Speech four in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator Manual (yes, it’s really called that) is “How To Say It.” The focus is choosing the right words to communicate your message effectively, using rhetorical devices to enhance and emphasize ideas, and finally to avoid jargon and unnecessary words.
You know that feeling when someone says something awful, or shocking, or heartbreaking, or flattering even – and you know the EXACT way to respond … about 40 minutes later.
It’s just funny to think about how many words there are to choose from, and yet I could spend all day thinking about the times that I failed to say the right thing.
BUT. I am in luck. I have good friends who are willing to listen to me tell long stories and then applaud me on what WOULD have been the perfect response. Knowing how to say something is best – being able to communicate something clearly and concisely – but sometimes for your own mental health, it’s also good to know how you SHOULD have said something.
Today we will time travel to three times, and you all will help me right past wrongs.
The time? One week or so until school lets out for winter break, my freshman year of high school. The place? West Point, New York.
What I said: “Mom? … … … My shoe? Is … in the basement … in the ceiling.”
Now, how about some context. I had gotten upset after talking to my folks and stomped down to the basement. For reasons known only to my high school brain, and maybe not even then, I decided to kick my shoes off to hit the far wall in the basement. I tried first with my right foot, my good foot, and I had the perfect mix of lift and distance and SMACK, the shoe hits the far wall. Next, my left foot, and the success was not duplicated. My shoe went STRAIGHT UP, through the cheap-y tile ceiling we had and sticks out … a trophy of my ignorance.
If I were to try this again, I would maybe say something like,
“Mom. Dad. I have to admit, I’m struggling. In just a few weeks we’re going to be moving to Georgia and I’m scared, and nervous. A move in the middle of the school year? Everyone will already have their social circles and routines and I’m supposed to be cool enough to get embraced? You guys know I like books about magic and knights and stuff like that, right? I’m not exactly ‘cool’ freshman material. And on top of that! I’ve got finals this week! I need to do well on all of these tests so my grades are good! I guess I’m saying all of this because I want to say sorry in advance for how moody I’m going to be while I deal with a tough move …
Oh, and, speaking of mistakes anyone could make, I tried to kick my shoe off to kick it against a wall, which was dumb of me, I know, but I sorta kicked it UPWARDS and it pierced the ceiling. We could head to the basement to take a look … Please let me know what I can do to help fix this problem.”
I asked my mom recently if she remembered this and she had NO memory, clearly it impacted me more than my parents. Although I think the most impacted of all was … the ceiling.
Now we will travel even further back in time.
The time? One week or so before the end of 6th grade. The place? Leavenworth, Kansas, specifically, East Middle School.
What I said: “…Sure? … I guess I can be your boyfriend?”
Did you notice how that could be improved?
First, of course, some context.
I was confused by this girl asking me out for a couple reasons … 1, someone liked me?, 2, I was moving in about two weeks so why would someone want to date me?
Here’s how I might approach that now.
“Wow! I am so flattered! I didn’t think anyone liked me … But … In case you don’t know, I’m moving in about two weeks. To New York. That’s pretty intense for a couple 6th graders. I can get your address though, and I can mail a letter when we get there and I know what my address will be?”
Not ideal, but better than the eventual phone call we had where I casually mentioned my upcoming move, only to find out she had no idea. Whoops.
Last but not least, we travel to just a few years ago.
The place: my favorite grocery store, HEB, in Houston, Texas.
What I said: “…….WHAT?”
I was in line at the grocery store with two people in front of me. Checking out was a woman wearing a burka, and behind her was a woman in workout clothes. The woman in workout clothes was CRITICIZING! the woman in the burka for wearing a burka, and based on the body language of the woman in the burka, this had not just started … she seemed calm, neutral, and ready to be done with her grocery shopping as soon as possible. The workout clothes woman said that it was a disgrace that she was wearing a burka, she didn’t need to be persecuted and she had the freedom to wear whatever she wanted so she should not wear a burka.
The workout woman turned to me, apparently assuming I would be on her side, and she said, “don’t you find that offensive?” ‘That’ meaning the choice of clothes.
This led to me less than ideal response, a shocked “WHAT?”
Sometimes debate is pointless, people are so entrenched in their beliefs that attempting to pull them out only leads to them digging in deeper. Like a car stuck in mud. I have a feeling I would not have been able to convince this woman to open up her mind to another viewpoint, but perhaps there was someone else thinking quietly to him or herself a similar, if less aggressive, thought. For that potential person, I wish I had been able to find better words.
“I understand that sometimes if you look at someone who looks very different, or acts in a way that is strange to you, or dresses in some new way that can be scary. And that might make you want to hold on even tighter to what is comfortable and known. But those differences could also be looked at and seen as potential. What ideas, what way of thinking, are typical to that person that you or I don’t yet know? We should ask questions, not questions asked as a form of judging someone, but questions asked to learn.”
Now, I know that is a pretty unlikely little speech for someone to give at a grocery store. But like I said, sometimes you do the right thing for an unknown audience.
I’d like to thank all of you for joining me in time traveling.
Ah, to be a freshman in high school again … kicking shoes into ceilings. Or a sixth grade Romeo, stumbling through being a boyfriend. And finally to Texas, righting social injustices one ice cream and cereal run at a time.
I’d like to think that, as I get older and hopefully wiser, I will have more times where I need to think about how to say something, and less times where I will think about how I SHOULD have said something … But, come on. I can however take comfort in the fact that I have kind listeners for when I need to rewrite the past.