aconym hellAcronyms have their place and usefulness  in a technical presentation as long as–and only if–your audience understands them.

An acronym is formed from the first letters of other words and is treated and pronounced as if it were a word. Like NATO (North American Treaty Organization) or WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant).

Most things we call acronyms are, to be technical, initialisms: abbreviations formed by the first letters of each word in a phrase. Like FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)  or ATM (Automated Teller Machine).

I’m not that technical so, like most people, I’m going to lump initialisms together with acronyms and treat them the same.

The common advice for people giving technical presentations is to spell out acronyms if your audience doesn’t know them.

There’s no need to spell out an acronym if you’re sure your audience knows what it means. When you’re addressing other technical experts, spelling out a commonly understood acronym only makes you sound silly or condescending.

And don’t spell out an acronym that is more commonly known as an acronym than the series of words it’s made up of. People know what an ATM is. They may have to think twice if you call it an automated teller machine.

Instead of spelling out an acronym, define it.

Spelling out an acronym doesn’t always make it any clearer.

For example, if you simply say that GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, you haven’t clarified matters much.

It’s better to say something like, “GIS, a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface…” (from http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/geographic-information-system-gis/)

Explanations make acronyms clearer, but sometimes–depending on your audience’s knowledge (or lack of it)–you need to go one step further.

After explaining an acronym, give an example.

After defining GIS you might say, “It’s because of GIS that you can see where the nearest Starbucks is on Google Maps and you can monitor a hurricane making its way toward land.”

If you really need the audience to understand the acronym–if it’s an important part of what you’re talking about–first spell it out, then define it, and finally give an example of it.

 

Photo courtesy of Xavier  Verges at Flick https://www.flickr.com/photos/xverges/

© Abdone | Dreamstime Stock PhotosVirtual meetings—by telephone or web services—have become commonplace in business these days.

On the plus side, they allow people to participate from anyplace in the world as long as they have a phone or an internet connection. And they cut down travel time and expenses.

On the minus side, they make communication more difficult. Most of the time you can’t see other people, making it harder to know who is going to speak when, and eliminating the ability to read people’s body language. And distractions—checking email, for example, or cleaning off your desk—become more tempting.

Whether you like them or not, virtual meetings are here to stay.

Here’s How to Make the Most of Virtual Meetings

  1. Plan
    Send out an agenda in advance with all the other required information (date and time, dial-in number, pass codes, etc.).
  1. Start on Time
    Identify all the participants at the beginning.
  1. Work through the Agenda
    Clearly state which item you are addressing, and address each item in the order on your agenda.
  1. Reduce Distractions
    Ask people for their attention throughout the meeting. Don’t waste their time. Don’t prolong discussions. Keep the discussion focused and moving along.
  1. Identify Yourself before Talking
  2. Make Yourself Heard
    If you’re using a phone, call in from a quiet place. Mute your phone when you’re not speaking. If you’re in a conference room with a speaker phone, speak directly into the phone and loudly.
  1. Be Extra Communicative
    Because other participants won’t be able to see your body language and facial expressions, you have to work harder to communicate what you mean, what you want, what you feel.
  1. Conclude on Time
    Take a few minutes to review the accomplishments of the meeting, to discuss action items, and to thank people for their time and participation.

Someday technology may improve–it’s not there yet–so that virtual meetings become as free and easy as face-to-face meetings. In the meantime, use these guidelines to make the most of them.

What’s your experience with virtual meetings? What helps you make the most of them?

You may also be interested in Technical Presentations at a Business Meeting.

Photo courtesy of © Abdone | Dreamstime Stock Photos.

 

Lincoln used long sentences in his speeches.I often hear it said that speakers should keep their sentences short.

Such advice is, in my opinion, a mistake.

It’s true that short sentences tend to be simple, and simplicity can be the servant of clarity. But clarity is the goal, not simplicity.

If you say speakers should keep their sentences clear—immediately comprehensible, able to be understood by their audiences on first hearing—I’m in total agreement.

But I believe in the value, beauty, and usefulness of long sentences in a speech.

Consider some of the masters:

Lincoln:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (75 words)

Churchill:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” (141 words)

Kennedy:
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” (67 words)

Long sentences piled one on top of the other can grow tedious, so it’s best to intersperse them with shorter sentences.

But long sentences have several benefits.

1. Long sentences are better able to address complexity.

The world we live in and the problems we face are complex, and we do ourselves and our audiences little justice by reducing our response to them to short and simple epigrams.

2. Long sentences are more pleasing.

Short sentences have a certain pizzazz. (“Read my lips: no new taxes.”) But they quickly grow tiresome. And they lack the pleasure that longer sentences make possible, sentences that add detail and richness, step by step, sentences that have a rhythm and build to a satisfying conclusion.

3. Long sentences are more revelatory of a speaker’s character.

Long sentences provide more information, and in doing so give greater insight into the working of the speaker’s mind, into their reasoning, their values, their understanding.

Agree or disagree? (Feel free to respond in short or long sentences.)

 

Once again I was asked to help someone deliver a presentation using a PowerPoint slide deck prepared by another person.

And once again I found it a thankless, futile, frustrating task.

And I’ve come to this conclusion:

Don’t give a presentation using PowerPoint slides that you didn’t have a role in creating yourself.

It doesn’t work for any number of reasons.

First, most PowerPoint slide decks are a mess that need to be revised.

Individual slides are frequently poorly designed. Each slide on its own is usually crammed full of too much information and too many words. Individual slides don’t present, explain, and illustrate one central idea.

And individual slides frequently fail to build a coherent story. They are simply tacked on one after another, as if they are free-standing ideas.

PowerPoint slide decks often–almost always–need to be clarified, simplified, and rearranged. And you often only know how to do so when you’re rehearing your presentation.

When you’re presenting a slide deck that you’ve created on your own, you are free to clean up your slides or to rearrange them so they make more sense. But when you’re given a slide deck and told to present it as best you can, you’re left trying to make sense of a mess.

It’s okay for someone to create slides for you, as long as you are given the time, knowledge, and authority to change them.

Second, presenting someone else’s slides puts you in a subordinate role.

There is–or there should be–an intimate connection between you and the message you’re delivering.

Presenting someone else’s material makes you a mouthpiece, a marionette, nothing more.

If you can’t own the slides, you can’t own the message. Which is never a good thing.

Third, presenting someone else’s slides makes you focus more on the message than on the audience.

PowerPoint slides are not, nor should they be, a script. The words and images on the screen should be a prompt for what you are going to say. They should enable a conversation between you and your audience.

But when you’re given a slide deck that is created by someone else and that is a mess (see above), you have to figure out how to make sense of what you yourself don’t understand. (Sometimes you’re given a script in the notes page, which doesn’t clarify a thing.)

So you go over your script again and again to make sure you say what you think you’re meant to say. Your focus, too often, is on being true to the message created by someone else, when you should be trying to help the audience understand and accept your ideas.

Don’t give a presentation based entirely on slides created by someone else without your input. And don’t create slides for someone else to present without involving them in a meaningful way.

 

See also When Not to Use PowerPoint.

Ttalk fastechnical experts complain that the people in charge don’t listen to them.

The people in charge complain that technical experts go into too much detail and take too long to get to the point, if they even have one.

Because the people in charge have the final say — that’s what being in charge means — it’s up to the technical experts to change.

If you’re a technical expert and you want your ideas to get a hearing or, better yet, to be understood, accepted, and implemented, you have to change the way you make presentations.

The best way to win support for your idea is to think long and slow (which you’re good at) and to speak fast (which isn’t your typical style).

When I say “speak fast,” I don’t mean that you have to pick up the pace of your delivery, although that may be helpful.

You don’t have to talk like a New York taxi driver who has had one too many cups of coffee.

To speak fast means to get to your point as quickly as possible and to take as little time as necessary to make your case.

The higher leaders rise in an organization, the less time they have. The more impatient they become. The less willing they are to wade through long and overly detailed presentations.

So do your research, analysis, thinking, planning, and preparation — your long and slow thinking — before your presentation.

Then develop one idea that you can present quickly.

Depending on the leaders involved, on their needs, and on their schedule, I recommend preparing and practicing three fast versions of the same presentation:

  1. The Micro-Pitch — 30 Seconds or Less
    The micro-pitch is your presentation in a nutshell: the summary of your main idea. It may sound something like, “I propose adopting a new technology, which is faster and more accurate than what we currently have and will save us money.”
  2. The Mini-Pitch — 3 to 5 Minutes
    If you’re given the time, flesh out the information or ideas you presented in the micro-pitch. So you may explain (briefly) what the new technology is, and what makes it faster, more accurate, and cheaper.
  3. The Pitch-in-Full — Up to 15 minutes
    When speaking to upper management, you rarely have more than 15 minutes. (They’re busy, remember, and their time is limited.) If they give you 15 minutes on the agenda, plan on speaking for 8 to ten minutes. Leave the rest of time free for discussion.

The idea behind speaking fast is to address the most important matters first. And present the least amount of information — not the most — required to gain acceptance for your idea.

Give leaders what they want — information and ideas they can use to help the organization achieve its business objectives. Give it to them fast.

Think long and slow. Speak fast.

 

 

The Idea or the StructureWhen crafting a speech, do you start with an idea or with a structure, with content or with form?

Some Say “Start with an Idea”

There are those who argue, powerfully in my opinion, in favor of beginning the speech writing process with an idea.

They have a point: Any speech worth its salt is built around an idea.

One would hope that the idea being presented is coherent, insightful, supported by reason and evidence, emotionally engaging, and relevant to the audience. Which is, sadly, not always the case, especially in political discourse these days.

As a speech writer, after a preliminary conversation, I ask my clients, “What do you want to talk about?” And then I follow up with the more substantive question, “What do you want to say about it?”

The first question–what do you want to talk about?–simply defines the topic. It could be something like climate change, a recent threat to the company’s future, a new policy or procedure.

The follow-up question–what do you want to say about it?–lays out an idea about that topic: the content of the speech. For example, this is what climate change is, this is what it means for us, and this is what we should do about it.

A speech is nothing without an idea. It’s like a beautifully wrapped package that’s completely empty.

So it seems right to start with an idea.

Others Say “Start with a Structure”

On the other hand, there are those who argue–and I’m beginning to adopt their position–in favor of starting with a speech’s structure.

Speeches are a way of structuring an idea, of presenting it clearly and persuasively.

Most speeches–98.2% of them–follow a form, a structure: they begin with an introduction, proceed through the body, and end with a conclusion. (I made up that statistic, by the way, so please don’t ask me to cite my source.)

Within that basic structure, there are other ways of structuring a speech.

You can use the “They Say/I Say” structure, a variation of which I’m using in this piece. Or the “Problem/Cause/Solution” structure. Or the “Past/Present/Future” structure. Or the “Where We Want to Go/Why We Want to Get There/How We Can Get There” structure.

And certain kinds of speeches necessitate certain structures. A keynote address takes a different form, from example, than a panel discussion.

Knowing how to structure a speech shapes the idea being presented.

Structures may not generate a specific idea for a speech, but they do make possible the meaning of any idea.

A speech without a structure is, like a drunkard’s monologue, incomprehensible and tiring, or, like Macbeth’s view of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it makes sense to begin with a structure.

I Say “It Depends”

I favor starting with a structure. I agree with those who believe that you can’t even begin formulating an idea without structuring it.

But here’s where the it depends comes in.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters can begin by focusing on the idea they want to develop, because they intuitively think in terms of how they are going to structure it. They create a structure as they think about the speech’s idea.

But beginning speakers should start crafting a speech by choosing a structure that will work for them, a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way.

What do you think?

The first order of business when crafting a speech is to be clear. Clear about what you want to accomplish. Clear about explaining, developing, and supporting your main idea. Clear about the terms and concepts you use.

All good speeches are clear. That should go without saying.

But not all clear speeches are good.

A safe and nutritious meal can be tasteless. (Think of the food served in a college dining hall or cafeteria, or at most conferences.) So, too, a clear, easily comprehensible speech can be flat, boring, and insipid.

To praise a speaker for giving a clear speech is like praising a chef for preparing a meal that doesn’t make anyone sick. Faint praise, indeed.

Too often–and I’m guilty of this–speechwriters and speech coaches advise keeping speeches “short and simple.”

Keep your sentences short. Don’t use big words. Eliminate all inessential words, phrases, or thoughts. Chop out all digressions, asides, parenthetical remarks. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Follow that recipe too slavishly and you’ll sound like the runner-up of the Bad Hemingway Contest, speaking only in nouns and verbs, eschewing adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors, piling on one short and direct sentence after another.

A speech isn’t an impersonal reporting of the facts, objective and unadorned.

A good speech is a window into your thinking, your way of seeing the world, your personality. It should be as rich, deep, and uniquely interesting as you are.

 

Beyond the basics of speechwritingIt’s fairly easy, with experience and a little study, to craft a “good enough” speech.

What I call a good enough speech has a goal and achieves it by…

  • Developing a single point: a clearly developed, logical, and supported-by-the-evidence idea.
  • Focusing on the audience’s needs and experience, giving them insight or information they can use to their benefit.
  • Providing the right balance–determined by the circumstances and the audience–of right-brain and left-brain appeal.

To turn a good enough speech into a great speech, you need to add three elements: myth, metaphor, and musicality.

 

1. Myth

A myth isn’t a fable about gods and goddesses or ancient heroes, a legend that is demonstrably false.

A myth is a story that reveals a truth worth pondering, that resonates deeply in people’s psyches, and that sticks in their memories because it feels like something they already know.

Good stories–even contemporary, personal stories–have a mythic dimension.

A story you tell about something that happened to you–an event, an encounter with someone who changed your life, an obstacle you met and overcame–has the power to become everyone’s story.

And that’s the reason to tell a story in a speech. Not to brag about your accomplishments, wisdom, or virtue, but to illuminate your audience’s lives.

2. Metaphor

I use the term metaphor broadly to include all figures of speech–similes, metaphors, and analogies–that compare one thing or situation to another.

A metaphor, in the sense I’m talking about, lets people visualize, not just conceptualize what you’re talking about.

A metaphor doesn’t just clarify an idea by comparing what is known to what is unknown. A metaphor links the feelings evoked by one thing or situation to another.

Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address is one, extended metaphor of a nation’s birth, decline, and rebirth. And in ten sentences it managed to evoke feelings of hope and the willingness to persevere.

3. Musicality

Great speeches are pleasing to the ear.

They have a rhythm and a pace; they start slow, they build up speech, they pause, they pick up speed again.

They have an approximation of rhyme in their use of assonance and consonance.

They use parallel structures and repetition.

A great speech isn’t just an exposition of truth. It is also a thing of beauty.

 

 

the person of the speakerThe four elements of a great speech, according to Demosthenes–the greatest of ancient Greek orators–are:

  1. A great person
  2. A noteworthy event
  3. A compelling message
  4. A masterful delivery

In my opinion, the person giving the speech is what matters most.

This is becoming increasingly clear as the presidential primary season plays out here in the United States, and as attention is being given more to the candidates than to their message

To take the most obvious example, whatever is reported, discussed, or analyzed about Donald Trump, positively or negatively, has more to do with his character than with what he says he will do, if elected.

The person giving the speech has, for better or worse, taken center stage.

That’s why character matters so much.

By character, I don’t mean a person’s ego, personality, image, or–gag me–personal brand.

Character, to my way of thinking, involves a person’s long-established, deeply rooted values, integrity, experience, knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.

To be a great person, in Demosthenes’s understanding (and in mine), doesn’t involve status, or wealth, or renown. A great person is one whose virtues contribute to the welfare of others.

PS I build my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Publishing) around Demosthenes’s four elements of a great speech.

Photo courtesy of Death to The Stock Photo.

complex speechAll speeches have to be clear.

If you confuse an audience, they tune you out. They may even turn on you, angry at you for wasting their time or making them think harder than they want to.

One way to make a speech clear is to keep it simple. Reduce the scope or complexity of the idea you’re presenting, and focus on a single feature or aspect of it.

The problem is, although simplicity can facilitate clarity, it can also dumb down an otherwise smart idea.

Some ideas—some of the most insightful and incisive ideas—are by nature complex. And if you simplify their complexity in an effort to make them clear, you’re doing a disservice both to your ideas and to your audience.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

Something is complex if it is composed of many interconnected parts.

Complicated is something else altogether. Complicated means “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain.”

I’m in favor of complex speeches, not complicated ones.

If your idea is complicated, you’d be better off writing a research paper or a white paper or a formal proposal. Written pieces give people time to digest what they’re reading, to pause when needed, to refer back to a previous point, to look something up, to think about one point before moving on to the next. None of that is possible in a speech.

Complex speeches don’t have to be complicated. They can be quite clear, even elegantly clear. It’s a matter of identifying the various pieces of the idea and arranging them in a logical fashion.

If you are yourself simpleminded or if you think your audience is, then by all means eliminate all complexity.

That’s what most people running for political office are doing these days. They’re taking complex issues, involving problems that have stumped people for years, and proposing a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

Here’s the real issue. The simplicity or complexity of your speech should be determined by the idea itself. If the idea is simple, make your speech simple. If it’s complex—yay for you!—make your speech complex.

Either way, make sure it’s clear.

Check out How to Plan a Speech.

 

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