The Courage to Communicate: From Bowling Alone to Better Angels

Being Aware

Bowling Alone

Bold Action

Better Angels

Add a “Q” and I give you Brenda’s Audacious Quest!

I now have the courage to communicate an important message and mission that I hope will resonate with you.

I feel that my 25 years as an active Toastmaster member has prepared me for this moment and I’m happy and excited to get started on a new and somewhat scary endeavor.

Written as a full sentence:

Over the course of time I became aware of the bold action needed to go from Bowling Alone to Better Angels.

At this point you may be asking-  what the hell am I talking about?

How much time?

What bold action?

What is Better Angels?

Simply put, my goal and quest is to help depolarize America.

What?

I want to improve our country’s health, one conversation at a time.

Why? 

Like many of you, I am saddened and tired of how divided we have become as a country.

Other reasons include my desire to:

  • Reduce our collective stress
  • Make our communities stronger
  • Increase civic engagement and bridging social capital

How?

I am an Organizer for Better Angels, a citizens’ organization that is uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. 

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So what does Bowling Alone have to do with this?

It all started in the early 1990s when I joined a bowling team called the Misfits.

I was living in northwest Arkansas in a town called Bentonville, the location of the world headquarters of my employer, Wal-Mart. 

To blow off some steam from my intense data center operations job, I joined a local bowling league and happily knocked down some pins every week with total strangers.  We named our team the Misfits and we proudly wore dorky, self- designed black T-shirts with a cheesy silk-screened logo. I had nothing in common with my teammates except the love of the game and the fact that we lived in the same state.  I didn’t remain in Arkansas for more than a few years but I have fond memories of the strong and happy social connections we shared.  Although we may have differed politically, religiously and socio-economically, we bonded and cared for each other.   To this day, I still love to bowl and miss my Misfit friends in Arkansas.

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The other major thing I did while living in Arkansas was join Toastmasters International.

My first experience was in a club called “Words R Us”. It was a diverse and jovial group ranging from southern Baptist preachers to Italian-American transplants from New York.  We all learned from each other and developed a wonderfully supportive culture of tolerance and inclusion.  The club was a true melting pot of ideas, styles and perspectives where everyone was welcomed and all views considered.  I remember enjoying the nights when we held actual debates in a point-counterpoint format.  Pastor Willie Brown was my favorite club member and I always enjoyed listening to his impassioned speeches even though I often disagreed with his point of view. His big smile and hearty laugh were many times the highlight of my week.

Another important and impactful memory I have is from a speech I gave in 2005 while I living in San Diego.   I was the Test Speaker at a Toastmaster Evaluation contest and the title of my speech was called “Bowling Alone”.  I remember using my bowling ball as a prop and discussing the importance and benefits of participating in bowling leagues and other community groups.  While stressing the importance of bridging social capital and community involvement, I lamented the fact that fewer and fewer people were joining and attending local clubs and events and this was having a negative effect on our country’s civic engagement.  My speech was inspired by the book by Robert D. Putnam titled “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” and focused how the reduction in all forms of in person social activities has caused a decline in social capital.   My message was powerful and I recall many people coming up to me after the speech to express their thoughts and concerns on the topic.

 

Five years after giving the “Bowling Alone” speech, I found myself living in Littleton, CO and a member of the Columbine Communicators Toastmasters club.   There I was again impacted and inspired by the events and people in the local community. The opening words of my presentation that cold day in 2010 were “another school shooting”.   My husband filmed this sober speech with its bold call to action and shared it on YouTube where it has been viewed 3,935 times.  The title of that speech was “Bowling Alone: How to Rebuild our Communities”.

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Fast forward nine years, two more moves and I’m living in Phoenix, Arizona.

It’s 2019 and our country’s civil discourse is at crisis levels. 

The intense amount of polarization is startling to this socially engaged joiner of Toastmasters clubs across the county.  I never imagined that the United States of America would become so divided that friends and family members are not speaking to each because they support different political parties or candidates.

So here I am with my bowling background and public speaking experience, ready to try to bring people together to learn how to communicate again.

My audacious quest is simple yet lofty.

I want to help build bridges and real live connections to overcome our culture of contempt.

I want to help people to see the human faces of their family, friends and neighbors.

I want to help provide a safe environment and forum so people can begin to listen to the shared values and stories of those with whom they disagree.

I want to provide the skills and training for people to have productive conversations.

I want to bring together reasonable people of goodwill to have a sincere dialogue and a healthy competition of ideas.

I want to face fear and contempt with jovial strength and warm heartedness.

I want to listen and find common ground.

I want to disagree without being disagreeable.

I want to live up to Abraham Lincoln’s words below and be a Better Angel. 

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My name is Brenda Smull and I am organizing a free Communication Skills Workshop in Phoenix, AZ on June 15th, 2019.

Please spread the word and let me know your thoughts on my audacious goal.

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My Compelling Blog: Part 7 (TUV)

Welcome to Part 7 of My Compelling Blog where the featured letters are T, U and V.

I had the hardest time choosing three words this time.  So many words, thoughts and concepts have been swirling in my head this past week and in the end, after countless lists and sticky notes, I landed on Trust Unites Values (with Vision and Voice).

Okay so there are 3 V words, you’ll see why in a moment.

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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States

I’ve always been inspired by the leadership and oratory skills of the many great Presidents of the United States and since today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, I thought it fitting to share this perspective and story which was featured in the LA Times.

Below is an excerpt of an article by David Blackenhorn, President of Better Angels titled “ Today’s leaders should ask themselves:  What would Lincoln do?”

“In 1865, when Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, the Civil War was nearing an end, and he was already thinking about how “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” In that same address, when he urged “malice toward none,” he meant it.

Throughout his political career, Lincoln rejected dogmatism, embraced pragmatism, and sought compromise, something that often didn’t sit well with those he considered his allies. 

Lincoln chose humor over vitriol and understanding over judgment. He liked telling stories more than delivering lectures and making suggestions more than issuing orders. A strong, confident man, but one who also experienced dark depression, Lincoln was mild-mannered. His capacity for empathy was striking to those around him.

Lincoln had important flaws, but was providentially suited to his times. In a time of disunity, he tried to remind Americans what united them.

Amid conflict, he sought conciliation.

Amid anger, he advocated “charity for all.”

Amid despair, he summoned “the better angels of our nature.”

On his birthday, today’s leaders would do well to contemplate his wisdom.”

Link to LA Times Article

And so it was honest Abe who was trusted by millions of Americans to unite a fractured nation.  He used Trust to Unite our Values with his Vision and Voice.

It is my hope that our nation’s leaders today choose humor over vitriol and understanding over judgment.  I can dream, right?

I wish you all a safe and happy President’s weekend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Respect and Inclusion for Veterans in Corporate America

Respect and Inclusion for Veterans in Corporate America

Trust, Respect and Inclusion. While these values may seem to be waning in American society today, they are valued more than ever by employees who yearn to be part of collaborative teams that make a difference and positive impact in their organizations and communities.

In a time of increasing disunity and fractured social groups, it is heartening to know there are companies and employee networks that promote inclusion and diversity with the benefit of development and engagement in our communities.  Like many people today, I crave a sense of belonging to something greater than myself that shares a common vision and objective.    With Charles Schwab and its many Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), I am one connected and happily engaged team member.

As a US Army veteran, I am proud to say that Schwab walks the talk when it comes to fostering and supporting Diversity and Inclusion networks.  Our teams meet frequently and have strong executive support to provide a wide array of programs, events and services.

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What many veterans miss most from their time in the military is the sense of camaraderie, cohesion and support from their units and teammates. These bonds are strong and are established all over the country in Schwab’s Military Veterans Network (MVN) groups (over 550 members).

This sense of team and connectedness is important to me since, as an IT professional, I have relocated many times and I always felt welcomed, appreciated and assisted by the local MVN chapters.  These groups come together with shared experiences and unite under common goalsand priorities.  The teams work as a cohesive unit to actively engage with the community and non-profit organizations to help fellow veterans and their families.

The trust, respect and inclusion the MVN fosters continues to grow and we are strengthened by the feeling that “we are all in this together” or as my Navy friends tell me, “we are all in the same boat”.

Being of service to others and giving back is another key driver for many members of the MVN and our volunteer efforts are supported by all levels of management.  Whether it be serving Thanksgiving dinner to homeless veterans at the Phoenix U.S. Vets facility,  assisting at the annual Arizona Stand Down or painting rooms to shelter those in need, our motivated ERG teams are ready to meet the call.

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Charles Schwab has given me the opportunity and the honor to work with many veteran focused non-profit groups including Project Sanctuary, American Legion, VFW and Heal The Hero.

Through solid action and commitment, employers that walk the talk on supporting veterans can gain something back — the loyalty and positive engagement of those former service members. Trust, Respect and Inclusion are truly wonderful gifts that keep on giving.

This quote from Air Force veteran Terrance Purcell sums up what I think is most important impact of ERGs, “All of these things really touch my heart and make me proud to be a Schwab Military Veteran Network member.”

Blazing a Path- My Inspirational Opening for District 3 Toastmasters

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I was recently asked to present the opening Inspiration at the conference for District 3 Toastmasters in Phoenix, AZ.

Here’s the text of the 1.5 minute speech:

As we blaze a new path to success, I’m reminded of an old Irish blessing, may the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back.

May is a month for remembering- a time for visits to memorials and tributes honoring those who came before us.  May is also a time of growth and renewal.

As we look to grow, I encourage you to remember the past, our history and our traditions at Toastmasters.  We are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Those who came before us forged new paths and paved the way for our current and future success.

We live in a rapidly changing world where we must adapt to the needs of our members in new and innovative ways.

So as we evolve and blaze exciting new roads, let us not forget our strong Toastmaster roots.

Embrace the new.

Honor our foundation.

Prepare for the future.

And know that by blazing a path to success with your District 3 family, the wind will always be at your back.

 

Calm, Steady and Flying Strong

I cautiously boarded a Southwest Airlines flight from Austin to Phoenix last Thursday, two days after the horrific engine failure that took the life of Jennifer Riordan, a bank executive and mother of two.   I quickly found myself a window seat like a normally do but this one was the second row, much closer to the front of the plane than I usually get.  I guess more people were choosing aisle seats that week.

The story of the dramatic emergency landing by Navy veteran Tammi Jo Shults captured my attention and made me reflect on what it means to be a hero. 

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A gift from Angie. Photo by Steve.

The news of the tragic event hit home for me since I have been flying on Southwest in window seats overlooking the engine numerous times this year.   The details of how the plane was forced to make a harrowing and rapid descent after one of the engines exploded in midair was chilling to say the least.

Hero is a word that gets used a lot in the news today and is often associated with masculine acts of strength and bravery.   Stereotypes and Google images bring up muscled men with capes.

Stereotypes Shattered in desert wars and at 30,000 feet

My experience and observations on the battlefield during the first Persian Gulf war were that the women Army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) I served with in the US Amy were rocks-  strong and solid leaders who were calm under pressure and seemingly less agitated than their male counterparts.

Last week, I was most impressed by the calm and collected voice of Southwest Captain Tammi Jo in comparison to the stressed and strained vocals of the man communicating with her from Air Traffic Control.  The former F-18 fighter pilot was composed, steady and in control of the situation.  Her skill, professionalism and “nerves of steel” were recorded for everyone to hear and I loved it!

And then there was Peggy Phillips, the confidence and self-assured Registered Nurse who performed over 20 minutes of CPR on the battered and severely injured Jennifer Riordan.  There was no question, no hesitation- Peggy just launched into action doing what she was trained to do.

When praised and called heroes these woman replied that they were “simply doing their jobs”. These women were doing what they were trained to do, performing at the high standard they set for themselves.

Yes, Tammi Jo and Peggy did their jobs that day with the strength and the skill of true professionals.   True heroines who were calm and steady and refreshingly humble.

Imagine a world without heroes.   I can’t because I know too many strong, capable women.  Women who are Mothers and above all else love, support and nurture their children. Women who make sacrifices to give their families the best that they can.

The Mothers I know may not be piloting a plane in an emergency landing but day in and day out they work their asses off and make a positive difference in their kid’s lives.  Just like my Mom did for me and my siblings.

Mothers are Heroes.  Women like my Mom, Virginia; my sister, Barbara; my niece, Heather; my sisters-in-law, Shanon and Katie and my dear friends Andrea and Marie.  They all have and continue to impress me.

They are the unsung heroines of the never-ending drama and psychological thriller we know as life.

These heroes may not wear capes but I can visualize a large “S” across each of their chests.    They are more than Super, they are Supreme.

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Mother and child I photographed at a Me Rah Ko “The Photo Mom” seminar in Bastrop, TX

The Super Hero Mothers I know and had the great honor of being raised by may not have piloted an F-18 or a Boeing 737 but they are masterfully navigating, guiding and steering their families under enormous amounts of stress, pressure and sometimes chaos.

It is these women that I deeply respect.  It is to these heroes that I salute.

I thank Tammi Jo Shults and Peggy Phillips for their skills and bravery last week on Southwest flight 1380 for they have rekindled in me the passion and motivation to appreciate and recognize all the calm, steady and strong heroes in our midst.

Thanks Mom!

You Have a Seat at the Table, Now What?

Much has been written about the strength and impact of women’s voices in corporate America and the level to which they are acknowledged and perceived. What we say and how we say it are critical success factors and key skills to refine and perfect. I would even go as far to say that how we present our message is an art which needs to be thoughtfully approached and practiced for maximum effect.

As more women get promoted into leadership and executive positions, the next challenge and question is-  how do we make certain that our input is heard? How do we connect and reach people to influence, motivate and inspire them?

Given my frame of reference and experience as a leader over the last 28 years, I’d like to share with you some thoughts, ideas and suggestions on how to ensure that your voice is  heard and respected.

My background is deeply rooted in the area of communication both in the military and in leadership roles in a number of large corporations in the US. I served as a Signal Platoon leader during the first Gulf War and my main job was directing and projecting my voice to give orders and commands to a communications unit that deployed cellular networks on the battlefield. I also received extensive training on radio communications and protocols during hostile operations. This is where I learned the importance and value of being bold, being brief and being gone. The mantra that stuck with me was: “Be bold, be brief, be gone”.  Make your point quickly and then be still.  Speak, wait, listen and learn.

After my time in the Army, I worked in various fields including Sales, Consulting, Project Management and Agile leadership, all of which rely heavily on strong communication skills to be effective.

I have been an active member in Toastmasters International since 1994 and enjoy giving speeches and mentoring others to improve their confidence and communication effectiveness. Basically, I’ve been working on honing my ability to connect, articulate and transmit information, stories and messages to others since the mid 1980s.

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As a long time Toastmaster, I’ve been told that I possess a “Confident Command” when I speak. It is from this perspective that I present to you some tips and techniques  on the topic of Powerful Speaking.

1 – Project your voice

Before you utter your first word at the table, on the conference call or at the lectern, take a long, deep breath and get grounded in your thoughts and intention. Relax your neck and shoulder muscles ( I use a technique of firmly pressing the palms of my hands together for 8 seconds- usually done under the table where I am sitting prior to standing for my presentation).

Be mindful of your volume and pitch. Avoid a shrill sound which is often overly high and piercing in quality. Even tones and breathing are your friends.   Practice your key foundational statements ( opening and closing) in advance so you can ensure that you project your message clearly and strongly.

2- Make your point quickly and succinctly

Back to the “Be Bold, Be Brief, Be Gone” mantra. Make sure that your main point is clearly stated up front and with power and conviction. Declare and proclaim the situation, facts and impact in a short 1-3 sentence statement of clarity and impact. Get their attention, connect and then elaborate on your point if necessary.

Providing brief stories and examples can help support your point and knowing your audience’s concern and frame of reference is key to ensuring that your message is heard, understood and hopefully appreciated.

Know your facts cold. This will help you deliver in a solid and unwavering manner.

Remember, Less is More.

3- Know your value and what you uniquely bring to the table.

Be prepared.

Be authentic.

Be steady.

Be assertive.

You’ve got this!

4- Having a Positive and Grounded Tone

It’s not only what you say but how you say it has never been more true.

As a woman friend and outstanding speaker from Laughing Matters Toastmasters club in Austin recently shared with me:

“Don’t be wimpy. Don’t be whiny. Don’t be pissy. Don’t go postal.

Rather, have a tone of confidence, composure, and quiet conviction.”

Another tip to have a good, solid tone is to tap into your Personal Power.

Here’s an energizing quote that I read on DailyOm.com two days ago.

“ Power is not about exerting our will over others, it is about being in complete truth with ourselves. When personal power is balanced, we are neither meek nor overbearing.”

When we have harness our Personal Power we:

  • Have a clear sense of our strength and the impact we can have on others
  • Are worthy and deserve to be heard
  • Come from a place of humility and strength- not entitlement

When speaking from a position of balanced strength, our tone and non-verbal communications send the message that “ I have something important and valuable to contribute”.

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The Goddess Pose

So take your seat at the table, speak up and let your voice and powerful message be heard!

I hope that this article was helpful and connected with you in some way.

Please send me your comments, questions and thoughts.

This is Brenda Smull signing off. Over and Out.

So Many Things Left Unsaid

There is much on my mind. So many topics to talk about, so many things to say but lately my blog outlines and drafts are piling up on the shelf.

Perhaps I have my first case of writer’s blog. Maybe I’m just too busy to finish and publish. Maybe I’m caught up in the intense tone of the nation when it comes to Freedom of Expression.

I’m not sure of the reason and I’m not big on making excuses so I thought I’d share with you some of the ideas and topics I’ve been tossing around for the last 6 months but haven’t finalized in an article, speech or blog.

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I’ll let you decide what you think is important, relevant or interesting.

Please send me your comments and feedback on one or more of the following topics:

  1. Letting Go – I learned a new word today while in Yoga class. It is Vairagya…
  2. REI’s Force of Nature marketing campaign.
    • Do we need a retail company to “help make outside the largest level playing field on earth”?
  3. Life is Spiritual Warfare. Words of wisdom from Tariji Henson.
  4. You have a seat at the table- Now what? Speaking with confidence and humility to land your message and make an impact.

Sadly, the communication climate in the United States has taken an extremely negative turn since the election of Donald Trump in Nov 2016. Many people do not feel safe or comfortable with sharing their thoughts and opinions outside of their circle of like-minded “friends” and those that are voicing their ideas and concerns are doing so with such anger and intensity that the point of the message is not being received by those who need to hear it.

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Is this the reason why I’m not carrying through with my ideas on my WordPress blog ?

Is Fear stopping me?

I don’t know but I’m afraid to ask.

What do you think?

Should some things be left unsaid?