Saturday, August 30, 2008

Storytelling: The Endless Tale

The Endless Tale is the title of a column on storytelling in the wonderful quarterly folk music magazine, Sing Out. It is written by Dan Keding, and also has the breathtakingly long subtitle of Storytelling: its events, tellers, stories, organizations, resources & points of discussion. Some of Dan’s columns open by telling specific short tales. Two examples are:

Spring 2008 - The old woman who outwitted death ( web link here).
Summer 2002 – A full cup (
web link here)

The first column also contains a discussion of endings. The second column also contains a discussion of short (or small) tales, and lists four books that contain collections of them.

If you want to see more stories, then try this list of some storytelling web sites.

Folk songs are poetic tales set to music, like Richard Thompson’s Beeswing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Props for the courtroom are called demonstrative evidence

In legal terminology props for the courtroom are somewhat grandly called demonstrative evidence. An old Chinese proverb says: “tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand”. The proverb is quoted is from an article by a forensic engineering company that also contains an excellent cartoon about the futility of detailed verbiage alone.

Both lawyers and expert witnesses know that most jurors think visually. They use props for showing in addition to verbally telling their story. Props were repeatedly used by the Los Angeles trial lawyer Earl Rogers, who was the basis for the TV character Perry Mason. More recently a demonstration involving gloves was an important part of the defense in the infamous OJ Simpson trial.

The abstract concepts of conservation of momentum and energy are the basis for vehicle accident reconstruction, as described in a recent Slate article on The Ferrari that split in half. Most professors of mechanical engineering could put a jury to sleep in less than five minutes by discussing the concepts starting with words, and then continuing with unfamiliar equations written on a flip chart.

About twenty years ago I saw a video of an expert testifying brilliantly on this topic. The lawyer called the professor up to the stand. He walked up with a box containing two brightly colored basketballs in one hand. The other hand was dribbling a third basketball. All the jurors woke up. Then he got down on his knees on the floor. He rolled one ball at another to illustrate a collision. Also, he told the jurors that some actually were familiar with momentum transfer from playing billiards or pool. He only started to tell them after he’d already both shown them and involved them.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Give 'em props

Sometimes props can improve a speech. Both Tom Antion and Lenn Millbower have discussed the use of props as visual aids. A simple, inexpensive prop can be effective. Ellen Hermens describes a speaker who just placed a paper circle on the floor and stood on it to show that “this is my point of view”. Then he stepped away and took a critical look at that point of view from another angle.

To be effective a prop needs to be large enough to be seen by the entire audience. You can buy very realistic (and expensive) props from GreatBigStuff. Or, you can buy less expensive foam props from clown shops like PeachyKeene or Clown Antics.

There also are novelty suppliers like Archie Mcphee. Somewhere out there is a Toastmaster who would enjoy their giant inflatable mattress shaped like a slice of toast. They also have large pencils, pens, ears, scissors and hearts.

A great comedian can take a very simple prop and use it to tell many stories. The TV show “Whose Line is This Anyway?” had a segment just on props.

The most famous use of a prop in public speaking was by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations on October 12, 1960. Khrushchev simply pounded a shoe on the desk to emphasize his disgust at the remarks made by another speaker. His granddaughter Nina claimed this was an impromptu gesture. It had been a hot day. He had taken off his wristwatch and put it on the desk. Nikita’s new shoes were uncomfortably tight, so he’d taken them off and switched to his slippers. When he banged a fist on the desk he accidentally knocked the watch on the floor. Then he saw the shoes, picked one up, and even more loudly banged his way into history.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How to structure a business story in 9 steps

Doug Stevenson recently outlined 9 steps of business story structure in a magazine article on Storytelling – The Art of Customer Engagement which appeared in the July 28 issue of the Life and Health edition of National Underwriter magazine. The steps are:

1. Set the scene
2. Begin the journey
3. Introduce the characters
4. Encounter the obstacle
5. Overcome the obstacle
6. Resolve the story
7. Make the point
8. Ask the question
9. Restate the point

An article on his web site discusses these nine steps in more detail. There also is a handout from one of his ASTD workshops posted elsewhere that ends with the wonderful phrase that “emotion is the fast lane to the brain”.

Stevenson has an interesting history. He wrote a book on storytelling called Never Be Boring Again which he later renamed Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.

In my August 2nd post “Get a running start” I referred to a post from Doug’s blog.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dressing truth in story

Speaking is closely related to storytelling. The word storytelling brings to mind a gray haired grandfather telling tales to his grandchildren. You might not expect to find storytelling discussed repeatedly in a NASA magazine (ASK), or in magazine articles and books on management.

ASK magazine has a brief, wonderful article by Annette Simmons called Dressing up the naked truth. It contains the following story:

“Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her, and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the peoples’ houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire.”

In another issue of ASK magazine Dougal Maclise presents a much longer story. What's a ceiling? tells how “zero failure equals zero progress”.

Storytelling is also discussed by Stephen Denning in a nine page article in the Harvard Business Review on,Telling Tales

Another article by Bill Birchard, Once Upon A Time, reviews storytelling in business and references ten books on the subject.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Free e-book on presentations, with a great story

Why bad presentations happen to good causes is a 100 page e-book written by Andy Goodman that can be downloaded free from Hershey/Cause.

Contents include:
Chapter 1: The sorry state of the art
Chapter 2: Building better presentations
Chapter 3: Improving your delivery
Chapter 4: PowerPoint is your friend
Chapter 5: The small stuff (it’s worth sweating)

Chapter 1 identifies a “fatal five” problem factors which are:
1. Reading the slides
2. Too long, too much information
3. Lack of interaction
4. Lifeless presenters
5. Room/technical problems

Chapter 2 (on building better presentations) includes a great “ultimate elevator story” told in just 500 words on pages 30 and 31 of the text (page 36 and 37 of the Acrobat file). An even briefer summary follows.

Two brothers managed a vintage 11-story apartment building. Tenants had complained that the only elevator was glacially slow. One brother took the obvious technical approach. He got bids, selected a contractor, and had the drive mechanism updated to run faster at a cost of $150,000. Then he surveyed the tenants, who were quite unimpressed.

The second brother made other, much less expensive changes ($5000, or 1/30th the cost). Then he surveyed the tenants again, and they said that they now were quite pleased. What had he done? He’d just added full length mirrors at every floor on either side of the elevator doors.

The first brother thought the question to answer was “how do we make the elevator go faster?” The second brother realized that the question actually was “how do we make time pass faster for the waiting customers?”

There are two morals for this story. First, sometimes the problem isn’t what you first think. Second, the solution may not be expensive technology or “smoke and mirrors”, but just mirrors.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Digital visual presenter - the grandson of an overhead projector

If you haven’t been to a classroom or lecture hall recently, then you are in for an audiovisual treat. The overhead projector has evolved into a cool, quiet, modern product called a digital visual presenter.

The overhead projector first was followed by a gizmo called a document camera. It could take a still image or a video of a sheet of paper or an object and feed that to an LCD projector, such as is commonly used for PowerPoint presentations or video. The document camera had a cold light source or sources for illuminating the subject matter. It also had both autofocus and zoom so the instructor could highlight a detail. This is a much better than an overhead projector. There is no more glare, hot air, blower noise, marker ink on hands, or transparencies to clean. You can see a two minute YouTube video on a digital document camera here.

Then the document camera was in turn followed by an even fancier gizmo with memory and input switching. The latest generation is variously called a digital visual (or video) presenter, a digital presenter, visual presenter, or a visualizer. A speaker now can easily switch between live video or still images, stored images, and a PowerPoint presentation. Click here for a two minute TeacherTube video of a visual presenter.

Some visual presenters fold for portability, as seen in this brief Youtube video of a Samsung model. There is a bewildering variety of designs. For example, ELMO makes units ranging from a four pound portable for accompanying a notebook computer to a unit for permanent mounting on a ceiling.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Don't forget the overhead projector

In a previous post on June 24th titled “Don’t be a flipchart Charlie” I discussed that simple visual aid. For larger audiences another possibility is to use an overhead projector. Like flipcharts they are relatively simple to use. Visuals can be produced “on the fly” with just a few pieces of transparency film and markers. Transparencies also can be made using a copier or a computer printer.

Lenny Laskowski has some good suggestions on using overhead transparencies. There also is a more printer friendly version elsewhere. More tips for overhead projector use are in a newsletter from the NIH Evening Speakers Toastmasters club.

If you are using lots of overhead transparencies, then you will need to make sure there is enough table space next to the projector to shuffle your “deck” into two stacks of unused and used transparencies. Before you start you will need to check if there is a spare bulb ready to use. (Some projectors carry a spare and a flip of a knob will instantly change lamps).

OSHA has a 1996 vintage page on Presenting Effective Presentations with Visual Aids which discusses overhead projectors and other aids.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Get a running start

The Toastmasters article on 10 Biggest Public Speaking Mistakes lists “Starting with a whimper” as the very first one. They suggest that you: “give the audience a startling statistic, an interesting quote, a news headline – something powerful that will get their attention immediately.”

There is a large element of theater to picking an opening. Both storytellers and trial lawyers know the importance of a great opening. In his autobiography The Story of My Life the great lawyer Clarence Darrow stated that: ”… unless a speaker can interest his audience at once, his effort will be a failure.”

In his Story Theater blog Doug Stevenson discusses How to Open Your Speech with:
1. A provocative statement or question
2. A quote
3. A story
4. A rapport builder

In his Trial Theater blog lawyer Elliot Wilcox discusses How to Develop Powerful Case Themes. He points out that movies have taglines that make them memorable, like “With great power comes great responsibility” from Spiderman. Stating a tagline in the opening gives you a “hook” to grab the audience for the speech.

Wilcox also points out that an opening statement should be given in the present tense, so that It’s happening right now.