Read a Speech Rather Than Memorize? Sure. Just Do It Well.

Imagine the anxiety of having one foot on one train going east and the other foot on a train going west. That’s what many executives go through when they have to give a speech or make a presentation. They are conflicted between giving it without notes (the eastbound) and needing a written text (the westbound).

I have just encountered this anxiety with two different clients. The best advice I gave them was to stop worrying and just read the speech. But do it well.

Why is this good advice? Because it deals with their reality, unlike much of the standard advice on making presentations. Their reality is that they do not have the time to absorb 20 minutes of presentation that must be fairly precise. Their reality demands precision because, as in both client’s situations, what they were going to say had to be approved by lawyers and others, and what they said had to – for compliance and legal reasons – be exactly what was approved.

Another reason my advice worked for them: business audiences are accustomed to people reading speeches. That’s not an issue. Reading one badly is. Speaking without notes can be problematic. Some people who speak without notes do it brilliantly and the communication is powerful. Many people who speak without notes are good, but the communications is not always great – the point is lost. And some people who speak without notes are atrocious and the communication that results is very negative for the speaker. (If you have the time and the ability to answer the questions below and speak without notes, do it.)

I can tell you that in both client cases I mentioned at the start, resolving the old “memorize versus read” conflict helped them.

So, how to read a speech well?

Since content drives good performance and good performance helps the audience listen to and accept the content, I always start with a few questions that impact content.

1)      Who is the audience? What do they care about? What do they want to hear from you? What will keep their interest? Defensively, what will let their brains leave the room? (Or worse, let them focus solely on you and your performance and ignore the content?) Do you know someone in the audience who is representative of their needs? Do you care about them?

2)      What’s the purpose of the presentation? Is it to inspire trust? Transfer data? Fill a spot on the agenda? Entertain? Get exposure for your brand?

3)      Now, what structure is appropriate for the need and the purpose? There are many structures – the Churchillian structure is one. It uses one dominant argument/point/theme and has everything else support that dominant point. The Rule of Three structure that I like best starts with a problem statement – one that gets the audience to nod in agreement that it relates to them -  followed by a generic solution that should elicit another nod of agreement, and beg the question in their minds: “Where do I get it?” The third piece is the branded solution that delivers on that question and is the speaker’s payoff.

If the speaker has had input into the presentation through the above questions, then their familiarity with the purpose and content of the speech should be high, even if someone else has written the speech for them. (This exercize also helps the speechwriter. Otherwise, they do what research they can, guess the rest and write a draft.)

The speaker should never review drafts of speeches silently. They can’t get a feel for the language, the pacing, and the degree of reading difficulty without reading it out loud. By reading aloud, they not only make the changes to the content they want but they start the performance practice part of reading a speech well.

If the speaker knows why they are talking and to whom, and has an expected outcome, the communication is almost always superior. The bonus is that the text tends to stick in the memory bank as well. This results in an easy transition from a need to read every word to the eyes-up technique of “scoop and dump”.

When the speaker has a familiarity with the text and the purpose behind it, there is less need to be tied to reading. Because the brain is familiar with the text, the speaker can look down and scan a short piece of text – the scoop – lift their eyes to the audience and deliver the exact words to them – the dump. It takes practice, but becomes progressively easier as one does so. Finally, the audience almost perceives it as a “no notes” performance because the speaker’s eyes are up and on them so much.

Another way to make the scoop and dump technique easier is to mark up the text. This means putting visual cues into the text in order to reduce thinking (the main source of disfluencies or screw-ups). I have/ marked-up/this sentence/ to show you where my/ out-loud /reading breaks and emphasis/naturally go.  Read it aloud with the breaks and punch the underlined words. Now take out the marks and read the sentence aloud. Which has more impact? Which is easier to read with eyes up?

A speech structured for the eye will sound like it. A speech structured for the mouth should look like it.

Other techniques to help read a speech well. Use large type on the page, well spaced and use only the top portion of the page. This helps the reader keep their head up and assists with scooping and dumping.

Do not grab the lectern. Some people think holding on eases their tension. I learned from the engineers long ago that if you stress a rigid frame –and the speaker’s skeleton is a rigid frame – by squeezing your hands together or squeezing the sides of the lectern, it only makes it quiver/shake more. There should be space between the speaker and the lectern. The hands should be together about mid torso or resting gently on the edge of the lectern. A great way to relieve stress and increase the power of the voice is to let the hands find their natural expression throughout the speech.

And, finally, speak to the audience individually with short, one or two second eye contact. Talk to them, rather than at or over them.

So, if circumstances call for reading a speech or presentation, just do it. But do it well.

Improvising Answers in Business

December 19, 2007

Many business people ask how they can better improvise their responses to difficult questions in meetings. I had a similar question about difficult suggestions from the audience, after watching Tom McGee compete with his Improv troupe in the Canadian Improv Games.

In Improv, a group of people are put on the spot when they take seemingly random suggestions from an audience. Without any more than a minute or two of huddling together to confer, they are able to turn those suggestions into a coherent, funny sketch on stage.

So, I asked Tom how they do it. His answer?

“Structure. It’s all about structure.”

What? Improv is not spontaneous and unrehearsed? “No,” he said. “We use set structures of story, character, status and so on as our prepared structures and incorporate what the audience offers into those structures.”  The process still demands creativity, but that creativity is supported by prepared structures.

Structure gives the improvisers control of the situation. With it, the audience’s suggestions become part of a controlled performance. Without it, those same suggestions become large threats.

This is also the key for business people. They need to remember that they use structures to communicate every day. When the stress is less, it is easier to reach for those structures.  They come into use in responding to questions; they provide control and bring comfort.

Business people, in situations that are stressful, are often frozen by difficult questions. It’s the “deer in the headlights” effect. We should expect improvisers to suffer the same fate on stage. But the good ones don’t, because they reach for their known structures and use them to control whatever challenge the audience has given them.

Keith Johnstone says in his book, IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre: “…it (narrative skill) also means that you look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards.”

When we teach media interactions, we talk about the “bridge” structure. Simply it means we either address or don’t address the specific question, and then use a word bridge, such as “the point that needs to be made is….” To take us back to the point we want to make. Certainly this structure could be and is used in other interactions, such as with customers.

Another structure used in media interactions is the “premise challenge”. Here, we challenge the premise of the question rather than answer it. We might say, “You’ve based your question on some inaccurate data. I think we need to correct that….” Now that we’ve taken control, we can move the discussion to where it is more comfortable for us. Again, a technique most people use without thinking. It is important to understand the structures we use in communicating, so that they can be consciously applied in any situation.

The empathy approach – words and actions – in situations of high concern and low trust is another control structure. In fact, it is an extremely powerful control structure when someone is expressing anger to us. I have broadened my own take on this. I call it ACUESAA: Acknowledge, Concern, Understanding, Empathy, Sympathy, Agreement, Action. Any of these responses, alone or in combination, create a structure to reduce concern and build trust. This approach is effective with any audience.

Here are some other structures that can be used by business people:

  • Rule of three. When a difficult question is asked, people can freeze and not know why. Then they begin to focus on their freeze-up and their anxiety just feeds on itself. If they take a lesson from Improv and Keith Johnstone, then they need to look back and not forward. Of all the things they could say, what three things would they choose? Selecting that structure often brings content to mind almost automatically. Therefore, control is established and the ice is broken. Sometimes it is tough to come up with three, but, as in Improv, the skill of using this structure can be learned and practiced.
  • Chronology. This structure is time based. To respond to the question, the content is organized and delivered in chronological order. “It’s important to start at the beginning…And finally we arrive at today….”
  • Too Hot. Too Cold. Just Right. Most of us know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In it, everything was analyzed in that manner. So, using this structure, we can find the options that are unacceptable and the one that is.

As with Improv, the answer for business people to handle difficult questions is to find a control structure that gives them confidence and comfort in stressful interactions.

Copyright 2005/2007

What Do You Say If They Ask If You're Gay? Managing the Media's "Gotcha" Questions

January 29, 2008

Bill Clinton’s recent hard-edged intervention in the Democratic leadership race reminded me of his aggressive response about his anti-terror record in a media interview with Chris Wallace. I included it as an example of one way to challenge the premise of the reporter’s gotcha questions in a column I wrote for PR Canada in September 2006. It starts with the Diane Sawyer interview with American Idol’s Clay Aiken asking about his sexuality. Here it is again for those who are interested in managing difficult questions in media interviews:

It used to be that the “gotcha” question was “When did you stop beating your wife?” Now that the “Did you ever take drugs?” question has worn out, the “gotcha” question is: “Are you Gay?” So, what do you do if the media ask a “gotcha” question?

Let’s look at the options:

  • Negotiate a clear focus for the interaction ahead of the interview.
  • Warn the interviewer off certain subjects.
  • Answer the question directly, perhaps yes or no.
  • Provide a variation that confirms or denies, perhaps with lots of ambiguity so that the receiver won’t be sure of the answer: “I won’t tell you what I am but I don’t have any problem that people have different sexual preferences.”
  • Challenge the ‘Premise’ on the basis of the appropriateness of the question, the facts/interpretation of the facts/conclusion drawn off the facts. Saying in some way that the question is inappropriate is a premise challenge tactic. (Below you will see this done by former President Bill Clinton.) Refocusing on/bridging to the main/agreed focus of the interview is a premise challenge of the appropriateness of the question.
  • Exit. If the techniques of not answering the question directly do not convince the reporter to move on and have been well delivered, then get out.

In any given situation, you might well see a combination of options employed. There is no right or wrong response, just options, each with its own upside and downside. For instance, warning the interviewer off a certain subject – such as the gay question – might have an upside of eliminating that question, but it might have the downside of signalling a sensitivity that the reporter has a difficult time ignoring. The reporter may be prepared to break an agreement in order to increase the conflict/news value of the interview. Let’s look at some real world applications.

The New York Post carried a headline: “Clay Aiken Calls Diane Sawyer’s Gay Question ‘Rude’.” It refers to an interview on “Good Morning America” between the veteran broadcast journalist and the 2003 runner-up who became an instant star after his performances on “American Idol.”

The Post reported the exchange this way:

Sawyer went right after Aiken, asking at the top of the interview if he was “ready to come out and say you’re gay.”

“That would not make sense for me to do that,” Aiken said.

“You think I’m rude for asking?” Sawyer asked Aiken.

“I’ve gotten to a point where I feel it’s invasive. Forget it. What I do in my private life is nobody’s business anymore, period. I don’t think you’re rude because I figure people have a job to do.” Aiken said.
“I just don’t understand why people care, to be honest with you. I’m not spending my time with this anymore. This is a waste of my time.”

So, Aiken didn’t answer the question, he challenged the premise. He also signalled that he was done. He waved his arms and his body language signalled he’s going to leave, but he didn’t. Finally he said: “So, I’m done.” And then Sawyer changed the discussion to the issue of intrusive questions into private lives and admitted, “You got me”. She doesn’t like it either.

Some have criticized Sawyer for lack of journalistic vigour for not pressing Aiken, presumably until he broke and supported her initial conclusion. I’m not interested in the content, only in the technique. In this exchange, Aiken premise challenged his way through the interview. He could have also used the premise challenge that we’ll see in the next example: Do you ask this question of everyone you interview? (This shifts control to the interviewee.)

Another example. Chris Wallace interviewed Former President of the United States Bill Clinton on Fox News Sunday with an agreed focus of the Clinton Global Initiative. Wallace didn’t  start with the question: “Tell me about the Clinton Global Initiative.” Instead, Wallace put Clinton on the defensive straight off:

Wallace: In a recent issue of The New Yorker you say, quote, I’m 60 years old and I damn near died, and I’m worried about how many lives I can save before I do die. Is that what drives you in your effort to help in these developing countries?

Clinton: Yes, I really – but I don’t mean – that sounds sort of morbid when you say it like that. I mean, I actually…

Wallace: That’s how you said it.

Clinton: Yes, but the way I said it, the tone in which I said it was actually whimsical and humorous. That is, this is what I love to do. It is what I think I should do.

A few questions later Wallace really lights up Clinton.

Wallace: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I’ve got to say, I was surprised. Most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and Al-Qaeda out of business when you were president?

The two of them engage in a choppy exchange with Clinton trying to get control and Wallace raising more questions that attack Clinton’s record. Finally Clinton gets aggressive.

Clinton: OK, let’s talk about it. Now, I will answer all those things on the merits, but first I want to talk about the context in which this arises.

Clinton and Wallace get into it with Clinton using a combination of answers to criticisms and premise challenges to Wallace on his motives. Here are the best bits strung together.

Clinton: So you did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. What I want to know is…

Wallace: I want to ask a question. You don’t think that’s a legitimate question?

(Control has shifted to Clinton. It’s his agenda that now drives the interview. Wallace is responding to Clinton’s attack.)

Clinton: It was a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of.

Wallace: We ask plenty of questions of…

Clinton: You didn’t ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.

Clinton: ….And you came here under false pretences and said….

Wallace: …I didn’t think this would send you off on such a tear.

Clinton: You launched it – you set me off on a tear because you didn’t formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don’t ask the other side.

Wallace: That’s not true. Sir, that is not true.

Wallace: Would you like to talk about the Clinton Global Initiative?

Clinton: No, I want to finish this now.

(Watch both parts on You Tube, links at the end.)

So, who won? Wallace. He got one of the best interviews a reporter could ever get. Clinton got to talk about his global initiative but it was lost in the political discussion that was present throughout. Clinton took the hook, fought valiantly and used premise challenge explicitly throughout, but Wallace got a great interview at the cost of having his nose figuratively but seriously bloodied by Clinton’s counterpunching premise challenges.

One final, quick example. Bill Parcells was the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League. His very controversial star receiver Terrell Owens, was reported to have tried to commit suicide with an overdose of medication. Parcells was holding his daily press conference following practice and knew next to nothing about the details of the situation. The Associated Press reported on the result.

“After getting almost strictly Owens-related questions, coach Bill Parcells cut off his usual 25-30 minute session after only nine-minutes. He ended it by getting up from his chair and saying, ‘When I find out what the hell is going on, you will know. Until then, I’m not getting interrogated for no reason.’”

Parcells picked up his water bottle and walked out. And yes, some media outlets carried that act on their sports news. So what? Parcells had provided reasonable responses to the questions – but he could not answer their questions precisely because he didn’t have the information. His exit was reasonable. No damage for walking out. If he had speculated and given them a controversial quote, they would have enjoyed the “gotcha” but also would have been wondering why he stayed in a vulnerable position.

As Diane Sawyer admitted in her interview, the reporters know what’s in the best interests of the interviewee. The interviewees need to know it too.

Copyright 2006

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Clinton Risks Violating the Fairness Bias

February 27, 2008

The all out attack on Barack Obama by competitor Hillary Clinton ahead of the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries risks violating the fairness bias of the undecided voters. It’s a risk that anyone in business runs when they decide to go at their opposition – whether at a shareholders’ meeting, a community forum, or through the media.

Why? Two reasons.
First, “life may not be fair, but humans have a strong bias for fairness,” says Lucas Laursen in the Feb/Mar issue of Scientific American MIND magazine. He notes that studies have found that relationships matter when people judge fairness. “Humans accepted unfair deals from computers but not from people.”

So, Clinton’s supporters (strong relationship) will likely accept unfair treatment of Obama, but the undecideds (neutral relationship) probably not. That may then be the deciding factor in how the undecideds vote.

So fairness is a key factor. It’s also very subjective and the perpetrator is usually a poor judge of fairness.

Second, Clinton may misstep in regard to the concept of relative credibility. Simply put it says that you should be very careful attacking someone with more credibility with the target audience than you  because, rather than driving them down, you drive yourself down and they go up in credibility. She better have objective data that says that with the undecideds she has more credibility or else she might just deliver the undecided vote to Obama.

I wrote a piece on relative credibility a few years ago and have replayed below the example I used for illustration.

Relative credibility in actionParty A, my client, was involved in a complex conflict involving litigation, grievances, and harassment with Party B. My client found the situation intolerable. Both parties finally agreed to appoint an experienced mediator to try to reach a settlement of all actions and issues.The mediator selected had vast experience as a litigation lawyer and mediator. He was not sympathetic to Party A as far as we could tell, but we thought he might be partial to Party B.Party A was eager to reach a settlement, but was also very emotional about the treatment its members had received at the hands of Party B and tended to show their emotions in any discussions involving Party B. Because of this, Party A’s credibility was diminished except with its supporters. The other party had enormous credibility because of historical goodwill.Once we had agreement within Party A that Party B probably had more credibility with the mediator starting out, we were able to devise a strategy to overcome this deficit. It worked better than we could have hoped.Party A stifled its instinct to “attack” Party B. Instead, Party A signalled through words and actions to the mediator that its goal was to reach an agreement – but not at any cost – and that Party A could and would provide the mediator with all of the information on the issues he might need to mediate the dispute.The members of Party A sat on their emotions and delivered the facts, the context and the co-operation that the mediator needed. Party A raised its credibility by their professionalism, candour, and co-operation. Party A also got a boost because an arrogant, uncooperative Party B destroyed the credibility it had.As Party A surpassed Party B in credibility with the mediator, Party B — probably not realizing that the relative credibility of the two parties had changed significantly– lost even more credibility and boosted Party A further by attacking it.The conflict was finally resolved and for the most part in Party A’s favour. Party A held a victory party. I doubt that Party B did. While the resolution took a very long time and many factors came into play, there was one constant: The mediator worked tirelessly and doggedly to get a settlement, which was his victory. By doing so, he was apparently driven – consciously or not – by the credible position and actions of Party A. This resulted in victory for Party A.

Resolving Conflict and Moving Forward

November 30, 2008

An executive in Europe was put in charge of a major project for her company. The project involved multiple offices and a number of key players. She wasn’t involved for very long before she found herself engulfed in conflict and at risk. Not good for an upward career path.

She found her way to me for some problem solving and communications counsel.

When we met up over the telephone, she briefed me on the situation and the “cast of characters”. There was a lot of negativity in her description. The negative feelings she had seemed to block a clear perspective and, therefore, a constructive way to resolve the escalating conflicts.

I had learned a neat technique during a negotiating course at Harvard Law School and with my client’s permission we used it to re-analyze the situation she had just described. We used role reversal.

I asked the client to go back through each of the characters and tell me what they would say, in their words, about her. She did.

In so doing, her tone changed. She became more empathetic to each character’s situation and mindset. We explored some characters more than others, but we covered them all.

I didn’t have to tell her what to do. She was ahead of me. She “saw” her way forward. It was one of the options she had been mulling over but in which she had not had confidence. Her mind seemed to unblock. There was a confidence and energy in her voice. She was in a hurry to get off the phone and get on with taking actions to solve the problems.

All of that took one hour. She had spent that time actively “listening” to the critical players, even though they weren’t on the call. She had interrogated them on their feelings and thinking and objectives, based on her knowledge. She had developed a new perspective on the conflict and quickly selected the actions that she now knew would begin to drive toward a solution.

Is it working? I asked her later. She said this: 
“Yes, I am happy to tell you that there has been some progress in the
last week or so.  I don’t think that I am out of the woods yet, but
there is a clear improvement.”

Thinking “out of the box”, in my opinion, is achieved by adding new information or stimuli to help us achieve a new perspective or “see” a solution that is not the one that is blocking progress.

Listening, using a variety of techniques, is one very effective way to add that new information or stimuli. And if you can’t seem to do it on your own, or do it well, get some help from someone with objectivity.

Copyright November 2008

How to Control a Media Interview

December 29, 2008

By Patrick McGee

Copyright December 2008

If you’re afraid/concerned about where the reporter is going to take an interview, then you need to know how to control the direction of the interaction. There are three key things you want to keep in the front of your mind:

  1. Own it. Consciously commit to be in charge. If this was a business meeting you were running, would you simply be reactive to the questions or direction in which the participants wanted to go? I don’t think so. You would lead the meeting and maintain a pre-determined focus. Why does this have to be the reporter’s meeting? It should be yours, even if they asked for it.
  2. Prepare. Determine the interview outcome that will meet your needs, the needs of the reporter and those of the readers/viewers/listeners (that YOU decide are the target). Build the whole story – not just messages – so that you can tell that story completely, concisely and compellingly and the reporter can, at least in theory, just take that story and have a great product for their audience. Be prepared to bring the story without any stimulus from the reporter. In other words, you don’t have to wait for the questions. (I watched Richard Branson of Virgin companies’ fame tell his mobile phone story on a remote TV interview for three or four minutes without a single question from the media host because Branson’s earpiece wasn’t working and he couldn’t hear the host. So, he just launched into his story and stopped when he was finished. Brilliant!)
  3. Manage the interaction using premise challenges. In effect, explain why you won’t answer a question precisely, but rather will respond appropriately, and use guiding to let the reporter know where this interaction is going. (They may not like that you’re leading but another part of them likes to know where they’re going.)

In my Media Training sessions at McGee+Associates I often get asked about controlling the interview: who does this well? One only has to watch television to see people who are masters, strivers and failures. But there was one situation recently that I thought provided an excellent real life example of the concepts outlined above.

On December 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, along with his staff and members of the FBI, the IRS, and the Postal Service held a full-house press conference to announce the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and John Harris, his Chief of Staff, on corruption charges. (All of this was included in the notice to media, so they knew going in what the presser was about.)

I’m going to take you through excerpts of the transcript to show you the words Fitzgerald used to control this interaction with the media. And if you want to watch him in action you can do that here:

and/or read the full transcript here:

Fitzgerald clearly did not go into this interaction unprepared. He was in charge. He was focussed. He had a story and he told it and told it well. And he guided the media during the session and challenged the appropriateness or premise of their questions. This is the technique I’m going to illustrate below. Key points will be underlined. Any editorial comments I have will be in bracketed italics either before or after the transcript material from Federal News Service (all typos in the transcript are theirs and any others are mine) carried on the Chicago Sun-Times blog of Lynn Sweet.

(Fitzgerald starts the press conference by introducing his colleagues and even here he is guiding the reporters with directions and then he launches into his story which, in one paragraph, is really the essential story without the details.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Good morning. Joining me is — to my far right, is Rob Grant, the special agent in charge for the FBI office here in Chicago. To his left is Al Patton, the special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigative Division, and to his left is Tom Brady, the inspector in charge of the Postal Inspection Service in Chicago. Behind me, to my left, are Carrie Hamilton, Reid Schar and Chris Niewoehner, assistant U.S. attorneys.

This is a sad day for government. It’s a very sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low. Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree. We acted to stop that crime spree.  (Fitzgerald, with that last sentence, has just covered off one of the weak spots in the actions he has just announced – did they act too soon? He will come back to this point/message in his story several times in the press conference and it will be easier to defend/explain as part of the story. For the next 14 minutes or so, he tells the long version of the story and lets the FBI man have his say.)

(As Fitzgerald is walking back to the lectern after Special Agent Rob Grant is finished, the first question is thrown at him. It deals with the timing issue.)

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, was this done today in an effort to head off the appointment of someone to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat? Was it so imminent that that’s why you had to step in?

MR. FITZGERALD: I would say that we decided that this required unusual measures, and there were a lot of things going on that were imminent.

There’s a bill sitting on the desk that we think a person who was supporting that bill has been squeezed to give $100,000. And to let that bill be signed to me would be very, very troubling.

There is a hospital — Children’s Memorial Hospital — believing that it’s getting $8 million, but its CEO has not coughed up a campaign contribution. And the thought that that money may get pulled back from a Children’s Memorial Hospital is something that you cannot abide.

There is an editor that they’d like fired from the Tribune. And I laid awake at night worrying whether I’d read in the paper in the morning that when there were layoffs that we’d find out that that person was laid out. The complaint– the complaint lays out, in there, in fact, when there were layoffs, there were conversations to find out whether the editor who should have — they thought should be fired was fired, and he wasn’t, and the governor was asking whether there’d be more layoffs. So we have the governors, in these modern times, the only one who’s looking for more layoffs.

You take that, what’s going on, add it to the fact that we have a Senate seat that seemed to be as recently as days ago auctioned off to the — you know, to the highest bidder for campaign contributions. And Governor Blagojevich’s own words on the tape with a bug that’s set forth in the complaint talked about selling this like a sports agent.

Q Couldn’t he just –

MR. FITZGERALD: So — I’m just — so we stepped in for a number of reasons.

Basically, as I said before, we’re in the middle of a corruption crime spree and we wanted to stop it.

(Members of press shouting simultaneous questions.)

Okay. Can we –

Q Patrick, you said –

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, just one second. No, no, let me just say one thing. We’re going to stay here as long as this is productive. We will — you’re not on a clock. We want to dispel any misperceptions. So don’t feel like you got to — anyone’s got to yell to get a question in.


Q (Inaudible) — you said twice that we shouldn’t cast aspersions on people who we think we recognize within the complaint. Does that mean that all of these people are beyond blame in any way? I mean, some of the things in the complaint point a very kind of a tacky finger at some people, their willingness to play. And if pay to play is illegal, isn’t the willingness to play also culpable, even if you didn’t charge today?

MR. FITZGERALD: What I’m trying to say is this. Look, we never give – ….I’m never going to say no, because that’s just our practice. But I don’t want people, when I answer those questions, ….What I’m trying to do is explain caution about a complaint. …

Yes? (He points out a reporter for the next question, who says they want to know one thing, then outlines two parts with various conclusions and data .)

Q Would you please address one thing? And that is, when Blagojevich walks out of here today, unless I’m mistaken about the constitution of Illinois, he will still be governor. He will still have the power to make the appointment to the Senate seat. He will still have the power whether or not he’s going to sign the bill that you are concerned about.

Also would you address the fact — and I know you’ve referred to this — would you just address whether or not President-elect Obama was aware that any of these things were taking place?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay. I’m not going to speak for what the president-elect was aware of. We make no allegations that he’s aware of anything, and that’s as simply as I can put it.

And the first part, my understanding is that he is the sitting governor of Illinois today, now, and that is not something we have any say in or control over. So at the end of the day, he will be the sitting governor.

Q In your view, in your view, Pat, in your view –

(There are lots of questions and hands waving. He sorts it out.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, this — and then Carlos next.

Q In your view, Pat, should the governor, on his own volition, step aside while he fights these charges, or should the Illinois state legislature move ahead with what it’s threatened to do and impeach him? What are your views on both of those?

MR. FITZGERALD: The Office of the United States Attorney has no view. We are not entitled to any view. And the view of what happens in the legislature of Illinois is not for us.  (When Ari Fleischer was George W. Bush’s Press Secretary, he might have said: “The premise of your question is not valid so I can’t answer it. But I can tell you this….” Fitzgerald just skips calling it a premise challenge and goes directly to an explanation of the fault in the premise of the question. His response is strong and clear and uses deep, as in fundamental, context to respond. Too many interviewees don’t go back far enough and miss out on using some of their strongest arguments.)

Q What do you –

Q Pat –

MR. FITZGERALD: Carlos. Carlos and then Carol (sp).

Q Pat, given the scope and the brazenness of this alleged conduct of Governor Blagojevich, what does it say that this happened despite the cautionary tale of George Ryan?

MR. FITZGERALD: I just — I think it tells us certainly — you know, I don’t want to jump ahead of things. Again, the governor’s presumed innocent. (Another diplomatic premise challenge. Fitzgerald could have prefaced his response with: “Your question is inappropriate based on timing.”)

Q Are you able to tell us if, in the Tribune scenario, it was the Tribune who came to you and said “We’re being extorted,” or you that went to the Tribune with this revelation?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t — that’s not set forth in the complaint. What we can tell you is that that was conversations we intercepted on the governor’s side, speaking to Mr. Harris about what they wanted to do…

Q So it’s conceivable, then, that the Tribune, at some level of management, was considering, or forced to consider, the governor’s alleged extortion.

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to speak for the Tribune or what happened, what message got there… So I’m not going to speculate as to…

(The following is an instructive exchange. The reporter asks about “a different matter”, an issue that is not on this day’s agenda. The reporter is trying to change the focus, whether intentional or not. Fitzgerald just says it’s not on focus and then stays in control invoking a position he has already established. Then he moves on to someone else, not taking a follow-up. Note the language that allows him to be in control.)

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, what does this say about Senator Durbin’s letter to the president requesting commutation of George Ryan’s sentence, which has only been a year of the six-and-a-half-year sentence that was imposed for the — for the crimes this office charged him with and convicted him of?

MR. FITZGERALD: And that’s a different matter. I told you the office doesn’t have a view on what happens in sort of Illinois government. We just don’t have a stake in that. To the extent the office has a view in the Ryan pardon, if we’re asked by the Department of Justice or the White House to express that view, we will do so privately. But we’re not going to — it’s inappropriate for me, on behalf of the office, to express a view where the power of pardon and commutation rests with the president. And it’s not our power — our power, and we do not make a practice of commenting to other branches of government, what they ought to do unless asked by them in private.


Q I’ve got two questions. What does the law say about the appointment process of the U.S. Senate, you know, as it relates to the governor before his arrest? And then I have another question, is how could the appointment process of the U.S. Senate, you know, change now that, you know, the governor’s been arrested?

MR. FITZGERALD: And I’m not going to comment …I’m not going to comment on any proposed modifications.

Q Which advice would you give to anybody who would now take a senatorial appointment from Rod Blagojevich?

MR. FITZGERALD: Oh, I’m — I’m going to duck that one on — okay.

Yes, sir. (Why can Fitzgerald get away with ducking and moving on? Although unstated, the premise of the question is inappropriate and he knows that everyone in the room knows it, so he just moves on. If the reporter challenged him, Fitzgerald would give him the “we don’t do that” explanation. Since he’s given it once, he doesn’t use it. Some of the people I train worry that using this tactic would be rude. With the words he uses and the point having been previously established, Fitzgerald isn’t rude.)

Q We understand the governor was taken to the FBI headquarters this morning.


Q Was he interviewed there? And did he make any kind of a statement?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not allowed to comment on whether anyone made a statement, but he was arrested and taken to the FBI.

Q Was he interviewed?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t think I – (Fitzgerald appeals for advice to one of his staff out of camera. So for those who think they have to know everything or else someone might think them incompetent, it’s not necessarily so. Here’s a very confident, in-command Fitzgerald, appropriately seeking counsel from one of his lawyers. No worries.)

Q (Off mike.)

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t know if I can comment on whether we attempted an interview under the rules. I can’t comment on that.

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, would you make clear just something about the timing here? When the Tribune ran its story a few days ago revealing that the governor was being taped, would you explain — and I think some of this is laid out in the complaint — did further taping take place, or did that essentially terminate your ability to listen in?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, what I would say is to back up, and to the extent that there have been articles I’m not confirming or denying the accuracy of the articles. You can compare them against what happened.

I will say this…

Q Patrick, you are always very careful to separate politics and law enforcement. …How about weighing in on a matter of civic responsibility?

MR. FITZGERALD: I think there’s enough people here who can weigh in on their opinions about things, and the citizens can weigh in with their opinions.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI do not have an opinion on what actions the legislature ought take. The only opinion we’ll express is that we hope that people with relevant information will come forward and cooperate with us.

Q You’re — you live here in Chicago. Do you trust this governor to make a good choice for the Senate, which is so important?

MR. FITZGERALD: I am a citizen of Illinois, and I do have opinions and beliefs. And what they are, are for me, because when I speak, I speak on behalf of that seal, and that seal has no opinion on that matter.

And in the back? Yes? And then you.

Q (Off mike) — confirmed so many investigations — (off mike) — be additional counts added against these defendants and others?

MR. FITZGERALD: What we’ll simply say is the investigation continues. We’re not going to predict that other charges will or will not be filed.


Q You spoke before about if Senator — you didn’t know — no awareness that Senator or President-elect Barack Obama knew about this. So is it safe to say he has not been briefed? And can you also tell us if any phone calls were made to President-elect Obama that you intercepted, or to Rahm Emanuel?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay. I’m not going to go down anything that’s not in the complaint.

And what I simply said before is, I’m not going to — I have enough trouble speaking for myself. I’m not going to try and speak in the voice of a president or a president-elect.

So I simply pointed out…. And that’s all I can say.

(Fitzgerald is not afraid of the media. He is prepared to manage the interactions. The questions are getting more speculative rather than fact seeking. Here’s a light exchange.)

Q What will be your position — what will be your position at this afternoon’s hearing on detention or bond for the governor?

MR. FITZGERALD: I don’t expect there’s going to be a contentious issue about bond, but we’ll — Magistrate Judge Nan Nolan will be handling that proceeding. I think she can hear the specifics from us for the first time in court. But –

Q You won’t oppose — (off mike).

MR. FITZGERALD: I think Judge Nolan should hear what our position is, not through your excellent reporting but through our (assistants/assistance ?) telling him what it is.

Q How would you categorize this — (off mike) — compared to other things that you’ve seen? How would you categorize it?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to go beyond saying that just we — the conduct we think is appalling. I’m not going to do a comparative to other cases, but I just think it’s very, very disturbing that we have these pay-to-play allegations going on for years, and that they picked up steam after a conviction, they picked up steam after an ethics-in-government act, and that it would go so far as to taint the process by which the governor and his inner circle of advisers were choosing someone to take a seat in the United States Senate to represent Illinois.

Q (Off mike) — said that Senate candidate number five took herself out of the running after this was made apparent to her? Can we gather that is Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to confirm or deny any names with numbers. I just can’t.

Q You do name the governor’s wife in this. And you quote her in the charges. Can you recount for us what she said and what her role was as it’s laid out in the charge?

MR. FITZGERALD: Since I don’t — (inaudible) — won’t quote it accurately, there’s a paragraph, I believe, … I think I’ll just leave you to looking at the complaint and –

Q If she what the governor has been charged with, why wouldn’t she be charged if she’s saying the same thing?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to comment on anyone not charged. I’ll simply say ….

Q Mr. Fitzgerald, I have a question….

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, you hit on two questions. One is a legal distinction.

Q Mr. Fitzgerald?


Q Sir, just to be crystal-clear on this point, you’re not aware of any conversation, then, that took place between the governor and any member of Barack Obama’s transition team at all?

MR. FITZGERALD: And what I simply said is you can read the complaint. I’m not going to sit here with a 76-page complaint and parse through it. You know, that’s all we’re alleging. And I’m just — I’m not going to start going down and saying, “Did anyone ever talk to anyone?” You can read what we allege in the complaint. It’s pretty detailed. Look in the 76 pages, and if you don’t see it, it’s not there.

Q In the briefings that President-elect Obama has had over the past weeks with various government departments here, would it be possible for him to have been briefed on what was going on here with regard to this investigation?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to comment on that. I’m not the briefer. I’m not at those meetings. But I would simply say that this was very close-hold in Washington, and on a need-to-know basis. So I’m — but I’m not going to — I’m not the briefer, so I’m not going to represent what happens. But — I’ll leave it at that.

Q Pat?

Q Is there anything –

Q Will you quantify the number of calls that you’ve gotten –

(At this point the questions are getting out of control and Fitzgerald reasserts authority with clear direction – it gives the media direction and they settle down. This kind of control can be asserted one-on-one just as well as in a group.)

MR. FITZGERALD: Sorry? Okay. After Carol (sp), we’ll go do a ring around the back.

Q Pat, one of the things I think that people out there look at is, the governor’s known he’s been under investigation for several years now, and yet he would still engage, allegedly, in this kind of activity. What does it say about the audacity of the governor to do this while he’s under investigation and knows it?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’ll leave that for you to draw your own conclusions. It’s a pretty audacious set of conversations set forth in the complaint, in the circumstances.

In the back? Yes.

Q Which union did the governor solicit in exchange for the Senate appointment?

MR. FITZGERALD: I think it’s laid out in the complaint that it’s …and again, I’m not going to describe more than is in the complaint –

Anyone else in the back?

Q Can the FBI comment on at all on the search warrant that was executed for the governor’s office at the Thompson Center?

MR. FITZGERALD: That’s — I don’t think it’s the governor’s office at the Thompson Center. There’s a search warrant — can we say where? (Fitzgerald again defers to his staff and doesn’t proceed with his answer without guidance.)

MR. FITZGERALD: It’s at the office of Deputy Governor — a deputy governor. And there’s a search warrant being executed at the Friends of Blagojevich campaign headquarters.

Q Right now?

Q Can I ask you one, Pat?

MR. FITZGERALD: Well, one more. I just want to get the — I want to make sure –

Q Can you help me with a matter of law, a question of law…?

MR. FITZGERALD: Okay, and I’m not going to get into hypotheticals that you’ll abstract, from the complaint, and start going down that road.

Q I was just wondering, is — I haven’t read the full complaint either — is Rezko going to be testifying regarding this case at all? (Off mike.)

MR. FITZGERALD: I think there’s a discussion of Mr. Rezko, in a footnote, somewhere in the complaint. And I couldn’t tell you the footnote number. But if you look there, there’s a succinct summary of his status, in that footnote, that I won’t try to repeat out loud.

And yes. Who’s next?

Q If a Tribune executive did agree to fire somebody on the editorial board, as an exchange for this, would it be criminal behavior? And can you characterize at all how far the Tribune plot went?

MR. FITZGERALD: I’m not going to say how far the Tribune plot went, other than the person who was identified, as the person to be fired, was not fired and still works there today….We don’t go beyond that. I’m not going to opine …

Q Pat, you spoke very directly about why the indictment had to come now.

(Fitzgerald makes sure the reporters have their facts straight in this premise challenge.)

MR. FITZGERALD: First of all, there’s not an indictment, I realize. It’s a complaint. So I don’t want people to understand it’s an indictment. We’ve filed a criminal complaint.

Q State lawmakers said this morning they’d like to see impeachment proceedings within — (off mike) — January. Now, I understand impeachment is somewhat — something like a trial. Would you assist them in any sense or with any of the evidence you’ve prepared — (off mike)?

MR. FITZGERALD: I thought about a lot of things this morning. That one hasn’t come up yet. And I’m not going to take it off the top of my head and spring. So we’ll go from there.

STAFF: Thank you very, much folks.

END. (Yes, the end of an hour-long masterful performance of managing the interaction with a room full of reporters. The language of control and premise challenge that Patrick Fitzgerald used is the type of language that we use each and everyday in our interactions with colleagues, clients, suppliers, family and friends. Fitzgerald has shown that it is equally appropriate and extremely useful in controlling a multi-lateral media interview. I know it works in one-on-one interviews as well. )

Influence/Change: What Formula Are You Using?

September 7, 2009

Success at work involves influence at work. We employ influence in decision-making, sales, client relations (internal and external), change management, organizational transformation, managing, recruiting, handling conflicts, negotiations, and so on.

We all have our ways of preparing to exercise influence. Some of us are aware of these approaches and for others the approaches are largely unconscious. A way of preparing that yields the best results is to use a formula to guide our research and analysis of what needs to be in our influence/change communications.

There is a 1960s vintage formula that I have found provides a very useful question stimulus and analytical framework through which to strategically prepare for an influence opportunity. I’m referring to Gleicher’s Formula or Equation. David Gleicher was a  consultant at Arthur D. Little. In equation form, his formula looks like this:

Change = Dissatisfaction ´ Vision of the future ´ First steps towards that vision > Resistance.  (C=DVF>R)

This was later refined to DVF > Cost (economic and psychological). The thought is that, if any of the elements on the left side of the equation are weak or missing, then overcoming resistance/cost won’t happen.

The great value of using a formula like Gleicher’s when we are planning to exercise influence to achieve a goal is that it brings discipline to our thinking (or lack thereof!) It makes us examine our assumptions against what the person we are trying to influence is thinking, believing, fearing, wanting, etc.

Who hasn’t heard the admonition to be client (external or internal) centred (driven, etc.) today? Well, the client’s cost resistance is one thing, but that psychological cost is a swamp of resistance, to play on John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond. From bias, to “I don’t know you”, to the fear factors, such as the fear of failure.

This side of the formula – resistance – has the most weight, precisely because it is the client’s centre. But how many of us want to believe that we’ll achieve the influence we want to have, based on the client’s dissatisfaction with the status quo (and how much research did we do on this?), combined with our vision of the future for the client (our product, service, idea, goal, etc.), along with our gentle (or otherwise) push with a suggested action or exhortation (“now get out there….”)? Some will do thorough research (questions, surveys, etc.) and analysis, using a disciplined approach that will include the resistance part of the formula. But many will not do much more than a cursory think- through, driven by their firmly held assumptions.

Resistance is powerful. Facts and persuasive influencers notwithstanding, change can be non-existent or slow if it cannot outweigh resistance.  For example, on the issue of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, Professor Andre Potworowski flags the resistance problem in a column by technology writer Tyler Hamilton.

“It is, in effect, a challenge of change management… The greatest barrier to innovation comes from resistance to change on the part of the consumer… People must begin to see the possibility of profiting from sustainability,” says Potworowski.

And every issue, challenge – indeed, opportunity – is the same. Does DVF outweigh R?

There is a circumstance where influence/change can happen extremely quickly. I’ll take some liberty with Gleicher’s formula to explain. When I ask myself what factors have been present when I’ve seen an immediate result in influence/change that overcomes resistance, it looks like this:

Fear + Urgency + Limited Options (FULO) > Resistance.

Why? Basically the values of Gleicher’s DVF are jacked-up to the “threat” level and the cost considerations – economic and psychological – don’t have as much sway.

How many times do most of us have these FULO factors working in our favour to overcome resistance when we’re exercising influence? Not that many. So, we have to deal with the CVF factors Gleicher identified. We can “manufacture” FULO. Many high-pressure sales techniques do just that. We can introduce some aspects of FULO into DVF. Certainly there’s an ethical line for using these “weapons of influence.”

Gleicher isn’t the only one with a formula. Just a sample from my bookshelves includes:

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People – great advice for anyone.

Robert Cialdini, INFLUENCE – The Psychology of Persuasion – PhD. He has six “weapons of influence.” They are present in every analysis I do and often employed in my strategies and those of my clients.

John Adams, Successful Change, Paying Attention to the Intangibles – a change leader I found by exploring Gleicher, he asked the question “Why do so many of these efforts fail?” He found his own answer. His research led to a list of 12 Individual Change Success Factors that he believes are complementary to Gleicher’s Formula. He shared it in OD Practitioner in 2003.

Howard Gardner, Changing minds: the art and science of changing our own and other people’s minds – Harvard Ph.D. put forward the concept of multiple intelligences, and in this book outlines his 7 Levers of Change, all starting with “Re”. I’m thankful to Gardner for introducing me to a formal examination of resistance. It informs my thinking, training/coaching and counsel.

Gregory Berns, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently – MD, PhD. Berns wanted to have innovation in the title but it was overused. He really framed the fear factors part of resistance for me.

Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses – Professor Emeritus Harvard and Thought Leader, Monitor Group. Argyris discusses the undiscussable: how organizations resist change by implementing “organizational defenses”. My take on it: Most organizations talk the talk, but few walk the talk.

I will explore influence and the references above in future blogs, but in the meantime, enjoy your reading if you check out these experts. And don’t forget to use a formula to increase your strategic influence.

Copyright 2009

How Communications Can Boost Productivity at Work

August 30, 2010

By Patrick McGee, Copyright 2010

So, do organizations – particularly knowledge work orgs – have a productivity problem? Well, a study that will be released in September (it has been leaked and reprinted here) is reported to conclude that:

“In the UK private sector, staff are productive on average 44 per cent of the time. While this is pretty low compared to better performing countries or the best UK businesses, it is still much higher than the 32 per cent we observed in local government.” Paul Weekes, Principal Consultant, Knox D’Arcy Management Consultants.

Obviously not all organizations, according to Mr. Weekes, are laggards on the productivity front. However, enough are that they produce these stunningly low averages. Think about your organization. Do you know the level of productivity of your staff?

Exploring the problem a bit more, we need to understand where the time goes. The Knox D’Arcy report explains that:

“‘Lost time’ breaks down into obvious lost time (such as waiting for work, information or instruction, arriving late, leaving early, social chatting, taking informal breaks) and also time spent on activity which is ineffective, such as work  which is done incorrectly and has to be reworked.”

Well, wouldn’t you just like to quantify that to get another perspective on how costly it is? I can do that, thanks to another study by the IDC research and advisory firm. In 2001 analysts Susan Feldman and Chris Sherman authored an IDC White Paper titled “The High Cost of Not Finding Information.” In the paper, they developed scenarios to try to help with understanding of the problem. I want to focus on “Scenario 2: Cost of Reworking Information,” because to me it has a mis-communications genesis and it clearly  reflects some of the “lost time” aspects of low productivity identified in the Knox D’Arcy comments.

From the IDC White Paper:

Scenario 2: Cost of Reworking Information

A 1999 IDC study found that Fortune 500 companies would lose $12 billion as a result of intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources. IDC call this the “knowledge deficit” (see European Management Fact Book, IDC#21511, January 2000):

“The knowledge deficit is a metric that captures the costs and inefficiencies that result primarily from intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources (both information and experts). IDC’s extensive study of European firms and end-user return on investment (ROI) analysis has enabled us to estimate the average cost of ineffective knowledge management (KM) within organizations. The knowledge deficit translated into an average cost of US$5,000 per worker per year in 1999, growing to US$5,850 in 2003.

“A study by Kit Sims Taylor found that knowledge workers spend more time unwittingly recreating existing knowledge than in creating new knowledge. This study was presented at the International Conference on the Social Impact of Information Technologies in St. Louis, Missouri, October 12-14, 1998. According to Professor Sims Taylor, roughly one-third of productive time is spent in knowledge reworking. The other nearly two-thirds is spent in knowledge finding          and communication, with only about 10 per cent of time spent in actual creation         of new knowledge. For instance, Whirlpool expects to increase productivity of its engineers by 30 per cent by giving them access to existing designs for products. The following scenario uses an extremely conservative estimate of time spent in knowledge reworking.


  • Knowledge worker salary = $80,000 annual salary plus benefits
  • 1,000 knowledge workers x $5,000 per year (knowledge deficit)
  • Calculation of cost: 1,000 knowledge workers x $5,000 per year
  • Conclusion: An enterprise employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes $5 million per year because employees spend too much time duplicating information that already exists within the enterprise. If we apply this finding to Fortune 1000, we see that in aggregate, enterprises are wasting $5 billion annually. And this is a conservative estimate, since many corporations employ more than 1,000 knowledge workers. The productivity cost is staggering.”

I find Prof. Sims Taylor’s comment about 10 per cent of time devoted to creating new knowledge interesting as I think back to my early work years and time spent on a factory floor running a machine. If that $100,000 piece of equipment had only produced at 10 per cent capacity, a lot of heads – belonging to me, my foreman, our shift supervisor and the section manager – would have rolled. The company would have immediately known there was a problem and action would have been swift to get productivity up to acceptable levels. This is the problem in many knowledge work organizations – private or public. Peter Drucker’s comment “What gets measured gets managed” tells us  productivity in this work environment can be so low because it is generally unmeasured.


In organizations where output is measured – whether on the factory floor, hospital emergency unit, office, or service desk – my assumption is that for the most part productivity is much higher than where it is not measured. So, create a measurement system for your knowledge work and work environment. I will say that counting key strokes seems to be a bit draconian, but defining the output and measuring and monitoring that output is reasonable. Unfortunately, many organizations default to measuring activity, not output, because it’s easier.

Improve communications. How do we end up with unproductive work that is ineffective or has to be redone? I think we can all relate to situations where we have been told that our work output is not acceptable and has to be reworked. That can be done, but how to prevent it happening again? That takes a root cause analysis.

On the factory floor and in other environments, this happens automatically and very often continuously (quality assurance/control). In knowledge work environments, not so much. In fact, Knox D’Arcy found that supervisors were often unproductive in terms of supervising because they were doing or re-doing their staff’s work.

The wonderful element of factory floor work that I remember is the clarity of the communication. I was taught how to use the machine. Supervised closely to ensure quality. Supervision loosened somewhat as I built up speed and attempted to reach the consistent output expected per shift. I never made it. Even with more coaching I could not make the numbers. I was replaced on the machine by someone else and given a forthright and fair  explanation. I was then moved to another position where I met expectations and survived the summer work term.

This happens in good organizations and sometimes under the supervision of a good manager in a bad organization. But I don’t see it as often as required to fix those productivity numbers that IDC and Knox D’Arcy have found. I conclude that the root cause in most of these situations is poor communications and by that I mean  unclear, ambiguous direction (e.g. “you get the idea” or “figure it out”); lack of priorization of work assignments (e.g. “I know that’s a lot of things I’ve given you, but I do need them all at the same time”); inadequate training or instruction or supervision; lack of/no access to appropriate information; duplicated work assignments (e.g. three people given the same assignment unbeknownst to each other).

The fix is simple but it is not easy: clean up the communications and productivity will improve.


So, how can you clean up communications in the workplace?

There are technology solutions. I want to mention one, because when I began my research on the question “how much does mis-communication in the workplace cost business?” I started at an iSixSigma Discussions forum on the cost of rework that took me to IDC’s work for Cognisco and then back to the original IDC White Paper. Cognisco has an online product to measure employees’ understanding of their job.

There can be systemic solutions, where processes are put in place that everyone follows. For some simple examples, I looked in my filing cabinet for work forms and pulled out a sample from a car rental agency, from a roofer, from a local car repair firm and one from a contractor who worked on our house. Each one provided clarity of communication about the assignment to be completed. And we all know that if there was a dispute about the work later, we’d find ourselves back at the work form, discussing what was agreed to be covered and what was not. Interestingly, all of the forms had my signature or initials on them. There’s a formal commitment there that would be absent if the agreement was verbal. So, yes, we could use these kinds of tools to improve communications in knowledge work. And while the resistance might be high at first (“it’s too bureaucratic, it takes too much time, we’re above that”), once the benefits are seen to outweigh the perceived negatives, then we might find these solutions to be very acceptable.

So, what can you do, short of filling out a multi-copy work order form, to get the benefits of clarity and measurement? Two things: structure and training.

Structure: A work order form is just a structure of communication. In using structure, we get clarity, comprehensiveness (everything we need to know and agree to between us should be on that car rental form, for instance, including the vehicle, price, timing, contingencies/insurance, range, etc.). We use structure for priorizing work in many environments, usually on a chronological basis. Staffers might relieve a lot of stress if they could say to their boss: “That assignment is number 8 on the list and I am currently working on number 3.” Some do say something like this. Most don’t. And bosses don’t like resistance. So we hear stories of bosses saying things like: “I don’t care, just get it done.” The communication is poor on a number of levels, not the least of which is around the priority of each assignment given the limited resources, like time. The root cause here is not an unproductive staffer perhaps, but an unstructured boss. And that may be because his or her training and/or the system of that organization does not encourage such a disciplined structure. Well, if productivity is important, add structure. It works wonders on the factory floor.

Individually, anyone can improve their own productivity and that of the people around them by adding structure. In my communications training practice, I am still surprised when very successful managers tell me they’ve had no training in communications. Many have had zero training in supervising or managing as well. They learned it on the job. All the successful people I’ve worked with want to get better. They may have resistance to get over regarding a new idea or way of communicating, but if the idea or structure has strength, they embrace it.

So, we all could improve by using more structure in our communications. Putting it in writing works in services industries and other businesses. Why not in knowledge work environments? Handing a staffer a written assignment allows for discussion to surface missing information or different approaches to resources allocation. Many work environments use this structure as an assignment contract and the parties do what I did with the roofing contractor: we each sign it.  At minimum, if a manager writes down the assignment and ensures all the needed bits are in it – its priority, or who else it has been assigned to, for example – and then uses that written information to give verbal instruction, my educated guess is that productivity is going to rise as rework or ineffective work is eliminated.

We started this discussion with the call out:  How Communications Can Boost Productivity at Work. There are two choices, just as there are in that old saying: How do you eat an elephant? All at once or one bite at a time.

More Read A Speech? The US President Does It Well in the SOTU Speech

More readers have come to this blog for the post Read a speech rather than memorize? Sure. Just do it well. than any other. It’s been translated by Google into what must be nearly a dozen languages.

I know people don’t have time to memorize their speeches. So, we tried to offer tips on how to read a speech so that the audience would forget it was being read. (One way to read a speech is to use a teleprompter. But not many can afford it or find it appropriate to use the clear screens that flank the lectern and that deliver the written text to the speechmaker. Some say they are overused and the President of The United States – POTUS- endures a lot of this criticism for his reliance on TOTUS – Teleprompter of The United States.)

That’s not what has prompted this post. What struck me about President Obama’s State of the Union Speech (SOTUS) on January 25, 2011 was an insight that addresses a powerful element found in influential speeches that is often lost when they are read.

After the SOTUS,’s editor-at-large and Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin wrote in his blog The Page:

“Obama’s presentation was close to flawless: upbeat and animated, leisurely and assured, surprisingly engaging even when he lapsed into the professorial mode he favors over tub-thumping. He also offered up some light, teasing humor, a rare feat for the generally sober president, whose forays into comedy often seem forced or hammy. Rehearsals with one of the Democratic Party’s best speech coaches clearly paid off, allowing him to internalize the text and focus on conveying the emotion of the words with grace and spontaneity.”

I underlined the last two lines because therein lies my point. It’s not just reading that needs to be mastered. It’s the delivery.

When I have worked with clients on presentations and speeches, a good part of my contribution is to constructively challenge the words and thoughts in the speech – the content. My intention is not to re-write the material. It is to help the client “internalize” the content. To make all of it conscious as content, not just the words on a page. It’s difficult to do this if you are the person giving the speech. So my suggestion is: get a coach. Just like a stage actor – even a veteran – has a Director to help with this.

A coach’s job is to challenge everything in the content. If you are the speech giver, don’t get defensive. Understand that explaining, say, the purpose of the speech or a line or a word, is part of a process of commitment and internalization. It’s the process to move from a level of just getting through a read with a bit of inflection to the level where we might say the thoughts and points are lifted off the page to fly to the audience instead of dully trudging through space and too often not penetrating the audience’s consciousness. The difference is performance rather than just a read.

So, the upside of reading is that we keep on track, we have an external memory (the script) to rely on and that lessens anxiety and we don’t have to memorize. The downside of reading is that without the extra work, the rehearsal and the use of the reading techniques, the read can be flat and lifeless – a fail that undermines purpose.

Why not be spontaneous, memorize or use cards as prompts? If you can do this well, by all means, use this approach. Unfortunately, too often the preparation is not good and the performance is poor. This fail damages your personal brand.

Yes, POTUS used TOTUS for SOTUS. But, because of Obama’s ownership of the content, his rehearsals with a speech coach and his use of the teleprompters to keep his eyes up and his fear of losing his place in check, we get a review with words like “flawless”, “grace”, “spontaneity”. What more could a speech giver want?

How To Survive the Narrative Rip Current

Copyright 2011


Noun: A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

Narrative. So powerful. But what if it’s working against you? A narrative like the  'Birther'  issue that has haunted President Obama through his first term. I have worked in public relations for many years and have had to manage narratives that ran counter to my client’s interests many times.  It always felt to me at first like getting caught in a rip current at the beach. No matter how hard you fight it, it just seems like it is going to carry you out to sea.

The solution to a counter flowing narrative is, in fact, much like the advice given to those caught in an actual rip current: remain calm, get your feet down on something solid, get help and be patient. More on this later.

What brought the power of the counter narrative back to my consciousness was a column by Toronto Globe and Mail writer Margaret Wente: “Can you handle the truth?  Forget the narrative of catastrophe. The Gulf of Mexico is nearly back to normal.” Her story picks up on an AP report  that basically says that, while not completely back to pre-Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill state, it’s not the disaster we might think it is. What’s instructive here is how this powerful narrative is playing out. After 100 days of almost around the clock coverage and a narrative of environmental disaster, reinforced to this day, that story sticks with many of us. I’m as influenced by it as anyone. The surprising “truth”, says the AP report, is that it is not as bad as we might think. However, for the seafood industry, the tourism industry, the oil and gas industry and BP in particular, they are still fighting the rip current fed by the narrative of destruction that is running against them.

Wente draws an interesting conclusion about why the “narrative of catastrophe” remains, in spite of the facts.

“I think it’s because we saw the spill as a giant morality tale: evil versus good, rapacious oil interests versus the environment, greedy consumers (that’s us) versus oil-soaked pelicans and the unspoiled natural world. The visuals were devastating, and the coverage was relentless. The media took turns hyping the disaster. They had a lot invested in this storyline and, when it took an unexpected happy turn, they couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t even see it.”

So, how do we go about keeping our heads above water and surviving the power of the narrative rip current?

Keep Calm: High emotion and panic lead to bad decisions. Swimming against a rip current often leads to exhaustion and drowning. Use your head. If a narrative is running against you, don’t start thinking like a victim. That’s emotional. Think like the receiver of the narrative. Will they pay attention to it? Will it makes sense to them? How much exposure to repetitions will they get?  How much credibility do you have with the receivers versus the storytellers or protagonists? Plan all actions and communications with the answers to these questions in mind. Be deliberate. Don’t flail about.

Get a Solid Base: If you are caught in a rip current, you’ll find that the water has more power than a swimmer. So – as they say and I have experienced – get your feet on the bottom and walk out if you can. Point is that the solid ground gives you powerful traction to counter the force of the current. Facts and logical arguments will be necessary to counter a strong narrative that is running against you. Obama has come out with the definitive proof of birth in Hawaii that confirms he is a citizen (not for everyone – there are doubters who will never be convinced and there are those with agendas that don’t want to be convinced). Many hope that this action kills the “birther” narrative that has taken up so much space in the public affairs geography. Without the proof, this story had no chance of dying.

If a narrative comes down to their opinion versus yours, you may never win. A formerUSMarine General was reported to have told a group: “My opinion versus yours, mine wins. Your facts versus my opinion, you have a chance of convincing me.” Another element is that people can accept things they don’t like, but only if they understand them. So, while a strong narrative may initially hold sway, planting the seed of doubt with facts and arguments that undermine the narrative can be the beginning of the end. Caveat: the facts and argument have to make sense to the receiver. Too often counter arguments are made that make sense to the party feeling victimized by the narrative, but these arguments don’t make sense to the receivers. An example would be an oil company saying that a spill wasn’t their fault – because they believed it was a subcontractor’s or nature’s fault. The receiver, on the other hand, thinks: “Your well, your oil, your instructions, your oversight, your responsibility, your liability.” Pushing against this is like trying to swim directly against the rip current.

Part of the solid base is context. It can be beneficially powerful. But like most powerful tools, it can also be dangerous, if used improperly. Here’s an example as cited in Wente’s column:  “Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, was reviled for saying that the amount of oil leaked was ‘tiny’ compared with the ‘very big ocean.’ But he turned out to be right.”  So, good piece of context but delivered too early. In the face of 24 hour video coverage of the oil spewing from the fractured underwater well and the huge slick on the surface and the dead fish and oil covered wildlife, marshes and beaches, Hayward’s offering did nothing more than further damage his credibility. He needed to be calm and patient. Minimizing the problem comes across as defensive and callous. In fact, it is seen as supportive of the negative narrative.

Get HelpIf you get caught in a rip current, get help. A boat might be needed, if you can’t walk out. Also, the experience and credibility of someone like a lifeguard might be what you need to successfully counter the current. In the case of a narrative, other credible voices that are prepared to put forward facts and arguments that counter the narrative may become the only credible voices. Yours may be discounted, like Mr. Hayward’s.

Be PatientWalking out of a rip current can be slow and very difficult. Waiting for a rescue boat can seem an eternity. Be calm and patient. Certainly this is very true when the current is a strong narrative. A national survey checking on attitudes of consumers found that 71% are still concerned about the safety of Gulf seafood, even though fishing is not allowed until the species is deemed safe following testing. It’s going to take time to change the narrative. With both the fishing industry’s  and the government’s self-interest an issue, the credible third parties that are having some traction on the narrative are chefs who are vouching for the safety and quality of the seafood by serving it in their restaurants. This one will be a word of mouth change to the narrative. Set against 100 days of 24 hours of pictures at 1,000 words a picture – well, it’s going to have to be a slow and steady turnaround.

So, given all of the above, and given that he had the definitive proof in hand, why would Obama have let the birther narrative build for almost four years? This might be one of those cases where the credibility of the narrators took a hit with every telling, because the narrative wasn’t of interest or didn’t make sense to most of the receivers. I get the sense that on April 27th, 2011, when the document was finally released, Obama just calmly and deliberately walked through the current and out of the water. Just sayin’!