Category Archives: Life Challenges

Presenting … presentations

I was recently fortunate enough to present to a room full of fellow professionals at an event in Europe. I’d known for several months that I’d be doing so, and for me it was a big deal. It was the first time I’d had the opportunity, and there was the potential to be presenting to well over 100 people – but I wouldn’t know the real figure till I got started. 

The room I was due to present in…

I was determined that I wasn’t going to blow it.  

I’m guessing that most of you have, like me, sat through your fair share of presentations. I’m also guessing that many of those have been dire, where the presenter spent most of the time droning on in a monotone, reading verbatim from every slide, and every slide was covered in dense text with occasional bullet points.  

I’m guessing that the number of presentations which has given you a lightbulb moment, an “aha” moment, some kind of inspiration and which have left you feeling energised and enthusiastic is few and far between.  

For my talk, I was determined that I wasn’t going to produce a dire presentation, and that I would do my best to be inspirational and have the attendees enthused by my presentation.  I was also aware that the topic – retraining existing staff to work in cyber security – had the potential to be very dull indeed.  

Regular readers of my blog will know that I really like TED talks, that I watch or listen to a lot of them, so I thought I’d try to produce my own version.  I therefore did a lot of background reading, with emphasis on how to prepare and deliver TED-worthy presentations (yes, there are a lot of books out there which cover that topic). 

I learned that even before starting on my slides, I should work out what messages I wanted to convey, what the key points were. I should work on having a killer opening, one which engaged and intrigued the audience from the outset, one which grabbed their attention. 

I also learned that when it comes to slides, words = bad, pictures or images = good. After all, you want people to be focussed on what you’re saying, not on reading what’s on the slide. If you’re reading off the slide, why are you there? The attendees could simply be sent the slide deck and read that for themselves. Slides are an aide memoire, nothing more.

And I learned that your body gives a lot away when you’re talking. Moving around, shuffling from one foot to the next, fidgeting with your hands, jingling keys, says “so” or “um” a lot, all those sort of things detract from the message you’re hoping to convey, and reduce the perception that you’re an expert in the topic.    

I practiced what I was going to say – many times. I wrote out my introduction and honed that, many times.  I recorded clips of me presenting so I could see what bad habits I had – and tried not to do them. I ran through the slides over and over, reducing them to no more than 5 or 6 words on each.  All of this helped boost my confidence and reduce my nerves.  Unfortunately for Dee she also had to hear it several times, and her feedback was invaluable. 

Did it work?  Yes, I think it did.  Of the 60 or so people who came along, less than half left feedback, but on the whole the presentation was well received. For my first attempt at a big event like that, I was really pleased with the feedback.  

Will I take the same approach in future? Absolutely, if time permits.  I think the attendees benefited and I think I benefited from the process.  

The days of wordy slides and boring presenters should be at an end.  Make sure you’re not stuck in the past with them.


Reflections on poverty and a multicultural visit

I’ve been very fortunate this week to visit Prague as part of a business trip. Business was concluded early so I’ve had a bit of time to kill while waiting for my flight home. I came here last year with Dee and we both fell in love with the place. It’s not been the same without her, not quite as good, but it’s an enchanting city all the same. 
I’ve walked up to the castle, around the various buildings there and then back into the Old Town via the Charles Bridge. The views from the castle were superb, as were the sights while there. I’m now sitting in one of the main squares sipping iced tea, watching the world go by, and a number of things have struck me about this visit.

There seem to be fewer people begging this year. They kneel, elbows and head on the ground, with cups or hats outstretched, and don’t make a sound. Most of the streets are cobbled and it can’t be comfortable. Whether this is to encourage them to feel shame, to punish them for begging, or to prevent too many people doing it, you can’t help but feel for these people. 

It’s impossible to know their story, but trying to imagine how bad things must be got them to force them to beg in such a way is enough to make you weep. I wonder if there are less of them around because the authorities are cracking down hard on begging, whether they’ve been moved out of the tourist areas, or whether there are genuinely fewer people that need to beg here. 

While at the castle, I took the opportunity to visit the cathedral there. It is simply stunning on the inside. Upon reflection, there were visitors from all over the world inside that Roman Catholic building, and I’d be willing to bet that there were more non-Catholics in there than Catholics. It was apparent that all inside were marvelling at what they saw, from stained glass windows to the towering ceiling, and many were taking advantage of being in such a sacred space to commune with their god or their thoughts.

Walking the streets of this lively and lovely city, walking round the castle, and sitting as I am now having tea, I’ve been stuck by the plethora of languages spoken, at the number of visitors and at the number of nationalities represented. I can hear at least five languages at the moment – and none of them are English! 

I’m sitting here wondering at how everyone seems to get along. I’ve not heard an angry voice while I’ve been in the city. Staff everywhere are unfailingly polite. Is it simply the good weather that means all these faiths and creeds are enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of Prague, or is there something else? Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world could learn how to do this too?

Thoughts on mortality

Tomorrow I will be attending a family funeral. My relative died three weeks ago after a long battle with illness. He lived less than an hour from me, I knew he was seriously ill, but I never found the time to visit. Yet I’m finding the time to go and pay my respects, to support his family. In part that’s down to a sense of familial duty: going to funerals of relatives is what we as a family do.

That’s got to be the wrong way round, hasn’t it? Why have I waited till someone dies before paying my respects, before going to see him and his family. Isn’t the time that he (and they) most need me is when he’s still alive, so he knows that he’s in my thoughts? Isn’t that the kind thing, the caring thing, the right thing to do? These are thoughts that have been eating me up, and Dee has been very supportive throughout. 

That’s something that I recognise I need to do better. Spending time with people when they’re alive is a rare privilege, because all too soon they’re gone, and you’ll never have that opportunity again. 

Over 10 years ago I made a good friend when I trekked on Kilimanjaro. We never saw each other after spending those 10 or 11 days on the trip, but we spoke every couple of months and the friendship continued. It was a friendship born out of shared experience, and there were no romantic notions or undertones. One Christmas she emailed me to tell me she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. A few days later my house was flooded due to burst pipes and things were up in the air, with me staying in a hotel for a fortnight while repairs were done and the house dried out. At the end of January I thought I would drop my friend a line, but I saw on Facebook that she’d passed away a few days before. 

I was shocked by how quickly that had happened. I’d had no idea she was so poorly. And I’d had days where I did nothing but watch TV waiting for my house to dry out. Why hadn’t I phoned her, gone to see her, let her know I was thinking of her? 

It’s plain to see that I didn’t learn my lesson, but I’m determined to learn it now. Life is short. Life is precious. Spend your time with those you love and like. Be good to those around you and make the most of every moment you get to spend with them. 

Thank you to the heroes and heroines among us

Three “successful” terrorist attacks in the last couple of months here in the UK have led to an apparent upswing in extremist views. I’m not talking just about those who want to try to wreck Britain and our society, but also those who think that deportation is the answer. (The thing is, quite a few of the perpetrators have been born and brought up in the UK, so where would you deport them to?) There have also apparently been five terrorist attacks over the same period which government agencies foiled.  

I’m not going to write about the perpetrators, or about those who are pushing for a Trumpesque travel ban or blocking of immigration (again, if the perpetrators are born and brought up in this country, how would those bans work?)

What I’d like to do today is to pay tribute to the emergency services and others who ran towards danger rather than away from it. Over the years, the police in particular have come in for a huge amount of criticism. They’re “too heavy handed”, or “not well enough trained”, or “shouldn’t be using things like tasers”.

On Saturday night, it took them just 8 minutes from the first call for help to having shot and killed the three attackers. Those attackers were attacking and stabbing indiscriminately, targeting anyone who they found nearby.  (It also took the ambulance service just 6 minutes to arrive on scene, when they wouldn’t know what was happening or who was attacking who.) They are all heroes, and I want to take this opportunity to thank them and say what a wonderful job they do for us.  

I’d also like to extend my thanks and appreciation to those civilians who confronted the terrorists, tried to lure them away from other victims. We’ve heard stories of people throwing glasses, bottles, crates etc, or of hiding other people in their places of work.  

To me, that is remarkable bravery, a totally selfless act: it is simply awesome.  These people are literally putting their lives on the line for complete strangers.  They are all heroes and heroines, and we owe them our thanks. 

Thoughts on a monster

May 6 1966. The day Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers, were jailed for life. It also happens to be the day I was born. Hindley died in 2002, and today we learn that Brady has died. 

It’s hard to comprehend that today is the first day of my life that he is not in prison.

He was force fed through a series of hunger strikes, starting in the 1990s. He wanted to die, but the courts ruled that he was mentally ill and was therefore not able to make that kind of decision rationally. 

Neither Brady or Hindley ever disclosed the location of the body of one of their victims, Keith Bennett. Keith’s mother died in 2012, having been unable to bury her son, still not knowing where he rests. It’s probably a vain hope, but I do hope that Brady has left directions to that little boy’s unmarked grave, written down somewhere. 

To me, this is the important piece. Brady may be gone, but the families of their victims will continue to suffer, as they have done for longer than I have been on the Earth. I can’t even begin to think how that must feel. I hope they can find peace now, even Keith Bennett’s family. My thoughts are with them. 

Healing and helping the community

Over the weekend Dee has been working at a nearby Mind, Body and Spirit event.  It’s been a really busy weekend for her, with a lot of visitors at the event and a lot of interest in what she does.  There were some amazing stands, from painted stones to clairvoyance, from reiki healers to magnetic jewellery, from artwork to numerology.  I appreciate that this sort of event may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but please read on, as I think you may be as moved as we were by what I’m about to share. 

One of the adjacent stands to Dee was for the Chakra Project.  We’d been admiring the hand stitched wall hangings for quite some time over the weekend, and spoke to the man running the stand, a man called Shah.  The Chakra Project is run by his mother in the Kashmir region of northern India.

Wall hangings of different sizes, yoga mat bags and individual chakra pieces are just some of the items made by the project.
In that part of the world, young girls are apparently not often formally educated, their life choices tend to be limited and many end up illiterate and unemployed.  Essentially, the Chakra Project teaches young girls how to do needlework to a high standard, as they make these wall hangings in a mindful way.  It takes months to learn the skills and colour schemes required. It gives them marketable skills, it gives them confidence and belief in themselves, it gives them job prospects: in short, it gives them hope.  

To my mind, this is a remarkable project, and one that is worth supporting.  One woman – Shah’s mother – decided that she wanted to try to make a positive difference to many other women’s lives, and appears to be succeeding. She founded the Chakra Project and is very involved in it. I think that is simply awesome. 

Oh, and have we bought anything off the stand?  Yes we have, and here it is, in pride of place in our quiet room. It looks and feels like it was custom made for the space.  In a sense it was, because it’s handmade with love and care. 

What a difference a year makes

It’s only just dawned on me that on this day (of the week) last year, I walked out of the doors of the company I’d spent more than 21 years working at for the last time as an employee.  I wrote a little about it in this article, and thought I should perhaps share an update.  

What a year it’s been! I took a short break including a few days holiday in Prague with Dee, before starting with my new employers. They are about 1000 times smaller in terms of manpower than the previous firm, and the two environments couldn’t be more different.  

Working at a small, relatively new company, there have been so many opportunities to do new things, to try new roles, to let my imagination run riot to create new services and products which might give us the edge.  For example, I got involved in writing the “screenplay” then filming and appearing in some marketing videos.  I’ve been to new countries on business for the first time, none of which would have been possible at the last firm.  I’ve delivered public presentations, gained two new certifications including one as a teacher, manned a stand at trade shows, appreared on panels of experts at information sharing events, carried out pure consultancy engagements and a whole host of other things.  These were all new experiences for me.  

Looking back at last year’s article I can see that I felt some trepidation about the move. I was worried that I’d become instiutionalised, too set in my ways, and therefore of limited use to my new employers.  It was all very new and quite scary, a massive leap of faith in my own abilities, and do you know what?  I’ve never looked back.  
This move has been so positive for me, it’s given my career a good push, it’s boosted my self esteem and self confidence, and it’s given me back a feeling of enjoyment at work that I now realise had been missing for a long time.  Simply put, it’s been a positive, life affirming, invigorating change, one I’m extremely happy to have made. 

You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it

So what’s my point, I imagine I can hear you asking.  It’s this: if you think you’ve gone stale at work, if you think you’re unemployable elsewhere, if you think you can’t learn new things, or experience new challenges because you’re “too old” or “too set in your ways”, then I have news for you: it’s never too late to change, it’s never too late to  take on the new challenge.  Yes it’s a scary thought, yes it’s a big leap, but live your life, don’t just accept your existence.  

Be bold, dream big, and follow your dreams.  As George and Marty McFly both said in Back to the Future: “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it”.