Objective Evaluations in a Polarized World

A vast amount of ink has been devoted to analyzing and evaluating Hillary Clinton’s speaking style. I will not be adding to the heap of hypothesis and judgment (although I do feel that I have some relevant qualifications and experience to do so) and will instead take a different angle and discuss another important topic of late, namely the ability to provide effective evaluations of speeches or debates when you disagree with or dislike the content or topic. Giving credit where credit is due is a rare occurrence these days.

During my 22 years as an active Toastmaster member, I have given over 200 formal speech evaluations and presented numerous educational sessions on how to provide encouraging yet constructive feedback on another’s presentation. I have created and shared an easy way (I call it the DSI Model) to structure a cogent 2-3 minute Toastmaster Evaluation. For you acronym buffs, DSI stands for Delivery, Structure and Impact.

The Speech Evaluation is a cornerstone of the Toastmasters program and is critical for the growth and development of the members’ communication and leadership skills.  It is also one of the most difficult things to do well.  Providing verbal feedback in front of the entire group is challenging and often a scary proposition for new club members who are asked to evaluate fellow speakers who may be more advanced and experienced.

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The ability to give objective and neutral feedback on another person’s speech is hard enough without all the many external and internal factors influencing us.  Pesky things like human nature, emotions, personal biases, insecurities, political correctness, extreme political views, polarization of opinions and what I call the “siloed, echo chambers” of social media and cyberspace  (for more on this check out “A Matter of Perspective”).

So now to the crux of the matter at hand, are we humans capable of lifting our personal filters and actively listening to the words and opinions of others with whom we disagree or dislike? Can we set aside our own beliefs, thoughts and values on the content/topic and focus on the Delivery, Structure and Impact of the speech? Without some guidelines and a controlled, unemotional approach, this may prove challenging for many people today, especially since large portions of the American public rarely see or listen to opinions which differ dramatically from their own.  Open, honest discussion and debate is too often discouraged and sadly suppressed on college campuses today.

Here are my thoughts and advice on this feedback challenge:

  1. Remember that as a speech evaluator, you are there to observe and provide neutral and constructive feedback, recommendations and suggestions on the basic tenants and techniques of effective communication and public speaking.  There are manuals and speech objectives to guide you.
  2. Focus on the Delivery and Structure of the presentation with specific examples.
  3. When commenting on the Impact of a speech (especially if you disagree with the content), try to set aside your personal emotions and biases and look at and assess the overall audience response to the speech.
  4. Honestly ask yourself if the topic/point of the speech is clouding your ability to provide positive and objective feedback on the Delivery and Impact. If it is, then:
    1. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who supports the topic and reflect on how they would respond to the speech.
    2. Run a “What if” scenario in your mind by replacing the content of the speech with something that you agree with and see how you would view and analyze it.
  5. Open your mind, take off your biased filters and focus on how the speaker is connecting, delivering and making their point.
  6. Was the speaker able to motivate, educate, influence or inspire?
  7. The purpose of your evaluation is to encourage and help club member improve and develop strong communication skills, not to impose your views, values and opinions about the subject matter.

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Hopefully this advice will prove useful to my fellow Toastmasters around the world and may even help open up the dialogue among Americans who are embroiled in the highly contentious and negatively charged Presidential election season of 2016.

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I will be presenting the contents of this article in the form of an eight minute Toastmasters speech on the morning of November 8, 2016.  As part of the presentation, I will be giving a sample Evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s most recent debate performance.

This speech will be the last one I give at the Denver Techmasters club in Lone Tree, CO prior to our move to Austin, TX.

 

A Matter of Perspective

I ventured out of the safety of the siloed, Facebook echo chamber of thought and position this week and attended two live Toastmaster meetings. Wow, did I get a healthy dose of reality and a refreshing view of diametric perspectives on the same topic.

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It was a tale of two speeches, each given by an intelligent and thoughtful Toastmaster. Both speakers were white American women over 50 years old who I know and respect. Both speeches dealt with the topic of Islam but with dramatically different views, conclusions and calls to action.

One of the reasons I love going to Toastmaster meetings is the opportunity to see and hear (in more intimate detail than a 140 character Tweet or a short Facebook post) the thoughts, reasoning and opinions of my fellow club members and friends. I may not always agree with the premise presented but I always listen to and respect a well presented topic.

Nuance is something that is sorely lacking in today’s divided, abbreviated and often anonymous world of online communication. Nuance is what I appreciated when I listened to and compared the two viewpoints this week.

Speech #1 was given on Monday night and was done in the form of a book review. I was initially startled and taken aback by the titles of the books which included “ The Osama Bin Laden I Know” and a history of war in Afghanistan. The speaker encouraged us to open our minds to view Bin Laden is a different light and shared some history, context and perspective from the minds of a number of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

What was most powerful and intriguing was the personal dialogue I had with Speaker #1 after her presentation. I thanked her for sharing her views and thoughts with the club and then, to my surprise, she invited me to an Interfaith Open House at the Denver Islamic Center the following Saturday. Wow, talk about opening up your perspective and worldview!

Speech #2 was given on Saturday morning by a soft spoken yet earnest woman with a passion for liberty. Her topic was on the history of the Ottoman empire and the negative impact of radical Islam in the world today. It was an informative presentation meant to raise awareness and did not shed a very positive light on the rise of global jihad.

The second speech was given two days after Bastille Day and the awful carnage caused by a terrorist in Nice, France. How much did this influence my perspective and openness to visit the Islamic Center open house later that day?

My husband is a photographer with a talent for seeing and capturing things in dramatically different ways.   He has taught me the importance of the type of lens, the angle of view and the lighting when capturing a moment.   These concepts can readily be transferred into my views and experiences this past week with the pair of presentations on the complex topic of Islam. How can two Toastmaster woman of similar age and background see things in a such a different way? How much has my frame of reference (my lens) clouded or influenced my view of the subject? How has the lighting changed to modify my aspect?

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These are the questions that I am asking myself today and I’m not sure that I know all the answers.

What I do know is that I need and crave a richer, fuller dialogue and conversation with my fellow humans on these delicate and difficult topics. I know that nuance and open, honest communication (which includes active listening) is key to coming to a better, more peaceful understanding of each others view points and values. I know that, sadly, this is not easy in today’s divided world of Us vs. Them.

It is a Matter of Perspective that cannot be easily shared or conveyed on the Internet and in Social Media networks where we are often “preaching to the choir” and rarely reach (never mind change the hearts and minds of) those with whom we disagree.

I encourage you to reach out to others on a more personal, live and interactive level so that you can hear viewpoints and opinions that you may not agree with.

Who knows? Perhaps a new frame of reference and a change in lighting may cause your perspective to shift.

Independent Thoughts

Words have meaning. Words have power.

As a Toastmaster for over 21 years, I have witnessed first hand the strong influence words can have.  They can arouse strong emotions. They can motivate people to act with an outpouring of kindness and generosity.  Words also have a dark side and can be used to manipulate and incite violence.

This weekend is America’s birthday, a time to celebrate our nation’s Freedom. I find it ironic, and a great deal disheartening, that the media’s response to the recent Brexit vote in the UK has cast such a dark shadow on ideals of Independence and Self-Determination.

As someone who voluntary raised her right hand and solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I would bear true faith and allegiance to the same, I feel strongly about our nation’s Independence, Liberty and Freedom. The powerful words of my military Oath of Office meant a great deal to me and still do.  Lately, I have been disturbed that the values that I hold dear and have sacrificed for are being tarnished and trashed.

Veteran's Day Celebration

Duty, Honor, Country are now considered controversial words that shouldn’t be uttered in public places because they might “offend’’ someone. Well, I’m sorry but I think those three things should receive more focus and given a higher level of respect.

20131109-4826K-Veteran's Day Celebration-0961-WEB Patriotism and Sovereignty don’t have to be dirty words in the global community if everyone increased their levels of Respect and Tolerance.

I am an unapologetic American and I love my country.

Words have meaning. Words have power.

Happy Birthday America. 

Land of the free and home of the brave!

Veteran's Day Celebration

A Story to Tell: Changes, Connections and Mirror Neurons

What inspires you to take action?  A Poet and a Colonel motivated my first blog of 2014. It all started when I attended a stimulating interactive  workshop last Saturday called STORY UP.  Sharon and Norm Frickey, who I share adventures with in Toastmasters and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), facilitated the session.  During the workshop, they delved into the intricacies of mirror neurons and expressed the importance of “Finding your story in the experience” and sharing it with others in order to bridge awareness gaps.   They explained how story telling increases connectedness with our fellow humans.

Sharon passionately moved me when she said, “A story told with purpose and an authentic voice can change the world”.   This writer’s workshop was a strong Call to Action and has prompted me to share my stories.  Could I possibly change the world?

Sharon reflects on mirror neurons

Sharon reflects on mirror neurons.
Photo by Steve Smull.

Last night I gave a speech entitled “Traditions and Changes- the Last Quarter of a Century “ at my newly joined Titan Toastmaster club.  During the speech I realized the power and importance of telling a story.  I connected with my audience on many levels when I shared my 25 year journey from college, to the Army, to War deployment, to the VFW and to Toastmasters.   I explained that there is an interesting dichotomy in mind because I am a traditionalist who embraces change and new technology and I am an agile technophile who often longs for many old fashioned traditions.

In my speech I had fun with props as I detailed the numerous technological changes over the last 10 years and how it has altered the way that we communicate with one another.   I displayed my cell phone, iPod, Kindle, and iPad and contrasted them with the tossed-aside printed newspaper, vinyl LP record, a cassette tape and paperback novel.  I shared that although I have adopted and use all the most recent technological devices to communicate, I still value and yearn for live, verbal communications with my friends, family and colleagues.  One of the reasons I love Toastmasters so much is because it provides a warm, friendly environment to speak with others in a supportive setting.  Live, real-time dialogue and interactions with honest to goodness humans who actually smile, nod and react to my words and actions.  Wow- what a concept. 

It was heart warming and refreshing for me to tell a story about traditions, changes and the value and importance of how we communicate with each other.    Could the connectedness I felt during this small speech begin to help bridge the recent polarization in our public discourse?   I hope so.

Storytelling is a uniquely human experience

Storytelling is a uniquely human experience

The ability to verbalize your thoughts and feelings into a 10 minute face to face presentation is so much more fulfilling and better understood by others than a 3 sentence Facebook post or a 140 character tweet certainly is!

So here’s to STORY UP and sharing our experiences live with our fellow humans.

Thanks to Norm and Sharon for inspiring me to reach new heights of authentic expression!  My story telling has just begun.

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The Poet and the Colonel