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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.

How Do You Know What to Do Next?

Seneca wrote, “do not be unhappy before the crisis comes…” Avoid imagined sorrows and anticipated anxieties. Be present. See the big picture. Understand how things work. Control what you can.

Thanks for the fortune cookies, Brooks.

Yeah, I hear you. But I also hear you expecting the worst from the news, medical tests, and return policies. I hear you project stress about returning unwanted calls, choosing from new menus, and hosting in-laws. We seem to have an addiction to expressing our overwhelm and finding reasons to feel flustered.

When untethered, I find relief by intentionally owning my responses and focusing on what I control. In any situation, we rarely have a lot of options, especially if clear about our goals. [If you really want to sleep/exercise/read more, then stop talking to me and go sleep/exercise/read… 🙂 ]

Some practices, such as journaling, help tidy our thoughts and rekindle motivations. We benefit from anything that provides perspective or reinforces a good process for moving forward. 

Context

Seeing others perform well can help us appreciate our own strengths and clarify next moves. As a teenager, I heard a story after the 1986 Major League Baseball All-Star game that stuck. Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets and Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox were the starting pitchers. In that game in Houston, pitchers hit for themselves. Playing in the American League day-to-day, Clemens normally had a “designated hitter,” so this was one of his only at-bats since high school.  

Clemons stepped to the plate. He watched a Gooden fastball blaze by. Shocked by the power of the pitch, Clemons turned to home plate umpire Bruce Froemming and asked, “Do I throw that hard?”

Froemming responded, “Yes, Roger. At least that hard.”

Clemens’ at-bat against Gooden offered invaluable perspective about what batters saw when facing him. It gave him tremendous confidence about what to do next and how to approach his work. Clemens went out and pitched three perfect innings, throwing 21 strikes in 25 pitches, and earned the All-Star MVP. That season, Clemens also won the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

Control

Context and perspective, in turn, enable us to focus on what we can control. Tennis great Serena Williams, who spent a collective 319 weeks (six years!) ranked as the #1 women’s singles player in the world, has a real-time process, brief checklists, for correcting parts of her game. 

With groundstrokes, forehands and backhands, Williams knows that if hitting too long, she needs to “cover the ball” by getting under it to add top spin. If hitting balls into the net, she knows she’s “hitting too flat” and finishes higher when following-through, getting her elbow up. If making mistakes, Williams employs her technical and intuitive understanding of how things need to be to systematically self-correct.

Conclusion

Instead of worrying about bad outcomes, about things that may never come to pass, embrace a process for staying on track. Remember and enjoy your strengths. Understand how things work. Develop a plan with context. Focus on what you control.

Three Reasons to Pick Up a Pen and Write

Introduction

Deciding to leverage your lived moments into wisdom, insight, and appreciation rather than choosing the passive habit of regurgitating op-eds or puffery means engaging directly with people and ideas. Forwarding a link or liking a post differs from thinking and creating. An active, original mind stitches together a swatch of learning here with our lived experience there to grow and serve.

When it comes to capturing, conceptualizing, and thinking through ideas, few approaches compete with the act of writing. Just as the wisest people I know read a lot, the most creative and thoughtful people I know write regularly as part of their professional or personal lives. In this post, I encourage you to take up the pen and write.

Three Reasons to Write

First, writing cultivates a fertile mind. For example, the simple act of journaling collects thoughts and observations and, when you close the pages for the day, allows them to mix and mingle while you trundle off to conduct your daily affairs. Then, when decisions arise, the wisdom and experiences captured in the journal have a way of synthesizing our experiences. The act of writing lets those ideas simmer, helping us gain wisdom distilled from our own lives.

This blog and my essays are exercises to refine thoughts and capture best practices. They force me to cull the nonessential and reflect on what works and makes sense with the goal of receiving and sharing insights. In this way, writing is a dialogue; it seeks a response.

Second, writing relieves the mind. At times, we get trapped in mental mousetraps, addictively griping over minor grievances, or stubbornly ruminating on things outside of our control. The writing process offers powerful medicine for thinking through a problem in a practical way without perseverating.

The physicality of typing or writing by hand warms ideas and mines the subconscious. It also provides a form of self-administered relief. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a practice of “morning pages,” which are “three pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand morning writing” that help us clear the mental detritus before taking on the day. Cameron notes that:

“…The morning pages…must be experienced in order to be explained, just as reading a book about jogging is not the same as putting on your Nikes and heading out…”

Third, writing armors you for battle. Regular writing sharpens your language and strengthens your communication skills. Great leaders and orators, from Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr built their philosophies and communication skills through reading and writing. Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, said:

“If I went back to college again, I’d concentrate on two areas: learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively.”

Conclusion

Write stuff down. If journaling or letter writing are not your thing, at least carry a pen and notebook for meetings, calls, work conferences, and events at your kids’ schools.  Write down ideas, lessons, and things you want to do. The writing process organizes ideas, identifies questions, and exposes holes. Your value as a thinker, regardless your field, will improve. 

In sum, put pen to paper and build the writing muscle. You will use more of what you write, verbatim, than you ever could realize.