Archive for April, 2010


Let the Commencement Speeches Commence

It is that time of year when caps and gowns are donned and commencement speeches are delivered.     This year the website College Candy lists the coolest commencement speakers.    Who will be your commencement speaker and what will be the message?   Your speaker  may even stir a little controversy.  If you are speaking at a graduation ceremony this year, here are some rules to keep in mind to give you and your speech a boost:


             Tell a  story.  Graduations are festive events, so add to the enjoyment by telling an inspiring story that will engross your audience.   

             Be brief.  One of the surest ways to bomb your big moment is to go over the time limit.  It is better to leave the audience wanting to hear more from you than hoping you will PLEASE STOP TALKING.

              Express gratitude and humility.  Talk about others instead of yourself. Make sure the speech isn’t full of “I” references. 

              Practice.  Rehearse in front of a mirror, a video camera and anyone who will watch and listen.


                Tell about “what you thought to say.”  The audience doesn’t want to hear your speech planning process. 

                 Go negative.  This is a celebration so accentuate the positive:  achievement, hopes and dreams.

                 Read  your speech word for word from a paper.  Have key words written down and practice enough so you need only glance at the notes occasionally.

Remember, if you have been asked to speak it is because those organizing the commecement exercise believe that you will add something of value to the event.  So, keep that in mind as you prepare and:  “Speak up and speak well!”


But can Eliot Spitzer do a back hand spring?

One of the pleasures of Sunday morning is walking to the end of the driveway (even in rain, like yesterday) to fetch the papers, which include the local Morning Call and the Sunday New York Times. It’s a treat to lay the papers out on the bed and read while sipping especially delicious coffee. Time seems to stand still while I page through the paper, confident that there are hours between this pleasure and officially ticking off the commitments of the day. Sometimes, I cheat. On a Saturday evening I’ll peek at a few stories from next day’s paper on my i-phone. I did that last night when I started to read the story about Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to inact immigration reform in Arizona. It wasn’t the issue that caught my eye as much as how the governor is described in the story.

The article reads: “To the public, Ms. Brewer, 65, is a smiling, deeply tanned, affable “cheerleader type,” as one friend described her. She may fumble and grimace her way through news conferences, but she genuinely likes shaking constituents’ hands and startling state employees on field visits by chatting them up.” That she is more public relations director than savvy politico is the impression left on the reader. This may all be true, but it seems especially harsh on a day when an article about disgraced Eliot Spitzer’s opinion on the governing ability of Andrew Cuomo is given an especially noteworthy placement. No reference to Mr. Spitzer’s skin tone or any other markers of his appearance are mentioned, except to say he was “zealous” or “overzealous (some would say).”

We have a dearth of women political leaders in the United States and one reason may well be the unfair media treatment they repeatedly receive. The slight to cheerleaders is also noted. I’d like to see Eliot Spitzer do a back handspring. Without his socks on.


Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who recognized so well the opportunity that public speech provides.  Last week I had an opportunity to interview Linda Lingle, governor of Hawaii.  I wanted to know how she views public speaking and how she prepares for her speeches.  Before I even had the question out of my mouth she enthusiastically responded, “Public speaking is a privilege. I love public speaking because it is an opportunity to take something and share it.” 

Isn’t that the truth? 

To speak and be heard is one of our most basic needs and indeed a privilege.  It is why anyone who has a message should strive to share it.  But how can we practice our public speaking if our current work doesn’t offer many opportunities to give speeches?  One way is to volunteer your services at civic organizations and to local schools.  The Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, UNICO and AAUW frequently seek speakers to round out their regular meetings.  By letting them know you are able and willing to talk about a hobby, a volunteer organization you are involved with or an expertise you have, you are likely to get invitations to share your information.   You never know who you might inspire with your talk and you will no doubt improve your own communication skills in the process.   

This summer I’m going to test-pilot a new assignment in my intro speech class.  I believe that many people have been inspired by speakers throughout their lives.  I’m going to have students create an oral history of a family member sharing the words of a speaker who especially inspired them.  Think about it:  what speaker have you ever heard that inspired you?  When I graduated with my PhD from Penn State in 1999 the commencement speaker was David H. Monk, Dean of the College of Education.  I distinctly remember him saying, “Whether or not you become a teacher, be a teacher. ”  I loved that.  By speaking in public, you could be the one who inspires next.



It is “advising season” on campus. My advice? Get a job, any job…

Oh, easier said than done, you might say, with this economy.    But I think it *is* easy to get a job, if you aren’t very choosy.  And right now, students and unemployed people should  be especially lacking in choosiness.  I know that any job they take–paid, unpaid, in their field, out of their field–will help a major factor in  future success:   communication skills.   Dr. E. Michele Ramsey, associate professor at Penn State Berks and tireless advocate for the communication discipline as a springboard for career success reminded me in this interview with the Reading Eagle just how crucial effective communication skills are to success.

In my early teaching days I was a gypsy teacher for a few colleges, driving every night to a new place to teach (often in the same outfit, because my teaching assignments spanned a fifty-mile radius).  At one community college the speech department feared elimination.  We were asked to “defend our discipline” so to speak.  I remember poring over the Sunday newspaper and circling almost one hundred job ads that asked for “effective communication.”  I presented my findings.  I like to think it was one of the more persuasive pieces of evidence and the up side is that department is thriving today, twenty years later. 

I’m sure as you read this you can recall some of your early jobs and what they taught you.  I worked as a counter person at McDonald’s, a shoe store clerk, an emcee for a children’s beauty pageant and the bell-ringer for a scholarship program at a local television station.  I’ve given tours of The Morning Call, brought car shows into shopping malls, sold picture frames on QVC, covered borough council meetings for  newspapers and read voice-overs and sang jingles for demo tapes for an ad agency.   

And these are only the jobs I remember.    And though I don’t do any of those things now, I sure learned a lot of needed communication skills by doing them.  And I bet you can relate to some of your job experiences and what they taught you about what are described as the “soft skills.”  Try to get through a doctor’s visit with a difficult physician or office person, order lunch from your favorite pizza shop or have your car repaired and you may start to realize that mastery of the function of the job is one thing but communcating to patients and customers with finesse in quite another. 

And more than just a positive mood can be derived from effective communication skills.  Toyota might have avoided deaths and its public relations nightmare had it been more forthcoming about defects.  And as Malcolm Gladwell notes in his best selling book Outliers, most mistakes aren’t of the technical nature in airplane disasters.  They result in a lack of teamwork and communication.   And I don’t know about you, but when I’m driving over a bridge, I sure hope that the engineers who designed it were clear about what they were doing to the builders of the bridge.  It is why Cooper Union has integrated communication skills into its engineering curriculum.  Have you caught any episodes of that new series “Undercover Boss”?  I was reminded last night just how much the employees communication skills with customers, fellow employees and the incognito CEO contributed to their success.  I’m going to be nicer to the people who pick up my garbage, I can tell you that.

Maybe there isn’t a job that will pay the bills in your immediate future, but that shouldn’t prevent you from working.  Check out a non-profit like LifePath in the Lehigh Valley.  It is a tremendous organization that may be able to put you to work immediately.   And you never know where it could lead, it might turn into a paid position.    I do know this:  getting a job, any job will lead you on a path to better communication skills  and that is something that everyone needs.  Oh, go ahead and call communication “soft skills.”  Know what I think?  The soft skills are the hard ones.


From Novelty to Reality: why is this so complicated?

On my most recent of many trips to the enormously wonderful Newseum in Washington, D.C., I spied this shirt in one of the gift shops. 

I want one, of course, but the biggest one is a girls size 10 and even if it would fit my daughter, she wouldn’t be caught dead in it, even though she is running for class president of her high school.    Is this tee-shirt  charming or a silly reminder that we are still “pretending” women can be president?  I still want the tee shirt, but seeing it hanging in the gift shop as a souvenir begs the question:   will we move from cute little token for little girls  to reality?  I don’t want my daughter to play “dress up” president.  I want her to really think she could be president. 

I’m working on a new book project, one that identifies women who could be president by virtue of their wealth, fame and political power. Though rhetorical style is a focus of the book, bad public speaking seems to have kept no one — male or female–out of the political fray.  Did you catch Harry Reid mocking Sarah Palin?  Neither one will go down in history for their eloquence.    This new project has me thinking  a lot about the question Dr. Ted Sheckels of Randolph Macon College posed to me at the National Communication Association Conference in November:  why don’t more women run?

This being Census season, I thought about the numbers:  According to the 2000 Census there are 137,916,186 men and  143,505,720 women in the United States and  more women than men vote.   Obviously women don’t just vote for women candidates, but it begs the question why more women aren’t able to be voted for, simply because there are more of them. 

I remember when I interviewed former Colorado congresswoman and 1988 presidential candidate Pat Schroeder she told me:  “the girls in my office just don’t want to get into the huddle.”  Is that it?  Only on a larger scale?  I mean, if you say to a man:  “you could be President” does he immediately go out and form an exploratory committee while most women respond if not vocally, internally, “who, me?”  Maybe women need more Presidential atty-tood?   Other possible reasons I’m sorting through include:  harsher media treatment than the men get; lack of role models–yes Hillary Clinton “almost won” but do women running for office see her as an outlier?  Do they silently think:  “I’m no Hillary Clinton?”  So much to think about.

 All around the world, but not in the United States. Why not Madam President?  I don’t know about you, but want more than just the novelty tee shirt.


Like, just turn on the camera and press record, you know?

It was marvelously entertaining when a bikini-clad Elle Woods used, as Aristotle would say  the “available means of persuasion” to convince Harvard Law to consider her application carefully in the blockbuster hit Legally Blonde.  Truth is, she was way ahead of her time.  This year Tufts University has started to review recorded utterances from its application pool.  

According to a NY Times article, Lee Coffin, the dean of undergraduate admissions, said the idea came to him last spring as he watched a YouTube video someone had sent him. “I thought, ‘If this kid applied to Tufts, I’d admit him in a minute, without anything else,’ ” Mr. Coffin said.

For their videos, some students sat in their bedrooms and talked earnestly into the camera, while others made day-in-the-life montages, featuring buddies, burgers and lacrosse practice. A budding D.J. sent clips from one of his raves, with a suggestion that such parties might be welcome at Tufts.

It is one of the reasons that Penn State Lehigh Valley first year experience students in my CAS 100 classes have a video speech of self introduction due first thing every semester. 

So, don’t laugh at You Tube.  OK, laugh at You Tube.  Then turn the camera on yourself and repeat until you like what you see and hear.  “All good public speakers were once bad public speakers.”  Mark Twain was so right about that.  Only now we can erase and re-record until the world sees our best shot.


Facebook Famine Ends with Celebration of Empty Calories

 With the economy in a freefall, thrifty folks everywhere have decided to make sacrifices.  There is a group of people not buying new clothes for a whole year, and another person who hasn’t driven a car for fifteen months. In TIME,  Joel Stein laments that it isn’t as easy as he thought it would be to go off the grid for the National Day of Unplugging.   Being Catholic, these sound to me like one continuous Lenten sacrifice.  When Lent arrived this year, I thought about a guilty pleasure and what it would mean to do without it.  Instead of the usual “no chocolate” (I always cheated by the second week of Lent anyway) I thought I’d give up something a little different.  What is more valuable than anything else?  How we spend our time.  And since I seemed to be spending more and more time on the social networking site Facebook, I thought doing without it would make me consider if I really needed it.   Used in moderation, I think Facebook is fun and harmless, unless you are a teenage girl sharing romance failures or a professor looking for a hitman.   I don’t think I was addicted to Facebook, but I was feeling the same way I feel about being the one in the family who always makes dinner.  It isn’t the cooking that requires so much effort, it is the thinking about the cooking.  I was spending too much time thinking about what status updates I would post, whether something I was feeling was really “postable” and how much of myself I was disclosing that I may live to regret.   But I felt too Catholic to share with my entire Facebook friends (of all denominations) that I was fasting on Facebook.  Besides, in Gospel of Matthew we are told not to announce our sacrifice.  So, without any status update to tell my Facebook friends, I decided to slip the nebulous bonds of Facebook for forty days.  

            When I told one of my Catholic Facebook friends of my plan he quickly pointed out that a priest once told him that there are forty days of Lent without fasting on weekends, so I should consider posting on the weekends, but it seemed like too much of a Catholic loophole to me, akin to an annulment.   Curiosity got the best of me so I counted the days and in fact, it is true that this year there are 46 days in Lent if you count Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17 and you do not count Easter, April 4).  Feeling resolute, I wasn’t planning on using the extra days to post.  I let myself read other posts, and I responded to whoever sent me a message, but I did not update my status and I did not post photos (or anything on my wall) or comment about anything anyone else posted.   Without shutting down my account, I simply stopped using it.

            I thought I was unique in my quest to “fast” from Facebook, but even the urban dictionary had an entry “Facebook fasting”:  to refrain from going on Facebook for a certain period of time. This often comes after the realization that too much time has been wasted on Facebook resulting in real life problems. In the event of a relapse, an individual is said to pull a triple F (see Failed Facebook Fast).   A quick Google search reveals many other Catholics fasting from Facebook.  So much for originality.  Still, I thought my fast would be a good sacrifice for me and it might even turn into a mini research project that would reveal:

1)      If anyone noticed I wasn’t on Facebook

2)      If I missed not being on Facebook

3)      If I got more work done

The first lesson:  I received a few messages on Ash Wednesday and the next few days, a couple of friends posted comments about a photo I posted, and then… nothing.   For five days.  On the sixth day, one friend posted:  “Dr. Gutgold must be very busy. I really miss her daily entries.”  By the second week of Lent I got the impression that all my Facebook friends sort of forgot about me, but Facebook didn’t.  I was getting messages from Facebook that read:  “We miss you.  Please re-connect.”  I received several of these “come back” responses from Facebook throughout Lent.  So, yes:  a few friends missed me  a little and Facebook missed me a lot.

The second lesson:  I did miss Facebook a little.  Facebook is a good way to send and receive information.  Facebook for me, functions like a phone call to my sisters.  It feels so good to catch up, even if there isn’t much to catch up about.  The brand new four foot fluorescent bulb that didn’t work that sent me back to Target for another one.   And how I’m stiiiillll  painting the master bedroom, hired a painter, etc.  yawn, yawn, yawn.   I missed it enough that on Sunday, March 21, I thought I’d do what most fasting Catholics do.  I cheated, sort of.  It was Sunday after all, and there were more than forty days in Lent this year.   So I posted this message: He who is without sin, right? My “Facebook fast” is going reasonably well, but did you know that there are 46 days of Lent this year? As if we Catholics don’t suffer enough, right? So today is Sunday, and I thought I’d “cheat.” Hello Facebook Friends. I miss you.   Immediately one friend urged me not to feel I’m cheating since her Irish Catholic mother always had a bite of chocolate on Sundays.  Another friend tried to console me by taking on the dialect of an Irish Catholic priest and offering me his blessing.  But at the stroke of midnight, I went back to my fast.  No commenting and no status updates.  I was starting to feel a bit “over” Facebook and that it is a little silly to share so much dumb stuff with people who may or may not really care.    Nevertheless, the following Sunday I “cheated” again by posting photos of the chocolate Easter eggs I made with my daughter.  Friends requested samples.  I was back and my Facebook friends noticed.

The third lesson:  I don’t think I got more work done during my Facebook fast.   I’m still plugging away at several new writing projects at the same speed as usual.  I wasn’t checking Facebook as much and I was free from pondering what witty status update I might post next, but, I didn’t feel suddenly that I had a huge amount of extra time on my hands.   

So, Forty-four days without Facebook are over and my conclusion is that it is a harmless and fun way to express yourself and connect with people you would likely not connect with so much if you were not on Facebook.  Like face-to-face communication, Facebook is reciprocal.  The more you contribute the more you get back.  The adage “we get out of life exactly what we put in”  certainly applies to Facebook.  But unlike face to face communication, I think online communication can only take relationships so far.  It is ambient awareness that helps connect people, but not truly connect with people the way that face to face communication does.  I could imagine a great Facebook relationship building between two former college classmates, for example.  There seems to be so much in common between you and the constant witty rapport back and forth is fun and stimulating. So after a few months of steady Facebook communication you plan to meet face to face, only to discover that the connection that Facebook facilitated doesn’t translate to your in person relationship.  You’ve seen the tee-shirt:  “You were more fun on Facebook.”   Facebook is text-based and fun, but in a “hey you” kind of way that leads to …. not necessarily valuable relationships.  And for those who are truly connected to us, Facebook is a poor substitute.     A little like winter tomatoes.  They taste so different than summer tomatoes that they should be called something else.  To put it another way: Facebook communication is to deep and meaningful relationships what cubic zirconias are to diamonds—a cheap alternative that you know isn’t really fooling anyone.  But, like the faux ring, it is cheap, harmless and stylish, too, so why not?  In a Chronicle Review, a writer described Facebook communication “like binging on junk food.”  As long as Facebook isn’t our main method of communication, I think we should go ahead and continue to indulge.  I always did like some chocolate after I’ve eaten my vegetables.

Status Update:  I’m back, Facebook Friends!  Happy Easter!

April 2010
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