The Lecture

The Lecture

According to Mortimer Adler, there are three types of speech: The Sales Talk (also called a Motivational Speech), The Impromptu Talk, and The Lecture. Here I will share some elements required to give an effective Instructional Talk:  A Lecture.  I will try to avoid lecturing.

Lectures and lecturing have earned a bad reputation. Speakers of all types have done their share to attach negative baggage to the noble lecture. Children instinctively abhor the parental lecture. Students cut classes taught by boring professors. Those professors attach a disproportionate percentage of their course grade to attendance—so much easier than being interesting.

Adults sneer at windy speeches by politicians and mind-numbing rationales by bureaucrats.

Boring speakers are not a modem phenomenon. Ancient Greeks considered the lecture, including written discourse, to be the noblest of the three ways we learn. (Apprenticeship and experience are the other two.) Oratory skill made lessons palatable and effective. Thus it was important to speak well to your fellow citizens. Those that did not were avoided and never heard.

Early in my career I assisted a VP with his presentation. It was an international marketing summary, and may even have been interesting. The VP had prepared overhead charts. Each was dense with paragraphs of small type. These he would read verbatim. My job was to sit at the projector and flip the charts. Rehearsal was excruciating: ponderously slow, irredeemably dull.

I was sure this man needed my guidance. Since I was fresh from my media course at the Boston University School of Communications, I knew just what to advise him.

“You know, Mr. VP,” I said. “When you read every word to the audience like that, they read it along with you and are done long before you are. This will make it very boring  for them. Maybe you should paraphrase each chart so you finish together. Or better, make new charts with less words.”

He looked at me a long time before speaking.

Finally he said, “Young man, I have been doing presentations this way for twenty-five years and have never had a complaint. I’ll thank you to turn the charts as I direct.”

His attitude was typical. Business people in particular are notorious for eye-glazing talks. Often this is because they are presenting financial data to superiors. A misstep is feared far more than being dull. Their punishment, when they become the superiors, is to sit through similar dreadful presentations. The cycle of boredom is unbroken.

In 1982 a Divisional President was scheduled to speak to Gillette’s Board of Directors about new product successes. It was a fluff bit where he could have loosened up a little. He called in a speech consultant to help him prepare. I ran the support equipment, thus was the fly on the wall. Some of what is in this book I learned from working with this consultant over several years.

He got the full treatment: Don’t grip the lectern with both hands as if holding yourself up. Smile occasionally. Take a step away from the lectern occasionally. Pause, look up and then say a line a two right to the audience before looking down again,

After a few hours of struggle he told the coach, “Look, I know your suggestions are good. And I wish I could do them, but I am not comfortable with them. I have never addressed the Board of Directors and may never again. I have to get through it the safest way.”

This division President was a likeable guy. Relaxed and charming in front of factory workers. He was safe in the factory, less so in the boardroom.

Safe meant a speech written and re-written, approved and re-approved up the line: in a multi-national company it is amazing how many people are above a division president. Safe meant reading the speech word for word with no divergence from the prepared text.

There is a skill to writing material meant to be read. Still another skill to reading it as if you were not really reading it. Actors, news anchors, and very few business people posses those skills. The division president had neither.  This became apparent during his competent but lifeless rendition of his speech to the Board of Directors. I was Mr. Fly there, too.  A lively moment erupted, however, when a grey-haired female board member voiced a complaint.  She objected to the marketing plan that targeted, “women 18-49.”

“Isn’t this a kind of discrimination?” She asked. ” I mean, don’t fifty-five year old women buy our products, too?” Her question was valid but somewhat naive in the board room of a Fortune 50 company. Mr. President was speechless. Silence ruled the room for a seconds just as he had been coached to do.  However accidental it might have been.

With nothing in his speech on this topic he looked up at the woman, making eye contact.  Another good thing. Then he smiled, as he was mildly amused and could not hide it. Smiling made him look relaxed and friendly. He stepped away from the lectern as he answered. He gestured naturally with both hands. No longer clutching the lectern with head down, he became himself. He spoke naturally:

“I understand what you mean,” he said. “This age group thing is primarily a marketing convention designed to help measure the performance of our TV advertising. We want to know if we are we getting the audience we paid for, the one our research says buy most of our products. Of course woman of all ages do indeed purchase our products and are an important contributor to sales and profits.”

Here was a man in command of his subject and the room.

The effect was compelling. No one becomes a president of major corporate division without packing some heavy gear, some internal resources. When he was called upon to summon those skills, he succeeded in notching up the interest level in the room several degrees.

The director persisted in her questioning. This drew in other corporate officers for a lively round-table discussion on the topic. The president ­moderated, a bit baffled, but handled it all with grace, humor, and expertise. For brief moment it was an entertaining and informative meeting. Dozing board members were startled from their slumber. They needn’t have worried. The speaker soon returned to hunch and clutch, to read in monotone as slides flashed prettily on the screen. Board members settled back in their comfy leather chairs as the gentle drone from the front of the room lulled them peacefully to sleep. A cloak of boredom and safety fell over all.

This speaker did not trust himself to be at his best under pressure. He subdued the better part of his personality to his detriment. He did this because believed what he had to say was more important than how he said it. They are equally important. Diminishment of either induces the audiences to tune you out.

I do not suggest that formality and structure be abandoned in speech making. But I often see business and political speakers ignore their audience as they prepare a speech. They think: How will I be perceived? What mistakes might I make? How can I control the situation? I… I… I… Me… Me… Me… They should be thinking, You… You… You.

Preparation and commitment = A memorable lecture.

In 1985 the Assistant Under Secretary for National Economic Affairs (or some such title) gave a speech to Boston business people. A tall, lanky, Kramer-like man, he was bounding  about, talking a mile a minute and scribbling furiously on a blackboard. It was all about arcane financial models, macro this, micro that. It was highly technical, but he had the crowd riveted, myself included, though I grasped only a little of his logic.

He was over most of our heads and we loved it. Afterwards, I spoke with him about how fascinating but hard to get it was. “Yeah,” he said, “Sort of like drinking from a fire hose, isn’t it.” He knew he was ahead of his audience, but his commitment and enthusiasm for his topic was what grabbed us and is what I remember most.

In 1967, Professor Emerson taught Introduction to Anthropology at the University of Maine in Orono. His classes were held in the largest lecture hall on campus. But it was not large enough for the SRO crowds that attended. The University registrar did not over-enroll Professor Emerson’s class. Non-anthropology students gave up down time at The Bear’s Den to slip into the back of the room and hear a great lecturer hold forth on the fascinating anthropological record of pre-human primates and the development of culture in early man. It was my first class so I always got there early for a front row seat.

Professor Emerson loved his subject and we knew it because he let us see his commitment. The cold lecture hall seemed transformed into a warm living room because he was so at ease there. (It may also have been the three hundred human bodies each generating ninety-eight watts of heat, which is two percent less than a light bulb because bodies don’t give off any light energy. Well, perhaps an inner light, but there is no evidence inner radiance has a photonic composition… but I digress.)

Emerson found the humor in his topic and injected it often. However, there was never a laugh that was not directly related to the topic of the day. He was serious about his subject. He didn’t tell jokes. He revealed the facts in an amusing way. He couldn’t always make it funny, but he always made it interesting.

He spoke from notes, but he spoke directly to us. He would take great pauses as he looked down at his notes. When he looked up, he would pause another second, look around and then speak right to us for a while, then back to the notes. (This is a technique called Command the Silence). There was a relaxed, assured rhythm to his presentation that I now know comes from a thorough knowledge of the subject paired with a disciplined preparation. Emerson often included interesting asides and commentary that seemed spontaneous, but were not. They came from years of experience teaching his subject. He had an act and it was well-honed

He knew considerably more about Peking Man than he was telling us, and he planned in advance what he would leave out. He knew a lecture on the contents of pre-historic fire pits could be dull. He made sure it wasn’t. Thirty-two years later I remember, verbatim, large swaths of what Professor Emerson taught me.

These two anecdotes demonstrate even the least sexy topics come alive when rules of good platform speech are applied. The Under Secretary and the Professor were fully prepared, obviously committed, totally relaxed, and above all, interesting.

In addition to considering the needs of your audience, here are some suggestions for a sparkling lecture:

Bad lecturers use long sentences.

Your sentences will be short. Your words will be simple. You will avoid the passive and conditional voice: verbs with an ing at the end and phrases like, there is, could be drawn, or it is to be hoped.

Bad lecturers are long on ideas and short on examples.

You will leap from example to story in a single bound. You will tell stories and give examples till the cows come home.

Bad lecturers drone on because there is so much to say and so little time.

You, the good lecturer, will look for every opportunity to let silence spread over the room. You will ask questions of the audience. You will wait a long time for an answer. You will command the silence.

Bad lecturers, on the rare occasion they attempt humor, advertise that a laugh is coming.

Their body language and facial expressions scream, “Here comes that funny line I have been working so hard to deliver riiii-ght… HERE!” Everybody sees it coming. Nobody is surprised; few are amused.

You will never do that. You will be a sneaky bastard. You will frown in advance of the laugh. You will lower your voice on the punch line. When the audience laughs you will stop speaking, surprised that something funny happened. If they do not laugh, your stoic demeanor will save you from being the only person in the room with a grin on his face.

Bad lecturers surprise in one way: The end, differing in no way from the rest of the speech, catches the audience blinking in surprise.

This is not you. They don’t call it the climax for nothing. You are going to let them know it is coming. You are going to increase your volume and emotional commitment. You are going to go out fast and strong. You will have something saved for the end that will make them glad they stayed to hear it.

Bad lecturers do not listen.

You listen so that you will be in tune your audience and simpatico with how they are feeling. You will check in on them with a question, the answer for which you will wait.

Bad lecturers run overtime.

You will be done before they expect it. If asked to give a thirty-minute speech, you will prepare a twenty-minute speech, or a fifteen-minute speech. Voltaire said, “Woe to the author determined to teach. The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” A good lecturer leaves material out, and saves something for later.

Your reward for being an uncommonly good lecturer is threefold.

First, your audience will be attentive throughout, and happily surprised at the end.

Second, there is time for Q&A. If you know your subject, and the audience has an interest, Q&A is always better than a lecture. Q&A is your encore.  And you still have some material you saved.

Third, because of your brevity and focus they may remember what you said and tell others. Word of mouth is the way important messages are always carried for all time.

There is the tale of a murder in London at midnight. Two witnesses happen on the scene. Fifteen minutes later, they each tell two others who similarly tell two others, and so on. If this continues, everyone on earth will know of it by morning.

___________________________________________

Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium.  He is a songwriter and concert guitarist with several CD’s in release.  www.soloperformer.com

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How To Make A Toast by Steve Rapson

How To Make A Toast

 It gives me great pleasure. — G. B. Shaw

 George Bernard Shaw offered this toast during a fashionable English dinner party. Back then, it was customary for the host to appoint the toaster as well as supply the subject. Sex was the subject. Since sex was unmentionable in polite society at the turn of the century, this was an amusing attempt to tongue-tie Shaw and quash his legendary wit. The ruse failed as his clever toast lives on a hundred years later.

Toasting is as old as literature. Ulysses drank to the health of Achilles in the Odyssey. In Caesar’s Rome, drinking  to another’s health became so important that the Senate decreed that all diners must drink to Caesar at every meal.

Ancient Greeks toasted the health of friends to assure them the wine was not poisoned since poisoning wine was a common means of dispatching an enemy. Thus it became a symbol of friendship for the host to pour wine from a common pitcher, drink it before his guests, and raise his glass for his friends to do likewise.

The term toast comes from the Roman practice of dropping a piece of burnt bread into the wine.  This was done to temper bad wine. A thousand years later, Falstaff said, “…put toast in’t,” when requesting a jug of wine in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Charcoal reduces the acidity of slightly off wines. Latin tostus, meaning roasted or parched, came to refer to the act and the drink.

The first recorded toast in England was in 450 AD at a feast given by the British King Vortigem for his Saxon allies. Rowena, the beautiful daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist, held up a large goblet and drank to the king, saying, “Louerd King, waes hael!” “Lord King, be of health!” He replied, “Drink hael!” The evening ended with Rowena and Vortigern married. For a thousand years, drinking in Britain was accompanied with the same exchange, although waes hael became wassail.

Northern Europeans drank mead or ale from the skull of a fallen enemy. As did the Scots and Scandinavians. Highland Scottish “skiel” (tub) and the Norse “skoal” (bowl) derive from it.

In the 1700’s, partygoers toasted the health of absent celebrities, especially beautiful women. In this way a woman became the toast of the town. By the 1800’s, toasting was the proper thing to do. A British duke wrote in 1803 that “…every glass during dinner had to be dedicated to someone,’ and to refrain from toasting was considered ‘sottish and rude as if no one present was worth drinking to.’ It was an insult to refrain from toasting a dinner guest, as the duke wrote, “—a piece of direct contempt”.

Today toasting is less formal, and the worse for it. It was a rare moment when I saw a well done toast. I was the leader and MC of a general business orchestra. We played at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs. graduation parties, anniversaries, Christmas parties, clam bakes, frat parties, proms, and at gatherings with no special purpose save fun and games. At each gig, toasts were offered, some willingly and lovingly, some under obligation, some under the influence. I have seen over two thousand toasts offered. I regret to say we are not doing well in the toasting department.

At weddings, unprepared best men offered most of the ineffective, inappropriate toasts. Most were self-conscious and ill at ease. For a day that is so minutely planned otherwise this should not happen. The solution is to make sure that the young man understands his responsibility to the groom, and someone provides guidance if needed. A copy of this article, for example. But business people, professors, and woozy after-dinner hosts have all missed their opportunity to be their best—to say and do the right thing, and honor themselves and their guests.

A toast is a mini speech. To be effective, the same rules apply as for a big speech. If you find it painful to stand in front of a group of people all looking at you—and you cannot get out of doing the toast—then do the following:

Write and memorize your two-line toast, For example: “To Bill and Mindy… health and happiness. Cheers.” Or choose a toast from the many offered at the end of this article. Modify it to fit your special occasion. This is permitted and encouraged.

Then practice.

Practice at home.

Practice standing up, standing tall, and standing still.

Practice picking up the glass.

Practice holding the microphone, if there is one.

Practice looking at the person who is being toasted.

Practice looking at the assembled guests.

Practice taking three deep breaths before you speak.

Practice speaking in a firm clear voice.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest speakers of the 20th Century, said that for each minute of speech one must practice for an hour. Your practice to performance ratio may be greater.

A bit of toast etiquette to keep in mind:

Don’t toast the guest of honor until after the host does. If it appears that the host will not offer a toast, quietly request the host’s indulgence to do so yourself.

Stand when offering a toast unless it is a small, informal group. Standing will get the attention of the group and quiet them down.

Don’t tap on your glass. It is considered slightly gauche in some circles.

Hold your glass up and wait for quiet. You might say, “A toast… ” to encourage attention.

If an appointed toaster is reluctant, don’t insist. They may be unprepared or uncomfortable with impromptu remarks.

Never refuse to participate in a toast. It is more polite and perfectly acceptable to participate with a non-alcoholic beverage or even an empty glass than not at all. My mother, bless her heart, once refused to toast to my glass of water. “I never toast to water,” she declared. It is an old custom and one best not adhered to so publicly.

If you honor your duty as a toast giver, you not only honor yourself and the toastee(s), you show respect for everyone who hears your words.

________________________________________

Toasts for all Occasions

Toasts of Caution

St Patrick was a gentleman

Who through strategy and stealth

Drove all the snakes from Ireland,

Here’s a toasting to his health;

But not too many toastings

Lest you lose yourself and then

Forget the good St Patrick

And see all those snakes again.

___________________________

First the man takes a drink.

Then the drink takes a drink.

Then the drink takes the man.

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

Wine Toasts

To temperance… in moderation.

Lem Motlow

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me

Than a frontal lobotomy.

(Various: Dorothy Parker, Carlton Berenda)

_____________________________

May friendship, like wine, improve as time advances,

And may we always have old wine, old friends, and young cares.

_____________________________

A warm toast, good company.

A fine wine. May you enjoy all three.

_____________________________

Give me wine to wash me clean

From the weather-stains of care.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let us have wine and women

Mirth and laughter,

Sermons and soda-water the day after

Lord Byron

Wine  and Women…

May we always have a taste for both.

Birthday Toasts

 _____________________________

Many happy returns of the day of your birth;

Many blessings to brighten your pathway on earth;

Many friendships to cheer and provoke you to mirth:

Many feastings and frolics to add to your girth.

Robert H. Lord

To wish you joy on your birthday

And all the whole year through,

For all the best that life can hold

Is none too good for you

_____________________________

May he/she grow twice as tall as yourself and half as wise.

_____________________________

A lovely being scarcely formed or molded,

A rose with all its sweetest leaves yet folded

Lord Byron

A new life begun,

Like father, like son.

Like one, like the other,

Like daughter, like mother.

Every baby born into the world

Is a finer one than the last.

_____________________________

Toasts to the Enemy

Here’s to short shoes and long corns to our enemies.

_____________________________

May the devil cut the toes off all our foes,

That we may know them by their limping.

_____________________________

Cause of Death: Life.

_____________________________

May we all come to peaceful ends,

And leave our debts unto our friends.

_____________________________

May you be in Heaven five minutes before the Devil knows you are dead.

_____________________________

General Toasts

I drink to the general joy of the whole table.

Hamlet

 Cheers, no tears!

_____________________________

Ad multos annos–to many years!

_____________________________

May the path to Hell grow green for the lack of travelers.

_____________________________

May you get lost on the road to Hell

And stop in Heaven to ask directions

_____________________________

May you live as long as you want

And may you never want as long as you live.

_____________________________

May you live all the years of your life.

Jonathan Swift

May the road rise to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back,

The sunshine warm upon your face,

The rain fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.

_____________________________

May the best you’ve ever seen

Be the worst you’ll ever see.

_____________________________

Here’s to beauty, wit, and wine,

And to a full stomach, a full purse, and a light heart.

_____________________________

I drink to the days that are.

_____________________________

Here’s to you,

And here’s to me.

Friends forever we shall be,

But—if we should ever disagree,

The hell with you

Here’s to me!

_____________________________

Here’s to you as good as you are.

Here’s to me as bad as I am.

As bad as I am, as good as you are,

I’m as good as you are as bad as I am.

_____________________________

Here’s to cold nights, warm friends, and a good drink to give them.

_____________________________

Here’s to Eternity

May we spend it in as good company as this night finds us.

_____________________________

Here’s to friendship;

May it be reckoned

Long as a lifetime,

Close as a second.

_____________________________

Here’s to you who halves my sorrows and doubles my joys.

_____________________________

May the friends of our youth be the companions of our old age.

_____________________________

May the hinges of friendship never rust, nor the wings of love lose a feather.

_____________________________

Old wood to burn,

Old books to read,

Old wine to drink,

Old friends to trust.

_____________________________

Here’s to true friends:

They know you well and like you just the same.

_____________________________

A speedy calm to the storms of life.

_____________________________

Everybody in life gets the same amount of ice.

The rich get it in the summer and the poor in the winter

Here’s a health to poverty; it sticks by us when our friends forsake us.

_____________________________

Here’s to thee my honest friend,

Wishing these hard time to mend.

_____________________________

It is best to rise from life as from the banquet,

Neither thirsty nor drunken.

_____________________________

Love to one, friendship to many,

And good will to all.

_____________________________

May our faults be written on the seashore,

And every good action prove a wave to wash them out.

_____________________________

May the most you wish for be the least you get.

_____________________________

Here’s hoping that you live forever

And mine is the last voice you hear.

Willard Scott

Love Toasts

One drink is good.

Two at the most.

Three under the table.

Four under the host.

_____________________________

To our wives and sweethearts.

May they never meet.

_____________________________

Here’s to love and unity,

Dark corners and opportunity.

_____________________________

Here’s to the land we love and the love we land.

_____________________________

Here’s to the water,

Wishing it were wine

Here’s to you, my darling,

Wishing you were mine.

_____________________________

Hogamus Higamus

Men are Polygamous

Higamus, Hogamus

Women, Monogamous

_____________________________

Anniversary & Wedding Toasts

To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with.

Mark Twain

Here’s to you both, a beautiful pair,

On the birthday of your love affair.

_____________________________

A toast to love and laughter and happily ever after.

_____________________________

Let anniversaries come and let anniversaries go—

But may your happiness continue on forever.

_____________________________

May the warmth of our affections

Survive the frosts of age.

_____________________________

To your coming anniversaries

May they be outnumbered only by your coming pleasures.

_____________________________

Don’t make love by the garden gate.

Love is blind but the neighbors ain’t!

_____________________________

The man or woman you really love will never grow old to you.

Through the wrinkles of time, through the bowed frame of years,

You will always see the dear face and feel the

Warm heart union of your eternal love.

Alfred A. Montapert

Happy marriages begin when we marry the one we love,

And they blossom when we love the one we married.

Sam Levenson

 Health and Happiness!

_____________________________

May their joys be as bright as the morning,

And their sorrows but shadows that fade.

May their joys be as deep as the ocean

And their misfortunes as light as the foam.

_____________________________

To Marriage: A community consisting of a master,

A mistress, and two slaves

Making in all, two.

_____________________________

May you grow old on one pillow.

_____________________________

Grow old with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life,

For which, the first is made.

Robert Browning

Love does not consist in gazing at each other,

But in looking outward in the same direction.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

To my wife, my bride and joy.

_____________________________

May we all be present at their Golden Wedding  Anniversary.

_____________________________

May the saddest days of your future,

be only as sad as the happiest days of your past.

Listen Up by Steve Rapson

Most people don’t, won’t, or can’t listen. Especially in social situations. They are too busy thinking about what they will say when that other person stops talking. I used to be so afflicted. Through years of practice I have nearly overcome my non-listening ways.

I have learned to practice active listening when conversing with others. When it is my turn to talk, I show that I heard them by referring to what they have said. And since I want them to hear me as well, I try to be entertaining and succinct. A good conversation is like a game of volley ball: you can hit the ball once, twice, up to three times on your side, but then you have to hit it back. Every game has rules and some are unspoken.

So I practice listening. And when I read why listening is important, I am motivated to do more of it, better. Here is an excerpt on the subject:

Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings

by Brenda Ueland

…I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love.  And least of all — which is so important too — to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. 

Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays. This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies.

Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good. Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice?  Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself…

Ms. Ueland’s article continues for several insightful pages. I found it powerful and motivating. Perhaps you will as well. You’ll find the entire PDF file here: Tell Me More

As I become more mindful of what it takes to listen to others, I see how hard it is for any of us to do it. You may find amusing a couple of experiences I have had in this arena.

A few years ago, Rosemary and I met a couple for dinner. It was a getting to know you session and I said to Rosemary as we drove to the restaurant, “Let’s play a game with our new friends. We won’t tell anything about ourselves unless they ask us a direct question.  And, if they do ask, we’ll answer in two or three sentences and then ask another question about them.”

“Sounds like fun,” she said.

“It’s fun to see who passes the five minute test,” I said.

“What’s that?” Rosemary asked.

“When you meet someone new,” I explained, “If they haven’t asked about you within five minutes, they failed the test.”

“Well, that’s not very nice,” she said, “To subject people to a test they don’t know about.”

“It hardly works if you tell them,” I said, “Besides we’re so fascinating I’m sure they’ll want to know all about us.”

You may not believe this, but we spent two hours at dinner with this very nice couple and we never once said a thing about ourselves: our home, jobs, hobbies, travels… we never even mentioned our high achieving children. Though we heard all about theirs. We heard everything about them in great detail. But because we waited to be asked about ourselves, to have the ball hit to our side of the net, we never got to play. And these people were high level types.  He was a top sales rep for a Fortune 50 company; she ran her own home based business.

Rosemary was astounded. It was her first experience with mindful social conversation. She told me it required all her effort to not tell about her own terrific children in response to hearing about theirs.  We were not asked, we did not tell.

We weren’t ignored. We never got the chance to be ignored.

I don’t like to be ignored. Who does?  So I have built conversational defense mechanisms to help avoid it. If I meet someone who needs to talk more than listen, I am happy to be their listener. (Not that happy, perhaps, but better than being ignored). Especially as others have been a listener for me when that’s what I needed most. Although I prefer a back and forth according to the rules, I can talk or listen as the situation reveals.

Sometimes I misread the social dynamic, and am punished for it.

An acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Gabby, was performing at a local venue recently. He is a fine musician. In the past we have consulted, formally, about how he might break through to the next level as an entertainer. At that consulting session I learned Gabby was not interested in listening to me, but rather, in me listening to him. So that’s what I did. After much listening on my part, Gabby asked me how much he owed me for the session. How could I take any money? I am not a licensed therapist. So I said a big piece of fruit pie would be sufficient. Besides, his wife was most charming and a great listener. Even better, she laughed at all my little gags.

Back to the venue. Armed with the knowledge that Gabby is listening challenged, I was prepared to be monosyllabic whenever I saw him socially. I was disarmed, however, when he asked about my recent cross-country trip.

Since I had done gigs around the country and sold out of all my books and CD’s, I thought Gabby might actually have an interest on how I did this. So I began to talk about it. In less than fifteen seconds (I am not exaggerating here) Gabby turned to the man on his left to comment on the new instrument he was holding. They began conversing about it, and drifted away from me.

I was annoyed with myself. I was tricked into talking to a non-listener, especially since I knew him to be a non-listener. The trick by the way is that he asked about me. Few of us are immune to that. Non-listeners never ask about you. If they do, it is to set themselves up to talk about themselves.

Most people, even non-listeners, have the social skills to gracefully exit a conversation, thus allowing you to save a little face. Gabby did not. I was caught open-mouthed and abandoned in mid-sentence. A most awkward position. And I amplified the situation by presuming Gabby would eventually drift back in my direction. Wrong again. So, I stood there far too long with fading smile, waiting for him to attend my fascinating story about which he had asked (and had heard but a few seconds of). But not to be. Gabby was off to another conversation, as I dangled in a social no man’s land.

Gracefully and unobtrusively–I hoped–I sidled off to another part of the room: embarrassed, annoyed, and more determined to not get caught flapping my jaw at Gabby again. Further, I did not listen to his concert. Like a spoiled boy with hurt feelings–quite true–I sat outside and played my guitar during his set.

Later that night, I was sitting with his charming wife, a great listener as I mentioned. Gabby joined us. Here I committed an obvious error of omission: I did not say, “Great set, Gabby!”  Which is de rigueur at these events.

My omission, of course, was intentional. My feelings were hurt and I uncharitably wanted to hurt back. I suspect my gaffe did not go unnoticed. It is probable that on the way home Gabby said to his wife something like, “Gee, Steve seemed unhappy about something.” Whereupon his wife, no fool, and knowing her husband well, probably said, “Did you do something to annoy him?”  This might have prompted Gabby to review the evening. No fool himself, he sent me the following note a week later:

Steve, I keep meaning to apologize to you for cutting you off in 
the middle of what promised to be a very interesting description 
of your amazing cross-country trip...I'm not quite sure how that 
happened but I am sure that it felt very odd to me at the time. 
At any rate, I really did want to hear about your trip and
still do. Please accept my apology for something that must have 
involved me in the heat of the moment. You have always been 
nothing less than generous with your time & efforts on my behalf 
whenever I have had questions and problems. I hope I didn't 
offend you.

Of course, I felt small and petty upon receiving this note.  I should have cut Gabby some slack, which I normally would do anyway.  My motto: forgive, forget and move on.  Especially since I have had much slack cut for me over the years. Seeing the high road is easier than taking it.  Though I continue to try.

The moral I take from these little social dramas is that we are all wrapped up with our own thoughts. We have busy minds and lives. It is only with the greatest concentration that we can come up for air and pay attention to the busy minds and lives of others. Listeners who can perform that little trick are sent by God to serve those of us who need it most.

I hope to pass your five minute test should ever we meet.

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Recommend Reading:

Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening by Brenda Ueland

How To Speak, How To Listen by Mortimer Adler

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Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & PodiumHe is a concert guitarist and song writer with several CDs in release.