Taking the risky, personal path when talking in public


I had all these plans for the holiday break. I was going to clean up the garage, update my 2008 budget, sort and cull my massive MP3 collection; but instead, I came down with a cold on Christmas Eve.

I don’t do sick well. Can you say, “Grumpy Grandpa?”

Of all the goals I set for myself, two had hard deadlines that I had to deliver on. I am scheduled to talk to my Rotary chapter about The Mankind Project on Jan. 8, and this article for The Bellingham Business Journal is due in Vanessa Blackburn’s hands by Jan. 4. And it is now New Year’s Eve.

I had tried repeatedly to find the muse for this article and failed miserably. Can you say, “Panic rising?” I certainly did not want to let Vanessa down; but I was getting nowhere fast.

Since I was stuck on The BBJ article, I decided to focus instead on my Rotary talk. My first attempt was an utter failure, at least according to my wife and finest critic. She sent me back to the drawing boards only halfway through what I had written.

Somewhat humiliated and grumpy (I still have the darn cold), I cut and chopped and got the talk down to its essence: What is the Mankind Project, who started it, what’s it all about, etc. Maybe a bit dry, but nothing if not relatively safe.

I ran the talk past the Rotary program chair (he was seated at the time) and he liked it, but I noticed that he stopped reading halfway through. Somehow, our conversation wandered to boats and kids and when we got back to the talk, he reassured me that it would be fine. Rotary members love getting to know their fellow members better, and that’s what the talk would accomplish.

Well, one down, one to go; but I still had no clue of what to write about for Vanessa.

About a week ago, I sent out an e-mail request on one of the Mankind Project e-mail lists asking for help with the Rotary talk from other men who may have made similar presentations. I got one short e-mail with some information about the local history of MKP, but other than that, the silence was scary. Had my e-mail stopped working?

Tonight, the very last evening of the year, I got an e-mail from another Mankind Project member in Rochester, N.Y. telling me he had been through the same experience I was anticipating, and that he had felt the same anxiety I was feeling. He told me how he approached his talk, and I found myself mesmerized by his ideas; but they were very risky. Instead of talking about the history of MKP, he asked the audience, “How many of you are divorced? How many of you have children who are divorced or separated? How many have of you have siblings or friends who were divorced or separated? How many of you have experienced some sort of loss, breakup or breakdown of an important relationship?”

By this time, pretty much everyone had their hand up. He had their attention. Then he asked the audience to tell him what are some of the things that break up relationships. They answered with things like “Communication breakdown, lack of intimacy and trust, inability to listen to each other,” and the list grew rapidly.

He shared his own history of difficulties with his wife and children, and the impact that his work with The Mankind Project had had on him. He told them a few relevant details about the New Warrior Training Adventure that is MKP’s flagship training, and about the growth that had happened inside him by sitting in a circle with other men on a regular basis and examining his life.

He talked about how his relationship with his children had transformed and how deeply they connected with him now. He didn’t sugar-coat anything. He was open and vulnerable with his fellow Rotarians.

His approach was scary and risky. If I use that approach, I run the risk of making many people in my audience quite uncomfortable, and these are people I must live and work with on a daily basis.

I am not a trained counselor; to the contrary, I am a computer programmer who spends most of his time lost in software design problems. I am not at all sure I can pull this off with the same grace and honesty that my friend did; but I have made a decision.

I am going to ask my fellow Rotarians to decide whether I give the safe talk or the risky one. Do I play it safe and tell them the history of MKP and the New Warrior Training Adventure, or do I step into my fears and ask myself and my fellow Rotarians to take a risk?

Which choice do you think they will make?


Bob Jones is the owner of The Socrates Group, which develops custom software applications for local businesses. He can be reached at bob@TheSocratesGroup.com.

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