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Humor and the Unexpected: Relaxing Your Audience and Yourself February 12, 2015

It was an impromptu presentation. Sixty seconds before presenting, each participant was assigned a topic. The time was insufficient to do much more than draw a deep breath before stepping to the front of the class. I did, however, have a trick up my sleeve – a brief, well-prepared introduction entirely unrelated to the subject.

Gazing out across the room, I smiled and began. “I had hoped that I’d be asked to speak about the dissolution of the Thai parliament and its economic impact upon APEC. Instead, it appears that I’ll be sharing a bit about goldfish.” The entire room burst into laughter and I launched into a three minute discussion on fancy goldfish and their superiority over other forms of aquatic life.

A few weeks later, I was called upon to speak again. This time, I began my presentation with a more foreign flavor. “Ahlan, SabaaH al-khayr. Ismi Anna.” I bowed my head ever so slightly to my audience, then turned to my instructor, who was smiling to himself, clearly doing his best to ignore the exhibition. “I’m sorry,” I apologized. “Did you want the presentation in English?” He nodded and the room burst into laughter. I then proceeded with a presentation entirely unrelated to my ability to introduce myself (rather badly) in Arabic.

The truth is that humor is a highly useful presentation technique, even for those of us who lack an inclination towards the lifestyle of a standup comedian. Brief, witty, and unexpected, it can serve to set both the audience and the presenter at ease. It breaks down barriers and builds a sense of camaraderie (even when it’s clear that the presenter understands something that the audience doesn’t). What follows are a few tips for using humor to introduce a presentation:

  1. Make sure you understand what you’re saying. No matter how hard we try, most of us are incapable of hiding the body language that accompanies discomfort with our subject. Be familiar with the topic of your humorous introduction before you share it with an audience.
  2. Listen to your vocal tones. Our voices, like our bodies, can betray our ignorance. Make certain that your tones reflect confidence.
  3. Practice your timing. Getting our timing right can be a challenge for those of us who are of a less humorous nature. Make sure that you’ve practiced your delivery before you go on stage.
  4. Keep it brief. People can tell when someone who isn’t funny is trying to be funny. A short humorous remark at the beginning to relieve tension and relax your audience… if you aren’t a natural comedian, leave it at that.
  5. Let the laughter sink in. Once your audience is laughing, you have their attention… but that doesn’t mean you need to plunge right into the presentation. Enjoy the moment, then plunge right in.

Humor can, of course, play a more significant role in presentation style, but since I’m not much of a comedian, I’ll leave it at that. Go out, give it a try, and see whether it works for you. And whatever your results, be sure to stop back by and share them with our other readers!

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It’s All About Patterns: Why I.Q. Doesn’t Matter November 6, 2014

I’ve always had mixed emotions when it comes to I.Q. tests. Most of these have been related to a strong desire to discover that I’m an untapped genius and a deep fear of discovering that I’m really a dunce. Despite that, at the encouragement of a friend, I finally decided to give it a try and downloaded the American Mensa Brain Test App.

According to a Mensa press release dated 16 September 2010, “The Mensa Brain Test provides genuine Mensa questions of the variety used in official Mensa test papers.” This seemed encouraging, since it was likely that if I did well with the app, it was a reflection of my actual mental acuity.

Much to my disappointment, my first test went quite badly. I did brilliantly spotting the patterns in the shapes and in the words, but completely bombed on the math. The result was an I.Q. low enough to be a genuine embarrassment.

Convinced that I really couldn’t be that stupid, I tried again. This time, I did marginally better. I reviewed the quiz and took note of the explanations for each answer. I was at least able to secure an “average” I.Q. rating which, if nothing else, meant that I wasn’t a complete idiot. (Though it did dash my dreams of becoming a child prodigy – a dream which probably should have been crushed by my 30th birthday.)

I set the app aside for several months and thought nothing more of it until I began re-watching the British TV series, “Sherlock”. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but on that particular evening I felt compelled to give the practice test another try.

Again, I got an “average” rating due primarily to the math. In fact, I got nearly every question correct with the exception of the numbers. And that’s when I saw it: the number puzzles weren’t about math… they were about patterns. Patterns with shapes. Patterns with words. Patterns with numbers.

I tried the test again and watched as the I.Q. meter climbed… and climbed… and climbed some more until I was within the range of actual Mensa members. Of course, this could have been a coincidence, so I took the test again several times over the course of the next few days.
Each time, the results were nearly the same. And my heart sank. High I.Q. it seems, isn’t a matter of intelligence, but of observation. It’s an ability to see patterns. And it isn’t necessarily innate. I.Q. can be developed. It’s a party trick.

Of course, I’m not ready to discount the potential that exists in an ability to recognize patterns (particularly subtle ones). It’s easier to learn when you spot the patterns quickly. But just because something is easier for some people than for others doesn’t mean that those people are more intelligent, skilled, or knowledgeable than anyone else. (I had an innate gift for musical expression when I was younger, but no one who has heard either my sister or myself play will argue that I am the better player. Through hard work, she developed the skill and now plays at a level far beyond anything which I will ever be likely to achieve.) Raw ability doesn’t equal prowess. Developed ability does. Hard work and a willingness to apply oneself to learning are what make the difference. I.Q. simply doesn’t matter.

 

Letters of Recommendation: Advice for Scholarship Applicants May 22, 2014

I confess that I’m a bit of a collector. In fact, for many years, my mother believed that I’d collect just about anything: coins, stamps, baseball cards, rocks, pencils, or used bubblegum. (Okay, maybe not used bubblegum). One of my most prized collections, however, is an ever growing stack of letters of recommendation. I’ve asked for one from nearly every employer I’ve ever had as well as a few coworkers and fellow volunteers. Most are of the fairly general type declaring that I’m a hard worker and get along well with others. These are fine if you’re looking for a job, but when it comes to applying for scholarships, something else may be in order.

There are, I discovered, two primary considerations when it comes to requesting recommendations of this variety. The first is, “Who do I know who is willing and able to write a letter in keeping with the theme of the scholarship?” While there are plenty of scholarships which go un-awarded each year, there are also many which are flooded with applications. Sorting out the genuine contenders can be a challenge – and a recommendation that highlights your compatibility with the scholarship theme may go a long way towards landing your application at the top of the list.

What does compatibility look like? To begin with, if you’re applying for a scholarship that’s awarded on the basis of volunteer activity, you may want to ask your volunteer supervisor for a letter… not your employer. The person who oversees your selfless efforts will be in a much better position to share about your passionate dedication to the cause than someone who only sees how you behave when you’re receiving a paycheck. Applying for a scholarship that’s only awarded to women of high character? Ask another woman familiar with your personal habits to write the recommendation. Looking to make it to the top of a stack of academic achievers? Talk to a teacher who has watched you excel.

The second consideration is, “How many people should I ask?” This can be tricky and it tripped me up the first time around. The application asked for two references… so I asked two friends to write letters. What quickly became apparent was that not all recommendations are created equal. While a person may be in an excellent position to declare your superiority, they may not be eloquent enough to make a good case for your acceptance. Nor will everyone you ask have the time to write a recommendation or, for that matter, have the letter written enough in advance of the application deadline for it to prove useful.

In this case, it’s better to ask for too many letters and have to choose a couple of your favorites than to miss out on an opportunity because the best candidates were unavailable or lacked the necessary literary skill. Personally, I suggest that if you need two letters, you start by talking with three potential letter writers. (It doesn’t hurt to have more in reserve, but you may need their help in the future, so don’t exhaust all of your options at once.) This gives you some flexibility and should ensure that you get the type of letters you’re looking for.

Finally, make sure to provide everyone who agrees to write a letter for you with appropriate guidelines. Explain the type of scholarship you’re applying for and what the selection committee is looking for in a candidate. If certain aspects of your life, character, or achievement need to be highlighted, provide that information to your letter writers in a timely manner.

While I can’t guarantee that following these rules will always result in your receiving scholarships, I can say with reasonable certainty that they will help your applications to stand out. And when they do, your chances of being a winner are definitely improved!

 

Hypothetical Hostages April 24, 2014

It was intended to be a game. Each of us had been handed a paper outlining a hypothetical hostage scenario. Terrorists had taken control of a plane and were offering to release four of the hostages under the condition that they were allowed to refuel the aircraft at a nearby airbase. We were to presume that the captors would keep their word. We were then given brief biographies of each of the passengers and instructed to determine who should go free.

When we’d finished, our professor divided us into groups and, laying down a few ground rules, instructed us to come to a consensus regarding the order of release. It was not as easy as it sounds. Did we let the guy with the hero complex go in the hope that the hostages who remained on the plane wouldn’t suffer the consequences of his ill-considered antagonism? What about the mothers? Were they of more value than the fathers? Was the ex-con who was getting his life together less likely to contribute to the good of society than the priest who was ministering to thousands of vagrants? Was the congresswoman less worthy of life than the pregnant actress? Was it even possible that some of the hostages deserved to die?

Each member of the group had a different perspective and it wasn’t long before many in the room were arguing with such passion that one would have thought our hypothetical hostages were, in fact, quite real. Tempers flared. Voices were raised. The activity was becoming deeply personal… and deeply revealing.

“The problem,” I observed, “is that we don’t know what the future holds for any of these people. Perhaps the congresswoman who is inspiring so many young girls will turn out to be involved in drug-trafficking. Maybe the son of the convict will watch his dad get his life back in order and be inspired to do something truly noble with his life. Who is to say whether the actress’s unborn child would grow up to cure cancer or oppress the needy?” Looking at paragraph long bios wasn’t enough to tell us the true worth of any of the individuals on the plane. Then again, perhaps that was the point.

When we gathered together at the end of class to discuss our conclusions, it was evident that everyone had weighed different factors in determining who would be set free. All four groups agreed to release the humanitarian with the weak heart and, for some reason that none of us could clearly explain, the young mother who had three children by three different fathers and was trying to get her life back on track. Only two groups decided to allow the bigot with the loud mouth go free. The congresswoman got a vote, as did the actress.

Everyone in the class had seen the problem through different eyes. Our own beliefs and experiences had formed a filter through which we viewed others. And it was clear that the life of each of the hypothetical hostages was valuable in the mind of at least one member of the class. Sitting among us, there were those who could see through each of the passengers’ eyes, empathize with them in their sorrows or triumphs, and believe in their potential. Perhaps the lesson wasn’t about hypothetical hostages after all.

 

Sudden Onset Presentation Turrets March 27, 2014

Despite what instructors will tell you, sometimes a presentation just goes bad. It isn’t the fault of the presenter and doesn’t result from a lack of rehearsals or planning. It has nothing to do with the number of hours invested in research and is wholly unrelated to the audience or the subject matter. Truth be told, some presentation glitches simply can’t be foreseen.

My lack of sleep the previous night was a perfect example. I had engaged in my usual pre-bed routine and was snuggled beneath my electric blanket in plenty of time to get my usual 8 hours. My head hit the pillow and I was out like a light.

It was a fine start, but for some inexplicable reason, the usual setting for the blanket didn’t produce its usual result. Instead of keeping me toasty through a night of pleasant slumber, it began to get warm. Groggy-eyed, I threw off the covers, turned down the heat, and zonked out again.

About twenty minutes later, I was once more awake. This time I was cold. I grabbed the covers (which were still piled at the foot of the bed) and pulled them up around my shoulders. It felt cozy, so I closed my eyes and drifted off. Then, like shampoo, it was a matter of rinse and repeat for the rest of the night. Total yield: six hours of fitful slumber.

By the next morning, I was only partially coherent. The only thing I really remember clearly is that a presenter who was supposed to follow me jumped the gun and took my slot. I’d been chugging down coffee, so this probably worked in my favor. Nevertheless, as I strode to center stage, my brain went blank. The well-planned, well-rehearsed presentation had evaporated into thin air, leaving in its place, only fear.

I stared out at my audience and cautiously began to grab at anything and everything that might even vaguely pertain to the subject: product repositioning. I defined a few terms, glanced at the clock, panicked (an emotional response which I believe my audience picked up on), and began explaining the art of perceptual mapping.

In theory, this process produces a visual diagram of the relative market position of different product lines as perceived by customers, i.e., is it cheap, expensive, easy to maintain, difficult to maintain, etc. I quickly drew a chart with these four markers and began to fill it in not with brands of cars or DVD players (as I had originally planned), but with types of relationships.

Marriage, it turns out, falls near the intersection of difficult and expensive while the “I’m a princess” girlfriend is located somewhere in the range of easy and expensive. And Vegas hookers? Those are easy and cheap… unless, of course, your wife finds out. (Then, they become more expensive than marriage!)

The audience was doubled over, but I was feeling mildly mortified. Where were these analogies coming from? It was like having an out of body experience in front of two-dozen attentive spectators.

I later confessed my feelings to several of my audience members, apologizing for the uncharacteristic “bombing” of the presentation and the phenomenon which I later named “sudden onset presentation turrets” or SOPT for short.

“Don’t apologize!” one of them laughed. “I’ll never fail a test on perceptual mapping until the day I die!” (She went on to explain that the key to her success would by my Vegas hookers. Several other audience members nodded in agreement.)

This, of course, goes to prove two important points. The first is that you can’t anticipate everything that might go wrong with a presentation and that what you can’t anticipate sometimes can’t be stopped. The second is that if you don’t just bomb a presentation, but bomb with style, people will still remember what you said.

Fifty years from now, my audience members will be sharing my spectacular diagram with their grandchildren. My only hope is that when those youngsters hear the tale they will recognize that even a perceived failure can become a useful memory. Perhaps the difference between victory and defeat is, in the end, merely a matter of perspective.

 

Why “Not According to Plan” is Not Always a Bad Thing March 20, 2014

I admit that today didn’t go quite as planned. I didn’t get my study time in this morning. Or manage to tidy my room. (Not that anyone would notice if I did.) I didn’t write the scholarship essay that’s due in two weeks. And from where I sit, it looks like I may not even finish the blog posts I’d hoped to bash out.

Unfortunately, I’m in no position to ask, “Where did the time go?” I know exactly where it went, beginning at 6:30 this morning. I woke up half an hour early and, on most days that would mean that I had the time to cram in some extra language study or a few more minutes on the treadmill. I might have the opportunity to put a little extra elbow grease into the day’s housework or get ahead with a few of my writing assignments. Time is money (or at least production opportunity) and I usually treat it as such.

Today, however, was different. Part of my morning ritual includes logging into “Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth.” I’m what, in game parlance, is known as a “might hugger” – someone who builds troops, but never actually uses them in combat. Building these massive armies doesn’t require a great deal of dedication to the game, but it does benefit whichever alliance a player has joined and, with that benefit, comes the right to fellowship. (This usually takes the form of random small talk in an online chat room and is a good way to pass time with other people who are as crazy as I am.)

I had planned to proceed as usual, queuing a few troops for training and sending any spare resources to the “bank” where they could be used by other players. I had just begun to clear the messages in my mailbox when one caught my eye: the game was running a promotion.
“Boxes” of random goodies could be “purchased” for a mere 6th of their usual price. The boxes were awarded randomly through a game of chance and, since I had won quite a few of the gold tokens to that were used in the game, I thought I’d take a look. I did, after all, have a spare half-hour.

I logged into the exchange and began redeeming the tokens. Box after box was added to my knapsack and, as I began to open the boxes, I realized that the prizes (which included additional tokens) were actually quite good. Desperate not to miss my opportunity, I returned to the game of chance and redeemed the additional tokens.

I continued this process until I’d exhausted all of the gold coins, then decided to take a look at my alliance’s standing in one of the server competitions and call it quits. I admit that I might have been better off leaving well enough alone. We were in third place and I knew that some of the prizes I’d acquired with the boxes would help us along the way. So instead of setting the game down, I began using the goodies I’d won.

It was a process that went on for hours. On and off throughout the day, I logged in to release my new troops into my cities. Each spare moment I had (and a few that I didn’t) was spent unleashing the flood of might. My citadels were brimming with hungry, belching, beer-drinking dwarves. And I was pleased.

The sun began to set and I suddenly realized that I had squandered most of my day playing a game. For a moment, I felt guilty. It seemed such a wretched waste of time. Then, again, I can’t deny that I enjoyed it. So maybe it really wasn’t a waste after all.

 

On Speaking in Public February 6, 2014

“I wish I were a natural public speaker like you.”

I smiled and laughed. Despite having delivered an excellent presentation, I was feeling the same relief as everyone else. Public speaking is not and never has been my favorite activity. Even after years of teaching, I still get nervous before I present, and contrary to popular opinion, imagining everyone in their underwear has never helped. I feel the same knot in my stomach, the same nervous energy as everyone else. So why do I seem like a natural?

The odd transformation of an introvert into an enthusiastic speaker isn’t quite as mysterious as it may seem. The trick is in preparation, focus, and an ability to seize control of the few elements that I can control when speaking in public. A few techniques that have worked particularly well for me are:

  1. Speak twice as slowly as you would under ordinary circumstances. In the excitement of the moment, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed that you speed through your material – often without even realizing it. The result is an uncoordinated mumble which is often inaudible to those seated in the back of the room. While the slower pace may seem odd to you, it will likely sound quite normal to everyone else.
  2. If you forget what you were going to say, stop speaking, check your notes, and resume your talk. You aren’t the only one whose train of thought has derailed in the middle of a presentation. The difference between amateurs and professionals is that the former can’t stand the sound of silence and fill the empty space with nonsense words like “um” and “er”.
  3. Don’t forget what you were going to say. Most professionals write their speeches out verbatim. Instead, make notes using key words that will help you remember each of the concepts you intend to address. If you’re using a PowerPoint, print copies of the slides to set in front of you. (This also prevents the neck strain which accompanies ill-fated attempts to look both up and backwards at the same time.)
  4. Find advocates. Select two or three people to serve as your focal points during the presentation. (I recommend that they be people with whom you speak on a regular basis, since focusing on them will lend a conversational tone to your speech.) As your eyes wander between these friendly faces, you’ll appear to be making eye-contact with everyone else as well.
  5. Remember that people have come to hear your material… not you. Unless there is something glaringly wrong about your appearance (a giant leaf of spinach stuck between your teeth or mismatched shoes), most people won’t notice (or sometimes even remember) the presenter. They are there to learn. You are there to help them. You aren’t the main show.
  6. Smile. Just the act of forcing your face into a grin has a cathartic effect. The more you smile, the more your audience will smile. And the more your audience smiles, the more confident you will become.
 

 
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