Public speaking is somewhat foreign to me, mainly because unlike Jimi Hendrix I have few subjects in which I consider myself “experienced.” I’m OK at lighting campfires, barbecuing meat, blending in, procrastination, toxic masculinity, and the timeless art of seduction, but that’s about it.
Oh, I also give myself a passing grade when it comes to viewing the world through the eyes of a columnist. Good writing needs to be authentic and sincere. Words should flow from the heart. Truthful writing does not make you sound like a pompous windbag. Powerful thoughts harness language and illuminate the exact views you hope to convey. A well-written newspaper column should attract readers like a magnet and have them responding.
It’s not an easy task. The same can be said for public speaking.
I was recently asked by Jake Williams to speak with North Coast Mensa. My topic was “The pros and cons of being a newspaper columnist.” I accepted the assignment. The joys and pitfalls of the editorial page was a topic I could sink my teeth into. I enjoy writing for the Times-Standard because the rules are clearly spelled out: make your column clear and concise (750 words), inform your readers, and keep it clean.
We met at the Samoa Cookhouse. I thanked Jake and the folks of Mensa for letting me join them at the “smart kids’ lunch table,” and began to ramble.
I explained to the group (not in these exact words) that journalists and columnists are different animals. Journalists must churn out an extraordinary amount of material in an incredibly short time, often overnight. Columnists have a week to come up with a tasty subject, roll it around in their minds, and lay the words out with delicacy, like someone collecting eggs in a metal bucket. If the writing is good, your thoughts and ideas will filter deep into a reader’s mind. If the writing is bad, all you’ve got is broken eggs. Effective column writing is an artistic method of connecting with readers through clarity and insight. If a columnist can communicate plainly and in a way that is universally understood, they will produce material worth reading.
A red flag goes up when I hear someone tell me they are an “authority” on any subject. A true expert is a person who is willing to question things they think they already know. Simply calling yourself knowledgeable doesn’t make it so. Some of the worst public speakers I’ve heard were so smug and conceited (and “brilliant”), they caused me to break into a snoring coma. Pretentiousness is an immediate turn-off for an audience. Self-righteousness never fails to sounds the alarm. Extreme confidence bordering on vanity can clear out a room faster than the appearance of accused sexual predator Harvey Weinstein at the YWCA.
A good number of those who consider themselves know-it-alls are actually “know-it-nots.” It’s called the curse of knowledge or the unconscious competent. This is why some teachers and college professors are regarded as poor educators: they’re unable to relate to a student as a novice and come off as superior and narrow-minded. Once you become an expert at something, there is a chance that you no longer recognize what it’s like to be a beginner. I always own my mistakes, it seems like it throws people off a bit but some people respect me for it. I also like to insert humor and satire into my writing. I say what’s on my mind, gauge how my readers (or audience) react to it, and apply it to my mental filter accordingly.
I appreciate humble people. I’m not interested in listening to cocky or overconfident smart alecks. It sucks when the incompetent authorities who can’t admit fault rise through the ranks. It happens a lot. The majority of public speakers remind me of “The Music Man,” laying it on thick and pulling the wool over the eyes of others as they go. How can you tell when someone is real and authentic? You sense it in their voice, feel it in their words. This is an area where strong writers and commanding public speakers find common ground.
I consider myself a freelance writer in the truest sense of the word. No one pays me to echo their politics, spew their propaganda, or march in goose step to their personal dogma. I don’t have the biased intuitions that authorities and experts have. I’m a free man with a word processer, an open mind, and an occasional Mensa speaking engagement. It’s a newspaper columnist’s dream come true.