004: This Year’s Greatest Experience

“What experience from this past year do you appreciate the most?”

For the past 11 months, I have served as an Area Director for the Toastmasters organization. It has been, by turns, fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and … really, really difficult.

In terms of appreciation, however, it’s hard to beat this experience.

Taking on this position inspired me to take on greater challenges in the office, and in other spheres of my personal life. I have said “yes!” with enthusiasm to several opportunities which I would have hesitated to accept in the past, even when I was unsure of my capacity to execute them with perfection.

I have met such a large group of warm and wonderful people, all of whom are invested in improving their skills and being of service to a larger cause. They come from all over the Chicagoland area, and when the District is split between North and South I will miss seeing several of them, but will rest well knowing that they are continuing their good work in another sphere. I consider many of these people friends, and several of them as inspirations.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself and have improved my skillset as a leader. While I could have done more – and I will always feel I could have done more – I have certainly grown in terms of dealing with challenges and setbacks, in terms of long-range planning and in dealing with sometimes difficult personalities.

I no longer fire off immediate responses to questions which can be set aside until more important matters are attended to. I have learned to keep my hands off those projects and clubs which are running well, relinquishing control and delegating authority to the proper individuals. I have also learned how to most effectively step in to offer assistance when it is needed.

At some level, too, I have learned to lose more gracefully. In this year, not all my efforts have borne fruit. Some clubs into which I put my time and energy have decided to discontinue their charters, and ideas I advanced have been turned away by others. I have yet to be able to find a replacement for my position, which is a source of some vexation.

Still, I do not take these as slights on myself or on my capabilities. Instead, they are lessons in the famed serenity prayer, choices made by others which are beyond my actual control.

For that knowledge alone, along with many other insights and opportunities, I can truly say that I have appreciated this challenge.

I can also say, however, that I will not pick these reins up again lightly. I enjoy crafting words and phrases, speaking in public and sharing my knowledge with others. The administration and oversight of others is something I can now gracefully relinquish into hands which are unknown to me, but which I am certain will be up to the task.

On Smaller Crowds

One of my dear friends used to be a stand-up comedian, who tells this story about the late, great Redd Foxx: Apparently for one of his Las Vegas shows, Redd strutted onto stage to the Sanford and Son theme song. He peered out into the room, spat, and said, “I ain’t doing a show for five white people,” and walked offstage … with the band still playing him off.

A few years ago, a Shakespearean company came to my home town. They were to perform Julius Caesar, one of the shows I haven’t seen often; and I was super excited to take it in.

Unfortunately, on top of the fact that small-town Illinois isn’t much of a Shakespeare hub, the show was inexplicably slated for a Sunday matinee. As a result, the audience was myself, my wife, and I believe two other couples in a theatre that seats over 700. The curtain went up, and I could see – and feel – the reaction of the performers.

Regardless, they swung into action, and put on a show that felt as though they were treading the Globe.

You’ve got a choice to make when you look out on a disappointing audience. Whether you’re a musician or a public speaker, an actor or on a book tour, you have a choice to make. You can mope about the results and deliver a lackluster, half-hearted demonstration that will leave the few people in your audience disappointed and unlikely ever to return, or you can remember why you’re here in the first place. To entertain or inform, to educate or delight, no matter the size of the crowd.

Note that I’m hardly perfect at this. It’s difficult to put your whole heart into something and get so little energy back for it. I work at it, though, because in a way a smaller crowd can also be liberating.

You can take chances with your style and delivery that you might not want to try on a larger, more review-focused crowd. You can loosen up and interact more individually with the people who came to see you. You can pay them exactly as much attention as they deserve – they, the people to whom this performance and appearance really meant something.

It’s important to remember that. We’re owed no attention at all. Sometimes the difference between us and the gentleman on the street corner with a tinfoil hat is only in the quality of our writing and delivery, and if anyone has stopped to give us the gift of their time, then the least we can do is give them the gift of our best.

Empty auditorium

Making Room for Others

We return, sadly, to the “big fish” dilemma. Will you allow me a moment, and offer advice?

A number of things went really well today. Among them, I had a coworker come up after I ran my first 100+ person meeting to say, “You’ve convinced me to join Toastmasters. I want to speak like you.” Fantastic! I tell him I’ve also got four years of theatre training and years of performing, but this is the easiest entrance for him.

At the TM meeting, a couple of the young guys come to ask for advice. Again, fantastic! Let me help you become a better speaker. I’ll review scripts, forward articles, critique, whatever!

But one anonymous comment comes through after I speak: “Once again, Ivan shows he’s too good for us.”

“Oh,” I think, crestfallen, “this poor person. It must suck to feel that way. Maybe I ought to stop giving speeches to the group. I don’t want to discourage anyone.”

Fortunately, I stop to think. I LIKE speaking. It’s why I joined. It’s why I’ve applied more energy to meeting these goals than anything since finishing the Gentleman Ghouls trilogy, or getting in shape. Why should I stop doing what I love to make this person more comfortable?

“Because showing compassion to their feelings is the right thing to do.”

Well … is it? It’s what Ivan tends to do, but is it the right thing to do?

I’m honestly torn by this. I could stop speaking at my main club and focus on the educational and administrative parts of that club, while speaking at the sister club and others in the area. That would still let me reach my goals, but would also mean potentially pushing someone else out into the cold, in addition to taking up speech space the other clubs sorely need.

I could just quit speaking for a while. I’ve made a huge amount of headway already, and the feedback I get now is minor. I could focus on the leadership portions. By which I mean, the portions that hold less interest to me, but which need to be checked off in order to achieve the goal.

Despite all the evidence that many people want me to speak and find my work inspiring, inconveniencing or hurting one person seems to throw all that praise out the window. I realize I’m giving this anonymous person too much power over my decisions – but to laugh it off, throw their criticism away, and keep doing what I love seems so very selfish.

On the other hand, there are people who want to learn from me. I do no good to them by surrendering to this commenter.

I lay aside the gift with which I wish to serve people.

Why are the needs and insecurities of this one person so important to me, even when I don’t know who they are?

Adapting a Fable

I delivered an original speech yesterday. Well, not completely original, and not completely a speech.

The Storytelling manual is an interesting bit in Toastmasters. Like Interpretive Reading, it’s one of those which is right up my alley but which feels a bit like cheating. These aren’t speeches so much as solo performances, which I’ve already got plenty of training in. In fact, one of the commenters yesterday pointed out my “unfair advantage as an actor,” which I understand. I’m doing this manual as what they’d call a quick win in the business world, a way to progress swiftly through the checklist to the next level of the organization.

Project Three is “The Moral of the Story,” which asks you to either write an original story with a moral lesson at the end, or to adapt an existing fable into a new story. I decided to go with the second option, again, working toward that quick win.

There were a few comments that stuck out to me both as a speaker and a writer.

  1. “Maybe a bit too dramatic / Try a more natural mode of speaking.” Well, guilty as charged. As a fan of Kipling (his writing, not his imperialism), I used many of his tricks from Just So Stories, which makes the language seem a little archaic. I personally enjoy that stylistic difference and chose to make use of it, but I can understand others can find it off-putting. In terms of the performance, I chose to deliver it as though I were speaking to a room of children – since lecturing adults on morality is something I’m trying to step away from in my personal and public lives. Perhaps I should have made that clear at the outset. Either way, the drama was a choice I made, so it’s good to have the comments.
  2. “The mother’s really just a plot device.” Argh, argh, argh. True. Excellent point. While I’m working toward simplicity in a five-minute story, that shouldn’t reduce any of the characters to mere devices. And of course, it’s the mother who gets the short end of the stick, because I’m writing automatically as a man and not being as attentive as I should be. I’m embarrassed by this comment and ashamed of its accuracy, but I can take it as a reminder to watch more closely next time.
  3. “Dogs can’t talk. That was a big surprise, but it gave the moral greater impact.” I … okay, I don’t know what to tell you about this one. It’s a fable, of course animals can talk. That’s a staple of the genre. Happy accident that you felt it punched up the purpose, but an accident nevertheless.
  4. “I was so happy to see this bratty kid get his comeuppance.” I didn’t think I’d written the little boy as a brat, per se. Just as a little boy, with the tendencies I’ve observed in all little kids. They cry and cajole when they want something, and things don’t hold their interest very long when they involve work. Is that bratty? I’d call it human nature, but I wonder if this says more about my thoughts as a writer or the commenter’s experience as a listener and mother.

A couple things for me to remember. It’s always good to get feedback like this, that I can actually work on. Sometimes the comments are too positive when I do well, which is obviously nice, but doesn’t help anything except my ego.

The story was adapted from “The Goatherd and His Wild Goats,” one of the Aesop stories I’d never heard before looking for one to adapt; and I’ve included the story below.

The Mother, Her Child, and His Two Lost Dogs

Once upon a time there was a woman named Claire who lived in this very town, and this woman had a little boy, and because of this we will call her Mother Claire and we will call her little boy Caleb, for that was Caleb’s name.

Like all little boys, Caleb was sometimes quiet and sometimes he was loud, and never was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something, and never EVER was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something which Mother Claire would keep from him. And like all little boys, one of the things Caleb wanted more than anything in the world was a puppy to call his own.

And after asking and pleading and crying and shrieking for the better part of a month, like many parents, Mother Claire became so tired and worn out from the noise that one day she brought home a puppy for Caleb, and they named that puppy Buddy because Buddy is a very good name for a puppy.

Now Caleb had promised to take very good care of Buddy, and so he did – for a little time. He kept Buddy in his bed at night to keep him warm, and he fed Buddy the very nicest of scraps from his table, and he walked Buddy proudly around the block, and he even picked up the things which Buddy left behind, which I will not talk about because I can see by the way you smile that you know what I mean.

But after a while picking up after Buddy seemed like a nasty thing to do, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to pick up where Caleb left off. And after a while walking Buddy became a chore, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to walk far around the block before and after she went to work.

And after a while Buddy became roly-poly and round, and so Caleb called him Fatty and stopped the feeding of scraps, and Buddy got so big that Caleb had no more room in his little bed and he made Buddy sleep on the hard floor.

Then one evening in the winter – and you know how cold winter gets, my loves – one winter Caleb heard a scratching and a whining at the door, and he opened it up, and there was a little lost puppy who was long and lean and floppy-eared and so much more handsome than Fatty Buddy.

Caleb felt very sorry for the new little puppy, and he showed Mother Claire how handsome and young and friendly the new puppy was, and he took the puppy into his room, fed him actual pepperoni (which is the finest of snacks for a puppy), and tucked him up in his own bed sheets to warm him and make him a friend.

And Mother Claire saw this, and she saw that Caleb liked the new puppy best, and so she called a friend who lived on a big farm and she told him to come and he could have Buddy for his own. And Caleb said that was just fine, for the new puppy was so much more to his liking.

Now the next morning, when the snow had stopped and the sun was out and the day was fine, Caleb opened the door to walk his new best friend. But! The new puppy was much smaller than Buddy, and he slipped easily through the leash and easily through the door and ran down the street.

Caleb called after him, “But wait! Come back! You bad dog! You ungrateful dog! Didn’t I treat you better than my own Buddy?”

And the puppy called back, saying “You did, and that is why I will not stay! Because if I stay with you, one day I will be an old friend, and you will throw me aside like you did Poor Old Buddy for a new friend!” And the puppy ran off into the wide world, never to be seen again.

And as for Caleb, he grew into a man.

But Mother Claire never again brought him home a puppy.

My Biggest Accomplishment

Many of you know that I’m interested in public speaking.

I joined the Toastmasters organization in 2014, both to improve my skills and with an eye toward their highest honors. This is a little unusual for me – I’m not much of a joiner, and I usually guard my free time pretty well. But speaking is something I enjoy, something I do well, and something I could theoretically spin into a career change at some point. Getting the initials after my name seems like a good start to that idea.

(Also unusual, in that I’m not much of a planner, but that’s neither here nor there.)

One of the last speeches you give to your club is a “Persuasive” speech, where your goal is to get your listeners to agree with your points, or take some concrete action. The only way I could measure this, I thought, was to convince people to buy a copy of my first Gentleman Ghouls novel, FAMISHED: THE FARM.

Bear in mind my club is largely composed of women slightly older than myself. I expected horror would be a hard sell, and that if I could make my case, I’d be able to judge my success. I used my earlier blog post on the value of horror as the baseline for the speech and amped up the ending with a call to action using horror as a means of self-knowledge and self-improvement.

80% of the audience bought a copy.

This would be enough of a success, but two other things happened that I want to share.

After that speech, we went into “Table Topics.” This is impromptu speaking, where the facilitator calls up members and gives them a question to answer. I’m going to my first Table Topics competition in two weeks, so I go first in the meeting.

I delivered a three-minute speech on confidence and its appearances, detailing my own journey from low self-esteem to the raging egomanic you all know and worship today. I also gave pointers on how to fake that confidence, which is in many ways the first step I took to real confidence.

After that speech, every member got up and spoke. All of them, even one who suffers most from nerves and a fear of speaking. He later said that my one-two punch about facing your fear and showing confidence inspired him to get up and speak, and some of the others backed him up.

But it gets better.

One of our newest members is a college student and personal trainer at our fitness center. My previous speech was based on my post about the benefits of books and reading. Not only did he buy a copy of my book, but he came up to tell me that speech had inspired him to get his very. First. Library card.

I personally inspired someone to go to the public library, sign up, and start reading for fun.

I’ve done some cool things in my life, and many things I’m proud of.

But knowing that my love of books and the institution of libraries got someone who hadn’t read for pleasure in years in the door?

Yeah. I might put that one on my tombstone.

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