Friday, December 18, 2009

We all need culture training.

I distributed a detailed plan to the students in my writing class at Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University and a student from Turkey objected to the plan saying, "We would never give that much detail in my country."

I suspected he wouldn't because of the difference between low and high context cultures. I told him that but he seemed confused because, I presume, he did not know the difference between high an low context (the Edward Hall theory).

I explained the theory as best I could and told him that in the low context USA executives need much detail. He was unimpressed and I had to pull rank saying, "Hey, if you're working with Americans, you need to give them detail." End of story.

I hated myself for that! On the same evening, I told the class they needed to "get a partner." The usual delay ensued as people who sit next to each other but seldom talk had to group up. After a few minutes one male student from Turkey still hadn't a partner, so I asked him again. Still he did nothing but look confused. A little irritated, I asked him, "Who is your partner?" and he said quietly and sincerely, "My wife." Didn't I feel like an %#@hole!

It made me wonder how many similar mistakes I have made over my ten years of teaching people from all over the world at CMU. I know I must have made many mistakes and the students were too polite to tell me. And, if I'm making them and I teach communication, how many mistakes are the rest of the faculty and staff making?

I may be making these mistakes because I haven't taken an opportunity at CMU to learn about our students, the many who come from India, China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Mexico, Italy and many other countries whose cultures are unlike America. But, I'm not sure any opportunities exist in Heinz College. CMU has a learning center for the whole campus but most of us are too busy teaching to look around.

If it's not happening at CMU where he have programs with 75% of students from Asia, what is happening at UPMC, KFC, or at the little start-up down the street? I know of little such training. If it weren't often funny, it would be sad. For example, I just read about a company that tried to sell baby food in Liberia. The company put a picture of a cute baby on the food jar but no one bought it. Later, the company learned that packages in Liberia show pictures of the food inside the packages!

We are a global community with global problems. How will we ever cooperate if we can't understand each other? We need culture training!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If you want to achieve a goal...

...take a lesson from John Malkovich.

If you watched "Dangerous Liaisons," a movie of a few years back starring Michele Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, a young (and topless) Uma Thurman and John Malkovich, you'll remember the monomaniacal focus the character Valmont (Malkovich) had on women. If he set his sights on a woman (and he regularly did), forget it, she was his. He wouldn't take "No" for an answer. He was single-minded, driven, and undeterred. And, he understood human nature and human frailties. He scored at will. I would not want that character after my wife (despite her great virtue)!

Valmont gives us all a lesson in purpose, and you might say, goal setting. If you want a job or a client, or a love, you need a singleness of purpose that borders on obsession. It also helps if you have a deep understanding of human nature, strengths and frailties. I suppose you also need a good portion of courage and, in some instances, a shortage of conscience.

In any event, when students ask me what to study for success in marketing, I always mention psychology first, along with art, anthropology, literature, research methods, and several other subjects. When they ask me how to get a job, I suggest they pick the place where they've always wanted to work, learn as much as they can about the needs of the employer and focus on it, ala Malkovich. I jokingly tell them that if they want to work at Microsoft they need to find out where Bill Gates parks his car and lay in front of it until he hires them.

I don't go for pop psychology, but after watching "Dangerous Liaisons" I felt that anyone can get what he or she wants by focusing and positively visualizing. Even if you don't agree, rent the movie and watch Malkovich wear away the defenses of Michelle Pfeiffer and pay the ultimate price to defeat Glenn Close at her own game. I promise you'll enjoy the movie!

Monday, December 14, 2009

This product can't miss!

I was once involved with what I thought was a "can't miss" product, a 100% rubber booty for horses, kind of a “spare tire” for use on the trail if a horse threw a shoe.

My partners and I thought it was a great concept and guaranteed to be the next hula hoop. Why did we feel that way? Well, the market had no such product. "Soft Shoe", as we named it, was incredibly unique. We owned the rights to distribute the shoe in the twenty-five states east of the Mississippi. The shoe wasn’t expensive to manufacture or difficult to warehouse and we already had contacts with major distributors of equestrienne equipment and large tack shops. We greedily multiplied the number of horses east of the Mississippi by four hooves and salivated! We saw ourselves as wealthy business people.

In our lust, we saw no problems with our product. We were in love with it. Rubber booties seemed a more humane way to shod a horse than with nails. We felt we had great selling points. To wit: Very few products are made of 100% pure rubber. Even your car tires are synthetic. A farrier/blacksmith invented our product. Veterinarians used our rubber horseshoe in their treatment of horses; the vets loved it. If they had to sedate a horse, our booty was ideal for the moment the horse regained consciousness and struggled to its feet. It was perfect for horses on concrete, on parade, or on show in a mall.

We were psyched. We saw dollars signs everywhere. We tested the product with the Amish and acquired their endorsement. We printed glossy brochure with a sexy, young woman on a horse. We were counting our profits before we sold any product, making plans to buy summer homes in Belize and new Hummers. In other words, we were greatly subjective.

Unfortunately, after months of trying to hustle the shoes, we found that no one wanted to buy them. We were dumbfounded. What had we done wrong? Well, for one thing we didn’t invest in any research to find out the values, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs of our potential customers. We learned the hard way that people who own horses weren’t ready to give up on thousands of years of traditional shoeing. We would have known that if we had not been so much in love with our own creation, so subjective. We wasted a lot of time and money.

What does this mean to you? More than anything it means you must understand the customer and give him/her something he/she wants/needs. It means that you must be objective, not subjective. You must learn as much as you can about the values and motivations of customers. If you don't, you, too, will end up with a "can't miss" product or service, one that you love but no one uses!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The media may change...

but the fundamentals remain the same.

I recently had a chance to write about social media for the IABC "student connection"

In the brief article I admitted that I grew up, personally and professionally, with the conventional media, the BIG 3 - TV, radio and print - but that I have been scrambling to learn the social media. As I learn, and fill my office with more books, I am impressed with Twitter, Facebook, blogging, cell phone apps and so forth. But, I am more than ever convinced that some basics will always apply.

Consumers still watch TV and listen to the radio. They still look at magazines, and a few read newspapers. Many have grown up with social media and many others, like me, are rushing to learn about them. But, regardless of the medium, you will sell nothing if you don’t remember to Live in the Land of the Audience. You will sell nothing unless you:

1.Understand the wants and needs of customers.
2.Serve them.
3.Satisfy them.

Talk with them, by all means, as the social media so easily allow you to do. Whatever you do, however, don’t blog to hear yourself talk. Don’t tweet that you’re parking your car. Don’t send me an e-mail for something I don’t need or want. I’m too busy ducking the thousands of other messages pushed in my face every day.

Honor me. Tell me something I don't know. Challenge me. Get my attention. Get me involved. Talk WITH me, not TO me. Actually, the best conventional media did this; they involved viewers, listeners, readers with questions such as "Where's the beef". Admittedly, much of the conventional media pushed messages into our faces. Much of the social media do the same.

If you want to communicate, especially with a marketing communication, remember, the
fundamentals remain the same. The audience rules!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More E-vidence Mail

LONDON - E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data — but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked, according to an exhaustive review by The Associated Press.

The 1,073 e-mails examined by the AP show that scientists harbored private doubts, however slight and fleeting, even as they told the world they were certain about climate change. However, the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The scientists were keenly aware of how their work would be viewed and used, and, just like politicians, went to great pains to shape their message. Sometimes, they sounded more like schoolyard taunts than scientific tenets.

The scientists were so convinced by their own science and so driven by a cause "that unless you're with them, you're against them," said Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also reviewed the communications.

Frankel saw "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very 'generous interpretations.'"

Some e-mails expressed doubts about the quality of individual temperature records or why models and data didn't quite match. Part of this is the normal give-and-take of research, but skeptics challenged how reliable certain data was.

The e-mails were stolen from the computer network server of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in southeast England, an influential source of climate science, and were posted online last month. The university shut down the server and contacted the police.

The AP studied all the e-mails for context, with five reporters reading and rereading them — about 1 million words in total.

One of the most disturbing elements suggests an effort to avoid sharing scientific data with critics skeptical of global warming. It is not clear if any data was destroyed; two U.S. researchers denied it.

The e-mails show that several mainstream scientists repeatedly suggested keeping their research materials away from opponents who sought it under American and British public records law. It raises a science ethics question because free access to data is important so others can repeat experiments as part of the scientific method. The University of East Anglia is investigating the blocking of information requests.

"I believe none of us should submit to these 'requests,'" declared the university's Keith Briffa in one e-mail. The center's chief, Phil Jones, e-mailed: "Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them."

When one skeptic kept filing Freedom of Information Act requests, Jones, who didn't return AP requests for comment, told another scientist, Michael Mann: "You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting FOI requests for all e-mails Keith (Briffa) and Tim (Osborn) have written."

Mann, a researcher at Penn State University, told The Associated Press: "I didn't delete any e-mails as Phil asked me to. I don't believe anybody else did."

The e-mails also show how professional attacks turned very personal. When former London financial trader Douglas J. Keenan combed through the data used in a 1990 research paper Jones had co-authored, Keenan claimed to have found evidence of fakery by Jones' co-author. Keenan threatened to have the FBI arrest University at Albany scientist Wei-Chyung Wang for fraud. (A university investigation later cleared him of any wrongdoing.)

The e-mails also showed a stunning disdain for global warming skeptics.

One scientist practically celebrates the news of the death of one critic, saying, "In an odd way this is cheering news!" Another bemoans that the only way to deal with skeptics is "continuing to publish quality work in quality journals (or calling in a Mafia hit.)" And a third scientist said the next time he sees a certain skeptic at a scientific meeting, "I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted."

And they compared contrarians to communist-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Somali pirates. They also called them out-and-out frauds.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The beat goes on (or, people continue to mis-use e-mail)!

(I thank my friend Chuck Reynolds for this!)

Analyst Quits Over Embarrassing Email (by Martin Evans at

"A female graduate trainee at the consultants Deloitte has quit after an embarrassing email she sent discussing attractive male staff, was forwarded around the world.

"Holly Leam-Taylor became the latest victim of a viral email craze when her light hearted message to colleagues spread like wildfire across the internet.

"In the email, entitled Deloitte First year analysts Christmas Awards, sent on December 8, Ms Leam-Taylor asked her female colleagues to vote on which men in the office they considered most attractive.

"She listed nine categories including, 'boy most likely to sleep his way to the top' and 'most attractive older member of staff'.

"Miss Leam-Taylor, who is in her early 20s, wrote: 'I'll send out the results on Friday 18th Dec (that is all I will be doing that day as I will be SO hung-over from the ball!)'

"The email was only intended for a small group within her office, but was quickly forwarded outside the building and within hours was being read by millions of internet users as far away as New Zealand and Australia.

"The email began, 'So's been nearly 4 months at Deloitte so I think we should have some sort of Xmas awards ceremony for us ladies about the stuff that really matters at work ie.gossip/the boys! This probably massively violates HR equal opportunities policy, but never mind! It's all for fun and a bit of a laugh.'

"But her employers did not agree that it was a laughing matter and she was warned that she would be subject to a disciplinary hearing which could lead to her dismissal.

"A source at the firm said: 'She realised that her credibility both internally and externally had been damaged and so took the decision to hand in her resignation immediately...We are very disappointed by this matter. While intended as a joke, this is a stark reminder of the need to exercise careful judgment when using email.'"

Careful judgement goes out the window when people sit before their computers. They become DIS-inhibited. They believe they are in the lobby or at lunch talking to friends, instead of placing a message before the world. For Deloitte this must be doubly disconcerting since (a few years ago) they paid to have 50,000 people undergo e-mail training. (I wish I'd had THAT gig. In fact, I hereby recommend myself to Deloitte to re-train the 50,000! I'll give them a volume discount!)

When they give me the gig, I'll tell them this: Always write the message first! Let it sit for a moment. Look at it as if you were seeing it on the front page of the newspaper. If you don't want to see it there, delete it. If you want international notoriety, address it and hit the send button. Then, get a lawyer.

Thanks for the great article, Chuck!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Watch your e-mails!

Not a day goes by that someone doesn't compromise him or herself with an e-mail message. I guess it's to be expected with the 35 TRILLION e-mails that are sent every year. But, really, why would anyone write a message that might come back to haunt him?

Take Sean Ramaley, for instance. According to today's Pittsburgh Tribune Review, "In an October 2004 e-mail, former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon chided his legislative assistant Sean Ramaley for not knocking on enough doors to win over voters, during Ramaley's race for an adjacent House district.

'Why not any doors yesterday, Sean? A very nice day. The pace on the doors seems to be slowing down. Is it going to get any better?' Veon asked in the e-mail that was displayed on a large video screen yesterday in Dauphin County Court, where Ramaley is on trial.

Ramaley responded...'After picking up some checks at a labor breakfast, I decided I needed to spend the rest of Friday preparing for Saturday's debate. I expect to be back on doors heavily this week.'

Ramaley, 34, of Baden faces six felony counts for allegedly using the part-time job in Veon's Beaver Falls district office as income while he campaigned for the House seat he subsequently won....Prosecutors claim Ramaley conspired with Veon to hold the no-work job, and that taxpayers paid for Ramaley's campaign."

Gee, I wonder if he did? "...back on the doors heavily this week." That seems to present some serious evidence. But, innocent until proven guilty, I say. He allegedly used the part time job as income, and all that.

Whether Ramaley is guilty or not guilty, he probably learned a lesson in communication. Say as little as possible and say nothing you don't want to see on the front page of the local newspaper... or in court.

Is there any wonder e-mail continues to be called "e-vidence" mail? Most of us have a bad habit of treating e-mail as an informal medium and, thereby, revealing things we later wish we hadn't revealed. It's the great leveler; everyone does it - rich and poor - and everyone suffers accordingly. In fact, look for a series of e-mails to surface that reveal a little more of Tiger Woods than he would want us to know.

As a person who has written his share of emotional messages with little to no thinking (and sent a few jokes he wishes he hadn't sent), I urge you to watch your e-mails... and your texts... and your tweets... and your posts.... You may be reading them on the front page of the local fish wrapper and wishing you had never hit the Send button!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Do you know this term?


Know it? It's a Hindi term and soon everyone will be using it alongside Six Sigma, TQM, kaizan and other popular business strategies.

"Jugaad", pronounced "joogard", implies the combination of simplicity and innovation. Considering that those two terms seldom go together, "jugaad" will strike many as refreshing. Imagine, innovation AND simplicity!

What else will accompany simplicity? How about inexpensive! American companies, especially those that embrace the management flavor of the day, will go for "jugaad" in a big way. It will mean asking employees to innovate in the moment. This will especially help in customer service as companies empower (sound familiar) employees to find solutions on the go.

Customers will like it and "juggad" will fuel America's (appropriate) return to simplicity. As Da Vinci said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." He said that long before Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." But, both were right. Nothing looks better (or simpler) than a pretty woman in a black dress!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

12 Books You May Enjoy

I offer here a dozen books I've read over the past year that you may enjoy. I list them in no particular order. I have included fiction and non-fiction, business books and books about books. I promise that each is well written and interesting.

1.) War Dance by Sherman Alexie. Alexie writes mainly from a Native American point of view and this collection of stories continues that theme. Regardless, he writes with passion and precision and makes us see the "Indian experience" from a whole new perspective. If you have no interest in Indians, you will nonetheless enjoy the flow of this great writing from a man who has won major writing awards, even for a children's book.

2.) The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Bartlett. If you love books, you will love this story of rare booksellers trying to catch a thief who specializes in rare books. They get him, he gets away, he never stops because of his obsession for books as he and his pursuers share much in common.

3.) Hunting Eichmann by Bascomb. Adolph Eichmann, Nazi war criminal and functionary responsible for "managing" the deaths of millions of Jews during the Second World War, eluded authorities for years, living in South America. Almost by accident his location is revealed and as we read along with this terrific story we wonder if he will be caught, even as we know he was!

4.) Sway by Branfman. Ever wonder how we influence each other? This book reveals how pilots, and many others, have learned to question authority so that they diminish errors based on appeals to authority. Anyone in sales or marketing should read this small, but, well written, book.

5.) Yes! 50 Scientifically proven ways to be persuasive by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini. Anyone who sees the name Cialdini knows he or she is in for a useful and enjoyable reading experience. Robert Cialdini is, of course, the guru of influence and persuasion. As a co-author of this small book, he influences the fine writing and storytelling to deliver much useful information on persuasion. If you are in business, read this little book.

6.) Columbine by Cullen. Most Americans remember the tragedy of Columbine High School. Cullen, a Denver reporter, was there through the whole tragedy. In his book with the skill of a mystery writer, he takes us through the lives of the victims and perpetrators as we watch the whole ugly thing unfold.

7.) Zeitoun by Eggers. Dave Eggers is a well known and accomplished writer, editor and cultural phenomenon. In this fascinating book he follows the tribulations of a Muslim man, an immigrant to America who builds a business in New Orleans only to see it threatened by Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun decides to stay in New Orleans, even after everyone is ordered out of the city. He is then arrested and the story becomes more intense and ultimately uplifting.

8.) Book of Genesis by R. Crumb. Need I say more? Whatever Crumb writes/draws demands attention. When the subject matter involves the first book of the Christian Bible, we must sit up and take notice. Crumb doesn't disappoint us as he draws a surprisingly sensitive rendering of the Christian notion of the world's origins.

9.) Buy-ology by Lindstrom. This researcher takes us inside the human mind to show why we buy things and why we may be at risk to the companies who also know why we buy things.

10.) Let the Great World Spin by McCann. This just won the National Book Award which tells you it's not too shabby. If deals with the aftermath of 911 and is a pleasure to read. It proves itself worthy of this country's big writing award.

11.) Tears in the Darkness by Norman. WWII had its share of atrocities and agonies but probably none greater than the Bataan Death March. Norman shows the horrors of that tragedy by following an American from the Mid-West as he is imprisoned and forced to be a slave laborer as thousands die around him.

12.) The Tyranny of E-Mail by Freeman. This delightful book traces the development of e-mail and our addiction to it. The book begins with the telegraph and brings us to our great dependence on electronic communication, the tool that some call indispensable while others call "e-vil mail"!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanna Read a Great Book?

Get yourself a copy of "The Chaos Scenario - Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, the Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish" by Bob Garfield.

I know the title sounds HEAVY and it does discuss some very serious topics, but this book is a joy to read. Garfield, who writes for Ad Age as an editor-at-large and co-hosts NPR's "On the Media", writes with simplicity and humor that border on brilliance. The book is really fun to read.

Garfield says early in the book that he considered naming it "Listenomics" but that the titles "Wikinomics" and Freakonomics" made him re-consider. In any event, he proves in 300 pages that the "Digital Revolution" is really a revolution. And, he didn't need to persuade me. I have watched over the last few years as everything I knew about PR, for instance, changed. Garfield discusses and proves this paradigm wittily.

He calls his first chapter "The Death of Everything"! In it he shows how traditional media are slowly fading with fewer audiences, fewer revenues and many more competitors. This reflects Garfield's theme of nothing less than "...the re-ordering of media, marketing and commerce triggered by the revolution in digital technology."

Now, I guess most of us knew this was happening, right? But, Garfield quotes many who should know better who have their heads up their $%#s who don't seem to think there's any urgency to the problem. In proving his points in the book Garfield visits You Tube, Lego, Barack Obama, the Dallas Morning News, Rupert Murdoch, Jesus, Satan, Vista and a hundred other media, moguls and movers-and-shakers to prove his points, all of them entertainingly.

To TV executives, Garfield days, "So long boob tube, hello You Tube" and he does everything but call CBS CEO Les Moonves an incompetent. In proving our need to change things and listen better, Garfield cites Jim Stengel, retired CMO of P&G, who, in discussing where to spend P&G's $6 billion marketing budget, said, "The old model is broken."

In another chapter, "The Post-Advertising Age", that will surely capture the attention of his employer, Garfield quotes Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau, who says, "Today the average 14-year old can create a global television network with applications that are built into her laptop." And, so it is. Have you ever watched "Fred" on You Tube? If not, check it out!

Proctor & Gamble serves Garfield well and often in the book. He quotes P&G CEO A. G. Lafley who said, "We need to reinvent the way we market to consumers." (A. G., hear me; give up using "market" as a verb). To make the point, Garfield tells the story of Six Flags who wanted to celebrate its 45th anniversary by giving away 45,000tickets to the place. They told their agency, OgilvyInteractive North America, to do whatever needed to be done. (Agencies love to hear that.) But, someone in interactive put the tickets on "Craigslist" and they disappeared in five hours. Ogilvy took little solace (and less commission) on that.

As in the Six Flags example, agencies aren't sure what exactly to do. Media are going out of business, agencies are going out of business or trying to figure out how to be of any service to anyone, and we, the Great Unwashed, are being put in charge! And, to top it off YouTube, Facebook and the rest have no revenue models. Interesting times we live in! A real Chaos Scenario!

But, whatever Garfield discusses, he does it with humor and a voice all his own. For instance in talking about viral messages and SEO, Garfield tells us about the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty "Unilever and Ogilvy had waged the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, with website, ads (online and off), Dove Self-Esteem Fund and an ongoing education campaign aimed mainly at girls, to inculcate them with a sense of confidence and worth. They weren't lectured that beauty is only skin deep, and that what really counts is our inner selves; children aren't that stupid, and they know that how we all look matters in ways large and small. But, they were told, and presented with many lovely examples, of physical beauty that doesn't conform to the freakish standards of Hollywood and the fashion industry. From the beginning it was a fascinating exercise.

"From one perspective, all involved were vulnerable to massive eye rolling on basic hypocrisy grounds; Unilever also makes Slim Fast, which encourages yo yo dieting. And it sells Axe and Lynx, body sprays advertised to young males as surefire means to get in the pants of steamin' hot babes, who, of course, look like human Barbie Dolls. As for Ogilvy, in a bit of horrifying/delicious irony, it is the ad agency for actual Barbie Dolls."

The book is full of such funny and meaningful examples with Garfield romping through anybody's garden, trampling on our rosebuds and tearing the blinders from all of us who think the King still has clothes on. He does it with wit, sarcasm, and none-to-subtle stabbing at the most sacred of our cows. If you want to learn and prepare for the current chaos, read Bob Garfield's "The Chaos Scenario". You will have one helluva good time doing it.

Did you ever watch yourself?

I was recently invited to teach a lesson in communication at a Heinz College course for future consultants. I was invited by the associate dean of the Heinz College School of Information Systems Management, Andy Wasser. When I went to the classroom, I saw that Andy was wearing a microphone, which he transferred to me after he introduced me. Then, of course, I saw the video camera in the corner of the room.

I lectured for about 30 minutes, aware that the camera was following my every move while animating myself as much as possible. If I were going to be taped, I thought, I wanted to make a good impression.

It wasn't the first time I had ever been taped. As a long time PR guy, I had seen my share of TV interviews, mostly for a minute or two. I had seen my name in newspaper quotes and heard myself on brief radio snippets. And, I have taught for five years on the Internet, knowing that the sessions were being recorded. But, this was the first time I had ever been videotaped at length, and taped doing the thing I thought I was good at, teaching.

When Andy sent me the link to the taping, I watched it, cringing at every mistake. At times, I actually felt as if I were watching someone else. It's spooky! "Who's that old guy?" I wondered. "He needs to learn to face the camera and not turn to reveal his bald spot." For all the enthusiasm and energy I thought I had, I didn't see enough. It awakened me!

I suppose I should have done this long before. My colleague at Heinz College, Chris Labash, tapes his students in his Professional Speaking classes all the time. And, he provides them one extremely valuable service; he tapes them in a mock job interview. I strongly suggest to anyone looking for a job to be taped in a mock interview. You will see yourself as others see you and you may be surprised. In fact, you may be aghast!

If you're not looking for a job but have a public position as a salesperson or customer service representative, or any other role that puts you routinely in front of others, you need to do this. You will see yourself as your customers and colleagues and others see you. And, you may not recognize that person!

I wasn't aghast, but I wasn't thrilled, either. Even so, I asked my colleague, Bob Taylor who handles Internet stuff at Heinz College, to put the link to the video on my website for my friends and family to watch. I also put a link to an interview I did for the Voice of America (the TV version of VOA). I have to say that I felt better about that performance. It was subsequently translated into Urdu and gave me a good laugh watching my lips move while someone else spoke in a language very foreign to me (the link on my website is in English).

So, I invite you to watch me at and I STRONGLY encourage you to get yourself taped. Call Chris Labash; he does this kind of work as a consultant. He'll help you improve your presentation. And, you'll get a look at yourself that will be both interesting and enlightening!

Pittsburgh City Planning Strikes Again!

A few years ago, the Department of City Planning in Pittsburgh managed to frighten many homeowners with a badly written letter about a new zoning initiative called "Map Pittsburgh." The letter used lots of jargon, passive voice, long words and sentences and a demeaning tone. Homeowners who tried to read the letter, like my (then)86-year old mother-in-law, thought they were breaking the law. Many of these people complained to the City and the letter had to be re-written and re-sent (your tax dollars at work).

That letter served me very well in my role as writing teacher to public policy and public management graduate students at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. I have used the Map Pittsburgh letter in my classes for years as an example of how not to write. I'd share it with you here, but I have another, a 2009 version of equally awful, bureaucratic writing. This one arrived, again, at my mother-in-law's house, and she had no idea what it meant. I offer it here for your enjoyment:

"Dear resident:
A bill has been introduced in City Council and referred to the Planning Commission for a report and recommendation. The bill proposes a text amendment to the Zoning Code that revises sections in the Code governing uses permitted in the UI, Urban Industrial District; GI, General Industrial District; and EMI, Educational/Medical Institution District. The proposed amendment would require that a number of uses in those districts be permitted as conditional uses. A copy of the proposed text amendment may be reviewed at the Zoning Office on the 3rd floor of 200 Ross St., Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed text amendments on: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 @ 2:00 p.m. John P. Robin Civic Building, 1st Floor 200Ross Street, Pittsburgh, PA.

Testimony presented by individuals will be limited to 3 minutes each. Testimony presented by a spokesperson representing an organization will be limited to 5 minutes each, and the spokesperson shall provide a “Letter of Authorization” from the appropriate officers. Prepared comments may be presented in lieu of testimony, and testimony should not be read from a prepared statement but may be summarized as testimony with the prepared statement handed to the Commission for their review."

Is that a beauty of bureaucracy and befuddlement, or what!? Can any of you tell me what that first paragraph says or what it asks a (now) 94-year old widow with an 8th grade education to do? I read it a few times and had little understanding. Because I know the area, however, I had a clue. It involved the following language: "uses permitted in...Medical/Educational". I had a sense that Allegheny General Hospital had something to do with this zoning business since my mother-in-law lives half a block away from AGH.

But, really! Is this the way to communicate with people? Does this sound like "newspeak" from the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's Oceania? If nothing else, it borders on the kind of messages sent to the Proles by Big Brother in the novel "1984." That language was meant to conceal, not reveal. It depended on passive constructions where the doer of action is anonymous and buzz words are empty of meaning.

I copied the language of the city's recent letter into a Word document and then did a readability scan of it. My computer, using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index told me that the writing is 50% passive with 26.1 words per sentence (15 is recommended), a grade level of 14 and reading ease of 31.3 (100 is best). Many newspapers recommend a grade level of 8-11 because, despite gains in literacy, people do not read well. In fact the New York Times published an article recently stating that "Literacy Falls for Graduates from College."

A letter such as the city's, if it is to be mass mailed to blocks of residents, must aim for the 8-11 grade level readers. Hell, I have a Masters degree in English and I have little idea what the letter says. Whatever the reading levels, our democracy depends on the free flow of information between government and its constituents. We must know what our public servants are doing and we must easily understand what they are telling us. Of course, this isn't possible in the anonymous letter above sent by the Department of City Planning to "Bloc & Lot: 23-H-151 Welty Dorothy F."

The recent letter was not signed (even Patrick Ford, despite his failures, signed the earlier letter). I don't blame the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning writer (likely a lawyer) for being anonymous in this year's version. I wouldn't want anyone to know that I had written it either.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shame on the New York Times!

An article in the New York Times today announces, "How To Market Your Business with Facebook ". Check it out at this link:

The writer tells us how to use Facebook to interact with our customers and in one place says, "It's not about selling." That's right! It's not about selling. But, it will always be about selling until we learn to use the "M" word correctly.

"Market" is not a verb (or infinitive). As long as we treat it as such, we will make all of the errors associated with product and service failure. When we discuss "How to market our businesses", we link back to the old days of creating products and services and waiting for customers to fall in love with them. Or, we morph back to the days when we threw dollar after dollar at the promotion of our beloved products and services only to find that no one else loved them. Then we threw up our hands and said we didn't "market" them enough!

David Ogilvy said, "Marketing is objectivity." We need to think about how someone might use our products or services not how beautiful we think they are. Philip Kotler said, "Marketing begins long before there's ever a product or service." We need to have a bias for research. Peter Drucker said, "A business only has one purpose: to create a customer." As long as businesses live by the mistaken notion that "If we build it they will come", we will have product and service failures. As Kotler said, "Marketing senses, serves, and satisfies the wants and needs of customers." As such, it must start with the sensing part.

As long as businesses say, "We need to market this more" we will have wasted promotional dollars. We will be selling. And, no amount of selling can move a product that no one wanted or needed in the first place.

Writers, like the one who wrote the aforementioned Times headline, are well advised to substitute, "How to understand your customer better with Facebook." That's what the article suggests anyway. That is, listen to your customers on Facebook, enter a dialogue with them, ask them about their wants and needs. Then, create a product or service to satisfy those wants and needs.

I know. It borders on a pet peeve. But, our actions follow our words. Our words reflect our values. And, many marketing sins are committed because creative types are busy using their favorite colors, typefaces and poetic language so as to win awards while not focusing on the customer. Too many workers are too busy gazing at their navels and delivering no, or poor, customer service. When things start to go bad, they turn to their old language and say, "We needed to market this better", as if more promotion will answer anyone's needs. Geez, even Don Draper understood the notion. On a Season One episode of Mad Men he exhorted a copy writer to "focus on benefits, not features."

So, all of you marketers out there, when you catch yourself using "market" as a verb, send me a dollar. We'll put the money in a safe place and give it to a worthy cause at the end of the year, "The Old Marketers Retirement and Travel Fund." Believe me, the dollars will add up quickly and we'll all be able to vacation in Rome!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How did Abe do?

We took the boys and my sister Dianne to Gettysburg a few weeks ago (or should I say, she took us). Anyway, the battlefield, the new cyclorama and the new museum impressed us.

If you visit the museum, you will see displays that include General Robert E. Lee's gloves and buttons and many other very interesting artifacts. As you leave the museum, you come to a room with a wall-sized photo of Abe Lincoln and his famous Gettysburg Address. (I took a photo of my son Alex in front of Abe and posted it on Facebook if you want to see Abe in scale).

As you sit in this small room, you will hear a recorded version of the Address by a famous actor. It's very impressive and moving. I highly encourage everyone to visit the new museum (especially on a weekday in the Spring when school's in session an it's warm).

In any event, the visit started me to thinking again about the speech, famous for its directness and simplicity (especially as compared to the other speeches delivered that day). And, I've been talking to my classes about readability and the use of the readability tool on their (and your) computers.

If you go to spellcheck and click on "options", your computer will give you a list that includes the readability tool. I encourage you to do that. It provides you with a measure of the readability of any document. It measures readability according to the number of words, the number of sentences, the amount of passive voice, the length of words and sentences. It does this with the (correct) assumption that short words, sentences and paragraphs are easier to read.

So, I copied the famous Gettysburg Address into Word and checked the readability. Here's what I found: It has 271 words; those words use 1196 characters; it has only three paragraphs and 10 sentences for 3.3 sentences per paragraph. The speech has 27words per sentence and the words average 4.2 characters. It has 20% passive constructions and has a reading ease of 65 (100 is best). Finally my computer tells me that the grade level required to understand the speech is 10.9. All of this is according to a system devised by Flesch and Kincaid.

What's to be said, then, about the readability of the document that is acclaimed as a masterpiece of directness and simplicity? Well, it is brief and it expresses profound thoughts in a direct way. It uses mostly short words and keeps the passive voice to a minimum. But is has some shortcomings.

I couldn't find literacy or grade level statistics for 1865, but I'm inclined to think they were lower than they are today. In fact, literacy is at 99% in America but the New York Times recently said literacy for college graduates in the US is falling! So, how many Americans in 1865 understood a speech delivered at an 11th grade level? I am most bothered by the 27 word sentences. The Kansas City Star did a study that said readers' comprehension falls when sentences are over 15 words.

Ultimately I like the speech (except for the "Four score" part) but I have a masters degree and can figure out Abe's sentiments. And, I'm not saying it is a bad speech (and, it was meant to be heard, not read). But, I'm also not surprised that the speech generated so little attention at the crowded cemetery that day. Abe was an intelligent, self-educated guy. He wrote mostly very direct messages, messages aimed at his intellectual equals, those most likely to be decision makers or those most likely to be concerned with those decisions. He wrote a poetic and moving passage that day at Gettysburg but few of the poorly educated in the audience knew it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Interviewing for a job?

Or, do you know anyone who is interviewing? If so, you might want to send them my FREE book, "Ask the right questions; Get the right job." I wrote the book, got myself a New York agent and a publisher. But, the agent and the publisher wanted 20,000 more words (bigger book, bigger price tag). I didn't have that much more to say, so I'm giving the book away. I posted it on my website as a pdf under "books" at this link: Go there! Read the book. Give it to your friends who are interviewing. The book will show them how to make a conversation out of an interview. That will help them have a meaningful and successful interview!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Don't you just love words!

Did any of you get a flu shot? A vaccine? Did you get the swine flu vaccine? If so, you might be interested to know that you received, in a manner of speaking, a cow shot! How so, you ask?

The word vaccine comes from the Latin word "vacca" meaning, you guessed it, cow! Long ago, like three hundred years ago, a Dr. Jenner noticed that milkmaids were immune from small pox but getting cowpox, so, for some strange reason, he used the pus (yuck) from a milkmaid's cowpox blister to inject into a child who became immune to small pox. He called his creation a "vaccine virus". And, there you have another reason to thank a cow the next time you see one!

You can find this word information and other word curiosities on line at or or If you poke around a little, you'll find that "seminary" comes from the Latin root "semen", yep, that semen! Men constitute the "seed" that is planted to form a priest. (Notice that I used the word "form." Rectors resist the word "train" since men are "called" to become priests!)

If you look around the Internet sites some more, you'll see that the word "varsity" actually comes from the abbreviated form of "university", that is, "'versity" (with an apostrophe) and over the years 'versity came to be varsity.

"Assassin" has an interesting background (or etymology). It seems an Arab bandit, Hasan Sabah, and his followers liked to kill public officials, including priests! Before the killers left to perform their dastardly deeds, these men often smoked hashish to get their minds in an appropriate killing place. They became known as "hashishiyun", the men who smoked, ate or otherwise ingested large amounts of hash. We know these men as assassins.

I like to remind my friends from India that much of our language can be traced to their country. Linguists call the original language "Proto-Indo European". For example, we can understand words like "juggernaut" if we understand India. In this wonderful and exotic country, many Hindus celebrate the feats of Jagannath", the Lord of the World, aka Krishna and Vishnu. In any event, during their festival, some of the believers place a huge statue of Jagannath on a movable cart and parade it through the town. Occasionally, the very devout threw themselves under the cart in self-sacrifice (no doubt the ones who had ingested a little hash). The cart didn't stop and the unstoppable force came to be known in the West as a juggernaut!

Not all words have such negative origins. If you look up the etymology of the word "enthusiasm", you will fall in love with this term that comes from the Greek and means "with God". It comes from the prefix "en" (with) and "theos" (God). And so, we rightly call the enthusiastic people we know the ones those who are with God!

I find all of this fascinating and revealing. A better understanding of the history of words helps us understand better what we are saying. It gives us a deeper understanding and richer. Don't you just love words!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What were they thinking?

The Colorado Restaurant Association recently announced a promotion to encourage more people to eat out. What slogan are they using? "Fork the recession." Do you find that clever. Is that likely to make you want to run out there and spend some money at a Colorado restaurant? Do you find the slogan witty? Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe you'll be looking for a place to take the kids. How about Burger King? The hamburger also-ran is pushing a promotion featuring that lovable spineless character, Sponge Bob Squarepants. In his TV spot Sponge Bob dances while a re-mix of Sir Mixalot's "Baby's Got Back" plays. The message, of course, says that Sponge Bob has the ultimate back; I'll accept that. But, really....

Maybe you'd rather stay home and eat cereal. If so, and you're a man, you might be moved by the Post cereal Grape Nuts campaign, featuring the witless slogan, "That takes Grape Nuts." The slogan identifies arduous male tasks and implies, well, you know, something about the male anatomy. When I told my classes about this campaign, one of the young men said, "I'd rather have Big Boulders" than grape nuts.

Maybe we should contact Ralcorp, owners of Kraft Foods, and volunteer to create promotions for them. They're putting over $100 million into the campaign to try to dent the almost $9 billion cereal market, and they may not be reaching their target audience.

Doesn't it make you wonder at the power of words. Doesn't it make you wonder at the foolishness of people, ad writers, creative types and their business colleagues. Doesn't it make you wonder what they were thinking?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What did she say?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was interviewed recently on CNBC. The exchange went like this:

Reporter: "But, on the tax issue, allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would essentially be a tax increase."

Pelosi: "It isn't a tax increase; it is, it is a..a..ah..eliminating a tax decrease that was there."

(You can watch the exchange at this site:

So, it isn't a tax increase, it is "eliminating a tax decrease that was there"!

Can language confuse and conceal, or what? Are politicians expert at double talk?

Language that uses negatives can work wonders at concealment. Perhaps if we ask Nancy about inflation she will say, "It is not possible to reduce inflationary pressures when the federal government does not reduce its spending." Got that?

Perhaps if asked about government spending she will add, "So long as taxpayers do not refuse to pay their taxes, the government will have no difficulty in paying its debts."

Maybe if she's pressed on a policy issue she will declare, "The lack of disconfirming evidence suggests that the results are not open to dispute, unless the absence of data from other investigations is taken as a negative factor."

These beautifully confusing gems were collected by Joseph Williams, professor emeritus at Chicago University and author of a book that changed my thinking about writing, "Style." This dense little book will help anyone become a better writer who can stay with it.

Some of the sentences come from the wonderful world of academia where communication is meant to impress, not express. If you remember your college days, you'll remember a sentence like this one, "Scientists have not agreed on the question of whether the universe is open or closed, a dispute that will not be resolved until the total mass of the universe has been computed with an error of no more than 5%."

Or, this one, "Sufficient research has not been directed to the problems of individuals who cannot see when there are not normal levels of light."

These sentences all suffer from too many negatives. And, I doubt if their authors consciously knew how to craft them. They likely have an innate sense of how to obfuscate, like Nancy.

So, don't be surprised if in the near future you watch Nancy Pelosi say something like this on You Tube, "Elections in which there is no attempt at dealing with those issues which do not receive adequate attention during the time when no election campaigns are underway cannot serve the functions for which they were intended."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How do you respond?

I spoke with a former student last week on Craig Street in Oakland. He looked great, black suit and white shirt, opened at the collar. He sounded great, too, with his charming, South of the Border accent. A very charming and soft-spoken guy, he said he had come from a job interview.

As we chatted, he told me the interviewer had been "hostile." Then he asked me what to do when an interviewer is hostile. I had to think a little about that one!

I have never been interviewed by a hostile person. And, I suppose one's definition of "hostile" differs from another's. For instance, I had an interview once where the interviewer was called out of the room to be told that he had just been named a vice president of the firm. Everyone gathered around him just at the edge of my view, hugging, back-slapping and congratulating him. He lost track of me for 20 minutes as he drank wine and celebrated with his colleagues, returning and thanking me, telling me that our time had expired and that he had another candidate to interview. I considered that hostile. (BTW, I didn't get the job and likely would not have taken it anyway.)

But, my student friend meant verbal hostility, purposefully intimidating, challenging, rude, and aggressive. The interviewer asked my friend some ugly questions and, of course, my friend was perplexed. Among other things, the interviewer pressed my friend over his commitment, asking, "Are you willing to work ten hours a day, staying late, and working over 60 hours a week, including weekends?" My friend repeated the words in the nasty way the interviewer had.

I suggested that my friend answer any hostile question with another (non-hostile)question. "Why do employees need to work 60 hours? How is this compensated? How are employees evaluated?"

To my way of thinking, those are legitimate questions and should be part of a series of questions candidates must ask anyway. (I may have said in a previous post that I wrote a book, "Ask the right questions; Get the right job," which I intend to give away on my website soon - When you ask questions, you create a conversation, you appear engaging and interested, and you assume a posture that says, "I'm interviewing you, too." For my money, anyone looking for a job needs to vet the company that he is visiting, as much as they are vetting you.

Anyway, I know many of you have had many interviews. And, I know that some of you (are you listening, Nancy) are professionals when it comes to head hunting and interviewing. So, please take a moment and weigh in on this. Help me give the right advice to my friend. How should he respond to a hostile interviewer?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Welcome to the New Frontier.

What is the New Frontier? "Intercultural Communication." Why? Think about it. Advances in technology, advances in telecommunication, migration of populations (diaspora), off-shore and on-shore work relationships, self-directed and culturally-mixed work teams, and flattened organizations have brought a new workplace...and a need to communicate better. That has created a New Frontier.

I don't know about you but over the last few week I tried to communicate with rooms full of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Taiwanese, a couple of Russians, a handful of Japanese and some Turks - with an American or two thrown into the mix. In the process I understood what Edward T. Hall said: "Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants."

In my classrooms all of us politely interacted on a surface level, human being to human being, while our thoughts, emotions, actions and feelings were being influenced by the cultures we had grown up in. And, those influences were mostly invisible.

How will we ever communicate if we don't know each other more deeply, more visibly? We won't. We first must understand as much about the "other" as we can. But, we Americans typically don't do this. We expect everyone from India to get excited about Christmas and Easter and Hanukkah, but we know little, if anything, about Diwali, unless we have befriended an Indian or have been fortunate enough to have traveled to the subcontinent (a wake-up call and wonderful experience, believe me).

The New Frontier will require that we learn many details about the "other." It will take effort and desire. For years we've been bumping up against the differences between "Individualistic" and "Collectivistic" cultures. Even if we're not thinking about it, many of us are daily confronting our American "Idiocentrism" and weighing it against the many people who live an "Allocentric" life. We will need to learn about "High Context" and "Low Context" cultures, examine our values and the values of others, paying particular attention to the ways we define our selves, the ways we value (or de-value) age, family, human nature, activity, and power.

As I said in the first paragraph, technology, telecommunication and diaspora, along with globalization, are dumping us in the same boat. If we are to row in one direction, we will need to communicate well. We won't do that unless we understand each other's cultures better. If you want to know how Muslims think, learn about Muhammad; read the Qur'an. If you want to know what motivates Afghans, study the history and culture of Afghanistan. Don't like the Taliban? What do you know about them? Does Pakistan frightened you? Intercultural communication - it's the New Frontier.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pass it on!

Ordinarily I don't write about politics. But, my good friend, Sofyan Yusufi, a former student from Pakistan and bright young father who works in DC for Deloitte, asked me to.

Sofyan pointed me in the direction of a Washington Post article written by Dr. Nasim Ashraf, executive director of the Center for Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute, and former minister in the Musharraf administration in Pakistan. You can access the article here:

Essentially in his article Dr. Ashraf says:

1. The U.S. must adopt a clear strategy in Afghanistan.
2. The U.S. military can not remain engaged in Afghanistan perpetually.
3. A stable Afghanistan means a stable Pakistan.
4. Regional Muslim countries must contribute to the peacekeeping efforts.
5. Ethnic groups within Afghanistan must 'own up to the fight' and be part of the government's local security infrastructure.

I don't know the intricacies of the argument but find Dr. Ashraf's points incontestable. We must have a clear strategy or risk a Russian experience (or a Viet Nam one) in Afghanistan. We can't stay in the country forever. We don't have the means, the will, or the defined purpose. We need to help neighboring Pakistan, a country struggling to a democratic way of life (imagine our problems in Pennsylvania if trouble was brewing in neighboring Ohio). We will never have peace without a deep understanding of (and, therefore, ability to communicate with) Muslims, the only group who can truly help us understand the problems in that part of the world. And, Afghanistan, and its microcultures, must want to solve these problems.

Dr Asraf knows the Middle East. He knows the US. He knows how the two can collaborate to begin to resolve the issues facing Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need to listen to him. Pass it on!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Check out my new website!

I gave myself a birthday present this weekend, a new website!

Of course, I had the help of two very able people, Ellen Park, a former student and designer who recently returned to her home in South Korea, and Bob Taylor, a talented young man who works at Heinz College. The photos were taken by Ken Andreyo, a CMU photographer, and Andy Wasser of CMU made that possible.

So, what will I do with my new website? I was hoping you could tell me! I will be doing one thing for sure - placing some of my writing on the site. I have written several novels, a memoir, a book of short stories, and at least two books about job hunting and using marketing techniques to find a job.

I will be giving my books away! They been sitting in Word documents for too long and I'm not interested in fame or fortune. I hope that I can entertain someone or help another person become more successful at finding a job. And, hey, now I can say I'm published. I'll use that for my next CMU faculty re-appointment proposal.

In any event, this website and this blog and my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts have taught me a great lesson over the last few years. I have learned that everything I knew about marketing promotion could change right underneath my feet. Nearly all the techniques I learned in the practice of marketing and PR over a 25 year career have given way to this new form, empowered by this machine I now type on. I certainly can't say that I have mastered it...yet. But, it has challenged me at very turn and I have enjoyed the challenge and been thankful for it.

Imagine a work life where everything stays the same! I can't. I didn't imagine this computer driven life and have certainly been slower than most to adopt it but here I am; I have my own website! I hope you like it and connect your friends to it, if only to read the free books to be published thereon. And, I will appreciate any suggestions you have to improve the site! Thank you!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Try Writing Chinese!

The next time you struggle to write something, think about our friends from Asia who are trying to write in this perplexing English language of ours.

Of all of my students, my Asian students, as a group, have the worst time with English writing. And, how would they not? For instance, according to “Language Construction and Grammar Differences between English and Chinese” by Larry Romanoff:

-The Chinese language has no articles.

-The word 'no' does not exist in Chinese.

-Chinese has no singular and plural. Since there are no singular and plural, subject-verb agreement doesn't exist.

-Chinese does not distinguish between countable and non-countable nouns; one money, one homework, one child.

-Chinese has no gender forms, other than words for 'he, she, it' - which have the same pronunciation. In Chinese 'I' and 'me' are the same, as are 'he' and 'him', 'she' and 'her'.

-Chinese verbs do not express time, but simply action, so Chinese has no verb tenses. Chinese verbs are one word and express a simple action. This is not a small thing. In English, the verbs carry so much of the meaning that we could often toss the rest of the sentence without loss. 'I would have had to have gone to Beijing had I wanted to do what you have suggested.' is a complete sentence in English constructed (almost) entirely with verbs; to the Chinese, it's jibberish.

-Our need for the verb 'to be' is a non-existent concept - 'I am going'; Chinese says, 'I go', or ‘I will happy’, or ‘We will always together’.

-Chinese does not have hundreds of words that function as different parts of speech with minor variations in spelling, like 'hesitate, hesitant, hesitation ...'. 'Don't be hesitated ...' makes perfect sense in Chinese.

-Chinese has no negative questions. Never say to a Chinese friend 'You aren't going to the party, are you?' If he’s not going, he will answer, “Yes”.

Imagine trying to understand and write a language where articles are as important (and as confusing to use) as they are in English if your language has no use for them. Imagine writing in a language that that has verb tenses, if your language doesn't use them!

All of this makes Chinese a much simpler language than ours and underscores the complexities of English. However, it doesn't make the adaptation any easier for the my Asian students. Therefore, every time I sit to grade a paper of one of my Chinese students (or Japanese, or Korean, or other Asian), I think of how I might fare if I were sitting in a classroom in Beijing trying to communicate in Mandarin (or sitting in Mumbai, or Seoul, or even Milan trying to communicate). For any critic of the Asians and their attempts to communicate, I say, "Try writing Chinese!"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Watch what you say!

In my writing classes I engage my students in discussions about the inherent discrimination in the English language. You certainly know that we discriminate against people of color with our terms: "blackball", "blackguard", "blackmail and "blacklist" (among many others). This, of course, is opposed to a "white lie" and a "white knight" and so on. Perhaps at lunches today you ordered (the good and white) "Angels Food Cake" instead of (the bad and black) "Devil's Food Cake"! Hey, we're afraid of the dark so why not be afraid of dark skinned-people?

You may also know that we are prejudiced against left-handers: "sinister" meaning "left-handed" in Latin and "adroit" meaning "right" in French. (I always told mom that my left-handed sister Dianne was sinister!) We say someone is "in the right" but others are "out in left field."

Then we have "bachelor" and "spinster" (with its nasty connotation) and "master" and "mistress' serving to prejudice our feelings about gender. Only in 1979 did we stop naming hurricanes after women. And, then there's historical sexist language, as in: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," according to Neal Armstrong upon stepping on the moon.

When we "gyp" someone, of course, we are expressing a prejudice against Gypsies (and probably never even met one)! And it goes on and on, in the most subtle forms.

The bottom line is: we will never be free of prejudice until we stop using language that inherently contains prejudices of which we are unaware! I teach this to a few hundred students every year. But, the message needs to go to a larger audience, not as some PC fad but as a necessary change in the way we use words. Agree?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Avoid acronyms!

This week the president of Carnegie Mellon University sent a most incredible e-mail. The subject line read: "Message from the President Regarding New Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance (BARF)". Seriously!

In the text of the BARF message President Cohon said: "Please see the announcement below about a new committee that I have created to provide advice and guidance on the regulatory burden we are facing. I consider this to be a significant undertaking and of great importance to the future of Carnegie Mellon."

President Cohon then listed the names of at least 20 BARF people to serve on the BARF Committee, most of them senior staff members (BARFers) at CMU (the pure number of people creating a problem of its own).

Did the president not realize the meanings of his acronym, "BARF"? Did he choose the BARF name on purpose, thinking it would stick or that the members would feel like part of something special, a BARF group? How do the BARF members feel about being on the BARF Committee? And, what kind of BARF work will they do? Chugging contests? Did President Cohon choose the BARF acronym because he thought it fit a college (fraternity) culture? Or, was it simply a (very) dumb mistake?

Obviously the BARF acronym will create some commentary, such as this. It has already begun to spread virally around campus. But, the BARF name won't work; no one will automatically know that it means "Board on Administration, Regulation and Finance." Acronyms seldom work, despite their widespread use. Most people have no idea what FEMA means or the OMB, DOD, TARP, AFMLS, BLS, CCR, CDP, DOS, FHFA, and all the rest. (Go to this site if you want to see the hundreds of US government acronyms:

Acronyms only work when they are created by the people who use the product or service. Customers created FedEx, not Federal Express, who acquiesced to its use after the fact. The Los Angeles Police Department was named LAPD by the people of Los Angeles, probably after the people of New York named the NYPD. And, speaking of Los Angeles, we easily call it "LA" but no one calls New York "NY". And, you don't find New York City promoting itself as "NY" or "NYC".

What can you learn from all this talk about BARF? If you feel tempted to create an acronym for your product, service or committee, resist the urge. No one will know what you're talking about. You may just end up with BARF all over the message (and the group).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Show some gratitude!

Seems not everyone is thrilled with the new Gates and Hillman Centers on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, even some of the people who may work there. Randal Bryant, Dean of the School of Computer Science, was so concerned with what he termed “a litany of complaints or a lack of enthusiasm about the new facilities” that he wrote an e-mail to “scs-all” on August 24, 2009 (that means he sent an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff of computer science).

In his message Dean Bryant said, “I feel obligated, therefore, to give you a review of some basic etiquette. You know that it’s not in my nature to make statements like this. Things have to get pretty serious for me to send e-mail to scs-all on this subject.”

How serious are things? How bad is geek etiquette? Dean Bryant said, “I am getting a lot of reports from people who are dismayed (and I am asking) you to be kinder to the people who have been working like crazy to get things ready, and to the people to whom we owe these amazing buildings.”

Dean Bryant then listed his etiquette tips. They included:

•If the president of the university asks you “How do you like your new office?” don’t complain about the elevator or AC not working, or that the wrong furniture was put in your office. (Yes, some people really did that.) Don’t say something ambiguous like “It’s not too shabby.” Remember that our administration made a big stretch financing this project to the tune of $98 MILLION DOLLARS. It has involved considerable effort in fundraising, and the university took on a lot of debt that will take 30 years to pay off. We’ve also moved into what I think is the the most amazing academic building in the world. Instead of complaining to someone who really is in no position to fix an elevator, try saying 'Thank you. I really love this place.'

•When you feel inconvienced (sic) by the work that hasn’t been completed, or you can’t find something, don’t get into a tirade with Jim Skees, Guy Blelloch, or the construction people. They have literally been working around the clock to get things ready. Try saying 'Thanks for your hard work.'"

Dean Bryant said that he advised the above “because in the next several months we’ll have a lot of people passing through. People like Bill Gates, Henry Hillman, Rick Rashid, an (sic) many alumni and visitors. These people have also made a big contribution to the welfare of SCS. Expressions of gratitude on your part are important.”

The message raised a few eyebrows and a few hackles. One person from SCS told us, anonymously: “I believe in gratitude but not enforcing it. I’m not paranoid but memos like this make me so (or I’d let you quote me). I felt it was a form of censorship and as an institution of higher learning we can’t allow that. It was also condescending. Funny, many of us who received the message will not even move there."

Other students, faculty and staff we interviewed had these comments:

“I was offended.”
“It was like asking someone for a gift.”
“I was insulted. It was tactless and sarcastic.”
“I question the word choice. I felt it was appropriate but used the wrong tone.”

It is hard to read these words, “Try saying “’Thank you, I really love this place’” without the sense that you are being sarcastically scolded by your mom.

When asked about the message, Dean Bryant said: “My purpose was to stop people from being petty. We have had people working around the clock to get this building open. The workers had sent warning messages and had told us that moving could be awkward. I had no intention of abridging academic freedom. I am not a controlling person. There have to be quite a few people talking to me about the complaints for me to act. And, this is not a case of everyone in the building not liking it. But imagine walking up to Bill Gates and saying, ‘The wrong furniture was put in my office.’”

Dean Bryant said that he spent a lot of time writing the message and that it wasn’t aimed at students. He also said he has received many thank you’s (over 50) for writing the message and few complaints (2). But he admitted that it might have sounded sarcastic. In fact, he said, “If I could re-write it, I would.”

In any event, the message was widely distributed and has pointed to the weaknesses of e-mail. It carries facts well, but not emotions. It lacks context cues: facial expression, tone of voice, body language. And, more importantly, it quickly becomes a matter of public record, meant to exist for an eternity to make you very proud or very embarrassed.

So, hey, the next time you want to write an e-mail, show some restraint! Or, consider the other messages or media you could use to accomplish the same purpose.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Go to church. Build your vocabularly!

My family and I attend the Pittsburgh Latin Mass at St. Boniface Church on the city's North Side. We attend for its beauty, solemnity and ritual. As a bonus, we get to increase our vocabulary.

Our mass begins with the "Asperges" when the priest literally washes us by sprinkling holy water among the congregation. From the altar, the priest then intones, "Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto." It doesn't take much to understand the language as "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost." This simple understanding tells us that an English word like "patricide" has something to do with "father."

After another intonation and response, the priest says, "Domine sancte , Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus...." We know he is saying, "Holy Lord, Almighty Father, everlasting God...." "Eternal" from the English and the Latin "aeterne" look nearly exact. And something "sanctified" is certainly something holy!

I'm not prostheltyzing here. You don't need to go to a Roman Catholic Church or a Latin Mass to build your vocabulary: pastors, priests, rabbis, gurus - they're all using language that informs English, whether it comes from Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Hindi, Arabic or another language. The English language has borrowed from all of them, and more! You only need to listen to hear it.

The Latin Mass, of course, is filled with such language, because English borrows so deeply from Latin. For instance, the priest confesses his sins and the altar boys say, "Misereatur tui omniopotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tui, perducat te ad vitam aeternam." "Omnipotens" means almighty. "Misereatur" relates to mercy. And, "peccatis" has to do with sin, as in an English "peccadillo" (think Bill Clinton). After we all have confessed our sins, the priest says, "Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem, peccatorum, nostrorum tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus" or "May almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting."

We then glorify God by saying "Gloria in Excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" or "Glory to God on high and on earth peace to men of good will." Think of the Latin "pax" and the English "pacify" and go from there! If you match the remaining words, you'll easily follow the meaning and see that you know Latin!

So, the next time you go to your church, temple, synagogue, or sanctuary, listen actively to the language. Hear the words. In the process you'll build your vocabulary - and you'll be filled with spirit and generosity, as a bonus!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"You lie!"

By now, everyone has read or heard about President Obama's speech to Congress last night, particularly the moment when Representative Joe Wilson's heckled the president with this unkind remark, "You lie!"

Joe was referring to the President's promise that the proposed healthcare plan will not insure illegal immigrants. We can assume that Joe has no love for anyone who crosses our borders to work without having been properly processed by INS.

Moreover, I'm guessing that Joe, congressman from South Carolina, must have read my blog on the power and effectiveness of two word sentences. No doubt, he expressed himself quite clearly in two words, one of them ugly.

Now, Joe, whom just about nobody knew (they were too busy following the sexual exploits of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford), has moved into the international spotlight. Just two words did it for him (that and a forum being watched intensely by media from all over the world)!

Joe has apologized, of course, telling the president that his emotions got the better of him; but, he has added his message to those ignominious few that will go down in history: Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman," Joseph McCarthy's "I have here in my hand...," and Henry Kissinger's "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administrations in which I served (regarding Viet Nam)."

What can we learn from Joe Wilson? Among other things, choose your words carefully. One word, two words, it doesn't matter - words have power. You can harm someone (or yourself) irreparably with one word (remember when David Howard lost his job in DC for using the word "niggardly").

Use the appropriate medium. If you're a little crazy and want to get the world's attention, find a way to crash a joint session of Congress and shout (wear or throw) your message at the audience. If you want to criticize the president and be seen as a rational and normal individual, don't shout while the president is talking, and certainly don't call him a liar. Send him a memo. Give him a call. Hell, text him; he still insists on carrying his Blackberry.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What is this?

This weekend my wife, Holly, and I and our sons, Nicholas and Alexander, visited the home of our friends, Dennis and Margaret Moran. They own Dennis Moran Design and work from their beautiful home near Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania (in Washington County near Pittsburgh).

We actually got together to exchange Christmas presents from last Christmas! Better late than never! During our visit yesterday, Dennis gave my sons rides on his tractor (and let them drive his riding mower). This excited them greatly. And, when we went back inside their home, Dennis gave my sons a tour of his design studio (Dennis is one of the premier graphic designers in America and a very talented photographer).

During the tour of his studio, my sons were fascinated by Dennis's photos (the ones he had just taken of them on the mower) and an old sword and sheath that Dennis's uncle gave him. And, they were impressed by all of the antique cameras in Dennis's collection (antique meaning they were 10-20 year old film cameras). At one point, though, Alex called to Dennis from another room and asked, "What is this?"

When Dennis walked into the room, he saw that Alex was pointing to a typewriter, a very "Old School" communication device. It gave Dennis and me a good laugh! For my sons, a world without a computer and cell phones seems impossible. Communication without them also seems impossible. And, yet, long ago (in the 1980's) people communicated pretty well with each other using typewriters.

As the means of communication change, we need to understand the basics of communication, as well as the nuances of new media. Typewriters did their jobs well and so do computers. But, ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING to the audience whether it shows up in an e-mail message, a blog post, or a typewritten memo. You may not intend shouting, but your audience will read it that way. So, Old School or New School, you will never communicate very effectively if you don't understand and accommodate the needs of the audience.

Dennis and I learned from eight year old Alex something we have all learned: communication tools change. But, again, we need to remind ourselves that the principles of communication remain the same forever, especially this most important fundamental: you must live in the land of the audience, regardless of the device you use to communicate. This rule will last longer than a typewriter or a computer, just like our friendships with the Morans.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Make It Look Like Wet Paint"

I asked my students to read a McKinsey Report article that featured an interview with Chip Heath, co-author of a great book, "Made to Stick." They also read a Harvard Business Review article about Heath entitled, "The Curse of Knowledge," where he talked about our assumptions that our audiences know what we know.

In the class discussion we talked about Chip's advice to use Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional language in the form of Story to make messages stick and not to assume that audiences will know what we're saying simply because we said it. During the discussion, one of my graduate students, Laura Miller, told the class this story:

"I work at 21st Street Coffee and Tea. Our milk comes from the local Brunton Dairy. Ed Brunton delivers the milk every week in glass bottles and picks up our 'empties'.

We steam the milk for our coffee. Steaming milk at 21st Street Coffee and Tea is done differently than just about every other coffee shop in town. We do not re-steam milk. The milk we steam will be used for only one drink for one person; in other words, we do not steam large quantities and let the milk sit. We steam milk to be between 140 and 150 degrees; this way the milk tastes sweet and good for every drink, rather than waxy or burned if the milk reaches a higher temperature.

Lucas and Alexis Shaffer own 21st Street Coffee and Tea and work as baristas side by side their employees. I worked at 21st Street Coffee and Tea for four weeks before they began to train me to steam milk. They waited four weeks to train me so that before I steamed milk I would already have an idea of the rhythm of the coffee shop. I knew what a good drink tasted like, what steaming milk right sounded like, and I knew what a good drink looked like when finished.

Steaming milk the right way is difficult to learn. The balance of air, milk, and heat must be just so in order to create a uniform micro-foam which is the signature of a perfect latte. Rather than have me worry about all of the small details I needed to know in order to steam milk (precise temperature, micro-foam size, texture, etc), Luke said, 'Don't worry about all of the details. Just make it look like wet paint. Pretend like you are going to paint with it.' When talking about milk temperature he said, 'Put your hand on the side of the container. When the container is hot enough to be uncomfortable but not burn you, it is done. That is a latte temperature.'

So when I make lattes at 21st Street Coffee and Tea, rather than thinking I am making a latte, I first picture myself making wet paint. It works every time."

And, that, my friends, is language working at its best! It uses a simple, concrete, unexpected image to communicate to an uninformed person a concept that the expert clearly knows. The result? A great tasting latte - with the texture of wet paint!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What would you do?

I met Chad Varga a few months ago. A handsome, enthusiastic, 6 foot 7 inch young man, he starred in basketball at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 90's, had a tryout with the Dallas Mavericks, broke his hand, and went to Europe to play professionally.

At 25, at the height of his talent and physical development, Chad walked away from the sport he loved. He walked away from the fame, adulation and money (he had a large six-figure income on the boards, complete with incentives) to pursue another calling - to helps kids in trouble.

Why did Chad Varga walk away from fame and fortune (and a shot at coming back to the NBA) to help kids? He did it because of his own screwed-up childhood. When we say "screwed-up", it's an understatement. Chad's childhood was tragic, affected by drugs and alcohol addiction, not his addiction but his mother's.

What is screwed-up? Try this: Chad moved 17 times in his first 18 years. Chad's mother came in and out of his life every few years without announcement. Once, when she did visit, she stabbed him in the hand with a butcher knife because she thought he had poured her alcohol down the drain. When he was just a toddler, she took him and his sister Wendy to crack houses to get a fix and some sexual pleasure. When his mother was at home and partying, she locked the kids in a closet. At one point in her life, she ran drugs from South America and, as a result, Chad had a chance to visit her in federal prison.

You'd think that a guy who had Chad's childhood would either become a criminal or an addict himself. You'd think that if he ever made anything of his life, which he and everyone else probably doubted, he'd take the money and run. But, he didn't. In fact, he ran from the money, taking his family with him. Imagine being his wife, son and daughter when he said to them, "Let's leave this beautiful home on the Mediterranean Sea, leave the nice clothes and cars, leave the greatest comforts money can buy and go back to America so that I can start a non-profit to help kids who have lives like I had."

Well, it turns out that he had a beautiful and understanding wife and two great kids who stood behind him 100% in his decision as they returned to America to begin a non-profit organization called "Inspire Now", dedicated to taking a message to teenagers that they have greatness within them, that they can succeed, that they can transform their lives, that they are not alone.

Chad has spoken to over 1.5 million kids in the last eight years, more than any other motivational speaker. He goes anywhere he is called to speak with any number in an audience from 4 to 52,000. He seldom touches a basketball. Instead, at 34 he struggles to keep in shape and keep the weight accumulated from the airlines and speaking circuit away from his middle. But, he still has the deep, reverberating passion of a man who knows he made the right decision, especially when he recites the statistics on how many kids write suicide plans every year, how many kids carry guns to school, how many girls are raped or become pregnant. At those time you see in his eyes that he knows he made the right decision to walk away from basketball.

Few of us ever have to make a decision like that. But I wonder? What would you do?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do you have a partner?

I taught Professional Writing to a class of working people Tuesday evening in the Masters of Public Management program at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. The class began at 530pm and lasted with no breaks until 800pm. It made for a long day, especially because I began teaching at 900am that morning.

I gave my introductory lecture and used my best jokes with the audience of 17 students, most of whom, like me, had been working all day at hospitals, insurance companies and other businesses around Pittsburgh. The students in this class, as befitting the CMU profile, consisted of people from Japan, China, Turkey and, of course, America.

Near the middle of the class as part of a lengthy discussion of communication, I asked the students to find a partner, one to be the sender of a message, the other to be the receiver. I was going to ask them to replicate a study done at Stanford University whereas the sender, using a pen or pencil, taps the melody of a song to the receiver who must identify the song solely by the tapping.

The experiment works beautifully to demonstrate several issues about communication. For one thing, when nine or ten people start tapping on their desks, they create a lot of NOISE and distraction, typical of any communication environment. Usually in my classes the students are from varying countries and they don't know the same songs. And, always the students demonstrate the problem known as "The curse of knowledge," that is, the problem that occurs when senders of messages who know their messages too well try to communicate with audiences who may know little to nothing.

In the Stanford study 50% of the senders thought they could successfully tap the song to the receivers, but only 2.5% succeeded, proving that most of us are, indeed, cursed by our own knowledge. We send messages and assume that the audiences have the same knowledge, interest and enthusiasm that we have. The curse is so strong that when the students tap the songs they can hear them in their heads and don't understand why the receivers can't hear them as well. Typically, in my classes the success factor mirrors the Stanford success rate, about 2%.

So, as I was beginning the exercise, one that the students always find enjoyable, I said, "Everyone get a partner." After saying this, I noticed that a few students were not moving. So, I addressed them directly and said, "Please get a partner." A few of them looked at me with blank expressions. Finally, as a result of the late hour, I suppose, I became a little irritated and looked at one man from Turkey and in a little louder voice said, "Get a partner. Now" He didn't move.

Frustrated, I asked, a little too harshly, "Do you have a partner?" He looked at me and said quietly and humbly, "Yes, my wife."

I was shocked and embarrassed and immediately understood that I had suffered the curse of knowledge. I assumed he defined the word "partner" in the same way I did. And, I learned a valuable lesson from the exchange. We can not assume that even the simple word "partner" in the context of a classroom means the same to everyone. When I told him to get a partner, he must have been tremendously confused. "How do I get my wife here from Turkey?" he may have wondered. He was confused, I was irritated, the class was watching - the situation could have escalated...over a single word.

We had trouble communicating and I imagined what must happen on an international stage as countries and their diplomats struggle to understand each other and struggle to maintain peace among each other trying to use language as their medium. I learned a valuable lesson, one that I won't soon forget. Don't assume that any word or symbol has the same meaning to everyone and be patient. If you don't, you won't have a partner!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You only need two words.

When we were in school, our teachers made us write 100-word essays. Or, we applied for scholarships that asked for 500-word essays. This unfortunate practice has led many of us to search the dictionary for long words so as to create long sentences and even longer paragraphs. Ultimately this gives rise to the kind of business writing we see, filled with jargon, buzz words and incomprehensible gobbledygook. We think that if we use long words in long sentences we'll appear smarter.

Our teachers should have told us that we only need two words to write a great sentence. I use as proof that wondrous sentence from the King James Bible (John 11:35), "Jesus wept." You will recall, if you've ever read about Lazarus, that he and his sisters were greatly loved by Christ. But, Lazarus died. Jesus learned of the death from Mary, Lazarus's sister, who approached him crying. When Jesus saw this, the Bible tell us, "Jesus wept." How profound is that! Two words! "Jesus wept."

A simple two word sentence conjured a full image of the entire scene, and the great compassion of Christ, for each of us. No further description was required. Two words covered it. Great writing does that: it creates full color images for the reader in simple, concise language. The writer engages the reader and the message is clearly heard and received.

I hereby offer some other two word sentences (granted, not as profound as the last example) that prove that you only need two words to make an impact:

1.) I quit.
2.) Mom died.
3.) We won!
4.) That rocks!
5.) Girls rule.
6.) I do.

Now, those were declarative sentences and you may be thinking of some imperative sentences with two words such as:

1.) Get lost.

But, those two word sentences don't count. They don't count because they're really three word sentences. They have an understood subject - you. So, "Get lost" is really "You get lost" - three words.

Three word sentences can be powerful, too, and we will explore that in the next post. But, for now, I ask you to suggest some two words sentences that make a strong statement and require no further elaboration. Remember: you only need two words!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't write if you have nothing to say.

A few friends have asked why I haven't posted for a while. Simply, I have had nothing interesting or useful to say.

I have done interesting things: I taught writing to 13 graduate students from Mexico (who challenged my notions of communication); I taught "Writing Better RFPs" to employees from one of the most successful technology solutions companies in the world (they, too, provided interesting communication challenges). I taught some of the most engaging adults in Pittsburgh in a Heinz School program called Master of Public Management for students who work all day and go to class at night(and demand value for their time and money). But, I haven't had anything of instructive value to add in a blog to you.

So, why waste your time and de-value this blog? With the estimated 1000 blog posts per minute, you have much to keep you busy (and much to ignore). Besides, I have spent the last three months reflecting on the heart surgery of a nine-year old boy, a little boy who has amazed me with his courage and fortitude. This boy, my son Nicholas, who had open heart surgery on May 21st, was predicted to be in the hospital in Boston for four or five weeks (and in intensive care for one week) but spent only two days in intensive care and only one week in the hospital. He has now been to the beach boogey-boarding and he has been to the park riding his bike. These actions (and the nine-inch scar down the middle of his chest) have spoken more than any words in a blog could ever say. Indeed, his courage and the magnitude of his experience make the word "blog" pale.

But, that said, I will share this one comment on communication: When asked about his surgery, without any false bravado, Nickie said, "Oh, they put you to sleep, cut you open, do their surgery and then you wake up wanting the tubes out of your mouth." I thank the spirit in him every day for his attitude and resilience.

I guess I'm saying that words can be powerful tools but they can't substitute for the subtlety, nuance, and sublimity of an experience like Nickie's. Words can be powerful or they can be powerfully useless. With that I suggest to anyone blogging that he or she not write unless they have something to say. Write not to write but to serve some purpose (especially as defined by their insights into, or reflections from, their readers). Or, don't write.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What messages are you sending?

First, I apologize for the lack of posts over the past few weeks. I experienced something so profound, with the surgery of my son, that anything else seemed insignificant. But, now I'm back in the groove. I feel a renewed passion about communication, and I want to share a story.

For the past few years I taught in a summer program, the PPIA Fellowship Program, also known at Carnegie Mellon University as the "PPIA Junior Summer Institute at Carnegie Mellon." The acronym PPIA stands for Public Policy and International Affairs.

In any event, students from around the USA in their junior year of college who are interested in public policy and international affairs are recruited to attend PPIA on a number of different campuses, CMU included. The students tend to come from very diverse socio-economic backgrounds and circumstances. For example, one of my students had been living in a car because he had been awarded a protection from abuse against his parents. He was passionate about public policy, as are most of the PPIA students, the majority of whom reflect a minority background.

The courses CMU offers include Policy Analysis, Economics, Quantitative Methods and Professional Communications. My CMU colleague Chris Labash and I taught the Professional Communications to the 30 students who comprised the summer class. He taught the Professional Speaking and I the Professional Writing.

So, last summer I'm standing in class talking about communication - sender, receiver, message, medium, noise and so forth - acting every bit the professor and expert at communication. I'm stressing the need to understand the audience and I'm using business examples and a student in the back row raises her hand and says, "You don't understand us at all."

As you might imagine, that remark caught me completely off guard. I stammered some inarticulate response and completely lost my concentration and flow, struggling through the rest of my presentation wondering how I misjudged the audience and how I might ever get them and my credibility back.

Well, at a moment like that one learns the value of feedback, so I asked the student to stay after class and tell me what she meant.

"How could you understand us." she said (it was not a question). "You are older than us, you wear the Polo clothes, you probably live in the suburbs. You talk to us about communicating and you use examples from your consulting and your business; we don't know anything about all of that. We want to hear about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama and people we admire."

I knew instantly that she was right about the content of the lectures. I had taken my regular Professional Writing course and tried to teach it to these underclassmen (women). And, I had been called on it. But, the other part really puzzled me and I tried to explain to her why.

"I grew up in a small town in a lower middle class family whose father was often laid off and usually ugly drunk," I said to her. "We ate surplus cheese and drank surplus milk when we lived on welfare. I have felt shame and deprivation and I know exactly where you are coming from because I have lived it. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I had to face the jealousies and questions about whether or not I would think I was better than everyone else. They actually asked me if I would still talk to them. So, I think I can understand and communicate with anyone who is marginalized."

"That may be," she said, "But you don't send that message when you're standing in front of the class. You don't seem like us at all."

"I understand what you mean about the content," I said, "and I will adjust the content according." And I did. I used the Obama/McCain messages, I used King's "Message from Birmingham Jail," I used Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

But, I was too far gone to change the subtle messages I was sending, messages about my education, my socio-economic status, my business background. However, I came face-to-face with something I should have understood - we give messages even when we don't know it. What we wear, as much as the vocabulary we use, sends a strong message. Often those messages conflict with the messages we want to send. If we want to relate, or fit in, as we always do, we need to think about everything that creates our message because we are always sending messages, consciously or not!