My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech
April 21, 2014 1 Comment
Mister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests. The irony of the "Icebreaker" speech, at least for me, is that talking for 4 to 6 minutes about myself strikes me as neither easy nor interesting.
Last January, my wife Nathalie and I drove up to Baltimore to attend the annual cocktail party of one of our biggest clients.
We got all dressed up and mingled with hundreds of strangers.
Quick show of hands, who here has been to a party full of strangers in the past year or so?
When two strangers meet at a party, what do they say to break the ice?
Yes, right, here in America, we say, "What do you do?"
Nathalie informs me, by the way, that this typical American icebreaker is not what people say in Europe. When two French people meet, for example, the first question is "Where are you from?"
When I was growing up in New York City, watching way too much TV, the stereotypical socially awkward icebreaker — really a failure to break the ice — was "Read any good books lately?" And on TV, after this question was asked and the laugh track died down, the two strangers would grow quiet, look away, and silently admit defeat.
Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I honestly don’t know why that’s supposed to be such a bad question. I’d much rather be asked about good books than about what I do for living.
What do I do for a living, you ask?
I’m a publishing consultant. I work with independent authors and free-market institutions to get their books onto Kindles and iPads and sometimes into print.
And if you met me at a party and asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably give you that answer in the same perfunctory manner in which I just did here.
But if you were to say, "Oh, you work with books? What sort of books do you read for fun?" — You’d see me light up. You’d see me come alive. As they say in books, you’d see me warm to my subject.
I work with economic books and with writings in the classical-liberal tradition, but that’s not what I read for pleasure anymore.
Those things are what I did read for pleasure when I was a web-application programmer for a big bank, but now I read quirky historical narratives, such as The Professor and the Madman, about a certifiably insane Civil War veteran and the role he played in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; or A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which reviews the past 4 or 5 thousand years through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and Coca-Cola.
What am I reading now, you ask? Actually, I’m mostly listening to this one as an audiobook. I go back and forth between text and audio. The book is by Tom Standage, the same author who wrote 6 Glasses. It’s called Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. One of the many things he talks about is the advent of the coffeehouse in 17th-century England.
Standage claims that coffeehouses and the publishing network based out of coffeehouses were really the first Internet. I love Starbucks, and I bet their coffee is better than what I would have been served in 17th-century London, but I still wish I could go back and spend some time in one of those old coffeehouses, where everyone was reading and writing and debating ideas.
I also read less-quirky historical narrative, but my favorite books are the ones that take two seemingly disparate ideas and see what results when you combine them.
And the truth is, my passion isn’t in books, either. It’s really in new ideas.
Better than "Read any good books lately?" would be "Had any interesting thoughts lately?" or "Learned any new ideas lately?"
I have a best friend whom I followed to Charlottesville 20-something years ago, and then did not follow back to New York when he left. He’ll phone me to say, "I had a thought I think you’ll appreciate." And then we’ll talk for an hour.
When I get off the phone, Nathalie asks, "How’s David?"
"I don’t know."
"What do you mean you don’t know? You just talked to him for an hour!"
"Yeah, but that’s not what we talked about."
When David and I were kids, we were sort of famous among our peers and the local grownups for walking around the streets of Manhattan deep in conversation, just the two of us. That turns out not to be typical for a couple of preteen boys.
As I mentioned before, I watched way too much TV, and it’s part of why I read so late and so slowly, but one contemporary criticism of television that never made sense to me back then was that it was a passive medium. You just sit there and zone out. I never zoned out! I engaged the TV as a source of ideas, sometimes a mentor, often an intellectual adversary.
We don’t let our 7-year-old son Benjamin watch too many videos — in fact we don’t have a TV in our home — but I can see him doing the same things with online cartoons and movies that I did with TV around his age. He wants to talk about them afterwards, ask questions, critique the premises, figure out how everything works.
Benjamin is also a lot more sociable than I was at his age. I suspect he won’t have any trouble at cocktail parties when he grows up, even if, like his old man, he’s most passionate about the kind of ideas that are better discussed over coffee than over cocktails.
This brings me to why I’ve joined Toastmasters. I think Tom Standage is right about the 21st-century Internet being our modern version of the 17th-century coffeehouse. Much as I love Starbucks, it’s not a hotbed of radical new thinking.
It provides the wireless Internet access I can use to get to the hotbed of ideas, but I engage those ideas in my writing and reading, and mostly online — not face-to-face with other human beings.
Through Toastmasters, however, I hope to become a more adept and spontaneous tradesman of ideas, presented and discussed in the real world, offline, where I don’t always have time to compose my thoughts (the way I composed this speech).
I thank you for listening to me, and I thank you for the help you’ve already given me in bringing my life out of the house, off of the Internet, and into the world.