Asking an audience to answer a question during your speech is unpredictable. I sometimes open a speech with the story of my getting braces when I was fifty years old. I introduce the story by showing my front teeth to the audience in an exaggerated manner. This usually gets a smile or chuckle and helps me connect with the audience. I will move into the audience and ask one of the audience members if she or he thinks I have nice-looking teeth. Of course a typical answer I receive is, “Yes, they look great.”
But I was not expecting the answer at the beginning of one speech when I looked at a woman on the front row and asked, “Don’t you think I have nice straight teeth?” I bite down on my lower teeth, show an exaggerated smile, and wait expectantly for her answer. She stares at me with that “deer in the headlight” look that tells me I might have asked the wrong person, and then blurts out, “I can’t tell. My eyes are dilated. I just came from the dentist office.”
After the laughter died down, I continued with my story. When you ask a question, be ready for the unexpected answer.
We all make dumb decisions at times. You have probably asked yourself this question more than once, “What was I thinking? That was really dumb.”
I was talking to a homeless man downtown today, and after putting some money in his cup I asked him some questions. His name is John and he hopes to get a job down the street later on this month.
I asked him what the circumstances were that made him homeless. He told me that he had been in prison from 2009 to 2011 and he had had difficulty getting a job since then. I asked him what he did before he went to prison. He listed several jobs but his best one was working for the city. The other jobs sounded less permanent, including working for a restaurant and working for a temporary services company.
I asked what happened with the city job. He paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I robbed a store next to the police station, and that pretty much ended my career.” He agreed with me that that was not a very smart move.
Before making a decision, get a second opinion (not from a person who has robbed a store!) Sleep on it. Talk to people who have made the same choice. Pray about it. Answer the “What if…” questions. Write down pros and cons of the consequences of the decision.
Of course sometimes the right decision is obvious. As one writer said, “If you don’t like to floss, just floss the teeth you want to keep.”
Recently I spent time with a good friend from high school with whom I played a lot of basketball. We started walking up Stone Mountain, outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and it is a rather steep walk. About a third of the way, I told him and my son who was also with us that I had had enough. So for my benefit we took the gondola to the top instead.
However, it was not always this way. In high school we both ran cross-country. I found hat running with Bob was just the right speed for me. He wore a size 14 shoe and like me was not graceful when he ran. You could hear him coming sometimes before you saw him.
But he never quit, and I could depend on his staying at the same pace and completing the race. I found that if I could keep up with him I could usually muster a little burst of speed near the end and finish in the ribbon category.
So it is in life. We tend to end up at the same place as the people we run with. When we pick the right people to run with, we end up finishing the race in the ribbon category.
My son has always been interested in coins and bills and as a child would often examine my coin stashes before I deposited them in the bank. Before he left home 20 years ago, he always rolled the coins for me.
This past week he received a fifty-dollar bill when obtaining cash from his bank. As he started to place it in his billfold, he noticed it looked a bit different from the other bills. So he looked more closely and discovered it was a series from the 1960’s, printed before he was born. Since the average life span of a $50 bill is 55 months, he thought perhaps it might be worth more than $50. So he priced the bill on E-bay for $75 and sold it in two days for the $25 profit. All the result of paying attention.
Simply giving careful attention to the ordinary and common can yield positive results. It pays to pay attention.
My son, Josh, had a student in his public speaking class deliver a speech on the importance of recycling. As visual aids, she had several items one could recycle. When she finished, she gathered up her visuals and on her way to her seat she tossed her recyclables into the wastebasket. I’m not sure she got the point of her own speech.
For many years I felt no inclination to recycle. I hardly knew what the word meant. I am the only one in our family of six adults and three children who disdained recycling. But over time, they have set good examples, exhorted me, and shamed me into being a “greener” citizen.
Recently, I finished a can of mineral water immediately before I went to the pulpit to speak. Two regular waste cans were only a few feet away, but no recycling bins were in sight. Remembering a recycling barrel one floor below me, I sprinted down the steps, tossed the can in the bin, and rushed back upstairs to avoid keeping the audience waiting.
Later I thought of the influence of my family; I had not only changed my outlook about reusing our resources, but the habit was so ingrained in my thinking that I could not bear to throw the can in with the trash.
The lesson? We can’t help but be influenced by the people around us. We must choose our associates and friends carefully. Habits much worse than being green can rub off on us, too.
How best to help the homeless who ask for money on the streets of our cities is a never-ending issue. Some see these individuals as scheming to get money without working. This attitude comes from seeing the same people at the same spot each day asking for money. Others fumble in their pockets and pull out a dollar or change and hand the money to the person without speaking, probably thinking, “There but for the grace of God….”
My version of this technique is to give the person $2.00, ask their names, and wish them luck–until yesterday.
Doug, a middle-aged man asking for money, met me as I was coming out of a downtown Cincinnati Walgreen’s. I questioned him about what he wanted the money for and he said to buy himself lunch. I asked where he planned to eat and he said, “Wendy’s in the next block.”
Instead of handing him a little money, I told him I would take him to buy his lunch. We walked into Wendy’s amidst some stares at the unkempt man with dirty and ragged clothing. I found out as we waited in line that he had lost his job six months ago, spends nights in Washington Park, and has a 34-year-old son whom he never sees. A well-dressed lady in front of us was listening in on the conversation. As I approached the cashier to pay for the cheeseburger, chili, and malt, I saw her give him some bills from her purse.
I left Doug to eat his hot meal in a warm and inviting place. I don’t have the answers how best to help those less fortunate than I. But on this day, I felt good about the action I had taken. And my guess is the lady in front of us did as well.
Basketball was an important part of the culture when I attended Shawswick High School in Bedford, Indiana. Before the first game each year, our tradition was that the ball team would go out on the gym floor through an aisle made by the cheerleaders and then jump through a hoop that said, “Shawswick Farmers.” (Yes, our country school was the Shawswick Farmers and our chant was “Plow ‘em Under.”)
We rehearsed this procedure several times. The team went through the hoop in alphabetical order, so since my last name started with “B” I led the team and was the first player through the hoop.
The only part we did not get to practice was having the hoop covered with paper, painted with the message, “Shawswick Farmers.” We only practiced with the empty hoop.
Of course the band was playing the school song and all 2000 fans were standing as we ran out on to the floor with the cheerleaders creating a path to the hoop.
Although I had gone successfully through the hoop several times when there was no paper covering, the paper was a new experience for me. As I leaped through the paper-covered hoop, I tripped and literally fell through the hoop. With my slick nylon warm-up suit, I scooted on my knees several feet and stopped just shy of the foul line. Of course this created havoc among the rest of the players who followed. A scene from a “Laurel and Hardy” movie couldn’t have been more slapstick.
I fear in the early part of the season I was remembered more for tripping through the hoop than throwing the ball through the hoop. Practice sessions should include all the props to avoid scenes such as that one.
In his book Let Me Tell You a Story, Tony Campolo relates a time when he was in a New York skyscraper elevator filled with solemn business people. He told his fellow passengers they all looked too serious and asked them to join him in singing “You Are My Sunshine.” Maybe it was the way he said it, but remarkably they all joined him in singing the song.
When he got off at the seventieth floor, one man got off and walked down the hall with him, wearing a big smile on his face. Campolo asked him, “Are you going to the same meeting I’m going to?”
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to finish the song,”
Something about singing a song changes our attitudes. For twenty-five years a lady came in regularly to clean our home. I was sometimes working in my office as she worked. It was uplifting to me that she sang hymns most of every day. By her singing, she made the day better for herself and for those who were in some other part of the house.
I have learned that if I listen to songs with a positive message, I enjoy the day more. I can’t help but feel better after listening to and sometimes singing with Don Gibson, “Take the time to touch the morning before it slips away,” from Touch the Morning, or, “ I can see clearly…Look around you there is nothing but blue skies,” from “I Can See Clearly,” by Johnny Nash.
Let singing be a part of your daily routine. May you also want to finish the song.
My interview with Happy Chandler was significant to me, but another personal interview meant even more.
I regret not learning more about the childhood of my parents and their siblings, so a few years ago, I asked my only living uncle, 80-year-old Uncle Joe, if I could film an interview with him. He was glad to do this and I could tell he was curious and pleased about the activity. He sat in his living room chair, I set up my equipment, and for the next hour he reminisced about his early years. My questions included, “What was it like growing up in the Depression?” and “What did you do for fun as a boy?”
I learned that my father, who was 17 years older than Uncle Joe, sought a job after high school in order to help support his parents and younger brothers. I knew he did not go to college but I did not fully appreciate why until my discussion with Uncle Joe. A reason for this, he told me, was that my grandpa was a carpenter and a stonecutter and it was virtually impossible to find work during winter months.
He also told me that John Smith, the owner of Smith’s General Store in Fayetteville, Indiana, would carry them financially through the winter. Grandpa would pay him back during the warm weather when he could find work more easily. Uncle Joe said he did not know what the family would have done for food and coal without this compassionate and trusting storeowner.
Not only do I have these narratives on record for my children to learn about their ancestors, but also I have a unique account of the childhood background of my father that I would have never found in a history book.
A memorable moment for me was the result of a simple phone call to a resident of Versailles, Kentucky. The person happened to be Albert (Happy) Chandler, two-time governor of Kentucky, United States Senator, and Commissioner of Baseball.
In the late seventies, I was doing research on the public speaking of Governor Chandler. I found his home number through directory assistance, so I called there to see if he would allow me to interview him. Governor Chandler himself answered the phone. I asked if I could interview him. His response without hesitation was, “Come on down, son! Mama and I would be glad to have you.”
I assumed the interview would last a few minutes, but instead I was with him for about two hours. My wife and 7-year-old son were waiting in the car. When he found out, he insisted I bring them into the house. He reminisced not only about his public speaking but also about many of his experiences as a political leader and baseball commissioner. He was animated, entertaining, and informative and seemed genuinely to enjoy visiting with my family and me.
I mentioned that he was known to sometimes sing a verse of “My Old Kentucky Home” in his speeches, and he immediately sang a verse for us. He stressed how good he felt physically even though he was in his eighties at the time. He made a fist and asked me to “feel his muscle.”
What had started out as a interview about his campaign speaking turned out to be an experience I still look back on as one of the most pleasant and memorable afternoons in my career. It all started with a simple phone call—to a celebrity who chose not a have an unlisted number.