Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Go out big with your last impromptu speech

Two decades ago ago 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.”

Last year I suggested it was time to bury that joke, but it keeps on being quoted, sometimes incorrectly. So, I suggest that it be replaced by another joke about public speaking and death that suggests how you should give your very last impromptu speech. That one appeared on page 120 of the late George Carlin’s 2002 book Napalm and Silly Putty:

“Now, you might be wondering why I would even suggest that someone can affect the manner and style of his death. Well, it’s because of a mysterious and little-known stage of dying, the two minute warning. Just as in football, two minutes before you die you receive an audible warning: ‘Two minutes! Get your sh*t together!‘ And the reason most people don’t know about this is because the only ones who hear it are dead two minutes later. They never get a chance to tell us.

But, such a warning does exist, and I suggest that when it comes, you use your two minutes to entertain and go out big. If nothing else, deliver a two-minute speech. Pick a subject you fell passionate about, and just start talking. Begin low-key, but, with mounting passion, build to a rousing climax. Finally, in the last few seconds, scream at those around you, ‘If these words are not the truth, may God strike me dead!‘ He will. Then simply slump forward and fall to the floor. Believe me, from that moment on, people will pay more attention to you.”  

You can watch a YouTube video of that comedy routine.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Speak up for success

On May 28th there was an excellent article by Nancy Buffington in the Idaho Business Review titled Speaking Up for Success. In it she discussed five ways that effective public speaking can help you and your business, which were:

1. Gain clients

2. Make connections

3. Represent your skills

4. Harness the power of group-think

5. Increase opportunities

She cited results from a 2011 study in the Holmes Report about both the costs of poor business communication, and the benefits of effective communication.

It is great to see a positive article that discusses benefits rather than opening with the usual drivel about how public speaking allegedly is our greatest fear.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Learning public speaking isn’t any harder than learning to drive a car

It’s not any easier though. Try to remember back to when you started to drive. You didn’t learn to do it well in an hour, a day, a week, or even a month. At first it was pretty  scary.

There were a lot of different things you had to learn before you got comfortable behind the wheel. It seemed impossible that you’d ever be able to do them all smoothly and almost effortlessly. But that’s what eventually happened.

Speaking in public is the same. It takes a lot of study and practice. If you either join a Toastmasters club or take a college course, you’ll give enough speeches to start getting comfortable behind or in front of a lectern.

The basic Competent Communication manual in Toastmasters includes ten speeches, which are:

1. The Ice Breaker
2. Organize Your Speech
3. Get to the Point
4. How to Say It
5. Your Body Speaks
6. Vocal Variety
7. Research Your Topic
8. Get Comfortable with Visual Aids
9. Persuade with Power
10. Inspire Your Audience

Eventually you can learn to speak using notes, gesture and use vocal variety appropriately, use props or visual aids such as PowerPoint, and answer questions.

At age 16, in Pittsburgh, I took a driver’s education class held at summer school. They started out by showing us Signal 30, a gruesome half-hour documentary film made by the Ohio Highway Patrol. That title is radio code for a fatal traffic accident. The film demonstrated repeatedly that careless driving could kill yourself and others. In class we learned about traffic signs, road markings, and rules of the road.
We began by driving huge Plymouth Fury IIIs around a parking lot. First we learned to start the car, adjust the mirrors, buckle our seat belts, and then slowly drive a closed course marked by cones without knocking them all over. Then we got to turn right, and slowly drive up and down the back streets near the school.

Most of us struggled with parallel parking. I remember my instructor kept telling me to turn the wheel hand over hand. But, the school’s Plymouths all had power steering, so I could spin the wheel with just one finger. My dad’s Chevrolet didn’t have power steering though. So, I really learned to park by practicing in it.

We learned to watch for oncoming traffic before turning left. Gradually we learned to also stay aware of who was behind and beside us. Eventually we mastered narrower streets with traffic. Finally we were ready to try four-lane highways, and even freeways.

I passed the written exam for a driver’s license on my first try. Once we passed that hurdle, most of us didn’t pass the closed course road test on the first try.

On my first road test I was so nervous than when the examiner told me to make a right turn, I missed a warning sign for a railroad crossing without a gate. Instead of stopping, looking, and listening, I wound up stopped with the car centered over the railroad tracks. Oops. Signal 30! A week later I tried again and passed.

But, I didn’t stop learning after getting my license. That fall and winter other situations like fog, snow, and ice had to be mastered.

A decade later I bought a Honda Civic with a manual transmission. Then I had to learn how to use my right hand on the shift lever in coordination with my left foot on the clutch pedal, while also checking the speedometer. My early attempts at starting out uphill often led to either wheel-spinning or stalling-out, which amused my neighbors. However, with continued practice the processes involved in shifting got smooth and became unconscious.

I like the phrase clutch words rather than filler words because it suggests an analogy between public speaking and learning to drive a car. In speaking you also need to learn to smoothly shift - from one idea to the next.

The image of a student driver in Durham, North Carolina came from here

Friday, June 14, 2013

Changing scales for social phobia or anxiety

Last month the American Psychological Association released the latest revision to their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Their DSM-IV has been replaced by DSM-5. A fact sheet describes what has been changed for anxiety disorders.  

The condition that used to be called social phobia has been renamed as social anxiety disorder. (Public speaking anxiety is one type of social anxiety). Two changes have been made in the definition.


“The symptoms must be persistent, lasting six months or longer. In DSM-IV, the time frame was required only for children; DSM-5 expands this criterion to include adults as well. The minimum symptom period reduces the possibility that an individual is experiencing only transient or temporary fear.”


“To be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, the person must suffer significant distress or impairment that interferes with his or her ordinary routine in social settings, at work or school, or during other everyday activities. Unlike in DSM-IV, which requires that the individual recognize that his or her response is excessive or unreasonable, the DSM-5 criteria shift that judgment to the clinician.”

I suspect that the first change will tend to reduce the number of people diagnosed, while the second will increase it. Years from now we will see surveys of US adults and adolescents done with these new criteria. The percent of people with social anxiety or public speaking anxiety won’t be the same as with the DSM-IV criteria.

It will be like comparing apples and oranges. But, I expect there again will be people who attempt to shock us by noting those differently measured percentages either have gone up or down. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Control your nervousness by focusing on the wire mesh over the microphone?

Everyone has advice about public speaking. One unusual source I found recently was Edward J. Darby & Sons, who provide wire mesh in Philadelphia. In a blog post on May 24th they suggested that instead of imagining the audience naked you should take a deep breath and concentrate on the woven wire mesh covering the microphone. That might help if it takes your mind off being nervous.

They didn’t say what to do if your microphone instead has a foam shield. The Shure and Sony microphone images came from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Zombie Speech Marathon

Last Sunday in Fairfield, Iowa Alex Cequea, the editor of iPhone Life magazine, apparently succeeded in breaking the Guinness World Record for a speech marathon. He spoke for about 34 hours. That’s a great PR gesture for him. What does it mean for you?

Not very much. It’s just another wacky record to put in the next edition of a beer manufacturer’s book for settling bar bets. He managed to stay awake for way too long, and to function more like a zombie than an alert human. Wow. By other rules there are even longer record speeches.

In April 2010 Mental Floss listed eight wacky world records:

1. Most Spoons Balanced on the Face - 13
2. Longest speech - 124 hours
3. Most Piercings in One Session - 1,116
4. Eating the Most Hot Peppers - 8
5. Side Wheel Driving Through the Smallest Gap - 67 cm wider than car height
6. Most Pumpkins Carved in One Hour - 50
7. Oldest Bungee Jumper - 96 years
8. Most World Records Record - 100
The image adapted from the original 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Playing with words like kids

In my last post I discussed finding the right word. It is fun to play with words and their apparent opposites. About a decade ago someone I worked with asked me if I’d ever seen a gruntled employee, and I replied that I hadn’t ever considered that being an opposite for dis-gruntled.

A detergent is a product used to remove dirt, so presumably a tergent is a product used to deposit it.

Why hasn’t Toyota already used Tergent as the name for a dirt-slinging sport utility vehicle? They certainly have lots of other silly names, like Vitz, Platz, Yaris, and even Echo.

Word origins aren’t obvious to kids. Carnage means killing of a large number of people. Does it involve a car? Then truck-nage would describe an even worse event - involving a truck.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Finding the right word (or not)

Mark Twain once said something like:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Finding exactly the right word is wonderful. (Lightning bug is American slang for firefly). Not being able to find the right word can be frustrating. The right word might not even exist.

Two decades ago I had a phone conversation with an exasperated property insurance claims adjuster in northern Ohio. A house had flooded under what he thought were suspicious circumstances. There wasn’t an English word for what the he suspected - that the owner somehow had figured out a way to do the equivalent of arson, but with water instead of fire.

We might call that offense committing waterson. (That’s appealing, since it is just one letter away from Watterson, the last name of the cartoonist  whose comic strip Calvin and Hobbes featured lots of destruction produced by the namesake  little boy). 

The house was owned by a musician who played polka music on the accordion in lounges and bars. His alibi was that he had been away for a week. A neighbor called the water company after seeing water pouring out the house.  

When the adjuster and a plumber inspected the house, they found that plastic fill control valves in two different toilet tanks both had broken. Then those tanks overflowed and flooded the house. The musician’s expensive collection of sheet music was stored in the basement, and it had been damaged.

The adjuster sent me the broken valves, which were the same brand and model. Both originally had been tan, but the submerged areas were white and smelled like chlorine bleach. It looked like bowl cleaner products had been used in the tanks. They are plastic tubs containing calcium hypochlorite pellets that gradually dissolve in the water to increase the chlorine content, but are meant for toilets that are flushed once a day or more.

Those valves were made from polyoxymethylene, a plastic that can fail by environmental cracking when exposed to chlorine. Installation instructions for the valves had a warning not to use them in tanks containing high concentrations of chlorine. But, there was no warning right on the valve.
So, the combination of a product originally designed for use in tap water, and another later product that changed that environment had combined to produce failure. If a plumber had installed both valves at the same time (and not warned the owner), and they had seen the same heavily chlorinated environment, then it was not surprising that they had failed in the same week. There was no way to prove the owner had tried to commit waterson.  

Wikimedia Commons images of lightning and a firefly were combined as shown.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Stage of Life survey of US teens

Back in March the web site had a national poll and writing contest for teens in the US. About 5700 of them visited their web site. The contest asked teens to write an essay with 500 words or less on the topic:

“When have you applied the phrase ‘No Fear‘ in your life?” 

Over 176 teens wrote essays. 445 of them responded to a fear survey with twelve questions. Results are in a Trend Report: Teens Overcoming Fear and a YouTube video summary. Scroll down that page to find links to 14 essays on fear of public speaking or performing.

Ten of the survey questions were yes/no ones about specific situations. The eleventh asked what area of life stresses you out more -  home (35.3%) or school (64.7%)? The twelfth question asked whit is you greatest fear right now, and was open response (fill in the blank). Detailed results are in a downloadable Acrobat file.

A bar chart shows their results for the yes-no survey questions about ten fear situations. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer version). The five top situations were:

Poor academic performance or not getting good grades (75.5%)

The future or life after graduation (66.3%)

Money (56.4%)

Having to audition or try out in order to be a part of something (53.9%)

Talking to teachers about personal problems (53.7%)

About 3 out of 4 teens feared poor academic performance, and 2 out of 3 feared the future. Slightly over half feared performance situations like auditions or try outs (which might include public speaking). These are up-to-date results and thus are very interesting. But, we need to keep in mind that they are not from a randomly selected sample and thus may not represent all teens.

Last June I blogged about What Social Situations Scare American Adolescents, and What Are Their Top 20 Fears? That post discussed the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), which was a much larger survey (7682 responses) done about a decade ago, but using a random national sample. 

The bar chart shown above lists the top 20 fears based both on their 14 social situations and 6 screening questions. Note that the percentages are lower than in the Stage of Life survey. For example, in the NCS-A 20.3% feared talking to authority, while in the Stage of Life survey talking about personal problems to teachers (53.7%) or parents (51%) were feared by over twice as many teens. In the NCS-A 19.8% feared taking an importan exam, while in the Stage of Life survey 33.7% feared test taking.