Thursday, November 16, 2017

Public speaking: An important career and life skill

When I was a junior high school student 30 years ago, I, like most teenagers, dreaded public speaking. The butterflies would kick up in my stomach and I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Fortunately, at least from my standpoint at the time, such activities were rare – we might have made one or two presentations a school year and you could always lean on your equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

Luckily, I had Scouting to dramatically change my world view of public speaking in the closing years of my school life. Being put into positions of leadership such as senior patrol leader and working at summer camp as a merit badge counselor made me develop public speaking skills first out of necessity then out of enjoyment.

Because of that shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me, I have a critical life and career skill available in my arsenal. The 43-year-old version of myself is not like the 13 year-old Bob Confer: I look forward to speaking to groups and talking about things I enjoy be it work, Scouting, nature or public policy (well, I don’t really enjoy public policy but you get my drift).

Public speaking is a regular part of my life. Not only do I deliver multiple weekly shift meetings at the plant to dozens of my coworkers at a time, but looking at my 2017 calendar there were another 24 occasions this year when I had to speak to groups of more than 10 people at a time. They could have been tours or speaking engagements, or participating on panels -- I didn’t even count running board or business meetings.

As I write this, I’m kind of taken aback by how often I find myself in speaking roles. Maybe I was unaware of how often it happens because I see it not as one of life’s woes, but rather as one of life’s duties as a businessman or citizen. It’s a normal part of being.

That’s a way of thinking we need to share with students today. They, their parents and guidance counselors are always looking to help them develop demonstrable – and marketable -- skill sets that can be used to further their academic and, ultimately, work careers.

Public speaking is one of them. As a kid, you don’t see a payoff in the stress as you learn the art, but as an adult you see the limitless potential: you could use it at work in the private sector as a manager, sales person, project leader or newsman; in the public sector you would find it as an asset as a teacher or town councilperson; in volunteerism you would see its value in running a little league team, fire department, fundraiser, or church. You truly never know when you will need it – and you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, schools are lacking in public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2017 than it was back in 1987. Kids are rarely exposed to it in classrooms and it shows: When I was taking the occasional evening class at college 12 years ago, I would cringe when the students would give presentations; they were as painful for the listeners as the speakers. I can only imagine things being worse now, what with texting and social media having ruined many a young person’s ability to legitimately communicate with others.

You know that the young adults who can speak well did a little more at school (they were in drama club or were in student government) or they were in an out-of-school organization that gave them confidence and abilities (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, 4-H). So, that’s my word of advice to parents: The classroom is just one part of your child’s foundation – get him or her into a program that would complement and supplement it.

But, what about those for whom it might be too late?

It’s never too late!

Some adults don’t find their comfort level in public speaking until well into their 30s, after work and volunteerism forced it upon them. Most adults never do – no doubt you’ve heard many a time that the average person fears speaking to the masses more than death.

But, you can overcome those insecurities no matter your age. If you missed out in high school or college, there’s always Toastmasters, a wonderful program that fosters communication skills in a warm, guiding group setting in which speakers help you and you them. There are such clubs that meet in Lockport and North Tonawanda on a regular basis.

Public speaking should never be feared. If someone can master it – to be confident, fluid, knowledgeable and engaging in front of groups – they will set-up themselves and their organizations for success.

From the 20 November 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The daily newspaper: It’s not fake news

Quite often I speak to large groups at the factory or in the classroom – it could be folks like Leadership Niagara, higher-level students at UB, or fifth graders. When discussing some of the more important tools for leading an organization, making themselves career-ready or being good citizens, I always mention that they need to read a newspaper, or a few of them, every day.
Their eyes always perk up with curiosity when I say that.

It could be because the topic of acquired contemporary knowledge is rarely discussed as a trait of leadership or citizenship. Or, it may be that a good many people have a rather disdainful view of newspapers and news in general because of the boisterous “Fake News” propaganda spread by this President or the similar yet far more subtle undertones from his predecessor. Or, it may be that my audience doesn’t read the paper once a day, let alone once a month, a behavior that has become the norm in this age of the Internet and the accessibility of immediate – albeit abbreviated and suspect – information.

To allay their curiosity and warm them up to the daily read, I always lay out just how crucial a newspaper is for good management and good activism. Every leader, head of household, and engaged citizen must be a Renaissance Man, knowing a little bit (or a lot) about a wide variety of subjects. To effectively do your job and make the appropriate decisions in business (finances, capital investment, product development, and marketing) and in your personal life (savings, investment, buying, and the American concept of self-governance) you have to be aware of what’s happening all around our world, from your neighborhood to some far-flung foreign land.

Why? The global economy and modern technology have made the world a smaller place and we’re all interconnected. What happens elsewhere will set off a domino effect that affects you personally and professionally in the short-term or long-term, even halfway around the world.

And, it should be noted that everything can affect you. A flood in Australia can drive up wheat prices, doing the same to prices at the grocery store in Niagara Falls. A tsunami in Japan can ultimately shut down production lines here in the States, harming your job. The town council’s vote on infrastructure might make your water bill go up. Changing consumer beliefs might have a major impact on your employer’s operations. The list is endless.

By being in the know regarding these matters – the major and the minor - you can adjust your operations and your expenditures accordingly, well in advance of your competitors and neighbors. Knowledge is power.

I always tell the crowd that they can’t use television news and the Internet as shortcuts. Broadcast news is flawed in that you spend a half–to-one hour in front of the tube and a good portion of that airtime is commercials, while the national news stations (like CNN and Fox News) are agenda driven and over-kill some of the most unimportant stories while putting issues of actual importance on the back-burner. Likewise, the Internet does the same, promoting really inane and false garbage. That’s where “Fake News” comes from. The problem with the Internet, too, is that its users use it as a filter and scan the headlines, focusing only on cute, horrific or popularized topics.
The newspaper, on the other hand, is created with standards and in its printed form puts the entire world, from a variety of perspectives, in your hand. Local and world news, business, sports and culture are all right there. In the same amount of time you would have spent watching the TV, you can ingest a whole newspaper (or a few) and know so much more than you would have learned elsewhere.

You don’t need a degree to be educated. You just need a newspaper like this one. Newspapers can - and do – make you healthy, wealthy and wise.

Chances are that you’re reading this column in ink so you know that mantra quite well. But, you should share that belief with your friends and coworkers and get your kids started on it at a young age (I started reading papers in the fourth grade).

We’ll all be better off for it, for an educated people are a strong people and a successful people.  

Long live newspapers.

From the 13 November 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, October 26, 2017

This is not the people’s FCC

Being an amateur radio operator I pay a little more attention to the goings-on at the Federal Communications Commission than the average person might. So, when President Trump selected Buffalo-born Ajit Pai to chair the FCC back in January, I cringed. The former associate general counsel of Verizon is more aligned with larger broadcasters and communications companies than most of the other commissioners are.   

Ten months into watch, the FCC hasn’t failed to disappoint.

Between deregulation and corporate favoritism, the agency is on the path of allowing greater corporate control of public airwaves and the internet, squashing the ability of the little guys to compete and the average citizen to communicate.  

The latest example was last week’s 3-2 vote by the Commission to eliminate the Home Studio Rule.

Basically, that long-held regulation mandated that broadcasters have a studio in or near the city they are serving. The rule made sense: the FCC grants license to commercial broadcast enterprises with the expectation that the stations serve their home communities (with news, alerts, services, etc.) and act as economic engine (by running local advertisements and employing local workers).

By scratching that requirement, even more power will be given to the giant AM and FM conglomerates that are already dominating the airwaves. They can now fully remotely control and feed programming into transmitters, stifling local content, firing disc jockeys, emptying news rooms, and making all music and news sterile and similar from city to city. That bottom-line benefits gleaned from that will also allow them to further strangle the locally-owned-and-operated stations that actually do their duty to the community and have become an increasingly rare breed (broadcasters such as Lockport’s WLVL, Batavia’s WBTA and Wellsville’s WJQZ).

Even if you are not an avid radio listener (which many younger Americans aren’t, what with availability of digital players, streaming services and more) the FCC will hurt you by stifling the thing you love the most – your internet connection.

In a February installment of this column I wrote about the need to include the upgrade of rural internet access as a component of Trump’s infrastructure plan. As a critical piece of the modern economy, high-speed internet could drive economic development into communities that need a major shot in the arm (Rural America’s poverty rate is 18%). I noted at the time that only 55% of rural residents could achieve a connection of 25 megabits per second, which is the FCC’s current threshold for broadband.   

Well, the FCC recently announced that it plans to redefine what constitutes broadband.

The Commission wants to decrease that download speed to only 10 megabits per second, allowing internet and cellular service providers to seriously scale back the quality of their offerings to places like Upstate New York. Slower speeds would only bring pain and heartache to the farms, start-ups, and mom-and-pop businesses who need high-speed connections to bring their goods to market, attract customers and employ their neighbors.

As if that’s not bad enough, Pai has said on numerous occasions that he is in favor of rolling back net neutrality protections that were recognized by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. Those rules say that internet service providers cannot choose which data is sent more quickly and which sites get blocked or throttled backed based on which content providers pay a premium for.

If the big players had their way, companies like Netflix could pay Verizon a handsome sum to stream their services at a high rate of speed while dramatically slowing down (to make room on the information highway) the ability of other users to say, upload their photos, watch their online college courses, or download work documents. Whoever would pay the most would get the best, taking away the everyone-is-equal system that currently defines data transfer on the internet.

That’s a little unnerving, because the internet is quickly becoming our last means to access diversity of thought thanks to the abandonment of the Home Studio Rule and Pai’s proposal announced at a congressional hearing last week. There he said he’d like to, this November, throwaway media ownership rules launched in 1975 that prevented the same company from owning TV/radio stations and newspapers in a given media market.

If Pai has his way, a few media magnates could control the news you read, the news you hear, the news you watch and ultimately the news you download.     

That’s frightening.

It’s obvious that this is no longer the people’s FCC.

From the 30 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers