Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making communications training worth your experts' time

After I conducted a recent half-day advanced media training for engineering faculty, their dean wrote me an email to say, "It's clear that people felt it was a valuable use of time (as you know, very high praise when coming from faculty)."

I do, indeed, know that as high praise coming from faculty. And I also know that emphasizing whether training is a good use of time has a flip side when faculty or experts turn down opportunities for development: They're always "too busy."

But, as I've noted before, 'busy' often is just an acceptable way of saying 'no' when the expert feels ill-prepared, uncomfortable or just uncertain of the outcome. So when you're planning a communications training for "busy" faculty and other experts, how to you make it a valuable use of their time? Here are considerations I use when planning training workshops for my clients, in public speaking, presenting, or media interview skills:
  • Limit the number of participants: The first impulse is to jam as many people as possible into the training room. But any good trainer will tell you that more people = less learning for all. That's because you need to take a wider range of experience into account when planning content, and because of the finite nature of time. It takes more time to get a big group settled, to move it in and out of the room for breaks, and so on. More people also means less time for questions and individual attention. Chances are higher that many attendees will leave without their most important questions getting answered.
  • Expand the time allotted: The same is true for the time allotted for a workshop. "Can you do an advanced media training for our faculty in an hour?" will always get a polite "no" from me. "Just hit the high points," ditto. Your experts are highly trained, intelligent people. They have complex questions in mind--questions that are well past the "high points" or a quick summary. Want to frustrate them? Give them less time to learn. 
  • Limit the agenda: Don't try to shove a comprehensive set of topics into a short timeframe. Instead, limit the agenda. You'll be whetting the trainees' appetite for more, while ensuring we can actually cover what you've promised them. This is especially important if you want more interactive, hands-on learning and practice, rather than a lively lecture.
  • Limit the group to peers: I rarely agree to train groups in which supervisors and subordinates are trained together, for a simple reason: Most good workshops create a safe place for people to try new things, fail, and learn correctly. Who wants to do that in front of a boss, department chair, or direct report? 
  • Offer basic and advanced options: This holds true as well for the trainees' previous levels of training. Putting beginners in with advanced groups will only frustrate everyone. If you're tempted to put everyone, at every level, in a big group training to save time and money, you'll find that they will keep learning the same basics over and over again. In the advanced media training I offered recently, I asked each faculty member to come with the question she hadn't gotten an answer to in any previous trainings, and we started with those questions, to ensure they got answers. It made for a great discussion.
  • Let them steer the car, at least for a while: Highly educated experts are also expert at driving a training session right off the rails, if you let them. But that doesn't mean they like a lecture any better than you do. Build in plenty of time for questions, practice, and, if you have ample time, some 1:1 consultation with the trainer. Let them coach one another or operate the cameras. Only with that kind of latitude can you nudge your attendees toward mastery of the subject.
If you need a workshop to help your experts develop messages, hone their speaking and presentation skills, or learn realistic ways to handle media interviews, email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by jwyg)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The weekend read

Everybody into the pool...especially you, communicators. It's the weekend, and time to dip your toe into my pool of finds, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter this week and curated here for you every Friday. Last one in is a rotten egg:
Get a toe in the water: Buy my new ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panelssign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2015 with an email to eloquentwoman at

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Tell It Better: Should you or your speechwriter get the story for your speech?

Sister Simone Campbell is no stranger to my blogs, as we include her "Nuns on the Bus" tour in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. An attorney, nun, and lobbyist for social change, Campbell is a frequent speaker who, in a recent interview with On Being, shared advice about how you should be collecting stories for your speeches. Her view: The source will determine your authenticity as a speaker.

Campbell, who uses stories to illustrate economic and social issues, was being asked what she means about being "open-handed" as being a critical factor in both contemplative and economic life. And that's where the storytelling advice came in. From the interview transcript:
SR. SIMONE: Well, if we're open-handed, then I know a few things. One is no guarantees. All is fragile. It's all gift. And it also needs to be shared. And being willing to share what I have or what I have been given then becomes the way that we can really engage each other. And one of the pieces that gets lost is it's as much monetary as it is our stories. And that creates the bond of community where then the economy is better because we build each other up. How could I leave you out if I've heard your story? I can't. So I have to make sure you're OK. Check in every now and then. 
MS. TIPPETT: But you know, I mean, we're kind of rediscovering story in all kinds of ways. But even stories get — they get woven artfully into political speeches, right? And so that's not saying you're wrong, but we still have to work... 
SR. SIMONE: Well you know one of the problems with most of the stories in the political speeches is somebody else went out and found the story. And then it gets slipped into a politician's talk. I mean, the president does it in the State of the Union. I've been asked for stories. 
MS. TIPPETT: Right. 
SR. SIMONE: But the problem is, is the real power of story is to let my heart be broken by the story, to hear it from you directly or to hear it from whoever directly. Then I'm never the same. And — as opposed to using it as a good shtick.
I've worked for decades with speakers, including politicians, who've had heart-warming stories written into their speeches by others. I've written some of them myself. For many speakers, putting across these stories with authenticity, heart, and passion is nearly impossible, and it's not just because they have to read the unknown-to-them story. The best stories to tell are the ones you know well, and without a script. Even a speechwriting pro will write TELL VACUUM CLEANER STORY in a script rather than write it out.

If you think of public speaking as a type of testimony, a chance to share the experiences you have witnessed directly, this approach to storytelling makes eminent sense. That's difficult, but not impossible, to do, even if you're, say, the President of the United States.

We talk a lot about how authenticity is prized in speakers today, and that starts with your stories. They shouldn't come off the shelf. Writer Cheryl Strayed reminds why it's so important that "the" story be "your" story: "When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice," she says. It's almost ironic. If you want the truly universal story, dig into your own experience. She was speaking of memoir, but then, what is a story in a speech but a little memoir?

If you're lucky enough to work with a professional speechwriter, spend enough time with her to share your firsthand stories and experiences. (Any speechwriter will tell you that lack of time and details from their principal is among the biggest barriers to giving you a great speech.) If you are writing your own speeches, start a collection of your firsthand stories and experiences, and prefer them over anecdotes from others. Not giving a speech? This approach works in presentations and in social media as well. You'll get more immediacy, authenticity, and electricity if you can retell a story that has, in Sister Simone's words, let your heart be broken. No amount of adjectives and adverbs can make up for your authentic experience.

Storytelling's the big buzz word in communications and marketing. But we've forgotten how this ancient art works. This "Tell it better" series hopes to revive and hone your storytelling skills for any format, from public speaking in the style of TED to social media. Want a storytelling workshop? Email me at eloquentwoman AT

(Creative Commons licensed photo by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The weekend read: Staying connected with my sister at the end of her life

We talk a lot about authenticity and immediacy and real-time in social media and communications, writ large. But for my money, you can get all of that at the bedside of someone you love who is dying too soon. For me, I found it at the bedside of my big sister Elaine, who died yesterday.

The blogger at left, her big sister at the middle, and the
universe's best nurse and younger sister at right. Our
brother was not yet on the scene.
Truth be known, my older sister and I went through some long years of poor or little or no communication, either by her choice or mine. When we reconnected, it was in that careful way that some organizations have when, say, trying Twitter for the first time: Tentative, crafted, careful.

Then, over time, we relaxed into being ourselves again and together. We could joke and poke and tease, support and listen and forgive. After all, this was my first friend, the person who, aside from our parents, knew me for longer than any other living creature. There were things that only the two of us knew or experienced...and there was little I could do to fool her, even at the end. That was a bit like a security blanket, familiar, warm, beyond reproach, a safe place. It's the same feeling your readers and users get when you've built a real relationship with them online.

My sister embraced a lot of what can be had and done online today, but was an artist when it came to handwritten notes and emails that felt like handwritten notes. And in the last few months of her life, spent mostly in hospitals and nursing homes, we had to find many ways to stay connected from afar, in between visits. It will not surprise you, perhaps, that my sister managed to get her nursing home to give her access to the staff wifi (why not available to all?) so that we could share email notes, videos, articles and more. We had long phone chats. I recorded things--readings, messages--and sent them via email or text. We talked by phone, and at her bedside. And I became more like her in sending handwritten notes, along with gifts and flowers. We also have a marvelous younger sister and brother, and all of us tag-teamed the conveying of messages and gifts, by hand, voice, text and more.

But in the end, the mode of communication made no difference. It was the listening that mattered. She told me her stories, and I listened and reflected them back to her. Social media, indeed.

Last night, I let my extended family on Facebook and Twitter know about the end of her life. We are rich in thoughts and virtual and real hugs and support, for which I am more grateful than I can say. We've had a long time to anticipate my sister's death, and yet the news of it feels like a sudden punch in the gut. Connecting and sharing softens that blow somewhat.

My sister took great pride in my consultancy and no matter what we were talking about in these last weeks and months, she wanted to know about the people I was meeting or working with, the blogs, the audience, the work. She often praised me for living and working on my own terms, but she was my model for that. Taking a moment away from our regular weekend read to honor her here seems right to me. I hope you'll use one of the many tools we have at our fingertips to connect in real time with someone you love.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Your piñata strategy: When a political campaign hijacks your message

This time, I'm not talking about piñatas in the shape of certain political candidates, but the more insidious kind--when candidates grab your issue and start to pummel it.

In 2011, it was HPV vaccines, jobs data, high school chemistry, bridges and roads, solar panels that popped up in the course of the presidential political campaigns' efforts to differentiate their candidates from the pack. And it's begun again in 2015, as Marco Rubio pledges to overhaul higher education, just the first of many salvos to come. Here in Washington, we call campaign season "silly season," but the results aren't funny if your topic gets thrown into the national spotlight and beaten like a piñata full of cash money.

My money's on the savvy communicator to be at work now, so you can move fast, and speak authoritatively when your topic gets taken for a political ride (and you don't need to be in a political operation for this to happen). Here are a few resources and ideas to help:
  • Speed your corrections by making them visual.  Need to refute stretched facts, fast? One new study suggests that a visual approach to correcting political misinformation may be your best bet.  Researchers asked study participants to assess three kinds of controversial data, on the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq, the Obama administration's impact on jobs, and global climate change. Nieman Lab notes: "graphical presentation of corrections (and of controversial information in general) can be more powerful than their textual counterparts in terms of convincing people to amend their misperceptions." The post goes on to suggest prominent placement for infographics when presenting information on controversial topics.
  • Take that a step further with a mapped visual:  Make it easy for local reporters, regional public officials and supporters to find and feature your viewpoint by using a visual map to highlight the impact of a political proposal. Save the Post Offices has done just that, compiling a series of Google Maps highlighting where proposed closures of Post Office facilities would take place. It's a double-whammy: Immediate visual impact, with local data behind it, in one graphic.
  • Get a key endorser who's not a "usual suspect:" One of the scientists who just did a star turn for research on a heretofore unknown "diamond planet" used his moment of celebrity to write a column noting how different his experience would have been had he been publishing data on climate change. His remove from the topic allows him to avoid the tag of bias in favor of his field, and he uses that to point out the similarities all sciences share in research and how it is conducted. Can you find someone to back up your points who's an astute observer--but not in the thick of the fight? Do it.
  • Sharpen your op-ed skills: If your company or organization wants to argue against a political plank that's wreaking havoc in your sector or on your issue, sharpen those op-ed skills (and don't forget, you can publish your own rather than wait for a news site to do it). A smart litmus test for a good op-ed: The first and last paragraphs, taken together, should be all I need to read to get the gist of your argument. Don't bury your real point in the middle. A political piñata issue lets you whack back in an op-ed, countering arguments and data points. Go for it!
  • Prep your spokespeople: It's often painfully obvious when experts aren't prepared for a media-coverage blitz occasioned by an offhand political comment or pointed debate argument. Take the time to identify your likely piñata topics, then get those spokesfolk ready by offering training, including a review of hot-button words and terminology that might get further taken out of context. Help them brainstorm alternatives and strong messages that share the facts in a neutral but authoritative way. I don't know any experts who would fail to welcome that extra help, even if it turns out to be unnecessary--and they likely know, more than you do, which of their issues are most likely to get in harm's way. Don't forget to hand them a variant of Ronald Reagan's best and least anxious debate line to counter broad, ridiculous charges: "There you go again." And remind them that their most useful skill at a time like this will be repeating the facts without going bonkers doing it.
  • Challenge reporters to get beyond "he said, she said" coverage on controversial topics: Use this Jay Rosen post to urge them to get to the truth--especially if the truth is on your side.
  • Learn how to correct a moving record on Twitter, which might be your fastest option to keep rumors in check. It helps if you've built strong followings on Twitter and your other social networks, long before you need them.

(Editor's note: This post significantly updates one from 2011--so many more piñatas to consider in the new election season.)

Got a panel coming up? Whether you're a conference organizer, speaker, or moderator, you'll have a better panel--and a sparkling discussion--if you plan with The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 in all ebook formats, it's like having a coach with whom you can prepare and bring on stage with you.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The weekend read

Did you mow down the week, communicators? Or did you let some grass grow under your feet? Either way, it's the weekend. Time to stroll through the well-kept lawn that contains my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. It's always greener on the other side:
Green your world: Buy my new ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panelssign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2015 with an email to eloquentwoman at