A Conversation with Barbara Seymour Giordano on Storytelling

Barbara Seymour Giordano HeadshotOn May 24, 2018 the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable Held a conference call with Barbara Seymour Giordano. Barbara is a Story Doctor, Speechwriter and Presentation Coach who specializes in helping speakers tell memorable stories that audiences yearn to hear and share. Her specialty is guiding speakers — from the page to the stage — through the often murky and intricate process of bringing a story idea to life. She turns complex subjects into moving stories that spark imagination across cultures.

Over her career Barbara has advised Fortune 500 executives, entrepreneurs, scientists and TED presenters on creating and sharing stories that unite, influence and inspire audiences worldwide. Her fascination with story began when she worked as an assignment editor with CNN and E! Entertainment Television. She then parlayed her news experience into producing and directing corporate videos, global sales meetings and events for Amgen, Cisco Systems, and Nike among others. In front of the lens she’s appeared as an on-camera national TV fashion and beauty spokesperson for Lands’ End, Neiman Marcus, and TJX Corp. she delivers keynote speeches on topics that include The Art of Business of Storytelling, The Startup Pitch: Telling Stories Investors Want to Hear, and Storytelling TED Style. Her 360-degree communication experience allows her to offer a unique approach to crafting the stories that make speeches come alive..

The call covered a wide range of topics including:

  • How she “backed into” speechwriting after helping coach executives in need of basic advice on presentation skills at large corporate events.
  • The lessons she learned crafting 90-second investor pitches and 8-12 minute TED talks.
  • Her appreciation of Toastmasters as the “learning gym” for presentation skills.
  • The value of a simple one-page approach to the “hero’s journey” as a speech outline.
  • How she helped PhD candidates in sociology, pharmacy other disciplines deliver content as a compelling story stripping out the techno-babble they were prone to use.
  • The value of shows like Billions and Silicon Valley as an alternate view into the world of speechwriting and presentations that stands in contrast to the oft-quoted scenes from The West Wing.
  • How to structure a speech around a story by starting from the desired outcome.
  • How freelance speechwriters can find more clients.

To hear these and other topics discussed click on the podcast icon below.

Bookmark and Share

Guest Posting: The 3 Myths of Presentations That Will Destroy Your Credibility, by David McGimpsey

David McGimpseyDavid McGimpsey is a communication skills trainer. He specializes in coaching business people to deliver compelling presentations which sell, persuade, and entertain. His popular blog can be found at
presentationblogger.com. To read more about how to improve your presentation skills, check out David’s book: PowerPoint Doesn’t Suck, You Do: The counter-intuitive approach to compelling presentations.

There’s no nice way to say this. Your presentation sucks.

The good news is, it’s not your fault.

The coaches, the trainers, the gurus, and the presentation “experts.” They’ve all been giving you bad advice.

They’ve been leading you up the garden path, giving you the advice they think you want to hear.

And importantly, giving the wrong advice that makes them money. Money through training fees or money through book sales.

Here are the top 3 myths the “experts” want you to believe.

Myth 1: Your slide deck must be awesome

The gurus want you to believe that your slides need to be Steve Jobs’ standard or your presentation is destined for the trash can.

At best, this advice lacks context. At worst, it’s plain wrong.

Here’s the thing:

An awesome Steve Jobs’ standard slide deck can enhance a good talk delivered by a good presenter. An awesome Steve Jobs’ standard slide deck can do nothing with a rough talk delivered by nervous presenter.

And while we’re talking about Steve Jobs, the gurus will have you believe that what made his delivery so good were his slides. Thing is, remove the slides and his delivery is still as good as it always was. The slides are just there to add impact. If the slides are the main event then the presenter is unnecessary.

Here’s the rule: the slides are there to support you, not the other way around. You are not there to support your slides. Get your talk right first and then build your slide deck to enhance your talk.

Myth 2: Write out a script and memorize it


For most business presentations you are setting yourself up for failure by creating a script.

People write out scripts when they don’t want to make any mistakes. And if you’re doing a performance presentation (like a TED talk or a keynote speech) a script might make sense.

But for a business presentation, it’s an impediment. Here’s why:

In your day-to-day work you have many competing priorities. On top of your upcoming presentation, you’ve also got your regular tasks to complete, incidental meetings and phone calls, plus any special projects you happen to be working on.

With all these different priorities vying for your attention, writing out a script and memorizing it is impractical. Firstly, writing out a script, and the amount of practice required to memorize it, involves time that you probably don’t have. And secondly, your strategy of memorization to minimize mistakes is folly. The more focused you are on not making mistakes the more likely it is that you’ll make them.

To prepare for your presentation you should avoid the scripts. Focus instead on elaborating on the 3 most important points likely to lead the audience where you need them to go. As the person chosen to deliver this presentation you are the subject matter expert, so your preparation involves simply drafting out your three main talking points and surrounding that with a opening and closing.

Myth 3: You should practice your body language

Giraffe ice skating with bananas skins.

Imagine you are in a social situation.

You’re telling your friends a story. Maybe you’re relaying a story about your kids, something that happened to you at the mall, or a surprising event at work.

When you talk to your friends, are you thinking about how you gesture with your hands?

No. You know the details of the story you are telling and your hands naturally gesture, subconsciously helping you explain your story.

When it comes to business presentations, the trainers and gurus tell us that we should practice our gestures and body language.

This is faulty advice.

When you practice your gestures you have to link a word you say to the gesture you do. This results in wildly un-natural hand movements. For example, open your arms wide when you say the word “big”.

Looking at this in the isolation of one word it seems to make sense. When it’s an entire business presentation (lots of words together) it starts to look practiced and robotic.

Additionally, you have the added stress of trying to remember what to do as well as what
to say.

Don’t practice your body language. Focus on knowing your subject matter well and the message you need to get across. If you do this, and maintain an open body position during your talk, the gestures will happen naturally.

Bookmark and Share

Announcing: A Conversation with Barbara Seymour Giordano on Storytelling

Barbara Seymour Giordano HeadshotOn Thursday May 24th the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable will host Barbara Seymour Giordano in a free conference call.

Barbara is a speechwriter with an edge. In fact, she has three distinct edges that set her apart from the run-of-the-mill wordsmiths who clients hire to craft their speech.

She is a writer who is also comfortable on the podium. Very few writers are. I remember a Ragan Speechwriters Conference where in a room of 60 only three people raised their hands when asked if they are also comfortable presenting.

She is a speech coach. Many of us draw the line at delivery coaching. I always found it impossible in the corporate setting to advise an executive many levels above me on the ways they’d need to change as a speaker to be more effective onstage. This often involves dealing with unconscious mannerisms and deeply ingrained habits that are better addressed by a professional coach. Barbara is such a coach.

She is an accomplished storyteller. Many writers claim to understand the value of the story to move an audience to action. Many fail to deliver. Barbara specializes in helping speakers tell memorable stories that audiences yearn to hear and share. Her specialty is guiding speakers — from the page to the stage — through the often murky and intricate process of bringing a story idea to life. She turns complex subjects into moving stories that spark imagination across cultures.

Over her career Barbara has advised Fortune 500 executives, entrepreneurs, scientists and TED presenters on creating and sharing stories that unite, influence and inspire audiences worldwide. Her fascination with story began when she worked as an assignment editor with CNN and E! Entertainment Television. She then parlayed her news experience into producing and directing corporate videos, global sales meetings and events for Amgen, Cisco Systems, and Nike among others. In front of the lens she’s appeared as an on-camera national TV fashion and beauty spokesperson for Lands’ End, Neiman Marcus, and TJX Corp. She delivers keynote speeches on topics that include The Art of Business of Storytelling, The Startup Pitch: Telling Stories Investors Want to Hear, and Storytelling TED Style. Her 360-degree communication experience allows her to offer a unique approach to crafting the stories that make speeches come alive.

Barbara is a two-time Cicero Speechwriting Award Winner:

2015 for ‘Rap on Trial’ delivered as a TedX speech by Charis Kubrin, Professor of Criminology. Law and Society at UC Irvine;

2017 for ‘Preserving History in 3D ‘ delivered by Andrew Jones, Senior Research Associate, Vision and Graphics Lab at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

To register for the event (no charge) visit the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable site. We start at 11:45am (Pacific) on Thursday May 24.

Bookmark and Share

A Conversation with Felicity Barber

Felicity BarberOn April 26, 2018 the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable Held a conference call with Felicity Barber. Felicity is the Executive Speechwriter at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She is a communications expert specializing in thought leadership, storytelling and speechwriting. Prior to joining the Fed she ran her own business, Thoughtful Speech for three years. She moved to San Francisco from London in 2014 where she was a speechwriter at the global insurer, Lloyd’s of London. She has also worked as a Policy Advisor to the Home Office in London and as a Parliamentary Assistant to the Labour Party member for Islington South and Finsbury, Emily Thornberry MP.

The call covered a wide range of topics including:

  • The focus of the book Felicity wrote that was presented to the Queen (and Her Majesty read).
  • The origin of the term ‘underwriter’ (as in the Insurance industry, not someone who is a junior speechwriter…)
  • How Felicity broke into the speechwriting business in London.
  • A comparison between the work of a speechwriter in the UK and USA.
  • Her observation that the publishers of anthologies of famous speeches rarely include those given by woman.
  • The impact of the young women such as Emma Gonzales who survived the shooting at their school and spoke out against American gun culture.
  • The advantage enjoyed by the younger generation of speakers who are social media natives.
  • Notable speeches by women such as those by Oprah Winfrey, actress Anne Hathaway and the secret speech of MzBhaver Raver.
  • The UN Women Instagram account as source of inspirational women speakers.
  • An appreciation of the work of Denise Graveline promoting women speakers.
  • The challenges faced by women who work in the “Brotopia” culture of Silicon Valley tech companies and the urgent need for that industry to recruit diverse talent.
  • The value of women mentoring women, for example by Women who Code and Anitab.org
  • The challenges faced by women in politics and lessons speechwriters can learn from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the views of communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
  • The value of building a long-term relationship between a speechwr1ter and speaker.
  • The rise and fall of women in tech (as a percentage of programmers).
  • The pervasive influence of Silicon Valley on our economy, culture and politics as revealed by Norm Cohen in The Know-It-Alls.
  • How to address the imbalance in the ratio between male and female speakers? What influence can speechwr1ters have?
  • The prominence of women in the National Speakers Association including Past-President Patricia Fripp.

To hear these and other topics discussed click on the podcast icon below.

Bookmark and Share

Speechwriters: Foxes or Hedgehogs?

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”
— Archilochus

I recently had a situation where a potential client in the technology industry preferred to hire a speechwriter with deep domain knowledge rather than go with someone with general writing skills. This is, in some ways, choosing the “hedgehog” who is a focused subject matter expert over the “fox” who draws on a wide variety of experiences.

In my past experience a writer can often rely on the speaker and their staff to provide the expertise (while helping with the research by interviewing relevant SMEs). In my work with over a dozen senior leaders in Silicon Valley I translated their jargon into compelling stories and concepts the audience could grasp. That, and keeping a weather eye out for the countless assumptions that experts inevitably make (from concepts to acronyms).

Indeed, Robert Lehrman author of The Political Speechwriters Companion, advises the use of the Flesch-Kincaid reading level assessment, given that the average American audience has a 7th-Grade reading level and anything more complex risks losing some part of the audience (which might explain why we have the current US President not his main challenger in the White House). Even an audience of PhD’s at the end of a long day might not be able to follow complexity delivered at a rapid clip from the podium with the same ease as they would if the ideas were on the page (where we can re-read difficult passages).

What do speechwriters say?

I polled speechwriters on LinkedIn to ask which they think is preferable: writing experience or domain knowledge? Should a client measure the level of subject expertise or the degree of writing skill? Can they have both? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each set of skills in crafting a speech? In their opinion, which is preferable?

The topic generated considerable debate with a range of opinion and anecdotes from some very experienced writers. Here’s what they had to say:

Deep domain knowledge is good for audience/reception analysis and staying safe yet bad for truly innovative communication due to group think.

Rune Kier Nielsen, Strategic Communicator, Award Winning Speechwriter and Dedicated Storyteller.

I think it’s a mistake to prioritize domain expertise above storytelling excellence. A great speechwriter can deliver an amazing story about any topic. A domain expertise litmus test says more about the client than it does about the complexity of the material that will be communicated.

Mary Smaragdis, Senior Director at LiveSafe. Past: Senior Director, Corporate Storytelling, Yahoo!

I have never had a client or prospective client want deep knowledge about content and I have had hundreds of clients. It would be incredibly stupid of them. I have had a few clients who were stupid but not that stupid.

In politics people used to hire people to write speeches, telling them they could “learn on the job.” I don’t want some MD learning by operating on my knees. And the people I have worked for and with have always been more interested in how well I write speeches than by how much I knew about the subject — even complicated subjects.

Robert Lehrman, Speechwriter. Author The Political Speechwriters Companion.

To me, it all depends on the audience. If it’s a general audience with little knowledge of the domain, it seems to me the potential client would be better served by a speechwriter with only general knowledge. But if it’s an audience full of experts, having only general knowledge could be a real disaster.

Aaron Hoover, Executive Speechwriter, University of Florida.

Ian, good question. I agree with Aaron Hoover that it depends on the audience. Overall – for the scenario you describe (a long term hire), I’d prefer a really sharp generalist speechwriter who knows how to synthesize complex information, craft a narrative, capture the speaker’s voice and move an audience. You can find out what you don’t know pretty quickly, especially when you’re asking on behalf of the CEO. One exception would be a one-off speech or tight deadline situation, where there is just not enough time to ascend the learning curve.

Pete Weissman, Speechwriting, Strategy, Thought Leadership.

In my decades of speech writing — and other games grown-ups play– I’ll have to vote with GREAT WRITERS over domain knowledge. Masterful writers daily dive into new material–and deliver. It’s the gig. Yet serious writing chops take years to hone. Most of our dear and/or maddening clients will vote for DOMAIN KNOWLEDGE (to Ian’s question). God bless ’em, but what do they know? What do they really know about the art & chutzpah of putting words in people’s mouths? Terrific writers can walk in cold, ID the hot spots, gather great quotes and prep their exec. to rally the troops.

Marianne Fleischer, Corp. Communications strategist and senior creative all media. CEO speechwriter, Presentations coach & workshop leader.

In my experience, deep knowledge of the audience is far more important. A writer who is an intelligent layman can often help a technically minded speaker reach — and move — a wider audience.

Howard Tomb, Communications advisor and speech writer to the chairmen, CEOs and other senior executives of leading public companies.

In the main, a “speechwriter with a deep domain knowledge” is a pretty rare fish. Typically he or she is an expert first and a writer incidentally, and not a speechwriter in particular. I think Pete Weissman has it right: the best choice is a sharp and proven generalist speechwriter who is a quick study, which, to me, is the definition of a first-rank speechwriter.

The problem with an expert-who’s-also-a-writer is that a strong writer overall is rarely familiar with the unique requirements of aural presentation. A well-composed essay is not a speech. The essayist need only be clear, but the primary task of the speechwriter is to keep listeners engaged despite their own distraction. This the most important part of speechwriting, and the ability to do it is not a function of one’s knowledge of the topic at hand.

Mike Long, Writer, speechwriter, & educator with
extensive experience in business, government, non-profits, and policy.

The obvious solution is teamwork between the subject matter expert (SME) and the speechwriter. I very much agree with Michael Long that even a SME who is a good writer might lack the expertise of the generalist speechwriter who is expert in connecting the dots for audiences, no matter how complex the material.

Amélie Crosson, Director of Outreach and Strategic Engagement at Office of the Government Representative in the Senate, Ottawa, Canada.

I quite agree with Amelie. The ideal is access to SME’s. By example, I work closely with a solar developer and frequently interview their analysts to make certain that I am correctly understanding and translating material. When I have subject experience – and I do in a half-dozen spaces – I enumerate. When I don’t – I _sell my ignorance_ as Charles Eames** did. That is, I am coming to the project with a passion to grok the material and make it accessible – never dumb – to a particular audience. Experience is key. Sub-specialization is not; but accessing it is important.

** “Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire.”
—- Richard Saul Wurman on Charles Eames

Jerry Weinstein, freelance speechwriter. past: Speechwriter to Chairman & Publisher, The New York Times.

There’s something called the Curse of Knowledge. The more you know, the harder it is to explain. But, with all communications, it’s a balance. If you don’t understand the subject properly, you can make rookie errors – embarrassing yourself and the client.

Mike Sergeant, Communications adviser to CEOs and business leaders. Past: Financial Correspondent, BBC News.

There are huge advantages of being a speech writer working across domains. For instance I was working with a financial services regulator last week who was speaking about the importance of company culture in financial services firms. I was able to pull on my experience the day before with a yoghurt manufacturer to give him a metaphor about how different cultures will give different end results and how each culture needs the right environment to flourish.

Benjamin Ball, Investor presentation advisor.

The short answer is “it depends.” Depends on the audience, the expectations of the speaker’s role and so on. If this is a dinner speech in front of 500 people, go with the gifted wordsmith. If the speaking venue is a scientific conference with 500 drug researchers, however, the writer with domain knowledge would be the appropriate choice.

Peter Ramjug, Executive Communications, Boston. Past: Senior Speechwriter, U.S. Department of Transportation.

It helps to have some domain experience, but I wouldn’t expect a speechwriter to have deep technology expertise. If a marketing backgrounder with some key industry links (or internal company info) is given, then the speechwriter can delve into the available content. I worked with an external agency to produce a script and creative content. The writer listened and read the brief with the available content. He also went one step further and did some other research online. So he was able to use his writing expertise with the domain resources to create a compelling story and message. Far too often the subject matter experts are too close to the product/service to develop the stories; that’s why we rely on expert story tellers!

Jeanne Hsu, C-Suite presentations.

Seems to me it depends very highly on what sort of speech or speeches your speaker delivers. If heavy insider industry thought leadership, it helps to have a speechwriter who either knows the industry or cares to learn it really thoroughly really quickly. But if the speech or speeches are (as I’d argue they much more often should be) about human aspects of the industry, then you want a great writer and thinker first.

David Murray, Executive Director at Professional Speechwriters Association.

In my experience, the best combination is a strong writer (an expert communicator and a quick study) and a subject matter expert – if it’s a general audience. If the audience is made up of PhDs, then a writer with deep domain knowledge makes sense – if you can find one.

Don Heymann, Independent speechwriter.

I think there are no easy answers. To me, the best qualification has to do with a speechwriter who can “get into the head and capture the voice” of their client. If they are an SME all the better, but if they aren’t, as a speechwriter, they understand how to do research. The generalist can mine the needed information with some work. As speechwriters, we understand how and where to find that information to prove the point or bolster an argument. I believe a generalist that has a deep understanding of their client and the audience, can take their vast knowledge, dig deeper and come up with a speech that connects in a powerful way.

Bob Sands, Freelance speechwriter.

Ditto on the wisdom shared above, particularly Don Heymann’s. It doesn’t necessarily have to be either/or. I suspect that a few generalists do have deep enough knowledge of a specific subject to craft a speech that resonates with narrow niche audiences, such as highly specialized surgeons or engineers. But even then, it’s wise to limit jargon. If forced to choose, I’d pick a generalist who’s willing to learn enough to get through the gig over an expert who can’t write in plain language.

That being said, when I first started out as a freelancer a few years ago, the head of a writers’ agency told me that he needed subject matter experts, not generalists.

Sheri Lair Saginor, Award-Winning Speechwriter, Speech Delivery Coach.

This same issue comes up with nonfiction book ghostwriters, experience or specialized area. We also need to focus on the needs of our (potential) customers and their audiences.

Maggi P. Kirkbride, Nonfiction Developmental Editing & Ghostwriting

Bookmark and Share

A Working Life III: My Early Career

In the spirit of full disclosure I should say that, following my adventures in America detailed in Part II of this series, I returned to England in the Summer of 1978 after three years in the States without a graduate degree. My studies at Tufts had been frustrating, and had cured me of any desire to become a sociologist. When I landed in England the customs agent said “Welcome home, sir…” but I really felt America was my home. The next two years were spent in Bristol, but my heart was in California.


Help The Aged Youth Campaign1978-80: Fundraiser, Help The Aged Youth Campaign, Bristol: On my return to the UK I visited friends in Cornwall and decided the stop off in Bristol on the way back to my parents home in Cheshire. I’d been in the town 15 minutes when I ran into Faith from the shoe store in Oregon quite by chance. I took this as an omen that I should move there, and the very next day was hired by the charity Help The Aged as a fundraiser in their Youth Campaign at a salary of £2,000 and the use of a Mini. Help The Aged StaffI drove around to Primary schools in the South-West organizing sponsored walks and, together with other Youth Campaign organizers, worked on larger fundraising events in London, and, rather embarrassingly, Leicestershire (which took me back to Wreake Valley College where a couple of the 6th Form remembered me as their first year teacher “who couldn’t keep control of the class…”). After two years I left on a summer holiday to the US and stayed on.

Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, as I first wrote in this blog eight years ago, I lived in the States for six years without papers, until President Reagan granted ‘illegal aliens’ amnesty in 1987. During this time I kept my nose clean, paid my taxes, and even, for one surreal week, helped the Immigration Service design a database that tracked immigrants (see Bytel below).

“To live outside the law you must be honest”
— Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie

Temp Work

1980: Whim Agency, Mill Valley, CA: On my return to the States I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and signed on with the temp agency ‘Whim’. I completed a broad range of casual work assignments including: Window washing; Balloon Delivery; “Ian The Butler” catering private events; House cleaning; Father Christmas appearances at malls and in private homes; bartending and much more. One gig as Santa Claus took me to the Sausalito home of Ron Cowan the property developer who was hosting a private dinner party where Santa’s gift for California Speaker of the House Willie Brown was a pair of bright red woolen gloves.

Construction_Site1981-82: Construction Labor, San Rafael, CA: I was hired (via Whim) to dig the foundations in clay baked as hard as steel by the summer sun on a hillside home above San Rafael. I worked with Rolf and the crew building the home from the ground up. I learned to use a hammer and skillsaw and managed not to amputate my leg or fall off the scaffolding.

The Right Stuff1982: Movie Extra, The Right Stuff, San Francisco: I was in the elevator ‘enema scene’ as a young doctor with a clipboard as well as a couple of other moments when they needed a man with short back and sides in a white coast. It paid $50 a day and all the food you could eat for a week’s filming above Buena Vista Park off Haight Street. On the set I saw Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Jane Dornacker and of course Phil Kaufmann the director.

1982: Office Manager, Fields Construction, Sausalito, CA: I worked for Howard Fields, one of Time Magazine’s “most interesting people of the year” back in the 1970’s. Howard was a true Renaissance man who had dropped out of medical school in LA to start a company manufacturing waterbeds. He was a private pilot, sailor, and fan of Ayn Rand. He lived above his office at Schoonmaker Point in Sausalito and built commerical-sized pools in Reno and San Francisco. Tired of seeing me hammer out correspondence on an IBM Selectric he suggested I learn to use WordStar on a TRS-80 PC.

Personal Computers

Time Magazine Cover1983: Freelance WordStar consultant, San Francisco: Howard introduced me to a couple of small companies who needed help with their mailing lists and customer correspondence. Then, with a few months experience under my belt, and a growing fascination with PC’s I was finally able to launch a career. Time Magazine had just named the PC as “Man of the Year” and I was in the right place at the right time, 10 years after graduating, to catch the computing wave that would define my working life from here on.

MicroPro1984 – 86: Dealer Support, MicroPro, San Rafael: I hired into the three-person dealer tech support team at MicroPro where I expanded my hands-on computer knowledge from wordprocessing to databases and spreadsheets, from CP/M to MS-DOS. It was a short 10 minute commute from my home in Mill Valley (living in a cottage behind a home on Shell Road) to the old International Diamond Building next to the Civic Center in San Rafael. The company Seymour Rubinstein had started was booming. However, customer and dealer support was not a priority. When WordPerfect in Utah staffed up their support center we started to lose market share (and when CEO Glen Haney pushed for copy protection on WordStar 2000 it did not help matters). One vivid memory was a company meeting where Rubinstein mocked customers who used a mouse, since this required they take their hands of the ‘home row’ which touch-typists used.

1986: Telemarketing, Software Recording, San Rafael: After MicroPro I tried my hand a commission-only software sales for Randy Hayes’s company. I quickly went broke.

Dbase_III1986-88: Tech Support, Bytel, Albany: I was the sole tech support person for Genifer, the dBase III code-generator working for Dan Pines in his start-up, Bytel. It was a scrappy small company playing in the big leagues of the booming PC database market. I had fascinating conversations with users building databases used for everything from counting boll weevils in cotton fields to tracking immigrants at the immigration service (that was an interesting conversation!)

Around this time I was granted Amnesty by the US Government and given my Green Card which legally allowed to me to work in the US for the first time since 1979.

Tex Logo1988 – 1989: Tech Support, Personal TeX, Mill Valley: I worked for Lance Carnes in his beautiful office near the Sweetwater Bar in Mill Valley. On October 18th I’d left work on the dot at 5:00pm and was just driving through the center of town when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck at 5:05. I arrived home to a shaken-up wife clutching our six month old daughter. Later, I met Donald Knuth at a Stanford conference on TeX and extended my knowledge of this arcane programming language.

1989-1990: Tech Support, Medicus, Alameda: I worked the 6:00am to 3:00pm shift supporting both UNIX and MS-DOS versions of their medical records encoding software. I learned more that I wanted to about ICD-9 and CPT codes and the disputes that can arise over billing and denial of payment for medical services. I had a front-row seat in the dysfunctional world of American health care and medical insurance. Apparently US politicians find the system here preferable to the “socialized medicine” that the Europeans inflict on their citizens…

One day in 1990 I took a call from a recruiter who asked if I was interested in interviewing for a job at a company called Sun Microsystems in Milpitas. “Where’s Milpitas?” I asked. When I found out where, I began the next stage of my working life.

Bookmark and Share

2018 Cicero Speechwriting Awards

CiceroI’m delighted that transcripts of the 25 best speeches selected by Vital Speeches of the Day are now available. In addition to the overall winner there are awards for a wide range of categories; from industry verticals such as Energy and Transportation; to motivational speeches, controversial speeches, commencement addresses, eulogies and more.

It’s interesting to see that of the 25 speeches which are listed, 64% were written by men and 36% by women, while 84% were delivered by men and only 16% by woman (for a perspective on this see Felicity Barber’s excellent post on Women Speaking).

Something else which struck me was that four of the speakers are in the mold of Winston Churchill — they both wrote and deliver their own content. Indeed, speechwriter Hal Gordon was one of the speakers who wrote their own material (else, who would write speeches for the speechwriter?) and his analysis of Churchillian roots (or scaffolding) is great background to appreciate the content of his 2018 Cicero speech.

However, what stuck out a mile, is that were it not for David Murray publishing these transcripts, much of the content would never have seen the light of day. None of the speeches would have been available to those of us who were absent from the auditorium at the time it was delivered. It is frankly amazing that in the era of social media, streaming video and audio podcasts, there were only (as far as I was able to discover) a mere five of the 25 speeches available on YouTube. These are to be applauded for using technology to magnify the impact of the speech after the event (as I’ve written is possible, if not required).

These savvy speakers (or speechwriters who went the extra mile for their clients) are:

Overall winner: “The Power of a Story”, UT Austin President, Gregory L. Fenves speaking at the Holocaust Museum of Houston.

…the reality is that our lives are not only the product of our ambitions, our talents, and a singular focus. Our lives unfold as our individual story intertwines with the stories of others—it’s happening right now, while we are in this room together.That is why institutions like The University of Texas at Austin and Holocaust Museum Houston are important. They make sense of these intersections. To educate, to understand, to enlighten and to bring people together with diverse perspectives and backgrounds so that we may improve lives for present and future generations.

Nonprofit winner: “The State of Civil Discourse”, Rotary International General Secretary John Hewko speaking at Stanford University (fast forward nine minutes into the video for the content).

The transformative change we seek cannot solely be delivered by the Facebooks and LinkedIns of the world. Civil discourse cannot rely on the very platforms which—if used unwisely—can perpetuate our present malaise.Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam identified a sharp rise in Americans’ civic disengagement over the last generation, with empty town hall meetings reflecting “a giant swing toward the individualist pole in our culture, society, and politics.” And his findings are still starkly relevant today.

Controversial/Highly Politicized speech winner: “Protecting Human Rights in Today’s Europe”, Michael O’Flaherty, Director, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights speech delivered delivered at University of Poznan, Poland.

We must have the courage of our convictions, the courage to speak out against human rights violations, and the courage to act. With this courage, with energy and with good will, we can overcome this crisis to ensure that human rights protection does not become a hollow shell, but remains at the beating heart of our societies.

Technology speech winner: The video is a part of the speech delivered by Dr. Jeffrey W. Evenson, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, Corning Inc. While not the full speech, this video extract is a great illustration of re-purposing content from the full-length speech delivered at the International Biennale of Glass, Sofia, Bulgaria, six months earlier.

And despite its reputation for being fragile, glass can be engineered to be incredibly strong and damage resistant. Scientists estimate glass’s theoretical strength at more than 15 Gigapascals. Now, I realize there may be a few people in the audience who don’t measure things in Pascals. So I have an
analogy that might help. Imagine a scale that measures the pressure under an elephant’s foot. To get this scale to read one Gigapascal, you would need to stack 10,000 elephants on top of each other.

Inaugural Address speech winner: “What Kind of Leaders Will We Be?”, Dr. David O. Barbe, President, American Medical Association, delivered at the AMA Annual General Meeting.

Let us be the leaders who bring consensus solutions to difficult issues. Let us be the leaders with the creativity and drive to shape the future of medicine. Let us be the leaders who mentor our next generation of physicians. Let us be the leaders John Quincy Adams envisioned when he said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more… learn more… do more… and become more… you are a leader.”

I’m sure the remaining 20 speeches are worthy of reading, however, the impact of hearing and seeing the presentations adds immeasurably to the experience. When Vital Speeches of the Day began publishing in the 1930’s recordings of speeches were few and far between. You can watch grainy video of FDR’s 1933 Inaugural Address or part of Hitler’s first address as German Chancellor . But today, with a smartphone in every pocket, it’s inexcusable that presentations are not made generally available on social media — Award Winners or not.

[I’m well aware that there might be audio or video recordings of the speeches that I missed. If anyone can point me to them, please add the relevant links in the comments below.]


Government speech winner: “Seat Belts, State Budgets and the Art of Compromise,” John Cullerton, Illinois Senate President.

Thanks to speechwriter John Patterson for his comment (below) that pointed to this video. The first 14 minutes are the scripted talk.

I was trying to get people to vote for something that told 85 percent of their constituents to change their daily behavior. That kind of change isn’t easy. In my experience, here’s how you do it: You begin with a small step forward. And then, when the world doesn’t end, you recognize success, build your base of supporters and keep stepping forward to accomplish your broader goals.

Bookmark and Share

Announcing: A conversation with Felicity Barber on Women Speaking

Felicity BarberI first met Felicity in 2014 shortly after she moved from England to San Francisco. She’s a speechwriter who has worked in both the UK and USA and has expertise in B2B, finance, insurance and technology.

Felicity is currently the Executive Speechwriter at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She’s a communications expert specializing in thought leadership, storytelling and speechwriting. Prior to joining the Fed she ran her own business, Thoughtful Speech for three years. She moved to San Francisco from London in 2014 where she was a speechwriter at the global insurer, Lloyd’s of London. She has also worked as a Policy Advisor to the Home Office in London and as a Parliamentary Assistant to the Labour Party member for Islington South and Finsbury, Emily Thornberry MP. Her claim to fame is that she wrote a book that was given as a gift to Her Majesty The Queen.

On Thursday April 26th the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable will host Felicity in a free conference call.

At this event Felicity will explain why she is frustrated that there’s so little published about women’s rhetoric and speeches. As a speechwriter who loves writing for women, she’ll share what inspires her and discuss her recent posting in Vital Speeches of the Day that highlighted five of her favorite moments of women’s public speaking from 2017.

She’ll discuss what speechwriters should do differently, if anything, when writing a speech for a woman vs. a man.

To register for the event (no charge) visit the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable site. We start at 11:45am (Pacific).

Bookmark and Share

Books Reviewed: How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig and Forever, by Pete Hamill

(Full disclosure: Matt is the nephew of my good friend James Haig. I heard Matt speak at a recent Marin County bookstore where I purchased his book. I’ve not read any of his other writing, but see from Twitter that he has a large and loyal fan base. It was Matt who told me that he was not aware of the 2003 Pete Hamill novel on the subject of immortality and that he’d never visited Arizona before writing the book.)

How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time CoverI enjoyed English author Matt Haig’s latest novel How to Stop Time not only for the wonderfully evocative portrait of the many different historical periods, but for the way these are woven together into a believable whole in the protagonist Tom’s life.

Haig does this in so many ways, one example being the close of the main para on p. 325 which takes us “back down the path from where we came…as sycamore seeds spin and fall in this same forest.”

I enjoyed the focus on the interior life of the protagonist as much as the exterior events. And the subtle digs at our current crazy political situation.

While he writes stunning prose, Haig is obviously a poet at heart. The two sentences at the bottom of p.313 describing the world that remains after the death of one of the characters took my breath away.

This is a wonderful book, hugely enjoyable.


Forever - CoverIronically, the author claims not to be aware of Pete Hamill’s Forever: A Novel which would be a fine companion read.

There are many differences between the two novels, but they share a common theme. Hamill takes over 250 pages before his protagonist is granted a life many times longer than the usual span. Haig’s character is born with a rare condition shared by others.

Tom Hazard is free to wander the world, and one of the joys of Haig’s book is not only the way he evokes different times, but also multiple locations: Paris, the South Seas, London and New York. One of the conditions of Cormac O’Connor’s life, once he’s made into an immortal, is that he can never leave Manhattan. So he watches as New York grows from the tiny pre-Revolutionary settlement into the 21st century metropolis. The world changes around Cormac, while for Tom changes in latitudes fill the decades.

Both men have to deal with the challenge of outlasting the generations of people they live among. This begins early on for Tom when he escapes superstitious 17th Century witch-hunters and it drives him on his travels to distant lands.

Cormac is a witness to the excesses of New York: the violence, jails, brothels, plagues, Tammany Hall. Hamill relishes the tide of history that sweeps over New York, especially Irish New York.

In the modern world Tom becomes a history teacher, while Cormac tells people he’s “a kind of historian” (p. 482). Both men must be careful not to reveal too much about the past eras they in fact lived through.

Both also deal with the psychological burden of ageless living. Cormac’s “mind felt like sludge…his body felt young, and looked young, but his brain felt ancient.” (p.393) Tom Hazard suffers from debilitating headaches that mark the challenge of endless life:

“The longer you live, the harder it becomes…Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? … The memories swell. The headaches grow.” (p. 19)

Cormac is clearly Hamill’s alter ego: an Irish-American reporter in New York. He writes about the city he knows so well, in a similar way that Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a tribute to his insider knowledge of the Big Apple.

Both authors examine the peculiar challenges of relationships with women and children who have ageless lovers and fathers. Both employ the trope of the challenge of love outlasting the passage of time:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 116

Tom Hazard is a vehicle for Haig’s research into different eras and locations. He confessed to having written about Arizona (very convincingly) before ever visiting it. But there again, neither he nor Hamill visited past times, except in their imaginations.

What price immortality?

Both of these novels are sobering checks on the wishes of some of the more outlandish desires of Silicon Valley billionaires to achieve immortality:

Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.” These titans of tech aren’t being ridiculous, or even vainglorious; their quests are based on real, emerging science that could fundamentally change what we know about life and about death.

As Adi Da Samraj has written:

“Fear of death is fear of surrender to Infinity. Learn to surrender, to exist at Infinity while alive, and fear of death dissolves. Fear of death is fear of the Unknown. Realize the Wonder, the Eternal Unknowability of the Totality of Existence, and fear of death is transcended.”

Bookmark and Share

A Working Life II: Going West

“Go West, young man.”
— Horace Greeley, 1865

This is the second part of the review of my working life. Part 1, The Early Years, covered the part-time jobs I had while in school in England. In Part 2 I graduate from college and move to the States.

Student and Teacher

1972: Traffic Survey, Leicester: The summer before my final year any student who wanted to work could find a job on the traffic survey being conducted in and around Leicester. We got up before dawn, sat at intersections and counted cars. Stationed outside the local prison I was often face-to-face with uptight guards delayed for their shift by a long-haired layabout with a clip-board. A local vicar once asked me “Do you enjoy your work, my son?” and I had to honestly say, yes, I did. Fresh air and mindless checklists were a welcome change to the life of an undergraduate.

At this point in the story I must mention a 15-minute conversation that, quite simply, changed the course of my life. In my final term at Leicester I had already secured a place on a post-graduate Sociology course at the University of Bath. It would have given me a path to a PhD and a life as a Sociology professor in England. Then I had a 15 minute meeting with my tutor. He asked me what I planned to do after graduation, I told him about Bath and that “meanwhile over the summer I plan to tour the USA on a tourist visa”. “Oh”, he replied, “why not do your Masters in the US and then come back to finish your PhD here?” I had no idea you could! He suggested the names of a half-dozen American universities with good Sociology departments (Brown, Boston University, Brandeis) and after sending off applications to those colleges which all required a non-refundable $25 application fee I noticed Tufts University which did not require a fee. So I applied there, as an afterthought. I was too late to attend in the Fall of 1973 so had to apply for the 1974 academic year. Tufts was the college that gave me a scholarship and the offer of a job as a teaching assistant to cover living expenses. Academically, it was a poor choice — the focus was on quantitative studies, survey design and statistics. Not my cup of tea. It cured me of a desire to become an academic. But I instantly fell in love with America and that explains the rest of my career, and my life since. That conversation *did* change my life.

Wreake Valley College1973: Humanities Teacher, Wreake Valley College, Syston, Leicestershire: After graduating, and while waiting to go to the States for my graduate education, I was a three-day-a-week substitute teacher. In those days anyone with a BA was considered qualified to teach. There was no training. I had no clue. I was terrible teacher.

Tufts1974: Teaching Assistant, Sociology Department, Tufts University, Medford, MA: During my first year as a graduate student I was tasked with supervising Soc 101 classes. My abstract philosophical approach did not go down well with the undergrads, many of who were college athletes taking Introductory Sociology as a “gut” course. I was still a terrible teacher.

1975: Casual Labor, Cambridge, MA: When I teaching assistant job was not renewed (no surprise!) I had to find another way to put bread on the table. IRS regulations allowed me to work 20 hours a week while studying. I found work with Bobby Ferant, a local contractor, who had me doing odd-jobs remodeling commercial space in Harvard Square, digging foundations, painting hair salons and more. He used to offer me a hit from from his opium pipe on the way into work. The sixites were still alive in Boston in those days.

Roots Shoes1975-76: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Cambridge, MA: Once I’d had enough of demolition work, painting and decorating, I found part-time work selling ‘recessed heel’ shoes in the Cambridge Roots store. The manager was a delightful Swiss woman with a passion for photography and red wine. The other employee was a Rajneesh ‘sannyasin’ who dressed in orange robes. I remember a HBS student who surveyed us as part of his study comparing Roots and the more popular Earth Shoes in the hippie retail shoe market niche. Australians would sometimes walk by the store, do a double-take, and double over in laughter. I later found out why.

Taxi1976: Taxi Driver, Ambassador Cabs, Cambridge, MA: A *very* short-lived stint as a taxi driver. I had only just learned to drive, did not know the streets, and could not understand the Boston accents of the dispatchers on the radio. Apart from that it was a piece of cake. My first fare was a blind guy I took to Church on Sunday who gave me directions from the back seat (he made the same trip every week). After getting lost trying to find the airport with an anxious passenger I packed it in.

Streets of San Francisco1976: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Polk Street, San Francisco: With my East Coast experience selling shoes, my friend James (a fellow Leicester graduate) found me a fill-in job for the summer working in the Polk Street Roots store. It was located opposite the Adidam Bookstore, next door to Buzzby’s (the largest gay disco on the west coast). When the store was quiet, I was sent home early to an apartment I was “house sitting”. Which is why, early one afternoon, I opened the door to find a guy rifling through the place. He jumped out the way he’d come in: through the window and onto the fire escape. Despite everything I’d seen on The Streets of San Francisco, the detective who came by later was not much help. Where was Michael Douglas when I needed him?

SW Portland1976-1977: Shoe Store Manager, Roots, Portland, OR: My first full-time paid employment! I managed the Portland store with the help of two part-time assistants, Faith and Martha. I lived in a wonderful house in SW Portland and walked down the hill to work on SW Broadway with views of Mt. Hood in the distance and the Rose Gardens above me. It was the year of a drought in Oregon so I avoided the incessant rain. Ranchers from eastern Oregon bought our high-top boots which they appreciated because “they sure keep the burrs out”.

Then it was time to return to the UK and find work, which I’ll discuss in Part 3.

Bookmark and Share