Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Visual feedback for vocal variety

Imagine practicing public speaking with a display showing a bar graph of how the pitch range for your voice was varying. It could silently warn if you were speaking in a monotone rather than conveying emotion via wide variations. Wouldn’t that be a great tool for increasing your vocal variety?

You don’t have to imagine it, because it already exists. In the October 2009 issue of an online magazine called Language Learning and Technology Rebecca Hincks and Jens Edlund at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm described a computerized system for Promoting Increased Pitch Variation in Oral Presentations with Transient Visual Feedback. They developed it as a research tool for teaching presentations in English as a second language. In the above image I called it a liveliness meter.

Right now it’s not a product that you can buy off-the-shelf. It might be someday though. As Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive once sang: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bach Rescue Remedy and anxiety

On January 15th yet another superficial article All About Bach Rescue Remedy was posted. It is a trademarked combination of five flower remedies (or essences). Rescue Remedy has been recommended as being useful for reducing anxiety, including anxiety about public speaking or taking exams. The article contains a paragraph headlined: Scientific Support for Rescue Remedy which includes the following statement:

“….However, in 2007, a study by the University of Miami Nursing School in conjunction with The Sirkin Creative Living Center declared that Rescue Remedy ‘is an effective over-the-counter stress reliever with an effect similar to that of traditional pharmaceutical drugs.’ The study added that, unlike traditional stress medications, Rescue Remedy had no adverse side effects and was not addictive.”

The link provided about the University of Miami study just was to a re-issued press release from the US subsidiary of Nelsons (who make Rescue Remedy). You can also read the press release here.

The press release is more positive than the 2007 magazine article describing the details of the study. If you go to the Sirkin web site you can find the full text for Healing With Bach Flower Essences: Testing a Complementary Therapy as an Acrobat file.

As shown above in the diagram, they looked at a sample of 111 nursing students, and compared the effect of a placebo (58 students) with Rescue Remedy (53 students). They did not find a statistically significant difference in test anxiety after receiving the placebo or the remedy.

Then they split the sample into three subgroups based on their state of anxiety before the students received either the placebo or the remedy. When they analyzed the differences for the subgroups, as shown below in the diagram, they did find a statistically significant difference for the subgroup with high anxiety (but not for either low or medium anxiety). The abstract of the article concludes with this statement (my capitalization):

“The results SUGGEST that BFE Rescue Remedy MAY be effective in reducing HIGH levels of situational anxiety.”

If you look for an independent review of Bach Flower Remedies on the web sites of some medical centers, you will find an article from Ebsco here, here, and here. Their discussion of the data analysis in the 2007 article says:

“However, after the study was concluded, researchers then explored the data, and found a relative benefit in one subgroup of participants. This may appear to support the use of Rescue Remedy. However, such ‘post-hoc’ statistical analyses are notoriously unreliable: based on the laws of chance alone, it is almost always possible to find some subgroup that showed benefit in a study. The process of doing this is called ‘data dredging,’ or sometimes, ‘going on a treasure hunt.’ Such investigatory analyses of data can provide fodder for future studies, but they make no positive statement about the results of a study already conducted.”

Read the original magazine article, and then make up your own mind. Don’t just get your information from a press release.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Flower remedies or essences for anxiety?

Many people are aware that preparation and practice are the best ways to reduce anxiety about public speaking. Some instead look to complementary and alternative medicine for a quick fix.

One therapy that has been recommended is the Bach flower remedies(or essences). More specifically, a trademarked combination of five flower essences, called Rescue Remedy, often has been described as being good for reducing anxiety about tasks like public speaking and taking exams.

Is there any solid evidence, like double-blind clinical trials, which shows that flower remedies actually are effective for reducing anxiety? (In a clinical trial the experimental treatment is compared with an inert placebo to see if there is a statistically significant difference in the results.)

Last year Thaler et al published an article in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine which discussed Bach Flower Remedies for psychological problems and pain: a systematic review. Thaler et al review three clinical trials of flower remedies for anxiety by students about taking examinations (test anxiety). There were two trials done in 2001. One used a five-flower remedy, and the other used a ten-flower combination. There was another trial done in 2007 which used the trademarked Rescue Remedy. You can read a summary in Table 3 of their article. No statistically significant difference was found in any of these studies. Based on these results Thaler et al concluded that there was no evidence that flower remedies were effective.

In 2004 Jorm et al published a broader review in the Medical Journal of Australia which discussed the Effectiveness of Complementary and Self-Help Treatments for Anxiety Disorders. They also reviewed the two trials of Bach flower remedies done in 2001, and concluded there was no evidence that flower remedies were effective.

Read these two serious review articles, and then make up your own mind about flower remedies or essences.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Lightening Talks?

Scott Berkun discussed The End of Boring Presentations on January 14th in a column at He described how in 2000 Mark Jason Dominus came up with the idea of five-minute presentations called lightning talks. However, Scott spells the phrase as “lightening talks,” which conjures up striking images like the one shown above where the lightening is supplied by personal airships.

Scott continued by discussing two more modern and more constrained formats with exactly twenty slides advanced at a fixed time interval. Pecha Kucha shows each image for 20 seconds; Ignite shows it for only 15 seconds. He ended by pointing out that the beginning of March will be Global Ignite Week.

The Wikipedia article referred to Dominus coming up with lightning talks in June 2000. When I looked further I also found an article in the March 2000 issue of Training & Development by Jacqueline I. Schmidt and Joseph B. Miller on The Five-Minute Rule for Presentations.

Back in September 2008 I wrote a post about Recent formats for brief presentations: Lightning Talks, Pecha Kucha, and Ignite. I pointed out that formats for brief presentations go back to before 2000 – at least 25 years. Ron Hoff’s 1996 book was called Say It in Six. An article titled Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking about Toastmasters International back in the April 1970 issue of Changing Times magazine mentions that: “….The talks are timed and last five to seven minutes.” Competitive debate also has long used timed speeches.

Another possible meaning for “lightening talk” could be adding cream to lighten coffee. When an audience member forgets to do this during the break between talks, he will find that by the time he walks to the back of the room, pours it in the cup, stirs it, and returns to his seat he will have missed the entire talk!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Guide to Information Graphics

Last week I found this remarkable guide on the new books shelf at my public library. It is subtitled: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures. Dona M. Wong crammed it with clear, easy to read guidance for anyone who uses charts and graphs. You can preview a sample here.

If you use Excel or PowerPoint, then you need to read this book from cover to cover, which will not take long. This 157-page book contains about 500 graphics, and defines the phrase “profusely illustrated.” The list price is $30, but Amazon sells it for $20. Borrow it or buy it!

Dona spent the past nine years as the graphics director for the Wall Street Journal. Before that she was the graphics editor for the daily Business, Sunday Business, and Monday Media Business sections in the New York Times. She has an MFA from Yale on information design, and her thesis advisor was Edward Tufte.

The image shown above is based on the very first graphic from her introduction.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Will your jargon indicate that you’re an infidel?

Earlier this month at the 45th SIEO/NACE Sun Valley Symposium I heard two examples of jargon that might upset religious sensibilities.

Just before my speech Ken Plaizier, of Emtek, spoke on “A Brief History of Pipeline Inspection.” In the printed program his title had been “The History of Smart Pigging.” In pipeline jargon a pig is a plug that slides through the pipe. One explanation for the term is that it as one type of leather plug slid by it made a squealing sound like a pig. There is Pigging Products and Services Association with a web site which discusses different types of pigs. “Smart pigs” are sophisticated in-line inspection (ILI) tools that sense and record when and where there are imperfections in the pipe. In Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries they are not called pigs because Muslims don’t eat pork. Pigs are not halal (roughly equivalent to kosher), so referring to them would be very offensive.

The final speech at the SIEO/NACE Symposium was by Trent Howard of Total Corrosion Solutions. He spoke on “An Accurate Method to Find and Map Gas Leaks.” Trent described an integrated mobile system mounted on an all-terrain vehicle. It simultaneously detected methane, carbon dioxide, and other hydrocarbons. This system was controlled by a laptop computer equipped with a global positioning system (GPS). Once a map of the pipeline was loaded into the computer the operator could begin his drive. For each leak he found, he could produce a detailed report for management to use to direct repairs.

Trent kept referring to the their system by the acronym LDS (for leak detection system). I think I heard a few chuckles from the audience the first time he used that acronym, because LDS is better known as referring to “Latter-Day Saints.” The web address of will take you to a comprehensive site from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Trent would have been better off if he had used a longer acronym without another common meaning (and a very different association). He might have called their technology a Leak Detecting and Locating System (LDLS).

Jargon and acronyms can carry unintended associations. Back in 2008 Peggy Jordan discussed Why Clarity Counts. She mentioned a client who kept using the term STD to refer to “short term disability” when a more common meaning is “sexually transmitted disease.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

Visual leverage from your big-business associates

At the 45th SIEO/NACE Sun Valley Symposium I heard Jessi Roberts from Northwest RCI, Inc. speak about coatings. The title of her presentation on January 7th was “Polyurea: The good, the bad, and mitigating the ugly.” She began by saying that she was extremely nervous, since this was her first PowerPoint presentation. However, if she had not told the audience we probably would not even have noticed. The lectern was ten feet from the first row, and she looked just fine.

Jessi described polyurea as being a flexible, high-build coating system that can be rapidly spray-applied at temperatures between about -20 and 150 F. She had images illustrating examples of large projects including lining of a canal, a flume, and a 14-acre irrigation pond. The good was that the coating can adhere to concrete, metal or fabric if the surface is properly prepared. The bad was that polyurea will not adhere to a wet surface.

The most dramatic part of her presentation was the last part, about mitigating the ugly. Her firm is certified to apply the entire polyurea blast mitigation line from Life Shield Engineered Systems, which is a division of Sherwin-Williams. Life Shield has spray-applied coatings, and also pre-cast liner panels for protecting both walls and windows.

She played an eye-popping video from Life Shield that contained several high-speed recordings of field tests. The last and most dramatic one was of a test by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). It showed views of how a clear Life Shield window liner first stretched inward drastically, and then rebounded to eject the fragments from the shattered glass. That was a wonderful illustration of the maxim: “don’t just tell me – show me!”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How thin is "extremely thin"?

Explaining how big or small unfamiliar things are can be a challenge. Last July on his blog, Can You Hear Me Up the Back?, Ian Whitworth discussed the Top 10 Presentation Measurement Units. For big things there are some familiar reference objects, like football fields, the equator, or a trip to the moon. For small things there just is the thickness of a human hair.

On January 9, 2010 I spoke for 45 minutes at the 45th SIEO/NACE Sun Valley Symposium. My presentation was “An Introduction to Stainless Steels and Corrosion.” Most of my audience was not familiar with stainless steels or metallurgy. They were very familiar with steel pipelines, organic coatings, cathodic protection, and repair methods.

How do stainless steels work? They are reactive metals – iron alloys containing at least 11% chromium. The surface of a stainless steel reacts with oxygen to form an extremely thin, self-healing, chromium-rich passive film which stops further corrosion. This process is called passivation, and the film is just 10 to 100 atoms thick. Stainless steels are some of the first “smart” materials, although they were invented almost a century ago. You probably have them in your kitchen as cutlery, mixing bowls, and perhaps pots or pans.

If you understand how thin the film is, then you can understand that the surface must be processed meticulously to remove contaminants from fabrication. Just rubbing the surface with a steel wire brush or steel wool can embed enough free iron to interfere with passivation. Typically free iron is removed by immersing the product in a solution of nitric or citric acid, which confusingly also is called passivation. Thicker contaminants like heat tint from welding are removed by a more aggressive treatment called pickling, which uses a solution with nitric acid plus hydrofluoric acid.

I began with a PowerPoint image showing the thickness of my little finger (a centimeter). Then I described how a dime was a tenth of that thickness (0.1 cm). I proceeded down by powers of ten from -1 (0.1cm) to -8 (0.00000001 cm) as is summarized in the table shown above. The thickness of the passive film is roughly a millionth or a ten-millionth of a centimeter (0.0000001 to 0.000001 cm). That is a lot thinner than the “thin candy shell” covering the chocolate in an M & M (about 0.04 cm)!

My use of powers of ten to illustrate thicknesses was inspired by the 1977 Charles and Ray Eames movie Powers of 10.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tune in to Toastmasters: District 15 Winter Leadership Institute in Boise

This is my 200th post on this blog!

Yesterday morning I attended the semi-annual Toastmasters Leadership Institute (TLI) here in Boise. It was held at the SuperValu corporate offices (formerly the Albertsons headquarters). The primary purpose for a TLI is simply to provide training for club officers filling the following seven roles: President, Vice President- Education, Vice President – Public Relations, Vice President – Membership, Secretary, Treasurer, Sergeant at Arms. A basic TLI is about as exciting as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

This was not just a basic TLI though. It had three general sessions separated by two breakout sessions. The first general session had a wonderful keynote speech on “Communicating in the Social Space” given by Justin Foster from Tricycle (a branding firm in Boise). In the second general session he continued with “Social Media 101: Practical Tips for Implementing Social Media Right Now.” The first breakout session had the usual club officer training, and also a session for prospective or new members on: “So you want to be a Toastmaster.” The second breakout session offered a series of bonus topics:

Social Media: Building Your Club Brand (taught by Justin Foster)

Mentoring for Success (taught by Dave Manning, our current District Governor)

Flawless Planning with Easy-Speak

Advanced Manuals: What’s Right for You?

Moving Up: Taking the Next Leadership Step (taught by Michael Rusnack, a past District Governor)

The final general session had closing ceremonies with door prizes and recognition of the speakers and planning committee (organized by Ruth Romero, from Capitol Club). .

It was an exciting morning - more like a full meal than just a sandwich.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Resolve to read less and learn more this year

There is a huge amount of information about public speaking on the Web, ranging from brief blog posts to long articles. Much of it is commercial crap which is not worth reading. How can you sift through this vast “digital sewer” to find anything relevant or useful?

If you search via Google for the quoted phrase “public speaking” you will find roughly 7,000,000 items. When you restrict your search to items posted in the last 24 hours you still will find roughly 115,000 items. Here are six simple steps to follow for more quickly homing in on “the good stuff”:

1. Narrow your search by adding another specific phrase in quotes, like “overcoming anxiety” or “opening your speech.”

2. When you find a potentially interesting item, read the first few paragraphs. Check whether it is written without spelling errors. If spelling was not checked, then it may be someone’s unedited brain dump.

3. Read another few paragraphs. See if the article is written clearly and concisely. If not, then don’t waste any more of your time.

4. Go back to the beginning, and then click on the first link you find. See if you really are just getting a commercial teaser. Are you being invited to buy an e-book, a CD, a DVD, or a course in order to get their juicy insider secrets?

5. Who wrote it? If the item just belongs to “Admin” or “Staff”, then look out! It may be borrowed from elsewhere and carelessly pasted together by unsubs (unknown subjects, as the perpetrators are called on the TV show, Criminal Minds). Look for an “About” or “Bio” tab on the page. Read about the author. Decide if they sound knowledgeable and believable.

6. Don’t just look around on the open web. Go to the web site for your public library, and search in their databases for magazine articles. Use your library card as the key to unlock a smaller but better collection of information. Databases even have subject indexes. Your city, county or state already has paid for access to these materials via your taxes. You don’t have to buy them again on your own.

For example, look at the first three paragraphs from an article in American Chronicle by Sam Chapman on how to Overcome Your Public Speaking Fear:

“There are some people who have no difficulty speaking in public at all. Many others, even if they do not show it, get very anxious when speaking in public. If you are in the latter group, you need to know that you can take steps to Overcome Your Public Speaking Fear (link).

Performance anxiety, panic attacks, stage fright – whatever you chose to call it, it can cause tremendous fear and anxiety in many people. The fear of speaking in public is one of the greatest fears that most people will face.

The kind of anxiety people suffering from a fear of public speaking is the same kind of fear some feel when called on in a classroom or meeting. It can be the same as having to sing or perform in public. Some people have this fear when if people surprise them and sing happy birthday to them. For many people, public speaking fear comes from a fear of embarrassing themselves or being judged or criticized.”

The very first paragraph ends with a link to a site that sells a PanicAway course. Also, the first sentence in the third paragraph is missing the word “feel” after the phrase “public speaking.” Finally, the third sentence has a redundant combination of “when if.” Stop reading and go somewhere else!