Friday, November 28, 2008

A buffet of blogs about public speaking

In a post back on June 6 I mentioned that Andrew Dlugan had discussed 106 blogs about public speaking.

There is an interesting tool for keeping up with a large number of blogs about speaking and other topics. It is called Alltop and was announced back in March by Guy Kawasaki. He called it a news aggregation site that collects “all the top” stories for popular topics on the web. There is a separate page you can go to for each topic.

For each topic Alltop collects postings from about forty to eighty different sites. For each site below the name it shows the headline and title of the five most recent posts. When you point your mouse at a headline you will see the first paragraph of each post. If it looks interesting, then you can click on a headline to read the entire post.

The Alltop page on speaking is a bountiful buffet which collects material from 79 different sites, including 5 with PowerPoint in their titles, and 3 with Toastmasters in their titles.

The page on writing has material from 24 sites, and the page on sales has material from 74 sites. However, their marketing page has over 200 sites. I think there were 213, but I may have lost track.

The alphabetical list of topics has some surprises. Under C there is California, Chicano, Christianity, Country Music, and even Cricket. The L’s include both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Under N there is both NBA Basketball and NFL Football, but not NASCAR. Y’all aren’t from down South, are y’all?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Joy of teaching adult education

On the evening of October 6, 2008 I taught a two-hour adult education course at Timberline High School for the Community Education Program held by the Boise Schools. The course was titled Surf No More – Internet Research Refined. This was by far the longest presentation that I have ever given. I used 60 PowerPoint slides.

As is usual for adult education one challenge is that the backgrounds of the dozen or so students varied widely. Some were new computer users. Others were very experienced. One was a Toastmaster from my club (Jose Telleria, ACG) who has long run his own software company. Another formerly had worked in R & D at Micron Technology, Inc. and she had quite a few patents on computer memory. Everyone took away some useful information.

I broke the presentation into four chunks:
Introduction (the basics)

Where to look
How to look (tactics)
How to look (strategies).

Before beginning each chunk I gave the class a written handout with those PowerPoint slides so they could concentrate on the talk rather than on writing.

The main point on where to look was that you should never just have one tool for search. You need a whole box of tools, like the Boise Public Library web search page. For more advanced users I recommended the Toddington search page called Essential Tools for Internet Geologists.

This course began as a presentation on Internet Research which I gave in April 2004 to a dinner meeting of the Portland chapter of the American Society of Women Accountants. In 2005 it also was given to an IEEE chapter, but that’s another story.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The joy of talking to kids

One of the Toastmasters in Capitol Club, Marilee Fuller, ACG, is teaching a youth program on public speaking for a group of ten 4th to 6th grade students at a local charter school (ANSER). She asked for volunteers to speak to the kids, and of course I said yes. The school is located within walking distance of my home and club.

I gave a ten-minute speech to them complete with PowerPoint slides. It was a technical mystery story called “The Case of the Corroded Computer”. They enjoyed hearing it, and I certainly enjoyed telling it to them. The moral was that, just like kids, we adults don’t always think things through before we act.

The story began with a luxury car dealer getting ready to move into a remodeled vintage building in a state capital. Everyone was in a big hurry to get the move completed before New Year’s Day.

The last step before moving the cars and the shop equipment in turned out to be having a contractor come to clean the discolored grout on the white tile floor for the showroom. The contractor was told it was OK for him to use hydrochloric acid and he did.

The very next day the dealer called and accused him of destroying a brand new minicomputer located in the bookkeeper’s office. The contractor said that was impossible, since his crew had not even been in the carpeted bookkeeper’s office, and the door had always been locked.

A company I worked for got called by a claims adjuster from the insurance company for the contractor. She wanted an independent technical evaluation of the damage. A chemist and I went to look at the computer. All the screws on the case were rusty brown instead of shiny silver color. Chemical tests on the motherboard revealed exposure to hydrochloric acid.

How did the acid get there? The building had a forced air heating system. A furnace was located in the back of the showroom, just outside of the bookkeeper’s office. The cold air inlet was located just a few inches above the tile floor. The very first hot air outlet from the furnace led right into the bookkeeper’s office. By Murphy’s Law that outlet was located on the wall directly above the computer. So, the computer got an acid vapor bath. Oops!

After our report the insurer for the contractor bought the dealer a new computer. They got the “old” one to salvage. By hindsight the computer should not have been there yet.

I forgot to mention to the kids that the preceding story somewhat resembles a Sherlock Holmes story about murder in a locked room, called the Adventure of the Speckled Band.

After the talk I gave the kids a handout to read. It was a two-page Claims magazine article I had written for their September 1995 issue, on “How to investigate corrosion damage to goods stored, shipped”. I am not sure if they were impressed or appalled that the article was older than they were.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stepping into someone else’s shoes

One of the more challenging forms of public speaking is substituting for someone else at a technical conference. I have done it well just once in my career, back in the early 1980’s. There was a technical conference in Toronto. I was chairing a session on hydrogen embrittlement of steel. A French scientist had volunteered to give a presentation. However, he warned me that there was a possibility that he might not be allowed to travel.

A week before the conference an airmail envelope arrived with his text and slides. There was a brief note saying he could not come, and I should just go give his presentation. It turned out to be straightforward, because he and I had worked for the same PhD thesis adviser in graduate school. For about three years our desks were in the same lab and faced each other. We had built equipment together, and discussed that topic over and over. Later he had sent me many of his publications. A week was ample time to understand his presentation, because I already understood his approach to the topic.

A half decade earlier our thesis advisor gave a much more difficult substitute performance on the same topic. He was co-chairman of an entire conference. One of the keynote speakers could not make it because he had to testify in court as an expert witness. The manuscript and slides arrived about 2 hours before the presentation. Our advisor warned the audience that he was filling in at the last moment. Then he did an excellent job of communicating someone else’s material. How could he do that so comfortably? He and his co-chair had written a series of review articles on that topic. They already had read and discussed hundreds of technical papers. So, they understood what everyone thought, and could step into anyone’s shoes.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Biggest fears about speaking to groups

This data is about 18 years old, but still interesting to contemplate.

Dr. Roger Flax of Motivational Systems did a study of 12,000 people who participated in his firm’s communication training programs. They were asked: What are your biggest fears about speaking to groups? Results were reported on page 13 of the September 1990 issue of American Salesman magazine in an article titled The Unspeakable Fear.

The fears reported were:
81% - Making embarrassing mistakes
77 % - Damaging your career or reputation
63% - Forgetting or freezing
58% - Being dull or boring
52% - Looking nervous or petrified
45% - Being stared at
37% - Being unable to answer questions
31% - Being unprepared
24% - Being ignored
19% - Being laughed at
7% - That someone will fall asleep

The list of fears is rather comprehensive. It is only missing some more obscure ones like being struck by lightning, turning into a pillar of salt, alien abduction, or spontaneous human combustion.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Public speaking is still the #1 specific social fear, according to the latest results from the NCS-R survey

Is public speaking the #1 social fear? A couple of professionals involved with public speaking don’t think so, but I respectfully disagree with them. In a blog post dated April 21, 2008 Lisa Braithwaite quoted from an earlier article by Melissa Lewis titled “Five tired, worn out public speaking clich├ęs, and why it’s time to throw them out” that began with:

“ 1. ‘Public speaking is the #1 fear’
You can count on hearing this one any time you take a presentation skills class. The problem is, there’s nothing to substantiate it. The quoted source for this "fact" is The Book of Lists, which, even in current editions, shows a tiny blurb in the Sunday Times of London from October 7, 1973, as its source. In this article, no mention is made of who did this research, how it was conducted, who the subjects were, whether the subjects were a representative sample of the U.S. population—nothing! Not to mention the fact that this "research" is 30 years old. Haven’t people changed in 30 years? And don’t we face new fears that weren’t even in our consciousness in 1973? Of course. If this research were to be conducted with rigor today, we would likely have a different outcome. This tidy, shocking factoid is easily trotted out when we want to make a point, but it’s just not valid. Time to let it go”.


Melissa further said in an e-mail quoted by Lisa that “I have a standing offer to all my participants: Bring me a current, scientifically credible study showing that public speaking is the #1 fear and I'll give you $100. It's been 20 years and I'm still waiting!"

Well, Melissa if I was taking your course then I would ask you to open up your purse, get out your $100 bill and hand it over! (In fact, I could have had your $100 ten years ago.)

Earlier this year the results of from a large survey of the general population were published which state that public speaking is still the #1 specific social fear. That survey is the NCS-R, which is an abbreviation for the National Comorbidity Study – Replication. The paper with the results is “Social Fears and Social Phobia in the United States: Results from the National Comorbidity Study Replication” by A. M. Ruscio et al. You can find the abstract at Pubmed, as well as the full manuscript. The relevant results are the first column in Table 1.

If you list the prevalence of each specific fear in the total sample (9282 people) in decreasing order the fears are: Public speaking/performance 21.2%, Speaking up in meeting/class 19.5%, Meeting new people 16.8%, Talking to people in authority 14.7%, Important exam/interview 14.0%, Going to parties 13.4%, Talking with strangers 13.1%, Expressing disagreement 12.4%, Entering an occupied room 11.9%, Working while being watched 11.8%, Dating situation 11.5%, Writing/eating/drinking while being watched 8.1%, Using public bathroom 5.7%. There also were two more categories: Other performance or interaction fear 15.7%, and Any of the above fears 24.1%.

Just what is the National Comorbidity Survey? It’s a big, important American health survey program going back to the early 1990s, with its own web site. If you count the scientific papers produced from it you will find about 220!

Back in 1998 another paper by R. C. Kessler et al,“Social Phobia Subtypes in the National Comorbidity Survey” was published using the original survey data from 1990-1992. If you list the prevalence of each specific fear in the total sample (8098 people) in decreasing order the fears are: Public speaking 30.2%, Talking in front of a small group 15.2%, Talking with others 13.7%, Using a toilet away from home 6.6%, Writing while someone watches 6.4%, and Eating or drinking in public 2.7%. There also was a category of Any social fear 38.6%.

I am pretty good at finding information on the web and in libraries. However, it still took me about a half day of online search to dredge up these two articles. The moral, if any, is not to trust the “experts” on a topic. If you want to find out the truth you will have to dig it up on your own.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

October 2008 Australian survey confirms Seinfeld: 23% of people fear public speaking more than death

In one of his comedy routines Jerry Seinfeld said that people fear public speaking more than death, so if they went to a funeral then they would rather be lying in the coffin than giving the eulogy. An Australian survey confirmed this.

The survey was taken by Newspoll for Reasontospeak.com and reported in the October 22, 2008 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. They surveyed 1206 adults and reportedly 23% fear public speaking more than death, compared with 27% who rank death as their number one fear. Also, they reported that 28% of those who finished high school had public speaking as their worst fear, versus only 15% of those with university degrees. There also was an age difference. 25% of the 35-to-64 age group feared public speaking more than death, versus 18% of the 18-to-34 age group. They did not find a gender difference.