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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Toast to Toastmasters (part 1)

I joined Toastmasters last year in efforts to be a better public speaker. In my past, I used to do a fair bit of it. Way back in the 1990's I taught software engineers Macintosh programming for Apple Computers, a job that required a considerable amount of talking in front of a group. I got pretty good at it; at least, I remember enjoying it.

But these days I sit behind a computer and type. I write, I Facebook, I twitter... heck, I order everything I need online, from clothing to groceries. I'd gotten out of practice with talking to people, let alone giving a speech. Joining Toastmasters was recommended by my publisher who believed I should brush-up for any interviews or book talks.

So, I did.

The Process

When you join Toastmasters you are given two books, with two different paths you must pursue, at least initially. 

The first is the “Competent Communicator”. You receive this achievement once you have delivered ten speeches. These are all laid out for you in order of what particular skill you should focus on, from your ice-breaker, to using your voice and body language, to doing some research. You pick the topic, apply the recommended focus, and give your speech.

The second is the “Competent Leader” path. Initially, this one had little interest for me, but over the months I've seen its benefit. If you want to learn how to influence people, you need more than your voice. You need to learn how to listen, how to give feedback, and how to motivate. These are all tiny, albeit powerful, insights you'll learn from activities you participate in, and all will help you become a leader.

The Meeting

Every Toastmasters club is run a bit differently, from who talks when, if there are breaks, how people are presented, etc. But every meeting needs people to do the following:

1) The Toastmaster. They set a theme or tone of the meeting and introduce the speakers for the evening. In this role, you'll talk to the room on several occasions.

2) The General Evaluator. They make sure the schedule runs on time. The also offer general insights as to what went well, and what can be improved in the meeting.

3) Table Topic Master. Every night one person offers an interesting topic, then asks several members for their opinion, or story about it. You never know if you're going to be called upon. This is excellent practice for quick-on-your-feet responses.

4) Speakers. Every meeting we have three people deliver a speech. These range in times from five to seven minutes, but in some cases can go fifteen; it depends on what the speaker is trying to accomplish. I am always amazed by the stories we hear at our meeting.

5) Evaluators. Each speaker will be evaluated by another member. These smaller speeches last two to three minutes, and cover what the speaker did well, and what could be improved. This is not about the actual topic, but rather the goals of the speaker (Did they use they hands effectively? Were their eyes up or on the paper in front of them? Was their volume clear?) Sometimes, that makes the task challenging, divorcing your own opinions on the topic from the delivery.

6) The Evaluation Team. Four additional roles need to be filled for an effective meeting.
  • The Ah-Counter, someone who keeps track of all the “um”s, “ah”s, “so”s, or any clutch-word used by any speaker, from the Toastmaster, to the other Evaluations Team members.
  • The Timer's job is to time the speeches. All of 'em. Even Table Topic responders. Part of being effective is keeping your speech within the time limits. While you speak, the Timer will let you how you're doing by holding up a “green,” “yellow,” or “red” card, or use a portable stoplight device.
  • Ballot Counter. Every member and guest are given ballots. Not only do they allow members to vote on the best speaker, evaluator, or table topic response, but they can give feedback. At the meeting's end, small awards are given.
  • Grammarian. Just what you'd think, this person listens for improper grammar as well as interesting or creative grammar.

Each of these members give small speeches up front to outline their tasks, and again after the meeting with their results.

A Toastmaster meeting requires a fair number of people, a total of thirteen. Even if you don't have a role, odds are you'll be asked to stand and talk, at least to give your name, what you do, why you're here... Hey, it's about speaking! That's why you came!

– End Part 1 – 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Happy Mardi Gras! What you might not know about Fat Tuesday

Repost from Mar 5, 2014

Next week is the big day! There's still time to book your flights and have a ball.

New Orleans is known for a great many things, but the most notable — in that no one else in the Union celebrates it with as much fervor — is Mardi Gras. That’s French for “Fat Tuesday”. It’s parties and parades stem out of the Catholic celebration of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of 40 days of abstinence. Our attitude? Before all that starts let’s party hardy, Marty!

While Mardi Gras is just the one day the season, also called Carnival, starts Jan 6, just after the Twelfth Night of Christmas. The day of Mardi Gras can occur as early as Feb 3th or as late as March 9th, given it’s tied to Easter, and that’s tied to the moon… it’s complicated.

You can Google all that, but what don’t you know that the locals know?

Mardi Gras fact #1: Parades start three weeks early. The first parade that rolls in the name of Mardi Gras is Krewe De Vieux, and it does so on Saturday over three weeks before Mardi Gras. It goes through the faubourgs Bywater, Marigny, and the French Quarter. It’s typically very topical, political, funny, and rude. In other words, very New Orleans. I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids, unless they are emotionally prepared to see giant penises and boobs on mule-drawn floats. Oh yeah, we got ‘em.

What you see on TV is the worst of the worst. Parade routes are quite long, starting way out in Uptown, and roll miles to get to Canal Street. In that process it begins very family friendly (think of it as the “G” rated version).

Mardi Gras fact #2: That said, not all the parades are like “Girls Gone Wild”.

In fact, float patrons cater to kids, making sure they receive and abundance of attention, goodies, and throws. Parents love it because it’s hours of free entertainment. Many families will “camp out” on St. Charles for the weekend, set up barbecues, and plan activities with families around them. It’s not until the parade reaches the Central Business District (the CBD) that attitudes and morales erode a bit (”PG”), then go to hell around Canal Street (”R”).

Mardi Gras fact #3: There’s a confection made only for the season, and it’s name is King Cake. The original King Cake is a ring shaped bread like coffee cake. It’s difference includes its brilliant colors (purple, green, and gold, for Mardi Gras, of course), and its contents. No, not the eggs, flour, and sugar. It always contains a baby. Yes, this is a choking hazard — you’ve been warned. But receiving the piece with the baby means you are the King or Queen for the season. You get to select your partner (Queen or King, or King or Queen, whatever floats your boat), and next year you’ll host the party whose King Cake selects the next King or Queen. Today you can find King Cake in a very wide culinary net that encompasses everything from donuts, to vodka (http://v.gd/ifeWIQ), to (I kid you not) hamburgers (http://v.gd/whghli). Granted, that proves that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should…

The bottom line:

Don’t think you can’t go because you have kids; bring ‘em along!

Don’t think you have to wait until the day; parades happen weeks in advance.

And be sure to try some King Cakes; I hope you get the baby.