Balticon 47 SF Convention

Balticon Science Fiction ConventionI’ll be going to the Balticon 47 science fiction convention next weekend. It’s being held in Hunt Valley, MD, which is close enough for me to drive in each day. I’ll be there for about half of Saturday and all day on Sunday.

I’m looking forward to it. Balticon was the first science fiction convention I ever went to, back in 1983. That was Balticon 17, I believe. In all this time, I think I’ve only been to three of them, and it’s been years since I last attended one of their conventions.

This time is a little different, though. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going as a professional. Now, I don’t have any officially published works yet (although I have some free short stories online), so my resume as a writer is sketchy at best (at least my resume as a public speaker is considerably better), and I’m not on any panels. But, that doesn’t matter to me. I’ll be at the convention to learn, to meet people, network, and promote myself. I particularly want to meet contacts in the Baltimore and Washington DC areas who are writers, editors, publishers, promoters, etc.

At the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon for short, I managed to get pictures of myself with Neil Gaiman and Hugh Howey. I’d like to manage some photos like that at Balticon as well. These are always great for the blog, and I still get kind of a thrill out them myself, both getting the photos and meeting the authors.

Now, for my dilemma. I’ve prepared a new short story called “Goodbye, My Darling.” I’ll be premiering a 5 – 7 minute speech based upon this short story at Ashburn Toastmasters on this coming Wednesday. At Balticon, there are several “Open Readings” scheduled, in which writers sign up to do a reading of up to 10 minutes. I’ve got a story memorized, and modified to be a public speech, that I can deliver in 7 minutes. Do I have the guts to actually present this story at Balticon?

Complicating matters slightly, I’ve also got a non-SF-related speech on Tuesday, in front of a crowd of 5 – 70 people (I get to follow the main event, New York Times best-selling writer, Ric Edelman). So, if I present at the convention, it will be my third speech of the week.

Realistically, I expect the Balticon audience to be friendly and enthusiastic. It’s also likely that some of the readings will be pretty dry, since interpretive reading is actually a fairly difficult endeavor. Ideally, I’d like to come on stage with a dynamic, well-paced and well-practiced speech after several of those dry readings. My inclination is “Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes.”

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Toastmasters, a Tool for Writers

Tools for Writers: Toastmasters for training in communication and leadershipIf 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):

  1. The Match: This is what I consider to be my best talk. It’s a 9-minute historical story in second-person narrative. It’s also available as an online video.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Philosophy 101: An inspirational speech for the Ashburn Toastmasters Holiday Party (on video).

  5. 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.

  6. Going the Distance: A three-minute Area Governor speech for a club visit. Promotes Toastmasters contests.

  7. 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.

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Winners at the Area 45 Fall Speech Contest

I had the privilege of organizing the Joint Area 45/46 Fall Speech Contest for Toastmasters, in concert with Deb Tyler, the Area 46 Governor. I was as pleased as punch when two members of my Home club came up with some solid wins.

This is me, proud Area 45 Governor and the Club President of the Ashburn Toastmasters Club, standing with Gretchen Schutte, who won first place in Table Topics, and Yvonne Porter, who won second place in Humorous Speech. Plus, I think this is the first picture of me in a suit and tie ever published on the Web.

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Going the Distance

This was an impromptu motivational speech that I gave today for Verizon’s corporate Toastmasters club, the Ashburn Professional Speakers. My talk was featured near the end of their Club Contest, during that brief interval in which the Chief Judge and the ballot counters were out of the room tallying the judging results.

I had the opportunity to participate in the 2012 Toastmasters Spring Contest. I won at the Club level, and advanced to the Area level.

Then I competed in the Area contest, and was soundly defeated.

(This is where I do my best hangdog look, as if I’m totally crushed at having been defeated…which elicits a nice laugh from the audience.)

I was beaten by David Kirstin, from Raytheon’s U2 Can Speak Toastmasters Club.

It’s OK, though. It was my first time in any sort of public speaking competition. I didn’t really expect to win. I just wanted to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to avoid embarrassing myself in public. Second, I wanted to give the best speech I was capable of.

You’ve all seen the movie Rocky, right? That’s all I wanted. I didn’t expect to win. I just wanted to go the distance.

What I really got out of the contest was much, much more. You see, I discovered that I was competitive.

Yes, I was beaten. And quite legitimately, I might add. David was the eventual Division winner as well, before ultimately losing in the District finals. Even though I lost, I did get a second place trophy, which was nice.

If public speaking were a hill, then David was certainly further up that hill than I was. But what I found interesting was that I could see what he was doing that was better than what I was doing. I could see a path up the hill to where he was.

By watching speakers who were better than me, I could see things I needed to work on. For example, I noticed that David used the floor better than I did. He also maintained better eye contact with the audience. When I was speaking, I tended to look down when I was thinking about key transitions in my talk, thereby breaking my audience connection.

Because I’d been involved in the contest process, and was curious, I went ahead and attended the Division Contest and, later, saw the finals at the District 29 Spring Conference. It was a true learning experience for me, picking up speaking tips by watching speakers who were better than me.

So, this year, I encourage all of you to take advantage of the Toastmasters Fall Contest season. You’re off to a great start today with your own Club Contest. If you won today at the Club level, take your best shot and see how far you can go.

I’d also encourage all of you to attend the upcoming Area Contest on September 22nd. It’s followed by the Division Contest on October 7th and the District 29 Fall Conference on November 9 – 10. You’d be surprised how much you can learn just by watching some of the best speakers in our organization.

Thank you.

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Table Topics: Book Author Tour

One of my favorite parts of a Toastmasters meeting is the Table Topics, which help attendees with their extemporaneous speaking skills. One member, designated the Table Topics Master, comes to the podium and selects random attendees to answer questions. Each selected victim then has to stand up and give a one to two minute talk on the given topic.

A Table Topics session can range from just a simple list of questions to something considerably more elaborate. I love being the Table Topics Master, and my sessions are always on the more elaborate side. Here’s an example of one of my Table Topics sessions, entitled “Book Author Tour.”

The Setup

As Table Topics Master, I come up to the podium to address the audience. I pause for a moment to heighten the tension. By now, of course, my club is well aware of my penchant for elaborate and often challenging Table Topics sessions. I then reveal the setup for the Table Topics, taking on the persona of a radio announcer:

“This is WDOV News Radio from Dover, Delaware. Folks, it’s been a slow news day, but fortunately we have some extra special guests in our studio today. Hydra Publishing is in town for a book tour, so we’ve decided to bring their authors into the studio to talk about their books.”

The Reveal

Since my Table Topics sessions tend to be more complex than just a simple list of questions, I often need to explain “the rules” to the audience. In this case, I step to the side to symbolically step away from the persona of the radio announcer. In a different, less bombastic tone of voice, I explain how the session is going to work:

“Here’s how this is all going to work. I’m the radio announcer and I’m going to ask you to talk about ‘your book.’ I will provide you with the title of the book you’re going to talk about. Now, I want you to know in advance, none of these titles are made-up. They’re all real. I found them all online.”

The Questions

I step back to my previous position. Now, once again in character as a radio announcer, I ask members to speak about their book, varying the format of the questions as much as I can. “<insert name of victim>, I must confess that I was really intrigued by the title of your book, <insert title here>. Can you describe your book to our listeners?”

Here are the book titles:

  • I Miss My Man, But My Aim is Getting Better (a mystery)
  • Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What To Do With My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab
  • Why Geese Don’t Get Obese
  • The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing
  • The Wonderful World of Waste Management (juvenile fiction)
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
  • Godzilla: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Monster

The Closing

During this Table Topics session, we’ve all been in character as either the radio announcer or an author. It just seems proper that I should wrap it up in character as well:

“I’d like to thank the authors of Hydra Publishing for being on our show today. I hope our listeners have enjoyed hearing about these books as much as I have.”

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Speak: An Unforgettable Documentary

District 29 of my local Toastmasters group held a public screening of the documentary, Speak, on May 12, 2012. It was a Saturday morning, and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went to the screening. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I know I wasn’t expecting the riveting film experience that unfolded next.

The documentary, Speak, follows a set of six contestants as they compete in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest for the title of World’s Best Public Speaker. The film quickly introduces Toastmasters, a public organization devoted to public speaking and leadership training, and conveys the contest rules. Contestants have 5 to seven minutes on stage to tell their story, reach their audience, and win the support of the judges.

The real power of the film is revealed through the back stories of the contestants, which helps to explain their motivations and their drive to “be the best.” It’s a fascinating look at a diverse group of people united in their drive to be the best possible speaker that they can be.

It’s refreshingly different from today’s crop of artificially hyped up reality shows. This is real drama, with real people, who all want to win, and, maybe, even deserve to win. In the end, only one can go home with the top award. The documentary is remarkably unflinching in its portrayal of the contestants and is unafraid to show them at both their best…and their worst.

It’s well-directed, moves quickly, and juxtaposes the stories of all the contestants to good effect. It’s surprisingly powerful and affecting. Kudos to the directors, Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling, for capturing the sheer intensity of the contestants, and to the Toastmasters organization for both allowing and facilitating such a raw, honest look at the functioning of their annual speech contest.

Speak has initially been shown at film festivals and in an organized campaign of paid screenings by Toastmasters and other interested groups. I understand that Speak will be available on DVD in August. Check it out. It’s worth it.

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How To Get Your Speaking Proposal Accepted

I’ve been part of a team running a technical conference called RubyNation for the past five years. It’s been a successful conference all five years, both in terms of profitability and its reception by conference attendees. This wasn’t entirely an accident. We worked hard to make sure we had high-quality speakers with the kind of content that would be attractive to our intended audience, as well as making sure other conference aspects were solid, e.g. – venue, food, equipment, etc.

This experience has given me some insight into what it takes for an individual to secure a speaking engagement at a conference. In this article, I’ll provide tips on how you can making your speaking proposal more attractive to conference planners, thereby increasing your odds of getting accepted as a speaker.

Practical Tips to Help You Get Accepted

  1. Your Proposal Needs to Be Solid: If you can’t write a couple of paragraphs with good grammar and without typos, you probably can’t do a good 40-minute talk either. Look at it this way. A speaking proposal consists of a title and an abstract. The abstract consists of a couple of paragraphs describing your talk. If you can’t even put together a good abstract, you’re a chowderhead and nobody’s going to want to listen to you.

  2. You’ve Only Got a Limited Time: If we look at your proposal and it sounds like an abstract for a week-long class, you’re not getting in. A conference talk has a set time limit, usually between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve seen proposals where the individual listed so many topics that they were going to cover in the time period that nobody looking at the proposal thought it was even remotely feasible.

  3. Past Speaking Engagements Help: If we’ve seen you speak somewhere before, and you were good, we’ll look favorably on a proposal. You do understand that the conference organizers actually go to local user groups (in our Washington DC area) and other conferences, right? If any of us have seen you do a good talk, even a Lightning Talk, it’ll come up when we’re evaluating proposals. The poster child for this is Bryan Lyles, a speaker from Baltimore, who gave a Lightning Talk at RubyNation 2008 that was just absolutely hilarious.

    As it turns out, two of our speakers fell through at that same conference. The first we knew about before the conference, and we had already engaged our backup speaker to fill the slot. But the second speaker bailed out immediately before the conference, and we needed a replacement. That replacement turned out to be Bryan Lyles, who had a talk on testing already prepared.

  4. Be Ready: If you have a talk prepared, opportunities to give it can pop up out of the woodwork. As Bryan Lyles found out, he had a talk ready and we had a need at RubyNation 2008, so he got to speak. Have something good prepared, even if it’s only a Lightning Talk. Likewise at RubyNation 2009, one of our speakers got ill right before the conference, so Dave Bock, an experienced speaker, filled in with a talk he’d previously given at another conference.

  5. You’re Probably Not As Famous As You Think You Are: Some people expect us to simply accept their proposal because they’re obviously brilliant and we’d be fools not to accept them. These are the ones who demand to know why THEY have been denied a speaking opportunity when we turn them down. Look, folks, we don’t get that kind of attitude from Chad Fowler, Dave Thomas, Rich Kilmer or others of similar stature in the Ruby community, and these people are draws. People come to conferences specifically to see them. You might be a brilliant Rubyist, but A) we can’t see your halo from where we are, B) that doesn’t mean we’ve heard of you, and C) that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good speaker. Attitude doesn’t get you in. Deal with it.

  6. Give Us a Choice If You Can: If you have only one idea for a talk, and we don’t like it, then you’re not speaking. Heck, even if you have a good idea for a talk, it might get rejected. For example, you might have prepared an excellent talk on Cucumber (an automated software testing tool), but if one of the primary Cucumber creators has also submitted a proposal for a similar talk, well, we’re probably accepting his talk because he’s an authority and you’re not. If you have a couple talks ready, then let us know what they are. Maybe we’ll like one of the other ones better, or it might fit a need in our schedule. At RubyNation 2010, we deliberately arranged a second-day track with four talks in a row on NoSQL databases, a hot technology at the time.

  7. Don’t Be Too Narrow: After a while, a lot of proposals that organizers receive begin to sound similar. “Similar” means that you’re competing with others in that same topic space. Don’t be afraid to venture off into virgin territory. You might even consider proposing something on a tangent, like a JQuery talk at a Ruby conference. The most popular talk at RubyNation 2010, as rated by attendees at, was Jeff Casimir’s “How to Teach Anything to Anybody, Even Your Dev Team.” It was a talk about educational strategies, had nothing directly to do with the Ruby programming language or even software development, and was probably the most “off the beaten path” topic we’d ever scheduled.

You’ll have a much better chance of getting your speaking proposal accepted at a conference if you take these practical tips into account when crafting your next proposal. Good luck!

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