Monday, July 30, 2012

Is fear of public speaking the greatest fear in the entire galaxy?

Who knows? Right now on this planet we don’t have access to statistics like that. (That’s the kind of information we’d expect to read in the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). We don’t even have any real surveys for this whole world. But that hasn’t stopped people from making inflated claims, like that:

“Fear of public speaking has become the number one global fear...”

Those inflated claims often are connected with sales of books, courses, or coaching. First the problem is exaggerated, and then a quick fix solution is offered. It’s the same ridiculous process that is shown above in a century old cartoon about selling patent medicine.  

What about just the United States? On July 27th Tim Ellmore blogged that:

“You probably know that in frequent surveys taken among Americans, people continue to confirm that public speaking is their number one fear.”

On May 24th Sonya Hamlin claimed:

“... Did you know that the number one fear of the American public -- researched annually for the last 40 years -- has been and still is any form of public speaking! It comes up as number one year after year. Amazing.”

On February 4, 2011 Fred E. Miller claimed:

“Survey after survey consistently lists the ‘Fear of Public Speaking’ as the number one fear most people have.”

Those three claims all are nonsense. How do I know that? On this blog I have previously discussed fifteen surveys of adults in the U.S. There were only five where public speaking was the number one fear. Here are the rankings, and titles (with links) to those posts. The notation N/M means that the fear of speaking was ranked Nth out of M fears.

4/4: Getting a root canal done is scarier than public speaking or a job interview.

9/14: Lists where the fear of public speaking isn’t anywhere near the top - The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study.

3/4: Poll by Reader’s Digest Canada found fear of public speaking wasn’t ranked first in 15 of 16 countries surveyed.

3/5: More American men feared poor sexual performance than public speaking.

6/10: U. S. residents are slightly more afraid of public speaking than of hell or fire.

3/6: Giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States.

5/20: 20 fears for a new millennium - replacing the 1977 Book of Lists.

2/13 (twice) Fear of public speaking versus fear of snakes (Gallup Polls 2001 and 1998).

2/10: Ten high anxiety social situations.

1/14: Putting the fears puzzle pieces together: social and specific fears from the National Comorbidity Survey.

1/12: More Americans fear public speaking than getting fat, and death tied for third.

1/14: America’s Number One Fear: Public Speaking - that 1993 Bruskin-Goldring Survey.

1/4: According to LG, people fear public speaking even more than cleaning, dentists, or doing taxes.

1/14: The 14 Worst Human Fears in the 1977 Book of Lists: where did this data really come from?

Fear of public speaking was ranked number one only a third of the time, not all the time.

Back on June 4th I’d blogged about Sonya Hamlin’s claim being bogus. Since then I also posted on the Public Speaking Network group at LinkedIn asking if anyone knew of something to back up her claim. The only slightly positive reply was one that cited another phobia list that I’ve also blogged about - as being bogus.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why is your conference audience frowning? Perhaps they just lost at travel roulette

Suppose that you were going to speak at the evening opening session of a conference. You planned ahead, got there the day before, and rehearsed your speech repeatedly. But, when you went to give it you noticed a whole bunch of frowning faces in the audience. Were they upset because your content and delivery were terrible? Perhaps not.

Back in 1975 I attended an international technical conference that was held at a lovely resort location - Jackson Lake Lodge, in Grand Teton National Park. To get there you probably had to fly to Jackson, Wyoming via Frontier Airlines, whose nearest hub airports were in Denver and Salt Lake City. Back then they flew Convair 580 turboprop airliners that only held fifty people.

The conference had been organized by a pair of university professors. They’d warned Frontier not to overbook flights to Jackson by their usual percentages on the day and evening when the conference opened. Of course Frontier ignored them, and everybody with reservations showed up at the counters in their two hubs. Some people had to take later flights. Others missed the opening session.

At the conference one disgruntled traveler told me he’d had to take a later flight. John worked in market development for a huge international metals company. The person behind the counter also told him that his baggage might not fly with him, and might not even arrive until the next morning. When he asked if the airline could be more specific, the counter person just snidely replied:

“That’s what we call Frontier roulette!”

John spent most of his work week traveling around the U.S. visiting customers. I wonder how many business travelers he told that customer disservice punch line, and how many million dollars of lost business it eventually cost Frontier, who went bankrupt in 1986.  
The roulette cartoon came from an old Puck magazine. This post was inspired by Lisa Braithwaite’s Speak Schmeak blog post yesterday on why I’m my own worst audience member.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Off-topic spam blog comments - the hCG Diet Scam

When you give a speech you may be asked irrelevant questions by hecklers who have their own agendas. On a blog the equivalent is spam comments. This blog is hosted using Google Blogger, which includes a feature for detecting and diverting spam comments to a junk folder - once you tell it you want to moderate comments rather than publish every one.  

The last time I checked my junk folder I was surprised to find over two dozen comments made just on July 20th. They all contained links to Canadian web sites peddling diet supplement products for the Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG) diet.

The day before they started spamming me I had read a long and somewhat technical post on the Science-Based Medicine blog by Scott Gavura titled The HCG Diet: Yet another ineffective quick fix diet plan and supplement. In that post he discussed how the diet had long been shown to be ineffective (and potentially dangerous), but had been popularized again in 2007 by the notorious telemarketer Kevin Trudeau in a worthless book. It also mentioned that last December the U.S. FDA had taken action to pull unapproved HCG products off the market. So, the dirty business has moved across the border to Canada.

There is an excellent, more readable two-page discussion of the diet in Myth vs. Fact - The Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) Diet, a downloadable fact sheet from The Hormone Foundation. I found it via some quick research on Google that led me to a blog post by a dietician.

Getting that pile of spam reminded me of a line from The Mary Ellen Carter, a song by the Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers bemoaning:

“....smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go.”

The vintage SPAM can is from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Adding a safety net for speech evaluations in Toastmasters meetings

Every Toastmasters manual in the Communication series contains a set of projects. The first page for each project has a list of Objectives. For each project the last page has a one-page Evaluation Guide. The guide has a list with about a half-dozen written questions to guide the speech evaluator. Before the meeting begins, the speaker hands the manual to his evaluator. After the speeches, the evaluator gives a two to three minute verbal evaluation. Later he also provides a more detailed written evaluation by answering all the questions in the manual. For more details, see the Effective Evaluations publication.

That’s how it should work - assuming the speaker doesn’t forget to bring the manual to the meeting. But, what happens if he forgets? Then the evaluator might get lucky and find a spare manual in the club’s files. What if he isn’t lucky though? You have a situation like a fire minus the safety net shown above.

It would be very useful to have a generic rubric as a safety net for that occasion. The August 2009 Toastmaster magazine contains an article by Carol Dean Schreiner on pages 16 to 19 titled The GOOD the BAD and the UGLY: How speech evaluations can help - or hurt. On page 19 there is exactly such a rubric - a Handy Evaluation Checklist. It has a dozen specific points, plus the following four general ones:


The part I could really appreciate was..........

The best suggestion I can offer is ..........

The best thing about this speech, overall, was ..........

That article was published when I was Vice President - Education for Capitol Club. So, I formatted a version of her Handy Evaluation Checklist to fit on a single page, indicated the source at the bottom, saved it in Microsoft Word, and put twenty copies in a folder for emergency use at our meetings. I emailed Carol to suggest that she put a printable version of it on her web site. She didn’t. Unfortunately the html version of her article on the Toastmasters web site also doesn’t contain that checklist. You can find it in the pdf file for that entire issue of Toastmaster magazine though.

However, you can find an uncredited printable version to download at a web page about evaluation tools on the web site for Calgary Toastmasters. Why isn’t it on the main Toastmasters web site? Was it just Not Invented Here?

The image of a life net was adapted from a Puck magazine centerfold published in 1911.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A narrated hike through the forest along Morris Creek

A month ago, on June 23rd, I went for an afternoon hike in the Scotchman Peaks roadless area northeast of Lake Pend Oreille. That’s way up in northern Idaho, not far south of the border with Canada and west of the Montana state line. About a dozen people followed a trail uphill along dry creek bed parallel to Morris Creek. The return was downhill along the same route.

It was part of the annual meeting for the Idaho Native Plant Society (INPS). The hike was led by  Derek Antonelli, who is president of the Calypso Chapter of INPS in Coeur d’ Alene. He works for the state Fish and Game department, and has edited materials for the Idaho Master Naturalist Program. Derek’s description for our route said that the vegetation would be a good representation of the native plants found in the moist Western Hemlock / Western Red Cedar forests of northern Idaho. When he’d hiked this trail last September, he’d counted over 100 different species of plants.

For me it was an eye opening presentation. He was surrounded by visual aids, presenting a topic he was passionate about as an extended conversation. In response to questions from the group Derek identified and discussed everything from little pipecleaner moss and oak fern to other large trees like Douglas Fir and Grand Fir. Depending on the amount of water, there’s a sequence of which trees predominate in western forests. I quickly lost track of the number of wildflowers, ferns, and mosses but came away with a sense of wonder. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Isn’t it time to bury this joke?

Two decades ago in a comedy routine Jerry Seinfeld joked that:

“According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. ‘Death’ is number two! Now, this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

After watching prolonged coverage of the massacre at a theater in Aurora, Colorado on Friday (and the anniversary of an even worse massacre in Norway) I’ve concluded that it’s time for speaking coaches and teachers to quit referring to this joke. What do you think?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to lose your credibility - a tinhorn at the Buck-A-Roo Breakfast

Early yesterday morning I was listening to a remote radio broadcast by KIDO in Nampa from the Buck-A-Roo Breakfast, which is part of a venerable rodeo - the 97th Snake River Stampede. One of their guests was Wayne Hoffman, who is executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). He was there to promote an IFF celebration and banquet on Thursday in Boise.

Wayne said something which made my jaw drop in astonishment. It was that Obamacare is unconstitutional, and I don’t care what John Roberts says. Huh?

John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. What he said in writing is an Opinion, and it really is the last word on that topic. What Wayne says just is an opinion with a very small letter o. He is not an expert on the law, and was just shooting off his mouth.

Given the venue, two uncomplimentary cowboy-related words came to mind to describe Wayne: tinhorn and drugstore cowboy. Wayne won’t be on a list of the ten worst moments in public speaking but he now has no credibility with me. 

The image of movie cowboy Tom Mix came from the Library of Congress.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Another bogus statistic on the fear of public speaking

On a web page about speaker training by the Brandi Kamenar Design Studio I read a claim that:

“According to a March 2012 study by the National institute of Mental Health, the number one fear of Americans is the fear of public speaking. At 74 percent, it topped even the fear of dying.”

The same 74% statistic also was reported in an article by Julie Pare, a student at Loyola University Chicago, on How to Become a Better Public Speaker that linked to a web page at the Statistic Brain web site which lists percentages for speech anxiety. On July 1st I blogged about another page at that web site with a bogus list of top ten phobias.

That page at the Statistic Brain site contains a box which says their source was the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and statistics were verified on March 28, 2012. They also listed 75 percent for women and 73 percent for men. On April 26th I emailed the Statistic Brain web site and asked them exactly where those three percentages came from. So far they haven’t bothered to reply.

That page also claimed that 5.3 million Americans suffer from social phobia. Researching that number on Google revealed that it came from an decade old NIMH pamphlet which said that:

“About 3.7% of the U.S. population ages 18 to 54 - approximately 5.3 million Americans - has social phobia in any given year.”

The current NIMH page with statistics on social phobia lists a lifetime prevalence of 12.1% and a 12-month prevalence of 6.8%. So, they hadn’t really checked the current NIMH page at all, which said 6.8% rather than 3.7%. Those NIMH statistics came from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication (NCS-R).

I have previously blogged about a 2008 article by Ruscio et al that  analyzed data from the NCS-R and reported that 21.2% of U.S. adults feared public speaking. For fear of public speaking the 74% reported on the Statistic Brain page is three and a half times higher than the current NIMH data, as is shown above on a bar chart.

Where did the 73%, 74% and 75% really come from? I don't know, but those sorts of percentages (~75%) were reported decades ago by James C. McCroskey and his colleagues. They certainly aren’t from this year, so they pinned my bogometer.

The bogometer image was derived from this one of a digital multimeter.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Exceeding expectations - lessons from getting a leaking faucet fixed

When you give a speech you should be a memorable professional, and deliver more than you promised.

On the front wall of our house there is an outside faucet for a garden hose. The faucet was dripping and gradually the leak became worse. On the morning of July 5th I finally decided to call a plumber to fix it. (Later I’ll explain why I was reluctant to do it myself).

We haven’t needed a plumber for over five years, but I’d heard a radio ad for Cloverdale Plumbing Company recently. I checked at the Better Business Bureau web site and found they were accredited with an A+ rating and had been in business for almost sixty years. The plumber arrived within an hour of my phone call.

Before he started work Andrew gave me two verbal estimates - one for if he could repair or rebuild the faucet, and another (twice as high) if he had to replace it. When I told him to go ahead, he shut off the water outside (just past the meter) using a long-handled curb valve key. He unscrewed the stem cap (the part with hexagonal flats) and took the stem over to his truck. Andrew was able to just repair it by replacing the seal, and soon he had the water back on.

When he brought the bill he also gave us a pair of tasty cookies with  the words Thank You iced on them. We had a $29 off coupon from their web site, so the repair was less than the lower estimate. He was a pro, and exceeded our expectations. The only minor glitch was that he forgot to take his valve key with him. (I left it on our front porch, called his dispatcher, and he came back later).

Why didn’t I want to try this repair myself? In plumbing jargon this type of faucet is called either a Frost-Proof Sill Cock or a Freezeless, Self-Draining Wall Hydrant. What you see on the outside is just the tip of the iceberg. This type of sill cock might be over a foot long and it goes through the wall. The valve mechanism is located inside the house, as shown on this view of the parts for a similar Prier C-134.

I don’t have a box full of assorted seals, so at best I’d have needed to take the stem over to a hardware store or plumbing supplier and try to find the right replacement seal. Meanwhile all the water in the house would be turned off.

At worst, the entire sill cock might need to be replaced. You can’t just unscrew it from outside the house. Usually it’s nailed to the wood frame via a pair of straps. They might be pretty easy to remove, if you can just walk down into the basement. Our house doesn’t have a basement - just a two-foot tall crawl space, and it’s a long way from the entrance near the back out to the front wall. About six years ago I replaced a sill cock on another house that had a four-foot tall crawl space. It took a flat pry bar pivoting against a wood block to remove the mounting straps.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A new scale (rubric) for evaluating speeches

The July 2012 issue of Communication Education magazine contains a 29-page article by Lisa M. Schreiber,, Gregory D. Paul, and Lisa R. Shibley on The Development and Test of the Public Speaking Competence Rubric (PSCR). You can read the abstract here. This new scale  has nine core performance standards and two optional performance standards. For each standard a student’s performance is described on a five-point scale as follows:

0.  Deficient

1.  Minimal

2.  Basic

3.  Proficient

4.  Advanced.

Their nine core performance standards are: 

1. Selects a topic appropriate to the audience and occasion.

2. Formulates an introduction that orients audience to topic and speaker.

3. Uses an effective organizational pattern.

4. Locates, synthesizes and employs compelling supporting materials.

5. Develops a conclusion that reinforces the thesis and provides psychological closure.

6. Demonstrates careful choice of words.

7. Effectively uses vocal expression and paralanguage to engage the audience.

8. Demonstrates nonverbal behavior that supports the verbal message.

9. Successfully adapts the presentation to the audience.

Their two optional performance standards are:

(10.) Skillfully makes use of visual aids.

(11.) Constructs an effectual persuasive message with credible evidence and sound reasoning.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Closing the circle

You may have noticed that my last two blog posts had embedded videos from YouTube. I hadn’t realized that YouTube closed the circle by automatically creating an address that links right back to this blog.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Three things to check so your presentation doesn’t go up in smoke

On the 4th of July evening San Diego was supposed to have an impressive fireworks display called the Big Bay Boom. Instead the whole sequence went off in less than thirty seconds, as shown above in a video.

It was blamed on a computer glitch that is pretty easy to imagine. For debugging the program you would want to be able to step through the whole sequence quickly, like using the fast forward function on a video recorder. You wouldn’t want that fast forward mode to be left  on when running the finished program. Oops!

Before you head out the door with your laptop, check that:

1. Your desktop display has appropriate wallpaper and no naughty icons like My Porn Files.

2. Your screen saver isn’t Not Safe for Work (NSFW) like the one shown in this video.

3. Your PowerPoint handout doesn’t contain an embedded Excel workbook full of unrelated but proprietary data. (Save it as a .pdf file, or just include the spreadsheets you used for that presentation).

Friday, July 6, 2012

Joy of scientific discovery - the Higgs boson

How would you tell a complicated story like this one? On Wednesday a Reuters article opened by stating:

“Scientists at Europe’s CERN research center have found a new subatomic particle, a basic building block of the universe, which appears to be the boson imagined and named a half a century ago by theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.”

It continued by describing how two different teams at their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) using detectors called CMS and Atlas both found strong signals indicating there was a heavy, but previously unknown particle.

Over at his Bad Astronomy blog Phil Plait did a better job of summarizing the implications by saying:

“...,The Higgs particle is extremely important, because the Standard Model of particle physics - the basic idea of how all particles behave - predicts it exists and  is what (indirectly) gives many other particles mass.”

I think the best description of what now has happened comes from a  line in the chorus to a  five-minute 2008 video called the Large Hadron Rap:

“The LHC accelerates the protons and the lead,
and the things that it discovers will rock you in the head.”

That’s a difficult way to tell a story, but it works.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bouncing back after a bad experience

On June 6th the Washington Post published a brief story by Charlene Jehle about what once happened to her at a high school sports banquet. She had coached volleyball at Catholic University, and was to be the after-dinner speaker.

A parent was clearing plates as Charlene was being introduced, and accidentally toppled the whole stack, which dumped loads of chicken bones and potato salad onto her hair and clothes. Their coach tried frantically to clean her up. What was her reaction?

“I walked to the podium with a changed attitude. Nothing I could say or do at that point would be more embarrassing than what had just transpired in front of the entire audience. It was a turning point. I gave the best speech of my life and forever lost the fear of public speaking. Amazing what a little chicken and potato salad can do.” 

Her reaction illustrates that fear is based on perception and not reality. It reminded me of an old Zen saying that at this point nothing really is left to you but to have a good laugh at yourself.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A bogus list of top ten phobias

The web lets ignorance get spread alarmingly fast. Last month the Hopkinson Report had a blog post about 8 Public Speaking Mistakes That Make You Look Like A Newbie. Their introduction made a ninth mistake - quoting statistics without checking their primary source to see whether they were right or made any sense. They showed a list of ten Top Fears which were claimed to have come from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

A Google search revealed that their list came from a web page on the Statistic Brain web site. That list was labeled Top Phobias, and is shown above including a fourth column with the percent of the U.S. population having each phobia. There is a difference between a fear and a phobia, so the Hopkinson Report seems to have mislabeled their table.    

That page at the Statistic Brain site contains a box which says their source was NIMH, and data were verified on March 28, 2012. So, I went to the NIMH web site and drilled down on their Statistics web page. (Click on the tab for Prevalence, and then click on Serious Mental Illness and By Disorder). There only are results listed for two of the ten phobias - Social Phobia and Agoraphobia. NIMH list two different percentages - a lifetime prevalence and a 12-month prevalence. I’ve included both, but neither matches what was listed by Statistic Brain. 

It gets much worse. For any mental disorder, NIMH lists a lifetime prevalence of 46.4% and a 12-month prevalence of 26.2%. The 74% for public speaking and 68% for death are way above 46.4%, so they are obviously bogus (presumably really fears rather than phobias).

Phobia of spiders is a subtype of specific phobia, for which NIMH lists a lifetime prevalence of 12.5% and a 12-month prevalence of 8.7%. Statistics Brain listed 30.5% for spiders, which again is too large and obviously bogus. 

Phobia of public speaking is a subtype of social phobia, for which NIMH lists a lifetime prevalence of 12.1% and a 12-month prevalence of 6.8%. Statistics Brain listed 74% for public speaking, which again is way too large and thus obviously bogus. (They have another web page that lists that 74% as a fear, and also shows percentages for both men and women).

So, Statistic Brain pinned my bogometer. The takeaway from this blog post is that you always should be skeptical and go back to the primary source before you quote alarming statistics that you find on the web.

The bogometer image was derived from this one of a digital multimeter.