The one man most responsible for making me dedicate myself to writing is Ray Bradbury.

I grew up as a bookworm in a strict Baptist household. Our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the local library inevitably ended with my straining to carry a tall stack of books from our beat-up Opel to my bedroom.

My dad scanned each title before I checked books out. Acceptable fare included lots of folk tales and fables, tame classics such as The Secret Garden, every Hardy Boys book, and an amusing series about Freddy the Pig.

By age 12, I had devoured every book in the juvenile section of the library. I wandered into the adult stacks, where I found a book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes. Raised on stolid but innocuous fare, I felt dark shivers from the title alone. I had no idea this was actually a young adult book – to me, it represented all the thrills forbidden to my young religious eyes. I snuck it into the middle of that visit’s book harvest, certain it would fail to pass inspection. Somehow, it arrived home with me.

Bradbury’s ideas and writing voice blew my budding mind. I thrilled to Jim Nightshade’s struggle against Mr. Dark’s deceptions. I creeped out as Mr. Dark rode a gothic merry-go-round backwards to turn himself into an evil boy my age. The colorful prose seared itself into my brain pan.

As soon as I finished the book, I went, Who is this author? How dare the universe fail to tell me about him sooner? I went on a Bradbury tear, devouring Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country (and other short story collections) and, though it exceeded my intellectual prowess, Fahrenheit 451. In school, every author you’re pointed to – Twain, Eliot, Hemingway, et al – is dead. I felt delirious when I learned Bradbury was still alive and was still writing.

Compelled to become the next Bradbury, in seventh grade I attempted my first novel, a spy thriller unencumbered by any knowledge of how the world works. (Bradbury influenced me, but so did The Man from U.N.C.L.E., John Steed, and Mrs. Peel.) I gave it what I thought was a very ironically adult title: See the Corpse Run. When my dad gave me a big blank hardcover (the result of a publisher’s paper-and-binding experiment), I laboriously hunt-and-pecked my novel on a manual typewriter, then glued the pages into the hardcover so that I made a “real book.” I finished it in ninth grade, 97 proud pages long. My reading audience was my dad.

By age 15 I had sold seven or eight articles to very minor publications, but I thought I was king of the world because I got paid $25 for each of those articles. (One periodical even profiled me as “teen with a typewriter.”) I began high school and due to my published status, got put in a senior composition class.

This class required me to turn in a new story every Friday. The teacher kept encouraging us each to find our “unique voice.” That was the first time I’d heard that. I had no idea what my “voice” was. And I didn’t have time to find “my voice” – I was too busy expressing the million ideas in my head! So I copied Bradbury’s voice. I adopted entirely techniques I had subconsciously learned from him, such as setting atmosphere by personifying inanimate objects and giving them intentions. I wrote ironic flights of fancy very much in line with Ray’s (but a paltry echo of the master). By emulating Ray week after week, I aced the class. And I learned writing the same way he did: by writing.

Ray’s world seemed more vivid to me than the real world. Immersed in the Martian Chronicles, I remember watching America’s moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “Big deal. We’ll be on Mars in no time.”
I see Ray reflected today in other writers who draw no boundaries between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Would Stephen King be the brand he is today had there been no Bradbury? Would there have been Star Trek? Star Wars? The whole body of work by J. J. Abrams?

In writing this, I wanted to consult some of Bradbury’s works. I’m startled to see I no longer own any. But at the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have become books. To fool the censors, they have memorized entire works. A woman could tell you, “I am The Old Man and the Sea.” A teen could say, “I am The Odyssey.” In that same sense, I absorbed Ray Bradbury. He is in me: laced as an integral shining vein through my imaginings; a hand that touched the pottery wheel of my creative impulses. I never met him, but in the pages of his words, he met me — and set me alight.

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury

For the comments: What did you make of Ray? Or what other writer fired your imagination?


How do you close the chasm between you and your audience? That’s your first priority. (Photo by Engin Erdogan, Flickr Creative Commons)

How do you capture attention when presenting to a crowd that doesn’t know or respect you? It’s challenging. But here are a couple of tricks that have worked for me. (These pertain to live presentations, not webinars.)

Choose Your First Impression Deliberately

When you present, you want to establish a connection with the audience instantly. If you come off as robotic, boring, irrelevant, or insincere in the first few minutes of your presentation, even the World’s Most Interesting Man couldn’t regain audience interest. They’re long gone, busily tweeting, emailing, or snoozing. Starting strong is key.

Hooking a big crowd differs from hooking a small group. In both cases, though, playing against type can help.

Hooking a Big Crowd

Let’s define a “big crowd” by the venue. Imagine that you stand on a stage separated from the audience; possibly higher than the audience; possibly lit; certainly using a microphone and perhaps a podium. This is a typical “big conference breakout session” setting.

Seriously? You’re going to make them all sit there while you thank your hosts, the conference, your boss, your company…? What do these people get out of listening, then? (Photo: Patries71, Flickr Creative Commons)

This formal staging invites skepticism. The stage trappings lend an air of authority that can be read as pomposity. People tend to sit in the back with arms folded. They may have already endured lackluster speakers before your session. Your top goal, then, is to break that vibe of “I’m the performing Muppet, and you are Statler and Waldorf wisecracking from the balcony.” You want to establish a feeling of “us learning together.” If you can also tip them off that you’re not a bloviating self-important gas bag — bonus!

The simple solution: break the formality by getting communication flowing in both directions. Begin with informal interaction with the audience. Any ice-breaker might do, as long as you listen to attendees and respond.

Usually I ask the audience questions about themselves. What did you think of the morning’s keynote presentation? What’s your favorite food near this event? I’m new in your town and the traffic is great/awful; why? Use whatever works for you, suiting yours and the audience’s shared interests.

A trusty go-to: ask, Who traveled the farthest distance to attend this session? Let the audience help determine which attendee came farthest. Once we determine the winner, I dedicate the presentation to that person and treat him or her as a VIP. Sometimes I’ve offered a minor prize, and in one venue I was able to send the winner a beer (to the audience’s massive delight and envy).

Is this tricky? Sure; you can hardly hear one another. (Make sure you repeat salient audience answers into the microphone, so everyone can play along.) Is it worth it? You bet. In three minutes, you’ve turned the skeptics into a community of travelers. And – twofer! — you can revive energy and interest mid-way through your preso, by asking the VIP (from the stage) how you’re doing so far. Have fun with it.

Hooking a Small Group

The rules change when presenting to a small audience. (Photo: glennsden28, Flickr Creative Commons)

Let’s define “small group” as: fewer than 50 attendees; all in one room; no one physically higher than anyone else; no microphone. It may be a typical classroom setting, or you might be seated in a circle.

The small group challenge for the presenter is the opposite of the big group challenge. Rather than the stage lending you authority, the closeness lends everyone equal presence. Perhaps everyone’s chatting and no one’s listening. A gregarious attendee might chime in frequently, “co-presenting” with you from his seat. In this setting, you must establish temporary authority, or the group’s social agenda may take over and disregard you.

Once again, the solution is to play against type. In an informal setting, you need some formal presenter pizzazz.

First: stand. If you are the shy retiring type, standing is even more essential. When you’re the only one on your feet, nearly two decades of formative-years classroom experience tells those seated to shut up and show respect.

Second: try a “cold start.” At awesome rock concerts, do bands open with long minutes of thanking the promoter and introducing the members? Hell no! They take the stage and immediately kick ass. Tap into your inner rock star and do the same.

When it’s time to start, do not thank the audience for the opportunity to speak. Do not explain who you are or what you represent. Sans intro, plunge in starkly with a provocative question, startling visual, or arresting statistic.

Corporate audiences fully expect lots of falderol at the start of a presentation. A meaty cold open kicks off your session with a lively pace, and signals that your style is all killer/ no filler. You ambush the yawning audience that thought they were way ahead of you, and mentally they scramble to catch up. (And, much as a TV drama opens with a dramatic chase, then segues to the opening titles, you can add the polite intro five minutes in – after you’ve made your killer impression.)

You Only Get One Chance to Slake a First Depression

Obviously, a strong beginning doesn’t guarantee that your whole presentation rocks. But well begun is half done. And audiences thank you when you do not bore them into depression.

So, choose your first impression with thoughtful intent. In a big venue, try crossing the speaker/listener chasm with small-talk interaction or contests. In a small venue, try mustering authority by standing tall and hitting ‘em with unexpected depth. I wish you every success!

What are your favorite presentation tactics? Please share in the comments!

This is the crowd at your next presentation. That’s you they’re cheering for! … Aw c’mon, it’s totally possible! (Photo courtesy of gareth1953, Flickr Creative Commons.)

You can use these tactics right now, today, to punch up your next presentation. I’ve field-tested each of these on my drive to get audience evaluation forms containing more fives than fours. You’ll be glad you tried these keepers.

1. Put only one idea on each slide. PowerPoint slides sag under the burden of too many words. When 20 minutes have expired and the speaker has reached bullet four out of six on one slide, you want to scream a la Daffy Duck, “Shoot me now!”

But reconfiguring your stump speech for succinctness and better visuals takes a ton of time. The quick-n-dirty solution: divide that slide bloated with six bullet points into six slides of one bullet each. Interest renews every time you flash a new slide. Now you are changing slides every minute or so, which gives the listeners a sense of a livelier pace.

To see the “one idea per slide” approach in its ultimate refinement, view these exemplary talks by Lawrence Lessig and Michael Pollan.

2. Rehearse aloud. The night before an important presentation, I would go over my slides repeatedly, making sure I knew what I planned to say about each slide. But I used to review it all mentally.

The next day, when speaking the presentation, I’d watch like a surprised passenger in my own body as my mouth launched down crazy rabbit trails that ate up time or repeated points already made.

A voiceover artist tipped me off that you have to rehearse actually getting the words out of your mouth. This can sound embarrassing if you have to practice in a cubicle area or a shared room. Do it anyway. Flashing the slide, then attempting to speak to it without consulting notes, dramatically improved my presentations – especially the transitions between slides. And it also gave me a realistic view of how much time the presentation actually took.

Sounds simple, but it is pure gold. Don’t just practice mentally – practice verbally.

For both your slides and your time slot, the fact that you can cram in more doesn’t mean you should.

3. Make your presentation 20% shorter than its time slot. Sometimes you have a lot you want to convey to your audience. Resist the temptation to cram it all into your presentation. The point is not for you to transmit. The point is for the audience to receive. To a real communicator, “three points that people retain” beats “six fast points people heard but barely understood” every time. Listeners cannot absorb your message when you gallop through your preso, and you lack the time budget to interact with them.

In the days when I wrote 58-minute presentations for 60-minute slots, I learned the hard way that no meeting starts promptly. I’d stew or adrenalize as laggards, opening ceremonies, introductions, and technical problems ate up 10 precious minutes of the time slot. Worse, I’d have to awkwardly edit my preso on the fly. The solution was simple: I disciplined myself to plan 40 – 45 minutes of content for a 60 minute slot; 20 minutes for a 30 minute slot.

This might require you to “kill your darlings” — discarding points you wanted to make. The sacrifice is worth it for you and the audience when you present feeling relaxed, with your pace unhurried, and with time to handle questions.

4. Dump the “Thank You” slide. Almost every presentation I’ve seen ends with a slide that says either “Thank you” or “Questions?” This single slide often gets the most time in front of audience eyeballs, because it displays throughout the entire ending Q&A. What a missed opportunity! What use is a slide that says “Questions?” when you can easily say, “Now I’ll take your questions”?

Better: for your final slide, display your single most important point – the one you really want them to walk away with. Let them view your important point for ten minutes during questions, and you greatly increase the odds that they’ll remember it.

That’s it. These four random tactics work even better if you’ve absorbed the visual presentation strategies recommended in outstanding books such as slide:ology and Presentation Zen. But if you don’t have time to dwell at book length on your presentation skills, try any of these for an instant pop of improvement.

If you’ve got 10 minutes, this well-crafted documentary can inspire you.

In East L.A., a 9-year-old boy made his own DIY arcade out of cardboard, and persisted “staffing” it on weekends — even though he only had one customer. (Seriously, who’s going to go to East L.A. and play cardboard arcade games?)

But Caine earned his big day. Sure, there was a social media-savvy “angel investor” who helped, but payday would never have come if Caine had given up.

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

–Calvin Coolidge

If you’re a one-of-a-kind artist like Caine, keep going! Persist!

Over on SlideShare, a Belgian consultant named Steven van Belleghem posted the most favorited presentation of 2011: a terrific briefing on people’s involvement with “Social media around the world.” How good is it? Well, when was the last time you posted one of your presentations, and received 680,000 views?

Those of us who market from North America can unknowingly (and unintentionally) build American bias and flavor into our sales and outreach materials. For that reason, I found it refreshing to absorb a well-researched, sharp analysis of the social media phenomenon from the EU perspective. At 167 slides, it’s a virtual illustrated tome; but Belleghen’s team researched across 35 countries, with some 9000 participants, to gain many insights into the attitudes and behaviors of Internet users. Some of the factoids that sparked my interest included:

  • Around the world, awareness of Facebook is approaching 100%
  • The average Facebook visit lasts more than half an hour
  • The #1 driver of online conversation is off-line events
  • Twitter presents a paradox: 80% of online users are aware of it, but only 16% use it
  • On Facebook and MySpace, women outnumber men; but men outnumber women on LinkedIn and Twitter
  • In Eastern Europe, Vkontakt is almost as popular as Facebook
  • In China, awareness of the social media platform Qzone equals awareness of Facebook
  • In Europe, only 51% of users “follow” a brand, but in India, 70% do
  • In Europe, one-third (33%) of all social network users are not allowed to access social networks from work

The list above is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. You’ll find many clear indicators of what methods reach people efficiently, and which don’t.

Though social networking has a reputation for changing rapidly and being faddish, Bellenghem’s research indicates the vast majority of social media users (93%) are happy with the status quo. They intend to keep using social media at the rate they do now, neither increasing nor decreasing their current usage. That is merely the latest empirical data point indicating that social media is here to stay.

If you’re interested in figuring out how you can use it to forward your own global agenda, I highly recommend spending a few minutes with “Social media around the world.” I know of nowhere else to get data this useful and recent at everyone’s favorite price.

Due to my chic streak of geek, I love electronic gadgets. So I enjoyed this Forbes article on why Best Buy has created its own death spiral. For readers of this blog, I found the author’s zinging critique of corporate writing in the passive voice particularly illustrative. Here’s a sample:

The company issued a statement that read:  “Due to overwhelming demand of hot product offerings on during the November and December time period, we have encountered a situation that has affected redemption of some of our customers’ online orders.”

Let’s parse that sentence for a moment.  The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys.  This happened, inconveniently for Best Buy, during “the November and December period,” that is, the only months that matter to a retailer. For obvious reasons, the statement ties itself in knots trying to avoid mentioning that the “situation” occurred during the holidays.

The situation that Best Buy “encountered” has “affected redemption” of some orders.  Best Buy doesn’t fill online orders, it seems.  Rather, customers “redeem” them.  So it’s the customers, not Best Buy, who have the problem.  And those customers haven’t been left hanging; they’ve only been “affected” in efforts to “redeem” their orders.  It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all.

It’s all so passive.  It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies.  Here’s what the honest and appropriate release would have said:  “Due to poor inventory management and sales forecasting of the most popular products during our key sales season, we can’t fill orders we promised to fill weeks ago in time for Christmas.”

The rest of the article fascinated me from a business perspective, and if you choose to read it, you’ll find a bit more deconstruction of passive writing. Larry Downes, the author quoted above, provides a textbook example of one reason readers despise the passive voice. Bureaucratic weasels use it to bury the truth under patronizing, pompous-sounding, multisyllabic doublespeak.

You can’t rock your readers’ world by condescending to them or lying to them. Therefore, tell the truth. And write it using the active voice.

In 2008, I compiled a quirky mix of holiday novelty tunes for my friends. While creating the CD cover for “Holiday Cheer,” I began fearing hipster condescension. I beat my friends to the punch by crossing out the R in Cheer and revising the title to “Holiday Cheese.” The cover featured a Christmas tree carved out of cheddar.

Since then, my annual mixes have been received with growing anticipation, so beginning this year, I share my selections on line.

To be “honored” as a Scott’s Holiday Cheese selection, a song must meet these arbitrary yet stringent criteria:

Devoid of meaningful content. Whatever winter holiday you celebrate, you have a huge range of ways to experience it deeply and spiritually. My mix is specifically for when you want to come up for air and get silly, shallow, and/or absurd.

Playful, not annoying. Dogs barking “Jingle Bells” fails to qualify because you can’t finish hearing it without wanting to strangle the producer. Ditto for carols conveyed via farts. Bonus points if the song contains actual musicianship.

Makes Renee wiggle. My wife, a life-long dancer and former tap teacher, cannot hold still when a good beat finds her. As I’m auditioning songs, if I look across the room and see Renee shakin’ what her momma gave her as she putts around the condo, that’s a plus.

Leaves me feeling good. The geniuses behind South Park and Monty Python have some scathingly funny holiday parodies. They don’t make the cut because they’re vicious. I usually use my own mix for background cheer while wrapping gifts. Since I’m usually behind schedule, music that Means No Harm is just the ticket for soothing me into a holiday with ease.

Does this add up to an amusing collection, or vapid, forgettable nonsense? You be the judge. Here, without further defense, is my list for this holiday season. I filtered the dregs so you won’t have to!

The Holiday Cheese Honorees for 2011

Medley: Hanukkah Swingin’ Holiday/Pour the Oil, Kenny Ellis. Solid big band swing, a great mood-setter and especially apt since I’m releasing my mix on the first day of Hanukkah.

Santa’s Lost His Mojo, Jeremy Lister. Honestly, Santa’s job description does sound tiring. Minor chords with a light blues/folk feel.

Matunda Ya Kwanzaa, Rockapella. Now that I work for a truly global corporation, Kwanzaa songs make their first appearance in the Cheese mix. The African backbeat makes this sound like a missing cut from The Lion King.

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts), Brave Combo. Nat King Cole’s classic tune gets revitalized when performed as ska. This cut was big in Japan. Seriously.

Santa Loves to Boogie, Asleep at the Wheel. Classic party-boogie westernized by George W. Bush’s favorite band (and even knowing that, you’ll probably like it).

Who Spiked the Eggnog?, Straight No Chaser. The epitome of a Holiday Cheese selection: silly, yet meticulously performed by this pitch-perfect a capella group.

Funk the Halls, Paul James. This infectious instrumental proves there just are not enough funky holiday tunes.

7 Days of Kwanzaa Song, Urban Village. This rap helps remove some of the “white” from your White Christmas. Barely scraped into the collection, since it nearly fails on Criterion # 1, “Devoid of meaningful content.”

Joy to the World, Jimmy Calire Piano Trio. Sprightly jazz instrumental of the Christmas classic.

Merry Christmas Allah, Bob Rivers. This startlingly accurate reproduction of The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Baby” calls for religious unity. I think.

‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah, Kenny Ellis. This good-hearted Jewish take on “The Night Before Christmas” reveals that Santa wears a red yarmulke; plus, it’ll also serve as your best Yiddish lesson of 2011.

We Three Kings, The Reverend Horton Heat. The classic Christmas hymn performed as a surf-guitar instrumental.

Christmas Wrapping, The Waitresses. I have heard this vaguely 80s-ish song in the mix on pop radio stations each year but never paid attention to it until now. Well, no wonder it sounds 80s: it was recorded in 1981. Look up the lyrics and you’ll discover that its modern POV delivers a surprisingly nuanced rom-com story. After 30 years, well on its way to being a Christmas classic.

The Chanukah Song, Neil Diamond. In past years I’ve intentionally excluded Adam Sandler’s ode to “eight crazy nights” because it is well known enough to be a cliché. But c’mon, having it covered by Neil Diamond, a Jewish artist who once put out a mawkish Christmas album, makes this a conceptual twofer.

Drummer Boy (featuring Busta Rhymes), Justin Bieber. Where do I start? It’s funny enough having a Christmas song-cum-rap by Tween Heartthrob du Juor Bieber. But the absurdity goes to 11 when he self-righteously admonishes us for not giving enough to charity. Yessir, Saint Justin; I’m a Belieber!

All That I Want, The Weepies. Ending on a reflective note with a folk-tinged original that scored full points on Criterion # 4, “Leaves me feeling good.”

Download and enjoy!

If you’ve read this far, I conclude with a special offer: subscribe to my blog using the Email Subscription button in the upper right (I will never ever sell, loan, or redistribute your email address). In exchange, I’ll reply with how you can get all these songs at a deep discount. Here’s wishing you a joyous ChrismaHannuKwanzaakuh!