The Net Shortens the News Cycle

July 15, 2009

From Politico’s Arena comes a valuable comment from Christine Pelosi on 2 counts:

  1. A topical analysis of  Judge Sotomayor hearings on her nomination to SCOTUS
  2. A reference to a very interesting study on how the Net shortens the news cycle today

Here it is complete with the link to the Study:

Christine Pelosi, Attorney, author and Democratic activist:

From Judge Sotomayor’s hearings, we have learned that United States Senators are on the 24-hour news cycle and Supreme Court Justices are not.

It is perhaps a historic coincidence that America’s first Internet President, Barack Obama, sent up a Supreme Court nominee for confirmation hearings the same week that Cornell University published a landmark study - “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle” – that demonstrated how the web shortens the news cycle. The Cornell researchers tracked the accelerated web-based circulation of ideas – scouring 90 million articles and blog posts during the 2008 campaign for the “genetic signatures” for ideas, memes, and story lines.

They found what most Americans already intuit: the Internet shortens the time in which a meme circulates from main stream media to blogs (2.5 hours) and into the popular culture, thus words have more weight as perceived evidence of a person’s character and philosophy. The study helps explain why the role of United States Senators in this Supreme Court Justice hearing is to elevate their chosen memes (“most experienced nominee in 100 years” “wise Latina” “prosecutor” “judicial activist” “moderate” to name a few) through repetition and questioning in order to quickly frame Judge Sotomayor’s character and philosophy, capture the conversation, and build momentum to justify their vote.

Meanwhile, by contrast, the role of Supreme Court Justices is to navigate a long-term jurisprudence cycle not a short-term news cycle. Court rulings rely heavily on precedence, must endure over time, and ideally are not swayed by the passions of the moment. As Judge Sotomayor said, “we don’t rule for the home crowd.”

But before she can be elevated to a lifetime appointment to work in the long-term jurisprudence cycle, Sotomayor must endure the last unblinking look of the 24-hour news cycle. Unlike nominees of the pre-Internet era, the judge’s public utterances were captured on tape and can be taken in or out of context with the stroke of a keyboard. Sotomayor must assess the weight of her words on and off the bench to show us her personal character and judicial philosophy without prejudging cases or adding new weight to badly chosen words. In the questioning to date, Democrats emphasize her words on the bench and Republicans emphasize her work off the bench.

She has demonstrated patience, intellect, and the ability to withstand withering patrimony with aplomb. To her credit, Judge Sotomayor is attempting a candid discussion on jurisprudence that will endure over a lifetime and avoiding a gaffe that will circulate in a news cycle.


How to Help Non-Sales Staff Sell

July 31, 2009

Copyright 2005/2009

Asking non-sales staff to sell is an issue that arises more and more these days, as organizations compete to move their products and services. Sounds good on the surface, but the request (or demand) often terrifies people who don’t do sales on a regular basis. If they are going to participate in sales activities they need help. I first wrote about this in 2005 and am updating that article here.

There is nothing wrong with sales. It is just another manifestation of influence. If the influence is of benefit to the person being influenced, then most societies would usually agree it is a “good” thing.

So, why are some people and not others afraid of selling? For the answer to this question, which I did not address in my original piece in 2005, I’m drawing on neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns’ 2008 book iconoclast, particularly his commentary on “fear”. My conclusion is that some people fear sales because they are uncertain of the benefit of the influence sales represents. They suffer from “ambiguity”, or the inherent fear of the unknown. And/or, they may, like a third of Americans, suffer from the same fear that arises from that most common phobia – public speaking. It’s the fear of failure.

In his book, Berns references the science of these fears and notes some experiments that prove the power of these fears and their effect on human behaviour. When people who have these fears hear the word “sales”, a movie runs in their head and it triggers a reaction. Think of the fear inherent in making the initiating phone call with the prospective client, or in the “asking for the order” of closing the sale. These images trigger the socially debilitating condition – fear of rejection.

Before I get into solutions to these fears, let me answer another question. Why would organizations want to have non-sales staff selling? We hear from clients that they want as many points of contact with potential customers as possible. We hear that they also want staff to cross-sell products and services to existing customers. Consulting companies want consultants to go out and bring in new business, or “kill their dinner” as they say. But many of these people are not psychologically equipped to go out and “sell”.

A number of years ago, I received a call from a truly desperate PR consultant who practically begged me to help him find new business or to get another job. A consulting  firm had recruited him from a position at an industrial association because of his knowledge of a particular industry sector. He told me he had been promised that the firm had lots of business for him to work on and that he would only occasionally be required to participate in new business pitches. Well, that lasted for a couple of months, and then he was told that he had to make a far more substantial contribution to his billings from clients he was to bring into the firm – or he would be let go. This was a likeable, knowledgeable fellow – but a salesman he wasn’t and he knew it. When he told his wife, she was devastated. She had warned him not to leave the association for the consulting field. His distress and bleak prospects had such an effect on me that I use his story as a cautionary tale for anyone who asks me about a career change, where the selling reality is not fully understood. His story also prompted me to want to find a solution to the problem.

Another situation where non-sales staff are asked to participate in selling occurs when the organization has to make a sales presentation as part of a bid on a major contract. We’ve seen these situations cause serious concern amongst these staff. Organizations that realize the terror this creates come to us looking for training/coaching assistance, to help their non-sales staff to be less anxious and to make a better showing for the prospective client.

So, what help do we provide these terrified staff?  I should note here that the solutions offered were not derived from, but are consistent with Berns’ commentary on “Taming the Amygdala Through Reappraisal and Extinction”. (The amygdala is the brain’s fear centre.)

Here are 3 critical components:

1. Brand/Reputation-building, not sales

Change the words and you change the perception of what is being asked of staff. Sales to most non-sales staff (and even to some salespeople!) is as frightening as giving a speech to an audience of 1,000 people. In truth, these people are not really being asked to close deals. Usually they are being asked to find selling opportunities or to contribute to the sales process, not necessarily to do the actual sale.

It makes sense to use language that doesn’t frighten staff. In fact, what most non-sales staff do is deliver the product or service. If they do it well and look after the customers, they help to build the brand image and enhance the reputation of the organization, thus making sales easier. If the task is explained in those terms to staff, there is likely to be far less anxiety.

2. Customer knowledge

I always want to have the customer knowledge discussion in these sessions. Non-sales staff have a perspective on their customer and some have a deep knowledge. However, many haven’t fully thought through their customer’s wants and needs. A customer knowledge discussion puts a current perspective about the customer in their heads. It often stimulates a conscious empathy for the customer. Eliciting an expression of interest in helping the customer get what they want/need isn’t difficult after this discussion.

It may seem like a “no-brainer”, but too often this knowledge and consciousness is taken for granted. When we ask them to tell us the customer’s story at the beginning of this exercise, they can’t. We get part of the story, but not all. So, we should never assume staff have it top of mind. We should always work through the customer knowledge discussion.

How powerful is this customer mindset? I met the top salesperson for the largest region in a particular division of a major bank. We talked about sales. He said he never sold. He just gave the customers what they asked for. Their ask which resulted in the sale would come after he explored their wants and needs with them, as well as the possible solutions and products that might satisfy those wants and needs. He said he never asked them to buy a product. He didn’t have to. They asked him. His success was based on customer knowledge. And while the monetary reward was good, he said looking after the customer was what he enjoyed most. No anxiety or terror here.

3. Personal contribution

Most employees believe they are making a contribution and take pride in what they do. We tap into that. We get them to tell us what that contribution is and how it helps the customer. Then we ask, if they were speaking to a customer or prospect, would they feel comfortable in talking about their knowledge of the customer? Or how they as employees contribute at their organization to satisfying the customer want/need? Customers more often want to hear a credible story about how their wants/needs will be dealt with from the people who do the work, rather than hear from a person whose job it is to “sell” making grand claims. But staff doesn’t have this perspective on their minds or the right stories prepared, if they are blinded by the terror of the demand that they have to sell.

Don’t deal with this terror by saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine, don’t worry” (this line is about as comforting as the “this won’t hurt a bit” line.) Shift the focus from outcomes to a focus on a process that will credibly show non-sales staff how effective they can be at “sales”.

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?