“What are you selling?” “Personality”

Comedian Salesman Kenny Brooks: “I’ve got a disease called enthusiasm”. Catching!

Goes into suburbia with his cleaning liquid, deals with bad attitudes, and lays his word wit on his potential customers, playing to their social anxieties (“Don’t laugh too hard cause the neighbors gonna see this black kid scrubbing your windows”).

My favorite one-liners:

  • My mom says, “If it’s darker than me and it don’t pay the bills, it shouldn’t be there.”
  • My mom said, “If you can’t get the whole chicken, at least get the wing.”
  • You get the HBO Special. You know what HBO means? You get to Help a Brother Out.
  • That one bottle lasts longer than my last relationship.
  • You just go back and forth like an argument.
  • You can do cash, checks, or chicken wings.

I tried to collect as many of his one-liners as possible, after the break:

Continue reading “What are you selling?” “Personality”

John Cleese on Humor and Creativity

Back in 1991, John Cleese gave this brilliant lecture, a compact course in enabling creativity. (It was posted on YouTube in April 2012 and subsequently widely blogged.)

As he explains, “creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating”. He contrasts “closed” versus “open mode” thinking and explains (from 4:45) that creativity is not possible in closed mode – the mode we’re in at work: Active, tense, anxious, purposeful, trying to get things done, sometimes stressed and a bit manic. By contrast, open mode is relaxed, expansive, not purposeful, more humorous, playful and curious, because we’re not under pressure to  get anything done. There is a time for each mode: developing ideas and reviewing concepts in open mode, and then deciding and carrying out a plan of action in closed mode.  To be most effective, therefore, we need to be able to switch back and forth between the two. The trouble is that we often get stuck in tunnel vision when we would really need to step back. This, he says, is the most typical complaint about politicians, namely that they are too addicted to the adrenaline of responding to events to retain the ability to ponder in open mode. And humor, he says, is a key switch to open the door into open mode.

John Cleese indulges his listeners with very practical and useful tips on how to make time and space for creative work. This I think would make an excellent listening exercise for students, combined with the assignment of summarizing his instructions in their own words. He also explains de Bono’s creativity technique of generating random connections, or “intermediate impossibles”, which, allowed to co-exist peacefully and patiently, can then serve as stepping stones to discovering something new.

It’s at 32:25 that he launches into full-fledged “open mode”:

“And now, in the two minutes left, I can come to the important part, and that is how to stop your subordinates from becoming creative, too, which is the real threat. Because, believe me, no-one appreciates better than I do what trouble creative people are, and how they stop decisive, hard-nosed bastards like us from running businesses efficiently. I mean, we all know: We encourage someone to be creative,… the next thing, they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas and asking us questions. Now, if we don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, we’ll have to start justifying our decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information, the concealment of which gives us considerable advantages in our power struggles. So: Here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going here:

1. Allow subordinates no humor. It threatens your self-importance, especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive. Because subversive is, of course, what humor will be in your setup, as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition, since if they express it openly, you’re down on them like a ton of bricks. So let’s get this straight: Blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working. This is important. And I mean that solemnly: Your dignity is no laughing matter!

2. Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ self-confidence. A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in on all the things you can find they’ve done wrong. Never, never balance the negatives with positives. Only criticize, just as your school teachers did. Always remember: Praise makes people uppity.

3. Demand that people should always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. So: Demand urgency at all times, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety and crisis. In a phrase, keep that mode closed. In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiny, tiny microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization will all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able completely to control ever again!
Thank you, and good night!”

Note to self: Allow myself more time and space for the open road – erm – mode.

John Prine: Dear Abby

The wonderful singer-songwriter John Prine turned 65 yesterday (thanks Eamonn).
Dear Abby” was an advice column founded in 1956 by Pauline Phillips under the pen name of Abigail Van Buren, and was syndicated in the Washington Post. Or was it in the evening paper, the Evening Star (later the Washington Star)? We got both. I never missed reading her column, and Peanuts. John Prine’s “Dear Abby” was on Sweet Revenge (released 1973), and it was one of the few songs I actually attempted on the guitar, sitting on the front stoop of our house on A street. Prine’s brand of humor, to me, still defines “home”.

  • listen up, buster/kiddo! listen up good! = hey, come on, listen properly!
  • shoot the breeze = chat, engage in idle conversation

Dear Abby, Dear Abby
My feet are too long
My hair’s falling out and my rights are all wrong
My friends, they all tell me that I’ve no friends at all
Won’t you write me a letter, won’t you give me a call?

Bewildered, Bewildered
You have no complaint
You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t
So listen up, buster, and listen up good
Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood

Dear Abby, Dear Abby
My fountain pen leaks
My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks
Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed
If it weren’t so expensive I’d wish I were dead

Unhappy, Unhappy,
You have no complaint…

Dear Abby, Dear Abby,
You won’t believe this
But my stomach makes noises whenever I kiss
My girlfriend tells me It’s all in my head
But my stomach tells me to write you instead

Noise-maker, Noise-maker
You have no complaint…

Dear Abby, Dear Abby,
Well I never thought
That me and my girlfriend would ever get caught
We were sitting in the back seat, just shooting the breeze
With her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees
Just Married

Just Married, Just Married,
You have no complaint…
Dear Abby

Sound wave: Owa Tana Siam

This brilliant sketch by the late Ronnie Barker is an eye-opener – or an ear-opener! – to how we preempt meaning when we listen. I found it on Abiloon’s lovely blog – full transcript there.

I would use this video to raise student awareness for the way we anticipate what the speaker will say next.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker summarizes speech research showing that we can recognize and recollect nonsensical word streams better if they follow known syntax, and adds:

“If one thinks of the sound wave as sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy from sounds to phonemes to words and phrases to the meanings of sentences to general knowledge, these demonstrations seem to imply that human speech perception works from the top down rather than just the bottom up. Maybe we are constantly guessing what a speaker will say next, using every scrap of conscious and unconscious knowledge at our disposal, from how coarticulation distorts sounds, to the rules of English phonology, to stereotypes about who tends to do what to whom in the world, to hunches about what our conversational partner has in mind at that very moment. If the expectations are accurate enough, the accoustic analysis can be fairly crude; what the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” (p. 181)

The more accurate our expectations are regarding what we will hear, the more generous we can be in analyzing/ adding what is missing in the sound wave. Conversely, the less accurate the listener’s knowledge of English syntax and discourse, the less generous he or she can be with mispronounced words. Filling in the gaps in what we hear based on prediction requires fast thinking. Small wonder that speakers of ELF, as they tune into each other, tend to be happy to drop connected speech.

Science, at least within the field and among peers, is high context, little needs to be explained. College students who share a field anticipate specialized vocabulary and are ready and able to correctly interpret quite a variety of pronunciations of such terms. “What the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” This contributes to the surprizing range in mutually intelligible pronunciation that I have been encountering.

If I were to use this video, we could also use the song at the end for a Mondegreen-style misheard or rather misspelled lyrics activity, for connected speech awareness. It’s  introduced from 3:20: “And now, in confusion, I would like you to join me in singing the Siamese notional anthem to the tune of God Save the Queer: O’wa ta’na Si’am.” One would need to explain “twit” and “nit”. Hmm… I’m not sure how valuable this would be, especially since the other part is so thought-provoking. Will just have to try it out.

Proverbs by first-graders

First-graders were asked to complete well-known proverbs. This is what they came up with. (Thank you, Joan, for the giggles.)

  • Don’t change horses… until they stop running.
  • Strike while the… bug is close.
  • It’s always darkest before… Daylight Saving Time.
  • Never underestimate the power of… termites.
  • You can lead a horse to water but… how?
  • Don’t bite the hand that… looks dirty.
  • No news is… impossible
  • A miss is as good as a… Mr.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new… math
  • If you lie down with dogs, you’ll… stink in the morning.
  • Love all, trust… me.
  • The pen is mightier than the… pigs.
  • An idle mind is… the best way to relax.
  • Where there’s smoke there’s… pollution.
  • Happy the bride who… gets all the presents.
  • A penny saved is… not much.
  • Two’s company, three’s… the Musketeers.
  • Don’t put off till tomorrow what… you put on to go to bed.
  • Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and… you have to blow your nose.
  • There are none so blind as… Stevie Wonder.
  • Children should be seen and not… spanked or grounded.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… get new batteries.
  • You get out of something only what you… see in the picture on the box.
  • When the blind lead the blind… get out of the way.
  • A bird in the hand… is going to poop on you.
  • Better late than… pregnant.

The above were sent to alphaDictionary, which is a treasure trove, by Susan Lister. She also contributed the beautiful definitions below:

The Sciences

  • “Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin and water.”
  • When you breathe, you inspire. When you do not breathe, you expire.”
  • “H20 is hot water, and CO2 is cold water.”
  • “The body consists of three parts—the brainium, the borax and the abominable cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five: a, e, i, o and u.”
  • “The pistol of a flower is its only protection against insects.”
  • “The alimentary canal is located in the northern part of Indiana.”
  • “Equator: A menagerie lion running around the Earth through Africa.”
  • “Germinate: To become a naturalized German.”
  • A myth is a female moth.

Pigeon: Impossible

Pigeon Impossible, the silent animated film by Lucas Martell released on 9 November that took 4 years to make, passed the 1 million views mark on YouTube after less than 2 weeks online. The film is set in the neighborhood of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where two of my nieces and I spent an enjoyable afternoon in October. I grew up in Cold War D.C. – I hope other teachers haven’t had exactly the same idea yet: Here’s my contribution of a lesson plan to the upcoming EFL blog carnival.

Target group: Adult education, Business English (group and one-to-one)

Level: multilevel, ca. B2

Language goals: 1. Speaking 2. report writing 3. spy/ thriller vocabulary (a one-to-one student is reading Le Carré) 4. predictions; 5. could/ coudn’t/ was able to (describing general ability vs. single achievements)

Material/ preparation: Go online to www.pigeonimpossible.com. Watch film online. If not possible, download video “Pigeon: Impossible” (use www.savevid.com). Download Press Kit pdf to show film stills on screen. No handouts. Save those trees!


Pre 1: Present title of video “Pigeon: Impossible.” Predict genre. Revisit Mission: Impossible series 1966-1973; 1988-1990; film series with Tom Cruise. Use soundtrack or poster if necessary to help recall.

Pre 2: Hypothesize content of film. Brainstorm spy and Cold War vocabulary (e.g. for reference: to gather intelligence, secret agent, espionage, operation, operative, screen someone, be in disguise, conceal your identity, code/decode, crack codes, cypher/decypher, wiretap, detect surveillance, brief/debrief; Cold War, Berlin Wall, Iron Curtain, Star Wars, rocket, target, cruise missile, explosives)
Wordle: Spy and Cold War vocabulary

During: Watch film, and stop at likely places to ask “What will happen next?”

Watch film to about 1:50. Look at still of pigeon inside the briefcase. Collect and write up predictions (note grammar: I think, will probably, is likely to). (If teaching a group, let separate groups develop and present their scenarios.)

Watch to about 2:32 (pigeon has discovered that the suitcase can fly and is armed; man finds bagel again). Again, predict.

Watch to 4:04 (bagel has hit red button, Washington Monument turns into launching pad, rocket is underway to Russia). Again, predict.

Post 1: Reconstruct and summarize what happened: Contrast outcomes with predictions “I/we thought he would… and/but he…”

Post 2: Write “Incident on F Street” on the board. Make three columns. Headers: pigeon couldman couldn’t, man was able to

Tell students they are the man and will have to write a report to their line manager about the unforseen incident with the pigeon. (If you’re teaching a group, do this in pairs.) Tell them to concentrate on describing what the pigeon

  • could do with the additional powers at its disposal,
  • what they (as the man) couldn’t do to interfere and
  • what they (as the man) were ultimately able to do to stop pigeon and end the incident

Note grammar: contrast “could” for general ability with “was able to” for ability in a specific situation; couldn’t is more natural for negatives.

Have them use the film stills as guides. If they ask for it, watch the whole film again as they finalize their notes. Then they write reports. They pair up with another group to read each other their reports.

At least that’s what I’m planning to do. This is an action enquiry. I’ll let you know how it went later on this week in the comments. If you’re using this film in a different way, or have other ideas about how you would, I’d be delighted to read about it.

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