Saturday, August 30, 2008

The High Cost of Speaking Up

God, how I dread these times. This political season is bound to be filled with all kinds of hard feelings that come from hard words spoken harshly. I was thinking about this when I came across a good blog entry by Laura Benjamin titled "8 Reasons Why People Don't Speak Up." She wants to express why she thinks John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin is a politically brilliant move (and I agree that it was very clever and could be a game changer in the election). But she won't for a number of reasons, such as retribution from others, being branded as politically incorrect, being branded as "different," and more.

I couldn't agree more. Over the years, I have been rebuked and accused of being "too liberal," "too conservative," "too corporate," against the defense of our country, too willing to excuse the military/industrial complex, insensitive to women, a pantie waist feminist, .... The list goes on. Hm, I have a wide range of views there. I must be a schizophrenic.

As a professional communicator, I am shocked at how resistant people are to information that doesn't fit their paradigm. A good example are the proclamations of entertainer Rush Limbaugh. I really try to listen to his program every once in a while, but within 15 minutes, I usually hear about 10 things that I know to be factually untrue. (See The Way Things Aren't on the nonpartisan website FAIR for more on the unknowing utterances of Rush.) His fans, the "ditto heads" (could they have accepted a more self-loathing term?) jump immediately to his defense, facts be damned.

And I'm not criticizing only the right side of the political spectrum. When David Souter was being considered for the Supreme Court more than 20 years ago, a co-worker said that we needed to oppose him because he had no paper trail (i.e., it wasn't clear how he stood on certain issues). I asked why that was a problem, and the co-worker responded that Souter was a threat to the right to an abortion. I pointed out that many men people behaved differently once they put on those judicial robes, and their subsequent records on the Supreme Court can be quite unpredictable. For example, Hugo Black was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but became a passionate defender of civil rights. Earl Warren, the poster child of judicial activism, was nominated for the job because he was an arch conservative in California. His tenure on the Court was the exact obvious of whatever was expected. So I assured my friend that his case was a hard one to make, given the absence of information.

He looked at me contemptuously and said, "Well, it's obvious that you don't care for a woman's right to choose!"

Huh? I said nothing about that issue. All I said was that Supreme Court nominees are hard to predict. But it wasn't what he wanted to hear. I guess because I wasn't with the guy, I was against him. That long-ago discussion was a harbinger of what we learned over the last several election cycles: Nuance doesn't mean much in national elections. Broad, bumper sticker slogans, whether it's "a woman's right to choose" or "my right to own a gun," play much better. (Oh, for the record, I was right about the unpredictability of David Souter. He became a key supporter of abortion rights, and a subsequent thorn in the side of the Republicans who nominated him for the bench.)

This is an important election, but every election is important. We never know the situations Presidents will face (or the situations they will get us into). We need to determine to the best of our ability whether they have the requisite judgment to make wise decisions. So we have to air all the dirty little issues that are forbidden in polite company. Does Barack Obama really have enough experience? Does getting shot down in Vietnam really qualify John McCain as Commander in Chief? Given that fully ONE THIRD of all U.S. Vice Presidents have ascended to the Oval Office, do we want Joe Biden or Sarah Palin as our possible Chief Executives? Which of these two is truly more qualified?

These are important issues. And we should be able to discuss them in our personal exchanges without resorting to name-calling, taking observations out of context to ascribing an entirely different meaning to them, or writing someone off as "out of touch" (which BOTH sides do). Until then, I don't blame us for not wanting to discuss these issues in public. The costs to our relationships, our reputations and even our self-esteem are much too high.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

NETWORKING: More Than Linking In or Twittering

I cannot hammer a nail, so if you gave me power tools, I would probably be dangerous. On the other hand, I am a facile writer. But if I wasn't, all the Spell Check and Grammar Check wouldn't give me the ability to construct a sentence.

I was reminded by that in a recent speech by nationally known networker Peter Shankman, founder and CEO of The Geek Factory, Inc., a boutique PR firm in New York City. At a recent PRSA event in Philadelphia, Peter pointed out that if you are a lousy networker -- e.g., if you go to an event and can't meet or connect with people -- social media will not help you. As I review Peter's background, I realize that he knows of what he speaks. This is a guy who raised the money for his first agency by selling T-shirts. (He capitalized on the success of the film "Titanic." He printed a picture of the boat with the words, "It Sank! Get Over It!" What a way to make a buck, but he has an agency and I don't.)

PR Week Magazine has described Peter as “redefining the art of networking,” and that was obvious in his energetic, presentation. While he know Peter for his ability to use press relations, marketing and advertising to get his word out, he is particularly adept at connecting with people. His talk inspired me to dig a little deeper into using social media. Here are some suggestions:

  1. DETERMINE YOUR OBJECTIVES - Do you want to find a job? Find customers? Find employees? Build friendships? All worthy goals. As in most communications, know your objectives.
  2. IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET - Once you know who you want to reach, what do you want them to know about you? What should they do with this information? And how will they find you?
  3. MEASURE HOW MUCH INFORMATION YOU WANT TO SHARE - Think about how much information you want to share. How much detail will you go into? Do you want to share private information? Decide, and then stick with it.
  4. PICK YOUR STYLE, AND BE CONSISTENT WITH IT - If you want to be approachable, write in the first person. If you want to be more formal, write in the third person.Whatever style you want, project it.
  5. DON'T FORGET IT'S THE WEB; THINK IN TERMS OF KEY WORDS - As in other web-based marketing, you need to use the phrases that are most relevant to your objectives and your target audience. Google searches social media, too.

I know this is high level, so I encourage you to search your various social media and check out their capabilities. I can only tell you that I have connected with long-lost friends and colleagues through the social media, and I have made new friends and contacts. I get lots of questions answered, and I share my own experiences (yeah, like I need even the slightest provocation to express my opinion on something). And then get out to some parties, shake some hands, and also connect in person.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Choices in Our Voices

Now here's a different story to consider: A Canadian woman started speaking in a new accent after suffering a stroke. It seems that there is a condition called "foreign-accent syndrome," which results from neurological events. The condition causes vocal distortions, and voila! The speaker has a new, "foreign" accent. In this lady's case, it was an accent from a region with which the patient had no real previous contact. And even though she has undergone speech therapy, the accent survives years later.

As someone who has suffered from a Philadelphia accent my whole life (yes, I use "suffer" with tongue firmly in cheek), it makes me wonder -- Do I speak the way I do because of linguistics habits? Is it due to my exposure to others? Or is it related to my brain's wiring?

Is speaking skill even tied to intelligence or brain function? I always love Orson Welles's voice and speaking ability. Was that due to his superior intellect, first evidenced as a child prodigy, later proven by his brilliant directorial debut at age 25 in Citizen Kane?

In my mind, this point is somewhat like the argument of "nature versus nurture," the question of whether heredity or environment shapes us. I have always come down on the side of nature -- i.e., our innate qualities trump our surroundings -- and I believe this is further evidence. A cerebral event reshaped this woman's brain, and her speech changed. Based on this, I feel that we all pretty much retain the voices we get, barring minor refinements from coaching. And like many other factors in our lives, we can recognize and appreciate the uniqueness of our individual voices. Gone are the days when potential broadcasters need to speak like each other. Now we can sound like ourselves, as long as we are understandable.

What do you think? Do we have diversity in our voices, our vocal patterns and our speaking styles? I'd love to hear particularly from speech pathologists and other professionals.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Diamond Days - Lessons From a Star

Last night I saw Neil Diamond in concert, and let's say it flat out - he was terrific. I must admit I went into the concert with some trepidation. I have seen Diamond perform like a parody of himself, growling through songs, sometimes "talk-singing" them like a modern day Rex Harrison. But he was in fine form last night. Including his encore, he sang energetically for two hours straight. (As an amateur singer myself, I can testify that this is no mean feat for a 67-year-old performer.) He adjusted his singing to compensate for the fact that he seems to have lost part of his low end of his vocal range - an unusual occurrence for a mature man; it's usually the high notes that go first.

Diamond was supported by top-notch instrumentalists and back-up singers, as well as savvy staging and lighting that was always interesting without being intrusive. Even though he recently had his first number one album of his career, "Home Before Dark," he sang very few songs from it, sticking largely with his hits. The concert was a celebration of his long and distinguished career as a songwriter/singer, delivered with fondness for his loyal audience and youthful exuberance. In short, he sounded like the Neil Diamond of old, rather than "the same old Neil Diamond."
I often gain inspiration from performers who teach me a few lessons that I can apply to my public speaking. Here is what I took away:

  1. STICK TO YOUR STRENGTHS -- Generally speaking, Diamond has changed his style very little over the years, absent his awful Christmas albums and his pandering evocation of the movie "E.T." with the equally awful song, "Heartlight." You know what you get with him, and that has made him a reliable, steadfast star in the theatrical firmament. (Refer back to similar lessons in my posting on the great Tony Bennett.) Similarly, we should all find our own strengths as speakers and emphasize them. If you're a good writer, write excellent content that will give your audience phrases to remember. If you're funny, deliver your message with humor. If you're down to earth, an "everyperson," in a manner of speaking, then speak plainly rather than in a stentorian style that does not suit you.

  2. DANCE WITH THE GIRL WHO BROUGHT YOU -- Ninety percent of the songs Diamond sang last night were his hits. He sang no more than three songs from "Home Before Dark," which were received well and politely. But when the familiar intros for his biggest hits were introduced, whether it was "Sweet Caroline," "I Am, I Said," or "Coming to America," the crowd was on their feet. Those were the songs they really wanted to hear. Similarly, as we learn which content works for us, we should repeat them unapologetically, though cognizant of the need to package it in a fresh manner.

  3. SHOW APPRECIATION FOR YOUR AUDIENCE BY BEING PROFESSIONAL -- Many former stars have been known to sleepwalk through their performances as though the audience should be honored by their mere presence. Diamond had no opening act and sang nonstop. He also obviously prepared for this show with a tight band, by keeping his voice in shape, and knowing the order of his songs and the lyrics down cold. (Don't take that for granted; some of the aforementioned "legends" have been known to be quite sloppy in this regard, and their fans have sometimes shamefully let them get away with it.) It was obvious that the crowd felt satisfied with what they got. How about you as a speaker? Do you have your material memorized? Is your audio-visual support working, or will it be one more distraction? Do you know your stage well enough that you can use it effortlessly? This is all part of your package as a speaker.

As always, I advise that we speakers look to a variety of artists in other media for tips that will enhance our abilities as speakers. I believe that such attention to excellence can only raise the level of our profession

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Experts Should Be the Sources of Our Information

Oh, how we love to skewer our experts. It makes us feel so... superior. After all, aren't we the country who loves to pick our Presidents based on how much we'd like to have a beer with them? Of course we do. On the other hand, those smart, confident guys, who look and act Presidential are just so elitist!

Just recently, Senator John McCain got all pissy because economists put down his gasoline tax abatement for the summer as a gimmick. He harrumphed that these were the same economists who missed the subprime mortgage mess and besides, "if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still couldn't reach a conclusion." No attribution to George Bernard Shaw for that hoary chestnut.

On the other hand, let's look at the recent cover story of FORTUNE magazine. It features Meredith Whitney, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., who predicted the credit meltdown a year ago. She called downturns at Citigroup, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers and United Bank of Scotland. Hence, the article's author calls her "the most influential stock analyst in America."

Now she calls for even worse trouble ahead - a big recession down the road. Who am I to believe - an obvious expert with a proven history of success or a legislator given to rehashing a century old gag?

My point is that many of us are so given to believing only what we want to believe that we disregard the people who should really know. Senator McCain was absolutely wrong in his assertion - I read of MANY economists and financial experts were scratching their heads in wonder at the huge run ups in mortgages to overextended home buyers. (Apparently, Phil Gramm was not one of them, but I digress....) And back in the 1990s, those same observers saw that the tech boom was unfounded, correctly predicting its eventual crash.

Why believe the testimonies of Government insiders about the run-up to the war in Iraq when a fat blowhard on the radio who acts as my surrogate blusters otherwise? Let's set the Wayback Machine even further back, Sherman, to the early 1980s, when Meryl Streep raised all kinds of concerns about the chemical Alar in our kids' apple juice. Her high-profile Senate testimony, caused a lot of concern and knitted brows. I grant Ms. Streep the best of intentions, but that particular case turned out to be much ado about nothing. I submit it would have not gone so far had it not been for her celebrity.

The danger is a Gresham's Law of knowledge, where bad information drives out the good. I am hearing this occasionally in Toastmasters' speeches, where up-and-coming speakers are making dogmatic statements with no reference to their sources. This practice is bound to be a habit for which they will suffer when they speak in the big, bad real world. (To their credit, I am hearing other good and experienced evaluators catch these misstatements and challenge the speakers.) Certainly we are hearing it in the body politic, where there are more independent fact checkers reviewing public statements than ever before.

So for all of us who make our living communicating, along with other nascent communicators, we should all remember:
  1. Respect Real Knowledge - look to the true experts in their given fields, who usually do not include actors, broadcasters and religious leaders (unless, of course, these people are discussing acting, broadcasting and theology, respectively)
  2. Research - look for your facts; don't presume that you have them already.
  3. Fact Check - challenge even your most cherished beliefs.
  4. Have Others Review Your Work Beforehand - better to have your friends find your errors than your foes.