There are over one hundred and seventy thousand commonly used words in the English language, but most people employ just a fraction of them in their daily lives. Many people yearn to find and articulate the truth. The courage to communicate has many meanings; each of us struggling to get our voices heard brings our own understanding and desires to the process. I bring my understanding of communication and wish to be heard to this book.
Growing up in a large family in the northeastern United States, I learned the value of direct and powerful communication. I still appreciate the emphatic and heartfelt style of my New Jersey upbringing and have spent my adult life honing my skills through key programs, paths, and career choices.
I believe that strong words have the power to catalyze change, that direct communication has value, and that words have energy.I believe that words are best when they are consumable, easily understood, and impactful.
I also believe that simplicity in communication is elegant. Simple is clear and honest and true. The most delicious recipes have five or fewer ingredients. My Mom’s delicious rice pudding comes to mind. But alas, communication is not always as simple as a recipe.
From this understanding came the title of my first WordPress blog, Strong Words and Simple Truths, which I began writing in 2013. The title encompasses everything I believe about communication, and I have not changed the focus or intent of the phrase in my nine years of blogging.
I always have an idea that I’d like to share, so I’ve continued thinking, speaking, and blogging about communication since 2013. I am rarely at a loss for words.
Some of the articles I published on my blog were adapted from speeches I gave at Toastmaster meetings. Other times, I would challenge myself to convert a blog article into a speech. I found the challenges of the back-and-forth creations fun and fascinating. This process taught me the important lesson that the spoken word is quite different from the written word, and through this hard work I learned to be more flexible and creative in my communication style.
This book invites you to accompany me on a journey of discovery through a curated selection of over eighty articles from my blog. When I decided to compile these articles into a book, I knew that the same title, Strong Words and Simple Truths, would perfectly express what I am trying to convey. Little did I know when I started writing my blog that the extreme events of 2020 and 2021 would make my pithy title and subtitle all the more relevant and important.
So here I am, sharing in the most powerfully vulnerable way I have ever attempted. Blogging and public speaking are one thing, but publishing a book has brought me to a whole new level of commitment to my beliefs and my message.
The format of this book was inspired by author and fellow veteran, Ed Latimore. His book, Not Caring What Other People Think Is a Superpower: Insights from a Heavy Boxer, was an outstanding compilation of his tweets, which includes strong and powerful lessons of life.
In this book, I blend the creative power of agility, communication, history, and science to create a patchwork quilt of my ideas, stories, and dreams.
I am honored to share the stories of the people and personalities who shaped who I am today. While I may not have been completely fearless as a child, the role models I emulated were feisty, strong, and spirited. Many of the themes in this book were inspired by my mom, Virginia, my brother, Bill, and my sister, Barbara. During elementary and high school, I was encouraged and guided by many amazing and motivational teachers and coaches.Ihad role models from the entertainment world as well. I desired to be as daring as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and as strong as Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman.
These role models were heroes to me, and they inspired me to branch out and achieve the substantial and audacious goals I set for myself. I hope they will inspire you to do the same.
As a young adult, I had two different career aspirations. In high school, I wanted to be a medical doctor. After college, I considered becoming a science teacher.The common thread through my life is the desire to help people, share knowledge, and train others to learn new skills.
In this book, I’ll also share lessons from mymilitary service, which taught me the importance of KISS- Keep It Simple Soldier (or Stupid as some would joke). As a US Army Signal Corps officer, I supported combat and support units on the battlefield with precise and effective communication infrastructure and procedures.When lives depend on clear, concise, and timely messages, you learn to value their quality greatly.
My wish is that you find this book entertaining and educational, and I hope that it motivates you in creative and unique ways. I also pray that these words, thoughts, and expressions pay adequate tribute to the brave and selfless heroes in our world.
I have grouped the blog articles into eight sections. Each article includes the original publication date and appears as it originally appeared on the blog (with some proofreading to correct minor issues). I stitched the articles together much as a quilter would piece together colorful fabrics to create an intricate and appealing pattern. To keep things fun, I chose a theme from the magical world of the circus.
The sections of this book represent the main interests, influences, values, priorities, and passions in my life, each linked to a symbolic element from the circus.To aid the reader in remembering the sections and their symbols, I created a brief tall tale to open the book.
Strong Man—Veterans, Remembrance and Traditions
Laughter—Connections and Gratitude
Animals—Science and Truth
When you read the Table of Contents, you can think of it as a menu for a smorgasbord dinner which allows you to select the topics that most appeal to you. It’s a collection of various perspectives, angles, and tastes.
Come on, let’s run away and join the circus for a few hours!
I am crafting the introduction to the Toastmaster section of my upcoming book, Strong Words and Simple Truths and wrote penned (literally in a paper journal with an ink pen) the short poem below. Words flow differently when you write them by hand. While awkward at first, they soon loosened up.
Where Speakers are Sharpened and Words are Wondrous.
Where Leaders are Made and Alliteration is Alluring.
Where Communicators are Courageous and Friendships are Fostered.
As a public speaker in Toastmaster clubs for over 25 years, I understand and appreciate the impact of a well-crafted phrase. Words have the immense power to inspire, educate, persuade and entertain.
Now certain ideas, phrases and books are deemed inappropriate and unacceptable. Entertainment in the form of humor and satire is slowly being extinguished. The creative spark of many minds is being snuffed out.
In the name of “compliance” and “correctness” we have limited and constrained our ability to share and discuss ideas. Only the government-approved ideas are allowed on the most powerful and prolific platforms. Those in power control the narrative and are now limiting the free exchange and expression of thought.
Like the lockdowns of the past year, this is not a healthy trend. The impact of the current silencing is devastatingly sad.
Some say that laughter is the best medicine. Entertainment and light-hearted comedy can help heal our lonely and wounded souls.
Humor is a uniquely human superpower that is being taken away when we need it most.
I do not condone angry, hurtful speech but the recent crack down on “violations of community standards” is a bit harsh and extreme in my view.
Why do some powerful entities want to keep everyone so sad, anxious and upset? Do they want people do remain lonely, isolated and frustrated?
More and more I am witnessing creative creators being suppressed. These creators have been a shining light of entertaining wordplay and comic relief through out this year of dark fear and despair. These fun and joyful voices are now stifled and suppressed.
The fear of the virus is now being replaced with the fear of words. The wide, rich and expressive vocabulary of the English language is being brutally pruned by oppressive control freaks.
At the rate things are going, I soon won’t be able to write or speak the words “oppressive control freaks” without being banned or punished.
As I continue on my creative journey of expression, I hope that my courage and resolve remain steady and strong in the face of increasing pressure to conform and be quiet.
Word phobia is a sad new condition that I hope will be treated by an infusion of ingenious humor and reasonable common sense.
As the world begins to heal and open up, freedom will beget happiness. Happiness is sustained by fun entertainment.
Words have the power to entertain, let’s not take that potential away.
The Silence of the Lambs is a thrilling book, but I don’t want a world of the Quieting of the Sheep.
Dare to venture into the wonderful world of social distortion, um, I mean media.
Ah yes, social media, the place where healthy and productive conversations go to die.
If you are tired, frustrated and/or annoyed with your Facebook newsfeed, I have some good news for you.
I welcome you to join me as we enter Steve’s Emporium of Internet Delights. My best friend and husband, Steve, has been the driving force behind what I’m about to share with you and I have been a behind-the-scenes contributor and co-administrator to these shenanigans.
To revitalize your Facebook experience, I encourage you to check out the Groups.
The well run, upbeat Facebook groups are where it’s at if you are looking for a positive, entertaining and creative place to let loose.
Steve has created six lively Facebook groups that are cheerful, happy islands for people around the world. These communities are relatively small and have active, spirited participation. Though the groups are lightly moderated with minimal rules from the admins, rude, intolerant or aggressive behavior is rarely, if ever, seen.
Below are the six zany groups that we shepherd:
Ernie’s Oasis– Started in 2016 as Ernie’s Fake News, this group is my all-time favorite and features the ongoing antics and silly stories of our adorable hedgehog Ernie (see photo above). This humorous site is truly a happy-place getaway for many people.
Dysfunctional Communicators– This newly formed group takes satire, sarcasm and word play to a new level. Here the admins leverage their Toastmaster experience to assist with communication challenges.
Lame-0’s– A cross between Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Beavis and Butthead. Serious adults need not apply.
We Are Not Aliens From Outer Space– Out of this world photos and discussions of other galaxies.
Run Away and Join the Circus– A free-wheeling group with escapist themes.
The Reasons Why We Are Leaving This Group– A never ending list of reasons why people are exiting stage right.
If you are craving light-hearted banter, productive dialogues, satire, unusual angles, great photos and fun stories with witty wordplay in a tolerant, supportive environment, these Facebook groups and others like them are the place for you.
Come have a marvelous time in the positive Facebook universe where you get some relief from the stress and strife of tedious newsfeeds.
Ernie is waiting for you with a big cookie and a smile!
There are also various animals to help you be a better communicator.
In an effort to be more aware of my thoughts and be “more positive”, I increased my focus, followed a new trail and ended up expanding my understanding of reality.
What started out as what I thought was a simple Toastmasters Pathways Level 3 project morphed into a complete reevaluation of my worldview.
I feel like we are living in a multidimensional matrix where there are countless numbers of people plugged into a multitude of different “systems”. Could it be that if you are connected to one system then you completely unaware of and can’t even communicate with people attached to other systems?
Is a shared view of humanity an illusion? Are shared values possible? Can there be positive national identities?
Is anyone truly aware of the genuine nature of the world or do we all have our own unique perceptions and lens with which to comprehend and experience it?
As author and heavyweight boxer Ed Latimore wrote in his book, Not Caring What Other People Think Is a Superpower, “Many people have no desire to wake up. They enjoy the lie and the comfort it brings. As Morpheus said in “The Matrix”, “The matrix is a system. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to keep it”.
As I pay attention to my thoughts and focus on trying keeping a positive outlook, I can’t help but wonder- is that even possible?
Is it realistic to be optimistic in the world today given the various limitations (blind spots) on our view of reality? Or will our connection to the “system” provide us with the ability to stay content in a comfortably numb but happy bubble?
What about people who seem to be plugged into a system that keeps them perpetually upset, negative and anxious? How will they become aware of a different and more productive matrix?
I dislike the binary choice of a “blue pill” or a “red pill” and it is my hope that humans can wake up and take a “clear pill” so that they can see things in a perspicuous and unimpeded way.
One of the things that surprised me most when I served in the US Army was the insane amount of time spent cleaning- whether it was cleaning our equipment, our weapons, our boots or the bathrooms, it seemed like we always polishing, maintaining and recovering things. At the time, I didn’t fully understand and appreciate why there would be so much focus on Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services otherwise known in the Army as PMCS. The sergeants and officers in my unit were obsessive about this and we had these checks on the training schedule more days than not. And so my platoon did Physical Training (PT), inspections and equipment maintenance nearly every day. Why did we do this? To be in the best, most high performing condition and ready for battle.
Now let’s think about how many cars you’ve owned in the last 25 years? How many oil changes, tire rotations and maintenance checks have they had? How many 15 point inspections were done? How much time and money have you spent to ensure that your vehicle was in good condition and ready for a road trip?
One of the things that puzzles me about American society today is how much time and energy people put into the care of their motor vehicles and how much less effort and focus is put into maintaining their bodies.
Speaking of bodies. So far on this planet, how many human bodies have you had?
Last I checked, we only get issued one body at birth.
The good news is, unlike a car or machine, our bodies are self-healing and adaptable, we just need to give them the proper care and attention.
I am excited to share with you a simple 3 point inspection plan to help get your body battle ready.
One of my favorite bands of the 1970’s is Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) and this is how you can remember the three points:
First let’s talk about the importance of Connections. What I miss most about being in the military is the camaraderie, bonds and cohesion. I always felt like I was part of a supportive team. Someone always had my back. The value and benefit to having a strong circle of good friends and family should not be overlooked in today’s virtual world.
Positive support, help and encouragement from others is shown to increase our immune systems. People with a positive network of friends and family that they can personally connect with have longer life expectancies.
Organizations like the American Legion, VFW, Toastmasters International, Rotary Club, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) like the Military Veterans Network (MVN) at my company Charles Schwab help bring people together and promote common bonds.
The second point in the Inspection Plan is Care, specifically self-care. We have all heard about the importance of eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and getting enough physical exercise. I’d like to highlight and focus on two other factors that have a huge impact on your health and wellbeing- Sleep and Stress. The importance of a good night sleep cannot be overstated since stress and sleep are often inversely proportional.
Quality sleep plays a vital role in the body’s ability to heal and repair itself and is necessary for the brain to rebalance by clearing out harmful toxins.
Recover is the third point in the plan and involves rebalancing and restoring your body, brain and mind each and every day. I find this to be the most interesting area with the discovery and application of new science and technology. Advances in neuroscience have fueled the emergence of new Brain Performance centers across the country.
Last year, I took part in a six month program for military veterans at a Vitanya Wellness center in Tempe, AZ where I experienced the benefits of reducing my stress, increasing my sleep and restoring my neural balance through a combination of brain health supplements and brain wave entrainment devices. By consistently taking care of myself and leveraging these new techniques and protocols, I found that my resilience, mental sharpness and memory improved in ways I had not thought possible. For more information click here.
Technology aside, there are many things you can do each day to help yourself to recover and rebalance including yoga, meditation and other restorative activities.
One of the things that perplexes me most about my fellow humans is their ability to learn and gain so much knowledge about what is good for their health and well being and then how rarely, if ever, they apply it!
It is my hope is that you will remember the importance of a daily PMCS- just like I did while I was in the Army.
Take care of the one body you were issued at birth because there is no plan B- there no spare one sitting in your garage.
Do your Preventative Maintenance Checks and Service and the daily 3 Point Inspection to have a battle ready body for as you travel in your journey of life you will encounter twists and turns and the inevitable steep hill.
Know that positive connections, proper self-care and recovery can give you the strength and resilience to power through the tough days and overcome whatever obstacles cross your path.
Connect, Care and Recover with spirit and zeal.
Take care of your amazing organic being and let it take you on the ride of your life!
As I write this blog, I’m sitting at the dining room table where a small group of my Toastmaster family gathered in November to share in the celebration of my 25-year anniversary in the organization.
That night, the room was alive with boisterous conversations and intriguing stories of experiences, heartaches and triumphs. The laughter was contagious and complimented the culinary delights that were passed around the table.
The only thing that got too heated was the tiny fire in the oven from my bacon wrapped scallops! This ridiculous oversight by the hostess, yours truly, will be the topic of many speeches and embarrassing stories to come.
Jason, Don and Pat: before the flames!
The evening ended on a fun and creative note as we formed a large circle about the kitchen and asking asked each other Table Topics questions. One of the most memorable responses came from a husband of a Toastmaster I work with. His impromptu query was “Grateful Dead or Led Zeppelin?” and he enthusiastically answered that he had seen both bands live and shared a short rainbow of memories. Also, he preferred Zeppelin!
A long time Toastmaster and past International Director, Don Griffith, asked me to talk about my journey in Toastmasters over the years and I happily shared my adventures of joining my first club, Word R Us, in Bentonville, Arkansas and how so many people have touched and changed my life.
When I joined this organization, I had no idea that I would have such an extended circle of amazingly talented and generous friends and colleagues. For this I am eternally grateful.
The club I helped charter at Charles Schwab- Lone Tree, CO- 2015
In this time of deep and divisive polarization in America, it was heartening to see so many people come together in peace and good will, with the simple goal of celebrating a positive achievement. The group had two things in common, 1) we are part of the human race and 2) we are (or are spouses of) Toastmasters.
It is a rare, novel and happy occasion to have a group of people of such diverse political, religious and cultural backgrounds come together to simply laugh, plays games and tell stories.
After this milestone and event, I reflected upon the real meaning of Toastmasters that goes beyond the communication and leadership skills it builds in its members.
To me, the real meaning of Toastmasters is fueled by the authentic connections and camaraderie which lifts so many spirits and inspires so many to achieve their dreams.
Great people from District 26, Colorado- Deborah, Mitch and Linda
The real meaning of Toastmasters is:
People Sharing Life, Love and Laughter
Like a health tonic with the ability to uncover superpowers, Toastmasters clubs across the world are making a positive difference in this challenging and sometimes lonely world.
A Christmas Party with friends from the Titan Toastmasters club in Lone Tree, CO
I was so happy to be able to celebrate my 25thAnniversary with so many special and talented people.
I can’t wait to see what’s in store in the next quarter century and I’ll be sure to cater the event to avoid a flaming surprise!
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.
I want to improve our country’s health, one conversation at a time.
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
I am an Organizer for Better Angels, a citizens’ organization that is uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.
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.
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”.
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.