Near the end of episode 5, I said that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. For that matter, I said, in too many cases, they’ve never clarified the why at all.
I recorded that episode on a Wednesday. Three days later, I was listening to the radio show Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, and I heard this:
[clip: Stephanie Silverman introduced on Wait Wait.]
Well, after hearing such a corroboration of my idea from somebody who actually knows something, I just had to talk with Stephanie. I emailed her, she responded, and then she very generously gave me almost forty minutes of her time in two Skype calls. [clip: max and Stephanie saying hi] She didn’t tell me what I have to do to win her voice on my answering machine or voicemail, but she did answer a question about that appearance on NPR.
Max: this is the classic cartoon reporter’s question. What was going through your mind when you gave a very serious piece of advice to Peter Sagal and the audience laughed?
Stephanie: Well I laughed too, because I think some of the funniest things in life are also true. the truest things in life. Sometimes it’s just that simple, and I think also it was an unexpected answer. I think what got cut out of that recording was a question about whether or not people should imagine their audience in the nude or in their underwear. People are always so invested in all of these tricks and techniques to deliver a successful presentation, when really sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.
New term: “Opus” is a communication requiring planning.
Before I get into what Stephanie and I talked about, I have to introduce a word that you’ll hear me using a lot: opus. I use the word opus to refer to any piece of communication that requires considerable preparation. That means it includes almost any public speech, and also any piece of writing that’s much more complex than a note to your spouse to please pick up a loaf of bread. Although we may care about using good English in our everyday conversation, it’s in creating these more complex communications that we really pay close attention to craft. As I say, I call these opuses. And with that word in place, let’s get back to my talk with Stephanie.
Successful communication is designed to recruit and to empower.
We spent some time talking about the matter of why anyone gives a speech or writes any sort of opus. And I put forward my theory that any opus, if it’s to succeed, should have a twofold purpose: to recruit and to empower. By recruit I mean to get the audience, in some way, on your side. And empowerment, I’m pretty sure, needs no explanation. It’s a word we’ve heard so often since the mid-80s that we’re almost tired of it. There would probably be a movement to outlaw the word if it weren’t such a valuable concept. One way to look at these two aims, I said, is as the ends of a slider bar. One of the simple ways of thinking about what you’re trying to achieve with an opus is the relative weights you give to these two. If you’re teaching, then your aim, I hope, is to empower, to increase your audience’s store of some knowledge or skill. On the other hand, if you’re selling, what matters more to you is recruitment, to get the audience on your side, to make such allies of them that they’ll happily give you money.
It’s very hard for an opus to succeed if it doesn’t combine these two aims. Here’s Stephanie on the importance of recruitment in teaching:
Stephanie: What’s really interesting to me in what I am doing is figuring out just how to do that. And to identify first with the needs of the audience and try to angle the message in a way that will allow them to engage the way that you’re describing. When you believe what you are saying, it’s very easy to understand why everyone should agree, but it doesn’t work like that all the time and so that buy-in that you are talking about is really important, and figuring out where that common ground is is the first step.
Now, that teachers need to motivate their students isn’t news to any teachers who’ve been well trained. But I think the idea of recruitment is a bit different from what most teachers are taught about motivation. First, the way teachers are taught to bake a little motivation into a lesson too often results in their talking about “how to motivate this lesson” or “motivate this material.” When we hear these phrases, and I hear them a lot, a subtle but important something has been lost. What’s lost, of course, is the simple fact that we don’t motivate material, we motivate people.
I think the idea of recruitment captures this pretty nicely. It’s a matter of forming people into a kind of team. Even if what you’re providing is only a very individual sort of empowerment, some skill that will be used by persons alone and not in groups, still you want your audience to feel a sense of community; it’s part of the joy of learning.
If selling doesn’t empower, it’s arm-twisting or pandering.
Well, if it’s easy for teachers to take the short conceptual step from motivating to recruiting, what may be a bit harder is for salespeople, whose job is primarily to recruit, to believe that they may be more successful if they also aim to empower.
That’s what Stephanie and I discuss in this clip:
Stephanie: I think on some level, the art of selling is to find a point on the empowerment line, or closer to the empowerment side, where you are selling, but where the ultimate goal is to empower your audience. But in so doing you’ve sold them as well. I think that is kind of where the excitement is.
Max: A blogger named Kathy Sierra made herself something of a star for the time that she was in the blogosphere by saying that what you want to do when you sell a product to any buyers, is you want to turn them into evangelists for your product. And the most important way to do that is to focus on not how great your product is, but how great that purchaser is going to be when they use your product. And if that is your selling point, then you’re going to do really effective selling. You’re going to build a community of enthusiastic users, of evangelists for your product.
Stephanie and I talked about teaching and selling, the two kinds of communication that are characterized by being near one or the other end of our recruitment-empowerment slider. But I’ve found it tremendously helpful to keep these two aims in mind in every kind of writing. Even a writer of haiku or sonnets (both of which I’ve been guilty of) will do better work by keeping these aims in mind. After all, if a poem doesn’t do at least a trace of recruiting and/or empowering, then it may be self-expression, but it isn’t communication at all. Even a poem that may seem very self-indulgent can succeed if there’s a reader in whom it strikes a chord, who reads it as C. S. Lewis said any of us reads anything, “to know we are not alone.” Just to know, “oh, someone else feels that way!” can be empowering. But the writer is more likely to succeed more often if that empowerment is an intention than if it’s merely an accident.
So that’s what Stephanie and I talked about.
Well… I was so excited to have a thought partner to toss these ideas around with that I got a bit ahead of myself. Before I even got around to identifying recruitment and empowerment as the twofold aim of good communication, I should have said that there’s a single purpose for all communication generally. It’s a purpose that applies even to those supremely simple jottings and utterances that we toss off every day: “Please pass the butter,” or “Call your Mom,” or “LOL”.
The purpose of every kind of communication, I believe, is to manage change. That’s an idea that will bring us back to one of my gurus whom I’ve already mentioned. Kurt Lewin was a psychologist who developed some very useful ideas about organizational change. And although he might not have called his work communication theory, in fact I believe that’s what it was, and quite useful theory at that. So, I apologize for putting my ideas somewhat out of order. I hope Stephanie’s good insights and charming voice made up for my lapse. I’ll pick up the idea of managing change in a future episode.
In the meantime, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a prosperous week and effective communication.
[Coda about how to comment on the show. Outtake of Stephanie and Max miscommunicating.]