Just recently, my dear and ever-patient wife sent me an e-mail asking my opinion about a Christmas gift for one of our grandchildren.
Like many of us, I use Gmail. As I was opening and reading her question, Google had already proposed three responses: “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”, “I think that's a great idea!”, and “I don't think so.” All I needed to do was click on one of them.
While we’ve come a long way from telemarketers' predictive dialing and WordPerfect's primitive Spellcheck, we've also learned (often the hard way) that blind reliance on computer-proposed answers can get us in trouble. We’re not quite at the point where we can trust computers to do all of our thinking for us.
Without doubt, Artificial Intelligence apps such as Grammarly are wonderful for screening out goofy typos and spelling errors, but they can't yet detect the sense of the thing. For example, a few Briefings back I deliberately wrote, “Ore wood eye?” Grammarly gave me a pass on that syntactical nonsense. The next week I used the indicative instead of the subjunctive, and not a murmur from Grammarly. But a human reader caught me!
Oddly enough, we are much less concerned about letting computers speak for us than letting them drive our cars for us. While most of the evidence is that self-driving cars are already far safer than human-driven cars, most of us approach the technology with trepidation. Self-driving cars are just about physics-- distance, speed, road surfaces, gaps-- all measurable to fifty decimal places and utterly predictable, and also not subject to fatigue, distraction, alcohol or medications. On the scale of things, easy stuff.
But communication is far more complex than driving a car. It's not just words-- it's about subtly nuanced interchanges between minds, hearts and souls. The day may come that Artificial Intelligence knows about your mood, your level of emotional intimacy with the other person and your vocabularic style, and it may learn to copy the tell-tale tremble in your voice, the furrow in your brow, and the inquiring tilt of your head. But until it does, you're still in charge of your essential human interactions.
Until Artificial Intelligence is smarter than you, you're still responsible for what you say. If you're prepared to hit "send" without reading and thinking, be prepared for the consequences.
Babies normally get their own way and very young children struggle to keep it that way. Most kids, though, gradually learn to consider the needs and feelings of others in order to function within society. We call this “growing up” and collectively, “civilization”.
A few, however, never grow up, and like infants, spend their entire lives trying to bend the universe to their will. Their mantra is “Nobody else matters but me”.
It’s not easy getting your own way all the time, because society imposes a bunch of “stupid rules”. These rules call for courtesy, integrity, and consideration for others. You and I might think these rules are sensible and necessary, even character-forming, but to the full-on narcissist these are weaknesses and obstacles to “success”. So, if you insist on getting your own way all the time, you need to ignore these rules, work around them, or even hijack them for your own purposes.
If you are one of those special few who believe it is your right to get everything you want, all the time, let me propose some helpful guidelines:
1. If you have any scruples, leave them at the door. They’re for weaklings and losers.
2. This is no game. This is all about “winning”, every time, all the time. There is no “time out”.
3. Whatever it takes, crush all opposition. There’s only one winner, and that must be you. Make it very personal and teach opponents a lesson they’ll never forget.
4. Build yourself a base of loyal-to-the-death followers. Here’s how: First, identify a demographic which will be putty in your hands. Find groups who demonstrably like “big man” leadership and accept as gospel all kinds of stuff which won’t hold up to intellectual or moral scrutiny. Now convince them that they’re special, that their cause is righteous (but threatened) and that you are their champion. Tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Stir up their emotions, not their intellects. Be their star, keep them entertained and talking about you. As much as possible, deliver for them, as long as it costs you little or nothing.
5. Talk fast. Never allow time for analysis. Pump up emotion all the time, because emotion invariably clouds reason.
6. Truth is what you need it to be and should never be allowed to get in the way of winning.
7. If anybody challenges you or asks for proof of what you are saying, just refuse. Go ballistic. Eventually most of them will give up. If they don’t, create a distraction or attack the questioner, painting them as an enemy of your followers. There’s a win in that.
8. Ultimately, if you don’t get your way, remember what your Mommy taught you: tantrums work.
Glad to be of help.
(On the advice of my "editorial board", I want to be clear that I don't support, or even like, the kind of people described here. However, there are many useful communication and life lessons to be learned, even if the lessons are "don't do this!".)
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.)
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.