Friday, December 30, 2011

The Day a Prophet Passed

December 31, 2011 marks 30 years since media guru Marshall McLuhan died, a victim of a final stroke after suffering from a series of them. How kind the intervening years have been to him. At the time of his death, he was viewed in his native Canada as somewhat of an embarrassment, but today he is an oracle, having essentially foreseen Facebook Amazon, Twitter, the iPhone and other modern media. In the words of a New York Times article published this past summer to mark McLuhan's centenary, "Instead of being viewed as an academic fraud, McLuhan is now widely celebrated as the man who prophesied both the Internet and its impact on society." Indeed, Professor B. W. Powe of Toronto's York University, and one of the organizers of a weeklong series of memorial events in that city, said this: “We read the 21st-century media through his eyes.”

Quite a turnaround for one man, though not unusual. As with most social visionaries, McLuhan challenged tightly held beliefs, and most people are afraid to let go of such ideas. His vocabulary was also new and alien. He introduced us to his definitions of "hot" and "cold" media: Hot media, such as print and the cinema, are sharp in definition, filled with data, exclusively visual and verbal. He also asserted that these media were psychologically damaging and low in audience participation. Other hot media, according to McLuhan, were photography, competitive spectator sports and radio. Moreover, he said that hot media make people think logically and independently rather than naturally and communally. McLuhan preferred "cool" media, noting that while they are low in information, they also challenge their users by forcing them to fill in the "missing" information. He saw the telephone, modern painting and, most significantly, television as cool media because they are oral-auditory, tactile and visceral. McLuhan believed that these media would be a unifying force, putting modern "back into the tribal or oral pattern with its seamless web of kinship and interdependence." These behaviors would, in turn, create his "global village," a term that he coined

As with many prophets, McLuhan's revolutionary ideas were not regarded kindly in his own time. A Time magazine review of his book Understanding Media  -- regarded today as the seminal work on the effect of media in the modern world and which contained many of the concepts described above -- called the book "pseudo science." Yet years later, when Time published their obituary of McLuhan, the magazine stated that "his writing was clumsy, his thoughts badly organized, and even he complained that he had trouble understanding his ideas. But...when he died last week in Toronto at the age of 69, Marshall McLuhan was recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of the '60s. Some of his insights into the nature of television and the electronic age became conventional wisdom." 

One of McLuhan's prime principles was that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” Can we doubt that statement today, given how we interact through Web 2.0? We make "friends" through Facebook, we reveal our innermost thoughts through our blogs, we make spectacles of ourselves through YouTube, and we have learned to communicate succinctly in just 140 characters through our Twitter accounts.

Once again, we are currently reminded of the power of the media in our politics. And I do not mean our primary Presidential politics. No, the "global village" that McLuhan foresaw also has global politics. Time scoffed yet again when McLuhan stated in Understanding Media that "Had TV occurred on a large scale during Hitler's reign, he would have vanished quickly." No, the Old Professor was on target, as we have seen Twitter and Facebook cut through censorship and propaganda to produce an Arab Spring or rally for the rights of the disenfranchised. And here in this country, presidential front runners fall back almost immediately as they wilt under the glare of the media spotlight. That durability under scrutiny seems to determine winners more than any other obstacle. Some partisans may complain that Barrack Obama did not face any real scrutiny during his primary campaign, but come on; I was viewing fresh footage of his pastor, the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright, every morning, whether through the network news or the Internet. And will Mitt Romney, seemingly made of asbestos and impervious to the heat of battle, win his party's nomination because no medium will be able to lay a finger on him long enough to count him out as they have so many others? We'll see.

When McLuhan made his pronouncements more than 40 years ago, some listened while many others dismissed them as nonsense. He stated that media are "not neutral; instead they have an effect on people." Today, as we study the effects of television on what we buy, who we elect and how we learn, and as we study how video games and the Internet are affecting the linearity of our thinking, his theories are easily echoed. Yet because they are so commonsense and commonplace, we forget their origins. However, we learned similar lessons from Einstein, whose ideas were so advanced that they were also ineffable because no suitable language existed to express them. (How does one explain E=MC squared?)

The global village did not exist when Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase. But somehow he emerged from his intellectual rabbit hole to glimpse it, and then he wrote many books and essays to prepare us for it. Let's stay aware of the power we possess through our media, which have indeed become our extensions and have united us (and conformed us) in ways that only he seemed to imagine.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three Signs That Your Organization May Be Too Insular (Lessons from Penn State)

While much of the nation is horrified by the recent scandals at Penn State University, they are not surprising in certain ways. Many of the characteristics that the university exhibited in the years leading up to these disclosures are not unique. We have seen them in other embarrassed  institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the military in the U.S. and around the world, many large urban police departments, and others. Do you recognize yourself, your company or your organization in the following practices? If not, you may be so far out of touch with reality that you are setting yourself up for a fall from grace similar to Penn State’s.

MISTAKING YOUR EXCELLENCE IN ONE SUBJECT AREA AS OMNIPOTENCE. Robert A. Mundell, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Economics, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman one night to read “Top Ten Ways My Life Has Changed Since Winning The Nobel Prize.” The first change (number 10) he cited was that he “can end almost any argument by asking, ‘And did you ever win a Nobel Prize?’” It’s funny, but also true. Once you are applauded as a subject expert, it is easy to think all your opinions and actions are beyond reproach. But
really, does being rich automatically make you an expert in all things economic? (Similar to Mundell, I have heard titans of industry give this retort to challenging questions:
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”) Similarly, Penn State’s success on the gridiron may have led the school’s officials to believe that either they were not accountable for their actions or that they could do no wrong.

A company that is highly successful making widgets may still have a poor accounting system, leaving their very existence in jeopardy. Similarly, making that one widget well does not mean that the manufacturer is guaranteed success in other areas. Witness the companies that ventured outside their core competencies and failed notably. There is a reason
that the King James Bible states that “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Just because you’re good, stay humble and put a check on yourself.

. Evidence of this shortcoming can be found in the way that Penn State’s top officials did not know of the true nature of the violations against children on the campus. (By the time that word-of-mouth about an assault in the locker room meandered to the president’s office through “Whisper Down the Lane,” it had devolved from a “rape” to “horseplay.”) Do your top leaders understand how, for example, poor expense reporting may affect the bottom line? If not, it
might be good to open up at least a bit.

. It appears that Penn State officials, including school president Graham Spanier, did not venture outside the university when they
uncovered wrongdoing. Rather than go to the police, they tried investigated the perpetrator themselves. And as we have been saying since Watergate, the cover-up was worse than
the crime. How do you govern? Do you or your organization ever ask for outside opinions, or have you become your own frame of reference? Going further, is your company hiring
from outside its inner circle? There are reasons we have Affirmative Action in this country, and one is to promote diversity of thought rather than  monolithic mindsets.

Mark Wilson and Mark Doorley of Villanova University’s ethics program write in an editorial, “As we try to understand what happened and what failed to happen at Penn State, we must ask broader questions about all our institutions. Do they cultivate a capacity to act on behalf of others, no matter what their role or status? Or do they reward inaction and loyalty to procedure, and so unwittingly lay the groundwork for complacency and complicity with evil?” Indeed, such introspective questions will help keep us and our organizations honest, in more ways than one.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Magic Johnson: The 20th Anniversary of Positive Thinking

Magic Johnson,
Still Vital Today
One generation knew exactly where they were when they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My peers know where we were when we learned of the death of President Kennedy. Likewise, I know exactly where I was on November 7, 1991. I was head of public relations and communications at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and one of my employees came into my office and said, "There will be a press conference in an hour. Magic Johnson has AIDS."

Of course, that was part of the misunderstanding at the time. Johnson did not have AIDS. Rather, he would announce that he was HIV-positive. But the feeling was the same, that this was the announcement of a death sentence.

Or was it? When the press conference took place, Johnson was... well he was Magic. He was as calm, composed and charismatic as ever. He announced he would be retiring from the game, and that he "would be a happy man." To the rest of us, it sounded like whistling past the graveyard. We all knew better. We knew the time would come when the HIV virus would overtake him and lay waste to that magnificent body and dominating spirit.

Except it didn't.
On this 20th anniversary of that announcement, Magic Johnson is still with us. He returned to basketball for a brief time, and now the ex-basketball star is a highly successful businessperson, having built coffee shops, movie houses and housing developments. He is also an analyst for the game that transformed him and which he helped transform in turn.  Mostly, he is the living embodiment of defiant success over adversity. He is a symbol of living with HIV, the first of many who have gone on to do so. (The magazine Entertainment Weekly used to have an annual feature in which they paid tribute to the performers lost to AIDS in the previous year. Amazingly and gratefully, that has long been discontinued.)

Yes, his money gave Magic Johnson extraordinary access to more medication and treatment than others would normally have. But Johnson has other extraordinary capabilities that mere money cannot bestow: a spirit and can-do attitude that made him believe the unbelievable. That he could beat the scourge of his era and make us believe that others could beat it, too. So on this anniversary, let's think beyond Magic Johnson and consider those seemingly impossible things we can accomplish if we believe we can, just as Magic declared that he "would be a happy man."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bernie Madoff Reminds Us of the Need for Open Communication and Ethics

There is a revival of interest in Bernie Madoff now that the eminent TV program 60 Minutes profiled his family (Oct. 30, 2011). It is a reminder to us all about the value of reputation. I give a speech on branding. I ask my audience if they could imagine the image that their own name would conjure. I then list the following names and show their pictures:
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • Mother Theresa
  • Martin Luther King
  • Hitler!
The flinch at that last name is palpable, especially after the admiration and good will expressed for the others. (Stop and think: When was the last time you heard a reputable family name their son “Adolph?")
Peter Drucker noted that "ethics stays in the prefaces of the average business books." Consider the long line of lies told by a famous oil company when it had a massive spill off the Louisiana coast. The company listed lists otters, sea lions, seals, and walruses as "sensitive biological species" that deserve protection in the Gulf of Mexico. However, there are no otters, sea lions, seals, or walruses in the Gulf of Mexico. They listed emergency phone numbers for mammal specialist offices in Florida and Louisiana that were no longer in service. And their spokespeople proudly stated in their disaster plans that, "under the worst-case spill scenario," it could skim, vacuum, or otherwise remove as many as 20 million gallons of oil a day. In fact, they captured only about 630,000 gallons a day.
Even the best companies often obfuscate in their annual reports. Some may say that "We performed well in a difficult economy," rather than say, "We didn't make our numbers this again again."  Or they may state that "We have a healthy backlog," rather that "Our manufacturing inefficiencies keep us from meeting our delivery goals."
Conducting business in a socially responsible way is, in the end, a sound business practice in and of itself. It allows you to attract the best employees. It helps create an atmosphere in which quality products are produced because your people will proudly stand behind them. Trust helps maintain good relations with people and institutions such as your employees, your shareholders, the media and the local community. Your word becomes your bond, as good as a contract. But most important, it is the best branding possible. After all, if you can't be trusted to keep your story straight, why should your customer trust your products or services? So I encourage all business people to build their trust in the following ways, as I have helped my clients in my role as a professional communicator:
  • Inform your employees of the state of your business regularly through face-to-face meetings and publications.
  • Issue press releases and meet with members of the local media so that they learn to trust your word.
  • Address members of your community and build relationships with your elected representatives.
"I would rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the man who sold it," said Will Rogers. The name "Madoff" is now a synonym for "swindler," and all financial planners now operate under a cloud of suspicion.  Indeed, the hell through which Bernie Madoff put his family, his employees, his customers, and even his colleagues is an argument for both ethics and transparency.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

When Your Job is to Get a Job

A friend recently noted how he was not focused on his job hunt, which I could understand, as I have been out of work myself at times. But when I asked how he spent his day, he described mowing the lawn, picking up the kids and things like this. Here are the points I shared with him:
  • Your job every day is to get a job, when you are out of work. Treat that goal with the same urgency you would  paid employment. You normally wouldn't leave the office to mow the law, defrost meat for dinner, watch TV, etc.
  • Get into a routine as you would every day if you were paid full time by someone else. Start at 8. Or 9. End at 5.
  • Get up every morning, shower and dress for your "job" (which is <repeat after me> to get a job). This will help you feel refreshed and more energized about the task at hand.
  • Put in your eight hours or more at your "job." Sure, you can take a break, stretch your legs, get a cup of coffee, but stick to it.
  • Network as often as possible. Set up meetings with people who can help you find what you are looking for. This is part of the "job."
  • When you have finished your work for the day, stop. Unwind. Get dinner ready. Watch some news. Wait, the news is depressing, especially when they get around to reporting the unemployment rate. So watch Comedy Central or The Three Stooges instead.
  • Review your day with someone else, such as a significant other or a friend. This will help reinforce that you actually accomplished something that day. And if upon review, it turns out you weren't all that productive? Well, reread the first bullet above, and implement tomorrow. It will be another day.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Awards Mean Little to Those We Serve

The president of the nation of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize, but she isstruggling to be re-elected.
The Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees were long the odds-on favorites to face each other in the  2011 World Series, having won the most games in National and American leagues, respectively. But most teams are home after losing in the first rounds of their playoffs.
In 2010, the movie The King's Speech was number one at the Academy Awards... and 18th at the box office.
Do you see a pattern here? Despite what we often say when we promote ourselves in conversations, press releases and the like, there is often little connection between our laurels and our sales (except for people who receive awards for sales, but that's apparent).
I know I have a little section of my resume carved out for my awards. That's because I was advised to do so to generate interest. And truth be told (and please don't spread this around; it's just between us), there are many other communicators to whom I look up who have not won any awards. In the end, it is our output that matters.
Consider these little tidbits: John Wayne was one of the biggest moneymakers in film history (and is still one of the most popular film stars in the world today, decades after his death!), and he did not win an Academy Award until near the end of his career. Ernie Banks, Mr. Cubs, is one of the most revered baseball players in the history of the game, yet he never won a World Series or even appeared in one. And Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Franz Kafka and Henrik Ibsen are listed among the greatest writers of the 20th century, yet they are also distinguished by never having won the Nobel Prize in literature.
In the end, these folks were distinguished by what they accomplished, not by the citations they accepted, and by what they overcame, not that they were overlooked. Periodically, we should also take comfort in our own personal inventories. A highly successful sales rep once put it to me this way: "I want rewards, not awards." Customers, clients and our other stakeholders ultimately feel the same way.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Too Much Information for Hurricane Irene? I Don't Think So

Many Monday Morning Quarterbacks have weighed in and decided that the media gave too much attention to Hurricane Irene, even accusing them of hyping it.

Nonsense. That could not be more incorrect.

In this case, the news media did what all professional communicators are supposed to do: Give their stakeholders the information they needed to cope with a given situation. Certainly, much of the nation was gun-shy after Hurricane Katrina, when many people ignored the warnings and suffered for it. 

Some people complained that the media hyped the flu pandemic of 2010. The feedback afterward was that it was "no big deal." But it was no big deal precisely because of the information that year. People washed their hands, got their shots, made sure their kids got their shots, and followed all the recommended procedures. Good job!

Now take a look at your own communication responsibilities. Do employees in your organizations get sufficient information when it is time to sign up for annual benefits? Is your community fully aware of new traffic patterns when road work is going on? Are your shareholders fully aware of how pending legislation or regulatory decisions, such as from the FDA, will affect your products, and therefore your stock price? Short of panicking an audience, I am not a believer in "too much communication." And I can assure you that many people who were safe after Hurricane Irene hit them believe they got the information they needed.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I Tweet, Therefore I Am (Notes on Re-entry)

I have just returned from two weeks in Italy, and it is remarkable to see what two weeks away do to your public image. Because I did not have access to a computer, I had no blogs. No Tweets. No press-worthy events. It was as though I dropped off the earth, as measured by my Google Alerts.

However, I did use my BlackBerry to post milestones of my Italian journey on Facebook, and what a difference. Friends and family enjoyed hearing about the meals, the sights and the meetings with family. They were engaged, as measured by their "likes" and their comments.

This brings me back to a concept espoused by the great Seth Godin in his blog post, "The Truth About Shipping." Among other things, he stresses the importance of delivering something every day. "Ship often," he urges. "Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly."

So I am back in the saddle, writing, Tweeting, blogging, prospecting, communicating. While I enjoyed the trip immensely, it was also a timely reminder about the value of output.

I hope to hear from YOU, too!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Giving our best, in the words of Joe DiMaggio

All I ever learned about maintaining a reputation for being the best came from the mouth of Yankee great Joe DiMaggio. When asked why he always hustled so hard, he responded, "There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best."
Now compare this attitude to those of business owners, who risk their own reputations, as well as those of their companies and employees, to unethical practices. Or entertainers who don't perform at their best and create an everlasting impression -- fairly or not -- on the ticket-buyer who showed up for that day's performance. Our brands, our names and our reputations are sometimes all we have. Do you tend your image every day as you should? Will the people who encounter you today remember a superlative effort or a lackluster try?
I know this may seem harsh, and believe me, I have both benefited and
suffered from this, but it is a reality to which we must all attend.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Marshall McLuhan at 100: The Media Are Still the Messages (and more)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed academician, philosopher and media observer Marshall McLuhan. In reflecting on his life, it is stunning to see how his influence and his relevance have only grown in this era of "The Social Network." Consider that McLuhan coined now-common phrases such as "the medium is the message, "information overload" and "hot and cool media" decades before we would understand their full significance.

His watershed book, Understanding Media, was
written 20 years before the PC revolution and 30 years before the rise of the Internet. Yet his insights predicted how we would engage with the world through the wide variety of media available to us. In 1964, Understanding Media seemed to be the rantings of a crazy man. But in the light of the 21st century digital world, he makes perfect sense. One can argue that Understanding Media is the most important book ever written on communication. (I would accept that premise.)

Like many other future-oriented thinkers, such as H.G.
Wells and Louis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan accurately predicted many events. For example, he believed that printed books would become obsolete, killed off by television and by other electronic information technology (e-books, anyone?). In War and Peace in the Global Village, he predicted that a coming, vast electronic network (read: the Internet) would recreate "the world in the image of a global village" (another McLuhan phrase that has entered our lexicon). And quite a village it is: When Time magazine proclaimed Mark Zuckerberg the 2010 Man of of the Year, they noted that Facebook users around the world comprised "a social entity almost twice as large as the U.S. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest, behind only China and India."

Though he is somewhat forgotten today, McLuhan's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 70s. His work was translated into more than 20 languages, he appeared in magazines
across the world. Embraced by the counter-culture and acknowledged somewhat by the mainstream, McLuhan had an hour-long TV special on NBC in 1967, a Playboy interview in 1969, and an appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a cutting-edge TV show of the late 60s. However, McLuhan may be best remembered for his ironic cameo in Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner, Annie Hall, where Allen makes McLuhan appear magically just to settle an argument with a pedant in a movie queue.

McLuhan never claimed to be a crusader, and in fact, he never was. He was an observer and a documentarian. His various epigrams are testimony to this, and they have gained increased significance in today's media-encrusted world:
  • "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." (Think of all the media talking heads who provide much heat but little light.)
  • "All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values." (One example is that people who watch more news on TV than average believe that crime rates are higher than they actually are.)
  • "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either." (Sesame Street, anyone?)
  • "Art is anything you can get away with." (McLuhan foreshadowed Warhol and Basquiat with that one.)
  • "Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be." (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit as Exhibit A, Ronald Reagan. As Exhibit B -- Barack Obama.)
  • "The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man." (From fast food consumed in cars to the docks for our various electronic gear, he nailed this one.)
  • "There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew." (This statement was made before "Ecoimagination" became an advertising buzz phrase.)
  • "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us." (Is there any doubt that our perceptions have been influenced first by television and later -- today -- by Facebook? Our whole notion of what constitutes a "friend" is entirely different.)
McLuhan continued to influence even after his demise. In 1988, eight years after his death, his son published McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media. These questions resulted in the formulation of the following four laws of media, and how they affect us. Using cell phones as an example, here is how McLuhan's Laws manifest themselves:
  1. Extension/Enhancement: Every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. What does the medium enhance or intensify? (In this case, the voice is enhanced.)
  2. Closure/Obsolescence: Because there is equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed. What is pushed aside or obsolesced by the new medium? (Answer: the telephone booth.)
  3. Reversal: Every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics. (In this case, the cell phone does not free us. Instead, it puts us on a leash because we are always accessible.)
  4. Retrieval: The content of any medium is an older medium. (Childhood yelling has become the content of cell phones, as we raise our voices to be heard.)
McLuhan found significance in the most mundane matters. For example, he could see how typography, with its specific variations of form and aesthetics, became forms of expression in themselves. Even print was not a monolithic medium to him.

So in this media-oriented world, where jeans have special pockets for iPods and the backpacks of most self-respecting kids are loaded with electronic gear, it is good to consider the visionary insights of Marshall McLuhan. His star grows ever so brightly, perhaps even directly proportional with the glow of display panels and their increasing influences on our lives and psyches.

Note: While I admire McLuhan greatly, I also direct you to this more critical article by Paul Seaman titled, "Marshall McLuhan: A Media Guru Reconsidered." While I don't agree with much of what Mr. Seaman has written, I appreciate his even-handed approach to McLuhan's legacy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Father of Future Thinking

If we want to develop a future-oriented mindset. we can learn from the great science fiction and fantasy writer, H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946). His keen observations of scientific phenomena, combined with logic and math, allowed him to predict a number of trends and developments over the course of the 20th century.

Considered to have an overall accuracy of as much as 80 percent, Wells's predictions covered a wide range of subjects, such as urban living, transportation, government, defense methods, education and sociology. His accuracy rate was estimated to be as high as 80 percent, and he attributed his own success to the following methodologies:
• INDUCTIVE REASONING — Wells taught that inductive reasoning — the process of making inferences by observed repetitive patterns — was key to making reasonably

accurate predictions.
FUTURE-FOCUSED THINKING — Wells did not live in the past. Instead, he thought constantly of things to come, and he believed that change could not be ignored.He also thought of the present in terms of how it could drive the future. This was an extension to the notion that the conditions of the past would drive the future.
GROUNDING IN SCIENCE — Wells kept himself knowledgeable of scientific principles and developments, as he believed that science was predictive by nature. For example, he flew in the face of the thinking of his time by predicting that aircraft would be heavier than air, rather than lighter than air, as with balloons and dirigibles. His reasoning was that if a craft were to conquer the air, it would need to be stronger than air.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE PAST — Wells believed that all future events were preordained by past events, so it was important to know the past in order to know the future.
LAW OF LARGE NUMBERS — Wells used statistical probability to make predictions. He believed that while small, incremental human events may influence outcomes in some way, broad trends can tell the story more accurately, smoothing out the effects of anomalous events. Another way of saying this is that Wells looked at the big picture.

Wells used the following process to make his predictions:
1. Assume that prediction is possible.
2. Use a combination of facts, logic and math.
3. Gather data.
4. Identify the drivers in science and technology that could change the future.
5. Identify central tendencies using the science of statistics (i.e., find the most common occurrences).
6. Identify the areas that will affected by change.
7. Pursue causal changes.

How accurate was Wells? In 1901, his book on the coming twentieth century, Anticipations, predicted what the world would be like in the year 2000. He wrote that trains and cars would move workers between the cities and the suburbs, that women would seek and achieve greater sexual freedom, that there would be two world wars in which German militarism would be defeated, and that a European Union would be formed.

In an era when we feel buffeted by change, we can still reasonably predict the future by studying trends and making informed inferences. As I often tell my audiences, we don't need to pay a fortune tell to know the future, we only need to pay attention.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Hidden Costs of Missing Goals

When we begin to excuse or rationalize our less-than-successful efforts or our failures, we are on the unstable and dangerous path to making such shortcomings a habit. If we tell ourselves that it was okay to miss one goal, then what about the next? And then the one after that? Here are some notable misses and their consequences.

• According to the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Congress sets the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) for automakers. (CAFE is the average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon, mpg, of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks.) Many years ago, the EPA set a goal of
doubling the 1974 fuel economy average for passengers cars to 27.5 mpg by 1985. However, these standards were lowered between 1986 and 1989. Then the standard of 27.5 mpg was reset in 1990, where and it has remained unmet ever since. Imagine how much more competitive the American car industry would have been had the CAFÉ standard been met on time. Instead, Americans who wanted better gas mileage turned to autos made outside the country, and the American auto industry began an inexorable decline.

• In late 1998, Compaq Computer Corporation began a major initiative to sell their personal computers (PCs) directly to consumers, built to order. The company wanted to regain its place as the number one seller of PCs. Dell, an upstart at the time, had taken the top spot with a methodology that combined a sales force, orders over the phone, and Internet marketing. The process was faster because it eliminated the middle seller. Furthermore, once an order was placed, Dell was able to build a computer in six hours. Compaq could not do that, and the difference was Dell’s superb execution. Compaq simply could not perform as efficiently as Dell.
Eventually, Hewlett-Packard, another major PC-maker, acquired Compaq, so the company is no more.

• AT&T was once the world’s biggest company, the world’s biggest employer, and creator of the most advanced and reliable phone network, which was the envy of industrialized countries. The company also put a reliable telephone in virtually every home in the U.S. But AT&T suffered a tragic fall. After the telecommunications industry was deregulated in 1982, AT&T lost its reason to exist. Facing competition from smaller providers that were once part of AT&T —the so-called “Baby Bells” — the company made a series of missteps. AT&T invested hundreds of billions of US dollars into cable TV systems, cellular networks, local phone providers, long distance and global data networks — services in which the company was not competitive.
Management even split the company into four to provide services in cable TV, wireless phone, business services, and consumer services. But the end came in January 2005. AT&T and
SBC Communications announced an agreement whereby SBC would acquire AT&T to create the industry's premier communications and networking company. The company that had stood alone in the telecommunications world had become just another player because it could not find its footing in an altered marketplace.

What is significantly absent in the examples above is leadership: Leadership in conveying a vision to make it meaningful to others, leadership in motivating teammates toward that vision, leadership that is confident enough to share information on the progress of the project and foster cooperation, rather than withholding it to maintain personal control.

How are your leadership skills? We all must be able to lead the people around us to the change that will help us and our organizations survive in an uncertain world. More important, we must all understand and accept our goals and targets so that we know exactly what defines "success" in each case.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

To Betty Ford, and All Those Who Build Platforms

As we celebrate the life of Betty Ford, who passed away yesterday, I am reminded of her courage to speak out on issues she embraced. Of course, her work on behalf of awareness of substance abuse and breast cancer were well known. However, she also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which was not common to do in the mid-1970s, access to abortions, and the rights of gay Americans to serve in the military. (She was someone who acknowledged that gays had already long served in the military.)

Beyond Mrs. Ford, I began thinking of the people who found causes in their personal lives and pursued them relentlessly against the tides of their times.

  • Rachel Carson, a sounder of early warnings against DDT and the dangers facing our natural environment when most people did not even know what she was speaking about.
  • Martin Luther King, who spoke so beautifully on such a wide range of topics — freedom, justice, good vs. evil, mob mentality, even the nobility of work — that students should learn to look well beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech and hear words that resonate even today.
  • Elie Wiesel, turning his survival of Nazism’s “final solution” to justice for all humankind.
  • Dorothy Day, often a lone voice on workers’ rights.
  • Ronald Reagan, who spoke so long, passionately, eloquently and consistently against Communism that his entreaty to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was, comparatively, one of the mildest statements he ever made on the subject (partially because he lived long enough to see that battle won).

In this era when “branding” is all the buzz, it is appropriate to review what we each stand for and the positions for which we will be known. It need not be even a global, noble cause. Perhaps we are exemplars of courtesy, disallowing coarse treatment of others in our presence. Our language and writing can make us defenders of good and proper English. Or we may choose to extol our free enterprise system.

It is commonly said that perception is reality. So, too, is legacy. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of that. What is your platform?

Friday, July 8, 2011

What's in a Name? For Google, it's Value

Google will soon be saying goodbye to several non-Google name brands, such as Blogger and Picasa. Most important, the products will remain, renamed as Google. Blogger and Picasa are two of Google’s most popular products, so it makes sense to give them names to reinforce the Google brand.

Currently, it is not so obvious that these blogging and photo sharing products are associated with the world's most popular search engine. But that will become more apparent once they are known as "Google Blogs" and "Google Photos." (I did not know that Picasa was a photo-sharing service. The name implied some kind of art creation software to me. The new name, colorless as it may seem, makes the function of this product immediately clear, at least to me.)

Of course, Microsoft has been successful with this practice for years, as every product in their office suite carries the name of the company. This is a good practice for any business enterprise, extending their brand way beyond the obvious. Note the number of home products that carry the "Mr. Clean" name or oral hygiene products named Crest or Colgate. On the other hand, note how the Coca-Cola company eliminated confusion by branding their bottled water as Dasani rather than another Coke name. (This is in stark contrast to how the company shot to the top of the diet soda ranks by simply naming their product "Diet Coke.")

So now, Google will be known for more than "search." In fact, there are many who believe this is the beginning of remaking Google into a social media company. It is a reminder of the value of all of our names. It makes us more acutely aware of how and where we attach our names. What image does your name conjure? Are you associated with a particular habit or ideology, either of which could pigeon-hole the world's perception of you? In the simple words of Al and Laura Ries in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, "Marketing is brand building."

This strategy will become clearer once Google launches their new business initiative, Google+. An apt name if they actually become known for more than searching on the Internet. Let's check back in a few months.

Monday, July 4, 2011

It is Mid-Year; Do You Know Where Your Goals Are?

The year is now half over. It is a good time for us to review our goals and objectives for the year and mark our progress.
What, you don't have goals and objectives for the year? If not, how will you know if you have advanced in 2011 and made personal progress? I keep two "To Do" lists posted: one for every day, and one for the year. My daily "TO DO" list is an ongoing challenge, but as I step back, I'm doing well for the whole year. I have already read as many books as I planned, I created a new keynote address for my repertoire, my retirement plan is finally on track, and I have reviewed the Italian language for an upcoming trip. (Forgive me if I don't share the other items on my list. I take the advice of self-help guru Derek Sivers that you should not share your goals with others, because that automatically decreases the chances that you will achieve them.)
Over the years, my annual list of goals have enabled me to accomplish a number of interesting things, such as hitting certain income goals, learning a new language, paying off my mortgage and publishing my first book.
If you haven't yet put together your own list, don't fret. Better to finish the year with a smaller list than one at all. The more important thing to remember is to work at actually reaching your goals by prioritizing them, putting them on schedule, focusing on them and eliminating the time wasters that get in your way. One could find no better role model than a mother on public assistance who became one of the richest women in the U.K. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, told the Harvard graduating class that "achievable goals are the first step to self improvement."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Please enjoy this interview with broadcaster Burke Allen on my book, The Six P's of Change."

When Planning Your Career, Rage Against the Machines

I came across an interesting opinion piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. The author wrote about how machines are doing much of the work that people used to do. We saw that in the last century, as robots could assemble cars more cheaply and efficiently than people do. It does make sense, as a machine can the work that eliminating jobs. (UAW members saw that, too, as rank-and-file members like my Dad fought against the encroachment of machines that would do the work of humans.)
I have discussed this very point in my book, The Six P's of Change, and I often mention it in my speeches: Those who are tied to a specific technology or type of work are often doomed to obsolescence. However, my own take is less fatalistic than that of the author of this article. I contend that such changes also bring opportunity. For example, while the auto industry once provided one in every seven jobs in the U.S., that ratio now belongs to the computer industry. (The automobile industry now accounts for one in every 16 jobs, still a significant number.) So, as the saying goes, fish where the fish are, and work in those areas that are not only in demand but which cannot be taken over by machines.
For example, how about a return to the trades, such as plumbing, carpentry and the like? I have not yet seen a machine that can cut pipe to length or crawl under a sink. There are also creative endeavors that no machine can do, such as writing, art, design and consulting. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: Since the auto industry produces more computers for their cars than IBM does, young people would be well served to learn the high technology of the car industry. t look That enmity was not limited to heavy industry.
Elbert Hubbard once note that "One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man." When we seek to be extraordinary, we can beat this trend and even make it work in our favor.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bachmann's Poise Debunks the "Gotcha" Myth

Michele Bachmann taught us all a couple of good lessons when Chris Wallace asked her, "Are you a flake?" First, there are no "gotcha" questions. There are only questions for which we have not adequately prepared. Second, one can also seize the situation.

First, let's take a look at her response. Many observers noted that she handled the question well and answered with Grace. Wallace opined (legitimately, I might add) that Bachmann is known for gaffes and misstating facts. After listing accurate examples, he signed and asked her if she were a flake.
She kept her eyes on him and said calmly, "Well, I think it would be insulting to say something like that." She then listed examples of why she should be taken seriously: that she is a lawyer, a businessperson, and other legitimate accomplishments. All good.
Moreover, she took control of the questioning. She never had to address the examples of mistakes that Wallace brought up because the conversation became about her credentials.
Compare this to another famous example. In September 2008, Katie Couric of CBS News asked vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin where she got her information and how her world views were shaped. If you watch the clip, it was not an antagonistic question; in fact, Couric did not have the dismissive and insulting tone that Wallace expressed to Bachmann. But when Palin could not answer such a puff ball question, she laid the blame on Couric. The fact of the matter is that no question could have been answered in such a cavalier manner and be deemed acceptable.
"Governor Palin, where did you live growing up?"

"Ah well you know, I lived in every city. I liked them all, I really cannot think of a specific one."
This answer sounds just as silly, doesn't it?

In all of our work lives, regardless of the nature of our jobs, we need to be able to answer such questions in order to have credibility. Consider the kinds of questions we get every day.
  • Why should I buy your product? What makes it better that your competitors?
  • Isn't there a danger that if I buy this stock, the value will go down?
  • These layoffs will have a devastating effect on our community. Why are they necessary?
  • Why do you recommend this course of treatment, Doctor?
  • Why did her paper get an "A" while mine got a "C"?
In none of these instances would it be acceptable to waffle or sound defensive. A true leader has the answer at hand.
Bachmann showed such assurance in her handling of an awkward question. In the course of her answer, she communicated much more than her credentials. She exhibited a presence of mind that is essential to the position that she is seeking.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Speakers Can Learn from Show Biz Veterans

Recently, I have read a couple of memoirs from the world of show business, specifically comedians. One is Growing Up Laughing: My Story and The Story of Funny by Marlo Thomas, her remembrances of growing up in show business, mostly as the daughter of the great comic and actor Danny Thomas. The other book is by my idol, Dick Van Dyke, titled My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. I have been more influenced by professional comedians, TV stars and comic actors in my own speaking career than by any other single group of role models. Even though the two books are ostensibly "light reading," I took some worthwhile points from them:
  • There is no substitute for rehearsal. Marlo talks about how her dad would go over his material ad nauseum until he had all the timing and nuances down. In his day, Danny Thomas was one of the most preeminent and successful storytellers in entertainment, probably comparable to Jerry Seinfeld in a way. This was why: He left nothing to chance.
  • Play to your strengths. Thomas profiles 20 different comics and actors in her book, and they are each unique. Steven Wright depends on wordplay. Don Rickles is successful in his 80s as a master of the putdown. Both George Lopez and Chris Rock make their ethnicity relevant to their entire audience. Conversely, Jay Leno gently plays "Everyman." Dick Van Dyke made his talent for physical comedy the tent pole of his career. As a speaker, find your brand and stick to it rather than adjusting your style to the latest fashions.
  • Build on those strengths. Van Dyke talks about how a friend arranged an audition for the Broadway classic musical, Bye Bye Birdie. When he auditioned for the show's director, Gower Champion, Van Dyke did a little soft shoe and a song. Champion told him on the spot that he got the job, but Van Dyke admitted that he could not dance. Champion -- a great musical director -- assured him that all was okay. This was because Champion saw how Van Dyke could move well enough on the stage to make the choreography work. Obviously, he was right, as Van Dyke went on to win a Tony Award for his role and went on to reprise the role in the movie version. We shouldn't be fearful of our limitations; instead, we need to build on them.
  • Be as timeless as possible. How is it that The Dick Van Dyke Show, a black & white series that is approaching its 50th anniversary, remains so popular today? Van Dyke observes that Carl Reiner, the creative talent behind the seminal series, tried his best to avoid specific topical references, such as personalities of the day or specific events. In that way, the themes are what carry the show. While that may not seem practical today (after all, can we really avoid discussing topics such as AIDS, the economy or record employment?), we should espouse timeless principles, such as ethics, continual improvement, or caring for others.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Short-Term Thinking Leads to Long-Term Losses

I know two businesses that have made decisions based on today, and I predict their actions will come back to haunt them tomorrow.

Both have decided to stop their marketing communications for distinctly different reasons. One suffered a big loss recently when it lost a competitive bid that would put the company in a strong competitive position for years to come. The other company curtailed their marketing when a few projects came in unexpectedly as a result of referrals. Company #1 canceled their marketing because they perceive they do not need it. Company #2 says they cannot afford it. Both of them are likely to pay for these decisions later.

What happens to #1 when there are no fortuitous references in the future? There must be work in your pipeline. Similarly, #2 will also not build customers over the long haul with this type of thinking.

(Businesses are not the only entities guilty of this type of thinking. Certainly, many of our current government concerns have arisen because of the lack of forethought given to expenditures versus outlays. Many Americans do not have proper retirements planned because they did not plan in advance. Even much of our personal health problems can arise from seeing only the immediate.)

Jonathan Swift once said that vision is the art of seeing the invisible. Marketing and similar planning looks for those invisible tomorrows before they become the dire todays.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How Do You Love the Audience? Let Me Count the Ways!

My mantra about every aspect of our public speaking is: "It's all about your audience; it's not about you." That includes your relationship with your audience. Here are some tips on actions that have worked for me.

REACH OUT AHEAD OF TIME. Just last night, I spoke to a group of people in career transition. The sign-up system allowed me to see each participant as they enrolled. I sent each of them an email telling how much I appreciated that they had signed up, how much I looked forward to meeting them, and how I wanted to serve their needs.

BE THERE AS THEY ARRIVE. I had to set up the room, so I got there ahead of the audience. As each arrived, I gave them a copy of my handout, and engaged them in a short conversation. (Those who had received my introductory email felt as though they already knew me.)

SAY GOODBYE TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS YOU ARE ABLE. At the end of the presentation, I stood at the front of the room and shook everyone's hands. I thanked them for coming, and I asked how the presentation met their needs. I asked them to send feedback. (In this case, the organization that hired me had a feedback mechanism, so it was an easy request to make.

REACH OUT AFTERWARDS, JUST AS YOU DO PRIOR TO THE EVENT. I sent an email to everyone who signed up, which was relatively easy, because I had created a .txt file that I would paste into each message. (I personalized them each a little, such as thanking someone for a provocative question asked or for buying my book.)

Grand entrances are for rock star divas or ham actors. The more we connect with our audiences, the more effectively we are likely to help fulfill their objectives.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

35 (no make that 36) Years of "Nashville"

As a self-styled film historian and film buff, I tend to know many trivial facts about films, so imagine my surprise and embarrassment when I completed writing this piece and discovered that the premise was all wrong. Let me first explain the raison d'etre of my post.
People often ask me my opinions on the best films ever. I cite many of the usual suspects, such as Citizen Kane (top of the list), It's a Wonderful Life, Chaplin's Modern Times and The Gold Rush, and not too many other surprises. However, when I was asked to name my Top Five, I raised many eyebrows when I included Robert Altman's Nashville.
Yes, that's right, Nashville! Want to make something of it? I think this is a groundbreaking film whose influences have spread far and wide, yet few people acknowledge them. Or, more significant, are not aware of them.
I wrote this thinking that I was honoring the 35th anniversary of the premiere of the film. However, I discovered that it opened on June 11, 1975. So I'm a year late. Still, I'd like to explain why I love this film so much and still consider it one of the best ever.
Let's begin with the setting. Altman was way ahead of the curve in picking the country music capital as the focal point of his film. You would be hard pressed to think of any significant films that were similarly centered. We see people in the recording studios, in clubs, at outdoor performances. It was as though he was clairvoyant in seeing what a cultural force country music would become, and he took us right to its epicenter.
This was no whitewash. An older woman I knew bristled at the portrayal, complaining "That's not what country music is about." Sorry, Ma'am, but these characters are Americans, capable of being as venal, petty, shallow and competitive as the rest of us. If the New York theater could have the vipers of All About Eve and early television could portray the Andy Griffith's ascendant evil in A Face in the Crowd, then country music was entitled to its Nashville.
Altman was also a master at pulling great performances out of a. huge casts and, b. previously unheralded actors. Look at the people in this film! Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Barbara Harris, Ned Beatty, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Keenan Wynn... I could go on. Altman took a popular TV-sketch comedienne named Lily Tomlin (heard of her?) and guided her to an Oscar nomination. Same for Ronee Blakely, who came out of nowhere to channel Loretta Lynn in her fictional character, Barbara Jean. Comic Henry Gibson was known mostly as a member of the cast of Laugh-In, the seminal NBC variety show, but he was brilliant as the duplicitous Haven Hamilton under Altman's direction. A native of Philadelphia, of all places, Gibson was entirely believable as the corn-pone crank and hypocrite. (Altman, et al, even knew to take a little-known bit that Gibson had performed years earlier on The Dick Van Dyke Show and turn it into Hamilton's so-called "signature" song, "Keep A-Goin'.")
Do you like parallel plots, kept straight by canny editing and the power of narrative? Altman pioneered this style in Nashville, and the technique was used brilliantly in much '80s television, notably Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. It is amazing how these nearly 30 characters wander the landscape of this movies, seemingly disconnected in a head-scratching way, and yet they come together in the climactic scene set at Nashville's Parthenon. All the characters fulfill their destinies in this one dramatic moment, whether it was Barbara Jean's tragic end, Haven Hamilton's unmasking of sorts (best use of a toupee ever), but best exemplified by Barbara Harris seizing the occasion to make her long-awaited start turn.
I saw Bridesmaids recently (very funny, entertaining movie, by the way), and I howled at the use of overlapping dialogue in scenes, such as when Kristen Wiig's character stumbles through the plane under the influence of a sedative. But I also remembered that Altman pioneered the use of such speechifying with his multi-track sound on Nashville and his subsequent films.
It is bewildering to me that the film is so widely forgotten today, as it generated much discussion, disdain and appreciation in its day. It was nominated for five Oscars (picture, director, Tomlin and Blakely for supporting actress) but took home just one for Keith Caradine's song, "I'm Easy." It was the New Film Critics' Best Film of the year, as well as winning best director, and the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics also honored it as the best. Yet I hear very few people mention Nashville today, and when I mention it as one of my all-time favorites, the usual responses range from mild surprise to recriminations from someone who tells me that their audience booed the film
If you get a chance, I suggest you revisit this gem. Tell me what you think, even if you don't like it. I won't agree with you, but that's okay; it don't worry me.

PS. For a fine retrospective of this film, I refer you to a piece by Ray Sawhill of, titled A Movie Called Nashville.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Short, Sweet and Wright Writing

"I remember when the candle shop burned down. Everyone stood around singing 'Happy Birthday.'"
-- Steven Wright

Did you ever consider how much work it takes to write a joke like that?

I was reading a book by Marlo Thomas that my wife gave me for Christmas titled Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny. It is a memoir based on her life as the daughter of legendary comedian and TV star, Danny Thomas. It is mostly about what defines the elusive quality of "funny." It's one of those tomes that's good to read in bed just before the lights go out, as it is not very demanding, and it puts you in a good mood to sleep. Many chapters are Ms. Thomas's interviews with a wide variety of comics and actors, ranging from Tina Fey to Ben & Jerry Stiller to Don Rickles. However, the chapter on comic Steven Wright stopped me in my tracks. While the old veteran Henny Youngman was known as "The King of the One-Liners," Wright deserves that title much more. Youngman more often than not had a long build-up to a powerful punchline. Wright tells his jokes in three sentences at most.
"I had a friend who was a clown.
When he died, all his friends
went to the funeral
in one car."

Reading about Wright reminded me how much hard work there is in concise writing. There is an apocryphal story that George Bernard Shaw once told a friend that he wrote him a five-page letter because he didn't have time to write him a one-page letter. Wright says in Thomas's interview that "something in my mind starts to edit down the joke so I can get the point across with the fewest amount of words....I don't like big, long set-ups."
And really, how much do any of us like hearing those same set-ups? Wouldn't you rather have someone get right to the point? So it is with our own writing, especially in speeches.
I relearned that lesson last year when I was in a Toastmaster speech competition. There was one contestant who was quite impressive in her manner, her confidence and her diction. Her speech was very literate, and she delivered it beautifully, with the skill of an actress. However, she didn't even place in the competition, while I came in second with a memoir about the time I had to speak to my son about sex.
After the competition on how well she did in her first contest. (She was in her first year of Toastmasters.) "But I have some advice for you that may help you in the future, " I said. She stopped me before I could continue.
"I think I know what you are going to say," she said to me. "I was struck by the simplicity of your language." And there it was. The audience couldn't quite wrap their heads around her message, while mine was easier to discern.
"I intend to live forever. So far, so good."
One way to learn concision is to seek out and read succinct writing. Hemingway is the master. He once boasted that he could write a novel in just six words:
For Sale:
Baby Shoes.
Never Used.
For a better example, read A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, which one college professor described to me as "the perfect short story. A better example still is Robert Frost's The Death of the Hired Man. In a long poem -- not even a short story -- he lays out the final years of a day laborer in stunningly vivid detail.
"How do you tell when you're out of invisible ink?"
Think about applying such discipline to your own writing. When you are reviewing a piece, try taking out just unnecessary word. Then try a second. Use your Twitter, too. It is amazing what you can get across in just 140 characters. But don't be fooled; just because it's shorter doesn't mean that it's easier.
"I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Picture Tells a 118-year-old Story

I offer up this graphic from GE's 2010 annual reports as a terrific example of making a point clearly with a single graphic. Inside the front cover, it says that "GE's product and services offerings are aligned with human needs and growth opportunities around the world. As global population has grown over the past 118 years, GE's revenues has grown at an even faster rate."
This cover illustrates the point beautifully. It is clear that the world population, shown by the light blue, is outpaced by the GE revenues, symbolized by the darker blue.
GE's annual reports in recent years have set standards for clear yet concise communication. This graphic is just one example.
You can access this graphic and the whole annual report online by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Talking to 9th Graders About Careers? Not So Easy, But Rewarding Nonetheless

About six weeks ago, I heard from Carolyn Geers, Programs and Community Affairs Coordinator for Philadelphia Children’s Foundation (PCF). She had received my name through my Temple University MBA Alumni Association. It seemed that PCF has Guest Speakers program, and it's designed to expand students’ awareness of their career choices awareness. "By hearing from local working adults, the eyes of Philadelphia students will be opened to the variety of options available to them." Ms. Geers told me. Additionally, the program will inform students of what is required in education andexperience to become successful in a particular career. Ultimately, PCF is designed to exposing students to people, places, and occupations outside of their neighborhood to prepare for a successful future.

I agreed to speak to a 9th grade English class at Frankford High School, which is in the northeast part of the city. My topic was careers
in corporate communications. What sealed the deal was that they were able to support my audio-visual needs, because no self-respecting speaker will appear without PowerPoint. (Working without PowerPoint leaves you vulnerable and exposes all your weaknesses, like Angelina Jolie without makeup.I kid, of course; in this case, I wanted PowerPoint as a crutch.) So we were set.

I showed up around 8:30 for the 9:00 a.m presentation, which was important since I and all the students needed to go through the scanning
device. (What did I know? I haven't been in a city high school for decades!)

When I made it to the room, the kids barely acknowledged me, though I believe that it was largely due to shyness rather than rudeness,
unfamiliarity with social graces rather than gracelessness. There was one exception. His name was Khalid. When he saw me setting up my little video camera, he got out of his seat, came back and introduced himself like a gentleman, offering me his hand. Don't think that this young man was a modern-day Arnold Horshack. He was obviously pretty cool, polished and taking charge of his life. I'm sure his lunch table is the place to be, and I can already picture him going far in this world.

After a brief introduction, I asked them all if they would like a job where they could give speeches? (Little interest.) Make movies or
videos? (Hm, a smattering of enthusiasm.) Work on Facebook and Twitter during the day? Write advertisements? (Blank stares, which took me by surprise. I guess they couldn't imaging doing those things for a living.)

"How would you like a job where you could be on television, on the radio or in the newspapers?" Hands shot up! Being famous really appealed
to this group.
I welcomed them to the world of corporate communications. I told them that businesses and other organizations to get their messages out, both the on the outside and the inside. I gave them lots of examples of how the work could be done: Public relations. Marketing. Advertising. Social Media. (However, I was a little presumptuous about what young people would know. They didn't understand the term "social media." To them, media are their music files and nothing more. One guessed that "social media are when people like the music that you make, and they stand around and listen to it." Sorry, he did not win the Samsonite luggage for that guess.)
I emphasized strongly that if they wanted to bring their 9th grade English to the working world that they needed to learn not only to write And communicate, but also about the business world and what motivates others. I advised them that they could learn this by studying English, journalism, and study the liberal arts. (Another explanation: They liked the idea that instead of studying one topic that they could become knowledgeable in many topics!) I emphasized most strongly that it is important to learn the basics of proper English, including sentence structure, the parts of speech and grammar.

Then I showed samples of my own work. They liked that I had traveled to other countries to produce videos and write annual reports. They
thought it was neat that, when I wrote about health care for General Electric, I researched the topic by witnessing a coronary bypass in the operating room. And they were fascinated by the imaginary settings that could be created by Photo Shop and other means.
It was not so important that I told the students HOW to enter this occupation as it was that I told them that I believed that they could do it all.

Jameer and I talked about Twitter. I told him that people would know who he was from his Tweets. ("Once you succeeded because of what you knew," I advised. "Then it was because of WHO you knew. Today it is because of WHO knows YOU.")
There weren't too many questions; the shyness continued. The teachers in the room brought up some topics that kept the conversation going. Then I closed with pictures of people who achieved their goals through effective, even great, communication. I talked about how Steve Jobs sold innovation to the American people. I discussed how Dr. Martin Luther King changed society with his messages. (I encouraged them to read more than his "I've got a Dream" speech.) I reminded them of how Barack Obama used strong speaking skills to win the Presidency, most improbably.
And they laughed when I said that I think one of the greatest communicators and marketers right now is Lady Gaga, with her ability to get people to notice her. (They were probably surprised that I even knew who she was.)

I was disappointed when I was done. Their indifference was what I expected, but I had hoped for more. But the three teachers disabused me of
that notion. They said that the mere fact that the students were quiet, not disruptive and not talking to their classmates was evidence that they were listening. In fact, the evaluation forms showed that the kids actually liked the presentation. They appreciated that I told them which schools offer the programs that are pertinent to this vocation, and they liked actually seeing samples of corporate communications. (PowerPoint DOES work!)

I intend to do this again. I hope that I can make a difference to young people who may not otherwise be exposed to such career options.
(I wished that I had exposure to communications professionals when I was in high school.) Most important, I believe that I gave them hope. Apparently, it was not so important that I told them HOW to enter this occupation as I told them that I believed that they could do it all. I also gave them my contact information so they could send me questions or request information if they want.

Luckily, there are many volunteers for PCF. If there is such a program in your own community, I encourage you to take part. We don't know
what difference we can make in a young person's life. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye out for a couple of the kids I met today.

PS. If you are reading this in Philly and want to help, here are links to the program, check out "Philadelphia Children's Foundation" on Facebook.