“The First Time I Got Paid For It …”

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So, I’d like to share an update on my first professional presentation.

Several months ago, I shared with several friends at Toastmasters that I was interested in professional speaking. As both friends and mentors, they encouraged me, and within two weeks I had an email in my box from the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling.

The library was interested in a presentation on “active listening,” and I’d been recommended. Would I be interested? Well, certainly! Of course, there’s the question of what exactly “active listening” meant, but we were months away from the presentation – and it sounded like a skill I’d like to cultivate regardless.

As it turns out, I was already an accomplished active listener. I just wasn’t aware that it had a name. At its most basic, active listening requires us to listen to understand, rather than listening just enough to form an intelligent reply. I found a great deal of information online about the roots and history of the skill, what steps were recommended, and how individuals can become more effective.

From those multiple sources and my own experience, I pulled together a script of around 4,750 words over the course of a week. Based on research, that should take about an hour – the agreed-upon time for a speech. When I rehearsed the speech as written a few times, it came in closer to 50 minutes, so I re-worked some sections, moved some pieces around, and finished preparation over a month in advance.

As the deadline grew closer, I became more nervous. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be word-for-word with the speech, but I was nailed at some level to the words I’d so carefully crafted. I remembered the last long-form speech I gave, in which I repeatedly returned to my notes and – at least to my mind – appeared less prepared for it.

So I decided to take a different track. I went through the speech as written and distilled it into a two-sided list of bullet points, each with a quick reminder of the topic I wanted to cover. I also pulled four of the most important paragraphs and put them as “pull quotes” on a separate sheet of paper, then noted on the bullet points where I should quote those – and worked to memorize just those four.

Based on the topic – active listening – I made a point of not creating any visual presentations. I wanted to show how powerful the art of listening is, when there are fewer distractions between yourself and the person speaking. Finally, I ran off a one-sheet page for people to take home, listing the most important aspects of the speech.

I arrived about 40 minutes early, not uncommon for a guy who gets lost easily, so I could get some time with the admins and review the room. We figured out together how to lower the shades, adjust the temperature, and she informed me of a wrinkle I hadn’t known – most of those signed up were not born here, and English was their second language.

This is what could be called a curve ball. Fortunately, I work with several ESL folks at the dayjobbery, and am comfortable watching my speech for idioms. Watching my vocabulary is trickier, but hey, who doesn’t love a challenge?

As it turns out, we had 26 people signed up, of whom 10 arrived. That’s not a disappointment – ten people in a theatre hall is sad, but ten people in a conference room is okay. It allowed a bit more intimacy, and allowed me to take more questions that I might otherwise.

As it turns out, I had no trouble making the 60 minute mark. In fact, I was able to cut a few of the fluffier moments in the speech, which I think added value overall. We had a 30-minute question and answer period, in which I provided more individual feedback and recommendations. I was careful to preface those with “It’s my opinion,” or “When this comes up, I will usually …” rather than passing it off as carefully researched work.

In the end, I believe it went well! Everyone stayed until the end, and a few thanked me personally, which is nice. My library contact and I spoke for a while and she had pleasant things to say in my feedback form. We’ll be talking again about future work, and I enthusiastically agreed that she could pass my name around the library districts.

In the end, it was a modest start, but a good one! I’m pleased with the result and with look forward to speaking more frequently in the future.

Famished at GenCon 50!

GenCon is typically a vacation for me, but a working vacation in many ways. This year, with the release of FAMISHED: THE GENTLEMEN GHOULS OMNIBUS, there were obviously things to be done!

I signed every print copy of the book we had on hand. My signature is notoriously bad, but it gets better as I repeat it, so by the end were doing well. I spent a little time – not as much as
I should – in Authors’ Alley, working to inform people about both my books and others from Apocalypse Ink Productions.

It’s not a terribly onerous job, though it can be demoralizing. I work the booth for Triskele Moon Studios jewelry on a regular basis, and while it’s easy to entice art lovers to look at jewelry, it’s a much harder task getting gamers to stop to discuss fiction – especially when that’s all the area is selling!

Still, being an extrovert certainly helps. I don’t know how more introverted artists and authors manage it, and I salute their fortitude every time I see them sitting quietly behind a desk. It’s also a trick learning to read introverts or the very shy, so that I don’t upset or startle them with too many loud words as they pass by. I like to think I’m okay at this.

We nearly sold out of the print edition! That was a high point, to be sure. And while I didn’t purchase as many books as I’d have liked, personally; I’ve got a shopping list for the post-convention season both to support my fellow writers and to find new and exciting works of fiction.

The high point of the Con, though, came in the aftermath of my first sale.

While I was manning the booth with Jenn on Friday, we had a visit from a wonderful young woman who was shopping for her stepdaughter.

“What does she like to read?” Jenn inquired – a common question from her.

“Horror, mostly.” The answer that’s music to my ears! We talked for a few minutes before she agreed to purchase the book, and we asked if she’d like it personalized. I heard from her stepdaughter that evening with a joyful excitement, and when she found out it was the first sale of the first book of my Con, she was thrilled! It turned out they came back the next day to buy a second copy, as they didn’t want to damage the first one by reading it.

I have to tell you, that was a great moment. It’s hard for me to imagine someone having that level of respect for what I’ve done, for where I am. I do sincerely wish I had been there to personalize the second book, but it still makes a great story; and if I ever do meet them again I promise to make it right.

 

Foodie Friday: Ivan’s Nam Sod

Friends, this nam sod is a golden trifecta: Fairly low in calories, certainly cheaper than my usual fare, and ready in less than 30 minutes; but it tastes like none of these are true.

It’s good hot off the stove or cold the next day for any meal. This is a great weeknight recipe, especially during these hot summer months.

As with all my recipes, remember that I loooooove garlic and strong flavors. You could certainly pull back on any of this except the orange juice to protein ratio.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 lbs ground chicken breast
    (You can use ground chicken, ground turkey or ground pork, but this is the low-cal version)
  • 8 cloves minced garlic
  • 3 Tbsp fresh minced ginger
  • 1 cup fresh orange juice
  • 6 Tbsp low sodium soy sauce
  • 4 Tbsp sweet chili paste (I use Mae Ploy red curry)
  • 1 1/2 tsp fish sauce (optional, but brings the delicious funk out)
  • 2 Tbsp crushed peanuts
  • 2 Tbsp fresh cilantro leaves

Options:

  • Rice to serve in a bowl (Brown or wild is healthiest, it goes very well with Jasmine rice, though)
  • Lettuce leaves to use as wraps
  • Green onions, radishes, bean sprouts, sliced water chestnuts … any crunchy vegetal bits
  • Broccoli, green beans … any side vegetable that’s bright green (adds color to the plate)
  • More peanuts or cashews
  • More chili paste, or crushed red pepper
  • Lime wedges to squeeze over the entire thing

Directions:

  • Heat the sesame oil over a large skillet and brown the chicken on all sides.
    It doesn’t need to cook fully, just brown.
  • Add the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili paste, fish sauce and orange juice and bring to a boil.
  • Turn the range to low and simmer until you’re ready to eat.
  • Top each bowl or wrap with peanuts and cilantro, plus any of the options listed above.

Adapted from Frugal Nutrition’s Orange Ground Chicken Bowls.

My Take on Reviews

I was in Indianapolis for a convention, wandering the streets with my good friend around lunchtime, when we found ourselves in front a brewpub. There were no lines – a rarity at this hour – and my stomach was making the rumbiles.

“Let’s grab a bite,” I said.

“Hang on,” said my friend, and he took out his smartphone.

“Who are you calling?”

“Nobody. I want to check the reviews.”

“Reviews?” I asked. “It’s a brewpub. It’ll have hamburgers and beer and cost around twenty bucks. There’s no line. Come on.”

He looked up. “But are they good hamburgers and beer?”

“We won’t know until we try them.”

“We will if we check the reviews.”

This is utterly, completely … alien behavior.

I understand that reviews drive a lot of consumer activity, but it’s never made sense to me. In the days before the internet made everyone a critic, we had a professional class to tell one what to watch, what to read, where to eat. I remember that they existed, but I can’t remember a single time I took their advice.

I’m not sure why. It may just be a contrarian streak, or a dislike of presumed authority, but mostly it’s because I know I like a lot of things other people don’t enjoy. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone I trust giving a five-star rating to even the most remarkable plate of haggis. My favorite whiskies have been described by trusted friends as tasting like “a mouthful of wet dirt.” And I take comfort in the existence of a Never Mind the Bollocks cover album performed by bhangra musicians.

Aside from my own quirks, thanks to the internet things have spiraled completely out of control. Anyone with access to a public library’s internet connection and two working fingers can now take part in elevating or torpedoing anyone else’s endeavors.

My favorite to date? “Honestly one of the worst masses I have ever been to. Boring, uninspired, sloppy and irrelevant”—Marilisa A., reviewing Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan.

Seriously, who decides what church to attend based on semi-anonymous reviews? Presumably the same kind of people who take the time to write them.

I’ve tried to fold reviews into my recent larger purchases –a car, for instance. But with these items, it always seems to come down to hooting tribalism around someone’s personal preferences wedded to a certainty that all OTHER preferences are the work of Bealzebub himself.

Now, that’s at the consumer level. At the creator level, it’s naturally a different story. I have to recognize that reviews are considered an important part of the buying process by many people. I don’t have to understand it, necessarily; but I do have to engage with it.

What I *can* understand is this: It’s always pleasant to hear your work praised, and it’s always useful to receive constructive criticism, and it’s always a pain in the ass to slog through the pointless and unconstructive criticism. One way to counterbalance the unconstructive criticism is to provide more positive or constructive reviews for your fellow workers, slogging away in the word / note / jeté mines.

To my mind, the best review isn’t one which seeks to influence others into purchasing (or refusing to purchase) some piece of work. Rather, it’s a means of letting the creator know their work was seen, that there was a connection made. It exchanges just a bit more of my time for their work, lets them inhabit my mind for few hours longer. I suppose, perhaps, that’s the point that many reviewers make. A tip of the hat to someone’s best efforts, whether it was fully appreciated or not.

For the record, I didn’t review the brewpub. But the burger was fine and the lager was lager.

Review: Play to Innovate, by Bret Schwalb

Play to Innovate isn’t my usual read. Generally speaking, I find books on business practice to be either tiresome slogs or condescending managerial tripe. Finding a book filled with solid advice that still clips along at a rapid clip is a wonderful change of pace.

Bret Schwalb’s central concept might not be brand new – brainstorming has, of course, been around longer than most of us have. What Play to Innovate does is shift the focus of a brainstorm away from the gray, safe, dry-erase corporate boardroom and towards a method of freeing our minds, individually or in a group.

While we’ve heard “there are no bad ideas” in countless sessions, none of them have felt true until running through one of Bret’s meetings. By encouraging a safe place, Play to Innovate unlocks something many of us buried long ago – the capacity for wonder, the ability to dream something larger than we have before.

When we hear of history’s great innovators, not one of them played it safe or focused on the realistic. They dared to think beyond the minds around them, to stretch the boundaries of imagination and pluck something tangible from a dream. Bret’s methods provide a framework to help your team do just that.

Perhaps the most eye-opening piece of advice is to let those individuals who take pleasure in dragging things down simply opt out. It’s rare, in my experience, to hear someone admit their method won’t please everyone. I can name with certainty the people in my company who would roll their eyes, drag their feet, and refuse to engage with this process; and seeing this acknowledged by an author is a refreshing thing.

I recommend Play to Innovate to anyone who has struggled with a thorny problem at work, or been challenged by seemingly impossible requests. Because with just a touch of play, the impossible can become innovation.

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