Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year to My Best, Worst Communicators of 2008

Happy New Year, everyone! We are a few hours away from wiping the slate clean and recalibrating our communication controls. With that in mind, here are my choices for best and worst communicators of 2008.


Oh, what can we say about a lousy communicator for all seasons, the supposedly "most popular governor" in all of the U.S. of A., the Honorable Sarah Palin. She started out promisingly enough, as I noted right here in this blog after her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. I believed she hit her objectives of introducing herself to the public and promoting candidate McCain. I also found her to be confident in her manner (though clearly that was partially due to reading from a TelePrompTer). But I also noted some characteristics that came to pass, such as her sarcasm and uninspired word choices. This was okay for a biased audience, but I wondered how it play to the country at large. I also found her voice irritating. Ultimately, I wondered if her act might wear thin in the future.
Boy, did it ever. Someone should have advised Palin that the majority of voters in this country live in cities, so it was impolitic of her to dis city dwellers by calling small town residents the "real" Americans, Well, folks in the cities cast "real" votes against her.
I was really unprepared for her lack of wit or preparation. Sorry, but when a network anchor like Katie Couric asks what you have been reading in preparation to be Veep, that is not a "gotcha" question. That type of question is so elemental to mental acuity that her inability to answer it on the spot was a red flag. She was supposedly a journalism/communication major in her five colleges, so why couldn't she improvise a few publications? And then she appeared on the news a few days later with John McCain, much like a father accompanies his teenager in traffic court for support. That was an unsettling image for anyone who aspired to be back-up to the Leader of the Free World.
Yes, the Tina Fey imitation was damaging. But the worst part of that was that Fey used Palin's own words! Didn't anyone ask how those same words sounded coming from the Governor's own mouth?
By Election Day, all polls -- too numerous to list here -- showed hat approximately two-thirds of voters thought Palin was not qualified to be President. She was given the bully pulpit and failed to make her case.


Wow, the CEOs of the Detroit Three were really remarkable this past year. There they were, asking you and me for a handout to prop up their sorry excuses for companies, and they apparently forgot the power of words OR symbols. Just as Senator Ted Kennedy fumbled the question of why he wanted to be President, these Three Kings of Disorient are unable to tell us what they will do with our money. And then traveling to the hearings in separate private jets? Just stunning.


Colin Powell was the epitome of articulation and grace on the October 19 edition of Meet the Press. However, I am NOT speaking of when he endorsed Barack Obama for President. He spoke to a much larger issue that morning: When did it become acceptable for the American public to disqualify a candidate for religion? My blood boiled when I heard people say privately and publicly that Obama should not be elected because he was a Muslim. Powell gave the right response to that charge: "What if he is?" I have heard denigrating remarks about Mitt Romney's membership in the Mormon Church and John Travolta's adherence to Scientology. What's next? Joe Lieberman is unqualified to hold office because he's a Jew? All of it is wrong, all of it is inexcusable. And despite my admiration for Barack Obama himself, he gets demerits for not raising that question himself during the campaign.


Okay, despite the comment above, there is no one who came close to Barack Obama for his ability to communicate in 2008. How do I love thee, Barack? Let me count the ways:

  1. Despite the fact that I thought you were overreaching when you won the Iowa caucuses, you still set a high standard for inspirational speech when you treated your victory as an epochal oment.
  2. Your response to the Jeremiah Wright issue at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia will go down in American history as one of the major statements on race.
  3. I know people who were gunning for you in the debates against McCain, convinced that without a prompter, you could not articulate your positions. The poll after each debate proved them wrong.
  4. While candidates over the last 48 years won with mastery of television, you engaged the nation with that new-fangled Internet thing. That is a sea change, Mr. President-elect
  5. Let's see: an African American, one-term senator who was known primarily for making one speech at the 2004 Democratic convention beats the well-funded, well-oiled Clinton machine and a worthy candidate in the Senator herself, convinces the American people that he is qualified to be President. And your consistently calm demeanor made you a tabula rasa on which the public imposed the image of leadership. If that's not an achievement in messaging, I can't think of a better example.

Okay, let's look for new role models in 2009. As this new administration gets underway, I can't wait to see how they do in a difficult global environment.

I wish you a year replete with clear communications. I look forward to hearing from you in 2009.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Where Have I Been? Well, preparing to publish, and more...

My goodness how time flies! This interlude is disgraceful for a blogger -- more than three weeks. But I have lots of excuses and reasons:
  • I have been singing my heart out -- I am a member of A Cappella Pops, an ensemble of about 35 adults, or at least 35 people who are supposed to act like adults. But this is our big season - Christmas. We recently packed them in at Longwood Gardens, the magnificent horticultural gardens outside of Philadelphia. But, like Toastmastering, good singing requires practice, and we would not have packed them in if we had not polished our sound. That requires many nights of practice.
  • Toastmasters -- My club in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, had a Christmas meeting that had a great concept, which was a celebrity roast of Santa Claus. A police officer who tagged Santa for breaking and entering, a union representative for disgruntled elves, and Mrs. Claus all lambasted the jolly old elf. Oh, guess who played Santa? That was fun. A fellow member lent me a really great suit, and it gave me a chance to improvise. I did not hear the speeches in advance, so my rebuttal was off the cuff. As I wrote in my article for Toastmaster magazine, extemporaneous speaking is a great skill for most occasions, but you need to practice.
  • But mostly I was preparing my book -- I found a great editor named Karen McConlogue who tuned into what I was trying to accomplish. I now have a printing company who will turn the book out once I give them the pdf's. Now all I need is a designer to create those said pdf's, and I met a lot of terrific ones. I should make a choice any day now. The next step is creating my speaking/book-selling website, my cyberstream storefront. Today I met with my photographer. Next is my web designer.
So no wonder I can't find the time to blog. As it is, I'm doing this at the end of a long day at the office (yes, I have a full time job as director of marketing communications for a Fortune 1000 company). And I must still buy my wife's Christmas gift (shh, don't tell her), and she is preparing a traditional Italian seven-fish dinner for Christmas eve, tomorrow night. See my daughter's blog for an update on that!
So this blogging stuff is a lot harder than it looks. The time commitment is tough, but that's not excuse, as I really owe it to you to get it done in a somewhat timely manner. So forgive me for now, and I hope that all will be forgiven when you buy my book in early 2009 (E.T.A: early- to mid-Feburary).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Work, Not Talent, Tends to Distinguish Speakers

I just read an article from Geoff Colvin, a writer I really like in Fortune magazine. It is titled "Why Talent is Overrated," and it is about how the notion of a "natural" in most endeavors is a myth*. I see lots of parallels in speakers.
  1. If at first we don't succeed, we give up. -- Many new speakers get in front of a crowd, and when they aren't the next Orson Welles, they give up. However, it takes some time and practice to become proficient. There are no known genes for public speaking. We need to develop our writing and our speaking styles. Very few speakers step up and hit it out of the park early. That's why pro speaker Darren LaCroix preaches, "Stage time, stage time, stage time."
  2. We are not always willing to undergo "deliberate practice." -- I spoke about this in my November 12 post. I once heard that successful people are willing to do what unsuccessful people will not do. Author Colvin speaks about deliberate practice, which comprises activities that are meant to deliver performance. I recently delivered a six-year-old, award-winning speech to a large group of Toastmasters. I did not take for granted that I knew the material. I practiced it repeatedly in my car, and gave it to three Toastmaster club meetings, each a different audience. The repetition led to familiarity, and the feedback led to improvement. Nothing magic or accidental there. Sure, there are other ways I would have preferred to spend my time, but I would not have had the payoff I received. More important, my audience would not have received so much value either.

  3. We don't set the right goals. -- When we have a speaking project, our goal is not the speech itself. As Colvin points out, "The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome. For instance, a speech whose end goal is to inspire the audience requires you to do more that fulfill those objectives. You need to make sure the speech is organized well, that you are using your body properly, that your vocal variety is effective, that you are using your props to full effect, et cetera. Meeting limited goals leads to limited development.

  4. We often don't see the benefits of our hard work; we focus only on the work itself. -- I once heard the great Zig Ziglar speak of his hard work to lose weight, when he arose early every morning just to job, until he reduced his weight and waistline but improved his health. He concluded that "we don't PAY the price of good health, we ENJOY the price of good health." Likewise, we enjoy building a good marriage, raising children and other goals in our loves. Likewise, we should all be enjoying work that goes into our speaking skills. That includes crafting the text of a speech, pulling together the various elements that will make it successful, and test-driving our work in front of various audiences. This is the price we pay for excellence, but it is hardly slave labor. There is always an opportunity to have fun with it.

We all have our barriers. A woman in one of my clubs became a competent communicator despite having a hearing impairment. I constantly struggle with a speech impediment, and I have to write my speeches in certain ways in order to avoid words that I will stumble over. John Stossell of ABC News and actor James Earl Jones had to overcome stuttering. But all of the work is worth it, as it is the only path to success, not the imaginary "natural talent." Geoff Colvin sums up in this way: "...The price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high. Maybe it's inevitable that not many people will choose to pay it. But the evidence also shows that by understanding how a few become great, all can become better."

* Geoff Colvin's book, "Why Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," is published by Portfolio Books, a member of the Penguin Group.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Value of Toastmaster Conferences

As I've noted throughout this blog, I'm a veteran Toastmaster, having won four District championships and competed in a Regional competition - the semi-final of the World Championship. My friend, JoAnn, is new to TM and she is working hard to develop her considerable native talent. But we both got a lot out of the weekend conference we attended for District 38 (Philadelphia and NJ). And it just shows the value of Toastmaster events, which are designed to benefit many levels of speakers with a wide variety of abilities.

The way the conference started was fun way for me. I was part of a Friday night "Humor Showcase" -- which basically means that a few of us got to tell funny speeches to a receptive audience that had been drinking. I gave a speech titled "Orchestra in My Pocket," which is about playing the harmonica. I wish I had committed it to YouTube to show you, because apparently it's funnier than it may sound. But the beauty of the event was that I wasn't competing and there were no time constraints, so I just riffed on it, just as Lenny Bruce brought a jazz mentality to comedy. Man, it was fun. Plus JoAnn got to see how I took a club performance, which was more staid, and embellished it without the constraints of time or in some cases taste.

JoAnn enjoyed seeing all the different people, the personalities and characters, that comprise Toastmasters. She also got to see all the elements that go into a good speech: the physicality, the vocal variety, the crisp writing, and in the case of the Table Topics contest, the wonder of extemporaneous speaking. In her words: "Watching all the talent makes me want to step up my game." She's ready to attend another one.

Her reaction and learning points illustrate why I encourage my fellow TMs to attend conferences. Even though I won the District Humorous Speech contest twice and also came in second another time, I still learned from the contestants, who were just remarkable. Like JoAnn, I was reminded of how one has to use the body and vary the voice. If I didn't think I could learn from these events, I wouldn't waste my time or money. But the people in my District are terrific. In turn, I'm very proud that many of them come to me for advice and believe I bring value. I always try to comport myself in a way that makes me worthy of that trust.

So JoAnn has a great attitude. She went there to learn not just to be seen and check it off her to-do She found lessons to incorporate into her speaking career. If you are a Toastmaster, I heartily recommend that you attend your conferences. Odds are that they are a worthwhile investment in your speaking career.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Substitute for Memorization

Last night at one of my Toastmasters clubs, I delivered a humorous speech that I first gave five years ago. It's called "Orchestra in My Pocket," and it's about playing the harmonica. I'm surprised by its popularity in my local TM District 38. I won my first District championship, and I've been asked periodically to deliver at special occasions (sort of like the guest star; I pick up a free dinner every now and again.) It's sort of being Ron Howard; he won a couple of Academy Awards, but people only remember that he played Opie on Andy Griffith.
Anyway, the feedback was great last night, everyone laughed, we all had a good time, folks were surprised that I actually PLAYED the harmonica, etc.
At the end of the evening, a fellow member shook my hand and said, "Now you didn't memorize that speech, did you?"
I was surprised, because that is my mantra to my fellow TMs: "Always memorize your speeches." I asked why he thought otherwise. "Well, that's the loosest I've every seen you." The implication was that I so relaxed that had to be winging it.
Interesting observation on his part. So it only proves my point. You will never look relaxed if you are struggling to remember what you need to say next. You must memorize. And you must also structure the speech so that one point leads into another, without any sudden twists or turns. for example, I play certain melodies on the harmonica at specific points in the speech to cue the next section.
When I gave the speech last night, it was my first time in about four years. But I rehearsed in my usual way:
  1. I did several readings into a cassette recorder until I had about 30 minutes worth of recordings.
  2. I practiced by playing the tape over and over while reading the script. This formed a mental bridge in my mind between the aural and the visual. As I progressed through the actual performance of the speech, I could see the words in front of me, what I call a "virtual cue card."
  3. I also rehearsed during my driving time by playing the cassette in the car. (When I bought that car four years ago, I had to make sure it came with a cassette player. they are becoming scarce.
Apparently I looked relaxed when I gave it, so it must have worked. So I'm glad that folks enjoyed my speech, but I am also glad for the validation of my methodology.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A World View for My Book?

Got interesting feedback on my book. A publisher outside the country took a quick look at it is has expressed interest. He likes the subject and believes it would fit his titles. But he has an issue; he said that a have a USA book, not a world book. Hmm, that's interesting. He elaborated that I needed to see my subject as encompassing the world, not just the United States. Some three examples:
  1. I spoke of celebrating the New Year in Times. As he put it, "New Year's is New Year's. Unless you have a specific reason for mentioning Times Square, don't. Let it relate to your reader's experience of New Year.
  2. I spoke about the US economy as "our economy." As he explained, "Many of your readers may be US citizens, but many will not. The economy touches the entire world. When you talk about 'our' you set a barrier between you and anyone who is not a US citizen, which is most of the world's population."
  3. To make a point, I used a baseball story. He made the point that if I specifically needed to talk about baseball because it is the only way of making the point, then it may be okay. But if the same point can be made in a more universal way then do so. But I should forget individual teams. (In this case, I talked about the famous Red Sox collapse in 1986.) "For most of the world, these teams are just names," he explained. "Think of universal terms which will grab your reader with relevance wherever they happen to be: London, Sydney, Frankfurt, Singapore or Savannah, Georgia. If you don't, you limit not only your readership, but also your own authority on being someone who is a world expert on the subject."

Wow, good feedback. It's so easy to fall into the narrow American view of the world. I wasn't even thinking about world publication until I met this gentleman. Now that it's a possibility, I'm willing to do what needs to be done.

Anyone else have experience with international communication? I do, but I never thought I could apply it to be first book (still unpublished). Promising stuff.

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Book is Getting Closer

Wow, my first draft is nearly finished. Just checking the punctuation and those awkward phrases that made sense to me at the time, but are incomprehensible to fresh eyes. I've started looking for an editor, and then I go to print. Lots of printers out there for people like me. It's interesting how the term "vanity publisher" has disappeared from the lexicon. Today self-publishing is a very viable business decision.
Just to show you that I am not totally naive about this, check out this entry from Penelope Trunk,

one of my favorite bloggers. She gives five good reasons why you don't need to write a book. I considered what she says, but I still want that product to hand out to people when I speak, much like people get academic degrees or have children. It's another form of validation. So call me shallow. I want to be called an author.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (for Toastmasters)

This is one of the two times of the year I enjoy most — the Toastmaster competitions in the fall and spring. As a devoted speaker and club member, I derive benefits that grow stronger every year.

Our club contests are remarkably, joyously NON-competitive, as our members are so happy to give it their best shots with their speeches. Our members also comprise a supportive, appreciative and reactive audience, laughing where they should and giving visual cues throughout each speech. Our winners can count, at the least, for much encouragement before they go to the next level. Some members go the extra distance and actually coach our winners, making them twice blessed. (I can tell you from personal experience how helpful and gratifying that is.)

The next level kicks up your adrenalin as you strive to clear that higher bar. Now you are stepping out of your comfort zone, facing unfamiliar contestants. What are their special speaking gifts? What are their unique topics for their prepared speeches? How well and quickly can they speak off the cuff for Table Topics and Evaluation?

These factors make attending other contests valuable, as they become opportunities to learn. Additionally, they tap into our capacities to contribute. I will be traveling among contests this fall, volunteering to be a judge, interview, ballot counter, back-up timer… anything that will help the cause, as others helped me compete over the last few years. And I will learn from others.

Monday, October 20, 2008

General Powell's Grace Notes

General Colin Powell taught us much in his appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday, October 19, and it was not just that he is endorsing Barack Obama for President of the United States. Mr. Powell’s opinions on the U.S. Presidency are of little importance to this blogger, nor are my political opinions of much importance to you. I write about communication, and the good general taught us a great deal about presenting one’s self with grace and dignity.

First, consider how he framed the rationale for his endorsement, comparing our current turbulent time to another problematic period 30 years ago:

GEN. POWELL: “…I think about the early '70s when we were going through Watergate, Spiro Agnew, Nixon period, that was not a good time. But right now, we're also facing a very daunting period. And I think the number one issue the president's going to have to deal with is the economy. That's what the American people are worried about.… And also I think the president has to reach out to the world and show that there is a new president, a new administration that is looking forward to working with our friends and allies. And in my judgment, also willing to talk to people who we have not been willing to talk to before. Because this is a time for outreach.”

When host Tom Brokaw asked General Powell if he was prepared to endorse a candidate, he once again framed his response in a way that indicated he had clearly thought about his decision. (General Powell’s words below are taken from a transcript from his appearance on Meet the Press. I have edited for space; the added emphases are my own.)

GEN. POWELL: “…I know both of these individuals very well now. I've known John (McCain) for 25 years…And I've gotten to know Mr. Obama quite well over the past two years. Both of them are distinguished Americans who are patriotic, who are dedicated to the welfare of our country. Either one of them, I think, would be a good president. I have said to Mr. McCain that I admire all he has done.… And I've said to Mr. Obama, "You have to pass a test of do you have enough experience, and do you bring the judgment to the table that would give us confidence that you would be a good president."
…I have especially watched (Mr. Obama) over the last six of seven weeks as both of them have really taken a final exam with respect to this economic crisis that we are in and coming out of the conventions. And I must say that I've gotten a good measure of both. In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to deal with the economic problems that we were having and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem. And that concerned me, sensing that he didn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had. And I was also concerned at the selection of Governor Palin. She's a very distinguished woman, and she's to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made….”

Notice the deference to Sen. McCain, whom General Powell obviously admires. Notice, too, the respect shown to Sen. Obama, calling him “Mister Obama,” as General Powell apparently doesn’t know him well enough to address him by his first name.

“On the Obama side, I watched Mr. Obama and I watched him during this seven-week period. And he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well.… (Mr. Obama) has given us a more inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations of our people. He's crossing lines--ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines. He's thinking about all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.”

When General Powell discussed the issue of Senator Obama’s alleged relationship with former Weatherman William Ayers, his logic was cut from the fabric of Senator McCain’s own words:
“…This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign. But Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him?”

Finally, General Powell took up a topic that I was hoping that someone in public service would address, namely the demonization of the Muslim religion:
“…I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

“I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards --Purple Heart, Bronze Star-- showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way.…”

Tom Brokaw was obligated to ask the thorny question of race, acknowledging that “there will be some who will say this is an African American, distinguished American, supporting another African American because of race.” General Powell responded this way:
“…If I had only had that in mind, I could have done this six, eight, 10 months ago. I really have been going back and forth between somebody I have the highest respect and regard for, John McCain, and somebody I was getting to know, Barack Obama. And it was only in the last couple of months that I settled on this. And I can't deny that it will be a historic event for an African American to become president. And should that happen, all Americans should be proud--not just African Americans, but all Americans--that we have reached this point in our national history where such a thing could happen. It will also not only electrify our country, I think it'll electrify the world.”

General Powell comported himself well in his presentation in the following ways:
1. By comparing this period to another difficult time, he put his thinking into a context that many citizens could understand and related to.
2. General Powell was always respectful of the candidates titles (he used Mister and Senator), and he did not resort to demonizing the Senator McCain or Governor Palin.
3. He described how he actually knew the two candidates and observed them, supporting the thesis that this was a considered decision.
4. He gave specific examples of the behavior he was judging, including the candidates’ reactions to the economy and their choices for vice president.
5. When he discredited the discussions of William Ayers, General Powell wondered aloud why the Republican Party was focused on him, when Senator McCain himself discounted him as irrelevant.
6. He discussed his feelings about the portrayal of the Muslim religion in America by painting a vivid picture of an American Muslim killed in the service of his country. Yet, he did not diminish Senator McCain with the story.

I encourage all students of public discourse to view the clip of General Powell’s appearance to watch his bearing and hear the measured tone of his distinguished voice. We are privileged to have his example available to us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Straight from the Heart -- John McCain's Acceptance Speech

As usual, the pundits from various points on the political spectrum are weighing in on Senator John McCain's acceptance speech last night. Let me give you my point of view as a communicator, a speechwriter, an emotional Italian-American who is ultimately unabashed about his patriotism, and an objective admirer of McCain. I found it to be a one of the most moving, heartfelt speeches that I ever heard from a politician.
Consider all that the Senator did in his speech to remain true to himself:
  1. He acknowledged an unpopular President who is a millstone around his neck, showing respect for the office of the Chief Executive without embracing the man himself.
  2. He spoke about our need to serve the country.
  3. He criticized his own party for their behavior while holding power over the last eight years. (There were times I wondered, "Are you actually addressing the party that chose you as their standard bearer?" It was an astonishing display of candor.)
  4. He spoke humbly about his own particular story as a prisoner of war, and not in a self-aggrandizing way. He ultimately turned his story to the service of others, those who supported him in the Hanoi Hilton. There have been times lately that I found his references to his captivity downright cloying and even dishonorable, as when he tried to rationalize how he didn't know how many homes he owned on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. However, he redeemed himself to me last night.)
  5. He was comfortable with showing his own fragility as a human being, calling himself "an imperfect servant" of his country.
Was the speech effective? Apparently not to many, who said he muffed the opportunity to give specific examples of how he would work with the Democrats, or how many of his proposals were rehashed from Bush 2000. But for me, the self-deprecation and raw emotion that enveloped his vivid description of his capture and his captivity moved me. In a week of speeches that I found to be overblown, mean-spirited and divisive, it was a welcome change for me.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How Did Gov. Palin Do as a Toastmaster?

I sat there as dispassionately as possible last night as Governor Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Committee. I wondered how I might evaluate her if I were hearing her at a Toastmaster event (disregarding the fact that most of those prepared speeches are five to seven minutes in length). I'm reading a lot of feedback today, but, predictably, they fall along partisan lines. But the focus of this blog is communication, not politics. So here are my thoughts on her speech.

OBJECTIVES CLEAR?: There were several objectives that came out of this speech:
  1. Introduce herself to the public.
  2. Show support for John McCain for President.
  3. Address the criticisms of her background.
  4. Display her values.
ORGANIZATION: The organization of the speech was a bit haphazard, veering from one point to another. Part of that was the scatter shot nature of her objectives. That was a lot of territory to cover in one speech. Most other political speeches tend to be more focused. For example, on the previous night, former Sen. Fred Thompson could concentrate on the differences between McCain and Obama. He did not have to speak about himself at all. Palin's goals were more wide-ranging, so harder to embrace.
CONFIDENCE and DIRECTNESS: Superb. There was nary a stumble or evidence of lack of confidence in her delivery or eye contact. There was an aspect of her speech that made me feel she was speaking to me. She is a natural.
USE OF LANGUAGE: Satisfactory at best. Part of that is due to the fact that she was addressing an eager audience with low expectations. They really wanted her to come on strong. Still, compared to what we have heard from other speakers, there was no soaring language in this speech. Also there were no clever turns of phrases. When her words were memorable, it was due more to her sarcastic and attacking tone than the wordsmithing. (Compare to a very good phrase that Bill Clinton had in his speech to the Democrats, and I paraphrase: "People around the world at one time knew us better by the power of our example than from the example of our power.")
: Limited. After all, she was at a podium, and she was dependent on the TelePrompTer. But others also face that burden and handle it better than she did. For example, she did not use her hands to her advantage.
VOCAL VARIETY and TONE OF VOICE: I found her voice grating and nasal. Also, she had a quality that was a nightmare for many women, unfortunately -- when her voice rose, it became shrill. Still, she registered some differences in her voice between talking about her family, her husband, McCain and Obama.
AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Powerful, but come on! It was the most receptive audience she will ever face in her life!
OTHER FACTORS: Palin was not served well by the constant interruptions in which her family were introduced. It took the focus off of her. While the home-town crowd of the RNC may have eaten it up, it was tedious to those of us watching at home.
OBJECTIVES MET?: A strong performance in this area. She revealed herself as a viable candidate and looked strong up there. The audience in the room went crazy It was a most auspicious coming out party. However, it remains to be seen how the audience across TV Land bought her act.
WHAT DID THE EVALUATOR PARTICULARLY LIKE ABOUT THE SPEECH?: Her confidence. Her preparedness in a relatively short amount of time. The ability to use and deliver words that were obviously not her own.
Palin needs to make sure the act doesn't wear thin. Speaking powerhouse Patricia Fripp warns that the greatest enemy of a speaker is sameness. Last night's performance played well to her core audience, but she has many different people to win over. She runs the risk of appear one-dimensional is she doesn't start using more inspirational language.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The High Cost of Speaking Up

God, how I dread these times. This political season is bound to be filled with all kinds of hard feelings that come from hard words spoken harshly. I was thinking about this when I came across a good blog entry by Laura Benjamin titled "8 Reasons Why People Don't Speak Up." She wants to express why she thinks John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin is a politically brilliant move (and I agree that it was very clever and could be a game changer in the election). But she won't for a number of reasons, such as retribution from others, being branded as politically incorrect, being branded as "different," and more.

I couldn't agree more. Over the years, I have been rebuked and accused of being "too liberal," "too conservative," "too corporate," against the defense of our country, too willing to excuse the military/industrial complex, insensitive to women, a pantie waist feminist, .... The list goes on. Hm, I have a wide range of views there. I must be a schizophrenic.

As a professional communicator, I am shocked at how resistant people are to information that doesn't fit their paradigm. A good example are the proclamations of entertainer Rush Limbaugh. I really try to listen to his program every once in a while, but within 15 minutes, I usually hear about 10 things that I know to be factually untrue. (See The Way Things Aren't on the nonpartisan website FAIR for more on the unknowing utterances of Rush.) His fans, the "ditto heads" (could they have accepted a more self-loathing term?) jump immediately to his defense, facts be damned.

And I'm not criticizing only the right side of the political spectrum. When David Souter was being considered for the Supreme Court more than 20 years ago, a co-worker said that we needed to oppose him because he had no paper trail (i.e., it wasn't clear how he stood on certain issues). I asked why that was a problem, and the co-worker responded that Souter was a threat to the right to an abortion. I pointed out that many men people behaved differently once they put on those judicial robes, and their subsequent records on the Supreme Court can be quite unpredictable. For example, Hugo Black was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but became a passionate defender of civil rights. Earl Warren, the poster child of judicial activism, was nominated for the job because he was an arch conservative in California. His tenure on the Court was the exact obvious of whatever was expected. So I assured my friend that his case was a hard one to make, given the absence of information.

He looked at me contemptuously and said, "Well, it's obvious that you don't care for a woman's right to choose!"

Huh? I said nothing about that issue. All I said was that Supreme Court nominees are hard to predict. But it wasn't what he wanted to hear. I guess because I wasn't with the guy, I was against him. That long-ago discussion was a harbinger of what we learned over the last several election cycles: Nuance doesn't mean much in national elections. Broad, bumper sticker slogans, whether it's "a woman's right to choose" or "my right to own a gun," play much better. (Oh, for the record, I was right about the unpredictability of David Souter. He became a key supporter of abortion rights, and a subsequent thorn in the side of the Republicans who nominated him for the bench.)

This is an important election, but every election is important. We never know the situations Presidents will face (or the situations they will get us into). We need to determine to the best of our ability whether they have the requisite judgment to make wise decisions. So we have to air all the dirty little issues that are forbidden in polite company. Does Barack Obama really have enough experience? Does getting shot down in Vietnam really qualify John McCain as Commander in Chief? Given that fully ONE THIRD of all U.S. Vice Presidents have ascended to the Oval Office, do we want Joe Biden or Sarah Palin as our possible Chief Executives? Which of these two is truly more qualified?

These are important issues. And we should be able to discuss them in our personal exchanges without resorting to name-calling, taking observations out of context to ascribing an entirely different meaning to them, or writing someone off as "out of touch" (which BOTH sides do). Until then, I don't blame us for not wanting to discuss these issues in public. The costs to our relationships, our reputations and even our self-esteem are much too high.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

NETWORKING: More Than Linking In or Twittering

I cannot hammer a nail, so if you gave me power tools, I would probably be dangerous. On the other hand, I am a facile writer. But if I wasn't, all the Spell Check and Grammar Check wouldn't give me the ability to construct a sentence.

I was reminded by that in a recent speech by nationally known networker Peter Shankman, founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique PR firm in New York City. At a recent PRSA event in Philadelphia, Peter pointed out that if you are a lousy networker -- e.g., if you go to an event and can't meet or connect with people -- social media will not help you. As I review Peter's background, I realize that he knows of what he speaks. This is a guy who raised the money for his first agency by selling T-shirts. (He capitalized on the success of the film "Titanic." He printed a picture of the boat with the words, "It Sank! Get Over It!" What a way to make a buck, but he has an agency and I don't.)

PR Week Magazine has described Peter as “redefining the art of networking,” and that was obvious in his energetic, presentation. While he know Peter for his ability to use press relations, marketing and advertising to get his word out, he is particularly adept at connecting with people. His talk inspired me to dig a little deeper into using social media. Here are some suggestions:

  1. DETERMINE YOUR OBJECTIVES - Do you want to find a job? Find customers? Find employees? Build friendships? All worthy goals. As in most communications, know your objectives.
  2. IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET - Once you know who you want to reach, what do you want them to know about you? What should they do with this information? And how will they find you?
  3. MEASURE HOW MUCH INFORMATION YOU WANT TO SHARE - Think about how much information you want to share. How much detail will you go into? Do you want to share private information? Decide, and then stick with it.
  4. PICK YOUR STYLE, AND BE CONSISTENT WITH IT - If you want to be approachable, write in the first person. If you want to be more formal, write in the third person.Whatever style you want, project it.
  5. DON'T FORGET IT'S THE WEB; THINK IN TERMS OF KEY WORDS - As in other web-based marketing, you need to use the phrases that are most relevant to your objectives and your target audience. Google searches social media, too.

I know this is high level, so I encourage you to search your various social media and check out their capabilities. I can only tell you that I have connected with long-lost friends and colleagues through the social media, and I have made new friends and contacts. I get lots of questions answered, and I share my own experiences (yeah, like I need even the slightest provocation to express my opinion on something). And then get out to some parties, shake some hands, and also connect in person.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Choices in Our Voices

Now here's a different story to consider: A Canadian woman started speaking in a new accent after suffering a stroke. It seems that there is a condition called "foreign-accent syndrome," which results from neurological events. The condition causes vocal distortions, and voila! The speaker has a new, "foreign" accent. In this lady's case, it was an accent from a region with which the patient had no real previous contact. And even though she has undergone speech therapy, the accent survives years later.

As someone who has suffered from a Philadelphia accent my whole life (yes, I use "suffer" with tongue firmly in cheek), it makes me wonder -- Do I speak the way I do because of linguistics habits? Is it due to my exposure to others? Or is it related to my brain's wiring?

Is speaking skill even tied to intelligence or brain function? I always love Orson Welles's voice and speaking ability. Was that due to his superior intellect, first evidenced as a child prodigy, later proven by his brilliant directorial debut at age 25 in Citizen Kane?

In my mind, this point is somewhat like the argument of "nature versus nurture," the question of whether heredity or environment shapes us. I have always come down on the side of nature -- i.e., our innate qualities trump our surroundings -- and I believe this is further evidence. A cerebral event reshaped this woman's brain, and her speech changed. Based on this, I feel that we all pretty much retain the voices we get, barring minor refinements from coaching. And like many other factors in our lives, we can recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of our individual voices. Gone are the days when potential broadcasters need to speak like each other. Now we can sound like ourselves, as long as we are understandable.

What do you think? Do we have diversity in our voices, our vocal patterns and our speaking styles? I'd love to hear particularly from speech pathologists and other professionals.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Diamond Days - Lessons From a Star

Last night I saw Neil Diamond in concert, and let's say it flat out - he was terrific. I must admit I went into the concert with some trepidation. I have seen Diamond perform like a parody of himself, growling through songs, sometimes "talk-singing" them like a modern day Rex Harrison. But he was in fine form last night. Including his encore, he sang energetically for two hours straight. (As an amateur singer myself, I can testify that this is no mean feat for a 67-year-old performer.) He adjusted his singing to compensate for the fact that he seems to have lost part of his low end of his vocal range - an unusual occurrence for a mature man; it's usually the high notes that go first.

Diamond was supported by top-notch instrumentalists and back-up singers, as well as savvy staging and lighting that was always interesting without being intrusive. Even though he recently had his first number one album of his career, "Home Before Dark," he sang very few songs from it, sticking largely with his hits. The concert was a celebration of his long and distinguished career as a songwriter/singer, delivered with fondness for his loyal audience and youthful exuberance. In short, he sounded like the Neil Diamond of old, rather than "the same old Neil Diamond."
I often gain inspiration from performers who teach me a few lessons that I can apply to my public speaking. Here is what I took away:

  1. STICK TO YOUR STRENGTHS -- Generally speaking, Diamond has changed his style very little over the years, absent his awful Christmas albums and his pandering evocation of the movie "E.T." with the equally awful song, "Heartlight." You know what you get with him, and that has made him a reliable, steadfast star in the theatrical firmament. (Refer back to similar lessons in my posting on the great Tony Bennett.) Similarly, we should all find our own strengths as speakers and emphasize them. If you're a good writer, write excellent content that will give your audience phrases to remember. If you're funny, deliver your message with humor. If you're down to earth, an "everyperson," in a manner of speaking, then speak plainly rather than in a stentorian style that does not suit you.

  2. DANCE WITH THE GIRL WHO BROUGHT YOU -- Ninety percent of the songs Diamond sang last night were his hits. He sang no more than three songs from "Home Before Dark," which were received well and politely. But when the familiar intros for his biggest hits were introduced, whether it was "Sweet Caroline," "I Am, I Said," or "Coming to America," the crowd was on their feet. Those were the songs they really wanted to hear. Similarly, as we learn which content works for us, we should repeat them unapologetically, though cognizant of the need to package it in a fresh manner.

  3. SHOW APPRECIATION FOR YOUR AUDIENCE BY BEING PROFESSIONAL -- Many former stars have been known to sleepwalk through their performances as though the audience should be honored by their mere presence. Diamond had no opening act and sang nonstop. He also obviously prepared for this show with a tight band, by keeping his voice in shape, and knowing the order of his songs and the lyrics down cold. (Don't take that for granted; some of the aforementioned "legends" have been known to be quite sloppy in this regard, and their fans have sometimes shamefully let them get away with it.) It was obvious that the crowd felt satisfied with what they got. How about you as a speaker? Do you have your material memorized? Is your audio-visual support working, or will it be one more distraction? Do you know your stage well enough that you can use it effortlessly? This is all part of your package as a speaker.

As always, I advise that we speakers look to a variety of artists in other media for tips that will enhance our abilities as speakers. I believe that such attention to excellence can only raise the level of our profession

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Experts Should Be the Sources of Our Information

Oh, how we love to skewer our experts. It makes us feel so... superior. After all, aren't we the country who loves to pick our Presidents based on how much we'd like to have a beer with them? Of course we do. On the other hand, those smart, confident guys, who look and act Presidential are just so elitist!

Just recently, Senator John McCain got all pissy because economists put down his gasoline tax abatement for the summer as a gimmick. He harrumphed that these were the same economists who missed the subprime mortgage mess and besides, "if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still couldn't reach a conclusion." No attribution to George Bernard Shaw for that hoary chestnut.

On the other hand, let's look at the recent cover story of FORTUNE magazine. It features Meredith Whitney, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., who predicted the credit meltdown a year ago. She called downturns at Citigroup, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers and United Bank of Scotland. Hence, the article's author calls her "the most influential stock analyst in America."

Now she calls for even worse trouble ahead - a big recession down the road. Who am I to believe - an obvious expert with a proven history of success or a legislator given to rehashing a century old gag?

My point is that many of us are so given to believing only what we want to believe that we disregard the people who should really know. Senator McCain was absolutely wrong in his assertion - I read of MANY economists and financial experts were scratching their heads in wonder at the huge run ups in mortgages to overextended home buyers. (Apparently, Phil Gramm was not one of them, but I digress....) And back in the 1990s, those same observers saw that the tech boom was unfounded, correctly predicting its eventual crash.

Why believe the testimonies of Government insiders about the run-up to the war in Iraq when a fat blowhard on the radio who acts as my surrogate blusters otherwise? Let's set the Wayback Machine even further back, Sherman, to the early 1980s, when Meryl Streep raised all kinds of concerns about the chemical Alar in our kids' apple juice. Her high-profile Senate testimony, caused a lot of concern and knitted brows. I grant Ms. Streep the best of intentions, but that particular case turned out to be much ado about nothing. I submit it would have not gone so far had it not been for her celebrity.

The danger is a Gresham's Law of knowledge, where bad information drives out the good. I am hearing this occasionally in Toastmasters' speeches, where up-and-coming speakers are making dogmatic statements with no reference to their sources. This practice is bound to be a habit for which they will suffer when they speak in the big, bad real world. (To their credit, I am hearing other good and experienced evaluators catch these misstatements and challenge the speakers.) Certainly we are hearing it in the body politic, where there are more independent fact checkers reviewing public statements than ever before.

So for all of us who make our living communicating, along with other nascent communicators, we should all remember:
  1. Respect Real Knowledge - look to the true experts in their given fields, who usually do not include actors, broadcasters and religious leaders (unless, of course, these people are discussing acting, broadcasting and theology, respectively)
  2. Research - look for your facts; don't presume that you have them already.
  3. Fact Check - challenge even your most cherished beliefs.
  4. Have Others Review Your Work Beforehand - better to have your friends find your errors than your foes.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Lesson In Sound Biting - Barack in Berlin

Barack Obama may be accused of criticizing America in Europe. He will have no one to blame but himself.

I read the full text of Obama's famously received speech in Berlin. As usual, it was a masterpiece of oratory, with soaring phrases and a powerful yet graceful delivery. Here are some examples:
  • SPEAKING OF COURAGE: "...(T)he people of Berlin kept the flame of hope burning. The people of Berlin refused to give up. And on one fall day, hundreds of thousands of Berliners came here, to the Tiergarten, and heard the city's mayor implore the world not to give up on freedom. 'There is only one possibility,' he said. 'For us to stand together united until this battle is won...The people of Berlin have spoken. We have done our duty, and we will keep on doing our duty. People of the world: now do your duty.' People of the world, look at Berlin!"

  • ON U.S. CONTRIBUTIONS TO DEFENSE: "...(J)ust as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe."

  • ON COOPERATION: "In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more, not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another."

But these are not the words I heard. Instead nearly every newscast I heard, even among the so-called liberal, drive-by media, carried this excerpt: "I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions."

So those who wish to impugn Obama will be able to say with some small measure of legitimacy, "He went overseas and used the occasion of his speech to talk about the mistakes our country has made. Doesn't Sen. Obama love America? If he does, then why would he criticize us to others?"

If that happens, Obama will need to face up to the fact that he handed his adversaries a loaded weapon to use against him. It may be unfair, but it is a reality. I truly believe that he loves America and that he is grateful for all he has gained as a citizen, despite his humble, non elitist roots. But as someone who has felt the sting of third-party analysis, I am all too aware that messengers must parse every single word of their public statements. It is called "staying on message." Here is how I might have written the paragraph in question to defuse its potential damage:

"Like you, my country has tried to do its best to strive for the ideal of perfection. We have always fought to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. In fact, our actions have always been matched to our best intentions for you and all our fellow citizens around the world ."

Idealistic? Probably. Selective? Absolutely! But the reality is that as he marches toward the election, this is no time to be completely honest, not when foes are ready to take every utterance out of context. And that is the way all of us in external communication must prepare. The electronic media does not live on banquets of information but on sound bites. A newscast is made up of such 20-second clips. We must know our messages, state them at every opportunity, and not deviate from them.

Again, read the full text of Obama's Berlin speech, and consider whether that is the message that you received. Then let's plan to discuss this again closer to the election, along with Mrs. Obama's statement that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country." That one's sure to be a crowd-pleaser!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Communicating Takeaways - How Little is "Too Much?"

The latest issue of Knowledge@Wharton - for me, a great resource for all kinds of business information - just published an article titled, "'Don't Touch My Perks': Companies That Eliminate Them Risk Employee Backlash." It starts off by discussing how Google decided to "dramatically raise" the price of its day care program, and employees WEPT when they heard the news. (I'm not sure these folks would receive too much sympathy in Detroit, but that's another story).

According to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, "Once you have the perk, to take it away is seen as a violation of a psychological contract you have with your employee."

Here, Here. As the old song goes, little things mean a lot. I once worked for a company named Shared Medical Systems, which was acquired by Siemens of Germany. SMS grew from its three founders to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but its earlier entrepreneurial roots led to some traditions. One was "Doughnut Day," when the company provided all employees with doughnuts on the last Wednesday of every month. It doesn't seem like much, but when a handful of people are trying to get a brand new company off the ground, it's a nice touch. And it became part of the company culture for more than 35 years. When Siemens acquired SMS, they wisely announced, "We will still have Doughnut Day." Some traditions die hard.

Wharton management Peter Cappelli points out certain perks like Doughnut Day are cheap or may even cost nothing (e.g., casual-dress days), but they don't hurt the bottom line much either, so companies should be careful in the way they handle them. "If you are taking anything away from employees, it's important to explain the need for doing it," he says. "It helps a lot if the need is something driven by factors outside the firm. The need to improve share price isn't going to satisfy a lot of people."

This is hardly a new issue. Think of the benefits that previous generations of U.S. employees used to take for granted: fully paid health insurance, fully paid health insurance upon retirement, pensions, subsidized cafeterias, even mandatory overtime pay. (Yes, overtime pay used to be written into labor contracts - a harbinger of the end of American competitiveness). For those of us in communications, the challenge is how to inform employees of such changes and helping to minimize resentment. Here are some ideas based on my own first-hand experiences:

  1. COMMUNICATE CHANGES IN TERMS OF INDUSTRY TRENDS - When I was with GE, which is still a leader in human resources, we announced co-pays for health insurance. This did not go down well at first, as GE was always known as a paternalistic employer. However, GE was also among the last companies to provide completely free healthcare. So we informed employees of all the companies, especially local one, that had instituted the change before we did. It brought down the grumbling at least a little bit.

  2. TIE THE NEED FOR CHANGES TO THE BUSINESS'S COMPETITIVENESS - Referring back to GE, each business unit communicates its own situation. Many during my tenure, such as turbine manufacturing and certain defense businesses, were being buffeted by changes in their respective markets. Once employees understood that such changes were needed to keep those business alive, the employees were (somewhat) more accepting.

  3. EXHIBIT FAIRNESS - If it's one thing that the average employee can't stand is to see one standard for themselves and another for executives or other management. So let them know that the bosses are forgoing their bonuses, or losing their dedicated parking spaces, or paying the personal expenses on their company cars.And if such changes are NOT being shared, well, you have an additional set of issues, don't you? Better look inside your chests and see if there is still a heart there.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Practice Makes Perfect English

I never fail to be awed by speakers for whom English is their second language and how they can improve before my very eyes. I meet them primarily through Toastmasters, and that organization's prescribed method of learning to speak seems ideal for people who want to learn English. In fact, this year Vikas Jhingran became Toastmaster's first world champion for whom English is a second language.

I have seen fellow Toastmasters from outside the U.S. progress through each step of the program - the introductory speech (aka Icebreaker), exercises in choosing the right words, varying the voice, and more - and speak better English with each speech. Since it takes 10 speeches to earn the first designation of "Competent Communicator," you can imagine the improvements. Such success depends on certain factors:
  1. MENTORING - These members need someone to review their speeches and help them with their English, including such details as pronunciation, grammar, pronunciation, and figures of speech.

  2. KIND AND GENTLE EVALUATION - In traveling to other countries, I am generally treated kindly, but every so often I meet a person who takes pleasure in deriding my mangling of their language, however unintentional it is. I would never want to treat a foreign national that way here. My philosophy is that they are speaking English better than I can speak their language. It's best not only to be instructional at those moments, but treat it as an occasion for well-intentioned humor. Just today, I evaluated a Mexican woman who gave a delightful speech on her first time traveling to America. The only mistake she made was that she said, "I had nothing to eat but tuna cans." I pointed out that she may have had nothing to eat but tuna, or she may have had nothing to eat but cans of tuna. But unless she were a goat, there was no way she was eating tuna cans! She laughed, everybody laughed, and then I pointed out that this was the only mistake I could find in her English. She was justifiably proud of that, and encouraged.

  3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE - There is no substitute for getting up and speaking. The constant practice of wrapping the tongue around foreign vowels will lead only to progress.
The great entertainer Victor Borge claimed to learn English by going to the movies, and his plays on words made him a much-loved, international star. I don't know how easy that is, but I can plainly see that the constant repetition, correction and sponsorship is clearly a proven method for perfecting English in America. I encourage you who have friends who need to speak better English to try toastmasters or any method that will get them in front of an audience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Toastmaster Contests - A Most Wonderful Time

It's getting to be one of my two favorite times of the year as a Toastmaster - FALL CONTEST TIME! The upcoming contests are Humorous Speech and Table Topics.

My first humorous speech championship really changed my game as a speaker. I had written one of my manual speeches about playing the harmonica. People seemed to like it. My Siemens Toastmasters club was having their fall contest, and while I promised to enter, I didn't have time to write the speech I had wanted. The contest chair begged me to enter because otherwise there would not be enough contestants. Well, I won, and that speech took on a life of its own. Soon I made my way through the contests, and I won the championship of TM District 38, which represents about 3,000 members.

A couple of years ago, I entered the Table Topics contest (that is, extemporaneous speaking) to represent the Doylestown (Pa.) Toastmasters, one of the oldest, most historical clubs around. I made my way through the competitions, much to my surprise, because I had a spotty history with Table Topics. When I reached the District 38 championship, the chair for the day was Randy Harvey, past International Champion of Public Speaking. I was taken from the room and returned as the fifth of seven contestants. Randy asked his question:

"If you listen to your heart, it will tell you the truth. What does your heart tell you about the state of the American family?"

When you are in this situation, your mind races like a computer processing information and making decisions at unbelievable speed. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know if it would fly with this audience. Then I decided I would say what was in my heart, as Randy had asked. I knew I would rather lose being truthful than win as a phony. Even though it was off the top of my head, the words flowed naturally, and I remember them as though I said them moments ago:

"Mr. Contest Chair, fellow Toastmasters, judges and guests...

I believe that the state of the American family is sound... but not in the form we are used to. You see, as a baby boomer, I grew up with certain models for a family on television. Families with members named Bud... and Beaver... and Princess. Does it sound like your family? No, not mine either."

"But let me tell you about
my family. let me tell you about my gay cousin and her partner who went to China to rescue a baby girl who was abandoned by her family. They brought her here to be raised in a secure, stable family. And when they had the opportunity to adopt another little girl of mixed race, they brought her into a loving environment.

"We see around us every day families that are broken apart by divorce, but then are re-formed as new members join them, making the new family stronger than ever."

"So you see, I have more faith than ever in the American family, because it has changed to let all of us be who we really are."

I guess I made the right decision. When I left the stage, Randy whispered "Good job" in my ear. And when my name was called as the champion, I received a standing ovation from the crowd. I will take that as validation for the words I spoke.

I don't compete in the fall contest anymore. I am happy to support others so that they have the same joy that I experienced. I encourage all of you Toastmasters out there to take this opportunity to enter. You will find that you will be exposed to, and learn from, the styles of other speakers you would not ordinarily hear. You will all stretch yourself as a speaker in ways you could not imagine.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Speaking Lessons (and life lessons) from Tony Bennett

As I write my book, I am researching the resurgent career of Tony Bennett, as I find the man to be a sterling example of someone who adapts successfully to change. Through a variety of sources on the Web and in print, I've learned some basic facts about Mr. Bennett's life and career: He was successful as a recording artist and performer in the 1950s and '60s, but his music fell out of favor by the 1970s. By 1979, his possessions included a broken marriage, a huge debt to the IRS, and a drug habit. But his son, Danny Bennett, took over as his manager, helped him solve his problems, and then set him on the course that revitalized his career: He let his father be himself, a classic singer and a classy individual. Even though he sings songs that are decades old, he is accepted by a young audience for his cool and his skills.

In coaching speakers, I have advised them of the same principles -- that they should be themselves and lead with their strengths. If you are a warm person, let it show because it exhibits accessibility. If you are scholarly, speak that way, as it adds dignity to your presentation. And if you are an expert in your subject, state it to add credibility to whatever you say.

See the list below, and keep this in mind as you communicate. Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true." Mr. Bennett did that, and he's still kicking.

Tony Bennett’s Keys to Success
1. He was good at what he did.
2. He went after a market in which he would stand out.
3. He got himself into the right showcases for that market.
4. He put his personal life in order.
5. He got good professional advice and support from people who had an up-to-date understanding of the business and were devoted to him.
6. He didn't give up when he was down.
7. He was willing to take less money now for future gains.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Is Your Credibility on a Timeline or a Time Horizon?

So Barack Obama wanted to set a timeline for getting out of Iraq. Supporters of the war cried foul: "Why, that would give our enemies time to plan bad things for the time we are gone."

Yet President Bush felt perfectly comfortable in announcing that he agrees to a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals," which includes U.S. troop withdrawals from combat missions in Iraq. This after Iraqi officials - most notably their prime minister - issued a statement that they would like to vacate the country.

Winston Smith, call your Big Brother right away. 1984 has arrived, albeit retroactively.

I mean, seriously, folks, how can anyone look into a camera and state with a straight face that a "time horizon" is any different from a "timeline?" Whether off in the distance or traveling linearly, both methods of time travel have the same destination - withdrawal.

This is just the latest of recent rhetorical refuse that have embarrassed our politicians. Phil Gramm said that we were a bunch of whiners and that the current recession is in our minds. John McCain had to disavow his friend and advisor, despite the fact that the Senator had called him one of the finest economic minds in the country. George Bush said in a recent press conference that the economy looked good to him. Perhaps it looks different from the cheap seats where most of us reside. Barack Obama endorsed public financing of his campaign for POTUS, and then rejected it when it was obvious that he his supporters could give him so much money. Whoops, I really didn't mean that, everybody; ignore that comment from behind the green curtain. Besides, apparently it's not change that he believes in, but the cold, hard cash that is flowing to him unexpectedly.

Once again, the politicos have taught us a lesson that we can apply to our everyday lives: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stick to both. Otherwise, your credibility is shot. This is particularly important in the world of external communication. I'm glad that I never said anything that I had to regret later during my years as a public spokesman for a variety of organizations. Most of all, being reliably and consistently truthful was like "Love Story;" it meant never having to say I was sorry. It also meant I did not have to retrace all my prior statements to keep track of all I said.

But most important, it meant that I did not have to constantly go back and qualify my statements when conditions changed. When I said there were no layoffs planned for the manufacturing facility, it meant just that and I didn't need to explain later why we laid people off - because we didn't do it.

When I said that the hospital was running perfectly well during the strike, it meant that the quality of care was not compromised and there was no danger to the patients. And the strike ended because it had no effect.

Such occurrences meant that when we spoke to the community, to the employees, to the shareholders, and other invested parties that they could make plans according to my statements. I did not need to retract my comments later and say, "Sorry. Do over!"

And when I laid out a timeline to the public, I did not need to explain later that we had a "time horizon" instead, whatever the hell that is. That is why the press and I got along.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Still Trudging Toward My Book

Sorry for the gap. Nice to be with you again. I won't bore you with all the traveling and work projects I have been involved with, but I do want to say that I continue with my book. Boy, this is tough. However, the problem is not my writing ability. Actually, I am a pretty productive writer, and once I sit down, I can pump out a lot of prose.

No, the problem is the interruptions. I can be working away, and then something throws me off track. Here is an example: My darling daughter, bless her heart, was visiting from D.C. She decided that she needed to print out tickets for an outdoor concert she was going through. (She snuck into my chair while I was checking a leak in the kitchen - yet another unwanted interruption!) Problem was, her document didn't print. Why? It required a version of Adobe Acrobat that I did not have. So I had to download it. All this ate up more than a half hour, and it completely threw me off my game.

Anyway, I am about halfway through. I am using my vacation time for long weekends devoted to writing. My goal is to publish 25,000 words by the end of the summer. Think I can do it? How about you authors out there... What is your experience?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Strictly Speaking" Redux

Remember Edwin Newman's great books from the 1970s on writing - "Strictly Speaking," and "A Civil Tongue?" They greatly influenced the improvement of writing since then. However, I just came across this timely article by Naomi S. Baron, titled "Mobile world: Written word may be more informal." Naomi Baron is a professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World." She updates Newman's observations and examines the frequent criticism that mobile and Internet writing is polluting written communication. We may hear that abbreviations and other text shortcuts are creeping into other more formal writing, such as academic papers. But she gives us an open-winded analysis of this situations. I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Real "Big Russ"

All of who aspire to be the best communicators we can be must pause and note the passing of Tim Russert. Those of us who want to influence others with our craft should pay homage to this decent and dedicated professional. Whatever our chosen medium, we can all learn from him.

Writers can find value in his carefully crafted questions, which were designed to elicit a reasoned response and create the “ah-ha” moment, not the “got-cha.” He made "Meet the Press" about illumination of the issues rather than humiliation of his guests.

Students and observers of journalism can learn from his fairness, a quality in shockingly short supply. Though Mr. Russert began his career working for noted Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mario Cuomo, he questioned his guests in equal measure, regardless of their side of the political aisle. In fact, his colleagues at NBC testified throughout this weekend of tributes that they never really knew his political views.

Mr. Russert is also remembered as an astute listener. This is in stark contrast to those pompous pundits who are eager to tell you all the facts based on a single side of a complicated issue — the side that fits their political agenda — blithely disregarding any opposing view. Mr. Russert’s goal was enlightenment, not self-aggrandizement.

As with his word craft, he also understood the power of a well-chosen visual. With a simple white board, he made clear that the key to the 2000 election would be "Florida, Florida, Florida." That board now sits in the Smithsonian Institution, a symbol of his prescience.

Above all was his obvious decency. The hours and days since his untimely death are filled with stories of his spirituality, his deep Catholic faith. Unlike some of his fellow baby boomers, he appreciated the sacrifices his father, "Big Russ," made for him, working several jobs and hauling trash so that Tim could share in the American Dream he defended in World War II. Tim rewarded his father by immortalizing him in his book “Big Russ & Me, Father and Son: Lessons of Life.” The book elicited so many responses from sons and daughters about their own fathers that he followed up with “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons,” a compilation of those letters and emails.

But perhaps his most notable quality was his civility. "Yelling and screaming is not what people expect of us (on “Meet the Press”). It's not what we're about." Oh, if that were only more true on the radio dials throughout the country, which have debased the level of our political discourse under the guise of fairness and balance.

I, for one, was looking forward to his coverage of the quadrennial fall battle as much as I am anticipating the outcome. A throwback to an earlier, more courtly time, Tim Russert made sense of our vibrant yet maddening body politic. He did it with craft, with preparation, and with dignity. There will be a huge gap in this year's election. But I also suspect his absence will loom larger as the years go on.

I suggest that we all take note of this man and learn about him through the continuing testimonials. It is possible that we will not see his like again, and we are all poorer for it. Perhaps this is an opportunity to demand more of our media, our society, and ourselves in our national conversation. That could be the greatest tribute of all.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Learn to Be a Lean, Mean Learning Machine

I turn this post on my blog over to my good friend Shawn Doyle, speaker and author. Shawn writes and speaks extensively on motivation. As part of his message, I refer you to an interview that he had on the iGroop Internet radio network about continuous learning and reinventing yourself, just as Bill Gates reinvents his software, except Shawn won't charge you up the yazoo and you won't be disappointed afterwards by the results.

By the way, to learn more about Shawn and all his work, I invite you to visit his website, too.