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.