The Spoken Word
We studied hard, we focus on what we do to do it well, and we
compete against our competition and mostly against our colleagues.
Yet…what is that one great thing to do that will set us apart from the
rest of the crowd?
What is responsible for 90% of the misery on this earth? More than all
the wars, disease, poverty and catastrophes we can imagine?
It is the inability to talk and listen so that messages come across
clearly with impact. It is all about our ability to communicate with each
other and to groups.
Everyday we are misunderstood; everyday millions of presentations
simply fall on the floor. The few that do it right stand, out against the
crowd. It is so difficult yet can be done by each of us.
The worst way to do it, is by giving someone an audio recording. A bit
better is to watch and listen to a video, even more better is “show and
tell” where the presenter will talk and use some visual aid. Even better
is “chalk and talk” where the presenter will talk and draw lines and
diagrams. The very best way is experiential learning when the
audience discovers the truth by themselves.
“Show and tell” is good for audiences larger than ten, yet before
switching on the PowerPoint and prepare long lists of bulleted
sentences, just think about how you and I react on it. The average
attention span of a human being is about 6-8 minutes and shorter how
younger we are. After that we lapse into a daydream zone thinking of
other stuff. After about 12 minutes, most of us become brain dead
when we stop thinking at all..
Sometime ago I had the painfull experience to be caught in a
graduation ceremony in that beautiful town amongst the vineyards. It
was March and the mercury was hovering close to 40 degrees. The
audience was there for one reason only, to see their beloved on the
stage for 5 seconds. It was gruesomely dismantled when a learned
professor spoke on the National Innovation Framework. She droned on
and on for 45 endless cruel minutes. Who cares after all? Point sadly
I got myself cloaked up a several times into that same weird crimson
medieval garb they still use at graduations, always given some
important sounding topic like: “An in depth overview of the economic
outlook for the next decade”. Yet responded every time using less than
10 minutes telling them fairy tales, was applauded for it and rewarded
by an appointment at the University’s business school to lecture on
topics I know nothing about!
So let’s start from the beginning: who is the audience? What do they
know, what would they like? Where do we want to take them to and
how will we get there?
Kick off in a great way. A question, a Factoid, an Anecdote or Quote, a
Familiar saying, an Analogy always works better that the table of
The ultimate is self effacing humor. Steve Jobs stood in a red cloak in
front of hundreds of Stanford students and said: “This is the closet to
graduation I have ever been!” He followed by hitting them in the heart
with: “When I was born, my mother was only 16…”. They were in his
hands and he could take them anywhere.
Taking the audience to the destination can be blow by technical blow,
or highlighted by wonderfull stories. Trevor Manuel delivered the
budget for the nation and for 2 hours entertains us with the one great
story after the other with the tax rates popping up here and there.
Mere words have a 10% impact, visuals perhaps 20 if you are lucky,
the tonality of the voice about 30% and body language (hands, feet,
eyes, mouth..) more than 40%. Clutching a lectern or aimlessly
wandering up and down with hands in the pockets while clicking the
mouse eliminates that critical 40%,
Talk load or soft, use many pauses, gesture upwards, downwards and
sideways, smile, look at a group for about 5 seconds, and make them
feel like royalty.
For our visuals; less is more, use colour, blue, green and a splash of
yellow. Never use black letters against a white background and avoid
red. Keep simple, use single words, never sentences as your voice will
do it for you. Be kind to the audience and minimize eye sweeps. Often
press the magical “B” button to black it out and get them to look you
in the eye.
PowerPoint is an aid, a tool and nothing more. Use sparingly and only
when really necessary. Do not let it undermine the group interaction.
For less than 7 people, rather opt for a stack of A2 sheets and
colourfull pens and work with in the middle of us all.
We need to be prepared to work in case of an Eskom intervention
without losing anything. We witnessed at a conference of the SAIIE
that two learned economists stood petrified for minutes not uttering a
single word because this great company pulled the plug on them! If
Mr. Manuel can present the nation’s economy with stories, it can be
done by all. It is sensible to prepare without visual aids and only add it
at the end. After all its is only an aid..
The greatest and most difficult aid is humour. Use it liberally especially
against yourself. I often use it to the delight of audiences looking at
this diminutive ugliesh person in front of them: “I wish many times I
could be like a can of Guiness…tall dark and handsome..”
Humour is not a joke, but it is to look at life from a different angle.
Humour is clean, not against people or culture and is even suitable at
The people in our audiences are different; they hear, see, and feel
messages differently. They are analytical, visionary, feelers or
structured. For some reason the norm is to cook up presentations only
for people that visually and analytically inclined. That, even though
they make up a tiny percentage of the population!
It is a theatre, not about information. Judgment is beyond logic and on
emotion, hope, ambition and desire. Focus on the heart then on the
The preparation is more important than the delivery. For every minute
on stage there is a day backstage to prepare and dry run. Prepare in a
different place. Walk in the park and sense the images and words. Get
the broad strokes right long before the detail. Be crystal clear on what
the main point is. Only ONE main point, repeat and repeat..
The idea is of less importance than the people behind it. It is of less
importance than showing our ability to make it happen. Inspiration, a
person that believes in herself, passion is more important than the
solution. Make simplicity an obsession.
What is that single one slide that is the cornerstone? That single one
that encapsulates it all? The single one that we will leave on the desk
in hard copy A3 and full colour?
Summarize at the end only. Do not give an executive summary in the
beginning. Leave them wondering. Work on voice, work hard on
cutting “Uhms” and “Ahs” as it shows insecurity.
Brevity is the key. Great orators that changed history kept to the 5
minute rule. The sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the
peacemakers..”, Lincoln: “Fellow countrymen, four score years ago
we…”, Washington: ”if we leave today then..”, Manuel cutting up his 2
hour budget in discreet events, and the greatest of them all, Churchill:
”And in a thousand years, they will still say: this was our finest hour’’
It was same the old Winston who remarked: “If I have to talk for an
hour, give me a day to prepare, yet if it is 5 minutes, I need a month.”
To end off with the ending. It is the most important part of the
presentation as people remember what was happened last. Leave
them surprised and wondering. End with inspiration, give hope, be
Switch off all technology, give the final Unique Selling Proposition with
a surprise they have not heard yet.
“This was a great opportunity, our wildest dreams came true……”, use
a final story, draw a pigeon out of the hat
And remember, remember: Emotion more important than facts, you
cannot bore someone to say “yes”
Communication cannot be learned from books, we need to run around
the block and find our own style. It would as futile as to buy expensive
Nikes, read a few books and think we can finish the Comrades. It does
not work. It is about grasping at every moment to shape ourselves.
For that, Toastmasters is by far the best place to do it. Join tomorrow!
VDS Brink presented many times to snoozing audiences and found
himself eventually in that great organisation;
became twice their national semi finalist on Humour speaking ,
then took part in this year’s Enbalis Business Plan competition
against 6500 other wannabees. Used “Chalk and Talk”….
and made it….
Insights for this article was found from
Bayley and Mavitiy’s great book “Life is a Pitch and the wonderfull
manuals of Toastmasters
To argue and download more detail or just go to www.corvus.co.za