Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Anti-Welcome Speech

By Keith McDowell

Words matter! Take, for example, the use of the word “matter” by the physics community. We have “matter” which is the regular stuff that makes up the universe – energy excluded – and we have anti-matter and dark matter. Anti-matter is, of course, matter, but just not “matter” matter. Unfortunately, as any science fiction fan knows, anti-matter and matter annihilate each other to create a flash of energy.

But then there is the little problem of the conversion of energy into matter and vice versa. So does that mean that energy is matter? Or does it even matter that we distinguish one form of matter from another?

Syllogistic wordplay aside, we live in a world where words and their meaning make a difference – or do they? My favorite example of this antithetic conundrum is the traditional welcome speech given by an appropriately chosen dignitary or two at the beginning of a conference or meeting.

When first faced with performing said task over a decade or two ago, I panicked and spent an evening reading classic speeches and preparing a welcome speech for the ages. The next morning, no one listened to my speech as they slurped away on bad coffee delivered in Styrofoam cups covered with plastic lids and dutifully attempted to keep their eyes open in a futile effort to prepare themselves for the main attraction – the opening keynote speech.

Lesson learned, but still committed to success, I began collecting notes on what others said and did in their welcome speeches, especially since I could not find a “how to” book on said genre. And here they are, my collected ensemble of “talking points” and tactics for a successful run-of-the-mill welcome speech.

1.     Finish before the allotted time – usually much too long – to give the illusion of being ahead of schedule since nothing ever starts on time. This makes the meeting chairperson happy.
2.     Say absolutely nothing of substance other than the word “welcome.”
3.     Thank the Chamber of Commerce (or the accident of your wonderful locality – Florida in the winter and New Hampshire in the summer) for the weather with proper blame for bad weather.
4.     Note the magnificent facility in which the conference/meeting is being held, compliments of (insert: federal earmark, gracious donor or sponsor, state funding, and so forth, but ignore random luck)
5.     Invite participants to tour the campus, meet students and faculty, and experience the unique atmosphere of your university, unlike any other on Planet Earth.
6.     If relevant and you need to take more time, mention the grand master plan for the campus and the wondrous new facilities to be built. Scale the grandeur of the presentation to fit the time slot.
7.     Make a banal remark about how important the conference topic is to (insert: world peace, the welfare of humankind, the fishing industry, or a suitable substitute).
8.     Assure the conference participants that you’ve read their agenda (be sure to hold it up for them to see that you actually have a copy) and that a great time will be had by all.
9.     And don’t forget to mention that you are going to have to dash off to another meeting (pull up your coat sleeve and examine your watch with a doleful, but disgusted look) – especially given that you have no personal intention of being bored to death over the next few minutes before quietly slipping out.

The clever ones among you might add another topic or two, but this list will carry the day for you. Trust me! I’ve tested this list on many occasions and successfully punched the time clock.

But then I’ve never been much of a conformist and more a contrarian. Punching the time clock and looking out over a sea of sleepy faces while blathering away on my canned talking points always seemed like such a waste of time. And then the epiphany occurred. What I needed was an anti-welcome speech!

No! Not a negative speech, but an anti-speech similar in nature to anti-matter. And how does one accomplish that, you ask? It goes like this.

First you announce to the audience that you want to do something different this morning. You tell them that as a scientist, you’ve made a study of the phenomena of “welcome speeches” and you want to report back to them your findings. Then you pick up the paper with the above list of talking points, adjust your glasses, and proceed to read the points to them. At appropriate moments, you pause, look up from the paper, and insert a jest or two. For example, I routinely stop after point 2 above and ask the following question: “so how am I doing so far?” It’s guaranteed to get a laugh and wake them up.

And, of course, at the end, you pause, pull up your sleeve to reveal your watch, shout “Oh, my God,” and rush off the stage.

Sadly, this strategy of giving an anti-welcome speech seems to work best with STEM folks and not with attendees from the liberal or fine arts. I’m not sure what this says about the technical community and their sense of humor.

And then there is the issue of whether this form of speech is actually a “speech” or a “meta-speech?” Hmmm, I’ll leave that issue to the philosophers among us.

In closing, I feel compelled to relate a funny, but tragic story about the anti-welcome speech. I once gave the anti-welcome speech to a group of regional chemistry department chairs. Just as I finished, the dean rushed in on “dean’s time” – meaning you always make it just in the nick of time – to give his/her welcome speech. Not having heard my critique of the said genre, he/she proceeded to give a perfect rendition, much to the amusement of the assembled chairs. Needless to say, it was a welcome-speech combo that they have never forgotten and a clear example of an anti-welcome speech annihilating a welcome speech with a burst of humor.

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