A time to talk gives way to the painfully obvious

Several weeks ago I was invited to give a talk to a group of journalism students, many of who are harboring hopes of starting a career in the print or broadcast industries.

Each time I'm asked to give a presentation, I am reminded of a comment by a noted orator about the art of speechmaking. He claimed that anytime you give a talk, you unwittingly deliver three speeches in one.

First off, he said, there is the speech you intended to give. Secondly, there is the speech you did indeed give. And finally, there is the speech your audience wished you had given.

That synopsis dovetailed nicely with another piece of advice I received early in my career from a gifted speechmaker, who boiled down the art into easily understandable terms, otherwise known as "The Three B's."

(1) Be Sincere.

(2) Be Brief.

(3) Be Seated.

The third element, not surprisingly, is the trickiest for those who tend to blather on, seemingly oblivious to an audience that began nodding off 10 minutes into the proceedings. That said, I try to keep my remarks short and somewhat sweet, hoping to give the audience at least one nugget worth remembering.

During this most recent speech, I trotted out an "exercise" that I have used on a number of occasions to various student groups. It involved a short quiz that has been taken by students from the junior high to graduate school level. Generally speaking, the younger the student, the better the test score. The quiz revolves around this set of circumstances:

It was cold, so cold in fact that John's teeth were chattering as he searched for shelter against the brutal northwesterly winds. John had set out on a leisurely cross country ski trip that afternoon, but a sudden snowstorm had caught him off guard, unprepared for what stood ahead. He had dressed lightly for the cross country ski trek, knowing from experience that it never took long to work up a good sweat, even in bitter cold weather.

But this day would be different, as John soon discovered. The snowstorm had reduced visibility to just a few feet and John suddenly was lost miles from home with nothing to eat or drink and darkness closing in. By chance, he came upon a cabin, tucked among some towering pine trees. He knocked on the door, but nobody answered. The door was open, so he let himself in to get out of the numbing cold. The place was dark and cold, but the cabin had a fireplace, an oil lantern, a kerosene heater, and a gas stove for cooking. But John had a problem. He had a match, but only one.

"Which item," John asked, "should I light first?"

The answer, which on average more than half of the students miss, is the most obvious the match.

The point of the exercise is that students and journalists in particular should never overlook the obvious and, as a corollary, never assume anything.

I've learned that lesson the hard way many times over the course of a 35-year career in the newspaper business. Who could have known that there are a multitude of ways to spell "Tom," such as "Tomm," "Thom," or "Tam." I whiffed on them all, paying a somewhat heavy price the next day once the misspelling was in print.

Years before my "Tom" tale of woe, I received a particularly painful comeuppance after we published a winter sports supplement featuring pictures and stories on all the local high school sports teams.

Our leadoff photo was a six-column shot of the wrestling team, the defending conference champions and a squad in line for state tournament glory. The photo, which was snapped by one of the professional photographers in town, was a razor-sharp shot, highlighted by six returning stars seated in the front row, each with his middle finger extended in a camouflaged sort of way.

I missed it. The photographer missed it. In all, probably another dozen set of eyes missed it before 5,500 copies of the supplement were delivered to subscribers across the community.

The school athletic director, a plainspoken kind of guy, didn't miss it. In fact, he let me know about it within a nanosecond of the supplement crossing his desk, sticking his finger in my face as I backpedaled from his wrath.

Several days later, after the storm over "Finger-gate" had somewhat subsided, a subscriber called to say that we were in "good company." Sports Illustrated, the popular magazine that reaches millions of subscribers each week, had been similarly victimized. A year or so earlier, three members of the Super Bowl winning Miami Dolphins appeared on an S.I. cover flipping the proverbial bird, setting a less than stellar example for young athletes across the country to follow.

While it was comforting to know that even the best of the best get buffaloed at times, it offered little solace when I opened an over-sized envelope at work the next day. In it was a finger just one with my name emblazoned upon it, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of the daily need to pay heed to the obvious.

Published: Mon, Dec 01, 2014

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