Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Spoken Word

copyright VDS Brink

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 twelve 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 forty degrees. The audience was there for one reason only, to see their beloved on the stage for five 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 missed.
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 ten minutes telling them fairy tales, was applauded for it and rewarded by an appointment at the University’s business school to lecture to poor MBA students 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 contents.
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 two 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 five 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 seven 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 Guinness … 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 a funeral.
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, even though they make up a tiny percentage of the population!
It is a theater, not about information. Judgment is beyond logic and on emotion, hope, ambition and desire. Focus on the heart then on the mind.
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 five 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 two hour budget in discreet events, and the great 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 positive.
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,
Toastmasters International.
 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, R3.5 million to blow on the venture ...
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

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