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The Goldilocks Communications Principle

3 Nov

I’ve never been a big talker. Unlike most communications professionals, I am closer to the middle on the Introvert-Extrovert scale. My preference is to mull over and percolate what I learn before I discuss it. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of what I say and write–at least compared to others in my field.

I was always the girl in high school that you could share your secrets with, because I wouldn’t broadcast them to the world or judge you for them. Professionally, this style of being a confidante and thoughtful communicator has served me well in working with clients in crisis situations, where a lot of information needed to be collected, shared and processed by a small team before it is ready for public consumption, to avoid spreading rumors.

Yet there are situations where it’s actually MORE comforting for people to have information, even if it is incomplete and still messy. I’ve had to fine-tune my communications approach during my career based upon the situations I’ve been in, and shaped by the people involved. In business and in life, how much communication is not enough, too much or just right? Not always an easy question to answer.

It’s all subjective, based upon the needs of the audience and the circumstances prompting the communication in the first place. Even with the same group of people, the communications needs can change based upon the situation. I call this “The Goldilocks Principle” of communications. Here are the stages, described by caricatures from my own career:

  1. Goldilocks tries to eat Papa Bear’s porridge–TOO MUCH! Early in my career, I wrote A LOT of detail in my business communications–emails, reports, talking points for communications. At that time, I thought that you needed–and really wanted–to know everything that I knew, exactly how I knew it. Because I identified as a writer, by God you would see my writing…and have to determine for yourself what was most important, buried somewhere in the long sentences and James Joyce density of it all.
  2. Goldilocks moves on to Mama Bear’s porridge–BETTER BUT STILL NOT RIGHT! As I progressed in my business writing skills, I tapered back and began to position my writing so that the reader would not have to wade through so much and would know more about what was really important to understand. I was also given counsel at this stage of my career that even if I had limited information, sometimes it was best to share it in the moment because I worked for a person who wanted to have all of the buzz. For this audience, I needed to inject more of my gut reactions and not “filter” out what I often perceived as people’s over-reactions to situations. Trying to compensate for being overly analytical and not “human” enough in my communications, I put more of myself, and more emotion, into this stage. The thing is, not every Goldilocks wants Mama Bear’s feelings…
  3. Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s porridge–JUST RIGHT! On most days I am here, but it’s always good to be reminded of what the audience needs to know and can truly benefit from. It takes more time to communicate just the right amount of information, positioned in just the right way, to meet the needs of all the right people. A heavy dose of emotional AND intellectual intelligence gets poured into this porridge. “Just right” is usually about telling them what they need to know, but in a way that it’s framed as a story–something that they will BOTH “get” AND remember.

I continue to learn lessons about the “Goldilocks communications principle.” What it really comes down to is being aware, pivoting to meet the needs of the audience and acknowledging when you’ve over- or under-communicated. And not forgetting to celebrate when the porridge is “just right.”

 

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Strunked, or ‘Omit Needless Words’

10 Sep

Every year, there are two books that I re-read, at different seasons. At Christmastime, it’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a poem, but the size of a book) because it has end of old year and start of new year themes. At back-to-school time, I re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This post tells a bit about why.

I’m a bit of a language geek. I think about it a lot in my spare time. I enjoyed diagramming sentences in 8th grade, and I wrote my honors thesis for undergrad on Cajun French morphemes.

Words matter to me, and putting them together smartly, in particular in the business world, is the difference between grabbing or losing an important person’s attention. I write for a living, so for me it’s a practical matter. And it’s just plain enjoyable for me to read this tightly written book about being a better writer.

While the book includes many “how-to’s,” it is also chock-full of humor on the side.  For instance:

Rather, very, little, pretty–these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

(First sentence to explain the rule: “Avoid the use of qualifiers.”)

The history of the book is also worth knowing. Many don’t realize that E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) kept the book alive “with” his Cornell professor William Strunk Jr, albeit after Strunk had passed. Professor Strunk wrote the book for his English undergraduates in the early 1910s, and White was one of them. Years later, the publisher Macmillan asked White to re-work the book for more widespread use, and White stayed true to the “little book” that Strunk created. The first edition was published in 1959, and since then there have been another four additions, each containing updates that keep it current.

The Elements of Style has become a necessary and nearby bookshelf item for all writers. Consider these words of wisdom that everyone tries to remember, without realizing their origins in the mind of Strunk (and White):

  • Omit needless words.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  • Nice: A shaggy, all-purpose word, to be used sparingly in formal composition.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Avoid fancy words.
  • Be clear.

I received my most recent edition from Bob Boltz (the most precise writer and honest editor I know) when working at Columbus, Ohio PR firm the Cochran Group. Bob would probably appreciate that I have threatened to give my daughter, newly a freshman at The Charles School, her very own copy of the book. She has indicated more than once that she’d rather I didn’t. If only these young kids would appreciate the wisdom buried in Strunk’s “little book!”

Here’s a closing thought from Strunk, called in E.B. White’s preface to the 1979 edition:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word should tell.

“Tell,” indeed. Every piece of writing should tell a story without “unnecessary” embellishment.

What’s the point? The best writing is created from the heart but polished by the discipline of the mind.

Public Speaking: How I Got Schooled by Angela Pace

4 Aug

In my years working at PR agencies, I had no better training than the time I got personal coaching by local news anchor Angela Pace. She’s a legend in the Columbus, Ohio area. Even my dad knows who she is.

(Side note: She went to South HS, as did my parents, and my dad insisted that I say, “Go Bulldogs!” when I met her. Which I did. But that’s another story.)

My boss decided that a colleague and I needed help with our new business presenting skills. She was right. To be fair, presenting for new business is one of the toughest things that you can do. Those who’ve done it will understand. Those who have not probably won’t.

They say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Evidently, I am not yet an old dog, because I did learn some new tricks from Ms. Pace. I’m a decent public speaker, but under her tutelage, I kicked it up a notch. And laughed a lot, including at myself, in the process.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Probably the biggest thing that I learned was not to take myself too seriously.
  2. Smile more.
  3. Don’t assume that people want to dwell on all of those details.
  4. Smile again.
  5. Don’t forget to bring your water.
  6. Warm up beforehand.
  7. And don’t forget to breathe.
  8. Then smile (yes, again). It’s true: The smiling is really not easy for a serious person like me. I have got to learn to be less serious!

I feel very lucky to have experienced this individualized training. Most public speaking trainers apply a formulaic approach, but not so with Ms. Pace. She paid attention to every non-verbal, every nuance of what I said and how I said it. She was not shy to stop me mid-stream and make me start again. There was no escaping her. She noticed every detail. This was a good and bad thing!

If you are in a career where public speaking, in small or large groups, is important, I’d highly recommend working with a coach who cares, knows the ropes and forces you to get outside the podium. It forced me to think differently about how I interface with people in my presentations–and it made a big difference in the end results.

We landed two new deals right after our coaching, by the way!

Sugarloaf Mountain and Its Crisis Communications Win

31 Dec

NOTE: This is my perspective on the Sugarloaf chair lift accident on December 28, 2010. Although I did not eyewitness the accident itself, I did see the rescue efforts and PR response in person.

While the MOST important point of the day was the successful treatment of injuries and rescue of those stranded on the lift, I wanted to commend the stellar efforts of the resort staff from a communications perspective. Safety comes first — and I’m grateful for the fact that everyone injured seems to be healing — but there’s an important “oh by the way” here to congratulate Sugarloaf’s marcom team. Because I do this work with clients every day, seeing it successfully unfold in person — by a staff that does not handle crisis every day — was a unique experience. I hope that this case study is helpful to others.

The rescue process at Sugarloaf on 12/28/10. Image courtesy of nephew Nathan Roehrer

What’s every skier’s worst nightmare? Not being stuck on a Black Diamond or falling and breaking a leg.

It’s a chair lift accident. You can get pretty high-up in those things, and if you think about it too much the situation can seem slightly precarious. Every time I look up at the cable that my chair moves along via that smallish hook, I get a little bit nervous. All of us do, on some level.

My family of four, along with 10 in-laws, was at Sugarloaf Mountain on December 28, 2010, when the chair lift accident happened at about 10:30 am. People on five chairs between two towers where the cable derailed fell 20-30 feet to the ground — fortunately onto two feet of newly fallen snow. Eight of those who fell were taken to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries. This news report includes video from one of those in the section that fell.

Our group had just exited the chair lift from our condo when the accident happened. It was a beautifully clear day, albeit windy. The temperature was about nine degrees, well below zero with wind chill, so everyone was in face masks and goggles. We came up from the condo late because we knew that many of the lifts were closed due to the wind.

I didn’t know there was a problem until about 10:35, when the chair lifts in the area of the accident were all closed to let rescue crews and medics up the mountain. A chair lift operator  informed me and my daughter that there’d been an accident on another lift and that other lift personnel were mobilized to help out. The info provided by that employee was calmly and succinctly delivered, and I remember that no one around us was panicking or worrying. We saw the Snowcats and snowmobiles zooming up the hill past us. They were all moving quickly, and everyone got out of their way.

View from a lift at Sugarloaf on 12/28/10. Image courtesy of nephew Nathan Roehrer.

Soon afterwards, I’d say within 30-45 minutes, the other lifts started back up again. My daughter and I rode Whiffletree up the hill and came down by the Spillway East lift — the one where the accident occurred. We saw the rescue staff unloading people with a pulley system. The usual crowds were at the resort, and everyone seemed to be going about their business and not worrying about the situation.

In the mid-afternoon, around 3 pm, my daughter and I stopped at the base lodge, where a news crew from a French-Canadian station was interviewing a resort employee who spoke French. Everything was handled very professionally.

Some key points for how Sugarloaf staff did it right:

  1. Messaging was provided in a timely fashion, without speculation or inconsistency. This included video provided by the resort of rescue drills. There was a CNN employee on-site the day of the accident, providing live updates as things occurred. Being under the news microscope is tough, and the Loaf’s staff were up to the challenge.
  2. Information was put on the resort’s homepage with regular updates on the incident. I’m not sure whether there was a dark site already prepared with messaging to handle any chair lift accident. Whether it was written on the fly or in advance, it was done well.
  3. Consistent reports were also provided on the Facebook page, as well as on Twitter and in forums, in a more informal tone that was appropriate for the medium.
  4. There have been a fair number of snarky comments on news sites, and even a few on the Sugarloaf Facebook page. Most of the comments seem to be critical of Boyne, the resort owners, or random comments about how attorneys will take advantage of the situation. I can’t find any evidence of Sugarloaf staff responding back in kind. All of the communications have been on-point and informational, without backlash or inappropriate response by employees. Big brands like Nestle (remember their less than sweet 2010 Facebook incident?) could learn a thing or two.
  5. This is a great case for how brand loyalty can carry an organization through crisis. There has been so much support shared online for the resort and its staff, as well as through “victim” testimonials in interviews by news media. Every video I saw of someone on the lift said that they will be coming back.

Some thoughts on how the Loaf could have improved upon their already very good effort:

  1. I would like to see a video statement from Sugarloaf leadership. This would have made their message more genuine and less “one step removed” than written statements. There’s a well-populated YouTube channel for the resort that would be well-complemented by a statement from leadership expressing concern for those injured and articulating a safety and go-forward strategy. The video would also be helpful on the resort’s website — in particular on the homepage. Even if it’s rough — as in the Domino’s example from 2009 — it demonstrates attention and caring.
  2. The special page dedicated to the incident only includes the latest press release. No false advertising here….it says so on the homepage. Having all of them in one place would be more helpful for people who want to see everything. I like the way it’s organized on the media page.

Clearly, Sugarloaf is well-loved by its devotees. This was my first visit, and I have to say that the professionalism of the staff and the beauty of the site and quality of the skiing will all bring me back.