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.

Bowling

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to the Point

NEWS ALERT:

You have something important to say.

 Here are some tips to ensure that your ideas are heard.

Why?

  • Attention spans are short
  • People are inundated with information
  • Your ideas need to stand out
  • Focusing your point/purpose will help you hit your target

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One of my favorite movies from the 1980s is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”.  Little did I realize that it was teaching me valuable lessons on how to be an effective speaker.

The humor and sarcasm of Steve Martin in his scenes with John Candy are memorable, priceless and often times, instructive.

This fun quote from the movie applies to all Toastmasters.

“Here’s a good idea. Have a point.  It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”

Steve Martin’s Pointed Clip

What?

For decades, the objectives of Project # 3 in the Toastmaster communication manual emphasized that the speaker should strive to organize their speech with a focused and precise purpose. The project was later named “Get to the Point”.

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Objectives of “Get to the Point” speech:

  1. Determine your general purpose
  2. Focus in on your specific purpose.
    • What does the audience really need to hear?
  3. Organize your speech so that the opening, body and conclusion all tie into and reinforce the purposes.

Interestingly, when I researched and found the archives of Ralph Smedley’s  “Basic Training for Toastmasters”manual from 1956, the concepts and techniques outlined are still relevant and applicable today.

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How?

  • Give the headline (point/purpose) up front.
  • Early in the speech, provide the audience with a roadmap of where you are taking them.
  • Bring stories and supporting items together to reinforce the larger, single message.
  • Use an outline or a framework (a plan on which to hang your words).
    • For example, I find the acronym PRES helpful.
      • P- Point
      • R- Reason
      • E- Example
      • S- Summary
  • Frame the central idea so that no matter what, the audience will remember that.
  • Strive to have the closing statement link back to the opening (like book ends).

I had something important to share with you and it is my hope that my point was clear and that I made it mildly interesting along the way!

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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.

 

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.

Objective Evaluations in a Polarized World

A vast amount of ink has been devoted to analyzing and evaluating Hillary Clinton’s speaking style. I will not be adding to the heap of hypothesis and judgment (although I do feel that I have some relevant qualifications and experience to do so) and will instead take a different angle and discuss another important topic of late, namely the ability to provide effective evaluations of speeches or debates when you disagree with or dislike the content or topic. Giving credit where credit is due is a rare occurrence these days.

During my 22 years as an active Toastmaster member, I have given over 200 formal speech evaluations and presented numerous educational sessions on how to provide encouraging yet constructive feedback on another’s presentation. I have created and shared an easy way (I call it the DSI Model) to structure a cogent 2-3 minute Toastmaster Evaluation. For you acronym buffs, DSI stands for Delivery, Structure and Impact.

The Speech Evaluation is a cornerstone of the Toastmasters program and is critical for the growth and development of the members’ communication and leadership skills.  It is also one of the most difficult things to do well.  Providing verbal feedback in front of the entire group is challenging and often a scary proposition for new club members who are asked to evaluate fellow speakers who may be more advanced and experienced.

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The ability to give objective and neutral feedback on another person’s speech is hard enough without all the many external and internal factors influencing us.  Pesky things like human nature, emotions, personal biases, insecurities, political correctness, extreme political views, polarization of opinions and what I call the “siloed, echo chambers” of social media and cyberspace  (for more on this check out “A Matter of Perspective”).

So now to the crux of the matter at hand, are we humans capable of lifting our personal filters and actively listening to the words and opinions of others with whom we disagree or dislike? Can we set aside our own beliefs, thoughts and values on the content/topic and focus on the Delivery, Structure and Impact of the speech? Without some guidelines and a controlled, unemotional approach, this may prove challenging for many people today, especially since large portions of the American public rarely see or listen to opinions which differ dramatically from their own.  Open, honest discussion and debate is too often discouraged and sadly suppressed on college campuses today.

Here are my thoughts and advice on this feedback challenge:

  1. Remember that as a speech evaluator, you are there to observe and provide neutral and constructive feedback, recommendations and suggestions on the basic tenants and techniques of effective communication and public speaking.  There are manuals and speech objectives to guide you.
  2. Focus on the Delivery and Structure of the presentation with specific examples.
  3. When commenting on the Impact of a speech (especially if you disagree with the content), try to set aside your personal emotions and biases and look at and assess the overall audience response to the speech.
  4. Honestly ask yourself if the topic/point of the speech is clouding your ability to provide positive and objective feedback on the Delivery and Impact. If it is, then:
    1. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who supports the topic and reflect on how they would respond to the speech.
    2. Run a “What if” scenario in your mind by replacing the content of the speech with something that you agree with and see how you would view and analyze it.
  5. Open your mind, take off your biased filters and focus on how the speaker is connecting, delivering and making their point.
  6. Was the speaker able to motivate, educate, influence or inspire?
  7. The purpose of your evaluation is to encourage and help club member improve and develop strong communication skills, not to impose your views, values and opinions about the subject matter.

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Hopefully this advice will prove useful to my fellow Toastmasters around the world and may even help open up the dialogue among Americans who are embroiled in the highly contentious and negatively charged Presidential election season of 2016.

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I will be presenting the contents of this article in the form of an eight minute Toastmasters speech on the morning of November 8, 2016.  As part of the presentation, I will be giving a sample Evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s most recent debate performance.

This speech will be the last one I give at the Denver Techmasters club in Lone Tree, CO prior to our move to Austin, TX.