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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Primer on Social Networking for Boomers

While sifting through old photos at her mother’s farm last week, my wife uncovered one of those pictures worth a thousand words. It was a photo of a social network from 1951.

The phrase “social network” seems so easy to understand. Yet, whenever I bring it up with folks 45+, including business clients, and even some 20 year-olds, I get glazed looks. My tone assumes that they know what I’m talking about, but they don’t, yet they think they should so they look like they do.

For those of us who are trying to evangelize and profit from this social networking stuff, we need a simple illustration to explain to the unwashed why we obsess over this concept and why they should as well. It could be a chart or an infographic or a story. Just make sure the illustration is less complicated than the phrase.

I think I’ve found my explanation in this vintage photo.

Think of the circular, defined space of the pool as a networking site. What draws the kids there is a combination of experiencing something novel, having fun with other kids, and the possibilities of what each of them can do with the water – splash, learn to swim without fear, see what floats. The content of the pool is critical: no water, no community.

The kids picked up the buzz about the social event from overhearing their parents at supper and from the pool’s young owner, who talked it up at the playground. Plus, kids back then were always scanning for something to do, something surprising, and spent lots of time moving around. As baby-boomer author Bill Bryson remembers: "Kids were always outdoors — I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding."

The pool crowd in the photo came from the same neighborhood, had similar interests, knew all of the kids on their block well, and occasionally played with children on other streets. They were nice to each other mostly, were okay with the kids who didn’t join in the group regularly, disagreed with each other at times, and always came back to the group for more of whatever glued them together.

Like social websites, they shared school pictures, loved to twitter endlessly with best pals about their experiences, told about their favorite books and Disney movies, and talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up (sound familiar?).

Like any reputable site, navigating to the pool site was easy: the kids walked -- with older siblings at this age but later alone. Everyone knew shortcuts to their friend’s house, skipping through neighbors' sites, slipping under holes in fences. Lots of links to get there.

At this pool-site, everyone was welcome. It was crowded but there was always room for one more. Once there, you didn’t have to all do the same thing. You could take a dip in the water or sit above the others along the edge and watch. You could bring toy phones and other playthings if you wanted, but who would want those things when you had cool people with whom you could gab or just be silly.

Notice the kid on the far right with the dark hair who seems to be leading the discussion. The boy in the back left with his tongue out is listening and preparing a response. The blond child at the front right who is staring at the camera is a future job-hunter trying to look good. The somewhat shy, serious girl behind her is glad to be there but doesn’t feel compelled to participate. The dark-haired girl picking her nose in the back is wondering if there is another pool elsewhere that she would enjoy more. The toe-haired boy on the left also looking at the camera is thinking what kind of pool he might want that would be bigger, better, and more diverse and inclusive.

And the adorable, curly-haired girl at the far left is dreaming about a handsome and wise knight in shining armor that she will marry some day. Her dream came true: she married me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

That Frightening Speech

A speech is a fear-monger. It delights in making both presenters and communicators quake. It causes them to hide behind safe boilerplate text and embellished PowerPoints.

As a speechwriter, I know this monster. So let me yank him out from underneath the bed and show him for what he truly is: a motivator.

Why do we fear speeches (and I don’t think fear is too strong a word)?

Executives fear possible embarrassment from

  • faux pas,
  • attending reporters, and
  • audience misinterpretation.

Writers fear

  • that what they prepare will not be what the executive wants to say,
  • that what the executive wants to say may not be what the audience wants to hear, and
  • that the executive may mangle their finely crafted prose.

Here is what The Speech monster really looks like.

The Speech wants to communicate primarily to the ear, unlike a printed piece created mostly for the eye. Words that look good on paper may not sit well in the ear. Print writing requires clarity, of course, but should the reader get distracted or not understand, she can always glance back at the previous text to recapture some overlooked words or a missed point.

The listening audience doesn’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t want to raise your hand and ask the Fortune 500 CEO at the Economic Club luncheon to repeat what he just said because you weren’t listening or that he wasn’t clear.

Speakers and speechwriters: If you lack a knack for catching an audience’s ear, speakers can hire a speaking coach; writers may want to stick to print.

To help the reader map messages, print writers rely on visual structure -- paragraphs, bullet points, etc. -- and linear logic: an introductory concept followed by supporting points that build an argument, hopefully, to an indisputable conclusion.

By contrast, The Speech draws mind-maps that leads listeners out from a central message to a sub-point, then back to the center, out to another sub-point, and back again. (Anett Grant is the guru of this technique.)

Speaker and speechwriters: Think patterns, not strings.

There is a cadence to this pattern movement. When reinforced by alliteration, repetitious words and phrases (the bane of print writers), and stories, a rhythm results. That rhythm invigorates the speaker and the audience. The speaker starts moving his hands; the audience stops reading emails on their phones.

The fact that speechwriting can be more poetry than prose makes the writer’s job much more difficult and scary. (Poetry is for personal journals, right?) Moreover, it is poetry created for retention. Winning an audience’s attention quickly, then holding them for a long stretch is not easy; getting that audience to remember and later share what was said with colleagues is formidable.

Speakers and speechwriters: Think rhythm first, then words.

What you should remember as a speaker is that the audience:

  • will remember you, not your PowerPoints.
  • will remember, maybe, two points.
  • will remember the stories you told.

Speaking of retention, do you remember my saying earlier that the fearful speech monster is really a motivator? As an executive, when was the last time a situation was foreboding? Yesterday? And as a communicator, when was the last time you said “impossible” to an intimidating assignment and then did it. A speech pales by comparison. Fear – the fear of speeches -- sparks imagination.

Besides, if you fear that this tumultuous economy may jeopardize your job, an impressive speech will sure look good on your resume. Now, that’s motivation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Regret Writing

I wrote an angry email to my oldest son late last night that broke my 12-hour rule. I was mostly right (I think) in what I said, but totally wrong in how I said it.

My 12-hour rule says, after you write passionately about something, hit the Save and then Shut Down buttons on your computer not the Send button. After a good night’s rest, read what you wrote – grimace and groan -- and you will know how the recipient would have understood it had you sent it. Then, either Edit and Send, or Delete.

For the untested wordsmith, writing that stirs your own passion feels so powerful, poetic, and personal. At 1:00 a.m., it’s amazing how good your writing skills seem to be and how good your soul feels! That’s great. Now, put what you wrote into your personal journal, and when you read it several years from now you will appreciate the raw honesty of your words and perhaps understand the tumult in your life at that time that caused it.

What you don’t want to do is to write like that for a group you are trying to persuade on some issue or to a person, say your boss, whose misinterpretation – or correct interpretation – could produce deleterious results.

Why are such wonderful sounding words so wrong? Because your late-night tome probably has:

  • Too many words. You overwrite because the governor switch for carefully crafted, creative writing doesn’t work after 10:00 p.m.
  • Too many adjectives and adverbs. It would would have been better if, instead of typing, you had read some Toni Morrison or Elmore Leonard to purge yourself of embellished writing.
  • Too much of you. You’re alone, tired, perhaps a bit sad and/or angry; it’s dark, the cheeriness of morning is many hours away; and the only person there is you; so, it’s all about you.
  • Too few facts. Your claims are unsupported by anything but "piss and vinegar."
  • Too thin on precision. You’re too worked up to pull down your thesaurus for the exact words.

Sorry for being harsh, but hardly anyone besides yourself cares much about your unbridled, enthusiastic writing. Selfish as it sounds, they want to know what you have to say that benefits them.

Possible solutions:

  • Wake up your spouse or roommate and ask him or her to read what you wrote. If it doesn’t make sense to a half-awake person who has little interest then it probably won’t work with a half-asleep person the next day who has little interest.
  • Consider Mail Goggles, which Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng calls a "breathalyzer test for your Gmail." Goggles, which is active only late night and weekends (when you need it), runs you through a mental sobriety test to make sure you’re thinking clearly before you send off that feisty email.
  • Wait 12 hours.

So, son, sorry for my edginess. I’ll edit what I wrote and tell you in more literate and convincing language why I’m still right and you’re wrong. LOL: lots of laughs, lots of love.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Powerful Simplicity of a Single Word

Obfuscation. Don’t you love that word? Even if you can’t define it, you have a sense of its meaning simply by sounding it out. It sounds like obstruction, with some fussing in the middle. Obfuscation means “something obscure.”

The word Google also talks to your ears and eyes. It sounds like something gooey and uncertain, and like eyes wandering independently of each other, as in googly-eyed over a girl or guy. And the double “o”s could be zeros. Reportedly, Google got its name from the mathematical term for the number one followed by 100 zeros. And, of course, ones and zeros are the basic language of computers. For gazillions of us, Google means answers.

A word can be fun, but too many words can be unfortunate. Sometimes we as wordsmiths (another fun word) and change-agents over-write, over-talk (I plead guilty), and over-PowerPoint, thinking that people won’t “get it’ unless we explain “it” in detail. More words, we wrongly assume, gives our point -- and ourselves -- more importance. We can’t even say “daily” or “regularly” anymore. Instead, we puff up and say “on a daily basis,” or “on a regular basis.”

Think about the amazing power of one word used by a man with a Harvard lexicon to build an amazingly successful Presidential campaign. Change. That word inspired, mobilized, focused, and integrated an extensive social network that now, post-election, wants to own and participate in that change.

A single word can energize a company or client’s strategic, marketing, and employee messages. I did this:

  • for a tradeshow/museum exhibits client. I used strong employee images in an advertising program that revolved around the word “attitude,” as in the”whatever-it-takes ATTITUDE.” To refresh the campaign a year later, we switched to the word “more” and linked it to the “attitude” campaign. See MORE case study here.

  • for elearning client KnowledgePlanet. To tag the client’s business, leverage its name, and highlight the competitive edge of smart employees, I created a flagship marketing booklet and other materials around the word “know.” See a case study here.

  • and for a client company facing tough economic challenges. I recommended introducing “MORE/less” as a rallying point for managers and other employees to creatively do more (for example, sell) with less (for example, cost).

Of course, we have to be on the watch for problematic words. A lawyer once asked me to review a news release regarding the integration of an acquired business into one of the parent company’s divisions. The short, officious release provided few facts and said the business was being “dissolved.” The lawyer’s word was accurate: the legal structure was being dissolved. However, employees and others were likely to interpret “dissolve” quite differently – as in shutting down the business and eliminating their jobs. See the case study here.

So, here are some suggestions about words:

  1. Use one word where many words will only obfuscate.
  2. Avoid the word boilerplate whenever you can.
  3. Insert one word at the beginning of your communication to create a common ground with readers.
  4. Press your management or client to come up with one word that describes or focuses a particular issue.
  5. Work hard at applying the word imagination.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Want to Communicate? Don’t Call the Communication Department

Communication is one of the ironies of organizational life.

Ask management what is the most challenging issue facing the organization and, undoubtedly, they will say poor communication. And if you then push them to define communication, they will likely respond with words like listening, sharing, honesty, credibility, and trusting.

Now, ask management what the communication staff does and they probably will tell you in so many words, services: design, writing, website development, event management, and the like. “We tell them what we want in a brochure, and they get it done.”

What’s happening here?

  1. Communication is understood as strategic, but communicators are viewed as tactical
  2. Executives and managers believe they are the organization’s communicators.
  3. Management thinks communication and published materials are the same.
  4. Communication, as management defines it, is poor.

That wasn’t so hard to figure out.

Why isn’t the communication staff stepping up?

  • They get paid for what their communication major prepared them to do: that is, techniques.
  • Building websites is a lot more fun than figuring out business problems they know little about.
  • Too many people still join the communication department because “they like people.”
  • Most communicators don’t aspire to upper mobility outside the communication department.

Why isn’t management correcting the mismatch?

  • Their career success, they believe, was built in part on their effective communication skills.
  • They confuse communication with information, which they consider something they originate, regulate, and approve.
  • They have rarely met any other professional communicator than an implementer.

So, how do you fill the chasm between the communication the organization needs and the communication the staff delivers?

  1. Define the competencies that professional communicators need to address management’s definition of communication, then match them against current capabilities in the communication department, and lay out a development program.

  2. Rebrand the communication department as experts in the human dynamics of the organization by identifying a core group of those who grasp the people and business aspects of the organization and those who perform services. Spin-out the later into a captive firm.

  3. Involve the rebranded team early in the evolution of strategic organizational issues to let them understand and help shape responses rather than simply executing what non-communicators devise.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cardboard Change

The change business gets boringly cerebral at times. As experts, we strategize, advise, and write about change theory and practice -- all to sway the minds of clients, bosses, and friends.

What really matters most to change-agents, however, is changing hearts.

In this YouTube video, a church in central Pennsylvania wanted to let people whose hearts had been changed to share their experiences with the congregation. They could have talked for five minutes from a script or rambled without notes. Instead, all who participated used a recognizable symbol of brokenness on the streets: a rough piece of cardboard with a simple handwritten message on it.

If you find yourself intellectualizing or challenging what you hear and see, watch the video a second time and focus on the ordinariness of the people, on the courage they had to muster to admit weaknesses, and on raw change.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Build an Effective Intranet Portal: Dump the Steering Committee … Sort of

If you’re about to build or rebuild an intranet portal for your organization, take just a few minutes and put in your mind the frightening thought that you don’t need an executive steering committee. Could you still pull off the project? “Of course, but …” you say. Stop after “Of course” just for a minute. We’ll talk through the “buts” shortly. Stay with me. There is a purpose in my madness. I want you to understand exactly why and how to put together an effective steering team.

I hear at least two rationales for an executive advisory committee.

  1. Rationale #1 Senior management’s blessing and buy-in are needed.
    Don’t you already have management’s blessing? What executive would object to improved employee communication? Sure, cost, sustainability, and maybe one or two other issues might concern them, but they certainly all endorse the concept of a faster, more collaborative, productivity-building tool such as a portal. Assume the project has their blessing.

    And what does “buy-in” mean? Personal commitment? Participation? Truthfully, do you want executives to use their expensive time to build a portal about which they have limited understanding?

  2. Rationale #2 Senior management’s endorsement means everyone else jumps.
    It’s true that when top executive speak the entire organization responds. Middle managers will provide the portal content you need, and employees will try it out.

    Yet, everyone knows that the CEO and his colleagues put their names on lots of programs, some strategic to the organization and others for protocol and goodwill. Everyone will comply until the next executive initiative outranks your portal project.

    Rely instead on cooperation rather than compliance, and opt for sustainability over stimulation. Over the long-term, the portal’s business impact will win over middle managers and its resourcefulness will convert employees to users.

Now, think about this: without executive oversight, wouldn’t the following likely happen?

  • You as the project leader would have to tutor yourself -- with a little help from your tech-savvy friends -- on web strategies and software.
    That would be time-consuming – and who has time? Yet haven‘t you been feeling uneasy for too long about your limited knowledge in this area. You have promised yourself that you would read up on the subject sometime. That time is now. You don’t have to become an expert, just smart enough to know and evaluate the various approaches to building a portal: enterprise, open-source, Web 2.0. So, put aside your self-doubt and get started. No more procrastinating.

  • You would have to believe you are the smartest person when it comes to understanding what the audience wants, what the portal should do, and how to organize and manage the project.

    Well, arent you? Forget false humility. You are the smartest person in the organization regarding the portal concept. For sure, you know more about those subjects than anyone on a steering committee? If you didn’t have a steering committee, would you be asking those executives to tell you what to do on matters for which they know little or nothing? Don’t upward delegate what you know or do best. Have courage. Take charge.

  • You would have to rely on your staff’s imagination and gutsiness.
    Even though I’m sure they are a talented, hard-working group, creating a portal that really works for people will require every ounce of their resourcefulness. This will take serious stretching.
    - They will have to think from the outside-in – from what employees want and need rather than what the organization wants to promote.
    - They will have to focus on function rather than form: that is, how employees find stuff on web sites rather than the most logical organization of information on the portal.
    - They will have to generate imaginative ideas that not only work but for which they will assume accountability over time.

    Stretching means pain, so expect some groaning. But, nothing develops individual potential and rallies team spirit like a good fight against the odds. You know that. Lead them.

Now that you realize you could survive, perhaps even flourish, without an advisory committee, why should you have one? Because you need them to be converts, members, and missionaries.

A portal is not a building that you design, construct, hope employees occupy, and remodel every few years. Think instead of your portal project as laying out a high-speed network that links people with content and other people, and that changes configuration frequently depending on how the nodes – the people – respond.

Converts Your steering group is not a building committee. It is a beta group of neophytes, much like the eventual end-users, who need to be won over to a new way of thinking about portals.

Members Once your advisory team “gets it,” then you will need them as permanent and contributing members of the portal congregation.

Missionaries Finally, you will have to encourage them to be missionaries among employees to ensure that everyone believes in, values, and uses the portal to benefit the organization and their careers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay Attention ... If You Can

I recently guest-lectured in a university course with the title “Computer-mediated Communication,” in which approximately 40 students sat at rows of tables and peered at me from behind computer monitors. At first glance, the course might better have been called, “Computer-impeded Communication.” My “pre-Senior” friends told me later that the students should have turned off their machines and listened to me.

Yet I saw the challenge as “computer-competitive communication,” and as a social experiment of sorts. Rather than being the sole source of information for one hour, I would have to work up my most effective communicatin skills to compete for students' attention. Equally important, I became like them, a student, who wanted to observe and learn how this digital generation divides attention.

Here is what I discovered …
  • Most students seemed not to be multi-tasking but engaged in “continuous partial attention.” Social analyst Linda Stone, who coined the phrase, says that multi-tasking gives almost equal attention to familiar tasks that increase efficiency and productivity: talking on the phone and filing papers, for example. By contrast, continuous partial attention prioritizes attention, keeping one source of information such as my remarks as primary, but staying accessbile and jumping impulsively and often emotionally between any opportunity at the moment – for instance, a rumor on FaceBook -- that lets you feel connected and alive.

    Several students did multitask, at least periodically, and explored, verified, and maybe even quietly challenged certain points and references I made by asking me for a URL or the spelling of a name, which they then tapped on their keyboard, scanned the site, and bookmarked the information.

  • The students didn’t strike me as rude by shifting their attention back and forth between my talk and their screens. Actually, they seemed respectful. Their non-verbals reassured me – eyes wide-open, most sitting upright, some leaning to one side in their chairs while reading or typing so they could see and be seen. However, some non-verbal cues were ambiguous for me as the presenter. For example, if I tried to be humorous to emphasize a point, I sometimes couldn’t tell if some were smiling at my comment or an IM that just flashed on the screen from a friend.

  • Continuous partial attention may be rampant in what Stone calls the transition from a 20-year era of "Connection" to the emerging era of Protection and Belonging. However, it had been around in some forms for decades. In my student years, the computer was not around to distract, but certainly other interruptions, welcomed by me, interfered with my paying attention to the teacher: my next-desk friend whispering to me, my notes surreptiously laid in front of me so I could crash for a quiz in a later class, or the windows encouraging me to daydreaming about after-school football.

  • As I walked around the room and drew closer to the students, they paid more attention to me. Of course, some were probably embarrassed that I might glance at their private stuff on the screens. Still, I sensed that the closer and more one-on-one or one-on-few interactions I had, the power of conversation took over. As with any conversation – the purest form of communication, I think -- at close range, I could watch their expressions to check if I was making sense and adjust my words accordingly. They seemed to be listening more intently and were a bit readier to ask a question or comment.

And here is what I learned or reconfirmed about presenting:

  • To minimize distractions, maximize the human medium. I could have added PowerPoints to my presentation, but that would have introduced yet another medium that would compete with me and their computer connections.

    Too often, PowerPoints become a proxy for the much more effective medium of talking humans. And too often, the number of PowerPoints is endless and crammed with data and silly animations. Think about the reaction of the folks in the back row. The lights have been turned down and they are told that they might not be able to read some slides from back there. In other words, take a nap because you're not important enough to learn anything.

  • On the other hand, the content of a presentation and even the speaker’s infectious style alone will not guarantee understanding. Engage the audience any way possible. Another guest lecturer at the same university greets students at the door as they enter and then uses their names in his remarks and the Q&A. Smart. Try it.

    Also, move away from the lectern -- and bring your script if you have to -- but put yourself in a position where you are forced to use your hands and the rest of your body to emphasize your points. Finally, ask questions, rhetorical and direct, to help the audience connect with you and you with them.

  • Finally, integrate the audience’s devices – primarily smart phones and laptops – into the presentation. Tell them to check a website or SMS a certain person on your staff for an answer. Give them ownership of learning. In hindsight, I regret not doing that with my lecture.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Changing CEOs Who Can't Manage Change

When training company Leadership IQ asked 1,087 board directors why they fired their companies' CEOs, they said:

  • 31% mismanaged change
  • 28% ignored customers
  • 27% accepted low performers
  • 23% denied reality