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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!


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.


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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