The F… Bomb Has Become a Filler Word. How Do We Fix It?

The jump the shark moment for the F-word may have come and gone. Even the erudite David Brooks of the New York Times used it recently in his otherwise uplifting book on self-discipline and modesty, “The Road to Character.”

A four letter word that once caused shock – or at least embarrassed giggles – has become a filler word.  Something you say to fill the space between the stuff that actually matters.

It’s lost the power to shock.  Everybody says fuck.

Other filler words include “meanwhile, “like”, “basically” – and the very worst and most frequently heard –  “you know”.

Many thoughtful, well-educated people punctuate their sentences with  “you know”, you know?   The term has become the new “um”.

Those who use it in serious conversation dilute the meaning of what they are trying to say. I have a highly articulate, smart, funny friend in the financial industry who uses “you know” in virtually every sentence.  It drives me crazy. She’s probably unaware of it and I’m too chicken to say anything.

Guess I haven’t walked too far on my road to character. Sorry, David Brooks.

When hosting a talk radio show years ago, a program director pulled me aside. “You say um a lot,” he told me.  “Don’t do it. In between thoughts, stay silent. It can be kind of powerful.  People will listen more carefully to what you’ll say next.”

Great advice –  especially for a guy who loves to talk and trips over my words in a rush to say the next thing.  A little pause sounds so much better than filling in the time with meaningless filler words.

Easier said than done, you say?

Actually, no.  As soon as I became aware of what I was doing,  it was surprisingly easy to cure my verbal tic. It’s a little bit like weeding.  Almost everytime time I noticed an “um” forming in my brain I would pause and pick it out of my speech pattern.

Another tip: speak in short sentences. “Structural filler-word patterns are triggered because of the way you structure your sentences,” says writer, Anett Grant. “Using oral bullet points gives you time to think about what you’re going to say while reinforcing your main point.”

Clarity is the best friend you have when speaking.  Especially when you are serious. Weeding out the filler words is a great way to sound smart in business meetings, sales presentations and at the dinner table.

When you don’t have much to say, remain silent.

Richard Davies is a podcaster.  Hear his “um” free show, “How Do We Fix It?” with co-host Jim Meigs on Acast, iTunes and Stitcher.  He also runs DaviesContent – a podcast production house.

 

 

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? No. Never Make a Podcast Unless…

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I’ve been into audio ever since I was a little kid who slapped 45 rpm green, red, yellow and orange Disney discs onto the record player my parents gave me when I was six years old.

The stories, voices and jingles really were music to my ears.

Not long after college, to no-one’s great surprise, I landed my first job in radio. I spent well over thirty years at stations and networks doing the thing I loved.

Last year, with my pal Jim Meigs and producer Miranda Shafer, I started “How Do We Fix It?”– a weekly podcast.  We’re having a fun ride and I feel privileged to meet a lot of great people along the way.  Our 86th weekly show is currently in production.

At its best, podcasting is remarkably intimate and honest – without noisy distractions.  Just you and another human voice in your ear.

Unlike broadcast radio or TV, listeners are the programmers, deciding exactly when and what they want to spend their time with. They give us podcasters their pure, undivided attention. In every way they are our equal – never to be manipulated, pandered to nor shouted at.

Sounds like the perfect environment for a content producer.

But let’s face it: many podcasts are crap – weeds in the ever growing audio jungle.

And not just the two-guys-in-a-garage kind of spontaneous podcasts. Even well-made, sophisticated shows are often way too long, self-indulgent and without a clear purpose.

Your audience is busy and has vast array of audio offerings to pick from.  Many of us listen on the go – in the car or at the gym.  The average American commute time is about 25 minutes.  Most podcasts last at least half an hour. Mistake.

The first don’t of podcasting is never waste their time. Make a show with purpose that doesn’t last quite as long as you – the podcaster – want it to.  Don’t be afraid to slice out a few minutes.

Leave your listeners wanting more after each episode. Also answer this question: “Who is your audience?”

The second don’t:  Forget about making podcasts unless your brand, company or cause already has followers or subscribers.  This medium is a great way to forge deep, authentic connections with your people, but on its own – without a website, blogs and other forms of content –  you won’t make a splash. The only exception is if you’re already famous.  Anderson Cooper, Alec Baldwin, Snoop Dogg or Shaq can operate by their own rules.

Podcasting is special – different from radio and certainly not merely the audio track of a You Tube video.  Respect your audience.

Third don’t: making a podcast “live” or on the fly is rarely a good idea. Edit it and listen with a critical ear.

The fourth don’t is about lack of commitment. While podcast equipment is cheap and the launch costs are small, the process can be surprisingly time consuming. Unless you are prepared to go long and deep with your podcast project, don’t start.

A weekly show may not be necessary. You could release a new series every few months. But whatever the plan of action, successful podcasts require follow through.

Google “how to make a successful podcast” and you’ll get lots of enthusiastic ideas about equipment, theme music, social media and the need for passion. Much of the advice is helpful. But be wary of those who only explain the do’s and not the don’ts of podcasting.

Richard Davies is a podcast consultant and program maker. Find out more at daviescontent.com.

 

 

 

How Do We Fix It? After We Smashed the China

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Viewing art helps me take a fresh look at the world.

Painters do it all the time.  They deconstruct the objects, landscapes and people they see – putting them back together again on canvas. Reimagining the world. What a brave and profound thing to do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would do the same thing with the way we think about politics and culture? Question our identity or tribe. Take a fresh look at the views of those we hang out with.

After the dramatic results of the Trump election, Brexit in the U.K. and now this week the vote in Italy, it’s time for the chattering class to go back to the drawing board – especially those of us who were surprised or deeply troubled by the electoral eruptions of 2016.

Voters smashed the china. We have to find new ways to put it back together again.

That’s the starting point for “How Do We Fix It?” – our podcast about ideas and solutions. Jim Meigs and I are political independents, who listen to many different opinions – especially guests who are able to come up with creative, undogmatic fixes for the problems they’ve considered.

We have a lot of fun doing our show. Playing in the sandbox of ideas.

This playful abstract painting (above) illustrates the point. It was completed in the 1920’s after artist Stuart Davis spent a whole year focusing on three objects on a table – an electric fan, an egg beater and a rubber glove.

He observed them solely on the basis of color, plain and their spacial relationships (at least that’s what I’m told by curators who studied his work!)

These objects became flat plains of color. He mixed things up, creating a fantasy space. This painting – now part of an extraordinary retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – is the result.

“I see the artist as a cool spectator,” said Davis in 1957. A “reporter in an area of hot events.”

Isn’t it time for us adults to create our own fantasy space? See the world from different points of view? Right now, at the end of this crazy year is a great time to try.

 

How Do We Fix It? What I’ve Learned Since Donald Trump Won.

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I’m one of those damn fool East Coast journalists who was stunned by the results of last week’s election.  I didn’t see it coming.  I thought that we’d elect our first woman President.

So why should you bother to read this? Because I’m listening and learning from others who may be a bit smarter than me.

That includes our podcast co-host, Jim Meigs.

“We have an entire institution of media and opinion who misunderstood the country,” he told me the morning after the election on “How Do We Fix It?” “The sense of anxiety that was out there was not taken seriously.”

“This was the Caddyshack election,” said Jim. “In our popular culture, the idea of rich, sophisticated Ivy League-educated people often is met with a certain amount of resistance and cynicism by people who consider themselves salt of the earth.”

In “Caddyshack” (released in 1980) a brash, vulgar, nouveau riche land developer (played by Rodney Dangerfield) offends all the well-healed, preppy guys at a ritzy country club.  “That’s who Trump is,” says Jim. “People got a kick out of him tipping over the apple cart and causing trouble. They’re responding to a trait in our culture where we tend to distrust the polished elite.”

No, that doesn’t mean most Trump voters are racist or anything else -ist. In fact, Trump got more votes from people of color than Mitt Romney did.  There was no great surge of white voters for Trump.

In the words of George Packer of the New Yorker (his book “The Unwinding” is a must-read if you want to understand what the hell happened), this was a middle-finger election.  A lot of voters – especially late deciders – saw Hillary as elitist and more of the same. Pissed off, they decided to give the other guy a try.

One week before the election in “Bring the Right Wing Into the Mainstream Media,” Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View made the case of more diversity in newspapers, magazines and on the networks.

“The media is overwhelmingly liberal,” she wrote.  “It tends to mirror the left-to-center-left spectrum of the social class from which most journalists are drawn. That affects coverage, which right-wing readers pick up on.”

Most of the bias is subconscious, not deliberate, McArdle argues.  Those inside the castle gates of the Mainstream Media look down on those in flyover country with mixture of disdain and horror.

“Whoever is to blame for the problem, yelling at the residents of the swamp to behave themselves is probably not going to fix it,” wrote McArdle.  “What would fix the problem is if the folks in the castle made a concerted effort to open the doors and persuade some of the swamp-dwellers to move inside. Not just to move inside, but to help run the place, pushing back on liberal pieties and dubious claims with the same fervor that liberals push back on conservative ones.”

None of this is meant to excuse Donald Trump for what he said during the campaign nor suggest that we should “sit and down and shut up” for the next four years.  But right now – at least for the next few weeks – a little humility is in order. First understand. Then act.

And never assume we know what’s coming next.  As Janan Ganesh wrote this week in The Financial Times:  “The only intelligible lesson of 2016 is that William Goldman’s verdict on Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything”, said the screenwriter – applies to matters of state.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Hillary! Tell More Stories.


By most measures Hillary Clinton had a pretty good night in her first debate with Donald Trump.  But something was missing.

Her disciplined performance may have convinced wavering voters to be somewhat more comfortable with the idea of her as President.  Clinton’s cool, calm demeanor contrasted with Donald Trump’s repeated interruptions and bluster.  She was also successful in getting under his skin.

However, Clinton did little to overcome her two biggest negatives: likeability and trust.  Neither did Trump.  Both are still disliked by surprisingly large numbers of voters. 

In the two debates to come, the breakout candidate could be the one who tells the best stories.

Clinton’s strongest moment on Monday night came right at the end of the 90 minute debate, after many may have turned it off.  She raised the case of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who Trump had called “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.”

She made it personal. Her remark struck home because it was about a woman who many viewers could relate to.  

Same thing when Clinton talked about her late father and his work as a drapery maker. 

“Donald was very fortunate in his life and that’s all to his benefit. He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father,” she said.  “I have a different experience.”

In podcasts, the most successful moments are often the most intimate. When podcast guests share something unrehearsed, unexpected or emotional from their lives, they lift the curtain on they are and establish trust with the listener. 

All too often Clinton talks about “it” – policies and programs – while her opponent talks about “me” – himself.

Donald Trump could also be a much better storyteller. And given his extraordinary success in building his brand, it’s surprising he doesn’t know this.

Instead of talking about the “rigged system” in the abstract, Trump could share stories of the working class Americans he speaks for, who’ve seen their living standards decline in recent decades.

In the weeks to come, a personal touch potentially would have a far greater impact than his angry attacks on illegal immigrants and free trade. It would also counter the impression that Trump lacks empathy and is obsessed with his own success. 

Ronald Reagan understood this trick all too well – much to the frustration of his liberal opponents.  In debates and speeches, he always had a good tale to tell.  Skeptical voters who’d been warned that Reagan was a shallow extremist would ask themselves: “How this man be mean or out of touch when he was such a good storyteller?”

It was of Ronald Reagan’s great secrets. But then he was an old radio guy. He knew the stuff that today’s podcasters learn along the way.

How Do We Fix It? When Did It Become Cool To Be So Angry?

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Why are so many of us so damn angry?

Signs of fury are everywhere.  The national mood has darkened and it’s doing nothing to improve our democracy.

From chaotic scenes last weekend in Las Vegas when Bernie Sanders’ supporters threw a hissy fit at the Nevada’s Democratic Convention, to Donald Trump’s string of outrageous insults, it seems perfectly acceptable to claim that those who we disagree with are evil.

Yet these eruptions come at a time of modest improvement in many aspects of American life.  President Obama has been a disappointment, even to many supporters,  but his approval rating  – 51% says Gallup – is pretty decent for a President close to the end of his second term.

The jobs and housing markets are far from great, but they’re in much better shape today than when Obama first took office after the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years.

The Affordable Care Act, while flawed, has not been the utter disaster claimed by many critics. Many more people are signing up and the U.S. uninsured rate is at a record low.

The “flood” of Mexicans surging across our southern border is a myth.  Since 2009, more Mexicans left the U.S. than entered the country.

Terrorism is always a threat, but the worst attack on U.S. soil happened nearly 15 years ago.

And he many of us are gripped by a deep sense of malaise and insecurity.  More than 7 in 10 Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country.  Cultural divisions, income inequality and a decline in living standards for non-college educated Americans threaten to pull is further apart.

All are reasons why Trump and Sanders have attracted huge crowds and surprising levels of support. But their policy prescriptions are simplistic.  We have very little idea of what they would do, if elected.

Who would pay for Sanders’s sweeping pledges of free health care and college education? How would Trump deal with China, The Middle East, immigration, job creation or the details of tax policy?

After his recent meeting with Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Going forward, we’re going to go a little deeper in the policy weeds.” Too bad that hasn’t happened already.

Perhaps, Yuval Levin is right.  In his new book, “The Fractured Republic,” he argues that our politics have been paralyzed by nostalgia for the 1950’s and 60’s.  Liberals hanker for a time of greater income equality, before “the rise of the rest” meant that our workers had to compete in the resurgent global marketplace.  The right is nostalgic for cultural cohesion and  “traditional values”.

But those days of post-World War 2 U.S. dominance will not return. Our politics must address the technological and global challenges of today, instead of wallowing in the past.  We need to move beyond the primal screams of anger and work together, across party lines for a better future.

How Do We Fix It? What Your Voice Says About You.

   
Most people don’t like the sound of their own voice. Play back a recording and they cringe.

But the good news for wannabe podcasters and public speakers is that vocal mechanics don’t matter nearly as much they one did. 

We live in a visual age and a much greater range of voices and accents is perfectly acceptable. Think of well-known public radio hosts or TV news anchors who have less-than-perfect and, sometimes, even irritating voices.  

You don’t need to have the rich, smooth tones that Peter Dinklage brings to his role as Tyrian Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” or the professional panache of Dame Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey”.

Actors do need vocal lessons, especially for theater performances. But long gone are the days when male radio announcers sounded like the Voice Of God, reading from stone tablets on the mountaintop.

As a very young reporter in 1980, I was told by a broadcast news executive that I “didn’t have the pipes” for a job in network radio. I was crushed. I still have his dismissive comment that was scratched in pencil at the bottom of my application letter.

My lucky break came a couple of years later, when women broadcasters crashed the party and changed radio forever. Their hard-won victories also allowed tenors like me to slip through the door. No more need for guy vocal fry. Once I finally realized what was going on, I didn’t have to pretend that I had a bass voice that was far deeper than the one I was born with.  

The same is true today for women. Authenticity is far more important than authority. You don’t need to “fry” or crackle your voice to get people to take you seriously. 

In the 80’s, the first generation of women network news anchors were trend setters, bringing a much more relaxed, conversational style to the airwaves. 

Once again, with the exciting growth of podcasting, vocal patterns are changing. There is now a premium on bringing your true self to the microphone. If you have something of value to say, people will listen, especially if it’s a compelling story. Content matters far more than if you speak with a foreign accent or have a high or low voice. 

Most of us podcast fans have them, quite literally, in our ears. We listen alone with ear buds. It’s just you and the podcaster. No other medium is as intimate as this one. 

I’m not suggesting that technique and tone don’t matter. At the first podability.com podcast boot camp during April in New York, I shared some of what I know about vocal performance. A few bullet points:

  • Smile before you speak. Be grateful that you have something to say. Listeners can hear your enthusiasm.
  • You set the tone for your podcast. A positive attitude puts your guests at ease. When interviewing, bring positive energy to your questions. Guests often take verbal cues from you.
  • Getting a good night’s sleep and eating healthy improve the quality of your voice. Look after yourself. 
  • Many people gargle or drink a hot beverage before going into the studio. Techniques vary. Do an online search for “vocal exercises” and pick ones that work for you.
  • Get your blood flowing. Bend and stretch before you switch on the microphone.
  • If you stammer or have a pronounced lisp, you should get coaching. A vocal tick that gets in the way of clear communication is something that needs to be addressed.

What matters most is that you bring your own inner voice and experience to the table. As an Anglo-American, my accent and rhythm of speech often varies according to whom I speaking to. Years ago, I tried to rub this out and copy others. Now I believe that I was wrong.

All of us have our own unique soul. When podcasting, broadcasting or speaking in public, the bravest and best thing we can do is to bring our true self to the microphone.

For 29 years, Richard Davies worked as a news and business correspondent for ABC News. In 2015, he formed DaviesContent, a digital audio production and consulting firm. His podcast is the solutions show, “How Do We Fix It?

Photo: Richard and whiteboard at Podability.com

 

 

How Do We Fix It? Napoleon’s Buttons And Our Crazy Problem With Science

Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia during the brutally cold winter of 1812 might have gone a lot better if only he’d known about the chemical properties of tin.

“The buttons that were on his jacket were made out of tin,” says materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. “When it gets really cold, tin undergoes a chemical transformation, changing from one state to another.”
“It becomes dust.”
Because of crumbling buttons, “their coats were open and their pants were falling down. Their buttons were disintegrating” as they tried to fight the Russians. Things went horribly wrong for the invading French army.
The Napoleon example is what Ramirez calls, a “big-ass hook.”  She uses it when teaching, writing or doing her Science Underground podcasts to make her subject that much more interesting – “so that I grab your attention.”
Ainissa is on a mission: to make science fun for kids and adults.  She’s the author of “Save Our Science” and “Newton’s Football,” a lively book about the science of America’s favorite sport.
Just like Napoleon, the failure to understand the basics of science puts us in peril.  “STEM” jobs – requiring skills in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math – are among the best-paid and hottest growth sectors for employment.  But most students graduate college or high school without any knowledge of STEM, which closes off a broad range of career opportunities.
“We all start off as scientists,” Ainissa told us on on our “How Do We Fix It?” podcast. “If you look at a 4-year-old’s hands, they’re completely dirty, because they’re engaging with the world.  But then something happens. School happens and we forget that we are curious beings.  We feel we need to worry about what we get on a test and don’t think about understanding.”
“As a science evangelist I’m trying to get us back with our wonder.”
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Sadly, most of us  lost our initial curiosity about science, including me.  And Ainissa is right. We need to get it back.  As citizens, widespread ignorance of science means we are more likely to fall for absurd vaccine conspiracy theories or for politicians who deny the reality of climate change.
Ainissa says schools and major corporations could help put the sizzle back into science.
Too often schools teach to the test. “That has nothing to do with understanding, learning and wonder.” Science should be woven into projects and stories that children learn in other subjects.
Many kids go to McDonald’s after school to use their WiFi and do homework. “There’s a huge opportunity for there to be science on McDonald’s WiFi system to students,” says Ainissa.
“Walmart has many millions of people coming through their doors every day. If you could get 10% to look at a small screen that shows a science PSA (Public Service Announcement), you significantly move the needle,” One place to do this would be in the electronics aisle, where dozens of new TV sets are turned on.
Ainissa also sees opportunities for citizen action. Flint’s water crisis only became widely known after parents worked with scientists from Virginia Tech to confirm there were unsafe levels of lead . “They couldn’t get the information directly, but by using science kits available at a hardware store they were able to test what was in it.”
“They also tested the water in different regions, so they had good data.”  Parents empowered by science were able “to pushback and show that the water in Flint was unacceptable.”

How Do We Fix It? 2 Cheers For Compromise 

  
Ready for a word that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders would consider to be an obscenity?  

Compromise.

Insults, anger and disgust are in, while deal-making, compromise and governance are so old school.  We’re all too busy having a national hissy fit to sit down and do the boring, important stuff. 

My friend Mark Gerzon, author of the fine new book, “The Reunited States of America“,  puts it this way. “We can’t solve any of the problems we face if we’re tearing each other down the whole time.”

Ratings for the Republican debates shot up this year and cable TV networks are loving the slugfest. Watching candidates exchange insults can be entertaining, even if we are appalled by the spectacle. 

But the news media obsession with clashes, controversy and contests only get us so far.  If politics is a permanent campaign, when is it time to govern?

“There’s a whole America out there that’s not getting any news coverage. And that’s the America where Americans work together,” Mark tells us in the latest episode of our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?

He’s right. My years of business reporting taught me that when successful executives face four bad quarters, they throw out the old rule book and re-think what they’re doing. Flexibility and pragmatism are essential to their survival.

Only if Congress would do the same.  

For the past 4, 8, 16 years, mainstream politicians have been fighting over the same old stuff. Their goal is simply to score points at the expense of the other guy. 

No wonder we’re fed up.  

But outrage will only get us so far.  What’s really constructive in the messages and speeches that we’re hearing from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?   Beyond talk of building walls or making health care and college free, how will these “outsiders” turn their promises into reality? After all, the nation’s founders did invent separation of powers with checks and balances.

The first step to radical reform of government, Congress and our political culture is to reform ourselves. The most radical thing many of us could do right now is to ask questions.  

In business it’s often called brainstorming.  

“Do you want to get drunk on being right and enjoy that feeling of being with the people you agree with and bad mouth the people you don’t?,” asks Mark. Maybe yes. But a nasty hangover may be the result.

Perhaps we’re at a national turning point. It’s time to sit down and spend time with those we disagree with.  Listen and learn from the other tribe. Not declare and defame.

Smoke filled rooms, anyone?  

(If not, maybe vape-filled rooms would do.)

 ISIS, Lord Voldemort And “He Who Must Not Be Named”.

  

The Dark Lord was one mean dude.  The witches and wizards in the Harry Potter books and movies were so paralyzed by fear that they didn’t speak his name.

Voldemort was referred to instead as “You Know Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”.

Now, says British anti-terrorism campaigner Maajid Nawaz, President Obama and other well-intentioned liberals are paralyzed by political correctness.  They refuse to speak of ISIS and other Islamist groups by their proper names.

“We’re unable to say ‘Islamist extremism’ as distinct from Islam the religion,” he told us on “How Do We Fix It?

“Add ‘ism’ on the end and it’s already clear that we’re not talking about Islam the faith. We’re talking about the politicalization of the faith.” 

If we don’t use the right name for those who wish to impose their beliefs on others, Maajid says, “what we’re doing is disempowering those Muslims who are attempting to re-claim their faith from Islamists.”

  

Nawaz is a Sunni Muslim and knows of what he speaks.  In his late teens and twenties, he was a leading member of Hizb ut-Tahri, a British-based Islamist group.  His rejection of religious dogma came during four years in Egyptian jails, while serving time for political activities.

 After returning to the UK in 2006, he co-founded Quilliam, a leading think tank devoted to upholding democratic values and combating extremism. 

Language and messaging are a crucial part of his fight.  The goal is to isolate insurgents from other Muslims, Maajid told us.  “It doesn’t help that to deny it.” 

“We know of no other insurgency that can survive without a level of support within the target communities they seek to recruit from.”

Jihadism has become a brand, which no longer depends on organizations to inspire young Muslims. “A bit like back in the 60’s people would wear Che Guevara on their tee-shirts, now it’s about raising the black ISIS flag.”

Unless President Obama and other leaders clearly speak out against Islamists, they are denying themselves a powerful weapon.  By refusing to mention them by name, Maajid says, “the only thing we have to fall back on is the very thing liberals have been critical of – more assassinations and more war and more killing and more invasions.”

Maajid Nawaz wrote the book Radical: My Journey Out of Islamic Extremism.  With Sam Harris, he co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance.

Photos: Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. (top) Maajid Nawaz (above)