Talking Pointers: Steps to Speaking Good

One of my first blog posts was my seminal piece on the art of small talk. Although no one will admit it, I believe that it has shaped a generation’s approach to mindless nattering with total strangers. Likewise, my tome on the keys to success  swept the nation in the same sort of low-key manner.  As the voice of my generation, I now offer simple steps to effective speaking.

As a lawyer, I speak in public. It neither thrills nor frightens me. It’s just what I have to do on occasion. Sometimes, I speak in court hearings and trials. Occasionally I deliver talks to attorneys or other unfortunates on such topics as legalizing child labor and the law of Internet pornography. Of course, I’m joking–those topics might actually fascinate some people. My topics are more obscure–even arcane. As a result, am I forced to spice up my presentations with such things as this clip for the classic film Road House. You might think that would be difficult to work in to a talk about coal mine safety, but I did it.

You may not have a good speaker voice.  Don’t worry.  I don’t, either.  It’s not necessary to sound like Morgan Freeman.  But, if you do, you don’t need any of these pointers.  People will listen to you just to hear your voice.  The rest of us need help.

What makes a good speaker? I’m not sure that I qualify as one, but I’ve heard some good ones in my time. Beyond my earlier observations on chit-chat, speaking takes many forms–both public and private. Over the years, I have become at least competent in my communication skills. Thus, I want to offer my suggestions and observations.

SPEAK CLEARLY

My wife accuses me of mumbling. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky where mumbling is an accepted form of communication, and I make no apologies for that. I would note that I believe my wife has significant hearing loss, perhaps from stress fractures to the delicate bones in her ears caused by cranial vibration induced by her own shrill screaming. That debate is best left for another forum. However, my father–who was almost completely deaf–always accused my mother of mumbling. So there. Where was I?

You want to speak with a loud, clear voice. If possible, speak louder than everyone else. In this way, you will be authoritative and sound like you are “in the know.” Here is an example:

THEM: I heard that [INSERT NAME OF POLITICIAN].

YOU: HE’S A COMPLETE IDIOT!!!

By subtly insinuating yourself into the discussion, you have commandeered the conversation. Also, your insight will persuade others to join your “side” of the discussion. You come away looking knowledgeable while your unfortunate friend is branded a gadfly or even a simpleton.

This tip is vitally important if you encounter someone who doesn’t speak English. This can happen with no warning–unless you are a bigot engaged in racial profiling. Recently, at a fast food restaurant, I was approached by a young man who addressed me in a language that no sane person could understand. He may have been asking me a question. He could have been cursing God for all I know. I offered this response: “Do you speak English?” He misunderstood and prattled on. I then took control of the conversation by fairly yelling: “DO…YOU…SPEAK…ENGLISH?” He said “No” and walked away. There are two important lessons here: 1) It’s possible that people who don’t speak your native tongue may understand it if your scream it slowly; and 2) No one likes being yelled at, even in a foreign language.

Note, too, that yelling may even work with the deaf. Once, a man handed me a card which read: “I AM DEAF. NEED MONEY FOR FOOD.” I yelled: “SORRY. I CAN’T HELP YOU.” He pointed at his ears and walked away. See, it works.

Most importantly, you might know my wife. She doesn’t like mumbling. You know how she is.

CURSING

Whether it’s called cursing, swearing or potty mouth, foul language has long been condemned by skilled speakers. I once read that repeated cursing chops up one’s message rendering it nothing but a series of short, disconnected thoughts. Your larger message is lost.

To this advice, I say BULLSHIT! Many times, such language is all that can adequately deliver your message. More often, it can set the tone for your entire oratory. Here is an example. Let us suppose that you are asked to give a talk at your church. Naturally, you lack formal religious training. At best, you will make a fool of yourself. At worst, you will offend both the parishioners and God Himself. One approach would be to memorize a few scriptures and meditate upon them in prayer, asking for the right words. Good luck with that. Another approach is to immediately grab your listeners with an opening salvo along these lines:

LISTEN UP, YOU BUNCH OF MOTHER—-ERS!!

The congregation will be rocked by this forceful opening. They will immediately think “There must be a strong message from the Lord to follow.” You can then launch into a recklessly inaccurate sermon peppered with occasional obscenities that will hold the listener’s attention.

This approach works in casual conversation as well. Nothing will impress your friends more than your adroit use of all manner of filth. Let’s say you are in a conversation with someone far more educated than you. You make a casual comment about, say, the invention of the linotype machine, which you foolishly attribute to Grover Cleveland. Your friend says “Well, the linotype was actually invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler.” What do you do now? You could stare at your feet and excuse yourself from the conversation. Here is the better approach: Lock eyes with your friend and declare: “YOU, SIR, ARE GODDAMNED LIAR!!” (be sure to speak loudly as advised above). You have turned the tables on Mr. Know-It-All. Not only have you challenged his assertion, you have done so in a way that calls into question his credibility in general. Bystanders, unconcerned as they might be with the inanity of the topic, will view you as man with whom to be reckoned. You can bet that no one will take exception to you again in a public setting.

KNOW YOUR TOPIC

I can’t stress this one enough. No manner of loud swearing is an adequate substitute for knowing your subject matter. This is especially so if, like me, there are people who actually believe you know about certain things. If you have been in that unenviable position, you know it almost impossible to know enough about anything to intelligently speak for more than 5 minutes or so.

One approach is to research and carefully study your topic. Okay, that will work if you have no life and want to waste what precious time you have on the planet on such endeavors. Another approach is to pay someone who does know about the topic to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for you. Then, you can simply babble from slide to slide until your allotted time has been used up.

Another approach is to simply make up your talk from whole cloth. In the legal profession, this is especially effective. Usually, I speak at continuing legal education seminars where no one listens anyway. I can say anything! Almost no one listens, and the few who do don’t know anymore than I do. If someone asks me a question, I can either make up something or simply fire back “SHUT THE F— UP!”

The same pointers work in casual conversation.  Ignorance has never shut anyone up as far as I know.  As long as you talk incessantly, loudly and obscenely, you’re bound to say something close to accurate.  Again, remember:  Few people listen to you anyway.  Thus, it’s never what you say that matters.  It’s how you say it.

USE AN ACCENT

I have an accent. It’s Eastern Kentucky. Sadly, no matter what I say, to many people it sounds dumb. That’s because they think Eastern Kentuckians are dumb. You probably have an accent, too, unless you are from Nebraska or Kansas or some other accent-less part of the country. If you are a foreigner, you almost certainly have an accent, and it may be a really good one.

If you have a bad one, try another. British always works. Have you ever heard the BBC News? Everything sounds important. The moment the word “schedule” (SHED-yule) slides across your tongue, everything you say will sound authoritative. Consider Madonna. She is from Michigan but speaks with a British accent. How about eccentric actor Johnny Depp? Like me, he is from Kentucky, yet he has a vague, non-specific Euro accent. Neither of these marvelous entertainers is well-educated, but both sound erudite and informed. Isn’t that the whole point of speaking aloud?

There are many other accents available. Spanish, for example, sounds worldly and sophisticated. A word of caution–unless you master it, you may sound like Tony Montana and terrify the listener. This isn’t good unless that’s your goal. There are pluses and minuses of other accents:

Scottish: Kinda British but less understandable. You’ll sound friendly, if a tad odd.

Canadian:  You’ll sound like a plain, white American, except you’ll say “aboot” instead of “about.”  I’m not sure how that will help you.

Irish: Also possibly incomprehensible, plus the listener may believe you to be under the influence of strong drink. Has the plus side of being sort of funny.

German: You will sound commanding and more than a little frightening. Especially effective with curse words. If you actually speak the German language, everything sounds like cursing.

Russian: Extra terrifying. Great if you like to pretend to be spy.

Swedish: Goofy, but good if you don’t want the listener to understand you.

Australian: A rougher form of the British accent. You’ll sound less intelligent but considerably more dangerous.

Asian: Just avoid this one. The prospect of speaking stereotypical pidgin English is too great. Also, if you’re not, in fact, Asian, the listener will simply believe you are odd.

My accent is not always a drawback. The Eastern Kentucky accent adds just the right tone to such rejoinders as “I’ll whip your ass” or “What the hell are you looking at?” No Brit can deliver such messages with the same force.

GRAMMAR

Good grammar is good and important, at least according to my late mother. I don’t really know nothing about that, so I’ll move on.

USE THE RIGHT WORD

Some suggest using simple words. I guess this is good advice if you spend your time speaking to morons who are unlikely to understand anything you say anyway. I suggest using poorly understood words like sardonic, disaffected, nonplussed and irregardless. That way, you appear superior to the listener. Even if you don’t know what these words mean, use them anyway. No one else understands them, either.

You might say of an acquaintance:  “Carl just don’t give a shit about nothing.”  Admittedly, that’s an effective use of an expletive; however, consider this alternative:  “Carl has a disaffected attitude about everything.”  Have you praised or insulted Carl?  It’s hard to say, isn’t it?  The listener can be the judge.

Call someone obsequious or an opsimath. You can refer to this post as an amphigory.  Accuse someone of being an irresponsible jackanapes. I like to call people wastrels, slugabeds and layabouts.  Don’t bother looking up the definitions.  Just use them.

The use of indecipherable language might seem counterintuitive.  It is true that such use is unwise in the rare event that you want to be understood.  If you want to make an impression, though, there is no better way than to talk like you’re smarter than everyone else.  Do you want to be understood by complete idiots or by smart people?

CONCLUSION

Most of us have much to say but lack the skills to say it.  Honing your verbal skills is the key to making yourself heard, if not understood.  Now, go out there and talk to someone.

You may have found my advice inconsistent and even useless.  If so, so be it.  Better yet, JUST SHUT THE… .  You get it.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Be Fun and Offensive with My Family Lexicon

I recently had the dubious honor of listening to a self-important gas-bag blow about the poor grammar of my native Eastern Kentuckians.   While much of what he said is true, one could persuasively argue that it is more a dialectic question than one of grammar.  I’m not a linguist, so that’s beyond my analytical ability.  It did get me thinking, though, about how we all speak and how it is influenced by our surroundings.  For example, my mother railed against poor grammar, although I was not particularly receptive, peppering my language with my fair share of “ain’ts” and double-negatives.  (Whenever I hear a double-negative, I hear my mother’s voice:  “If you ‘don’t have no’ you really have some.”).  I realized that my family had its own language, which may not have been well-understood outside our small circle.

My father was the font of most of our peculiar dialect–a combination of sayings, words and colloquialisms. Here are some of the terms and sayings I learned growing up (and as an adult) which my family used liberally.

CRYIN’ RUBE:  Dad had a cousin named Ruby who, by all accounts, cried at the slightest provocation.  Thus, she was known as “Cryin’ Rube.” This pejorative was reserved for times when one of us kids cried for no good reason.  “Be quiet, Cryin’ Rube” or “Don’t be a Cryin’ Rube” would be Dad’s frequent response.  I’ve said it to my kids, but they don’t get it.

H.G.:  HG was another of Dad’s cousins.  One summer in the 1930’s, HG stayed with Dad’s family.  He was, as Dad said, a “muscle head.” (see definition below).  Dad described him as a “goofy-looking boy.” One day, HG was dancing on the front porch swinging a curtain rod around like a sword.  While dancing, HG inadvertently stuck the curtain rod into an empty light socket.  He was blown off his feet.  If I did something really stupid, Dad might refer to me as HG.  To be HG meant you exercised poor judgment or were just generally annoying.

MUSCLE HEAD:  We didn’t coin this term, but Dad used it often.  Essentially, it means that rather than having functioning brain matter, your skull is full of useless muscle.  This was often shortened to simple “muscle,” as in “Listen here, muscle….”

THE ROUNDTABLE:  The roundtable is where you sit when you have arrived.  You only get a seat if you are qualified (see Portfolio below).  “You are now at the roundtable” was perhaps Dad’s highest praise.  Impostors or wastrels need not even consider approaching the roundtable.  It’s invitation only.

PORTFOLIO:  Your portfolio is a list of your accomplishments, qualifications and general worthiness.  To be “without portfolio” was Dad’s way of saying that you just don’t measure up.  There is no room for you at the Roundtable.  In his later years, Dad was fond of saying (and saying and saying…) “I am my portfolio.  My portfolio is I.”  Outside immediately family, I doubt that was well understood.  My brother and I knew he meant that he would stand on his own accomplishments.  We knew this because he also said “I will stand on my portfolio.”  What really taught us was we call The Parable of the Washer Woman.  It went something like this:

If you are invited to the Roundtable, you will be judged on your portfolio.  If the washer woman approaches the Roundtable, they will review her portfolio, too.  “Let’s see, here, hmmm.  What are your accomplishments?  You are a WASHER WOMAN!  OUT!”  She is without portfolio.  If you have portfolio, you will get your seat, but you will earn your place.”

At this point, I should note that my father had no prejudice against washer women.  He was simply emphasizing that not everyone could sit at the Roundtable.  The titular washer woman lacked portfolio; thus, for her own good, she need not approach the Roundtable.  My brother and I understood.  Oddly, the first time my brother heard this, he thought it was a true story and was horrified by the treatment of the poor washer woman.  Don’t let that cause you to question my brother’s portfolio.  He has portfolio.  Dad said so.

HORSE FACE CUMPTON:  It would help if you had known my maternal grandparents, which is unlikely.  They were the finest of people but almost like a comedian team.  Papaw had a penchant for long, detailed stories which Mammaw constantly interrupted with irrelevant comments and questions.  Here is where Horse Face arose:

Papaw:  “When I worked in the mines at Benham, I worked with this fellow…”

Mammaw:  “Ireland (pronounced “Arlen”), who was he?”

Papaw:  “Muriel (pronounced “Merle”), you didn’t know him.  Anyway…”

Mammaw:  “What was his name, Ireland?”

Papaw:  “You didn’t know him, Muriel.  Back to  my story.  This fellow…”

Mammaw:  “I knew everyone at Benham, Ireland.”

Papaw:  “MURIEL, HE WAS A MAN NAMED HORSE FACE CUMPTON!!  THERE!!”

Mammaw:  “Horse Face Cumpton?  Hmmm.  That name rings a bell.”

Maybe that’s not funny to you, but you didn’t know Mammaw, did you?  She was the same person who once asked a lady with the last name of Pigg if she was related to the Hogg family in Letcher County.

Anytime that I’m interrupted trying to tell a story, I feel the urge to yell “HORSE FACE CUMPTON!”  Sometimes, I do, and no one understands.

UNEMPLOYABLE:  We all know this word, but few of us use it as a noun.  Dad did, as in “He is an unemployable.”  Dad put great stock in people having jobs and, more importantly, being willing and able to have a job.  Likewise, he considered helping get someone a job to be the greatest kindness one can offer.  He referred to some folks as “unemployables.”  I have adopted this as part of my vocabulary.  One word of caution, be careful about when you use it. People don’t like being called that.

One night I called Dad and asked what he’d been doing.  He said “I just returned from speaking to a group of unemployables.”  I still hope that he didn’t really call them that during his talk.

LOWEST OF TRASH:  I’ve written before about my mother’s use of this term.  It’s bad enough to compare a human to refuse but adding to that the “lowest” of such human garbage is harsh indeed.  Unfortunately, sometimes that’s all that applies.

BANK SHOES:  No, these aren’t worn by bankers.  These are shoes fit only for wearing on a river bank.

STREAK OF THE CREEK:  Dad’s way of saying that you might be too backward to make it in the modern world.  “It’s hard to wash off a streak of the creek.”

SIMPLETON:  Again, not an original but so frequently used that it became part of my vocabulary.  It’s similar to “wastrel,” a word no one uses anymore.  Dad used it.  So do I.

KNUCKLEHEAD:  No doubt, this came from our family love for the Three Stooges.  Can be used interchangeably with “loggerhead” or “numbskull.”

DAFT:  Like wastrel, this fell out of favor a couple of hundred years ago, but we liked it.

THUMBS:  A pejorative term used for a clumsy person, as in “Be careful there, Thumbs!”  “Ox” or “Oxy” can also be used.

HORSEY:  A rather unattractive woman, usually large.  “She’s a big horsey woman.”  I try to avoid this one.  It just doesn’t go over well.

THIS ISN’T A HIGH SCHOOL DEBATE:  Another one of Dad’s which he adopted late in his life.  Translation:  Regardless of how inane or plain wrong what I am saying may be, do not take exception to anything I say, boy.  Ever.

HUMMAQUEER:  My brothers and I and our cousin were riding in a car with Mom on a drive in Utah.  We were discussing someone and Mom wanted to ask this question:  Is he a homosexual?  Now, bear in mind that this was several decades ago before “gay” was in common usage in our part of the world.  Also, I doubt Mom had ever said the word “homosexual.”  In fact, it’s unlikely that she had ever said “sexual” in mixed company.  To her credit, she wanted to prove she was “with it.”  Here is how the question was actually asked:

Do you think he’s one of those, uh, you know, uh…humma…humma…uh…hummaqueers?

You may be offended by this.  If so, my mother has been dead for many years now and likely wouldn’t have cared about your opinion anyway.  Of course, if that does offend you, then you certainly will be offended by the question my cousin asked her:  “Is that anything like a fagsexual?”

Political correctness and common decency prevent the use of hummaqueer these days.  That’s a good thing, but I still think it sometimes.

THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE:  Another cousin of mine was a rambunctious child.  After a long car ride, he leapt from the car, grabbed my Mammaw’s cat and threw it up on the roof of my grandparents’ house.  As he was being scolded, he shouted:  “THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE!”  This always comes to mind whenever I do something inexplicable and don’t have a good excuse.  For example, I once kicked in my son’s bedroom door and immediately thought, well, you get the picture.

This is just a partial list.  There were, too, the requisite cautionary tales and the tales of woe (walking to school, no new clothes, no Christmas presents, eating mush, etc.) all parents tell.  I’m sure your family has its own distinct vocabulary.  Think for a moment about the names you gave your grandparents–Grandpa, Pappy, MeeMaw, Moo Moo, Granny, etc..  Consider, too, the various humorous family terms for bodily functions and genitalia.  You can easily make your own Family Thesaurus and Dictionary.  If you’re foreign, you can even do a bi-lingual version.  Try it.  You’ll have fun.

Now, back to the Roundtable.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013