My unique career today has me providing advice and guidance on the future to organizations all over the world – such as NASA, Disney, Nikon, Johnson & Johnson, Volvo, and Mercedes Benz. I find myself on stage in Las Vegas in front of 7,000 people, or in Dubai in front of global executives and government leaders.
Where did it start? I’m not quite sure, but I can repeat verbatim the opening lines of a talk I did in about 1970: “Our challenge: involvement! In 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in New York City as a crowd of bystanders stood by, watching, unwilling to do anything to save her. What does it say for our world when too many people are too unwilling to get involved….”
So began my speech, in Grade 7 or Grade 8, in the Ontario championships for the Optimist Club of Canada. I was all of 11 or 12 years old. I was bothered, I think, by what I was witnessing in the world at the time, and the story of Kitty Genovese, which I saw in a Readers Digest magazine, captured my attention. It became the basis of my speech, which set me on the path for a big competition!
I didn’t win – I was crushed! I was certain I had nailed it! And I couldn’t believe that the kid who beat me had a squeaky little, high-pitched voice, and didn’t seem to deliver with the passion that I did! How did I not take the big prize!
Such are the lessons that teach us things later in life…..
So today I’m down in a place called London, Ontario, Canada, south of my home outside of Toronto. It’s where I grew up as a baby, from 1959, until we moved east in 1972. We’re down in the area briefly, and I had a chance to visit some of my old haunts in a rushed visit prior to going to a wedding 45 minutes from here.
Naturally, the visit brought a flood of memories! Such as: for some reason, my parents saw fit to get me involved in a public speaking group – the Junior Optimists – which was part of Optimist International. They’re still around as a public service club, with the fascinating purpose of “working each day to make the future brighter.”
Did you ever wonder where I got my optimism today?
And so back in 1971 and 1972, once a week, for weeks on end, I would go to a church basement or to the local school, and work to structure my presentation, learn to articulate, and study how to shape a story. While other kids were playing hockey and things – I guess I was learning how to enunciate! (I also hung out at the library at the age of 9, reading Time Magazine and other things. I think, in retrospect, that I was kind of odd…. and then, of course, there were the stink bombs. I mastered that skill – a pen, a match, and some stuff, and whoo-boy!)
I had little idea at the time what my course in public speaking might lead to!
Later on, early in my working career at the age of 20, a mentor of the time suggested that I should get involved with the Dale Carnegie program to do more of the same. Speechifying and such! So I continued….
And now, 30-40 years later? I’m on stage around the world, have spoken to well over 1 million people with audiences of up to 7,000, and have made a wonderful career out of it.
Maybe all because of my early attempt to go big with my speech, “Our Challenge: Involvement.” I still drive my wife and kids crazy today when I easily rattle off the opening above! And so while I didn’t win in the short term, I think it worked out in the long term…..
Looking back, my advice to any parent today? Take some time to give your child the courage to get in front of a group of people and tell a story. It is said that for some people, making a speech in front of a crowd is one of the most terrifying of all experiences.
Don’t let it be. Your challenge? Involvement!