Guest Posting: 102 Common English Idioms

Michelle Tran is an ESL English teacher. Her Basic English Speaking website lists common English phrases, expressions, basic grammar and more. This list of 102 common English idioms with meaning and examples is reprinted here with her express permission.

102 Common English Idioms with Meaning and Examples, by Michelle Tran

Say you’re in a conversation with your native American friends. Sometimes, during the conversation, you ask yourself, “What the heck is going on?” Even though you are translating every single word to your mother tongue, you have no idea what your friends are talking about.

Well, you know what?

The reason you find it hard to understand native speakers is because they usually use idioms in their daily communication.

What is an idiom?

It’s “a group of words whose meaning is different from the meaning of every single word.” For example, “a piece of cake” doesn’t literally mean a sweet; instead, it means “easy.” How interesting!

Why idioms?

The fact that you know 3,000 English words doesn’t mean you can understand every single idiom. That’s to say knowing single words will not help you interpret the meaning of the entire phrase. What you can do is put serious effort into it.

What’s more, if you master English idioms, you will sound like a native speaker. Idiomatic expressions which make conversations sound more natural are commonly used by native speakers every day.

In this lesson series, we will introduce you to 102 common English idioms. Each is written with an idiom definition, 3 idiom examples, and audio recordings. That way, you will know what the idiom means and how to use it in a conversation.

It’s time to say goodbye to boring textbooks and start learning something really useful for your English communication.

Idioms about Money and Finance

A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned
Beyond One’s Means
Someone’s Bread And Butter
Cut One’s Losses
Down-And-Out
Dutch Treat/ Go Dutch
Money Talks
Bring Home The Bacon
At All Costs
To Earn A Living
Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees
Pour Money Down The Drain
Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth

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Idioms about Love

Love At First Sight
Match Made In Heaven
To Have A Crush On Someone
To Love With All Your Heart And Soul
To Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve
To Fall Head Over Heels In Love
To Tie The Knot
To Be The Apple Of My Eye

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Idioms about Happiness and Sadness

On Cloud Nine
To Make Your Day
Not The End Of The World
Feeling Blue/To Have The Blues
Face Like A Wet Weekend
Get A (Real) Kick Out Of Something
On Top Of The World
In Seventh Heaven
Over The Moon
Having A Whale Of A Time
Let One’s Hair Down

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Idioms about Health

Ill At Ease
Breathe One’s Last
Catch A Cold
Fall Ill
At Death’s Door
Nothing But Skin And Bones
Safe And Sound
Get A Black Eye
Recharge One’s Batteries
Under The Weather
You Are What You Eat.
As Pale As A Ghost

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Idioms about Travel

Off The Beaten Track
To Make Your Way Back
Hustle And Bustle
To Live Out Of A Suitcase
Travel Broadens The Mind
Hit The Road
Break The Journey
Have/ Get/ Give Someone Itchy Feet
A Thirst For Adventure

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Idioms about Work

Get Your Feet Under The Table
Go The Extra Mile
Put Your Feet Up
Be In Someone’s Good (Or Bad) Books
Give Someone The Sack
To Call It A Day
Work Like A Dog
All In A Day’s Work
Work Your Fingers To The Bone

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Idioms about Friendship

Lend Your Money. Lose Your Friend
A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed
To See Eye To Eye With Someone
To Get On Like A House On Fire
To Know Someone Inside Out
To Speak The Same Language

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Idioms about Dreams

Beyond Your Wildest Dreams
Daydream About Someone Or Something
In (One’s) Dreams
A Dream Come True
To Keep Someone’s Feet On The Ground
To Bring Someone Back Down To Earth
Broken Dreams

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Idioms about Time

Nine-To-Five Job
At The Eleventh Hour
Like Clockwork
Time Flies
Better Late Than Never
In The Long Run
Beat The Clock
Make Up For Lost Time

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Idioms about Decisions

Take It Or Leave It
Sit On The Fence
To Take A Back Seat
A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush
My Way Or The Highway
Weigh The Pros And Cons

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Other idioms

To Sleep On It
Know Someone Like The Back Of Your Hand
As Easy As Pie/ A Piece Of Cake
Take It Easy
To Get The Ball Rolling
Twenty-Four/Seven (24/7)
Once And For All
To Make The Best Of
Day In And Day Out (Day After Day, For Longer Periods Of Time, Year In And Year Out, Year After Year)
To Keep One’s Word
To Give (Someone) A Hand
To Be In (Someone’s) Shoes
None Of Your Business

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Book Review: Speechwriting In Theory and Practice

Speechwriting In Theory and Practice, by Jens E. Kjeldsen, Amos Kiewe, Marie Lund and Jette Barnholdt Hansen

Reviewed by Neil Hrab, Rhetoric Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day

A Book We’ve Long Awaited

Book CoverSpeechwriters have hoped for a long time to see a book like this appear in print. Speechwriting in Theory and Practice’s 13 chapters are grounded in a combination of academic perspectives on the evolution of rhetoric and persuasive speech, alongside a close study of how speechwriters and speakers collaborate, in the real world, to prepare remarks for delivery. In addition to the usual White House anecdotes, we are also treated to superb insights from the lived experience of European speechwriters.

Similar books have tried hard to strike the same balance, with well-intentioned, if somewhat uneven results. Clearly, the authors of this book have studied these earlier works, and charted a different course. Their joint introduction modestly proclaims on page 2 that “[o]urs is not a handbook [on speechwriting]. There are plenty of these.” Don’t take this declaration at face value, however – the book unites both theory and practice in such a way that any newcomers to the speechwriting field will find it of great practical value (particularly Chapters 6 to 13).

The great strength of Speechwriting is that it flips the typical approach for an academic study of speechwriting on its head. That more conventional structure might focus on topics such as how various rhetorical devices identified 2000+ years ago in ancient Greece and Rome continue to appear in 21st century speeches, or tout various still-relevant insights from Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric. (Aristotle makes periodic appearances throughout this book, more as a bystander, however, rather than as inescapable off-stage narrator.)

Speechwriting in Theory and Practice fully acknowledges this fascinating continuity in rhetorical practice over the centuries, but then takes the reasonable position that, since that continuity is already very clear—why not explore aspects of contemporary speechwriting that are less well known, at least outside of professional circles?

By opening its pages to consideration of contemporary speechwriting practice, the book raises questions pointing to promising areas for future research. These include: Why is corporate speechwriting so “astonishingly under-researched” compared to political speechwriting? (See Chapter 6) How does the need for a government speechwriter to get the approval of “higher levels in the system” shape the drafting of official speeches? (See Chapter 7.) Why, exactly, can PowerPoint be so deadly when it comes to trying to hold an audience’s attention? (See Chapter 10, especially the observation that the real problem posed by digital presentation tools like PowerPoint is that they invite “the speechwriter to present statements, not to reflect, make arguments, and tell stories.”) The discussion in of the potential ethical challenges faced by speechwriters in Chapter 11 is stimulating as well.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the authors of Speechwriting in Theory and Practice have blazed a new trail. With that path now open, let us hope others will follow in their steps, and open up this exciting new territory further.

This review first appeared in Vital Speeches of the Day and is reprinted here by express permission.

Hay Festival : 15 Speeches That Changed the World

The second Festival Foundation Gala event at the 2019 Hay Festival celebrated the power of persuasion and words. From calls to arms to demands for peace, this performance captured the voices of prophets and politicians, rebels and tyrants, soldiers and statesman.

The selection of speeches was inspired by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “new book” [sic] – presumably a revision of his 2007 book, which will be “published in October”. And by the two Penguin speeches anthologies edited by Brian MacArthur: Modern Speeches and Historic Speeches.

As with any selection, there are some speeches that might have changed the world, others, maybe not so much. For anyone who would like to see the speeches read by top-notch actors from the stage at Hay, I recommend the £10.00 annual subscription to the Hay Player.

Queen Elizabeth I: Addressing the Troops

Elizabeth IWhen Queen Elizabeth I visited her troops on the eve of the attack of the Spanish Armada, her authority emanated from the fact that she was Queen.

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

Greta Thunberg: Our Lives are in Your Hands

Greta ThunbergThe 16-year-old Swedish activist was the clear favorite at Hay. Her speeches are collected in No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. She is known for having initiated the school strike for climate movement that formed in November 2018. In March 2019, three members of the Norwegian parliament nominated Thunberg for the Nobel Peace Prize. In May 2019, she featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Her speech given at a protest outside Swedish Parliament was the first of three featured from the stage at Hay.

If people knew this they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m so “passionate about climate change.” If people knew that the scientists say that we have a five percent chance of meeting the Paris target, and if people knew what a nightmare scenario we will face if we don’t keep global warming below 2 °C, they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m on school strike outside parliament. Because if everyone knew how serious the situation is and how little is actually being done, everyone would come and sit down beside us.

Colonel Tim Collins: Addressing the Troops

Col Tim CollinsColonel Tim Collins, OBE, is a retired Northern Irish military officer in the British Army. He is best known for his role in the Iraq War in 2003, and his inspirational eve-of-battle speech, a copy of which apparently hung in the White House’s Oval Office.

We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them. There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

Dolores Ibárruri: They Shall Not Pass!

Dolores IbárruriThis Republican heroine of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and a communist politician of Basque origin is known for her famous slogan ¡No Pasarán! (“They shall not pass”). This was a battle cry appeal for the defense of the Second Spanish Republic.

The Communist Party calls you to arms. We especially call upon you, workers, farmers, intellectuals to assume your positions in the fight to finally smash the enemies of the Republic and of the popular liberties. Long live the Popular Front! Long live the union of all anti-fascists! Long live the Republic of the people! The Fascists shall not pass! THEY SHALL NOT PASS!

Nelson Mandala: Inaugural Speech

Nelson MandalaNelson Mandela was South Africa’s first black chief executive. His inauguration took place in Pretoria on 10 May 1994, televised to a billion viewers globally. The event was attended by four thousand guests, including world leaders from a wide range of geographic and ideological backgrounds.

We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.

Malala Yousafzai: Address to the United Nations

Malala YousafzaiThis Pakistani activist for female education is the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate. Her address to the United Nations was given as part of her campaign to ensure free compulsory education for every child. She marked her 16th birthday by delivering the speech at the UN headquarters in New York.

So here I stand…one girl among many. I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights: Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

Oliver Cromwell: In the Name of God, Go!

Oliver CromwellCromwell delivered this speech when he dismissed the “Rump Parliament” on 20 April 1653. It was noticeable that, on 1 June 2019, the Hay audience reacted with wry amusement to a speech introduced as “seeming to say so much of what we all feel”. Ironic that a country embroiled in a divisive Brexit debate broke into laughter time and again as the dictator’s words echoed down the centuries.

The relevance of the speech was thrown into stark relief when, within the month, two candidates for the job as Prime Minister, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, proposed proroguing (i.e. dismissing) parliament so that MPs are unable to block a no-deal Brexit. Were a new Cromwell to take the stage in modern Britain one can only hope the outcome is less bloody than the last time.

Or the audience members might not find it so amusing.

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do. I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

Aneurin Bevan: Resignation speech

Aneurin BevanNye Bevan, was a Welsh Labour Party politician who was the Minister for Health in the UK from 1945 to 1951. He was one of the chief spokesmen for the Labour Party’s left wing, and of left-wing British thought generally. His most famous accomplishment came when, as Minister of Health, he spearheaded the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS), which was to provide medical care free at point-of-need to all Britons, regardless of wealth. On 23 April 1951 he delivered a rousing resignation speech over planned cuts to the NHS budget.

After all, the National Health Service was something of which we were all very proud, and even the Opposition were beginning to be proud of it. It only had to last a few more years to become a part of our traditions, and then the traditionalists would have claimed the credit for all of it. Why should we throw it away? In the Chancellor’s Speech there was not one word of commendation for the Health Service—not one word. What is responsible for that?

It’s notable that the extract read at Hay ended before Bevan’s conclusion:

I say this, in conclusion. There is only one hope for mankind—and that is democratic Socialism. There is only one party in Great Britain which can do it—and that is the Labour Party. But I ask them carefully to consider how far they are polluting the stream. We have gone a long way—a very long way—against great difficulties. Do not let us change direction now. Let us make it clear, quite clear, to the rest of the world that we stand where we stood, that we are not going to allow ourselves to be diverted from our path by the exigencies of the immediate situation. We shall do what is necessary to defend ourselves—defend ourselves by arms, and not only with arms but with the spiritual resources of our people.

Perhaps, unlike in the case of Cromwell, these words are too partisan in British politics today. Safer to laugh at the rants of a dictator speaking 300 years before Bevan.

Bobby Kennedy: Measuring America

Bobby KennedyIn a speech delivered at the University of Kansas on 18 March 1968, Bobby Kennedy took aim at materialist America. Twelve short weeks later a gunman took aim at him.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Greta Thunberg: Whatever it Takes

The second of the three speeches chosen is also available on YouTube, delivered by Greta on a cold day in Sweden:

As Billy Bragg remarked on the previous day at Hay “We erect statues to suffragettes, some day we’ll erect statues to climate change activists.”

Aung San Suu Kyi: The Causes of Fear

Aung San Suu KyiThe controversial Burmese leader has drawn criticism over her alleged inaction to the persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State and refusal to accept that Myanmar’s military has committed massacres. This speech (delivered in absentia) on the occasion of being awarded the Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought in 1990 — a time when her reputation was still intact.

Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

John Ball: Cast off the Yoke of Bondage

John BallThis a radical priest took a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 against the 14-year-old King Richard II. Needless to say, it did not end well for the peasants. As historian Barbara Tuchman has noted, the conflicts of that distant mirror of the calamitous 14th century usually ended with peasants “swinging from trees”.

It’s curious that the extract read at Hay omitted the most famous quote from the speech: When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondsmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who would have had any bond and who free.

Greta Thumberg: Speaking to the British Parliament

A third and final speech by the young activist was delivered to Parliament in April of this year:

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Harvey Milk: The Hope Speech

Harvey MilkThe first openly gay elected official in California gave a rousing speech at the June 1978 California Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco. Before the year was over his life was ended by an embittered Dan White, who shot him and Mayor George Moscone in City Hall with his police-issued revolver. Ah, those Second Amendment rights…

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Earl Spencer: Princess Diana Eulogy

Charles SpencerDiana’s brother delivered a controversial eulogy that was reported to have caused a rift in the royal family. In paying tribute to his sister, the 9th Earl Spencer reportedly angered the Queen with lines like “Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic” and “I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned.”

OK, fair enough. But is this really a speech that “changed the world”? Apparently so, according to the organizers of this event at Hay.

There is no doubt that she was looking for a new direction in her life at this time. She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.

Fuck Me!

Marina HydeAs I’ve noted before, the UK’s Financial Times has none of the reticence of other publications such as the WSJ in employing good Anglo Saxon terms where appropriate. Unlike American publications, they will print the work ‘fuck’ in articles.

I see this is a word that’s also freely employed by The Guardian. In her May 31, 2019 opinion piece on the current British Brexit brouhaha, columnist Marina Hyde outdoes the FT in the unrestricted use of the word:

Across all candidates there is an absolute refusal to admit Brexit is a mass Tory sex game that’s gone badly wrong. See modernity’s Matt Hancock, who this week attempted to attack Boris Johnson with the words: “To the people who say ‘fuck business’, I say fuck fuck business.” Gut response to this is: life, no parole. But for those who believe Matt’s crime should be in some way understood, this grammatical construction is known as the “double fuckative”. Contrary to assumption, there are policy positions beyond it – for instance “fuck the fucker of fuck business”, and “fuck fucking the fucker of fuck business”. Don’t ask what they mean – just let them mist you like three fragrant sprays of Matt by Matt Hancock.

My response to such robust commentary in a ‘proper’ English newspaper: Fuck Me!

Hay, Hey, Hay!

Hay Fesitval SignIt’s over dozen years since I first profiled The King of Hay-on-Wye and then listed the Top 197 Tweets from the 2008 Hay Festival. I’ve finally made the pilgrimage to the little Welsh-border village where books are celebrated. While Richard Booth is no longer King, having sold his various properties and suffered serious health challenges, the village has thrived and the festival grown enormously from the first event in 1988 that attracted a few thousand, to the hundred-thousand plus who attend today.

Woodstock for the Mind

President Bill Clinton famously compared the festival to the seminal 60’s rock festival. Absent mud, drugs and nudity, Hay delivers a high to bibliophiles. The loos are clean, the food exquisite, the literature wide-ranging.

Over a three day period, I heard presentations from:

That, and a compelling hour of some of Britain’s finest actors reading Speeches That Changed the World — which I’ll review in a separate blog post.

Whites Only?

Hay Fesitval AudienceThe British do this kind of thing so well. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the festival appealed almost exclusively to a certain demographic — the educated Hampstead Thinkers lampooned by Private Eye were there in large numbers. Radical chic was everywhere. I doubt many voted for Brexit. Any mention of Trump elicited chortles. And it was, without doubt, the whitest audience I’ve seen in a long, long time. While there’s obviously no White’s Only policy, one did wonder where the authors of color and their audiences were.

In Praise of Hay

Town of Hay-on-WyeAway from the Festival crowds, the delightful village of Hay-on-Wye offered great food in a range of pubs and cafes, bookshops everywhere, and pleasant riverside walks. The weather was glorious. Since I slept in a yurt in a farmer’s field this made the experience tolerable.

How The Light Gets In

My one regret this visit is that I did not know about a companion festival held May 24-27 at Hay. The How The Light Gets In festival (named in honor of a Leonard Cohen lyric) is billed as the world’s largest philosophy and music festival. This might be to the Literature Festival what Burning Man is to Woodstock. For those who like their Hay with a nightly rave thrown in.

Hay Player

For anyone curious about the content of the Literature Festival, an annual subscription to the online Hay Player costs just £10.00 and allows you to play as much audio and film from past festivals as you like. Considering the average ticket for just one talk at the Festival is around a tenner, this is a great bargain.

Plus, you won’t need to sleep in a yurt.

Interview: Maile Collmer, Referral Marketer

Maile CollmerMaile believes that business is built one connection at a time. In other words, she believes in individual excellence as well as team excellence. A team can do so much more than an individual, and excellent teams are made of excellent individuals doing their part.

Maile is a marketer who built a referral team that helped her climb into the top 5% of realtors in Contra Costa County. Now, she helps others build their referral teams to take them to the top of their fields.

She helps people become master networkers and generate referrals. She’s known for delivering high value content and has shared the stage with Dawn Lyons, Susan RoAne, Dr. Ivan Misner, & Mike Macedonio. Her specialty is teaching entrepreneurs how to create their own powerful referral team that will bring them a consistent and predictable stream of referrals to their ideal clients.

As a referral marketing consultant who is a part of the Asentiv organization, she dramatically increases her clients’ profits by strategically increasing the number and quality of the referrals they receive.

Pro-Track Profile

Maile is part of the National Speakers Association Northern California 2019 Speakers Academy program. This is the program previously known as Pro-Track. I participated back in 2006 and although the program now has another name I am sticking with the alliterative “Pro-Track Profile” moniker as I interview participants and add them to the roster of past interviews. I’m volunteering as an adjunct faculty member in support of the program this year, and took the opportunity to catch up with Maile. To hear what she told me about her business goals, click on the podcast icon below.

IBM Project Debater – will AI eliminate speechwriters?

IQ2I caught a rebroadcast of an Intelligence Squared debate on NPR last night.

Intelligence Squared is a weekly forum for balanced and intelligent debate. Their goal is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse. (Hurray for them, although I can’t help thinking they’re pissing into the prevailing wind these days.)

The episode I tuned into was first broadcast February 11, 2019 and featured a unique debate between a world-class champion debater and an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system developed by IBM called Project Debater.

While the program was a fascinating glimpse into the rather arcane world of debating, it was the implications for speechwriters that had me wondering if we’re fast approaching the time when AI will replace the need for a human being to be involved in writing well constructed, persuasive speeches.

Project Debater

Project DebaterProject Debater faced off against Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist at the 2016 World Debating Championships and winner of the 2012 European Debating Championship. His opponent at the IBM Think conference in San Francisco was Project Debater — a two-metre-tall black box. She spoke in an American female voice through a blue, animated mouth. IBM claims that it’s the first AI system that can debate humans on complex topics.

2001 A Space OdysseyDespite the rather uncanny resemblance to the black obelisk that features in the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, the system exhibits none of the menace of the HAL system in that dystopian view of AI.

How it works

Project Debater is designed to debate humans on complex topics using a combination of pioneering research developed by IBM, including: data-driven speechwriting and delivery, listening comprehension, and modeling human dilemmas.

It goes beyond the Watson system that famously beat a human on the TV Quiz show Jeopardy, which showed a machine could respond to open-ended questions.

Project Debater digests massive texts, constructs a well-structured speech on a given topic, delivers it with clarity and purpose, and rebuts its opponent. Eventually, IBM claim, Project Debater will help people reason by providing compelling, evidence-based arguments and limiting the influence of emotion, bias, or ambiguity.

Isn’t that part of your job description, speechwriters?

Speechwriting by numbers?

The IBM website does not mince words about the capabilities of their system:

Project Debater relies on three pioneering capabilities. The first is data-driven speech writing and delivery, or the ability to automatically generate a whole speech, reminiscent of an opinion article, and deliver it persuasively. The second is listening comprehension, which is the ability to understand a long spontaneous speech made by the human opponent in order to construct a meaningful rebuttal. The third is the system’s ability to model human dilemmas and form principled arguments made by humans in different debates based on a unique knowledge graph. By combining these core capabilities, it can conduct a meaningful debate with human debaters.

Of note:

  • Unlike speechwriters today, the AI system had no access to the internet.
  • The massive amount of stored data it deployed was logically organized and presented in a fraction of the time most writers would take.
  • Impressively, the system created an argument that clearly supported the side of the argument it was assigned.
  • The system synthesized input from the debate opponent — a win when a speaker needs to respond, as in political dialog.
  • Further, the AI system could easily frame both sides of a debate, helping speechwriters anticipate opposing points of view.

Overall, a sobering development.

Team player?

The question is, can speechwriters look to AI systems to be team players? Many would appreciate it if AI did the leg work assembling facts and blocking out the basic arguments. They could then give a final polish to the machines’ draft.

Or will an AI enabled speech writing entity get to the point where it will refuse to “open the pod bay door” and leave the human out in the cold? What job security can speechwriters expect in a world where AI systems can create persuasive, logical, and well-researched speeches in a fraction of the time a human could?

What say you?

Interview: Dr. Gail Ferreira – Agile Leader

Dr. Gail FerreiraGail is an executive level expert and thought leader driving the vision and tactical decisions for large-scale transformation programs, from the C-Suite to the team level. Gail excels at leading complex, multidimensional transformations, managing client and vendor relationships. Additionally, Gail manages complex client challenges that require deep and specialized IT operational knowledge to achieve maximum impact for projects and transformation programs.

Her specialties include Enterprise Lean-Agile Coaching, Lean-Agile Transformation, Scaled Agile consulting, business strategy & development, Innovation Accounting, Kanban, Scaled Agile Framework Enterprise Consultant (SAFe-SPC), LeSS, and lean methods.

She is currently an Expert Principal for the Boston Consulting Group, leading knowledge management and IP practices for their Agile At Scale organization.  She tweets as @LeanAgilist and is on LinkedIn.  Her Enterprise Agile Leader website has resources on Agile Coaching, Leadership and Training

Among her many publications is one noting that even the most sophisticated companies still use an old-fashioned suggestion box to generate new innovations and ideas. She notes the importance of communications:

Ensure you make it clear that you welcome any and all suggestions. Corporate communications can sometimes be boring, so instead start ‘organizational conversations’ that you think of as dialogues rather than monologues. The idea is to make the conversation more effective by developing relationships with your team, and then following up with the communique.

Pro-Track Profile

Gail is part of the National Speakers Association Northern California 2019 Speakers Academy program. This is the program previously known as Pro-Track. I participated back in 2006 and although the program now has another name I am sticking with the alliterative “Pro-Track Profile” moniker as I interview participants and add them to the roster of past interviews.  I’m volunteering as an adjunct faculty member in support of the program this year, and took the opportunity to catch up with Gail. To hear what she told me about how she found out about the program and what she hopes to get out of it, click on the podcast icon below.

 

Interview: Resolving Public Speaking Anxiety with Jonathan Berent, L.C.S.W., A.C.S.W

Jonathan Berent Jonathan Berent, L.C.S.W. has pioneered treatment for performance and social anxiety since 1978. A certified psychotherapist, he has worked with thousands of individuals of all ages in individual, group, and family psychotherapy. He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, “Sally Jessy Raphael”, “Joan Rivers”, “CNN Medical News” and many other TV and radio shows.

His Social Anxiety website is a premier resource for resolving social anxiety disorder. A primary area he addresses is public speaking anxiety. His proven methodology channels anxiety into high performance. He resolves the emotions of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation that many who are anxious about public speaking suffer.

We interviewed Mr. Berent to learn more about the issue and his solution.

Terror in the C-Suite

There are successful C-Suite executives who admit they’d rather get into a car accident on the way to a conference than show up and face the crowd for their presentation. One real estate executive who easily closed $3 billion deals fell into a state of terror when faced with talking about this to a group of students on career day. Panic at the podium—and embarrassment over the obvious symptoms—is debilitating for many executives and entrepreneurs and can include symptoms such as erythrophobia (Fear of Blushing), hyperhidrosis (Excessive Sweating) and voice paralysis.

Fear of public speaking is not simply an inconvenience; it’s an income inhibitor, career killer, and an insidious anxiety disorder that most mental health and medical professionals do not understand.

More than a quarter of the population reports a fear of public speaking, according to a recent Chapman University survey of American’s top fears. While countless programs attack the problem on the surface through coaching, skill building and practice, almost none focus on the underlying causes.

Practical Steps

Work Makes Me Nervous - CoverThe good news is that you don’t have to suffer this unwelcome anxiety anymore. His book, Work Makes Me Nervous, empowers people to transform  stress into positive energy using an evidence-based, step-by-step method. This down-to-earth resource combines practical psychological techniques and exercises with real-life stories. He explains how everyone from entry-level workers to seasoned executives and famous sports and media figures have encountered and successfully dealt with workplace anxiety—and how you can too.

If you, or anyone you know, suffer from anxiety about public speaking, I highly recommend this book. As he says “Don’t wait! The time to change is now!”

To hear more about the issues he’s encountered in over 40 years of clinical practice, treating over 10,000 patients, and the steps you can take, click on the podcast icon below.

National Speakers Association, Northern California, January Chapter Meeting

Dan Thurmon HeadshotOver 60 members and guests of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association gathered in Lafayette last Saturday to hear NSA National President Dan Thurmon, CSP, CPAE, who presented a talk titled “Doing what it Takes: How to Differentiate & Deliver in Today’s Competitive Marketplace”.

Dan is an author, entrepreneur, workplace performance expert, fitness advocate, acrobat, unicyclist, and more. He’s delivered over 2,500 presentations on six continents in all 50 states and 33 countries, traveling over two million miles and completing…wait for it… over ten thousand backflips on stage!

Off Balance On Purpose

Dan believes we’ll never achieve “perfect balance.” Instead of chasing this impossible dream, we should learn to embrace uncertainty and initiate positive changes that lead to personal and professional growth.

His 2013 TedX talk (155,000 views and counting…) highlights the precarious nature of balance and illustrates his thesis that it’s best to live life “off balance on purpose” complete with handstands, back-flips and juggling:

Dan requested a number of times that no-one post video of his presentation, since video can’t do justice to the full impact of seeing him live. However, I assume he’s OK with the TedX video, and it’s fascinating for those who were in the room last Saturday to see how his content has evolved over the last five years.

Putting the Professionalism into Speaking

Dan first appeared in front of audiences at a young age, while still in grade school he performed at local Renaissance Faires. Now 50, he says that all professional speaking requires is “everything you’ve got”. He certainly delivered all he’s got while on stage.

The five balls he keeps in the air (literally!) include the work we do, our relationships, health, spiritual life and personal passions and interests. He pulled no punches when it came to the dynamic tension between doing what it takes to achieve success as a freelance speaker and the balance with relationships and family. He counsels that we should not compromise by focusing too much on one area at the expense of others. There’s a price to be paid for speakers who are on the road when kids sports games and celebrations are happening.

All speakers deliver three talks each time they are onstage:

  • The one they planned to give
  • The one they gave
  • The one they think about while driving home.

Storytelling Insights

Dan shared the structure of the stories he tells onstage. His template details the hero’s journey as:

  • Once upon a time… (setting the stage for the awakening)
  • And every day… (establishing “normal life” as the point of departure)
  • Until the day… (the inciting incident)
  • Because of that… (on several different levels)
  • Until finally… (the resolution)
  • Ever since that day…

This is a great framework, one that shares some of the elements of Michael Hauge’s 10 Essential Elements of a Great Story, but is a simpler model for many of us to build our stories with.

Storyboarding

Dan ThurmonI was thrilled to see Dan’s portable storyboard. His use of colored Post-It’s to map the topics of a talk has strong echo’s of Nancy Duarte’s guidance in Resonate. The beauty of Dan’s board is that it’s completely portable. The savvy speaker can switch elements of the speech on the way to the auditorium. This is a powerful tool for speechwriters and public speakers.

I’d recommend checking out Dan’s blog for brief 2-3 minute videos where he shares insights in how to live “off-balance on purpose”. These are professionally edited…by his son! The most recent (Jan 15) is delivered in a snowstorm in Golden, Colorado. His YouTube channel has over 50 of these snappy ‘Weekly Coaching’ videos.

NSA National President

Dan became the President of the National Speakers Association this year. This video from the Greater Los Angeles Chapter was filmed last June and previews his presidency: