Are we all gassing on these days about the importance of stories because we feel suddenly and permanently out of new ideas?
Eventually my mother stopped going to even the one or two cocktail parties and business dinners to which my ad-agency chairman dad asked her to accompany him every year. Why? Because she hated "small talk." This is what my mom looked like at such events:
That look, in case you have to have know my mom to interpret it, says, "Thanks for the wine, but there isn't enough of that stuff in your whole kitchen to make these people interesting." The look on my dad's face is dread of the car ride home, when she will excoriate him for having seated her next to the legendary professional golfer Ken Venturi (right, not pictured). Or, as my mother referred to him, "That plastic fucking asshole."
But what is "small talk"? And should any human being—especially by a novelist like my mother who should always be plumbing human character—be dismissed as "plastic"? I've come to believe the answer to the latter question is, "no." (And I've since learned that Ken Venturi, now dead, had a desperately intense and unrequited love for his father; I've seen him cry about it on television. Plastic assholes are people too.)
Besides, small talk has an essential social utility, well-described in a new book called What to Talk About—a lighthearted guide to better social interactions. And that's what small talk is: a guide to better social interactions.
"Small talk is an essential part of the social contract," write coauthors Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker. "It allows us to engage and identify common ground with safe, low-risk topics. ... It uses banal or mundane topics as proving grounds where we can establish a comfy initial rapport with the other person. Using small talk, we feel one another out and map the spots where we want to dig deeper."
Of course, the implication is that one wants to dig deeper. And I'm not sure my mother wanted to have a good time, or meet interesting people at these gatherings. And I imagine she had her reasons.
She may also have been unskilled at making the second step from small talk—recognizing a spark of unique mutuality and carefully fanning it into a meaningful conversation. I find that skill is a harder. (I just throw gasoline on the bastard, as often dousing the spark as igniting it.)
If you want to get better at talking, read What to Talk About. If you don't—well, leave poor Ken Venturi alone.
I'd been bugging Cristie for more than a week to get her employer to send her W-2 to our accountant.
When she finally did, I emailed her, "Jumpy claps!!!!!!!"
Came her reply, "Motherfuck it."
Apropos of last night's premier of the last season of Mad Men, TheAtlantic.com runs an excerpt of my essay on my parents, whose advertising careers peaked during that era.
With General Motors, I'm working on the prototype of a car for the incorrigible drunk driver with money and without the sense to hire a driver. People like Charles Barkley, Mike Ditka, Lindsay Lohan, Billy Joel or, most recently, Indianapolis Colts president Robert Irsay.
The car doesn't go faster than 15 miles per hour, it's covered in pillows and it continuously plays Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" on external loudspeakers at concert volume so it can be heard from several blocks away. (Deaf people will notice it because the pillows will be colorful.)
It's such a noise polluter that it will be permissible to drive it only you've been drinking heavily. (There's a breath sensor and the car won't start if your blood alcohol level is within the legal limit.)
It's probably already street legal in Nevada.
It's the Pontiac Carouser.
Mike Klein is an employee communication practitioner who likes to argue communication philosophy. Like all philosophers, Klein sometimes bites off more than he can chew, and occasionally chews more than he bites off. In a recent blog post, he brings up a huge point, and resolves it far too glibly. Here's the whole post:
At various times in my career, I have encountered fellow communication professionals who have either said that internal communicators are either a morally virtuous breed, or should aspire to be so.
Some claim this virtue should derive itself from being the “advocate of the employee”, others because our role in supporting our organizations’ objectives through communication is intrinsically “noble.”
I have always rejected these notions.
At our best, Internal Communicators are advocates, who use our skills to benefit the organizations that have hired us, to involve, engage, inform, persuade, and integrate the people whose support is required for their success.
Doing this well means doing this honestly, responsibly and respectfully. In my view, it means assessing the broad mass of stakeholders rather than just one’s own sponsors, and it means helping and challenging those sponsors to look beyond transactional and territorial objectives. And it also means being willing to keep things moving when my advice is adjusted or rejected.
When I am doing this well, I am being an effective professional. Whether it makes me a better—or lesser—person, I will leave for others to judge.
Here's my judgment, since Klein asked: Klein is not quite being honest with himself here. I think he senses that it is dangerous for communicators, or any other gang of people, to be convinced they are doing what they call around my wife's inner-city elementary school, a "job for Jesus." But I think most of us believe we are doing good with our work. And I'm almost sure Mike Klein thinks he's doing good, or could be doing good, with his.
Really, Mike? You founded an online forum for communication debate called CommScrum, you regularly debate and consult with IABC leaders about the future of that organization and you formulate unique (and sometimes tortured) theories about how employee communication should be different ... all in the free time you have between the consulting work that you do all over Northern Europe.
And we're to believe that you pour this much of your heart's blood into a cause that amounts to no more than "being an effective professional"? You want that on your tombstone? "Here Lies an Effective Professional"?
I think we can argue about whether professional communicators, by and large, make their organizations better places to work and thus make society a better place to live. I think they do—especially when I contemplate organizations without them—and I also think they could do more, especially if they were philosophically grounded and principled, like Mike Klein is.
But I've known many hundreds of communicators, and I know that most of them believe they are doing good in the 'hood—that they are attempting to bring humanity, candor, democracy into cold, clamped-down, autocratic corporate workplaces.
Mike Klein first among them.
Mike, who do you think you are kidding? And more importantly, Why are you bothering to try?
Recently I got an email that I might have dismissed as Not My Job. But the email was from a teacher. And this teacher clearly needed my help.
My name is Ariel Margolis. I am an 8th Grade Teacher at Kehillah Schechter Academy, located south of Boston, MA (USA). One of my school's special traditions is to have every 8th grader compose and deliver a graduation speech. As the teacher in charge of the ceremony, I want to give the very best I can to my students so that they not only feel empowered to deliver their words but also give them important skills that they will need for their futures.
I was wondering if you would be willing to speak with me to share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions along with best practices about speech writing and delivery that would help make my students' speeches pop and as a result, have my students shine.
Please let me know if you are willing to speak with me.
Thank you in advance.
I didn’t answer Ariel right away. In fact, I slept on it. In fact, before sleeping on it, I drank on it. The next day, I wrote Ariel back through a clarifying hangover.
I understand why you're looking for help. Your task is impossible! How many speeches are we talking about here? How long are the speeches supposed to be? How many days and nights will the ceremony last?!
More importantly: How in the world are all these kids going to find something candid, fresh and worthwhile to say to fellow students who know full well that all they're thinking about is summer break, and making it last as long as possible because on the other side is the terror of high school? And how are the other students and parents going to bring themselves to listen to one another grind through these platitudes? This “special tradition” that you speak of sounds more like a hoary habit, and a guaranteed snoozefest for everyone involved.
The idea of which personally offends me, a thousand miles away in Chicago. That's because I'm editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, which means it's my job to search the world for vital speeches. Most days, this feels like scouring the Indian Ocean for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Why? Because most speeches delivered in the world are mind-numbing. Why? Because children learn very early on that a speech is a compulsory ceremonial thing, rather than a voluntary communication thing. So CEOs, nonprofit directors, government officials and church elders use speeches to do exactly what they learned as children that speeches are for: saying nothing, at length. This is not a proper use of precious human time.
Besides, these are eight graders. Even theoretically speaking, how many of them could have developed a genuine idea that hasn't occurred to their classmates a thousand times?
This ceremony is going to be torture, Ariel, for everyone involved. And you're the only person who can stop it!
And the good news is, you don't have to stop it. Just alter it. Instead of asking them to “compose and deliver a graduation speech,” simply have them write and tell a story that illustrates the significance of their time at Kehillah Schechter Academy. Tell them the only requirement for the story is that it be true (even if that means it's preposterously exaggerated and full of outright fabrications). “No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams. No speeches but in stories, says Vital Speeches editor David Murray.
If you can teach your students to stand in front of their fellow travelers and give meaning to life's long slog by organizing it into mythology that welds individuals into a community—well now, that's something worth doing. And something that will make them valuable citizens for the rest of their lives. It's a special tradition indeed.
That's the extent of my thoughts, ideas, suggestions and best practices.
Even if you follow my advice—and I understand if you don't; special traditions don't change easy—I can't guarantee you a scintillating graduation ceremony. Lots of kids, like lots of grown-ups, are pretty dreadful storytellers. But if your school is truly an interesting and distinctive place, there's a chance that the graduates' stories will harmonize, and something truly magical and memorable could take place. Whereas, with the Forced March of the Graduation Speeches, there is no chance of that at all.
Whether or not you take my advice, please do let me know how it goes.
David Murray, Editor
Vital Speeches of the Day
How did Ariel respond? He took a couple of days, during which I assumed he had written me off as an asshole. I always forget that teachers have actual work to do.
Finally he wrote back to say:
"Your response was... TOTALLY HILARIOUS AND WITH MUCH TRUTH TO IT. Being part of this school and its traditions, I can fairly say that unless members of the audience have a close connection with the speakers, they would probably rather (a) melt ice (b) swallow a pitchfork or (c) both."
He shared my advice with the heads of the school, who also received it well, one writing back:
"I love that you wrote [DAVID] and even more so loved his answer. I HATE graduation speeches and I HATE the quotes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). None of this is genuine and it is written to please the adults."
The ambitious Ariel is looking for professional speechwriters to help the students craft their stories. Anyone interested may reach out to him at amargolis at ksa-ne dot org.
The rest of us wish him luck in his attempt to change the stubbornest tradition in one school—and then the world!