We are All Scientists

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“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what’s going on.” Jacques Cousteau

Curiosity is the engine of learning. From childhood on, it’s curiosity that causes us to learn. What we speakers have to offer is our understanding of what we’ve observed through our own keyholes. Our keyholes let us look at our life experience and our professional experiences.

Books and the Internet are keyholes to the experiences of others. We can teach from the experiences of others, so long as we know them and understand them.

For speakers, all this time at the keyhole helps build credibility and helps us create a message worthy of an audience.

Scientists are observers of observations. They keep meticulous records of their observations, either taken directly from nature or by experimentation. Bookkeepers keep meticulous records, too, but the scientist has to interpret the meaning behind the recorded observations. Do the observations help explain or disprove what’s currently believed to be true? Do the observations support or disprove the hypothesis? What do the facts mean?

How is a speaker like a scientist? We all have professional and life experiences that might hold meaning for someone else. For many of us, those experiences are still raw data, like the notes in a scientist’s notebook that haven’t been studied for their meaning.

Do we have experiences that seem to shout out meaning? Like that time when a friend did something amazing or difficult that made us rethink how we live our lives? Or that time when a parent demonstrated a deep and powerful truth about how to live life well?

Do we have beliefs that we developed from our own experience? I once was stranded when my car broke down in rural western Maine very late at night in the winter. It was cold, snowing like crazy, and the closest house was barely visible, way down the road. Miraculously, someone else was driving on that road well after midnight and he helped me push my car to that house. Then, miraculously, the owner of the house let me sleep inside. Otherwise, I might well have died from the cold. From that night, I believe that people are basically good and will help others when it matters most.

I was never an astronaut, but I firmly believe that mankind should explore the rest of the universe. That belief is grounded in the hundreds of hours I spent immersed in the events of the American space program from its beginnings in the 1960s through the Space Shuttle program and on to the present day with the International Space Station. I was never an astronaut, but I learned this lesson – and other worthy lessons – from my observations of the space program.

How else is a speaker like a scientist? We, too, can start with an hypothesis and find the evidence that supports it. Ever read a quote from Shakespeare or Confucius and accept it without thinking? Instead, treat it like an hypothesis. Ask if it really is best “to thine own self be true.” What experiences in your life confirm for you that this is a deep and powerful truth? Can you tell a story to support this?

Maybe you have experiences that call this or some other quote into question. Scientists do that all the time, too. No doubt you’ve heard of Copernicus, or Galileo: they were doubters who changed the course of history.

Any scientist worth their lab coat has probably doubted some other scientist’s work from earlier and set out to disprove it. That’s one way to develop your skill as a scientist and to build a professional reputation. Maybe that’s the kind of scientist you need to be, especially if you’re something of a natural skeptic.

What do you see through your keyholes that will be the kernel of your next great speech?


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It’s Been a While, Hasn’t It?

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A lot has happened around here in the months since January, 2014, when I wrote my last blog post. Three cancers in the family and their aftermath left me with little desire or focus to do any writing. But that’s mostly behind us now so it’s time to get back to looking for and writing about the random wisdom in my head.

As the kids say these days, let’s do this.

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Not-so Random Memory

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“Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them.” P. G. Wodehouse (Author)

Admission: I like this line from Wodehouse as much for its ridiculous image as for how it reminds me to think about the many ways that memory contributes to learning and teaching.  Given our purpose here, though, I suppose I will have to press my nose to the ever-turning grindstone and see if I can produce something that, if I were being paid for writing this, would allow me to walk straight up to the pay window without any form of disguise. Enough for my own sad attempt to write a Wodehousean sentence. Not being Wodehouse, perhaps I should switch back to my own voice.

Speakers shape memories into stories, elicit memories from our audience, and create new memories with our lessons. We assume that our students know how to use their memories actively to store the facts and recommendations we teach and that they’ll be able to recall those lessons when they’re most needed in the future. Without memory, there could be no learning, of course, but also very little teaching.

Teachers and speakers work in memory the way painters work in color.

So, no, it’s not best to leave your memories unstirred like a bad soup. In fact, it’s those speakers and teachers who have the best control over their memories – or who have mined their memories for the most useful and pertinent stories – who are the most memorable. Memorable – there’s that memory factor again. As entrepreneurial speakers – or teachers – we seek to be memorable for that’s the only sure sign that we have succeeded in our mission.

Recently I heard a talk in which the speaker advised that we should not merely seek to be great, but that we should hope to become immortal. By that, he meant that we should seek to influence others so they lead better lives in some way. I’m not sure there’s a better reason to teach but to help others lead better lives.

But we won’t be able to influence a single person if we don’t harness our own memories and encourage them to use their own.

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To Thine Own Self

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“A lie with a purpose is one of the worst kind, and the most profitable.” Finley Peter Dunne (Journalist and Humorist)

It would be easy here to go on a rant about charlatans and those who promise the reveal the “secrets” of success in their field for ONLY some number of dollars ending in 99. It would be easy here to rant about those speakers who deceive their audiences in various ways to lure them into expensive seminars or workshops that don’t really add much value to the lives of their customers. For those speakers have customers and not students. There’s a difference there that matters a great deal, but that’s a fight for another time.

Instead, the kind of lie that I’m reminded about today is the knowing lie that’s told out of weakness or ignorance. It’s not the experienced and mature professional who uses this kind of lie, but the beginner. I’m reminded of the admonition to never, ever borrow someone else’s story. I’m reminded of the lesson we learned from Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”

Those who borrow the stories or lessons of others and then try to pass them off as their own are doing their students/audience members and themselves a terrible disservice. First, borrowed stories and lessons almost never have the full impact they should. Used properly, a story helps do two things: it illustrates a point and makes it more memorable; second, it strengthens the bond between teacher and learner so the learner becomes more invested in the teacher’s wisdom.

If you use someone else’s story or another’s lesson, you’re reducing the chances that your learners will bond with you. Which will reduce your opportunity to influence them and to create the effect you desire with your presentation. And then, there’s the most important reason of all.

Using others’ materials and stories is simply dishonest, and that will wreck your credibility. When you lose your credibility, your audience will stop listening.

Why would you risk that? Credibility is everything, and being authentic in your work is one of the two essential keys to credibility. The other is value, and we’ll get to that another day.



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Confession Time

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“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” (Noam Chomsky, Linguist)

How can ideas be both colorless and green? And, for that matter, how can ideas sleep, much less how can anything sleep furiously? That a sentence can contain these seeming contradictions and yet still be recognizable as a sentence is the very heart of the completely revolutionary theory of language proposed by Noam Chomsky in the mid-1950s.

If it’s possible to be an ideas bigot, I used to be one. And it was the work of Noam Chomsky that incited me to some form of ideas bigotry, which was an immense mistake on my part. To be fair, I wasn’t alone, but I was that guy, as they say. Don’t you be that guy, too.

If I’m going to make a confession, I should start at the beginning.

I first encountered the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky in my final year of college. A friend who was majoring in Psychology was assigned one of Chomsky’s works, a book called Language and Mind. When he finished with the book, I borrowed it out of curiosity. I found it contained some compelling ideas about language but my response was, “Interesting, but what really interests me is how language came into being and how it developed.”

A year later, immersed in linguistics classes in graduate school, I was studying that very subjects: how the sounds and grammars of language developed over time. We looked at the history of language and read all about dialects and differences between languages and language families. Most of my teachers felt that Chomsky’s theories didn’t apply to real language. They dismissed his work as trivial.

At some point,  I bought the book in which Chomsky first proposed the existence of a transformational or generative grammar that was universal in all human beings. It was called Syntactic Structures and, like Language and Mind, contained very careful and compelling arguments to support his theory. I wasn’t persuaded. But that wasn’t because of any failure on the part of Chomsky or his book.

I wasn’t persuaded by Chomsky’s ideas because my mind was mostly closed on the matter. It’s really hard to persuade someone with a closed mind. It wasn’t until I moved on to a different graduate school (Yes, I admit it. I used to be a professional student.) and began to study under a man who admired Chomsky’s work that I began to swing my mind’s door open on its very rusty hinges. That man, William Abler, taught me to be eternally curious. And to listen to others’ ideas with openness and willingness to learn.

William Abler taught me to be a scientist. While I’m no longer a scientist by profession, I still try to engage life with a fully open scientific curiosity. And I firmly believe that all speakers, teachers, and trainers should live this way.

So don’t be that guy, like me, who refuses to consider new ideas. Instead, try to be a William Abler to your students and your audiences. They will be grateful, I promise.

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Keeping Time

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“Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away.” Ben Hecht (Author and Screenwriter)

Teachers, speakers, and trainers are like musicians in that time is a fundamental element – and constraint – in our work. Every presentation or class is bound in time so we are driven to make the best use of that time. But time is not the enemy, for we make various uses of time to do our work.

Two uses of time come to mind here: busy time and empty time. Both are vitally important in their own way.

On e of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a senior trainer was this: never allow more than enough time to complete a workshop assignment. For example, if it’s likely to take a little under five minutes for a small group to list twelve ways a manager might try to motivate employees, then announce that they have four minutes to do the activity  – and c all time at exactly four minutes. Groups might not quite finish their first activity timed in this way, but you’d better believe they’ll work more efficiently and effectively in subsequent activities during that workshop. Their thinking will be better focused and they’ll produce more valuable results from their collaborations. And that’s the goal of doing group activities, isn’t it?

Empty time belongs to the student and audience member, but it’s controlled from the front of the room. Think of the genius in the way that great comedians like Jack Benny (“Your money or your life?” … “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”) or Henny Youngman (“Take my wife. … Please!”) used pauses to heighten our anticipation for the punch line. Or the way that moments of quiet in a piece of music make us hunger for the next notes to fill the air. And when a gifted presenter makes us wait for a payoff line, the wait is the same as in comedy or music. For in that wait we’re making our minds more receptive for the message that we know will follow.

Beyond the pause for dramatic or comedic effect, though, there’s the systemic pause. By this I mean the kind of pause where you let your new idea sink in. Everyone needs time to process new ideas. They’re busy mapping your new idea against their own experience and learning. How does this new idea compare to what I already know? Does this change my understanding of my subject? How does this new idea fit into my world view?

Do you use time intentionally in your work? Have you looked through your material to find places where imposing silence will produce a certain effect? Do you regularly offer up systemic pauses to let your new ideas sink in, to allow for mental processing time?

Jack Benny, in fact actually said this about comedy: “It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.” He also said, “Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.” But I’ll forgive him for that heresy.

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Exit Perfectionist, Stage Left

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“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali (Painter)

I wonder how many of us have allowed our sense of perfection to interfere with our work. I think that fear of perfection often masquerades as perfectionism. We hold up the standard for ourselves that we should always try to do a perfect job yet we know we never attain this goal. Instead, we often sabotage our own work with procrastination or absent-mindedness. Funny how putting off the start of a project or forgetting to assemble all the needed resources on time naturally serves as an excuse. “I could have done a better job but I just couldn’t get to the project in time.”

It should be clear that I have some up-close-and-personal experience with this.

It even becomes a badge of honor: “Look at me! My standards are so high that even I can’t meet them all the time.”

Maturity does help – though it ought not to be a requirement – in efforts to reverse this approach and mindset. This is nowhere near the problem for me that it was twenty years ago, though even that was later in life than I wish.

Instead, I think back to a presentation to my Speaker University class by Johnny Campbell, who is a quite popular keynoter and trainer. In this class, Johnny told of his first professional product. It was a series of recorded lessons available only by monthly subscription, and at a low cost. Johnny told us that he would shut himself into his bathroom to make the recordings that were then sent out on CDs. Apparently the bathroom had the best acoustics in the house. What matters most to our discussion, though, is that Johnny usually did these recordings in only one take. He said that what mattered was getting the message out to his followers and that he wasn’t worried if there was an occasional slip or stumble.

It doesn’t matter if there’s an occasional slip or stumble. That makes sense to me, a recovering perfectionist.

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Happiness is Skill in Motion

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“Anything you’re good at contributes to happiness.”  Bertrand Russell (Philosopher)

I think that most of us, if we’ll admit it, sometimes doubt if our work will have lasting value. Seems to me this is both natural and a mistake. Well, it’s a mistake to let those feelings persist, even if we can’t help that they occur.

Without going all “New Age” on you, gentle reader, I do believe that any amount of new happiness we can add to the world is a good thing.

Being happy about our work – whatever it is – is contagious.

In the early days of my career, I sat in on several recording sessions when foreign-language commercials were being taped. I recall being absolutely amazed at the recording engineer. Even though he was working with copy that was in French and Italian, languages he did not know, he worked flawlessly and quickly. This was back when all professional recordings were still being made on large reel-to-reel tapes, so the task of creating a seamless recording by splicing together multiple voiceover takes and inserting snippets of music was all done by hand, using a mechanical tape splicer.

This recording engineer moved with remarkable speed and ease. On that editing console he was a master artisan, and it was clear from his easy-going manner as he worked that he loved his work. I distinctly remember what I felt as I left the studio after assisting in the first of these recording sessions with him. I stepped out of the studio into a warm June afternoon. The temperature wasn’t unbearably high but a block or two of hustling to make the 5:00 train left my shirt damp in all the wrong places. As I moved quickly down the street, I passed Pizzeria Uno, one of Chicago’s iconic restaurants, and the aroma coming from the front door tempted every passerby. A few steps past the pizzeria I stopped and shook my head in wonder. I was feeling the same sort of high that I would enjoy after watching the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Georg Solti. It was a high from being in the presence of a master artisan, brought on by spending time with that recording engineer.

No matter what you do, if you’re good at it, you create new happiness every day. Whether it’s speaking, teaching, writing, or selling, you’re making happiness. So as I look out on a world that seems a bit dismal now and again, I ask you to please get busy.

Keep making the happy.

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High Anxiety

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“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard

There is no sheet of paper (or computer screen) so blank as when you start to prepare a lesson or a speech. Now, I’m sure a novelist would say the same thing about the blank sheet that starts a new book, but this is the teacher’s and speaker’s reality. Every lesson, every speech, begins in nothingness. At first, there’s an idea, a spark that prompts us to pull out the legal pad or boot up the computer. But until we start to give the idea some form or blow some life into the spark, the page before us is frighteningly bare.

Yet, even when we know our general objective, questions abound.

What lesson, truly, am I setting out to teach? What do I want my learners to be able to do or what do I want them to think or feel when we’re done? How will I structure this lesson? What stories to tell? How much of myself will I reveal, if anything at all? What challenge will I issue before closing and relinquishing the stage?

What to do?

There’s a tender balance between freedom and structure. Some amount of structure is needed in every lesson, every speech. And yet right up until the last minute, some measure of freedom to revise and refine is essential to success. How to find that balance?

The balance between freedom and structure is shifted by choices that we make along the way. With each choice, the fulcrum moves. For myself, what seems to help the most is to impose a big-picture structure on the speech or lesson very early in the process. One lesson might be best taught through a Socratic discovery method while another may require some clear explanations from me before the learners will be ready to discuss much at all.

Beyond this large-scale choice, I might force on myself only a few other constraints not already baked into the situation. Available time and setting are usually already part of the recipe. To make my creative process work most smoothly, I usually have to start with a very clear statement of my objectives. From there, I need deadlines and forced preparation time. Coffee helps, too, if I’m working between 8 am and midnight. Sometimes I’ll force myself to organize my first draft of the plan with a certain structure. For example, maybe I’ll insist that the first draft follow a strict sequence of point, illustrative story, memorable quote for however many sub-points are necessary. Once that draft is complete, though, a more natural organization might reveal itself. But sometimes I can’t get to that point without a forced first draft.

How about you?


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Curiosity, or How I Learned to Blow up Fuses

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“Judge a person by their questions, rather than their answers.” Voltaire (French philosopher)

Supposedly, curiosity killed the cat, but don’t tell that to any scientist. Without curiosity, science might never have come into being. For that matter, I’m not sure how you can teach effectively without engaging your students’ curiosity. It’s a tough row to hoe to persuade students to learn something they’re not interested in learning.  But engage that curiosity and then your work will be much easier.

I like to think that curiosity is contagious. When I was in the stretch between fifth and eighth grades, I was good friends with a classmate named Roland. We were both interested in science but he was even more enthusiastic about it than I was. We spent many afternoons after school together, cooking up plans for scientific experiments. In truth, he always seemed to come up with the most outrageous – and thus, more alluring – experiments. We carried out a few of them, much to the dismay of my parents. They had unwittingly provided our laboratory and occasionally suffered the consequences of their generosity. Like the time when we experimented with screwing electrical fuses into light bulb sockets and then turning on the switch. Those fuses, it turns out, would explode in a flash of light and the smell of burnt metal. We repeated that experiment many times – until my father’s supply of fuses was exhausted, any way. It must have been about ensuring that our results were repeatable, as good scientists would insist.

Roland’s curiosity and enthusiasm made my curiosity stronger, just at that time when I was also developing a competing curiosity: about girls. After we finished high school and he continued on the path of science while I turned to studying literature, we would tease each other about whose curiosity had been responsible for the most outrageous “experiments.” I’m pretty sure he won most of those arguments.

That same effect, of curiosity in one person spreading to another, is one of the hidden arts of teaching. If the teacher and student are both engaged in a quest to learn something new, both will profit from the search. But if the teacher demands curiosity of the student without showing any of his own, then I’m not so sure the result will be of much use to either of them.

We all need to be like my friend Roland. It doesn’t hurt to have a Roland in our own lives, either.

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