Friday, January 27, 2017

The weekend read, shovel edition

You've been shoveling all week, communicators. Time to step back from that pile of snow and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and don't get caught on Facebook, and curated here for you. Eventually, the piles will melt, you know:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by oddharmonic)

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, January 25, 2017

Faking live audience approval: It's not just the president

Here is a photo of a typical audience. You'll notice the great variety. Some are well dressed. Some look like they just rolled out of bed. Some are paying attention to the speaker, others to the screen in front of them, still others to the person taking this picture. Some, no doubt, are sleeping. Some are plotting how to leave to get more coffee.

A couple of years ago, a speaker was referred to me for coaching. He emailed me, suggesting I look at a video of him "speaking to a live audience" that was posted to his LinkedIn profile. I don't normally review videos before signing on with clients, but for some reason, I did this time.

It was the strangest speaker video I'd ever seen, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why, so I watched it again. And again. And then I noticed what was bothering me. The audience, unlike the one pictured above, was uniformly beautiful--both in physical characteristics and in their outfits. They were neat. They were handsome.

They also were uniformly interested in the speaker. They faced forward. They mouthed "ohs" and "ahs," nodded their heads in affirmation, nudged their neighbors and pointed at the speaker, took copious notes. They applauded as if on cue.

They were, in short, a hired audience of actors.

I turned down that gig, but marveled at the mix of bravado and insecurity that led to that video. After all, a speaker who thinks a coach can be fooled by a fake audience has bigger issues than I can fix. And now the rest of the world knows how I felt, since the new U.S. president has begun the practice of bringing his hired guns into audiences to ensure crowded halls and an adequate amount of applause.

So far, he has packed his own cheering section into a press conference and a speech at the Central Intelligence Agency, both events to be televised live. Thanks to sloppy press coverage, we're only just hearing that this was a staple of his campaign events, too. And it's taken hold enough to be parodied by The Onion in Trump Deploys National Guard to Press Conference for Standing Ovation.

I'm hoping no one outside the White House sees this trendlet and decides it's now okay to put fake audiences into the rooms where they are speaking or giving press conferences. But I know better. I hope communications pros are ready when someone suggests this, ready to say "We're not that desperate for the publicity." And I'm hoping reporters turn around and look--really look--at the audiences in the events they are covering, and ask questions about who's present.

If you think none of those things can happen, consider the worst example I've ever heard in years of doing my workshop for communications pros on working better with experts: The healthcare CEO who wanted music played when he entered events, "just like the President." So don't tell me that the White House ideas don't trickle down to your leadership. Get ready, as longtime Washington aide Jack Valenti used to say, to bring forward the three most important words in the nation's capital: "Wait a minute..."

I always recommend to my clients that they keep staff crowds out of press conferences for just this reason. Don't get caught doing this, folks. There are easier, more honest ways to get attention. The shame is that the President of the United States apparently hasn't figured that out.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Top Rank Marketing)

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, January 20, 2017

The weekend read, edit edition

You want to edit this week, don't you, communicators? No need, really. It's the weekend, almost, when all becomes right again. Time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and don't get caught on Facebook, and curated edited here for you. Get smarter by Monday:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Matt Hampel)

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, January 18, 2017

Before you become a Trump piñata, understand his tweets, speaking

I've written before about Your piñata strategy: When your topic gets hijacked by a political campaign. Now, with a new president who likes to use that tactic almost hourly in his tweets and speeches, it's time to up your preparation game.

That's true especially if you're a comms pro for a company or organization that is politically neutral, because you're in the "most likely to be blindsided" category. Going tweet-for-tweet with him has already been compared to "going to a knife fight with a spoon." You need to understand what you might be up against, and there are two stories and a book I've found that will help you prepare.

Linguist George Lakoff recently shared a taxonomy of Trump's tweets on On the Media, along with tips you can use to understand both how his tweets frame issues, and what you might do to reframe the message effectively. It's a must-listen story right now for communications pros, and anyone else responding to issues.

He ran through all of Trump's framing techniques using just one tweet in the On the Media segment, interviewed by Brooke Gladstone:
Gladstone: So, there is one from Wednesday this week that you say embodies all four of these categories; preemptive framing, diversion, trial balloon and deflection. I will read it. It is “Intelligence agencies should not have allowed this fake news to leak into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?" 
Lakoff: First, pre-emptive framing: “This is fake news.” Secondly, diversion: It’s going to be discussed--whether or not it’s fake news or should have been leaked--rather than the content. There’s deflection, which is attacking the messengers, and then you get the trial balloon. Will the intelligence agencies be stopped from doing this? Are they working like Nazi Germany?
Gladstone asked Lakoff how the media could handle Trump's tweets differently. His advice would work just as well for communications pros attempting to respond, rather than react, to them when it's your issue or organization being tweeted under the bus:
You begin by telling the truth and giving the evidence for the truth. Then, mention his tweet, point out that that contradicts the truth and then talk about what kind of tweet this is. You know, you say this is a case of diversion, where he is diverting. Quickly. Don't have a panel discussion about it. Just do it and go on.
Lakoff, author of a seminal book on metaphor, also is the author of the book Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. You might want to start a lunchtime reading group on framing and work through the book with your team, and any experts who speak for your organization.

Linguists also got busy with Trump's speaking style in this article, specifically the extemporaneous style on display at his first post-election press conference, and when he goes off-script in his speeches. The linguists break down:
  • why the speeches annoy some audiences but appeal to others, 
  • the salesman's tricks he uses in his speaking, and 
  • how audiences react to his speaking emotionally, essentially finishing his sentences for him in their minds.
Understanding all that will make it easier for you to respond solidly, without getting diverted in the process.

Finally, you might also consider whether ignoring the salvos is the smarter strategy. David Brooks makes the case for just this in The Lord of Misrule, a column in which he makes this vow: "This is a resolution I’m probably going to break, but I resolve to write about Trump only on the presidential level, not on the carnival level. I’m going to try to respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets. I really wish some of my media confreres would do the same." It's a don't-feed-the-troll strategy. You'll need to decide which one works best for you.

If you do intend to respond, I'll just reiterate Lakoff: You need to act quickly and not have a panel discussion about your response every time something pops up, and to do that, you need to start preparations now. Get your experts trained. Come up with a regular meeting to track and anticipate issues and responses. Develop a strategy for responding rather than reacting. And email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com if you need my help with all that.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Elliott Blackburn)

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, January 13, 2017

The weekend read

Don't despair, communicators. The weekend is here, ready to let you chuck the bad from this week and check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and don't get caught on Facebook, and curated here for you. Just lay your head down gently on your desk, now:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by David Becker)

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, January 11, 2017

7 ways comms pros can improve their writing in 2017

Let's be honest: Writing may be your strongest skill as a communicator, but it can always be improved. Take these seven ideas to your keyboard and get moving:
  1. Edit all the "shoulds" and "musts" out of your copy, particularly if you are offering public tips and advice. No need to shame your readers or users into doing what you are urging. Try actual persuasion.
  2. Tighten up your writing production. Maybe because I got my start in journalism school, where the news writing finals were timed, I am always appalled when a communications pro tells me he needs two weeks minimum to write a press release. Really? Try timed writing tests with your team. Issue one fact sheet with the known facts and statements, let everyone start at the same time, set the clock for 20 or 30 minutes, and see what happens. Then try timing the lede. Five minutes should do it for that. You may well find you get better releases as a result.
  3. If you're using very, little, many or pretty as descriptors, you're not working hard enough. That's advice from E.B. White, dears. Try using more descriptive noun-verb combos (he's not fond of adjectives and adverbs, overall), or at least find some more precise and detailed descriptors. 
  4. Learn how to edit for space, so you can bring that blog post or tweet in under the word or character limit. (You do set word limits for things, don't you?) This means cutting a wide range of words that take up more space than others, due to placement as well as character count. Details at the link.
  5. Learn how to touch type if you haven't already. There are a million tutorials online, and you'll be able to write more, faster, and take better notes in real time. I promise not to tell your boss. If you already touch type, take a timing test or do a refresher.
  6. Take the time to edit your document software's dictionary. You can save many, many minutes in the coming year if the software you use to write has a dictionary that reflects your typical abbreviations, terms, proper names, and more. Bonus: You won't have as many errors.
  7. Wrassle that dictation software. I have a love-hate relationship with mine, but admit that it does make my forearms, hands, and elbows happier. Make sure you figure out which documents and which types of writing are easiest to do with dictation, and make a point of putting it in play more often. Extend this to your texts, as well; Google can help you. You'll be saving your writing hands for another day.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Anonymous Account, with amendments by me)

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, January 06, 2017

The weekend read

If we put the week just past under a magnifying glass, what would we see, communicators? I suspect the weekend ahead. 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. Enlarge your wisdom and get smarter by Monday:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by lonel POP)

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, January 04, 2017

Taking out the Christmas tree trash: Jason Miller & announcement screens

As I read successive news stories about Jason Miller, who was to be the new administration's communications director, over Christmas weekend, all I could think of was "don't get caught, people."

Let me say from the start that the "don't get caught" here isn't a reference to the allegations of an extramarital affair by Miller. I can't help you there, guy.

My focus, as always, is how this announcement went bad in just a few days, from big announcement, to a second announcement that he wasn't taking the job , to the affair allegations. And while I've served in a senior political post in the Clinton Administration, my perspective here has nothing to do with politics, nor with how to cover things up--far from it. I want my readers and clients to understand how to anticipate problems with announcements, long before they step into a puddle, or worse.

At base, all announcements in every sector are about decisions that have been made. If a few key and routine questions had been asked, it should have been clear that the decision to make and announce this appointment were bad choices. Since the holidays, we're hearing reports that the new administration has been focusing more on announcing appointees, and not so much on vetting them, and this appointment is an example of that.

As the communications pro, you may or may not be in the room when the decision is made, but you should be able to evaluate it before announcing it. Here are the screening questions, or a start at them, that would have gotten the decision-makers closer to clarity and the communicators more on solid ground:
  1. What's the downside of this decision? Those with announcements to make err, most of the time, on all the positives. Before you march your "final" decision out in public, who will turn it around and over and upside down to find the potential negatives? Who will ask the uncomfortable questions that someone out in the world will ask when this is announced? What are the answers to those questions? Are they going to pass muster? What are the legal, financial, policy, and societal implications? Who gets hurt here? Who gets to gloat? What will your enemies say? What will your friends say? What will insiders close to the process say? Who's been standing around quietly in the back of the room listening? Often, this kind of process leads to better decisions, especially and even if it is managed by the communications pros. That was often the case when I was a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, serving as a final filter for soon-to-be-public actions. The questions can't always stop stupid things from happening, but they can prevent many from marching forward. I recommend this to the new administration heartily, and to all of you, working in every sector.
  2. How shall we announce it, part one? In this case, the question pertains to either the first action or the withdrawal of same. A small group of White House communications leaders' names were announced just before the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, including the more public post of press secretary, social media director, and so on. The communications director post was among them. Nothing odd there: The process of appointing senior leadership should continue apace, even during the holidays. And the media were distracted by other hints about how frequent their briefings will be and whether there will be a press pool. But in a take-out-the-trash moment of announcing bad news on a weekend holiday in the hopes of minimizing its impact, the withdrawal of Miller's name came on Christmas Eve, a Saturday. The timing also could be seen as a swift turnaround, as it came after another transition official tweeted hints about the affair and confronted the transition organization about it in the days after his appointment was made known. But the effect was one of attempting to bury the lede.
  3. Open secrets are not closed up in a lockbox: The affair in question, between Miller and another transition official, was apparently known to many on that team, so there's no pleading innocence here. Do examine the open secrets revolving around decisions you are going to make public. They don't have to be extramarital affairs or embezzlement to make news. They might involve changes of perspective, internal fighting, hidden cost estimates known to management, and more. Your announcement skipping over those things might just be the push an angry participant needs to start leaking like a sieve.
  4. How shall we announce it, part two? You're not always in control of timing, but how you choose to word the announcement is entirely in the hands of the organization talking about its own decision. The new administration's transition chose a time-honored but sexist and tired tactic of using women and children as a shield, citing Miller's need to "spend more time with his family," and noting that he and he wife will be expecting a child soon. There are so many problems with this approach, triteness aside.  "More time with his family" is the oldest euphemism in the Washington playbook, and rarely means what it says--so it's a prompt for reporters and others to dig for the real reason. When I heard this news on Christmas Eve,  and the stated reason, I assumed there was a juicier problem afoot, and I was not alone. Including his wife and child in the statement was the sexist verbal equivalent of having a wife stand beside her husband while he answers press questions about an affair that has endangered his public career--it's not a best practice, shall we say. Leave the jilted wife and baby out of it, please. These, too, are trite red flags, whether for the media or your enemies. Stop waving them.
Now, it's possible that the transition team breezed through these questions and didn't care about the consequences, thought themselves bulletproof, or just didn't take the time and forethought to consider whether there might be a problem. Think strategically in this new year, communicators, so you don't get caught. And if you want help coming up with a screening process that will help you avoid just that, email me at eloquentwoman AT gmail DOT com. 

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Andrew Malone)

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.