Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of the laundry list

The President's annual State of the Union Address always provides a good overview of the agenda his administration will pursue in the coming year. Sometimes it even inspires! But last night's edition followed the pattern of too many SOTU's in recent memory--it was fairly dull. Here's how I know: I am trained to pay close attention to speeches of all kinds, yet I could barely overcome the distractions that beckoned.  After years of asking myself why I feel so strangely dissatisfied after SOTUs--whatever the party of the President--I engaged in an experiment last night. I actually tracked the speech to see if concentrating on that level made it easier to follow. It did not. Even with pen in hand, I lost the thread of the speech, only to pick it up seconds later, when I found we were on an altogether different topic.

I conclude that the State of the Union really isn't meant to be a very good speech, as speeches go. It is a comprehensive list, a giant memo outlining the administration's plans for the next months. I guess it fits this definition of address: "a formal communication". And since everyone in the room (and many of those who tuned in) would be reading and parsing the speech after the fact, maybe the President's speechwriters don't feel the need to "write for the ear." But to anyone at home who was not playing a version of SOTU bingo (I particularly like the League of Women Voters' version, pictured here) or listening for specific sound bites to support her/his cause, it was a dud.

Delivery was good, yes--the President looked relaxed yet enrgized, really focussed and relatively impassioned. And he displayed the great comic sense we relish whenever we see it.

But the content violated so many tried-and-true practices of speechwriting. His "introduction" (if that is what it was) contained one list of six points, followed by one of five, and I was getting lost already. There were far too many topics; Tamara Keith of NPR tweeted that he would cover 12! If they had been clumped into three major topics, say Equality/Inequality (income, civil and human rights), Economic Growth (foreign and domestic, big biz and small), Foreign Relations (Iraq, Afghanistan, war on terrorism, use of diplomacy) we could have tracked the subpoints more clearly. I got lost halfway through "Citizenship," which seemed to include "diplomacy" (with an appropriate shout-out to diplomats and the military). But that segued to the fight against terrorism, on to international relations and back to diplomacy. I saw how these could flow logically if you were reading a paper, but for the casual listener at home who was trying to follow the essence of the speech, it was hard. The address was definitely not user-friendly, unless you were using a scorecard or tweeting out favorite "lines."

There is a reason most speeches adhere to standard organizing principles, and good speeches rely on the "tell you what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them you told them" pattern in one variation or another. Even speeches based on a story-telling model have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I think that is why most listeners are just half-attending the speech, waiting to prick up their ears when the President speaks about their issues. And maybe that is really the point of it--to cover key issues that matter to the constituents and policy-makers. So, yes, on that score it was a win. President Obama covered a lot. And I even heard some points that pleased me.

But let's not fool ourselves that this was a good speech. A good list, yes. With some great personal stories thrown in to liven it up. But beware--no one should use this as a model for their speech-making. Ever. If you want to capture the audience's attention and keep it, look to a speech that has some shape, some vision, some over-arching theme. For an address that really is a speech - look at just about anything else this President has given us.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Words will never hurt me...?

Remember the schoolyard taunt "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?"  When I was a kid that little saying was taken to be absolute truth, and anyone who complained about being called a name was labelled a crybaby-- which, if you were sensitive to language, and considered name-calling a form of bullying--made matters even worse!

Somewhere during the decades between my childhood and that of my children, "conventional wisdom" on abusive use of words seismically shifted. Thank goodness! I taught my kids that words matter and that hard, mean words could hurt as much as fists. As a word person, I have always felt the inherent power of words. I am glad much of the rest of the world now accepts this truth as well!

This week, schools across the country celebrated No Name-Calling Week. Created by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)  in 2004, this program encourages "schools to dedicate a week of the year to improving school climate," and "has grown into one of the largest bullying-prevention initiatives in the country." No-Name Calling Week offers activities for all grade levels, so that pernicious bullying may be stopped before it even starts. And GLSEN is not alone in tackling the problem of bullying: my son's high school has their own award-winning program, Project Upstanders.

It is through such efforts that we now see what name-calling always has been: a way to diminish and discriminate against those we perceive as "other." The world is getting smaller by the day. We have contact with people of widely different backgrounds and preferences all the time now. We need to treat those we interact with respectfully, and use language that reflects a non-judgmental awareness of others' differences.

Those used to wielding language as a cudgel need to get with the program. "Verbal bullies" must see that their words can provoke as much as actions do. Incoming (and former) New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton knows this. Maureen Dowd quotes the Commissioner in a recent column for the New York Times, saying "We have an expression in policing that it’s not the use of force that gets cops in trouble, it’s the use of language... an officer who says, 'Sir, can I speak to you?,' rather than 'Hey, you, get over here,' will be more productive."

Well said, sir, well said. Now let's all go out and "use our words" as well as NYC's finest!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Listen down

Happy New Year! Readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive the fact that I did not post much over the Christmas/winter holiday season. I was taking time off from virtual communication to engage in real time communicating with friends and family. And doing lots of cookie-baking.

I was also working with clients, and managing to keep up with The News. Last week, while trying to solve some communications problems specific to clients in leadership roles, I looked to Adam Bryant's Corner Office  interviews in the New York Times. If you're not familiar with this column, look it up. Bryant shares insights from a variety of savvy leaders in business and management. One column in particular jumped out at me, Penny Pritzker's interview, titled "On Hearing the Whole Story." It dealt with the power, and importance, of listening. Pritzker, a highly successful business leader in the real estate, hospitality, and financial services industries, is currently serving as Secretary of Commerce. She answered Bryant's question about improving her leadership over the years this way: 
"Probably the biggest mistakes I’ve made were when I wasn’t listening carefully enough. Sometimes you need help with that. I have often said to my closest advisers that your job isn’t just to tell me what you think, but you also have to get in my face and make sure I heard you. It’s hard to deliver bad news, and part of leadership is giving people permission to give you bad news, and making sure you really hear it."
The thing that struck me was how much humility is packed in that statement. And the acknowledgement that true leadership means a willingness to deal with uncertain, or even negative, feedback. A reminder that when you are a leader it is not about you, but about the shared goal of the stakeholders in your venture. If your staff or team is reluctant to give you bad news, then how can you really find our what is going on? Their job in not to please you, but to give you the information you need. 
As Shanti Atkins, President and CSO of Navex Global, said in Bryant's January 2nd column: "Even now I like to have people around me who will disagree with me and who will tell me when they think I’m wrong or something is a terrible idea. If I get the feeling I have people around me who are managing up, I get very nervous. I just instantly start wondering, 'What’s actually happening and why can’t you give me more of a balanced picture?' ” 
We all need to be ready to really hear what employees, co-workers, even family members, have to say--especially when it is something we may not want to hear!  Let's resolve to be better--and more open--listeners this year. Mindfully practicing our listening skills will improve every facet of our lives, not just the bottom line.