Answering questions

Book encourages less presentation, more conversation

One Bucket at a Time shares secrets to informing, educating, influencing and persuading any audience


“The central theme of this book that a presentation should be a conversation is ingenious. Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to communicate by conversation. We are mentally structured to do so.

"For anyone seeking to set themselves and their ideas apart, this book is well worth the read. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket Cover vF

John Sweller, PhD,
Emeritus Professor of Education,
University of New South Wales,
Sydney, Australia

Whether a presentation is delivered in the room or via Zoom, a new book is encouraging those conveying their ideas to embrace more conversation and less presentation. In this, the science is clear. It’s the best way to have those ideas received, understood, retained and acted upon by the audience.

One Bucket at a Time is based on the assumption that the only reason for bringing people together is to listen to someone share something of value.

“You can have a presentation without slides,” author Eric Bergman writes. “But you cannot have a presentation without a presenter. At its core, therefore, the effectiveness of any presentation can be measured by what makes it from the speaker’s vocal cords to the long-term memory of those in attendance.

“Once you understand that thought, it becomes evident that feeding into how people listen is the most critical presentation skill to develop.”

Using an analogy of a tank, bucket and trough, the book provides guidance into understanding and developing that critical skill. The tank is the information the presenter plans to get across to the audience. The trough is the collective long-term memory of those in attendance. The goal of any presentation should be to get as much sustenance as possible from tank to trough.

The only way that happens, however, is if the audience engages working memory to transfer those ideas into long-term memory one small bucket at a time.

“The challenge is that the bucket of working memory is incredibly small, more like a child’s sand bucket than a milk pail,” Bergman writes. “And it’s easily overloaded. When that occurs, information spills out, never to be remembered.”

Using a combination of cognitive science and common sense, One Bucket at a Time makes the case that the best way to get meaningful information from tank to trough is through a relaxed, conversational delivery. The audience needs silence, and lots of it, in order to empty working memory into long-term memory before being ready to fill the bucket again.

While most presentations focus solely on attempting to teach others, Bergman’s approach is different. He advocates helping the audience teach themselves. The audience should have plenty of opportunity to ask questions to fill in understanding, which are best answered clearly and concisely.

For Bergman, tapping the potential of presentations boils down to engagement, which he defines along a spectrum. Engagement begins when working memory passes ideas to long-term memory, one bucket at a time. At the other end of the spectrum are presentations after which the audience can effectively convey the presenter’s ideas to others.

Most presentations are not engaging. In the vast majority of cases, a mountain of auditory and visual information is sent, but little is retained as soon as the presentation concludes.

“Most presentations today are like playing tennis with someone who has a large basket of balls and isn’t going to stop serving until the basket is empty, regardless of whether you show any interest in hitting one back,” Bergman explains. “In such situations, if you came to practice service returns, you might be interested in playing along for a while. But if you came to play a game of tennis, it won’t take long before you find something else to do. And this is how most audiences react.

“If the audience is reading, writing, texting, scanning their social media feed, sending an e-mail or reading a document, they cannot be listening. And, ultimately, if they’re not listening, what on earth is the point?”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

Managing Polarization in Public Consultation

angry crowd polarization 3At a number of conference presentations over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of introducing participants to the polarization model, a strategic tool that helps my clients manage polarization, and the real or perceived hostility that often accompanies it, during media interviews and all forms of public consultation.

“Polarization arises because of issues,” I explain. “And the dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.”

Theoretically, every response to any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile on one side to openly supportive on the other, with no opinion somewhere in the middle.

“When someone takes issue with a perspective, especially during public consultation, they are making statements or asking questions that feel emotionally charged,” I outline during these sessions. “What’s the natural instinct of the person on the receiving end?”

Instinctively, the person answering attempts to change the opinion of the person expressing the opposing opinion. The goal is to bring that person, willingly or unwillingly, to the supportive side of the spectrum.

This can lead to a tug-of-war. When that happens, nothing gets resolved. No opinions are changed.

Whether opposed or supportive (and there are often many more opposed than supportive), everyone walks out of the meeting not having changed their opinion. Worse yet, they may move away from the logical toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

This is polarization.

media training polarization model

However, research shows that the further you go from the middle to the outer edges on each side of the spectrum, the more you go from a logical to an emotional perspective.

There are only three opinions about any issue: positive, negative, and none. And there are only three things you can do with these opinions.

You can reinforce a positive opinion. You can neutralize a negative opinion—not necessarily change it but neutralize it. Or you can form a latent or unformed position.

When issues arise, there is little or no need to form opinions; the issue has taken care of that task. Issues formulate opinions. To manage polarization effectively, therefore, two things need to happen. First, the organization’s perspective needs to be reasonable, rational, ethical and supportable. If it is, it’s defensible.

Second, the organization can best defend its perspective by answering questions about it, not reacting to statements or sending even more information to the audience in the hope that somehow they’ll overcome their emotional anxiety and understand what is attempting to be done.

If someone makes a statement that seems to drag the discussion to the left side of the spectrum, the receiver of that statement has two choices. He or she can politely ask the person to ask a question, or he or she can turn the statement into one or more questions, and ask and answer them succinctly.

And when it comes to questions, the more the merrier. This means that the person answering questions should be clear and concise in doing so. Every question asked should be answered in ten words or less.

“I actually believe most questions can be answered in ten words or less,” I explained during the session. “Answer the question and stop talking,” I explain. “If there’s even the remotest hint of polarization in the room, you won’t have to wait long for another question.”

Supports Transparency
Clear and concise answers to questions actually support the concept of transparency, which is important to any form of public consultation, essential to building trust, and increasingly critical in a wired world where everyone with a smartphone can feed into traditional and social media. By definition, consultation means listening, and I’ve long believed that the best way to demonstrate listening skills is to answer questions clearly and concisely.

“You can’t answer someone’s question effectively if you’re not actually listening,” I explain to participants. “But, more importantly, a working definition of transparency is ‘ask me anything, I have nothing to hide.’

“In a tense environment, answering questions enables the organization to demonstrate transparency, which allows those who have an opposing opinion, but a logical perspective, make their own minds up about what the organization is attempting to achieve.”

If done effectively, this approach can be effective to the point that those who came in with an opposed but logical perspective may very well change their opinions, if for no other reason than they become disillusioned with those who are opposed and emotional.

All that’s needed is defensible logic and a desire to have others explore that logic by getting as many questions as possible answered clearly and concisely.

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The fundamental skill of answering questions effectively

After more than 25 years of examining the concept and teaching it successfully, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question, and stop talking.

In fact, it’s the most important thing we can teach each other because, in that same period of time, I have come to the conclusion that the skill of answering questions is perhaps the least-developed skill in human interpersonal communication. There are many reasons for learning to pause-answer-stop.

First of all, it offers protection during media interviews and hostile exchanges during all forms of presentations, when being quoted out of context or having words twisted is an issue.

If you've ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer the question asked and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to "shut up," the net result is exactly the same.)

PAS image green inside
Does your legal counsel tell you to pause-answer-stop because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility.

Does the lawyer want you to pause-answer-stop so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that's a bit tougher to answer (especially the part about more billable hours), the lawyer tells you to pause-answer-stop so you can protect the organization.

If pause-answer-stop offers protection in a court of law, wouldn't it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print journalist, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team, or a board of directors?

It can. And it does. If you wish to reduce the risk of being quoted out of context by anyone, the simplest solution is to reduce the context. Stop talking.

Communicate More Effectively


But beyond that, pause-answer-stop enables someone to communicate more effectively. By asking more questions, the person or people receiving the information can better educate themselves about the topic in question to create better understanding.

Some years ago, we decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor.

One evening, I went to my local Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question.

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question.

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son was with me and, as we were walking out of the store he remarked: "Dad, that was amazing. I can't believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions."

Actually, I didn't ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions -- which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not pause-answer-stop.

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn't achieve his organization's objectives. However, that's short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, this local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I'm even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. I don't know who's coaching them, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of a number of their staff to answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you'll deliver? Want to be more transparent? Teach yourself the same simple tactic.

Pause. Answer the question asked and only the question asked. Stop talking.


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Is your audience leaning in to listen?

Or are they tuning out to text?


man texting tight
Interesting question, isn’t it? But in today’s world, it’s the first question that needs to be asked every time you deliver a presentation to others.

As a presentation skills resource, One Bucket at a Time is designed to provide the tools, skills and confidence you need to have your audiences leaning in to listen every time you deliver a presentation.

You’ll learn how to put the audience first. You’ll gain insight into structuring a conversation—not another boring presentation—that provides value to the audience while furthering your business objectives.

You'll learn to use visual aids effectively. Every visual you use will add to the success of your presentation, not distract (and therefore detract) from it.

You'll apply principles of face-to-face communication to all presentations—whether one-on-one or groups. Your communication skills will improve in virtually all aspects of your professional and personal life.

And you'll gain insight into answering questions clearly, concisely and effectively. This will enhance audience engagement, understanding and buy-in—and have them leaning in for more.

If you're interested in communicating effectively—in acquiring the skills to improve every presentation you'll deliver for the rest of your life—One Bucket at a Time is the perfect resource to help you.

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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The ten-pushup rule improves communication

Two people working as a team to do pushups together.
During my presentation training programs, I almost always introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores how succinct answers improve communication and enhance presentation engagement.

The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.

This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during training sessions.

(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a marathon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups after a fifteen word answer that could have been answered with “yes” or “no.”)

When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.

The person answering the question communicates more effectively. There is no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to communicating effectively.

The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the questions are ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).

I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.

Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.

Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.

In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.

_________________________________

New book encourages less presentation, more conversation

One Bucket at a Time shares secrets to informing, educating, influencing and persuading any audience


“The central theme of this book that a presentation should be a conversation is ingenious. Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to communicate by conversation. We are mentally structured to do so.

"For anyone seeking to set themselves and their ideas apart, this book is well worth the read. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket Cover vF

John Sweller, PhD,
Emeritus Professor of Education,
University of New South Wales,
Sydney, Australia

Whether a presentation is delivered in the room or via Zoom, a new book is encouraging those conveying their ideas to embrace more conversation and less presentation. In this, the science is clear. It’s the best way to have those ideas received, understood, retained and acted upon by the audience.

One Bucket at a Time is based on the assumption that the only reason for bringing people together is to listen to someone share something of value.

“You can have a presentation without slides,” author Eric Bergman writes. “But you cannot have a presentation without a presenter. At its core, therefore, the effectiveness of any presentation can be measured by what makes it from the speaker’s vocal cords to the long-term memory of those in attendance.

“Once you understand that thought, it becomes evident that feeding into how people listen is the most critical presentation skill to develop.”

Using an analogy of a tank, bucket and trough, the book provides guidance into understanding and developing that critical skill. The tank is the information the presenter plans to get across to the audience. The trough is the collective long-term memory of those in attendance. The goal of any presentation should be to get as much sustenance as possible from tank to trough.

The only way that happens, however, is if the audience engages working memory to transfer those ideas into long-term memory one small bucket at a time.

“The challenge is that the bucket of working memory is incredibly small, more like a child’s sand bucket than a milk pail,” Bergman writes. “And it’s easily overloaded. When that occurs, information spills out, never to be remembered.”

Using a combination of cognitive science and common sense, One Bucket at a Time makes the case that the best way to get meaningful information from tank to trough is through a relaxed, conversational delivery. The audience needs silence, and lots of it, in order to empty working memory into long-term memory before being ready to fill the bucket again.

While most presentations focus solely on attempting to teach others, Bergman’s approach is different. He advocates helping the audience teach themselves. The audience should have plenty of opportunity to ask questions to fill in understanding, which are best answered clearly and concisely.

For Bergman, tapping the potential of presentations boils down to engagement, which he defines along a spectrum. Engagement begins when working memory passes ideas to long-term memory, one bucket at a time. At the other end of the spectrum are presentations after which the audience can effectively convey the presenter’s ideas to others.

Most presentations are not engaging. In the vast majority of cases, a mountain of auditory and visual information is sent, but little is retained as soon as the presentation concludes.

“Most presentations today are like playing tennis with someone who has a large basket of balls and isn’t going to stop serving until the basket is empty, regardless of whether you show any interest in hitting one back,” Bergman explains. “In such situations, if you came to practice service returns, you might be interested in playing along for a while. But if you came to play a game of tennis, it won’t take long before you find something else to do. And this is how most audiences react.

“If the audience is reading, writing, texting, scanning their social media feed, sending an e-mail or reading a document, they cannot be listening. And, ultimately, if they’re not listening, what on earth is the point?”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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