Monday, November 03, 2008

Talking in Circles - Isabel Swift

The first time I was asked to give a talk, I was totally terrified and utterly clueless! Luckily, scrolling back to 6th grade English saved me. Here are some insights & tips that should help you succeed if faced with a similar challenge. You do want to look good and not blather, don't you? Read on....

First, determine your subject! Then you need to take it somewhere…. Simple, eh? (Remember Topic Sentences?)

Tell your audience:
1) What you are going to say and why they are going to be glad they listened.
2) Say it.
3) Remind them what they have just learned, and why it is useful for them.

These points seem simple—and they are. But simple doesn't mean easy. Doing them takes actual thought—which doesn't make it easy, but does make it work.

Simply put, your listeners want to know why they are going on this journey with you, so you need to share their Destination, their Reason for going, and the Benefit of taking this trip with you. If you can make it fun, so much the better. But that I can’t teach—hey, I’m an editor, not a magician.

1) What are you going to say & why they are going to be glad they listened:
While presenting may seem to be all about YOUR knowledge, it’s actually all about your audience and THEIR needs. As you are mulling over what you know, your filter must always be 'why does my audience care?' (Well, I'd say it in a much ruder way, but you know what I'm getting at). You’ve been asked to speak because of your expertise & knowledge in an area of interest to the audience. Think about what the audience would want to walk away knowing or be inspired to do after listening to you.

Side advice: RESIST explaining why you’re not really qualified. Pull up your socks and fake it. No one wants to hear how stupid they are to be listening to you! They want to know they’re going to learn something that will be useful to them.

The good news with presentations is that people can't remember much more than three things they hear. Really. Think about the long talks you've listened to brimming with information and detail. How much actual knowledge did you really walk away with? If you're honest, it's just going to be a few points. So as a speaker, figure out the few (~3) key points that illustrate/explain/amplify the subject you’ve selected (and remember the subject needs to be interesting and relevant to your audience).

2) Say it:
So you've figured out what your audience is interested in & you've communicated why it's going to be worthwhile listening. Now do for each point what you're doing for the presentation as a whole.

Determine the key elements (~3) to point #1 of the three points you selected to explain the subject of your talk. As you go through each element, think of an illustrative example to make you point and ensure it comes alive.

Example: Say your Subject is that you are going to tell your audience "How to write a compelling story that will appeal to readers & sell. " Maybe your 3 Points are that they must:

A) Understand their strengths and weaknesses as writers
B) Research their idea and the market
C) Grab the reader's attention with their story

And (of course) you'll explain why all these points are going to deliver an increased chance of success and benefit your listeners.

A) Strengths and weaknesses could have three or so sub-categories illustrating a few techniques to judge what is working/not working in their writing:

i) Personal preferences
ii) External feedback
iii) Market alignment

You can then share a good and a bad story about Personal preferences to educate your audience about the pros and cons of that method of judging ones work (how it can lead them astray/how it can be on target).

Same drill for External feedback, same for Market alignment. Conclude with pulling it all together: remind your audience that these are the tools they have to work with to determine their A) Strengths/weaknesses are and help them select the kind of story/voice with their writing that they should be focusing on to best achieve their dream of "How to write a compelling story that will appeal to readers & sell."

B) Researching the market for salability. Same drill as A), pick three or so key elements and illustrate with examples to make them come alive. Pull it all together and remind readers how researching their idea and the market—along with focusing on their writing strengths—is going to help them "Write a compelling story that will appeal to readers & sell."

Guess what you do for C) ? You got it, pick about three key elements, illustrate them, pull it together.

The time you have to speak will change the number of points you choose to make & illustrate. The above could be a five minute top-line piece of advice with one or two illustrative stories. Or it could be an hour, with illuminating stories and details—but always connecting to your stated goal. Think of it like lovely scenic detours that add enjoyment and depth to the journey. But don't lose your direction or have your passengers feel they won’t reach the final destination with you!

3) Remind them what they have just learned, and why it is so useful.
Your closer—like classical music—recapitulates the theme, reminding your audience of the promise that you made: to tell them "How to write a compelling story that will appeal to readers & sell." You’ll remind them of the key elements that are needed to get there (A, B, C); why they're important; how they'll help your listeners achieve their dream.

That's how to create a presentation that will leave your audience with a sense that you're a coherent and compelling speaker--and that they've learned something useful. It's easy to get lost going down a lengthy path of linear information. Don't. Talk in circles…and arrive at your destination.

You can leave them with a quote that illustrates your point and alerts them that your presentation is over…and they may applaud!

…We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Elliot
The Four Quartets/Little Gidding

Do you have tips to help with presentations?

Isabel Swift


Michelle Styles said...

I can always remember a professor of mine saying -- if you speak quickly, some people will think you are an expert but most will not understand what you are saying. If you speak slowly, some people will think you are not necessarily bright, but most will get far more out of the lecture.
Also I have found it easier to have only notes, rather than the full thing written out. There is nothing worse than having someone simply read a piece of paper.

Avi J said...

My lecturer said that even if you do not feel confident about your subject matter, talk bold and loud, and keep moving around on stage, everyone will think you are an expert on the area.

christina said...

That's excellent advice, Isabel, and I found the bit about concentrating on three main points especially useful. I've attended any number of lectures that would have been improved out of all recognition with your blueprint!

Donna Alward said...

Great blog, Isabel - and nice to see you here! :-)

I don't particularly have a fear of speaking, but I'm very conscious of my audience getting their money's worth. I'd love your advice on this though, because it's come up a few times. How do you handle it when someone has a question you don't have the answer to? The first time it happened I really had no idea, so I said I didn't feel qualified to answer it. The second time I said it was out of my area of knowledge, but I'd be happy to ask some people who WOULD know and get back to them with an answer. Should I have fudged it? Fake it until you make it can only carry you so far....

Liz Fielding said...

Thank you so much for a truly useful blog, Isabel. Like all romance writers, I'm frequently asked to "talk" and find the experience quite terrifying.

Like Donna I'm very conscious of wanting to give good value and to promote a positive image for romance.

I only used notes, rather than a script at my last talk and found it a much more interactive experience.

I will be saving your comments and studying them closely.

Anne McAllister said...

Hi Isabel, good to see you here. And what a great topic. As more people claim to prefer death to public speaking, you have singlehandedly saved thousands of lives by giving them hope that they can do it -- and survive!

I find it most helpful when I'm speaking to a group to have an idea of what they know. It's easier to prepare -- and you feel more confident that you are doing something useful if you think you aren't either 1) boring them because they know that already or 2) talking over their heads becaause they don't have a clue.

Michelle Monkou said...

Hi Isabel

Great tips considering, as writers, we have so many opportunities where we must speak.

I'd also recommend Toastmasters as a great way to learn and hone those skills.


Christine Rimmer said...

Isabel, wonderful advice. Your rule of three is exactly right, I think. There are only so many pearls of wisdom that your audience can absorb in one sitting.

When I was young and foolish, I worked in a boiler room, selling pens on the phone. The manager always told us, "They don't hear it till you say it three times." Differently each time, of course. So there's another rule of three for you.

Great to see your here on Tote Bags!

Charlene Sands said...

Good morning, Isabel,
I enjoyed your blog today. I don't have a fear of giving lectures, since I've been teaching for 20 years, but your points are excellent and I learned a great deal.
Sometimes, what I do to get the audience involved, is to ask them a question outright - an interactive way to immediately get their attention and hold their interest.
I like the idea of Destination, Reason and Benefit. That's something I will definitely use from now on!
I do love the idea of leaving them with a related quote at the end too. Something that will resonate ...
Thanks for your insights today. Very enlightening!

Sandra Marton said...

Isabel, you've summed up endless books about public speaking in one great blog! Thank you.

One thing I always try to do is make eye contact (brief) with various members of the audience as I speak. If it's a large group, just looking around the room as you talk helps draw people to you and your presentation. I also try to start a speech with some relatively light comment about the topic, the location, the venue... whatever works. It's sort of a unifying bond between speaker and listeners.

Kate Walker said...

Thank you for a greta post Isabel - I wish this had been around when I was first asked to speak in public! I've learned not to be afraid of the big audiences - I find a freindly face ina crowd and focus on them and then if they laugh in the right places or smile I feel better. But the worst event I ever had to cover was when there were just 2 people in the audience.

For notes, I usually use index cards with each point written on a new one, then I can just glance at that and move in behind the pack as I finish with it.
And when I teach on my 12 POint Guide To Writing Romance courses I always have some brilliant Snoopy cartoons to project onto a screen that set everyone laughing and break the ice.

I'm now going back to reread - and save!


Gina said...

My trick for presentations are to not wear my glasses. I am short sighted so l can see my notes but the people are blurry so l do not get stage fright, and stray from my notes.

Susan Mallery said...

Hi Isabel--

Ah, public speaking. Why is writers, who spend most of their time alone with people who aren't real, get asked to speak in people who are real? And we do it!!!

Your advice is great. The only thing I can add is if you're really, really nervous, don't eat right before. It's not a happy combination!

Tracy Wolff said...

Sounds exactly like what I tell my students about their essays-- and public speeches!

Maureen Child said...

Isabel, thanks! That was a great blog with some wonderful advice for those of us who dread public speaking!

Isabel Swift said...

What great comments & suggestions! I am so pleased the post was helpful--thank you for kind words & wonderful stories & advice.

With Michelle, Avi and Susan's comments, I have this great image of someone marching briskly around the stage, speaking slowly and loudly and wondering where they can be sick!

Or perhaps finding a friendly face, breaking the ice, making eye contact and connecting with their audience!

While I agree index-type notes & extemporaneous speech is very compelling--I also think a speech CAN be read well. Needs to be thought of as a play reading, noting emphasis, practicing out loud & forcing someone to listen critically & help you add emotion, & modulate your voice (And look up! And speak slowly!).

It's good to ask the expertise level of your audience when you first were invited to speak, but Ann & Charlene's points can be combined in starting your talk with a few questions to your audience. You can engage them and find out more about what they want to know--though you need to feel comfortable enough to realign your talk in response to the feedback (move to a more basic or higher level).

Donna's query on responding to questions ultimately is a personal call. But I think it's important to acknowledge what is in or out of your scope of expertise. Feel it makes you seem more believable--if you can admit to not knowing stuff, you probably do know what you're saying.

You can say you don't know, or you'll get back, if you have a special ability to find the answer, otherwise recommend what resources they should explore. You can also offer: 'don't know for sure, but here's my best guess' or even send it out to the audience to collect knowledge (note you'll have to get the group back under control after they start shouting out suggestions!)

Thank you all for excellent contributions! And Leena, of course, for creating a great forum.

Helen said...

Some great advice here If I have to give a talk I always like to have a plan and then get up and do it not always easy but I try to pick at least one person in the audience that I can feel comfortable with that usually helps me.

Have Fun

Helen Bianchin said...

It's great to see you here, Isabel.
Love the topic and the valuable advice you've given, especially the rule of three.
I've found it useful to mark the high points in notes with a coloured texta for easy reference after making frequent eye contact with the audience.

Donna Alward said...

Thanks Isabel...I guess I figure that there's always a chance someone out there knows a lot more than me, and if I try to fudge it, there's bound to be someone there who will catch me on it. I'd rather be honest than give someone misinformation.

Thankfully it's only happened twice, and once was presenting an english paper at a uni conference! LOL

Ann Roth said...

Great info, Isabel-- a mini-speechwriting course!

Lee Hyat said...

Isabel, thank you for spending the day with us. It's been a pleasure having you here. You shared really good advice on a great topic. I've certainly learnt a lot today. :)

Isabel Swift said...

Lee--Great to be here. The thanks are mine for the invitation!

Michele L. said...

I usually get nervous but it goes away after I start. I find that to have everything organized before I start and to rehearse my speech beforehand to my hubby helps a lot. It is being not ready for a presentation that is the most stressful. So, my advice is to have all the notes, cue cards, visuals, handouts, etc. ready before you even start.