My birthday gift? Learning how storytelling shapes me

My media pass – now cancelled.

I gave myself a special birthday gift as I turned 51 years old.  

I left my job and accepted a buyout.  A “voluntary departure,” as it was called by Metroland, owner of The Waterloo Region Record

To me, it was a “self-administered layoff” from 30 years of journalism. My dream job was leaving me, so I decided to leave it first. Freedom, right?

One problem:  I had no fallback plan.  So for a reliable guy who’s always sought stability and comfort – I’m a stick-in-the-mud Taurus, after all – 2016 was kind of a freaky year.

No worries, I thought. I never seriously considered falling into a mid-life crisis, although the thought of a buying little red convertible sounds sweet. I already like riding motorcycles and gawking at airplanes.

Instead, of panicking – well, at least not panicking too much – I thought about how I got to age 51. Who am I? How have I handled challenges over the years?

It was clear to me I got to where I am by asking questions and sharing stories.

My farm story

I grew up on a farm just south of Hamilton.  Up on the Mountain, if you know the area.  The farm is just east of the country crossroads of Elfrida, where Highways 20, 53 and 56 meet.

The Swayze farm, at Elfrida, near Hamilton, Ontario.

I used to attend the little red-brick Elfrida United Church in the village. It was just across the highway from an Esso gasoline station and a Voyageur restaurant where truckers and school buses always stopped.  

Today, Hamilton is overrunning the place: townhouses are on marching across farm fields. The little church closed and was converted into a restaurant. Beside the former church are liquor and beer stores.  My fire-and-brimstone, teetotaling Methodist grandmother must be spinning in her grave in the Swayze Family Cemetery, nearby on Highway 56. 

The Swayze Family cemetery, Highway 56, south of Hamilton, Ont.

When I stand where I expect to be buried, I see superstores emblazoned with names like Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Fortinos. I always think “There goes the neighbourhood.”

But if I turn to the right, I see the farm where I worked in the fields every summer. Everybody pitched in working in the fields.  I remember how money was tight.  My mom made many of the clothes my little brother and I wore to public school.  My dad milked cattle morning and night, every day of the year. I remember no holiday trips when I was young.

Self-reliance grows

Farm life made me self-reliant. I watched my dad repair equipment in the fields, pour concrete around the barns and fix the roof of a century-old farmhouse.  I watched my mother make quilts and wedding dresses to earn a little extra money. I’m not a half-bad cook: she taught me well. 

I devoured history books as a kid – and still do when I make the time as an adult. How-to books are now my go-to reading as an adult. Storytelling teaches me how to design things, build things and repair things.

My love of photography landed me a job in a camera store at age 16. I was researching and writing after school, too, making a few bucks selling photos and stories to aviation magazines in England and the United States.

In high school, I was thinking about going to university and earning an engineering degree.  I dreamed about designing things and building things.  Then I ran square into my nemesis: three math courses in Grade 13. I worked hard to pass them all and barely scraped through to pass algebra. That experience prompted me to scrap any plans for a math-laden career, such as engineering. 

Journalism is the way

Instead, I studied Journalism at Conestoga College in Kitchener. Alll the while, I continued working at camera stores to help pay my bills while in school. I graduated with honours in 1986 and started working at a little busienss magazine in Guelph.

Conestoga College, Doon Campus, Kitchener, Ontario.

A year later, I landed a job at the Cambridge Daily Reporter. I liked getting paid to chase fire trucks and ask people questions. I also learned how to apply my rudementary math skills to explain city budgets and tax increases. I learned to use questions and storytelling so numbers made sense to me and my readers.

Redheads

Along the way, I fell for a redhead in Hespeler. Christine and I were blessed with three children: Ben, Alison and Theresa.  Then life got complicated and I learned how resilient I am.

Christine was diagnosed with cancer in June 2003.  The Reporter closed three months later, as her chemotherapy continued.  I landed work at The Record a few months after that. Christine beat back her cancer by late 2004, but it returned in summer 2005. I cared for her at home so our children kids had every moment they could with their mom, before she died on Boxing Day 2005.

I raised three kids on my own. Kids never complained about my cooking that I remember.

I continued volunteering at the Cambridge YMCA as a fitness instructor, too. I still volunteer at the Y today.

Cambridge YMCA, 250 Hespeler Road, Cambridge.

Four years ago, I met Kim.  She is a redhead. I am a lucky man.

Today, we live just off Blair Road in Cambridge, Ontario. My children are all – more or less – launched from the house, working or at university. Kim’s son, Adam, is a bit younger and spends every other week with us as he nears his teen years.

There’s also two dogs, and a minimum of three cats at the house any given day.

Looking back over how I got here, all this storytelling to myself is comforting. I’m not too worried about bailing on my job before it bailed on me.  And to be honest, I kind of liked not working most of spring, summer and fall of 2016, after I left newspapers behind.

In between sending out resumes in 2016, I did a little freelance writing, too. I felt like I was a teenager again, telling and selling stories.

Public speaking is storytelling

I joined Cambridge Toastmasters after I left the Record. I have my dad’s ability to talk with anyone, anytime.  I’m also not bad at applying my storytelling skills to writing speeches and delivering presentations.

I also started volunteering with the Mill Race Folk Festival in 2016. I stared by taking care of publicity and later joined the board. I put my storytelling experience to work while applying for private and government grants to help pay for the free-admission community music event on the Civic Holiday Weekend in August.

Sorting out signs at the 2016 Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music, in Cambridge, Ont.

By the end of the 2026, I landed a 10-week gig as a communications officer at McMaster University.  A good start to a new career, perhaps?

Maybe that’s the birthday gift I gave myself that year. The confidence to seek out a new future. I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is the text of an icebreaker speech project presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Jan. 5, 2017.

Blogging: Keep your posts on track with storytelling and the eye of a journalist

Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to improve the chances your company blog posts will actually be read by someone? 

Tell a story. Make it relatable to your audience. And have a little fun.

That’s what Scott Money does in this Metrolinx post updating the status of passenger railway track repairs:

It could easily have derailed into an overloaded recitation of work at any big construction site.
Instead, Money uses a journalistic eye to highlight details. He informs and entertains while keeping the story moving smoothly along the tracks.

I recommend you use his approach as a how-to guide in writing your own blog posts. These are efficient and effective ways of gaining and retaining audience attention. The blogging tips I highlight here are communication tactics familiar to anyone who’s written under daily deadlines in newspaper, radio or television newsrooms. They’re key tactics you can use to create compelling content for your blog.

What’s it like?

Money pulls readers into the construction zone with his selective descriptions. He invites them to ponder what it’s like as construction working with Highway 401 traffic zooming behind their backs. It’s Canada’s busiest highway roaring beside workers toiling on Canada’s busiest railway corridor.

There’s a photo with the blog post, but the construction site description provides emotional details the image can’t supply.

Money efficiently and confidently explains the what and the why. What’s happened and what’s next? Descriptions are clear and vivid. He focuses on the change and why it’s important. He salts the prose with a dash or two of railway jargon. I also liked his dinosaur reference to help readers wrap their minds around the magnitude of the project. 

Did you read all the way to the end of his blog post?

I did.

Cookies, wine and bitter beer tell all my secrets

Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”

George Bernard Shaw

I agree.  But why do I like certain foods?  And not others?

Not to worry: I never let such thoughts interrupt my eating.

It seems I’m not alone in my pondering over puddings, potatoes or perogies.  

Scientists also take a keen interest in what we eat and how we eat and what it all means.  

Here’s a taste of what I’ve uncovered about how people interact with food. Maybe it will help me prepare for my next dinner gathering. 

When you pick up a gingerbread man, do you rip off his head first?

Guess what:  that probably means you’re a leader. 

Seriously.  

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, Neurological Director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the first bite of the cookie can provide insight your underlying personality. He says so in 2010 research on behalf of Dunkin Donuts.

Here’s how the cookie crumbles. 

Heat bite first?  “It indicates an achievement-oriented individual, a natural leader, who won’t take no for an answer,” he says.

Go for the right arm off the top? You’re skeptical and pessimistic.

Left arm?  Creative and extroverted.

Amputate the legs in a pre-emtive strike?  Good news, my friend: “you tend to be more sensitive, reveling in the company of others” 

I wonder what psychiatrist Sigmund Freud would say about all this. 

Maybe a gingerbread man should come with a little couch.  And a free counselling session?

What to drink with our cookies?

How about some wine? Don’t laugh. I’ve done it.

It turns out wine drinkers have a tough time figuring out how much they actually pour, compared to what they planned. So say researchers at Cornell University.  They have a wine program there. 

Photo by K15 Photos on Unsplash

I haven’t been able to sort out if red wine is indeed better than white wine. But I have found out if you drink white wine, you will probably pour more than you think you did.

Researchers told college students in the test to pour a standard wine serving. That’s five ounces.  

Then, researchers put 10-ounce glasses in front of them. No, the college students didn’t all pour 10 ounces.  

On average, white wine drinkers tended to pour about 10 percent more wine than did students with red wine bottles. Average pour was around five-point-five ounces. That’s better than I would do.

The reason?  The low colour contrast of white wine in a clear glass can make it difficult to choose the appropriate level.

Those same researchers – after pouring wine all day long — also discovered that the style of glass you use is important to how much you think you pour. 

People also tend to pour about 12 percent more wine – red or white — in a wide, red wine glass.  People tend to consistently pour less wine into in narrow, white wine glasses. 

It seems most people can’t calculate volumes in their heads.  Instead, they think a narrower glass gets fuller faster, as the level rises faster. At least the first time they pour.

And people tend to pour about 10 percent more wine into a glass held into someone’s hand. Moving target, perhaps?

When drinking wine in moderation, here’s the checklist:

Stick to red wine

Pour it into a narrow, white wine glass.

And make sure the glass sitting on the table when you do.  

That’s a lot to remember. Maybe it’s time to consider other popular beverages instead. 

But here’s hoping you don’t like both coffee and dark, bitter beers like I do. 

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Apparently, liking both beer and coffee makes me a psychopath.  Researchers have found people who like bitter foods were also more likely to score highly in measures of psychopathy, sadism, and aggression.  

“Taken together, the results suggest that how much people like bitter-tasting foods and drinks is stably tied to how dark their personality is,” the study says.

Apparently, an affinity for bitter foods was a better predictor of personality than any of the other tastes in the research effort. Like sweet.  Or sour.

With all that in mind, let’s plan my next dinner party.

To get a good reading on the personalities of everyone who arrives, I’ll pass out gingerbread men at the door.  Then watch carefully.  And take a few notes. 

As a responsible host, I’ll pull aside the “leaders,” ask them set aside their decapitated cookies, and ask them to pour white wine.  Only into narrow glasses sitting on the table, so nobody drinks too much.

If people start asking for coffee or dark beer, I’ll be extra careful where I put the little seating cards around the table.  I’ll make sure to mix up the psychopaths with sensitive, amicable guests still munching on the legs of the gingerbread men. 

What could go wrong?

And after all that, I’ll hope people really like my meatloaf.  Inoffensive, comfort food. A warm hug kind of meal. 

Unless I invited vegetarians.

Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, January 26, 2017

Fake News? AI fact-checking not all good news

Fake news has been around long before social media empowered it.

Every time I hear people talk about how artificial intelligence will save us all from fake news, I get uneasy.

It’s an appealing idea.  People blame social media and Google (on computers) for the unchecked spread of fake information (via computers) and demand the tech companies (computer experts) do something about the problem on social media and Google (those darn computers!).

So tech companies announce they’ll use artificial intelligence (AI, or computers that learn) to protect us from all the false news filling our social media feeds (on the little computers we keep in our pockets).

Here’s a recent pitch by a technology company to protect us from the ills of technology: Fake news detecting technology developed by DarwinAI

The Waterloo, Canada company wants to good by making AI do good for us dumb humans.  What’s not clear to me is how much the new AI is a partner with humans in identifying fake news. Or it is simply going to decide what’s truth for us? 

Fake news solution?

My fear is many people worried about fake news will grasp for new AI technology, and let computers solve our problems. Except that it’s people creating and profiting from fake news by encouraging people to use computers to solve all our problems.  And they’re using AI to create more fake news, too. Awkward.

Alternative facts” and deceptions dressed up as news has around long before computers and artificial intelligence.  People have long twisted the truth, stirred negative emotions and counted on entrenched group think to spread their version of “truth.”  Human brains react to threats in a heartbeat. It’s a hard-wired negative bias to the world around us.

That emotional self-protection circuitry is in control before the logical part of our brain processes more details for a nuanced response to a range of inputs. Think about you how you respond to rumour and innuendo in the workplace.  What does it feel like when you’re the target of gossip on the schoolyard? How effectively do you uncouple your emotions when talking politics over the dinner table? None of that will magically disappear whenever mercenary AI-powered truth detectors start scrubbing junk news from our computer screens. Learning and practicing measured responses to what I hear, see and read is the best way I know to manage a world of differing opinions. It’s also how I approach the concept of AI-sanitized storytelling in my social media feeds.

The only way I know to find truth is habitual questioning everything I see and hear.  What’s the source?  What emotion does the “news” I am told stir inside me?  What details am I missing?  Who benefits from the story I’m being told? 

If a news story stirs negative emotion in me and offers a simple answer to complex problems, I go on Fake News Alert.

Healthy scepticism

In 30 years as a newspaper journalist, I learned questions are wonderful things.  So is a healthy skepticism of everything I see and hear.  Trust, but verify.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes about how easy it is to trick our brains if we aren’t careful.  I’m a fan of his book “A Field Guide to Lies” (also published as “Weaponized Lies”) and encourage everyone to read it.  Here’s a video of Levitin speaking at Google (and I appreciate that irony):

Source: https://youtu.be/3hK7Gd8UgmI

I’m all for fighting fabricated news with all the tools smart and inventive people are able to develop.   What I am not ready to yet do is blindly trust technology to protect us from fake news.  That’s the same complacency purveyors of fake news count on to enable their strategies.

Sifting truth from facts is work.  It’s often hard work.  And it’s worth it.

I have no plans to outsource the job and blithely trust someone else — or something else — to interpret what’s truth or lies. 

What do you think about fighting fake news with artificial intelligence?

Want people to listen to you? Talk less

‘Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.

Bernard Baruch

I encourage you to listen – really listen – to someone today.

Yes, it’s easy to say.  And hard to do.

When was the last time you felt someone listened to you?  Heard you?  Really heard what you were saying?

And when was the last time you really listened to what someone was saying? Really listened?  Really heard what someone else was saying – and didn’t interrupt or try to change their minds?

Last day? Last week? Last month? Ever?

And how did you feel after that conversation? 

When I have a good conversation – and keep my mouth shut for most of it – I feel energized.  I feel confident.  And since I’ve been listening, there’s was a good chance I learned something.

For me, listening to someone is a fundamental offer of respect. In fact, I like to be treated just that way.

Talk less, listen more

So I promote an 80:20 conversation rule. That’s 80 percent listening;  20 percent talking.

And, yes, I don’t meet my standard as often as I would like.

‘If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

My thoughts and responses want to bubble up.  I want to be heard.  After all, it’s all about me. That’s what social media and celebrity worship teaches me to be successful. Right?  

Well, no.  

I remember both my grandmothers telling me that I’ve got two ears and one mouth. So listen twice as much as I speak.  

I believe listening is about building people up.  I succeed when others succeed. 

Easy to say, hard to do. I find it takes practice and self-awareness. It is worth the effort.

Set a goal to have a conversation with someone.  Pick a place where there are no interruptions.

Turn off your phone. Put it away out of sight.

Offer your complete attention. At a business meeting.  Backyard barbecue. Over a coffee.

Make sure to get your head in the game. Use active listening skills. Forget having to “be right” about everything – or anything.  You’re listening.  Not lecturing.

Perhaps start by talking first, then let go.  Ask about what they think about something in the news? Ask them what made them happy today? How are things going?

Let them know you want to hear what they say. Prove it by your actions.

Talk about what they want to talk about, not what you want to talk about.

Be ready with open-ended questions.  What’s next?  How did that happen?   Wow! What can you do about that?  

Be wary of making it an interrogation.  Especially if someone starts to open up about personal, private worries.

Don’t interrupt

Never interrupt. Instead, empathize.  Don’t criticize.

Mirror your partner’s body language.  Keep eye contact when they’re talking – listen with your eyes.

To keep someone talking – especially in a conversation that’s leaning toward an argument – try echoing what they say.  Show you understand. That you want to hear more. And aren’t telling them what to do.

 “This is so frustrating and upsetting,” you might hear.

“You’re frustrated and upset,” you might reply.

“Yes — it is so frustrating but I think I can…” you might hear as the conversation continues.

You listened.  Your conversational partner is empowered. I suggest you’ll be remembered.

Silence is golden

My favourite conversational tactic is silence.  I often frame it with a gentle nod. Sometimes I purse my lips a little as I lean a little closer.

Silence during an interview was one of my go-to tactics as a newspaper reporter for 30 years.  Ask an awkward, open-ended question. The other person answers. Then I don’t immediately ask another question. 

Let conversational anxiety nudge your partner to respond and fill the silence.  Golden.

Try slipping a little silence into your next a friendly conversation — or carefully into a disagreement. 

It’s a tool to be used with tact in a full-blown family fight.  I don’t advise glaring at your spouse with your mouth closed during an argument.  Based on personal experience, that’s not a communication tactic likely to produce an amenable response.

Now, after all that talk about listening to build up other people, I have a confession.

I like a good conversation because it usually builds me up just as much as my conversational partner.  And in truth, it’s a way to build my network of people.  Perhaps advance my career. Boost my ego.

To be, dare I say, admired as someone who listens. Someone who is remembered.

Beyond that, I am convinced listening trains me to better control and enjoy my life.

It’s confidence practice. Exercising my inner virtues. 

I can’t control what people say.  I can only control my response.

Here’s something amazing.  I’ve noticed that sometimes after I’ve listened to someone 

 I changed my mind.  Yes, it really happens.  I realized I was wrong.  Or at least not right.

So, I encourage daily exercise of conversational skills by keeping quiet. Training for self-confidence. So you’re remembered. 

Keeping quiet allows you to be heard.

What tactics do you use to enable and sustain great conversations?