Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Tip to Traveling Speakers

Here's a cautionary tale for you traveling speakers. It starts with my upcoming engagement at the Toastmasters Region VII conference on Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, June 5 and 6. I'm speaking on how to apply your Toastmasters skills to the job. Boy, am I learning a lot about when to make arrangements for a trip! Thank God for my wife, Marie, to save my fat from the fire.
Everything was complicated by the fact that I was competing in TM's International Speech competition. Prior to learning that I was advancing in the competition, I was already booked at the conference. However, if you compete, you can't make a presentation. (It is determined to prejudice the judges if they see you present elsewhere. Makes sense.) So I had to wait to learn if I would win the District competition. If so, I could not speak at the conference.
However, if I lost the District competition, I could make my presentation and sell my book.

I lost. Boo! But the upside to that was that I became free to make my presentation in Moncton. However, I needed to know that I was on the conference agenda before I made my flight arrangements.
Then there was my back trouble.
Then the Memorial Day holiday.
Now it's two weeks before the event, and air fares are through the roof. Marie, being the organized one in the family (we're still figuring out MY contributions!) began making phone calls everywhere she could. Travel agencies! Airlines! Priceline! What flights are available? Could we save money flying out of Newark, NJ rather than Philly? If so, how do I get to Newark.
In the end, Marie figured a complicated calculus involving cashing in my US Airways Frequent Flyer miles to get me to Toronto, stay overnight, then take a puddle jumper to Mocton in the morning. Reverse route, and in the end there are only hundreds of dollars out of my pocket.So my suggestion Fan Club Members, is that when you are planning for a speaking engagement, take the chance and book the travel ahead of time. Even if you cancel, it has to be simpler than the gyrations that Marie went through on my behalf.
Thanks, Sweetheart. I don't know what I'd do without you.

Actually, I probably would stay home a lot.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Win or Lose the Contest? I PICK"WIN!"

Over the weekend, I participated in the International Speech competition of Toastmasters District 38, which covers parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I had lots of moral support from fellow members throughout the District, and many people let me practice at their clubs, for which I am extremely grateful. In the end, I did not win. I'm okay with that, because the person who did win really deserved it. His speech had a good message on inspiration that he delivered with imagination and energy. He has all my best wishes as he moves to the next round.
I also did not come in second or third, either. That surprised me more than it disappointed or bothered me. My own personal feelings about those speeches were obviously different from the judges', but such is the subjective practice of judging. (Think of ice skating at the Olympics. It's easy for us to identify the fastest and strongest athletes, but judges tell us who the best skaters and gymnasts are.)
I like to compete. Part of my narcissistic side would like to be the World Champion of Public Speaking. However, my attitude about competing has softened over time. I was inspired years ago by previous Toastmaster World Champ Ed Tate, who has a special prayer before every speech: He asks that someone in his audience be affected by the speech that he gives, regardless of the outcome of the competition. I've gotten into the habit of reciting that prayer myself, and it reflects how I feel about this particular speech.
It is about how my wife, Marie, overheard me singing one day and told me that I should pursue it as a hobby. I didn't believe I could sing because I was surrounded by people who told me I couldn't sing. Still, I listened to her. As a result, I sing actively as an avocation, and I have sung at baseball games, on CDs of a cappella music, even at Carnegie Hall.
However, what Marie taught me was to listen to other people and hear their inner hopes as she heard mine. At one point of the speech, I recounted how I showed my appreciation for her by surprising the guests at our 25th anniversary party with the song "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" At that point in the speech, as I sang just one stanza, a palpable sigh went through the audience. I also told them what the words taught me. One woman even nodded in recognition, and I could see her mouthing the lyrics with me
At the end of the contest, once the winners were announced (again, NOT INCLUDING ME! ;-) ), the Toastmasters filed out of the room. One woman who had been Sergeant-at-Arms came to me with mock anger, glared and said, "You almost made me cry!"
"Really," I said. "Was my singing that bad?"
"No, it was when you sang to your wife."
Then a man who had heard me at the previous level of competition and had given me advice met me outside the room. I thanked him for his input. At that point, his eyes glistened, and he said, "Even though I had heard the speech before, it got to me this time." He couldn't explain why. Apparently his advice improved my speech for him.
The district governor came to me and said, "Did you see me crying?" A trend was developing.
Another woman told me she was going to Italy, and wanted to know if I could help her with some phrases. As I jotted down my email for her, she said softly, "You really moved me when you sang for your wife." As I looked up, her eyes were wet, and she could not continue speaking. She dropped the discussion. I touched her face, and I thanked her.

As I got a drink to unwind, I saw the woman who had sung along with me. I sat next to her and thanked her for her visual feedback and support. "Oh, I think that it's important to show a speaker that you are enjoying the speech." And without provocation, she launched into her own story... how she was in an abusive marriage for 14 years... how she feared getting out of it because she wasn't sure how she could support her children... how her husband was a pastor, and no one would have believed was he was doing to her... how she covered the bruises on her face with makeup... the day a woman in her congregation said to her, "My Sister, you are smiling and happy all the time, but your smile is plastic. What's wrong?" And with that, my friend burst into tears to that woman, and on that day she began to find the strength to end the marriage and treat herself righteously.
And she shared that with me because she saw marital love in my speech.

There is an annual poetry contest in Spain that awards three prizes. The third place winner gets a silver rose. The second place winner gets a gold rose. The top prize is an actual rose. I am happy for the people who won on Saturday. My own shelves at home are already filled with trophies. But I'm very happy for what I got at Saturday's competition. My prayer was answered.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Beauty Pageants Can Learn From Toastmasters

With all the brouhaha about Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, which started once she answered a judge's question about gay marriage, one point has been conspicuously overlooked: Why should she have been the only contestant to have received that question? That was patently unfair, as that question (coming from a gay judge) was loaded from the start. Nobody really knows how the other contestants would have answered it. Admittedly, I did not see the pageant (an anachronism, in my view), but it seems to be that under these circumstances, the other beauty queens may have received puffballs that offered no threat of controversy.
The fairest thing would have been to give all them the same question. Toastmasters International does this with its Table Topics contest (a contest in extemporaneous speaking). All contestants wait outside the contest area, and each is escorted back to the room singly, in succession, to receive the same question. The contestants are then judged on their abilities to assemble their thoughts and present their answers in an organized manner.
This would have been a much fairer way to judge the Miss USA contestants' poise and mental agility that to subject them all to different standards.

Postscript: As I write this, Donald Trump has just announced at a press conference that Ms. Prejean will continue as Miss California. It has been a great example of spin and self service. Trump trumpeted how "important" the pageant has become since he bought it. Then Prejean spoke of her right to speak, adding inexplicably and perfunctorily how her grandfather fought with General Patton. She also launched into a diatribe on freedom of speech, which no one except the contest judge disputed. No one at the press conference addressed the point of how Prejean has subsequently gone on to a public platform against gay marriage, which has nothing to do with her role as Miss California.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Courteous Language of Service

This past Saturday night was a gumbo of fun, fright and enlightenment. But it's only now that I recognize that. For several hours, it was only terrifying.
I was at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia to see the World Champs battle their Knickerbocker Nemeses, the New York Mets. The game was back and forth, with the Mets ahead and the Phillies coming back, battling into extra innings. The up-and-down nature of the game was matched by fans, who stood and sat throughout the game. That is, most of the fans, but not me.
I had gone to the game while recuperating from a herniated disk. It didn't feel bad at the beginning, and I knew enough to get up from my seat every once in a while and stretch my legs. Still, by the seventh inning, it became difficult to rise. By the time the Mets walked Shane Victorino in the 10th inning to hand them the game, I was plastered to my seat, unable to see the winning run.
For able-bodied readers, you can only imagine the pain and the fear I was feeling. First, I was unable to get out of a chair for 10 to 15 minutes. Stadium staff politely requested that I leave so they could clean, and I advised them that I had a severe back problem. "Do you want medical assistance, sir," she asked. Not yet, I groaned.
Imagine further that once I made it out of the chair, I could not climb the stairs, as it was nearly impossible to place one foot in front of the other. When I finally made it to the top only by hanging onto two other men, I gave in. "Please get the medical transport," I requested, " and take me to the emergency room."
The transport team asked me how I wanted to be placed in their golfcart-like vehicle. They complied, and before I knew it, I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. (By the way, if you want to see interesting looks on people's faces, go through a crowd on some sort of emergency vehicle.)
You have to know that I am a middle-aged man for whom this would be the first time EVER as an emergency room patient. Up to now, I only visited ERs for other members of my family. This was a new experience. Once I made it to a gurney and had my blood pressure and sugar checked (I have type 2 diabetes), I spent many minutes slowly moving parts of my body into a position that would not cause me to scream. At one point, I was facing the wall while a physician was talking with me. I stopped to say, "I'm really sorry not to face you. It's only because I can't turn around. I don't mean to be rude."
He said, "I don't get upset at things like that. You are the most civil patient I've ever had from a Phillies game. (He went on to explain that most Philadelphia sports fans are in the ER as a result of a fight with an opposing fan.)
I spent five hours there getting shot up with pain-killers until my buddy, Vince, could take me home.
Since then, I have slept off the drugs and returned to as much mental acuity as I normally muster. But as I reflect on this incident, I realized how much society has changed in the way we treat strangers or others in need. My encounters with the staff at the ball park started politely rather than as a confrontation ("Get out of here, we have to clean!"). When my plight was apparent, others joined to help, and they could not have been more concerned.
The transport team asked about my comfort every step of the way. When they had to get my medical information, and it was obvious that I was lying on my wallet, the EMT was patient.
In the emergency room, every physician and nurse addressed me as "sir," asked about my condition, and treated my questions with respect, explaining what would happen to me as a result of the narcotic punchbowl that they were feeding me. They warned me of the side effects so I would understand that they needed to ration the medicine, just so they wouldn't kill me with respiratory problems. You know, little details like those.
It has since dawned on me that this was the effect of the "political correctness" that so many are willing to decry. I said that I am a middle-aged man, and I remember when things were NOT this way. I remember the disdain of inappropriately named "service" people who treated you as though you were their last barrier standing between them and a coffee break. I like this, and I thank the folks in the 1970s who changed not only the language of service but the hearts and minds of society. I'm glad many of us listened to them.