Archives for July 2011

Mark Twain’s Fingernails…and Other Potent Mnemonic Devices

By Jerry Weissman

Moonwalking With Einstein, the current bestselling book by Joshua Foer, deals with a subject close to the pounding hearts and minds of every public speaker or presenter: how to remember what to say. Speakers and presenters rely on a number of devices—from low-end three-by-five index cards to expensive high-end teleprompters—to aid their memories, but Mr. Foer offers an even higher end and lower cost technique: visual imagery, or associating a diverse list of subjects with a series of related physical objects.

Mr. Foer’s take on mnemonics is only the latest variation of a method that goes all the way back to Cicero, the first century Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator. In Rome today, the tour guides at the ruins of the Roman Forum tell of how Cicero and his contemporaries spoke for hours on end without any notes.

Paper—which would not be invented until two hundred years later in China—was not available to the Roman orators, and so they used the marble columns of the forum as memory triggers.  Each column represented a single subject and its related ideas. As the orators delivered their speeches, they strode from column to column and subject to subject, using the visual prompts to remind them of a group of related ideas.

Over the years, this technique has morphed into the popular (over 70,000 entries on the Internet) “Roman Room” memory method, in which physical objects inside a room serve the same associative purpose as the open air columns of the ancient Roman Forum.

Mr. Foer’s book drew the interest of Maureen Dowd of the New York Times who delved into the subject and found two other writers and their memory aids:

• Mark Twain, who “once wrote the first letter of topics that he wanted to cover in a lecture on his fingernails.”

• England’s Ed Cooke, the author of Remember, Remember and a Roman Room devotee who recommends, “If you have a list to remember, you put the items in a path throughout a familiar place, like your childhood home.”

Mr. Cooke, who is also the co-founder of Memrise, a blog site about memory, even related the technique directly to presentations. In a 2008 article in London’s Guardian, he wrote:

Begin by reducing your talk to, let’s say, 20 bullet-points…Write out your points in order. Now find an image that captures each point. To remember that the pound is losing ground on the dollar, you could imagine George Bush beating up Gordon Brown with a wad of dollar bills. If you wish to remember that 90% of women are at a disadvantage in the workplace, you might imagine a 90-year-old woman carrying a heavy weight. Then arrange your images on a route around a familiar space. So the Bush-Brown scenario could go in your bathroom sink, the granny could go in your shower, and the next 18 images could be arranged sequentially in a route around your home.

In my version of Mr. Cooke’s advice, I go back to Cicero and recommend that speakers and presenters cluster the diverse components of their pitches into a few conceptual Roman columns, or main themes, and then to represent those ideas in simple PowerPoint slides designed under the Less Is More principle. The memory prompt then comes from a specific image rather than from an imaginary physical layout.

CFOs, with their usual attention to detail and concern about forward-looking statements, often prepare their presentations as complete text on paper or on slides, and then they read or try to memorize the words. Those approaches force the CFO—and any presenter—to stay connected to the text and disconnected from the audience.

One CFO showed up for his coaching session at my company with his presentation written out in full sentences. I asked him to reduce each sentence to a four-word bullet and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to reduce each four-word bullet to one word and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to speak without any text. He did and it flowed. We then put the four-word bullets on the slides and he delivered his pitch directly to the audience and it flowed.

Of course, you can always skip the PowerPoint slides and, like Mark Twain, write the first letter of each of your subjects on your fingernails or, like Sarah Palin, write notes on your palm, or default to those old standby three-by-five index cards. But then, every time you glance down—like a detail-oriented CFO—you will not only disconnect from your audience, you will also appear to be unsure about what to say and diminish your credibility.

Better to go with Cicero’s columns and PowerPoint.

About the Author:

Jerry Weissman is a top corporate presentations coach with a client list  including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix, Dolby Labs, EBay and many others. Mr. Weissman founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988 and is the author of four business books: Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story; The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America’s Top Speaking Coach; In the Line of Fire: How to Handle Tough Questions and Presentations in Action: 80 Memorable Presentation Lessons from the Masters. For more information on his company and its services, visit

5 Tips For Breathing Life into Boring Technical Information

By Nick Morgan

People often ask me some variant of the following question:  OK, so I get the idea that presentations should be interesting, and speakers should be passionate.  But I’m an accountant (or engineer, scientist, nuclear physicist, doctor etc.) and what I have to present is highly technical and data-heavy.  How can I possibly make that interesting?

My answer always begins with one of the best college lecturers I ever heard.  Yes, he was a professor of accounting. He made profit and loss fascinating by talking about the early days of the Wells Fargo company, complete with cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and desperate men riding their horses past human and equine endurance to get to safety.

There was plenty of passion, and interest, and I learned something about double entry bookkeeping.

It can be done.

But seriously, my questioner will continue, how do you make it interesting?

It’s not easy. I’ll grant you that. But it is possible. What it takes is passion. If you’re thinking to yourself that you have a whole bunch of dull stuff to get across to the audience, then you’re already thinking wrong, and you need to start differently.  Here’s how you do it.

1.  First, realize giving a presentation is all about persuasion, not information.  The first step is to figure out what you’re really doing – what are you trying to persuade the audience of?  Once you know that, you’re ready to get started crafting a presentation.  Summarize that in one sentence – e.g., “I’m going to persuade the audience that double-entry bookkeeping is essential to making modern commerce work, because it allows us to measure, understand, and control what we’re doing.”

2.  Ask yourself, what is the problem that the audience has for which my information is the solution? Talk about that problem first, and I guarantee you the audience will be interested.  Then they’ll want to hear your solution. That’s when it’s appropriate to give them said information.

3.  Don’t give out information, give examples and case studies.  Case studies and examples bring dry information to life.  Data about a study of drug efficacy is boring – even that much sounds boring – but seen through the eyes of one potential patient, it has a completely different aspect.

4.  Use vivid metaphors and analogies.  If your information is highly abstract and you can’t figure out a way to turn it into a case study or an example, give us a metaphor. What is it like?  Is it like music, or medicine, or cowboys and Indians?  Use your imagination.  Great teachers understand this and give their students metaphors and analogies to help them begin to understand the field and the theories they must master.

5.  If all else fails, turn the information into a contest for the audience.  In the ’90s I taught public speaking at Princeton.  I had a certain amount of the history of rhetoric from the ancient Greeks to get across, because I thought it was important.  Imagine trying to teach pre-law students about anadiplosis, epanalepsis, and paronomasia!  The students were not interested and I despaired of getting 100 kinds of tropes and schemas into their heads.  Until I thought of Jeopardy.  I made the whole thing a Jeopardy contest (what is anadiplosis?) and the students woke right up.

Years later, the same students would shout “What is synecdoche!” across the campus at me when they saw me.  I gave out Princeton t-shirts I had designed for the occasion, and the students cheerfully put hours in committing the terms to memory.  Just about everyone gets cranked up when there’s a competition involved.  It makes your information more memorable.  Do remember to give out prizes.

With a little creative thought, any topic – any topic – can be made riveting.  I guarantee it.  Failure to make a presentation interesting is a failure of imagination.  Send me your worst topics and let’s get going.  We have a whole world of boring presentations to spare audiences.

About the Author:

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication, and the good and bad speakers of the day. His passion is to connect the latest brain research with timeless insights into persuasive speaking and writing in order to further our understanding of how people connect with one another.  For more information on his company, visit

7 Secrets to Psyche Yourself Out of Pre-Presentation Jitters

By Dianna Booher

Stage fright often begins long before a performer takes the stage. For most of us, the condition sets in the moment we accept an invitation to make a presentation. And generally, the longer we have to anticipate the event, the more prolonged and severe the symptoms.

The typical person is uncomfortable in a presentation forum. Neither rank nor personality is a differentiator. In years of coaching on presentation skills, I have had some of the most outstanding executives tell me that they still feel uncomfortable in front of a group—even after hundreds of presentations before employee, stockholder or industry groups.

And even life-of-the-party-type salespeople who give a great presentation sometimes walk away with sweaty palms and knots in their stomach. The following hints may help you deal with that sense of discomfort until it dissolves into confidence.

Secret #1: Accept Nervousness as Part of the Process

At times our fears are rational; sometimes not. We may fear that our subject or information is not quite what the audience expects, needs, or wants. Or we fear that they will attack the quality of our performance or challenge our credentials, asking a question we cannot answer. Or we visualize ourselves making a misstatement or omitting key information.

Even if we know our subject well and feel confident about our qualifications to speak, we may fear that we will perform so badly that we will embarrass ourselves. Surely the group will notice our nervousness and our embarrassment.

If we have no other cause for fear, some of us worry that we won’t have adequate preparation time or that some circumstance beyond our control (such as the audiovisual equipment going berserk) will foul things up.

If any of these are fears of yours, you are in good company. Even the most famous movie stars, singers, and politicians admit to fear before certain performances. When you hear someone claim not to be nervous before giving a presentation, you are probably in for a boring talk. Presenters who lack a certain amount of anxiety do not have enough adrenaline flow to push them to peak performance. They are too confident and relaxed to do their best job.

Secret #2: Use Fear to Push You to a Peak Performance

The secret to a great presentation is performing despite the nervousness—in fact, making your jitters work for you. Imagine the tension and extra adrenaline pumping through you as catalysts to a great performance.

You may feel that you have lost control of your body, with one of the following symptoms: rapid pulse, sweaty palms, dry mouth, buckling knees, twitching muscles, shortness of breath, quivering voice, and queasiness. No matter how nervous you are, however, never tell your audience.

If they sense your discomfort, they will worry about you—much like a parent does when a daughter mounts the school stage as Cinderella. Your admission may direct them to your shaking hands when they should be listening to your words.

Take a deep breath and refuse to let your nerves get the best of you. Instead of thinking about how you might embarrass yourself, concentrate on your subject. Recall and rehearse your key points rather than your key obstacles.

Use positive self-talk rather than focusing on the fear. One way to build your confidence is to remember that you have been asked to give the presentation; someone believes in your capability and subject-matter expertise. Remind yourself that if others in the audience were more knowledgeable than you, they would have been asked to make the presentation.

Fear is a learned response. A two-year-old does not fear walking into the street until someone yanks him or her back, warning him or her of the danger. We learn the same fear of speaking before a group the first time a classmate stands up to recite a poem, has a memory lapse, and gets flustered, causing snickers to erupt throughout the room. And because fear is learned, it can be unlearned—or at least controlled.

Secret #3: Find Your Fans

It is part of human nature to be cowed by negative personality types. This goes for presenters also. They look into the audience and see the one glum face staring at them, looking either bored, angry, or impatient. The tendency is to play to that one cynic, trying to persuade, soften, lead, motivate, empower, enlighten, or appease-whatever it takes to turn the gloom to bloom.

However, it rarely happens. And in the process, you grow more nervous and rattled and sometimes lose the rest of the audience.

It is far better to find your fans up front. If you know you have supportive people in the group, focus on those faces. These positive high achievers sport a different expression. They smile. They blink. They nod. They move. They shift. They are the let’s-keep-an-open-mind, let’s-make-this-work kind of people. They do not just suck the energy out of you—they give some back. These people have a contagious spirit that generates enthusiasm for at least a discussion, if not acceptance, of your ideas.

Secret #4: Play Mental Games of “What’s the Worst?” to Overcome Disabling Fear

Another trick for calming yourself is to consider the unnerving experience in light of eternity. What is the worst that can happen? What will it all matter a year from now? In fact, if you goof, who will even remember it tomorrow? In the big scheme of things, your presentation will prove minuscule. Plan, then learn to put the unexpected in perspective.

Secret #5: Use Physical Exercise and Activity to Release Nervous Tension

Following are some things you can do to alleviate both the physical and mental symptoms of nervousness:

–Take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. (This forces the muscles to relax a bit, increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, and lowers the pulse rate.)

–Let all the muscles in your body go limp, then tense them, and then let them go limp again.

–Drop your jaw and move it from side to side. Yawn.

–Roll your head, shoulders, or both.

–Go limp like Raggedy Ann and then straighten up. Repeat.

–Take a brisk walk or jog before arriving at the event.

The idea is to transport yourself from terror to fear to tension to mere stimulation. It is in the stimulation mode that you will be best able to inspire or motivate your audience.

Secret #6: Concentrate on Your Audience Rather than on Yourself to Reduce Tension

How will your ideas help your audience to improve their lives, take action at work, or at least increase their knowledge? Learn to appreciate the energy this tension creates; think of the swarm of butterflies in your stomach as a wellspring of creativity pushing upward to make your presentation one to remember. Feel passionate about your subject. Prepare well. Psych yourself up for the positive results your presentation is sure to generate.

Secret #7: Assume a Friendly Audience

If you assume the members of your audience are waiting to catch you in an error or argue with you, you’ll likely feel nervous and may even sound hostile during your presentation.

Based on my own experience and that of many other professional speakers, I assure you that audiences want speakers to do well. After all, they have taken time out of their busy schedules, and they are hoping to gain something from your presentation. Even those who are forced to attend will be pleasantly surprised if you give them something of value or entertain them.

To reassure yourself that your audience members are friendly and positive, arrive early and talk with people individually. Chat about the occasion, their trip to the site, what their work entails, common acquaintances—anything that lets them see you as a nice person who is interested in them. Such small talk also allows you to see them as familiar “friends” who will welcome and benefit from what you have to say.

Even your body language conveys how you feel about your audience. If you feel that they are friendly, you will walk over and stand closer to them. If you are uncomfortable with them, you will hide behind the lectern or table and lean away.

Finally, do not be discouraged by frowns or silences. Silence means deep thought and agreement as often as it does boredom. With this perspective, your delivery will sound relaxed and upbeat.

Don’t Let Fear Mean Mediocrity

Finally, don’t settle for being an “average” presenter, one who is scared into conformity. Do not risk losing your audience with a boringly straitlaced performance — one that is not too passionate, not too loud, not too flashy, not too funny, not too controversial, not too emotional, not too formal, not too informal-not too anything. Never look around your organization to see “what everybody else does” when they present and conform to mediocrity.

See what everyone else does, and do not do it. Your success depends more often on being different–on standing out as superior. Relax and excel.

About the Author:

Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consultants, works with organizations to improve productivity and effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. She has published more than 40 books, including the forthcoming Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader (Berrett-Koehler), Speak with Confidence (McGraw-Hill), and Communicate with Confidence (McGraw-Hill). For more information, visit or call 800.342.6621

Consider Alternatives to Using Video in Web Presentations

By Dave Paradi

Not long ago a professional speaking colleague called on me to help her with an upcoming webinar. It was her first significant webinar for clients and she obviously wanted it to go well.  One of the elements she wanted to include in her presentation was a video clip that illustrated some of her key concepts.

I want to share with you the approach I recommended that will allow you to get the benefit of a video clip without actually showing it during a webinar.

Why not just embed the video on a slide and show it like you do in a live presentation?  On all the webinar platforms I’ve used video seems to be a big problem.  In my experience, video over the web does not work well when embedded on a PowerPoint slide. It works better when played in a media player outside PowerPoint, but it still suffers from stutters due to the limitations of the bandwidth on a live transmission.

The reason watching videos such as the YouTube or Brainshark slide makeover videos on my web site works well is that your local computer downloads a portion of the video first so that it plays smoothly from your local computer.  Live video in a webinar can’t do this.

So how can you get the benefits of using an illustrative video clip in a webinar?

You use a series of screen captures from the video to make your points.  Let’s start with the planning first. When you are showing any video clip, you are using it to illustrate specific points. You may be showing a demonstration of a technique or process or you may be using a video testimonial to reinforce a claim you have made. There are specific images or words you want to emphasize.  Make a list of those specific spots in the video.

Play the video at the highest quality possible and pause it when you reach one of the spots you’ve made note of in the planning stage. Take a screen capture of that image using Alt+PrintScreen and paste the image on a PowerPoint slide.  Make the image as large as you can without distorting it too much and crop out the controls of the video player so you are just left with the image.

Once you have the image on the slide, add a callout so the audience knows what they are supposed to look for in this image.  It may be an arrow and text to point out something in the image or it could be a specific quote that a person is saying that is reinforced with the expression on their face.

Keep capturing images from the video and creating slides until you have all the spots on your planned list in your presentation. When you are presenting the slides during the webinar, you can introduce the section by saying that you want to show a series of images from a video clip that illustrate the point you were discussing.

You can go through the images fairly rapidly, as quickly as one every 8-10 seconds if necessary. Remember that there is a lag between when you show the next slide and when the audience sees it, so you can’t advance through the images as rapidly as you could in a live presentation.

By using a series of screen capture images instead of a video during a web presentation, you increase the quality of the experience for your audience and still use the video to illustrate the points you want to make.  (If you are new to web-based presentations, I do have a one-hour video program on using web presentations effectively, which contains other ideas based on my years of using web technology to present for clients.  You can find all the details here.)

About the Author:

Dave Paradi is the author of “102 Tips to Communicate More Effectively Using PowerPoint” and “The Visual Slide Revolution”, which was selected as one of the Top 10 Business Books of 2008 by The Globe and Mail. He is an Adjunct Faculty member at Rush University in Chicago and is the co-author of two “Guide to PowerPoint” MBA-level textbooks. His workshops, books, videos, newsletters and podcasts help presenters communicate more effectively using persuasive PowerPoint presentations. Visit Dave’s web site at for more information.

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