Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are You Undermining Yourself with Poor Social Media Skills?

This is a really great post that was forwarded to me by a follower on Twitter. I think I have to review my own activities. I may be at a least a little guilty of some of these faux pas.

My interview with Danek S. Kaus

Danek Kaus, screenwriter and author of "You Can be Famous," was kind to interview me on his BlogTalkRadio show about my book, "The Six P's of Change." I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Shouting Down Your Opposition

Let me tell you about George, who once worked with me. One day in the early 1990s, I told him about an interesting article I read in The Wall Street Journal about Social Security. I thought he might be interested in it because we were about the same age.
"This article on the editorial page wrote about potential problems with Social Security. When the system started, there were several workers for every person who received payments. Now there are only three [at that time], and soon there will be about two and a half. It says we will have to raise taxes, reduce payments or raise the retirement age to keep the system solvent."
George glared at me in silence. Finally he said, "I notice you're not talking about cutting military programs to save money!"
Huh? What did that have to do with what I just said? "I'm not talking about cutting any money from Social Security, George. I'm just quoting what this article said, and it seems to make sense to me that we have to take steps to save the system."
"Yeah, you want to take food from the mouths of old people!"
Again: Huh? "Where did you get this? I want to SAVE Social Security! It's just that it's scheduled to run out of money at the rate we're going. It was based on an old model of the number of people paying into it and a lower life expectancy than we have now."
"You don't care about old people!" And he stormed into his office.
FLASH FORWARD: Social Security is in trouble today, largely because it's
underfunded. George and I may not be able to collect it.
Some time later, David Souter was nominated by George Bush the Elder to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice William Brennan. George was in a huff.
"We have to stop Souter from being on the Supreme Court!"
Why, George?
"He has no paper trail. We don't know where he stands on abortion, and he may overturn Roe v. Wade."
The "no paper trail" was a big concern at the time, as there was some concern about Souter among supporters of abortion rights. But remembering our Social Security "discussion," I didn't feel like arguing abortion with George, so I brought up some history.
"Well, you know, George, you never really know how a Justice is going to rule until they put those robes on. For example, Earl Warren was picked for the Supreme Court because he was a conservative, and yet he became known as the most liberal Chief Justice ever. And Hugo Black was one of the most staunch supporters of civil rights in the history of the Court, but he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man."
George glared at me (he was big on staring at you in disdainful silence before he took you on), and then shot, "Well, it's obvious that you don't care about a woman's right to choose."
"George, what are you talking about? I didn't say anything about abortion; I didn't use the word once. All I said was that it can be difficult to predict how someone will judge once they're on the Supreme Court."
"It's obvious that you don't support a woman's right to an abortion." Then, true to form, he stormed into his office.

FLASH FORWARD: David Souter just retired from the Supreme Court and, much to the chagrin of the people who nominated him, he ruled for abortion rights throughout his tenure on the Court.
Does George's M.O. sound familiar? It's a familiar strategy: Respond to opponents' views with a non-sequiter, shout them down, make points about their characters rather than their views, and don't let them respond. For some, this falls into the definition of "winning an argument." But it's not. It's STOPPING an argument. It is running from a response, especially when you have no facts to fall back on. And that is what is passing for discussion these days. It happened in the '60s, and it has resurrected its ugly head today.

I once read a review of film actress Ruth Gordon, who had an over-the-top style that was brazen and caustic. The writer said that she didn't so much steal a scene as stink it up so badly that no one else wanted to be associated with it. That is where we are today, and unfortunately cable TV and talk radio are accessories to the crime.
I apologize that I don't have a solution to this condition. I welcome your input. All I know is that I am walking away from more discussions than ever before because they turn into recrimination. Talking with some people about an issue is like talking to a dog about algebra. The dog will only stare at you, make noise at you, and at times, out of frustration, bite you. But in they end, the dog will never understand what you're talking about, no matter how hard you try.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Budd Schulberg & John Hughes: Appreciating Their Words On Screen

Does anyone remember when words coming out of actors' mouths actually counted for something in the movies?
Before you could feel the impact of sound waves vibrating against your body, do you remember when you could actually feel emotion in the movies?
Yeah, I exaggerate, but just a little. Today we mourn the passing of two significant screenwriters, sadly taken from us on the same day: John Hughes and Budd Schulberg.
Mr. Hughes wrote mainly about young people -- teens to toddlers -- but because he was close to my age, I could relate to his themes and characters. Who didn't feel the angst of being an outsider, as he expressed in The Breakfast Club, his film about a variety pack of high-schoolers forced to spend a Saturday detention together? How could this maturing man mine the insecurities of budding womanhood as he did in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink? And I don't know how you react, but the sight of Matthew Broderick, the ultimate con man in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, commandeering a Chicago parade to sing "Twist & Shout" still makes me laugh out loud, as unlikely as that fun-filled scene plays out.
Mr. Hughes couldn't help but write. When he wasn't penning blockbusters, he slummed by authoring throwaway screenplays, such as the Beethoven quadrology, Flubber and Drillbit Taylor. But when he put his mind to it, he created the most exquisite characters, teenagers who came to life, warts and acne intact, heartaches on their sleeves for all to see. Most important, he didn't condescend to his subjects. He knew their problems. He understood their pain. He was one of them.
Another person who wrote with the common touch was Budd Schulberg. His familiarity with the vernacular of the working class belied his privileged upbringing as Mr. Schulberg grew up on the faux streets of movie studios, the son of a man who headed production at Paramount studio.
Not nearly so prolific as Mr. Hughes, Mr. Schulberg wrote the screenplays for only a handful of Hollywood films and many TV plays. But when your resume includes "On the Waterfront," what else do you need?
Director Elia Kazan and Mr. Schulberg went to Hoboken, N.J., on the heels of Malcolm Johnson's award-winning newspaper expose on the influence of organized crime on longshoremen. What emerged was one of the most emotional, heart-wrenching films in Hollywoods history, which showed the plight of ordinary workers trying to make a living against a wide variety of odds. In a film filled with classic moments, none stands above the iconic scene between Terry Molloy, played by Marlon Brando, and his brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger). Terry confronts not only Charlie but his own tragedies, recounting how his future as a contender for the boxing championship was sacrificed for short-term gain. It is all the more poignant given the beautiful street language of the scene. Kazin later said, "I didn't really direct that scene. With Budd's beautiful words, it directed itself."
Schulberg also wrote a gem for Kazan that does not get the attention it deserves: "A Face in the Crowd." It is the greatest, most prescient film that you probably haven't seen, and I recommend that you see it as soon as possible. In this story, broadcast exec Patricia Neal plucks a vulgar but charismatic drifter/grifter from the jailhouse and guides him to nationwide fame. Renamed Lonesome Rhodes (played to perfection by Andy Griffith in his movie debut), the man rises to superstardom, his folksy, down-home ways masking a vicious and mendacious ego. Soon, ol' Lonesome becomes not only king of the airwaves but a king maker, as he understands all too well what the public really wants in this wicked world. See this scene in which Lonesome introduces a local Senator, who is up for re-election, to his "general store" for some plain talk. You can see a foreshadowing of how certain media moderators even today can manipulate their audiences and shape their opinions.
Mr. Hughes and Mr. Schulberg came from two different eras, and each portrayed a different set of Americans. They served their subjects by reaching into their souls, portraying them as fully realized people and not set pieces. We will miss their work. More than that, we will miss their influence.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Say What You Mean, Then Mean It

I am a person known for strong opinions, but somehow that did not come through recently, so I found myself in a teachable moment.
Last week, I gave a speech at Siemens Toastmasters titled "The Good Book." My goal was to ask the audience to consider that the Bible should be discussed more openly than it is.
The speech was well-received. It began with a humorous story about a little boy who read a Bible passage that suited his purpose of chastising his parents. I made my case that the Bible should be more a part of our common dialogue than it is currently. I even taught in our schools as an historical document and as a source of great literature. (For people who who know me, that assertion can be a bit shocking. More on that later.)
I offered phrases from the Bible that are so much a part of our language that people often think they came from Shakespeare. For example, did you know that the expression "nothing but skin and bones" came from the Bible. It appears in the book of Job. In fact the same passage contains the phrase "the skin of my teeth" -- hardly an expression that one associates with sacred writings.
When my evaluator, Alex, offered a critique of my speech, he was stuck on one portion of it in the beginning , in which I said:

Now I’m sure that members who have heard my speeches over the years are surprised to hear me say this. I have argued passionately against forcing a public expression of belief in a single supreme being. Also, as a religious person myself, I find homogenized “one-size-fits-all” versions of prayer to be offensive.

But today, I am not endorsing the Bible as the “word of God.” I would never offend those of you outside the Judeo-Christian beliefs by insisting that it is. Instead, I believe that the stories and words of the Bible can be studied as part of a fully rounded, liberal education. Even the Supreme Court judges who ruled in 1963 against mandatory prayer stated that their decision did not ban the study of the Bible or of religion when it was presented objectively.

Alex didn't know how to react to this phrasing, nor did he know how to express his problem with it. It was an intuitive reaction that he struggle with during the meeting and immediately afterward in a conversation with me. He felt that I was making an apology for my topic, even though I was committed to it. Finally, he wrote me an email that expounded on his feelings:

"I didn't know if you were offering an apology for Pat, the speaker, or an apology for the Bible.

Perhaps 'apology' is not the right term. It's not like you were saying 'I'm going to apologize to anyone who is offended by my topic or the Bible.' Maybe I was taken aback (ever so slightly) by your need to establish your credentials as someone who is fair and balanced on this topic. In which case, the point I would make is that any good communicator, as you are, should state your thesis and let the rest of the speech be your proof. Let your message be your credentials."

I understand Alex, and I believe he is right. Yes, I was trying to be fair to all the people in the room, sensitive to their wide variety of beliefs. Regular readers of this blog know that I am committed to proper word choice so that it not be a barrier to the intended communication. But in my five to seven minutes (standard length for most Toastmaster speeches), I devoted too much time to this set up. Worse, I let my explanation blunt the impact of my speech ever so slightly.

This manifests itself in different ways in Toastmasters, most notably in evaluations. Many, perhaps most, evaluators just can't bring themselves to say, "You know, you really didn't fulfill the objectives of this speech." Or, "The speech is supposed to go no more than seven minutes, and when you went 10 minutes, you robbed us of valuable time from the meeting."

So my point is when you need to say something, SAY IT! No, this is not contradictory to my other positions. This is not a license to be sloppy in your word choices so that your meaning is not clear, nor is it a suggestion to use culturally insensitive language as we all-too-often hear among so-called commentators or even Presidents who say that someone acted "stupidly." No, I am saying is that we should all make our meanings clear in the boundaries of the time we have.

Thanks, Alex. I'll try to do better next time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Preparing for Bad Times Now and In the Future

Maria Panaritis, a business writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has written a moving column about how the current economic downturn has disproportionately affected members of Generations X and Y . Titled "The Crash's Hidden Losers," Ms. Panaritis's column makes many troubling points. She talks about how people in the post-Boomer age groups may miss out on the middle-class life that their parents enjoyed. This is because as they have entered the job market after college, their employment options have either greatly diminished or all but disappeared, nipped in the bud as it were.
Worse, there is likely to be no safety net for these folks. Pensions went the way of the vinyl LP long ago. There have been 401k's for a few decades, but many companies have eliminated the match. And forget about Social Security. That may run out before the last Boomers are done with it. (See Allen Sloan's article on fixing Social Security in the latest edition of Fortune magazine for a sobering reality check.)
I agree with Ms. Panaritis's insights, and I am sympathetic to the plight of the younger workers. I have only one observation: Why is this news? Why did we presume that the economy could only grow for every succeeding generation? Many economists have made the observation that "trees don't grow to the sky." Yet we came to believe that our economy was limitless. And that is probably what’s disturbing to people today. It is not so much that times are tough, but that times are different from what we have known.
GE president Jeff Immelt recently said, "This economic crisis doesn't represent a cycle. It represents a reset —an emotional, social, economic reset." Our collective dismay stems partly from our limited perspective as post-World War II Americans. When you have lived in a certain standard of living and that standard is all you know, it begins to look normal to you.
Let’s look at the economic history of the United States. Income per capita was essentially flat until the Industrial Revolution, when people left their farms and their crafts to work for others. Economic growth was slow as measured by the value of our goods and services — GDP. Growth of two to three percent a year was normal…and good.
Then came the end of World War II. There was pent-up demand for houses and automobiles. And as we satisfied those needs, our growth rate grew to four and five percent. And our national wealth shot up, starting around 1950 until recently. Prosperity began to look like a birthright.
Other specific social and economic realities have contributed to the downturn. Technology has improved productivity. That means we need fewer workers. Therefore, the job creation rate for American workers has fallen. So the wages for the average American worker has been falling since 2001. We should not expect to see higher wages in the foreseeable future.
Based on this evidence, and based on the "Prognostication" chapter of my book, "The Six P's of Change," I took steps to deal with an economic downturn. My most significant move was to live below my means, particularly during a prosperous five-year stretch. While I managed to enjoy the money somewhat by upgrading our cars and taking a couple of trips to Italy (Hey, life is short!), I poured the extra money into our mortgage. Now my monthly obligations are significantly reduced, because we don't have payments for our house or our cars.
There is still a long road ahead. I don't mean to be discouraging; I simply believe that forewarned is forearmed. Mountains of debt must be reduced. Consumers — you and I — will need to save more before we spend so much again. As we sort through the changes in the politics, the technology and the market forces that will shape our future, I encourage everyone to prepare for a period of austerity. Many Americans are already doing this. Since the credit crunch, the average U.S. household savings rate has jumped from 0.7 percent to 4 percent of income. That is a promising trend.
It is easy to deny our situations; clearly, Miss Panaritis has not. But denial is nothing new. I remember vividly a conversation that I had with a friend in the early 1990s when I said that Social Security was in trouble, that the beneficiaries were beginning to outpace the contributors, that life expectancy is much older today than it was when the program was created. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
My friend reacted with angry, non sequiter bromides. "Well, I can see that you don't care about older people." "I don't hear you suggest that we cut defense programs."
There is a reason that many programs are sacrosanct and beyond consideration. Now we are past the point when decisions must be made.
While we can't always control the machinations of government, we can certainly control our own destinies to some extend. I believe that, armed with information and an informed attitude, you can also be well equipped to recalibrate your expectations for this economy.
In the meantime, let's do what we can for the next generations. Let's hire them when we can, give them as many opportunities as we are able, and be willing to sacrifice some of our own largess so that there is something on the table for them. We owe it to them, if for no other reason that it is the most ethical thing we can do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Learning Your Place from "The Great Buck Howard"

I rented a nifty little movie over the weekend titled, "The Great Buck Howard." It stars John Malkovich as the eponymous mentalist who brags about his 61 appearances on Johnny Carson's show. Clearly modeled after The Amazing Kreskin, though missing the original's kindness and grace, Buck is truly talented but is limited to second- and third-rate venues. His act is woefully out of style in this age of special effects and explosions and therefore unappealing to a modern audience. In fact, Buck, as masterfully portrayed by Malkovich, is himself out of style. He wears polyester clothes of clashing colors, uses tired catch phrases, and injects pointless sentimentality into his act. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Buck experiences sudden good fortune that unexpectedly thrusts him into the big time -- in fact, a bigger time than he has ever known. But how will Buck react to this turn?
"The Great Buck Howard" offers not only a neat little character study, but a lesson in the importance of staying current. Buck clings to the familiar like a life preserver, but he doesn't realize that it is an anchor instead. His life on the road has so insulated him that he misses advancements in the fashion, the popular culture, even his own beloved show business. (Doesn't Buck watch TV on the road?) He rejects advice from his aides de camp, missing opportunities to gain insight. When he finally hits the big time (and it is not a return to the limelight), he learns much about himself.
I recommend this little jewel on many different levels. Certainly as a cineaste, I appreciate Sean McGinly's writing and direction. But as an advocate of change, I also see a lesson in it that is told with charm, wit and wisdom.