Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Lost Cyclist by David V. Herlihy

On July 15th, I received an email from The Chainlink which is “a Chicago online bicycling community.” I am a member and an avid cyclist. For some reason, I paid a little more attention to this e-mail than most I receive from them and actually read it. Amongst the newsy tidbits in the email was an announcement for a meet the author and book reading the next evening, Friday, July 16th. The tidbit read:
David Herlihy, author of "Bicycle: The History" will be presenting his newest two-wheeled tome, "The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance" in Lincoln Square.
The title, The Lost Cyclist, caught my attention and piqued my curiosity. What lost cyclist? So, I clicked on the link to get more details. When I got there, www.thechainlink.org/events/author-david-herlihy-speaks, I read the following:
This fascinating account details the journey of Frank G. Lenz, a young man who set off from Pittsburgh in May 1892 to bike around the world atop a new "safety" bicycle, only to disappear mysteriously two years later in Turkey.
1892? Turkey? Now mere curiosity gave way to full-fledged interest. Two years later, would make Frank Lenz being lost in Turkey, Ottoman Turkey, around the time of the Hamidian massacre of the Armenians. A further internet search on Frank Lenz revealed that he was missing 90 miles east of Erzerum. This means the Lenz disappeared in the heart of Armenia around the time of the Hamidian massacres of 1895. There had to be an Armenian connection and component of this story. Being both a cyclist and Armenian, I had to go to the lecture. Plus Lincoln Square is a cool place in Chicago to hang out on a Friday evening.
The reading was at a quaint, eclectic, book store called the Book Cellar. It is a book store, espresso bar, and wine bar all rolled into one. It is the kind of charming place that Barnes and Noble stores try to emulate in their cookie cutter ambiance. They can only beat a place like the Book Cellar on price not charm. www.bookcellarinc.com
The bookshop was packed. It is not a huge store, especially when compared to the large chain storefronts. There were forty to fifty people in attendance to hear David Herlihy speak. They probably sold about that many books and probably more than that number of beverages. It was a good evening for the bookstore and the author. It was also a very good evening for the audience. There were people in the audience listening to Herlihy wearing bike jerseys. So, it was a serious cycling audience.
The history that Herlihy unveiled was fascinating. It gave an amazing glimpse into the craze of the early days of bicycling when the big wheel or high wheeler was the road bike of choice and the transition to the safety bicycle, or road bikes where both front and back wheels were the same size, and the introduction of the pneumatic tire. This was a time when roads were not paved and bone crushing injuries occurred when “wheelmen” as they were known went flying over the handle bars. Clubs sprang up all over the country. Touring and racing became all the rage.
Frank Lenz was at the cutting edge of the cycling mania. He rode high wheelers. He raced. He rode on long distance tours with his cycling buddies from Pittsburgh. They rode from Pittsburgh to New York. They rode from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. This did this on the bone crushing high wheelers in a time when the roads were for the most part unpaved rutted dirt roads.
Frank Lenz excelled more in long distance touring than racing and sought to make his mark as such. He decided to tour the world and sought sponsorships from the popular adventuring magazines of the day. While he would be the third to cycle around the world, he decided to uniquely brand his tour in two ways. First, his tour would be longer than the other two. He would go from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, cycle in Hawaii, Japan, and then across China. He would go through India, Persia, Turkey to Istanbul, and then through Europe to France, England, and then end in New York. Second, he would carry a camera with him to document his progress and make his trip even more enticing to magazine sponsors. Lenz was a real camera buff and rigged mechanisms to snap photos of himself while riding. The camera was hardly compact but the state of the art “portable” Kodak of that era.
These early cyclists who toured the world were true adventurers. Just 120 years ago, foreign countries were truly different, truly foreign. Locals in many places had never seen a bicycle. They did not even know what bicycles were. They did not know because there was no world media, there were no phones of any kind, and people lived in isolated cultural clusters. Herlihy makes the point several times about rural Chinese peasants not trusting foreigners to the point of wanting to kill them. Besides the lack of paved roads and no easy means of communication, parts of the world were quite dangerous for bicyclists to be traversing alone as Frank Lenz sadly found out. He was warned about avoiding China if at all possible. He was especially warned about not cycling through Turkey. He should have listened.
There was no more dangerous place than Eastern Turkey, or the Armenian highlands. It was the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, a downtrodden class, were awakening and wanting more: more freedom and more self-determination. This was in no small part due to the missionaries who being unable to convert the Turks and Kurds focused instead on luring Armenians from orthodox Christianity whatever denomination of Protestant the missionary was representing. The struggle was approaching armed rebellion as the Armenians took over the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul and there was a rebellion in the Eastern Armenian town of Sassoun.
Abdul Hamid, the Sultan, the Sublime Porte, had an Armenian problem in the time his empire was crumbling. He was not fond of these Christian subjects. He sought to solve it by making life even more difficult for the Armenians. He organized the Kurdish tribes in militia units with the express goal of quelling any Armenian notions of revolution. This was the environment Frank Lenz cycled into in 1892.
Between the Persian border and Erzeroum, Lenz disappeared. It took weeks before his sponsors and friends in the US even knew he was missing. It took months more before the editor of the sponsoring magazine would be embarrassed into sending someone a la Stanly searching for Livingston to find Lenz. The second part of the book is the story of Will Schatleben of Alton, IL in Turkey trying to uncover what happened to Lenz. Schatleben was the second to tour the world by bicycle along with his friend Thomas Allen. Schatleben and Allen were celebrities and had cycled recently from Constantinople to Peking. So, Schatleben knew the terrain, was eager to accept this new adventure to find Lenz, hopefully alive, and the magazine thought Schatleben would sell more magazines especially if he found Lenz alive.
Schatleben never did find Lenz nor his body. He was convinced that he was killed and robbed by a local Kurd brigand and his followers. He could not prove it though and was quite frustrated with Ottoman government dragging their feet, trying to blame the disappearance of Lenz on Armenians. Five Armenians were even arrested for the crime.
It was most interesting to read a third party view of the Armenian conditions east of Erzurum in those days. Schatleben reacted along clear religious lines favoring the down trodden and miserably treated Armenians over the ruling Kurds and Turks who were depicted just as Armenians of that generation would have. Schatleben expected more from Alexander Watkins Terrel the US Counsel to the court of Abdul Hamid. But, the US was no more influential over the Ottomans than they are over the Republic of Turkey today . Abdul Hamid assigned Shakir Pasha to escort Schatleben to Alashgerd and environs to get to the bottom of the Lenz affair. An Armenian priest of Chilkhani, Der Arsen, plays a roll. Schatleben was in Erzurum and witnessed the October 31, 1895 massacre of the Armenians there.
It must be noted that Schatleben spent time in Athens on his own cycling trip around the world. His Armenian connection began then when he met and became good friends with Serope A. Gurdjian who was one of the Armenians who participated in the takeover of the Ottoman Bank. I found this all simply fascinating.
There is no point in over explaining what Herlihy brilliantly recording and colored with his expert narrative. It is a very good, engaging, and informative read. This book is a wonderful glimpse into the world of the 1890s in the US, Europe, and what they called the Orient back then. It was a glimpse into the early days of cycling. The Armenian connection was unexpected and wonderful bonus for me.
Here is the link for to the June 21, 1895 New York Times article about the disappearance of Lenz.

Friday, August 27, 2010

August 2010: Independent Stores

After reading my July letter, my friend Caroline Greatrex wrote and recommended that I read a book Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss. Valuing Caroline’s opinion I checked it out on Amazon. I am pretty sure that Caroline thought I was being too hard on myself and that I need to lighten up and enjoy the journey more (ah yes, I can see a future letter coming out of this very sentence).

Before clicking the “buy” button, I decided to buy it locally under the guise that I would start reading that if I bought the book immediately it would be days, weeks, or months it might become if I had to wait a few days for the book to arrive.

While I frequent Amazon.com on-line, I go to Barnes & Noble in the real world. I got used to Barnes & Noble while working at Colgate-Palmolive in Manhattan. The mother of all Barnes & Noble’s was a few blocks away on 5th Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets. I could walk there at lunch, on a break, or on the way to the train. It was quite convenient. Also, in many places, Barnes & Noble is the only choice when it comes to bookstores.

I went to New York in 1990. Barnes and Noble was then emerging as the category killer. By the time I had left in 2006, the category was killed and most places I go now are serviced primarily by Barnes and Noble stores. A category killer is defined as:

A large retail chain store that is dominant in its product category. This type of store generally offers an extensive selection of merchandise at prices so low that smaller stores cannot compete. http://retail.about.com/od/glossary/g/category_killer.htm

Category killers put the independent, Mom and Pop, stores out of business. They simply cannot compete on price, selection, buying power, and management talent. The phenomenon is not limited to the bookstore category. CVS and Walgreen’s are category killers in the drug store and convenience store category. It is darn right impossible to find an independently owned pharmacy and it is becoming that way with “convenience” stores as well. Home Depot and Loews are category killers in hardware. Independent hardware stores that are not Ace or Tru-Value affiliates are very hard to find. Starbucks created and killed the coffee shop category. PetSmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond did the same in their categories. Of course, Wal-Mart is the biggest category killer of all.

Things change very quickly. The longevity of category killers is not assured by any means. As Barnes and Noble was killing the traditional bookstore category, Amazon was emerging and offering stay at on-line shopping for book buyers. While, I would frequent the Barnes and Noble while in New York and now in Chicagoland, I use Amazon quite often. While in Buenos Aires or Caracas, I could order a book or three on-line and they would be waiting for me at home or at my office when I returned.

On July 22, the following was reported:

It is an announcement that will provoke horror among those who can think of nothing better than spending an afternoon rummaging around a musty old bookshop. In what could be a watershed for the publishing industry, Amazon said sales of digital books have outstripped US sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time.

Amazon claims to have sold 143 digital books for its e-reader, the Kindle, for every 100 hardback books over the past three months. The pace of change is also accelerating. Amazon said that in the most recent four weeks, the rate reached 180 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks sold. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, said sales of the Kindle and ebooks had reached a "tipping point", with five authors including Steig Larsson, the writer of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, and Stephenie Meyer, who penned the Twilight series, each selling more than 500,000 digital books. Earlier this month, Hachette said that James Patterson had sold 1.1m ebooks to date. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/20/amazon-ebook-digital-sales-hardbacks-us
I did not want to write about the half-life of category killers. That is actually a forthcoming topic on our business blog: http://blog.demandcaster.com/

This was not the main point of this letter but rather a reflection on the days when there were mostly independent stores in the majority of categories. I am old enough to remember this, my children are not. It was not the revelation of Amazon selling more e-books than hardcover books. It was rather my decision to buy the book Caroline suggested on coincidently the same day as reading the news about the e-book sales.

My schedule was such that I could not get to any of the Barnes and Noble stores that are near my house. I had to go to one closer to where I teach at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, IL. Fair enough, I went to the Barnes and Noble website and employed the store locator application. I was surprised to find that there were essentially no Barnes and Noble stores north and northeast or where I live.

Why is that? I reflected on it and realized that there are three large stores within six miles of my house. They are west and south of me in towns where the demographics favors book readers and buyers. I was surprised by it. North of me, the demographics change, and I am guessing that those communities are less affluent and less educated. This was the only explanation I could conjure up.

So, I searched for other bookstores on-line and found one right in Grayslake less than two miles from the college. Not surprisingly, as it was an independent, the bookstore I found was an independent. This Old Book opened in June 2003 and run by Dick Navarre who appeared to be my age and have had a fascination and love of both books and bookstores. Buying and selling books on-line was a hobby and avocation. Upon his retirement from a career as a hospital administrator, he realized his dream and opened up this brick and mortar book store. He only sells used books.

He did not carry the book I was looking for but I was glad to find the store. He gave me a little tour. I did not buy anything. I put my name on hi s e-mail list and will definitely return.
The week before, I went to another independent bookstore. This one was in the Lincolnwood section of Chicago an urban chic neighborhood of cafes, coffee houses, and interesting shops. The Book Cellar is one of the interesting shops. I went to this bookstore for a meet the author book reading. David Herlihy gave a presentation on his latest book, The Lost Cyclist. I will blog about this book later.

Being at a meet the author book reading, I bought the book. The price was $24.95 which was full price. I commented, mischievously, as I handed my credit card to the cashier that “Wow, full price. I would never pay that at amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.” My mischievous nature was way too subtle on this lady and she (allow me to use the technical term here) freaked out. She launched into what I believe was an oft given lecture on the nature of independent businesses, how hard it to compete, and how they offer a unique and quite pleasant venue.

The owner, running the other cash register, noticed my smile and glint in my eye. She realized I was kidding around and calmed her ace number one assistance down. We chatted and I was informed that they had just heard that too much in that week from customers that were quite rude about it. We laughed and I complemented them on having such a nice store.

In mid-August, I came to learn that Barnes & Noble has put itself up for sale. The stock price is down and clearly Amazon.com and both the Kindle and iPad have dampened the sales of the Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble was the company, the category killer, most responsible for the demise of the independent bookstores.

Oddly, most of the books I buy on Amazon .com these days are used and from independent bookstores all over the country. Why by a new book when I can buy a use one in excellent shape at a fraction of the price? This market is changing very fast.

An article in the August 18, 2010 Wall Street Journal suggest that independent bookstores might actually make a return with the stumble and possible demise of Barnes & Noble. Based on my experience at Amazon.com and a few bookstores like This Old Book and a delightful used bookstore, Renaissance Book Shop, at the Milwaukee Airport, there are thriving independents out there. The independents that survived the category killing fields have learned to thrive and prosper on-line mostly are merchants on amazon.com. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703824304575435512550936090.html

As stated above, I did not intend to write so much about category killers, e-books, Barnes & Noble, and such. I had simply wanted to express some observations about the shopping in chain stores versus independent shops. I realized some differences when I visited This Old Book in Grayslake.

There is a certain comfort in walking into any chain from Starbucks and Panera to Loews and TJ Maxx. The look and feel is the same. Independents vary much more dramatically. Chains have the same décor, lighting, offerings, displays, music, and uniforms that the employees wear. Independent stores can be lighter or darker, have vastly different shelving and layouts. Employees probably do not wear the same uniforms.

The biggest difference, and I had forgotten all about this, is the interaction with an “associate” versus an owner. The associate of a chain store will try to help you. They will listen to you and then help you find want you want or need. If asked they will recommend an alternative or two. They are doing their job. When the chain has good hiring practices, good training, and inspired managers, the experience can be very nice indeed.

In an independent, all of the above can definitely be true. Owners are very interested in helping you find what you want. They are very interested in not only helping you but in getting you make a purchase. When I was being shown around This Old Book, I was interested in some old maps. I found some reasonable priced old, school book style, maps of Mexico, Central America, and South America. I was leaning toward buying one with the goal of framing it and hanging in my office as a reminder of the places I have visited and grown fond of. The owner, Dick Navarre, saw my interest and did what many owners would do. He told me that I didn’t really want to by those cheaper plainer antique maps and steered me more expensive and admittedly better looking antique maps. He lost a $20 sale by pushing a $75-120 one.

I really had forgotten how independents push sales. Chain stores often facilitate sales without pressure. I realized that I liked the latter approach much more. The down side of chain stores, when not adequately staffed and managed, is that low pressure sales can easily become a problem of not being able to find someone:
1. To help you
2. Knowledgeable and conscientious to help you
3. To take your payment so you can leave.
Now don’t get me wrong, I was not upset in any way with Dick Navarre. He was quite nice and, as stated before, I will return to his shop and spend some money there. I was simply surprised by a practice that I had all but forgotten about. It made me remember the individually owned clothing stores where the owner would welcome you and really not let you leave until he made a sale. To find that kind of sales approach you have to go to a certain kind of car dealership.

There was a Toyota dealership in Westport, CT that embodied this extreme. They believed that if you visited and left without making a purchase, you would not come back. Well, it made them adopt really high pressure sales tactics. The high pressure sales made their belief a self fulfilling prophecy. I had a neighbor who was a pretty hard nosed investment banker. She wheeled and dealed with the best of them but upon casually visiting this car dealership she was “intimidated and frightened off.” She never went back.

Once I knew what this dealership was like, I enjoyed going in there when I was absolutely certain I was going to buy a car. I would go in on the last day or two of the month and embrace their model. I always go have some fun and get a good deal.

Insurance salesmen and aluminum siding salesmen were often depicted for pressuring, badgering, and finagling customers (dupes?) to drive sales. The movie Tin Men is a wonderfully entertaining depiction of the pushy and shady practices used. With corporatization of many stores that has kind of pressure has simply disappeared from most shopping venues.

I was in a Staples looking for some three ring binders, mechanical pencils, and a presentation remote control. While looking at some binders, a very pleasant associate asked me if I needed help. I was unsure of the price of the product in my hand so I asked her the price. She told me and then informed me of a wonderful offer that saved me money and no doubt cut the margin dramatically on my purchase. But, I was happy. An owner, may have, and I emphasize may have, just let me buy the more expensive alternative. I walked out happy. I walked out of This Old Book… empty handed.

——————— • ————————

Some great independent family owned stores that I have great regard for:

Mardoian Brothers Foods: This one site supermarket and wholesale food distributer was run by my father in-law Harold Mardoian and his two brothers. When Harold passed away on July 26th of this year, many stories surfaced about what great business men they were and how much they were loved in the community for provide quality, value, and service. They helped poor families around their store with free groceries.

Adray Appliance Dearborn MI: Michael Adray founded this Dearborn icon in 1955. His wife and daughter ran it from 1992 when Mike passed away until 2009 when they closed their doors. I worked at Adray while in college. It was a place of great value, excellent customer service, and thus unbelievable customer loyalty. Mike supported youth athletics primarily baseball and hockey. It seemed like every boy in Dearborn and many surrounding communities wore Adray jerseys and t-shirts. It was great advertising born out of a genuine and passionate belief that sports was good for young people and in giving back to the community that helped make him a success. http://detnews.com/article/20090220/BIZ/902200395/Adray-Appliance-bids-adieu

Omni Foods Weston, MA: Right from their website, www.omnifoodssupermarket.com:
It all started in 1981 when Jack and Thelma Der Avedisian established Jackson's Star Market in Gilford, New Hampshire. The business began with a fundamental principle in mind that guided Jack for thirty years. The principle is that our customers are the most important ingredient to our success and we have adopted an attitude and belief that "WE CAN DO IT BETTER".

Jack and Thelma are the parents of my sister in-law Christine Mardoian. Omni Foods has a loyal following that is now operated by three generations of Der Avedissians. Their business and largesse is highlighted in Neil Cavuto’s book, More than Money: True Stories of People who Learned Life’s Ultimate Lesson. You can read the chapter on Omni Foods at http://tinyurl.com/36rwwfj

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Melting Pot - 8/7/10

I grew up attending grade school mostly in the 1960s. I remember learning about America being the Melting Pot. The essence was that the United States was a place where people from around the world immigrated and became something more: American. The sum would be greater and nobler than the parts. It was a great message and a great dream. It was the easiest thing for a school boy and Boy Scout to buy into. I recall it being a pretty popular theory that was often touted.

There was a sameness and oneness provided that you looked and acted American. I was lucky I could fit in that way. I didn’t have an accent and I looked pretty darn Caucasian. Basically, I fit in, when I wanted to. At church or Sunday school, I could be Armenian as I wanted. In truth, I was a mix and I grew to like being a mix.

I came to realize that the Melting Pot Theory was just that a theory. There was some truth to it, but it did not apply equally and certainly not everyone bought into it. I came to realize that it did not apply to Black Americans or Jewish Americans to the same degree that it applied to Americans of Western European descent that also happened to be Christian. I even remember what a big deal it was when John F. Kennedy an Irish Catholic was elected president. It marked an inflection point in the cultural and political fabric of this country.

I grew up in Detroit. There were Americans of every background. We lived on Freeland, a great name for an American street, when I began school. We had neighbors on one side named Nation and on the other Angkowsi. Both looked down on my parents and our family. The Nations thought they were of bluer blood than everyone else even though they lived in the same modest middle class working neighborhood as the rest of us. The Angkowskis were even more bizarre. They were Polish Americans and they looked down on Armenian-Americans? The mother, a loud rotund woman, was born here and the father, a quieter gentleman, was older and an immigrant.

I recall Mrs. Angkowski making snide comments and innuendos about us being Armenian and less American than they were. What? It wasn’t until years later that I realized that Catholics, at that time, were not considered mainstream. After being their neighbors for a few years, a funny thing happened. The oldest Angkowski daughter was going to get married. She was engaged to… can you believe it, an Italian boy. Even though he was Catholic, Mrs. Angkowski was devastated. She wanted a Polish boy for her daughter. She even came to my mother, all of a sudden looking up to how we maintained our heritage, and asked if my mother would “speak sense” to her daughter. So much for the Melting Pot.

Did we act arrogantly? Did we flaunt our heritage? Or were we simply proud to be Armenian Americans and did not try to hide it? I believe the latter. It was how my parents were raised and what the organizations they belonged to also promoted. As a result, I was raised with that same approach of being an American and being an Armenian: Proud of both and not trying to hide either. We kind of believed in the melting pot… kind of. We believed in a oneness and fairness that underlies the Melting Pot concept but we wanted to retain our unique bits and pieces.

When I just Googled “melting pot” the top two listings were for fondue restaurants by that name. There were a few articles about my topic here. One I read talked about another theory that would have made more sense to me back then and certainly makes more sense to me now. While the Melting Pot Theory claims that everyone adds their value to a unique and new American Culture, the Salad Bowl Theory says that yes we mix our cultures into something new but the parts are still distinguishable just as in a salad. In the Salad Bowl, we do in fact get to keep our unique bits and pieces. I think corporate America calls this diversity.

What motivated me to write about this? It was the July 31st wedding of Chelsea Clinton. I was not paying much attention to the hubbub regarding her wedding. I always liked Chelsea while not being entirely fond of her parents. I thought it was unfair how the press made light of her gangly and homely looks when her Father was president. It was OK to criticize the President and First Lady but I did not believe it was right to say things about a child’s looks of all things. Chelsea blossomed in spite of it, went to Stanford, and has been living her life in relative anonymity thank you very much.

I did not know anything about the fellow she was marrying. It was not all that important. On an airplane after the wedding I was reading the Sunday paper covering the wedding and learned her betrothed was Marc Mervinsky. I learned he was Jewish and this marriage had generated some buzz along this interfaith tangent. I guess it is a big deal? Didn’t Caroline Kennedy do the same thing? I cannot recall if there was any fanfare regarding Caroline doing so. I always admired Caroline for being, at least in my opinion, the most private and stable of the Kennedys. Does Chelsea have the same qualities?

Anyway, I did not mean to digress into a gossip columnist. Chelsea and Marc’s marriage and the buzz about the interfaith aspect of their backgrounds did make me think of this Melting Pot concept to the point of writing about it. Maybe we are really on the brink of it? We have legalized gay marriages. We have a black President. Inter-racial and inter-faith marriages are more the norm. Maybe the Melting Pot is a reality. Maybe in a few decades or a century or two we will be a homogeneous people with one language with several dialects maybe. Mass media and culture seems to be converging on just that. The number of languages in the world have continues to decline. And yet, Esperanto, a vestige of the Melting Pot era, is not one of the active languages. It was, in fact, still born.

A few years ago, I heard of a UCLA study of immigrants. By the third generation in this country, the number of people fluent in the language of their heritage country is almost nil. Marrying within a particular faith or ethnic background is not so important among vast numbers of young people that I see. Socio-economic stratification, however, has been with us since the concepts of work and possessions were realized. Socio-economic stratification is an entirely a different matter and probably a subject for a future blog.

OK… readers that know me and have read other parts of my blog might wonder why I am writing this since I take my Armenian ethnicity quite seriously. My children have Armenian names and actually married Armenians for which I and quite proud and which actually defies odds. I was raised to be both a good American and fight to preserve our ethnicity in this Salad Bowl. Very often people will ask me why I am so dedicated to my heritage. They wonder why “in this day and age,” this time of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance why I am so old fashioned. I feel the questioning is casting a slight bit judgmental. I laugh it off and say the same thing, “being Armenian is more like being a member of a large club than being a small nationality.” All in all, I believe in and live in this Salad Bowl. I believe one's heritage is but one of the personal choices we can all make to create and maintain some unique identity.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How to Choose a Speech Topic

When I was at my second Toastmasters meeting, I heard a few people telling our club president and mentor to all, Gail, that they were not sure how to choose a topic to speak about. I reflected on this and thought I might be able to provide some insight on how to do this.

When I turned forty-nine in 2002, I decided to change my life. Part of that change was a notion to document my forty-ninth year in a journal. I had the idea that it would turn into a book that would get me my fifteen minutes of fame including talk show interviews and enough money to change my life. It was a great dream that did not entirely come to fruition. It did however pay great dividends.

I wrote every day. I handwrote one page a day, four hundred to one thousand words a day. When I began, I handwrote every word. I felt like I woke up. They say that “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” I realized there was a part of my brain I was not using. Not only were my writing skills rusty but so were my non-career thinking and dreaming abilities. This re-awakening was the dividend. I have been writing every day since then.

After a year or so, I realized my writing was not going to turn into that book that would liberate me financially. I was proud of what I was doing and wanted to do something more with it. Serendipity brought me an idea to send a monthly letter, via e-mail, to friends and family. I have been doing that monthly since February 2004. Each of these letters runs about two thousand words. In 2009, this all turned into a blog. I now post 2-3 pieces on my personal blog (http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/ ) and 3-4 on my business blog (http://blog.demandcaster.com/ ) per month. It has been more enriching than the money I had visions of making from that book I never wrote.

In short, I feel I have truly become a writer.

What do I write about each day? How do these turn into monthly e-letters and blog postings? I will relate my own method.  Please note that method is way too strong a term for how this happens. It relates directly to how to choose speech topics.

At first, I wrote about me and my desire to improve. I wanted to be fitter, thinner, smarter, and more successful. The reason the journal did not turn into a book was that, well, simply, it was self-absorbed whinny drivel. It was moderately helpful to me but in no way was it ready for prime time and the general public. I knew I had to write more seriously about more serious topics. So, I started writing about things that were happening in the world and happening around me. I evolved from the self-absorbed drivel to meaningful things. In the course of a month of writing, a topic would emerge that I would write about in greater detail. Toward the end of the month, I would edit and turn the topic into an essay, the e-letter, I would send out.

Sometimes the news would trigger a topic. I have written about the 60th Anniversary of the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have written about Al Qaeda and what it was like to work in New York City after 9/11. I have written about the economy, politics, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the election of Barack Obama. Most readers really respond favorably when I write and reflect on my youth. I have written about a winter survival campout I went on with my friends when we were Boy Scouts. I wrote about Robert Burns Elementary School in the 1960s and the Armenian Picnics from the same era and the impact they both had on me. I have written about my Armenian Heritage and the Armenian and Turkish music I love. I have even write an annual health and fitness letter.

This month I am writing about the Chelsea Clinton wedding and the passé notion of the melting pot. I am writing a book review about a wonderful book called The Lost Cyclist, and I am writing about bookstores and what might happen to them as e-books are outselling hard covers. Professionally, I am writing about the stalling recovery and the implication it will have on demand and supply chain planning.

There is really no shortage of topics to either write about or speak about. How do you feel about same sex marriages, the war in Afghanistan, the popular reaction to this war versus the Vietnam war, the Democratic administration, the Tea Party movement? Where is our economy going? Will we come out of this looking more like the United States of 2005 or will we be more like the UK or Italy? Who was your favorite teacher and why? What was the single most influential event or events in your life? What is your favorite hobby? Pastime? Who are your heroes? If there were one thing you could learn, what would it be and why? The answers to these questions are topics to speak and write about.

There is no shortage of topics. Each day we react to things we see and hear. We have opinions. Each day we have memories that surface, some wonderful, some embarrassing, and some sad: we experience these memories washing over us. Each one of these is a potential topic. Always being on the lookout for topics has made me more aware of the world around me.

At first, I was at a loss for topics. More and more, I found them in abundance simply by being attuned to the world around me. Generating topics became easy. When I decide to reflect on my youth, the writing flows very easily. If I decide to write about economics, religion, or politics, it was a bit more difficult. These topics are more emotional and I, personally, am a centrist. I like to explore all aspects and draw a centrist, common sense, and, in my mind, balanced view point. That is me. I like to fly in under the radar and get my point across.

This is my little story. If you worry about choosing and developing topics, I hope it helps.