Monday, July 13, 2015

Qualities of a good presentation II : Meaning

When it comes to giving a good presentation, I look for two things from the speaker: caring and meaning.  I want to see that she cares both about the audience and her own message.  

But I also need a presentation to mean something to me.

I really started to pay attention to this aspect of good in-person communications after reading Garr Reynolds’ classic guide Presentation Zen (for the second or third time). He says this:

Read Presentation Zen!
Computers and Google can indeed give us routine information and facts we need. 
What we want from people who stand before us and give a talk is that which data and information along cannot: meaning.

Think about the data-heavy field of science communications: talks, lectures, speeches, articles about biology, the environment, health or economics. Information has become plentiful, so anyone standing in front of us is unlikely give us a fact that we can’t easily find on our phone. 

But it’s harder to find wisdom on the phone, no matter how smart it is. To take creatively match facts with ideas, to join them into coherent trends,  and then to express a message in a tone and at a speed so synchronised that the speaker and audience are traveling together  -- this cannot be done by a phone. 

As Garr says, people don’t want facts transferred into their heads from yours, they want to hear ‘the story of your facts’

Stories can be one of the best ways to include meaning in a presentation. At Public Affairs Asia's recent Corporate Affairs Forum here in Singapore, one of my favorite talks was a case study of how Weber Shandwick and Danone Nutricia managed a botulism scare. I didn’t take any notes from the talk because I was listening so carefully, imagining myself in the story, and making connections between that story and situations that I’ve been in myself. But not only did I take away new meaning about crisis communications, I happen remember the details too!

Taking care to include meaning in a presentation can also help us go beyond mere communications into the realms of advocacy. We're not just informing people, we're bringing them on a journey toward a new way of thinking. 

This is especially important for those of us tasked with raising awareness and support for public sector and NGO development work to reduce poverty -- work which increasingly requires complex, nuanced work full of metrics and data. But if the work doesn't mean anything to donors and voters, it won't get funded.

Meaning helps our facts stick and makes our ideas persuasive, turning good presentations into a great ones.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Qualities of a great presentation: Part 1 -- Caring

Following-up from my post last week, a fellow traveler in the world of communications strategy and training asked a question that stopped me short. It took a few long moments to respond which means that it was a good question for me. And it was simple, as most of the best questions are.
What do you look for in a presentation?
The response I gave my friend is this: I look for caring. One of my early gurus, the risk communication expert Vince Covello, teaches that up to half of the credibility an audience gives a speaker is based on whether or not she seems to have empathy and caring. "People need to know that you care, before they care what you know," I remember him saying, and I've often repeated this to those I work with on presentations, stakeholder dialogues and other important in-person interactions.
To me, there's at least two levels to a speaker's care.
First, does the speaker care about her audience? Has she taken the time to find out where we come from? Does she know what level of familiarity we have with the topic and its technical language, if any? Has she prepared in order to communicate as effectively as possible within the timeframe given by the organizer, thus demonstrating care and respect for our time? Does she care enough to show up early, and stay after her own speaking slot, in order to take questions, listen to other speakers, and participate in discussion? Does she tap away at her keyboard or smart phone while others are talking, or does she listen? Does she refer to comments of viewpoints of others in her own remarks?
Second, I'm equally interested in how much the speaker cares about her own message. I believe it was Nancy Duarte's book Resonance where I was first confronted with this question: How badly do you want your idea to live? If a speaker is committed to sharing her information -- if she really cares about it as an idea -- then I expect that she will have thought long and hard about how to explain and organize her ideas in the most powerful way. She will have prepared her messages so that they are as clear as possible, with no distracting images or side-topics. If a talk is rote reading of prepared remarks, or difficult to follow from point to point, or messy, I think it's fair to question the speaker's care for the message.
So if a speaker wants me to care, then she has to show me that she cares about her audience and her message.
Upon reflection as this week went on, I realized there is another important ingredient of a good talk for me: Meaning. More on that later!

Friday, June 5, 2015

What I learned at the conference: Advancing Professional Speaking in Asia

Over the past year, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the opportunity for connection when we communicate with each other in person. Whether it's giving a presentation, participating on a panel, or taking part in a stakeholder dialogue -- being face-to-face with others allows us to be heard, understood and persuasive in ways that are impossible in writing or online. No need for following, clicking, downloading, streaming or liking! 

When I found out that the Asia Professional Speakers-Singapore association was having their annual conference down the road from me a few weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to attend.  The two-day agenda was stuffed with experts who are so valued for their ability to connect with audiences that they get paid to speak about motivation, organization, diversity, marketing and a host of other interesting topics. 

Here are the top three lessons I took away from the conference, together with some connections to agriculture advocacy:

1.       True does not equal compelling. Quite a few speakers spoke about the need to have a unique perspective or point of view, but Dave Avrin made the strongest case. He said that to be remark-able, we have to say something so unique that it’s worthy of being talked about long after we’ve finished our talk.
·         In our world, agriculture policy has become a noisy discussion recently. So when we speak about the need for good agriculture policy and tools in developing countries, what observation can we make that no one else has heard before? How can we be more interesting, so that others will be more interested  -- and hopefully more supportive – of our work?

2.       The power of posing a moral question. In the middle of a terrific talk on engagement, Axe Rawlinson brought the entire audience into a state of focused reflection by telling part of a dramatic story about an expedition to Mount Everest, then asking what we would do if we’d been there. After a few moments of sober silence, he told the rest of the story, revealing other facts that changed the picture completely. Another speaker referred to this tactic as ‘opening a loop’ in the minds of the audience, which motivates them to resolve the story for themselves.  
·         Are there moral questions that we could be posing to audiences of agriculture policy, to make the stakes more clear? Perhaps we can somehow urge our audiences to imagine themselves in the shoes of farmers in developing countries? 

3.       Each audience member is a culture of one. Knowing one’s audience is a fundamental step in preparing presentations, but many of us look no further than the hosting organization or perhaps a participants list beforehand. Lenora Billings-Harris provided a wealth of practical tools for making audience members feel seen and included in our messages. Some are relatively simple: using culturally appropriate images, referring to local news media or landmarks, and selecting quotes from people who are admired by our audience. All of this can help people ‘lean in’ to what we say. But she also used other so-called ‘inclusion techniques’ so subtle that we were hardly aware of them at the time – we just knew that it felt like she was talking to each of us as individuals.
·         For those of us communicating and engaging with audiences on agriculture topics that are sometimes divisive, it’s only too easy to make assumptions someone who asks a tough question. Can we take the time to appreciate and acknowledge the different histories and perspectives of everyone in the room? Being able to relate to each other is the true foundation for connection. 

We have much to learn, and much to share. Let’s all speak up! 

by Jill Kuehnert

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Report: What I learned from Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking

Scientists work with ever-more complex technical data, tools and theories to address important challenges in the world. And public support is critical to ensure this work moves forward. But scientists often find it difficult to connect with the public, especially when problems are complex and emotionally-charged. Therefore, we need to look broadly for new approaches to bridge this gap, and Hollywood-style storytelling can help!

I have been a big fan of Randy Olson, PhD scientist turned filmmaker, ever since I read his first book, Don’t be Such a Scientist, in 2009.  I have recommended and/or physically given copies of that book to more people than I can remember. My own copy has a big hole burned through the cover after I put it in front of a LCD projector lamp during a communication workshop in Nairobi five years ago.
This book has been around the world with me!

Although I had already worked with scientists for more than ten years when I read it, I learned a lot about the culture of science when it comes to communication within that community. It explains why scientists have the instincts and practices they have, and then tells them in no uncertain terms why those won’t work with the public. The chapter titles are good indications of what I want my scientist friends to hear from one of their own!
  • Don’t be so cerebral
  • Don’t be so literal-minded
  • Don’t be such a poor storyteller (my favorite!)
  • Don’t be so unlikeable
  • Be the Voice of Science

It is an excellent, excellent book, and one that I still recommend and give as a gift to my favorite new scientists!

But back to Connection.  
No scorches or scars yet, but lots of notes!

This new book goes more deeply into storytelling as a key communication practice that has the ability to cut through all the distractions of our modern world. 

Working with Hollywood-type co-authors Barton and Palermo, Olson acknowledges that there are intuitive and cerebral approaches to storytelling, but believes there is an element of science to stories that work. He proposes a Word – Sentence – Paragraph (WSP) structure to get us started.

Find an evocative word that captures the core theme of the message to be shared. That part is pretty easy actually.

Then tell your story in a sentence that gives one fact AND then another, BUT introduces a point of conflict or contradiction, before resolving with a THEREFORE statement that can resolve the tension.  I recently shared this And-But-Therefore template with a group of nutrition experts at the end of a very intensive two-days workshop here in Singapore, encouraging them to think about summarizing their experiences in a word, and then a sentence. For example, “My job is focused on this challenge AND I usually approach it this way, BUT at this workshop I learned about successful experiences of others using different tools, THEREFORE I’m going to explore this area more.” It’s a perfect one-sentence summary for the seatmate on the airpline home and the boss back at the office. 

The third part of the WSP structure is creating a more detailed paragraph-long journey from the beginning of our story, through the challenge, and on to resolution. The ‘logline’ tool, long-used in Hollywood scriptwriting, is co-opted as a tool to make it easier for our audiences to navigate through our sometimes dense technical material into a story not unlike the classic ‘hero’s journey.’ As script consultant Dorie Barton puts it:

In an ordinary world…. A flawed protagonist gets their life upended when a catalytic event happens. After taking stock, the hero commits to action. But when the stakes get raised, the hero must learn the lesson in order to stop the antagonist, so the hero can achieve their goal. 

She breaks this classic storyline – which has informed countless novels, plays and movies – into 9 key elements. Any of us can use them to organize our message into a story that will capture our audience’s attention. And keep it. 

The final section of the book is written by improv actor Brian Palermo, and focuses on the more physical aspects of connecting with an audience. He explains how learning improvisation techniques can help us craft our stories by fostering creativity, and how improv can help us to be more relatable and therefore deliver our stories more effectively. It’s more about being relatable than it is about being funny. Anybody know of an improv class in Singapore? 

These are good books! And you should read them!! But you may not have time to do it right now. Therefore, I urge you to at least check out Randy Olson’s 2009 TEDMED talk (10 minutes) which focuses on the key elements.  


Jill Kuehnert

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Roads, refrigerators and the importance of wet markets

Two news items last Friday afternoon reminded me that there’s a lot more complexity to the world of agriculture and food than my own experience of it, especially in Asia and Africa.

1. Reuters reported on a new study from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) for the Copenhagen Consensus Center. It calculates enormous benefits to reducing hunger and malnutrition from what might seem like an unlikely source: better roads and refrigerators (cold storage to keep food from spoiling). I’ve spent many hours bumping over roads and stuck in traffic across Asia and Africa, tending to dwell primarily on the inconvenience to me and where I want to go.  But all of that time also has an impact on the availability and affordability of important food products in developing countries, because of the cost of transportation and high rates of spoilage before it even gets to a market. 

According to the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the needed investments in road, rail and electrical infrastructure:
… will cost $240B over the next 15 years but reduce the number of hungry people by 57m, and avoid malnourishment of 4m children. This generates $13 of economic benefits.

2. The other report I saw, which came from another one of the terrific family of international agriculture research centers, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), calls attention to the importance of the ubiquitous ‘fresh markets’ (or ‘wet markets’) that are found in every village across Asia and Africa. 

Commonly found in the form of open air pavilions housing a collection of small stalls, these informal markets sell fresh fruit and vegetable produce, as well as fresh poultry, meat and seafood. They are usually chaotic and very ‘fragrant’. Before I moved to Asia, I’d only ever seen meat wrapped tidily in plastic, well-chilled or frozen in a supermarket. But here whole or half-butchered animals often hang near a small portion of meat available to purchase. Sometimes a fan has been rigged with small ribbons overhead to keep the flies off.  

This important (and fascinating) research shows firstly, just how important fresh markets are for income generation and food security in developing areas. The second key finding is that policies designed to ensure the safety of food available in informal markets must be very carefully crafted and implemented so that they do not cause more harm than benefit. According to ILRI:
...A new compilation of 25 studies in Africa finds that informal markets provide essential sources of food and income for millions of poor, with milk and meat that is often safer than supermarkets.

Misguided efforts to control the alarming burden of food-related illnesses in low-income countries risk intensifying malnutrition and poverty — while doing little to improve food safety. Blunt crack-downs on informal milk and meat sellers that are a critical source of food and income for millions of people are not the solution. 

More reasons to want good roads, more reasons to support wet markets!