Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Every Speaker Has A Story Podcast:Episode 1, "Technical Difficulties"

By Steven S. Vrooman

My free podcast is finally available! You can listen to the first episode below on this post or download it via podomatic or itunes:

Each episode will be a set of stories from professional public speakers about their experiences wrapped around a particular theme.

This week's theme was inspired by two of the stories I solicited from Ray Seggern and Mitch Hagney, two speakers with whom I have shared the stage with and whose stories I previously summarized in a blog post.

I interview people multiple times a week via skype (comment below if you are interested in sharing your story with me, or message me on skype -- "steven.vrooman") and now have enough interviews to pick only the best stories. 

This month's episode, on the failures of technologies and what we do when that happens, has stories from people in the fields of marketing, urban farming, social services and motivational speaking.

I really think you're going to like this show.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Social Media, Self Storage, and “The HELPS Complex”

By Steven S. Vrooman

This is an article I wrote in preparation for a keynote I will be giving at the Texas Self Storage Association. It was just published in the Self Storage News Magazine, and you can read it in a PDF viewer here,  but we reprinted it here (with permission of the Texas Self Storage Association) on the blog for easier reading on mobile.

Even if you are not interested in self storage, the social media example at the heart of this article will be helpful to anyone looking for what not to do in commerical social media for small business.

*   *   *

The Information Age really isn’t about information. 

This was my argument when I spoke about Twitter at TEDxSanAntonio. Humans are actually pretty bad at information, research has shown. Relationships, on the other hand, we’re good at. At least in a general sense. This is why social media grew out of the static Internet 1.0. We crave relationships and would rather listen to the new band our friend discovered than the one the Spotify algorithm recommends.
Good business is also built on relationships. Growing those relationships to grow a business via social media? That’s key.
But social media is a big door. Very big. And the lock sticks. When I speak at your annual conference in October, I won’t be your battering ram, but I think if I lend you my shoulder, we can get this thing open. 

I’ve been researching the intersections of people and their technology for more than two decades now. And, although things have changed a lot in that time, I still remember the first thing I saw, in the basement of a college computer lab, when I first heard someone call something “the Internet.” It was people, huddled in front of glowing green screens, using text to chat with people far away. 

As the joke goes, we have computers in our pockets more powerful than what put us on the moon, with libraries at our fingertips, and we use them to share videos of our cats.
That’s who we are. We are creatures of connection. 

And yet . . . 

We don’t seem to use our social media all that, well, SOCIALLY, do we, at least when it comes to our businesses? 

There’s a particular pattern to the way small businesses tend to create social media pages in what feels like opposition to these facts of human life. Let’s call it “The HELPS Complex”: 

EXIST and have a
PHONE number and a

This HELPS Complex is exceptionally common for small businesses, where the time to do social media may simply be a scarce commodity. So we let opportunity lie fallow, adding basic information we might get from the old-fashioned yellow pages. 

And when we do have a minute, what do we post? Self storage is an industry where inventory is literally set in concrete. New goods do not reliably arrive on Tuesdays to provide fodder for an underwhelming, but at least timely, post. 

Is your business’s Facebook page is a prime HELPS example? What does that look like to visitors? 

I performed a small study to find out. I directed a few people to a HELPS Complex Facebook page of a self storage business in Texas and asked them to message me their thoughts. Twenty people responded, including an entrepreneur, an artist, a pastor, an administrative assistant, a teacher, a nurse, a lawyer, a programmer, a stay-at-home parent, a person between jobs, and a smattering of other professionals, including two who are in the process of moving to other states. Are these people likely customers? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But surely our social media outreach should do at least a bit of what advertising tries to do: reach out to those who are not yet customers. 

The most common response to the page was concern about how little content there was. This took two forms. Quite a few were skeptical and thought I was pranking them: “I don't know why anyone would look at the page. In fact, I'm trying to figure out where the joke is hidden in your request to review it.” People thought it was a fake Facebook page (“I don’t understand”) or the business was closed: “I would assume this business was no longer open (Where is the cover photo? Where are pics of employees?)” Others simply equated the lack of continued posts with a “kinda lame” lack of care for customers: 

“Doesn't give me a terribly favorable impression of the company.....” 

“Unimpressed. There was nothing that grabbed my attention.” 

“No personality. Nothing that draws me in.” 

“They don't have any activity in the recent past, no comments, and no reviews. I would wonder whether or not they are a legitimate business.” 

“No creativity. No effort. Equals no credibility and no effort on my part, either (as the customer).” 

For some, this edged over into a sense that the business was rude or hostile, and they responded with their own set of negative emotions, that what was missing, for one person, “angered me.” 

Imagine that this is the dominant first impression of your business! Like the old shampoo ad said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. 

What a self storage facility sells is peace of mind. My stuff will be safe there. It won’t get too hot. No one will steal my collections. Nothing bad will happen to me if I come to get things while I’m by myself. If I’m approached by someone there I will know whether or not they really do work for the place. 

How am I to know whether I can trust a self-storage facility that provides so few of the details that are important to me? Your social media presence is your business’s testimonial to how well it handles the little things. This is why a HELPS page makes people angry.

Not only does a HELPS social media presence fail a bit spectacularly at generating positive attention, it also seems to provoke exceedingly negative attention. 

For one person, a stereotype of an incompetent rube came to mind: “I would think that some uneducated shady self storage business owner doesn't know how to use Facebook, but followed the advice of the tow truck driver who tows the cars that are abandoned on his property. "That Facebook thing will help advertise your place! You should set up a Facebook!" And that's what he's done. I imagine him checking the site a lot to see his numbers never go up but he doesn't understand, gives up, and now never checks it and has forgotten he made it at all.” Now we have someone filling in the information gaps with caricatures drawn out of that anger and frustration. 

Would you have imagined, before you started in on this article, that such a simple Facebook page could have generated this kind of response? 

Quite a few turned to seedy assumptions straight out of paperback thrillers and cable crime shows: 

“Sketch! Post at least once a month for folks not to think you are a scam or drug facility!” 

“5x5 is big enough to store a few bodies, a shrine, a cache of weapons, or 5 cubic feet of water.” 

And some suggested things were going on that I had to look up a definition for: “Are you guessing people are dry labbing? Not me!” (Even after I looked up “dry labbing,” I still wasn’t certain how it related to self storage. But it’s not a good thing. And apparently someone is afraid it is being done at one of your facilities). 

The apex of all of this is the horror movie scenario: “My first thought was get your supplies to kidnap/dismember your victim and have a place to store the body. Did I miss something?” 

I’m not sure this person missed something, but clearly the business did. The responses have ranged from frustration to anger to stereotyping to suspicion to this idea straight out of Silence of the Lambs. I’m sure you didn’t expect to read about drugs and murder when you picked up this publication today. You may be surprised and scandalized. Well, better to see it here than in the reviews of your business on Facebook or as a reply to a tweet! Social media can be uncomfortably direct. It can even be rude. Only by knowing the scope of that challenge can we develop a reasonable strategy for engaging that world. 

There was not a single positive response to the HELPS-style page. The responses I did get, ranging from extremely unimpressed to downright paranoid, have got to make us all feel like maybe not having a page at all would be better. 


But I think there is a better answer. The HELPS site did not make my respondents think these things. Their negativity and stereotypes were so quick to come that we can easily conclude they are fairly common, if generally unspoken, out there in the world. Even without a Facebook page, people might things these things while driving by. Social media provides an opportunity to actively fight against those perceptions, to build those relationships. 

As I was developing these ideas with my social media consulting team, my first thought was to call this thing I observed the “HELPS Syndrome.” But a team member suggested that a syndrome generally means that something is incurable, maybe genetic. Instead, the HELPS phenomena is more accurately seen as a “Complex,” a collection of problems, all of which can be addressed with the right kind of detail-oriented customized treatment. 

When I address the Texas Self Storage Association annual conference this October, my goal is to help you unlock your own customized treatment. We need to turn skeptics into friends. We need to build strategies going forward that help customers feel good about contracting for self storage, not just as something sketchy that they “have to” do. To help you accomplish that, I will do a few things in my presentation. 

First, I will report on a more in-depth analysis of the social media presence of the self storage industry in Texas. Let’s see what’s working and what’s not. I will be casting a wide net and will likely be looking at your business’s social media while I’m at it. 

Second, I will try to point the way forward toward better engagement and better customer impression management. But, I’m not going to give TSSA the same old social media spiel, a pattern of suggestions that was clearly developed for industries with entirely different business models and community footprints than self storage. I can see, in many of the Texas self storage Twitter and Facebook accounts, the remains of this kind of generic training. I see the way that effort tends to stop after a couple weeks or months on your sites. I don’t blame you. It doesn’t work. We can do better. 

I’m looking forward to it. 

Ready to get started?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Remembering HOBY: A Thank You to Hugh O'Brian

By Steven S. Vrooman

When I heard the news that Hugh O'Brian had died today, it brought back a flood of memories of my time at the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Gathering when I was in high school. I put them all up on Facebook, but upon reflection, I think I'd like those memories here, in a more permanent spot.

I had already joined the speech and debate team when I went to HOBY, but that event pushed those skills to heights that would take me to State a few times and then Nationals my senior year of high school.

I can't say that the things I do now, teaching, keynote speaking, writing, consulting, even social media, would be parts of my life without the HOBY experience.

Hugh O'Brian built something that changed so many of our lives for the better. I think the enduring and unspoken challenge of HOBY is for all of us to try to do the same.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Every Speaker Has a Story" Podcast Music

By Steven S. Vrooman

I have been recording interviews with public speakers all summer, and the first episode is almost finished. This podcast will most often be a collection of interview snippets on various themes, like nerves, technical difficulties, social media, etc.

I am excited to say that my son, Sam Johnson-Vrooman, has finished the music for the podcast!

More details on this project to come, as well as the first episode.

Here is a preview of his work.

"Every Speaker Has a Story Theme"

Creative Commons License
Every Speaker Has A Story Theme by Samuel Johnson-Vrooman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

"Every Speaker Has a Story Meditation"

Creative Commons License
Every Speaker Has A Story Meditation by Samuel Johnson-Vrooman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

For the Professors, Part 7: Elocutionary Exercises

By Steven S. Vrooman

This is one of my favorite activities to do in a public speaking class. It is both nerve-racking and horrible, but at the same time it is fun and really pretty funny.

It is exactly what we need in an oral communication classroom, which is to create opportunities for safe, shared, inevitable, performative failure. 

Why make students fail? 

Because they are afraid they will. It is aversion therapy, of a kind. I pack the first weeks of my classes with safe, ostentatious failure inevitabilities in order to defang some of those fears. The first "serious" speech they make, they will still be nervous, but this helps. I've been using it for 17 years. It always helps.

A particular moment it REALLY helps with is when student who gets up front, blanks, panics, and says something like "I don't know what to saaaayyyy....." and looks at you like they just want permission to slink away and back down. 

But this allows you to create the moment you HAVE to create to run a successful speaking class or workshop: no one is allowed to stop and sit down. You help them through it. We focus on the first image and explain it. I ask what, for example, they might be afraid of or prideful of (depending on this image in this activity). I'll tell them to just start with that and start telling a story and see where it goes. I tell them I'll help them if they get stuck again. They hardly ever get stuck again. They are failing up there is a really tough, personal way. Everyone, they think, can SEE their nerves in that moment. Yet, they get through it. 

Enough activities like this will help them learn the cardinal message of anxiety, for me: 


So here is the link to the PowerPoint I use. It has enough slides for 29 people to do it. But, of course, there is no reason you couldn't repeat slides. 

Give this activity a try!

And if you do, please let me know how it goes!!

Monday, August 15, 2016

For the Professors, Part 6: Five Exercises in Small Failure

By Steven S. Vrooman

I came to East Tennessee State University for two purposes. 

The first was to guide the communication studies instructors through faculty development on three issues: 1) failure, 2) feedback, and 3) revision. These are three things I think we need to do more of in speaking classrooms. In addition to showing why these things work and are needed, I gave them a pile of speaking exercises and ideas so that they could take the things that would work for their approaches to their courses. 

The second is to lead the non-communication faculty in a workshop on how to incorporate speaking into their courses in ways that work for their other instructional goals and don't take away too much time from the other content of the course. They have likely heard pitches like this before. My test, when I give the presentation tomorrow, will be to deliver them what I promised, which is to give them some new and creative things they haven't heard before.

When I finish this trip (or, depending on how long I end up laid over at the Atlanta airport), I will begin a series of blog posts which take my readers through those ideas. I'd still like to come to your university and present it myself (hint, hint), but these are ideas worth sharing, so I will.

I will also be updating this particular blog post with the first set of activities from the "failure" portion of the first presentation. But, until then, I promised the ETSU faculty that I'd put links to some of the online resources they wanted from my presentation here now. So I will, and I'll explain to everyone else what to do with them a bit later.

The Elocutionary Exercises:

Here are the links to the century-old images if you want to build this activity yourself.



But I've already done that and you can grab the link to the PowerPoint here.

The educational statistics site:


The Ripper site:


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Zombie Statistics, Part 2: The Breadcrumbs of Memory and the Habitual Mythology of Bias

By Steven S. Vrooman

I've written before about our often sad research skills and our love of just citing things from the magic internets.

At this moment I am teaching a Professional Speaking class. 4 hours a day. 2 weeks. It's like speaking boot camp. Here's a story from the class that illustrates some of the flaws in how we think about gathering digital knowledge.

It starts with a crumb of knowledge and then we follow the trail. What could go wrong?


The Crumb

In a conversation about the need for transitions, previews ans summaries, all the connective cues that helps audiences follow as we speak, a student, a psychology major, suggested that we can only remember "seven, plus or minus two" things at a time. She did not cite the source of that, and other students nodded at hearing, once again, numbers that had become a kind of "received knowledge" about the world. There is a powerful effect from hearing, again, a number you've heard before. It begins to take on the weight of fact, even if we don't really know if it's true, what Charles Seife, with perhaps apologies to Stephen Colbert, calls "proofiness."

Of course, that kind of persuasion is not really durable. That sort of persuasive cue does not really engage the brain. It is what various two-stage models of persuasion call either "peripheral" or "heuristic" information. Think about the utility of that kind of thing for difficult persuasive tasks like. . .

. . . convincing the audience that the Earth is actually flat. I might take zombie Internet stats for truth if you are telling me what I already believe, but in other cases, no way. You've got to have an answer when your audience starts to get angry like every public meeting in Parks and Recreation.

The Trail

One student clearly liked that idea and wanted to use it for her speech. Of course, depending on how you Google that, you end up with all sorts of vague things. This student, in her first speech draft, cited "human-memory.net." Okay. Dot-net sounds legit, yeah? She got docked some points on her grade.

Curious, I went to the site and first noted the "Seguin, TX Residents Are 'Rattled' By New Public Records Website" ad embedded in the top paragraph and the "Chakra balancing" ad at the bottom. More legit by the second! Looking further, there's not a citation on the page to any of the research that generates the various "facts" about memory. All the blue-underlined links are to other pages on their site.

I suggested that this site was not credible enough and she was shocked when I told her to go to Wikipedia. She looked like:

Yep. What we learn in high school is:
  1. Quotations are the only evidence that there is.
  2. Unless the quote is Wikipedia. THAT's not a thing.

Of course, quotations are the LEAST effective kind of evidence for an argument, but it is easy to grade sophomore English essays built on quotes when grumpy faculty are coming in to fill out rubrics over the summer, so we might as well ruin the analytic skills of a generation of students . . .

Wikipedia is as good as the edits. Look around. Look at the MANY CITATIONS ON THE BOTTOMS OF PAGES. See if they are any good. For some things Wikipedia is great, like the persuasion theory sites I linked before, or the history of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Cicero's De Oratore, the Berlin Defense in chess, RCA's Photophone or the inflationary universe model of cosmology, especially if you are using it to investigate those citations on the bottom.

The House Made of Candy

In this case, the Wikipedia page for "The Magical Number Seven, Plus of Minus Two" is worth more than any of the sites a Google search would give you in the first 3 and a half pages of the Google list (on the day I wrote this -- it may be better or worse on your day if you try it). 

How can you know that? Well, the G. A. Miller study from 1956 that generated this number is cited right off the bat! And there are 15 more cited articles from the testing and development of that idea as it developed over the past 60 years, of which 13 are peer-reviewed.

You can easily find the pdf of the original article plus the arguments and problems with the theory. 

Sometimes following the trail is easy, as long as you set aside your habitual mythology of bias.

And, in this case, you can not only get the peripheral/heuristic bump from giving us numbers, the the citation credibility bump from citing a few impressive sounding journal titles. Plus, Miller was at Harvard when he wrote it, which is at least better than average as an institution of higher learning, wouldn't you say?

Of course, I would suggest a better search to begin with, perhaps in a peer-reviewed psychology database, to generate a more nuanced analysis of this figure, but that would in fact be more work, so there's that. But good research does not always mean more work. It is just smarter, better work. More work is always possible, and more work, in the right places, usually does lead to better. But trying to do less work by hopping on the first site in the Google list does not usually end up saving time anyway. 

The Witch

This is where I would give you the downside of this more credible and rigorous approach to simple Internet research.

Yeah, nope. None. No one will eat you. No chicken bones through the cage. You are doing it wrong and fairy tales contributed to the persecution of women through witchcraft panics. Really. Why do you think witches have big cooking pots and brooms? Gee .... I wonder who typically used those things in the 15th century .....