The Art of Speaking  

A common tongue

If we all spoke the same language, we'd understand each other perfectly. And then we'd really be in trouble.

By John Cadley
Toastmaster magazine

If you can't understand someone who speaks a language other than your own, blame it on Nimrod, the biblical king who tried to build a tower reaching all the way to heaven.

This was of course, the famed Tower of Babel, and when the Principal Occupant of the celestial abode saw what Nimrod was doing, He didn't much care for the idea.

The Almighty had made it perfectly clear how human beings could get to heaven, and taking an elevator to the sky deck wasn't one of them.

At that time all peoples of the Earth spoke the same language, and God determined that this was the problem — i.e., a single people speaking a single language could accomplish just about anything, and that was His job, not theirs.

Hence, He said, “Let us go down and confuse their language … so they can no longer understand each other.” This is why the Tower of Babel's men's room was marked “GIFT SHOP.”

t's also why the world today has some 6,500 languages, providing steady employment for generations of United Nations interpreters, not to mention the company that supplies the headphones.

Fast-forward a few millennia to 19th century Russia and we meet a Polish ophthal­mologist named Ludwik Zamenhof, who begged to differ with the Creator.

He believed that separate languages divide people, leading to tribalism, xenophobia and conflict. Unify language and you will unify mankind in peace and brotherhood, so he reasoned.

The fact that his wife, who did speak the same language as Dr. Zamenhof, kept telling him “You're not hearing what I'm saying” appears not to have entered into his thinking.

The good doctor didn't just believe in a universal language; he created one and published it in a book called Unua Libro, using the pen name Dr. Esperanto, which means “one who hopes” — an understatement if ever there was one.

We must remember this was at a time when Russia had just finished invading the Caucasus in what can only be described as a not very nice way.

To think that if the Russians and Caucasians simply spoke the same language they would forget centuries of tribal hatred and hold hands dancing around a bonfire … well, yes, that would be hopeful. Delusional is another word that comes to mind.

However, I am here not to bury the man but to praise him. He was a true idealist who made a real effort to make the world a better place.

Would you spend years developing a language described as “lexically predominantly Romanic, morphologically intensively agglutinative, with phonology, grammar, vocabulary and semantics based on Indo-European languages,” offering a sound ­inventory essentially Slavic, and a vocabulary deriving primarily from the Romance languages, with a lesser contribution from Germanic, Slavic and Greek languages —all while running a medical practice and raising a family.

I say give the man a cigar.

Nor were his efforts totally in vain. An estimated two million people speak Esperanto today, comprising 0.03 per cent of the world's population — which doesn't exactly fit the definition of “universal” but still … the language lives. Or at least it's on life support.

For one thing, there was a “self-proclaimed artificial island micro-nation” named Rose Island that used Esperanto as its official language.

The idea of something being artificially official strikes me as odd, but if it was self-proclaimed, in a place nobody could find on a map, who could argue?

There is also a movement to make Esperanto the official language of the European Union. Now, that might actually stand a chance if it weren't for Brexit.

Unfortunately, if the English don't want to share a common currency they probably won't adopt a common language that has them asking for a cup of tea by saying,
“Cu mi povas havu tason da teo?”

Ultimately, you might say Esperanto is like 3D TV — a nice idea that never caught on. And I know why. It's too nice. You can't insult anyone, which — let's face it—is the most creative part of any language.

Think of the brilliant French put-down T'as une tête a faire sauter les plaques d'egouts! (“You've got a face that would blow off manhole covers.”)

That, folks, is genius.

Would you have it replaced with Vi havas vizaĝon kiu blovos la kovrilon de kloako?

Not me.

John Cadley is a former advertising copywriter, freelance writer and musician living in Fayetteville, New York.

What was I saying?

What to do when your train of thought is derailed

By Diane Windingland
Toastmaster magazine

Two-hundred pairs of eyeballs are on you after you’ve just delivered a dramatic, beautifully crafted sentence for a memorized district contest speech.

Then, your mind goes completely blank. You stare back at the audience with a deer-in-headlights expression for what seems like an eternity as you frantically grope for the next phrase. You can’t believe it, but you have no idea what to say next.

Losing your train of thought can happen if you aren’t well prepared. But it can also happen if you have been diligent in your preparation and did your best to memorize your speech.

Memorizing your speech can actually cause problems, like sounding too rehearsed or unnatural. It can also lead to an increased risk of “blanking.”

Imagine that every time you practise your speech with the exact same words, you are creating a deep rut, a well-worn path in your memory with no alternate paths.

When you present the speech in a stressful situation (which could be in a different room, or in front of a different audience), you can be thrown off your well-worn path. And, without alternate paths, you become lost.

If you “Internalize; don’t memorize” your speech as Darren LaCroix, 2001 world champion of public speaking, suggests, you can reduce the likelihood of blanking.

Having recovery tactics in place will greatly reduce your anxiety, and you may be able to recover without your audience realizing you had a memory lapse. After all, they don’t know what you are going to say next, so if you change it up a bit, they may think you planned it that way.

Recovery Tactics

Pause. Pause for a couple of beats. Give yourself a moment to remember where you were. The audience will likely think you paused for effect.

Maintain eye contact. As you pause, maintain eye contact with a single person. Looking at one person (versus scanning) can be calming.

Rewind. Repeat the last sentence or phrase. This gives your mind both time to think and a little “restart” jolt. One way to do this is to end the last sentence of one point with a word or phrase that you will use to begin the next point.

For example, “There are only three things to worry about: bad food, bad people and bad breath. Bad breath is a bigger problem than many people realize.”

The phrase “bad breath” is positioned at the end of the first sentence to serve as a trigger for the next sentence.

Fast-forward. Jump ahead to content you do remember. At some point in your speech you may remember what you were going to say earlier. You can work it in when it occurs to you, and you may even prefer the new arrangement.

Take a sip of water. You will look in control and relaxed. Of course, your mind may be racing. (If possible, drink from a glass instead of a bottle as you’ll look more professional.)

Check your notes. Hopefully, you have just a few key words in a large font, as opposed to a page full of detailed notes, so your panic won’t intensify as you scan them.

Go to the next slide. If you are using PowerPoint, you can use it as a teleprompter, to jog your memory. (But avoid reading every word on the slides aloud.)

Smile. Smile like you have a secret and just look at the audience for a while. You will look confident and the audience will anticipate your next phrase almost as much as you are.

Have back-up content. Have a short, relevant anecdote to share — a good idea for any presentation, to allow for flexible timing.

Get the audience involved. Initiate a short Q&A session, or have audience members pair up to discuss an important point or do an activity. While they do that, you can review your notes.

Make fun of your memory lapse and build rapport. “I have completely blanked!” (laugh). “Has that ever happened to you? My grandson says I have ‘old-timers’ disease. Now, where was I?”

Have a recovery plan. Proactively practise a “blanking” recovery plan like this one. It’s like a disaster drill for speaking.

Don’t freeze like a deer in headlights and get run over by panicked anxiety. ­

Review these recovery tactics, or create your own recovery plan for the next time you lose your train of thought.

Diane Windingland is a pre­sentation coach from St. Paul, Minn., and a member of two clubs: PowerTalk Toastmasters and Readership Toast­masters. Learn more at www.virtualspeechcoach.com

The art of conversation

By Celeste Headlee
Toastmaster magazine

Talking well and conversing well are not the same thing.

We often make the mistake of thinking someone is a good conversationalist because they’re funny, witty or tell good stories. But that’s what a stand-up comedian does well, and you’d hardly describe an evening at a comedy show as a conversation.

It’s best to remember what a true conversation is and what it is not. If one person is dominating the conversation — talking about what they’re doing, what they believe or what they know—that’s similar to a lecture. One person is supplying information, and the other person is mostly absorbing that information or tuning out.

A conversation is also not a debate. A debate is an adversarial exchange, even when it’s civil, in which two people are putting forth arguments for opposing sides. While a debate can be productive and informative, it’s not a conversation.

Many so-called “conversations” really consist of two people saying what they know or think. Neither is really listening to the other; they’re often repeating things they’ve said before, and the exchange is focused on each individual’s thoughts, ideas and needs.

Engaged Listening

A conversation is a mutual exchange of ideas. To have a real conversation, you must hear what the other person is saying, think about it and then respond. Sadly, this kind of exchange is not common. We often don’t hear everything someone says.

Instead, we listen to the first 5–10 seconds and then stop listening and simply wait for them to stop talking so we can say what we want to say.

As notable author and keynote speaker Stephen Covey said, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.”

The most essential component of a good conversation is engaged listening, but it doesn’t come easily.

Ralph Nichols, known as the “father of listening,” wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review with Leonard Stevens in 1957 after years of studying human listening skills and said,

“People in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills that would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.”

Listening is hard because it requires that you be focused and present. In an era of smartphones and other distractions, it’s difficult to practice mindfulness.

But even if your phone never makes a sound, you may be less focused when it’s near because your brain is prepared for it to make noise. Because your brain knows you might receive a text, email or other notification at any time, it may remain on constant alert.

Research shows that typical daily stress can cause your IQ to drop about 10 points because your brain is in fight-or-flight mode most of the day. But the cognitive cost you pay is higher than that.

Since that phone causes your mind to be in a constant state of stress, the prefrontal cortex is too busy to help you listen or respond to what you hear during a conversation.

The prefrontal cortex is involved with executive decisions, planning, impulse control and complex thought.

While your phone is visible and keeping your prefrontal cortex busy dealing with stress, you are not making good decisions, planning for the future or controlling your impulses.There’s a good chance your conversation could go awry under those circumstances.

The ‘Liking Gap’

Another obstacle to engaged listening is our own fear. For some time, social scientists have struggled to understand why we avoid in-person contact and face-to-face conversations.

As a social species, conversation is beneficial for us. Regular in-person socialization can extend your lifespan, strengthen your immune system and stave off depression and heart disease. So why would people stare at their phones on the subway and avoid making eye contact with others?

When researchers forced people to start conversations with strangers on trains, in waiting rooms and at coffee shops, the participants ended up enjoying themselves.

They also reported they were no less productive than if they’d kept to themselves. And yet, when these subjects were asked if they would start more conversations in the future, most answered no.


As it turns out, we get in the way of our own enjoyment and well-being. A recent study showed that often, we are so caught up worrying about saying the right thing or being witty, we don’t notice that the other person is enjoying our company.

This is called the “liking gap” and it means we tend to significantly underestimate how much other people like us. We’re stuck in our own heads, afraid we will say the wrong thing.

While we obsess about what we’re saying and how we’re coming off, we don’t have time to really pay attention to what another person is saying. Sadly, this is also what prevents us from engaging in conversation in many circumstances: our fear that we’ll say the wrong thing or be judged negatively by the other person.

That means the first step to listening well and enjoying a good conversation is to let go of your fear. Rest assured that the vast majority of conversations you have, whether they be with a loved one or an acquaintance, will lift your mood, engage your mind productively and improve your health.

Finding Balance

The next step is to allow the other person to speak as often as you do. Keep in mind that you can’t control other people’s behaviour. That means you can’t prevent them from talking too much, interrupting you or rambling on about irrelevant subjects.

Therefore, it’s best not to expend mental energy worrying about someone else’s conversational etiquette and instead focus on what you can control — namely, your own habits.

Pay attention to how often you allow the other person a chance to respond. The best conversations resemble a friendly game of catch, in that there’s a perfect balance between throwing and catching.

Attention spans have been shrinking for at least the past two decades, so if you talk for more than 30 seconds at a time, it’s likely you’ve lost the other person’s focus.

Help them stay engaged and remain focused by keeping it brief. An easy way to do that and to ensure what you’ve said will be understood and remembered is to talk about one thing at a time. Many of us are in the habit of telling everything we know on a subject or telling too many stories.

If someone asks what you did over the weekend, don’t start with Friday afternoon and give them all the details you can remember. Instead, give the bullet points and then allow them to respond.

Alternatively, you could focus on one aspect:

“We went paddling on Saturday. We were on the water for about four hours, and it was really fun. There were four of us, and we each had our own kayak. Brandon forgot sunscreen and got burned, but it was a great day.”

That story takes about 20 seconds to tell and, if you stop there, it’s likely the other person will have some questions.

Imagine conversation as a game of tennis in which you are constantly hitting the ball back to the other side. Remember that you already know everything you’re going to say and, if you’re going to learn something new, you’re going to have to listen to someone else. 

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, public radio host, speaker and expert in communication. She is the author of if We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. Learn more at atwww.celesteheadlee.com.


Want success? Try happiness

By Lauren Parsons
Toastmaster magazin

Scientific research suggests that success does not lead to happiness, but that the opposite is true.

Happiness has a profound effect on brain function and significantly increases individual performance, leading to greater success.

If you focus on boosting your personal well-being, you will be a better leader and communicator to the benefit of your company, your Toastmasters club and your family and friends.

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first to promote positive psychology as a field of scientific study while serving as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998.

This approach to psychology challenged what Seligman refers to as “the disease model” and focuses not on what’s wrong with people but instead on what’s right with them.

“Psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness,” Seligman says in a 2004 TED Talk, adding that researchers are developing measures of “what makes life worth living” and “different forms of happiness.”

Shawn Achor, a leader in the field of positive psychology and founder of GoodThink Inc. and the Institute for Applied Positive Research, has found that increased happiness leads to “a 23 per cent reduction in stress, 39 per cent improvement in health and 31 per cent improvement in productivity.”

Specifically, Achor found that happiness leads to increased cognitive function, improved problem-solving ability, increased memory and retention, higher accuracy and greater creativity.

All of these things give happy people a significant advantage, allowing them to perform at their peak. Imagine how keeping your brain in positive mode could affect your next speech or conversation with your friend, boss or spouse.

Through his work in 50 countries, including with Fortune 100 companies, Achor discovered that happy people work smarter and produce significantly better results. They stay in an organization longer and are more engaged in achieving its vision.

How to Be Happy

Below are four practical strategies to use in and out of Toastmasters to keep your brain in “positive mode” and create the “happiness advantage.”

Practice gratitude

Gratitude and thankfulness are cornerstones of every Toastmasters meeting. Skilled evaluators congratulate and encourage speakers, offering practical suggestions and support by highlighting speakers’ strengths, just as positive psychology focuses on strengths versus weaknesses.

The human brain is designed to scan the world for danger, which often means focusing first on the negatives. People are inclined to notice when things go wrong more often than when they go right. A disgruntled customer or broken equipment tends to get the attention, whereas people doing daily tasks well are often overlooked.

Leaders can shift this paradigm by “catching” people doing things right and thanking them on the spot. Immediate and specific feedback creates a nurturing environment in which people thrive, because prompt, affirmative reinforcement increases positive behaviour and motivation — people do more of what they are thanked for.

This is why genuine praise is one of the best parenting, relationship and management techniques available. 

Actively encourage kindness

You can rarely give a gift without getting something back yourself. As we give out “random acts of kindness,” we feel a deep level of contentment that keeps our brains in positive mode. Kind acts also deepen social connection, a key indicator of happiness.

The New Zealand College of Fitness fosters kindness by ending team meetings with each staff member awarding a gold star to a colleague, publicly explaining why that person was chosen. The gold stars go up on a large wall chart to track progress toward rewards.

This one small practice creates immense positivity; staff members are more inclined to help one another and feel valued hearing direct compliments from co-workers.

Be intentional and set yourself a goal. See how many acts of kindness you can do each week and share your stories with others. It will encourage a culture where people continue to “pay it forward,” not only making someone else’s day brighter but also boosting their own happiness.

Don’t forget to move

Our physiology directly affects our psychology. Frequent movement is beneficial for both bodies and brains, improving creativity, focus and efficiency. Exercise augments neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing both short- and long-term happiness.

The good news for busy people is that studies show that even short intervals of exercise can be more effective than longer periods at a lower output. Try to integrate movement throughout your day by taking regular “deskercise” breaks, even for just 60 seconds.

This will not only put your brain in positive mode and leave you feeling more alert, it will also increase your productivity. 

Recharge in rhythm

Learn how to tune in to internal body-clock rhythms and pay attention when it’s time to take a break — when you become distracted, tired, thirsty, hungry, fidgety or frustrated.

It is possible to ignore these signals, say if you have a report deadline looming and just don’t want to stop; your body will go into fight or flight mode, pushing through with a burst of adrenaline.

This is acceptable from time to time, but if you continue this practice day in and day out, you will reach a chronic state of stress, which has serious health consequences.

To refocus, create a change of state by spending a few minutes outside, standing, walking around or stretching. Your brain will be sharper, allowing you to complete your work faster and with greater accuracy, all saving time and making you happier and more productive than when you simply “push on through.”

By fostering a thankful attitude, intentionally spreading kindness, integrating uplifting movement into your day and taking time out in rhythm with your body, you will not only increase your personal, physical and emotional well-being but also fundamentally improve your performance and experience greater success in all areas of life.

Lauren Parsons is an award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who equips and inspires people to boost their health and happiness, for life. Get a free copy of Lauren's e-book and register for updates at www.laurenparsons.co.nz.

More The Art of Speaking articles

About the Author

The mission of a Toastmaster Club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment that offers every member the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.

There are eight Toastmasters clubs in the Central Okanagan.

For more information and/or to find a club near you, check http://www.toastmasters.org.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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