I Don’t Really Practice Before Writing And Speaking Anymore

It’s odd for an OCD case, but I don’t practice before doing the public speaking that has increasingly become part of my job. Crazy, you say? Perhaps. But hear me out.

Mood music:

My preparations for a speaking event — even if it was just moderating a panel, which is mostly what I’ve done of late — used to look a lot like the preparations I’d engage in for a writing assignment:

When I started working as a reporter and editor, I treated each story like an architectural design. I would lose myself in the same story for hours and hours, moving words, sentences and paragraphs around like pieces on a chess board.

It served a purpose, but I wasted so much time doing it this way, mainly because I feared imperfection so much that I was terrified to let a story go to the other editors until it was flawless. The stupidity there is that no story is ever flawless. You could rework a story for days whether it needed the work or not.

In more recent years I’ve been known to draw up elaborate blueprints for stories, especially series work. One former colleague at TechTarget once told me I was the most organized writer he had ever seen. If he could see me now, he’d be either amused or horrified.

Somewhere in the last four years, I stopped making blueprints for story series and I even stopped keeping a daily list of stories in progress. I’ve become more spontaneous in my writing. I pound the keyboard until everything is out of my head. Then, without giving it a second look, I send it straight to the editors.

I’ve adopted a similar approach with speaking.

Before giving a presentation, I would write a script and cut it up into bite-sized pieces, like flash cards. I’d obsess over every point I wanted to touch on and rewrite the notes. Then I’d get out there, fumble with my notes — knocking them out of order — and my frayed nerves would send me to oblivion.

Between 2006 and 2009 I did a lot of podcasts and I’d make the same mistakes because of over-preparing.

I think my earlier affinity for over-planning — definitely one of my OCD quirks — goes back to childhood. I was a prolific drawer, always working massive amounts of detail onto a page. I think I started doing it because in a world full of chaos (vicious childhood illnesses, parents divorcing, etc.) the page was a world I could control. And control it I did.

I would rework things over and over again, just like the stereotypical OCD case checking doorknobs multiple times to make sure the door is locked.

As a teenager still reeling from his brother’s death, my drawings took a decidedly more violent turn. I started sketching people dead on the ground with knives protruding from various body parts. A teacher at the Paul Revere School caught me one day and said, “If you are ever assaulted, you will never draw stuff like this again.” I think she was worried that I’d be the one to start assaulting people. I did, verbally.

In high school I went to a vocational school and studied drafting and design for three years. I excelled at it, and loved the order and attention to detail the work required. I also loved the drafting tables we used, which were high enough that you could draw while standing. Being the fidgety type, standing helped me focus much better.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to write instead. My architectural skills served me well in this regard, giving me the attention to detail needed for good writing. My writing still sucked, mind you. I was still too young and inexperienced to know what I was doing.

All through college I pursued writing, specifically journalism, and I was in a band where I wrote all the lyrics. I’ve torn my father’s warehouse apart looking for the notebooks I wrote them in, to no avail.

Also lost in those old notebooks are notes I would draw up for use in a public speaking class and for the student government meetings (I was in the student government for a couple years while at North Shore Community College).

I had to do a lot of talking in front of people back then, and the worse my OCD got — and the more I over-prepared — the worse things would go.

Sometime in 2006, a miraculous accident showed me that I didn’t have to put myself through such torture before a talk.

I was giving a talk about what my then-employer was all about and I had a detailed PowerPoint presentation that failed to work come showtime. Actually, the laptop itself was frozen. I had no choice but to do it off the cuff.

That’s when I realized I was more at ease without a script. It was the first epiphany I had that I could keep my OCD in better check and perform better without all the compulsive note-taking and hours practicing.

As I got a firmer grip on the OCD between 2006 and 2009, I started to build the more spontaneous approach into other aspects of my life, including the writing.

It’s been much better this way. That said, I’m not suggesting that you go into whatever you do with zero preparation. You have to sit down and think to form the frame of your story or talk. The key is to keep from over-preparing.

I explained my current writing approach in a two-part series I co-wrote with my wife, Erin. Part one is here. Part two is here.

Here’s how I roll on the speaking side:

–An organization calls and asks me to moderate a panel or give a solo presentation. I say sure, hang up the phone and promptly forget until a reminder email arrives a couple weeks before the event.

–I go outside and pace around for about 10 minutes, carving the basics of the presentation in my head.

–I go back to my desk and dump those basics into a PowerPoint file.

–Since humor will always get me through an event, I look for funny cartoons and memes to put in slides. In doing so, I get relaxed and the subject matter gets clearer.

–Then I fall back on my writing. I go to articles and blog posts I’ve written on the subject matter and cut and paste sections into slides. Come showtime, these will remind me what I wrote about, and I can then go off the cuff, sharing conversations I’ve had with the professionals who work the issues I’m there to discuss.

–I limit the slides to about 15, to force myself to be more conversational and less of a lecturer.

–I submit the PowerPoint, make an Outlook calendar reminder of the day and time, and forget about it again.

–On the drive to the event, I don’t go over the talking points. Instead, I play loud music and let my mind go.

It’s not the perfect mix. But it works for me a lot better than the days when I would make a bunch of flashcards and run through the talk endlessly in my head.

The Day Kurt Cobain Died

I remember exactly where I was 18 years ago today, when I saw the news flash about Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I was lying in bed, depressed and reclusive because of frequent fear.

Mood music: 

I was living in Lynnfield, Mass., at the time. I had a room in the basement, just like I had in Revere. But this space was much smaller — a jail cell with a nice blue carpet. But I did have my own bathroom, which I never cleaned.

Erin and I had been going out for less than a year, and I was waiting for her to come by after she finished work. I had been sleeping after a food and smoking binge and I still had a few hours to kill, so I turned on MTV, which still played music videos at the time.

There was MTV news anchor Kurt Loder and Rolling Stones editor David Fricke, holding court like Walter Cronkite following JFK’s assassination in 1963. Fricke expressed concern that depressed teens who listen to Nirvana might view suicide as the heroic thing to do; the only answer. “This is about your kids. You need to talk to them,” he said.

Erin arrived, we expressed our mutual shock, then we went out to dinner.

Though I was given to depression at that point, it wasn’t the suicidal kind, and would never become that. I’ve always been the type to hide in a room for long stretches, staring blankly at a TV screen, when depressed. Suicide was something I never really thought about at that point. It was an alien concept.

Then, a couple months later, a close friend attempted suicide. Two years later, he tried again and succeeded. In the 15 years since then, I’ve worked hard to gain the proper perspective of such things.

When Cobain died, I assumed he went straight to hell. I never gave it a second thought. Suicide is one of the unacceptable sins, like murder, the kind that gets you sent to the fire pit.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Kurt Cobain was unprepared for the crazy fame and publicity that came his way. He dove into heroin for solace. You could say the whole thing literally scared him to death.

Fortunately, he left behind a strong body of work.

When I listen to Nirvana, I don’t think of Kurt Cobain stuffing the tip of a rifle up his nose and pulling the trigger.

I think of how anxiety, fear and depression are universal things, how the sufferer is never, ever truly alone, and how we never have to be beaten.

I don’t need drugs to feel like Sunday morning is every day, though two anti-depressant prescriptions do help.

Don’t Let Anger Blind You To What Really Matters

The front office at my kids’ school is mad at me and another parent for complaining about something on the school’s Facebook page. I don’t think they saw yesterday’s post in this blog. That would make them angrier still.

Mood music:

I’ll admit I was angry when my wife told me the principal and office administrator got after her about my behavior. It’s not like I jumped up and down on Facebook yelling obscenities and calling people names. I simply agreed with the other parent’s dismay over a specific matter of the school not following up with parents on a school closing next week. I think I was more ticked off that they gave Erin trouble, because she did nothing wrong.

I make no apologies, because, as I said yesterday, we practically break the bank every month paying the tuition to send our kids there. In essence, we parents are the customer. The customer is not always right, contrary to popular belief. But school administrators should respond to them as if they were, unless the parent is way out of line, which we weren’t.

On to the main point of this post.

There’s a lesson here for everyone, whether you’re dealing with difficult people at your kids’ school, in your workplace or on your street. Anger should never blind us to what’s truly important.

Some are probably asking why we would continue to go to a church and send our kids to a parochial school where there’s dysfunction. My answer is simple:

–For me, going to church is about getting closer to God. Everything else is second fiddle.

–Our children’s education is far more important than squabbles with parents and administrators, though it obviously becomes a problem if the latter has a negative effect on the former.

–This is our home, and I don’t believe in pulling up stakes and leaving because of dysfunction in the institution. I’d rather stick around and try to be part of the solution. That’s not always possible and sometimes it’s best to leave. But I don’t see this as an example of that.

–If you leave and go to another community, you’ll find dysfunction there, too. Where there are humans, there is dysfunction. That’s life. It may not be fair, but no one ever promised life would be fair.

Since this is an issue within our parish family, I can’t help but bring my faith into the remainder of the post. If religion isn’t your bag, leave now.

This is Holy Week, where we remember the sacrifice Jesus made to give us all a shot at redemption. It’s incredibly easy to forget the core message when we get busy arguing with each other over matters that are more political than spiritual.

I officially became a Catholic at Easter of 2006. I was in a pretty dark place at the time, struggling with a binge eating habit that had me shot-gunning $40 worth of fast food on the drive from the office to the house every day. I was crazy with fear and anxiety, the result of OCD out of control. I was a depressed, disgusting mess inside, and it was slowly working its way to my outward appearance.

Finding my faith was a major step in bringing those demons to heel.

But it remains a struggle sometimes, especially when you have disagreements with people in the community. So I wrote up the following manifesto to help bring me back to the center. I’ve used it several times in this blog, but it bears frequent repeating.

These are the bullet points. Click on any of them to see the full explanation.

1. Don’t Succumb to “Happily-Ever-After” Syndrome.

2. Peace IS NOT The Absence of Chaos. It’s a State of Mind (or, if you really want to get technical, a state of being in God’s Grace).

3. What You Get is Only As Good As What You Put In

4. Don’t Let Politics Get in the Way

5. Plan to Fight the Good Fight to Your Dying Breath

Keeping my head and heart on those personal items is much more important than besting church and school officials in an argument.

And so I move on.


Erin and I have been busy on the planning of a relaunched OCD DIARIES, and I thought I’d give a quick update…

–Andy Robinson, creator of the banner atop this page, is working on a new one we’ve designed; something that fits the broader theme of the blog.

–We’ve chosen the overall look and widgets and have started building. We’re going for something clean and simple.

–I’ve found some some cool music plug-ins that will free me of relying on Youtube for the mood music. My first choice is to latch my Spotify library into the blog, much like you see it integrated into Facebook now. The good news is that such a plug-in exists. Whether it works remains to be seen.

–We’re making it easier to find content by topic by creating some new sections. After migrating all the older posts from here to the new platform, this will be the toughest part, because we’ll have to re-tag everything.

–We have the new domain up and running.

When will it launch? When it’s ready. 😉

For those new to the party, go here for the full explainer.

Things Kids Say, March 16, 2012

The children continue to let their guard down and say the most interesting things, apparently unaware — despite this being one of several installments in a series — that I’m lurking nearby, writing it all down.

Mood music:

“All this time I thought you wrote that song,” Sean, after hearing John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” on the radio. I frequently call both kids beautiful boy, much to their chagrin.

“John Lennon was shot to death by a fan? What kind of moron does that?” Duncan, after I told him about the former Beatle’s sad end.

“Are you called that because you pick corn in the winter?” Duncan, asking his pediatrician, Dr. Winterkorn, about her name.

“I’d rather dress up in red, like Darth Maul.” Sean, on why he doesn’t want to wear green to school for St. Patrick’s day. 

Duncan: “Why do they call it a ballroom? I don’t see any balls in this room.”

What Sean said: “Duncan tried to break my breast bone!” What really happened: Duncan pointed toward Sean’s chest during an argument.

“Duncan bunny!” Sean’s latest pet name for Duncan. Duncan likes it as much as he liked being called cupcake, which is to say he didn’t like it at all.

“The food is better and they don’t tuck in their shirts.” Sean, explaining why he chose a different Boy Scout troop from the one all his friends went to.

Observation: If Duncan is going to lie and tell us he brushed his teeth, he probably shouldn’t leave a dry tooth brush behind as evidence that he lied.

“You need a new cell phone so you can get a husband.” Sean’s friend Nick, explaining to his single Mom why she should get an iPhone.

“They can be real idiots sometimes.” Duncan, telling a friend what he thinks of his parents’ decision to ban him and Sean from watching Mad TV. He didn’t realize that I was right behind him.

“Hahahaha! Stupid Uncle Bill.” Madison, the 3-year-old niece, after I called her stink-cake for the umpteenth time.

“Can I stab myself in the eyes now?” Sean, displeased that his cousin Madison is making him watch Strawberry Shortcake.

“All women are the enemy.” Sam Dalton, Duncan’s classmate, overheard at a birthday party. His indictment of females everywhere does not include Gabby, a classmate he and Duncan have had a crush on since kindergarten.

“They both like me, you know.” Gabby, telling me in a matter-of-fact tone that San and Duncan adore her.

Other posts in this series:

Things My Kids Say Part 1 https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/things-my-kids-say/

Stuff My Kids Say, Part 2 https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/stuff-my-kids-say-part-2/

Things Kids Say, Part 3 https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/things-kids-say-part-3/

Stuff My Kids (and Niece) Say, Part 4 https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/stuff-my-kids-and-niece-say-part-4/

Stuff My Kids (and Their Friends) Say, Part 5 https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/stuff-my-kids-and-their-friends-say-part-5/

More Kid Wisdom https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/more-kid-wisdom/

The Wit And Wisdom Of Duncan Brenner https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-duncan-brenner/

Things Kids Say, February Vacation Edition https://billbrenner1970.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/things-kids-say-february-vacation-edition/