Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is public speaking the greatest fear for US teens?

Last week I read a news story with the usual comical “statistic” from Jerry Seinfeld:

“On Saturday, hundreds of students from across eastern Montana turned out to Rocky Mountain College in Billings for the Class "A" Eastern Divisional Speech, Drama and Debate Tournament.

‘The two greatest fears are death and public speaking,’ said Billings Central Catholic High School head coach Mark Elison. ‘And death is second’.”

Does that claim really apply to teens?

On March 29, 2005 Gallup reported the results (shown above, click to enlarge) for their poll about What frightens America’s youth? They asked a sample of 1028 teenagers (ages 13 to 17) between January 17th and February 6th of 2005. Teens were asked what they were most afraid of, in an open-ended format. Terrorist attacks were the top fear, followed by ties for spiders and death, and  then being a failure, war and heights. Note that public speaking isn’t anywhere on this top ten list.  

These results reminded me of a Sherlock Holmes story, Silver Blaze, in which Holmes tried to draw the inspector’s interest to what he called the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. The inspector replied that the dog did nothing, which Holmes then said was very curious (since it would have barked if a stranger was approaching). 

The sleeping dog image is from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hype cycles revisited

This morning Seth Godin blogged about Reconsidering Gartner’s Cycle of Hype. Those hype cycles supposedly describe how a new technology spreads. They propose a complicated curve shape (the red line) rather than a simple one like the blue dotted one, or perhaps an S-curve like a sigmoid function. Seth said hype cycles ignore being ignored so that:

.”..most of the things we now take for granted (cell phones, tweeting, insulated windows, email) didn't follow this curve at all.”

He’s right. If you look in a sample of books via the Google Ngram viewer for the three phrases of cell phones, insulated windows, and email (or electronic mail) you don’t see the hype cycle shape. For cell phones and email there is a smooth rise, and for insulated windows there's more complex behavior. I blogged about this topic last May, and showed seven other examples. 

Six decades ago the famous physicist, Enrico Fermi, commented skeptically about theories including adjustable parameters. He said that:

 “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tired old phrases to use nevermore

Almost a century ago, on page 546 of his 1915 book Kleiser’s Complete Guide to Public Speaking, Grenville Kleiser presented the following list of of 46 redundant (and thus undesirable) phrases:

“I rise with diffidence
Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking,
By a happy stroke of fate,
It becomes my painful duty
I am encouraged to go on
I point with pride
On the other hand (with gesture) I hold
The vox populi
Be that as it may,
I shall not detain you
As the hour is growing late,
Believe me,
We view with alarm
As I was about to tell you,
The happiest day of my life
It falls to my lot
I can say no more
In the fluff and bloom
I can only hint
I can say nothing
I cannot find words
The fact is
To my mind
I can not sufficiently do justice
I fear
All I can say is
I shall not inflict a speech on you
Far be it from me
It behooves me
Rise Phoenix-like from his ashes
But alas!
What more can I say?
At this late period of the evening
It is hardly necessary to say
I cannot allow the opportunity to pass
For, mark you
I have already taken up too much time
I might talk to you for hours
Looking back upon my childhood
We can imagine the scene
I haven’t the time nor ability
Ah no, dear friends!
One word more and I have done
I will now conclude
I really must stop
I have done.”

They were tired way back then, but many are still around. I’ve never heard “in the fluff and bloom” though. Please avoid them all.

Politicians are fond of both of pointing with pride (at the past) and viewing (the present) with alarm. Their speeches fit an outline used as an article title in 2008 by David B. Nash:

“Point with pride, view with alarm, end with hope.”

The image, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, was adapted from a 1900 Puck magazine cover.

Monday, January 23, 2012

101-word stories and 50-second elevator speeches

On January 4th Boise Weekly published ten winners and judge’s picks from their 10th annual Fiction 101 contest. Those ten writers each managed to tell a unique story using only 101 words.

Coincidentally, on January 5th, Fred Miller blogged about non-fiction elevator speeches. If you speak at a reasonable rate of 120 words per minute, that 101-word limit corresponds to a 50-second speech. Fred described an extremely useful floor-by-floor approach that can work within 50 seconds, or longer as appropriate.  

Two years ago I blogged about elevator speeches, which I described as covering What do you do that can help me? You can find a much more detailed discussion in Terri L. Sjodin’s 2011 book, Small Message, Big Impact - How to Put the Power of the Elevator Speech Effect to Work for You. An excerpt is here on her blog.

A 50-second elevator speech is at one end of a class of very useful, brief presentation formats - which also include 100-second presentations, 200-second Presto presentations, 300-second Ignite presentations, and 400-second Pecha Kucha presentations.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

18 Wheels of Love: A quirky country-rock love story

Watch this video of 18 Wheels of Love, live at Austin City Limits

Back in 1998 a relatively unknown noir alternative country-rock band called the Drive-By Truckers recorded a song called 18 Wheels of Love for their debut CD, Gangstabilly. It had somewhat forgettable lyrics. For live performances they added a long, profane spoken introduction. Finally, a decade later on the Austin City Limits TV program, they told that story via the extended version shown above. An audio-only version is here.

Watch and listen for all the gestures and specific details Patterson Hood crams into telling his story - including mama, divorce, vodka, Elvis, tabloids, tattoos, Vietnam, Dollywood, and heart disease. Those details make a presentation compelling, rather than generic. Other country songs about truck drivers like Phantom 309 or Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses pale in comparison.

By the way, Chester lived for a couple more years.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Developing a sure-fire speech topic

Page 34 of the January-February issue of Speaker magazine (from the National Speakers Association) has an excellent two-page article by Jeff Davidson on how to Develop a Sure-Fire Topic. He suggests exploring by:

1. Talking to your local librarian

2. Tapping the industry influentials

3. Reading trend-identifying publications

3. Conversing with meeting planners

4. Expanding on the subtopics within your existing topics

5. Rereading your interviews

5. Filling a void

Jeff also discusses checking a topic to see if it really fits you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Being on a list of Fifty Best Blogs

Every month or so I Google the name of this blog. A few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to find it on a list posted on January 10, 2012 at titled 50 Best Blogs for Communications Majors. I’m number 48, just after Jay Heinrich’s Figures of Speech Served Fresh and Tom Antion’s Great Public Speaking.

In reply I assembled a list of ten of my posts about surveys that communication majors may find particularly interesting:

1. York College professionalism survey shows students don’t realize how important employers think communications skills are.

2. Employers consider verbal communication and many other skills important, but are only somewhat satisfied by their newly hired college graduates.

3. What’s the difference between a fear and a phobia?

4. How to get beyond just using a worn out cliche.

5. 20 fears for a new millennium - replacing the 1977 Book of Lists.

6. Lists where the fear of public speaking isn’t anywhere near the top - The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Survey

7. What do US college students fear most? Is it snakes, spiders, or public speaking?

8. Public speaking is the worst social fear for both Swedish and Indian college students.

9. Social fears in learning situations: a survey of students at the University of the West of England.

10. Social and specific fears in young Israeli soldiers.

The cartoon came from here on Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Quotes for the day from a wall in Boise

That wall is at the Idaho Human Rights Anne Frank Memorial. It is downtown between the Boise River and the Boise Public Library.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Watching the comedians #5: Louis C. K.

Chris Salierno’s blog post about 5 Comedians That Will Make You A Better Public Speaker discussed Louis C. K. (Skeley). Louis writes, directs, and stars in the FX cable TV comedy series Louie. Here are three of his routines, and a tribute to George Carlin, all of which include profanity:   

Just because you can do something, like use Twitter, doesn’t mean that you should.

What kind of secrets could a five year old child have? Great gestures, but the black tee shirt doesn't work well on a black background.

What are the differences between boys and girls?

How George Carlin inspired him to go past using his stale old material.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Watching the comedians #4: Paul F. Tompkins

Chris Salierno’s blog post about 5 Comedians That Will Make You A Better Public Speaker discussed Paul F. Tompkins, an actor and comedian.  Here are a brief interview and two of his routines:

In this interview Paul talks about his experience of feeling nervous as if you don’t belong in a situation where you really do.

There is common terminology that you would be foolish not to learn and use. Also note how his opening was made different by skipping “...and gentlemen.”  

Paul appeared in a comical great debate on whether it’s the end of the world (or not). Watch him demonstrate two different gestures for a telephone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Watching the comedians #3: Patton Oswalt

Chris Salierno’s blog post about 5 Comedians That Will Make You A Better Public Speaker discussed Patton Oswalt. Patton is both a comedian and a voice-over artist. Children know him from his 2007 role as the voice of Remy, the rat in the animated film Ratatouille. Here are three of his routines, which include profanity:

Audiences differ. The cynicism he routinely used while speaking to adults was inappropriate for speaking to children.

I think he saved his cynicism for this adult routine about the KFC Famous Bowls.

What should you not do when arrangements get confused? Please don’t behave like this angry magician Patton describes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Watching the comedians #2: Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford was included in Chris Salierno’s blog post, about 5 Comedians That Will Make You A Better Public Speaker. Maria grew up in Duluth, Minnsesota and moved to Los Angeles. She is both a comediene and a voice-over artist. Maria turns everday situations into surreal ones.  

Watch her portray a troubled teen trying to sell her parents on becoming a roadie for a rock and roll band.

Here she outlines a generic political campaign speech, with a vague plan to eradicate sadness.

Maria has appeared on the syndicated Bob and Tom morning radio show. Here she describes working in an office as a temporary employee.

Watch her face as she discusses the Delilah evening radio show and internet dating.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Watching the comedians #1: Mike Birbiglia

Back on July 22nd of 2011 I read a post by Chris Salierno on his blog, The Curious Dentist, about 5 Comedians That Will Make You A Better Public Speaker. They were: Louis C.K.,  Mike Birbiglia, Paul F. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, and Patton Oswalt. I wasn’t familiar with them, but eventually I began looking at YouTube videos of them all  to collect some examples that might help speakers learn.

In Comedy: A Means to an End you can see how Mike Birbiglia uses gestures and both variations in volume and rate to tell his stories. He also mentions how different oral storytelling and books are.

Watch him tell a profane story regarding a big mistake he made during a speech at the baseball MVP awards. The simultaneous translation for the deaf gets very curious after about two minutes.

Back in 2008 Mike also did an eight-minute routine on the Conan O’Brien show. He describes being examined and operated on for a bladder tumor when he was just nineteen. Mike turns a very serious topic into comedy, with some profanity. Watch how he describe a cystoscope by using the microphone stand as a prop.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Don’t give a killer motivational speech

When I read the December 14th blog post by Ben and Kelly Decker on The Top Ten Best (and Worst Communicators of 2011 there was one name glaringly missing from their worst list. That was James Arthur Ray, who also wasn’t listed for either 2009 or 2010.

Mr. Ray is a well-known motivational speaker, author, and proponent of the Law of Attraction. A 2008 article in Fortune called him “The man who would be Robbins, Covey, and Chopra.”

On October 8, 2009, as part of a “Spiritual Warrior” program he led a “sweat lodge” program in a mostly enclosed sauna-like space heated by pouring water over hot rocks. Before it began he reportedly told participants that although they might feel like they were going to die they would not.  But, three people did die - Kirby Brown, Liz Neuman, and James Shore. Mr. Ray literally gave a killer motivational speech.

James Arthur Ray eventually was tried in Yavapai County, Arizona. On June 22, 2011 he was found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide. Those events are discussed here. Finally, on November 18th, he was sentenced to two years in prison. His attorneys, whose fees already have cost him $5.6 million, are appealing that verdict.  

Mr. Ray displayed an amazing combination of arrogance and ignorance. The hazards resulting from combinations of heat and humidity are well-known and thus preventable. For another example, see this simple chart. This August OSHA even released a free heat safety App. Yet, reportedly Ray didn’t even have a thermometer in the so-called sweat lodge he was running (and also, of course, no way of measuring humidity).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Using a metaphor to explain technology

Someone recently asked me about a backup solar power generator system they saw advertised for less than $2000. The large print emphasized that it had an 1800 watt inverter, along with 90 watt solar cells and a battery pack. They asked me what that all meant, and whether the system was worth buying for their rural home. I explained the system with the familiar metaphor of a bathtub and its piping.

The storage battery is like a bathtub full of energy. In the example shown above, it has a capacity of 900 watt-hours (a 12 volt, 75 amp-hour battery pack). The system includes an AC charger for the battery, so when the power goes off the tub is full.

While the AC power to our house is off, we can drain power from the battery (empty the tub) at some rate, and turn it into 120-volt AC power via the inverter. At night, if we kept 75 watts of lighting (five 15W compact fluorescents) plugged in for six hours we’d have drained off half of the battery capacity. After 12 hours in the dark, we’d have completely emptied the battery. (At the rated inverter power of 1800 watts, it only would take 1/2 hour for us to empty it).

The 90 watt solar cell panel is like a faucet for slowly refilling the tub during the day. That solar panel could keep up with any load of 90 watts or less, so if we started with a full battery it would stay charged until darkness fell. (With no load it would take 10 hours to recharge an empty battery).

This bathtub metaphor lets us think simply about how the battery capacity (tub size), solar panel size (faucet) and load (drain) determine system behavior. Whether this backup system makes sense for a home depends on the loads it will see over an entire day. We need to start from a careful load analysis.

Even an efficient full-size refrigerator could consume more than 1000 watt-hours per day. So, we probably would need either a smaller refrigerator, or a bigger generator system. But, for the first day of an outage the refrigerator might stay fairly cold even without being plugged in.

When we compare that backup system with a serious 1000 watt system for continuous use off-grid as shown above, we can see why the ad for that backup system emphasized the inverter size. That inverter really is the least expensive part of the system. An off-grid system could cost about $16,000 including an engine generator for use on cloudy days.

For continuous use, the solar panels have to be able to supply the average power being drained. That is why a realistic system is specified based on their output (1000 watts) rather than the inverter capacity (2500 watts). Also, note how much larger the battery is (15,000 watt-hours versus just 900 watt-hours).

The bathtub metaphor is useful for thinking about how a backup power system works. Reality is more complicated. Solar panels typically don’t produce their rated output, and there are energy losses both in charging the battery, and converting the output to AC. You can read lots more details in Home Power magazine, or on their web site.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

That’s not the switch for the conference room lights!

Computerworld magazine has a featured blog called Shark Tank with stories about what really happens in the world of tech support. Six years ago they published a tale that can be told by dividing what happened into good news and bad news.

The bad news was that a secretary put in a frantic call lamenting how her computer display had gone blank - right as she was in the middle of typing a document her supervisor said he needed ASAP.

The good news was that the problem was fairly obvious. When the support person asked if the power light on her personal computer (down on the floor) also was off, she said yes. When did it go off? The same time that ALL the room lights went off.

The bad news was that the support person couldn’t get in touch with maintenance by phone.

The good news was that maintenance already was busy responding.

The bad news was that one of the company administrators had been giving a presentation in the conference room. He couldn’t find the light switch when he was ready to start projecting his PowerPoint. So, he stormed into the nearby custodial closet and decisively flipped a switch - which turned out to be the main circuit breaker for that entire floor. 

The good news was that he couldn’t blame his secretary for being late because he’d caused the problem. Also, the maintenance man managed to keep from laughing while he showed the administrator where the light switch really was.


The bad news was that turning off more than just the lights can have very unpleasant side effects. When you turn a water pump off, you can generate a large transient pressure in pipes or tubing - known as water hammer. I know of an incident where water hammer blew a rubber hose for chilled water off of a tapered push-on fitting on a piece of equipment. Naturally this happened in a room with a sunken floor. The pond already was a few inches deep before someone spotted the flooding, shut the water off, and got out a wet/dry shop vacuum cleaner.

The good news was that equipment had been idling so it didn’t overheat, and there were no other electronics down near the floor to get dunked and ruined.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Preparation is vital before you use a quotation

The right quotation can wow your speech audience with borrowed brilliance. The wrong one can make you feel like a monkey, and wish you hadn’t used it.

In a December 29th post on her Pivotal Public Speaking blog, titled Preparation - Vital, Bronwyn Ritchie quoted Pennsylvania State University head football coach Joe Paterno as saying that:

“The will to win is important. But the will to prepare is vital.”

I got a different message about preparation than she intended. Since November 9th, when he got fired over a child abuse scandal before he could retire, the coach had gone from famous to infamous.  But, Bronywn is down in the Brisbane, Australia area and obviously hadn’t yet gotten the news. (She was horrified when I commented on her post). Even a quick look on Wikipedia before she used the quote again would have shown her that things had changed drastically.

She isn’t the only one to have used that quote recently. Scott MacDonald in Calgary, Alberta tweeted it on December 19th. Also, District 86 Toastmasters printed it on page 5 of the program for their Fall 2011 meeting held  in London, Ontario on November 25 - 27, 2011. (They may have printed their program before the scandal was news).

Loyola University Chicago had placed the quote on the wall of their new Norville Center for Intercollegiate Athletics, which only opened on March 3, 2011. By mid-December they had covered it up with a poster while deciding how to permanently remove it.

The  speak-no-evil image borrowed from that of the famous three monkeys came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Resolve to anticipate “shoelace failures” and plan around them

Every component or product has a normal way of wearing out and failing. For a shoelace, the failure location is at the top eyelet. That’s because most of the sliding motion during tightening occurs there, and the knot also is pulled tightest there. We aren’t at all surprised when a shoelace breaks at that location. If it failed at another location we would suspect something unusual had happened - like a knitting problem, or that cigarette ash had been dropped there and burned it.

Batteries in a presenter remote or a laser pointer will wear out and need to be replaced eventually. We can plan ahead to anticipate that normal problem. Carry a spare set of fresh batteries to keep that component from causing us a problem during a PowerPoint presentation.

At the end of a post last February about checklists, I mentioned three other simple things I also carry along with an extension cord. One is a three-way adapter for my laptop and projector, and a second is a two-prong adapter (for ungrounded outlets sometimes found in historical buildings). A third a wooden block for tilting my projector upwards. (Long ago I usually could find an ashtray in the room, but not anymore).  

Donald J. Wulpi’s book on Understanding How Components Fail used the example of a shoelace in his first chapter. You can see a preview at Google Books.