November 11th. Remembering those who died for freedom

This is not my usual type of posting, as it isn’t about public speaking, but I couldn’t let 11th November go by without a mention, hence the changes to my background until next week.

War is not good but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. How different the world would have been if nothing had been done to stop the advance of Hitler and the Nazis? Many died to keep my country free in the 20th century. Many die now to help others gain and/or keep their freedom from oppression. The fight has always been with us and probably always will be. There will always be those who seek to dominate and suppress and there will always be those willing to fight for freedom from tyrants. For the latter, we should all be grateful. There is still time for you to choose to join in on Sunday, at least in remembering, if not at a ceremony.

Armistice was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 to end the First World War. On Sunday 11th Nov at 11am in Britain it is customary to have two minutes of silence in remembrance. At this hour, those who have respect stop what they are doing and stand in silence for two minutes. This year, not so many will be in the shops because it happens to be a Sunday but I do hope that those who are will observe the silence. Checkouts stop, customers wait until afterwards to be served and many cars pull over to wait. There are those who don’t care but they do not appreciate what was sacrificed or even what sacrifice is.

I used to live in Wootton Bassett, a town through which the bodies of many fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan passed. This became world famous for its acts of respect. The shops closed temporarily and shoppers went outside to stand in silence as the cars passed carrying the bodies. The town was granted Royal status in recognition of its respectful attitude. The press sometimes rather hijacked the events for their own purposed but nevertheless, the town had chosen to do what it did. I am pleased that the idea of respect has returned in some measure to the UK, as it seemed to have all but disappeared for a while. 

After a period in the 70s, 80s and 90s when young people – and some older ones, too – wanted to forget and give up the practice, it has returned with conviction. The Gulf wars, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq reminded a generation unaccustomed to war on its doorstep, that there is still evil about and this must be resisted. Soldiers are still dying for freedom. Now we remember, not just those in the two world wars of the 20th century but also all those who have fought and are still fighting now for that freedom. 

Where I live, many will be gathering around the local war memorial at 11am. Those who are not religious can join for the most moving part of the proceedings: the list of locals who fell in war,  the silence and the last post. Those who wish to, can begin in church and conclude in church with prayers. For some, war turns them towards faith and for some it turns them away. We are all affected by tragedy in different ways, but however we face it, let us not forget those who have made, and those who are still facing, the ultimate sacrifice. Let us salute them in our remembrance and be thankful. 

It might seem over-familiar and yet, as it is only used once a year, I do not apologise for including the poem by military doctor, John McCrae, written following the funeral of a young friend killed in Flanders in 1915. It was the inspiration for the use poppy petals to symbolise the fallen, a paper poppy being sold to raise funds for wounded servicemen and women. Sadly, more and more petals are released each year during the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, one petal per person fallen. They take several minutes to fall from the ceiling above the arena and onto the service men and women representing the armed forces and civilian emergency services. During this time there is silence, which is only broken as the last petal falls and reveille is sounded. It is a moving occasion and if you haven’t ever seen it, I can recommend it. 

Here is the Poem ‘In Flanders fields’

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Beware Audience Participation

One of the things I have always found embarrassing when I have attended talks is having to take part in discussions I had not expected or having to think of my favourite thing to write on a little piece of paper that has been handed to me or am asked by an artist or psychologist to go to the painting table and produce a picture representing my emotions on waking that morning. These are just a few examples of odd things that can be inflicted on unsuspecting audiences.

When I go to a workshop, I expect to have something to do, in fact it would be a poor workshop where those attending had nothing to do – the word says it all. 

However, when attending  talk, I am expecting to sit back and be taught about something. If you are speaking of writing poetry, for instance, do not suddenly expect your audience to write a poem when they have come totally unprepared to do so. If you want audience participation, it is best to ask that the session be called a workshop, which gives prospective attendees an idea that they will have to do something. I have known instances where members of an audience have said afterwards that they are embarrassed by such things and will never attend another talk by that speaker.

Audiences expecting to be passive can be quite upset by being expected to be active. If you want to do a workshop, make sure that the group you are going to knows this. You could have some of your audience walk out on you, which is embarrassing. At least, give them warning at the beginning and say that you’ll understand if people do not want to take part. If you do this, don’t make this audience participation too long.  They have come to hear you and might feel cheated, especially if you are given some form of remuneration. 

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What’s in a name?

I prefer to use the phrase ‘giving a talk’ because ‘Public Speaking’ sounds much too grand for what I do, even though it is, in reality, just as accurate. Even if you speak to three people, they count as ‘the public.’ However, when a complete novice is presented with the unaccustomed task, ‘giving a talk’ sounds less frightening. 

It is the same when speaking about any subject to an audience that has not encountered it before. Unless you are imparting detailed knowledge at a college lecture or training session, use simple explanations and everyday language where possible. At a talk given by a local amateur astronomer, we had the concept of a Light-year explained in terms of scaled down distances on the earth. Distances we can understand could give us some idea of the enormous scale involved in the universe. 

Do not treat your audiences like children (unless they are,  but even they should not be treated like idiots) but understand that they are not familiar with jargon, concepts, abbreviations etc. It is infuriating when a speaker talks in jargon and abbreviations that sound like a foreign language, which they are!  Always explain any  specific language that you might need to use. Make sure your audience knows what you mean. 

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Nerves can be good but shaking isn’t!

Many people who give talks/presentations are nervous, especially if it is a new experience.

I am a musician and play and sing to audiences. Over the years, I have found that the only times when I have made serious mistakes, such as forgetting the words of a song that I have been singing for years, are the times when I have NOT felt nervous. Fear, however,  is different and debilitating and, if you are so nervous that you shake badly, your talk can go awry, so controlling your nerves is important. 

However, nerves can play their part in making your talk good, because they are part of our natural instincts to flee danger and so keep us on our toes. It is good to feel ‘butterflies’ before getting up to perform anything and a talk/presentation is a performance. It is important to have what I call “The 3 As”. Nerves keep us AWAKE, keep us ALERT and make us AWARE. 

It is important not to be afraid of the nerves themselves. 

It is necessary to be awake at important times and often, when doing an exam, job interview of giving a presentation, sleep might not have come easily the night before. Because of this, it is actually a good thing to feel a little nervous, because the adrenalin pumping round will keep the body awake and alert. Awareness of your audience in any performance or job interview is essential and the ability to sense the audience reactions to what is said and done is vital. In a job interview you have to present yourself as well as your knowledge and , if you can sense how the interview panel is reacting, you can adjust what you do and say. (They will try to be poker faced, but they are human and it is possible to read them if your personal Awareness app is working!) 

However, ‘butterflies’ do have a downside because the speaker will tend to shake, so holding notes or tablet computer is not a good idea. They/it should be placed on a table, lectern or desk. As a musician, I own a music stand, which I take around when I am playing or singing in different venues, to hold my music. It is an essential piece of equipment for musicians but speakers never seem to think of using them. I would suggest to anyone embarking on a career in presentations or talks that a music stand is a wise investment, even if it is not needed on many occasions. It is cheap, folds up into a convenient bag and can be left in the car if not required. This avoids the problems if there is no table or anything else to put notes on, or the table is too low so that a tall speaker needs binoculars to read them!

A folding music stand seems complicated to erect but, with practice, can be put up or taken down in seconds. It is not good for large books but will hold notes or even a tablet computer. Just make sure that the tripod legs are spread out enough to make it stable. If you haven’t used one before you will need to practise with it.

Type notes on one side of paper pages and, when changing pages, take a top corner of the paper and slide the top sheet carefully over to one side rather than turning it, as turning can lead to other pages being knocked onto the floor or blown by a breeze created by the turning – another potentially embarrassing moment. Whether you are right or left handed will decide the side you choose to move the pages to – it doesn’t matter. When the talk is over, the pages can be replaced in the right order for another time. When turning the pages on a tablet, do not do so too vigorously because it would be expensive to send that flying! If using a music stand, it is best if the tablet is in a case that can be folded back and attached to the stand. On a table or lectern there should be no problem. 

If using a laptop, a lectern is best if possible. This brings the screen closer to the speaker’s eyes and can be altered to the right angle, while allowing the audience to still connect. Viewing a laptop from a low table is not recommended but, if it is the only way, then ask if the audience minds your sitting down or you will be bending too much. 

Reading notes written in any form on a table that is too low, means that the audience sees too much of the top of the speaker’s head! You are not giving a talk to the floor or table! Always try to place your notes where you do not have to bend to read them. If you have to hold them, do not do so in front of your face, even if you prefer not to see the audience. Do not hold them too far down so that you are bending, for reasons I have already said.

With your notes secure and still, you can read them well. If you hold them and you are shaking, the notes shake, too, doubling the problem and making reading them almost impossible.

Feeling secure and comfortable with your notes and equipment will enable you to present your subject with confidence and your audience will enjoy it and be impressed. 

Posted in Delivery, Giving a talk, Preparation, Using equipment, Using technology | 6 Comments

Getting it straight!

Well, I’ve tried – I straightened up the horizon of my background picture. Now I’ve reloaded it and messed around but can’t get it right. I didn’t think I had all the extra bits of picture down the sides before but, no matter what size I choose, it still isn’t right. I don’t know why I bothered. Now you can’t even see the horizon until you scroll down! I need another lesson. 

However, as I said before, I will try again until I get it right. 

Wonky pictures are a common sight in presentations. They occur when the projector is on a table that is lower than the screen. This leads to the search for large books to prop it up, usually more at the front than the back. The result of this is a distorted picture with the top being wider than the bottom and any people on the photographs looking as though they have entered one of those halls of mirrors that turn people into cartoon characters.  

Nobody wants their carefully prepared pictures to be distorted, so it is advisable to take a couple of boxes or a stool with you, which you know will help raise the projector to a level position in the event of the screen and table being at different heights. It is less likely that the opposite will occur with the screen being too low. Several volumes of an encyclopaedia will work just as well  – but you might find them a bit heavy to add to all the other equipment you are taking! There is probably a high-tech gadget that will solve the problem but I don’t know of one. Just be prepared for the eventuality.

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Arranging the Furniture

Whether the speaker has a say in the arrangement of a room is entirely down to the circumstances and the wishes of the hosts. You might be lucky enough to be given a say in the arrangement of the room. If this happens, think very carefully about it.

If you are doing a presentation with slides on a screen, you might feel that having your audience sitting in straight lines directly in front of you is best but, if the group is a small one and you are using a flip chart, marker or chalk board or simply speaking with no visual aids, it might be best to have them sitting in a semi-circle around you. This is also helpful if you have objects to show or pass around. You might like a table or desk in front of you or you might think that it would distance you from your audience and so,  if you have things that need to be placed on something, a table could be placed to one side.

The arrangement might be determined by the size and shape of the room. Inquire about it and, if possible, visit it beforehand and plan the layout you prefer. Always consider how best to reach your audience. You might have reason to walk around demonstrating things or, if you have set them tasks such as craft activities, you might like to go round and help individuals. In this case, it is a good idea to make sure that there is sufficient room between them. You do not want to find yourself in a situation where the person who most needs help is in the middle of a middle row and is unreachable.

Think about how you are conducting the whole talk and of your expectations for your audience. Will they need to move about to share ideas? Do you want to have brief group discussions? You need to position chairs and tables so that any required movement is facilitated and does not take a long time to complete. Plan how you want the groups to sit and the optimum number in each. You might have to be flexible but you should have a basic Plan A and stick to it, if possible, with a Plan B in the back of your mind, just in case.

Furniture can be a nightmare. a wobbly table that is holding some valuable object, such as something precious from your travels or a projector, can be worrying and distracting. Make sure all the furniture, chairs, tables, charts, easels etc is safe for use before you begin. It can, not only distract, but can be dangerous. A flip chart, for instance is tall and heavy and can do some damage or injury. Make sure all is secure! 

You cannot choose the furniture in a strange venue but you can make the best use of it. Make it work for you, not detract from your talk. It just takes some forethought and common sense.

Posted in Giving a talk, Preparation, Using equipment | 2 Comments

IT Teacher’s blog

Blog for IT teachers to share ideas and receive advice.

He’s teaching me from 12,000 miles away, so it doesn’t matter where you are in the world! There are good ideas and helpful information.

This is just to say thanks for the help, son!

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If at first you don’t succeed….

Often, things don’t completely succeed first time; take this blog, for instance. I hadn’t understood about many of the component parts, so I had a link to page with nothing on it; no possibility of anyone following me by email; a slightly wonky picture for background; fonts in colours not so easy to read and a few other things. 

After a lesson from my elder son who teaches IT and thanks, also, to modern technology with video-links and screen-sharing, so that he could have been sitting next to me on the sofa and not 12,000 miles away in New Zealand, I hopefully have a body font and headings that are easier to read, no links to nowhere and some widgets that make sense – you can follow individual topics if you have a particular problem when you are giving your talks and you can also follow me by email. I still have a few things to sort out, such as the wonky picture but watch this space, as they say. 

The point is that, although I felt a bit embarrassed at my mistakes, particularly the link to nowhere, I have taken advice and am making changes.

The same should apply when you are speaking in public. The first time will probably be not quite right, you might have forgotten some of the advice you might have read or, perhaps you did not cope well with last minute surprises, such as the weather or roadworks making you late or you forgot something important that you were going to show. Maybe you didn’t feel that you dealt with the questions very well. It doesn’t matter – learn from your mistakes and aim to improve next time. Don’t give up!

Make a list of all that seemed to go wrong. Leave space to write or type on the other side of the page what you could do to improve each item. When you are preparing your next talk, refer to your list and do not plan to do things the same way as before.

If there was anyone you know and trust who was present at the previous talk, ask for feedback and constructive criticism. You must be prepared to accept it with good grace and use what is said to improve next time.

Those you ask for this criticism must know that they may speak honestly but ask them to be as kind as possible and give useful criticism. Just being told, “I didn’t think you came across well at all,” isn’t constructive. It needs to be something like, “You didn’t come across well because you never looked at your audience and you constantly looked at the ceiling.” Nobody likes to be criticised but it is, usually, necessary when anyone is starting out on a new enterprise. Don’t be too arrogant to accept it. 

I am happy to receive constructive comments about this blog, so that it can be improved. I would like to thank my son, Richard, for his input and if anyone is an IT teacher looking for advice and to share ideas, you might like to view his blog at http://ipad4schools.org/       

The link is on my next blog. 

Posted in Analysis & Criticism, Giving a talk, Preparation | 4 Comments

Hairy Habits and Nervous Noses!

I have just been reminded today of a few more habits that are hard to break, but which are off-putting for those trying to concentrate on the subject that is being presented. I’ve already written about some feet and hand habits, such as pacing and the chin-supporting hand, fingers over mouth position. (I’ve just thought of a name for that – the ‘Heavy-Head Syndrome.’) 

Today it’s about noses and hair!

We all know about the phantom itches so many seem to experience. They occur on TV with professionals, so amateurs needn’t fell too bad about them but must still become aware of distracting habits that should be controlled when speaking in public. I’m sure you can think of politicians, singers, TV presenters, conductors, sports personalities and members of the Royal family (I am a Brit – for those who are reading elsewhere in the world!) and more, who have difficulty controlling hands, feet or head. 

There are some habits that make me cringe: particularly anything to do with noses – one of the most common of all habits. Hair habits are almost as bad.

  • Some people have to blow their noses as soon as they stand up to speak, even though they have no need to, or could have done so before being introduced. If you suffer from nosebleeds, don’t do this before you speak!
  • Then there are the nose-wipers, usually using a flattened index finger, sometimes once but often a quick movement from side to side, as if they have a constantly itching nose.
  • Then there are those who cannot stop themselves from pulling their noses between a thumb and two fingers. These are usually phantom itches caused by nerves or simply everyday habits. 
  • If you have a hairstyle that flops over, you need to keep it tidy for your talk. Constantly flicking hair away from your face is irritating to those watching.  You might think you’re really cool with hair over one eye but everyone who has such a style keeps flicking it out of the way – I’ve watched and I’m sure of it. It becomes another involuntary movement. Occasionally I have encountered a longhaired speaker who delivers from behind the natural curtain. He or she might be smiling but the audience can’t see.
  • There are those who continually run their fingers through their hair, as if they are addicted to it. You might have wonderful hair but leave it alone while speaking, please.

Most habits like this are everyday ones and their perpetrators are often completely unaware that they have them. More public speakers need to watch video of themselves, although many in the public eye, who appear on TV, seem to take no notice or never watch themselves. If you get the opportunity to be filmed, do watch, not for vanity but to see yourself as others see you – it can be enlightening!

It will take practice and concentration to stop these habits temporarily but, for the public arena, it really is worthwhile making the effort, even if they come back when you return to everyday living.

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Make sure the title of your talk can’t be misinterpreted!

I Skyped an old friend yesterday and she couldn’t wait to tell me about a talk she had been to earlier in the week. She belongs to a women’s group a bit like the WI. The group’s programme said that the talk was by someone from an organisation called Orchid.

if you Google ‘Orchid’ you will find there are many uses for the word in the titles of organisations who have appropriated it for their own purposes.

First of all, the woman speaker was late due to roadworks. While they waited, members of the group stood up to tell about their own experiences of growing orchids. One woman had even brought her husband along, as he grows the flowers and was interested to hear the latest ideas on the subject or about new varieties.

When the speaker arrived, half an hour late and flustered, they couldn’t get the computer presentation to work. (She told them this has never happened before). After several attempts, she gave up and talked about her trek in the Himalayas. Everyone waited expectantly for news of some wonderful new species she had discovered. At the end she told them how worthwhile it had been and how much money had been raised; but still no mention of orchids.

During the question time it became apparent that a misunderstanding of rather large proportions had occurred and it was, indeed,  a truly enlightening experience for the audience and somewhat embarrassing one. Apparently, orchids resemble testicles and the organisation raises funds for testicular cancer research! It is a very worthy cause but not what the audience was prepared for!

An orchidectomy is about the removal of disease but certainly doesn’t involve pesticide!

Posted in Giving a talk, Preparation | 2 Comments