Stress!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ask anyone if they think they lead a stressful life, the chances are a large proportion will say yes. With the hectic lifestyles of today, we put ourselves under enormous strain. The stress is not in the situation, however, it’s in the person. Two different people placed in an identical situation will experience different stress levels, based on their background, training and perception of the situation.

I received a salient lesson in stress once. I don’t mean the kind of stress that makes you want to throttle someone or the stress that gives you a slight headache. I mean the stress that keeps you awake at night, every night. The sort of stress that renders you close to tears the whole time. When you start to wonder if you can ever see the light at the end of the tunnel, stress starts morphing into a slow seeping despair.

I was project manager for a large software rollout. The project was in the late stages leading up to go live. In the closing stages of the project, my boss phoned me to tell me he was to step down and that I would have to fill his shoes. He had a lot of responsibility on his plate and this represented a doubling of my workload. At the same time, a couple who were close to us went through a messy separation.

These three things don’t seem like much when I write them down now, but at the time, each one was enormously stressful. Combined, they were too much for me to take. I didn’t realise at first. Stress makes a stealthy approach, crawling through the long grass before it pounces. Before I knew it I was wrestling with it and the damned thing was winning.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I learned a lot. If you don’t want to be kept awake at night, keep a to do list. Once you write something on this list, your brain will allow you to forget it. Otherwise, your brain will keep coming back to the problem, day or night. If you are struggling, ask for help. It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how many people struggle on when all they need is a nudge in the right direction or to share out some tasks.

Talk to someone about the stress you feel. It helps. Try and get a sense of perspective about what’s on your plate. If you don’t complete your work, will someone die? Will you go bankrupt? Will you lose your family? There are remarkably few situations when distilled down to their simplest are really that critical.

There is another remedy which I hesitate to relate.

As soon as my wife realised the stress I was under, she took me straight to the local spiritualist shop where she bought me some stones. She bought me a lump of quartz to stick on my desk (to absorb all the negative energy) and some bits of tourmaline to carry in my pocket to absorb all the stress. I don’t believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but I took the stones. I’m absolutely positive it’s a coincidence, but ever since, I have felt less stressed.

I don’t believe a word of it and yet, those stones are still there.

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There’s no excuse for a crap presentation

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fact of life that anyone who works in any kind of professional environment has a lifetime of powerpoint presentations ahead of them.

Some of them will be really good. Unfortunately, these will be in a minority. Most of them will be average and some of them will be absolutely atrocious. We forget the mediocre in a heartbeat, but the atrocious and the very best will stick in our minds.

There are many reasons for giving a powerpoint presentation. Some are given to inspire people. Some are to explain concepts or teach people. Some are to make people laugh. What they all have in common is communication. If you want people to remember your performance, you need to be either very good or very bad. The only way to get people to remember what you said is to be among the best – no pressure then.

The first thing to think about is the structure of your presentation. A lack of structure is one of the main reasons for poor presentations. If you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it, how on earth will your audience grasp your point. Remembering a poorly structured presentation is hard and difficult to prepare. You are also more likely to overrun or under run your time slot.

People like stories, so a structure that tells the audience where we are today, where we want to get to, how we’re going to get there and what it will be like at the end of a journey will naturally appeal. Another structure that works well is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them again. Then there is the old favourite that follows the PREP acronym; make your (P)oint, give them the (R)eason for the point, then show them the (E)vidence and then remake your (P)oint.

The exact structure you choose doesn’t matter so much as long as you’ve got one and it suits your subject material. As a rule of thumb, I spend most of my time thinking about the structure and what I want to say.

Then you will need some slides. I’m fairly anal about slides. I try to keep text to a minimum and I have a special hatred for bullet points. Words are for manuscripts and blog posts, pictures are for presentations. Every slide should communicate a single concept. Once you have a concept – a Google image search or a chart should be enough to get that concept across. In the later versions of powerpoint, you can even recolour your images so that they all match.

Once you have your slide deck, go through it a few times. I guarantee you’ll see some mistakes. You will also see the best place to break up your presentation with some chapter heading slides. There will also be the occasional slide that appears in the wrong place. A good few passes through remove any howlers and to make the deck flow better.

Then practise. I’m not wildly passionate about practise because if you overdo it, you will lose any spontaneity. The first thing I do is go through the deck and count how many slides are in each section. I write out each slide title and write a bubble around each section of slides with the count next door. So for example, my list might look like this;

  • Intro (4 slides)
  • Where are we now (5 slides)
  • Where do we want to be (4 slides)
  • How we’re going to get there (6 slides)
  • What will it be like (3 slides)
  • Conclusion (3 slides)

I run through that a few times until I can write the section / slide counts out from memory. I then learn the slides at the end of every section so that I’m never taken by surprise when I switch from one chapter to another. Once you can remember that much, it’s only a short leap to being able to write out your entire 25 slide deck from memory.

If you can do that, the presentation itself will be a breeze.

News travels fast

 

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalg...

English: The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s connected world, it is hard to believe that not so very long ago, events took a long time to become widely known. News was originally spread by word of mouth which meant that it travelled only as fast as the people who carried it. With the advent of literacy and language, people began to use the written word to communicate with the wider world around us.

Military communications relied on various methods throughout the ages. A company runner was often sent across a battlefield carrying instructions between different units. Sometimes he even survived the trip. Semaphore signals using flags or lanterns were somewhat safer and are still in use today between ships in the same formation.

There is a plaque in Kensington marking how the news of Nelson’s death was broken. After he was killed in the battle of Trafalgar just off the coast of Cadiz, the ship carrying his body pickled in a barrel sailed to Falmouth where the news was sent by rider to London. Even after riding through the night changing horses at every opportunity – it was days before the public knew about Nelson’s death. As time went on, despatch riders exchanged their horses for motorcycles and advances in radio and telecommunications rendered them pretty much obsolete altogether.

In the wild west, news was propagated by the pony express – literally men on ponies riding from town to town spreading news of anything noteworthy. As the railroads crept across continental America, telegraph lines were built alongside and before too long, a message given to a telegraph operator in one town could be relayed to the other side of the country in a matter of hours.

The first recognisable newspapers came about in Venice around the 17th century. Costing one gazetta (a small coin of the time), these handwritten sheets gave the reader an inkling of what was happening in the world. During the industrial revolution, great advances were made in technology and it was possible to buy a printed newspaper for the first time. Many of the newspapers we recognise today (such as the Times or the New York Post) started at around this time.

In order to populate the newspapers with stories, they relied on correspondents. They were so-called because they would send in the stories via letter. Any such letters from far away climes would travel on packet steamers across the oceans to deliver their stories to the newspaper office ready for publishing. The further away the correspondent, the longer the delay.

When I was growing up, if you wanted news you either read a newspaper or tuned in to the television at 6PM or 10PM.

Today, there are whole networks and channels devoted to bringing the news into your life 24 hours a day. There are hundreds of sites all over the internet dedicated to providing the very latest news. It can be a matter of seconds before a story becomes world news. Satellite technology means that correspondents can report direct from very remote locations live as events unfold.

Not only that, but smartphones have become so sophisticated now that every user is a potential correspondent. Nowadays, we get breathtaking footage of disasters as they unfold – often in high-definition. Revolutions that might have once been quietly suppressed by brutal regimes are now headline news. There have been many high-profile cases where people have attempted to stand Canute-like against an unwelcome story by taking out injunctions. With Twitter, the news seems to sweep over them like an angry wave.

If only more of the news was good news!