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Welcome to

The Standup Trainer Newsletter

March 2006

Brought to you by Ellen Dowling, PhD ("The Standup Trainer") and the fine folks of Dowling & Associates, Inc.



This newsletter is guaranteed certifiably useful as well as amusing. (If you are not completely satisfied, there are unsubscribe instructions at the end. But we're betting you'll change your mind by the time you get there.)

Welcome to all new and continuing subscribers!

Here's a quick April Fool's riddle for you: What gets sent out on April 1 but calls itself the MARCH newsletter?

[Note: Instead of the usual "Presentation Hall of Shame" section, this month Ellen will share with you her final thoughts about teaching in China.]

In this issue:

  1. Presentation Horror Story of the Month
    Proof that Murphy's Law is alive and well in the United Kingdom.
  2. Teaching in China: Who Learned the Most?
    It's always a great thing when the teacher learns as much from the students as they learn from her.
  3. Presentation Skills Book Review
    If a comedian tells a joke in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, is it still funny?
  4. Useful Online Resource of the Month
    Even the military is not immune from the perils of PowerPoint.

1. Presentation Horror Story of the Month

[Editor's Note: Have you a good story to tell about the time SOMETHING WENT WRONG at a presentation you were giving (or attending)? We are soliciting submissions for this segment of our newsletter. If your story is chosen, you will receive a FREE copy of either of Ellen's two books, The Standup Trainer or Presenting with Style (your choice). Simply send your story (just a couple of paragraphs will be fine) to edowling@standuptrainer.com.]

The winner of this month's contest is Emma Westwood, a Learning and Development Consultant working in England):

Some years back, I was hired as a part-time lecturer at a local college to teach a "train-the-trainer" course. My first lecture covered "Information Systems": using PowerPoint, the university's electronic systems, email, doing research on the internet, etc.

This first lecture could not have gone worse.

First of all, I didn't have a key to the cupboard where the equipment was stored, so I had to call in another tutor for help. Then I realized that I didn't yet have a logon code (username and password), so I had to call the tutor back again and use his code. Then when I started my presentation, I realized that I wasn't certain how the students should logon and discovered that some of then had not enrolled yet, so they weren't registered users in any case.

Finally things started to settle down and everyone was logged on (or looking over someone else's shoulder). But then we started to use PowerPoint to create come basic slides and I discovered that only the tutor's PC had PowerPoint installed as well as internet access.

So halfway through the first class we had to find an alternative room, and all up sticks to the new one!

One student asked if she could leave as she already knew all the course content, and I got really cross. "If you know so much, why don't you help those less experienced?" I asked her.

She retorted, "I thought that was your job."

After class I had to read through all the learning logs from students who commented on what an absolute shambles the class had been. Needless to say, I have always been very well prepared ever since. I learned "If it can go wrong, it will, and have plans B, C, and D just in case."

2. Teaching in China: Who Learned the Most?

If you read my February newsletter, you know that I (Ellen) have recently returned from Beijing, China, where I was teaching a class called "Executive Communication" for students who are enrolled in the part-time "BIMBA" (Beijing International MBA) program, under the aegis of the Chinese Center for Economic Research (CCER) at the University of Beijing.

Last month I wrote about how my students have wonderful senses of humor, but also significant difficulties understanding the nuances of jokes, particularly jokes that depend on a basic knowledge of American culture. (And if you've read my book, Presenting with Style, you'll know that I caution presenters about using jokes even with American audiences.)

To address this difficulty in the classroom, I learned to monitor my own examples and anecdotes very carefully. I would pause before I used a metaphor or analogy to explain a concept; I would think "are they going to get this explanation or will it make them even more confused?" Then I would proceed carefully, checking for comprehension in their faces and asking for confirmation. Here's an example:

I wanted to impress upon them the idea that a good presenter must be flexible, in order to deal with unexpected events. In my American classes, I usually illustrate this idea by telling several stories from my past theatrical experiences, all having to do with what an actor must do when something goes wrong on stage. (Like the time I was in a three-character play and all three of us were on the stage and we got to the part where one of the characters was supposed to try and commit suicide by stabbing himself with a butter knife and the props person had forgotten to put the butter knife on the set. So the depressed guy tried to strangle himself to death. Which turned out to be even funnier than the original version!)

Well, I thought to myself before I opened my mouth (a rare thing for an "entertainer" style presenter to do!) and decided that the comical suicide story might not work for this group at all, especially since I had already taken a quick "show of hands" survey and discovered that no one in the class had ever been in an amateur theatrical. So instead I turned the discussion into a "what-would-you-do-if" dialogue, and asked for suggestions of what they would do if the laptop exploded (they laughed at this), or the lights went out, or people came in late (this got huge laughs when a student actually walked in late, as if on cue!), or peeked in the windows on the classroom doors (as they were doing at that moment).

My Chinese students taught me to slow down, assess, consider, and THEN speak. This helped them process the information and it helped me become a more effective teacher.

The last comment I want to make here about my experience teaching graduate students in China is this: The majority of my students took every critique I gave them and assiduously worked to improve. I had several students who went from a C- on their first paper to an A- on their final paper. I had a larger number of students who went from a C on their first presentation (standing frozen behind the laptop, making no eye contact with the audience) to an A on their last (looking polished and professional). And then there was Leo, my "best" student of all, whose English writing skills are still pretty appalling, but who worked tenaciously to improve his grade by rewriting papers, asking detailed questions, and implementing every single change I suggested about his presentation style. If any student ever deserved an "A" for effort, it was Leo. Here is his final email to me:

Dear Pro. Dowling:

The grade of my Executive Communication is A.

It surprised me because my top purpose of this course is B. Even B+ is far from my imagination.

The process of the Executive Communication convinces me that YOU can do a good job, as long as YOU work with tenacious spirit. I really appreciate all the help you have done for me.

Please keep me be informed if any of your friends come to Beijing. As a guider for free, I'd like to show he or she around.

  • Because this 'help' is not only a return but also a big benefit to myself.
  • Frankly speaking, the real English environment will do me good if I want to learn English well, learn more about foreign culture, and make a friend.
  • Another reason is that I can make a schedule in light of my own favorite.

Best Regards


So if any of you are going to Beijing, let me know and I'll put you in contact with Leo!

3. Presentation Skills Book Review

Continuing last month's theme about humor in presentations, this month's book review discusses Jay Sankey's Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy (NY: Routledge, 1998).

While I'm not that certain that there's all that much Zen to be learned from this book (certainly not as much as I remember learning from the similarly titled motorcycle maintenance book), there is quite a bit of information about the craft of standup, which I think can easily be applied to anyone who "stands up" in front of an audience, including presenters and trainers. (This is also the premise of my book, The Standup Trainer.)

"To be a standup comic," says Sankey (a professional comic himself), "is to be an actor, a writer, and a director. . . . Essentially, it's about developing a standup comic's ear, body, and voice, learning how to translate your own unique sense of humor to the stage, and paying your dues by spending hundreds of hours standing on many different stages in front of many different audiences." Just substitute the word "trainer" or "presenter" for "standup comic." Same thing!

Here's another similarity between standup and presenting: You can learn much of your craft by watching other performers. "Yes," Sankey agrees, "chances are some of them will be dreadful, but sometimes you can learn as much about a craft from someone who does it poorly as you can from someone who does it well."

Presenters, like standups, also need to convey what Konstantin Stanislavsky called "the illusion of the first time" to keep their material fresh and stimulating. "One of the real challenges of standup," says Sankey, "is the ability to deliver a joke for the six-hundredth time and still make it look fresh and dewy."

A few more gems (that is, points I totally agree with) from Sankey:

"By all means, try to focus on your own unique sense of humor rather than on trying to deliver material that doesn't suit the person you really are."

"Audiences tend to give respect and power to those performers who, in turn, grant them respect and power."

"You are not alone in your nervousness, and it's a natural part of the process. In fact, being nervous before a set can be a very positive sign, indicating that you care strongly about doing well and are unsure about the outcome of your show."

And a final Zen moment most suitable for trainers/presenters who are speaking at 2:30 in the afternoon:

"Zen is simply a voice crying, 'Wake up! Wake up!'" (Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita)

4. Useful Online Resource of the Month

Attention all you military personnel reading this!

If you haven't yet discovered "PowerPoint Pogue's Homepage" (http://www.nbc-links.com/powerpoint.html), you are in for a real treat.

This site is a hoot-and-a-half compendium of witty reactions to the ubiquitous use of PowerPoint in the military, especially during "briefings." The site includes

An official memo describing the new "PowerPoint Patch," which "is authorized to those who have put in at least 1,000 hours on PPT presentations. Subsequent awards for 2,500 hrs, 5,000 hrs, and 10,000 hrs are to follow. Posthumous awards for those putting in over 25,000 hrs will be presented to the next of kin, upon request."

Another memo announcing the "Combat Briefing Badge." "People don’t realize that being in a major headquarters can be just as stressful as going on patrols or convoys," said MAJ John Remf. "When you’re briefing that many General Officers, your career can end in a heartbeat."

A poem, "My PowerPoint." ("This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it but mine is 7.0.")

Some songs, more hilarity, and (my favorite) a collection of PowerPoint haiku, including

PowerPoint Ranger,

Army of One Techno-geek,

Revered by the brass!

And an excerpt from a blog by a soldier serving in Iraq:

"I am happy to report that Memorial Day 2005, in Southern Baghdad Iraq was fairly boring. Aside from having to generate countless PowerPoint slides unnecessarily repeating information that could very easily be relayed over the phone. Why communicate in a 2 minute conversation when you can generate an 18 megabyte presentation that the near dial-up speed bandwidth we call internet access can't handle sending? Ah, yes progress."

If you know someone in the military, send them this link and make their day!

That's it for this month! If you enjoyed this newsletter please do pass it on to your friends. (Or send them to www.standuptrainer.com to get their own subscription. Why should YOU have to do everything for them?)

If you have a suggestion for something we could do to make this newsletter even MORE useful as well as amusing, please contact us:

Dowling & Associates, Inc.
Ellen Dowling, President
(505) 307-1700