Tag Archives: Toastmasters

From pedantry to palatable power: Yay Toastmasters!

Pedantry: n. a stodgy, unimaginative, and often ostentatiously learned presentation

Palatable: adj. easy to swallow

Power: n. the ability to act or produce an effect

Last night I came in second in our Toastmasters Club speech contest. I was actually happier than if I’d won first because it was such a triumph for the woman who won.

We started our club right after Bush won re-election in 2004 with the goal of training progressives (mainly Democrats) like ourselves to become more effective at talking publicly about our progressive values.  We were fed up with Rovian framing and wanted to put George Lakoff’s communication principles into action.

Our messages were often serious, and we practiced pontificating for our causes. You can’t participate regularly in a Toastmasters Club and not become significantly more skillful at expressing yourself, and we’ve all done that.

We’ve also become more skillful at delivering a serious message in a light-hearted manner, which is often more effective because it’s palatable.

Last night’s winner – a master composter and environmental activist – reworked a speech she’d given at least a year earlier. It was about vacationing in Hawaii and finding it hard to relax because she couldn’t compost or recycle the waste her group was generating.

The original speech had funny moments but she couldn’t break herself away from trying to educate and convert us.

Last night she cut out all the preachy stuff and turned it into a battle between her “on-it” environmentalist self and her vacationing ‘”what-the-hell” self.  She had an appropriate hat and posture for each self.

By exaggerating both her goody-two-shoes side and her hedonistic irresponsible side she not only made the speech very funny, but her message became much more powerful. We could all identify with that eternal struggle–wanting to do the right thing, but finding the comfort of doing nothing so much easier.

I had worked with the speaker on the original speech, but at that time she was still too serious to allow the story to take off .  This time, with the benefit of time, distance and more experience, she was able to see the script freshly – axing the excess, adding theatrics and comical images.

She goes on to the Area Contest next Friday and we’ll all be there to root for her.

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PowerPoint prowess pays off

PowerPoint: n. a presentation program that is part of Microsoft Office, which can be used to put an audience to sleep — or can inform and inspire.

Prowess: n. extraordinary ability

Pay off: v. to reward for hard work

I recently taught a two-hour feng shui class for a group of feng shui novices, and if I say so myself, it was RAD!

I had used slides in PowerPoint once before to illustrate a feng shui talk, so I knew how effective pictures could be. However I was still struggling with an A/V inferiority complex that developed in high school watching geeky male classmates run the Rube Goldberg contraption known as a movie projector.

Furthermore, I hadn’t yet read Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen, which is an absolute MUST resource for any would-be presenters.

First, out went any slides with bullet points. Then out went slides with more than a few words, unless it was a succinct quotation. That left me with….

Almost nothing.

I started over. This was my process (h/t to Garr Reynolds):

  • Get a stack of Post-It sticky notes and a big white board.
  • List all the points you want to get across – one per sticky note, and then  figure out what visual images would convey them even more effectively than words.
  • Gather lots and lots and lots of pictures – from your own camera, scanned from magazines, found on Google Images and Flickr. Note each one on a sticky.
  • Look also for images that are extreme examples (what not to do, before & after, stumbling blocks, etc.) to emphasize your point or defuse fears.
  • Shuffle the notes on the white board till they make some sense.
  • Import the pictures into PowerPoint using the totally blank slide as your template, so the pictures are full-screen (means your pix must be in landscape format).
  • Shuffle them around in the Slide Sorter View until they tell the story in a way that flows most naturally.
  • Now you can add some text floating in front of some of the pictures or on transition slides.

Here are a few examples of images I found:

To illustrate what a feng shui consultant does when she/he comes to your house – conveying both the fresh eyes which can see your home more clearly AND addressing the fear many potential clients have that she’ll be some sort of critical witch:

eyeballs1

Or these three slides, which illustrate the dilemma of clutter. First the extreme possibility that you could be buried alive by it:

cluttercartoon

Then, the inertia we feel when viewing the clutter-clearing task ahead:

boulder1

My audience laughed hysterically at this boulder – recognizing themselves.

And then I encouraged them with the concept of momentum… what happens once you get started tossing crap:

domino-effect

I’d say it took a solid 40 hours to put together 150 slides for a two-hour talk, and a lot of creative thought while I was half-asleep. But it was totally worth it.

The “pragmatic particle” – public speaking nemesis?

Pragmatic: adj. practical, as opposed to artistic, theoretical or idealistic

Particle: n. a unit of speech expressing some general aspect of meaning or some connective   relation and including the articles, most prepositions and conjunctions, and some interjections and adverbs.

Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s only surviving child, tentatively tossed her hat into the political ring when Hillary Clinton left her NY senatorial seat open to become Secretary of State. Unfortunately, Caroline inherited the fabled name, but not the Kennedy silver tongue.

Among the albatrosses around her neck as a candidate was her inability to express herself clearly and succinctly. Her specialty is the phrase “you know,” which in two recent interviews she used 138 times and 200+ times.

You know, that’s hard to do!

In Toastmasters, you know, we have a person whose role at the meeting is to keep track of every speaker’s verbal stutters – um, uh, er, like, you know – and other elocution no-nos. By merely becoming aware of these verbal distractions, you know, it’s possible to reduce or eliminate them.

I thought they were just verbal tics, but “you know” is a special case about which someone actually wrote a doctoral thesis in 1980.

Linguists call “you know” a pragmatic particle, and it has its linguistic counterparts in many other cultures around the world.

“You know” typically occurs in face-to-face interactions, and can indicate discomfort. However, it can be used (usually unconsciously) as a mediator of social relations.  “You know” implies an attempt to maintain an already close relationship with the person being addressed, to simulate shared views – or to establish such a relationship.

In the case of a political candidate, who wants to be seen as at the same level as The People or be persuasive about an issue, “you know” brings the listener in closer.

I still think the repetitious use of  “you know” is annoying, sloppy, and unprofessional.

Before Caroline returns to the public eye she needs to detour through a year at a Toastmasters club. A club is easy to find (enter your zip code here) because most communities have at least one club – and some have dozens.

Public Speaking: the power of Toastmasters

Public speaking: talking from the front of the room to a group of people, some or all of whom may be strangers -for many people the most petrifying experience imaginable.

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters since 2002 and last year completed all the requirements to receive the top TM award, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM).  Among other things, this means I’ve given about 100 (mostly) short speeches, each of which was evaluated by another member.

When I joined I was already a semi-experienced speaker and I’d long long ago left the knocking knees behind.  Furthermore, because I’m a writer, pulling together 700 words on a topic of interest to me was no problem either.

But many folks start here:

I joined for five reasons:

  • I am a terrible memorizer and could not leave my “brilliantly crafted” script behind.
  • I feel quite passionate about some of the things I wanted to talk about and have a tendency to burst into tears at in impassioned moments. This is mortifying.
  • I wanted an excuse to organize the nebulous snippets wafting inside my head, because I often don’t know what I think until I’ve had to write about it.
  • I wanted to choose my own topics. As a writer for hire, I’m usually assigned them.
  • I wanted live feedback from warm bodies. When someone reads my written stuff I’m rarely present so I have no clue if they understood my message, if they liked it, where it caught their attention and where it lost them.

After the first ten speeches (which is unfortunately when many people quit their clubs) I had improved on all counts, but had just begun to understand how much PRACTICE good public speaking requires. The advanced manuals offer such a variety of speaking assignments that I’ve been able to expand my skill repertoire into new realms.

Toastmasters’ magic formula includes constructive feedback after every speech. If you’re not speaking, you’re evaluating. This has improved not only my speaking, but also punched up my writing. In some ways you learn even more doing evaluations than speaking because you can clearly see in others what works and what doesn’t.

The memorization thing? Speaking without notes is 100 times more effective than reading a speech, even if you stumble some. It’s so much more direct and communicative.  Think Barack Obama v. Hillary Clinton.

I gave up on memorization after one horrible experience in a humorous speech contest when I was talking about meeting men as an older single woman.  I had dressed up in a hideous baggy dress, rouged my cheeks and put on a Dolly Parton kind of wig.  I delivered my first memorized paragraph, then totally forgot/skipped over the next two paragraphs which were to have set the stage for the action. The audience was baffled and thought the memory lapse was part of my senior citizen schtick.  So no more trying to memorize for me… instead I practice and use a few notes. It’s still a “growing edge.”

The weepy thing? It runs in my family – we’re a mawkish bunch. I try to avoid topics that are sure-fire tear-jerkers, even though they’re sometimes the most persuasive. I take a deep breath when I’m blind-sided by the sudden prick of tears, the constricted throat and the high squeaky voice. In desperation, I extract a length of toilet paper from my sleeve and mop my eyes with a flourish which usually defuses the situation.

Public speaking is such a crucial skill that it should be a requirement for high school graduation. And after that, a year or two in Toastmasters to give you the necessary practice.

It’s never too late! There are thousands of clubs across the country and around the world. Find one near you here. Toastmasters is CHEAP, it’s 80+ years proven, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Presentation pie

Pie: what unexpectedly lands on your face when you’re trying to be cool.

I was the “preacher” stand-in on Sunday, speaking at a Unitarian church about 60 miles from here while their minister was on vacation. It was the second time I’ve presented this particular sermon. The first time, about five years ago, was at my home church and it went over very well.

In the ensuing years I have gotten much more skillful not only at speaking but at crafting a tight speech/sermon. I reworked the old speech, lightened it up with some humorous quips and images, and added a rousing call to action at the end. It was definitely improved, so I felt confident all would be well.

After what happened on Sunday I can tell I need to go back to improv class, because those skills would have been handy.

Before I was to speak, the Sunday School director invited the kids to come forward for story time.  She started telling them a tale that seemed surprisingly similar to what I was about to talk about. At first I thought, “This is good – I can refer back to a couple of her ideas when I speak.”

But she went on and on, pretty much summarizing in kid’s language what I was going to talk about. As she finished she looked back at me and said, “Heheh, I hope I didn’t spoil your story….”

In Toastmasters we are warned in our introductions never to give away the speaker’s main points. For example you might say, “Today Mary will tell us the story of Goldilocks.” But you’d never say, “Today Mary is going to tell about how a little girl happened into a bear’s home while they were out and had to try every chair, bowl, and bed before she found one that was just right. Mary?”

OK, this woman’s version of the story lacked the depth, detail and brilliance of mine, and she missed some of the juicy parts, but still, she left me holding a half-eaten sandwich.

So I got up to speak and noticed that this was a crowd that likes to keep its distance. Most folks sat as far back as possible; the front five rows were empty. I thought I was in Missouri with the “show-me” congregation. Crossed arms, implacable faces.

Still, I wasn’t worried because most audiences respond fairly quickly to the warmth of my manner (not bragging; it’s true).

Ah yes. The congregation soaked up my words like a sponge. That is to say, my words landed on the congregants and disappeared without a trace.  It was like talking to acoustical tile.

I plowed on regardless and I guess it was all right. Next time I’ll bring bagels to toss into the crowd at the end of every page of text. That would get a rise out of them. But if it didn’t I’d add lox.

Afterwards I talked with a friend who had belonged to my church before she moved to this community. She noted that there were a lot of old folks in the group and said that this was their usual “response” to the sermon.

It made me really appreciate the pleasure of speaking to a responsive audience.  My home congregation really hangs in there with the minister or any guest speaker.   At Toastmasters we are totally attentive to and appreciative of the speaker, even if it’s crap. We know that soon enough we’ll be up front and want that kind of support for ourselves.

On behalf of speakers and teachers everywhere, the next time you’re in an audience, do your part by giving the person up front the gift of your full attention. Laugh, frown, cry in response. You’re there anyway; might as well be fully present.

Play! Prescription for the puritan soul

Like many introverts, I take life pretty seriously.  What I do must be purposeful, practical, productive.

Or so my inner critic likes to remind me.

It’s only now that I’m “of a certain age” I realize life’s way too short not to play.  So in recent years I’ve joined Toastmasters, taken up swing dancing, learned to yodel, tried my hand at improv comedy, beefed up my blues guitar chops, and in general decided it’s OK to enjoy making a fool of myself.

This morning, thanks to a comment from Scatterbrain who blogs at Splodge-plog.com, I found a link to an article about the SF Regional Air Guitar contest that took place last week.

Talk about purposeless play! You have to watch the video (the larger image, please) of the winner Alex Koll (stage name: Awesome Shred Begley, Jr.) explaining and demonstrating his extraordinary talents at Air Guitar.

Now this guy puts his heart and soul, body and hair into PLAY!

Powerpoint Potentate! Presentation Priestess!

Powerpoint: a Microsoft presentation program that allows public speakers to put their audience to sleep within five minutes

Potentate: one who wields great power or sway

All sorts of Powerpoint horror stories circulate in the public speaking realm. [Here’s a funny PPT presentation spoofing bad PPT presentations (is that laughter canned??? it’s not THAT funny).] I’ve seen many poor presentations myself.

But certain topics really can’t be done well without illustration – especially when the subject is something visual: art, architecture, design, travel, to name a few. You can use Powerpoint to organize your “slide show”, which is what I did last night to talk about feng shui.

Pictures are worth a thousand words when you’re describing befores and afters, the five elements, yin and yang, color, the bagua map.  The challenge is not bullet-pointitis, but locating the right pictures to project, building a narrative around them. And for me it was figuring out how to talk to the audience instead of the screen while managing the remote control and laser pointer.

Thank god my son was home for the week. I don’t watch TV and have never learned how to manage a remote control (though many women who DO watch TV can’t manage the remote either.

I feel like my skill as a public speaker has just taken a big leap with this new tool. I promise not to overuse it. Which shouldn’t be too hard because it’s still a pain in the butt to haul a laptop, projector and screen.