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October 2010

Lessons from the world of Aikido

Aikido3a At some point in a future presentation you may encounter tough questions or even a hostile audience member who may be more interested in making you look foolish or derail you during your talk than getting at the truth. It happens. Even if an audience member does choose to assume the role of "opponent," your irritation or any display of anger will surely not do you or the rest of your audience (98% of whom may support your views) any good at all. The modern Japanese martial art of Aikido (合気道) has many lessons for us about dealing effectively with everyday challenging situations, including difficult questions and difficult people. Aikido means "the way of spiritual harmony" and was established in the 1920s by Morihei Ueshiba. Aikido is practiced on the dojo but it also offers us everyday life applications of harmony and peace that extend far beyond the mat. Aikido is an effective response to conflict as well as an approach to living and way of life which seeks to promote harmonious solutions.

Nonresistance, harmony, & assertiveness
O-sensei Ueshiba-sensei, also called O-sensei (the great teacher), was not a large man but his skills as a martial artists are said to be unparalleled. And as pointed out in John Steven's Budo Secrets, Ueshiba was also a philosopher and a very spiritual man who spent much time talking with his students about the deeper meanings reflected in Aikido. “The universe is always teaching us Aikido, though we fail to perceive it,” Ueshiba said. O-sensei thought that the universe is our greatest teacher and our greatest friend. Aikido is non-violent and stresses the concept of blending rather than opposing the force of another person or a situation. “The way of a Warrior is not to kill and destroy but to foster life, to continually create.” In Aikido one does not attack. “If you want to strike first to gain advantage over someone, this is proof your training is insufficient,” said O-sensei. Yet, one does not run or cower from attack either. Aikido is not passive. Rather, the Aikidoka lets the other attack and uses the attacker’s aggression or energy against him. In this way one can defeat an opponent through non-resistance by leveraging the other’s force rather than one using his own brute strength to resist.

Here are a seven practical lessons from the spirit of Aikido which we can apply to communication in general and dealing with an aggressive audience member in particular.

(1) Be here now. In Aikido, Harmony, and the Business of Living (Zanshin Press), Richard Moon calls the practice of being fully present and fully aware “Feel Where You Are.” If you are to truly listen, engage, and empathize with someone challenging you then you yourself must be completely aware of your situation and aware of their situation and all the subtle signals. One who is fully in the present cannot be caught off guard. “Feeling where you are,” says Moon, “refines awareness into attention.” Everyone in your audience deserves your full attention. There is energy in your presence, that is, when you are fully present.

(2) Size matters not. Aikido is not about brute strength. A well-trained Aikidoka can neutralize a much larger opponent, not by opposing his force, but by blending with the opponent’s energy and guiding it, controlling it. You need not feel intimidated by the fact that others may prejudge you or assume you are in a weaker position. Perhaps you are new or young or an outsider, but these things do not matter. What matters is that you are prepared, ready, and fully listening—with your ears, and also with your eyes, and your heart.

(3) Strive for harmony. Ki (気) can be translated as "life force" or "vital force" or more commonly as “spirit” or "energy." It is the living energy that flows through all things. Aikido teaches the student how to be in harmony with the spirit/energy of the universe and how to use this energy of life rather than resist it. In Aikido, force and energy is not about strength of the body, which is limited, but about the power of ki, which is limitless. "We can't control ki but we can create the ideal situation within ourselves for ki to work," says the late Aikido master Kensho Furuya. Proper mindfulness, stillness, presence, as well as relaxation of movement can help create the ideal situation for which this energy can flow.

(4) Do not become defensive. If an audience member is aggressive or even hostile toward you, do not react by being hostile back. This kind of resistance never works. When you allow stress in the form of feelings related to defensiveness such as irritation, fear, impatience, and anger your thinking becomes cloudy and your actions — including speaking — may become impulsive and foolish. Remember that we are not concerned with winning or losing, only with “the true nature of things.” During Q&A or discussion we are interested in truth just as our challenging questioner may be. If we are presenting truly naked with honesty, integrity, and good intention, we need not fear exposure since we have nothing to hide. We aim not to dominate people and situations, but are thinking more in terms of collaboration. By remaining calm we can give measured responses instead of emotional reactions. “Impulsiveness and stubbornness give way to patience and understanding,” says Richard Moon, when we remain calm, focused, and centered.

(5) Remain balanced. Proper breathing is one crucial way to create the ideal situation for our ki to flow. Practice proper breathing at all times, but especially if your emotions try to kick in once you sense an attack. Become aware of your center. Kikai tanden is your body’s center located in your belly about three finger widths below your navel. This center is your inner compass. You must maintain good posture in which you are well balanced physically and mentally. When dealing with a tough question one should not be leaning to the side or have more weight on one foot than another. This imbalance can make you feel (and look) weaker on some level, though you may not be conscious of it. When you breathe, imagine that your breath is centered in the kikai tanden. Breathing from this center is a common technique in many forms of meditation.

(6) Do not regard others as the enemy. Those who may challenge us are not the enemy. The only real enemy is inside us. O-sensei said "I know not how to defeat others. I only know how to win over myself." Obviously O-sensei thwarted all attacks, but this preparedness was made possible through constant training and knowledge that the real enemies are fear, self-doubt, anger, confusion, and jealousy and other emotions inside us that can disturb the flow of ki. The important thing is to remember that they are never the enemy. Think instead in terms of mutual welfare and benefit. A key tenet of the martial arts is mutual respect for an opponent. In Aikido you can neutralize or deflect an attack by blending with the other’s energy without causing harm to the opponent. If you think of your exchange as fighting then you are resisting. Fighting is resisting and generating more conflict which wastes energy and is ultimately fruitless. Fighting the other does not change minds or hearts. In business and in life, attempts to make the other look foolish or engaging in ad hominem attacks is ignoble, unwise, and counter productive.

Flow (7) Go with the flow. This may sound to you like some groovy expression from the ’60s, but it is actually very practical. “Going with the flow” does not mean to act passively—quite the contrary. Going with the flow comes from a place of total awareness and an understanding of how things actually are in reality. Remember the universe and nature are our greatest teacher. The energy of a stream, for example, flows through the forest smoothly having created its path around rocks and myriad natural obstacles. Or look how the bamboo in the same forest sways and bends in the wind but never breaks. When you remain calm and in harmony with your own personal state and the state of your surroundings your natural energy can flow smoothly, but if you resist and push back from a place of stress and anger your energy creates a discordance leading to bad results for all concerned.

There may be times, particularly during a Q&A session, when the line of questioning may seem especially challenging and even hostile. But there is no reason to feel intimidated. The only person who can get you off balance is yourself.

Aikido1   Aikido2
Slides: We can't control how people think or behave. Yet, the only real enemy is inside us; this we can control. How we respond to a tough situation is entirely up to us.

Talking clearly & visually about plastic pollution

Here is another short presentation on an important topic that combines a rational yet emotional narrative with high-impact graphics to get your attention and make a memorable point. This is another good example of using a flat panel display rather than a projector. The advantages of using a display are that you can keep all of the lights on and there is no beam to shine in your face if you move in front of the screen at times. Dianna Cohen does a good job — with no notes at all — of delivering her story in sync with the visuals. She also does a good job of positioning herself right next to the screen so that both the graphics and she are in the viewer's visual frame. Watch it below or here in TED.


Above: Dianna Cohen uses story, facts, reason, and emotion to make a connection and make her case.
Above: The visuals would have had more impact had they been designed for a 16:9 display instead of in 4:3 (note the large black voids on the sides). Make sure you know the aspect ratio of the screen you will be using ahead of time.

Plastic3   Plastic4
Above: Examples of high-impact visuals. The albatross photo is especially illuminating and visceral. The rotting corpse reveals intestines filled with plastic that the albatross consumed, mistakenly thinking it was food. The adult birds feed plastic to their chicks as well, which kills them. You can see many more images like the one above here.

Turning plastic into oil

Here is a story about a man in Japan who goes around the world giving presentations on the idea of turning plastic garbage into useful fuel. Crazy idea? Watch below or on YouTube. Video is in 日本語 with English subtitles.

Capt. Charles Moore on the seas of plastic

The animated Sir Ken Robinson

Bored This short animation below was adapted from a much longer presentation given by Sir Ken Robinson at the Royal Society of the Arts in London. In some ways I prefer the original one-hour version for the additional information and also for the richness of actually seeing Sir Ken and all his non-verbal signals. Seeing someone speak adds a layer of richness and engagement over just narration. However, I very much liked the animation-enhanced version as well, mainly because the audio was edited, which I think made the message tighter, stronger, and more memorable. The graphics are impressive. Having the entire animation canvas (which you could have on something like Prezi, for example) would be excellent for reviewing parts of the talk and going back and forth for review. I found the animation extremely helpful as I went back to review several parts of the talk.

The "aesthetic experience"
One of the most relevant things Sir Ken said related to presentation and engagement is when he touched on the issue of students being increasingly distracted and brought up the issue of aesthetic experience:

“The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience. An 'aesthetic experience' is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you’re present in the current moment. When you’re resonating with excitement of this thing that you are experiencing. When you’re fully alive.
An 'anaesthetic' is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what’s happening.”

“We’re getting children through education by anaesthetizing them. And I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep, we should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.”

Keep them engaged
Bored.002-001We don't usually think of "aesthetic experience" as described by Sir Ken above when we think of presentations or lectures or public speaking in general. But why not? We should be so lucky as to have our audience fully alive and in the moment with us as their senses are totally engaged with our message, a message that resonates and encourages participation. Public speaking and teaching is not fine art, but there is very much an art to it. When we are engaged with an audience in a manner that generates connections, participation, and conversations that affect change, we are speaking of an activity that is far more art than science. And while each audience member — or student — has a personal responsibility to make an effort to understand, it is our responsibility to "wake them up to what is inside themselves" by creating content that is relevant, including them through participation and dialog, and delivering material passionately in a way that stimulates their senses and emotions such as curiosity and amusement gained through discovery and learning something new.

Interview with Sir Ken Robinson
Here's a really nice interview with Sir Ken on Studio Q.

Presentation Zen Seminar in Paris December 7

Paris_slide On December 7, I will be conducting a 5-hour presentation seminar in Paris, France in English. The Presentation Zen European Seminar 2010 is sponsored by the cool people at Ideas on Stage in association with Pearson and Microsoft. Although I have stops in Milano and London this December, the Paris event is the only public seminar that I am able to do. So far many people have registered from several countries outside of France so this event promises to have a great mix of participants. Wherever you may be in Europe (or even outside of Europe), please consider a trip to the beautiful city of Paris in December. The seminar is the day before the Le Web 2010 Conference, so if you're planning on coming to Paris for that great conference, why not come a bit early? The seminar is on Tuesday the 7th and I am hoping to hold an informal tweet up the night before for seminar attendees. The content of the interactive seminar will include ideas and practices on preparation, design, and delivery for the kinds visual, story-driven presentations that make an impact and create change. If you needed an excuse to get your boss to send you to one of the world's most gorgeous and remarkable cities, here's your chance. I look forward to meeting you in Paris!

Register for the conference on the Ideas on Stage website in English or in French or check out Phil Waknell's blog post on the event.

Recently I have been conducting sold-out seminars in Tokyo in association with Nikkei that have been a lot of fun (and educational) for all involved. See some pics of those seminars. And here are some pics from the last time I presented in Paris this past summer.

Start your presentation with PUNCH

Punch The primacy effect, when applied to presentations, suggests that we remember more strongly what happens at the beginning of a presentation. In order to establish a connection with an audience, we must grab their attention right from the beginning. A punchy opening that gets the audience's attention is paramount. Granville N. Toogood, author of The Articulate Executive also stresses the idea of starting off quickly and beginning with punch. “To make sure you don’t get off on the wrong foot, plunge right in," he says. "To galvanize the mind of the audience, you’ve got to strike quickly.” There are many ways to strike quickly and start with punch to make a strong initial connection. Conveniently, at least five proven ways to begin a talk form the acronym PUNCH. Some of the best openings include content which is Personal, Unexpected, Novel, Challenging, or Humorous. Some of the best presentations contain at least one or more of these elements.

PersonalMake it Personal. I once saw an amazing presentation on work-place safety at a company whose employees have dangerous jobs. The presenter started off his presentation with a high resolution image of some cute children. After talking about how import "our children" are (most people in the audience had children), he confessed that the children on screen were his and that his main concern in his life was being around a great long while to take of them. We all have a responsibility, he said, to our families and to each other to make sure we pay careful attention to safety procedures and rules so that no one's children here ever have to be told that their mommy or daddy are not coming home. This opening was emotional, personal, and relevant. It got everyone's attention and set the stage for the presentation. What could have been a presentation simply listing safety rules in bullet points to be scanned now was something far more personal.

There are many ways to make the opening personal, but personal in this case does not mean a long self-introduction about your background complete with org charts or why you are qualified to speak. However, a personal story can be very effective opening so long as it illustrates a key engaging point or sets the theme in a memorable way.

Unexpected Reveal something unexpected. Doing something or saying something which goes against what people expected gets their attention. Even the very fact that you have chosen to eschew the normal and expected (and boring) formal opening of thanking everyone under the sun and saying how glad you are to be speaking is a happy small surprise. Instead of the normal formal and slow opening, consider opening with a shocking quote or a question with a surprising answer or a revealing statistic that goes against conventional wisdom. Do or say something that taps into the emotion of surprise. This emotion increases alertness and gets people to focus. "There must be surprise...some key facts that are not commonly known or are counter-intuitive,” says management guru Tom Peters. “No reason to do the presentation in the first place if there are no surprises."

Novel Show or tell of something novel. Get people’s attention by introducing something new. Start with a powerful image that’s never been seen, or reveal a relevant short story that’s never been heard, or show a statistic from a brand new study that gives new insights into a problem. Chances are that your audience is filled with natural born explorers who crave discovery and are attracted to the new and the unknown. Novelty is threatening for some people, but assuming the environment is safe and there is not an over abundance of novelty in the environment, your audience will be seeking the novel and the new.

Challenge Challenge conventional wisdom or challenge the audience’s assumptions. Consider challenging people's imaginations too: "How would you like to fly from New York to Tokyo in 2 hours? Impossible? Well, some experts think it’s possible!" Challenge people intellectually by asking provocative questions that make them think. Many presentations or lectures fail because they simply attempt to transfer information from speaker to listener as if the listeners were not active participants. But audiences pay attention best when you call on them to use their brains — and even their bodies — to do something that taps their natural curiosity and stretches them.

Humor Use humor to engage the audience emotionally with a shared laugh. There are many benefits to laughter. Laughter is contagious and an audience that shares a laugh becomes more connected with each other and with you; this creates a positive general vibe in the room. Laughter releases endorphins, relaxes the whole body, and can even change one’s perspective just a bit. The old adage is if they are laughing they are listening. This is true, though it does not necessarily mean they are learning, so it is critical that the humor be relevant directly to the topic at hand or otherwise fits harmoniously with the flow of your narrative without being distracting or derailing you from the objective of your talk.

The idea of recommending humor in a presentation gets a bad rap because of the common and tired practice of opening up a speech with a joke, almost always a lame one. Usually such jokes get only polite sympathy laughter at best, and at worst the joke falls completely flat or even offends, either way the presenter is off to a poor start. But, I’m not talking about telling jokes. Forget about jokes. However, an observation of irony, or an anecdote or short humorous story that makes a relevant point or introduces the topic and sets the theme are the kinds of openings that can work.

Take a chance
There are many ways to start a presentation, but how ever you choose to start your talk, do not waste those initial valuable two-three minutes “warming up” the audience with filler material or formalities. Start strong. The five elements comprising PUNCH are not the only things to consider, but if your opening contains 2-3 of these approaches then you are on your way to opening with impact.
Of course, it's safer just to do the same old thing, but part of presenting naked means being different and taking a chance to make an impact. Making a difference and influencing a change always has some risk.

Resonate: A fantastic new book on presentation

Resonate If you have not heard of Nancy Duarte's new book, then let me turn you on to it. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, says Nancy, is the prequel to her first book Slide:ology. As Nancy says early on, the problem with most presentations is not simply that the visuals are ineffective; making the visuals look better for content that is not well crafted has little merit. This book takes you back a step and launches you on a journey of discovery and exploration that takes inspiration and insights from myriad sources including the art of story creation and storytelling and film, etc. The lessons in the book will help you create the kinds of presentations that truly engage and transform audiences. Remember that presentation is always about change. By presenting we're necessarily trying to move people and impact them in at least a very small way. Sometimes in very big ways. This book is informative, instructive, and inspirational. The book itself is a presentation of sorts and it is definitely a compelling piece of work that is creating buzz and changing things. I was so inspired by Nancy's wonderful book that I shot this little video below on my iPhone today at the Hamarikyu Gardens near Tokyo Bay this morning.