Three, no four ways the Spanish Inquisition will help you write better headings than this one.

 

the-spanish-inquisition

 

I bet you were not expecting me to use the Spanish Inquisition to help you write better headings. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and I’m guessing that it got your attention, or you would not have read this far. The Spanish Inquisition have several ways to help you improve your headings. Amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as:

Fear

Fear the reaction of your readers. Counting your arguments is a good and powerful way to dia1bring a point across, but these days everybody’s doing it and readers are starting to be really annoyed with yet another heading like, “Seven reasons why you should take up running”, “Five reasons why you should not eat bread”, “Three ways to improve your sales”, “Ten reasons why running is bad for you”, “Six reasons why you should avoid annoying your readers with boring headings”.

Surprise

Surprise your readers with a more interesting kind of heading. kirk-surprisedSomething they were not expecting. You want to be read? Be different. Stand out from the crowd. Do something new. Boldly combine ideas that no one has combined before.

Ruthless efficiency

Use as few words as you can, but no fewer than you need. Headings are important because readers use them as a selection instrument. Am I going to read this blog post or not, is what they’re asking themselves, and if they don’t understand the heading they won’t read your post. Or your technical report. Or your scientific paper. So KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

Fanatical devotion

Do not stop revising until you’ve got the perfect heading. This can take a long time. Consider leaving it alone for a couple of days if you’re not satisfied yet. Don’t throw away previous versions, you may want to revert back to them later on. Personally, I wrote approximately 20 headings for this post before I decided on this one and I still have them somewhere.

Nice red uniforms

If you are writing for a newspaper or a weblog you can do pretty much whatever you want with your headings (and even here we see a lot of people stealing and copying each other’s ideas, which is boring and which is why am writing this post). At work, uniformity may be expected more often (Look! We’ve been doing it like this for ages so it must be a good idea!). And even if we know that it’s the heading that stands out from the rest that will catch people’s eye, not all your headings can always be spectacularly different from the ones written by your colleagues. Some of you have company templates that you have to use and often a particular style is prescribed. But even if you have to do what everybody else is doing and they make you wear that uniform, at least try to make it a red one.

comfy-chair

Writers who fail to take this advice seriously will be considered blasphemers and will be poked with soft cushions, with all the stuffing at one end. And if they don’t confess their blasphemy they will have to sit in a comfy chair until teatime.

Last slide: Aristotle and cute kittens

At the end of your presentation,  when you say “Are there any questions?”, you would expect that people might pick up that it’s time for questions. Most likely they don’t really need a visual aid to help them. Nevertheless, many beginning speakers seem to think that their audience need some sort of support, a visible confirmation of the fact that the speaker did indeed just say that the Q&A session is now open. I find this insulting.

Over the years I have been witness to many brave attempts at finishing presentations successfully. Some of them worked, some not so much. Let me give you an idea of what I have come across.kitten

Some students use some sort of cartoon figure, or a cat or dog that looks particularly
puzzled. For extra effect it may have a question mark hanging over its head. Some use just the word “questions”. Occasionally I catch an animated version of these. Please don’t animate your last slide. It makes people nervous. They want to ask a question, but the slide is distracting them.

Some (many) shosummaryw a summary of the steps they took during the presentation, basically giving an overview, but no content. Invariably, the last words these students utter are: “And then finally we had a conclusion. Are there any questions?” Thank you, no.

Some just keep whatever happens to be the last slide of the presentation. Could be anything. Sometimes it’s a list of things that went wrong during the project. Aargh!

Some students leave the last slide blank, thus giving their audience nothing to work with.

Let’s consider the purpose of your last slide. A wise man, probably Aristotle buany-questionst there are bound to have been others, once said that the only reason why we organize presentations in the first place is to prepare the audience for the Q&A session. In other words, people are usually quite keen to ask questions. They only need a little nudge and off they go. But they do need you to give them something to go on.

As a speaker, you are also keen for them to ask questions, or you should be. An audience that is asking questions is proof of the fact that they found your presentation interesting. Of course you may prefer some questions to others, and of course you prefer the audience to ask questions that you actually know the answer to.

This is where that last slide comes in. What you do is you make sure that the information on the last slide will invite your audience to ask questions that you feel you can answer.  Usually it’s your conclusions, maybe with a couple of supporting bullet points. Of course there is no guarantee, some people will have made notes, but there’s a good chance that this way the first couple of questions will deal with your last slide.

And then, when you’ve answered your last question, you click the remote to show your contact details on the screen and say: “Thank you very much for all your questions. I realise that there may be one or two questions that we haven’t addressed yet, or maybe you suddenly wake up tomorrow morning at 3 AM because you had a dream about a really good question that you forgot to ask today. Either way, please don’t call me but send an email to this address”.

Whatever you do, please avoid the word “questions” on your last slide, and certainly don’t show a kitten with a question mark over its head. I don’t care how cute it is!

Do not underestimate the power of the dark slide.

Yes, there is one. A dark side of PowerPoint I mean. It can be a tad dominant (like Vader). In fact, some presentations look as if the speaker has thought only about what they could show in PowerPoint, instead of what they wanted to say.

All the books I know that deal with preparing presentations say that you should first identify your audience and goals, and then generate content and structure. Creating visuals comes after that and should be one of the last things you do. And yet I see a shocking number of students who, when asked to prepare a presentation, immediately start PowerPoint, Keynote or even Prezi. This is beginning to annoy me, so I asked myself: what would happen if I told my students that the projector was broken, and they would have to improvise?

I tried this a while ago: they improvised.

For this particular lesson I had asked my students to prepare a presentation in groups of two, using slides, just like they always did. This time when  they came in, however, I told them that there was a problem with the projector and that they would have to come up with a creative solution. I gave the group 15 minutes to prepare. The results were not only educational, they were spectacular.

One student used her partner as a prop. She explained the aerodynamics of speed skating and made him assume different speed skating positions to show what she meant. She was thrilled to have a movable 3D model on a 1:1 scale to help her make things clear. Between the lines it became audibly clear, by the way, that maintaining a certain knee angle for a long time is not necessarily very comfortable.

Another student made three people from the audience perform as passenger aircraft , flying from Amsterdam to New York in formation (arms wide, propeller sounds, pilot banter), slowly moving through the room together. They managed to land safely one by one.

Some groups found out that the slides that they had made were pointless and that the presentation worked just as well, or better, without them. They certainly noticed that the audience were listening quite intently to what they were saying.

The thing is, not only did we prove that life without slides actually exists, but also everybody in that group still remembers exactly all the presentations we had that day. Of course my spectacularly innovative didactics may have played a role, but I like to think that most of the presentations simply had more impact than they would have had if they had used slides.

Of course PowerPoint is not a useless tool; it can show in a flash what would otherwise take you hours to explain. But it is just that: a tool. One of many. The presentation is not what you show, the presentation is you, and there are several moments in any presentation when you as the presenter may want the audience’s full attention, without being distracted by PowerPoint. Then you might use that most wonderful of features in PowerPoint: letter B on your keyboard.

Hitting letter  B will make the screen go black, which will make everybody focus on you (I call it B for Bob). Anything you say now will be consumed like hamburgers by a starving man. Trust me and try this; and I promise that the power of the dark slide will be with you. Always.

Oh, and you should have seen the look on my students’ faces when, after our class had finished, the next group came in and started the projector, which was working perfectly well…

How Eeyore can help you become a better speaker

Most useful bits of wisdom come from Winnie the Pooh and so they do too. Many of my students, when they are trying to sound convincing in a presentation, sound like they have just had some seriously bad news. As this rather harms their persuasiveness, I feel something must be done. So here is a simple and enjoyable remedy against sounding like you are selling monotony and gloom:

Read Winnie the Pooh.

Out loud I mean. And do the voices. Not only is this excellent voice practice, it is also hilarious. Especially when you do it for an audience. You can read to your children, your neighbours’ children, your spouse (excellent foreplay, trust me) or your fellow presenter(s). Think about what kind of voice every animal should have (it is ok to disagree about this. Ask the children if you don’t know). When my kids were young, my Roo would sound baby-like, rabbit sounded sensible, Owl superior to posh. Tigger, of course, is and sounds bouncy. My Tigger was famous in my kids’ schoolyard.

eeyoreMy personal favourite is Eeyore, although I realize that his is exactly the kind of voice I don’t want you to use in your presentations, because he sounds thoroughly depressed. Think about the scene when he comes floating downstream on his back in the river, and he spots his friends on a bridge. “Don’t mind me”, he says, “No-one ever does”. I mean, think of the utter fatalism you must put in your voice to make that work!

Go ahead and give the voices a try. Do this about 15 minutes before your presentation starts. I promise the results will be amazing. And don’t think you’re too cool or important to do this; no one is.

Oh, and one more thing: promise me you won’t make Pooh bear sound stupid. He isn’t. It is an understandable mistake to make, as he is indeed, by his own admission, a bear of little brain, but Pooh is also very wise and a true Zen master, who comes up with little gems like this one aimed at technologists like you:

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”

Spoiler Alert!

Why bottom lines should be headlines.

What would your readers say if you put the conclusion of your report in its title?

A: Booh! Spoiler alert!

B: Aha!

I have asked that question in my writing groups for years and every time a few of my students answer ‘A’. Apparently they think that argumentation should come before conclusion. And of course it does – when you are doing the research and the designing. But does that mean that you should keep your conclusions secret until your reader has read the rest of the report? I think not!

Mind you: I am not talking about scientific papers or essays here. But your report should give the most efficient representation of your conclusions and argumentation possible, and that means that your reader should be able to see what your main conclusion is. Immediately. On the front page.

A title like: “An investigation into algae as an energy source” forces your poor readers to find the Summary or the Conclusion section and read until they come to the relevant bit, which they will find annoying. You don’t want your readers to find you annoying. Really. It’s bad for business.

Instead, write something like: “Three reasons why algae will never replace fossile fuel”, or: “Why algae are likely to be the biofuel of the future”. If you want (you do), you can combine them into a title and a subtitle (or primary and secondary, if you are American) like this:

Three reasons why algae will replace fossile fuel within five years.

An investigation into algae as an energy source.

Or:

Algare are not an acceptable alternative for fossile fuel.

Research shows algae are too slow to grow, expensive and inefficient.

I have said this in previous posts, but you may not (yet) have read them all (you should). People who read technical reports professionally don’t have a lot of time to read. Do them a favour: don’t waste their time by keeping your main findings a secret.

Pronouncing English properly is impossible.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation, DON’T READ THIS, IT WILL DRIVE YOU MAD!

My dad, now 86 years old, used to force-recite this poem/pronunciation exercise/mental torture to me relentlessly 40 or 50 years ago. It was therefore both a shock of panic and of fond recognition to find that it is still alive and kicking today. I will just give you the first couple of stanzas here, the rest can be found on many places on the internet. If you get the whole thing right (you won’t), try an Irish accent. Or Jamaican.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.

Oh dear, that reminds me. Does anyone have the story of Arthur the rat, who’d never take the trouble to make up his mind? I remember students crying in the office next door, trying to get it right.