Saturday, March 27, 2010

Competent Communicator At Last

Last Thursday I was working at my desk when an e-mail popped into Outlook. Thursday is Toastmaster's Day. I received a note saying that there was an open speaking slot available; the first one to claim it could speak.

I happened to have a speech written, printed out and ready to go. I hadn't rehearsed it at all, so I would have to depend on notes, my memory, and my passion for the subject matter. I immediately replied to say that I wanted the chance.

I felt some urgency for two reasons: first, it would be my tenth speech in the Competent Communicator series, the lowest rung on the Toastmasters ladder, and second, I would achieve the milestone within two years of giving my icebreaker speech back in Apr 2008. I had a seven month hiatus from September 2008 through April 2009 where I was utterly silent. I changed jobs and clubs during that time. It took me a while to get used to my new surroundings. But now I was on a roll. I wanted to make that first benchmark.

I bounced up the stairs to the conference room on the tenth floor just before noon, text in hand. I was the first speaker that day. I wasn't happy about my failure to rehearse, but I liked the topic and delivered it fairly well.

The president of our club happened to be talking about the requirements for achieving "distinguished club" status. Every club has a set of goals to meet in terms of new members, certifications earned, officers trained and such. When she found out that I was getting my competent communicator designation, she smiled and said "You weren't even on my radar!" Our club was one step closer to the highest designation as a result of my efforts.

I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It took longer than I'd like, but I've really picked up the past since joining this group. I delivered just three speeches in fifteen months at my first club. I gave four more from April 2009 through the end of the year. I've already stepped up three times this year, and March is just ending.

This club meets once a week, which helps a great deal. My first club only met on the second and fourth Thursday of the month, so the number of available speaking slots was cut in half. The drip, drip, drip effect of meeting every week helps - it's too easy to slide back while two weeks go by.

I have the district competition coming up on 14-Apr. I'm approaching it as a learning experience, with little or no thought about winning it. I want to see what accomplished speakers do and use them as an inspiration to progress further along.

I'm as comfortable as I can be with standing and delivering. I have no fear of it at all. I know my technique needs to become more conscious, more deliberate.

But the two things that I need to improve on most are writing and rehearsing. I should have a stable of talks on hand, ready to deliver at a moment's notice. People have to cancel all the time due to work obligations. I can make progress if I can jump in the way I did for my tenth.

It's the rehearsal that needs the most work. The way to become more conscious, more deliberate is to practice it in, to observe what you're doing, to think about how it all comes across. Speakers are no different from actors learning their lines. I have to have them down cold when I stride to the podium.

There are very few things in life that I'm naturally good at, but speaking in front of groups seems to be one of them. I'd like to see if I can polish this skill into something that will have a future use that I can't see right now. I'm always trying to figure out what my third act in life will be. First engineering, then software. If the world has changed, and we all need to change fields several times, I want to be ready.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

First Toastmasters Competition

I entered my first Toastmasters competition on Thursday.

I won.

It was a bit of a shock for me. There were two other speakers entered, and both of them are among the most talented and prolific speakers in our club. I had heard the runner up's speech a week earlier at another local club. He's so talented, so precise, so conscious of what he's doing that I immediately resigned myself to accomplishing nothing more than completing the ninth out of ten speeches required for the Competent Communicator designation, the first rung on the communication ladder.

I wrote my speech at the last minute. It was a description of a recent event in my life that served as the basis for the tenth and final speech: "Inspire Your Audience". It was an emotional topic for me. As usual, I procrastinated and didn't rehearse as much as I'd like.

But I knew the story well enough to deliver it extemporaneously. I had the added advantage of speaking last. It's natural for people to remember the last thing they heard. Perhaps that factored into the thinking of the judges.

I get to try again on 14-Apr against some other local clubs. If that goes well I'll get to move on to the district competition on 22-May.

I've got to present my ninth and last speech soon so I can have that Competent Communicator designation in hand. I'd like to do it before 24-Apr, because that would mean that I finished the ten speeches in two years. I gave my first one on 24-Apr-2008. I had long stretch of six months where I didn't speak at all. I switched jobs and clubs, so it took me a while to recover my stride.

I don't know what the next steps will be. Toastmasters has two tracks: communication and leadership. I don't know if completing that first booklet and achieving a Competent Leader designation is a requirement, or if I'd have the option of going on to more advanced communication work.

Whichever I choose, I'd like to start accelerating my rate of progress. I need to be writing, speaking, practicing more.

This was a good start. It's astonishing how you can get better at something with regular practice. I've appreciated having the opportunity. I don't know where it will lead, but it feels good to continue to progress, grow, and learn.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hello, Android

I've done it - I've turned into one of "those guys" who has a phone that's really a computer in their hand.

My wife bought me an Android phone from Google for Christmas. I was ambivalent about it. It's a terrific toy, but I objected and held out on activating it for two reasons:

  1. The monthly plan for data, text, and phone adds another $30 per month to my bill. It's easy to say that $30 isn't a lot of money, but it accumulates to $360 over a year.

  2. I didn't want to be one of "those guys" who is always looking at their damn phone. I find that people pay more attention to the devices than they do the people they're with at any given moment.

I held out for two months, gladly sticking to my ancient flip phone, until I got my bill for Feb. It included a $260 equipment charge. What was that? I called Verizon to ask. They told me that I had agreed to "terms and conditions" when the phone was purchased. If I didn't activate the phone within a certain period of time I had to pay the equipment charge.

So I sailed over to the local Verizon store to sort it out. They had a few issues that kept me standing at the counter for longer than I thought was necessary. When I started to lose patience I said some magic words that got things moving again: "Maybe I should just forget it and get an iPhone..."

After about 30 minutes of futzing around I was able to take the phone home. I had a little bit of trouble migrating the contacts from my old phone to the new one. The site wasn't as clear as they'd like to believe. (All I could think of was Steve Krug's wonderful book on web design entitled "Don't Make Me Think!")

It seems like a lovely toy. Android accepts Java; iPhone only allows Objective C. Android works on Verizon, the wireless carrier my whole family uses; iPhone only works on AT&T. I'm still figuring out how it all works. It'll be interesting to see if I can synch it up with my work e-mail and calendar. One of the biggest problems I have at work is knowing I have to be in a certain place, but not being able to see my calendar because I'm removed from my desk. The phone might be able to help with that.

It'll also help me feel a bit more high-tech. We'll see how it all works out.

Android is a trademark of Google Inc. Use of this trademark is subject to Google Permissions.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Ride Of 2010

It's a spectacular late winter Sunday. Temperatures are up above 50 F/10 C and skies are cloudless and blue.

I usually don't get on my bike until spring is well under way. I didn't take my first ride last year until 19-Apr-2009. Sand and pavement broken by ice and snowplows usually combine to scare me off, but I couldn't resist this year. I pumped up my tires and headed out to circle the lake in Marlborough, a modest ride of 15.9 miles.

I was dressed for colder conditions. I had a new pair of fingered gloves that kept my hands nice and toasty. I wore a hat under my helmet so my ears wouldn't go numb. I had tights, a sweatshirt, and a windbreaker on. I worked my way to a good sweat by the time I was done.

I think the extra 500 yards I've tacked onto my daily swims is paying dividends. I felt fit today. There are three decent climbs on this ride, including
Jones Hollow Road in Marlborough. I downshifted and kept my seat the whole way up instead of standing on the pedals and rocking the bike. My heart, lungs, and legs all felt good. I've been doing more kicking with a board lately during my swim workouts. My legs were up to the task today.

I had no problems with sand or pavement. My brakes were squealing loudly when I left the house, but once the pads and rim warmed up the noise went away.

My equipment was in fine shape. I replaced my pedals last year. A chronic problem with flat rear tires was corrected with a new rubber seal on the spokes. I added a strobe light that hangs off my seat post, at the cost of having to remove the carrier I used to bring my clothes to work. It'll help to keep me safer in the morning if I start riding to work again in April. I'll have to find another way to transport my clothes. Perhaps a backpack will do the trick....

I loved being back on my bike again. It means that winter is on its way out, that spring isn't far away, that I'll be back on the road to work with my friend Michael again soon. Of course I tracked my riding last year in the same spreadsheet that I used to track my swimming totals. I'm starting earlier than last year. If I could work my way up to two rides to work per week on average I'd have no problem besting the 625 mile total that I accumulated last season. Maybe I can break the 1,000 mile barrier this summer.

If only I could translate this goal and metric oriented thinking to my entire life. I'd accomplish far more than I have to date if I could only figure out how.