Monday, April 27, 2009

Who Wrote Your Speech?

To My Fellow Toastmasters and other Speechmakers:

I was annoyed some years back when the film “The Dead Poets Society” won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I found that the film was little more than a pastiche of literary fragments from some of the greatest writers of all time, held together by a flimsy melodrama. Similarly, I have endured many speeches that were similarly unoriginal:
  • The main body of the speech is a published feature story that is repeated with little embellishment. At the end, the speaker feebly tries to tie it together with a phrase like, “Has this ever happened to you?” or “What could we learn from this?”
  • We receive commentary on a recent event that is simply a compilation of the previously published insights of other professional commentators.
  • The speaker takes a stand on an issue, but fails to attribute his supporting facts, which often are the unaccredited opinions of others with similar opinions.

I admit that I have my own penchant for quotations by others. (I find their words can be better than my own.) But when former Toastmaster World Champs reviewed drafts of my speech, they nail me on the second citation. “You've already quoted someone else,” they say. “We’re more interested in what YOU have to say!”
In the end, that is the main idea: Toastmasters exists so that we can build our own communication skills. That includes thinking through our points, constructing their logic, and then using language and oratorical skills to convey them. Parroting others is not only self-defeating, it is unethical, approaching plagiarism (if not actually committing that crime).
It is a unique thrill to deliver a speech that informs, entertains, moves, or inspires other to action. Give yourself the pride of rightfully claiming the work as your own.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Can we put to rest the texting phrase MHO -- My Humble Opinion? And let's not forget its Danny DeVito-to-Arnold Schwarzenegger twin, IN My Humble Opinion.
MHO is one of the most fatuous and annoying statements one can make.
It is not really so humble, as you claim. In fact, it is quite arrogant, because "Who asked you?"
It is usually not solicited. The phrase is designed to ameliorate that fact. ("Oh, I'll just state that it's only my humble opinion. That way, no one will notice that no one asked for it.")
And who cares that it's "your" humble opinion? Does the fact that it came from you have any added validity?
If you're going to give an opinion, just give it.
Please don't patronize me with a little tag line, as though you have just given me the option to ignore. Stand up for it. Don't worry, I'll ignore it if I wish. But please state your authority for your opinion.
That's MY opinion. And believe me, it's not so humble.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Physicality of Speaking or "Oh, My Aching Back!"

So did you miss me? Notice that I haven't been around for a few weeks? It's mostly because I've been hobbled as both a blogger and a speaker by some compressed disks. I spent a lot of time in the first quarter of the year preparing my book for publication, setting up my new website, and capturing new business, and I was spending 18 hours a day in an office chair. After a while, my body essentially said to me:
"Okay, you've abused me for all this time. What should I break that will slow you down and give me a rest? Hey, how about your back, idiot? See how you like paying an orthopedist!"
So my advice to you is to get up every once in a while and stretch. But I digress....

I really felt it during a competitive speech event, a local Toastmaster Division contest. There was a portion of the speech that required me to get down as though I were being suppressed. (You really have to see it to get the full effect of the drama of the piece, but trust me, it was quite moving. ;-) ) When I did it, I pulled it off well. One person in the audience who knew that I was ailing, and she said she would not have been able to tell. But it reminds me of how important it is for us speakers to take care of our bodies. We need to exercise, stay limber, and remember the athleticism of what we do if we are going to stand out from the crowd. In fact, I practiced the speech in front of other clubs for three of the five days preceding the contest, and my animation was a constant comment. So don't make the same mistake I did. Treat your body like a temple, or at least like a lectern.

FOOTNOTE: I won the contest. I guess both the drama and not writhing in pain clinched it for me. I'll tell you more about the speech and the rest of the competition later. I have to keep some secrets!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Happy Follow Up to "Small World"

Thanks to all my readers who reached out upon news of our family in L’Aquila after the earthquake. I am happy to say that I was able to speak with my cousin in Italy by phone. Between my limited Italian and her better English, we were able to communicate. She and her husband and children are all well, and they are temporarily settled in Rome. Their home suffered minimal damage, and the remainder of my family – my cousin’s mother, her sister, and her sister’s husband and children – were so far from the epicenter that they were unaffected by the quake. But even with her limited English, she was able to use the word “catastrophe.” The catch in her voice told me all I needed to know about the scope of this tragedy.

Again, Cousin Laura was gratified and emotional to know that so many people in America were concerned about her. She once said to me after we first met that it was wonderful to know that there are people on the other side of the world who care about you. I also extend my own gratitude to those who were concerned about my family and others who were affected by this natural disaster. As we approach the Easter season this weekend, I thank God today for all of His blessings, and I wish the same for all the others who are directly or indirectly affected by this event.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Small World

You may have heard the news about the massive earthquake in central Italy last night in the mid-sized town of L’Aquila (translation: the Eagle). A city of just under 70,000 people, L’Aquila is a cosmopolitan center of fashion and style. For such a small town, it was becoming a tourist attraction off the beaten path, a suitable alternative to the larger , better-known cities in Italy. But in a single evening, four-story buildings were quickly compressed to the height of a single story. Whole buildings were completely lost while, unjustly, one standing next door would survive. How sad, you must have thought, and perhaps you wondered how the citizens would make do.

Let me share my own perspective, because it was not too long ago that my wife, Marie, and I walked the streets of L’Aquila, imagining it as a place where we could retire. A place where we met family and made new friends. A place inextricably linked to my ancestry.

And tonight my heart breaks for what was lost, wiped out by the capricious shifts of the earth’s mantle, and stands in fear of what we might learn over the next few days.

My cousin Antoinette called me this morning and asked if I had heard the news. When I said no, there was a seemingly long pause. That is code in most families for, “I have bad family news to share with you,” as opposed to a national tragedy. After we both drew a suitably long breath, she said, “There was a major earthquake in L’Aquila.” And that brief statement prompted the next fearful question: “How is our family?”

After resolving with Toni to try to learn how our families are faring, I went into the kitchen, where I found a note from Marie. It was obvious that she chose not to wake me with the news; better to be depressed with a full night’s rest. “There was a MAJOR earthquake in L’Aquila,” she wrote. “We have to find out how Benedetta, Pasquina, Laura and Rosella are.”

Benedetta, Pasquina and Laura are my second cousins, whom we have come to love dearly from hospitable visits and correspondence. But Rosella… well, she was a story unto herself. She is the aunt of my friend Piero, an American marketer of marine goods. I met her only 18 months ago on a trip to Italy. She had come to the U.S. as a teenager to help care for the newborn Piero, and during that time came to love all things American. Even today, she wishes someone could open a Dunkin’ Donuts in Italy, and Piero regularly sends her Folgers coffee. When I asked her what she remembered from American television (which taught her the English language), she said, “Well, I remember that it takes too hands to handle a Whopper!”

When I knew that we were returning to Italy, I phoned her and emailed her to arrange to meet her in L’Aquila. It didn’t matter that I was a complete stranger to her. I was her Piero’s friend, and that made me family as far as she was concerned. We walked into the family shoe store with cousin Laura in tow, and when she turned to see my face, which she knew only from her computer screen, she threw her arms around me like a long-lost love. Soon she and her husband, Giancarlo, were taking us through the streets of L’Aquila, visiting bars and cafes. When I realized how much money she and Laura’s husband, Marco, were shelling out, I pulled out a large Euro myself, trying to sneak it to the barkeep. You may have thought I had pulled out a Beretta. “Your money’s no good here,” the men croaked in the best English they could muster. “You can pay when we come to Philadelphia!” Rosella explained to me later that it was a matter of honor. “We don’t want you to talk about us when you go home,” she said.” We don’t want you to say, ‘I went all the way to Italy to visit them, and they wouldn’t even give me a drink of water!’”

Soon I met Vincenzo, the local restaurateur, and of course, my money was no good there either. Nor could Laura and Marco pay. By extension, THEY were family, too.

Later, Laura and I walked together, catching up as cousins do. As we passed a local photo shop, she told me that she wanted to visit the proprietor, Mario, a man from her village of Fiugni. We went in, and Laura had a conversation with him in Italian. (It was uncharacteristic of her to exclude me through language, but for some reason, she did this time.) She explained to him in Italian that I was visiting from America, and he asked where I was from, as he had family in America.

I surprised Mario when I asked in Italian, “Where is your family?” We were both surprised when he answered, “Philadelphia.”

“Provengo da Philadelphia. Dove a Philadelphia è la vostra famiglia?” (I come from Philadelphia. Where in Philadelphia is your family,” I asked. He answered “Levick Street.”

“ I vivo una volta vicino alla via di Levick. Che è il vostro family' nome ?” (“I once lived near Levick Street. What was your family’s name?”)

And when he said it was “DiMario,” I responded in Italian, “Were they Eugenio and Marietta DiMario? Because I knew them when I was growing up. They died many years ago, but I know their family.” And based on that chance conversation, I was able to connect Mario DiMario, a photo shop owner in a L’Aquila, with his only remaining relative in America.

Today, I am haunted by these connections. As of this writing, I don’t know where Laura and Marco and my other cousins are. Are they in one of the makeshift tent cities? Another cousin in a different part of Italy informs me that they are probably okay, though they may have suffered damage to their homes. But we have no details, and we have failed to connect with them by phone or email.

I was pleased to learn from Piero that Rosella and her 86-year-old father survived the earthquake, and they are now safely sheltered by family on the Adriatic Coast. The two-hour car ride to L’Aquila was made more dangerous by the fact that the “Superstrada,” the futuristic highway that connects the Adriatic Coast with central Italy, was damaged by the quake. In a similar episode, Marie’s cousin was able to find his daughter who was studying at the University of L’Aquila and take her back home (coincidentally, also to the Adriatic Coast). But I still don’t know for sure about the conditions of Laura, her mother, Benedetta, and her sister, Pasquina.

Nor do I know how this will affect the work of the sisters’ husbands. Or the education of their children. And what must be rebuilt? What storefronts are lost forever? Which artwork will never be replaced? The cupola of the basilica that we admired in L’Aquila’s piazza has been lost. Has faith in the future been lost, too? And what spirits must be repaired as decades of aspirations and achievements have all come tumbling down?

Electrons circle the globe instantaneously, carrying images of far-away events, and we believe that we have empathy with the characters that flicker across our screens of several sorts. We also take for granted that our media will reach out and touch someone, anyone, we so choose. But tonight my faith in our media is shaken, as I can feel their inadequacies. I have walked the streets of L’Aquila myself, and I understand the many qualities that are now irretrievably lost to nature’s power — qualities that are not apparent to the casual viewers of news reports. And until I am assured by the words and the voices of my loved ones, I am unimpressed by the reach of satellites, cell phones and emails. It is the content of our media, not their capacities, that give them their power. For those of us who are communicators, that is our challenge: to bridge that gulf and not be so arrogant as to believe that our media by themselves can do the job. It is a rude lesson, but one worth remembering as we strive to tell so many stories in this era of recession and unemployment, politics and punditry, and diplomacy and war.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Imposter at the Podium

My client, Ken (not his real name, of course), has an enviable pedigree. He is a successful, highly billable consultant with a PhD, and he travels the U.S. to advise his clients -- A Who's Who of American corporations -- on how to merge their behemoth companies into a single culture. And yet he has come to me for advice on how to present to large groups.
I was bewildered by Ken's request. I asked him how successfully he has spoken to large groups over the course of his career. After all, I reminded him, he has developed a sterling reputation as a consultant over four decades. He is the go-to guy for bringing the best out of corporate leaders. Surely his work speaks for itself.
Actually, Ken explains, he functions much better one-on-one or in small groups of up to four people. But when he faces more people than that, he feels unworthy of any credibility. He becomes very serious and loses his humor in these situations. Ken has even been known to faint as a result of the anxiety he feels.

My advice to Ken is that his success with small groups indicates that he is an effective communicator. It is only the scale of speaking that we need to address. My analogy is driving cars. The mechanics of driving a car are essentially the same, whether you're controlling a Mini Cooper or a Hummer. The difference tends to be in the proportions of the driving: how wide the turns needs to be, how far you can see from your seat, etc. So if you can communicate with just a few people, you should also be effective with a larger group. More importantly, I shared with Ken my mantra about teaching people to be presenters:

Anyone can be an excellent speaker,
once you have identified that person's strengths
and then play to them.

In all my years in corporate America, I have found that to be true without exception. If a leader is authoritative, use that authority to make her a more commanding speaker. If the person is accessible and down-to-earth, play up his warmth which caries with it a certain believability. If his voice is a powerful instrument with resonance and diction, use it take charge of the room. But it is folly to make the arrogant, supercilious executive into Will Rogers. Nor seldom is the self-made, shoot-from-the-hip graduate from the College of Hard Knocks going to remind anyone of Orson Welles. The audience will see through these facades in a moment. So Ken and I will go through the following exercises in the coming weeks:
  1. We will work to determine his strengths. Based on his ability to deal with people in personal situation, as well as my own social contact with him, I believe that his personal warmth is the key.
  2. We will develop ways to display those strengths. Ken has confidence in his writing, and I trust him in that judgment. So I want him to write his own presentations. In that way, he will feel comfortable with the words coming out of his own mouth.
  3. Ken must be convinced that he is the authority. His education, rack record and references speak for themselves. Ken has things to say that are credible. He must believe it, too.
  4. Practice. There is no substitute for working on delivery and becoming comfortable with diction and movement. As Edwards Deming used to say, there is no instant pudding.
How about you? Do you feel like an empty suit when it is time to speak? If so, review your methodologies and your content. Get a coach, as Ken has done, and work through the details. I can assure you that your audience will believe in you once you believe in yourself.