Friday, February 24, 2017

The weekend read

I declare the road to the weekend closed, communicators, because we're at the end of the week...finally. Time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and don't get caught on Facebook, and curated here for you. End times start now:
Don't get caught unprepared, speechless, or without a message, but do catch me on Twitter, on Google+, and on the don't get caught page on Facebook--all great places to add your comments to the discussion. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Speakers & Communicators, to make sure you don't miss a thing on my blogs and get the first news about new workshops and projects.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Facing an angry crowd, from congressional town halls to your next talk

One of the stranger phenomena in a strange new political world has been the sight of Republican members of Congress running away from constituents gathered for live, in-person "town hall" meetings all over America.

A staple of the political world, town hall meetings are an open forum where anyone might attend. But with concerns about the new White House occupants and the Republican Congress running high, attendance has been at record levels--and even the New York Times has been signaling which reporters will attend which town halls in advance. For their part, elected representatives getting creative about how to avoid the in-person interaction, by cancelling the sessions, running out of them, trying to limit actual in-room attendance, and more. For this week's recess, some 200 Republican members of Congress plan to avoid, rather than meet with, constituents. From Vice:
Instead they’re opting for more controlled Facebook Live or “tele-town halls,” where questions can be screened by press secretaries and followups are limited — as are the chances of becoming the next viral meme of the Left. 
For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
So it was refreshing to see this headline: In Charleston, a rare show of civility between left-leaning activists and their conservative congressman. From the article:
Unlike Republican incumbents in other states, Sanford is not running from the opposition. Instead, he's engaging with his agitators, even agreeing to hold the town hall meeting Saturday morning at their request.
The activists, in turn, are taking a civil and diplomatic approach to their dialogue with Sanford, asking pointed questions on topics ranging from health care to federal regulations. They haven't started to hurl accusations, boos or jeers.
It's exactly the right approach when you are facing an audience that's at best skeptical and at worst angry with you, whether you are a climate scientist, an elected official, or the administrator who's made an unpopular decision. Step one is to face the crowd, rather than run away, avoid, or cancel, all steps that speak volumes, and not in a good way. If you can't show up for your own public meeting, dears, I can't help you further.

But step two can be helpful and disarming. Start with the crowd's questions and concerns, before you launch into your presentation. Starting with Q&A--much of which may be angry comments and accusations, rather than actual questions--may feel like you're facing a firing squad. But letting your constituents (be they voters, consumers, customers, or any other) have their say first will work magic if you listen attentively and acknowledge hearing their ire and concern.

Here's the trick: You do not have to come to agreement on every point, something that the person facing the questioning crowd often forgets. Engaging with a public audience doesn't mean you all have to wind up on the same page. Far from it. But it does require you to listen and hear what their views are, and give them the opportunity to speak. And once a comment, in particular, has been firmly expressed, thank the person sharing it, for sharing it. Acknowledge that you've heard them.

Do you get to say something? Sure, but make certain that you sandwich it in between Q&A sessions--a few minutes at the start for questions, then your short presentation, then back to questions. Or, opt for an all-questions session.

It may surprise you that this tactic takes a lot of the sting out of the proceedings. Angry public audiences who attend such a meeting may not get you to change your mind, but they can at least see you giving them a hearing, acknowledging what they've shared as a concern, and sharing your own views. That's a point too many in Congress will be missing this week, while they are on recess, visiting their home districts and trying to run away from voters.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by paolo barzman)

Don't get caught unprepared, speechless, or without a message, but do catch me on Twitter, on Google+, and on the don't get caught page on Facebook--all great places to add your comments to the discussion. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Speakers & Communicators, to make sure you don't miss a thing on my blogs and get the first news about new workshops and projects.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The weekend read, pony edition

There's a pony in here, somewhere, communicators. Its name is Friday, for the end of a long week. Time to dig out and feed the pony and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and don't get caught on Facebook. They're curated here for you. C'mon Friday. We're outta here...
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Jonathan Taglione)

Don't get caught unprepared, speechless, or without a message, but do catch me on Twitter, on Google+, and on the don't get caught page on Facebook--all great places to add your comments to the discussion. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Speakers & Communicators, to make sure you don't miss a thing on my blogs and get the first news about new workshops and projects.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tell It Better: Why is storytelling about failure so compelling?

Among my most unusual engagements last year was the chance to coach four higher education experts in delivering five-minute TED-style talks. That's a pretty common coaching project for me. But this time, the topic was failure.

In modern times, the desire to smooth out and sand down the rough spots in our image--whether that's your personal image or the image of your company or organization--means failure talks get rejected out of hand, before they ever hit the stage. But failure's a compelling component of good storytelling. In every dramatic arc, the prince fails to win the hand of the princess right away. Classic storytelling requires that he overcome obstacles, try things that don't work, and generally fail a few times before he finds the path to success. Without that struggle, the prize is not as sweet and the story lacks punch and verve.

Failure as a topic is catnip for audiences, which is why you can see many failure talks featured at TED conferences. There's a trick to making a failure story work, and that's redemption. We want to hear about the failure, and what you learned from that, and how that took you to a better place. The story has to progress beyond the failure in order to work, although we don't want you to leave out all the messy bits.

So that's how I guided the people speaking in this session, at the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities conference last November. First, APLU vice president Shari Garmise spoke about the failures in the process that led to the session, since universities were loathe to discuss actual failure. Most submitted video proposals that were slick, smooth, and successful-sounding. Then three executives from Morgan State University, the University of Memphis, and Western Michigan University each told about failures in their student success programs, which aim to help students complete their degrees.

Every one of these talks was risky, for the speakers and their institutions, and every speaker was well aware of the risks. Would the audience react negatively? Would they be able to engage with discussion of failure? Would they look bad for highlighting things that most universities just wouldn't discuss?

Far from it. The session included an engaging discussion, and a reporter in the audience wrote about the three failure stories in this article (behind a paywall) for the Chronicle of Higher Education. That kind of reaction is validating--and not uncommon. Your fear of failure fails to imagine how the audience will appreciate what you have been through, and your courage in presenting it.

There are all sorts of ways to tell a failure story, going well beyond a TED-style talk. Charity:Water did just that a few years ago when it posted a livestream of a water well being drilled on the organization's "birthday"--and the drill failed. The organization used that fail, seen by all its viewers, to underscore its key points about the scarcity of water for drinking.

Perhaps my favorite failure story happened at the very first TEDMED conference at which I coached speakers. It's the story of how distance swimmer Diana Nyad failed to complete a long-hoped-for swim from Cuba to Florida. Eventually, she did complete the swim and gave another talk about that. But my favorite is this talk, the one about the failure. Take a look at how she describes a big fail, and brings it home with lessons anyone can learn.


(Creative Commons licensed photo by hobvias sudoneighm)

Don't get caught unprepared, speechless, or without a message, but do catch me on Twitter, on Google+, and on the don't get caught page on Facebook--all great places to add your comments to the discussion. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter, Speakers & Communicators, to make sure you don't miss a thing on my blogs and get the first news about new workshops and projects.