Presentation Skills

One of my recent ad hoc jobs has been assisting in the Columbia University graduate business school, coaching on presentation skills and strategic messaging.

I don’t want to give away all of my tips and tricks. But here’s some of what I’ve learned and taught.

  1. Plant your feet to make a point
  2. Make eye contact
  3. Breathe
  4. Be prepared, but not memorized
  5. Put it in a story form
  6. Show the benefits to your listener
  7. Use emotion

Let me explain what I mean by all of these. I’ll use myself as an example.

  1. Plant your feet and make your point. Don’t wander around. Don’t fidget with a pen either. I need to remember this. I’m a passionate person, and so I like to really emote! That’s fine (see #7). Sure, move out from behind the podium, but move on the pause, and stop when you speak. Plant your feet. You can move as you think. But stop when you talk.
  1. Look ’em in the eyes for several sentences. Six (?) years ago, when Hilary Clinton was
    Barack Obama
    Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)

    debating Barack Obama, I noticed Hil scanned the crowd as she talked. Her eyes hopped from person to person. Not Barack. No, he spoke several sentences to one person, then moved his gaze to another person. Like #1, don’t wander – not even with your eyes. Fix your gaze on one person. Make sure they get your point and then focus on another person’s eyes.

I sometimes look up when I’m thinking. I do that on the pause. Then, I have to remember to look down and make eye contact when I talk.

  1. Breathe. A breath brings inspiration. Take time to think things through. I tend to talk fast. And so I get breathy and soft-spoken. When I take time to breathe, I’ve got fuller authority. I’m more centered. When you’re making a presentation, take time to inhale. Then, speak on the exhale.

4. Know your stuff. When I’m watching Shark Tank, I can tell that people who have memorized their whole pitch. If they lose their place, they’re lost. They only really need to know the salient points – their numbers, their benefit to the user, their unique factors. They don’t need the verbatim script, they need to speak just the basics.

5. Make a story. Everyone loves a beginning, middle, and end. Put your presentation in a story form — perhaps, a context of overcoming great odds. Or making the story about a heroic journey. You were lost and now you’re found. These story types are so primal and so inspiring. Everyone loves a narrative arc.

6. Show the benefit. I realized people were a bit self involved the first time I had skin cancer. I blogged about it. In conversations, people would ask me, “Does this mole look like yours looked?” People weren’t asking, “How are you feeling? What’s the latest?” No, they were telling me how they were feeling. All people are basically self-interested.

If your presentation is relevant to people, they will be interested. If you can help people learn about themselves or help them make money, then they’ll be into your presentation. I love inspiring people to learn about themselves. It’s why I love coaching writing.

7. Emote. Don’t be afraid to laugh, cry, admit that you don’t know something in your presentation. It’s all part of the human experience. People will remember what you say when you are passionate, but they may not remember your dry facts and figures.

Give yourself away. Go deep and don’t be afraid to be human. Get real.

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Be Disruptive

Yesterday I was at the awesome NYU Entrepreneurial Festival. A highlight for me was Luke Williams’ class on disruptive thinking. Here’s what I got out of it.

In your biz and in your life, chose the scary route. In this picture, look at the dude on the left, “Who is he? I don’t know — just the happiest guy I could find on the internet,” Williams said. “Why is he so happy? He’s complacent. He’s the face of all the companies we know. Doing what he’s always done, making small incremental changes.”

Luke Williams at the NYU Entrepreneurial Festival.
Luke Williams at the NYU Entrepreneurial Festival.

Like Kodak, everyone saw that Kodak’s biz was going down when digital cameras came along, but the CEO of Kodak basically said, “Why stick your hand in an engine that’s running?” If you’re the mechanic, you don’t reinvent the car while you’re supposed to fix it. Right? Williams is smart.

Now look at Janet Leigh. This is how your client or company should look — scared. And ready for change.

Hitchcock killed off his leading lady in the first 30 minutes of Psycho. No one had ever done that. Be like Hitchcock. Be counter-intuitive.

How do you do that? If sodas are supposed to be inexpensive, sweet, and aspirational; make them expensive, sour, and real.

Look for cliches — “widespread beliefs that govern the way people think and do business.” And then disrupt the cliches. Be like Little Mismatched, the company, that sells socks, not in pairs, but in singles or in threes.

Feed your own rebellious instinct — the one that wants change for the sake of change.

I plan to disrupt this endless winter with spring.

Spring starts in five days for me. I’m going to Sarasota, Florida for a few days, back to NYC for a few days, then to a dude ranch in Patagonia, Arizona with the family for almost a week, then just me and Hayden, my 11th grader, go to look to North Carolina (where I’ll offer a writing and art workshop with the fabulous Cindy Sloan.) And Hayden and I will visit a couple of colleges in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham for a few days.

I have been so slammed with work. Tomorrow and maybe a couple of more days this week, I’ll be subbing middle school English at a nearby prep school. I’m also continuing posts and articles with my fabulous blogging client. I have lovely tutoring jobs. I have an annual report due for a new client. I have to meet with my mentor to get my paperwork signed for my self employment assistance program.

I don’t want to disrupt my busy work life. But I don’t mind disrupting winter to get to spring. And summer.

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Walking towards 8th Street near NYU.
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Self Employment Assistance Program

Off and on, since September 2012, I have been on unemployment. I have also worked as a substitute teacher, after school teacher, tutor, videographer, journalist, copywriter, workshop leader, graphic designer, photographer, and more. I like doing a variety of work.

I have wanted to get my small biz off the ground, providing coaching for writers and creative content for companies. Yet unemployment stipulates that you mustn’t start a new business, only look for an existing job. Otherwise, it’s fraud, my friends.

So, what to do? I just found out this week that I am accepted into the Self Employment Assistance Program, SEAP, which means I have to take 20 hours of entrepreneurship classes and meet with a mentor a few times. I have to fill in a bunch of progress reports. In return, I can receive full unemployment benefits for another four or five months, and keep my earnings from my biz.

I have had an entrepreneurial streak since I started babysitting at 12. Even before that, at 10, I started a nursery school with April Fisher. We set up a blackboard in my basement. But one morning, before our neighborhood kids arrived, April and I messed around, wrestling, and I broke my hand, and any way, our summer school was cancelled.

My next biz? In high school my dad had a newfangled personal computer as big as a pony, whom we fondly referred to as Norty (for NorthStar). I intended to start a label-making company. I did not get past the company-naming part of a small business. I came up with the name, get this, Ready, Willing, and Label. Clever, no? See, I was always good at snappy prose.

In college my best friend and I started a biz, selling earrings on a corner near Tower Records in the Village. We made and sold earrings from pieces of film we swiped off the editing room floor. We never really got that biz off the ground, but again, you can see, great idea.

So, I’ve always loved freelancing and starting companies.

Now, back to unemployment, the last time I reported to the office on Varick Street, I was among about 40 people — the majority of whom were middle-aged white men. I thought why don’t they just group us by our skills or areas of expertise and we could start our own companies? Or at least schmooze?

I became eligible for unemployment over a year ago, when I took the company buyout, offered to all of the 300 or so employees of the global agency of the United Methodist church. I basically knew that jobs in communications would be shuffled and that my position as staff writer for the mission agency was precarious. (After all, why pay tens of thousands for a salary when you could pay a couple hundred per article?)

My particular buyout offer at GBGM came to about eight months pay and the possibility of unemployment. I took it. And it turns out, I’m glad I did.

Because just this week, my dream came true. I’m a legit small business start up. And this time, I won’t mess things up by wrestling with April Fisher before the day starts and breaking my hand and having to cancel the whole damn biz.

English: Interchurch Center in New York City
My old workplace at the Interchurch Center in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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We Have To Share

This year I learned to share. And it’s been awesome.

  • I shared cars and bikes.
  • I shared office space and jobs. I subbed as a videographer for a friend on maternity leave and as a middle school English teacher at a local private school.
  • I shared my home and family with exchange students from France.
  • We are moving from a culture of rugged individualism to collaboration.

    And if you want to join the movement, here are some ideas:

    Make your expectations clear. I am so grateful to the teachers who left me very specific instructions on what to do with their classes while they were out. Yes, I have a bunch of creative curriculum ideas, but it’s best to go with their plan.

    Leave the place nice for the next person. Like, when driving a Zipcar or Enterprise car, don’t leave your OTB stubs in the front seat. I admit I am the person who did not clean up the pine needles from the Christmas tree in the back seat last week. However, I have cleaned up my own (and earlier renters’) coffee cups, parking stubs, and such.

    Skip the elequent email, pick up the damn phone. I felt slightly chastised after offering an idea for my professional organization and I wrote that in an email. But rather than get in this lengthy email swap, the president of the group picked up the phone and called me. We worked it out in no time flat. Instead of getting in this tortured email chain, we talked directly. Yay.

    It’s nice when we can play nicely. And it’s not that I don’t expect us – any of us – to have problems, we will. A collaborative journey can be way more difficult and unwieldy than a dictatorship. But ultimately, sharing is best for everyone.

    have a plan. when our exchange students came to live with us, I was worried about our ad hoc dinners. So Charlotte and I made a two-week meal plan, adding our favorites to the lineup.

    On the morning of his departure, one student said to Chris, “I like you cook.” So, you see, their English did not improve much, but their appreciation for our food did.

    So, for me, 2013 was a year to share. Now, if I could just get my darlings to share in the kitchen cleanup and the paying of bills, we’d be all right.

    Here’s a CitiBike I shared.

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    And a Thanksgiving dinner (that’s me with my brother!) Holiday dinners are a perfect time to share. Hope you get to share this Christmas with people you love and keep the love and sharing going throughout the new year!

Caldwell House

Cornwall House
Caldwell House
Is there anything prettier? A field of corn near the Cornwall House.
Is there anything prettier? A field of corn .

I stayed at Caldwell House in Salisbury Mills, NY. It was a perfect get-away. I love the city, but only because, occasionally, I get away to the country too.

See, it was the night before I was about to host a writing weekend at Kirkwood House in Cornwall-on-Hudson (and there will be another —  in June — check it out at boot camp for writers upcoming stuff), and I was nervous.

But spending one night in this charming B&B made me feel like everything was going to be all right. (Yes, cue the Bob Marley music — “Don’t worry ’bout a thing.”)

Every cozy bedroom room was stocked with a comfy robe and an iPad! What!

On the Thursday night, at the suggestion of the innkeepers’ daughter, I walked through the backyard of Caldwell House, rounded a corner and there I was at an Irish pub, Loughran’s. I sang Irish songs along with the locals. And the songs made me laugh and brought a tear to me eye. And so I needed the beer to chase it all down — to make me forget me troubles. Or, me ole anxiety about how me weekend would go.

One patron at the bar noticed me eyeing her IPA (I’d never tried one) — and so this older gal pushed her frothy mug over to me and told me, “Try it!” Thank you!

What! People are like that when you leave NYC. Strangers tell you to try their drinks and they don’t want anything from you but a bit of conversation and a laugh. (Kids, don’t do that. Only adults can drink from strangers’ mugs.)

The hosts of Caldwell House, John and Dena Finneran, are super nice and smart. John totally encouraged me to have confidence about my venture of writing weekends. He’s a corporate marketing dude from California who, with his lovely partner, moved back east to run this family biz. He gave me some needed advice on how to use social media — like use it regularly and use Google+.

The breakfast was lovely and abundant and my room was pretty and comfy. I felt refreshed to offer my own hospitality at Kirkwood House in Cornwall-on-Hudson, the next town over.

Part of the reason I want to host another writing weekend at Kirkwood House is so that I can stay again at Caldwell House on the Thursday night and sing along with the locals and snuggle into a big comfy bed and go for a walk in the country.

A walk in the countryside in Salisbury Mills.
A walk in the countryside in Salisbury Mills.

You know, when I see tourists dragging a suitcase from a Manhattan hotel to an airport bus, I say – to whomever I’m with – or inside my head, if I’m not with anyone, “Those poor people have to leave New York City. And I get to stay.” Maybe I shouldn’t be smug about NYC. Because one reason I love NYC so well is because I get to leave it. Regularly. And there are so many beautiful places and people to visit nearby. And Caldwell House is one such place.

Sure, there's no place prettier than Central Park in NYC, but you have to leave to remember this.
Sure, there’s no place prettier than Central Park in NYC, but you have to leave to remember this.

Writers in the Hudson Valley

Another writer and I were walking in search of cappuccino just on the edge of town, when this middle-aged blonde woman walked towards me. She pointed to me and began to sing, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.” And I sang along.

Yes, we two strangers sang the Mister Roger’s song to each other one recent sunny afternoon in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Is this what goes down in small towns? Apparently, on my writing retreats that kind of thing happens.

What else happened?

  • walks on country roads
  • morning yoga 
  • writing
  • painting little boxes
  • arts and crafts in the gazebo
  • time to read and write and reflect

I’m really grateful to Carla, April, Don, and the crew at Olmsted Center, so that, a few weeks back, several intrepid writers and I could set sail on this maiden voyage to write the story of their lives.

I have to admit I was disappointed with the turnout. Only a handful of writers attended the Hudson Valley weekend. And more would have been better. We wrote about love, work, money, and family. And I don’t think the cost kept people away — it was a good deal — the weekend cost $295 for 2 nights, 6 meals and a bunch of fun writing and art workshops.

In any case, I’m not even putting a price on the experience of having some stranger sing to me on the sidewalk. As usual, the most magical and fun moments happen when you get off script and get off campus. There’s a lesson here — get out of your comfort zone to find fun.

In the writing workshops, the writers found the thread of meaning in seemingly random life events. Every one said they’d love to do the weekend again. But I’m in a bit of a dilemma because the center needs to have a minimum of 10 participants next time. I’m not sure I can do that. I am also having trouble finding a May or June date. I’d like June 13 to 15, but that’s Father’s Day. Would writers want to get away on Father’s Day weekend?

Bootcamp4writers is a dream of mine, but I have to be honest. Putting on the weekends takes a lot of work and I’m not sure for my small margin of profit, whether it’s worth it. I took a loss of a couple hundred dollars at this Hudson Valley retreat and I don’t want to do that again. (In addition to the retreat center, I pay for yoga, insurance and supplies, as well as my own transport and PR.)

***

I love getting out of the city and having a chance to reflect on my life.

Like the city writers on the weekend, I get to taste a bit of country life in the Hudson Valley. For example, there was a couple of ladies sitting outside a church, passing out candy corn and juice. How nice is that! 

The workshop ended with time to map the hills and valleys of their lives through big and small life experiences from their spiritual lives.

We laughed, we cried, we made new friends. We want to do it again, But I’m just trying to figure out whether we can.

Contact bootcamp4writers@gmail.com for more details or visit the website at bootcamp4writers.com

Here are some pictures I shot from the weekend. See? Looks like fun, right?

Would you come?

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Here’s where we held the retreat, Kirkwood House at Camp Olmsted.
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Just one of the glorious views as we took an afternoon walk

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Getting ready to write
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Out at the gazebo, we made some art. We painted boxes.
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In town we came upon some ladies giving out kindness.
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Time to plug in and write.
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A quick trip by commuter rail to Cornwall-on-Hudson.
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Here’s me, wondering whether to do it again.

Be More Than One Thing

I’ve read a lot about branding. As a small biz owner I’ve heard I should focus on ONE THING.

my little treasure boxes
my little treasure boxes

See I’m a writing coach, but I’m also the director, producer and star of some short comedy films. Oh, and I make little treasure boxes. And I’m an advocate for kids’ creative learning. I love religion. I’m into improv and stand up comedy. I am totally a feminist and global peace-lover. I support Parkinson’s Disease causes. I occasionally run 5Ks. I review Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Mostly, I’m a blogger.

See, what I mean? It’s impossible to put myself in a box.

How can I be just one thing? How can you?

In our frenzied, distracted society, it may be that we only give ourselves time to label each other as one thing.

Ken Norton, back in the day.
Ken Norton, back in the day. (courtesy of boxingkodvds)

I was thinking about this this morning when a brilliant friend and student of mine (yes, they’re ALL brilliant!) posted an article about the death of Ken Norton. See, Matthew Baker knows a lot about boxing. He also takes people on Beautiful New York tours, and is a super-involved dad and lover of Broadway.

I wonder how Matt brands himself? Boxing enthusiast? Blogger? Tour guide? Dad? Actually, I don’t care how he brands himself. I am interested in his voice.

I read Matt’s article about Norton, not because I have any interest in boxing, but because I have an interest in Baker’s take on boxing. So rather than focusing on what we do, let’s focus on who we are. Let’s listen to the voices of complex people in our midst.

We are all complicated people. Complications bring new insights into old subjects. Be Renaissance women and men with many interests, not just one. It may be easier to brand yourself but who wants to be easy. Be interesting.

I know a little about a lot. Thanks to Matt, today, I know a little more about boxing. And I got this great line from Matt’s article. “He always treated me like I was somebody.” That’s what Tyson said about Norton. That’s nice. Maybe Norton saw that Tyson was more than just one thing (I’ve always labeled Tyson as a screw up.)

Maybe when we stop branding ourselves and others we can be a little more compassionate. Maybe people are more than screw ups. Maybe people are more than their brand. I am.

This reminds me of the headmaster’s advice, inspired by Wittgenstein, “Be a duck-rabbit.” I blogged a while back about  Dominic Randolph’s brilliant advice to Riverdale 8th graders.

Be more than one thing. Don’t brand yourself.