In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath offer two ways to describe a pomelo to a person who hasn’t heard of it.
The first way is to infuse the definition with detail:
“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.”
The second way is to draw an accessible analogy instead:
“A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”
The second version works better, they write, because it succeeds in “tapping the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.” Since the audience understands what a grapefruit is, you begin with that, creating a building block that allows you to add another detail that taps into something the learner already knows, then another, then another.
Too often, I find that physicians and scientists revert to using the first type of definition. They explain whatever they’re talking about in the type of unhelpful detail that leaves an audience confused. So I was delighted when I saw a physician named Devi Nampiaparampil on CNN last week to discuss a new pathology report which found that Robin Williams had been suffering from Lewy body dementia.
Fast forward to 4:54 to see the interview below; alternatively, you can click here to see the interview without having to fast forward.
Dr. Devi did a great job of explaining the science behind Lewy body dementia by drawing upon what viewers already knew. To explain how the brain rewards certain behaviors with the chemical dopamine, she drew an analogy to potty training a child or training a pet.
Whereas many physicians would have started by describing the pomelo—or Lewy body dementia—in great detail, Dr. Devi started with the more helpful version—the “supersized grapefruit” approach. She didn’t focus on her own concerns about coming across as “smart” or “credible” (although she accomplished both), but focused squarely on helping viewers understand the disease in terms that made sense to them.
If you deliver media interviews or speeches that contain similarly complex content, remember to look for an accessible analogy that makes your material immediately understandable to your audience. Once you put that building block in place, it will be easier for you to add complexity—slowly—until you get the audience to exactly where they need to be.
Editor’s note: Due to the Thanksgiving break, this will be my only post this week. Enjoy your holiday, and see you next week!
“For the first time since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the Army is shrinking.” So begins a recent New York Times article that profiles several officers who had planned on remaining with the Army for their entire careers but are being pushed out years earlier than expected due to budget cuts.
According to the Times, close to 1,200 captains and 550 majors will soon be out of work, with additional layoffs scheduled next year. And the choices about which officers will remain with the Army—and which will not—are raising some eyebrows:
“Many are being pushed out despite having good records. When the Army announced the impending officer cuts a year ago, officials said they would target officers with evidence of poor performance or misconduct.
But an internal Army briefing disclosed by a military website in September showed the majority of captains being forced out had no blemishes on their records. The briefing, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, also showed that officers who had joined the Army as enlisted soldiers, then endured the demanding process required to rise into the officer corps, were three times as likely as captains who graduated from West Point to be forced to retire.”
The officers’ stories are full of hardship. Some are receiving dramatically smaller pensions than they expected, others are flirting with bankruptcy, and many are feeling a sense of loss and betrayal. In response, the Army issued a statement that failed to match or acknowledge the emotion of these stories. Worse, it appeared to slight the officers who had been let go:
“Selections for separation are based on a soldier’s manner of performance relative to their peers while serving as a commissioned officer,” Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman, said in an email. “The boards retained those with the highest demonstrated levels of performance and the most potential for future contributions on active duty.”
Ouch. I’m sure the men and women who served were thrilled to see their work dismissed in such cold terms.
This statement suffers from the same problem as the one I highlighted last week regarding the medical center that treated Joan Rivers: It’s bereft of humanity.
In fairness, it’s entirely possible that Lt. Col. Garrett’s full statement contained more human language, but was cut from the story by the reporter. Even if that’s the case, this quote highlights the need to only send a reporter a short quote that can’t be easily edited down. As an example, this quote would have avoided the problem of sounding unnecessarily harsh:
“Dismissing an officer for budgetary reasons is always an excruciating decision. Although we made selections for separation based on a soldier’s manner of performance, many well-qualified and decorated officers are not being retained. We honor their service and are fully committed to easing their transitions to post-military life.”
Since this is the second time I’ve written about this topic in as many weeks, I’ll propose a new rule: When drafting a crisis statement, always remember that you’re just a person, talking to another person.
A grateful h/t to presentation coach Gary Genard, who tweets at @GaryGenard.
I often tweet about stories that don’t appear on the blog. Join me! I’m at @MrMediaTraining.
Brenda Tracy says she was raped 16 years ago by four men, two of whom were Oregon State University (OSU) football players. There was a lot of evidence to substantiate her claim—the men “implicated each other during interviews with police,” and Ms. Tracy “had a thorough rape examination”—but because she chose not to press charges, the four men never faced criminal prosecution.
For the first time since her assault in 1998, Ms. Tracy identified herself publicly last week. In a gripping article written by John Canzano in The Oregonian, she describes being brutally gang raped by the four men over a seven-hour period.
The OSU football coach in 1998, at the time of the incident, was Mike Riley. Back then, he “suspended two of the players for one game and was quoted as saying his players had made, ‘a bad choice.’” Ms. Tracy says that three-word phrase still “burns” her.
Here’s the twist in this case: Mike Riley is still the coach of Oregon State’s football team. But there’s at least some good news in this story. In contrast to other recent high-profile rape (or alleged rape) cases, Coach Riley and OSU’s president responded to the Oregonian report in exactly the right way.
Before proceeding with the rest of this post, let me make clear that the scope of this post includes only the response to last week’s Oregonian article—not Coach Riley’s or OSU’s handling of the case in 1998, which may well have been insufficient.
But Coach Riley was pitch perfect in his response on Friday, leaving the following comment in the Oregonian’s comment section:
And OSU president Edward J. Ray offered a lengthy statement worth reading in its entirety:
“I am sure that many of you have read the article just published on OregonLive and being published in three segments this week in The Oregonian regarding the horrific assault suffered by Brenda Tracy in 1998 at the hands of several men.
I learned the details regarding this assault on Friday. Apparently, statements were taken from Ms. Tracy and the suspects, two of whom were on the Oregon State University football team at the time.
We are told that law enforcement officials in 1998 were not able to bring criminal charges because Ms. Tracy did not wish to participate in a prosecution.
OSU cannot control the criminal justice system, but I have asked university staff to obtain the police reports for the case and to determine if there are any actions we can take now under OSU’s code of student conduct. There may be no formal course of action available to us but we must try. While legal minds could no doubt explain how it makes sense to have a statute of limitations for sexual assault crimes, I find that appalling. Hopefully, justice delayed is not justice entirely denied in this case. We are currently trying to get the facts regarding OSU’s handling of this matter in 1998, including what efforts were made then to reach out to Ms. Tracy to help her deal with the terrible physical and emotional harm she suffered. If a case of this nature was reported to the university today, OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion would work to stop the sexual misconduct, assist the survivor and prevent a recurrence.
Ms. Tracy’s journey has been simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring because of her own capacity to reclaim her sense of self-worth and pursue her education so that she can help others through her work as a nurse.
There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency. I understand that Mike Riley, who was our football coach at the time, has offered to meet with Ms. Tracy and would like to have her speak with the football team if she wishes to do so. The immediate response from us to Ms. Tracy is to ask how we can help her address the effects of this violence. It is our hope that any role she is willing and interested in pursuing to help educate our community on the horrors of sexual assault by sharing her story could bring some healing.
This would be of great interest to us, but only if it is helpful to Ms. Tracy in continuing to deal with all that she has suffered.
We cannot undo this nightmare. I personally apologize to Ms. Tracy for any failure on our part in 1998 in not helping her through this terrible ordeal. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.”
Wow. Those statements are serious, infused with compassion, and completely victim focused. One wishes that all institutions involved in these types of cases would respond similarly. (That said, it’s worth noting that Mr. Ray’s statement doesn’t mention Coach Riley’s original handling of the case; he may have to address that part of the story if other reporters ask him about it, as I suspect they will.)
Of course, a good crisis communications statement or two doesn’t make up for Ms. Tracy’s 16 years of suffering in near-suicidal silence. But even now, doing the right thing still matters to Ms. Tracy:
“When I told Tracy about OSU’s reaction and Riley’s wish to think about having her speak to his team someday, she broke down. Of course, she’d love to be part of an educational program, not just for the football team but for any group interested in hearing her story.
‘Maybe that’s where this was supposed to go all along,’ she said.
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Several women have accused Bill Cosby of rape and sexual misconduct over the past decade. But the accusations, which have received only sporadic media coverage in the past, came roaring back to the headlines this week after a fellow standup comedian called Cosby a rapist on stage.
To make matters worse for Cosby, a Twitter campaign he supported this week that intended to make him a “meme” backfired badly.
Although Cosby reportedly reached a financial settlement with at least one of his accusers, he has never been prosecuted. According to Mark Whitaker, a journalist who wrote Cosby’s biography, there have been “no definitive court findings, no independent witnesses.”
Nonetheless, the allegations are suddenly having a legacy-threatening impact on Cosby’s career. His scheduled appearances on The Queen Latifah Show and Late Night With David Letterman are off, and many media writers are wondering whether his forthcoming NBC sitcom will still make it to air. (Editor’s note: His NBC sitcom has now been canceled, his Netflix special has been called off, and reruns of “The Cosby Show” have been pulled from TV Land.)
Cosby appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition this morning to discuss an unrelated topic. When host Scott Simon asked him to comment on the allegations, Cosby said….nothing. (Simon had to tell the audience that Cosby was shaking his head). When Simon tried a second time, there was complete silence once again. When Simon tried a third time, still nothing.
Cosby’s silence doesn’t equal guilt. I always keep in mind former California Congressman Gary Condit who, in 2001, remained publicly silent for weeks about his role in the disappearance and murder of intern Chandra Levy. While the public took his quiet public stance as a sign of his guilt, he was later found to have no role in her disappearance.
But whether it’s fair or not (and to be clear, I believe it’s entirely possible that his numerous accusers are telling the truth), Cosby’s radio silence will likely be seen by many—I’d guess most—as a sign of his guilt. And although Cosby has maintained his innocence either directly or through his representatives in the past, he’s had nothing to say on this latest—and most threatening—wave of negative publicity.
Cosby’s strange silence on NPR guaranteed more publicity for the allegations against him than a banal response would have (e.g. “I’ve answered questions about this topic in the past, and I’m not going to help keep this story alive by commenting further.”)
All of this raises a question: If he was unprepared or unwilling to answer a question on a topic that would so obviously come up, why did he proceed with the interview? Why not stay out of the public eye until either the media coverage died down or he had something more substantive to say? Although I usually think that remaining silent during a swirling controversy is a bad idea, remaining silent during a national media interview is an even worse idea.
I was a teenager during The Cosby Show’s run. I loved the program. Now that I have a toddler son, I’ve often thought about buying the series when he’s a bit older and enjoying classic Cosby moments together: Dr. Huxtable taking Monopoly money from Theo; Rudy lip syncing to a Ray Charles classic; the high fives that follow the discovery that Theo is dyslexic.
But these allegations throw into question for me whether Cosby is the moral force I want to share with my son. My guess is that I’m not alone in those concerns. For that reason, and others that are far more important, my sense is that Cosby will need to address these allegations more directly soon—or risk losing further bookings, his forthcoming show, and his reputation.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2014, 10:00 AM:
Bill Cosby just tweeted a statement from his attorney that reads:
“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.
- John P. Schmitt, lawyer for Bill Cosby”
His refusal to speak will not quell this controversy. If anything, it will achieve the opposite, since it will leave an open, undefended playing field for his accusers to have their stories heard. If he’s guilty of these allegations, his silence might be better for his long-term reputation than an overt confession or unconvincing media interview. But if he’s innocent, his refusal to speak will cement for many, unfortunately, that the allegations are true.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 21, 2014
I appeared on Washington’s WTOP radio to discuss this case. You can hear the audio here.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Yorkville Endoscopy—the New York clinic that performed the fatal procedure on Joan Rivers—committed a series of major mistakes while treating her, according to a determination released this week by the New York Department of Health and Human Services. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the violations include the following jaw-dropping lapses:
“Not obtaining the patient’s consent for a procedure, mistakes in administering the anesthesia Propofol, failing to take Rivers’ weight, allowing an unauthorized doctor to perform a procedure at the facility and violating the patient’s privacy by taking a cell phone photograph during surgery.”
In response to the new report, Yorkville Endoscopy released the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter and other news outlets:
“From the outset of the Aug. 28 incident described in the CMS Report, Yorkville has been fully cooperative and collaborative with all regulatory and accreditation agencies. In response to the statement of deficiencies, Yorkville immediately submitted and implemented a plan of correction that addressed all issues raised. The regulatory agencies are currently reviewing the corrective plan of action and have been in regular contact with Yorkville. In addition, the physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville. Yorkville will continue its commitment to complying with all standards and accreditation requirements. Yorkville has been and remains open and active and is fully accredited by an independent review organization. The staff and providers are focused on providing the highest quality and most advanced care possible to its patients.”
Their statement doesn’t convey even the barest amount of apology, express remorse, or say anything that makes me believe that they are patient-centric. Instead, it appears to be a self-interested statement intended to say as little as possible, limit legal damages, and convince regulators that they deserve to continue receiving Medicare money.
Yes, I understand that the practice has to be careful with impending litigation on the horizon, so it’s responsible for attorneys to play an important role in writing and vetting this statement (as they surely did). But does this statement really accomplish much? After reading such damning findings, I suspect most people would be outraged—her doctor took a selfie with Ms. Rivers as she was unconscious?!? Yorkville’s cold, carefully parsed statement doesn’t acknowledge that underlying emotion at all, making me wonder whether future potential patients would feel assured and safe enough to put their lives in Yorkville’s hands. I know I wouldn’t.
Then again, my guess is that Yorkville’s primary audience isn’t patients, but rather the regulators and accreditation agencies who will ultimately decide whether Medicare and other insurance patients can continue to receive coverage at their practice.
Personally, I would have pushed for a more human-sounding statement such as this one:
“Patients place their trust in us, and we have a sacred obligation to uphold it. There was a breach in that trust recently, which we find completely unacceptable and took immediate action to correct. The physicians involved in the direct care and treatment referenced in the report no longer practice or provide services at Yorkville.
Our sole focus is to make sure that every patient who walks through our doors knows they will be treated by expert physicians and cared for by professional healthcare workers. They should also know that the deficiencies that were identified by regulatory and accreditation agencies have been corrected.”
I know that the second line of that statement sounds like an admission of guilt. But other medical facilities, such as Johns Hopkins, have gone even further than I’m suggesting, offering affected patients a straightforward “I’m sorry.”
From my perspective, the facts seem rather self-evident here, meaning they would gain more from admitting the obvious in a quest to regain public trust than from fearing an increased payout by including such a line. (If Yorkville’s insurance carrier is preventing the clinic from making such a statement, it’s a good reminder to negotiate a policy that contains more flexibility for communications during a reputational crisis.)
If they weren’t willing to say more, should Yorkville Endoscopy have even released a statement at all? I’d say yes, if only because it prevented the media from saying the practice had “no comment,” which would have looked even more damning. Plus, I generally believe that some communication is better than no communication. But I sure wish they had left the generic legal “cover your ass” template behind and said something that inspired genuine confidence in their work instead.
Joan Rivers photo credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons
Many speakers like to type out their entire speeches.
It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine serving as their only companions. Despite their sleep deprivation, their hard work ultimately results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.
At least their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time during their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly hired phone solicitor reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. As a result, audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude that it would have been more efficient if the speaker had just distributed the text and let them read it for themselves.
These speakers are often dreadful to watch because they fail to remember that writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear.
Still, writing out a full speech does have certain advantages. For example, writing out a speech can help speakers create a tightly-focused organizational structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases that they otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.
Therefore, I’m not against writing out your entire script, since doing so might help yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from prepared scripts (unless you’re the head of state or a similarly important figure, for whom a single bad word choice could provoke an international incident or cause markets to plummet).
If you must deliver a speech from a prepared text, here are four tips to consider:
1. Write Short Sentences
Long sentences may look good on paper, but they typically don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them or separate longer lines into two or three sentences.
2. Use “Non-Reading” Delivery
When people read a speech, they tend to lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use during less formal presentations. So remember to change your pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add a dose of excitement and more slowly in others to allow the audience time to contemplate a key idea.
3. Maintain Eye Contact
Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact with the audience for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should eventually aim for closer to 100 percent, but reaching 80 percent is a laudable achievement for most speakers working off a script). Help yourself by writing short sentences and short words; doing so will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line directly to a person in your audience, an approach public speaking author James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” Technique.
4. Use This Better Alternative
I usually encourage clients who are delivering a speech from a script to leave a few holes in their texts. For example, speakers should be able to open their speeches for a minute or two without a formal text. If they’re welcoming people to an annual conference, they should be able to say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes in front of them. Same goes for your close. In the middle of your speech, you might insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across with greater authenticity if you share it “off the page.” Just practice your transition back into your prepared remarks once you’ve completed the anecdote.
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During MSNBC’s election coverage on Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw’s cell phone alarm started blaring while he was on the air. A seasoned pro, Brokaw played it off nicely, pretending he had received a call from his wife, who had requested that he bring home some milk.
Rudy Giuliani had a similar moment in 2007 during his ill-fated presidential run when he received a call from his wife during a speech to the National Rifle Association. He picked up the phone while speaking before hundreds of people, had a brief conversation with her, and continued his speech.
Giuliani’s stunt earned widespread ridicule from the press; even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that picking up the call was “emasculating”:
“While jaws began setting in a room of muted chuckles, Rudy played public cuckold to his third wife. Feigning amusement and affection while exchanging sweet nothings, the aspiring president utterly emasculated himself in front of a crowd whose cumulative testosterone level had the Army Corps of Engineers on alert.”
Both of those moments reminded me of a speech I saw television anchor John Stossel deliver several years ago. His phone started ringing while he was speaking to a packed ballroom; he fumbled for his phone, turned it off, and apologized to the audience for the interruption. That moment was highly distracting—it removed me from his speech and turned my attention to his phone—and highly memorable, as it’s the moment I remember best from his speech.
My advice in this post is simple—turn off your phones before a media interview or speech—but there’s one less intuitive piece of advice I’d offer. It’s not enough to put your phones on vibrate. While the audience may not hear your device ring when it’s on silent mode, you will—and the vibration itself is often enough to distract you from your comments.
Writing in The New York Times, author Martin Lindstrom explains:
“So are our smartphones addictive, medically speaking? Some psychologists suggest that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviors — like gambling — so addictive. As with addiction to drugs or cigarettes or food, the chemical driver of this process is the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.
In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they ‘heard’ it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also ‘saw’ it.”
Some studies show that the momentary buzz in your pocket removes you from your central task, if even for a brief moment. And when that buzz occurs, I wouldn’t be surprised to observe speakers suddenly increasing their amount of verbal filler and hesitations; since their brains are momentarily otherwise occupied, it would make sense to see their speech briefly interrupted.
Turn off your cell phones, people.
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Political journalists David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon recently released a new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, which defines what politicians really mean when they use certain words and phrases.
You’ll probably hear many of these terms from tonight’s winners and losers, pundits, and reporters.
Their book humorously defines more than 200 political terms. Here are 14 of my favorites, which the authors explain in greater detail in their book.
Terms You’ll Probably Hear Tonight
1. The American People
Every politician, even the ones in complete disagreement, claims to speak for the people. It’s invoked often enough to have achieved drinking-game status.
2. Democrat Party
A GOP distortion of the Democratic Party’s name meant to belittle it. The way members of the Democratic Party see it, the phrase is meant to imply that they are less than fully “democratic.” Republicans, in this view, use the “Democrat” term to imply “they are the only true adherents of democracy.”
3. Strategist / Adviser
Broad catchall descriptions for campaign consultants. Television talking heads are often labeled this way, even when the strategist has little or no experience working on an actual campaign.
4. “Elections have consequences.”
The political way for a winner to tell a loser, “Tough luck, you lost. Get over it.”
5. “The question we should be asking…”
One of the biggest maxims for politicians in dealing with the media is that you don’t always answer the question that you were asked; you answer the one you want asked. It’s a rhetorical pivot away from potentially dangerous territory onto safer ground while staying on message.
6. “With all due respect…”
An age-old preface to leveling criticism, with the perfunctory pretense of appearing fair-minded. As humorist Dave Barry once wrote in his mock language column: “It is correctly used to ‘soften the blow’ when you wish to criticize someone in a diplomatic and nonjudgmental manner, as in: ‘With all due respect, you are much worse than Hitler’ or ‘No disrespect intended, but you have the intelligence of a macaroon.’”
7. My good friend
Politician-speak for somebody they often can’t stand.
Terms You May Not Hear Tonight, But Will Soon
A term that once commonly described wealthy Republicans—so-called country-club elites—it has morphed in recent decades into a pejorative description of Democratic intellectuals, including Acela Corridor inhabitants.
9. Acela Corridor
The densely populated stretch of the Northeast traversed by pundits, campaign consultants, and other political cognoscenti. Named for the express, pricier Amtrak trains that can shuttle between Washington, D.C., and New York City in under three hours.
10. Committing candor
To speak the unvarnished truth, usually inadvertently, and thus spark a controversy.
11. Deep regret
A classic form of non-apology apology, in which the politician does not actually express contrition.
12. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”
A classic non-apology apology that makes it clear the public figure is sorry for being caught, not for what he or she actually said.
13. “I want to spend more time with my family.”
One of the most pervasive euphemisms in the government and business worlds, it’s the lame excuse when someone doesn’t want to provide the real reason for departing a job.
14. Walk back
Attempts by politicians and press handlers to limit the damage done by dumb, embarrassing, and stupid statements. It’s a politely euphemistic way to address the subject of lying or deception without having to use those rather unseemly words.
Did you hear any of these terms tonight? Did you hear others that should be on this list? Please leave your words and phrases in the comments section below.