Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How Air Quotes have “Changed” Our Lives

Sincerity is important in communication.


We live in one of the most cynical and verbally combative periods of history, fueled by advanced communication technology and declining intellect.

One of the hallmarks of this “golden age” is the use of air quotes by speakers who want to convey connotations that they likely could express with a snitty tone of voice.

Thank goodness America’s “founding fathers” weren’t as jaded as we, the strained seed of their democratic loins, are. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had stood before the Continental Congress to read aloud the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, with the addition of air quotes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the “pursuit of Happiness”.
…which suddenly, thanks to air quotes, makes “pursuit of happiness” sound like a euphemism.

Air quotes are used to express satire, sarcasm, irony, or euphemism. (Incidentally, I recently heard from a fellow Toastmaster from a journalistic background that they are also called “quotey fingers”.)

Many English speakers use air quotes routinely, but that is not the case everywhere in the world; in fact, air quotes stymie some learners of English who initially think that a speaker is imitating a rabbit. I suppose this could suggest that the English-speaking world ranks highest on the cynicism spectrum, and for those of us of Scandinavian descent, air quotes are just about the only hand gestures approved by the Sons of Norway.

My “research” shows that air quotes have been in sporadic use since at least the 1920s in the U.S., but they didn’t have a name until the 1980s. Merriam-Webster added the phrase “air quotes” to the Dictionary in 1989 with the definition of “a gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands, used to call attention to a spoken word or expression.”

Air quotes are significant, because they change how we interpret a message.

There have been some famous air quotes, for example, in episodes of Friends, like the one where Danny DeVito plays a male stripper, Ross reminisced with Missy, a woman on whom he had a crush during college. He asked her if she remembered his then roommate, Chandler. She said, “Sure, he was in your 'band'." (Using air quotes around "band".)
Ross replies “It's been sixteen years but the air quotes still hurt.”

Plus there was the episode where Joey misuses air quotes, but after Ross punches a pole, Joey finally uses air quotes correctly.
Or how about the “hot mess” when Dateline interviewed Britney Spears where she overused and misused air quotes so frequently that was the subject of, like, a “buhjillion” blogs the next day.

In the movie “Austin Powers”, Dr. Evil said that he developed a ‘sophisticated heat beam which we called a "laser". Using these "lasers," we punch a hole in the protective gas layer around the world, which we call the "ozone layer."

The award for the air quote that was heard around the world, though, has to go to Senator John McCain for his October 15th 2008 debate with Barack Obama. Senator McCain got himself into some hot water with air quotes. The topic was abortion, and McCain was saying that Obama was hiding his support for late-term abortions under the guise of a concern for the mother’s “health”.
He said, “That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health.”

The fact that he chose to use air quotes on such a sensitive topic in general was probably unwise, linking him to a certain level of flippancy about an issue that divides “reasonable people”.

In print, these are known as “scare quotes” or “sneer quotes”, when a writer doesn’t agree with the words in the quotes and wants to distance him- or herself from those words in the quotation marks. For example, in an email to your boss, you might explain why your co-worker didn’t help you complete a project by writing, “He said he was ‘too busy’.” Meaning you didn’t believe that your co-worker was busy at all, and you wanted your boss to know it.

After my “extensive research” on this topic, I have concluded that thanks to “air quotes” and “scare quotes”, many people now suspect anything that they see in quotation marks. Consider some of the examples from an “amusing” blog site called

I believe that people who make these signs may be using the quotation marks to emphasize a word, or to imply a different “voice” saying a particular phrase, as if their mascot suddenly was speaking.

These examples demonstrate, though, that the words in quotation marks can have the exact opposite affect from what the author intended, and I believe that this is, in part, because of air quotes. How they’ve become so ubiquitous, making us cynical about anything in quotation marks.

There are so many ways that the messages we put on signs, in brochures, and in our daily interpersonal exchanges can be misinterpreted. Air quotes fill a need for us literal-minded English speakers, to emphasize that “hey! I’m being sarcastic here! Don’t take me ‘seriously’!”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Proposals and Presentations Gobble Up Holiday Time

Many people like to push things from their schedules just before a holiday. It happens all the time. We don’t want to worry about work-related items as we watch the Macy’s Day parade. We want to come back into the office with a blank slate. Probably not too far off the mark from the original intention of Holy Days, the sense of rebirth and, especially on Thanksgiving, reflux.

But sometimes, people push from their schedules onto someone else’s, meaning that some of us end up with more to do during the holidays. For example, today I am herding cats. My company has been selected to give a presentation to a client next Monday – the Monday right after Thanksgiving. We have one week, and a short week at that. Already this morning we have schedule and rescheduled our strategy session three times in order to accommodate the schedules of six people – seven, if you include me as a person, which seldom happens.

To top it off, the powers that be identified this as a “must win” project while we were finalizing the proposal last Friday, which is a little late to identify something as a critical target. So now the pressure is on to win the project in the presentation.

Our team’s first meeting to discuss content, method, and presenters isn’t until end of day today – dangerously close to cocktail hour.

Since the client received our proposal just today, I presume they will not read it too closely this week, so my advice to the team will be to recap the key benefits of our company’s approach in enough detail to provide a targeted proposal recap.

My one fear is that we’ll have six presenters. Six presenters will not rehearse or be “on the same page” in their message during a short week. I want two presenters – two good presenters – and I want them to at least spend some time Sunday practicing – even if it’s only in front of their bathroom mirrors.

Oh, yeah, I do have another fear: a big thick PowerPoint presentation with lots of bullet points. But that is a recurring fear.

Of course this all part of the joy of group presentations, as you can tell from my recent article at Six Minutes. Still, I will try not to worry about it over the holiday.

It’s that turkey who should be worried…

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Manchurian Candidate Goes to Toastmasters

The following is a transcript from a secret experiment performed on U.S. Prisoners of War by the Chinese government's Chapter of Toastmaster International during the Korean War.

Please note: Denzel Washington was not harmed during the production of this blog.

Bennett Marco: Raymond Shaw is, uh, is kind of like a really great person, you know?

Bennett's Toastmaster Evaluator: That's very good, Bennett. But I feel like you aren't really telling us much with your language. And you're grimacing again. Remember what we said about grimacing?

Bennett Marco: You said you would kill me or someone I loved if I grimaced again?

Evaluator: That's right, Bennett! Good! Now try it again, but really try to grab my attention with something. Say something shocking that grabs my attention before you start to tell me about Raymond Shaw.

Bennett: Okay, here goes. Arm pits! Raymond Shaw is, uh, a really great guy who...

Evaluator: Stop right there. That's better, but I was thinking, though, that the shocking introduction might actually pertain to the subject. In this case, the subject is Raymond Shaw specifically. Can you tell me something shocking about Raymond Shaw, Bennett?

Bennett: I don't like Raymond Shaw.

Evaluator: Now, I agree that would be shocking, but it would really undermine the point of our speech, wouldn't it? What's the point of our speech, Bennett?

Bennett: To fool the world into thinking that Richard Shaw is an okay guy and should be President.

Evaluator: Oops, Bennett, you said "Richard Shaw". I think you meant to say...

Bennett: Oops. I meant Raymond Shaw. Raymond. Please don't kill anyone.

Evaluator: Not to worry, Bennett. This is exactly why we like to rehearse these sorts of things. I'll tell you what. Let's play pretend. Let's pretend that you do like Raymond Shaw. Tell me, in your own words, what would you say to the audience if you were trying to convince them that Raymond Shaw is the best President that the United States will ever have?

Bennett: I would say I was crazy, because no one is better than Truman.

Evaluator: Okay, we're still playing pretend. Let's pretend that Raymond Shaw is even better than Harry Truman. Now what do you tell the audience?

Bennett: I'd say, "Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests, Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life!"

Evaluator: Excellent! Excellent! I think you are ready for the District Humorous Speech Contest!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not BFFs Anymore?

Can this relationship (with Social Media) be saved?
I know I’m getting up there in years, pushing 40, so you crazy kids, with your hippity-hop music and your IMs and texting-while-driving are way ahead of me on the e-communication front, so you probably won’t get this: but I’m thinking about pulling the plug on personal email.

After a week without even thinking about my Yahoo! email, I finally checked in to see 200+ messages.

I clicked “Check All” for several screens, and then “Delete”, and I probably won’t think of it again for another week.

I don’t even remember my Gmail password, so don’t bother emailing me there.

I used to check my personal email several times every day, waiting for something interesting to turn up, as if I were a lonely puppy waiting for my owners to come home and feed me.

But now, not so much.

And I’m not the only one. According to a six-year analysis of internet activity by the Online Publishers Association (OPA). That study concluded that people are spending less time emailing in 2009 than in 2003. Overall, the study found that people are using the internet about seven hours more each month than in 2003, but they are emailing 41% less as a total share of their internet usage.

Consider the ol’ email marketing campaign kaput.

Sure, you blanket more user accounts now more than ever, but people are not opening those emails. We’re just not that into email anymore - except our work emails, of course. (Who said work was supposed to be sexy?)

And then along came MySpace and Facebook. Hot, hot, hot.

Social media sites now get used as much as internet shopping, no doubt in part because sites like Facebook have their own “email” and communications built right in. They have an “import contacts” feature that moves everyone in my dumpy old email address book right into their nubile system.

What would I need another email site for? If I absolutely need to contact someone out of social media network, I can just email them from my work account or *gasp* call them.

In Facebook, however, I’m rapidly losing interest in my friends’ “Mafia Wars” updates and “hug requests”. Maybe it’s because Facebook reveals what a frenetic and frivolous timewaster I am.

The lonely puppy is losing interest again.

But if I break up with Facebook, what will fill those 3 hours a month that the OPA study says I average on social media?

If only Linkedin had more apps…

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Let's Get Mikey!

My wife brought home Mikey last week.

The Blue Mikey Microphone, that is. This little guy plugs into the charge slot on my iPod and gives me about an hour of really good sound recording before draining the battery.

She got her wholesale discount, but they retail for about $75.

That means I returned my near-the-top-of-the line handheld 2GB digital audio recorder with USB output and even a tie-clip microphone and took my $170 credit back on the ol' credit card.

I am recommending the Mikey for its portability and sound quality. The only drawback is the power drain on the iPod. So for lengthier sessions, I suggest you either choose a portable digital recorder or use the Mikey, bring along a second iPod.

For my desktop microphone, I use another Blue product, the Snowball. Both of these microphones are solidly constructed and produce very nice sound. Although I haven't yet packaged the Blue Mikey sounds I recorded, I do have an example of the Blue Snowball recording as part of a slidecast.

When Gratitude Turns Ugly

Dear Event Organizer,

I've noticed something about your events.

Anywhere a keynote speaker or acclaimed panel lurks three or four spots down on the program, there is always a lot of verbal clutter, frustration, and boredom until you give me the good stuff.

The event emcee may spend upwards of 10 minutes simply reading off names of their organization's supporters, sponsors, and volunteers, which to the event organizers might seem like an appropriate gesture of gratitude. It's as if someone started reading from the Book of Numbers, which, by the way, is the least quotable book in the Bible.

Then, of course, after the thank-yous, there is the inevitable recap of the host organization's long, strange trip, from inception to now, complete with inside jokes that only one or two others in the room understand.

Finally, these events give way fully to the paddleboard of sponsorship by allowing a representative of a sponsoring organization to stand at the podium and recite mission statements from the internet.

This is the recurring formula for today's conferences, workshops, and fundraisers, including the conference I attended today.

That is not, however, what the audience signed up for. (Unless, of course, the event is touted as the "Mother-of-All-Thank-You's" Conference.)

In fact, I will go one step further and say it is essentailly hijacking the audience by witholding what they came to see and often even paid to see.

Perhaps it is a simple misunderstanding between the meanings of gratitude and graciousness.

Certainly, an organization must express gratitude to its volunteers and sponsors by putting their names in brochures, giving them letters of commendations, immortalizing their donations in patio pavers and on the backs of t-shirts.

As a gracious host, however, an organization is obliged to attend to the needs of its guests first and foremost. This is best done by meeting their needs: keep the coffee coming, bathrooms clean, and speakers on time and relevant.

The ten minutes wasted on thank-yous to strangers and kow-towing to corporate sponsors is ten minutes I plot my escape and spread negative word of mouth. Spend that ten minutes building my trust with your organization by giving me what I came for, or, like the guy next to me today, we will start playing Tetris on our cell phones.


If I wanted to pay to practice patience, I would have gone to see The Time Traveler's Wife in the theatre.

Don't you want your event to be a seamless, audience-focused presentation instead of a clunky series of polite gestures?

May I suggest that you use your introduction to fire up people about the speaker (or panel)? If you work with your audience, help get them hooked, and move to the "good stuff", not only will your audience remember your event favorably, your speakers will feel like a million bucks because you cared enough to build them up and keep the event momentum focused on whatever theme you've established.

Oh, yeah, since we're on the topic of your events: could you please tell the caterers that if there is half a muffin on my plate, that means I am not done with that plate. They should step away from me until said muffin has met its maker.

Thank you for letting me vent! And I hope your next event goes better!