Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Lesson In Sound Biting - Barack in Berlin

Barack Obama may be accused of criticizing America in Europe. He will have no one to blame but himself.

I read the full text of Obama's famously received speech in Berlin. As usual, it was a masterpiece of oratory, with soaring phrases and a powerful yet graceful delivery. Here are some examples:
  • SPEAKING OF COURAGE: "...(T)he people of Berlin kept the flame of hope burning. The people of Berlin refused to give up. And on one fall day, hundreds of thousands of Berliners came here, to the Tiergarten, and heard the city's mayor implore the world not to give up on freedom. 'There is only one possibility,' he said. 'For us to stand together united until this battle is won...The people of Berlin have spoken. We have done our duty, and we will keep on doing our duty. People of the world: now do your duty.' People of the world, look at Berlin!"

  • ON U.S. CONTRIBUTIONS TO DEFENSE: "...(J)ust as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe."

  • ON COOPERATION: "In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more, not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another."

But these are not the words I heard. Instead nearly every newscast I heard, even among the so-called liberal, drive-by media, carried this excerpt: "I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions."

So those who wish to impugn Obama will be able to say with some small measure of legitimacy, "He went overseas and used the occasion of his speech to talk about the mistakes our country has made. Doesn't Sen. Obama love America? If he does, then why would he criticize us to others?"

If that happens, Obama will need to face up to the fact that he handed his adversaries a loaded weapon to use against him. It may be unfair, but it is a reality. I truly believe that he loves America and that he is grateful for all he has gained as a citizen, despite his humble, non elitist roots. But as someone who has felt the sting of third-party analysis, I am all too aware that messengers must parse every single word of their public statements. It is called "staying on message." Here is how I might have written the paragraph in question to defuse its potential damage:

"Like you, my country has tried to do its best to strive for the ideal of perfection. We have always fought to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. In fact, our actions have always been matched to our best intentions for you and all our fellow citizens around the world ."

Idealistic? Probably. Selective? Absolutely! But the reality is that as he marches toward the election, this is no time to be completely honest, not when foes are ready to take every utterance out of context. And that is the way all of us in external communication must prepare. The electronic media does not live on banquets of information but on sound bites. A newscast is made up of such 20-second clips. We must know our messages, state them at every opportunity, and not deviate from them.

Again, read the full text of Obama's Berlin speech, and consider whether that is the message that you received. Then let's plan to discuss this again closer to the election, along with Mrs. Obama's statement that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country." That one's sure to be a crowd-pleaser!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Communicating Takeaways - How Little is "Too Much?"

The latest issue of Knowledge@Wharton - for me, a great resource for all kinds of business information - just published an article titled, "'Don't Touch My Perks': Companies That Eliminate Them Risk Employee Backlash." It starts off by discussing how Google decided to "dramatically raise" the price of its day care program, and employees WEPT when they heard the news. (I'm not sure these folks would receive too much sympathy in Detroit, but that's another story).

According to Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, "Once you have the perk, to take it away is seen as a violation of a psychological contract you have with your employee."

Here, Here. As the old song goes, little things mean a lot. I once worked for a company named Shared Medical Systems, which was acquired by Siemens of Germany. SMS grew from its three founders to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but its earlier entrepreneurial roots led to some traditions. One was "Doughnut Day," when the company provided all employees with doughnuts on the last Wednesday of every month. It doesn't seem like much, but when a handful of people are trying to get a brand new company off the ground, it's a nice touch. And it became part of the company culture for more than 35 years. When Siemens acquired SMS, they wisely announced, "We will still have Doughnut Day." Some traditions die hard.

Wharton management Peter Cappelli points out certain perks like Doughnut Day are cheap or may even cost nothing (e.g., casual-dress days), but they don't hurt the bottom line much either, so companies should be careful in the way they handle them. "If you are taking anything away from employees, it's important to explain the need for doing it," he says. "It helps a lot if the need is something driven by factors outside the firm. The need to improve share price isn't going to satisfy a lot of people."

This is hardly a new issue. Think of the benefits that previous generations of U.S. employees used to take for granted: fully paid health insurance, fully paid health insurance upon retirement, pensions, subsidized cafeterias, even mandatory overtime pay. (Yes, overtime pay used to be written into labor contracts - a harbinger of the end of American competitiveness). For those of us in communications, the challenge is how to inform employees of such changes and helping to minimize resentment. Here are some ideas based on my own first-hand experiences:

  1. COMMUNICATE CHANGES IN TERMS OF INDUSTRY TRENDS - When I was with GE, which is still a leader in human resources, we announced co-pays for health insurance. This did not go down well at first, as GE was always known as a paternalistic employer. However, GE was also among the last companies to provide completely free healthcare. So we informed employees of all the companies, especially local one, that had instituted the change before we did. It brought down the grumbling at least a little bit.

  2. TIE THE NEED FOR CHANGES TO THE BUSINESS'S COMPETITIVENESS - Referring back to GE, each business unit communicates its own situation. Many during my tenure, such as turbine manufacturing and certain defense businesses, were being buffeted by changes in their respective markets. Once employees understood that such changes were needed to keep those business alive, the employees were (somewhat) more accepting.

  3. EXHIBIT FAIRNESS - If it's one thing that the average employee can't stand is to see one standard for themselves and another for executives or other management. So let them know that the bosses are forgoing their bonuses, or losing their dedicated parking spaces, or paying the personal expenses on their company cars.And if such changes are NOT being shared, well, you have an additional set of issues, don't you? Better look inside your chests and see if there is still a heart there.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Practice Makes Perfect English

I never fail to be awed by speakers for whom English is their second language and how they can improve before my very eyes. I meet them primarily through Toastmasters, and that organization's prescribed method of learning to speak seems ideal for people who want to learn English. In fact, this year Vikas Jhingran became Toastmaster's first world champion for whom English is a second language.

I have seen fellow Toastmasters from outside the U.S. progress through each step of the program - the introductory speech (aka Icebreaker), exercises in choosing the right words, varying the voice, and more - and speak better English with each speech. Since it takes 10 speeches to earn the first designation of "Competent Communicator," you can imagine the improvements. Such success depends on certain factors:
  1. MENTORING - These members need someone to review their speeches and help them with their English, including such details as pronunciation, grammar, pronunciation, and figures of speech.

  2. KIND AND GENTLE EVALUATION - In traveling to other countries, I am generally treated kindly, but every so often I meet a person who takes pleasure in deriding my mangling of their language, however unintentional it is. I would never want to treat a foreign national that way here. My philosophy is that they are speaking English better than I can speak their language. It's best not only to be instructional at those moments, but treat it as an occasion for well-intentioned humor. Just today, I evaluated a Mexican woman who gave a delightful speech on her first time traveling to America. The only mistake she made was that she said, "I had nothing to eat but tuna cans." I pointed out that she may have had nothing to eat but tuna, or she may have had nothing to eat but cans of tuna. But unless she were a goat, there was no way she was eating tuna cans! She laughed, everybody laughed, and then I pointed out that this was the only mistake I could find in her English. She was justifiably proud of that, and encouraged.

  3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE - There is no substitute for getting up and speaking. The constant practice of wrapping the tongue around foreign vowels will lead only to progress.
The great entertainer Victor Borge claimed to learn English by going to the movies, and his plays on words made him a much-loved, international star. I don't know how easy that is, but I can plainly see that the constant repetition, correction and sponsorship is clearly a proven method for perfecting English in America. I encourage you who have friends who need to speak better English to try toastmasters or any method that will get them in front of an audience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Toastmaster Contests - A Most Wonderful Time

It's getting to be one of my two favorite times of the year as a Toastmaster - FALL CONTEST TIME! The upcoming contests are Humorous Speech and Table Topics.

My first humorous speech championship really changed my game as a speaker. I had written one of my manual speeches about playing the harmonica. People seemed to like it. My Siemens Toastmasters club was having their fall contest, and while I promised to enter, I didn't have time to write the speech I had wanted. The contest chair begged me to enter because otherwise there would not be enough contestants. Well, I won, and that speech took on a life of its own. Soon I made my way through the contests, and I won the championship of TM District 38, which represents about 3,000 members.

A couple of years ago, I entered the Table Topics contest (that is, extemporaneous speaking) to represent the Doylestown (Pa.) Toastmasters, one of the oldest, most historical clubs around. I made my way through the competitions, much to my surprise, because I had a spotty history with Table Topics. When I reached the District 38 championship, the chair for the day was Randy Harvey, past International Champion of Public Speaking. I was taken from the room and returned as the fifth of seven contestants. Randy asked his question:

"If you listen to your heart, it will tell you the truth. What does your heart tell you about the state of the American family?"

When you are in this situation, your mind races like a computer processing information and making decisions at unbelievable speed. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know if it would fly with this audience. Then I decided I would say what was in my heart, as Randy had asked. I knew I would rather lose being truthful than win as a phony. Even though it was off the top of my head, the words flowed naturally, and I remember them as though I said them moments ago:

"Mr. Contest Chair, fellow Toastmasters, judges and guests...

I believe that the state of the American family is sound... but not in the form we are used to. You see, as a baby boomer, I grew up with certain models for a family on television. Families with members named Bud... and Beaver... and Princess. Does it sound like your family? No, not mine either."

"But let me tell you about
my family. let me tell you about my gay cousin and her partner who went to China to rescue a baby girl who was abandoned by her family. They brought her here to be raised in a secure, stable family. And when they had the opportunity to adopt another little girl of mixed race, they brought her into a loving environment.

"We see around us every day families that are broken apart by divorce, but then are re-formed as new members join them, making the new family stronger than ever."

"So you see, I have more faith than ever in the American family, because it has changed to let all of us be who we really are."

I guess I made the right decision. When I left the stage, Randy whispered "Good job" in my ear. And when my name was called as the champion, I received a standing ovation from the crowd. I will take that as validation for the words I spoke.

I don't compete in the fall contest anymore. I am happy to support others so that they have the same joy that I experienced. I encourage all of you Toastmasters out there to take this opportunity to enter. You will find that you will be exposed to, and learn from, the styles of other speakers you would not ordinarily hear. You will all stretch yourself as a speaker in ways you could not imagine.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Speaking Lessons (and life lessons) from Tony Bennett

As I write my book, I am researching the resurgent career of Tony Bennett, as I find the man to be a sterling example of someone who adapts successfully to change. Through a variety of sources on the Web and in print, I've learned some basic facts about Mr. Bennett's life and career: He was successful as a recording artist and performer in the 1950s and '60s, but his music fell out of favor by the 1970s. By 1979, his possessions included a broken marriage, a huge debt to the IRS, and a drug habit. But his son, Danny Bennett, took over as his manager, helped him solve his problems, and then set him on the course that revitalized his career: He let his father be himself, a classic singer and a classy individual. Even though he sings songs that are decades old, he is accepted by a young audience for his cool and his skills.

In coaching speakers, I have advised them of the same principles -- that they should be themselves and lead with their strengths. If you are a warm person, let it show because it exhibits accessibility. If you are scholarly, speak that way, as it adds dignity to your presentation. And if you are an expert in your subject, state it to add credibility to whatever you say.

See the list below, and keep this in mind as you communicate. Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true." Mr. Bennett did that, and he's still kicking.

Tony Bennett’s Keys to Success
1. He was good at what he did.
2. He went after a market in which he would stand out.
3. He got himself into the right showcases for that market.
4. He put his personal life in order.
5. He got good professional advice and support from people who had an up-to-date understanding of the business and were devoted to him.
6. He didn't give up when he was down.
7. He was willing to take less money now for future gains.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Is Your Credibility on a Timeline or a Time Horizon?

So Barack Obama wanted to set a timeline for getting out of Iraq. Supporters of the war cried foul: "Why, that would give our enemies time to plan bad things for the time we are gone."

Yet President Bush felt perfectly comfortable in announcing that he agrees to a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals," which includes U.S. troop withdrawals from combat missions in Iraq. This after Iraqi officials - most notably their prime minister - issued a statement that they would like to vacate the country.

Winston Smith, call your Big Brother right away. 1984 has arrived, albeit retroactively.

I mean, seriously, folks, how can anyone look into a camera and state with a straight face that a "time horizon" is any different from a "timeline?" Whether off in the distance or traveling linearly, both methods of time travel have the same destination - withdrawal.

This is just the latest of recent rhetorical refuse that have embarrassed our politicians. Phil Gramm said that we were a bunch of whiners and that the current recession is in our minds. John McCain had to disavow his friend and advisor, despite the fact that the Senator had called him one of the finest economic minds in the country. George Bush said in a recent press conference that the economy looked good to him. Perhaps it looks different from the cheap seats where most of us reside. Barack Obama endorsed public financing of his campaign for POTUS, and then rejected it when it was obvious that he his supporters could give him so much money. Whoops, I really didn't mean that, everybody; ignore that comment from behind the green curtain. Besides, apparently it's not change that he believes in, but the cold, hard cash that is flowing to him unexpectedly.

Once again, the politicos have taught us a lesson that we can apply to our everyday lives: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stick to both. Otherwise, your credibility is shot. This is particularly important in the world of external communication. I'm glad that I never said anything that I had to regret later during my years as a public spokesman for a variety of organizations. Most of all, being reliably and consistently truthful was like "Love Story;" it meant never having to say I was sorry. It also meant I did not have to retrace all my prior statements to keep track of all I said.

But most important, it meant that I did not have to constantly go back and qualify my statements when conditions changed. When I said there were no layoffs planned for the manufacturing facility, it meant just that and I didn't need to explain later why we laid people off - because we didn't do it.

When I said that the hospital was running perfectly well during the strike, it meant that the quality of care was not compromised and there was no danger to the patients. And the strike ended because it had no effect.

Such occurrences meant that when we spoke to the community, to the employees, to the shareholders, and other invested parties that they could make plans according to my statements. I did not need to retract my comments later and say, "Sorry. Do over!"

And when I laid out a timeline to the public, I did not need to explain later that we had a "time horizon" instead, whatever the hell that is. That is why the press and I got along.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Still Trudging Toward My Book

Sorry for the gap. Nice to be with you again. I won't bore you with all the traveling and work projects I have been involved with, but I do want to say that I continue with my book. Boy, this is tough. However, the problem is not my writing ability. Actually, I am a pretty productive writer, and once I sit down, I can pump out a lot of prose.

No, the problem is the interruptions. I can be working away, and then something throws me off track. Here is an example: My darling daughter, bless her heart, was visiting from D.C. She decided that she needed to print out tickets for an outdoor concert she was going through. (She snuck into my chair while I was checking a leak in the kitchen - yet another unwanted interruption!) Problem was, her document didn't print. Why? It required a version of Adobe Acrobat that I did not have. So I had to download it. All this ate up more than a half hour, and it completely threw me off my game.

Anyway, I am about halfway through. I am using my vacation time for long weekends devoted to writing. My goal is to publish 25,000 words by the end of the summer. Think I can do it? How about you authors out there... What is your experience?