still believed that the slides were there to be both my teleprompter and a handout to give to the audience afterwards. I used that phrase before I came to discover the there is a better way, and there is science to prove it.

 

Sometime in 2003, I was searching on the web for information on how to become a more effective technical speaker. I came across an article on Wired.com entitled "PowerPoint is Evil" by Edward Tufte. That provocative title certainly got my interest. This article asserts "the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple". That article led me to Tufte’s essay on PowerPoint and the Shuttle Columbia investigation and his well known short called "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Picthing Out Corrupts Within".
 

 

Tufte rejects PowerPoint almost entirely, and I could not see a way to do my job without it completely. I wanted to find out more about how to use this tool effectivley to support my remarks, not distract from them. His points about the abuse of slideware certainly had my interest, and these articles lead to me to do more digging into learning styles, cognition, and PowerPoint.

 

I soon found this document written by Dr. Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno (presented at the annual meeting of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Los Angeles, CA in 1998). In this paper, these two Cognitive Psychologists review "a series of experiments yielding five major principles of how to use multimedia to help students understand a scientific explanation". This paper opened my mind to many new possibilities, and provided hard data to back up the assumption that less text more visuals in a slice deck was a good thing. Mayer published a book on this topic in 2001 called Multimedia Learning.  Mayer lists three assumptions of multimedia learning in the book -

  • First, the human information-processing system consists of two separate channels—an auditory/verbal channel for processing auditory input and verbal representations and a visual/pictorial channel for processing visual input and pictorial representations.
  • Second, each channel in the human information-processing system has limited capacity—only a limited amount of cognitive processing can take place in the verbal channel at any one time, and only a limited amount of cognitive processing can take place in the visual channel at any one time.
  • Third, meaningful learning requires a substantial amount of cognitive processing to take place in the verbal and visual channels.

 

Mayer updated his list in this book to Seven principles -

 

1. The Multimedia Principle: Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
2. The Spatial Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
3. The Temporal Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
4. The Coherence Principle: Students learn better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are excluded rather than included.
5. The Modality Principle: Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.
6. The Redundancy Principle: Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation, narration and on-screen text.
7. The Individual Differences Principle: Design effects are greater for low-knowledge learners than for high-knowledge learners and for high-spatial learners than for low-spatial learners.

 

All of the principles are relevant to the conversation I described in the opening and the plea "But this a technical presentation!".  A combination of words and pictures are more effective than words alone, especially when a minimal text description appear with a visual. Narration with animation and visuals is better than any combination with on-screen text. Audiences that are new to your topic will gain an even greater benefit from these principles than those who are well versed in your topic.

 

Even when "this is a technical presentation" you should aim for a high degree of retention and influence of your audience. If not, why bother preparing and speaking if you do NOT actually want to communicate? I cannot imagine taking the time and effort to prepare a presentation for an audience when you do not intend to communicate the value of your thoughts and ideas. If you want your technical presentation to be successful, I suggest reading Mayer’s work and implementing these principles into your preparation and presentation.

 

 

 

 

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