Year2022

Verbalize: Practice Your Presentations Out Loud

I’ve given a lot of presentations, mostly about forest finance, timber markets and communication skills. When preparing, I use current data and recent research overlaid onto basic “themes.” Then I practice with new stories or examples. Even though I may be fluent and experienced with the themes, I always practice the presentation out loud. Why?

Verbalizing is an effective way to connect ideas, verbs, and nouns in actual language. Speaking the presentation, even if just to yourself, smooths transitions, and uncovers examples. Relevant stories and experiences come to mind while practicing out loud, and the exercise creates a form of muscle memory that builds confidence for the talk. Over the years, I have given hundreds of presentations to myself while driving to conferences and client locations.[1]

People in many professions, from comedians to singers to politicians to teachers practice, out loud, the words they plan to say to improve their delivery and effectiveness. I read a story about former NFL Head Coach Jason Garrett, who used to be the backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Early in his career as a player, when Garrett was learning to call plays, he would review the plays in his head and then shout them out load, as if in the huddle on the field, while driving to and from the Cowboys’ facility. Garrett said, “People thought I was crazy, but I still do it.”

My friend Jim King, a retired forest industry executive, would also verbalize key points to prepare for presentations. He asked the same of his team, to impress upon them the importance of developing tight messages and clear communication skills. When preparing his team for Board meetings, Jim would have the managers practice presentations multiple times in the actual Board room to finalize slides and reinforce how one person’s presentation linked to the next. 

Verbalizing messages and doing “dry runs” does not require more time, it simply requires an organized schedule to make it happen. The payoff from verbalizing in advance, which gives your brain extra time to process, is realized in the room. Clicking through slides is insufficient for presenting at your best, just as swinging a baseball bat in the living room is insufficient for improving as a hitter. The shorter the talk or the more exclusive the audience (e.g. Board of Directors), the more effective, relevant and powerful this advice becomes. 

Practicing out loud scrubs the messages and preselects appropriate words. It requires you to know, even intuit, the “structure” or flow of the talk. For example, a 15-slide deck may cover three topics, with 3 to 5 slides per topic sandwiched between an intro slide and a concluding slide. In my head, I know this; it provides a map for the talk.

My experience taught me that being nervous is natural and not indicative of whether a talk will go well or not. I have also learned that failing to verbalize is, for me, failing to prepare. It is a practical and effective way to deliver a better talk.

Future posts will continue to focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.


[1] Yes, I literally give talks while driving to my destination. This can be distracting, like talking on a cell phone. I once missed an exit while working through a talk and ended up driving an extra hour north to Tennessee instead of south into Alabama.

Information Overload: Brains and Homo Sapiens

We share the brain of our ancestors. The humans of one hundred thousand years ago, as they started migrating from Africa, toted between their ears brains similar to the ones we carry today.[1] The average homo sapiens on the street, with a comparable mental engine to our own, was simply at a different phase in the collective understanding of how things worked. They cut with sharpened stones while we etch with lasers. They hunted and gathered while we order online. They walked while we drive.

Today, we have a different challenge. Rather than make our way with roughhewn tools and limited knowledge, we flounder under an avalanche of information when making decisions. The sources of the information, from social media to corporate advertisers to political campaigns to entertainers, are incented to produce a flood of content, and they do so with a jovial disregard for the implications on our mental or community health. It’s a numbers game that requires capturing and retaining monetizable volumes of eyeballs and attention.

In 1971, Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon wrote, “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

“What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Herbert Simon

The implication from Simon’s observation is that the pain of dealing with this information overload falls on us. And we are not well-prepared for the task. We share the scarcity mentality of our ancestors, who scavenged for food and knowledge, while we live lives of relative and absolute abundance. We hoard and consume and struggle to manage inboxes. We stuff offsite storage facilities with so many “precious” belongings that they could furnish a small planet.  We are simply not that good at sifting, sorting, and deleting.

Anything we can do teach our children and ourselves how to filter and capture useful information, to appreciate the fertile nature of how lessons in one area may enhance our ability to understand things in another, the more we advance positive self-care, confidence, and our collective ability to learn. In this way, we prepare our minds for navigating and battling the overwhelming noise of a chaotic world.

In future posts, I will focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.


[1] S. Neubauer, J.-J. Hublin, P. Gunz, The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science Advances. 4, eaao5961 (2018). Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aao5961

How to Deliver an Educational and Insightful Talk

The question “how do I teach this to them” has puzzled presenters, professors, and parents since the Greco-Roman god Apollo taught Chiron, his foster son and polymathic centaur, how to throw a curveball.

In this post, I share an approach for outlining and preparing the delivery of educational presentations.

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My general preparation for an educational or invited talk at a conference, in a classroom, or for a client event includes five steps.

First, confirm the theme and audience.

When invited to give a talk, ask about (1) the objectives of the event (and my host) and (2) the background of the primary audience. Talking to 5th graders about trees differs from presenting on the forest industry to a Rotary Club. 

At times, the specific theme is less important than the role you serve for the audience and your host. If you are the after-lunch speaker, focus on a (relevant) subject you truly care about and know deeply, one that allows you to bring extra energy to the room. This may or may not match exactly what you were asked to speak about, but in my experience, a really good, engaging talk that captures the attention and interest of the audience is a success, regardless the advertised theme. 

Then, select your insights. 

If your theme is bears, which two or three things about bears do you plan to focus on and communicate? What bears eat? How bears walk? Who’s smarter than the average bear, Smokey Bear or Yogi Bear? Your choices comprise the “modules” or parts of your talk, and they are selected with the objectives of the event and the primary audience in mind.  These are your key messages, the main points you want to share.

Third, choose your examples.

Relevant examples, evidence, and data that you know well will help the audience absorb and appreciate your ideas. Select examples – stories, maps, figures, graphs, movie clips or any other tightly packaged information – that support your insights, simplify your job as the presenter, and make it easy for the room to appreciate your message.

At times, a presenter dumps data or stories on the group without an organizing framework or clarifying idea. This confuses the room. Don’t do this (unless you’re the next Robin Williams). 🙂

Fourth, incorporate your introduction and transitions.

Choose and practice your opening and what you will say to move from one insight to the next. The introduction could be as simple as “Hi. My name is Dave. Today, I’m going to share three things related to bears.” Transitions could be simple phrases (“now to the second point”) or they could be brief stories that emphasize the insight just shared or introduce the relevance of the insight you are about to share.

My point here is less about the content of the introduction and transitions and more on the importance of simply deciding and practicing what you will say in advance. Practice out loud. Verbalize your opening and transitions. Help your brain and mouth work together to find the best word combinations. THIS WORKS. You will think of new and better ways to strengthen, tighten, and smooth the talk by practicing out loud, even by yourself.

Finally, construct a conclusion.

Well-constructed conclusions could be the most neglected part of the educational talks I’ve heard (and delivered). The conclusion is an opportunity to reinforce the most important points and manage the educational experience for the audience. This includes knowing what you plan to say after the Q&A concludes. You would rather choose the final thing heard by your audience than have the final thing be the product of a random question. This leaves too much to chance. Know your close.

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Developing and delivering an educational talk – a presentation that shares or transfers knowledge, skills, and expertise from presenter to audience or from teacher to student – requires a clear understanding of your objective in the room and your audience. Having a clear, systematic process to organize and prepare your comments increases the likelihood of success in conveying your message to the group.

Good luck!

Ten Observations of Human Behavior and Learning

As a writer, I read a lot of books and articles, listen closely to how people talk, and take notes to capture ideas, lunch orders, and fun phrases. Here are ten observations and quotes from my scribblings with thoughts on how or why I found each to be helpful (or incomplete).

  1. Often, there is a “better” way to do things. It doesn’t really matter if you put your pants on with the leg left first or the right, but it is easier to put your pants on before your shoes. Early in my forestry career, I attended a “total quality management” workshop and Wayne, the instructor, drove home the point that there is often a “best” or “better” way to do a job, no matter your preference. “That’s called a good process. We’ve figured out better ways to use a chainsaw or drive truck, ways that are safer and more productive, so master those.” 
  2. A former Navy officer turned forest industry manager told me “As long as you have a cup of coffee in your hand or are carrying a clipboard, nobody makes you do anything.” In my experience, this reality holds up remarkably, unfortunately well.
  3. The only real security we have is the certainty that we’re equipped to handle whatever happens to us.” I noted this quote after reading “Beyond Survival”, a book I’ve discussed before, by former Vietnam POW Gerald Coffee. This speaks to the importance of competence, self-awareness, and resilience. 
  4. Fill your days with activities that excite you. This is simply good advice. While we all have responsibilities and obligations, we can also have hobbies, friends, service, and work that, for at least part of each day, energize us. And if this is not the case, whose fault is that?
  5. Self-trust is the first secret to success.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The quote speaks to both the power of being comfortable in our own skin and the destructive nature of persistent self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity, which all differ from humility. Having self-awareness and self-trust means you know how to handle yourself in most situations (see #3 above). 
  6. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa.
  7. Avoid leaving good habits to chance. Since we are what we regularly do, we gain by scheduling and ritualizing productive habits, such as sleep, exercise, and date night to help reduce and crowd out less helpful activities, such as scrolling and stewing on social media.
  8. When we deal in specifics, we rarely fail. On the other hand, we rarely succeed when dealing in generalities. As an analyst, writer, and human, I find unsubstantiated, broad-based assertions to be extremely unhelpful.
  9. Learning is spaced repetition. I hold this belief as ironclad: we can get better at anything we practice regularly. However, since becoming a passable juggler and failing (so far) at piano, I observe that, while accurate, the lesson is incomplete. In addition to regular practice, we learn when (1) truly interested and (2) having sufficient understanding to “self-correct” basic errors. Once you learn enough to self-correct, you can become proficient at just about anything.
  10. Many things are more complicated and nuanced than we think. I find it helpful to acknowledge that (1) most decisions are made without certainty and (2) any increase in knowledge can (ironically) further increase uncertainty as it lays bare potential gaps in our understanding. As such, strong emotions, broad generalizations (see #8), and a failure to embrace proven approaches (see #1) can unnecessarily burden decisions. Embrace the idea that we’re doing the best we can with the information we have. Nothing is certain. As new information comes to light, we can adjust. 

One Rule for Performance Reviews: No Surprises

Regular performance reviews, while often criticized, offer a repeatable and transparent process for building more effective organizations. Systems and teams, big and small, require feedback to adjust and improve. Sports have scores, cars have speedometers and engine lights, and businesses have financials. Issues arise when appraisals or feedback occur inconsistently or without clear expectations. Regular reviews, when done well, support and serve the needs of both employees and managers.

No Surprises

No surprises! This is the fundamental tenant for ongoing manager/employee relations. You don’t fire people at performance reviews. You highlight, reinforce, appreciate, and coach. You agree on priorities. You listen. We owe it to our teams to avoid surprises. This starts on Day One for a new employee.

When you hire someone, you get their standard of performance, so it’s the role of the manager to clarify expectations.[1] How do we to this? First, define success. Second, agree on what success looks like when it is delivered. Third, confirm how it will be measured and when. Weekly meetings help support this.

Weekly Meetings

Brief, weekly meetings are a fundamental building block for two-way communication. They keep the line open and the temperature down. If your direct reports are not important enough to meet with regularly, then who is? Weekly check-ins establish a pattern and provide milestones. They show you care about the individual and their results. This process also provides structure for the manager, who should be tracking successes and things to review with each direct report on an ongoing basis. 

One of my direct reports role-modeled for me how to manage our check-ins based on how she manages her team. Now, my weekly process with each person includes the following three questions:

  • Personal: How are you doing?
  • Current projects: What are you working on? (And what’s on the horizon?)
  • Support and resources: What do you need? How can I support you?

If I have specific items to cover, they typically line up with something the person wants to discuss anyway. If not, I will raise the issue when we discuss current activities.

The impact of feedback is greatest when received close to the behavior in question. While better late than never, delayed feedback withholds from the person an opportunity to improve. And if you don’t communicate feedback at all, the issue remains yours, not theirs. Regular meetings help mitigate this.

Conclusion

Successful managers provide timely and constructive feedback to their employees and colleagues. They deal with tough issues quickly. Employees in these businesses know that performance is valued, and underperformance will be dealt with. Don’t let things fester; handle issues as they arise, acknowledge effort and performance, and focus on actions not people. As a manager, you get the performance you deserve. Regular check-ins keep the stakes low, minimize surprises, and strengthen the team.


[1] My essay “Notes on Managing a Business” includes this and other lessons related to communicating effectively at work and leading a team.