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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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? 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? How Bill Clinton Smashed the Passion Gap 

  

Unscripted comments often give us the worst moments of the Presidential campaign. Look no further than the embarrassing Republican debate in early March, when Donald Trump bragged about his penis.

But once in a while a tense, uncomfortable encounter can turn into a civics lesson.

And so it was when Bill Clinton stood up during an event for his wife in Philadelphia Thursday and faced down protesters from Black Lives Matter. They complained vigorously about anti-crime legislation that the former President signed in the early 90’s: a time when the crack epidemic led to a terrible spike in homicides, especially in African-American neighborhoods.

Instead of merely dismissing the shouts and signs of his detractors, or taking a politically correct vow of silence, he engaged them with a series of remarks about policy and the changed political landscape.

“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” the former President said wagging his finger. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.”

The tone may have been somewhat hectoring, and he sort-of apologized for it the next day. But the President’s passion was real. You don’t have to agree with him or his record to be impressed by the outburst of substance.

Far too much of this campaign has been about easy slogans, from Bernie Sanders’ simplistic break-up the big banks (thoroughly dissed in a New York Times column by liberal Paul Krugman) to Trump’s build a wall and make Mexico pay.

The biggest problem Hillary Clinton has been her apparent lack of passion. It’s why she has under-performed, and also why Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio failed to catch fire. 

Voters already know that the former Secretary of State, First Lady and Senator from New York has a deeply impressive resume and an intelligent grasp of governance and foreign policy, but much of her campaign has been canned —  on auto pilot. It’s as if she thinks she can glide to victory without taking risks. Without being a fighter.
But today’s media and political environment has changed. Americans – especially millennials – are increasingly bored with complacent, canned remarks. An occasional flash of humor or even anger can be refreshing and even change minds. 

Bill may have put his foot in it sometimes, but his spontaneous outburst in Philadelphia is a lesson for Hillary and a solution for her wobbly campaign. Fix the passion gap.

If you want to convince skeptical voters that you’re not a crook, put away the script and speak from the heart.

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?  You and Me.  Our Role in Partisan Divide

 How many times have you heard someone say: “I’m fed up with the campaign and politics in general.”

That’s hardly surprising at a time when media coverage has focused on personal insults, name-calling and partisan gridlock, instead of governance and compromise.

But much of this is our fault. Not just the politicians.  From older angry white men (Trump supporters) to idealistic Millennials (Bernie backers), voters have repeatedly rewarded candidates who use angry rhetoric and blame others for the country’s problems.  Sanders bashes Wall Street “crooks”, while Trump attacks Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Among the candidates of left and right who have pushed back against this trend, only Ohio Governor John Kasich has won more support than expected.  

“We live with the dysfunction of partisan behaviors and believe we must and can do better,” says Joan Blades, co-founder of the non-profit group, LivingRoomConversations.org.  She makes the case for personal dialog across party lines, arguing that it’s a key part of changing the way all of us think about politics.

A strong progressive, who co-founded the liberal activist group, MoveOn.org in the late 90’s, Joan says you’ll never convince anyone with an opposing viewpoint unless you listen to them first. 

“One of the problems progressives have right now is that if they run into someone who doesn’t believe in climate science, they roll their eyes.” As soon as you do that, “you’ve lost your conversation,” Joan says. “Nobody listens to anybody.”

Americans need to find new ways to speak about our differences and visit websites with opposing political opinions from their own.  Speaking with those you don’t agree with is part of the solution.

 “It’s actually really fun having a living room conversation,” she tells us on episode 44 of our podcast, How Do We Fix It? “They’re more fun than if you have a bunch of people around and you what they’re going to say.”

LivingRoom Conversations.org has simple for ground rules for each meeting – encouraging participants to be curious, show respect and take turns.  

Listening to people is the best way to get people to listen to you. These conversations are not debates. Instead of winning, the aim is come up with solutions.

The group’s guidelines are open-source. People can use whatever works for them. I want to host one.  What about you?  And what topics might work in these settings?  You can find examples at  LivingRoomConverstions.org.
   

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.)

Hey Congress: The Playground Was Never This Bad!

  

The way Obamacare is being debated is infantile.  

Instead of a detailed prescription for change, we’re hearing slogans.

Despite claims to the contrary by Republicans and Democrats, The Affordable Care Act is neither an unmitigated disaster nor a glorious triumph.

The truth lies between the two extremes, which is so often the case. The delivery of healthcare is complex and the law was only passed after Democrats responded to widespread demands for fundamental reform of the previous system.

“We have decreased the rate of the uninsured by about a third,” says Megan McArdle, an Obamacare critic and columnist at Bloomberg View.  That’s an impressive achievement. More than 12 million people who did not have coverage before the reforms are covered now.

Nevertheless, McCardle told our podcast, “How Do We Fix It?“, Obamacare is “much more expensive and much less comprehensive than its architects and certainly the people who supported this politically…. were expecting.”

UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurance firm, is losing money on the government-run exchange and has warned it may have to pull out if market conditions don’t improve.

“What people are doing is they’re gaming the system.” Some with health emergencies, who have inadequate medical insurance are “signing up for a few months, using a ton of services and then dropping it again,” says McArdle.

While Obamacare has lowered rates for many people with pre-existing conditions and helped millions of young prople under 26 stay on their parents’ plans, costs are rising and too little thought has been given to the efficient delivery of needed treatment. 

Demand for healthcare often exceeds supply. Many Americans have unrealistic expectations about the cost of coverage. Rationing, whether by insurance companies or government employees, is inevitable.

American consumers should be more involved in cost decisions. But the inconvenient truth is that whoever wins in November, there is little appetite in either political party to start all over again. 

It would help if the messy complexities of healthcare were more openly discussed.  We need serious fixes a lot more than catcalls from the political playground.