More questions. More help. Introducing Mastering Table Topics Second Edition.

Just grieve

What is the appropriate response to a tragedy like Virginia Tech? I tried to write a bit of punditry about how something like this could have been prevented, but I then felt uncomfortable about it. Don’t we have enough flapping jaws on cable news and talk radio who are using this tragedy to promote their causes, their lobbies, and their latest book? And, honestly, could something like this really have been stopped? Read more »

“And so it goes”

Kurt Vonnegut was the novelist who got me excited about being a writer. Until I read Vonnegut, all of literature I studied in school were from classical writers who were long since dead: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens, and Hemingway. Then, in my AP English class in high school, we read Slaughterhouse-Five. The book astounded me. Here was serious fiction written in a contemporary genre (science fiction) with contemporary language (including a now overused word that starts with “f”) by an author who was still alive!

I became a huge Vonnegut fan. The first hardcover novel I ever bought for myself was his 1979 novel Jailbird. I would make frequent visits to my college bookstore to build my Vonnegut library: Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, Welcome to the Monkey House, Breakfast of Champions, and Wampeters, Foma, and Grandfallons.

It wasn’t only Vonnegut’s writing that appealed to me. Vonnegut was an author I could relate to. He seemed like a typical middle-class person like I am, with a family and a job. He wrote about issues I cared about. Since he was a contemporary writer, I could always look forward to him writing something new and addressing what was happening in the world at the time. Other literary greats seemed like musty statues in a marble tiled hall, but Vonnegut brought writing to life. He made a literary career something achievable and worthwhile to me. If Kurt Vonnegut could become a great writer, there was hope for people like me.

Now, Kurt Vonnegut is a part of history, just as Chaucer and Melville. Unfortunately, some of his writing seems to have faded into history too. The horrors of Dresden that he depicted in Slaughterhouse-Five seem as ancient to my children as Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury. I hope that some other contemporary author could make writing as alive to my children as Kurt Vonnegut did for me, but a great author like him can never be replaced.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. Auf weidersehen?

Clothes really do make the person

Whenever I participate in a speech contest, I learn something new and valuable. This was the case with last night’s Division F Speech Contest.

When I started this speech contest season, I decided to try an experiment. I decided to speak without a suit. I have worn suits at every contest since my first one 15 years ago. I wondered if suits separated me from the audience. When a person dresses better than the audience, that person appears as an expert or authority figure. That person appears superior and elevated from the rest of the crowd. The risk of a suit is that a speaker can feel like he or she is talking to the audience instead of talking with them. So, I would try and see if I could connect more with the audience if I dressed more like them.

Not wearing “the uniform” did help me feel more connected with the audience. I also appreciated have more freedom of movement without contending with the bulkiness of a suit jacket. Looking at what other people wore, I thought I looked better in a dress shirt and slacks than an ill-fitting suit and a poorly tied tie. When I won in both categories in the area contest, it seemed like my experiment was validated. So, I wore the same outfit at the division contest.

After I came in second at the Table Topics contest, one of the judges told me that it was my outfit that probably kept me from higher awards. I had worn my clothes all day at work before the contest, and my slacks had gotten wrinkled. She said, “Even if they deducted only two points from your appearance score, that may have been enough to cost you an award.” Indeed, the winner of the Table Topics contest was impeccably dressed in a crisp, well fitting dark suit. He even had two gold earrings that fit perfectly with his outfit.

My experiment showed me that clothes really do make the person. The outfit one wears sends a clear message about the person’s professionalism and authority. Dressing well can give a person an edge over the competition. And wearing a suit doesn’t necessarily separate a speaker from the audience. In fact, wearing something attractive can help the audience focus on the speaker.

So, the next time I compete in a speech contest, I will wear a suit. I better lose some weight first, though.

Crossing the language barrier

At my job, I spent a lot of time communicating with our development team in Vietnam. I’ve learned several things about international communications:

  • Communicate face-to-face whenever possible. We had a group of engineers from Vietnam visit our office in the United States for several weeks. We got to know each other as people, learn about each others’ working style, and gain some common experiences to help with our communication. It was a valuable experience and worth the expense. When that isn’t feasible, video conferences or videotaped messages can help.
  • Slow down when you speak. Native speakers in any language talk too fast for people who are not fluent in their language. If you want to try this for yourself, listen to TV or radio in a different language and see if you can catch up. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly.
  • Look for cultural similarities to aid communication. Last July, we took a visiting executive from Vietnam to a baseball game. Despite my best efforts as a Little League manager, he couldn’t grasp the game because it isn’t popular there. Three months later, we took the engineers to a hockey game. We told them, “Hockey is football (soccer) on ice.” They understood immediately and got into the game.
  • Don’t assume that they (or you) fully understand. Native speakers hinder communication with each other by assuming too much or jumping to conclusions based on scant information. It’s even harder when communicating with someone who isn’t fluent in a language. We also make cultural assumptions, use colloquialisms, or add nuance to our words in a way that someone from another culture wouldn’t understand. Ask for clarification and provide as much detail as needed so we can understand each other.
  • Make an effort to learn the other people’s language. It’s embarrassing that we Americans expect everyone else in the world to speak English, but we don’t make an effort to learn other languages. I consider it good manners to learn at least a few words in another language, and it furthers communication. Even when you mispronounce or misuse words, you give native speakers a chance to teach you as they correct you. By learning the language, you also learn about the culture, the history, and the values of the other society.

In a global economy, it’s important that we learn to reach across boundaries of nations, language, and culture to communicate more effectively with people around the world.

“I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.”

When Gerald Ford died this week, a part of my adolescence went with him.

I started getting interested in politics as a teenager during the Watergate era. From what I saw, politics was a joke. Nixon was a crook, his cabinet were all criminals, and the impeachment hearings were our daily dose of entertainment. And when Gerald Ford became vice president and then president, the hilarity continued. I was a fan of the original Saturday Night Live, and the evening wouldn’t be complete without watching Chevy Chase open the show with his Gerald Ford pratfall. The WIN buttons were good for a few snickers too.

But when America went to the polls in 1976, the only candidate I felt I could trust to lead was Gerald Ford. There was something about him that was dependable and trustworthy. (I certainly didn’t want to leave the leadership of America to some peanut farmer from Georgia.) I was still a few years away from voting, but I still got a Ford/Dole button that I wore to school.

Although I earned my Eagle Scout in February 1977, my certificate still had “Earned During the Bicentennial Year” and a signature by Gerald Ford. My mom, a staunch Midwestern Republican, was happy about that.

I’m glad to see that history is finally giving this “accidental president” the recognition he is due. We’re finally recognizing the wisdom of his pardon of Richard Nixon. Had we gone through another few years of hearings and trials, and if he had gone to jail, adolescents like me would have given up any shred of respect we had for public office — or in America.

As we take a moment to remember Gerald Ford, I recall a fond memory that for me best summarizes the man. On one of those Saturday Night Live shows in 1976, he made a cameo on Chevy Chase’s Weekend Update segment. He mimicked Chevy’s tag line, “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.” Perhaps politics is a joke, but it was refreshing to see a president who was willing to laugh about it — and help us get through a difficult time.