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Engage: A Lesson from a Heckler

November 26, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

DURING A SPEECH yesterday in San Francisco, President Obama encountered something that most politicians and their advance people (who are responsible for the careful stagecraft of such an event) dread: a heckler. In this case, it was not from the distant reaches of a cavernous auditorium but from only a few feet away. It came from one of those human props who stand behind politicians, usually smiling and nodding, a wallpaper of broad and chirpy support.

Awkward as the moment might have been for the President and his handlers, what he did with the situation was an instructive example of engagement.

He spoke about immigration reform, which had picked up momentum over the past year but has since disappeared from the national policy conversation. Immigration reform advocates are understandably exasperated that the nation seems as far from passing this long-overdue reform today as a year ago.

While he spoke, the President was suddenly interrupted by a young man behind him. Here’s the transcript from the White House website:

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Mr. Obama —

THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — my family has been separated for 19 months now —

THE PRESIDENT:  — most importantly, we will live up to our character as a nation.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I’ve not seen my family.  Our families are separated.  I need your help.  There are thousands of people —

THE PRESDIENT:  That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — are torn apart every single day. 

THE PRESIDENT:  That’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 undocumented immigrants in this country right now. 

THE PRESIDENT:  What we’re trying —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Do you agree

AUDIENCE:  Obama!  Obama!  Obama!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — that we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we — you have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country. 

THE PRESIDENT:  Actually I don’t.  And that’s why we’re here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  So, please, I need your help. 

When people off camera were apparently moving to remove the heckler, the President said,

THE PRESIDENT:  These guys don’t need to go.  Let me finish. No, no, no, he can stay there.  Hold on a second.  (Applause.)  Hold on a second. 

So I respect the passion of these young people because they feel deeply about the concerns for their families.  Now, what you need to know, when I’m speaking as President of the United States and I come to this community, is that if, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so.

And then he went on to make his point about immigration reform.

The lesson here is not terribly profound, but worth noting.

In a moment like this, many communications people and their clients freak out. They think that we must have total control. Nothing must adulterate the plans we spent countless hours drafting and getting approved, much less potentially humiliate our client.

Most of the time, I’d say they’re right. You don’t want to leave anything to surprise. But there are times when it’s okay to let things happen, so long as you have a skilled communicator who can ride the unpredictable wave and, as Obama did, use it to underscore his point.

What’s more, it’s even more humiliating and damaging to a client (in this case the President) to appear to be squelching dissent. If the President’s people had dragged the heckler away, it would have been a disaster for him. And it’s to the White House’s credit that they left the exchange in the transcript and posted it on the White House website. No hiding or backing away from it.

This is the age of engagement. Particularly via the tools of social media, no one can count on having full control over a conversation. Gone are the days of one-way communications when a leader or an organization can simply send out a release and assume that it will get attention without any realtime flack from detractors. Gone are the days of two-way communications, for that matter. Now communications is a multi-lateral exercise, a conversation in which you must participate without the expectation of controlling its direction and content.

True engagement means going into a communications interaction ready not just to speak, but to listen and respond, too. That would have been unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago. Today, it’s unthinkable to assume you can lob your message out there and that all will then be well.

I’m not saying that every unexpected twist in communications can or will go as well as it did for the President in this case. But good for him for having the presence of mind to turned what could have been bad news into an opportunity for, shall we say, a teachable moment. Having been interrupted and yelled at often during his tenure, he’s had a lot of good practice.

Amplify: What Makes a Winning Op-Ed?

November 24, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

loudspeakersGETTING AN Op-Ed placed is no cinch anymore – if it ever was – particularly in the highest-profile daily papers and online outlets.

There are fewer such papers than a generation ago and intense competition to get in them. (I’ve heard editors of some of the bigger national papers say they can get 75 to 100 submissions a day for maybe a couple or three slots.) While online publications theoretically have an infinite amount of space to devote to Op-Eds, they can be pretty selective, too.

But someone has to get published, and if yours is the right piece at the right time, it might just be you. Though there are no guarantees with any formula, here are elements that I think will improve your chances and help you try to amplify your message.

Have something to say. This should be self-evident, right? I mean, isn’t that the primary purpose of an Op-Ed? Well, I’ve handled countless Op-Eds that really didn’t seem to offer a coherent idea or perspective so much as a catalogue of disconnected thoughts or personal accomplishments. Very simply: that’s not what works.

Make one good main point – maybe two, at the very most, but even that’s pushing it. The rest of the piece should be made up of proof points (statistics, anecdotes, quotes from other experts, and so on) that support the larger big idea.

Offer Credibility. The more expert and authoritative the writer is about the topic, the more likely she will get published. Op-Ed pages are bulletin boards of the best and most informed thinking, so it’s best you really know what you’re talking about or bring some special authority to the subject.

That doesn’t mean you have to be famous, just credible.  It may appear to the regular Op-Ed reader that most of the pieces are by well-known government leaders, entertainers and other brands; that’s certainly true in places like the Huffington Post, which trades heavily on such names.

But, as David Shipley, the then-editor of the New York Times Op-Ed Page, wrote a number of years ago, “Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans.”

As someone who has pitched pieces by top government leaders, major corporate execs, well-known academics, and even a king, I can tell you that, while such names will probably ensure a first read, their celebrity status alone isn’t enough. But if you’re, let’s say, a  small family farmer with on-the-ground knowledge of a particularly topical agriculture issue and you have something compelling to say about it, you just might get published.

Be Compelling. And just what is “compelling?” Well, it’s highly subjective. But, to quote Shipley again, “[S]ay something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.”

If you look at many of the pieces that appear on the best Op-Ed pages, you’ll notice that, first, they offer a fresh take or a counterpoint on an issue. There was a piece just a few days ago, for example, by Jason Kass called “Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet.

The occasion for the piece was World Toilet Day (more serious an observance than you’re probably thinking). While other organizations and experts probably tried to submit pieces around World Toilet Day that gave rather sober and unsurprising arguments for the need for more and better sanitation systems in the developing world, Kass’s obviously jumped out.

Kass, identified as “an environmental engineer and the founder of the organization Toilets for People,” succeeded by taking a somewhat contrarian view, challenging the conventional wisdom, and, most gutsy, even the most prominent of global development leaders, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With vivid examples (another ingredient of “compelling”) he said that many of the cutting-edge sanitation innovations are too complicated and expensive to solve the widespread challenge. Though it may have ruffled some feathers among the major international development organizations, it proved to be a winner, at least to Op-Ed editors.

Part of being compelling often includes timeliness – talking about something that’s on everyone’s mind today, not last week or even last month. Take part in the conversation while it’s happening.

Answer The Question: Why Should I Care? This is a question every journalist, on behalf of his or her audience, must answer before deciding to cover a story or run an Op-Ed piece. What relevance does this point have for the rest of society? Is it just a promotion of a product or an accomplishment (something I see often in unsuccessful Op-Eds, speeches, interviews, etc.), or is does it have some important bearing on broader trends and concerns?

One Op-Ed  that met this latter criteria over the last year came from none other than Angelina Jolie. That was the one in which she disclosed in the New York Times that she had a double mastectomy to preempt the onset of breast cancer.

If she had only offered a poignant story about how her mother battled (and lost to) breast cancer (speaking of compelling) and the surprising medical intervention she chose, it probably would have been interesting – certainly to the celebrity pages. But what would it matter to the rest of us? Would we care? Would it have been published? I doubt it.

“But,” she added, “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

Why should we care, indeed? And, even more so than most Op-Eds, her message was amplified through the enormous follow-on media coverage.

Follow a Few More Simple Rules.

  • Be brief. 750 to 800 words at the very most. (Unless you’re Henry Kissinger, who seems always to get more space than most anyone I can think of.)
  • Get to your main point right away – only in couple of paragraphs in. You don’t have a lot of space.
  • Fight the big fight. Don’t get bogged down in arcane side debates that only you and three other people care about. (See: “Why Should I Care?”) Win on what’s make-or-break for your side.
  • Avoid repeating opposition views. You’ve only got a little bit of space, so use it to make your argument, not to repeat others’. In other words, play offense not defense.
  • Be civil. “Jane, you ignorant slut!,” (if you’re too young or forgetful to know what I’m referring here, watch this at 1:09) is not a winning line other than on comedy shows. Nor is it effective to impugn your opponent’s motives when you don’t really know what those motives are. Stick to the merits of the debate. (See: “Fight the big fight.”)

You can apply most of the advice here to many other aspects of your communications. But when it comes to Op-Eds, these are the ingredients of a recipe that might just win you the blue ribbon. Good luck.

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Clarify: The Power of Simple Language

November 10, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

IMG_1880A COLLEGE WRITING TEACHER taught me one of the best lessons I ever learned about clarity in communications: it is the primary responsibility of the writer to ensure that the reader understands – not the other way around.

Sounds pretty basic, right? But I can’t tell you how often I see people in many different modes of communication ignore this idea, if they’re even aware of it to begin with. They apparently assume everyone knows what they’re saying when they go down the rabbit hole of insider jargon. Anyone who doesn’t, they seem to figure, is just stupid or not really paying attention.

Of course, the context matters. At a science conference, a scientist is more likely – and probably well advised – to use highly technical language to describe the results of her latest research. That’s when the shorthand really helps speed up and, yes, clarify what the speaker is trying to get across.

And there’s no question that there’s a fine line between simplifying for clarity and sounding glib or shallow. Each situation is different and requires us to modulate our language to fit the occasion based on what we know about our audience.

But some of the best communicators recognize that, even within their own circle of experts, plain language is much more effective.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has this figured out. Watch just about any video of him speaking and you’ll see about as plain-speaking a guy as you’re going to find. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science and a long string of accomplishments in high-tech industries, he certainly has the capacity to get geeky.

But that’s not what happens here in this interview he gave the Financial Times in 2006 in the wake of Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube.

Asked why this purchase was worth the money, Schmidt could have used terms like “market valuation,” “strategic integration,” “Web 2.0,” and so forth. But, even to pretty technically savvy readers of the FT, he explained simply that, first of all, Google’s got a great advertising model that will more than make up for the big money it paid for YouTube. Second, he said, video is where it’s at. Indeed, it’s the future, drawing growing volumes of users. (How right he was). He makes it sound so simple.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, is another with an extraordinary ability to make the complex understandable. Whether you agree with his sometimes confrontational views or not, you can learn a lot about clarity from his writing. Check him here.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easy. People like Schmidt and Krugman apparently have a natural gift for communicating, among other talents. Or maybe they acquired it, as many can, with hard work, regular practice and awareness of how they come off.

My suggestions:

  • Consider your audience. As I said, every situation is unique, and it’s up to the communicator to be as tuned in to what audiences will and won’t understand. Sometimes, as in a speech to a large and diverse audience, it’s tough to know precisely who is listening and what they know. In that case and others like it, you just have to make an educated guess and keep an eye, as best you can, on how they react. When developing a campaign, it’s ideal to use message and opinion research to figure out what kind of language is likely to resonate. That’s a more expensive and less spontaneous option, but sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, it’s a wise choice.
  • Metaphor. Nothing too surprising here, but often it’s best to explain the unfamiliar with the familiar – some kind of image or anecdote that neatly draws the basics from a more complicated idea.
  • Don’t tell them everything you know, just what they need to know. Most experts I’ve worked with who know a lot about their subject are brimming over with eagerness to share every thought and fact they’ve stored in their brain. To the uninitiated, that’s just too much to keep up with. The communicator needs instead to pare down all she knows to the bare essential. Dr. Susan Love did a masterful job of this a few years ago in the interview on NBC News about breast cancer research (see below) . She could have talked on and on about the technical details, disclaimers and exceptions. But knowing she only had a short window of time and a pretty diverse audience, she articulated her main message right away, dropped in one (and only one) illustrative statistic and cut right back to her main message. The result: clarity.
  • Take the gloves off and then go back and cut – again and again. If you’re writing (or even editing in your head quickly), start by putting all your ideas down. Don’t worry about the order or the logic or even good grammar and punctuation. Just get it all out. Then start paring down the ideas, sentences and individual words to something more concise and accessible. If you see a long cluster of words describing one idea, go back and see if you can say the same thing in fewer, shorter words. About, oh, 100 percent of the time, I find something in my own writing to cut. When you do, your language will be more powerful and, most importantly, understandable to the people you’re trying to reach.

Is that clear?