Monday, October 31, 2011

Terrorists and snakes top list of Canadian fears

The October 26th Vancouver Sun published a brief article describing an online survey done on August 23rd for the family history website and described in a press release intended to scare us for Halloween.

They mentioned heights, public speaking, and spiders, but didn’t provide specific percentages. The newspaper article just listed the top two percentages shown above; the press release contained none. Public speaking isn’t the number one fear up there in Canada.

In my last post I described how giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States either. Boo!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States

Yesterday, for Halloween, CareerBuilder released the results of a survey on what employees are most afraid of at work. It was done online by Harris Interactive in late August and early September. As shown above, layoffs were the greatest fear (36%), pay cuts were second (13%), and presenting in front of other people (9%) tied for third. (Click on the bar chart to see a larger, clearer view). Four times as many people feared layoffs as feared giving presentations. So much for speaking in public always being the number one fear!

The press release also included a list of scariest jobs, which were:

1. Bomb Squad Technician
2. High Rise Window Washer
3. Armed Forces
4. Miner
5. Police Officer
6. Alaskan Crab Fishing
7. Mortician
8. Firefighter
9. High School Teacher
10.Cemetery Worker
11. Exterminator
12. Stand-Up Comedian
13. Animal Control
14. Stunt Person
15. Politician

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Any Last Words?

Last year there was a book by Robert K. Elder containing a collection of the Last Words of the Executed. (You can search inside it at That book describes perhaps the most macabre form of public speaking. It’s certainly one way to get scared for Halloween. Thirteen examples (with Wikipedia links where available) are:

“I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”
Sarah Good, Salem, Massachusetts, July 19, 1692

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Nathan Hale, New York, September 22, 1776

“It’s in God’s hands now.”
Nat Turner, Virginia, November 11, 1831

“No, I am ready at any time; but do not keep me needlessly waiting.”
John Brown, Virginia, December 2, 1859

“Gentlemen, do you see this hand? Does it tremble? I never hurt a hair of that girl’s head."
Tom Dula, North Carolina, May 1, 1868

“I had a square trial. Everything the witnesses said was pretty much true. I felt at the time that I ought to have done it, and afterwards I felt I did wrong. I tell you it’s a hard thing when a man brings it on himself, but whisky did it.”
Isaiah Evans, Louisiana, May 10, 1878

“What time is it? I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.”
John Owens, Wyoming, March 5, 1886

“I killed the president because he was an enemy of the good people - of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”
Leon Frank Czolgosz, New York, October 29, 1901

“I have something to say, but not at this time.”
Grover Cleveland Redding, Illinois, June 24, 1921

“Make it snappy.”
Charles H. Simpson, California, July 13, 1931

“Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on wood.”
Frederick Wood, New York, March 21, 1963

“I’d like you to give my love to my family and friends.”
Ted Bundy, Florida, January 24, 1989.

“You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.”
Robert Alton Harris, California, April 21, 1992. (This was paraphrased from a movie).

The image depicts the hanging of Jefferson Davis (which did not really happen).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Communicating clearly to nontechnical audiences - the grandmother test

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that:

“You do not really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother.”

In a blog post on October 19th titled "Tech Communication Tips" Matt Eventoff described how:

“I often ask professionals to explain a concept to me as if they were addressing an eighth grade class – I find this exercise works well to help a professional prepare a presentation to a non-tech crowd – this often generates stories and analogies that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.”

Here is an example from failure analysis. The ASM Materials Engineering Dictionary says that a striation is:

“A fatigue fracture feature, often observed in electron micrographs, that indicates the position of the crack front after each succeeding cycle of stress. The distance between striations indicates the advance of the crack front across that crystal during one stress cycle, and a line normal to the striations indicates the direction of local crack propagation.”

That definition is almost meaningless unless (as shown above) you already have seen a photo of some striations. (The scale marker in the lower right corner is 3 microns long, which is about 0.00012 inches).

I co-authored a paper for insurance adjusters that appeared in the April 1994 issue of Claims Magazine. It was titled: "Don’t Let Your Case Rust Away: evidence preservation vital of surfaces produced by fracture." We discussed striations with two analogies:

“Repeated cycles of loading can cause cracks to initiate and grow, a process called fatigue. The fatigue cracks will grow until the remaining cross-section can no longer carry the load, and fracture occurs.

In fatigue, the deformation only occurs locally and repeatedly at the tip of the growing crack. This repeated opening and closing of the crack tip forms microscopic features called striations. Striations are rows of parallel hills and valleys which appear similar to the surface of corduroy fabric, or a plowed field.”

The painting by Albert Anker and the photo by Jsemenak both are from Wikimedia Commons.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Getting worse with practice: blame Toastmasters, complacency, or perfectionism?

On August 17th, at The Science Talent Project blog, Eric-Wubbo Lamejier posted on Teaching to the Test and the Terrible Toastmasters - or: when subgoals strike back. He described and then claimed he could explain:

“...the phenomenon of public speaking clubs that make people speak worse with practice.”

He said that he’d also observed and also was baffled by:

“...the phenomenon that quite some of the 'champion' speakers gave worse speeches than people giving their very first speech.”

I don’t think that is surprising at all. People come to Toastmasters for a variety of reasons. Some come mainly to get over their fear of public speaking, so their first speeches are not good. Others seek a place to improve their speaking and to practice their business presentations. One woman already had written three books. Predictably she gave a wonderful first speech. People arrive at Toastmasters with a wide variety of backgrounds. In the club I belonged to the age range was from about 25 to 75 and the education level ranged from high school to PhDs. (One former president even is a veterinarian with an MBA).

Dr. Lameijer concluded that the Achilles heel for Toastmasters was speech contests, particularly the judging process for them. He states that:

“...the uniform jurying process tends to keep people focusing on process goals (ability to use diverse body language) even if they have mastered those enough already, and should focus on outcome goals (such as inspiring or persuading people) instead. Without outcome goals to tweak the learning process, skills become ritualistic and detatched from the original goals.”

The Judge’s Guide for the International Speech Contest can be summarized as follows:

Speech Development - 20% (structure, organization, support material)
Effectiveness - 15% (achievement of purpose, interest, reception)
Speech Value - 15% (ideas, logic, original thought)

Physical - 10% (appearance, body language, speaking area)
Voice - 10% (flexibility, volume)
Manner - 10% (directness, assurance, enthusiasm)

Appropriateness - 10% (to speech purpose and audience)
Correctness - 10% (grammar, pronunciation, word selection)

Note that half are about content - outcome goals, and not just process goals (delivery and language).

Eric’s description of how body language is judged in contests claims:

“Actually, one side effect is that, because people get points for having body language, contestants tend to use body language whether it is appropriate or not; the same goes for vocal variety.”

This is nonsense, because the Judge’s Guide calls for effective body language and says that:

“Body language should support points through gestures, expressions, and body positioning.”

Speech contests are a pleasant, but minor part of Toastmasters. They occupy just two club meetings per year. For a club meeting twice a month there are 24 meetings per year, so only 8% are contests. I belonged to a club that met weekly, so only 4% of the meetings were for contests. That doesn’t seem like enough to account for people getting worse with practice.

I think that either complacency or perfectionism can account for some people getting worse with practice. Three years ago Chris Elliott blogged on Are You Getting Worse as a Speaker? He concluded:

“....that if you have stopped practicing as much, been resting on your laurels, and are getting too comfortable then you are getting worse.”

Earlier this year John Zimmer blogged about how (as shown above) Perfect Public Speaking is an Asymptote. All it really takes to get worse with practice is an obsessive level of perfectionism. It is futile to seek seek absolute perfection rather than excellence. Morton C. Orman discussed this problem in How to Conquer Public Speaking Fear, one of the most popular web articles on this type of anxiety. He noted that:

“....If you have the wrong focus (i.e., purpose), if you try to do too much, if you want everyone to applaud your every word, if you fear something bad might happen or you might make a minor mistake, then you can easily drive yourself crazy trying to overprepare your talk. In these instances, the more effort you put in, the worse you probably will do.”

This post is one of three dozen about Toastmasters. You can see them all here. Toastmasters celebrated its 87th anniversary today.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Speechwriting always needs editing

Perhaps the first line in that famous soliloquy from Hamlet really began like the parody of Sylvester Stallone once used by Robin Williams in a comedy routine. It’s not quite right.

In 1995 Anne Lamott wrote a wonderful book called Bird By Bird: some instructions on writing and life. One widely reproduced essay in it describes how great writing begins with terrible first drafts. She says the first draft is the down draft - where you just get the words out. The second draft is the up draft - where you fix it up. The third draft is the dental draft -where you check each tooth to see if it has cavities.

Back when he was a teenager Josh Ritter’s father taught him the importance of editing. Josh went on to a career as a singer-songwriter (and novelist). Last Saturday he wrote about that experience. He said that in a song:

“I had to know what I was trying to say and then, word after word, line after line, make sure the thing read right, sang right, and just felt right.”

Sometimes Josh’s editing continued even after a song was recorded. The second verse of Harrisburg (recorded in 2002) says that Romero:

“Could have stayed somewhere but the train tracks kept going
And it seems like they always left soon
And the wolves that he ran with they moaned low and painful
Sang sad misereres to the moon”

But, what is a miserere? It’s a type of lament. Josh revised the last line to the less obscure:

“sang their sad lullabies at the moon”

You can hear a longer live version from May 8, 2010. It also contains an interlude with a verse from Chris Isaak’s 1991 hit song Wicked Game, performed by bassist Zach Hickman. Another live version contains a verse from Bruce Springsteen’s song State Trooper.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Where talk is not cheap

A week ago the Washington Post ran a story titled At the Washington Speakers Bureau, Talk Isn’t Cheap. It discussed how a former official can have another lucrative career on the public speaking circuit. That story struck me as an example of the well-known Matthew Effect (25:29) that:

 “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

No one said that life was fair. The image came from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's the difference between a fear and a phobia?

A fear may mean that something upsets you slightly, while a phobia means that it terrifies you (as shown above). A phobia is a fear with a capital F. Fear of public speaking is a social fear. Speech anxiety is a type of social phobia.

One simple way to think about the difference is just to ask how much money you would be willing to pay to avoid giving a speech. Would it be:

A. $ 0.10
B. $ 100
C. $ 100,000
D. $ 100,000,000
E. $ 100,000,000,000

If you answered A or B, then you just have a fear. If you answered E, the hundred-billion-dollar ransom once demanded by Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers movie, then you definitely have a phobia.

A detailed clinical definition for a social phobia can be found on page 411 of the massive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Metal Disorders (4th edition, 1994), usually abbreviated as the DSM-IV, which begins by stating that:

“The essential feature of Social Phobia is a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur (Criterion A). Exposure to the social or performance situation almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response (Criterion B). This response may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally disposed Panic Attack (see p. 394). Although adolescents and adults with this disorder recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable (Criterion C), this may not be the case with children. Most often, the social or performance situation is avoided, although it is sometimes endured with dread (Criterion D). The diagnosis is appropriate only if the avoidance, fear, or anxious anticipation of encountering the social or performance situation interferes significantly with the person’s daily routine, occupational functioning, or social life, or if the person is markedly distressed about having the phobia (Criterion E)....”

A few surveys have looked at how common both social fears and social phobias are. There was an article on “Social Fears and Social Phobia in the United States: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication” by A. M. Ruscio et al. You can read it here.

The bar chart shown above (click on it to enlarge) shows that about 20% of adults in the US fear public speaking, while about half that, or 10% have a phobia. That 10% is much smaller than some of the nonsense you will find online, like at SpeakFreaks which instead claims that:

"Speech Anxiety is believed to be the single most common phobia affecting as much as 75% of the population, and as you have probably already heard, the fear is ranked higher than death!"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

What is a communication pyramid?

It is a graphical device for describing how some elements of communication relate. What those elements are (and how many) varies depending on who is building the pyramid, which may be either upright or inverted.

For example, last month Fred E. Miller blogged about one with three levels. He didn’t mention that these oft-repeated. and rather mythical, percentages are from Albert Mehrabian. Calling them a pyramid is putting an old whine in a new bottle. On his web site Mehrabian cautioned that they are not universal, and to:

“...Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable....”

In her book Point, Click & Wow! Claudyne Wilder described another type of Communication Pyramid:

“The inverted pyramid depicts four levels of communication, from the most basic form of conveying data to the highest level of suggesting its meaning for the future by sharing a vision.”

There was a seven-level upright pyramid described in a magazine article titled "Don’t Misconstrue Communication Cues: Understanding MISCUES can help reduce widespread and expensive miscommunication." You can read the text here or here.

In March MIchael J. Maher blogged about a different seven-level pyramid. Also, Kessels & Smits have described another three-level pyramid.

So, there are lots of pyramids other than the great one at Giza.