Archive for June, 2008

That Podium Is REALLY An X-Ray Machine!

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Ursuline Academy of Dallas is a college preparatory school for young women at which Speech is a required subject. For the past 4 of their 100+ year history, I’ve taught a summer school Speech class there. Most of my students – if given a choice – would be happily sleeping late or earning some summer cash, rather than hanging with Mr. Tanner (and – for several of them – I’m sure that “hanging” feels like an apt metaphor.) They are draftees, not volunteers. So this year, I decided to let them in on a little secret which has a direct application for them, and which could have implications for you, the next time you are called upon to speak to a group or are listening to another speaker.

You see, a lot of folks think that a podium is an object designed to hold our speeches or notes. But what it really is, is an X-ray machine that allows the audience to look straight into a speaker’s soul.

I’m not kidding, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating. Whether the speaker is delivering a wedding toast or a keynote address, their words almost always tell us more about themselves than the topic at hand. For instance, we learn fairly quickly whether they feel passionately about their subject, or if they have taken the time and effort to craft memorable phrases.

For those who are especially glib or who have a wealth of speaking experience which lends a patina to their oratory, it may take a series of such “snapshots” to show their true selves. (But hey! – we often need multiple X-rays, as well.) Even so – as this year’s presidential candidates have proved, again and again – ultimately, the podium eventually reveals all.

This is why – from Day 1 – I always encourage my students to speak from their hearts, to write-edit-and re-write for clarity and conversational tone, and to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse (as in “practice makes perfect.”) Because I am primarily dealing with novice speakers, such actions also help minimize Performance Anxiety, better known as Stage Fright.

A standard cure for Stage Fright used to be for the speaker to picture his listeners naked. (It was thought to make audiences less intimidating to nervous speakers.) But really, it’s the speakers themselves who bare all. And that’s the “secret” truth about the podium that I’ve shared with my class.

(From here on in, I’d better have nothing to hide. Someone will be looking right through me!)

Getting Our Money’s Worth (By Paying MORE)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Although I’m not usually acrophobic (afraid of heights) or claustrophobic (fearful of enclosed spaces), I found myself suffering from both yesterday when a traffic jam pinned me like a butterfly at precisely the top of “The High 5″ – our town’s biggest highway overpass. Sitting there, unable to go forward or back, and swaying in the wind (which – no matter what the structural engineers say – just feels wrong atop a concrete and steel structure), I couldn’t help but think: “Wow – this overpass was built by the lowest bidder!”

I’m as fond of making a shrewd financial deal as the next guy (and the next guy – the one in the Prius – didn’t look any more thrilled up on top of the High 5 than I did). But I will gladly pay a premium for certain vendors’ services, just because those particular folks are so completely reliable that they reduce my stress level to almost zero.

When the stakes are high (like at a wedding, for instance), you want caterers, florists, bands, and photographers who get everything right the first time. You don’t want your budget camera guy (Cousin Phil’s son-in-law Hermie) to run out of film at a critical juncture in the proceedings. At those moments, you might wish you hadn’t tried to save a couple of bucks. (Hiring “Harry’s House Of Day-Old Flowers” could possibly come back to kick you, too.)

Besides, there is usually not all that much difference in the actual price (as opposed to the advertised one) of a part-time, semi-pro vendor and a full-time, full-service professional.

Given the choice of saving a few bucks on someone whose lack of experience or work ethic may send my blood pressure into the Mt. St. Helen’s range at an event I’m hosting, or of being a little bit poorer but a whole lot calmer – I usually go for broke (so to speak.) I can always make more money, but I’ve only got one heart. I want to keep it ticking as long as possible.

Which – come to think of it – is also a good reason to avoid the High 5, every time I can.

Glasses And Bottles On The Dance Floor = TROUBLE

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Warning: there can be a major disconnect between the elegant reception you’ve planned, and the frat party some of your guests apparently think they are attending.

This “kegger” mentality extends to the dance floor, where – instead of leaving their glasses or beer bottles at their tables – the spiritual heirs of John Belushi in “Animal House” bring their bubbly with them. Soon, expensive dresses and suits worn by innocent bystanders are being splashed with brew. Then inevitably – sooner or later – a glass or bottle is dropped onto the dance floor. And that’s when the real harm to your party begins.

It happened at a reception my band and I played this weekend. In fact, it happened twice within a span of 15 minutes. The first time, we were lucky. A beer bottle miraculously stayed intact when hitting the venue’s concrete floor. Of course, beer sloshed everywhere, so all dancing stopped while a clean-up crew mopped the floor.

Only a few minutes later, a wine glass smashed to smithereens at almost exactly the same place. A barefoot bridesmaid cut her foot. Shards scattered – or were tracked on the shoes of oblivious dancers – 20 feet in every direction. This time, not only was the dancing halted, but the room lights were also turned on. The carefully-nurtured ambience of the evening vanished. Dancers left the floor, never to return. For all intents and purposes, the party was over.

How can you prevent a similar early end to your perfectly-planned evening?

Well, you could not invite anyone named “Otter,” “Flounder,” or Senator Blutarsky. You could go alcohol-free. Or, you can make your expectations known to all the kids’ rowdy friends. Pass the word that – despite the presence of booze – this ain’t a kegger!

Or, you could book the Delta house for your reception. At least that way, cleaning up will be their problem.

Surviving The Dreaded TEEN PARTY

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Did you ever notice that the mere utterance of two words can strike cold fear into the hearts of the bravest parents? Those shiver-inducing syllables: teen party.

We immediately have visions of wrecked furniture, rampaging hormones, police responding to neighbor complaints, and… Oh, wait! I’m remembering OUR teen parties! Kharma has now made it our turn to suffer exactly the way our parents did. (Somewhere, our folks are laughing their keesters off.)

For starters, just look at the dances kids do today – disgusting! And the music – if you could even call it music – it’s nothing but noise! (Wow – we really do sound just like our own parents, don’t we?)

But in that Rap, Snap, and Hip-Hop is a partial solution to your growing sense of dread. Because – as long as the kids are dancing – they’re not doing something else worse. So – how can you keep them on the dance floor as long as possible?

1. Let the girls pick the music. The boys from son Erik’s high school were into Classic Rock, which was great for me as a chaperone, but didn’t fill the dance floor. Downloading the girls’ favorites from i-Tunes resulted in a gaggle of gals packing the floor to joyously scream “Since you’ve been gone!” and other oldies (from 2006) in time with the music. And – wherever the females were – the boys followed. Obviously, some of today’s pop tunes have R-rated lyrics, so it’s comforting to know that all but the worst of these are also available in PG versions.

2. Remember that YOU liked it loud, too. In order to give kids the bone-rattling beat they like, but not induce permanent hearing loss, I recommend elevating the speakers above the heads (and ears) of your teens. Because there are no bodies obstructing the sound waves, the amplifier volume can actually be turned down to something less than jet engine-level, without the teens being any the wiser.

3. White lights are un-cool. Colored lights are way-cool. If you are the father of a teenaged girl, darkness on the dance floor is your enemy. But you remember from your own youth that kids shrink like vampires from anything resembling light. The solution? Strategically-placed red and blue-gelled spotlights, and plenty of them. They provide enough light for you to monitor who’s doing what, while adding to the disco ambience for the revelers. And – in the “I Would Never Do This, But” Department – the current crop of digital video cameras have military-quality light enhancing properties. Under the guise of shooting a bit of home video, you can see clearly through the viewfinder in almost-pitch darkness. (But I didn’t tell you that.)

4. Leave the dancing to the kids. They really don’t want to see your renditions of the Bump, Hustle, or Boogaloo. In fact, they don’t want to see you on the dance floor at all. So – if you feel like dancing – wait ’til it’s your party.

Oh – and one last thing: good luck. What? I said GOOD LUCK!!! WHAT? Oh, never mind.

Celebrating Your “Champagne” Anniversary (Number 40)

Monday, June 16th, 2008

A few months after her 38th birthday, the lovely Gina Tanner jokingly suggested that one of our band’s open-to-the-public parties be in honor of her 40th. She danced the night away, had a great time, and – incidentally – looked stunning. When asked why she picked that particular evening to celebrate – 19 months ahead of the actual date – she responded: “Because years from now, when everyone looks at the pictures from tonight, they’ll say ‘Wow! You looked terrific for 40!’”

Traditionally, big parties have been held to commemorate silver and golden anniversaries. Recently, though, I’ve noticed several couples following Gina’s lead and jumping the gun on their 50th – by a full decade. And I have to tell you, I think they’re on to something! Here’s why I believe they have the right idea, and why I think there needs to be a special designation for such 40th anniversary gatherings:

1. More parents of the couple will be present. 40th anniversary honorees are usually 60-something. Many of these couples have 1, 2, or more parents who are not only living, but are spry enough to fully participate in the celebrations. But only a couple of 50th anniversary parties I’ve ever played featured a parent still active enough to join in. By having your big event at the 40-year mark, your chances are good of getting one of those treasured “4 generations in one photo” keepsakes, with your beaming mom or dad in the shot.

2. More couples will both be healthy at their 40th than will for their 50th. Enough said.

Now – if you’re going to make a big fuss over your 40th – doesn’t it deserve a special designation? Actually, it has one already: it’s officially your “ruby” anniversary. But it seems to me that a commemoration mid-way between silver (25th) and gold (50th) should somehow combine those two hues. I propose “champagne.” It is a perfect bridge on the color spectrum, and also connotes a bubbly and elegant celebratory experience.

Well then, here’s to your 40th – your “Champagne Anniversary.” You know – maybe I should patent this. It could really catch on! Of course, if it does, Gina will celebrate ours on our 38th. (So that I’ll look so much younger in the photos.)

A Kiddie “Catch-22″ (And DIPSTICK Parents, Too)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Remember Yossarian, the WWII flyer from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? In that novel, his military shrink found him fit for combat – even though Yossarian claimed to be insane. The Doc reasoned that only sane persons can think they are crazy.

I’ve noticed a corollary to Heller’s premise that concerns kids at primarily-adult gatherings (which can mean anything from sporting events to R-rated movies or hospital visits, but which especially includes weddings and anniversaries.) According to “Dave’s Inverse-Parenting Skill Tests In Critical Knowledge” (hereafter known as “DIPSTICK”), the parents who worry that their child might be causing a disturbance which could interfere with other guests’ enjoyment of the evening virtually always have the well-behaved kids. Rather, it’s the oblivious mom and dad (DIPSTICKs) whose little darling is – even now – leading a junior wolfpack up the down escalator, peering into adjoining stalls in the restrooms, or terrorizing elderly waltzers on the dance floor.

At social gatherings, children of DIPSTICK parents are – for all practical purposes – orphans. Stoked on caffeine and sugar, Little Attila and his unsupervised horde of pint-sized Huns swarm through hotel lobbies and 4-star restaurants like a Biblical plague. Meanwhile, should the closely-monitored offspring of attentive parents simply stare too inquisitively at Uncle Harry’s thrift store toupee, his mortified mother – apologizing profusely to Harry – will yank her child back to their table so fast that the poor tyke will suffer whiplash.

And that’s the “Kiddie Catch-22: the good kids (who aren’t bothering anybody) inevitably belong to parents who are open to the concept of – and are vigilantly on the look-out for – juvenile misbehavior.

Meanwhile, the authentic miscreant runs riot, ignored by his DIPSTICK parents. Most of us adults don’t blame the kiddo – we know it’s not his fault. The real delinquents are his mom and dad. But when your party is being disrupted – no matter who is being irresponsible – that’s bad news.

The good news is, after your event is over, Little Attila will still be a problem. He just won’t be yours any more. He’ll be back with the DIPSTICKs who’ve allowed him to become such a nuisance in the first place. One hopes that – for his sake – they will eventually take remedial action.

But when the attentive parents say their farewells to you, please take a moment to compliment them on the fine behavior of their child. Good parents deserve to hear those kind words once in a while.

And so do their kids.

FLOW – A Good Thing In Houses (And Parties, Too)

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Every realtor I’ve ever known uses some variation of the word “flow” 200 times a day. As in, “Notice how this house just flows flowingly from one room to the next in the most flowingest manner.” Personally, I can’t get used to the idea that interior walls and privacy are out, and that what we all really need to live in is a warehouse (a place with “Total Flow” in realty-speak.)

When it comes to parties, however, I can be as gushy and ebullient a “flow” proponent as any realtor ever dreamed of being. In fact, I think I’ll gush ebulliently right now.

To me, the best parties do flow – which is to say that they are not filled with jarring transitions that interrupt the progress of the evening in the way those 6,000 commercials from Billy Mays interfere with your favorite movie when it is shown on TV.

For instance, I encourage all my clients who choose to have dancing as a part of their event to allow their dancers lengthy blocks of time free of “words from our sponsor.” Clearing the dance floor after every song or two for a toast, fraternity song, or a “group photo of the Schmidlap side of the family” inevitably results in a growing number of dancers simply giving up. As many a bride or hostess has learned (usually, the hard way), it is infinitely preferable – if you do hope your guests will dance – to give them an unbroken 30 minutes in which to utilize their terpsicorean talents. At that point, they will welcome a break. While they catch their breath, you have a perfect opportunity make announcements or toasts, cut cakes, and toss bouquets in a way that actually helps the flow of the party.

Speaking of announcements, toasts, and such – unless your event is one in which speeches are required (like retirement and rehearsal dinners, or golden anniversaries), get them out of the way early in the evening, or your flow will be cut to a trickle. Guests will usually give your their (relatively) undivided attention at the very first of the night. Once they begin visiting and/or dancing (what we in the party business call “having fun”), each subsequent call for everyone to cease and desist their merriment simply makes it more difficult to “jump-start” the party once again. And – as I have urged repeatedly in these entries – speeches at most parties are best when they are short and rare.

With a little advance planning and some creativity, you can take care of whatever business is necessary at your event without destoying both the “flow” of the night and your guests’ enjoyment of the party. Just remember: the parties you recall most fondly were probably those that were the flowingliest.

Adding Your Personal Talents To The Wedding And Reception

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Fact of Life Number 1: Not all of us are musically gifted.

Fact of Life Number 2: Even if we do have talents, we may not wish to showcase them at a family wedding – especially our own.

Right off the bat, I want you to understand that I understand both those “facts of life” listed above. Weddings are emotion-filled gatherings, even without adding the pressure of performing a song or dance for family and close friends. The very last thing you want or need is to blubber your way through a rendition of “Don’t Worry – Be Happy.”

Having said all the above, let me just add that – if your constitution is up to the challenge – any musical gift you bring to the proceedings will make the evening infinitely more personal and meaningful to those gathered around you.

Let’s face it: one wedding and reception tends to be pretty much like another. Unless you go outside your own cultural or religious niche (like to a Greek or Thai wedding, for instance), the next 20 nuptials you attend will probably follow much the same path as the previous 20.

While such sameness can be familiar – and therefore comfortable – it can also rapidly become boring.

After a great many such events, they become a blur – standing out in our minds only as a result of two things (one good, and one very bad.)

The Bad? We seem to never forget “the night the cake fell” or “that time when lightning knocked the power out.”

The Good: I treasure my memory of the father-of-the-bride who ducked out of the reception for a few minutes, then came back in with his bagpipes and kilt. His medley of Scots favorites marched the bride and groom all the way out the hotel lobby to their waiting limo.

Another time, the bride and her sisters performed a tradtional Irish wedding step-dance. Then there was the brother of the groom who had a Broadway-quality voice. He sang for the first dance (adding a few sweet personal ad-libs regarding the couple), and those who were in attendance will always remember it with affection.

I’ve even had a couple of brides who serenaded their grooms. One was so good, I invited her to sing with our band on an ongoing basis.

Of course, all these outstanding wedding memories only worked because (a.) there was some talent in the family to begin with, and (b.) those who performed were able to conquer whatever jitters or overwhelming emotions might have interfered.

So – as I said in the beginning – this may not work at your wedding. But give it some thought, anyway.

After all – you want 2 things from your wedding: (1) that it be remembered, and (2) that we all remember it for good reasons.

Thanking The “Greatest Generation” On Memorial Day And Beyond

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Last week I was invited to give 2 presentations on Memorial Day. Both of these – appropriately enough – took place at Senior Living centers. And after both events, I left with the feeling that I had received much more from the residents than I could ever possibly have given to them.

Using Tom Brokaw’s best-seller as a springboard, I talked about the courage and sacrifice of Americans during World War II – a time most of my audience remembered very well. Singing songs of the era for them (and with them), I was amazed as always at their letter-perfect recall of the lyrics, and the way that – as they sing – they temporarily shed the 65 years or so which have intervened.

Through the 50s and 60s, in addition to raising Boomers like me (the “Whiniest Generation”), these folks discovered cures for diseases that had plagued humankind since the dawn of time, enacted landmark civil rights legislation, and bestowed on their children a level of affluence undreamed of in their own early years.

As the 80′s ended, their relentless pressure on the Communist despots of Eastern Europe caused the Berlin Wall to fall, one totalitarian Iron Curtain regime after another to topple, and another billion souls to learn the meaning of freedom that my generation takes for granted.

It is the nature of superlatives like “greatest” that only a few will ever qualify for such a distinction. But Brokaw was right when he appended an “e-s-t” to that particular generation. Never in human history have so many changes for the common good occurred in such a short time.

I was honored to spend time with these precious people. And I encourage you to do the same at every opportunity. They deserve so much more than we can ever give them. It is fitting that more and more members of my generation – the “Me” generation – are at last saying thanks to those whose deeds have meant so much to so many.

We Boomers will never be “the greatest.” But some of us – I’m happy to report – are at last becoming members of “The Grateful Generation.” I hope you’ll join us – while those we owe so much are still here to thank.