Friday, November 23, 2012

Crisis Recovery Communication, Part 1: The After-Crisis Thank You Note

Author's note:  This is the first of a two-part series on crisis recovery messaging.

Earlier this Thanksgiving week, a radio news reporter told of seeing long strings of utility trucks barreling west on the Long Island Expressway, obviously headed for the bridges that would take them off the Island and back to their various home states.  Their work was done. Finally!  The only Long Island homes still without power now are those whose systems were so compromised that they need major overhauls.

That's not to say that our post-Sandy problems are over.  Local trucks are still roving around our neighborhoods, dealing with the still-startling number of uprooted trees that dot the landscape.  (I spotted the truck in the above photo on the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway near the beautiful Bethpage golf course which hosted the U.S. Open earlier this year.  I wonder if golfers are still navigating around its huge fallen oaks, birches and maples as they play an early round on this beautiful Friday after Thanksgiving?)

Town tree trimming crews are still a common sight, and many smaller private outfits have moved in at this point to undertake  the next phase of clean-up. The drone of their chain saws and wood chippers is ever-present as Long Islanders tackle the last tangles of branches and load debris onto flatbeds for transport to centralized collection points. (See my next post for more about those.)   For me, these omnipresent crews and vehicles have come to symbolize the surreal post-cataclysmic atmosphere that permeates the culture here.  The trucks' constant intrusion into our peripheral vision mirrors the continuous undercurrent of survivor shock that we're all experiencing.  

Even though most communities have returned to some semblance of normal life, our thoughts are tinged with  the awareness that, just a few towns away, people are coping with the unimaginable.  For veteran New York City area residents, November 2012 is seeming a lot like September 2001.  Now, as then, we are in recovery mode.  And in a post-crisis situation like this, strategic messaging makes a world of difference.

Previously on this blog, I've talked about the strategic importance of saying thank you to staff after a project's completion (click here to see that post).  The other day my daughter, Jen, received such a thank-you note, but the "project" it referenced was actually Super Storm Sandy.  

Jen works for a company called FREE, short for Family Residences and Essential Enterprises.  FREE provides services, housing and care for mentally-disabled people, so that they can live safely in the community with dignity and experience a life that is as normal as their challenges may permit. Jen's on staff at one of their group homes for adults with psychiatric disorders.

During the morning of October 29th,  Jen's supervisor sent out an emergency text to all staff at the home, asking for someone to staff the afternoon and overnight shifts (which would bracket the brunt of the upcoming storm's onslaught).  Jen didn't hesitate to volunteer for the extra work, even though it was her day off.  Texting back her "yes" to accept the assignment, she explained to me, "I need to do this.  The other staff people on call either live far away or have families to look after during the hurricane.  I'm single, and I'm close.  And anyway, if I leave in the next hour I can get there before the wind gets too bad." 

So despite my motherly misgivings, Jen drove off as violently-spattering raindrops heralded Sandy's escalation.  She presided single-handedly at the group home throughout the worst hours of the hurricane.  With her help, its twelve residents rode out the storm's fury and resulting power outage in festive style, first watching a movie on a battery-powered laptop, then making dinner by flashlight (peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips).  Jen made sure everyone went to bed with extra blankets before preparing the house for the group's evacuation to FREE's emergency storm facility the next morning.  

After putting in the double shift, Jen navigated back home on Tuesday morning along storm-ravaged streets that were booby-trapped with downed trees and dark traffic lights. Tired and worn out, she was still buoyant about the experience when I talked with her later that day.  She knew she had made a difference.  Her support had made all of the residents much more at ease.  (And if you detect a note of mother's pride in this narrative, you are not mistaken.)  

This unexpected challenge was not a burden to Jen, nor was she scared at the prospect of riding out a hurricane with a dozen mentally-compromised individuals. She loves her job and she has great relationships with everyone in the house.  She's also in love with FREE as an organization, and I can certainly see why after reading the following letter, which she recieved two weeks later, along with a sizable bonus check:

"Dear Valued Team Member:

"It is a great honor having the opportunity to work in direct partnership with you as a valued member of the FREE family.  The magic that is created each day is something that is not easy to describe.

"The recent unprecedented epic storm was yet another opportunity of how the FREE team comes together in a time of need - a true reminder of the power of the human spirit.  We have been heartened to see so many of our valued team members make extraordinary efforts and sacrifices to ensure that the people we support were well cared for and have had what they needed, both during the storm and afterward.  Together, we have been able to successfully tackle the many challenges we faced as a result of Sandy.

"Thank you for your commitment to excellence and continued efforts to inspire the people we support toward greatness.  We look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of our journey together.

Sincerely,

Robert
Chief Executive Officer

Chris
Chief Operations Officer"

I've included the letter in its entirety here because it is a wonderful example of the after-project thank you note.  You can't help but feel appreciated and inspired as you read it.  Notice, too, that the two top officers of the company both put their signatures on the letter.  Even though they signed their full names, they used only their first names in the printed signatory line.

A message like this one has a huge impact in a post-crisis period.  As I've noted in a prior post, I feel that expressing gratitude is a mandatory element of remarkable messaging.  Any time people give of themselves, it's appropriate to acknowledge that gift, even if their contribution might be considered to be in the line of duty.  In times when people truly go above and beyond, however, it is doubly imperative to thank them -- and to do so in a way that is significant.  Besides being the right thing to do, it's also the smart thing to do.  The results pay off in the long run.

This letter, and of course the monetary bonus, has made Jen feel ten times more loyal to FREE now.  She's much more likely to volunteer for other extra assignments after getting such positive recognition.  She also will not hesitate to recommend the company's services to potential clients, and to introduce FREE to prospective high-quality job candidates from among her peer group.  I don't know if  Robert and Chris were counting on achieving those strategic outcomes, but they are theirs, nonetheless.  I'm convinced that FREE will reap rewards from this letter for years to come.  

One of my observations from Sandy is that during a crisis, people of good character are energized at the prospect of implementing their skills on others' behalf.  The best among us will derive intense intrinsic rewards from seeing their skills make a difference in high-stakes situations.  But that doesn't mean that the entities, agencies and charities that benefit from their efforts can assume that this intrinsic reward is reward enough, and take their efforts for granted.   Recognition is called for. If it's given, it will make a huge positive impact.  If it's withheld, well, that will create just as big an impact too -- but on the negative side of the scale.

Expressions of gratitude like the one above need to be sent out by every organization that sees employees step up their efforts before, during, and after a crisis.  The same goes for individuals, their families, and their circles of friends.

Are you making absolutely certain that the people who help you in a time of need are called out and specifically made aware that their service has made a difference?

Here's an idea.  Let's learn from Sandy.  Let's take the last few weeks of 2012 to think back and identify those who have done a double-shift of kindness in our own lives this past year.  Then let's consider how we can honor them in tangible, concrete, memorable ways.  It's the right thing to do -- and the smart thing to do.  

One last thought: in times of personal crisis, let's all give ourselves permission to reach out for help earlier, rather than later, as Jen's supervisor did.  We'll be giving others the opportunity to step up and utilize their skills in fulfilling ways that boost their human connection and energize their sense of purpose.  Let's ask for support when we need it, knowing that the world is well-seeded with Jens who are waiting to respond in times of need.  

Let's allow the angels among us to swoop into our lives when we need them -- then let's thank them from the heart when they do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When You Leave Gaps in Information...

This cherry-picker utility truck is typical of the ones that have swept across Long Island in recent days.  We ride alongside them on our streets, pass clusters of them, watch strings of them rumble past.  When they don't stop at your house, and your house still has no power, then you feel doubly powerless.

A friend of mine lives on a street that was still dark twelve days after Sandy.  She and her neighbors noticed a truck parked at their corner, waited while its crew ate at the McDonald's there, then swarmed them to ask when someone was going to clear the one tree that had fallen on their wires.  The out of state crew leader, a shame-faced young man with a Midwestern accent, said he didn't know when they would get service.  My friend's neighbor said he would pay them for the favor.  The crew chief refused.  The team got back on their truck, which had Kansas license plates, and headed for another assignment.

 Reading the license plates and company logos on these trucks is a lesson in geography. I've personally spotted equipment from Ohio, Illinois, and Alabama.  Others swoosh by too fast for me to read the full addresses or phone numbers on their side panels, but the digits of exotically unfamiliar area codes jump out at me:  416, or 312.   The truck in this photo, which I saw this morning, wins the prize for being furthest from home (at least that I have seen).  It sports an Abbotsford, BC address.  That's a town in Canada, folks, three time zones away from here.  That truck's home base is 75 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and 3,000 miles from the spot where I passed it on Hempstead Turnpike.

It's unbelievable how many convoys have come from all over North America to help reconnect the electrical dots of our local power delivery system which the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and its operations contractor National Grid could not fix on their own.  These utility trucks, and their guys in hard hats, have come in from every direction.  Some were flown in by military cargo plane. They are the king's horses and the king's men, called in to put back together an aging Humpty Dumpty of a system that sat on its windswept wall for one hurricane too many.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announced yesterday that he will open an investigation to determine why LIPA's storm recovery efforts have failed so miserably.  It has escaped no one's attention that, even bulked up with thousands of reinforcements, restoration has lagged far past the "week to ten days" that was promised.

And that's where the topic of remarkable messaging comes in. Throughout this disaster, LIPA's messaging to its customers has been distinctly unremarkable. The acting Chief Executive Officer of LIPA, Michael Hervey, allowed his company to set public expectations by quoting a timeframe for project completion --  then he pulled back and did very little further communication as the days and weeks wore on.  In fact, the company decided to limit its press releases, stay silent in the face of escalating criticism, and not even return phone calls from civic leaders.

This is not an unusual response pattern when leaders are faced with a crisis.  If you are the kind of boss who has been relying mainly on blarney and bluster to manage situations, you're caught empty-handed when a situation surpasses your power to talk past the problem.  In a continuing and overwhelmingly bad circumstance, you find that your initial "Calm down, everyone" speech doesn't go the distance.  As the crisis unfolds, your usual empty-suit messaging tricks don't apply, so you tend to shut down the messaging entirely.  But that response pattern  paves the way for a different disaster of the public relations kind.

I have a motto that relates to this.  It goes:

If you leave gaps in information, 
people tend to fill those gaps with their own information, 
and it's usually negative.  

If the suits at LIPA had kept ahead of the communications process, stayed in constant contact with the media and supplied more frequent updates, I believe that they would not be the subject of such suspicion and animosity now.  As it is, news reporters are teasing out stories from "insider sources" about poor project management, antiquated systems, inadequate supply reserves, and ineffective leadership -- but I wonder if the real central story here isn't one of bad messaging.  

Not everyone realizes that LIPA's messaging problems go back at least thirty years to the time when our current governor Andrew Cuomo's father Mario was the governor of New York. Accusations of corruption, paybacks and cronyism go back at least that far.  It may have taken a storm to blow down the wires, but the lines of communication started fraying a long time before Sandy picked up steam on October 29th, 2012.

Someone should write a novel about Long Island's doomed Shoreham nuclear power plant that was closed in 1983 before it ever pumped a single kilowatt because an evacuation plan was never factored into its operation.  Some one should tell the whole story about the scandals and lack of government oversight that forced Long Islanders to endure huge rate hikes to pay for the Shoreham plant debacle. It's the stuff of a Nelson DeMille potboiler (Mr. deMille is a Long Island-based author who has written other novels based on local news stories).  But as far as I know, neither Mr. DeMille or any other author has had the courage to go near the Shoreham story.  In the absence of a work of literary drama, you can read about it in this New York Times article.

As it is, the true story about the failure of a local utility's campaign to nuclearize an island with a population density second only to Japan, and the way it set back the economic growth of a whole region, remains buried under decades of political obfuscation.  But the root of the story again involves gaps in communication.

In fact, one could make a pretty convincing argument that, had LIPA's predecessors been more open in their communications throughout the Shoreham plant's bidding process, planning and early construction, the whole anti-nuclear debacle of the early 1980's could have been stopped.  The powers that be, including then-governor Mario Cuomo (again, for emphasis, the father of our current New York governor), might have been persuaded to abandon the Shoreham project before millions were spent to bring it to near-completion.  If only the officers of LIPA's predecessor Lilco had had a better dialogue with the public, then perhaps the present utility would not be saddled with so much debt servicing that precious little funds have remained available for the infrastructure improvements and maintenance that would have blunted Sandy's impact.  

Alternatively, if those early-80's power plant developers could have produced -- and communicated -- creditable evidence that the Shoreham plant was goof-proof and evacuation of the Island's East End would never be necessary, perhaps its indigenous suburbanites who had nightmares of nuclear contamination would have been mollified. Then the protests that I remember so vividly -- parades of picketers camping out at the gates of Shoreham construction sites -- would not have occurred.  LIPA might have become a utopian utility characterized by cheap nuclear energy, low electric bills, and a picturesque waft of cooling tower vapor on a North Shore hill.

Then again, if Shoreham had opened as planned, and its beachfront nuclear facility had been in operation at the time of Sandy, would the 13-foot storm surge have caused the Long Island Sound to swamp it in the same way the Japanese tsunami flooded the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear plant last year?  Would Sandy have caused a dreaded nuclear contamination catastrophe on top of all of its other devastation?  

No answers are to be found in the airbrushed annals of Long Island history, and none are likely to be forthcoming in the litigation, blame and wrangling that's intensifying here and now in 2012.  LIPA CEO Michael Hervey has said he will resign.  Officials, including our present Governor Cuomo, are appointing task forces and promising to hold people accountable -- as soon as they figure out which people.  Questions will be asked!  Inquiries will inquire!  Indignation will be expressed!

And after the headlines die down, local residents like me will open up our LIPA bills and gasp.  You know all those out-of-town trucks?  Someone will be paying them for the favor.

No one is communicating whether the cost of Long Island electricity, already high compared to most of America, will go yet higher after all the lines are repaired and all the substations are working again.  So I'm filling in that gap in information with my own negative information:

Long Islanders like me have no idea how much more we'll be paying for energy by this time next year.  But it will make our high energy bills of today look like bargains.  

I wonder how affordable the electric bills are in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  Maybe it's time to move.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day: Your Vote Is Your Voice

In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the American flag gained a new level of significance in the New York City area.  In the days after the Twin Towers attack, people hoisted flags as a defiant gesture that said, "We're still here.  We're still free. You can batter us, but you can't break us.  We are not victims.  We will go on.  We will prevail."

In the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, New Yorkers have again raised their Stars and Stripes to communicate the same message.  Flags are flying:

  •  On the desolate streets of Breezy Point in Queens, where a hundred homes burned to the ground.  
  • From the overpasses of the Long Island Expressway, as fuel trucks once again roll underneath them.  
  • On still-dark storefront windows, just above the hand-lettered CLOSED signs.
  •  From the rafters of houses with toppled trees in their yard. 
  •  On anything that still remains vertical along the roadsides and ruined wastelands of New Jersey's coastline. 
It occurs to me, as I see these symbols of hope and solidarity, that America has its own unique heritage of gutsy survival that goes back to the very first settlers on our shores.  When our leaders say "We will rebuild," they echo the declarations of countless other pioneers, colonists, city-dwellers and farmers who have said the same in the wake of enemy attacks, floods, droughts, earthquakes and fires.  All Americans have tenacity in their genes.  Our very flag tells the story of  progress amidst peril: fifty sky-borne stars, bright independent states, emerge from thirteen stripes that symbolize the original colonies and the blood that was shed to preserve them.

How can any American fail to go to the polls today in the shadow of such a heritage?

No matter how much we have lost, no matter how urgent our other daily affairs may seem, today is Election Day.  It's time to add our voices, one by one, to the chorus of all those who affirm that America still has a mission, and that part of that mission is to be a beacon of freedom.  In America, our votes count and our voices matter.  Equality means we all get to elect whom we prefer to be in leadership.  No matter what our background, education, race or religion.  No matter how big or small our bank account is.

Voting says, "My country matters to me.  I pay my civic duty in the voting booth today, because so many have paid far more dearly to preserve my right to do so."  We have different views, but we have one loyalty: to ensure that this nation, this idea, this America, keeps moving into the future and facing its challenges with the same bold defiance that is mirrored in the flags now flying from our shattered Northeastern shores.

Your vote is your most basic way to add your voice to the American story.  Don't let the story continue without you.  Find the time to get to the polling place today, my countrymen and women. Stand in line with your neighbors at the polling place today and experience the solidarity that we all share as citizens of a great country.  Then enter the booth alone and pledge that you will help see our nation through, whether or not our next round of elected officials are the ones you have voted for.

Our country is bigger than any quarrel that divides us.  No matter what you think of our current politicians and problems, when you vote today you raise your personal flag over the shifting landscape of controversy to say, "This is worth preserving.  We will rebuild.  We will prevail."   

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Times Of Crisis, Character Shines Through

The event that's now being called Super Storm Sandy continues to impact the Eastern seaboard of the United States.  The wind has passed, and in the storm's wake, people struggle to cope with the damage.  In the process, peoples' true character (or lack of it) is showing.

Up and down the coast, buildings have been swept off foundations that up till last Monday were assumed to be secure.  Millions of people remain without electricity. Gasoline is scarce.  In many areas, authorities are only now allowing people back into the hardest-hit zones. so the scope of the destruction is only now being realized.

The devastation has hit all classes in society.  People who invested a lifetime of time and energy to create their perfect seaside retreat are now weeping as they sift through its muddy debris.  Working-class families pile ruined furniture on the curb as snowplows clear the sand from their street.   Less than a mile from my (thankfully) safe and secure house, an emergency shelter is filled with people who have been left with, literally, nothing.

For communications watchers like me, it's instructive to observe how a catastrophe of this magnitude brings forth the entire spectrum of human responses.  Some examples:
  • A woman was overheard saying, "My power's out, and I waited in line two hours for gas, then they told me they had run out, so now I'm going home to get drunk."
  • A radio news reporter asked a nurse who'd been taking care of the elderly people on her storm-ravaged block why she had gone out of her way to help others.  "I'm a nurse," she shrugged. "It's what we do."
  • High school students whose classes had been cancelled for the week set up a table in front of the local grocery store and asked shoppers to donate canned goods for people in need.   
  • A hand-lettered sign appeared on a shuttered storefront:  "Looters will be shot by local vets."
  • One of my neighbors made a big pot of soup and took it door to door to offer it to people who have been without electricity for six days.  
How do you react to cataclysm? 

We tend to shed our carefully-manicured public images in the tough times of life.  Our storm-damaged puppet personas are hung out to dry, and our real character becomes visible.

In situations like this, it seems to me that there are two basic types of people.

If you are accustomed to having a larger view of life -- a view that looks beyond your own concerns, desires and ambitions -- then when trouble comes, an internal compass of integrity will guide your steps.  You will feel that your fulfillment comes from continuing to be an honorable person, no matter what ones outer circumstances may be.  You will choose to act out of a sense of purpose. You will be motivated, not by fear, but by a core belief that things happen for a reason and even tragedies contain opportunities, and you will look for ways to instill meaning and value into even the most random-seeming circumstances. Your communications will be other-centered, seeking to heal rather than hurt.

However, if you customarily have a smaller view of life, your reactions will be starker. By smaller view of life, I mean that you have based your sense of security on externals -- your possessions, your position in the community, your bank account or your BMW -- and your energies have been focused on acquiring and maintaining them. To the degree that your external acquisitions have fed your sense of well-being, you might find that you are on shaky emotional ground when your edifices of pride and complacency get swept away.  You will find it difficult to escape feelings of fear or anxiety.  Hardships and uncertainties will easily move you to act out of despair, greed or desperation.  Your communications will be self-centered as you use your words to try to manipulate or dominate others, vent your rage, and re-establish your illusion of control.

Which of these patterns describes you?

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to reveal the hollowness of our life outlook.  The book of Proverbs puts it this way:

If you're slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited.

In other words, if you can't be a person of character when times were tough, then you need to realize that you're not as invulnerable as you have presumed yourself to be.  And that awareness can turn into the resolve to forge a new beginning.

When the New York City Marathon was canceled due to the storm this past Friday, many runners had already arrived from all around the country and the world to compete. They found themselves in Manhattan without a race to run.

While many howled in outrage, some of these world-class athletes decided to turn a negative into a positive. First a few, then hundreds, took to social media to communicate with each other and plan an altruistic alternative event: a marathon of service.  On the Sunday of the cancelled marathon, just a few miles away from where the race would have started, they swarmed into devastated neighborhoods wearing orange jerseys and bearing backpacks full of supplies. They spent the day cleaning homes and mopping basements.

Some had prepared a whole year for the marathon.  They were in great shape.  They had endured rigorous training.  They were ready for a challenge.  When life presented them with a different challenge, they responded with compassion, using their strength for the good of others and trusting that the outcome would justify their sacrifice.

How have you been prepared for the moments of crisis that come your way?  Where can your strengths make a difference in the chaos?  What messages will issue from you as you seek to right your ship and navigate the problems ahead?  Will your words and deeds inspire others, or tear them down?

If you're already looking at life through the lens of a larger purpose, good for you.  You will not only be happier in the long run, but you will be physically and psychologically healthier.  But if you catch yourself reacting poorly to life's big and little catastrophes, you still have the opportunity to change your words, actions and attitudes to make the best of the situation.

Advice columnist Ann Landers used to say, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

When it comes to catastrophes, that truism is doubly true.  I hope you opt to be part of the solution.  And that means that I hope you decide in favor of becoming a person who views life as a series of opportunities to serve a larger purpose.  Start now to develop that perspective, so that in the day of distress, you're ready to run the race that life sets before you.

Living a life of higher purpose today will prepare you to lead others through the hurricanes of tomorrow.    And in the process, you will build a strong foundation of character that will never be swept away.

Note:  With this column, I am doing away with Manager Mondays as a weekly feature.  I intend to turn the blog into a more general commentary on good communications tips and practices. I'll still comment on workforce messaging, but I will do so on a semi-regular basis.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Crisis Messaging in the Hurricane

The lights are back on in my house, and I and millions of other New Yorkers are surveying our immediate neighborhoods, giving thanks for our relative stability, and trying to cope with the surrounding situation.  Two days without power, a section of fence blown down -- I know I got off cheap.

When your only link to the outside world is a battery-operated radio. you tend to pay a lot of attention to what the public officials are saying.  Public officials have  been taking the microphone throughout Hurricane Sandy's onslaught, and I've been giving them good marks for Crisis Messaging. (Click on the link to read my previous post about this subject.)  For people like me whose neighborhoods weren't hit very hard, these briefings have been informative.  But for those who lost homes, cars and livelihoods, they have been a lifeline of hope.

  We're still not out of the storm yet, and the psychological effect will be hard to measure for some time to come.  But well-articulated leadership communication will be essential to achieving normalcy, whether that communication emanates from Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or the head of the local National Guard.

The incredible wind and waves have brought disaster, but our leaders' radio voices reassure us that recovery is possible.  They appeal to our best selves, while they caution us to "not be stupid."  We listen to all they have to say, filtering it for the specific bits of news we each need to know, and the hope we all need to feel.

We don't know a lot.  We don't know how long it will take to reinstate the power grid, the subways,  or the trains.  All are a shambles. We don't know when bridges will be passable.  We don't know the new shape of our coastline.  We don't know when we will see more gasoline tanker trucks pulling into our corner gas stations (with many local fuel pumps displaying Out Of Gas signs, those of us who still have functioning cars are nervous about obtaining the gas to drive them).

Nerves are fraying at the 7-11 and in the Target parking lot.  In some cases, tempers are flaring and harsh words are being shouted.  The voices of our leaders help ground us and enable us to have patience, forbearance and fortitude as we all work through this together.  When Governor Christie chokes up as he talks about the vanished icons of his beloved Jersey shore, our emotions get a push in the right direction.  We are all in various stages of shock, and we need to be kind to each other.

The election signs have been torn loose and scattered by the gale, an almost symbolic sight as we reflect that partisanship has no place in a crisis.  We need to pull together.  Those of us whose neighborhoods are intact need to rally to help our friends who have lost so much.  Our leaders, whichever party they belong to, give us direction and call out our humanitarian impulses.

Whatever the future holds for New York, we will all look back on these first few post-Sandy days as a time when we came to grips with the chaos and coalesced into action.  We did this under the leadership of calm voices that offered solace and sympathy even as they provided structure in the midst of our shapeless fear.

As a communications maven, I'm often critical of the way our top dogs express themselves.  But last night, sleepless in a dark house, straining to follow a press conference through the tinny speakers of my emergency radio, I was grateful for leaders who kept up a constant stream of careful messaging.   It's hard to have your normal yanked out from under you.  Good leaders are aware that their words are anchors for their audience, giving them something to hold onto in the storm.  It's remarkable how strong words can be when they are the ones we need to hear.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Visits My Block

Hi blogfans, sorry, no Manager Mondays post today.  We are enduring the slo-mo blast of Hurricane Sandy here in the New York area -- actually in the whole northeast quadrant of the US.  An event like this tends to make it hard to concentrate on anything else.

Compared to some of my neighbors, like the one in this photo who had a tree fall on his car, I'm actually having a dull time of it.  Would you believe that I just had a crew take down all the trees around my house last week?  Great timing, right?  

Taking a short walk outside just now gave me a feel for the rising winds.  The eye of the storm is 60 miles south of us, but the constant roar of the wind reminds me of the times I used to stand near the  Grumman Aerospace wind tunnel building when a jet exhaust test was in progress.  

Now I'm just waiting for the power to go out, and when it does I'm sure I'll cozy up with a cat and snooze my way through the storm.  Before things go dark I wanted to give this quick post to say I'm fine, I'm 82 feet above sea level, anything that can fly has been battened down or stored in the shed, and my street is miles away from any storm surge flooding.  I have plenty of the essentials: bottled water, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, flashlights, cat food and kitty litter.  Stay safe everyone!  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Following Someone Else's Tracks

Welcome to the last regular post in the Friday Fundamentals series on this Remarkable Messaging blog.

It's not that I'm going away -- or (heaven forbid!) running out of things to say -- but I am starting an absorbing new project next week, which means that I may not be posting blogs with my heretofore clockwork-like regularity.

So in this, my last post in the series, I'm going to hand you off, dear communications lover, to other sources of inspiration.  And the truth is, you don't have to look far.

Do what I do, and check out the magazine rack.

One of my favorite ways to jump-start my writing projects is to get hold of a magazine that targets an audience similar to the one I'm addressing and skim through its pages.  The reason is purely pragmatic.  This is a communications vehicle that is already good at reaching the people I want to reach -- so good that it is able to charge advertisers for the privilege of piggybacking their ads onto the magazine's already-compelling content.  To me, that means that the magazine staff is doing some things right.  From the topics they choose, to the style of voice they use, its editors are able to get the attention of the people I want to win over -- so I think it's worth a look inside to see which of their tactics I can steal, er, emulate.

For example, not long ago I had to prepare for a presentation to a natural foods company.  To get my thoughts oriented, I pored over a few issues of Prevention magazine. On another occasion, I was going to attend a business networking event.  I read through that week's Long Island Business News.

Another bonus: magazine articles always have attention-getting opening paragraphs. If I need some inspiration for how to start a particular communication, I thumb through a magazine and read the lead sentences from a few articles.  By the third or fourth one, I have an fresh idea for how to begin my train of thought.

Here's the truth: wherever you want to take your audience, someone else has covered that territory before.  You can follow in their tracks, and keep out of the quicksand.  

Do it. It's so deviously obvious!

Got a writing gig for a professional group?  Pull a couple of their trade publications off the library rack.  Educated crowd? Grab a Smithsonian from the newsstand.

Young adults?  Moms?  Teens?  Retirees?  Go to Barnes and Noble's periodical section and zero in some typical representatives of your target bracket.  Then take note of which selections they browse, and if you're really brave, casually sidle up alongside them or loom over them as they read to see which articles are grabbing their attention.  It's like that line from the movie When Harry Met Sally: "I'll have what she's having!"

Some other communicator has already succeeded in making this niche group their own.  Find out what that individual does, and construct your own approach accordingly.

Remarkable messaging starts with knowing your audience -- their opinions, values and motivators -- and using that knowledge to establish a bond.  Magazines are doing that bonding every time they publish.  They know a lot, and they've done a lot of the sorting for us.

It's not ripping off. It's researching. So follow their tracks to take your audience to the destination of your dreams.  And if you're really, really good, one day some other writer will be poring over your work, grabbing inspiration from you.  

Keep watching this blog for more tips -- just not on a weekly basis.  I'll post when inspiration strikes.  Onward and upward, my fellow communicators!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Manager Mondays: If You Don't Ask For Feedback...

Welcome to Manager Mondays, where the topic always revolves around effective workforce messaging. Today, it's about why it's important to make sure you have more than one employee feedback loop in place.

"They don't give us a way to tell them how it's going. Then, when we talk among ourselves about how bad things are, they question our loyalty."

This was the way one of my friends -- I'll call him Tom -- recently summarized conditions at his workplace.  He was disgusted by the fact that a new process had been launched a few weeks ago, and not one boss had asked anyone for feedback about it.  The people on the shop floor were stressed and anxious about the changes.  Problems were popping up with increasing frequency, but they had to deal with them in a vacuum.  There was no way for the front-line workers to report the issues to the people in the back office.   Their immediate manager was too busy coping himself to listen to their warnings.  When they did get through to him, he seemed reluctant to comment about the problems.  So Tom and his co-workers muddled along, inventing their own solutions.

Do similar scenarios ever occur in your workplace?

If your organization lacks forums for employee feedback, you could be one step away from losing your top talent.  Or maybe you already are.   

Tom wants to do his job well.  The new process is presenting him with a lot more constraints for executing his responsibilities.  He is frustrated by those constraints, but he lacks resources to deal with them, and there is no way to pull in the big guns and address them.

Tom thinks his manager is afraid that if he brings bad news about the new process to the executives who authorized it, he'll look disloyal.  So the manager "encourages" his team to make the best of it, then pastes a smile on his face when he goes into the weekly management meeting. Tom and his co-workers know they won't get traction from talking to their boss, so they talk among themselves instead, and the tone is decidedly negative.


The especially sad part about my friend Tom's story is that he's one of the best employees at that company.   He has considerable talent, he's consistently reliable, he's a team player, and he contributes a lot of value toward the bottom line.  On a social level, Tom is normally a very positive person, so when he's looking down, it's a morale-buster for everyone else.  But at Tom's place of business, sadness itself is seen as subversive, so Tom is already being singled out as a troublemaker.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Tom is thinking seriously of quitting.  He knows he has valuable skills, and he feels that they are being short-circuited. He wants to be able to help his company grow, and though he does see his bosses' unapproachable attitude as a personal affront to his dignity, he is more concerned that it's a roadblock to productivity.

Once again, my motto holds true:

Healthy organizations attract healthy people; 
Unhealthy organizations attract unhealthy people.

Tom is not being too sensitive.  He's being insightful.  Employees who care about the mission are often the first ones who abandon the company when their opinions are stonewalled.  And to tell you the truth, companies that shut out employee feedback don't deserve employees like Tom.  On the other hand, employees who don't mind perpetuating mediocrity will put up with bosses who don't listen to them, because they weren't about to start talking anyway.  But are those the employees that any company wants to hold onto?

Address Your Fear Of Feedback 

This week, do a systems check of your feedback forums.  Ask yourself: if I worked for me, would I feel free to give feedback to me?  Hold yourself accountable if the answer is anything other than a solid "Sure!"

If you find that you need to set up more avenues for employee feedback, here are a couple of ideas I recommend:

1.  Hold Instant Opinion Polls at team meetings.   Give everyone three colored index cards:  green, yellow and red.  Explain that green means "I think it's great,"  red means "I think it's not good," and Yellow means "It's complicated."  You will mention a certain company-related topic, and  employees will have three seconds to think.   Then you will call "Vote!" and everyone has to hold up the card that fits their basic feeling about the topic. 

Try this game first with a topic that everyone likes, such as a popular company perk (the employee discount at retail enterprises, for example).  Then get into more loaded territory.  When you get a show of cards that indicates mixed opinions about a topic, stop and invite people to explain why they feel the way they do.  Handle the resulting discussion with respect and neutrality.  Give everyone a chance to articulate their feelings.  

2.  Hand out Gripe Amnesty Tickets.  Tell your team that they can each come to you with a gripe that they otherwise might not think about mentioning because it's too trivial, too specialized, or whatever.  Say that they can "redeem" their ticket any time within the next month.  Explain that one of your goals for 2013 is to make it easier for people to do their jobs by helping them overcome their pet peeves, and this is a chance for them to help you fulfill your goal. 

3.  Pass out a short Survey Of The Week.  On random Mondays, stick a survey on everyone's desk or in their mailbox.  It should contain no more than three of four questions about a particular topic.  Again, start with a harmless topic, such as "my new haircut."  Keep the surveys anonymous, and keep the answers simple -- don't ask for essays!  Include instructions about how to fill it out, indicate the location of the drop box where employees can put their completed ones, and specify the Friday deadline.  Promise a group reward on the following Monday if everyone participates, such as a drawing for a gift card.  

4.  Hold an "Ask The Expert"  Q & A conference call.  If you have a remote workforce, this is a good way to include them on the feedback loop, especially in the aftermath of any significant new changes.  The objective of the call would be to allow everyone to ask any questions they have about the new policy, procedure, initiative, etc.  Have one of your company Subject Matter Experts on the line to answer questions -- for instance, the engineer who designed the new product, or the Finance Department person who knows the rationale behind the new banking procedures.  As you monitor the call, jot down any recurring themes or issues that staff brings up -- then use the last ten minutes to turn the tables and ask the callers a few survey-type questions about how things are going.  (This is a great way to not only elicit feedback but also increase staff's buy-in for the change, assuming that the "Expert" is credible and articulate.)

There are many other ways to gather feedback, but these four methods have the following advantages:
  • Friendly and fun.  If fear is in the air, or if resentment is rumbling underground, you need to make sure feedback-gathering feels as harmless as possible.    
  • Topic-specific.  Employees need to know exactly what they're being asked about.   
  • Time-sensitive.  The feedback must be received and processed within a quick time-frame.  At the rate things change at the job, a lag time of more than a week means that comments will likely be outdated by the time they're sorted.
  • Stigma-free.  If people can voice how they feel without worrying about the consequences to their reputation, they will usually do so.

However you may choose to gather feedback, make sure it's a regular activity, and make sure that there are always multiple ways for employees to have their voices be heard.

The main objective of feedback-gathering is to sustain an open workplace communications culture where people feel neither stilted or stifled.  I wouldn't want to give you the impression that you will ever get any especially-juicy revelations from the feedback-gathering process, although you very well may.  You might get good ideas for process improvement; you might get early warnings about bad trends; and you might also get a bunch of crackpot comments from people who have their own pet soapbox issues and will use any means available to push them.  That's all part of the drill.  The truth is, you're staging feedback-gathering to give more than to get.  And the commodity you are giving is reassurance: that employees matter, that their perceptions are valued, and that their struggles deserve to be recognized and resolved.

Don't force your staff to walk around with pasted smiles on their faces.  If you do, some of those employees will soon walk somewhere else --  out the door.  And they will be the ones you least want to lose.

By the way, notice that I don't include the time-honored "Suggestion Box" as one of my feedback-gathering options.  That's because no one I've ever met has found a way to make employee suggestion boxes actually work!  Are you the exception? Then leave a comment here, please, and enlighten the rest of us!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: For a Punchy PowerPoint, Pose A Problem

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, the place to find simple ways to upgrade your communication skills.  Today it's about an easy trick that guarantees improved audience engagement for your PowerPoint presentations. 

But wait --

Oh my gosh! 

That guy in the picture is being ATTACKED BY BEES!  Hundreds of them!

What's he going to do?  Where will he go?  

GET OUT OF THERE!...

Hold on.  Is your attention focused now?  Are you reading this, wondering where I the author am going to take you next?  Are you curious about the outcome?  Concerned about that poor guy?  If someone told you to stop here at this point and exit the blog, would you resist?

Hopefully your answer to at least some of those questions is Yes.  Take a snapshot of your own state of mind right now, regarding the story of the bee attack.  That's the state of mind that you want all of your PowerPoint presentation viewers to have by Slide 3 of any presentation.  You want them to be fascinated, bought in, and fully engaged.

How often do your PowerPoint decks achieve that goal?

(But what about the bees? Don't worry, I'll get to them eventually.)

I'm bringing you through this little demonstration to illustrate the tip I'm going to tell you about today.  Basically, it is this:

Setting up a counter-intuitive or unexpected problem in the opening moments of your PowerPoint can prevent snooze-watching and ensure that your audience stays with you and gets the point.  

If you don't recognize the term snooze-watching, that's because I just made it up.  I think it's an accurate description of the way many people approach PowerPoint.  They settle back, prepared to be bored by pie charts and clip art.  The awful truth is, most of the time their expectations are right on the money.  Companies don't invest enough time training their managers on how to put together PowerPoint presentations, so they usually come across dorky and dull.  (In fact, judging by the way colleges and other learning institutions approach classwork and assignments, it seems as if they think that the only good PowerPoint is a godawful PowerPoint, which just validates my opinion that the main agenda of most American educational facilities is to Perpetuate The Myth... but that's the subject for another blog post.)

Back to you and your next battle to keep the whole conference room from dozing off.  If you are facing an audience that's used to snooze-watching their way through meetings -- or if your presentation is scheduled after lunch -- you really need to wake things up on the screen.  And I'm not talking about importing cutesy YouTube clips or New Yorker cartoons.  Unless those are laser-focused and completely congruent with your topic, they can be deathly distracting, or (worse) cast a patronizing pall on the proceedings. At any rate, you can't start every PowerPoint with a sleeping cat falling off a sofa.  (What were we saying about dorky and dull?)

I'm also not talking about visual elegance, supercharged graphics or killer slide composition, though if you want to enhance your PowerPoint presentations as a whole, I do recommend improving your skills in those areas.  There are plenty of other blogs that can help you there (such as this one -- click here).

No, I'm talking about coupling an age-old movie plot device that never fails with a slick messaging tactic that always works.  The equation looks like this:

Set Up Conflict + Unexpected Twist = Riveted Audience

In the movies and on TV, the opening conflict scene is a time-honored tradition.  That's because it's effective.  Within the first few minutes of any drama or action flick, a mini-story unfolds that gives the audience a dissonant jolt and makes them care enough to keep watching.

In their book Made To Stick, Chip And Dan Heath agree with this premise.  They devote a whole chapter to how Unexpectedness can capture attention, hammer home an idea, and make it memorable.  Why haven't you read this book yet?  Get your hands on it!

Sorry I seem to be digressing so much.  I'd better get back on topic and stay there.  Yeah, and those bees are still on my mind, too.  Don't worry, we're getting to them.

The Unexpected Conflict Opening is an easy concept to grasp.  Just think about how every Law And Order episode starts.  Some poor unsuspecting New Yorkers find the body, right?  And in an unexpected place, right?  (After twenty seasons of Law and Order, we loyal viewers aren't shocked when a stiff shows up -- but it's still fun to play Where's Dead Waldo in the first few seconds before the camera reveals that episode's crumpled cadaver.  In fact, after watching one of those weekend cable LAO marathons, I find myself peeking behind trash piles in trepidation as I walk down New York's grittier side streets.  Seriously, has the bottom of every stairwell in Manhattan been bathed in bloody pulp by now?)

In the same way, your PowerPoint needs to grab attention in its opening moments by setting up an unexpected conflict of some kind.   Not a murder, of course (let's leave your feelings about the project out of the discussion for now), but more like a conflict of concepts, or a clash of ideas.

Of course, all PowerPoints do address some kind of question, such as:
  • How will our company proceed with X?
  • What are the results of project Y?
  • What are the features of product Z?
But that's exactly the question you don't use in your rollicking kickoff.  It's too obvious -- too expected.

I like to take the main premise of my PowerPoint -- its key objective -- and question its very validity.  My Unexpected Conflict Opening for each of these presentations would translate like this:
  • Does our company really need to proceed with X?
  • Is it worth this audience's time to even hear about project Y?  
  • Is product Z actually a stupid idea to begin with?
Let me give you an example.  And no, I haven't forgotten about the bees.

The Bad Health Tease 

In a presentation I delivered yesterday about a company's employee wellness incentive program, I started by introducing myself and the topic, Such-And-Such Worksite Wellness.  (Sorry; it's proprietary material, so I can't be more specific.) Then I immediately asked my audience how they all were feeling.  When they said fine, I pressed them:

"Really?  You're all okay?  You're feeling tip-top?  100 per cent?"  

After getting multiple affirmatives from everyone (and pushing them perilously close to their annoyance threshold), I continued: 

"Well that surprises me, because you're all employees, right?  And we know that most employees are not where they want to be with their health."

Do you see how that sets up a dissonance right away?  I then continued by changing the slide to reveal a montage of smiling employees, doing their jobs.  I continued:

"In fact, the very need for an employee wellness program is puzzling to me.  After all, employees are a capable group, as a whole.  They do their jobs competently.  They cross things off their To-do lists.  Give them a project, and they're on it.  They keep the company on track.  Yet their own health goals are often off track.  In fact, you might say that though they're experts at driving the business, when it comes to driving their own goals... "

At this point I changed the slide to reveal a picture of a car plummeting off a high rocky ledge into oblivion. I continued my narrative:

"They are driving off the cliff!  Hey -- are those some of your employees in that car?"

Nobody was snooze-watching at this point.  I had used a counter-intuitive conflict to set up my approach to a possibly-boring presentation topic -- the features and benefits of a corporate wellness program.  I had done so in an unexpected way that now had everyone's attention.  

In case you missed it, there were actually four conflicts in my little set-up:

1. Why do we even need an employee wellness program?
2. If employees are so capable, why are they a mess with their health care?
3. Are you guys even telling the truth about your health status?
4. And then there was the car-off-the-cliff slide, which was unexpected and counter-intuitive in its juxtaposition with the previous slide of smiling employees. The image was a subliminal tension-producer, and when I coupled it with my provocative tease question about who was in the car, I invoked the ultimate conflict: life versus death.

By the third slide, the audience was hooked in so many ways that the rest of the presentation was a cake walk.

Punch Up Your Powerless PowerPoints

If you've read earlier posts on this blog, you know that I'm somewhat jaded when it comes to the whole PowerPoint format.  I think:
  • it's been overused and misused.  
  • its very structure is too plodding and predictable.  
  • it tends to quell conversation and kill collaboration.
  • it widens the gulf between presenter and audience.   
Most of us have been so exposed to all of these viral PowerPoint shortcomings that by now we've developed PowerPoint resistance.  Snooze-watching is just one way we cope with our chronically-lowered expectations.

Yet we must still use PowerPoint.  It's effectively established as the standard presentation mode of the business world, and it's not going away any time soon.  In fact, the new PowerPoint 2013 version is waiting in the wings for launch, and you can even install a preview version  to explore it. (But anything you create with it will need to be delivered via your own laptop for the time being, plus you'll also also need to install an extra empty operating system to house it if you want it to co-exist with your current PowerPoint software --so this test installation is a step that I for one am not prepared to take.  Let me know what you think if you try it.)

No matter.  The beauty of the Unexpected Conflict Opening is that it works with whatever version of PowerPoint you're using.  You can create the tension you need to keep your audience engrossed without any special formats or features.  It's the power of the story. 

Use the example I've given above to doctor the opening of your next PowerPoint show.  Try to:
  • Kick off with questions that question assumptions
  • Toss out an unexpected problem that goes one level deeper than what your audience is expecting;
  • Establish a dissonance between ideas
  • Link your thought flow to something counter-intuitive.
About the guy being attacked by bees: all he did was run about fifty feet down the path, and the swarm left him alone completely.  That's because most bees are territorial, and when they attack, they're only protecting their hive.  With bees, moving a short distance into new territory makes all the difference.  

Similarly, it's just a short distance between perpetuating those annoying PowerPoint Blahs and achieving perfect PowerPoint Buy-In.  You can bridge that distance with your first three opening slides.  A well-crafted Unexpected Conflict Opening can carry your audience's engagement right through to your very last paragraph, just like my bee story has kept you reading right up until now.  Gotcha!  

Now go and do likewise, my intrepid PowerPoint paratroopers!  And leave a comment to tell me how it works out!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Manager Mondays: Deliberate Dialoguing, Part 3: Park Your Snark

Welcome to Manager Mondays, your weekly virtual focus group about tweaking workforce messaging for better results.  For this latest in our series of Deliberate Dialoguing, we draw from my background in motion picture production to sound a cautionary note about negative comments.

During my professional stint as a film editor and screenwriter, I met many fascinating people who could have been colorful characters in a movie -- except they were behind the camera, on the production team.

The directors were the most entertaining.  Their word was law on the movie set, and as the bosses, their style permeated everything.  They each seemed to have a larger-than-life persona.  Perhaps from years of needing to dominate movie sets, their aura tended to dominate any environment the moment they walked into the room.

And then there were my favorites: the cameramen. They were the ultimate pragmatists.  They were there to get the shots, and get them they would -- sometimes in spite of the person in the director's chair.

Though always patient and reserved on the set, true camera jockeys are artists, comedians and stunt men, all rolled into one.  (You have to be when an assignment requires you to squat on a high rooftop ledge all day, swatting away pigeons as you compose flawlessly-framed shots of the action below.)

When Camera Guys Analyze

I loved those wild men and got to know them well, because after each shoot, they would come to watch the rushes* in the confidential darkness of my editing room.  There, I listened as the cameramen pitilessly deconstructed the director.  It was always interesting to hear their wise-cracking commentary as they discussed the dynamics of the movie set and poked fun at the guy with the bullhorn.

Sherman was a director who was known for two things: barking irritable commands at everyone, and boasting about his glorious cinematic achievements every chance he got. In his stories about his years as a Vietnam war correspondent, he made himself out to be a cross between Walter Cronkite and General Patton.   His attitude was: "I'm awesome, and you're not." The crew did what Sherman said begrudgingly, but didn't take him very seriously.  As they reviewed his footage later and recounted his escapades on the set, there was plenty of eye-rolling.  The camera guys endured Sherman's bluster and bravado, and they even gave him good marks for his cinematography, but they didn't respect him.

When Bob was directing, he acted like everyone's back-slapping best buddy to their face, then talked trash about them behind their back.  He played favorites, using smirks and sarcasm to pit one crew person against another. His attitude said:  "I'm playing you." The crew had Bob figured out. They did their jobs professionally when he was in charge, but they didn't go out of their way to help the results look good.  When we looked at the shots later on, they'd point out ways that they could have improved the camera angle or captured the action better -- but they would never think of making those spontaneous recommendations at the shoot.  "Bob said do it that way, so we did," they shrugged.  As an editor, I could see the difference, and I grieved for the wonderful lost shots that could have been.

Then there was Warren -- a humble kind of guy, not flashy or loud.  When he was directing at a location, he'd describe the scenes to be shot that day, and say "What do you think?"  Then he would listen to the crew's suggestions.   His words and actions said to his team: "I value you." The guys behind the camera would sometimes snipe affectionately about Warren's quirks, but they were glad to work with him.  I always found Warren's footage the easiest to edit because the shots were creative and well-constructed.  They were tight, lean, and functional without being flashy. They were obviously the product of teamwork.

Warren once said that he made it a rule not to gossip about other people.  He told me that he tried to live by this quote:

"Great minds talk about ideas; 
average minds talk about events; 
small minds talk about people."  

Warren was not a flamboyant director. He worried over costs and budgets when other directors were spending the client's money with abandon.  While shooting on location in some far-flung locale, the rest of the crew would spend the evenings hitting the bars, but Warren would retire early to his hotel room to read a book.   Warren's eye was on the mission, not his own reputation.  In general, he wasn't the kind of boss that the cameramen wanted to party with -- but he was the guy they trusted.  

What kind of director are you on your movie set?  What are your words and actions communicating to your team?  If you could hide in a back room and eavesdrop on your crew, what would you hear them say about you?

If your employees are rolling their eyes at your attitude, there's no way they'll put their best efforts on the table for you.

So how do you improve the dynamics of your dialoguing?

Park Your Snark

Snarky comments may be fun to toss out, but they damage trust.  And by snarky I mean anything loaded with negative attitude.  Comments that are irritable, patronizing, self-absorbed, provocative, sarcastic or rude don't have a place in your workplace conversations.  Park them at the door.

As you work on improving your two-way communications with employees, clean out your bad habits:
  • No gossip -- ever.  Remember Warren's motto: talking about people is the sign of a small mind.  
  • Keep banter gentle and affectionate.  Don't let it get out of hand and cause ripples of insecurity among your troops.
  • Stop the crankiness.  Get yourself a cup of coffee, take some deep breaths, and do whatever else you need to do to stop acting like a diva and start acting like a pro.  Barking might make people jump at first, but in the end it only makes them want to muzzle you. 
  • Don't excite rivalry at the expense of collaboration.  Healthy competition has a place, but never promote ill-will within the team.    
  • Never use sarcasm or smart-aleck humor. The workplace is no place for sitcom dialogue.  What works on The Office doesn't work in your office.
  • Adopt a No Put-Down Policy -- except towards yourself.  It's never appropriate to hide behind the immunity of your higher position to tease, voice derision, or make jokes at someone else's expense.  However, do look for ways to indulge in mild self-deprecating comments about your own foibles and mistakes.  By doing so, you'll establish a culture of transparency and pave the way for others to openly own their mistakes, too.
  • Verbal abuse is not the way to do performance improvement.  If you have performance-related feedback to give, do so in ways that help the person get better at their game.  
  • No ego-strutting.  How do you feel when you're forced to bask in another person's boastful glow?  Well, that's how your troops feel, too. Nothing pushes people into a state of detachment more quickly than their boss showing too much attachment to his or her own awesomeness.  
Whenever you engage in dialogue with your employees, you have a priceless opportunity to build your relationship with them and fuel your organization's success.  Show respect for them by being sober and attentive.  Focus on their well-being.  You have the power to help them do their jobs better and fulfill the mission.  Don't dilute that power by indulging in a momentary conversational cleverness that could have relationship-damaging consequences.

Win your Oscars honestly.  Never allow yourself to cross the line into the Snarky Zone.  If you do, take it from me: you'll miss your best shots.


* The term rushes refers to the developed rolls of motion picture film that used to come back from the lab after a shoot.  They were so named because in the early days of movies the cameramen would hand their exposed film rolls to couriers and tell them to rush them into development.  When they arrived back, people would rush to a screening room to view them and see how the footage turned out.  With the arrival of digital cinematography, the drama of viewing the rushes is now gone, replaced by instant replays on the set.  

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Forms Are Forms of Communication

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals. a weekly series dedicated to helping you improve your basic communications skills.  Today we find out how to get optimal results from surveys, questionnaires, and sign-up sheets as we look at best practices for intuitive form formatting.  

Does this topic seem unrelated to boosting the effectiveness of communications?   If so, I hope to convince you otherwise.  In my experience, forms are usually the gateway to other interaction.  As such, they can be a great tool to set the tone and establish future  expectations -- or they can thwart a budding relationship before it has a chance to start.

Consider this story:

Confusion At The Rally

Recently a non-profit organization that I support staged a recruiting event to expand a volunteer program.  As I milled around with other prospective recruits, the director passed out copies of a two-page screening questionnaire.  He asked us to fill in the form completely and hand it in before the meeting started.

We gamely set about filling in the blanks, and there were many.   The questions covered our skills, past experience, hours of availability, and reasons for volunteering.  All of these were structured as fill-ins, e.g. "Describe your past involvement with XYZ Organization."  But there was one problem: there were no writing surfaces available in the small anteroom where we all stood.  People struggled to write cogent sentences while aiming skittish pens at the floppy papers in their hands.

When the doors opened to the main auditorium, we dutifully began to hand in our papers and sit down.  About a third of us had done so when someone noticed that the forms didn't ask about contact info.  The director announced: "Please add in your phone and email address on the top sheet."  Many people had to scramble to retrieve their papers and comply.  Everyone scribbled their info hurriedly, once again leaning against nothing.

I can only imagine the nightmare when staff later tried to decipher all that shaky handwriting. How many emails bounced back? How many phone numbers were entered incorrectly because an 8 looked like a 6?  How many carefully thought-out replies were unusable because they were just plain illegible?

More to the point, how did this poor execution of the first activity of the evening dampen everything that came next?  People were buzzing in that anteroom, and the tone of their comments ranged from confused, to frustrated, to angry.  Was the rest of the program able to undo that first impression of disorganization?  I would say that quite a few of the attendees were  inconvenienced enough to remember the experience of the botched questionnaire more vividly than any of the night's later elements.

Have you ever experienced a similar escapade?  If so, you know how it can suck the enthusiasm out of everyone.

Respectful Intel Gathering

Information-gathering documents may seem mundane, but they matter greatly, for three reasons:

1. Forms require peoples' effort, time and attention.  Therefore, they need to be tailored to do as much of the work as possible, to ease the burden on the respondents. Some ways to do this:

a.  Use rankings or multiple choice selection whenever possible.  Most routine questions can be handled with a list of possible responses.  For example: "How many years have you worked here?  Circle the answer that applies:  Under 1 year;  1 - 5, 6 - 10; 10 - 15 (etc.)..."

b.  Pay attention to sequencing.  Start with simple questions, then go into the ones that take more thought. This will warm up your respondents and help them give you their best answers. Similarly, if your questions suggest a timeline, organize them to flow from past, to present, to future.  (Try not to follow a future-oriented question like  "What are your goals?" with past-oriented questions such as  "What is your highest level of education?")

c.  Provide the basic amenities to show people that you are thinking of their comfort and ease of use:

  • Give people tabletops, clipboards or other writing surfaces.  
  • Pass out pens that work and fit the page space requirements (Flair pens can leave a broad, blurry swath that's hard to decipher; pens with hard points inflict puncture wounds on the paper.)  
  • Make sure to give adequate horizontal and vertical space for fill-in answers.  People don't write in 10-point font size!  
  • Distribute forms with clear instructions about how to complete and return them. 
  • Give the questionnaire an appropriate title and include your organization's name so that, even when a person finds it in the bottom of a tote bag a month from now, it will be clear where it came from.
  • If they will be mailed, always put the full mailing address on the forms themselves.  For forms that are taken to be filled in later, it's also a good idea to include a contact person's email address and/or phone number for questions.


2.  Forms gather information for later use.  Therefore, you need to set boundaries, for yourself, for your respondents, and for the people who will be inputting the data.  Ask yourself:  What is need-to-have, and what is nice-to-have?  What might be considered confidential in nature, and how can you address concerns about privacy issues?  Other points to consider:

a.  Define all the contact info you need and ask for it clearly.  If people are not already searchable on a shared network, you will need to be extremely vigilant to obtain pristine email addresses and phone numbers for your contact list.

  •  Provide clear prompts and good-sized, well-defined fields for contact information so answers are complete and readable, no matter how rushed the respondent is or what the penmanship quality is.
  • Include detailed instructions and sample answers as guidance, especially for phone numbers and email addresses.  It's amazing how many folks still leave out their area code in the phone number field, or just write "SuzieQ88" in the email address field and forget to fill in their last part ("@yahoo.com").
  • Ditch phone designations such as Home, Cell, and Work.  Instead, include check boxes for Preferred Phone Number and Secondary Phone Number.  Everyone has voice mail, so don't bother with Day or Evening.  
  • Bear in mind that even brilliant people make mistakes and need to cross things out and rewrite their answers, so leave plenty of blank space between questions for this kind of maneuver, and have extra forms handy for do-overs.  

b.  Will you use this information to generate an attendance sheet, a contact list, name tags, labels, or a membership roster?  Make sure to have respondents put their first name and last name in separate fields.  That way when the data is entered into a database, you can sort it alphabetically either way.

b.  How and where will the information be filed, stored, retrieved, and implemented?  Design your form so that your end users find it easy to use.  For example, if the information will be entered into a database, try to have all answers appear on the right side of the page, so data entry can be done quickly.  If the forms will go into a paper file, think about how the file will be organized, and put the most vital organizing information in the top right corner where it can be seen quickly when the file folder is opened.

3. Forms leave impressions.  They cause people to form opinions about your organization, your mission, your culture and your capability.  Tweak them so that they communicate good things to your audience.

a.  Explain why you're asking for information. You don't have to write a thesis paper for this.  It can be as simple as: "Help us get to know you better by answering this brief survey."
b.  Avoid vague questions. Instead of asking, "What type of tutoring program interests you the most?" it's much better to say, "Please circle the age groups and subjects that you prefer on the listing shown here. If you don't find what you're looking for, circle Other and write it in on the blank line provided."
c.  Phrase questions as requests, not demands.  "Please tell us about your past experience in this field" sounds a lot friendlier than "List qualifications here."  This will give the form a softer edge and help people stay engaged as they fill it in.

Above all, show respect for everyone by stepping back and reviewing your form from the user's point of view before you send it to print.  Check its content:

  • Is it clear what we want?
  • What could be said better? 
  • What ambiguities or implications need to be reworked?  
  • What can be left out now and found out in follow-up communication?

Check its formatting:

  • Is it intuitive?
  • How easy is it to fill in?  
  • How much time will it take? 
  • How easy will it be to read and process the filled-in answers? 
A Gateway to Great Things -- Or Not

If you think that application forms, screening forms or other questionnaires are too mundane to be considered messaging, think again.  Forms ARE communication. Moreover, they guide and facilitate subsequent communication.  If you treat them in a cavalier fashion, your casual approach will come across as contempt, and you'll never know the full impact of that ripple effect.  That's because an unknown percentage of the people who don't like your form, simply won't fill in your form -- leaving no trail behind -- and leaving all other communications efforts high and dry.  

Do you value the information you seek?  Do you value the people you seek it from?  Then take the effort, time and attention to create the best vehicle possible to get it.     

Monday, October 8, 2012

Manager Mondays: Deliberate Dialoguing, Part 2: Ask For Feedback The Right Way

This post is another in our Manager Mondays series about crafting intentional relationship-building communications to prevent polarization.  If you haven't read the first post on the subject, click here to do so.

What happens when you ask an employee a question?  

If yours is a polarized workplace, you probably get awkward pauses and averted eyes at first.  Then you get a neutral comment, a "safe" stock response, or remarks that seem unnaturally bright and chipper, like the one  depicted in this wall mural.


People don't want to tell the boss the truth.  They're worried that doing so will make them the scapegoat.

A story is told about the first American astronauts who were guests aboard the Soviet Mir space station.  They were appalled to find broken instruments that had been fixed with the aerospace equivalent of duct tape and baling wire.  When they asked their cosmonaut counterparts why they hadn't requested replacement parts, they were told that problems generally weren't reported -- because if they were, the cosmonauts doing the reporting were blamed.  It was assumed that the breakdown happened on their watch, and they could face disciplinary action for failing to perform maintenance correctly.

If questions from the boss are viewed as ticking time bombs, no wonder people don't want to engage in dialogue!

In a workplace where systems and equipment are expected to run perfectly, humans are the only target when things go wrong.

Does that describe your organization?  Does your upper management automatically assume that people are the problem?  Do you?

If so, you will continue to have a hard time engaging your employees in dialogue.  When you do corner them, you will continue to get no-answer answers.  They aren't stupid!

The way to reverse the trend is to start giving the impression that you are more interested in fixing problems than blaming people. And that means you must ask questions that invite analysis without implying blame.  Wording is extremely important here.

The #1 Question Technique That Gets Results

Here's a questioning strategy I recommend because it builds one-on-one relationships as it breaks new ground in management-employee relations.  And oh yes, it usually gets reliable answers.

1.  Set up a conversation. Start your interaction in a friendly, casual way.  Never ask a question "cold."   Start with an affirmation (see last week's post) or a neutral observation about a project that states a very obvious fact without any judgmental overtones.  This might be a comment about a project's state of completion, or a recent observable trend. It should include a time reference.  Some examples:  "It's been about a month since they finished installing the new machines."  "Job orders have picked up the past two weeks."  "You were at that department meeting the other day."

This type of opening comment gives employees the context of your upcoming question in a non-threatening way.  It helps them pull their thoughts away from what they were just concentrating on, and zero in on what the heck you are talking about.  Don't forget, you may have had your question in mind for a while, but for your employee, it's coming out of the blue.  Engaging the employee with light commentary will give them a chance to focus on the topic at hand and start framing their response.

2.  Make "face contact." After your comment, pause the verbal communication and take a moment to communicate non-verbally via your facial expression.  Your expression needs to be upbeat, curious, energetic, and focused on the employee.  If you don't know the type of expression I'm talking about, just picture how you would look at your best customer if he or she walked through the door right now.   That's right.  You need to treat your employees as though they were your best customers when you talk to them. That means not only making eye contact, but making a connection.  And if you're looking dull, distracted, or down your nose at them, your conversation is likely to be relationship-damaging, not relationship-building.  So practice in the mirror if you have to!  Then, keep your face working full time as you go on to the next step and...

3.  Ask the Universal, Neutral, Open-Ended Question.  I am very proud of this question.  It's such a winner -- but it's so deceptively simple, you might be tempted to scoff at it.  That said, here it is (and I wish I had a dramatic drum roll sound effect to accompany it):

"How's all this working out for you?"

I have worked very hard to perfect this question over the years. Giving it to you is like giving you a magic lamp, because if you set it up correctly, it will grant your wish for real, honest feedback.  

Look at it again.  Do you see what's going on here?  You are giving the employee an opportunity to talk about his or her experience within a receptive, constructive context.  That employee might still clam up -- and if so, you have more relationship-building to do -- but by now he has had a chance to mentally check in with the topic (step 1), and received your non-verbal permission to talk freely (step 2), so it's highly likely that the next words you hear will be heartfelt. 

4.  Pay attention!  Your role now, in case you haven't figured it out, is Support Person.  You will hear the employee's comments from a support provider point of view.  in his eyes, you are not the boss now -- you are the Person With Pull who might be able to help solve a problem.  

Once the employee starts talking, you can keep him talking as long as you stay in this role, and treat the employee as the expert.  Listen. Respond to show that you're listening and empathizing: "I see."  "I understand."  "That sounds like it was tough for you to do."  "Wow, that must have been surprising."  Restate the points that are made to make sure you understand them correctly.  But do it all in that friendly, attentive, talking-to-the-customer tone.

4. Refrain from weighing in.  Keep building the relationship by remaining non-judgmental.  Don't object, defend, or explain -- just keep listening. Respect and value whatever is being said as the reflection of that person's experience, whether you agree with it or not. When the person has reached the end of his or her comments, ask follow-up questions if it makes sense to do so, but concentrate on only two things:
  • Which parts of the process are helping the employee do his job?
  • Which parts of the process might need to be clarified or changed to help the employee do his job?
Honest employee feedback is a gold mine.  Keep the moment going so you can mine all the information you can.  Decide whether it's valid later.  Right now your task is to keep the conversation going and let the employee give you all the treasure he can.

5.  Thank the employee.  No matter what has been said, you need to show appreciation to the person who said it.  Even if it was information you already knew, giving it to you was an effort.  Say, "That's good feedback for me.  I appreciate it."

6.  Supply answers or assurance of support if you can.  If you have detected a cry for help in the employee's remarks, address it right away.  Reaffirm that your goal is to help the process work the best for everyone, then give direction or offer input in your role of Support Person and/or the Person With Pull as a way to help the employee address the issues and do his job well.  Even if the crux of the matter lies outside your sphere of responsibility, commit to a follow-up action if you can: "I'll check into it when we have our task force meeting next week."  

Other strategies to keep in mind when engaging in two-way Deliberate Dialoguing:
  • Continue to avoid blame.  If you hear "She did this" or "He didn't do that," ask a question to defuse the finger-pointing and bring the focus back to the process. "So you're saying that some people are having a hard time with ____?"  
  • Ask permission before you share the employees' comments.  Keep in mind that if they've divulged information to you alone, in a one-to-one conversation,  they may assume that it will be kept confidential.  When you want to take it further, explain your reasons for doing so (and these should focus on improving the process or resolving the issue), then let the employee choose between going on the record or remaining anonymous.  
  • Don't penalize the employee for sharing -- in any way.  Don't make them late for lunch or take up their whole coffee break with your questions.  Above all, don't make them do extra work: "Can you summarize what you just said in an email and send it to me?" (Imagine how that will play in the inter-office grapevine!  Good luck getting any comments the next time you go fishing for them!)
  • Respect that people are speaking off the cuff.  Cut everyone a lot of slack, and say so: "I know I haven't given you time to think about this.  I'm just looking for your gut reaction."  
  • End the conversation by linking it to a mutual objective.  If you haven't already done so, make your purpose clear: "I'm trying to make sure we can meet our company goal of ______." 
  • Invite more input.  Say, "If you think of anything else, here's how to contact me..." then give your availability and how to best get in touch over the next few days.    
To empower quality relationship-building conversations, you need to stay intentional.  Make systems and processes the focus of trouble-shooting, not people.  Your people are your most precious problem-solving resource at work.  By engaging in Deliberate Dialoguing, you can ensure that this resource is available to you when you need it the most.  So remember my guiding motto:

"Aim, Don't Blame."