Monday, December 28, 2009

The Rocchi Awards for Best and Worst Communicators of 2009

It is that time again, Dear Readers. We are close to the end of the year, and I am ready to crown my best and worst communicators of 2009. There was an abundance of candidates for the Rocchi Award for Worst Communicator, while it was harder to find effective communication. So, for good or for ill, here are my choices, as voted upon by my panel of experts. (Okay, I am the panel, but hey, I spend a lot of time studying communication, so I’m as qualified as any group of people!)

WORST COMMUNICATOR – Dishonorable Mention

My goodness, but the poor and ill-advised communication from a wide array of politicians was stunning this year. Here is a sampling of ne’er-say-wells:

  • President Barack Obama, last year’s best communicator, relinquishing his title through his inability to articulate the case for healthcare reform, allowing his opponents to highjack the discussion.
  • Sarah Palin, last year’s runner-up for worst communicator, with her ham-handed explanation of why she was resigning as governor of Alaska. She couldn’t blame that one on Katie Couric.
  • Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, resurrecting long-discarded Hispanic stereotypes by saying to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings, "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do." Shades of Ricky Ricardo! With that phrase (combined with a condescending tone), he played right into the worst stereotypes of the Republican Party as an exclusive country club.


Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California, was roundly criticized for speaking against gay marriage in the question-and-answer portion of the Miss USA beauty contest. Personally, I thought she should have been able to say whatever she believed in that situation and inject some honesty in that otherwise faux and homogenized event. But she quickly overstayed her welcome and became a tempest in a D-cup. This self-described Christian complained incessantly about the attempts to silence her as she appeared ad nauseum in the same “mainstream media” she sought to denounce. If she was so persecuted, why did we see so much of her?

Speaking of seeing so much of her… (segue to the sarcasm…)

It became hard to reconcile her squeaky clean, church-going image with the nude photos that surfaced, which was later followed by a video of her “pleasuring” herself. Miss Prejean, remember the Biblical injunction against those who would cast the first stone? No, didn’t think you did. Watch your step next time as you ascend that soapbox.


Remember how Spider-Man was advised “With great power comes great responsibility?” Well, NBC, the National Broadcasting Company, officially abdicated its responsibility as a broadcaster by eliminating quality from their lineup. Slowly but surely, the network has become a purveyor of pap by concentrating on weight loss competitions, one-time events and other inferior programs. However, their greatest crime was to give up five hours of quality programming every week, Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m. and turning it over to Jay Leno and his pale imitation of the Tonight Show. I am not a Leno basher by any means (I met the man in person once, and he was an absolute prince), but it was unconscionable to give up prime-time real estate to his un-entertaining variety show while a cable network is picking up NBC’s discards like “Southland.”

Even Jay looks guilty and weary on his show. He probably is aware of the crime for which he is an accomplice. NBC is creating a template for the demise of the once-great networks. Maybe Comcast will treat this jewel with more respect if the FCC approves the acquisition.


I wrote earlier in 2009 – in the same post criticizing Senator Tom Coburn — that “Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a model for his party, and perhaps all citizens, in his decorum (during the Sotomayor hearings). He clearly had issues with Sotomayor, but he was able to express them in a courtly and respectful manner, calling to mind a level of discourse that we once had in this country until we Rush-ed in another direction. And as a former Judge Advocate General (JAG, like the TV show), he was well-qualified to question Sotomayor on legal issues.”

Joe Klein of Time magazine, in his own year-end review, also gave Graham kudos: “He faced down his home-state party on climate change and the need for civility in politics.”

In a year marked by knee-jerk partisanship, Graham used high-minded language to rise above the fray.


Let me compare two scenarios:

  1. A certain leading golfer is revealed to be having a number of extramarital affairs, and he loses his standing with the public as well as a number of lucrative endorsements.
  2. A famous TV star is threatened with the disclosure of several relationships with staff members. Said star meets with the extortionist, has him arrested and, in turn, shoots up to number one in his time slot.

David Letterman, along with his press advisors and his lawyers gave us a masterpiece in press relations this year. Lynette Rice of Entertainment Weekly wrote that “Letterman has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to preempt the scandal by getting ahead of it, both by using his sincere mea culpas and by poking fun at his predicament.” Indeed, Letterman controlled the situation rather than letting it control him. As a result, he and his show are leading in key audience demographics for the first time in years.

Tiger Woods is not the only person who could have learned from this approach. Presidents Nixon and Clinton could have benefited from it, too.

I wish the good had outweighed the bad in 2009, but let's hope for better in 2010. Let's all do what we can to improve communication in the second decade of the 21st Century.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Celebrating the Birth of Christ

It is the morning of Christmas Eve. The neighbors’ houses are brightly decorated, the cards are mailed, and our gifts are wrapped. My wife, Marie, is preparing a seven-fish dinner Christmas Eve dinner, an Italian-American tradition that she has adopted for our family over the last 10 years. But in this moment in the early hours, I find my time to reflect on what this season means to me.

Like many men of my Boomer generation, I struggled with religion, particularly my Catholic Church. I dealt with the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that exist in all religions, yet I found myself always drawing back to church and my desire to lead an ethical life. I saw so-called religious people — many to whom I am related — profess disdain, if not outright hatred, for people who were different from them. When I talked about helping someone who was down, the response that shot back at me was, “Who helped ME?”

Through them, I questioned, “Is this how people who call themselves Christians are supposed to act?”

Finally, somehow inspired, I found I could come to terms with the role of Christ in my life by concentrating on a single passage from the New Testament (John 15:12), in which He says:

“This is my commandment,
that ye love one another,
as I have loved you.”

That single sentence is everything for me. It informs my thoughts and actions. It causes me to ask myself how I should treat my fellow humans, regardless of their colors. Regardless of their facial features. With no mind of their gender. And without judgment of whom they choose to love.

When I am in want, I hope that someone will reach out to me, whether I need a consideration, an opportunity or a kind word. Do I, in turn, give my own gifts to others? Do I give from my abundance or from my leftovers?

When someone commits a wrong, how willing am I to forgive?

Am I even willing to let another car in front of me when I am in a long line?

When I vote, is it in habitual response to an ingrained ideology, or am I really choosing someone who will make life better for all of us through the judicious use of public service?

Years ago, when I worked as a young intern on a local religious program, I had the pleasure of meeting spiritual counselor Tony Campolo. He has always been unlike most evangelical Christian ministers in that he spoke in common language, spreading a message of love and humor. In recent years, I saw him on a national political talk show when the subject was religion in public life. He said —and I’m paraphrasing here, as I don’t remember his exact words — that nowhere in the New Testament did Jesus comment on gay marriage, prayer in school, or keeping our wealth. However, He did speak frequently of looking after one another. No one else on the panel could respond to Tony or dispute him.

As I have experienced more than 50 Christmases and am well past the ephemeral enjoyment of toys, I give much more thought on the birth we are supposedly celebrating. The Jesus Christ I know, love and admire is not a figure of retribution but one of love, a traveler and teacher who reached out to all. I see Him more often in the actions of community workers than in those of politicians, more sincerely in Mother Theresa than in televangelists. I hear His message more strongly in Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” than I do in many sermons and hymns.

In this year-end celebration that is common to so many of our cultures, let’s reflect on our roles in this imperfect world. If you profess to follow a Perfect Master like Jesus, Buddha or Mohandas Gandhi, this can be a season of renewal and a time to recommit to their principles.

I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Christmas Song from my Group

Here is a performance of O Holy Night by A Cappella Pops, a singing group of which I am a proud member. Enjoy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

10 Principles for 2010

In my pile of loose notes, I came across this list of "10 Principles" from hotel heir Barron Hilton. Wise words for a new year:

1. Find your own particular talent.
2. Be big. Think big. Act big. Dream big.
3. Be honest.
4. Live with enthusiasm.
5. Don't let your possessions possess you.
6. Don't worry about your problems.
7. Don't cling to the past.
8. Look up to people when you can look down to no one.
9. Assume your full share of responsibility.
10. Pray consistently and confidently.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don't Get Burned by Holiday Toasts

Ah, it's the holidays. Time for lights and libations, presents and parties. The chances are that you will be asked to make a toast at an organization event or company party. Here are some tips to make it memorable but not deplorable.
  1. It's not about you. -- Everyone in the room is enjoying the holidays, not just you. Whatever you say, make it about them rather than yourself as often as you can. Example:
    "This is a time when we all enjoy being together," instead of
    "This is a time when I enjoy getting together with friends."
    In other words, use the words "we," "us," and "you" whenever possible, and the pronoun "I" as seldom as possible.
  2. This is a time of good will, not payback -- Sure, Fred the Photocopier incorrectly collated your presentation to the Finance team, or Shirley on the board of elections miscounted the ballots for Rotarian of the Year. But this is when we're supposed to have peace on earth and so on. Be upbeat and cheerful. Don't poison the atmosphere. I guarantee you that people will remember that as surely as if you had poisoned the punch.
  3. Be considerate of all your colleagues. -- Sorry to ask you to face the truth, but not everyone is celebrating Christmas. Yes, as a practicing Christian, I am truly thrilled about the coming of the Christ child, but perhaps your co-worker with the turban observes something different that is just as meaningful to him. The end of the calendar year is a common time of celebration for MANY cultures. Be thoughtful.
  4. Make sure you are clear-headed. -- There may be liquor being served at your party (a wild guess on my part). I know that alcohol can sneak up on me at times, even if I don't drink much. If you are not up to the task physically or mentally, bow out. You may earn an unfair reputation that you will never live down.
  5. Keep it brief. -- The cliche is true; brevity IS the soul of wit. Don't go on and on, making your toast an event unto itself. It is just a bit of holiday spice, not the main course. Treat the moment as a privilege rather than a birthright. If they want a long holiday drama, they will turn on the Hallmark channel.
Have fun during this most wonderful time of the year, to quote the venerable Andy Williams. By the way, click here to learn how to enjoy your company's holiday party without risk -- wise words from my good friend, Dr. Bill Lampton, the Complete Communicator.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

QUESTION: How long should a speech be? ANSWER: Just long enough

There is nothing quite like making a decision on the fly.

I gave a speech recently to a branch of the National Association of Credit Managers in Tampa, Florida, and I was confident that I was positioned to succeed. True to my own advice, I had met members of the group the night before, shared "happy hour" with them, broke bread that night, and had breakfast with them the next morning. They got to know me and developed a comfort level with me, for which I am grateful.
I was invited to speak about change management, the subject of my book, "The Six P's of Change." I was advised that this is a profession beset by change, where people are doing more work with fewer resources. My allotted time was 90 minutes.
I could tell we got off to a good start. They were engaged and asking questions. They laughed at the funny parts (thank goodness!) and participated in the instructional sections. It was going well.
Still, as time went on, I could see them fading a bit. "Well, it's after lunch, so their blood sugar is dropping," I told myself. And, yes, it was the day after a late night out. But there was no denying that they were drifting away like Leonardo DiCaprio from Kate Winslet at the end of Titanic.
I looked at my timer. I had logged 45 minutes, half my allotted time.
I believe I ended up making the best decision I could. I wound up the speech. I referred to material that summed up my premise, first an inspiring true story of triumph over adversity, and then a humorous story that drew hearty laughter.
My applause was warm, loud and, I believe, heartfelt.
My client, who was running the conference called for a break. After I sold a couple of books to attendees, he said to me, "I think you closed at the right time. I could feel that you were losing them."
I would have preferred for him to say, "Oh, Pat, you left the stage much too soon. You could have gone on for another hour." No such luck. But he did validate my judgment to wrap up when I did.
A week later, he sent me feedback from the group: a high grade and no negative comments,
"which is pretty good," he said. "Most speakers speak on specific credit topics and (those subjects) rate higher than a soft skill presentation." In other words, the attendees tend to be much more interested in presentations that pertain to their credit businesses, so my topic went over quite well.
When I was producing video full time, the client would invariably ask, "How much will my budget be?" Many producers like me would answer, "How long is a piece of string?" Similarly, as a speaker or presenter, you need to determine not only how much time is appropriate for you to make your point, but how much the audience could bear. Keep that second point in mind, and I am confident your odds of success will improve greatly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our Wondrous Bodies, Our Beautiful Minds

Yesterday, my wife and I visited a local exhibition of Body Worlds, the exhibition of preserved human bodies, which has become a global phenomenon. We enjoyed it very much as an educational experience, and it answered many health questions that I've had over the years. These include the differences between healthy and diseased lungs, how many blood vessels we may have in a part of our body, and what an actual nerve looks like.
However, as you might guess, I was still curious about our minds... not our physical brains, but our abilities to think, reason, remember, feel, and more. Body Worlds shows bodies in all their splendor -- very fit bodies -- but I have often wondered how we can have fit minds in our advancing years. (Sadly, I have seen many durable bodies outlast the brains that they encase.)
Luckily, there was a representative from the Alzheimer's Association, and I asked how we can exercise our minds as well as our physiques. She smiled and handed me a brochure titled "10 ways to maintain your brain. © ." The expected advice was there, such as taking care of your physical health (e.g., controlling sugars, blood pressure, and more), having a healthy diet, and maintaining healthy life habits.
Because this is a copyrighted creation, I will link you directly to the the pdf of "10 ways to maintain your brain. © ," out of respect for the Alzheimer's Association. In the meantime, I look forward to our continued, healthy communication for a long, long time.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lessons from (a month :-/ ) on the Speaking Circuit

Wow! I can't believe the date. It is already a month since my last post. Thankfully, this has been for a good reason. I had a very busy November speaking to a wide variety of people. Early in the month, The National Association of Collection Managers (NACM) flew me to Tampa, FL, to speak to a group that specializes in healthcare, and I spoke about how to prepare for the inevitable changes in their market, drawing on my own experience in that industry. After I returned, Right Management had me speak to their candidates in two different offices about how to stay prepared for variations in their employment. Lastly, I went to the U.S. headquarters of Siemens Healthcare to address their women's support network. (I was gratified to learn later that the meeting was opened up to all employees, and they drew their largest audience ever. I thank them all for their participation.)
Now that I am back in the saddle of cyberspace, I will have many things to write about, given the experiences of the last few weeks. However, here are a few quick hits.
  1. I was right about introducing yourself to your audience. Not that I ever doubted it, but as I wrote in my Oct. 27 blog, Forget the Grand Entrance, it's always good to get to know your audience first and to let them know you in return. Normally, I simply introduce myself to members of the audience on the day of my presentation. But the night before I was scheduled to speak in Tampa, I saw a group of people at the hotel's "happy hour," and I asked them if they were part of NACM. They were, and they welcomed me to join them. After drinks, I joined them for dinner, and in the morning I had breakfast with many of them. It made a big difference when I stood to speak to them, and it showed in the warm feedback I received.
  2. You never know where or when you will find a future audience. I spoke to a group of people who are in a job search about how to handle and conquer change, and while they were generally receptive to my message, one guy kept leaning back, obviously skeptical. "Pat, these are easy things to say, but are they really realistic," he asked. His timing was perfect, and I transitioned into my segment on predicting the future, including my own success in predicting my own job loss, thereby preparing for it by starting my own consulting practice. He joined right in after that, apparently satisfied that I was credible. Afterward, he approached me with a smile and asked if I would address his networking group for job seekers.
  3. Work your own life into your speeches, and you will get unforeseen benefits. When I started my presentation on adapting to change to the Siemens group, I paused for a moment, then said: "I had a different opening for you until 12 hours ago. My wife and I left a singing performance, turned on our cell phones, and learned that our son had his first auto accident." After a collective groan of sympathy, I assured them that he and all those involved were okay, but that the accident caused several hardships we had to address: reporting the accident to our insurance company, figuring out our transportation now that one car was out of commission, et cetera. The moment was real, and it connected them to my subject -- and me to them -- in a unique way.
It was a great, busy couple of weeks that were fulfilling for me, as I hope they were for my audiences. I do regret that they took me from you for a while, but I look forward to sharing my lessons with you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Having Your Audience Talk Back to You

Did you ever have a one-way conversation with someone? Think of the times that you were cornered at a cocktail party by someone who was selling you something or sharing pictures of their vacation to Wisconsin. Pretty boring, isn't it? Perhaps even painful...reminds me of the movie Take the Money and Run, when Woody Allen's jailed character was tortured by being locked in a cell with an insurance salesman.
This is why I've decided to take questions throughout most of my speeches rather than wait until the end. I think you show your audience a certain disrespect when you expect them to sit quietly and passively while you talk to them. Also, your presentation may become that one-way, dead-end street to which I alluded at the top... all you, all the time, and maybe sounding like the same-old, same-old to your listeners. On the other hand, generating audience participation is a way of spicing up your talk.
Is this a hard and fast rule? Absolutely not. Sometimes it's impractical due to the circum- stances of your talk. Perhaps the room is too large and the audience is too big to do this. Or it may be inappropriate because of the nature of your presentation.
If you are delivering an emotion-packed speech, such as a eulogy or fund-raising appeal,
you certainly don't want to break the mood, or your spell, by having the audience interrupt. But, in many other situations, talking with the audience more one-on-one can be desirable.
In my previous post, I mentioned how I went around the room prior to the start of a recent presentation, introduced myself to the attendees as their speaker for the day, and got their names. That helped later as I stood at the front of the room. When I asked leading questions, and they showed interest in responding, I was usually able to call them by their names, connecting with them. In one case, I told a story that drew an amused reaction from a man in the back. I gestured toward him and called, "You liked that, didn't you, Lou?" He explained to me and the rest of the room why he had found that anecdote meaningful.
Note: He also bought my book after the meeting was over.

I recommend a book titled Preventing Death by Lecture, by Sharon Bowman. I met Sharon only once at a local meeting of the National Speakers Association, but I found her to be one of the most memorable speakers I ever heard. She gives lots of fun tips on how to engage your audience so they are involved in your presentation and are more likely to remember you and what you said afterward. I encourage you to check her out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Forget the Grand Entrance

The lights dim.
Smoke envelopes the stage. A hush falls over the crowd.
There are strains of classical music, and then Stravinsky blasts out of the p.a. system.
Suddenly, there is a flash of light and there stands...

This is a dramatic and powerful way to bring a rock-and-roll star onto the stage in an arena, but it's much too much for many speakers. Most entertainers are there to WOW you and blow you away. But the relationship with a featured speaker is much different. As speakers, we engage our audiences personally, talking with them one-on-one the best we can in order to connect with them. We should take the stage much differently.
I had a very pleasant experience recently speaking to a local civic group. I arrived early as every speaker should to get a feel for the room, including the area from which I would be speaking. But there was an added benefit, as I was able to greet personally as many of the people in attendance that I could. I shook their hands and introduced myself: "I'm Pat Rocchi, and I'll be your speaker today." I tried my best to remember their names.
The meeting began with an invocation from Pastor Paul, a local minister, who talked about being thankful for the bounty of the season. Note to self: Remember those words for when I get up to speak.
The introduction I wrote for myself served a similar, personal purpose, thanks to advice I received from Craig Valentine: He advises us to write an introduction that tells the audience what they will get out of the speech, NOT a litany of our great accomplishments. In that way, the audience knows what's in it for them.
My talk to the group was about how to handle change, based on my book, "The Six P's of Change." I did research on the local economy and the people who would be in the room, so I was able to make my talk applicable to their jobs and businesses. When I opened, I referred back to Pastor Paul's invocation, reminding them that "for everything, there is a season, and we are in a season of change."
How did it go? Well, at the end, three people bought my book based on their interest from hearing my speech. (The man who brought me in was amazed. "I've been here for 20 years, and I never saw an author sell a book to our members.") Another woman handed me her card and asked if I would be interested in speaking to the local Chamber of Commerce. "I guarantee you that you will get more time than you got here," suggesting that a longer, more detailed speech to her group would be a good thing.
Before I started speaking professionally, I sometimes found meeting the speaker at the front of the room, introudcing her/himself, to be an affectation. But I've since learned that such personal engagement pays off. It certainly was a plus for me on that day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

From Speaking English to Singing Italian

I'm part of an a cappella singing group called A Cappella Pops. It's another way I use my voice, singing songs without any instrumental accompaniment alongside 30 of my closest friends. We've sung at Carnegie Hall and the White House, and the group toured Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, so, yeah, we take our fun pretty seriously.

The group needed a back-up for our version of "Time to Say Goodbye" (aka "Con te Partiro"). It is a pop standard made famous by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, though he is also known for singing it in a duet with Sarah Brightman. It is a very romantic song, made more so by the Italian lyrics.

The usual male lead for this song can't make an upcoming concert, so we needed a back up for him. I decided to try out. I figured I could handle the lyrics because I speak Italian -- not fluently, but I know all the pronunciations, so I can repeat them pretty convincingly. Furthermore, because I understand the language, I would actually know the meaning of what I was singing. This is no ABBA-like phonetic read-through.

However, I had one challenge: The song is generally sung by a tenor, while I am a baritone, a deeper voice. (Think of it as a challenge similar to fitting a Sumo wrestler into a kayak.) So I had not only to learn the Italian in time, but I had to push my voice to the higher pitch.

I practiced with two different vocal coaches, then with the woman who sings the other lead. The beginning parts were fine, as they fit right into my range. And while my voice is not operatic like Bocelli's, I am somewhat of a crooner, like my fellow Italian Americans Perry Como and Dean Martin. So I was giving the song my own unique spin.

Then came the night I had to audition before the whole group. I had been practicing about an hour prior to rehearsal, and I probably overdid it, so my voice was somewhat shot.

There was the matter of my nerves. This song is very meaningful to A Cappella Pops. I needed to prove I was worthy of the lead. Finally, I had been suffering from a cold and a post-nasal drip or some such irritation to my throat. This could not be pretty.

The song began. Deb, the woman who sings the female lead/Sarah Brightman part, is a trained contralto, and her voice is just lovely. She is a tough act to follow. But I had to follow her.

Remember those old print ads that read, "They laughed when I sat at the piano. But when I started to play..."? Well, the group was surprised at the power in my voice. (Hell, I was surprised! This was my first I sang the song in front of a group.) It went well, and the Italian flowed.

Then came the last high notes, the ones written for a tenor. With a combination of nerves and the cold, my throat was as narrow as a clogged artery. I couldn't squeeze out a note or squeak out a sound. Luckily, Deb blew the sound out of the room.

But the next week was better. My vocal production was even more controlled, and I sang the final notes in a falsetto. It was a definite improvement.

In the end, I took on this challenge because of lessons I learned as a speaker, which I applied here:
  1. Go outside your comfort zone. If you are known as a funny speaker, try to be more serious at times. If you're humor is dry as a bone, make 'em laugh, as Donald O'Connor sang.
  2. Be good to your voice. I taxed my vocal cords, and I paid the price. Our voice is our best, most valuable tool.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. I've said this before in previous posts. There is no substitute for this.
So on October 18, I make my Italian debut. I'll let you know how I do. Maybe I'll even add a file of my performance. In the meantime, think of the new vocal things you can do when you set your mind to it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"The September Issue" Offers Lessons in the Creation of Communication

I am a sucker for works about the creative process. For example, the most compelling sequences for me in the 1996 film Shine were not about pianist David Helfgott's mental illness, but the cinematic portrayal of his artistic development while a young man. One of my favorite books is "In All His Glory," Sally Bedell Smith's mesmerizing account of how William S. Paley built CBS. Now I have a new favorite film in this oeuvre of the accounts of creativity. It is The September Issue, a documentary about the creation of Vogue magazine's eponymous and annual magnum opus, its biggest, most influential issue each year and a staple of the fashion industry.

The ostensible focus of The September Issue is Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the American Vogue. However, I found that the central theme of this film is the power of the creative process and how it prevails under strong leadership and the support of a team comprising capable, talent colleagues.

Ms. Wintour was famously characterized (read: caricatured) by Meryl Streep in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada. In that film, Wintour’s fictional counterpart comes off as an imperious shrew. But, to my eyes, she comes off more favorably and sympathetically in The September Issue.

Wintour is as fashionable as her any of the models she features, and she is just as savvy about how to use her looks to her advantage. Her print dresses are cut to compliment a youthful figure that belies her age (60). Even a turn of her head and a smile are calculated, bouncing her hair coquettishly as she negotiates with customers and designers.

Yet if you look closely enough, Wintour’s face becomes the cover shot for her own anxiety. She clearly labors over this issue. She is a thorough professional who knows what she wants instinctively and effortlessly. In one scene, she rifles through photographs and analyzes them at computerlike speed, rejecting many of them knowingly. It is judgment built from years of experience, and it is a testimony to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” theory," which he offered in his recent book, Outliers: If you practice your craft over enough time, you are likely to known as a master in it.

Wintour also provides inspiration in her surroundings. Her office and home are as well crafted as her publication. They are impeccable in their taste and design, festooned with photographs and graphics that are not only pleasing to the eye but also inspiration. For example, one wall hosts an iconic image of Pablo Picasso by photographer Irving Penn. It reminds the viewer of the power and distinction of an expansive vision.

If there is such a thing as a breakout star in a documentary film, The September Issue has one in Grace Coddington. Coddington rose from the ranks of models to become Vogue’s creative director. She knows what works and does not like being second-guessed. (In one scene, Coddington openly laments how Wintour threw out some of her favorite photographs for the issue in the scene I cited earlier.) But Coddington is also as wily as her boss, clearly manipulating the film’s crew to do her own bidding at one point and laughing at them for it afterwards.
In the meantime, one must note that Vogue must be doing something right. I learned in this film that the magazine was founded in 1892. How can it remain relevant for nearly 120 years? The answer is found in this instructional film:

  1. Pay attention to detail. The cliche is true. The devil is in the details; she doesn't only wear Prada.
  2. Commit to your craft. Know every aspect of it and become the best at it
  3. Maintain focus. Know your end goal, and stick to that

For those of us who aspire to creating communication vehicles of lasting value, there is much to learn from The September Issue.

If you see it, let me know what you think

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three Topics I'm Not Touching

Here are topics that you can expect I will NOT discuss, as I have learned to pick my battles after about a year writing this blog:
  1. JON AND KATE GOSSELIN -- I wrote once about these two losers and their craving for attention earlier this year, and that's enough. I think media professionals who devote ink or air time to these nattering narcissists should be ashamed of themselves. I don't care to be part of this blather. Let them die the death of disinterest that they deserve.
  2. THE DAVID LETTERMAN WORK SCANDAL -- There's enough being said about this situation that I can't add a thing to the discussion. I'll let others duke it out. Besides, no matter how you feel about ol' Dave, whether one thinks that he is a weasel or that his actions are none of our business, a consensus has emerged: He and his team handled it perfectly from a public relations viewpoint by getting ahead of the issue and taking control. That is the one communication issue that would be an appropriate focus for this blog, so what else can one say about that?
    However, on the other hand, there is...
  3. PRESIDENT OBAMA'S NOBEL PRIZE FOR PEACE -- ... and this discussion will go on for a long time, I assure you. Repeat after me:

    This blog is about communication, not about politics.

    This blog is about how effectively public figures get their messages out, not the
    content of their messages.

    Any blog, including mine, becomes a blank screen upon which often people project their own politics, regardless of the content of the blog. If I were to open the proverbial floor to this topic of President Obama's prize, it won't be pretty, as rational discussion is sure to give way to bipartisan bickering.
    I am not looking to create a battleground here; my goal is to build a forum. That's why I so seldom respond to readers who disagree with me. I want everyone to feel free to express themselves. The only exceptions I make are for the sake of clarity. If I feel either that a reader has misconstrued what I said, or if it's apparent that I did not make my point clear in the first place, I'll comment on a comment. Otherwise, feel free to come here and vent.
I look forward to speaking with you soon on the topic of communication in all its forms, through all the media available to us. Just don't expect communication on these three items.

Unless some new information comes up. ;-)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why We Like, Even LOVE, the Social Media

Everybody Tweets, or so it seems. Facebook has gone well beyond its collegiate roots, and now it's largest-growing demographic comprises people above age 54 (much to the chagrin of people like my 23-year-old son, who thinks we Boomers have ruined FB). Business people worth their salt are on LinkedIn, where the average annual income is north of $93,000. "What's wrong?," some ask. "Don't people just talk anymore?"
Sure they do. They talk all the time, more than ever. And they're doing it with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn!
I will tell that I am thrilled about these so-called "social media." On one hand -- the less important side of the matter -- I am enjoying it as a professional communicator. All these outlets continue to help me sell copies of my book. I can inform my friends, family and colleagues of little developments, such as interviews or developments in its distribution. I can also keep many people up-to-date on every my consulting activities. And I now have a global reach, just as you do, whether or not you choose to use it.
But even this mercenary side of me, the part of me that likes to eat and keep a roof over my head, is not as thrilled about these media as the sentimental side of me is. That's why they're described as SOCIAL! My life has changed since I joined Facebook about two months. (Hey, no one ever accused me of being an early adopter.) I have come in contact with friends from literally 40 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I had breakfast with my partners in crime, Vicki and Barbara, from college, concerts and other indiscretions of my youth. When got together, we saw photos of each others children for the first, learned how we disconnected, and then learned how to stay reconnected.
I am in contact with my first love, the brilliant blond who broke my heart but taught me how to love, preparing me for the 30+ year old marriage I am in now. I can stay in contact with my long-lost family in Italy, sharing my life with them in ways our parents could only dream of.
Even the son of my best friend from childhood is connected to me.
And why, I asked myself, is this important? Why do we have the need to do this? I turn to my friend and advisor, Frank Sergi, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and heart-warming mensch for some insight. He offered these thoughts.
"I remember reading years ago about a Jewish belief that said one is not dead until everyone who remembers that person is gone as well. Thus the grave site overgrown with weeds is that of a truly dead person. The person with flowers on their grave is still alive. It makes us feel very much alive when we realize that we have not been forgotten. If you are part of someone's memory, you have been incorporated by that person because you have left an impression upon them. In essence you are now a small part of them, and therefore less alone and less invisible in this world.
"I think this is a significant part of the Facebook phenomenon. People need to feel that they are part of other's consciousness."
But what about this need to reconnect rather than simply being known, I asked Frank. "I believe has to do with nostalgia," he responded. "A reliving of one's past that is is simultaneously recalled by the parties involved can be pleasurable even when it may be an embarrassing memory. Ultimately, we are social beings needing social contact and connections. We are such a transient society that we long for connections to our past. The Internet allows us to do that now, in a limited way of course."
And of course, this fact has long been true, even when we weren't so transient. It has remained so with every technological advance. Yes, people liked to visit in person at one time. But that was when we all loved closer to each other. When the telephone came into existence, did that mean that they cared less? Of course not; it was simply one more tool for connection. That was eventually supplanted by email, and now we have the social media. Thank goodness for all of these opportunities to widen our circle.

Okay, gotta run. I need to fulfill a primal need and distribute this virtual valentine to people I care about. And believe me, if you are receiving this, it's because I care about you, too.

What are YOUR stories about your experiences with the social media? Who have you contacted, or who has contacted you? Which bridges have been crossed or rebuilt through this new-found ability to reach out and touch someone? Please get back to me with your thoughts, either through this comment section, an email, or one of these new-fangled Internet things.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Medium UnRare: The Risk of Obama Overexposure

Back when I was a much younger public relations guy for a major corporation, I was advised by a higher-up of the danger of making the CEO your spokesperson all the time. "You must use your top guy sparingly," he said. "If the press and the public get used to the CEO as your spokesman, no one else will ever suffice again. And then over time, he just becomes another guy." In other words, you diminish the power of that office.
This past Sunday, President Obama was on five -- count them, FIVE! -- talk shows to tout healthcare reform. How effective could that have been after a while? Let me make clear, the man can be masterful in a public role. Just look at how charming he was on David Letterman's show this past Monday, comfortable with the audience, the host, and perhaps more importantly, in his own skin. And with one phrase -- "I was actually black before the election" -- he defused Jimmy Carter's tin-eared and unwelcome assertion that opposition to Obama was race-based. He said very clearly and pointedly, "Don't call the American people racist. They elected me knowing I was black." But I digress.
Obama is risking the diminishing of one of his most powerful assets -- his power of communication and persuasion. This was so evident in his campaign, whether talking about race in America at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, or articulating a creative, economic solution to the economic meltdown. Now, by overusing this skill and becoming the ubiquitous promoter of healthcare reform, he is counter-intuitively not strengthening it but diminishing it. As my advisor said, he is becoming just another guy. Plus he is not addressing the concerns of the sizable number of people who are against him, the man. As long as he is THE face of healthcare reform and h
e is inextricably tied to it, its chances are diminished.
I'm not promoting healthcare reform here. My views are immaterial, and in fact, I have many problems with it as presented. I'm simply looking at this as a marketing and public relations exercise. Where are the other voices promoting healthcare reform? There was much talk about "death panels" and "letting Grannie die." Why haven't we heard more about the AARP's support of the plan? Non-medical people on talk radio are given free rein to denounce the plan, but the American Medical Association -- the real medical experts -- have endorsed it. Why are their view not heard?
I often go back to the effective communications successes of the Reagan administration, and I imagine how those folks would have handled this. I suspect that they would have kept their President a bit more in the background and found other credible supporters to tout their plan. They used the power of the Great Communicator with discretion. Obama should pay attention to this.