Tuesday, July 31, 2007

weekly writing coach: torture

It's time once again to reveal the winner of the Bulwer-Lytton prize, a contest in which writers vie to create tortured prose in the form of the first line of an imaginary novel. The prize honors Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the author who opened with "it was a dark and stormy night" -- but few recall the entire line:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
While we commend his active verbs, Bulwer-Lytton (and all the contest winners who followed him) mastered the tangential phrase, jamming too many clauses and distractions in between the start and finish of his sentences. This year's winner pushes the form to the brink, inserting a 55-word tangent between dashes in the middle of a four-word sentence. If this is a record, don't seek to replicate it -- but do study the winners to learn what not to write.

Monday, July 30, 2007

don't get caught without questions

Before you give a speech or media interview, take the time to anticipate questions. While many trainers simply focus on tough questions, we've seen many people stumble over the so-called 'softballs,' queries that ask for simple explanations or facts you assume you know well. When we conduct media training, we ask participants to develop three sets of questions:
- Questions you want: Once you know the questions you want, you can think about how to prompt them in an interview or speech, by including related content or simply introducing the angle yourself.
-Questions you expect: To fully develop this list, you should scan recent news coverage related to your topic, consider well-known controversies or facts that appear to contradict your point, and any information about you or your topic that's easily accessed. Don't get caught limiting this list to the most predictable questions or just the first to come to mind!
-Questions you fear: We've never had a client who failed to come up with this list. Used constructively, it can help you explore not only well-reasoned responses, but approaches that help you present yourself and your information more effectively.
Finally, think about questions that pertain to you, the ones over which many people stumble. Will you disclose personal views? Talk about your children or family? Share your own experience on the topic?

David Genovesi of the ARTROM Gallery in Italy has posted his list of 22 questions he hopes he's never asked in an interview, starting with "What is art?" -- an artful example of a 'softball' question that can be easy or difficult to answer. (We hope he started working on the answers before posting this list to the Web.) What's on your list? To find out more about our group or one-on-one trainings in media interview skills or public speaking and presentation, contact us at info@dontgetcaught.biz, and check out our sister blog, The Eloquent Woman, for more on giving great speeches and presentations and become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook.

Friday, July 27, 2007

report: public radio & social media

With their mission to reflect the community, are public radio stations more likely to take the new media plunge? Have they adapted faster to blogs, wikis and social media? A new report out this week from American University's Center for Social Media has surveyed staff at U.S. public radio stations and developed case studies of four that successfully incorporate social media in their offerings. The results? "Ambivalence about social media" abounds: "Station executives both seek to explore social media opportunities and also resist experiments, because of lack of knowledge, because of resource allocation, and because of institutional culture," the report notes. At the same time, the case studies hint at the possibilities, and offer communicators a glimpse of what stations are seeking as they develop content.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

where all the news is breaking

Washington Post writer Paul Farhi today rants with humor about cable television, where all the news is breaking, developing, alerts, bulletins, and yes, the "very latest." An MSNBC spokesperson notes that these breathless labels help the channel-surfing viewer quickly see that new developments are occurring, and Farhi says:
Ah. Kind of makes sense. With all the talk shows and shouting heads on TV, with all the opinion-mongering and vicious partisanship, a banner on the screen reading "News Alert" reminds viewers that the news channels still sometimes get around to . . . covering the news.
Cable's not the only culprit, we note: Websites, in a similar race for the eye's attention, often highlighting the time of an update, "today's" items, and yes, some that are "breaking," but in general, do so in an understated way.

who talks more: men or women?

Linguist Deborah Tannen, who distinguishes between men's "report-talk" (talk to convey information) and women's "rapport talk" (talk to build relationships) gives us her talk-take on the recent journal Science article that measured the number of words spoken by men and women, in an opinion column earlier this month in the Washington Post. The research concludes that reports of women overtaking men by over-talking are greatly exaggerated (though the study, done on college students, has some limitations in generalizing to the public at large).

We agree with Tannen that the circumstances of increased talking represent a significant gender difference in public speaking: Women speak more in personal situations, men more in public venues. As Tannen summarizes: "Studies that find men talking more are usually carried out in formal experiments or public contexts such as meetings." Her article notes studies in which there's:

....an overall pattern of men speaking more. That's a conclusion women often come to when men hold forth at meetings, in social groups or when delivering one-on-one lectures. All of us -- women and men -- tend to notice others talking more in situations where we talk less.

Counting may be a start -- or a stop along the way -- to understanding gender differences. But it's understanding when we tend to talk and what we're doing with words that yields insights we can count on.

When do you tend to talk, and when do you tend to remain silent? What do you use your speaking opportunities to do: report or build rapport? It's a good speech-preparation exercise and something you may want to journal about or discuss with a trusted advisor, to make yourself aware of your choices when speaking opportunities arise.

Check out our sister blog, The Eloquent Woman, for more on giving great speeches and presentations and become a fan of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook.

eloquent woman: Lady Bird

During funeral services for Lady Bird Johnson, we reflected that few today recall her shy start as a public speaker. Robert Caro, prolific biographer of the late U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, her husband, describes in Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume II just how her shyness got in the way of her public speaking early on:

So deep was her shyness that, as a high school senior, she prayed that if she finished first or second in her class, she would get smallpox so that she wouldn't have to be valedictorian or salutatorian and have to make a speech at graduation.
She put the responsibility for her avoidance of that speech in the hands of a higher power, but circumstances forced her to face -- and speak to -- the public. Eventually, she became the first of the First Ladies with her own press secretary, made hundreds of public appearances and wound up giving as many as 16 commencement speeches, if only to accept her own honorary degrees.

On the LBJ Library website, you can read a biography of Lady Bird Johnson; read and listen to quotations from her speeches, interviews and conversations with her husband; and read the eulogy to her written by PBS journalist Bill Moyers, a former special assistant to President Johnson. He divulges a tip she gave him about speaking early in his career:

She was shy, and in the presence of powerful men, she usually kept her counsel. Sensing that I was shy, too, and aware I had no experience to enforce any opinions, she said: “Don't worry. If you are unsure of what to say, just ask questions, and I promise you that when they leave, they will think you were the smartest one on the room, just for listening to them. Word will get around,” she said.
Despite all that shyness, Moyers singles out Lady Bird Johnson's courage as a public speaker during a 1964 campaign whistle stop tour of Southern states, just after her husband had signed the Civil Rights Act. He notes that in the face of jeers, protests and name-calling:

She never flinches. Up to forty times a day from the platform of the caboose she will speak, sometimes raising a single white-gloved hand to punctuate her words — always the lady. When the insults grew so raucous in South Carolina, she tells the crowd the ugly words were coming "not from the good people of South Carolina but from the state of confusion." In Columbia she answers hecklers with what one observer called "a maternal bark." And she says, "This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine."

In these two anecdotes, Moyers captures several smart tactics employed by this eloquent woman:

  • Ask questions. More than a stall tactic for the shy speaker, asking questions of your audience--whether it's one person or 500--will help you to better understand your hearers. You'll be less likely to make a misstep with the help of this "market research." It builds your confidence, and theirs in you. And it's a great attention-getter.
  • Word will get around. Whether you're quiet or loquacious, people are watching. Your reputation rests on moments when you're resting, as well as when you're actively speaking.
  • Speak calmly and for yourself. Lady Bird Johnson was spit on, yelled at, had things thrown at her, heard her children insulted, and still remained calm in front of the angriest of audiences. In some cases, she confused and silenced the protesters who were seeking to embarrass her, simply by acting as she planned, rather than reacting. And she spoke for herself: In disagreeing with the protesters, she used "I" statements, saying, "I respect your right" to disagree, but insisting on her own right to express her views.

Have you ever sabotaged your chance to speak publicly? Or, if you're shy to speak, what do you do to build confidence? Let us know in the comments.

Photographs of Lady Bird Johnson at her 1934 college graduation and on the 1964 whistle stop tour courtesy of the LBJ Library.

New report on government blogging

In our blogging classes, we've taught lots of would-be government bloggers, many of whom hesitated to put forward a public blog as a useful dedications tool for lack of precedent. Now more government officials have put their toes in the blogging pool. IBM's Center for the Business of Government has released a new report titled, "The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0." Authored by a management professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, the report describes types of blogs used by a variety of government officials: members of Congress, police departments, mayors, governors, state legislatures, university presidents, and more.

You can find a summary of the report here and the full report here. The report includes tips for government bloggers, public and private sector case studies, sample policies, and cautionary tales, and notes that several experts have been quoted saying that blogs without comments are merely glorified press releases. You'll find more examples in our recent post on other government blogs, here. Please post comments if you have links to other government blogs you recommend at the state, national, or local level. Savvy government bloggers (or hopefuls) can use this report to help make the case for a public or secure blog.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

weekly writing coach: on editors

Salon today praises editors, especially in the wake of more than 70 million blogs, most unedited by anyone but the author. Columnist Gary Kamiya notes:
Most writers understand that their editor is not a half-literate, envious wannabe who takes perverse joy in mangling their prose, but a professional who is paid to make their work better. Still, the moment when you -- and now I -- open the e-mail your editor has sent you in response to your story is always fraught with anxiety. You've exposed your soul, or at least part of your brain, to another person. What will they do with it?
This week's exercise: Pass this item along to your editor, and get up the nerve to ask for feedback. What's one thing he or she wants you to work on?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

eloquent woman focus group full

We're pleased to say that the Eloquent Woman focus group on women and public speaking August 8 is fully registered, with a waiting list. Don't get caught president Denise Graveline will lead a discussion with women representing corporate, small business, government and nonprofit organizations to learn what new resources may be need to help women present themselves in public. We're looking forward to the discussion! If you want to get on the waiting list for this or similar events, send us an email at info@dontgetcaught.biz.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

is life on the record?

Don't get caught unprepared before you stride into public life -- that's part of our credo. But what if you're publicized without your knowledge or consent, especially by a blogger? The answer's unclear, but likely to happen for many, as no ground rules exist in this uncharted territory for new media.

Asking "is life on the record?" and "what are the ground rules of life?" today is columnist David Ignatius in this Washington Post opinion article. We hear and read lots of articles by journalists skeptical of -- and fearing competition from -- bloggers. But here Ignatius makes a powerful case that might give pause to even the least newsworthy citizen. Here's part of his closing argument:
Journalists habitually argue for broad disclosure of information, bolstering our case with such bromides as "sunlight is the best disinfectant." But major newspapers recognize that people have privacy rights, too. Newsroom lawyers remind journalists that they can be sued for "public disclosure of private facts" in certain circumstances and that newspapers shouldn't publish information about private citizens that would be "highly offensive to a reasonable person" unless the information is independently newsworthy or the subject consents.

Similar standards about privacy should be shared by all the modern varieties of "journalist" -- reporters, bloggers, Facebook posters and the rest.
In a deft touch, Ignatius considers the likes of you and me, as well as those of celebrities, who also, he argues, deserve some privacy. That is, unless they leave their microphones on, as two presidential candidates did; read the story here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

more government blogs

They may have editors and longer-than-usual approval periods, but government blogs are blooming, nonetheless. USA.gov includes a small library of current and archived blogs here, including examples from Smithsonian and military museums, the Library of Congress, and programs that include citizen participation or outreach at the National Endowment for the Arts, the GLOBE Program (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Webcontent.gov, "your guide to managing U.S. government websites," includes guidelines for government bloggers here; if you scroll to the end, you'll see links to examples from U.S. federal and local agencies, as well as governmental blogs from other countries. A link to the National Weather Service guidance on RSS feeds, including guidance on blogs, also is included. We read with interest that this policy calls for "fair" and "unbiased" content that also "reflects positively" on the Weather Service and its parent agency, NOAA, and that publishing public comments on blogs is expressly forbidden. What's more, most of these examples emanate from smaller agencies or specific initiatives, rather than the largest of agencies. Webcontent.gov notes that internal government blogs see more usage, citing this Federal Computer Week article on the more than 1,000 internal blogs at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

the eloquent woman focus group

In a twist on the usual "lunch and learn" session, don't get caught President Denise Graveline wants to offer you lunch and learn from you--specifically, your perspective on the unique challenges and opportunities that women face when they speak in public. As a speaker, a trainer and a former member of the White House Council on Women, she's come to believe there's more we can do to help women unlock their potential and find their voices.

The lunch will take place from 12 noon to 2pm on Wednesday, August 8 at the National Press Club. Advance reservations are required; please respond to us at info@dontgetcaught.biz no later than July 27. We'll send directions and further instructions.

All you need to do is RSVP and bring your thoughts and ideas. We're developing new resources for training women in public speaking skills, and know your views will help us shape these offerings to better meet your needs--and those of women everywhere. Space is very limited, so please reply today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

blog measurement takes the long view

Today's New York Times reports that Nielsen, a leading media audience measurement company, is expected to announce a shift in the way it ranks Web pages, moving from page views as a defining measurement to the total amount of time viewers spend on a site:
Although Nielsen already measures average time spent and average number of sessions of each visitor to a site, it will start reporting total time spent and sessions for all visitors to give advertisers, investors and analysts a broader picture of what sites are most popular.
The move is prompted by new software and trends--such as YouTube videos, where audiences may spend a long time viewing a video without seeing more than one page--and, in our view, finally comes closer to measuring the depth and range of the Web experience, compared to other media. (A half-hour television program automatically time-limits your viewing, while a website does not.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

weekly writing coach: freedom rings!

In honor of Independence Day, your coach gives you the week off, so you can reflect on one of the great writing projects of all time: the Declaration of Independence. (Read it here on the National Archives website, or listen to NPR reporters read the Declaration to you, here.

Modern writers, take note: Jefferson wrote the draft in just 17 days, and it was approved with but few changes, edited by a committee (that is, the Continental Congress). And, like many of us these days, some of the language was "cut and pasted," so to speak, from several established documents, and drew its ideas from the leading thinkers of the era. An 1823 copy of the Declaration--a rarity--sold earlier this year for $477,650 after its owner bought it for less than $3 in a thrift store. May your writing pay off as well!