Friday, February 28, 2014

Speech topics from near your neighborhood

Speech topics can come from anywhere. Next to a corner I drive by south of Boise there is a white concrete bench in the front yard of a house. Last week something new appeared -  a gold Buddha statue sitting on that bench. Why was it there? Once I quit thinking like an adult, a possible answer was clear.

One road in front of that house runs basically east and west. Looking west and downhill, it bends to the left just before their driveway. Looking east, the intersecting road runs off to the south.

To a skateboarder that bench must have looked like part of an obstacle course starting with the driveway. Adding the statue kept him from doing a grind on the front edge. There are other artistic solutions or deterrents for preventing skateboard damage. The battle between thoughtless fun-seeking kids and adults continues.   

Why was the bench there? Perhaps to keep pedestrians, cyclists, and skateboarders from taking a straight line shortcut across the corner of the lawn (rather than following the curved sidewalk). 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Putting the same wine in a different bottle

Yesterday my Google Alert on the phrase “public speaking” led me to a ~900-word article on the Psychology Today blog by Professor Adrian Furnham titled Dreading the Boards: The Fear of Public Speaking. When I began reading it, I got a strong sense of déjà vu. Then I looked under his name on Google, and found out why.

He’d written a very similar article, an On Your head column, titled Pace, Pitch, Pause: Master the Art of Public Speaking that had appeared on November 17, 2013 in the Sunday Times. Compare the two, and you will find identical paragraphs.  

The earlier title fits his content better than the new one. It’s an excellent article that’s worth reading. But, the new subtitle:

“What is it about public speaking that makes it the most common of all phobias?”

doesn’t really fit, since he never gets around to referencing where he got that somewhat silly claim.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

One-track minds: exactly, absolutely, always

Do your speeches include statements like the following:

Everyone needs to try this immediately.

Filler words like um are absolutely useless, and should be completely eliminated.

Everybody needs to hear this man’s story.

Without exception, you should never start your speech by telling a joke.

Everybody should absolutely always eat breakfast each morning.

If they do, then it’s probably time to consider whether you really can justify being that dogmatic and universal. Should you tell a pregnant woman with morning sickness to eat breakfast?

When I wake up very late at night, I sometimes amuse myself by listening to the Coast to Coast AM radio show hosted by George Noory. George is very fond of saying both exactly and absolutely. He has an endless parade of wacko guests with startling books about UFOs, demons, Bigfoot, pyramids, stargates, and near death experiences.

This post was inspired by Shari Alexander’s December 16th blog post on Dangerous Advice, but very similar sentiments about communication also were expressed by Tony Gentilcore in a November 2012 blog post on Everybody, Never, & Always which included:

“Don’t be an a-hole and think you know it all or that your way is the only way.  Unless your name is Gandalf, get over yourself…"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Assertion-Evidence PowerPoint slides are a visual alternative to bullet point lists

Sunday’s Dilbert cartoon had his pointy-haired boss proclaiming that:

“Experts say your slides should tell a story in pictures”

and then meddling as usual, without any understanding of how to accomplish that goal.

There is an alternative assertion-evidence slide design developed by Michael Alley and his co-workers which does that. The slide shown is an example I created.

It was described back in November 2005 in a magazine article titled Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence that was written by Michael Alley and Kathryn A. Neely and published in the obscure Technical Communication magazine, (V52 N4, p 417 to 426). You can download it either here or here

This design is described on the Penn State web site on Speaking Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students. You also can download a handout from a workshop for STEM faculty at Penn State. This design has gradually spread from engineering and science to business and general use. In 2009 Olivia Mitchell blogged about Here’s a quick way to make over a bullet-point slide.

There is a six-minute YouTube video of Michael Alley discussing Improve Your PowerPoint. Robert Yale made a 22-minute video on The Assertion-Evidence Structure that you can see on YouTube.

The Amazon Malaria Initiative web site at USAID has four downloadable documents about making presentations using assertion-evidence slides:

Tips for developing effective presentations
Selecting the Most Effective Design Style for Your Presentation
Outlining a Presentation Using the Assertion-Evidence Slide Design
Examples of Makeover Slides

There also is a detailed description of this design in Michael Alley’s book, The Craft of Scientific Presentations (2nd edition 2013). His guidelines for this style are:

His guidelines for this format are:

Try  the assertion-evidence design. I think you’ll like it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

An unintentionally hilarious video from a TV interview

In my last post I showed a very professional TEDMED video of Randy Olson. The video shown above is less professional. It seems to be an unofficial recording of an interview (or maybe a rehearsal) at  the KXAN TV studio on narrative training for scientists.  He was in Austin, Texas to speak on Storytelling skills: Now mandatory for a career in science at the opening plenary session of the 2014 meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Randy’s content is very interesting, but the recording has a significant problem.

Watch as the camera repeatedly drifts (or pans) left, off both Randy and his interviewer, and then returns to them. Starting at 0:25 we can see the hood on the front of TV camera #1. At 0:55 we get to see that whole camera and their green screen. Finally, at 1:55 we get to see three TV cameras, that green screen, and the studio wall with soundproofing and storage shelves. Was the cameraperson sitting on a swivel chair?

Back in March 2011 Nick Morgan interviewed Geoff Birmingham about How to Produce a Great Speaker Video. Most of Randy Olson’s interview could be salvaged by editing, but we got to see the raw version.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Randy Olson on storytelling and the And But Therefore template

Watch this ten-minute 2013 TEDMED video (unless you would be greatly offended by five seconds of the F-word).

Last fall the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking he wrote with Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo was published both in hard copy and as an eBook.

There also is a Connection Storymaker app, which is described in this video. Their example of the And But Therefore Template is:

“Stories are fun
may seem complex
they all have a similar structure
they lend themselves to templates.”

It’s an interesting approach that can be applied in writing speeches. A few years ago I read Randy’s  2009 book Don’t Be Such a Scientist (talking substance in an age of style), but hadn’t kept up with his more recent writings, which include The Benshi blog. I found his TEDMED video after reading Karen L. McKee’s recent blog post Can Scientists Be Taught to Talk and Act Like Normal People?

So, as Trey Parker has those four foul-mouthed fourth-grade boys say at the end of an episode of South Park:

“I’ve learned something today.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Adding a few uhs and ums improved recall of plot points in stories

Some people who coach or teach public speaking believe that filler words (filled pauses) like um are absolutely useless, and should be completely eliminated. For example, on February 6th Marta Steele blogged about How to Eliminate Nasty Non-Words from Your Public Speaking and claimed:

“Non-words, or sometimes called filler words, are words we unconsciously throw into our verbal communication that have no purpose. They add nothing to our message. They sneak into even the most polished presenter’s speak and wreak havoc.

....Although when used sparingly, there’s no issue."

Similarly, on page 64 of his 2013 book Magic of Public Speaking, Andrii Sedniev advised:

“Avoid filler words such as ‘um,’ ‘ah,’ ‘basically,’ ‘you know,’ etc. These words just irritate the audience and don’t add any value.”

Club meetings of Toastmasters International have an Ah Counter to keep track of those crutch words, a role particularly suited to fussbudgets.   

But, there is some evidence that disfluencies like filler words are not useless. Professor Duane G. Watson discussed this back in October 2012 in a brief article on the American Psychological Association web site titled More than words: Disfluencies, emphasis and gesture aid in communication. He said:

“Although future work is needed to understand the exact mechanisms at work, at this point, the data are clear: disfluencies improve later remembering. Thus, public speakers, policy makers and teachers might be better off producing more natural speech that includes the occasional disfluency, than giving perfectly scripted, error-free presentations.”

You can find the relevant research in a magazine article by Scott H. Fraundorf and Duane G. Watson titled The Disfluent Discourse: Effect of filled pauses on recall that appeared in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Memory and Language. The full text is at PubMed Central. 

In their first experiment Fraundorf and Watson had people listen to a woman tell three versions of 300-word recorded stories from Alice in Wonderland, and then try to recall plot points in them. One version was told fluently, a second was edited by adding six filler words (3 uh and 3 um), and a third was edited by adding six coughs. Results are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer version). Adding coughs decreased recall from 73% to 71%, but adding uhs and ums improved it to 79%. (I have shown the larger effect they found in their Figure 1, for manipulated plot points). Their experiment isn’t quite the same as a speech, but did isolate the effect of filler words.

In a post on January 29, 2014 in his Mr. Media Training blog Brad Phillips asked Do a Few “Umms” Actually Make You More Memorable? He linked to a news article about that same research.

Back in September 2011 I blogged about filled pauses in a post titled Should listening to a speech be more like eating a hot dog, or driving down a road.I ended by suggesting that a rate of two filler words per minute should be acceptable. According to Fraundorf and Watson it also would be helpful.

The Ah Counter image was adapted from this old poster.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Startling statistics and The Book of Odds

If you are searching for startling statistics to use in the opening of a speech, consider looking in The Book of Odds, which was published last month. It is subtitled From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, The Odds of Everyday Life. The blurb at Amazon claims:

 “Drawing from a rigorously researched trove of more than 400,000 statements of probability, based on the most accurate and current data available, The Book of Odds is a graphic reference source for stats on the everyday, the odd, and the outrageous—from sex and marriage, health and disease, beliefs and fears, to wealth, addiction, entertainment, and civic life. What emerges from this colorful and captivating volume is a rich portrait of who we are and how we live today.”

The book came from a web site with the same name that launched back in 2009 and currently is at Facebook.

There is more than one definition for odds. The one used in this book is the chance that an event will happen, stated as 1 in something. That’s the reciprocal of a probability, which is how I prefer to think about things (as shown above via a line). A probability can range from zero (won’t happen) to one (it certainly will). Taking the reciprocal to get odds is another almost equivalent way to view things. The exception is that that you can’t quite get down to zero unless you divide by infinity.

What’s interesting is that you can compare odds (or probabilities) for very different events. From the book’s introduction:
“For example, the odds are 1 in 8.0 a woman will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer in her lifetime, about the odds a person lives in California, the most populous state.”


“1 in 12.5: the odds an email will contain pornography, also the odds a person lives in Texas.”

The book is divided into eleven chapters:

1. Sex
2. Singles and Dating
3. Love, Marriage, and Divorce
4. Pregnancy and Birth
5. Infancy and Childhood
6. High School and College
7. Health and Illness
8. Looking Good and Feeling Fine
9. Mind, Psyche, and Addiction
10. Beliefs and Fears
11. Accidents and Death

I eagerly turned to Chapter 10 to see what they had to say about fears. Their last section, What Scares Us? Fears by Gender, just referred to the well-known 2001 Gallup poll. It didn’t reference the study of social fears I used in my November blog post, How scary is public speaking or performance? Also, their section on flying didn’t discuss the 2007 Stinson et al article about specific fears I mentioned in my March 2012 blog post, How many folks in the U.S. are freaked out about flying? So, what are the odd that I’ll buy a hard copy of this book? Less than 1 in 10.

The image of dice being thrown was adapted from an old poster, Don't gamble with syphilis.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Joe Kowan found his own path around stage fright

Joe Kowan wanted to play folk music, but had big trouble with performance anxiety. His creative solution was writing a song about that problem. Watch his excellent eight-minute TED talk on How I Beat Stage Fright either at TED or on YouTube.

Last week I was reading Graham Nash’s autobiography, Wild Tales: a rock & roll life. On page 146 he describes how Joni Mitchell compensated for her difficulties in playing the guitar:

“Her acoustic guitar was the entire orchestra. The bass strings became the cellos and double basses, the middle strings the violas, and the high strings, violins. And everything she played was in strange tunings and picking patterns. The way she’d gotten to them was through a childhood brush with polio. As a result, her left arm was a little weaker than the rest of her body, so forming an F chord, which required some strength, presented real problems. To get around it, she learned to play in the open tunings that blues players had used for years, so she wouldn’t have to play that damned F chord.”

Mr. Kowan didn’t write the only song about stage fright. Way back in 1970 the last (and title) song on the third album by The Band was State Fright. You can watch a video of them performing it live in a concert film called The Last Waltz.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mules over mountains - a wild mining story from old Idaho

How did supplies get moved to remote places like mining camps in the old west? They got packed in on the backs of mules, as shown above in an 1871 U. S. Army image.

Last April I saw a newspaper article about a memorial honoring Jesus Urquides, a Mexican-American pioneer. Over at the public library I found Max Delgado’s 2006 book Jesus Urquides: Idaho’s Premier Muleteer, which was based on his master’s thesis in history at Boise State University. There is a wild story in there (on page 54) about how back in 1892 Jesus used his mules to carry a six-ton coil of 7/8” diameter wire rope for a Swem aerial tramway from Challis over three mountains to the Yellowjacket gold mine.

Like most wonderful old stories, this one was written about three decades after it happened in late fall of 1892. Urquides told one version to the Idaho Statesman, and G. L. Sheldon told another different one in the Christmas 1920 issue of the Engineering and Mining Journal. (Look up his article on Mining Experiences in Idaho in the Nineties on Google Books).

The Yellowjacket mine was located on a mountain 1,200 feet higher than the mill. Ore had to be hauled down in horse-drawn wagons or sleighs. So, they decided to put in an aerial tramway that instead would carry it in 125-pound buckets. The problem was that to construct it they needed to move an 8,400 foot length of wire rope as a single coil over mountain trails. Urquides said:

“It was necessary to get this wire to the mine without any break, for a splice would have been too dangerous for tramway work...and I loaded it on 35 mules, spreading it out with the mules in three rows. We had to pack between 60 and 70 miles up and down the steepest mountainsides. Several times, one of my mules would roll down the side of the mountain, taking the rest with them. Then it was necessary to get them all up, repack again, and start out. I never coveted another job like that.”

According to Sheldon the tramway decreased their ore transportation costs per ton from $2.50 to $0.07. You can find more stories in a freely downloadable 175-page book-length bulletin by Merle W. Wells called Gold Camps & Silver Cities (Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho). 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Busting a myth - that 75% of people in the world fear public speaking

For years I’ve been reading and hearing claims that around three-fourths of people in the world fear public speaking. A web page from the Yale Teaching Center said that:

“It is estimated that 75% of of all people suffers from some degree of glossophobia, or fear of public speaking.”

Some said that statistic came from either the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), or even the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a July 2012 blog post I noted that the NIMH claim was bogus, but those sort of percentages had been reported decades ago by James C. McCroskey and his colleagues. On page 4 of the 2nd edition of Deanna D. Sellnow’s book, Confident Public Speaking (2005) she said that:

“Surveys report that 70 to 75% of the adult population fears public speaking (McCroskey 1993; Richmond and McCroskey 1995)."

Two days ago I discussed Sellnow’s second reference (about the 70%).

Sellnow’s first reference (about the 75%) was to page 35 in the 6th edition of James C. McCroskey’s book, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication, which says that:

“A nationwide survey revealed that the primary fear of Americans is the fear of giving a public speech (Ref. 1). Even the fear of death came in a poor third. In his extensive work at Stanford University, P. G. Zimbardo found that three out of every four college students, like other Americans, have a very great fear of public speaking (Ref. 2). The present author’s research, involving over 50,000 college students and other adults in various parts of the United States, strongly supports Zimbardo’s findings. Stage fright, the fear of speaking in public, is experienced by an overwhelming majority of people in this society.”

The Boise State University library just had the 1972 edition of McCroskey’s book from 1972. Eventually I found the 6th edition at the College of Southern Idaho’s library over in Twin Falls. Sometimes I will go to great lengths (130 miles) to track down information for this blog.

McCroskey’s first reference was to What Are Americans Afraid Of? The Bruskin Report,  No. 53, 1971 (sic). I have discussed that 1973 survey at length in the most popular post on this blog. 

McCroskey’s second reference was to page 37 of Philip G. Zimbardo’s 1977 book, Shyness: What It Is and What to Do About It. Page 3 of the book mentions that his first survey about shyness was administered to nearly 400 students, and then nearly 5000 people completed a  second, revised shyness survey. 

The top of  page 37 has a table headed What makes you shy?, listing the Percentage of shy students in two categories headed Other People and Situations. Results for all 13 situations are shown above in a bar chart (click on it to see a larger, clearer version). The most common situation was Where I am focus of attention - large group (as when giving a speech) - 73%. Only 52% of students were shy where they were the focus of attention in a small group. For one-to-one interactions, 48% were shy with the different sex, versus only 14% with the same sex.

Results for Other People are shown above in another bar chart. Strangers (70%) made the most students shy.

So, the 73% statistic (rather than the mythical 75%) really covers a broader situation but for a much smaller group than you might have expected. The source is from back in 1977, the same year as The Book of Lists. Curiously, I’ve don’t recall seeing Zimbardo’s list of those 13 shyness inducing situations mentioned by any public speaking coaches, who constantly mention parts of the one in the Book of Lists.

To find out where that myhical 75% statistic really came from I had to get off the computer, visit two different university libraries, and have my public library request one book via interlibrary loan. Most speech coaches don’t make that kind of effort, but in a 2012 blog post titled On a Tightrope: 5 Signs You Suffer From “Hidden” Stage Fright and a 2013 one titled To Increase Your Influence, Learn to Love Public Speaking Gary Genard referred to Karen Kangas Dwyer’s 1998 book Conquer Your Speechfright, which might reference the same two books as Sellnow did.

Last November I blogged about some more recent statistics that should be quoted instead of that mythical 75%.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Who found that 70% of the U. S. public (or perhaps university students) feared public speaking?

For years I’ve been hearing claims that somewhere around three-fourths of people fear public speaking. Some have said that statistic came from the U. S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), or even the World Health Organization (WHO).

In a blog post back in July 2012 I noted that the NIMH claim was bogus, but those sort of percentages had been reported decades ago by James C. McCroskey and his colleagues. McCroskey did a lot of research on communication apprehension (CA). He classified it to include both trait communication apprehension (TCA) and state communication apprehension (SCA). Back in 2009 McCroskey had a retrospective article in Human Communication magazine titled Communication Apprehension: What Have We Learned in the Last Four Decades, which you can download here. On page 164 he said that:

“It has been estimated that approximately 70 percent of the people in the U.S. report experiencing high CA when they have to give a public speech. This does not mean that 70 percent of the population are high TCA communication apprehensives. Rather it is estimated that only 15 - 20 percent of the people are high communication apprehensives. Thus, many people who are moderate or low in TCA may experience SCA when confronted by public speaking, but some may learn to control their SCA over time and/or with experience.”

Note that McCroskey doesn’t say that his approximate estimate of 70 percent came from a randomly selected survey sample of U.S. adults. Instead that 70 percent statistic came from his research with the Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA). The PRPSA was first described in 1970, and you can download it here. I blogged about it in December 2009. It is likely that many people who took the PRPSA were university students (perhaps sophomores) who were enrolled in public speaking classes. Some universities require such classes, so you might expect a random sample of students at those institutions. Others don’t, so you’d expect a biased sample of those interested in improving their skills (either because they started out especially bad or good).  

On page 4 of the 2nd edition of Deanna D. Sellnow’s book, Confident Public Speaking (2005) she said that:

“Surveys report that 70 to 75% of the adult population fears public speaking (McCroskey 1993; Richmond and McCroskey 1995).

There is a detailed discussion of it in her second reference, a book by Virginia P. Richmond and James C. McCroskey, Communication Apprehension, Avoidance, and Effectiveness (5th edition, 1998), which has a long discussion of Context-Based CA starting on page 44: 

“This type of CA relates to people who are fearful or anxious about communicating in one type of context, while having no fear or anxiety in other contexts. The most common form of this is the fear of public speaking or stage fright.

Context-based CA is viewed as ‘a relatively enduring, personality-type orientation toward communication in a given type of context’ (McCroskey, 1984, p. 16). This type of communication apprehension relates to generalized situations. Examples of such situations, besides public speaking, include going on job interviews, meeting new people, and the like. The Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA: McCroskey, 1970) will determine your fear about public speaking (see Appendix G). Your score on the PRPSA can range between 34 and 170.

For people with scores between 34 and 84 on the PRPSA, very few public speaking situations would produce anxiety. Scores between 85 and 92 indicate a moderately low level of anxiety about public speaking. While some public speaking situations would be likely to arouse anxiety in people with such scores, most situations would not be anxiety arousing. Scores between 93 and 110 indicate moderate anxiety in most public speaking situations, but the level of anxiety is not likely to be so severe that the individual won’t be able to cope with it and eventually become a successful speaker.

Scores that range between 111 and 119 suggest a moderately high level of anxiety about public speaking. People with such scores will tend to avoid public speaking because it usually arouses a fairly high level of anxiety. While some public speaking situations may not cause too much of a problem, most will be problematic. Scores between 120 and 170 indicate a very high level of anxiety about public speaking. People with scores in this range have very high anxiety in most, if not all, public speaking situations and are likely to go to considerable lengths to avoid them. It is unlikely that they can become successful public speakers, unless they overcome or significantly reduce their anxiety.
When we discussed oral communication apprehension and the PRCA-24, we noted that the ‘normal’ range of scores included only moderate levels of CA. The picture is quite different when we look at anxiety about public speaking. Of the several thousand college students who have completed the PRPSA, the following percentages have been found in the five categories: low anxiety, 5 percent; moderately low anxiety, 5 percent; moderate anxiety 20 percent; moderately high anxiety, 30 percent; and high anxiety, 40 percent. Thus the ‘normal’ range for public speaking is in the moderate to high categories, since that is where most people’s scores fall. What this suggests, then, is that it is ‘normal’ to experience a fairly high degree of anxiety about public speaking. Most people do. If you are highly anxious about public speaking, then you are ‘normal.’

Although there is no necessary relationship between trait communication apprehension level and level of communication apprehension concerning any particular generalized context, it is much more likely that a person who is high in traitlike communication apprehension will have high communication apprehension in more generalized contexts. The reverse is true for the person with low trait communication apprehension.

Of particular importance are the proportion of people who experience high communication apprehension in given situations. While only 20 percent of the population experiences high traitlike communication apprehension, estimates run as high as 80 percent of the population for generalized context communication apprehension - over 70 percent for the public speaking context alone. Thus, while such communication apprehension is very likely to make one uncomfortable and interfere with communication, it is very normal for a person to experience high communication apprehension (to be scared) in at least one situation.“

That discussion is very similar to the one presented in the 1985 first edition of that book, which lists the same scores and percentages. So, the data really is about three decades old. The bar chart shown above  (click on it for a larger version) summarizes the percentages of people who took the PRPSA and had those scores and five levels of anxiety. The 70 percent statistic results from adding the 30 percent with moderately high anxiety to the 40 percent with high anxiety.