I was Audio/Visual (A/V) Chair for the Toastmasters District 29 Spring Conference in 2015. This is me watching some great speakers from the A/V booth during a brief lull in our support activities. Photo by the incomparable Edmond Joe. It’s one of my favorites and far and away the best picture that he took at the event. I’ve been meaning to post it for ages.
OK, you can officially label me as surprised. I just unexpectedly landed a speaking gig at Capclave 2014, the regional SF/Fantasy convention for the Washington DC metropolitan area. Here’s how it happened…
I was attending a WSFA (Washington Science Fiction Association) meeting in early June. If you’re not familiar with WSFA, they’re the organization of volunteers that runs Capclave, as well as administering their annual Small Press Award for new writers, and publishing a few books each year by well-known writers. During the evening, I ended up talking to Cathy Green, the Head of Programming for the convention.
I asked Cathy what it took to qualify as a presenter at Capclave.
Now, I know from the conferences that I attend in my daytime IT career, as well as from the the technical conferences that I run, that you generally start planning your speaking engagements a year or so in advance. At least, you start planning for the ones that you intend to pursue; you don’t necessarily get picked for every conference or convention for which you apply (unless you’re a draw like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin). So, I was really asking so that I could ensure that I’d be ready when I went to pursue a speaking opportunity for 2015.
Yes, that’s right. 2015.
However, Cathy knew some things about me already from previous, unrelated conversations. She knew that I attended two writing groups, that I had extensively researched all things related to indie publishing, and that I had experience running technical conferences in my daytime career (the one that pays the bills). She essentially took me more seriously than I had expected.
Without explicitly saying so, it became clear during our conversation that she was considering me for the 2014 Program. What probably helped was that I wasn’t the slightest bit pushy. I was inquiring about opportunities to present, I wasn’t aggressive, and I was perfectly fine if there wasn’t an opening. Trust me, just being “easy to work with” can go a long way sometimes.
I pitched a couple of ideas for her, including my “Pitfalls of Medieval Fiction Writing” presentation that I’ve been putting together. She didn’t bite on any of the ideas. Not that they were bad, but she had other panels that already covered similar topics.
During our conversation, I mentioned that I was in Toastmasters, which is a non-profit organization that helps people learn public speaking and leadership skills. I added that I had spoken at lots of technical conferences, which is something I’ve been doing since 2007. I figured that if she wasn’t interested in one of my panel ideas, maybe I could be a sort of backup speaker, capable of filling in on panels wherever she had an opening.
Then she asked, “How long have you been in Toastmasters?”
I said, “Four years. I’m closing in on my Distinguished Toastmaster accreditation.”
“Really? Could you give a workshop, say, maybe a 2-hour workshop, on public speaking for writers?”
Needless to say, I was surprised. But what I said was, “Yes. Of course I could do a workshop like that. It would be fun, too.”
So that’s how I landed speaking engagement at Capclave 2014. One of the things the convention organizers pride themselves on is having an excellent track for writers. It turns out that Cathy had a hole in the schedule for the writer’s track, and I had the legitimate skills and experience to craft a workshop that would fill the hole.
For grins and giggles, here’s a couple photos of me hosting an interview segment for the television show, Mastering Business Communications. It’s a monthly show which airs on cable networks in the Washington DC metropolitan area. The show was recorded on February 19, 2013.
These are also the only photos in existence of me with a beard.
I picked up some bling at the Ashburn Toastmasters Speech Competition yesterday. I won 1st place in the International Speech Contest and 1st place in the Evaluation Contest. I’ve been in Toastmasters for over three years now, so I expect to be competitive. However, both contests featured real competitors, so winning both was both unexpected and gratifying.
For those who don’t know how these competitions work, there are two contests. The International Speech Contest is a 7-rung contest. If you win at the Club level, as I did, then you advance to the Area level, followed by Division, District, Semi-Region, Region and World. If you win at the World level, then 1) you’ve beaten more than 30,000 contestants world-wide, and 2) you get to call yourself the World Champion of Public Speaking for the next year (and you’ll receive tons of both paid and unpaid speaking engagements).
Speeches for the International Speech Contest generally have to be motivational, inspirational and, often, include heart-felt stories in order to be competitive. I took a chance with the Club level, and re-used my “What’s Your Dream?” speech from last week’s taping of the TV show, Mastering Business Communications. It’s a good speech, and had some clear tie-ins that made it particularly meaningful to the members of Ashburn Toastmasters (who were the judges), but I already knew it wasn’t quite ideal for the International Speech Contest. However, I figured it was probably good enough to win at the club level.
My primary competitor was a 17-year veteran of Toastmasters, a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM). Her speech had those inspirational elements that mine didn’t, as well as some shock value (she kicked over a chair during her speech). However, she hadn’t had enough time to memorize her speech, so she used cue cards. On my side, I fumbled my intro slightly, although people told me afterwards that they hadn’t noticed, so I must have covered myself pretty smoothly. My speech was fully memorized, I used the floor effectively, and I’d had time to choreograph my gestures.
I think I would have won via straight-out judging. But it didn’t matter in the end, because my primary opponent went overtime and was disqualified.
The Evaluation Contest is a little different. It only extends up to the District level, which for District 29 is basically the Northern Virginia area outside of the Beltway that encircles Washington DC. In this contest, a model speaker, generally unknown to the contestants, delivers a 5-7 minute speech. Contestants take notes during the speech, then have 5 minutes to organize their thoughts. After that, their notes are taken from them, and they are sequestered in another room.
One by one, the contestants are brought out to give their 2-3 minute evaluation of the speech. They have 30 seconds of leeway on either side. Beyond that, they’ll be disqualified.
So, what do the judges look for? First, the evaluation is a speech, so they’re looking for a well-defined beginning, middle and, most importantly, a coherent summary. Second, they’re looking for completeness. Was the contestant able to identify things that the speaker did well, and things that the speaker could improve? Did the contestant frame the issues in a constructive manner? Third, they’re looking for solutions. It’s one thing to tell a speaker that they have a litany of problems, but it’s much more difficult to give them solutions, tactics that they can use to improve their speeches in the future. This is the hardest part of an evaluation, recommending actionable solutions for the speaker’s problems.
As it turned out, the originally scheduled model speaker didn’t show up. There was a visiting guest who previously exchanged several emails with club officers and wanted to join the club. So, she joined when she got there, assumed the role of model speaker, and gave her first speech all in the same night. The contestants knew nothing of what had gone behind the scenes, and had no idea that the model speaker was a first-time speaker.
This made the evaluations interesting, because her speech was basically a rambling monologue about taking charge of your own life, and various tactics to accomplish this. In my evaluation, I began by telling her that she was brave to come out and speak in front of a group of people she’d never met before, and that, whatever other problems her speech might have, she had the most critical thing…something worth saying.
I started with some basic corrections. Don’t tell us that you didn’t have any time to prepare your speech; if you don’t tell us, we might not notice. Don’t thank the audience at the end of a speech — you’re the one doing the hard work to prepare and deliver the speech, so the audience thanks you (that’s what applause is all about). Finally, I noted that her general speech problems were organizational in nature. I advised her to start with an outline, work on a more concrete intro and conclusion, and slow down to allow her major points to sink in.
I think I won partly because of the completeness of my criticisms, but most because I offered her solid, coherent solutions to transform her speech into something much more effective.
Overall, I was extremely happy with my two performances. I brought my A game and competed in both contests at the highest level of which I was capable. I’d have been happy with my performance even if I had lost (just because someone else gets the trophy, you never lose, in my humble opinion, if you’ve done your absolute best). Nevertheless, I was extremely pleased to come home with both trophies. Incidentally, it was my third time competing in the International Speech Contest, and only my first time competing in the Evaluation Contest.
The only downside after winning is that I’ll need to craft an entirely new, contest-caliber speech by the time I get to the March 22nd Area Contest.
This is a picture of me taken yesterday at Comcast Studio in Reston, VA. About 5 seconds after this picture was taken, I delivered a 6-minute, one-take motivational speech called “What’s Your Dream?” for a segment of the television show, Mastering Business Communications.
And I nailed it.
I only found out last Friday that I’d be doing the segment. I’d been listed as the tertiary backup, but both of the people in front of me got cold feet about appearing on television.
Unfortunately, my supremely busy schedule and the short notice made it difficult to find the time to write and then practice the speech. So I burned a vacation day at my day job, and took Wednesday off. I completed writing the speech by 10:00 AM. Then I practiced it 30 or 40 times that day. I got to the studio early, and practiced it twice in the actual studio &mash; once without an audience, and once with a couple of my friends watching me.
When it came time to do it on camera, I was ready.
The new episode of Mastering Business Communications will be televised in VA on both the Comcast and Verizon cable networks. It will appear on TV sometime next week, and is currently available on Vimeo (I’m at the 9:15 mark in the episode).
On March 3, 2012, I delivered a talk called “The Finest Legacy” for the Toastmasters 2012 International Speech Contest. It was a heart-felt talk about science fiction, the unwritten rules that SF writers follow, and my dad who died in 2010. I was fortunate that it was recorded on a home video camera by Anthony DiPalma, because it meant a lot to me.
I first posted the video on YouTube last October, but I consistently heard from folks that the video was too dark, and that the audio was poor. I’ve learned a lot about Final Cut Pro, my editing tool, since then. So I decided to re-post the video after spending hours “fixing it in post,” as they say.
The audio is still a bit low, but increase your volume, put on your ear phones and prepare to hear a pretty decent talk (or read the transcript).
I was one of the organizers who brought Ric Edelman to speak at an Open House sponsored by both of the Toastmasters clubs to which I belong, Brambleton Toastmasters and Ashburn Toastmasters. Like a lot of celebrities, he had some minimum requirements that had to be met, i.e. – he wanted us to have an audience of at least 50 people. We managed to pull in 61 attendees (out of 73 RSVP’s), so we were all pretty pleased with the event, especially for an evening talk during the regular work week.
For those who aren’t familiar with Ric Edelman, he’s a nationally ranked financial analyst, a New York Times best-selling writer, the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, a frequent television guest, and he’s been a professional public speaker for more than 25 years. His most famous books are The Truth About Money and The Lies About Money.
He did a great job. We’d told him in advance that the audience was going to be a mixed, including causal visitors as well as Toastmasters members. This meant that the audience was different from his usual audience — they’d be interested not just in financial advice, but also in public speaking tips. He confirmed this himself by polling the audience, and then proceeded to tailor his talk on-the-fly to cater to both interests.
For example, he talked about life insurance in response to a question from the audience. Then, after answering the question, he picked apart his response to illustrate the techniques he’d used to try to make the topic of life insurance as interesting as possible — he’d contrasted Batman and Fred Flintstone to illustrate how different people might have different life insurance needs, and different factors to take into consideration.
After he spoke for an hour and twenty minutes, we had 15-minute break. Attendees lined up to get autographs and photos. After the break, I got to come on stage as his “follow-up act” to introduce the audience to Toastmasters. No pressure, or anything. I was only following a super-popular, highly experienced professional speaker. Actually, it went pretty well. The text of my speech will be available online in a week or so.
Overall, it felt great to organize an event like this, and to have it be so well received by the audience. Ric Edelman was professional and friendly, not at all the sort of “prima donna” that one often expects from celebrities. And my own speech went over well, so I was pleased with that, too.
How many of you have ever heard the term “movie moments” before?
Well, a movie moment is when something happens in real life that’s just so perfect that it seems like a scene in a movie. Like it’s just so perfect that it could only have been envisioned by some brilliant screenwriter.
Let me give you an example.
On weekends, I often parked in the church lot to avoid stacking our driveway with cars. One day, I parked there, but I was accompanied by my best friend, Cody, and my younger brother, Steve.
When I got out, I decided to show off by hurdling over the fence. Perfect form. Up, leg out, snap the foot down, carry over. I was on the track team at school, and my specialty was hurdling.
Cody laughs, and says, “I can do that.” He gets a running start and just jumps as high as he can, arms windmilling as he clears the fence. He comes down close to the fence, splashing as he lands because the grass near the fence is wet from recent rain.
Then my brother decides to do the same thing as Cody, only his left foot dips down and catches on the fence as he leaps over it. He does a complete face plant as he splashes onto the grass. Cody and I were laughing at him for the next 30 minutes…
Folks, that’s a movie moment. I’d like to share several of my favorite movie moments with you, and then I’ll explain why they’re so important to me.
As I came back to our camp site from one of these classes, one of our youngest scouts came rushing up to me, and then he threw a water balloon at me from point-blank range.
I was drenched, and it was hilarious. But I didn’t have any water balloons to throw myself. Etiquette required that I make him pay for his transgression. Plus, as a more senior member of the Scouts, I needed to let him know there’d be consequences if he tried it again. So I thumped him.
Open hand shove to the chest, not too hard, just to let him know that he’d been tagged. But he was off-balance, and fell backwards onto his butt.
His eyes got really wide. He leaped up like a jack-in-the-box, and ran across the clearing to my Dad, wailing, “Your son hit me!”
My dad looked down at him and said, “Well, I told you that you could throw a water balloon at him. I didn’t say he wouldn’t hit you.”
In another movie moment…
When she saw me, she came rushing down the escalator. Unfortunately, she tripped about two thirds of the way down, and launched into a perfect swan dive.
So there she is, flying through the air from 15 feet up. And there’s my highly breakable birthday present, flying out of her grasp.
And thus, the terrible, terrible dilemma. Do I catch my present? Or the girl?
We’ll leave her there for now, hanging in mid-air.
I’d like to tell you one more story, but this one has several movie moments within it.
You ask, of course, what could a goodie two-shoes like me do that could have gotten me suspended? Especially as a fifth grader.
Well, the night before, there was a championship basketball match held at my school. I was the star player in a very close game. By end of the match, people were chanting my name, and cheering my team on.
It was glorious.
Afterwards, the parents were gabbing, and us kids were just shooting hoops for fun. An eighth grader, who was there because his brother was on the team, started making fun of me, being really mean, as if my success had offended him in some way.
He capped off his little campaign of abuse by stealing my basketball and throwing it out the back door of the gym. This is the first movie moment. It was pouring. And the school was at the top of a long,
gradually sloping hill.
That ball rolled past the kindergarten. It rolled through the playground without hitting a single piece of equipment. It rolled into the field beyond, then over the baseball field. It continued into the outfield where it reached the edge of a vast puddle of water that occupied the rest of the school property.
And then, carried by wind and what little momentum remained, it floated into the middle of that vast expanse of water.
Now, it occurred to me that I was being bullied. And if you know anything about me, you’ll know that I don’t take well to this. In fact, even as a fifth grader, I had already determined that the best defense against bullies was the rapid infliction of a vast amount of pain.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next. In one corner, me, at 5-4, weighing in at 90 pounds, all skin and bones and wearing funky sports glasses. On the other side, an eighth grader, three years older, 5-8 and 150 pounds. Now cue the Rocky music, as the fifth grader beats the stuffing out of the bully.
It took five adults to pull me off him.
And that’s how I found myself waiting to meet the prinicpal.
So, I’m sitting in the waiting room of the principal’s office with my mother, and my basketball coach
comes out of an inner office. He sees us, rushes over, and says excitedly, “I’m so proud of your son! What a great fight! He’s got an awesome right hook. I didn’t think he had it in him!” In his exuberance, he even gives my mother a big bear hug before he rushes off to his next appointment.
I was floored. I felt like I’d fallen into some parallel dimension, or something.
A little later, the prinicpal called us in. He stared at me for about ten minutes, and I felt like he was scanning my very soul. It was actually probably only five seconds or so, and then he says, “I’ve
checked with everybody involved. I’m just bringing you in as a formality, because it’s expected in a situation like this. You were clearly provoked. But, young man, don’t you make a habit of fighting in my school. I don’t want to see you in my office again.”
That was it. No suspension.
So, why are these movie moments so important to me? Consider this.
My little brother in a moment of total humiliation. I’m sure those of you with little brothers can appreciate this.
My father, in a moment of complete and utter coolness, with the perfect comback.
My parents, my coach, and my principal teaching me that it’s OK to get into a fight, if you pick the right fight. That’s a great life lesson.
I challenge you to look for the movie moments in your life. They could be as simple as a daughter walking down the aisle in her wedding dress, or a baby’s first steps.
Keep those memories alive. Tell stories about them. In the end, they are what life is all about. They’ll give you comfort when you’re old, and they may even become family heirlooms, kept alive and retold by future generations in your family.
Oh, and the girl from the escalator? I caught her. [Holding up my hand and pointing to my wedding ring]
If you’re a writer, I think you should consider joining Toastmasters. It’s one of the most effective tools you’ll find for honing the skills you’ll need as a professional writer. But, I hear you saying, Toastmasters is for improving public speaking, not writing. What’s it going to do for a writer?
Well, do you think speeches, especially good ones, just happen by accident? No, they’re written. Even better, you practice them in front of a live audience that’s been trained by Toastmasters to critique them effectively. So, you’re writing and you’re getting critiqued. By people who are serious about their analysis.
Additionally, have you considered that a significant part of a writer’s career involves marketing yourself and your stories? This has only become more important in today’s turbulent publishing industry. Traditional publishers are looking for writers that already have a “platform” — the poster child for this situation is John Scalzi, who was a well-known blogger and speaker before he became a published writer. And if you’re going the self-publishing route, it’s even more important to market yourself effectively.
Are you ready to be a panelist at a convention? Do you think you could handle being interviewed on video? Can you impress an audience with an effective reading of your own material? What about that one-minute elevator pitch for your novel?
Toastmasters can help you by:
Encouraging you to write.
Enforcing discipline on your writing. — Have you ever tried to write something complex and meaningful in 600 – 1200 words? That’s the typical length of a 5 – 7 minute Toastmasters talk. It’s hard, which makes it a great writing exercise.
Improving your public speaking. There’s far too many ways that this can be useful for your writing career to even list them here.
Boosting your confidence. Toastmasters is all about stretching your limits. When you learn how to do things effectively that you could never do before, you have no idea how uplifting and liberating that is.
I also make sure that I write down my best speeches. Many of them have become blog entries on this site (or on my technical blog, KeenerTech). The end result is that I have built up a varied selection of what I consider to be pretty good content. These talks span a wide range of topics, such as my personal musings about my technical career, inspirational talks, and intricate fables that exercise my storytelling capabilities. Some of these talks have been videotaped, so people can read or view my talks.
Here are the talks that I have available online (not counting the hardcore technical talks for software developers that are available on KeenerTech):
At the Crossroads: My Icebreaker, my first speech for Toastmasters in June 2010. It helped get me my current job, because the technologist who interviewed said “I knew exactly who you were” from the blog entry that I created from my talk.
Islands in the Mind: An inspirational speech with a Toastmasters slant. Also aimed at writers, since one of the major threads is about a writer.
Philosophy 101: An inspirational speech for the Ashburn Toastmasters Holiday Party (on video).
The Finest Legacy: My 2012 speech for the International Speech Contest — which got me a 2nd place trophy in Area 45. This is the text of the speech, with a link to the video as well. It’s about my Dad, science fiction and the hidden impact of science fiction on the real world. I still get approached by people who remember this speech fondly.
Going the Distance: A three-minute Area Governor speech for a club visit. Promotes Toastmasters contests.
The Apple Falls Down: Perspectives on Global Warming: My 10th speech in the Competent Communicator manual, with both text and a link to the video. All about the perils of global warming.
If you’re a writer, try out Toastmasters. It’s one of the best tools available to you, and the membership cost is negligible (around $9 per month, but you can visit some meetings for free). You’ll be surprised at how much Toastmasters can help you with your writing career.