speaking about speaking


One of the funny things I do for a living is speak in front of audiences.  This is a curious job, which peaks in the spring and fall, the busy time for health conferences.  I spoke last Friday at the Canadian Society for Hospital Pharmacists Banff Seminar, and I have five more scheduled talks until September (Pharmacists, Emergency Room Staff, Pharmacists, Rehabilitation Nurses and University Academics, in that order).  It is an honour for me to be asked to tell my stories.

It is also an odd line of work.  I’ve had speaking engagements when I was awash with cold fear right up until I stepped up to the microphone.  I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and it took a couple minutes of talking in a shrill voice until I actually found my groove and calmed down.  I vividly remember sitting in a pool of public speaking terror for sixteen hours crammed into an economy seat on a flight on my way to a consumer conference in Melbourne.  I’ve spent many a white-knuckled drive to a hotel, thinking:  why do I do this to myself?  (Note:  the fear has faded with time and practice, but I know it is always there lurking inside.  It keeps me on my toes).

These are my top ten truths about public speaking that I’ve gleaned over the years.  All of these lessons are hard-fought.  I’ve learned them from other speakers, watching TED Talks, and reading Presentation Zen.

1.  Yes I still get nervous.  It is good to have nerves.  I don’t want to sound like a scripted robot.  Nerves give you adrenaline which gives you energy.  This is good.

2.  Once I asked my eldest son, a musician – do you ever get anxious when you get up on stage?  He looked at me, totally dumbfounded and said, very slowly:  Mom, I don’t get anxious.  I am excited.  An epiphany – how you frame things is everything.  Your new public speaking mantra should be:  I am excited.  I am excited.  I am excited. This helps. A lot.

3.  Know thy audience is my biggest rule.  I never give a ‘canned’ speech.  I do my best to talk to organizers (or even better, potential audience members) so I understand where they are coming from – what are their challenges, what would they do if they had a magic wand, what would they say if they were me, what are the three key messages they want me to share?  Having this inside knowledge turns a lecture into a conversation.

4.  It is not about you.  Another lightbulb moment:  it isn’t about me;  it is about the message that I’m giving.  Nobody cares about if my hair is fuzzy or that I say ‘um’ too much or what I’m wearing.  And if you are passionate about your message, then, well, you can get excited about your talk (see #2) and share that passion with your audience.

5.  Rehearse with a timer.  If you ramble (as I do), be prepared to drop some speaking points as you go along.  I try never to go over time – otherwise I’m creeping into another speaker’s spot, and I think that’s kind of disrespectful.

6.  Accept and embrace the speaker you are.  I wish I could wander around the stage with a lapel mike without any speaking notes.  I can’t.   I like to stand behind the podium with my 16 point font notes in front of me.  Having the written word there gives me great comfort (even if I don’t look at them), and that’s ok.  Besides, I don’t read bullets off slides (see #8), and I’m a terrible memorizer, so I need my beloved notes.

7.   Watch for the ‘nodders’ in the audience.  These are the kind people who nod and encourage me to continue on.  I love those people.

8.  For the love of god, please don’t read bullets off of slides.  That means don’t put all your speaking notes up on the slides.  You are there to speak, not read.

9.  Come to think of it, don’t create a slide deck full of bullet points, either.  I use images and quotes and lots of white space, but that’s just my style – a few choice words or infographics would work too.  I truly think your slides should compliment your talk, not actually be your talk.

10.  Take some deep breaths.  I use my little meditation app before I leave for a presentation.  Andy, the Headspace narrator, calms me down.

Remember:  Everything’s going to be ok. You can do this.  (And it isn’t about you anyhow, silly).  Also:  Do the thing you are most afraid to do.  You aren’t doing anybody any favours by living life small.

Now go out there and tell your stories.  This is the only way the world is ever going to change.

my soft spot for pharmacists

I have a soft spot for pharmacists.  There, I said it.  They are one of only a handful of health professions who actively recognize the value of the patient voice.  They have not forgotten that patients are the people that they are working to serve.  Pharmacists organize conferences and invite patients to share their experiences.  That’s pretty profound, and I think they are true visionaries.  (Talking amongst yourselves all the time doesn’t make for a revolution in the health system, folks).

I just had the great honour of co-presenting with Allison Wells, who is a fabulous mom and pharmacist at the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists in Banff.  Allison did an exemplary job of sharing the story of her son’s adverse drug reaction in a hospital setting.  She eloquently gave pointers to the pharmacist audience, and stressed that they had to use their own voices to  speak up to ‘stop the line’ when errors are made.  I was so impressed with her passion to share her son’s experience in order to make change in the health world.

Dr. Peter Zed before her gave some pretty terrifying statistics about patients presenting to hospital with adverse drug reactions, experiencing adverse drug reactions while in the hospital, and also after discharge.  It made me want to stay as far away from the hospital as possible.  But it was also heartening to know that pharmacists are looking at the issue of errors with great seriousness and transparency, and that they make a huge difference in making sure that the hospital makes people better, not sicker.

My take-away from Dr. Zed’s talk was this – he showed research from Hong Kong that said that patients adhere to treatment plans better if they receive follow up care from pharmacists.  And I might be stretching this a bit, but what I heard is this: patients will care for themselves if they themselves feel cared for.

And as far as my presentation, which followed Allison’s?  My talk was about this:

IMG_6486I know in my heart that pharmacists get this.  The standing ovation Allison and I received afterwards was proof.  (My first one ever, wow).

This was an awesome, engaged audience of health professionals, with big brains and even bigger hearts.  Bravo to my noble pharmacist friends – carry on doing the good work that you do.


IMG_6371Ten days ago, my husband, youngest son and I arrived on the west coast to start our new life in Vancouver.  There were so many pieces to this puzzle of relocation, starting with job interviews, a job offer, listing our house, researching Vancouver-area schools, interviewing principals, scouring for a home in school catchment areas, packing up our house, saying a lot of tearful good-byes to friends and family, driving for 14 hours, getting the keys to our new place, moving in, flying our cats here, and finally closing the sale of our Edmonton home late last night.

While our move seemed sudden to some, my husband says it was actually 30 years in the making – rewinding to back when he was in grade 12, and lived for a semester in Vancouver with his dad.  He’d been scheming to get back to the coast ever since, and now here we finally are.

Our health communications business in Edmonton – Bird Communications – remains alive and well, with 11 Bird Associates on the ground back in Alberta.  To be truthful, Bird Edmonton is busier than ever – we’ve been frantically writing proposals for new work over the past weeks.  We hope to launch Bird BC, too – but as we recognize that since our business model is relationship-based, and that it takes time to build relationships…well, we will be very patient with this work in a new locale.

On a personal level, I was born in Edmonton-area, and experienced a significant move only once.  When I was pregnant with Ella 18 years ago, my then-husband, 2 year old son and I moved to Winnipeg, sight-unseen.  That was a tough move – we had no friends or family there, but eventually we built our own community.  I remember it taking about three years before I truly felt at home.  I did live in Bergen in Norway with my two eldest kids back in 2001, but that was only for five months – that was more like an extended visit than a move.  Then we moved back to my hometown of Edmonton.

This transition to Vancouver is a big one.  We find ourselves living at the bottom of a mountain in the city of Burnaby, which is part of Metro Vancouver.  My brother and his family live a 15 minute drive west in East Van, and my husband’s sister and husband are 20 minutes to the east.  My parents are a ferry ride away, on Vancouver Island.  I haven’t had extended family close by for decades, and I am happy about this added perk.

My eldest son lives in the US, but my beloved daughter Ella is still back in Edmonton.  If I was to write a pro and con list for this move, the only con is the distance between us now.  I miss her terribly.  I’m counting down the days until we see each other (I’m speaking at a conference in Banff next Friday and she and her boyfriend are driving down to meet up).

I begin work next Monday.  I’ll work three days a week at my new position, and will fill my days off with kid stuff, writing, Bird work and speaking engagements.  It will truly be a new work life for me, as I’ve been freelancing and working independently as a contractor for over a decade.  But I’m excited about having the opportunity to make a difference for families in the pediatric health system here.

Epiphanies about relocation?  Change is hard – that’s why we all avoid it.  If it was easy, we’d just change all the time.  Moving comes with a great amount of loss.  Saying good-bye is hard, but all the kind notes, gifts, dinner dates and parties with my mom friends this past month sure helped.  I left feeling very loved.  I won’t ever get over missing Ella, and the only thing that makes me feel better is that one day she might join us in the land of ocean and mountains.

It is Spring Break for Aaron, and we’ve been spending a glorious amount of time together (more on that later).  There’s a cherry tree about ready to explode with blossoms outside my home office window.  This is the dawn of a new era.  I say bring it on.

love has no labels

This song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – sung by Mary Lambert – has always had the power to make me cry.  Now it is set to a powerful new video from the Ad Council (yeah, they are supported by a bunch of big companies, like Coca-Cola, but their message is still worth watching).

It is a good reminder of what is important in the world.  As I like to say, love always wins. If you choose love, you can never ever lose.

the hospital world according to aaron

Aaron had day surgery IMG_6304today at our children’s hospital.  In an effort not to be a ‘secret shopper,’ I try to take off my family centred care hat when I’m in the hospital with my boy.  I focus on him as opposed to critiquing every single interaction.

Yes, the experience wasn’t perfect – the clerk calling me to confirm Aaron’s time didn’t mention that the entrance to the day ward had been moved in the midst of renovations (so I got a bit lost), I was called ‘mom’ an awful lot, one of the nurses said:  it is so good he’s so high functioning (!?) but overall, the clinical care was exceptional, everybody was respectful towards Aaron, and we were able to go home five hours after we arrived.  That looked like success to me.

My youngest son has had four surgeries in his life, and this was the first time I did not push the pre-sedation request.  Aaron was relaxed and joking with the nurses, so I thought – let’s just see what happens if he doesn’t get sedation before he goes into the OR.  I warned him there would be lots of people and bright lights in the OR, and he was perfectly fine.  (I now wonder if the pre-sedation request was more for me?  Mom needs sedation).  It is fortunate that our hospital has parental presence at induction, which means I was able to go into the OR with him until he was asleep.  I teared up a bit when he was put under, as I always do – and the kind anaesthesiologist said to me:  we will take good care of him.  And that they did.

What is more interesting about this brief experience in the hospital is Aaron’s perception of it:

He was annoyed that he had to wear a dress (see photo above).  Apparently the hospital switched to gowns for kids and don’t use pajamas anymore. He had to wear a mask because he had a cough.  Sensory-wise, that was not great – it was scratchy and bothered him and he kept taking it off.

Despite the fact we explained the going to sleep thing, the first thing he shouted when he woke up after surgery was:  I AM NOT DEAD!  I’m horrified he thought he might have died – I am constantly in awe of how this kid’s mind work.

The day surgery unit was BUSY and unfortunately, some of the kids didn’t wake up well after surgery, and some children were crying. There was also a considerable amount of construction noise – hammering and drilling.  I don’t like hospitals, Aaron told me.  I asked why.

I don’t like these screaming kids! he explained.  He added, the food is disgusting.  I want to go home.   Ask him about his own patient experience, and this is what you get – he is a fountain of truth.

I’m grateful for his uneventful experience.  I’m also thankful for the folks at the hospital who cared for him:  the clerk at reception, the LPNs, the RNs, the porters, the surgeon, the OR nurses, and the anaesthesiologist.   They all had smiles on their faces, spoke to Aaron dorectly, and did their jobs quickly and competently.  I feel fortunate that Aaron’s experience included such caring health professionals, and that he is home safe and sound.

i just want a hug

what kids need

what kids need

One of the many things I am going to miss from Edmonton is the Family Inclusion Group that was started by five moms at my son’s school.  Four of us have kids who have Educational Assistants, and one other mom has typically developing kids, but is interested in inclusion, and creating kind and caring school environments for all children.

That mom’s name is Amy Elliott, and she happens to be a Speech Language Pathologist.  Last night, our group co-hosted a presentation from Amy and Registered Psychologist Pamela Barrett called Beyond Temper Tantrums:  Uncovering Behaviour.  

Behaviour is a hot topic in our world.  This talk gave concrete strategies for both parents and teachers when working with children of all kinds.  Over 30 folks showed up, including our school trustee and administration.  (Our organizing group was very pleased.  We have been searching for a topic that wasn’t just a ‘special needs’ topic – one that would appeal to a greater audience).

Amy and Pam gave a professional, practical and passionate presentation.  I’ve been a mom for almost 22 years, and I’m still learning every single day about how to be a better parent. Here are some of my own take-aways.

  • There is always a reason behind behaviour for all children under 12.
  • It is our job as parents and teachers to be curious about what those underlying behaviours are.
  • Punishment is only a bandaid solution.  Unless we find the root cause of the behaviour, it is going to continue on.

They said that all children need to: feel a sense of belonging,  be loved, have a purpose and  feel important.  (At this point in the presentation, my eyes are welling up.  I was thinking YES!  And all that must NOT be conditional on a child exhibiting ‘good’ behaviour).

Some great points for educators:

  • You can’t teach the mind until you have the heart – Dr. Gordon Neufeld
  • Kids won’t respond to people they aren’t attached to
  • Encouragement is more effective than punishment

A memorable quote for me was:  A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.  I’d also add to that – a misbehaving child is also a misunderstood child.  My youngest son has flourished in environments where people have taken the time to listen to him, and uncover the reasons behind his behaviour.  I truly believe that all his behaviour is communication – and he is always trying to tell us something.  It is up to us to figure out what that is, and give him the tools so he can communicate it more effectively himself.  This can be done through social stories, visual cues, helping him identify emotions, and simple reminders to breathe.

Amy and Pam stressed that having empathy for the child and what they are going through is absolutely essential.  For like the porcupine in the picture above, the more kids push us away, the more we need to demonstrate our love and understanding.

Their message of love and belonging is a powerful one.  I hope it gets spread throughout the schools with Edmonton Public School Board.  As Amy and Pam said:

The need to belong, to be securely attached, to feel important and worthwhile and to be loved is hard wired into the human body.

When we see behaviour that does not contribute to the fulfilment of these needs in healthy ways, let’s be curious about what’s going on and wonder how we can help the individual get back on track.

Our kids are worth it, don’t you think?

Edited to add:  These fabulous resources were also shared:


a glimpse into the future

Trying out a BMW M6

Trying out a BMW M6

Aaron is almost 12 years old now.  That means that adulthood is a mere six years away.  I know how fast those years will zoom by, based on my experience from my two other children, who are now young adults.

I keep half an eye on employment opportunities in the disability world (but to be truthful, I’m not ready to fully look at adulthood yet).  I want Aaron to have a job that builds on his strengths, and is something he really loves to do (the same as my other children).  Right now, he loves luxury cars.  He can identify all makes and models of the most obscure fancy car, and he tells me that he is going to work in a Mercedes dealership.

Our Corrie shared these three fabulous websites of three young men with autism who have established their own businesses, doing what they love to do.  If this is a glimpse into Aaron’s employment opportunities, the future looks pretty bright to me.  Bravo Brad, Anthony and Aaron – if you live in Edmonton and area, please consider supporting these local businesses:
Made for you By Brad
Anthony at Your Service
Lego Art by Aaron