Sunday, January 29, 2017

When you open with a phony statistic you torpedo your credibility

On January 4, 2017 Stefan Swanepoel posted an article at Business Insider titled I’ve given over 1,000 presentations in the past 30 years - here are my 5 best public speaking tips.

His second paragraph gave an excellent reason for listening to his advice:

“In the past three decades, I've given more than 1,200 presentations to upward of a million people. Many say the ability to speak before large crowds is innate, but I'm not sure that's true.” 

Then Stefan discussed his decent tips which were to:

1]  Map out the message.

2]  Speak from the heart.

3]  Use visuals.

4]  Be Prepared.

5]  Zone in.

But, his first paragraph already had torpedoed his credibility by claiming:

“Glossophobia - better known as a fear of public speaking - affects 74% of people, according to a National Institute of Mental Health survey. So it's no surprise the very thought of addressing large crowds causes so much stress, angst, and discomfort.”

First, Glossophobia is an almost useless pseudo-technical term.

Second, the link he provided for that 74% statistic points to a web page at Statistic Brain. It doesn’t link to a web page for a survey done by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) - there is no such survey. Back in 2014 I blogged about how Statistic Brain is just a statistical medicine show, and that percentages from NIMH sponsored research are much smaller.

The torpedoed ship image was adapted from a poster at the Library of Congress.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

How many items should be on a list of tips, or top tips?

Suppose that you were writing a speech, or web article, or blog post about tips on a subject. How many tips should there be: three, four, five, seven, ten, or twenty? Based on two recent Google searches I did the most popular answer is five.

Back in 2009 I blogged about how Almost nobody wants to see your Top 15 list: please use either a Top 10 or Top 20 list. For that post I did a Google phrase search to see how popular the phrase “top M” was. Popularity was defined as the logarithm of the number of results, N, so a popularity of 3 means about 1,000 results, a  4 is about 10,000 results, 5 is about 100,000 results, a 6 is about 1,000,000 results, a 7 is about 10,000,000 results, and so on.

Yesterday I repeated that search for the phrase “M tips” and found the results shown above. (Click on the graph to get a larger, clearer view). 5 was the most popular number with about 28,800,000 results followed by 10 with about 26,800,000 results. 3, 4, 6, and 7 were quite a bit lower, and numbers above 10 were way down.

Today I searched for the phrase “top M tips” and found much lower numbers (as shown above), but 5 was still at the top with about 2,090,000 results, followed by 3 with 673,000 results, and 10 with 648,000 results. Then 7 had 629,000 results, 4 had 494,000 results, and 6 had 347,000 results. So 5 again was the most popular number and not the Top Ten one might naively have expected. 

In 2011 I blogged about Speech geometry: links, circles, forks, and combs. For tips the devil is in the details, so think about a pitchfork rather than a comb.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

We are more resilient than we might think

Resilience lets us bounce back after a bad experience. At the Harvard Business Review web site there is an article on January 25, 2017 by Andy Molinsky titled You’re more resilient that you give yourself credit for. He points out four specific ways: 

We’re more flexible than we think.
We’re braver than we think.
The situation we’re worried about probably isn’t as bad as we think.
We have more resources than we think.

The image of a bouncing ball came from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

National Speak Up and Succeed Day 2017

Once again it’s National Speak Up and Succeed Day, which I also blogged about last year. (It’s the fourth Tuesday in January).

This year’s image of Joseph W. Byrns Sr.(Speaker of the House back in 1935) came from the Library of Congress. Wikipedia notes that the New York Times awarded him  the Amazing Eyebrows Cup

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is the attention span of a marketer shorter than that of a fruit fly?

Last year on January 21st I blogged about Is the average attention span of a presentation coach almost as short as that of a house fly? In celebration of that anniversary I’ll look at how some marketers have been using the same bogus 8 and 12 second numbers that once came from Statistic Brain. More recently they have hilariously claimed the average attention span in 2015 is precisely 8.25 seconds, versus 12 seconds in 2000. They continue to claim a gold fish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

One silly reference last month was in an article by Ryan Shelley on December 16, 2016 at Business2Community ironically titled Stop Posting Crappy Content: The Art to Creating Content with Purpose which wrongly attributed those numbers to Microsoft. A second silly reference was in an article by Sandra Fathi on December 20, 2016 at Ragan’s PR Daily titled 5 PR and social media predictions for B2B communicators which also attributed them to Microsoft. A third is an article on January 8, 2017 by Vikas Agrawal at Customer THINK titled How to Drive Social Traffic With Infographics.

Even sillier, at Amazon is a forthcoming book by Paul Hellman titled You’ve Got 8 Seconds: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World. The back cover blurb wrongly claims:

“The average attention span, experts tell us, is now 8 seconds.”

But the most outrageous claim was blaming the 8-second attention span on the new kids in the work force - Generation Z. Jeremy Finch said that at Fastcoexist in a 2015 article titled What is Generation Z, and what does it want? He said they would dig below the surface but began by misstating the same old nonsense. Kimberly N. Ellison-Taylor also said it in a post on December 21, 2016 at the AICPA Insights blog titled 5 to Watch: Trends and Predictions Shaping 2017.

Fortunately these silly claims have been challenged. On January 29, 2016 at Policyviz Jonathan Schwabish wrote about The Attention Span Statistic Fallacy. He even linked to my November 16, 2014 blog post titled Does it take 9, 90, or 900 seconds to lose your audience’s attention? Jonathan also showed the Microsoft graphic including the reference to Statistic Brain that was cropped out in the version shown by Vikas Agrawal. Mindi Ridgeway referred to Jonathan Schwabish’s article in a November 15, 2016 article at WORDS per se titled The Myth of the Modern Attention Span. There also was a serious article on December 1, 2016 by Neil A. Bradbury at Advances in Physiology Education titled Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?

If instead of marketers you had asked parents of toddlers about attention spans, they would have talked about minutes rather than seconds. On example is an article at Day2Day Parenting titled Toddler Attention Span: How Long Should They Be Able To Focus? Another is an article by Helen Fowler Neville at Parenting Press titled Be Realistic about a Child’s Attention Span. She said that a 2-1/2 year old may spend about 2 minutes on a single activity, or even play peacefully for 10 minutes. 

The Statistic Brain web page originally claimed the source for their silly numbers was The Associated Press. Later they added the more prestigious National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. I called their bluff by actually looking at the PubMed Central database, and easily found an article from August 2008 in Infant and Child Development titled Focused Attention in Toddlers measurement, stability, and relations to negative emotion and parenting. Table 1 shows their results for toddlers aged 1-1/2 (T1) and 2-1/2 (T2) years. For a 1-1/2 year old the shortest mean attention span was 3.19 (minutes). 
But, just how short is the attention span of a fruit fly? According to an article from 2016 at PLOS ONE titled Vision in Flies: Measuring the Attention Span it is 4 to 5 seconds.

Images of a fruit fly and a toddler both came from Wikimedia Commons.

Update on March 13, 2017

The BBC World Service radio program More or Less had a nine minute long story  titled The Attention Span of a Goldfish debunking the Statistic Brain claim. Also see this BBC web page.

Update on October 16, 2017

Jo Craven McGinty, the Numbers columnist at the Wall Street Journal, also debunked the Statistic Brain claim in a February 17, 2017 article titled Is Your Attention Span Shorter Than a Goldfish’s? Experts say pay no mind to claims that goldfish can focus longer than humans; find out for yourself. You can read the abstract online here.

I don’t have access to the Wall Street Journal via the EBSCO databases at my friendly local public library, and must instead actually go over to the library at Boise State University to look via a public terminal. Jo said that:

 “The National Center for Biotechnology and the U.S. National Library of Medicine are also listed as sources, but Ron Gordner, a senior researcher at the library could find no reference to the statistics in either of the organizations’ publications.

 The Associated Press is listed, but it couldn’t locate an article with the numbers.

 Statistic Brain didn’t respond to emails or a phone call asking for its source material…”

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Floodlamp technology marches on

In our home we have lots of 3-1/2-inch diameter R30 floodlamps mounted on sockets recessed in the ceiling. (There are six in the kitchen, and four in the living room). When we moved in there were 65W incandescent lamps. Three years ago we replaced those with 15W warm-white compact fluorescent lamps. The fluorescent lamps started slowly and were not dimmable.

At the Boise Costco store on January 11th I saw some 8-packs of 9.5W dimmable R30 daylight LED floodlamps (as shown above)  that normally were $26.99 but had a $16 rebate. I bought one package. The final price including sales tax was just $1.46 per lamp. These LED lamps are instant-on and seem brighter, although their output actually is rated at 650 lumens versus the 750 lumens for the compact fluorescents. Later I bought two more packs for the halls and master bedroom.

Quality control on the LED lamps wasn’t wonderful. On one the threaded end broke away from the body when I tried to screw it into a kitchen ceiling socket (with my suction-cup-on-a-broomstick light bulb changer). So, I got out a ladder and removed the body by hand. Then I used a needle nose pliers to unscrew the threaded end that still was lodged in the socket. I could see a power supply circuit board inside the lamp body, so I got out a hacksaw and pliers and dissected the failed lamp.

Near the front there are seven LEDs (yellow rectangles) on a circuit board held by four tabs onto an aluminum reflector. At the center is a two-pin socket where the power supply circuit board plugs in.

Here is a top view of the circuit board.

Here is a bottom view of that circuit board, with more surface-mounted components which include 9 capacitors (C), 4 diodes (D), 2 inductors (L), and 17 resistors (R).   

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Using imaginary or abstract visual aids

Even imaginary visual aids can be powerful in a speech. You always can talk about and point to things that aren’t there. On page 180 of his 1996 book Plain English at Work Edward P. Bailey gave three examples. Two are:

“One person was showing the distance someone could broad jump. So she made the stage an imaginary place for the event, started at one edge, and walked the distance for the high school record. She talked about that awhile, then moved a little farther to show the collegiate record. And so on.

....Another made the stage an airport, showing which directions the planes would take off and land, where the gates were, and where the control tower was. She then used this to illustrate the various traffic patterns the planes would fly, depending on the direction the wind was blowing.”  

An airport also could be shown abstractly on the stage using rope and colored yarns to mark runways and taxiways, and sheets of paper to indicate the control tower and terminal. Your audience will imagine the details.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Know Something. Say Something. Be Something.

On January 15th John Zimmer posted Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 248) Elbert Hubbard at his Manner of Speaking blog which was:

“To escape criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

It follows the familiar Rule of Three. Back on January 9, 2015 Quote Investigator looked at where else it came from.

But I recognized it as being a negative version of something similar to the 1927 motto of Taylor Allderdice High School, which I graduated from in Pittsburgh and is:

“Know Something. Do Something. Be Something.”

The U.S. Army also uses a three-part leadership slogan of Be-Know-Do, which was written by Major Boyd M. Harris in 1983.

A better positive version for speakers is to:

Know Something. Say Something. Be Something.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Are great teachers great storytellers?

Yes, they are. That was the title of a magazine article by Frank Romanelli on page 93 of the August 2016 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy Education (Vol 80, No. 6). He said:

“....Have we as teachers forgotten the importance of storytelling? Some speculate that growing demands to teach more to more students alongside the over reliance on PowerPoint presentations and other technologies have led many educators to stray from telling the larger story. Stories are a connected means of presenting and transmitting information. Moreover, information that is presented in a logical and systematic fashion is often easier for students to understand, process, retrieve, and synthesize. Perhaps the greatest strength of storytelling is the naturalness of this mode of information transmission. For most of us, our education started informally through fairy tales, fables, and even family stories.

The effective use of storytelling as a component of teaching may be too often overlooked. Telling the story of a disease, disease state, or any lesson on a micro or macro level may be invaluable to students. The story of a disease helps learners understand circumstances surrounding recognition of an altered health state and the chronological events that shape the pharmacotherapy used to treat or cure. By providing a narrative account, a storyline forces students to better understand the circumstances that lead to drug discoveries, obstacles to treatment, and advantages and disadvantages of specific therapeutic options. A paramount lesson from the narrative is comprehending what leads researchers or clinicians to ask certain questions or make certain hypotheses concerning a disease.”

An image of Story hour in the first grade came from the Library of Congress.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Free return address labels in the mail from charities are an opportunity, not a problem

On January 9, 2017 Jane Genova blogged about Unsolicited Junk Gifts from Supposedly Worthy Causes - Ask Congress to Ban This Kind of Snail Mail. (Titles of posts from her Speechwriter-Ghostwriter blog show up under Speaking Pro Central at Alltop Speaking, which I glance at every day). She had received address labels and a notepad from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Jane ranted that:

“....The brutal reality is that gifts, even junk gifts, impose obligation. The expectation is that we will reciprocate. When a cause approaches us in this way, of course, the expectation is for a monetary donation.

I want this stopped. And since the public nuisance happens through the mail, federal authorities can end this practice. That will force good causes to become more innovative in their fundraising. That will provide more assignments for us in marketing communications.”

But there was no reason to go on a guilt trip or try to change the law. The existing one is adequate, and it says there is no legal obligation. A web page at the U. S. Postal Inspection Service titled Receipt of Unsolicited Merchandise explains in plain English that after you open it you can treat it as a gift and either:

A]  If you like what you find, you may keep it for free.

B]  If you don’t like what you find, you may throw it away.

They also refer to the law (Section 3009 of Title 39 of the United States Code). I found it amusing that Jane, who likes to name drop about having attended Harvard Law School, didn’t even bother to look up the law on this topic. (She also cross-posted this same story at her Law and More blog).

I suspect that Jane didn’t spend much more time writing her blog post than I did reading it. She’s a bad example, as I discussed previously on December 28, 2016 in a blog post titled Shallow versus deep research about how much Americans trust their mass media.

Return address label sheets from charities are a useful gift, and thus are my favorite type of ‘junk’ mail. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is expertise really the enemy of innovation?

I think not, but is tip #15 from Stephen Shapiros’s 2011 book Best Practices are Stupid. He blogged about it in an August 31, 2016 post titled Innovation Minute #20: Expertise is the Enemy of Innovation. (Titles of his posts appear at Alltop Speaking). Stephen explained that:

“The reason why is, the more you’ve thought about a topic, the harder it is for you to think differently about that topic.

So, if you’re an expert in a function, like HR, finance or sales, it’s going to be hard for you to think differently about that. If you’re an expert in an industry, like hospitality, financial services or manufacturing, it will be difficult for you to think differently about that.”

Alexander Pope’s old adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing likely is more correct. I instead think that expertise is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for innovation.  

If you are dogmatic and rigid, then expertise MAY be the enemy of innovation. But those of us who have done research for a living know how to be flexible and creative. My first career included seven years of applied research at the Climax Molybdenum Company lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were lots of creative people in that lab with a wide variety of expertise. Two stories illustrate how expertise leads to innovation.

One of our older technicians, Bob Besore, had once designed production tooling at Garwood Industries. In our mechanical testing lab we had a fracture test apparatus that (as is common in research) had been adapted from other tooling we already had around. But setting it up took repeated measurements and several minutes of adjustment with a wrench to align the differently sized and shaped upper and lower plates mounted on the fixed and movable heads of the electrohydraulic testing machine.

A supervisor asked Bob if he could make an easier to use version. He said sure I can, but I need to start over from scratch. A top view of what he designed is shown above. The new precision-ground plates were the same size and shape. A precision-ground U-shaped coupling fixture slid over both plates to locate them in perfect alignment. Then a series of cap screws were tightened with an air wrench, and in under a minute it was ready to use. These days what Bob had designed is described under the topic of lean production as a Single-Minute Exchange of Die (SMED).   

Another example is the 1989 U.S. Patent # 4,832,757 by Thomas B. Cox and me (Method for producing normalized Grade D sucker rods). Sucker rods are what connects between the horse head pumping jack you see in oil fields and the pump mechanism located at the bottom of the well. The high-strength Grade D usually is produced from plain carbon steel via a heat treatment  involving austenitizing, quenching and tempering. Lower strength rods are normalized - austenitized and just air-cooled. We showed that carefully chosen normalized manganese-molybdenum alloy steel compositions also could produce acceptable properties. This research was begun during the 1980s drilling boom, when there was a high demand for rods. We wanted to let rod producers who were set up only for heat treating lower strength rods (and thus didn’t have a quench tank and tempering furnace) make high-strength rods too. 

The general approach of replacing a carbon steel with an air-cooled alloy steel had previously been used at the Climax lab for other products, like dual-phase steel sheet for automotive applications. We used our lab’s collective expertise in hardenabilty to select the right steel compositions. 

The image of a wizard was adapted from a 1901 Puck cartoon at the Library of Congress, and the painting of a laughing fool came from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Horror stories about being introduced

In the September 2016 issue of Speaker magazine (from the National Speakers Association in the U.S.) there is a useful article on pages 30 to 32 by Glenn Strange titled When Introductions Go Bad. Glenn tells some horror stories about how he has been introduced, and why you need to write your own introduction. In a sidebar he provides 15 Tips to Ensure Success

The Toastmasters International web site has a web page linked to a downloadable guide for Creating an Introduction from their Better Speaker Series.

The Frankenstein image by André Koehne came from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Playing Games with Words - crossword puzzles and Scrabble

 If you like writing speeches, then you might enjoy doing crossword puzzles in newspapers, or playing Scrabble. I got curious about the history of those puzzles and that game. Here is what I found.

When and where did the first crossword puzzle appear?

It was created by Arthur Wynne and was in the Christmas edition of the New York World, on December 21, 1913. As shown above, it was shaped like a diamond, 13 squares wide and high. There were single letters R, M, W, and D at the corners. Later puzzles instead had a square grid.

What word in it is often considered to have only come much later as Homer’s catchphrase in The Simpsons TV show?

That would be DOH, for which the clue is 10-18 The fibre of the gomuti palm. Wikipedia spells it D’oh! There was a Simpsons episode titled Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words that aired on November 16, 2008.

When did the first book of crossword puzzles appear?

The Cross Word Puzzle Book was published by Simon and Schuster on April 18, 1924, and it came with an attached pencil. Back in January Simon’s aunt Wixie had asked him where she could get a book of Cross-Words for a niece. None existed, so Simon decided to have one created.

Was there ever a film about crosswords?

Yes, the documentary Wordplay appeared in 2006.

What are typical grid sizes for crossword puzzles in the United States?

In daily newspapers a 15-square grid is typical. Examples are: Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.

In Sunday papers or weeklies a 21-square grid is typical. Examples are the Sunday Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, and the New York Times Magazine. My local free tabloid, the Boise Weekly, includes a New York Times puzzle.  

The National Enquirer has both a 21-square regular puzzle and a ColorCross  where:

“Blue squares contain vowels, sometimes including Y. Other letters are in the white squares. Pink squares can represent any letter. Unscramble the letters in the pink squares to spell the name of an actress (or actor, or TV personality, etc.)”
Their competitor The Globe has a Big X 29 claimed to be ‘America’s Biggest Crossword.’

Can you download free puzzles?

Yes, you can from the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. Online you can play both Regular and Master level puzzles at USA Today. But, the New York Times instead wants you to buy an annual subscription for $40.

Can you get online help for doing puzzles?

Yes, there is a Crossword Solver at If you enter the phrase ‘public speaking’ replies are:



When did the game of Scrabble appear?

Scrabble came later, in 1938. It was invented by architect Alfred Mosher Butts. Each player begins with seven letter tiles, and tries to add words to the 15-square grid board. The letter tiles used in Scrabble have frequencies typical for English. That’s quite different from words in crossword puzzles. Some squares on the scrabble board have bonuses for a letter or word. When I tried to put that first crossword puzzle on my deluxe Scrabble board though, I ran out of letters before finishing, as is shown above. (I had to use a blank for one V).

The first image (from way back on January 22, 1915) of a 100-year old Ambrose Hines doing a crossword puzzle came from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tired sports jargon - please don’t say pivot when another word would be better

Jane Genova is horribly prolific. That is, she cranks out a plethora of blog posts (16 just this year), some highly questionable. I look at Alltop Speaking each day, so I glance at Speaking Pro Central and see some of her post titles.

One of her posts yesterday was titled Megyn Kelly aka Megawattage Pivots to NBC - Fox News Brand In Play. That’s a horrible title - using two items of sports jargon- “pivot” and “in play.” If she had thought a bit longer, she might instead have said that Megyn had jumped from Fox News to NBC.

Pivot is:

“A term in basketball used to define both the act of keeping one foot in place while moving the other and the actual foot which remains on the ground. Keeping one foot in place is necessary when a player stops dribbling the ball but wishes to re-position himself for a pass or shot.” 

An image of a pivot is shown above. An article by Eric Ries on June 22, 2009 at Startup Lessons Learned titled Pivot, don’t jump to a new vision transferred the concept to business:

“I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they've learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you'll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration. By contrast, many unsuccessful startups simply jump outright from one vision to something completely different.”

UPDATE January 7, 2017

Very curiously today Jane Genova posted on "Pivot," "Deep dive," "Disrupt," et al. - Buzzwords Belonging in Graveyard. I wonder what started that.   

Monday, January 2, 2017

Some props are so inexpensive that you can give one to each member of your audience

Don’t believe me? Look at this UNESCO web page on how Simple toys make learning science fun. Arvind Gupta shows how to flatten one end of a plastic straw and make two diagonal scissor cuts to form a double reed. Presto - a magical straw flute!

Watch a 1-1/2 minute YouTube video on the straw flute. Also watch a wonderful 15-1/2-minute TED talk on Turning trash into toys for learning. At 10:05 he makes the flute. For even more you can watch his 1 hour and 10 minute talk from the 2016 Research Scholars Day at IIT on Making Science Fun. (Here the flute is shown at 21:30).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In 2017 only YOU can prevent bad presentations

Happy New Year! It’s once again time to stop, reflect, and make resolutions. (Look at an article in the latest issue of the NSA’s Speaker magazine for examples of resolutions).

My title was derived from old Smokey Bear public service announcements that warned Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires. But Smokey Bear’s images are jealously guarded by the Ad Council.

Instead I went back to the Wikimedia Commons and Library of Congress web sites and adapted the four images shown above.

You are responsible for thinking and planning BEFORE writing a speech, firing up PowerPoint (or Excel, or Word), and opening your mouth before an audience.

In a post at his No Sweat Public Speaking blog on December 26 titled Lessons from Coaching Clients..., 2016 Fred E. Miller ended his list by saying something similar:

You are much better than you think you are.
Everyone has something to talk about.
Stop the negative self-talk!
Little things can make a BIG difference.
Practicing is not optional!
Take TOTAL responsibility for your presentation.

The painting of Samuel Adams and photo of Elisabeth Meyer came from Wikimedia Commons. The photo of 3 minutes intermission while changing pictures and broadside of Suicido came from the Library of Congress.