Sunday, January 31, 2010

Toastmasters Speech #2

I joined Toastmasters International when I started the MBA program here at AU last fall. Toastmasters is an organization dedicated to helping people from all walks of life improve their public speaking skills. I have wanted to become a member for quite some time, but was never able to find the time or a club before I came to AU. For an introvert like me, Toastmasters can help build confidence in one’s speaking abilities.

This week was the second time I have given the featured speech. Unlike most of my weekly speeches, which are impromptu, the featured speech gives me the opportunity to prepare my remarks and rehearse. The topic I chose is a subject that I already know a little about from reading magazine articles on the subject: The self-driving car. I talked about the history of the concept, where the technology stands, and what we can expect to see in the near future.

My main goals were to have a well-organized speech, to stay within the 5-7 minute time frame allotted for featured speeches, and to not make my nervousness too obvious to the audience. I think I accomplished the first two goals quite well, but I need to improve on the third before I give my next speech.

I received some useful feedback from the other members. My introduction was a little weak, and my speech was untitled. These two things confused my audience a little, because the topic of my speech was not obvious at first. Also, I should have paused more; I have a tendency to talk too fast when I am nervous. However, people felt that the subject was very interesting and the speech was well-written. These constructive criticisms will be helpful as I prepare for my third featured speech in a few weeks.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

State of the Union 2010

President Obama gave his second State of the Union address last Wednesday. My comments are going to focus exclusively on the delivery of the speech itself. Overall, I was disappointed. Obama is normally an excellent orator and I was expecting more.

Obama took the unusual step of not including a sentence starting with “The state of the union is…” I think this was wise, under the present circumstances. The problem with that sentence is that when times are bad, there is no way to finish the sentence to soften the blow. Instead, he chose the phrase “I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight.” It projected optimism without seeming out-of-touch, and was a strong opening to his speech.

The low point of his speech came early on. Some members of Congress were clearly not impressed that Obama's proposed spending freeze wouldn't begin until the following year, leading him to ad lib the remark “That’s how the budget works.” I thought it came across as patronizing, and I'm sure he regretted saying it. While extemporaneous comments can sometimes be useful, the SOTU is not the best format for this.

I thought the health care section was surprisingly weak. He waited until 35 minutes into the speech to mention it. I’m not sure it was wise to bury his signature issue deep within the speech. It sends the message (fairly or not) that the issue is no longer a top priority for him.

The conclusion of his speech was his best moment. One of the most annoying things about SOTU addresses is that the flow of the speech is constantly interrupted by frequent applause. Obama delivered his conclusion in a way that kept the applause to a minimum, allowing him to build up to a crescendo ending in thunderous applause. It was a strong ending to an otherwise mediocre speech.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Different Varieties of Fear

In a never-ending quest for family activities that do not involve sitting in front of a screen, my husband, two kids, and I have taken up indoor rock climbing.

Actually, they have taken up indoor rock climbing and I have taken up standing with my neck craned way back yelling encouraging words.

This is because I am scared of heights. I wasn't as a kid, but the older I get, the more scared I am, till the point where I can barely scale a ladder without trembling.

On my first attempt at the indoor climbing gym, I was able to climb up to about 12 feet. (Meanwhile, Jon and the kids went all the way up to the top, easily, and moved on to harder climbs.)

The next attempt I mastered the art of not thinking about all the climbing that lay ahead of me and focusing on the immediate task. This helped somewhat. I think I made it to the 17 foot mark before rappelling down (now that's fun).

The experience was a true visceral reminder of what it's like to be fearful of speaking in public. I try to be sympathetic--I feel sympathetic--but I'm sure I can be awfully glib when I talk to students about not being (too) afraid of public speaking. This is because by and large, I enjoy public speaking!

But next time someone comes to me and describes their fears with a tremble in their voice or a shake in their hand, I'll be able to be even more sincere than usual. "I hear ya," I'll say, and, thinking of my two short climbs up a wall that didn't scare my 6-year-old but had me cowering, I'll really, truly mean it.

And just as with me and heights, the keys are (1) keep trying and (2) don't think too much about what comes next.