Thursday, December 21, 2006

Offering gifts and hopes this holiday season

Published 12.21.2006 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As this is the season of giving and sharing, I wish to publicly share the following holiday gifts and warm wishes for the new year to some specific recipients.

To project managers of the Marquette Interchange reconstruction or anyone else supporting this multiyear mess: I give a hand-selected bag of high-caffeine coffee that will speed up the work (whether or not it is ahead of schedule now). May all the inconvenience caused by the next state highway project take place no closer to me than Plover but no further from you than your favorite grocer.

To all Wisconsin men and women in the armed forces who won't be home this holiday season: I offer my gratitude for your service and prayers for a safe trip home. For those who want to give more than good wishes, go to the state Department of Veterans Affairs Web site: dva.state.wi.us/supportourtroops.asp or call (800) 947-8387. There are a number of ways to get gifts to our service members overseas.

To Sen. Hillary Clinton: I give the strongest encouragement to run for president in 2008 and speak your mind without reservation. Your candidacy is the single best hope Republicans have to retain the White House.

To the aging, sniveling cynics who welcomed back American soldiers from Vietnam by spitting on them or calling them "baby killers": I didn't have time to get you anything, so why don't you just meet me for a quiet drink at the local VFW? Oh, and take a cab. I have some friends who would be happy to give you a lift home. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself as our service members return from the Middle East and that your children don't act as disgracefully as you did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

To the anonymous donors of $25 million to Marquette University: You are doing God's work. No joke. However, my Christmas fund is almost depleted, so I believe I can scratch you from my list without much worry that you'll miss the Sam's Club membership card I had intended to send. I'm not sure where to send it anyway.

To the Milwaukee Public Schools and City Hall: No gift to you would be sufficient in that you already have given so much to Milwaukee taxpayers in the form of that inadvertent (but perhaps temporary) $9.1 million tax break. Now, could you extend your good deed by convincing Madison lawmakers that the rest of us in Wisconsin need more tax relief, too?

To the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents: At considerable personal expense, I have had made several engraved copies of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision striking down the practice of the University of Michigan's Law School to award an extra 20 points to its applicants purely on the basis of minority status. Please read it with a warm holiday beverage in front of your fireplace and recall what your dear grandma once said about two wrongs never making a right. Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, even the kind that works in reverse.

To every jewelry store owner or jewelry department manager in southern Wisconsin: I give a large bag of price tags. Please place them in plain view in your merchandise displays so I don't have to repeatedly waste time or feel embarrassed by asking the price of items that I cannot afford to buy.

Finally, my personal holiday wish to all readers, regardless of what you celebrate at this time of the year: God bless you, and may 2007 be just a tad better for us all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When speaking of speakers, courtesy rules

Wikipedia image
Supposedly, our most common fear is public speaking.

Yet some experienced speakers, overly comfortable at the stump, blithely deliver presentations with so little regard for their audience, one wishes they’d contract this phobia and never speak publicly again.  And yet many other speakers, who are utterly paralyzed by the prospect of giving a speech in public, are the ones we ought to hear from. Sad irony.

Fortunately, most public speakers are conscientious enough to adhere to a few intuitive rules and share their knowledge, views, etc. in a responsible manner. Only courtesy and common sense are needed. 

Back in 1992 retired U.S. Admiral, Stanford University professor and Ross Perot running mate James Stockdale began to speak at a vice presidential debate by asking, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” 
His opening was greeted with laughter and later parodied on TV. I laughed too. At the moment, Mr. Stockdale sounded like a stunned buffoon before a worldwide audience.  More sad irony since he was, of course, a genuine American patriot, scholar and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.

Although Mr. Stockdale, who died last year, was mocked for those lines, he began that debate by trying to explain exactly who he was and why he stood before us. So simple, yet how many times do speakers drone on without giving even the most perfunctory information about who they are, what their organization does, or what we can expect to learn from them?

Before drafting your presentation, consider what your audience really wants or needs from you.  Then stick to it. Save your meandering town hall style for friends and family.  Start by explaining who you are, your organization’s mission and your role. Share an agenda or an outline for the presentation that tells your audience the sequence of topics you’ll cover. Mention that after your prepared remarks, you’ll take questions. Don’t leave us guessing or assume we know any of these things. We don’t.

Of course, some famous speakers don’t require much introduction or a clearly stated agenda because those things are often obvious to their audience. But famous speakers don’t get a free pass. We come to hear them for the same reason we come to hear ordinary people like me. We want a better understanding about something the speaker knows and the speaker’s job is to transfer that understanding as effectively as possible in the time allotted.

Years ago I attended a breakfast event in Chicago where the keynote speaker was a renowned economist. People, who had paid handsomely to eat cold eggs and hear her views, packed a hall at a swanky downtown hotel.  Midway through her presentation, she began talking about her relationship with one of her children. I don’t mean a short, illustrative anecdote that related to her topic. I’m talking about useless paragraphs spewed out to an audience that just didn’t care. Nobody in the crowd was inherently uncaring; the problem was a speaker who forgot her purpose and indulged some odd impulse to stray.

Finally, if you use technology to underscore your points, make sure it works or don’t use it. If you frequently can’t connect to a website, get that video clip to run properly, etc. don’t hope for the best knowing you can summon an attendant while your audience waits.  Think about a paper chart or sock puppets instead.

In sum, as present to all of us subjected to public speakers from home, school, church, government, nonprofit organizations, or business - when it’s your turn to speak; please respect your audiences’ time and they’ll respect you for it.