Sunday, May 24, 2009

How do you tell your nine year old son?

How do you tell your nine year old son he'll be having open heart surgery?

Do you tell him the doctors will put him to sleep and then split his sternum, peeling back his rib cage so that they can have an unobstructed view of, and access to, his heart. Do you tell him they'll fill his heart with potassium so that it won't beat and then pack his chest cavity with ice. Do you tell him they'll divert his blood into a machine that will pump it to his body and his brain? Do you tell him the part about slicing open his pericardium and then pushing a surgical ring into the place in his heart where his pulmonary valve was supposed to be? And what do you tell him about the malformed triscuspid valve? Do you tell him they'll use a new procedure to move the leaflets to a new spot in his heart so that they can stop the blood from flowing back into his right ventricle? What do you tell him about the pain of recovery?

If you profess to be a master of communication, and write a blog about communication, shouldn't you know the answers to these questions? Or, do you tell your son as little as possible when he asks you why you will be flying to Boston and visiting Children's Hospital there. Do you say things like, "You'll have a procedure there that will give you a better life, more energy, and the ability to run faster and longer? Or do you tell him something in between? If so, what is the something in between?

How do you say these things, any of them, and not reveal your horrible fear, perhaps in some body language of which you're not even conscious? What words do you choose? Which ones bring the tears to your eyes and how do you avoid them?

When you find yourself in a situation like that, you learn quickly how much you don't know about communication. When you struggle for words to explain the unthinkable, you learn how limited your vocabulary really is. You find that you can't make a coherent sentence. Forget a paragraph. You learn a lot of other things about yourself, as well. You learn, even though it seems trite, that there are some important, and unimportant, things in life. You learn about your emotions, your relationships with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your church, your God, your colleagues, your employer.

You learn that communication can't be reduced to a simple diagram. You learn that communication really does separate us and that it really can bond us. You learn that we must work to communicate successfully, that we must patiently struggle to communicate, particularly by understanding the other person. You learn that lesson, and much more, when you have to tell your nine year old son he'll be having open heart surgery.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Watch what you say in e-mail!

Shall I remind us again to watch our words in e-mail messages? Oh yeh!

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from a local law firm I had never heard of. Their representative lawyer told me in the nicest terms that I'd be receiving a subpoena, how else, by e-mail. True as promised, a few days later, I received the subpoena. (I'm still not sure it was binding but I'm not asking.)

Anyway, the lawyer had told me the subpoena would ask for any records I had when I was doing some contract consulting work for a local fund development firm. I hadn't worked for the firm for several years; and, when I did, I had worked almost exclusively in fund development.

Well, I didn't remember, but I had also agreed to facilitate a strategic planning session between two firms that were now suing each other. The law firm knew this because they had "discovered" an e-mail I had written about the session.

Immediately I began to worry about what I might have said. I like to think I have as good a sense of humor as the next guy and use that sense of humor after getting to know people. So, I wondered what I might have said in that e-mail. Had I signed my name, "Joe Bagadonuts," as a joke, as I sometimes do? Had I used any profanity? Any ethnic references? God, I hoped not.

I spent a few restless nights wondering how many e-mails the law firm had and what I might have said in them. I saw my name and words in the headlines. It was chilling! Well, I guess I didn't compromise myself too badly because I haven't heard another thing about the subpoena. But, when I was reading Fortune magazine on-line today, I came across an article by one of my favorite Fortune writers, Anne Fisher, that I recommend you read. Follow this link and find another good reason you should always watch what you say in e-mail!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Write from the positive.

You can improve your writing simply by reducing the amount of negatives you use in your sentences. For example, read this sentence:

"It is not possible to reduce inflationary pressures when the federal government does not reduce its spending." Two negatives, right. Confusing, right?

Now, write it from the positive: "When the government reduces its spending, we can reduce inflation" (or something similar to that). Also, note that the sentence begins with "It is," always a poor way to begin any sentence.

OK, try this one: "So long as taxpayers do not refuse to pay their taxes, the government will have no difficulty in paying its debts." That sounds like an SAT question. I think I know what it says, but....

Doesn't it really say: "When taxpayers pay their taxes, the government will pay its debts." Even if you hate to pay taxes, you'll agree that the new and improved sentence is easier to read. And, that's what we're after, kids, writing that's easy to read, easy for the reader.

OK, I've given you the easy sentences. Try this duo of negatives: "The Insured may not refuse to provide the Insurer with all relevant receipts, checks, or other evidence of costs except when such expenses do not exceed $110." Tell me you haven't seen language like this at work.

How did you do on your re-write? Something like this? "The insured must provide receipts (etc) when costs exceed $100."

Are you catching the drift? Yeh? Are you ready for the BIG challenge? OK, try this sentence on for size: "The lack of disconfirming evidence suggests that the results are not open to dispute, unless the absence of data from other investigations is taken as a negative factor."

And, when you're through with that one, try this: "Elections in which there is no attempt at dealing with those issues which do not receive adequate attention during the time when no election campaigns are underway cannot serve the functions for which they were intended."

Send me your interpretations. Or, work on those last sentences tonight, take two aspirins and call me in the morning. In any event, I guarantee you won't use negatives in your writing again!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Buy this book!

I just read an important new book, “Chaotics: The business of managing and marketing in the age of turbulence” by Philip Kotler and John Caslione.

Kotler, as most people know, is the distinguished author and teacher of marketing. He and the less-well-known Caslione argue that these troubling times are not an aberration but the new norm, the "Age of Turbulence." For the new world, the authors offer a Chaotics Model and a management systems for resilience. Much of their thought will seem counter-intuitive.

For example, in their discussion, Kotler and Caslione argue against:

-Resource allocations decisions that undermine core strategy and culture

-Across-the-board spending cuts versus focused and measured actions

-Quick fixes to preserve cash flow, putting key stakeholders at risk

-Reducing marketing, brand and new product development expenses

-Declining sales and price discounting

-Decoupling from customers by reducing sales-rated expenses

-Cutting back on training and development expenses in economic crises

-Undervaluing suppliers and distributors

Imagine, arguing against brand development expense and staff training in this economy! Ad agents, consultants, and training specialists will glom onto Kotler's words for sure. "Don't cut the ad budget! Keep training the staff! Philip Kotler said so!" And, those words make a lot of sense, albeit counter-intuitively.

All executive actions, in turbulence or calm, will affect the company, its customers and employees. Kotler and Caslione say, “Every company faces difficult choices, especially when the economy tightens or, worse yet, grinds to a halt. But during times of turbulence, the decisions a leader makes will be even more far reaching. There will be lasting and significant impact not only on the bottom line but on employees, morale, and the culture and values that define the company, particularly if the decision undermines the company’s fundamentals and fails to meet customers’ expectation.”

The authors also stress what I have stressed in my crisis consulting activities: the Chinese word for “crisis” includes the two characters “danger” and “opportunity.” In a time of crisis, smart companies and executive will meet danger but they will also find opportunities, if they keep their wits about them.

Whether your company is having trouble or not, and whose isn't, you need to read Kotler/Caslione and take heart. Trouble is here to stay but we're all in it together and those who detect turbulence, adjust, and manage accordingly will succeed, indeed thrive!

Look for the Kotler/Caslione book at Amazon:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

He put his *** in her ***.

He put his backpack in her car? He put his dog in her living room? He put his hotdog in her bun? OK, you fill in the blanks.

Be careful, though. You could use words that offend people. Maybe, the mere suggestion of such words in the headline above offends you. I wonder.

I also wondered how Carnegie Mellon University faculty and staff felt about a pornographic movie being shown on CMU's campus. An XXX-rated movie, “The New Devil in Miss Jones,” was shown last Sunday night, April 26th by students at CMU for a student audience, but I was curious to know what CMU faculty and staff thought. So, as co-editor of the CMU publication, "Focus," I asked them. I stopped people randomly on campus and asked, “How do you feel about pornography being shown on campus and do you think it affects our reputation?”

Most of my interviewees were very forthcoming. Most said what they thought. One ran off, and one refused attribution. The first said, with much enthusiasm, “I think it’s great! But I won’t comment.” (That was a man, by the way…so to speak.) And one, a faculty member, gave me a reasoned quote and later chickened out, asking that her name not be used.

For the record, Dick Tucker, interim dean of student affairs, cited the official university position in an e-mail that was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Dick (no pun intended) said, “While university policy supports freedom of expression, the university strongly objects to showing such films. We regret the offense or discomfort that the showing of such a film may create for members of the campus community."

He also said a staff adviser "…has been engaged in ongoing conversations with the group, as in past years, strongly encouraging (the students) to reconsider the appropriateness of showing such a film."

OK, that was the official position. But, as I said, I wanted to know how the CMU faculty and staff felt about a subject that obviously makes people very nervous; so, I took a walk around campus, stopped people at random, and asked, “How do you feel about porn being shown on campus and what do you think it does to the reputation of the school?”

Bob Taylor, of Heinz College, said, “I’d have to know how you define ‘porn.’ Some of the violence that we routinely watch could be called ‘porn.’ If it’s sexual, I’d have to say ‘no’ to it on the basis that it doesn’t add anything of value. In any event, it’s a personal decision.”

Brian Staszel, Multimedia Designer/Manger, echoed that thought. Brian asked, “What does X-rated mean? I’m a huge supporter of free speech. In fact, I teach at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and we have had students try to make porn. But, we want to know, ‘What point are you trying to make.’ I find that students are doing it for shock value.”

Suzette Mongell, a young executive assistant to Takeo Kanade, felt “pretty neutral” to the showing of porn on campus. “If people want to see it, they can,” she said. “We’re all adults, old enough to make our own choices.”

But, what about the reputation of the university, I asked? Rose Krakovsky, a receptionist in Statistics, said, “I visited a friend of mine in the hospital before the movie was shown and he asked me about the movie; he thought it presented a bad impression.” When asked how she felt about showing the movie, Rose said, “I’m against it. It demeans women, and doesn’t help the guys a lot, either.”

Bonnie John, a professor in Human Computer Interaction, said, “I believe in free speech, but I’d suggest they check ID’s at the gate. The movie should be for consenting adults. And, attendance at the movie cannot be required for a grade.”

Most faculty and staff mentioned the complications of free speech and the maturity needed to accompany it. An associate professor in Philosophy whom we interviewed, and who later wished not to be identified, said, "Both pornography and free speech are difficult and complicated issues. If they are to be discussed, they should be discussed thoughtfully and carefully and in an informed manner; knee-jerk responses must be avoided. Moreover, it should be remembered that, although both of these are involved in the question at hand, they are distinct. A discussion of one should not be conflated with a discussion of the other. That said, I don't think that the showing of one adult movie on campus is something to get too worked up about."

Ironic isn’t it? This person who doesn’t think porn’s a big deal, who treasures free speech, won‘t allow attribution in a campus publication. Hmm. Tenure issues?

Jackie DeFazio, business manager in Philosophy, and willing to go on the record, responded to our question in this way, “I’m not for it,” she said. “My son is coming here next year and I don’t think he needs to see porn. It’s not really needed on campus.”

But, is it needed? Narelle Sissons, assistant professor of design at the School of Drama, said, “We should have freedom to watch what we want to watch. And, if it provokes a useful discussion, so much the better. Porn exists; we can’t deny that. And, I can imagine the curiosity of the students. I wouldn’t go, but if we can use a showing as a teaching tool, if we can have a debate, if we discuss porn’s value, or lack thereof, to society, then it can be useful.”

Charline Tomer, a teacher at the Pre-school, said simply, “I’d rather not have it on campus.”

With a South American point of view, Uruguayan artist-lecturer at CFA and well known classical pianist, Enrique Graf, said, “The students are all 18; they can choose to go or not. It’s an individual decision and the internet is full of porn, anyway.”

Laurie Weingart, professor of organizational behavior at Tepper School, said, “These are young adults interested in sexuality. These movies are part of the sexual landscape. Perhaps we offer them a safer environment here to discuss this. As for CMU’s reputation, this is an isolated incident not likely to cause us harm.”

Marc Siskin, manager of the modern language resource center in the Department of Modern Languages said, “No one was forced to see the movie. It wasn’t part of any curriculum. I have no problem with it as long as it’s legal. But, it’s a slippery slope. Who knows who might be offended? I found “Apocalypto” (by Mel Gibson) very offensive but I don’t want to prevent others from seeing it.” His colleague, Sue Connelly agreed, saying, “We can’t infringe on free speech. If we limit that, where will we turn next, foreign films?”

Andrew Narshall, reserves assistant in Hunt Library, said, “I’m not a huge proponent of porn but the free speech issue trumps everything.”

Yes, I see. Free speech trumps all. But why does porn make so many people so nervous? Why do some faculty run, he actually ran from me, and others beg off from attribution? Why did the University of Maryland cancel the viewing of “Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge,” the most expensive porn film ever made ($10 million). Why so much worry at the University of Michigan and UC Davis who both made the news for planning to show it?

Maybe speech isn’t so free. What do you think?