Saturday, January 31, 2009

I Have Seen the Future of Public Speaking

I had a great privilege today when I spoke to a group of kids who are in a speech and leadership program in Princeton, NJ. My great friend, Jean Shipos of the Toastmaster Club at Educational Testing Service (Yes, that's right, the same company that has taunted us with the College Boards for decades) invited me to speak to them about humor. I declined, citing the great E.B. White, who said, "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." But I really did want to help, so I offered to teach the students how to use their voices and bodies when speaking.

I wasn't sure how a bunch of kids aged 10 to 14 would react to me. If I make just the wrong cultural reference, I'm toast. ("We don't get that, Mr. Rocchi. YOU STINK!") Talk over their heads, and they're bored to tears. (Jeez, you're boring, Mr. Rocchi, YOU OLD FART!) Luckily, I had attended a session by NSA speaker Sharon Bowman, who gives great tips on how to engage an audience. So I just kept it light with knock-knock jokes, fill-in-the-blank exercises, role playing and more. I threw toys from the dollar store at them, and everyone was interested and participating.

The most encouraging news to me was that the kids themselves were great! While I derived some satisfaction in how they paid attention to my lessons and incorporated them right away, I was most heartened about their speaking skills. Their prepared speeches were generally organized and thoughtfully delivered. One young teen incorporated sophisticated animations that he created into his presentation. On the other hand, I was blown away when another student, who was much younger, observed, "I'm concerned that you allowed your media to do your speaking for you." I nearly jumped out of my chair at this insight, especially when seeing how corporate speakers abuse PowerPoint.

I've heard it said that, due to the proliferation of media, we live in a postliterate society in which the younger generation will not need to know how to read and write. I'm happy to report that these bright and promising young people were not buying into this trap, thanks to efforts like Jean's and, presumably, the kids' parents. (I hasten to add that it appeared to me that English was a second language for many of the parents of these students, and I applaud them for paying attention to their childrens' needs.)

I emerged from the event hopeful. We have learned in our recent history that there is a clear connection between communication skills and leadership, and there is no such thing as "just a speech." Good speech is a sign of a facile and flexible mind, not just a glimmer of glibness. I believe that those of us who care about public speaking and effective communication need to get involved in these programs. We need to help our next generation of citizens become skilled communicators and leaders. Thanks to people like Jean and her fellow Toastmasters, this is happening.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Communication as My Calling?

I have just returned from a weekend religious retreat (Catholic), which is often a great way for me to start a year. The priest who ran the discussions talked about how a relationship with Jesus Christ can help you be who you truly are. My readers can insert the names of their own Supreme Beings in there as you wish, but the point remains the same: Introspection and reflection, such as that found in the truly great religions, should lead you to self-actualization.
I had another sign. I went to confession to reconcile my frustration with many people who work throughout my company. Simply put, they foul up their communications, such as ads and meetings, and I pull their rear ends from the fire. Yet, my job is more uncertain than theirs are, based on where they work. I asked the priest how to handle my own anger at this injustice.
His first advice was that I shouldn't be too hard on myself, that this frustration and aggravation was part of human nature. He advised me to see Christ in the people with whom I am dealing and treat them appropriately. However, the next statement took me by surprise:
"Don't be disturbed by this turn of events. God has something in store for you."
He did not seem to be offering me a bromide, such as "When God closes a door, he opens a window," or pap like that. He really seemed to have a knowing insight into my situation. This was particularly interesting because I am at a crossroad in my own career. My current job is in jeopardy, mostly due to reorganization and refocusing of the company's goals. My time in this position may be finite, and I have to ask if there is a place for me in this particular corporate communications department. But there is a more pertinent question: Do I want there to be a place for me in corporate communications?
As I prepare my book, "The Six P's of Change," for publication, I find there is a great deal of interest in it. It is certainly a timely topic. My speeches and workshops on it are greeted enthusiastically, so I seem to be communicating it well. Is this my true profession? And given the transitions I have faced in my career, am I now fully prepared to make those experiences meaningful to others and teach them?
Is this my one true calling, the work that my life has been a preparation for? Stay tuned; I think we will see this unfold. In the meantime, I look forward to your own comments on finding your calling.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Learning from 2008's Biggest Communication Blunders

I had a college English teacher who had our class read the execrable tear-jerker, "Love Story," saying that we could learn from a bad book as well as from a good one. Communicator extraordinaire and speaker Bill Lampton takes the same view in his e-zine article, "7 Lessons from 2008's Biggest Communication Blunders." I submit it for your enjoyment as we look back on a year replete with such mistakes. (Compare his thoughts with my own best and worst communicators of 2008.)

By the way, a word about the author himself, Bill Lampton, Ph.D. I had the pleasure of meeting this most generous and accomplished man online through LinkedIn and his own website. Bill is the author of "The Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication, Change Your Life!" He is a professional not only in communication, but also in motivation, customer service, and sales. His speeches, seminars, and communication coaching have benefited top-tier clients, including the Ritz-Carlton Cancun, Gillette, Duracell, Procter & Gamble, Missouri Bar, CenturyTel, British Columbia Legal Management Association, and the Environmental Protection Agency. I encourage you to visit his Web site to sign up for his complimentary monthly E-mail newsletter: You can call Bill to discuss how his services will benefit your organization: 678-316-4300. You can also email him, as I did, at

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Long View on the Long Inaugural Address

Here are my thoughts on President Obama's inaugural address. This blog is about speech and not politics, and you can add me to the chorus of observers who say that this was a good speech, maybe even a very good speech, but not a great one. You can see the full text and the video of his delivery. Here are my observations.

  1. Obama invoked Lincoln, somewhat obviously, from the very start by using that President's Bible for the oath of office, and then with the opening phrase "My fellow citizens," which is what Lincoln would say. Later he said that "what the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." Compare that to Lincoln's words: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present...As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves."

  2. Obama clearly repudiated Bush. Yes, there was perfunctory praise at the beginning of the speech, "I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity he has shown throughout the transition." But later in the speech, he delivered this damning paragraph (my emphasis added):
    As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
    The inferences here are quite clear: He said directly that President Bush compromised our values, and now Obama will not make those same decisions. Furthermore, the US has not led the world under the Bush administration.

  3. Obama delivered a tough message that challenged his audience and did not patronize them. He hardly smiled, which I believe was an error. People remember the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan. Can Obama afford to come off as stern.

    He pinned the blame for our current problems on our own shortcomings. He said the weakened economy was "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility" by some, but also "our collective failure to make hard choices...." He acknowledged the high price of health care, the failures of schools and our profligate use of energy. Yet Obama received praise for the power of his speech. Let's ask ourselves: How did he get away with that when Jimmy Carter was excoriated for his famously misnamed "malaise" speech? Answer: It was all a matter of tone. Carter came off as a scold. Obama is a leader.

  4. There was a nod to religion with Rick Warren's invocation, the use of Lincoln's Bible, and scriptural references, even while he referenced those of no faith: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

  5. Ultimately, my assessment is the speech was too long and too wide-ranging to be totally memorable. I am quite confident that witnesses will praise Obama's confidence and command of language, but I am equally confident that they will be challenged to remember the specifics of what he said. He talked about our national traditions and our character, even speaking about how we betrayed both. He outlined the challenges we face. He called for national service. He recalled European immigrants and westward bound pioneers. He offered friendship to poor nations. But what one single thing did he say? Where are the ringing phrases that will live for generations? Compare today's speech to John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961. That speech was largely focused on America's place as the world's leader and the country's commitment to world peace. It produced the immortal phrase, "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
    Franklin Roosevelt used his first inaugural address to calm a nation beset by a great depression, assuring them that we all had nothing to fear but fear itself.
    At Lincoln's second inauguration, he reached out to his brethren with words of forgiveness that became part of our national lexicon: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

    When we reflect on Obama's oratory powers, we are more likely to remember the stirring words that he delivered on the night he was elected. I close on key phrases from that memorable speech:

    "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer....

    "It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America....

    "Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

    "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there. There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face....

    "And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope....

    "This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Repurposing Our Content

The other night I gave a brief seminar as a Toastmaster project. The topic was Proactive Preparation, and the source of the content was a chapter from my upcoming book, "The Six P's of Change." The seminar was received very well, and it gave me hope for my future endeavors as a speaker. But the real value for me was how it reinforced the notion that, as communicators and speakers, we are able to apply our material, the product of our toils, to other purposes. The content of just one chapter from the book became a single seminar. With hard work, it could easily become a full-day or multi-day seminar. After it is edited and published, I can rewrite it for the ear and create an audio version. It could be a keynote speech.

I know that any professional speakers reading this must be laughing at my naivete, as though I just discovered fire for the first time. But for those of us who are not so experienced, it is a worthy lesson. We should learn to use our creations in a variety of media. Our best thoughts, ideas, concepts and products will gain greater value if we find new audiences who will benefit from them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How to Generate Bad Press - Palin by Comparison

Sarah Palin is worth studying because she has become a textbook case of how to guarantee bad press for yourself. Here is what she teaches us in her latest statements:

  1. Be unprepared, then claim ambush media.
  2. Use the media for your purposes, then complain when you are covered by the same said media.
  3. Confuse bloggers with the mainstream media.
  4. Raise the bogeymen of sexism and classism when you screw up.

Let's look at her claims and analyze them.

HER CLAIM: Palin says that the media's reporting on her family was "very scary."

FACT: She and the Republican Party were the ones who claimed the moral high ground for carrying a baby known to have Down syndrome to full term. Also, she was the one who shamelessly exploited her son's honorable service in Iraq when it suited her. Yet later, she didn't want her family "exploited" by the media. Where I come from, this is called "having it both ways."

HER CLAIM: The media are giving Caroline Kennedy more sympathetic treatment that she, Palin, received.

FACT: Kennedy is not even a candidate, but she is indeed being scrutinized by the media as she asks for an appointment to the U.S. Senate to take Hillary Clinton's seat. Both her qualifications for the U.S. Senate and her ability to communicate (or inability) are being questioned every bit as much as Palin's were. As a result of this coverage, it is dubious as to whether or not Kennedy will assume Sen. Clinton's seat. Palin faced no such barrier prior to her candidacy; she was nominated to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

HER CLAIM: Governor Palin insulted Katie Couric over their CBS interview. Palin: "Katie, you're not the center of everyone's universe."

FACT: No one put a gun to Palin's head to force her to do that interview, and Couric was totally courteous to her. Afterwards, Couric made no particular claim or boast about the interview, which spoke for itself. All Couric asked was, "What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this?" It was a very simple question for which Palin was unprepared, which made her look incurious and uninformed. Quite frankly, it also made her look as though she couldn't think quickly.

HER CLAIM: The mainstream media asserted that Palin's daughter, Bristol, was the real mother of infant Trig.

FACT: Bloggers brought out this news. The assertion was reported in the so-call mainstream media only after John McCain's campaign revealed the pregnancy of Palin's daughter.

HER CLAIM: Palin objected to reports that Bristol's fiance, Levi Johnston, was a high school dropout.

FACT: Palin says that Johnston is taking a high school correspondence course. If that's the case, and he is not attending classes, then he IS a high school dropout!

HER CLAIM: Palin thought that Tina Fey's characterization of her was unfair. She pointedly cited Fey saying, "I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers." Palin's said that it "kills" her when someone "attacks a kid" like that.

FACT: Will someone please buy her DVDs of past Saturday Night Live programs? Perhaps she will understand that political satire is not uniquely aimed at her when she sees how the cast and writers skewered both Clintons, both Presidents Bush, Senator Bob Dole... the list goes on. She also conveniently overlooks this quote from producer Lorne Michaels, which was very complimentary: "I think Palin will continue to be underestimated for a while. I watched the way she connected with people, and she's powerful. Her politics aren't my politics. But you can see that she's a very powerful, very disciplined, incredibly gracious woman. This was her first time out and she's had a huge impact. People connect to her."

This post has nothing to do with Palin's qualifications for office. It is about he spectacularly bad judgements when appearing before the media, which included not being prepared, being hypocritical about coverage of her family, and apparently being capable of giving a good speech only when she had a TelePrompTer. Her protestations show the dangers of taking on the media after you have been portrayed badly, whether or not it was deserved. Newspapers have buckets of ink and electronic media have all the air time they want. They can always have the last word, so you need to get it right the first time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Are You a "Doer" or a "Sayer?"

At the family Christmas party, word got around that I am close to publishing a book. One by one, family members came to me and were genuinely interested (very nice support, by the way). One family member heard about it and said, "You know I always thought I should do that. You know, just give my general views on life."
Not a noteworthy response, except that's the way this particular person always responds to news of someone else's accomplishments -- It's something he could do, it's something he has the background to do, it's something that he always intended to do. Except he never does it.
My life improved a lot when I went from being a "doer" to a "sayer." One way I licked that problem was to write out my goals every year and determine to fulfill them. Over the last ten years or so, here are some things I accomplished:
  • Got my MBA near age 50 and gave the commencement address
  • Learned the Italian language, then...
  • I used my Italian to converse with my relatives at their homes in Italy
  • Doubled my salary
  • Learned to sing
  • Sang in Carnegie Hall (That aforementioned relative also sings, but I have sung in more and bigger venues even though I started singing about 35 years later than he did)
  • Won four District championships from Toastmasters
  • Reached the semi-finals of Toastmasters International's World Championship of Public Speaking
  • Wrote my first book on how to recognize and deal with change, which will be published in a few weeks.
My good friend Shawn Doyle just wrote in his blog, Foundations of Motivation, that he "feels great," because he just wrote his objectives for the year. In addition to being a successful public speaker, Shawn has published ten books of his own, both in the U.S. and internationally. No slacker there; Shawn is a doer, not a sayer.
So I advise you to sit down and think of the things you want to do this year. Make only one list of ten items or less, as that will make the list achievable. Then post it in a prominent place and make them your priority. You have to mow the lawn? Hire some kid in the neighborhood as I did, and work on those priorities. Have a favorite TV show? Kick the habit, and stop watching it. Instead, use that time work on your priorities. (Perhaps you can record the show and watch it in your "down" time, after you have relaxed and are regrouping from all you have accomplished.)
I don't know about you, but I'm not getting any younger, and unless you're Benjamin Button, neither are you. So get going. If you're going to be a sayer in this world, at least be sayin' all that you're doin', not the things you could be doin'.