Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Practical Pearl: You don’t save money at a store; you save money at a bank.

When I was in college, I wanted to buy a nice stereo system. I went to several audio stores, testing components and getting price quotes. Naturally, I was looking for the best system I could find at the lowest cost. The salesman at one store told me something I’ve kept in mind ever since then. He said, “The first thing you should know is that you don’t save money at a stereo store. You save money at a bank.”

We see countless advertisements every day that exhort us to come into a particular store and “save” vast quantities of money on some product. But every time you buy something you are spending money, not saving money. You save money only by not buying something. What the ads mean is that you can pay less for the advertised product than you would otherwise. Maybe the ad should really say that you can pay less for the item at Store A than at Store B, or you can pay less if you buy it now instead of next week. But, that’s only a true savings if you needed to buy the item at that particular time anyway. The siren song of “save money!” sometimes leads us to buy things we don’t really need because we just can’t pass up a good deal.

A better way to think about spending your hard-earned funds is to make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck. Fortunately, I’m pretty immune to impulse purchases. I’m not going to buy a new car unless I need one, no matter how much the dealer claims I can save—this week only, just two in stock at this price! I know people who went out for a Sunday drive and returned in a brand new car that just happened to catch their eye. Not me. When I do buy a car, though, I’m going to comparison shop, research dealer costs, and negotiate to pay the least amount of money I can for the greatest amount of car. It doesn’t matter if that ultimate price turns out to be the same as list price or thousands less. What matters is that I maximize the value of what I get for a product or service I really need to buy, and that I feel like the outcome was fair.

And if I have any money left afterward, I’ll save it—at a bank.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Professional Pearl: Anyone can become more confident and relaxed about public speaking.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a public speaker. I never took a speech class or participated in debate in school, and I never went to Toastmasters or any other organization that helps you become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I’ve delivered nearly 600 presentations in the past twenty years and enjoyed just about all of them. Almost all of these have been technical seminars and training classes on software development and management, my profession since 1984. Somehow I have become comfortable delivering presentations to audiences ranging from just a few people up to nearly two thousand.

Speaking in public is one of the most terrifying experiences for most people. I can certainly understand that. Everyone is staring right at you, waiting to hear your words of wisdom. You feel incredibly vulnerable. It’s one thing to say something that sounds foolish in a private conversation; it’s quite a different matter to say it to dozens or hundreds or thousands. The potential for embarrassment is enormous. However, so is the potential for sharing important information that can influence many people in a positive way.

Just in case you, like so many other people, are scared by the idea of giving a presentation, in this three-part post I’d like to share Karl’s Safety Tips for Confident Public Speaking. I think you’ll find that keeping these ideas in mind as you prepare for a talk will give you a lot more confidence. Maybe you’ll even have a good time the next time you’re on stage.

Presentation Tip #1: No one knows what you’re going to say, so don’t worry if the words that come out of your mouth don’t exactly match the way you scripted it or practiced it. Just keep going. This is very different from giving, say, a piano recital of a well-known piece, where someone in the audience is certain to detect a C that should have been a B.

Presentation Tip #2: You’re in control. You’re the one with the podium, the microphone, the projector, and the laser pointer. You’re the one who can ask the audience if they have any questions; you can terminate the discussion and move on whenever you like. It’s your show, not the audience's.

Presentation Tip #3:
Even if you aren’t the world’s expert on the topic you’re presenting, you almost certainly know more about it than anyone else in the room. Otherwise, one of them would be speaking and you’d be listening. Keep this truth in mind to give you confidence in your material.

Presentation Tip #4: You rarely face a hostile audience. Most of the time, people are there because they want to hear what you have to say. This isn’t necessarily true if you’re dealing with a controversial political, social, or community issue. But if you’re delivering a factual presentation to a group of people who are attending of their own volition, they usually start out with an open and receptive attitude toward the speaker. After that, it’s up to you to hold their interest.

Presentation Tip #5: If you’re using slides, as in a PowerPoint presentation, never say “and on the next slide....” Maybe you don’t remember exactly what is on the next slide, or perhaps you changed the sequence from the last time you gave the presentation. If you’re surprised by what slide pops up, you’ll have to backtrack a bit after the lead-in you presented just before it appeared. Instead, just display the next slide in the sequence and talk about whatever is on it. In other words, it’s okay to fake it a little bit.

Presentation Tip #6: It’s fine to say “I don’t know” in response to a question. That’s better than standing there silently because you can’t think of the right answer. It’s also better than making up some answer on the fly that might turn out to be wildly erroneous. Even better than a simple “I don’t know” is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know,” or “I’m not sure off the top of my head, so let me think about your question and get back to you with a more considered response.”

Presentation Tip #7:
Keep an eye on the clock. If you see that you might run out of time before you cover everything you wanted to say, that’s your problem, not the audience’s problem. You might have to skip some material. That’s much better than holding captive a fidgeting audience who would like to move on with their lives. It’s usually okay to run a minute or two over your allotted time, but that’s it. With practice, you’ll get better at selectively deleting or condensing your planned material to bring the talk to a smooth close without having to flip through a dozen slides in the last two minutes—nobody likes that.

Presentation Tip #8: Be sure to talk about what you said you were going to talk about. I firmly believe in “truth in advertising,” so I try to write descriptions of my presentations that are accurate as well as inviting. The audience members have a right to know what to expect, and the speaker has a responsibility to deliver. I’ve attended more than one conference presentation where the content delivered didn’t fulfill the expectation set by the title and description. Let’s say the title of the talk is “Conjugating Verbs in Swahili,” but the material presented missed the mark. At the end of the talk the speaker invites questions, and one attendee asks, “Were you going to say anything about conjugating verbs in Swahili?” The speaker is dumbfounded because she thinks that’s what she just spent an hour talking about, but she really didn’t. That’s an embarrassing position for any speaker to be in. I’ve seen it happen.

There are numerous other tips to keep in mind during an effective presentation, but I find that these eight help keep me confident, comfortable, and poised when I’m speaking in public. I’ll bet they’ll help you, too.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Learning from the Masters

What books have taught you the most significant or useful life lessons? I got a lot out of Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As with most such compendiums, the lessons are not particularly subtle or unobvious, but the author does a fine job of selecting powerful messages that are helpful to nearly any reader. Since I read the book, I’ve incorporated several of the habits into my daily life. For instance, I routinely practice the habit to “Put First Things First.” When I’m facing a lengthy task list, I try to tackle the most important tasks first, not just the ones that seem urgent but might not be very important.

Just recently, I had an opportunity to practice Covey’s habit “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” The bill I received from my accountant for preparing my income tax returns was substantially higher than I expected. My first instinct was to call the accountant and tell him how outrageous this bill was. But then I recalled my commitment to following this habit. I sent the accountant an e-mail and asked if he could help me understand why the bill was so different from my expectation.

I’ve found that it is far more constructive—and collaborative—to start by asking this type of question. In this case, I knew that more information would allow me to make a more considered evaluation of the situation, and that I could squawk later if I still thought the bill was unacceptable. By taking this approach, I don’t get agitated unless and until I need to, and the other party isn’t immediately put on the defensive by my complaint, which might have a perfectly sensible explanation. In this case, we negotiated a payment that we both found acceptable.

I’ve learned a lot from other authors, as well. In fact, I learned a great deal while writing Pearls from Sand. As I reflected on the major lessons I’ve accumulated over my life, I kept thinking of new ones that hadn’t come to mind for some time. You, too, might find it instructive to search your memory for the books that have had the greatest influence on how you think about yourself or on how you interact with others. Perhaps you can share those books with people around you who might also find them insightful. I’d love to hear what books you come up with.