Communication Isn’t Helping. Why Not?

Communicators must expand the definition of their work, take a much more rigorous intellectual approach, and allow a deeper connection between their work and their souls.

I run the Professional Speechwriters Association, and I’m publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine. So I’m going to open this session with a real old-fashioned speech. I think and hope this speech might irritate you a bit and maybe even confuse you a little. I also hope it excites you a little.

I think that’s what speeches are supposed to do.

In any case, I’ve made plenty of time afterwards—for I hope the speech leads to a real old-fashioned conversation. I not only hope you’ll ask hard questions and even argue with the practicality of my recommendations, I expect it.

We’re communicators. Let’s communicate!

I’m going to open with the first of several readings from my book, An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.

“Do they know about Martin Luther King?” you can hear Robert Kennedy ask someone, as he stands on the back of the flatbed truck in the early-spring dark, on a street corner in a park in an all-African American neighborhood in North Indianapolis.  

You can just make out the answer of a white official: “We have left it up to you.”

Kennedy hesitates for exactly two seconds, and then makes a request that must have come to members of the ebullient crowd as the first signal that this was not going to be a typical campaign rally. 

“Could you lower those signs, please?”

Another two seconds.

“I have some very sad news for all of you, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

The whole crowd screams at once, then grows quiet just as quickly, which might have surprised Kennedy. He waits nine seconds before beginning again. 

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are, and what direction we want to move in.”

That was April 4, 1968, about a year before I was born.

And yet hundreds of times, I’ve listened to the speech that Kennedy went on to deliver that night. I’ve shown it to audiences of writers all over the United States and all over the world. Every time I’ve shown it, it’s meant something more to me. And every year, it seems to me less a relic of America’s past and more a haunting prediction of America’s future.

The speech is only five minutes long, and 543 words. When you hear a speech that short that many times over a period of time, different words begin to get under your skin and start to itch.

“We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.”

That phrase, “an effort to understand.” A little later he repeats it again.

“But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand.”

It sounds so bland. So obvious. So preachy. So white.

So why did he say it three times to an all-black crowd reeling in shock and despair. 

And why did they listen?

Why did they listen? Why did they eventually do as Kennedy asked them to do that night, and “go home and say a prayer for our people and for our country?” Why was Indianapolis the only major city in the nation that didn’t riot that night?

The reasons are complicated, as I explain in the book.

And the reasons are also simple, as I’ll share with you today.

My book is a series of short essays from “a life in American communication.” It is my attempt—at the most socially troubled moment of my life in American communication—to share what wisdom I have found from that life.

I set out to share what I think I know—what you think you know—about communication.

What do communicators know, that nobody else actually does? I think communicators often get accused behind our backs of spouting “common sense.” Every engineer, IT goon and accountant who can string five sentences together thinks they could do our jobs. Our skills are always referred to as “soft,” and that never ever sounds like a compliment.

Yet, when communicators get together to drink, they don’t sound like they think their skills are soft. They talk in the most stark terms about what they know, that other people don’t. How often have you heard or said, “So-and-so gets it.” Or “So-and-so does not get it.”

What is “it” in communication, and how can it help our troubled society—and its troubled institutions and relationships—find what I say in the book that we all need: “more peace when we crave it, more solidarity when we require it, and more trust when it comes right down to it—in every aspect of our lives.”

That’s what I set out to put down in this book, which contains every last drop of wisdom I’ve gathered from 30 years surrounded by communicators—my Mad Man-era ad man dad, my novelist mother, Chicago journalists and oral historians like Studs Terkel, and thousands and thousands of PR people and corporate communications people and speechwriters who I’ve worked with and written about in a career of convening communicators, and commenting on their work. 

A better question is: Why am I giving a speech to a bunch of communicators, explaining to you what you actually know? 

And why did you show up to listen?

Because, like the audience at Bobby Kennedy’s speech, I think—you know your society is in big trouble, and you want to be part of the solution.

And as a communicator, you sense you can be. But as a communicator, you sense you’re not helping, so far.

You’re supporting leaders of institutions who are overwhelmed and bewildered and beleaguered by the events of the last couple years—and all that’s being asked of them: their opinions and leadership on every subject from epidemiology to voting rights in Georgia. They feel ill-equipped to lead on these issues, and you feel ill-equipped to help them.

You’re overwhelmed and beleaguered yourself—not to mention troubled and angry—at the state of your nation and the global society. Someone called the COVID recovery “the worst group project ever.” The social justice conversation seems to have at once lost momentum and made more enemies. People can’t manage to agree on the most basic of facts. 

These are the kinds of issues that you’d think communicators might be able to help solve. And solving them, you are not.

Many of the skills that got you where you are in your PR career seem to be letting you down now: Your laser focus on the organization’s strategy doesn’t hold water when your organization is being asked what it’s going to do to heal a racial divide that dates back to 1619. The clarity of your writing and the credibility of your research don’t do much good in an environment of total distrust. The diplomatic, deferential way you’ve learned to work with your leaders isn’t worth much when they need you to be bold and assertive—whether they know it, or not. And your willingness to work your absolute ass off until the job gets done isn’t sustainable, on a job that’s never done.

One high-ranking communication executive admitted to me not long ago that she’s drinking during the day.

I thought, how aren’t all of them?

Based on my book—and partly based on many conversations I’ve had with communicators who have read it—I have three general recommendations for communicators wanting—needing—to regain a sense of purpose, a sense of competence, a sense of useful participation as professionals and as people, in public and at home.

The good news is that these ideas don’t require any skills or knowledge you don’t already have. The bad news is that practicing them is harder than it ever was—if you ever practiced them at all.

They require an expanded definition of your work, a much more rigorous intellectual approach, and a deeper and more psychologically dangerous personal connection between your work as a communicator, and your soul, as a person.

Let’s take these one by one.

Sometimes the people who have the narrowest definition of communication are professional communicators.

First, you (and the leaders you serve) must remember what communication is, and is not. Communication is not you, talking. Sometimes I think professional communicators especially struggle to remember this, because we equate “communication” with “mass communication,” which we think of as broadcasting. Communication is much more than that. It’s communing, it’s listening as much as talking, it’s meeting the other person or the stakeholder—not in some middle that we determine, but all the way where they live. And listening to how they came to their place, until we truly, deeply understand.

I write:

Communication requires listening as much as it requires speaking. And deep listening. And constant listening. And careful listening. And imaginative listening. And repeated listening. And in our own time, if we are going to have a society that is worth living in, we must learn to listen, to hear, to sense with the tiny cilia of our ears and the tenderest membranes of our hearts—not just the words of our friends and family, coworkers and leaders, but their intent—their deepest intent, and emotional source. With the assumption, so hard to sustain in the daily madness of American life, that the other person came by her views as honestly (or maybe as dishonestly) as you came to yours. And with the belief that with an effort, you can understand.

You need to understand all the important stakeholders in your organization, and be able to articulate the point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. You need to make your leader understand. Your organization needs to speak in a way that demonstrates that understanding. Not agreement, necessarily, but understanding.

Your organization needs to be a high-profile part of a significant solution, or it will be treated like a part of all of society’s problems.

We see leaders of huge institutions constantly being caught flat-footed on when asked for their stance on political issue after political issue. They’re caught flat-footed, because they’re standing flat-footed, with a highly developed business strategy but a social purpose that’s not much more elaborate than the cheap slogan it rode in on. 

Your organization needs to think hard and rigorously about what its largest and deepest and most urgent purpose is in the society where it operates—and it needs to build that into an ongoing communication campaign that’s so broad-minded and sincerely executed that it either addresses major social issues directly or indirectly—or it makes you much harder to criticize. You are bringing your organization’s power and influence to bear on an important social issue. No matter what other issue you’re being asked about, you’re in a much stronger position, rhetorically and also morally.

And when I tell you that your organization needs to think through this rigorously—I mean you, first. Last month I interviewed Bill Novelli, founder of one of the world’s social marketing agencies, dedicated to helping companies do well by doing good—and founded 50 years ago! After he sold that firm, Novelli went on to found and run a number of great organizations—one of which was AARP, where his speechwriter Boe Workman was a true partner in thought. In fact, Noveilli told me—and he writes this in his new book, Good Business—he called Boe not his “speech writer,” but rather his “speech thinker.”

To be a great communicator, you must be a great humanist—and a fine human being.

Communicators have got to remember the fundamentals of communication. Not the ones you learn at PRSA seminars, not corporate communication case studies on PowerPoint decks. The ones you teach your kids—about not hitting, not calling people names, about telling the truth, about empathy and about love.

You know those fundamentals, of course. 

But you forget them. All. The. Time. You know them on Monday and you forget them by Wednesday. You know them on the first drink, and you forget them by the third. You know them at work but you forget them at home. You know them when your political party is in office, and you forget them the moment the other party wins. You know them to tell your kids, but you forget them when you’re talking to the CEO.

You forget what you know about communication when you post a dismissive political meme on Facebook, magically thinking that only your like-minded friends and family will chortle along with it—and no one will be hurt by it, and thus driven further into a bunker of opposition.

From my book:

As the writer David Wong said … “It feels good to dismiss people, to mock them, to write them off as deplorables. But you might as well take time to try to understand them, because I’m telling you, they’ll still be around long after Trump is gone.”

And they’ll remember what you said.

My old man also used to quote some old musician, “You can say what you want with a slide trombone, but with words you’ve got to be careful.”

A speaker at the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association sounded an even more cautionary tone.

“When a word goes into universe it doesn’t go away,” said Jeff Ansell, a communication coach. “It reverberates around the universe forever.” 

I can’t prove words stay in the universe forever. But I can’t figure out how they would get out. 

And it’s not enough to not offend people. Communicators—and the leaders they support—must actively find ways to connect with people.

And we forget that almost all of leadership is not what you say but what you do—how you show up, where you show up, when you show up, and how frequently you return. Not long ago I wrote about Cheri Bustos, a friend of mine. She’s a former communicator—a former journalist and a former communication executive at a healthcare company—who got elected and also reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in one of the most conservative, rural and blue-collar districts in Illinois. How did she do it?

As she put it in a recent piece, by “showing up and listening.” Here’s Cheri:

The best way to listen to people isn’t through polls, social media or focus groups, but directly and by meeting them in the course of their daily lives. …

I started ‘Cheri on Shift,’ where I job-shadow people in a variety of occupations throughout the district. I started ‘Supermarket Saturdays,’ where I meet and listen to people as they do their weekend grocery shopping. …

When meeting people who might not align politically with me, I focus on common ground—my husband is a cop, my sons all hunt, we all own guns. My questions aren’t about issues—they’re about common experiences in life that we all share and can bring common understanding. Did they take a vacation in the last year? What do they do for fun?

I take every opportunity to meet people where they are. I visited nearly every library in the district, no matter what the size of the town. When time allows, I like to add some door-to-door, particularly in some of the smallest communities I serve. I knocked on every door in Hamlet, Illinois, population 43.

Your leader might not be able to knock on every door, but you can—and you can bring that understanding back, and infuse your all communications with it.

And to conclude, that’s the ultimate answer to the question that I asked at the outset of this talk, about Bobby Kennedy, and about why people listened to him that day—grief-stricken and enraged and desperate as they were—because he showed up.

And he didn’t have to show up. In fact, when he’d arrived in Indianapolis and learned of King’s assassination, his aides insisted he cancel the campaign speech he was to give in this all-black neighborhood on the poor north side of town. He insisted he had to give the speech. The Indianapolis police chief said that unrest was beginning in cities around the country, and he wouldn’t provide Kennedy with a police escort. He went anyway. 

And there in the darkness, standing on the bed of a flatbed truck, looking vulnerable and small, in a quavering voice, Kennedy spoke from his own wounded heart. He said he understood the audience might be feeling “hatred and mistrust.” Referring for the first time publicly about his own brother’s death five years before, Kennedy said he could feel the same feeling in his own heart.

And now, before opening this up for questions, I’ll read one last passage from my book:

Kennedy didn’t pander to his audience by reading them some Langston Hughes poem, or even reciting a line from Martin Luther King. Rather, he spoke of the inspiration he found reading Greek poetry in dark years after his brother’s death. He spoke from his own heart, and trusted it would reach the hearts of others. “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote … In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

And in concluding, Kennedy borrowed once more from the ancients.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Let us dedicate ourselves to that.

And as communicators, let us rededicate ourselves to that.

Thanks for listening, and I’m now happy to take questions—or just hear your own ideas, for how communicators can help our organizations, our society, our family and ourselves.

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