Last Friday’s Briefing garnered more than its share of response, mostly positive. Since there were no death threats, let’s take the topic a bit further. And then I’ll leave it alone.
To get perspective, consider three stories-- the first two of which will be familiar, the third not so much. Yet it’s the most important.
Recently the US Supreme Court, on very narrow grounds, ruled that in the specific circumstances of the case, a baker was justified in refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Gallons of ink were spilled, the Religious Right danced in the streets, the American left went into mourning.
Even more recently, the Red Hen restaurant refused service to Sarah Sanders, expressly because she is the official apologist for Donald Trump and everything for which he stands. Now the liberals celebrated while the Republicans went to the barricades. And media types interviewed each other for days.
Two stories that consumed the public discourse, yet are in the scheme of things inconsequential. Shiny distractions. Because down on the seventh or eighth search page there are many stories which should be in the centre of public discourse, but aren’t.
One such story is Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a canary in the coal mine in which we all live. With a population greater than that of Russia, two-thirds of the country lies less than fifteen feet above sea level. The twenty percent which is at three feet or less is disproportionately crowded because it is disproportionately fertile, or at least it was fertile before rising sea levels began to contaminate groundwater.
For Bangladeshis, dreams of escaping third world poverty evaporate as more and more of the national budget goes to a losing battle against the rising sea and increasingly violent cyclones. Their country, for the most part, may become uninhabitable.
The country has always faced flooding-- in 1970 a twenty foot storm surge killed at least 300,000. But as global warming heats the Bay of Bengal, that body of water becomes the perfect cyclone generator, with higher water and winds driving unprecedented surges. Expect repetitive tragedy of horrifying proportions.
Soon enough, the rest of the world may face a stark choice: let the Bangladeshis drown or accept refugees on a scale we can’t imagine. In particular, large empty countries like Canada, Australia and Brazil may have some hard decisions.
And Bangladesh is just one of scores of such stories we push aside while we snipe at each other about David and Charlie’s wedding cake or Sarah’s dinner.
I promise that next Friday I’ll move on to lighter and more traditional communication topics. But not more important.
OK, this one is definitely on the “Dear Abby” side of the communication spectrum. But given that the situation discussed here tends to sneak up without warning, it's a good idea to have a contingency plan. Smart communicators are prepared.
Here's the typical scenario: you're on your merry way when you suddenly slam into something which horrifies all your sensibilities. You discover, for instance, that your supervisor is defrauding the company. But, your supervisor is also your uncle. And there is no such thing as unseeing what you have seen.
You could travel along for years as a queasy rider, constantly nauseous, hoping that the situation just goes away and nobody ever finds out. In this scenario, you get the ulcer while your uncle sips pina coladas!
But there are more serious problems with the ostrich approach when and if the situation sees the light of day. First, you will be seen as somehow complicit, second, as time passes, your memory will let you down.
So, from a communicator's point of view, how do you handle such a situation? The questions really resolve down to what you say (if anything), to whom, how and when.
Here's the main thing: almost invariably, situations such as this have criminal implications. All too easily you can get wedged into a nasty place. A consultation with a well-recommended criminal defence counsel is often in order. Not only will they see the situation in a detached, logical way, but their discussion with you is covered by lawyer-client privilege.
It may also be wise to share the problem with someone “near and dear”, but only after you've taken legal guidance. Why? Because only with the lawyer do you enjoy lawyer-client privilege, so you will want your first guidance to occur in a fully safe zone. Even interspousal communication is not as privileged as many think.
It also goes without saying that if you need to make a public statement, consultation with a communication expert can be worth its weight in gold, especially if the expert is legally knowledgeable. For privilege purposes, it is worth considering having the communication expert retained by your lawyer.
The last bit of communication advice is that you must keep thorough notes, made contemporaneously, and with backup copies, all kept securely and privately. When you are called into question, or as a witness, many years down the road, you will be grateful that you have a “Comey Memo”.
In summary, keep your cool, get advice which is covered by privilege, and keep a careful record. Follow your conscience, but let your conscience be guided by clear thinking and good advice. And pray every night that this never befalls you.
In a recent study it was demonstrated that mice who were exposed to L-Felinine as babies were significantly less likely to flee from cats when they became adults, making them much more likely to end up on the feline dinner table. In simple terms, little mice exposed to cat pee would grow up with a diminished fear of their mortal enemy.
In the business and professional world, you shouldn’t send a letter or e-mail unless you intend some result. If you send out a missive and don't achieve the result, you’ve not only wasted your time but you have now told the recipient that it's OK to ignore you. So much for relevance!
This is a communication piece, not a political piece. But political campaigns are all about communication. Unfortunately, Hillary’s lessons are mostly “what not to do”.
What???!!! How can Mr. Covfefe even qualify? Isn’t he the worst thing that has happened to the English Language since 1066? Well, yes and no. (How did you guess I used to be a lawyer?)
Donald Trump is many things. As a practitioner of good English, he’s an utter disaster. But as a shuck-and-jive artist (my language is intentional) he has no equal. As such, he is still a master communicator, in a very narrow sense. As students of communication we would do well to consider his successes. If you only learn from people you like, you’ll miss a lot. Follow me, then...
There are at least five things at which he excels.
First, he is a master of body language. When he hovered behind Hillary like a cloud of sewer gas he was very intentional. It was pure Hollywood. Feet braced, thumbs hooked in his belt and putting on his best Dirty Harry face, he was the Sheriff about to “lock up Crooked Hillary”. He knew that most of us found his antics boorish and abhorrent, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t performing for us. He was performing for his base, and they ate it up.
Which leads us to our second point: he understands his audience and speaks directly into their hearts. They aren’t concerned with theories or lessons, they just want some understanding, some love, and some protection. Hillary called them “deplorable”, but he sings them a love song. Does he really care about them? Who knows, but they think he does, and that’s all that matters.
Third, he has mastered the verbal devices of the shady used-car guy. Think Robin Williams' Cadillac Man, except not funny. Creepy and annoying, perhaps, but for the right crowd, completely effective. “Everybody else has lied to you, folks, but I’m telling it like it is.” Listen to him stop, start, dodge and weave, leaving gaps for you to fill in as you want to hear. He tosses around “Believe me!” and “by the way” and he gulls you into his confidence. It’s not the content, it’s the rhythm. P.T. Barnum would be proud.
Fourth, he tweets to divert attention. This is straight out of Magic 101. While we snicker at “covfefe” and are outraged by his childish rants, our eye is entirely off the ball while he is changing the legal landscape of America by executive order. Right before our eyes, if we were watching, which we’re not.
But here’s number five, and the key: he knows how to count. He understands that about forty percent of voting Americans want (and perhaps need) to hear what he is saying, be it bashing the NFL or China or the Deep State, and he continues to tell them what they want to hear. That is the true genius of Donald Trump. For any politician or marketer, 40% bedrock ain’t bad. Are you treating your bedrock right?
Am I suggesting, dear scholar of communication, that you fully emulate the Donald? Heaven forbid. But there are lessons to be learned everywhere, even from the Donald.
(For those readers who are going to ask, “Yeah, but what about Hillary?” let me save you the trouble-- Hillary was a communication and political disaster. But that’s for next Friday.)
The Ecology of Referrals
Way back in the last century when I attended Ottawa Teachers’ College, Professor Stewart taught Classroom Management. He had a handful of golden rules, the most important of which was “You must always be in control of your classroom. Love works best, but if you can’t make them love you, make them fear you. Nothing else works.”
A little draconian for 21st Century sensibilities, but at its core was the truth that you can’t communicate if your listener isn’t paying attention.
Nothing has changed. In fact, in today’s multi-tasking world, where most of us have the attention span of a gnat, the rule is even more important. If the listener is not with you, you're wasting your breath.
Consider the recent US election. One candidate had a sensible, coherent platform, but she was boring. She never even tried to get your attention, she just kind of assumed you were listening. Bet you can't even remember her slogan.
The other guy had a sketchy platform and a sketchy background, but he electrified his base. He was outrageous, and of course you remember his slogan.
So, what's the takeaway from all of this? Very simply, if you want to be an effective communicator, you need to get and keep your listeners' attention.
(More in future editions of the Friday Briefing.)
Do you like the taste of crow? I don’t.
As professionals, we write and speak not only to communicate data, but to advance ideas and positions.
While this is obviously the case for lawyers and sales professionals, it might seem less so for accountants, engineers and others who, at first glance, would seem to be completely data-centric. Nothing could be further from the truth!
You become a professional by learning knowledge and skills which you apply to solve problems. Sometimes the solution seems routine-- for example, tying a suture, filing a tax return or closing a real estate transaction. More often than not, though, the solution is novel, at least in the particular setting. At that point, you need to "sell" the solution to the client, or to colleagues, or both.
Regretfully, many of us have a tendency to blurt ideas free-form in the fervent hope that a diligent listener will stumble on something useful. You may as well throw darts blindfolded.
In law, for instance, nothing is more painful than watching a courtroom lawyer drone on in hopes that the judge will rescue him, whether through pity or exasperation. That rarely happens-- more often it is, "Ms. Tiddlewinkle, I have no idea where you're going with this. Do you have a point?"
Communication which convinces is not a matter of luck-- it happens by design. There are principles, and they apply equally to written and oral communication:
1. Above all else, you need to be very clear about your point. If it’s not clear to you, you’re not ready.
2. You need to understand who your reader (listener) is, and why your point should matter to him or her. Until that is clear to you, you’re not ready.
3 You need to understand the reasons why your reader might favour or disfavour your point. Until that is clear to you, you’re not ready.
4. You need to understand why your point is an improvement over their current understanding. If you can’t answer this, don’t start the discussion.
5. You need to understand the reasons why the reader might resist your point for social, political, economic, reputational or other reasons, even when they know your point is valid and persuasive. Never overlook this possibility.
6. Don’t force listeners to figure out how to move from their idea to your idea. You need to build the bridge for them and walk them across.
7. Protect your listeners' pride-- if you are asking them to change opinions, especially publicly, your job is to enable them to frame the change as their idea.
8. Write out the decision you want the listener to make, and why he will make it. Not only is this an acid test for your pitch, but it makes it easy for the reader, once persuaded, to articulate why they have come to this decision. Many successful lawyers write the ruling they hope the judge will give, then work backwards.
9. Throughout the process, never take your eye off the fact that this is all about the client, not you. Your job is to solve their problem and make them look good, not for you to grandstand. If a little glory splashes off on you, great, but that's a lucky by-product.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.