Mario: Before and After

Several years ago, when I was still teaching my yearly “Report Writing and Presentation Skills” class to graduate students in the Beijing International MBA Program at Peking University, I had a young Chinese man in my class named Mario.

(Quick aside: My colleague at PKU, Deborah Riegel, and I often had Chinese students who had adopted “English” names. Usually they were of the “Jason,” “Emma,” “Mark,” or “Daisy” variety, but sometimes the results were more curious: “Oscar” (a female student), “Polly” (a male student), and even one whose Chinese family name was “Pan” who had chosen “Peter” as his English name. I never did find out why Mario chose “Mario.”)

Early on in the class schedule, I subjected my students to the first of two videotaping sessions, during which I asked them, in groups, to make a persuasive presentation to a supposed audience of wealthy investors. As each group member gave their part of the presentation, I graded them individually on such aspects as body language, voice, eye contact, interaction with the audience, etc., using a 20-point scale to rate them. Most of my students’ scores on this “before” presentation hovered around 10-15 points, 10 being pretty poor.

Mario scored 5.

I probably should have given him a 0. He read his entire part of the presentation from the papers he held in his obviously shaking hands; he never looked at the audience even once; he remained glued to the spot; and he made no attempt to establish any kind of a connection with the audience. It was painful to watch his performance. (Even more painful, I could see, for him to deliver it.)

Whoa, this is going to be a challenge, I thought.

But then a bit of a miracle occurred. Mario saw himself on video and must have come to the astounding realization of how badly he had performed. The students in their groups watched the playback of their videos and perhaps some of them offered him helpful advice. Maybe he just up and decided that he was going to undergo a sea change for the better, I don’t know.

What I do know is that he began to throw himself wholeheartedly into the subsequent class activities, all designed to give the students lots of opportunities to practice different presentation skills. One exercise that I remember in particular is one I call “Vocal Variety,” and it entails participants reading nonsense phrases/sentences pre-written on index cards and then saying them out loud with different kinds of vocal styles. Some of the nonsense readings included “I want a piece of cheese,” “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggie,” and “I am the eggman, I am the eggman, I am the walrus.” Then I would ask each student to say their individual phrase as if they were out of breath, very frightened, laughing hysterically, crying, very angry, etc.

Mario’s phrase was “I’m just a gal who can’t say no.”

EVERY TIME he spoke this phrase—as angry, as bored, as frightened, as insane—the whole class just fell apart. Mario was a master of voices! Who knew?

Finally, the day came for the second round of presentations, when the groups would use the same topic as their first presentations, but (hopefully) present much better than before. And most did improve.

Mario scored 18 points.

The applause from his teammates and classmates after he finished was thunderous and I was stunned.  I told him that I expected to see him soon on CCTV as he now appeared to have stage presence galore.  He beamed.

To this day I still think of the miracle that was Mario and wonder if he has indeed gone on to have a career that gives him ample opportunities to demonstrate his superior speaking skills. I’d like to think, of course, that it was my unparalleled teaching ability that turned this ugly duckling speaker into a magnificent swan, but I prefer to give Mario most of the credit. I believe it was the fact of seeing himself as others see him that inspired him to make major changes to his behavior.

Like Mario, you will also learn much from watching yourself present and from the constructive criticism you will receive from presentation skills coaches Deborah Grayson Riegel and Ellen Dowling, authors of the book, Tips of the Tongue: The Nonnative English Speaker’s Guide to Mastering Public Speaking, and instructors for The Tips of the Tongue Virtual Course: Presentation Skills for Nonnative English Speakers.

Don’t be afraid! We will make it both enjoyable and educational for you!





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