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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mad Libbing Your Way to Success

What do you think is the number one fear expressed by American adults? Terrorism? Crime? Big hairy spiders? Another Clinton in the White House? No, surprisingly it's public speaking. That's right, American adults would rather be lowered into a cobra pit in a cage, wearing pajamas, sitting on Richard Simmons' lap than get up in front of an audience and speak. Present company excluded of course--I can speak authoritatively on any subject and never shrink from the opportunity to do so. But let's say you found yourself in the unenviable position of having to do some public speaking, perhaps at a business conference. Well have no fear, Bruck to the rescue! In addition to gimmicks like visualizing the audience wearing clothes, the best way to overcome the #1 fear is preparation - the best defense is a good offense. If you have a good speech to deliver, that's half the battle, and in today's dispatch, your faithful editor will make it really simple, and allow your fragile psyche to obsess on other, more interesting phobias.

First, some background:

Young David, Son of Bruck, featured prominently in this recent VOB on improper battery disposal, had a summer assignment to read and report on "Longitudes and Attitudes," a collection of columns by Thomas Friedman, a New York Times international correspondent who writes on the topic of world politics and culture. Young David poignantly observed that Mr. Friedman's columns read like Mad Libs. Mad Libs are pre-written story structures for which participants provide details by filling in blanks with key words - adjectives, verbs, or nouns, sometimes qualified, sometimes not - resulting in humorously absurd final stories. David offered that a typical Thomas Friedman column would read:

I recently returned from ____ (obscure Middle Eastern region or city), where I discovered that the people there are staunchly ____ (pro- or anti-) American, and we don't even know it! Just ____ (before or after) _____ (a traumatic event), I got an _____ (angry or enthusiastic) e-mail from my friend ____ (inscrutable middle eastern name) in _____ (above region), informing me of _____ (moving story). (And then go on to fill in the rest of the column with travelogue-type anecdotes.)

In that vein, I noted that the same type of generalization could be applied to the speakers at a conference on the subject of business process improvement I recently attended. Typical structure:

Start with a predictable audience-participation attention-getter - "How many of you watched ___ (TV show) last night? Let's see a show of hands…

I'm ____ (name), ____ (generous title), of ____ (company with a catchy name that nobody's ever heard of). We're the #1 ____ (producer/provider) of _____ (intangible product or service) in _____ (large geographic region >= continental US). We are headquartered in ___ (dull midwestern city) and have ____ (# > 10000) associates worldwide. Our customers include these companies (refer to list on powerpoint slide on screen which includes > 30 other obscure companies, in stylized logo typefaces).

When we embarked on _____ (name of a leadership/management initiative) in ____ (recent year), our strategy was to ____ (Launch into a lengthy, not completely sensible oration including the terms global, enterprise, targeted, engagement, leadership, leverage, gains, commitment, alignment, evolution). Our goal was to realize results of ____ (round # of $ in the 100 millions) by year ____ (2 or 3).

(Follow with windy, inscrutable discourse using lots of internal jargon and anecdotes of personal interactions with CEOs, referring to them by their first names. Continue talking about "lessons learned" including the words sustainable, maturing, culture, etc. Don't worry about making anything up - nobody will ever question your data.)

We captured ____ (# between 50 and 100) percent of the ____ (region at least as large as the one above) market in ____ (product or service possibly related to the one above).

Any questions? I've got time for ____ (#, 1 to 3) questions.

With just a few details that you provide, or even fabricate in real time, the next time your boss wants to send you out on the road, instead of committing hari-kari with the nearest sharp object, you can confidently say, "Boss, I'd be thrilled to represent our company at that business summit in Omaha. I'll even deliver the keynote address!"

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