Kicking the tires

Got the chance to be on a six-member selection committee last week.

We interviewed six candidates in four-a-half hours. 10-minute presentations and a lightning round of Q and As.

Great learning experience. Biggest lesson learned?  If you’ve landed on the shortlist for interviews, your prospective future employer is really doing one thing and one thing only. They’re testing for fit.

Can they see you fitting in? With the organization? With your team? With the folks you’d work with and report to? Will you be a no-risk, low-maintenance hire? Will the organizaton be a better place with you as an employee?

So, along with getting all the background info on the organization and the folks you’d be reporting to (God bless Google), get a handle on the organization’s culture and values. And make sure there’s a genuine match between you and Those Who Could Sign Your Paycheque.

You might be able to fake a good fit in the interview (yes, I’m very much a details-oriented, analytical process person). It’ll be tough to sustain for a month, much less a couple of years.

Book review: Make that speech brief, and give it passion

Public speaking is one of those skills that can make or break a career — so keep it simple

The Elements of Great Public Speaking. How to be Calm, Confident and Compelling

By J. Lyman MacInnis

Ten Speed Press, $14.95

I wrote the worst speech I ever heard.

I penned the remarks for the incoming president of a provincial association. The president was giving his inaugural address to 500 well-fed and watered members at the association’s annual general meeting.

The speech itself wasn’t too badly written. It was about what you’d expect from a freshly minted university grad eager to impress with his first stab at speech writing.

The disaster came in the delivery. The president butchered the first and last sentences and everything in between. He skipped over verbs. Forgot nouns. Combined sentences in creative ways. Ignored entire paragraphs. Made up new words. And may well have spoken in tongues once all hope of salvaging the speech was lost.

It wasn’t long before the banquet hall was buzzing and everyone was staring intently at their desserts. Some folks wondered if their fearless leader was potted and sotted. Others were genuinely concerned about a stroke or brain aneurysm. In hindsight, it’s possible the president was dyslexic or functionally illiterate. Or maybe he just had a crippling case of stage fright. Whatever the reason, five minutes of floundering was not the first impression the president wanted to make. Which was too bad because he was actually a stand-up guy who was engaging and reasonably coherent one-on-one.

Public speaking is one of those skills that can help, hurt or haunt your career. "Communicate well and do well," says Toronto Star columnist and public speaker J. Lyman MacInnis. "Communicate best and flourish."

Anyone who’s watched American Idol knows Paula, Randy and Simon go on and on and on about the importance of song selection. The same holds true with effective public speaking. It’s all about picking the right topic. About a century ago, Dale Carnegie set out three criteria for successful speaking engagements. Have significant knowledge about the topic. Sincerely care. And have a strong desire to share that knowledge and passion with your audience.

"Think back to every really effective speech you’ve ever heard and you’ll discover that all the speakers knew their topics inside out, they all felt strongly about what they were talking about, and they all clearly wanted to get their messages across," says MacInnis.

"If you meet all three of the formula’s criteria, success is guaranteed."

Still overcome with fear and trepidation?

Your two greatest weapons are preparation and practice. Focus on what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Rehearse your speech as often as you can. Say it while driving to work. Walking at night. While having a shower. And pay extra attention to your opening. If you’re flawless in the first minute or two of your speech, you’ll quickly calm down and hit your stride.

"Most people’s concerns about giving a speech stem from their own expectations, not those of the audience," says MacInnis. "The audience’s expectations are usually a lot lower than your own. Learning anything well takes time and effort. No one would expect to play like Oscar Peterson the first time they sit down at a piano, yet many people think they should be able to speak like Winston Churchill the first time they stand up in front of an audience."

And one final piece of advice. Be brief.

The Gettysburg Address is all of 268 words. The author once heard a speech by actor John Wayne that lasted less than two minutes. "The impact of the Gettysburg Address is still being felt today, and I doubt that any of the 2,000 people who heard John Wayne that day have forgotten his message." Always leave your audience wanting more.

Jay Robb is a Hamilton freelance writer who’s learned to enjoy public speaking.

Book review: Hot Spots at work

Hot Spots: why some teams, workplaces and organizations buzz with energy — and others don’t

By Lynda Gratton

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Consider yourself warned.

Slam the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction and I’m going to pull a Bob.

Yes, I will throw my pen at all cynics and critics. And I have better aim than our repentant city councillor.

As a parent and someone who’s proud to call Hamilton home, making our community the best place to raise a child gets two thumbs up. Every kid matters. All children deserve the same chance to shine. All parents want a bright and better future for their kids. And I’m not so keen on raising my family in a city where a scary number of impoverished kids grow up to be resentful teens and desperate adults.

I’m also a fan because the Roundtable is turning Hamilton into one giant Hot Spot. And Hot Spots are where you go to hang out with really cool people.

"You always know when you are in a Hot Spot," says author Lynda Gratton, one of the world’s top management thinkers. "You feel energized and vibrantly alive. Your brain is buzzing with ideas and the people around you share your joy and excitement. The energy is palpable, bright, shining. These are times when what you and others have always known becomes clearer, when adding value becomes more possible."

Gratton says Hot Spots are the dynamic combination of a co-operative mindset, boundary spanning, an igniting purpose and productive capacity to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Which pretty much describes the Roundtable. Folks are getting together from the private, public and non-profit sectors to think, talk and act in new ways. They’re willing and able to collaborate and share lessons learned.

"The capacity to work co-operatively is at the core of Hot Spots," says Gratton. "In a real sense, the value from Hot Spots arises in the space between people."

As for an igniting purpose, making Hamilton the best place to raise a child fits the bill. And bringing hope to every kid who goes to bed hungry, goes to school without clean clothes or a lunch and who deals with adult-sized worries certainly qualifies as an Everest-sized challenge.

Hot Spots make the impossible possible by generating off-the-chart levels of energy, enthusiasm and excitement. This in turn drives creativity and innovation.

Most important, the Roundtable is getting the whole community engaged in a conversation that matters. Grappling with big questions that don’t offer easy, obvious or immediate answers provides the sparks that set off a Hot Spot.

"Conversations that ignite a Hot Spot are rarely about simply sharing knowledge. They are more often about novel associations, connections or hunches.

"These conversations rarely go from boss to subordinate; they are more likely to be peer-to-peer, colleague-to-colleague, friend-to-friend."

One other essential Hot Spot ingredient is what Gratton calls signature processes. These are unique ways of doing business and getting work done that reflect the culture and values of an organization.

Embed these signature processes into a Hot Spot and you stand a better chance of sustaining momentum. In Hamilton, our signature process may well be our spirit of volunteerism and our willingness to pitch in and help each other out.

While you can’t mandate a Hot Spot, leaders play a key role in keeping them alive. Leaders need to continue asking big questions. Setting tough yet inspiring challenges. Calling on other leaders and organizations to step up to the plate. Expanding their network of friendships to get more people involved. Encouraging boundary-spanning within and between organizations. And leading by example when it comes to co-operation instead of competition.

"Every moment of every day, in every country of the world, Hot Spots are springing up," says Gratton. "Fuelled by connections and high-quality relationships, these Hot Spots are capable of generating enormous value through the power of new combinations."

This is great news for the one in four kids in our community who live in poverty and who are counting on the rest us to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child.

Jay Robb is a Hamilton freelance writer who can be reached at