The Dr. Evil of message

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David Roberts of Grist has a great post about Richard Berman, a spin doctor who could easily run for World’s Worst Person.

I’ve written about Frank Luntz before. He’s the word guy that invented The Death Tax (the estate tax), Responsible Energy Exploration (drilling) and the idea that there is scientific doubt about global warming. Bad, but smart.

Berman’s worse.

Robert’s piece includes details of Berman’s latest target, people that oppose fracking. But it also includes some amazingly evil attacks on the Humane Society and outdoorsman groups that dared to support Obama.
Most instructive, however, are the seven guidelines Berman outlined in a speech to a room of energy executives.

(Spoiler alert, you will feel dirty after reading them.)

You can see the condensed list in Roberts’ Grist piece. Or you can go straight to the source and read the transcript.

Whichever you choose, answer this: As you fight for your cause — hunger, the environment, access to healthcare, women’s rights — will you do or say ANYTHING to beat the enemy? I didn’t think so. And that’s why we lose so often. It’s hard to win morally these days, isn’t it?

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Women: Speak up. No, wait. Maybe don’t.

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As a father of teenage girls, this piece was hard for me to read. But is a reminder that we have a long way to go before women are treated equally at the office. From Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant:

We’ve both seen it happen again and again. When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.

I often tell younger colleagues to speak up more. I wonder how many young women have quietly said to themselves “Sure. Easy for you to say.” Read the whole piece at the NY Times.

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6 minutes to a lovable hero

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Watch (or re-watch) the clip below to remind yourself how powerful a simple story can be. I use this clip in training sessions, and it’s a hit every time. Storytellers have to figure out how to get the audience to love the hero, and this is a perfect example. God bless Pixar.

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Can we do one of those ice bucket things?

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Successful social media campaigns are a bit of a double-edged sword for communication professionals. It’s fun to watch them spark, and they frequently give us ideas we can replicate (steal) for our companies, organizations or clients.

But they also lead to the inevitable “we want to launch a campaign that will go viral like (insert last successful campaign name here)” request.

A few years back, it was the yellow LiveStrong bracelet. For some reason, that request has quieted down.

Now we have the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which, by almost any measure, has been a blockbuster success. My kids did it. I did it. Do you know a family that didn’t have at least one person take the challenge?

Everyone’s developing lists of why it worked. Here’s mine.

It was fun and funny.

It contained an element of competition.

It was easy to do and share.

But here’s why I’m skeptical that other fun, competitive and easy campaigns won’t necessarily yield the same results (at least reliably).

You can’t capture lightning in a bottle. This campaign came out of nowhere and exploded. We can look back and pick the things we think made it successful, but they’re guesses. Not only that, but it was accidental lightning. There was no master strategy. The campaign was a fluke and wasn’t even launched by ALSA. How do you replicate something that wasn’t even planned and wasn’t attached to a cause when it started?

The Internet hasn’t changed the rules of social epidemics; it has amplified them. Fifteen years ago, Malcolm Gladwell got famous for quantifying the so-called Tipping Point of social trends. He named three critical components for such epidemics — Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. And famous people are among the best examples of all three. A yellow bracelet? Not genius. A pink ribbon? Ditto. Both of those campaigns had amazing star power and marketing budgets behind them, in addition to being a way for you and me to show our support for a good cause.

The same is true of the Ice Bucket Challenge. We’ll never know if the challenge would have spread without Justin Timberlake,  Jimmy Fallon or the other celebrities that joined in, but it would be crazy to discount the impact that star power has on so-called grass roots campaigns. (Tip: If you’re planning a viral video, you should have a “How we will get JT to promote our video” strategy.)

Finally, will it stick? We won’t know for months, but I suspect that ALSA’s donations will come back down to earth. Will awareness of ALS stay high? Did understanding of ALS and the challenges faced by people with the disease really increase at all? If so, will it stick? I suspect someone in grad school is going to write a thesis on the lasting impact of the Ice Bucket Challenge. I can’t wait to read it.

Until then, I’m counting the days until a client asks me “Can we do one of those ice bucket things?”




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Track changes as a writing tool

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Despite my love for technology, I have some habits and opinions that prove that I grew up before the Internet. I capitalize and punctuate my texts. I still don’t know if Facebook and Twitter are good or bad. I still like the concept of the two-page memo (not the 1,000 word email).

I conducted a writing workshop recently at which I was forced to face a technology I thought I hated: track changes. I left with a new perspective on the feature. Track changes could actually work for me.

First, let’s get my complaints on the record:

1. Among the many traits of good writing, I think clarity and voice are two of the most important. I’ve found that they are also the first things to suffer from track changes. Documents with a dozen editors may be factually accurate, but they are usually bland and soulless.

2. Everyone gets to weigh in, and everyone does. There’s a difference between correcting factual errors (which I welcome) and changing words randomly (which I don’t). Invariably, random wording changes complicate the original sentence (see point #1 above).

3. All edits look equal. If a colleague makes several edits to a document, how is the original author to know which ones are musts and which ones are suggestions? Without thoughtful use of both edits and comments, the accept or decline process is very complicated and can cause conflict within teams (Why didn’t you take my edits?)

4. It’s demoralizing to open a document and see that five of your colleagues have deleted/edited/changed/rejected 50% of your copy. I hate sending clients a document that shows every change I made to their stream-of-conscience brain dump. My role for most of them is to take their ideas and turn it into a good document, so I just send them a clean first draft.

5. Track changes hampers the learning process for young writers. When I was starting out, my bosses used to circle an awkward sentence and write “???” in the margin. Message received. They would circle the first two typos, write “clean draft please” and hand it back to me. Message received. With track changes, managers are too quick to fix their employees’ typos and grammar errors and rewrite awkward sentences. After all, it’s faster.

Given these biases, I was pleasantly surprised during this writing workshop to help develop some rules-of-the-road for a communication team that would reduce the above flaws and embrace the tool that we all know isn’t going away.

1. When you send an edited document back to someone, save it in Show Final view before attaching it. This will preserve the tracked changes, but the viewer won’t be smacked with a rainbow of edits when it is first opened. Then, include an explanation of your edits in the body of the email so the reader knows what you were thinking. (John, please see attached edits. I preserved your thesis and main points, but I reordered them to flow better. I also rewrote several sentences that seemed a bit long and awkward. I think this new draft is a lot tighter. Let me know if you have any thoughts or comments.)

2. Managers should not fix their employees’ grammar or typos. This is hard, especially for teams that work on short deadlines. But managers that are willing to accept and fix dirty writing will forever get dirty writing from their team.

3. If you re-write an entire paragraph or section, add a comment to the edit that explains why you rejected the original text. (John, I think we need to get to the heart of America’s healthcare crisis in the first paragraph. Consider my alternative text and let me know if you disagree with this approach.)

4. Don’t change language that doesn’t need to be changed. I edit my own documents every time I open them. Editing is never over; there’s always another (but not always better) way to say something. When you make an edit or suggestion, have a rationale for the change besides “I would have said it differently.” Writers like to have their ideas and approaches honored and respected.

I’m sure there are other great ways that groups can make track changes a more useful workplace tool. If you have any, post them in the comments.

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Word Crimes

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I cannot put into words how much I love this Word Crimes video (click here for YouTube or watch below). Amazing that such a nerdy topic has 2 million views. I guess it hits a certain nerve with people. I’m holding a writing workshop next week, and I’m going to open with this.


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An interview worthy of some praise

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I have a bad habit of criticizing nearly every news interview I hear, so I get really excited when I hear one that restores my faith in spokespeople.

Yesterday on NPR’s Here & Now, Denis Mulligan of the Golden Gate Bridge transit district knocked it out of the park.

He was discussing the district’s plan to install “suicide nets” on the bridge to prevent fatalities. He hit every point, addressed every question and (most importantly, in my opinion), stopped talking at just the right moment. The interview went so well, in fact, that I wondered whether it had been scripted. I’ll let you decide.

Listen here.

It’s not perfect. There are several “umms,” which don’t bother me as much as they used to. And Mulligan is an uptalker, which is a personal pet peeve that sends shivers up my spine. But on balance, it was a great job and is a worthy model for spokespeople to follow.

I’m completely speculating, but I suspect he did a few things:

He had notes or talking points in front of him while he did the interview. There is no shame in using talking points, especially when you’re doing a phone interview. (There should be shame in NOT using them.)

He practiced. Perhaps he has a communication person that helped with the talking points and likely follow up questions. Regardless, he sounded like had had this conversation a million times.

He learned to talk about something about which he is not an expert (which suggests he researched and practiced that, too). Surely, his organization deals with a disturbing number of suicides each year. But I don’t think Mulligan is a mental health professional. Still, he sounded knowledgable, compassionate and believable when discussing this very sensitive issue.

So, give it a listen. Mulligan’s interview is the first four minutes of the story.

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Tell them about your dream

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I heard a speech last week that included a great anecdote about MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream.” It fits perfectly into this blog. A few weeks ago, I suggested that it’s better to inspire than to explain.

Well, on that hot August day in 1963, Dr. King’s prepared remarks — though much more eloquent and urgent than anything than I’ve heard at an industry conference — were a list of talking points that explained the horrid state of civil rights for African Americans:

“…..100 years later the Negro still is not free.
One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

All of these were true, and all of them were worthy of mention. But few Americans in 2014 can recite these lines and or get chills when they are read aloud.

Some of his colleagues recall that about 10 minutes into the speech, he realized was losing the audience, and so did the people standing behind him. One of them, a gospel singer that saw him give a different speech to a different audience months earlier, yelled “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

Dr. King paused, pushed his prepared notes to the side, and took the audience on a journey. Dr. King the politician took a break and Dr. King the Baptist preacher finished the speech. Insiders say that the entire “I Have a Dream” portion of the speech was recited from memory, delivered straight from the heart.

All of us in the non-profit world are working on important things, and we are all trying to pull people along to a better place. When you stand before them, giving a speech or even a presentation, you have a choice. You can click through your bullet points and read them your slides or script, or you can take them on a journey. You can drag them down into details or you can tell them about your dream.

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When audience-based messaging backfires: from global warming to climate change

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A recent report from the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University demonstrates how the words we use to describe what we do and the issues we try to affect can sometimes get in the way of our work, even when we think we’re being really smart about it.

The center’s case study is about Americans’ reaction to two similar (but different) terms:  global warming and climate change. The study found that the two terms elicit different responses from Democrats and Republicans. From the report (emphasis mine):

“Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.”

“By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.”

Translation: A few years ago, many environmentalists began using “climate change” instead of “global warming” because they thought it would help pull Republicans into the issue. It didn’t. But the shift appears to have turned off many Democrats, a group most environmentalists would consider their “base.”

I remember this linguistic shift and the debate it sparked within the environmental community. I also remember that the move toward climate change was supported by Frank Luntz, a brilliant scoundrel who helped Republicans change oil drilling and gambling to energy exploration and gaming. He changed the estate tax, which most Americans support, to the death tax, which most Americans hate. (You can read more here.)

He advised the Republican party that, because it was vulnerable on environmental issues and the voting public was woefully uneducated about the growing scientific certainty about global warming, it should: (1) use the term climate change because it’s less scary than global warming and (2) equate the public’s uncertainty about global warming (which was true) with scientific uncertainty about global warming (which was false). I know. Evil.

So, though Luntz and the environmental community were on different sides of this issue, they ended up cooperating to redefine a global issue to suit the needs of one segment of the message market.

Many groups agonize about the words they use and often try to so carefully parse their messaging for different audiences that the way they describe themselves to one audience is sometimes unrecognizable from how they describe themselves to another. Along the way, they can lose sight of their core values and their core constituents.

I strongly believe in audience-focused language. But your language shouldn’t vary so dramatically that your identity gets muddled. In Texas, we often say that you should “dance with who brung you.” That applies to words, as well. If you’re going to abandon the words, imagery and rhetoric that have helped you grow and inspire your base, be cautious. It doesn’t always go as planned.


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It’s, there, literally and other workplace words that should make you cringe

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So…I planned to write a piece on annoying workplace words and grammar errors, and I thought it would be fun to supplement my opinions with some input from Facebook and Twitter. It turns out that folks in my social network have a lot of opinions. A whole lot.

First, some resources. If you’re having a grammar crisis, check out the grammarist or Grammar Girl. But most of the examples people sent me are not ones that the users really think about before using. They just use them.

My (and my friends’) favorites fall into some basic categories: The first is blatant grammar errors, which is what I was thinking about when I asked the masses for opinions. These are things we learned in middle school English class and that Americans have no excuse to get wrong. (We only have to know one language to graduate from high school. C’mon people).

It’s/its and there/their/they’re. It’s is short for it is. There are no exceptions. If people think otherwise, they’re incorrect. Their opinion is wrong. (See what I did there?”)

Myself. Words like myself, yourself and himself are reflexive pronouns. The subject of the sentence and the direct object need to be the same, and the -self word would be the object. Bob hit himself. Sara hates herself. Did you hurt yourself? Telling people “if you have any questions, please call Jeff or myself” is wrong. Only you can call yourself. Also, “myself” cannot be present on a conference call (“On the call are Matt, Jim and myself”). Can you tell I feel strongly about this one?

Bad apostrophes. This is another personal pet-peeve. Our local dry cleaner is open on “Saturday’s.” It drives me nuts every time I see the sign. If you’re making something plural, add an “s.” If you’re making a contraction, add an apostrophe. And if you’re showing ownership (Bob’s truck), add an apostrophe – s (its is an important exception). Some entities break this rule on purpose. The New York Times uses ’s to make abbreviations plural. “Ford unveils two new S.U.V.’s.” I don’t care if they are the New York Times. It’s wrong.

Basic verb/noun agreement and sentence structure. If the subject is singular, the verb needs to be singular. If the dependent clause has a singular subject, the pronoun in the independent clause must be singular. For example:

  • “If a donor wants to make an immediate impact, he can contribute to our capital fund.”
  • “If donors want to make an immediate impact, they can contribute to our capital fund.”

People often get this wrong because they are trying to avoid the he/she dilemma. I suggest going plural. Enough, grammar. I am boring myself. The second category is basic verbal crutches. These are things we say (or type) to sound formal or smart. But they are usually unnecessary and often flatly incorrect, so we sound informal and dumb.

My favorites:

Literally. “That meeting was so boring that my head literally exploded.” I hope not.

At the end of the day. “At the end of the day, we are a business and we need to make money.” Really? At the end of the day, I go to bed. Why not use “ultimately” or just say “We are a business and we need to make money.”

Currently/At this point in time. “Now” will suffice.

In my opinion. Use “I think.” But if you insist on the former, please don’t use “in my personal opinion.” All of your opinions are personal.

Finally, general corporate BS-speak. This is the category that lit up my Facebook request. In most cases, these are words we would NEVER use in casual conversations with our friends — even really smart friends. And in most cases, I do not think they mean what people think they mean.

Net-net (or triple net). Commercial real estate brokers often use this to explain leases. Are you a commercial real estate broker? Then don’t use it.

Level-set. I think this is a noun. It means update, but I suppose level-set sounds smarter.

Downstream/upstream value and ROI. We are impressed by your MBA.

Value add. Do you mean “value?” Invite (as a noun). Calendar (as a verb). Revenue (as a verb). I prefer invitation, schedule and make money because those are real words. Chances are there is a word out there to express your thoughts. There is rarely a need to invent a new one.

Liaise. It’s a verb and is technically correct. But you should know that people roll their eyes when you use it.

And my favorite…the entry that made the whole Facebook query worthwhile: “I don’t want to constipate the process.” I’m glad that this person doesn’t want to slow things down. But he/she just grossed out everyone on the email chain.

I can’t wait to see the comments on this one. Any others? Want to defend anything listed here?

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