In Defence of Top Gear

Posted February 14, 2007 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Uncategorized

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This week, I did something a bit different.

Till this point, all I’d really done was get up there and tell a silly story. Indeed, that is what I’d been planning for the this week’s speech too.

Until, that is, I talked with Nina at our annual “Tall Tales” contest. Nina was to be Toastmaster for the evening, and she encouraged me, suggesting I try something a little more challenging.

And I thought about it.

I thought it would be nice to put forward a point of view, to argue in favour of something, but all I could come up with was a contentious topic – though one I felt quite strongly about.

Many people at the club have given strong speeches about the environmental issue and the negative impact we humans are having on our world. While I’m certainly not against that, I do feel this argument sometimes goes too far. I felt there was possibly an interesting, alternate point of view to present here. However, I was a bit worried that speaking out would rub one or two people the wrong way.

Again, Nina really helped. She called me up and told me that I could go for it. She said I should do something a bit contentious, if I felt like it – why not?

In the end, I really wanted to bring in the environmental debate, but perhaps not directly. So I decided to focus my speech on defending Top Gear, one of my favourite TV shows. I would never have had the confidence without Nina.

Top Gear has had a lot of criticism lately. Being a show about fast cars, not only does it often come out on the wrong side of the environmental debate, but a presenter was nearly killed last year, in a high speed jet car. This caused an outcry. Many people had argued in the press at the time that the show should be stopped.

Well, thought I, in my speech I would argue why the programme should not be banned.

With all my concerns, though, it was a difficult speech to construct. I began by identifying 3 key things people dislike or complain about Top Gear, so I could address them in turn:

  1. Irresponsible Use of Speed
  2. The Environmental Impact of Fast Cars
  3. Jeremy Clarkson (one of the presenters)

I thought putting Clarkson down as a main complaint all by himself would be funny. And it did get my first laugh, and helped lighten the mood a bit.

In defending the show’s “irresponsible use of speed”, I argued that it all came down to freedom – freedom of choice and freedom of information. Surely, as long as these fast cars remain legal, it should be legal to drive them fast on a race track? And, as long as it is legal to drive them, it should be legal to show them on TV too?

TV presenters should be free to choose whether or not they want to do such dangerous things as drive fast cars. After all, sky diving is dangerous, yet presenters do that. Even golf is dangerous, so where do we draw the line?

Likewise, the programme makers should be free to report on it. After all, we’re free to choose too – we can choose whether or not we want to watch.

It seemed to go down OK, so that brought me to the second argument – the environmental issue. I knew this was the point that would make or break the whole speech.

I began by stating that the world is getting hotter – and agreeing that this is almost indisputable. It is equally clear that many people blame the car. However, cars are still legal, I argued, so it is only fair that we be allowed to show them on TV. Surely, we should ban the fast cars themselves first, before looking to ban the TV programme?

Here, I got very lucky. When doing my research, I found this report, showing that livestock actually accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of human transport added together. I put it this way:

But before we do ban the car, let’s first check the evidence.

Now, I’ve done some research on this and there’s a United Nations report which was published late last year. It turns out that a full 9% of CO2 emissions do, indeed, come from…

…the cow!

It took the audience by surprise, and (to my surprise) it really got them laughing out loud.

By the time I had pointed out that cows account for a third of the world’s methane emissions (a third!), most of them were rolling about laughing. I hadn’t intended it to be so funny.

This had been the hardest part of the speech to write, the part I’d been most worried about. All week, I had worried I would seriously damage my reputation in the club, that they would mark me down as an environment ruiner. I certainly didn’t want it to appear I did not take the issue seriously.

And yet, on the day, I could see I had somehow won them over – most of them, at least. At the very least, I could see the audience felt I’d put forward a fair case – albeit in a glib and silly way.

For my third point of complaint, the presenter Jeremy Clarkson, I introduced him by linking in to “cow emissions” (which brought a few groans). After this, I told them:

Some people say Clarkson is a big buffoon of a man, a man who always likes to trivialize the most serious issues.

This would be very disturbing – if you took him seriously.

But why would anyone take Jeremy Clarkson seriously? After all, he once described a slow car as having “all the acceleration of Henry the Eighth” – this is hardly serious journalism!

Well, the audience were still laughing from the cow debate and this gave them fuel to laugh even more. It doesn’t seem that funny on paper; I think I could have said almost anything at this point and they would’ve laughed.

At the end, I came back to my main theme – about freedom of choice and freedom of speech. I closed by saying that I find Clarkson amusing, but if there are people that don’t, that’s fine. They don’t have to watch the show, if they don’t like it.

They can always watch something else. Or they can tell me they think the show is rubbish, and tell me why. I’ve no problem with that.

But I argued that I love the show and they shouldn’t stop me from watching. They shouldn’t ban Top Gear. Let me decide for myself.

As it happens, Lakshmi, my line manager from work, and his wife, Sudhu, had come along to the club that night as guests. It was the first time I had ever given a speech in front of someone I knew from outside Toastmasters. They certainly gave me lots of support and encouragement: before, during and after the speech.

It was my scariest speech yet – but also my most deeply satisfying.

The night before, I’d been up all night and had hardly slept at all – a real bag of nerves. After the speech itself, when I eventually got to bed, I still couldn’t get to sleep. This time, sheer adrenaline was keeping me awake. I’ve never known a buzz like it.

There’s Something about England

Posted January 30, 2007 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Uncategorized

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Last night, I was asked to step in as an evaluator at the last minute for Noni’s Icebreaker.

I remember how very nervous I was on my own Icebreaker speech, not so very long ago. And I was impressed by how very calm Noni appeared to be, at the start of the night.

I tried to remember all the wonderful things Geoff had said to me before my icebreaker. Right there, I could only remember a very few of them. I found it hard to find much of value I could tell this apparently calm person.

Her speech was great, of course, which made it even more difficult for me to find something to help her with in my evaluation. There were moments where she had hurried a little bit, so I pointed that out. But then, she’d also made such great use of ‘the pause’ – so I was sure to mention that too. It was an interesting speech about her coming from Cyprus across to England – twice! It carried all of us, with its light, humorous look at bad weather and British pub life.

For myself, I enjoyed getting the chance to give this evaluation and hope I did a good job for Noni. One thing I need to work on is my close – I never seem to know what to say at the end of an evaluation.

Last night was no exception – I mumbled about how well I thought she’d done and then said something like “and that’s all I can think of to say”. Hmm. That’s something I’ll be working on.

On another note, Keith gave a funny table topics speech on blogs – and how he’d never read one. He compared blogs in general with those letters people send you at Christmas – you know, the long, photo-copied, impersonal ones. He said, whenever he’d tried to write such a letter himself, he’d found it hard not to come over supercilious. And he imagined a blog must be a similar thing. After all, he told us, what makes blog-writers think anyone wants to read their regular outpouring of views?

Table Topics Master

Posted January 10, 2007 by publicspeakingblog
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This week, I was acting as Table Topics Master for the first time.

It didn’t go too well…

In fact, I started off badly and continued in the same vein.

As Table Topics Master, it was my job to choose the topics (short, impromptu speeches) and then pick the club members they should be assigned to.

Beforehand, I had picked 6 topics based on the theme of “New Year’s Resolutions”, and printed these out on little bits of paper so that each speaker could choose.

The first mistake I made was in not identifying my targets well beforehand. At Toastmasters, there’s a rule that you should not pick someone who is
 performing another role that evening. The first person I picked was Muryel – who was already evaluating for someone else. I was in such a panic, choosing people at the last minute, that I missed this completely.

She correctly pointed this out right away – and I’m afraid this made me somewhat nervous for the rest of it.

Somehow, I fumbled through till, at the end of the session (all speakers having been called), I completely messed up the summary. I should have announced that now was the time to vote for best Table Topics Speaker, and summarised what each had said. Unfortunately, I had completely forgotten who had spoken on which topic!

What could I say?

It was only good fortune which saved me – Norman had written this down, and called out the details for me.

In summing up my performance at the end of the night, Club President Mireia gave me a few useful pointers. Apparently, I’d apologised for my performance throughout (I was nervous!) – and this wasn’t necessary. I’d also apologised for picking on certain of the club members when I really ought to have congratulated them. We don’t want to give the guests and new members the impression this is some dreadful punishment!

But I’ve learnt my lesson. The next time I am called to perform this particular duty I will prepare 2 lists:

  1. A list of all the club members, so I can identify the ones I cannot choose (i.e. those performing roles) at the start, by scoring them out.
  2. A list of all the topics I have prepared – so I can write the name of the speaker against each one.

That should make it easier to choose appropriate candidates – and easier for me to provide a clear summary at the end.

If I do this in future, it will certainly be less nerve-racking!

Christmas Meeting 2006

Posted December 12, 2006 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Learning to Speak

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Last night saw our special Christmas meeting, the last of this year.

Accordingly, many of our members brought along food, and the club provided red and white wine. Magdalena, my lovely wife, kindly spent most of Sunday baking a delicious chocolate cake which I proudly brought along.

Since my mother was staying with me at the time, I’d asked Club President Mireia if it would be OK for Mum to attend. It was, and she really enjoyed her evening.

I had a role too – Sergeant at Arms. I was responsible for making sure it all got started on time, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it and we started a few minutes late.

We had lots of Table Topics speakers but only two main speakers for the evening, to make time for food and drink.

The table topics were all on the Christmas theme, followed by two excellent speakers: Marion and Muryel.

Marion’s speech was especially dramatic right from the start – and in an unexpected way. When she took the floor and looked back at the audience, there was a little pause. Then the pause grew a little longer – something was wrong. Marion said something like “Oh, I’m sorry; I’ve frozen” before very graciously sitting down to compose herself.

It was the right thing to do. It gave her time to get her opening back together and, when she stood up again, she got back into the flow of her speech. Slowly at first, but then more confidently, she built the picture of her story.

The story was dramatic too and, because of her well structured speech, as well as the surprising entrance (and super recovery!), we found ourselves gripped throughout. She took us to a cold and lonely ski lift which she was trying to help her son desperately get up. Each unsuccessful attempt drew more strength, and we all waited anxiously to hear if they would get back before the cold night drew in.

It was a great talk, made all the better by its image of a cold, snowy mountain, a perfect tale for the time of year. Oh – and they did make it home that night so it had a happy ending too. Marion closed by telling us the experience had taught her to accept help when it’s needed, and to remember to bring a functioning mobile with you, when you’re out on the slopes.

Our other speaker was Muryel – she of “How Many Feet are in an Apple” fame. As with her last speech, her talk was on food, this time discussing the history behind the various Christmas treats.

She bravely ended on a comparison of British Christmas Pudding with her homeland’s “La Bûche de Noël”. The Brits were never going to come out ahead in this comparison (well, she is biased!).

Mum evidently enjoyed the whole evening but was quite surprised when Mireia invited her to speak about it, at the end of the night. Mum spoke for a few moments about her fear of speaking, the wonderful atmosphere at the club and how much it had surprised and encouraged her.

She spoke confidently, and her words were well thought out. Given how well she talked, I wondered why she was so afraid of talking in public. I was so proud of her.

PS: If you read this blog, why not leave me a comment? I always reply – usually within a day. Just click on the “comments” link under any recent post.

Some Like It Hot

Posted December 7, 2006 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Learning to Speak

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Well I thought I’d be in for a quiet week, but I was wrong.

Despite not having any roles planned for the evening, I was asked at the last minute to step in as evaluator for Andrew.

Furthermore, at the start of the night, I was asked to give the first table topics talk (“My Most Exotic Meal”) – so much for having an easy night. I must admit I let out a bit of a yelp when my name was called!

But I got up there and did it. It wasn’t too bad. I started off with a story about my Mum & Dad, to buy me some time to think. Before meeting my father, Mum studied and learnt 366 recipes, so that he would never be bored. Then, when they finally got together, she learnt that all he really liked was “Mince & Tatties” on Monday to Saturday, and Steak on a Sunday! She still has the poor unused recipes in a folder somewhere.

That was how the evening started. And then, at the end of the night came Andrew’s speech and my evaluation.

He was giving a speech from one of the advanced programmes, and his project required him to have a questions and answers section afterwards.

Andrew was speaking on an interesting topic too – global warming, with a speech entitled “Some Like It Hot”. Now it is often said (and it was this Monday) that you’re best steering clear of sex, politics and religion – at least when it comes to
public speaking.

Andrew resolutely ignored this advice. He even made a joke out of it. He went through each of the UK political parties in turn and analysed their response to global warming.

For him, in this speech, it worked. He certainly had no problem getting the audience to ask pertinent questions at the end. It just goes to show there are no rules to speaking that apply all of the time.

And do you know what? Despite my having been so nervous last time, I took this evaluation in my stride. This time, I wasn’t eating myself up with questions beforehand. Perhaps because it had been sprung upon me, I simply felt that I could do this, that I’d make a good show of it for Andrew. I felt good about it for once.

I feel like I’m getting somewhere now, that I’ll be actually not just able to do this public speaking lark, but I’m starting to actually relax enough to enjoy it.

Maidenhead Speakers Club is changing how I feel about speaking, and how I feel about myself too.

How Many Feet are in an Apple?

Posted November 14, 2006 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Learning to Speak

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I had my first job as evaluator, last night.

In some ways, this is even more nerve-racking than speaking. I was evaluating Muryel, one of our most entertaining speakers. I knew I’d be given 2 mintues at the end of the night to give a complete and interesting account of how she performed.

And there’s the crunch – it’s someone else’s speech you are talking about. You don’t know what the speech will be about beforehand, so you can’t really prepare.

In my case, I did know the speech number Muryel was speaking from, so that meant I could look at the notes before the speech. Her main speech objectives were to use body language well to convey the message.

At the start of the meeting, I asked if there was something in particular she wanted me to watch out for. She said the timing was her biggest concern.

Muryel’s speech title was “How many feet are in an Apple?” She talked about how far your fruit travels before it gets to you, and the impact this has on your “carbon footprint”.

Before the speech, I took a blank sheet of paper and wrote the key speech objectives as single words, taken from the Toastmasters programme notes. Then, as she was speaking, I made points beside each of these words on the page. As soon as she did or said something that matched one of the objectives, I’d link the points with the objective and write brief notes. Then I highlighted important points with a circle or star.

At the end of the night, I stood up when called upon and went through each of Muryel’s objectives in turn, describing how she’d done, and giving examples. 2 minutes isn’t a lot of time, so I kept it simple.

Before the evening, one of our members had recommended I:

  • Say something complementary
  • Give a single suggestion for improvement
  • Close with another complement

That was good advice, and I stuck to it. I started by talking about some of her more successful points, talked for a bit about how to improve and then closed on some more of her accomplishments.

In the end, I think I covered most of it, though I did forget to comment on her timing (which she’d asked for).

Muryel gave a great speech (she won the vote), and I think this made my job easier, though it meant it was hard to find some constructive suggestion or advice for her.

The Long Way Home

Posted October 24, 2006 by publicspeakingblog
Categories: Learning to Speak

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Yesterday evening, I gave my third speech at Toastmasters.

This time, it was the second speech from the Toastmasters “Leadership and Speaking Programme”…

I gave a talk about coming back from Germany on a motorbike. It was a funny trip – I’d overloaded the bike and had no idea where I was heading, so I thought that would make a good topic for my speech.

I started the speech by marching up to the floor with my motorcycle gear on – even the helmet, with the visor down.

However, this time, I found one or two of my jokes fell flat. It’s hard to push on when your best punchline meets stunned silence!

But push on I did, and I got to the end of the story. I was much less nervous this time – I didn’t rush through it, and even found occasion for the odd pause.

At the evaluation, I was pleased to learn a bit more. Apparently, I’d held the helmet and waved it around when it might’ve been better to put it down on the floor.

Still, at the end of the night I was amazed to hear I’d won another blue ribbon! When the votes had been counted, I’d been voted the night’s best speech. The competition had been stiff – Pravin had given a particularly hilarious speech about all the things that went wrong on his honeymoon.

It just goes to show, you never know. This has been a speech I’d really practiced and honed, though on the night I’d had to plough through it, a little disappointed by the response. Clearly, though, it had gone better than I’d thought.