Capstone speech: Learning the Rules

This is a reader-focused edit of the speech I recently gave as the capstone of the Dynamic Leadership path in Toastmasters. During the speech, I switched a few things up in response to audience reaction. I broke several of the common rules for Toastmasters speeches, every transgression a choice I had deliberately made and weighed in advance.

It’s not the speech I wanted to give. It was the speech my audience needed to witness.


Thousands of books, millions of pages, have been written on public speaking. Each resource has a structure, but the number of tips and guidelines and exercises is overwhelming to someone just setting out. How many rules are there for giving a speech?

My friend Linda Carson says there are fewer rules than you think. Linda trains beginning artists to understand and follow rules of composition. In every lesson, she provides guidance to help artists improve in seeing, painting, drawing, sculpture. The rules are important to learn new skills and perspectives, but at some point the training wheels come off. More advanced artists consciously use fewer rules than beginners. If it’s true for visual art, is it also true for the performance art of public speaking? Come with me on a little journey.

Two years ago I was packing up my life and moving. From some perspectives, my plan for the future could have been written on a beer-soaked napkin. I have lifelong friends who are have used Toastmasters to build speaking, writing, and leadership skills. They all encouraged me to join Toastmasters and leverage it to improve my skills and my network in a new city.

At the end of the summer, I joined a Toastmasters club in the neighbourhood where I would live for much of the following year. The members were like a second family to one another. I saw some impressive skills from practiced speakers and leaders. Personal and professional development were actively encouraged through mentoring and effective critique.

When I got my speech craft and leadership manuals, I read them thoroughly. I hunted down guides from the Toastmasters International web site. I studied the rules, watched like a crow at meetings, and prepared. And prepared.

I was so keen on doing well out of the gate that it took me two months to give my Ice Breaker speech, the first prepared speech project in the programme. I would take my first meeting role, noting and reporting on the use of filler words, the following week. In my prepared speech I talked about my childhood. I went more than a minute over time even though I’d practiced. People didn’t seem to mind, but I recognized the need to change from my rambling storytelling to a more concise style.

The Pathways system came out and I decided to give it a spin. I delivered another Ice Breaker about being disabled for a year. I wasn’t too uncomfortable. I didn’t run as much over my allowed time. I kept showing up, taking formal roles every few weeks, volunteering for impromptu speaking when I didn’t have a role. I kept trying, watching, listening. I was slowly improving.

Then I cheated, singing the last 40 seconds of a speech about singing. When I presented the revised version, I stood on my writing and speaking skills alone. I needed to expand my comfort zone, not the audience’s.

I gave a technical talk next. It was loaded with acronyms and detail relevant to IT project managers. Most of the club members weren’t technology workers, so I got to watch people grow increasingly bored, confused, and disengaged. I needed to write and speak in easily understood terms.

The months passed. I kept watching other people’s performances and feedback, getting up on stage, receiving personalized feedback, making and acting on plans for incremental improvement. I was developing skills: learning many rules, mastering one and moving on to the next. Sometimes I connected with a lot of the audience, sometimes just one or two people. I needed to focus on speaking effectively to everyone in the room.

When I became the club’s Vice President of Education almost a year in, it was a huge set of new challenges and a chance to deliver speeches that could help people become better speakers and leaders. I was growing, blossoming. I was continuing to hide my identity in a group that had some fundamental differences from me: a group that has occasionally invited guests from demographics where people like me are not accepted with open minds and hearts.

I’ve lived with the tension between being honest and being despised for most of my life. Be yourself, but not that way. We’re taught from our earliest socialization that the one who is different, the outsider, is a good target for oppression. Sometimes it’s access to opportunity: we promoted or hired another candidate based on culture fit. Sometimes it’s ostracizing, shunning the different: you are not my kin. Sometimes it’s open threats and assault. Even in a nice suburban neighbourhood, fifty years after response to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn started changing society.

I rely on layers of rules and guidelines to protect my well-being and that of my dearest loves. My heart hides behind an interlocking set of riddles. But when I get to know you, there are fewer rules than you think.

In her art classes, Linda taught all her students that rules can be broken. Not arbitrarily, but after you understand what the rule is and why it exists. Great works of art often break one or more rules. Linda had two inviolable rules in her studio. Don’t lick the brushes — some art supplies are poisonous. More importantly, don’t put down anyone’s work, especially your own. Every other rule she taught, there was a way around it once you developed enough skill and had a good reason.

Linda’s universal rule for creating art isn’t quite what we need for public speaking. Let’s expand to the broader principle and refocus. The universal rule that resonates best with me comes from Kurt Vonnegut in his book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

You’ve got to be kind.

When a man asks you for your coat, give him your cloak also.

What that looks like in public speaking is this inviolable rule: honour your audience. Every tip on drafting a speech, every presentation skill you have mastered and will go on to master, every morsel of feedback you receive comes down to this. What is best for my audience? Walk a mile in their shoes, another mile barefoot beside them. Pay them your full mind and meet their needs. Adapt to new audiences when you find them at work, in a speech contest, on a stage in front of hundreds of friends you haven’t met yet.

As Ted “Theodore” Logan III would say, Be excellent to each other.


Feedback that doesn’t go *squonk*

When someone tells me how I’m doing in their eyes, I have motivation and direction.

I delivered an alternate version of the below as a Toastmasters speech for my club in May. I’m the club’s Vice President (Education) and nearing the end of a 15-speech Pathways program of increasingly challenging projects.


When is the last time you gave your boss or some other leader in your life specific, timely, actionable feedback about their performance?

“Frank, we set goals three months ago and we haven’t discussed progress toward them since. Let’s take ten minutes this afternoon to review where we are.”

“Kristen, thank you for coming out to our community health care discussion. You shared information about work in progress at the municipal level, provided solid figures, listened respectfully, and promised to follow up on Charlie’s case. I look forward to continuing to work with you as our councillor.”

A lot of us come from cultures where we don’t know how to give and receive feedback effectively. High level comments like “good job” or “you did great” contain no information on what was good, much less where the person we’re trying to give feedback to can concentrate to improve. Maybe I’m not thinking critically and don’t have anything more to offer than an emoji or Facebook reaction. Being direct might affect our relationship in a bad way. The person receiving the feedback may have brushed off compliments or critique in the past and I don’t want to go there again.


The Toastmasters system is built around measuring improvement over time, with immediate peer feedback that is a mix of positive (areas of strength to leverage) and negative (areas for concentrated improvement). The evaluation instrument for a speech includes the big picture of what skills the project builds, an opportunity to describe what stood out for you in my performance, and a set of numeric ratings for specific skills. On a scale from one to five, we lean to fours and fives because lower numbers feel like a sign of failure when they’re really where strength can be built. If you read the descriptions, three out of five in a skill means the speaker did a good job: it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The lower ratings are skills the Toastmaster should work with their mentor on over the coming weeks.

I’m in Level 5 of Pathways. That doesn’t mean this speech deserves 5s across the board. I know I am not working at an exemplary level in all the skills of writing and delivering effective speeches. If you tell me I’m doing great and nothing more, how will I figure out where I can improve?


I asked you when you last shared good feedback with a leader. The more of a leadership role a person has, the less useful the feedback they receive becomes. We don’t want to upset them. We might get in trouble for speaking our mind. The leader could respond negatively. Our colleagues could interpret our feedback to the boss as trying to win brownie points. When we have relevant, timely information that can be helpful, it’s uncomfortable to critique our leaders. So we stay quiet, mumble, delay, or grumble to someone who can’t change anything but we feel comfortable talking with.

By not taking action to make things better, we perpetuate underperformance. We don’t share critical motivating messages with our leaders about their positive influence.


In some of my prior roles as a manager and a director, I worked with everyone who could be affected by my performance to invite dialogue. You work for me? My door is open: I need you to tell me what’s working and what’s not working so I can help you and our whole team. You’re my boss? I’m going to be frank with you so we can align our operational goals to the organization’s strategy (and politics) to accomplish what matters. You’re my customer? I need to hear how we’re doing and what you need. Especially if you don’t think we can provide it. You may be surprised.

When you start building a feedback culture, people don’t believe you. It’s just a survey. Nobody’s going to do anything. You don’t understand my situation. I have no idea what you actually do. People expect their input won’t make a difference. Over time, when the people you interact with see that you’re interested, you listen, and you respond to what they have to say, they collaborate more and start effectively sharing the information you need to help each other.

When someone tells me how I’m doing in their eyes, I have motivation and direction to continue strong performance, to build skills or compensate for areas where I’m not doing the job that needs to be done. Most of the feedback I’ve received has been things I’m doing well that I need to keep doing, or could tweak to make even better. Some of it has been painful, like when I heard that having a long time friend reporting to me affected my social behaviour in the workplace and I needed to keep things even more professional with my friend than the rest of my team.


In my Toastmasters club, I haven’t heard much concrete, actionable feedback about my performance as VP Education. In addition, this is the second project in Pathways where I’ve been asked to request feedback about some aspect of my work from my club. In total, I’ve heard something more useful than “this is good/bad” from three people across the two projects. To those three people, thank you for your thoughts. I heard you, and I’ve responded to you. I hope you have seen and will see positive changes as a result.

In my leadership role in Toastmasters I have tried to be open, attentive, supportive, and to lead by example. It’s been a bigger than expected challenge with our Past President departing, our President’s absences due to extensive work obligations, and the need for me to fill more than just my own shoes. I’m grateful for our club mentor, one of the founding members, stepping in to help far above expectations on an ongoing basis. In addition to unavoidable burdens in the lives of other members of the executive, my own resources are constrained. Though I do what I can to make your journey as Toastmasters meet your needs and keep the club in a position of growth, I’ve fallen short of my hopes.


In a month, I will be passing the mantle of Vice President Education to the next VP Ed. It’s a big job, with weekly commitments and responsibilities beyond the club level. The VP Education’s work is heavily tied to that of the President. I hope both these strong leaders will support each other effectively, with whatever guidance the current President can provide in their new role as Past President.

Breaking the fourth wall, I’m ending my speech with a call to action for everyone who will be a member of this club in July and after. Come to the inauguration meeting at the end of June. Listen to what the roles of the executive entail. Commit going forward to providing and receiving the 360 degree feedback the club needs to make your Toastmasters journey the best it can be.

Adjusting to severe constraints

I have a friend whose organization (which I’ll call Org) has made commitments it can’t keep. When the contracts were approved and programs confirmed, management had a good idea of what Org’s budget and resources would look like one, two, and five years out. Some of Org’s funding sources and obligations were changed radically with little if any notice and now they’re scrambling to cover the shortfall.

Quality, time to delivery, and volume are not going to be up to Org’s standards. Their level of risk has risen, prompting a review of their strategic direction as well as operational work to identify opportunities to do more than survive the year with drastic reductions in their deliverables. Org is making some hard decisions about which commitments to third parties will be reduced or abandoned entirely. Staffing decisions are being reconsidered. Through all the uncertainty, they’re working to maintain and improve psychological safety in the workplace [TEDx talk] so they can encourage leadership and collaboration at every level, in all functions.

Some of Org’s suppliers and clients are aware of the situation they’re in; they’re sympathetic. There’s a sweeping change affecting Org’s ability to function normally — on top of the broader uncertainty and rapid pace of change in their industry — and they’re not the only organization feeling the pain of cuts without corresponding relief from obligations. The situation is stressful but they have allies. Org won’t meet their original goals. They will find new ways to thrive and deliver on their mission.


I am at a place in my life where, for the time being, I cannot keep all my commitments. I know that I have friends and other allies with varying degrees of knowledge of my situation, mutual interests, and reliability. Some of them are experts in their fields, willing to collaborate with me in ways and to goals I’d previously discounted as undesirable. I’ve updated my risk register and have built space to identify and act on ways to deliver on my changed set of priorities into my routine.

I don’t like every one of the choices I’ve made, nor the ones I know I will have to make if my situation doesn’t improve over the next N days, weeks, month. My situation is unhappy, not dire. I’m optimistic for a future with goals and directions not exactly in line with my previous one, two, and five year plans. The constraints I’m under are also conditions for growth and learning.


When you’re faced with unexpected severe constraints, it is hard to remain positive, productive, and innovative. Look for the helpers. With a strong team, you can build hope out of what looks like inevitable tragedy.



The role between us and them

Finance doesn’t understand Operations. Engineering rolls its eyes at the mention of Marketing. Customer Service and IT aren’t what you’d call on the same page. The only thing the Western and Eastern regions agree on is how dumb Central is.

We don’t intend to build barriers between people, groups, or functions. We believe we function more effectively as an integrated community. Yet step outside the smoothly-running core of one process or team and you’ll find silos. Silos aren’t inherently bad. They provide a crucible for excellence that flat, highly networked, and matrix-structured organizations cannot because specialization and inter-role operability don’t readily coexist.

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist best known for his work on group sizes. A group, community, society tends to dysfunction above a point where it’s safe and useful to appreciate each other as individuals. We are doomed to splinter into groups, build firewalls to isolate ourselves, and fail to understand each other’s needs and strengths once our organization grows beyond a comfortable size: above one hundred to two hundred individuals.

Or are we?

Do we have to include everybody in the organization in our tribes so we can function? No. We can use mediators: individuals or small groups who act as connectors between larger groups. Ari in Finance and Jessie in Operations understand enough about each other’s role in supporting the integration of their system in the broader work of the organization that things work beautifully when one or both of them shepherd interactions that fall outside accepted, documented, regularly used procedures.

When we build mediator roles into our larger organization, whatever the underlying structure, we create networks through which we achieve better handoffs and mutual appreciation between people who don’t interact regularly because of the nature of their roles or their location. Mediators provide a channel between groups and bring groups into closer alignment with each other.

Are formal roles necessary for effective mediation? It depends on the organization’s leadership, resources, and capacity to use interdepartmental support consistently. In a culture that builds walls rather than bridges, clear support from senior leadership through line management is vital to lasting, effective handoff between subsystems.

Humans are inherently tribal. Mediators are the diplomats who respect our nationalistic tendencies while opening routes to exchange of ideas, best practices, and an appreciation that, however different our methods and focus, we are committed to common goals.



Change management: infinity war

You need to change how you do your work. You don’t perform consistently. You make too many mistakes. You’re not meeting standards.

How does that make you feel? Does knowing it comes from people who have little familiarity with the day to day expectations of your job change that?

Over many years, individuals developed and entrenched their own methods for doing their job in ways that were comfortable for them. Others in the same group, and in other groups across the organization, did things differently. Not disruptively different, but enough to make coverage over multi-day absences a challenge. The people in charge decided a process-oriented change manager was needed. Lucky me got the call.

The first thing I did was insist on quantifying the work, the systems, and interactions. Everything that could be measured got reviewed. Shouting and power suits might be effective in the Marvel Universe, but not in a bureaucracy. Besides, even a superhero story is built around metrics. Six infinity stones. Fourteen million alternatives. One victory. Half the people on the planet. I used existing reports, built reports on existing data, looked for information, to identify what gets done, how much of it, where the handoffs were, look for oddities, and build a baseline to measure improvements against. In addition to finding some gaps in the data that I can explain, I demonstrated that some of the assumptions about the way we work are basically true while others are visions of some alternate reality.

Data is not enough, especially in a human system. People daily make decisions based on policy, procedure, experience, and expertise. I pull up a metaphorical chair beside the people I’m ideally here to help. They’re not used to being listened to. With permission, I watch and listen. I keep my observations as free of judgment as I know how. I ask questions. How do you do this? Why? I learn to do the work of as much of the organization as I have access to. I make it clear: my goal is to find ways to take the best of what we do and build on it, to learn and apply institutional and individual knowledge, to make your job noticeably better. I help out by making myself useful within the limits of my privileges and the permission of the person who approves my time entry. I make it clear I’m willing to step outside of my box to learn and to get things done but nobody who isn’t me should have to transform and give up all their old ways.

I communicate. When I create a new report or discover new findings, I share it with the team I directly support and the team of my peers — agents of change that have recently been embedded throughout the organization. I build organizational capacity for people to seek out and evaluate information. I encourage them to question assumptions and incomplete data, and to believe it when their spidey sense is tingling. I check in with people in all the functions that have to work together to find out what they need and who can provide it. When I learn something, or do something, I figure out who needs to know which parts and provide as close as I can to what they need. When I stumble, when I fall down because I’m only human, it’s my error. When it’s clearly someone else’s error, I exercise my own brand of diplomacy.

I don’t agree with all the changes I have to make. Sometimes the only choice I can offer is pain or pain. Less than a year in, I am seeing signs that people who have strongly resisted change are opening up to other ways of doing their work. Sharing their tricks and tips on improving efficiency and effectiveness. Working as a team. It’s a slow start. I’m happy with that, because it’s a sign of the kinds of change and growth that endure.

There’s a time and a place for swinging a fist and making demands. Those circumstances are few and far between in this universe, so I take a low key approach. Here we build change by quantifying, identifying, and collaborating on sustainable improvements. When it works, it’s marvellous.

[The version of this talk I gave earlier this week contained several other Marvel Universe references which I’ve cut.]

Gaming blame

Point fingers. Acknowledge our flawed humanity. Then be true to the principles of a fair and just culture: move on to building a solution together.

If you work in IT security or operations, you have probably heard of the blameless postmortem. When it’s done well, in a just culture, individuals and the organization as a whole are held accountable for the circumstances that lead to problems and teams work on designing and implementing reliable improvements.

Unfortunately, worthy ideas are often incompletely understood when they’re implemented in complex situations or ingrained cultures (which can exist in organizations of any age and size). We see this in DevOps, Agile, Scrum, and the blameless postmortem. There’s a new framework. Some people do a great job of implementing it. It grows in popularity. One or more critical aspects of what makes the framework effective are ignored. The framework may develop a bad reputation. Someone comes up with a new perspective that re-centres the essence of the original framework.

In the case of the blameless postmortem, we must recognize that we will assign blame as well as responsibility. I am the rushed guy who pushed an untested change I was confident in through to production. You are the busy person who always skips that pointless extra step in the process. He opened the door for someone who isn’t allowed in the area. She turned the warnings off on the monitoring system because they’re just noise 90% of the time. Point fingers. Acknowledge our flawed humanity. Then be true to the principles of a fair and just culture: move on to building a solution together.

When there is a failure and space for a postmortem, I try to ask why the combination of the human, the system, and the environment worked together to achieve an error. It’s been my experience that failures tend to cluster around the parts of a system that are too simple or too complex for their environment. I’ve found a reliable adjustment often requires understanding and finding flaws in all three aspects.

When the postmortem doesn’t happen, is superficial, or gets delayed, that’s a sign that the systems we rely on to learn and improve our systems are failing. It’s an opportunity for a postmortem on the failure of postmortems. Accept the blame, take responsibility, and make a plan for improvement that everyone affected can and will follow.