Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas prayer for 2012

Each Christmas Eve, my wife and I host a traditional Italian "Feast of the Seven Fishes" for family and friends. Marie creates a masterpiece every time. However, as the father of the household, I like to lead guests in  prayer before we start. Well, 2012 was a challenge for us with illness, the death of Marie's father, the death of one of my most long-timed friends, and more, including the tragedies in our national community. I composed a special prayer for the occasion; I hope you find meaning in it.
Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Prayer before Christmas Dinner  2012

We are grateful for the many ways we are blessed this night.

In a world where many walk in hunger; we’re blessed to have an abundance of food. And so, may we eat with humble and grateful hearts.
In a world where many walk alone, we're glad to have each other.
At a time when many are in sorrow, having had their children and other loved ones taken from them unexpectedly, we're grateful for this moment of joy and to be together, especially in the light of an extraordinary year.

Having survived a year of illness, we hope that God's compassions never fail us,
and that his mercies are new every morning.
We give thanks for the relief from the sickness of this past year and for the hope of renewed health.

On this night of joy and in this moment of togetherness, we also feel the absence of people we loved. 
Let us remember the Christmas celebrations of the past and be grateful for having had them.
Let us soften our hearts and be more compassionate with everyone we meet and be in harmony with one another.

And finally, let's remember the central reason we are here. The beauty of this table tonight is that we gather as people with a wide range of beliefs. Yet whatever we believe, one fact is indisputable:
Jesus Christ, who was born this night, said that the two great commandments that contain the whole law of God are to love your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength. And also to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

So in light of all what we believe, what we have endured and all we face ahead,
may this food restore our strength, giving new energy to tired limbs and new thoughts to weary minds.
May this drink restore our souls, giving new vision to dry spirits and new warmth to cold hearts.
And may this time together restore our souls as we head into a new year with the opportunity to be renewed.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Climate Change May Have Abetted the Wrath of Khan (Genghis, that is)

One of the world's greatest conquerors seems to owe his success to global warming. Still think this phenomenon is inconsequential?
According to The Economist, two academic researchers have uncovered evidence that it was changes to the climate that helped Genghis Khan take over half of Eurasia. Data found through tree-rings indicate that during his rise to power, Khan's world was wetter and warmer than in millennia past. This led to richer grazing than normal, which powered his horde's most powerful asset: their horses. 
These finding are not conclusive. The researchers, Amy Hessl of West Virginia University and Neil Pederson of Columbia University, are consulting with other scientists and a historian to test their theories. But regardless of the outcome, this theory further supports the notion that climate change does indeed alter history in ways that we would not normally imagine.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Trucking Companies Drive Home Point: Indices Can Be Misleading

Charles Dow, the first editor of The Wall Street Journal, had many prescient investing theories. One stated that a breakdown in transportation stocks presaged a downturn in the overall economy.
However, Dow's observation is being test right now. The largest players in the trucking field  -- J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Heartland Express and YRC Worldwide -- should see revenue gains between 5 and 13 percent. Yet while these large trucking companies are doing well, there is still a buildup of inventory at wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers, and this does not bode well for the entire economy.
So why the anomaly? It turns out that ONLY these large trucking companies are doing well; they are largely meeting the withered demand for trucking by themselves. Smaller companies have not been able to invest in the newer vehicles and the people needed to meet the demand. So manufacturers and retailers will be paying higher transportation prices because the trucking industry is short about 20,000 drivers (according to industry analysts).
So the lessons to be gleaned from this:
  • Old theories should be heeded, but not blindly.
  • A rising tide does not lift all boats. Sometimes the better maintained boats do better.
  • The principle of supply vs. demand certainly applies to talent: Members of the trucking industry are competing for quality drivers, which are in short supply right now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

In the Category of "What Was I Thinking?"

My friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook today on several Presidential campaign snafus that were entirely avoidable: Mitt Romney's heartfelt but vocally challenged rendition of "America the Beautiful" is now an Obama ad. Barack Obama tone deaf remark that "the private sector is doing fine" has been a Romney ad for weeks. Perhaps the biggest self-inflicted wound of all time was by Michael Dukakis when he got into a tank and... well, let the ad speak for itself.
But, really, don't our organizations do the same things when they take actions or make announcements without thinking them through? Here are some examples:
  • A company makes record profits but employees' salaries are frozen.
  • Health benefits are cut with out a rationale.
  • U.S. Olympic uniforms are made in China.
  • New Coke. (Really, do I need to elaborate on that one?)
Here's a simple example of preemptive media management: An industrial TV organization I belonged to gave a "Communicator of the Year" award to a local broadcaster. As the dinner was underway, a local TV station  -- indeed, the one where he worked -- sent a crew in to get some footage for that night's newscast. As soon as they entered the room, his beer bottle quickly, discretely went under the table. He enjoyed it again after they left.

That really wasn't so difficult. We should all give our actions that much consideration.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Recipe for Insularity

To close yourself off from the public and limit your accountability for your actions, do the following:
  • Prepare a large and loyal following.
  • Coddle your organization's insiders.
  • Blacken anyone who disagrees with you.
  • Blanch over the slightest interference from outside authorities.
  • When it all comes to a boil, cry prejudice.
  • Stew over the results of your actions.
This winning recipe has been done to perfection for such institutions as Penn State University, The Catholic Church, The Democratic Party, The Republican Party and most big-city police departments.
Warning: The final dish when left out loses its taste over time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Learning Inspiration from Jack Nicholson

I was watching the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets when I heard one of the most memorable lines, and one of the best sentiments, written for a movie over the last 20 years.
Jack Nicholson played Melvin Udall, a writer with OCD, who falls in love with waitress Carol Connelly (played by Helen Hunt). While he is awkwardly wooing her over dinner, she requests a compliment from him, mostly to counteract the insults he inadvertently inflicts on others as a result of his condition.
Melvin thinks it over, and he informs Carol that since he met her, he is controlling his OCD with medication for the first time. Carol, bewildered, asks what that has to do with her.
Melvin draws his breath and announces to Carol, somewhat gallantly, that "You make me want to be a better man." (See the scene here.)
It is one of the best compliments that Carol has ever received in her hard-knock life. And well it should be.
Who is the person for whom you want to improve? To do your best? It could be a loved one, a teacher, a coach, a boss, a colleague.
There must be a person for whom you want to give more than a passable effort. You could write a brochure that looks like the others in your marketing department, or you could create a breakthrough document. You can lay brick to collect your daily pay, or you could help build one of the most beautiful walls ever.
But who is the person YOU want to make better? Maybe that is the more pertinent question.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Memoriam: Robert D. "Bob" Reif

Bob Reif smiles proudly upon his
family: (from left) Eric, Amy and Melissa.
A little backstory: My friend since age 13, Bob Reif, died of complications from a lung transplant on June 24m 2012. At the request of Bob's wife, Amy, and his children, Eric and Melissa, I proudly delivered this eulogy for Bob at at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA on June 26. I spoke these words when I stepped to the lectern and was impressed by the size of the crowd gathered.

Wow! From this vantage point, I am able to see so many people who were touched by Bob. From where you are, I ask that you look quickly to your left... your right... behind you and in front of you.

Do you see all those people with us today? I guarantee that you all have one thing in common. I'll bet Bob made every one of you laugh and be happy at one time or another.

My wife, Marie, and I share a favorite memory that illustrates Bob audacious sense of humor. It was at the funeral of his father, Martin. When Marie and I came up to the casket to express our condolences, Bob's mother, Annalise, looked wistfully around at the crowd -- the many people in attendance -- and she said, "Look at all these people. Isn’t it nice? Marty would have enjoyed seeing them."

Bob looked at the casket, smiled at us and said, "Yeah, in fact he would have preferred it."

He had few filters, no sense of shame and little sense of propriety. And that was because he understood that it is not the years in your life that are important, but rather the life you give your years.

Bob's mind operated at the speed of light. He was so fast and he had stored so much information that he could make a pun or a joke or an incisive and insightful observation seemingly instantaneously. It was hard to keep up with him. But along with a fast mind, Bob had persistent values. Those of us who knew him, as I have for more than 45 years, know that that he saved his biggest barbs for politics. He was unabashedly, unapologetically and unilaterally liberal. And Democratic. Bob is the only person I know who could have his son wear a T-shirt that read, "Friends don't let friends vote Republican."

By the way, if you are Republican, please don’t take offense at this. I have been on the opposite side of Bob’s politics, and I am left of center myself. By the time Bob was done with me, I looked like Rush Limbaugh to him.  If you’re offended, we can blame Bob today.

But I also understood that Bob's values came from the wellspring of charity and altruism that has been the hallmark of modern American Judaism over the course of the 20th century through the present.

You see, even as Bob grew more successful in his life, material things never really possessed him. Instead, he continued to care genuinely for others who were less fortunate than he was. And he believed that we needed to care for another. He lived the words of Psalm 82: "Defend the cause of the weak; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

It speaks well of Bob to say that these qualities are considered old-fashioned today. As the chairman of Epstein Becker Green so beautifully expressed in an e-mail to the firm yesterday, Bob was loyal, fair, committed, and an eager mentor to new members of the firm. In the tumult of everyday life, it was not often about him. Amy, Eric and Missy, his brother Gerry, his mother and father, his mother-in-law Kitty, and we, his friends... all of us came first.

I can attest to this from personal experience. During the course of his fight with pulmonary fibrosis, Bob learned that I was also ill. From his hospital bed, he wrote a message to me that encouraged me to fight and beat the disease. Even in his most challenging time, it was not about him.

No words that I or anyone will give you today can remove the hurt, the betrayal we all feel after such a promising period after Bob’s transplant. But here in the presence of God, we can choose, over time, to thank Him that the life of Bob’s years was so abundant with the virtues of
joy and wit…
benevolence and selflessness…
honor, idealism and integrity…
his ongoing wonder and curiosity for all the world has to offer,
and in the end, courage.

And God, please take Bob with the open and generous arms that he extended to so many of us. But however You take him... please don't take him too seriously. I guarantee You; he can make YOU laugh, too.

Monday, June 18, 2012

DOES THAT SUCK? and Other Questions about Language

I was evaluating a Toastmasters meeting, when a speaker said that a particular situation "sucked."
When I presented my report to the club, I asked, "Was that term acceptable to you? I am really asking that question, because I know the root of that expression (in my inside voice: fellatio), and I would not use it. But that could be a generational and cultural bias on my part? What do you think?"
It was an interesting discussion, and the consensus is that "sucks" is the new "stinks" - a previously questionable term that has entered into acceptability.
In another example, Toastmaster magazine published a cover story titled Snafu Survival, about how to protect yourself from unexpected technical problems. I knew that someone would object to "snafu" as a World War II acronym for "situation normal, all fu**ed up." Sure enough, two members wrote to the magazine, asking if the editors really knew the origin of this word and questioned its appropriateness. One said that she would not even display the issue publicly. The editors responded that the dictionary defines this as a perfectly acceptable word.
I believe both instances bring up good lessons about the appropriateness of words. I suggest these guidelines:
  1. Don't be so hidebound as to ignore the evolution of the times and the current interpretation of the word in question.
  2. Still, be sensitive to your audience as to the sensitivities of your particular audience. That includes demographics and culture as well as age. For example, a synonym for "stingy" is "niggardly." I knew someone who thoughtlessly used this word to an African American audience.
    Enough said.
  3. Ask people of different backgrounds what they think of a word as a way to learn, especially those of a different age group. Such folks teach me things all the time.


Take a look at this photo. Do you see anything wrong with it?
You should know that at time in Great Britain, this was the equivalent of the middle finger. However, I think you can safely make the gesture today. Though I don't know why you would find it useful.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An Open Letter to Recruiters: It is Time to Treat Job Seekers with Dignity

How are job-seekers being treated by employers and their surrogates, such as HR departments and recruiters, in this difficult economy ? Here is a glimpse, in the form of an open letter from a job candidate who had enough.
First, the scenario: An out-of-work senior professional I know applied for a job at an East Coast health care chain. The organizational recruiter requested a phone interview him, and he accepted, adjusting his schedule to spend an hour with her. After hearing his credentials, the recruiter was interested enough to ask for more information in the form of examples of the candidate's work in that field. "Send me the work samples," she requested, "and I will share them with the hiring manager. He'll be back next week, and I will get back to you to tell you how we will go forward."

The candidate prepared a detailed portfolio and e-mailed it to the recruiter. Time passed. First one week. Then another. The candidate was patient, until a month passed. Then he corresponded with the recruiter and received this response by email:

"Thank you so much for your time and additional information on your background for the position at (local employer).  At this time, the Executive team has decided to move forward with an internal candidate.  We will keep your information on file for future roles."

This was a day when the candidate had had enough, and he sent back this e-mail:

"As a job hunter, please let me give you some input for you and your peers: 
"After I gave you my time and responded to your request for a portfolio as a follow up, I would have appreciated knowing of this development. There are many of us out here trying to get work in a difficult economy, and it is disheartening to spend our time and make a great deal of effort only to be left hanging, made to wonder what is happening next.

"It is apparent that even after all the initiative I put into this opportunity, I would not have heard from (local employer) if I had not circled back. And I am quite familiar with your position. In my own role as a business leader, I have built and rebuilt teams over the years by seeking out and interviewing many people. I have called prospective candidates and even vendors back to give them closure and to thank them for attempts to work with me. In this era of instant, electronic communication, not using a simple e-mail, even one that is automated, is an oversight and a slight.

"I urge you and others in your discipline to remember that there are real, live people on the other end of these applications and interviews. It would be helpful to their psyches if more employers and their recruiters kept these folks and their pain in mind."

I'm glad that my friend got this off his chest, as he speaks for all job seekers who are being treated poorly. We have reached a point in this business world where employees and potential employees are regarded as one more piece of capital, as costly and expendable as last year's model of the fax machine, and  even as outmoded at times. Many are suffering, and they are putting forth any effort they can to earn a livable wage. They do not need to be humiliated further by faceless factotums who treat them as expendable.

Decades ago, Linda Loman, Willy's wife in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman cried out in frustration when her husband was being disregarded in the work place. She said, "He's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him....Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." At one time, I found those words to be overly dramatic and hyperbolic. Now, nearly 65 years later, in this place and time, Miller seems downright prescient. Shame on us who have allowed this to come true.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The 76ers Lost, and That's OK in Philly

Here in Philadelphia, the sports fans are reacting very well to the fact that our basketball team did not make it to the Eastern Conference finals. That's because, despite their undeservedly harsh image, they have their priorities in order. 
When the season began, there was no expectation that the Sixers would even have a winning season. Instead, the team improved enough to make the playoffs. They won their first round with some luck. (Opponent Chicago lost their most valuable player.) But in the second round, they forced the Boston Celtics to a seventh and deciding game. In the end, Philly fans know the team played over their heads, and that is enough. 

Pope John XXIII shared this daily advice:
  • See everything.
  • Overlook a lot.
  • Improve a little.
The fans understood this when judging the 76ers. How about the rest of us? What are our perspectives on our children, our direct reports, our colleagues, our loved ones? We can all stand to be kinder in our analyses of others. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

AMC Sale May be Harbinger of the End of Theaters

I am interested in the sale of the AMC chain as a sign to the end of movie theaters. When U.S. assets are sold to foreign entities, a common reaction is that it signals extranational control of American assets. I find it to something entirely different: Foreign companies usually buy into American industries or individual companies that are dead or dying, often slowly transforming into commodities. Consider:

  • The sale of IBM computers (becoming Lenovo) after they were no longer competitive in the market
  • The sale of GE's Black & Decker small appliances after such items became cheap and disposable
  • the entire TV set industry, none of which are manufactured in the U.S.
As far as movie chains go, the real money is in content, and this is where the U.S. excels, exporting our culture and intellectual property around the world. (I understood this when I saw The Addams Family black & white TV show on a local Italian television station.) Furthermore, how many people will be watching movies in theaters in the coming decades?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To Learn Personal Branding, Go to Oz

Dr. Mehmet Oz is a master at projecting
a positive image of his work.
I speak to many groups about personal branding to optimize the image that they want to project. A person in the public eye who serves as an excellent role model is the great and powerful Dr. Oz, adviser to the masses about good health and a good life. Yes, he is an Ivy League-educated physician PLUS a Wharton M.B.A. AND he has performed thousands of cardiothoracic surgical procedures at New York City's prestigious Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. But those characteristics are not nearly as obvious as the others he visibly presents, including:
  • HIS DRESS -- I usually see him in his scrubs or similar "doctor" garb. Calculating? Yes, of course; I doubt that he has rushed to every TV appearance from the OR. However, there is also no mistaking that he is a physician, just as Bruce Springsteen must dress like a rock star (usually in black), or David Copperfield must look as mysterious as a magician should.
  • HIS PHYSIQUE -- Oz's fitness is the bane of all the rest of us middle-aged guys. At 51, he looks as much as a decade younger, trim, flexible and vibrant. He represents his own advice, much as the late, great exercise advocate Jack LaLanne did, even as he lived into his 90s.
  • HIS BEHAVIOR -- Upon greeting a reporter from Success magazine, Oz offered him cashews from a bag he carries with him. Do you keep a bag of nuts or another healthy snack with you at all times? You do when you are trying to be the living embodiment of good health.
  • HIS PERSONAL LIFESTYLE -- Oz professes that to live a long, healthy life, one must personal relationships.He is frequently photographed with his beautiful family of a wife, three daughters and a son. Together, they look like they came out of central casting (a compliment), also reinforcing his message of health and happiness. 
So what is the image you are projecting? If you are gifted with your hands and work a manual craft, do you present yourself to customers as someone who is ready to tackle a tough job or as someone who just stepped out of a Lands End catalog? (Look to Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe as a good example of credibility in this case.) If you are a financial adviser, do you look successful yourself?

A friend contacted me recently literally minutes I had updated my LinkedIn profile because I had left an unusual number of typos. "Bad image for a professional communicator, Pat," she emailed me. Branding is a complete job, and it requires attention to a number of details. Heed them all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

To Dick Clark and The People Who Make It Look Easy

We humans often devalue talent.

There is the story of the Parisian woman who was on her way to a fancy ball when she realized that she needed a hat. Panicking, she rushed into the shop of a local and famous hat-maker who was in the process of closing his shop for the night. "Quick, I need a hat immediately."

The hat-maker had no materials but for a single ribbon. He took it and gracefully wrapped it around her head until it adorned her beautifully.
"This is perfect," she gushed. "What do I owe you."
Sizing up the situation, he answered, "Ten francs."
The matron was outraged. "Ten francs!," she exclaimed. "For a ribbon?"

With that, the hat-maker lifted the ribbon off her head and handed it to her, unfurled. "Madame, the ribbon is for free," he told her.

With the passing of Dick Clark, I thought of all the different things he seemed to do so easily, emphasis on the "seemed." He hosted American Bandstand, seemingly just a music program, yet he successfully and fundamentally changed popular music in the U.S., spreading it coast-to-coast from a little studio in West Philadelphia. 

When the Grammys had a stranglehold on music awards, even though they represented blandness rather than popular or critical tastes (the awards were founded as a way to promote "good" music rather than the evil rock 'n' roll), he created the American Music Awards as an antidote, and his creation took hold and gained its own legitimacy. 

Yes, that brightly lighted ball came down in Times Square every New Year's Eve, but it took Dick Clark to make it an event that we all watched, while others could only imitate him. 

And never did he seem so effortless as when he hosted a game show titled The $10,000 Pyramid (upgraded since as a result of inflation). Many years ago, I was at a taping of the show, trying first to get on as a contestant and subsequently watching as part of the live audience. Mr. Clark glided from one role to another, making the players and the audience feel equally at ease. There was a bit of drama when a contestant insisted that he had answered a question correctly. If it were true, then he won the $10,000.

Mr. Clark cut to a commercial, rallied the technical staff and looked appropriately concerned when he announced that they would play back the audio to see if the young man had indeed provided the right answer. It turned out that he had, sotto voce, and it was captured on the audio track. Everything was under control and justice was eventually achieved, all under the smooth guidance of one Dick Clark.

Yes, we have the hat-makers in our lives, the alchemists who turn lead into gold, people who accomplish great and effective things, yet somehow make it look easy because we do not appreciate the skills they bring to bear. We underestimated Cary Grant for years, didn't we? Wasn't he charged for years with "always playing Cary Grant?" And yet when he received an honorary Academy Award, and the TV audience saw the wide range of parts he play, from the grieving father losing an adopted child in Penny Serenade to the burlesque of Arsenic and Old Lace, we were ashamed at how we had not recognized all that he could do. Others not appreciated in their lifetimes? Galileo Harry Truman. Billie Holiday. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as President. Preston Sturges.  Vincent van Gogh. Being ahead of your time is a bitch.

Legendary coach John Wooden said that "Winning takes talent; to repeat takes character." Let's not forget those among us who capitalize on their talents to do great things and then have the fortitude to be more than flashes in the pan. And with that, let's lift the glass one last time to Dick Clark, for his grace and his accomplishments. We are not likely to see his kind again any time soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ROI: New Book Gives a New Look at New Media

As the old saying goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So how do we know if our social media activities are successful? Mark W. Schaefer guides us with his book, Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring and Influence Marketing (McGraw-Hill), which comes at a most opportune time. As our mobile connections grow, most of us have unprecedented reach in our communications. (As Schaefer was wrote the book, 84 percent of American adults and 80 percent of teenagers had cell phones, more than half of adults with laptops have mobile ties, and 11 percent have tablet computers.) But how influential are we, really?

Schaefer sees many benefits to being a “citizen influencer” — the new breed of online communicators who can become a rock star in that world. He describes personal influence as “the marketer’s Holy Grail.” He notes how such influencers get the opportunity to test-drive new cars, receive the latest technological toys and more. His advice, essentially, is to become an influencer in a particular area to become a celebrity. “Bloggers may not have the societal authority of a physician,” Schaefer writes, “yet there are certainly many badges and symbols on the Internet that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority.”

However, he also warns readers to be authentic on the Web, lest they undermine their own credibility. (One particularly telling anecdote concerns a man who makes a comfortable living by creating false Twitter accounts preloaded with thousands of followers, which he then sells on eBay.) According to Schaefer, the three best ways to increase your Klout scores are to build a relevant network, provide compelling content, and systematically build a network of fellow influencers who will distribute your content virally. Most important is to create content that is RITE: relevant, interesting, timely and entertaining.

Schaefer advises organizations that use social media to become content publishers, rather than just republishers of others’ information. He reminds social media practitioners to think about the content they publish in terms of its relevance to its audience.  “If you create great content, the social Web will do the work for you,” he says. He also reminds readers that the social media are two-way. Therefore, we should do our best to interact with the audience, letting them set the tone for a conversation. (Schaefer points out that social media have replaced the old “letters of compliant” from customers.)

To provide “social proof” (Schaefer’s term) of reach and influence, he teaches us of the various measurement tools, such as Klout and Peerindex. These have become so legitimate that many communicators are listing their scores on their resumes and in other documentation.  

I found a welcome bonus at the end of the book: Schaefer lists many of the current influencers in social media, along with contact information, so readers can follow these folks and stay up-to-date with latest philosophies and practices.

I recommend ROI as a critical resource for beginning and journeymen social media practitioners. George Santayana once said, "Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality." The book makes clear that online activities can be meaningless without measurement, turning it into a narcissistic experience. The principles in ROI serve not only us as readers but also our audiences.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pulitzers Honor More than Print with their Highest Award

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service -- the highest award among journalism's highest awards -- went to the Philadelphia Inquirer for "Assault on Learning," a series on violence in the city's schools. In all the excitement, it is easy to overlook that the Prize honored more than print.
The prize for public service goes to an entire paper rather than an individual. The Pulitzer committee said the Inquirer's series used "powerful print narratives and videos to illuminate crimes committed by children against children and to stir reforms to improve safety for teachers and students." The Inquirer created a database to document tens of thousands of serious incidents, ranging from robberies to sexual assaults. It was a year-long project by a team of reporters, editors, photographers, designers and multimedia specialists.
Other new media journalists were honored by the Pulitzers, notably The Huffington Post. The Emmys have been honoring interactive television for a few years now.  All of these examples remind us of the many tools at our disposal to get our messages out. Press releases are not moribund, but neither are they the only weapons in our arsenals. They are just one part of a strategic campaign, combined with blogging, Twitter and more.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, a member of the supposedly staid Fourth Estate, recognized this. Yesterday, it paid off big for them. Also for many students in Philadelphia.

You can view the entire series Assault on Learning by clicking here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lesson on Art and Life from Stand-Up

I came across a fun book titled Comedy at the Edge — How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, by Richard Zoglin, who is an entertainment editor and writer at Time. It was a fun read because that groundbreaking period of entertainment  greatly influenced me. In fact, many of my sensitivities as a speaker, media producer, marketing communicator and writer came out of this heady time. This book reminded me of many lessons I learned in that  time:

1. BE TRUE TO YOUR VISION. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman - all of them had a unique view of comedy to express, whether it was expressing subject matter that was previously taboo, intricate wordplay, maintaining your unique vantage point (i.e., gender, race) or simply turning the tables on the audience through irony. If you have such a vision, whether you are the next Jackson Pollock or Le Corbusier, stick to it.
2.OLD METHODOLOGIES PASS. The comedians in this book fought against the standard way of making people laugh: Set up a situation, then deliver the payoff as a punchline. When was the last time you heard a comic tell a joke like that? (Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield enjoyed late career success with their retro styles, but even they are long gone.) Stay current and either learn from others who are coming up or forge your own new style.
3. PRACTICE INCESSANTLY. I repeat what Geoff Colvin of Fortune has said so convincingly: Talent is overrated; success is almost always determined by hard work. These successful comics rose to the top of their craft by working and reworking their routines, and finding audiences for road tests of their material.
4. LEARN WHO AND WHAT INFLUENCES SUCCESS. Most of the success stories in the book are attributed to one person: Johnny Carson. For decades, he could make or break a young comic's career. But even those who never had the opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show found other platforms for success, such as the right nightclubs or other venues, such as colleges. For those of us in less glamorous fields, where can we make our marks? This is a reminder to network, meet more people and make our presence known through a variety of organizations, whether they are professional associations or the Rotary Club.
5. TIMING IS EVERYTHING, FOR BETTER OR WORSE. The book recounts not only the comics who reached stratospheric levels, but also those who were equally talented yet missed that big opportunity. A comic could be influential, with many up-and-comers imitating that person's style. Perhaps that person kept honing the craft, appearing on TV and in concert, yet never making that one hit movie or TV special that launches everything. The lesson learned: Stick at what you are doing, but have a back-up plan, because luck is bigger factor in success than many of us care to admit.

In fact, this very book is a testimony to that last lesson. I had heard of Zoglin's book, having read a few reviews of it, all positive. But I found it at the local dollar store, while lesser tomes have gone on to greater and less deserved success. So I encourage you to look for this book, support the author, and give him a bit more love than he might have otherwise received.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stardom Doesn't Matter on a Team

I am watching the Phillies play the Mets this beautiful Sunday afternoon. Cole Hamels is pitching a terrific game; he is allowing few runs, and his strikeouts are in double digits. But the game is at risk for the Fightin' Phils because they are not hitting.
Hamels is a Cy Young caliber pitcher, and he was MVP the year they won the World Series. But not of that matters if the whole team doesn't produce.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

JUST FOR LAUGHS - Making Humor a Part of Your Speaking

Humor is just another defense
against the universe.

Mel Brooks, famous funny person.
Here are some quick tips on using humor in your speeches.

  • Don't presume you are incapable of being funny. You can learn to be funny and incorporate humor in your speeches. This is a skill like any others you need to speak.
  • Feel free to be funny.Let yourself go. A confident relaxed attitude is the first thing you need to master. Injecting the right humor at the right moment can capture your audience’s attention.
  • No need to be Louis C.K. or Jerry Seinfeld. You’re not trying to be a famous comedian. All you want to do is share a funny, positive moment with your audience.
  • Find your unique style of humor. It will take time and you will need to be patient, but find out what works for you. As with most other things in this world, everyone’s sense of humor is unique. Look at Jim Carrey vs. Charlie Chaplin vs. Groucho Marx vs. Steven Wright. All of them make us laugh. Do they do it the same way?No. Neither will you!
  • No joke works 100 percent of the time. If your humor doesn’t work, don’t draw attention to it; just keep going. People will think it was part of your speech anyway. (BTW, if your joke doesn’t work SEVERAL times, you should think about cutting it!)
  • Humor should never exclude. True humor is fun. It does not put down, kid or mock. It makes people feel wonderful, not separate, different, or cut off. The best humor the same underlying truth — that we are all in this together. This also applies to political humor.
  • Any of the tips above will backfire on you at one time or another. I guarantee it! Instead, learn from the following quote:
…The humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” - James Thurber

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Moldy Words or Molded Words?

Out of curiosity today, I picked up a 40-year-old American Heritage dictionary to see the definition of pundit. The first entry defined it as "A Brahmanic scholar." ("Brahman" refers to a "highly cultured person."). The second definition was "a learned person" (from the Hindu word pandit).

 Compare this to a more current definition from the website The first definition also calls a pundit "a learned person, expert, or authority." But the second definition is "a person who makes comments or judgments, especially in an authoritative manner; critic or commentator." It is that second definition that most people attach to "pundit" today, and it is not meant to be flattering. So much changed for this simple word over those decades.

Forty years ago, "elite" was defined as "the best or most skilled members of a given social group," which to my mind is a status worth aspiring to. Today, many use it as a pejorative, synonymous with exclusionary. Do you have an education, and did you take the time to actually study something before you offered an opinion on it? Well then, you are an elite; you're not one of us.

Today many people use adjectives recklessly to discredit ideas so that they are essentially dead on arrival. A proposal may be discarded out-of-hand simply by branding it as "conservative" or "liberal"  without taking the time to examine the content of the idea. (Those two words have been so overused and poorly employed that I am not sure they have any meaningful value except to elicit a knee-jerk reaction.) "Racist,""bigoted," "politically correct" -- all are terms hurled indiscriminately, though I would not say thoughtlessly. Actually, these words are used quite strategically to kill a reasonable discussion before one has even begun. It is easier to win an argument with emotion rather than the inconvenience of facts.

It is good to choose one's own words carefully so that a conversation remains rational rather than reactionary. On the other hand, we can also be on guard against those who would willingly highjack an analysis with the weapon of words. But I will also admit that this is easier said than done, as incendiary words can set a policy discussion ablaze before we know what has hit us. 
And now on to the campaign commercials!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Our Responsibility with Social Media

Any of us who choose to blog, Tweet, trade opinions on Quora or otherwise disseminate information via the social media assume a great responsibility. Once we attain a position where people trust us, we become their quick and easy route to information. But what happens when we are wrong? 

The damage is more likely to be small and personal rather than global or catastrophic. We can mistakenly or purposefully take a quote out of context and change the entire meaning of what was said. An innocent restaurant can be irretrievably damaged by a hastily, unfairly scribbled Yelp review once it hits the ether.

Check and double check your information before you hit that "send" button. Reassess your mood when you composed your post in order to eliminate any unintended bias. Will Rogers said in the first third of the 20th century that a lie can go halfway around the world before the truth gets its sneakers on. What would he have thought of the potential, damaging power of our viral media today?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Big Ditch or a Big Idea?

New York Governor DeWitt Clinton predicted that a canal connecting the Hudson River with the Great Lakes could improve the economy of his state.
He was thought to be mad. After all, the cost of the project equaled one percent of the entire country’s gross domestic product (an amount roughly equivalent today to more than $146 billion). The endeavor — which came to be the Erie Canal — also required moving a volume of earth and rock equal to more than three times the volume of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. When the federal government declined to help, Clinton managed to build the canal entirely through state funds. His foresight resulted in a series of fortunes that eventually led to the establishment of New York as the financial capital of the world. It also ushered in the American belief that we could complete big projects, whether it was building the Brooklyn Bridge, digging the Panama Canal, or putting a man on the moon.
This story reminds us not only to think big, but also to think generations ahead. It is a reminder to put our time and efforts into things of value and not simply for the moment. Who do you think is ahead -- the person who charges a Slurpee on a credit card or who puts spare money into an IRA?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Erosion of trust comes from slow drips of offenses

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure got a landslide of negative publicity after its controversial opinion to deny funding to some groups associated with abortion. The firestorm said less about Komen and the other groups involved than it did about the skepticism for charitable groups in general.
Over the last two decades, starting with the United Way, we have seen various nonprofits bring down the entire field with a multitude of sins, such as outrageous executive pay, the mismanagement of funds, and abuse of tax-exempt statuses. Over time, these offenses have sullied the reputations of many groups.
It is the same with our own organizations, even ourselves. A damaged reputation is hard to repair, and a lost reputation is hard to regain. We should always be beyond reproach with our communications with employees and external stakeholders (through press releases, annual reports, meetings and more). The public slammed Komen for the Cure disproportionally for this incidence. That does not diminish the significance of the event. It also provides a lesson for all of us in our ongoing communication on how our indiscretions may affect not only the reputation of our own organizations, but also that of all the people who work in our field.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Winners Behind the Scenes

The film editors of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, were so shocked when they were named as this year's Academy Award winners that they had no speeches prepared. That may have been because they are among those people in the world who are accustomed to being overlooked. 
Think about what they did: They took miles of film that director David Fincher shot among a variety of locations, set ups and even different countries. Then ,they gave it form and continuity, and they made a complicated story understandable. This film went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. Yet few people would know the names of these men, nor do they know the names of others who make similar contributions.
Who are the people in your orbit who do so much yet receive such little recognition? It may be administrative assistant who sets up the lunch that you so generously offer to another. The receptionist who greets every visitor with a smile and a kind word so that you can be praised for how friendly your company is. Or, closer to home, the life partner who cleans the house, cooks the meals and pays the bills to leave you free to follow your dream.
It is nice at times to read the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book. You'll probably never meet the people named, but it is humbling to see all the people behind a successful person who do not know the warmth of a spotlight.
Polls and surveys show that more people leave a job for the recognition than for money. There is a lesson in that when we have finished a project or reached a similar milestone. We do not climb these mountains alone.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

All We Need to Know

I am preparing for an assignment with a major education-related company, helping them as they create a test for professional school counselors. Here is just a sampling of their desired characteristics:
  • Is familiar with basic methods of analyzing student behavior
  • Knows major theories regarding physical development, cognitive development and emotional development throughout the human life span
  • Understands their own biases that may affect their counseling relationships
  • Knows how changes in major public policy and laws affect student rights 
Think of how much we need to know to perform our own jobs at a high level. If you write, do you know the various style guides available? If you're in construction, how much have you studied local codes? Police officers need to know the rights of the accused and the definition of "reasonable force."

Such burdens are on all of us, and it illustrates why we need to be lifelong learners. If we stop learning, we stop growing, and there will usually be someone there who can do the job better than we can.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ranking the Oscar Nominees

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated nine films as their best of the year. We’ll learn the winners soon, when they are announced on Sunday, February 26. But this year, my enthusiasm is a bit dampened. Of the nominees, I am enthused by four at the most, and I really love only my top two. And the public apparently agrees, given the downturn in the 2011 box office receipts.

Furthermore, many better films were overlooked by the Academy. Where is 50/50, an emotional, nuanced and finely acted film about dealing with cancer? Beginners told a unique story about the grief and freedom that can spring from the death of a loved one. And the Academy could have done worse than nominate Bridesmaids as best film; in fact, they did do worse by honoring several mawkish films rather than recognizing well-earned laughs. (At least Bridesmaids got a screenplay nomination, though this looks like a consolation prize when you consider the seeming inevitability of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.)

Here is my take on the nine nominated films, ranking them in ascending order. While I loved my top two, I hope Oscar does a tad better next year. First, let’s look at the first three films that make up the bottom third of the list.

9. War Horse Early in this tearjerker about a lovable horse sent into battle, there is a scene filmed with much drama, vivid camera angles and triumphant John Williams music. What has the protagonist done? Why, he plowed a field! Such is the overwrought emotion contained in this film by Steven Spielberg. (Really, would this film have been nominated if it were attached to a different director?) Yes, I got teary at the end, but I felt I had been emotionally bludgeoned in the process.  Someone told me that she believed Spielberg didn’t trust his audience, so he had overplayed his hand. Point taken.

8. The Tree of Life — “You either love this film or hate it,” a respected friend and fellow cineaste told me. Well, count me among the haters. Yes, the elusive and reclusive Terrence Malick’s film has beautiful sweeping images set to music, but so does a screen saver. And both of these lack an element crucial to good filmmaking: a narrative. Why was Sean Penn, apparently a son of the abusive Brad Pitt character, moping around the film? Why did Jessica Chastain’s character of the mother appear not so much as a person but as some idealized vision of maternity? I give Malick some props for at least trying to tell his tale in a unique cinematic voice, but in the end neither I nor the audience with whom I saw it understood him.

7. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — This film completes our trifecta of works that seem to seem to shout, “This is an emotional film! Pay attention to the cues I’m giving you!” Lead character Oskar Schell has suffered an unimaginable tragedy, losing his father, played by Tom Hanks in flashback, in the 9/11 attack. But instead of heartbreak, we get little Oskar traveling at breakneck pace from one New York City locale to another, trying to decipher a posthumous message from his father. He encounters characters that are unlikely (read: unbelievable and illogical), such as the mute known only as The Renter, and an estranged couple, played with more conviction by Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis than this film deserved. The fatal flaw here is the unrelenting quirkiness, which distracted me from the message. I found this movie extremely idiosyncratic & incredibly pretentious.

6. The Help —The Help centers on a group of African American women in the mid-20th century South who took one of the few jobs accessible to them — that of domestic help — and fulfilled it with conviction. One day, their lives, and those of their employers, are turned over and around by a book that uncovers their hidden feelings. Of all the vivid characters, perhaps the two who best anchor the film are the mischievous but strong Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), who is more reserved, but wears her pride, dignity and fatigue visibly on her passive face. Though The Help doesn’t break any cinematic ground, it is the most superbly acted film of the season.

5. The Descendants — As he did in 2004 with Sideways, Alexander Payne strikes gold once again with this offbeat movie that offers well-defined characters in an unusual setting (Hawaii? Really?). Two years ago, I called George Clooney “this generation’s answer to Cary Grant” after his performance in Up in the Air, and damn if the guy just doesn’t keep delivering. He is ably assisted by a wonderful supporting cast (Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster), most notably Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s deceptively wise young daughter who alerts her father to her mother’s betrayal of him, while she lies in a coma. While The Descendants doesn’t give us any cinematic fireworks, I expect its perceptive and witty script to pick up Best Adapted Screenplay.

4. Midnight in Paris —Woody Allen has his best box office in 45 years, and I suggest that he did so partly by borrowing from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Midnight in Paris is about Gil, a struggling writer (played by Owen Wilson as an Allen stand-in), who discovers that when the clock strikes 12 on a Parisian side street, he is whisked back to the 1920s, the so-called “Jazz Age.” Not only does he escape his shrewish fiancé and her overbearing parents, he finds inspiration in the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and others.  Like Almodóvar, Allen incorporates magic realism to achieve this bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Allen the director works thriftily, bringing the movie in at a tidy 90 minutes. Midnight in Paris shows that the Woodman still has a good film in him and he should receive a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it.

3. Moneyball — Boy, did I not expect to like this movie. It seemed destined to be talky, describing the arcane mathematical principles that manager Billy Beane used to build a winning baseball team in Oakland, California. But Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian whittled the source material (a book by Michael Lewis) down to its essential elements. Then director Bennett Miller added much needed of economy, moving the film along at an entertaining pace, which made even a mundane winning streak exciting to watch. In the end, Moneyball is anchored by an intelligent and deceptively easy-going performance by Brad Pitt as Beane. By giving us less, we got more, especially compared to the bloat that is evident in the films that rank at the bottom of this list of nominees.

It was tough to pick my favorite film from these last two. As it turned out, it came down to movies that appeal to my love for movies themselves. But here goes…

2. The Artist — This movie begins with us as part of a theater audience. The films in The Artist appeal to our wonder by stripping away basic technical developments—color, visual effects and sound.  Director and writer Michel Hazanavicius helps us remember how, in a dark room and using persistence of vision, we get magic. Hazanavicius’s work, I truly believe that the film ultimately succeeds atop the broad, athletic shoulders of Jean Dujardin. He portrays the mature titular star, George Valentin, with a smile and a charm that belies his age. (Valentine resembles the crusty Warner Baxter of 42nd Street, but out of character, actor Dujardin is much younger.) It appears that the film and the director will walk away winners, but if there is any justice, Dujardin will also be crowned Best Actor.

1. HugoThe Artist stripped movies down to their original silence, and that single conceit helped make it an excellent and memorable film.  But in the end, Hugo works better for me because master Martin Scorsese used so many more elements into it. First, the director used 3-D for the first time, and it was a storytelling tool for him, not just a cheesy gimmick. He also incorporated superior production design and animatronics. Second, Hugo is Scorsese’s first film for children, and who would have guessed that after Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and other such violent works. Finally, look at the message of this film: Scorsese states forcefully that films are magical, very largely because of the work of pioneers like Georges Méliès, who saw the possibilities in this novelty item. He also makes his case for film preservation, warning us in an entertaining way that this vanishing legacy needs to be preserved. For this expression of a personal vision by a master craftsman who is still at the top of his game after many years, I found Hugo to be the best of this year’s Oscar nominees.

I welcome your comments. In the meantime, this is our annual reminder to enjoy the movies, which remains one of our most accessible art forms. Enjoy the ceremony on Sunday night.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So What's Your Question?

I met with a friend today who is much younger than I am and facing a "decade" birthday. He asked my advice on dealing with age. I talked about maintaining your health, getting regular check-ups, determining the conditions you can control and those you cannot, and more.
He told me, with much sadness, about a friend of his  — the proverbial "picture of health" — who died suddenly of esophageal cancer, leaving behind a wife and two kids. It was then that I realized he was talking philosophically about mortality and not about the aging process.
When we are speaking with each other, it is important to know the real question behind the question, the subtext of what we are being asked. If someone asks the question, "Who are you," they could be asking your name, what is your essence or what you stand for.
I usually dig into the questions I am asked and did not do so today. It wasn't fatal or even damaging, but it sure wasted a little of our time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Awards or Rewards

The favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend is "The Artist." That is fine recognition, but let's look at it another way:
The film has grossed $61 million worldwide so far. The number one grosser of 2011, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," earned $1.33 billion -- about 21 times as much as "The Artist."
Similarly, the 1977 Oscar went to Annie Hall, which earned $38.3 million over time. The first "Star Wars" was released the same year, and that has earned $797 million, nearly 20 times as much. Furthermore, "Star Wars" changed the dynamics of the film industry, both in how films are made and how they are marketed.
When we measure our own efforts, what are our yardsticks? Are we looking for applause, financial payback, fundamental change, or what?
Any measure you choose can be the right one, but be honest about the value.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Creating Our Legacies

Watching "Sunday Morning" on CBS this morning was a haunting experience, as two stories unintentionally, coincidentally and accidentally juxtaposed  to make me think about our mortality and our legacies. 
The first piece was predictable. Today we mourn the death of Whitney Houston and ponder her life, both over its entirety and in the most recent years. I made sure to catch the show early. I guessed from the news the night before that the show would be devoting time to her, and there it all was: The MTV-era clips that would conveniently serve to chronicle her rapid rise in the 1980s. The snippets of her soaring vocals that seem extra-human at times. (My God, could a person really sing that beautifully AND so powerfully?) The accounts of her troubled times, including her marriage to the sure-to-be-vilified Bobby Brown, and her descent into drugs and alcohol. The diminishing of her prodigious talents, marked most recently by her inability to scale the record charts again and a humiliating concert in which she could not remember her lyrics or hit the notes that were once so effortless. It was all there, all so sad.
But the second segment threw me for a loop because, rather than a tragic and definite end, it was a hardship in progress that we will be able to witness sadly. The popular country-pop singer Glen Campbell is on his last tour. These are not his final performances because he is retiring willingly, but because he is receding from the world around him. At age 75, Mr. Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. While Mr. Campbell, like Ms. Houston, also lived a wild and woolly and sometimes reckless life, it is this wretched disease that is bringing him down.
Fortunately, as the segment showed, Mr. Campbell is not on the last legs of his journey alone. Several of his children are there, performing with him, gently guiding him to the stage, but most importantly, helping the man maintain his dignity in front of the audiences that have come to say goodbye. The results are mixed. He launches into his familiar and highly expert guitar riffs, as though his fingers are acting independently of his psyche. Teleprompters help him remember his once-familiar lyrics. But then he will launch enthusiastically into a song that he has just finished, and he stands revealed, solitary in his own perceptions and ultimately depending on the kindness of friends, fans and family to exit the embarrassment gracefully. 
Ms. Houston's fate seemed predetermined by a life on overdrive. Even her singing was white hot, seldom nuanced. Deep down, you could somehow sense that it would be impossible to maintain both the intensity of her performances and, later, of her life choices. On "Sunday Morning," commentator and music critic Bill Flanagan asked compassionately that "Whitney Houston be allowed to rest in peace." As an admirer, he is naturally afraid of the onslaught of salacious news that is sure to arise from a variety of sources, such as her autopsy, eyewitness reports of her increasingly erratic behavior, and more. Of course, Ms. Houston's reputation will not be spared, and given our 'breaking news" culture and social media overload, it is naive to think otherwise.
Still, as I look at Glen Campbell in his final days, I am reminded that we can have much more control over our legacies than we often allow. It is wise to remember that every act, every word uttered, every kindness offered all stand as testimonies to who we are. Tweets, Facebook posts and, yes, even blogs like this one are ephemeral. Resumes may be impressive, but they are only paper; people are much more likely to remember us for things that are more substantive, whether it is as monumental as a building or a bridge, or as accessible as a pathway or a garden. We have opportunities to change the lives around us and leave people with a material contribution, a piece of advice and maybe even a song. 
David Bowie once pointed out that he was lucky to have been afforded so many years in his career to make an impact, while the great blues artist Robert Johnson lived only to age 27, his reputation resting largely on one recording. I think that is great advice, which resonates so much more clearly to me as I get older: We get only so much time and only so many opportunities, so let's choose our actions wisely.

Note: I am indeed a big admirer of Whitney Houston, so I would like to direct you to this tribute to her that has already popped up on YouTube. God bless her.