Top Ten “Must-Reads”

I cannot stress the importance of reading books without suggesting some books to read!  Since I have averaged reading 75 books a year for the past fifteen years, I have some strong opinions. Some books may not be the most popular but they are great reads. All I list here are non-fiction because these contain the human interest stories and ideas that can easily be incorporated in speeches and conversations.

But I love fiction, too. My favorite fiction writers are Harlan Coben, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, and Barry Eisler. I have never read a dull book by any of the above. If you would like more good fiction/
mystery writers, email me and I’ll send a second list of recommended authors.

My Top Ten “must-reads,” alphabetical by author, include:

  • Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. You may think of Mash when you hear his name, but this book is so entertaining and well-written you can’t put it down.
  • The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb is the story of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, which many thought would never happen. The account of the race is breathtaking.
  • Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. A reporter for The New York Times got so caught up in covering the murder trial of a snake-handling preacher in Alabama that he wrote a book about snake-handling as a religious practice in the hills of the South. I learned about a sub-culture that I did not know existed.
  • Going Solo by Roald Dahl, a gifted writer for both children and adults, is a series of short autobiographical stories. His ability to describe and create suspense is masterful.
  • Try Giving Yourself Away by David Dunn was first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1987. This is one of the first how-to books I read years ago, and I still refer to it when I need a boost on the importance of serving others for your own happiness and well-being.
  • The Luck Factor by Max Gunther is a marvelous little book on how luck comes your way the more you become acquainted with various people. Although it was not hyped as that when this book was published in 1977, this is one of the first books on networking.
  • Sandy Koufax:  A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy is not only the captivating story of one of the greatest major league pitchers of all time, but also demonstrates what commitment to principles and hard work can produce. He played in the majors 12 years and retired at 30—one of the youngest ever to do so.
  • And Never Stop Dancing by Gordon Livingston is a series of short essays on his life philosophies. I love the title, and the chapter titles remind us of common sense principles told in creative and thought-provoking ways.
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauerwas the beginning of a plethora of books on heroic human fights against nature. This is a view of mountain climbing that is breathtaking and you don’t even have to climb to get the feeling.
  • Against Death and Time by Brock Yates chronicles one year in the history of racecar driving. The story is told through the daredevil lives of several young men, young because they never lived to old age.

This is the list. Testimony to how I feel about them is that I kept these ten for my own library instead of giving them away or donating them to the public library as I usually do. Have at it!

What non-fiction books would you add to this list? Comment so the rest of us can profit from your reading experiences.

Book It to a Book!

This time of year publicity for the new fall television schedule is ubiquitous. What will be the hit program?  What new star will we be introduced to?  What will be the best creative idea for a series? 

            But there is another medium that is always new even though it is old: the world of books. Uncle Tom's Cabin, written in 1852, exposed the mistreatment of black slaves in the United States, and may be new to someone who is not familiar with what led to the American Civil War. Though the book had a great impact on people’s attitudes toward slavery, there is no specific season for a certain book; all seasons have benefits to the reader. Readers today can still learn important principles from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

            Reading is not our nation's favorite pastime. According to self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Over 40 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. Seventy percent of adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

            Yet few activities can enrich a person's life like reading books. You may not be able to travel to Hawaii, but you feel like you have been there after reading James Michener’s Hawaii. You may not have a schedule that allows you to attend a knitting class on a regular basis, but you can learn the skill with a book on how to knit. You have a chronic ailment; learn about it by reading a book on the subject.

            Reading enriches your vocabulary. When you come to a word you do not know, you may be able to figure it out from the context. If not, stop for a moment, look up the meaning, and continue reading. You don't have to see a movie to escape into another era; read a book. Some books may interfere with sleep or work because you are caught up in the action of the characters in the book, but the risk is worth it.

            Books can change a life because of the information they contain. You might read a self-help book that gives you information to get out of debt, improve your marriage, start a hobby, or find new employment.

            Try spending less time on the new television shows this fall. Turn off the flat screen and read a book. Recently, I've learned much about writing by reading Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird, published in 1995, and have been held in suspense by Harlan Coben's current book, Shelter. As Joseph Brodsky said, "There are worse crimes than burning books. One is not reading them." 

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening.

The Perfect Toast

One of the best ways to affirm someone is to propose a toast. We don’t need a plaque or certificate to show our love and appreciation for someone; we can do it with words. That is what a toast consists of. A toast is a special way to celebrate an event or date in a person’s life with words of affirmation and encouragement.

I attended a wedding recently at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The wedding and reception, naturally, had a baseball theme, and one side of the room looked down on the ball field. With this as a backdrop, Stephen Byers delivered this toast to his brother and new sister-in-law:

“There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to quit warming the bench and watching the game from the sidelines and step up to the plate. Today, Rick, is that day for you. Spring training is over, your friends and family are cheering you on from the stands, and you’re at bat. In my own 31 seasons, I’ve learned that life is an unpredictable pitcher. Often times, when you’re feeling good—the count is in your favor and you think you’ve got it figured out—you get thrown a curve ball. But it’s nice to know that now you have a teammate for life who will help you round the bases toward home plate. To quote a friend of ours, ‘When God put you two together, He hit a homerun.’ Let’s raise our glasses in tribute to Rick and Ashley’s marriage.”

Here are traits that make this a model toast: The toast is short. Two minutes should be enough length to keep the audience attentive and provide a complete message. The toast relates to the context of the event. There are references to the marriage and he predicts positive results of this wedding. The toast is unique and creative. The analogy to the baseball theme is memorable and meshes with the surroundings. There are no extraneous words or clichés that often accompany toasts such as, “I know so many things about Joe that I don’t where to begin,”  or “I’ve always admired you and loved you  as we have grown up together.”

There is structure to the toast. The audience can follow the narrative easily. Even though there are references to the challenges of marriage, there is an upbeat spirit that has a nice positive tenor. It ends with a prompt to actually drink to the couple.

Any accomplishment is a reason to propose a toast. Use these tips and you will add happiness and a positive aura to the occasion.

Connect: Introduction to Introduction

            Not only are the first sentences of your presentation important, but also the last words of whoever is introducing you. Those last words have a lot to do with how effective you are in the beginning of your speech.

            One way to insure a good transition is to write out what you want the introducer to say—especially the last part which leads into your opening remarks.   The introducer, if left on his or her own, might mispronounce your name or the name of your company, or end with something inane such as “Here he is,” or “I’m sure you will enjoy what he has to say,” or “I guess that’s about it.”

            Instead, carefully plan your beginning to respond to what you have written for the introducer to end with. Here is how I will sometimes make that happen in my speeches.

            The introduction points out that I played basketball in high school and our nickname was "The Shawswick Farmers." It even mentions that our favorite cheer was “we plow them under.” I assume the audience is not sure how true that is. (I admit it seems a bit hokey and ridiculous now.) Once I’m on stage, my first words are:  “I know your questions here. Yes, we were the farmers!  Yes, we plowed them under. And I would add we had farmer’s night and everyone wore bib overalls with a red bandanna handkerchief hanging out the back pocket.” 

            This is a smooth transition to my opening and my response allows me to begin with smiles and chuckles from the audience—always a good start for a speaker.

            In thinking about what you want to say in your presentation, make sure you include in your preparation both introductions: the one by your introducer and the one where you begin your speech. Do what you can to insure the success of the introducer who helps you get off to a good start.

How You Say It Makes a Difference

Mark Twain was known for his regular use of profanity. His wife got tired of this and decided to show him how distasteful this language was by using profanity in his presence. Twain listened to this for a while. His response to his wife was, “You’ve got the words, but not the music.” 

         That line represents well what I want to say:  it is not just the message you present, but also how you look and sound as you say it. J. Robert Parkinson wrote regarding delivery in acting and speaking, “Content alone is not sufficient. If the text were all that was necessary for a great performance, everyone could be an accomplished Shakespearean actor because everyone has access to the same words.” What makes the difference is the way the words are said.

            We can tell so much with the voice. When my children were small, I would call them for dinner. Just by the way I said their names they knew if they should have come to dinner ten minutes earlier or whether they had another ten minutes to play.

            What can you do to avoid the monotone voice and show that you really care about your topic?  One way is to choose materials for your next presentation that you are truly excited about. If you genuinely believe an idea is important, this will show in your voice.

            Punch out any statistic or proper noun. This will add emotion to your voice and emphasize the importance of the statistic or name. Pause before a key word or idea, as this will usually give you more force with your next words.

            Stay away from your speaking notes as much as possible. This will help you avoid reading directly from your notes and give more spontaneity to your voice.

            Don’t make it easy for the audience member to drift off mentally by droning on in your presentation. If an audience member is going to nod off for a nap as you are speaking, be sure to make them work for it!

Surroundings Give Significance to Your Speech

There has been a lot of controversy about when President Obama will deliver his “jobs” speech to the American people. In writing about this upcoming speech, William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago referred to omething important in speaking that we don’t often think about—setting. He said, “Without the backdrop of a joint session of Congress, how many networks would broadcast another Obama jobs speech?”

Important to us as speakers is the physical context of our presentation. If we have a dry board behind us displaying words and pictures that have nothing to do with our presentation, it can take away the significance of our content. If there is equipment around the lectern, that, too, may take away the focus from you the speaker. If you are speaking outdoors in a tent, the presentation content may have little impact on your audience.

I remember in my early college days when President Lyndon Johnson came to Nashville, Tennessee, to speak. Downtown was just a few miles away. I had never heard a President in person so I took a city bus to the state capitol building to hear him speak. I watched the President come out in front of huge stone columns and walk to the lectern centered in front of the War Memorial Auditorium. Even before we heard him say the first words to the thousands gathered to hear him, his speech had significance. The visual image of this magnificent building framing the President made us believe what he was about to say was very important. I have no idea what the speech was about these 40 years later. The scene is what made the presentation memorable.

So as speakers, when possible seek the most important looking backdrop for your presentation to enhance the impact of what you actually say. As you can see from the picture below, I try to practice what I preach.
Steve in bunker


The Power of the Personal

While listening to thousands of speeches in my teaching and training career, I've noticed certain characteristics of truly effective presentations. One significant trait is the amount of personal disclosure included. Certainly the personal information has to be relevant to the topic, but when the story or narrative fits, the power of the personal application is often the key to influencing the audience to take action.

          For years I have talked about the importance of empathy in communication. But it wasn’t until I began telling the story of my daughter’s seeking to find her birth mother that the concept took hold in the minds of the audience. I’ve had audience members tell me later that the story motivated them to help a relative find a birth mother. The emotion in the personal narrative can be the key for action to be taken.

          Recently I had a workshop participant tell in a speech about his experience of being in the air en route to the United States during the attack of 9/11. He related how the captain told them they were making an emergency landing because of a “fuel problem,” but  their lengthy circling of a Canadian airport indicated there must not be a fuel problem. He then finished the story by telling how “adoptive” Canadian families took in passengers on the plane for five days before they could fly back into the United States. And since he was of Middle Eastern nationality he felt particularly anxious. The audience was riveted to each word he spoke. The personal narrative had a great impact on his ability to influence that audience.

          When the speaker wants to give the audience a little extra, the personal touch can be the answer.