Posts Tagged ‘communication’

How to learn to love the microphone.

Monday, June 27th, 2011

The microphone is your friend.  It can help you communicate with large groups.  No matter how big your voice, there are audiences that are bigger than your voice alone can handle.  If you want to be a communicator, you have to learn to use the microphone.

The only problem is that most microphones you encounter in banquet halls, church halls, schools, community centres and other such venues are absolute crap. Even if the sound system is of the correct quality and design for the room and installed by an acoustical expert (rarely, if ever), that was two years ago and since then people have been intent on doing severe damage to the system.  They have no idea of the trouble they cause when they hit the microphone, run wheels over cables, play with the amplifier dials, randomly flick switches on and off and drop delicate speakers.  All you can do most of the time is hope the damn system lasts long enough for you to finish communicating what you need to say to the audience.

There is one solution that is practiced by professional communicators.  A professional comes early and checks out the system.  The professional asks that someone be there who knows how the system works.  A paid professional insists that someone be there to manage the system when in use.  Good luck with that.

If checking ahead is impossible, try to watch from the back of the room while someone uses the sound system.    If, for example, you hear popping, screeching, breathing and the voice tends to boom, the speaker is probably too close to the microphone.  That is a common error and is easily corrected by stepping back from the microphone and speaking over it, not directly into it.  And do not forget that the mouth is the most visible part of facial expression.  Do not let the microphone hide it.

And, for goodness sake, do not touch the microphone.  Only professionals use hand microphones.  Unless you are going to spend many, many hours practicing holding it properly, keep your paws off it.  You need both hands for your notes or full speech.  You need your hands for emphasis.

(If it is one of those cheap directional microphones—they are small and have a flat grill face—try talking directly into it from at least eight to ten inches away.)

The macho speaker who listens to previous speakers and claims they do not need that microphone is kidding nobody.  If they keep it up, they will do irreparable harm to their voice, lose all inflection and tone of voice for emphasis and annoy people in the front rows because of shouting at them.  It is a lose, lose, lose situation.

If you know it is a bad microphone, it is not the best course to see how fast you can talk and get out of there.  Many of these bad microphones—positioned properly—will do the job if you speak clearly and distinctly and enunciate every word.

It is critical that you only speak when you are looking at the oldest person (who is a little deaf) in the back row.  If you do not hold this person’s attention, you might as well cut your talk short.  You are not communicating.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

You can have communication or speculation.

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

There is a line in the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke when first the villain explains that the problem is a failure in communication and then, towards the end, it is repeated by the film’s star.  In the first case, the line is used as a replacement for an apology.  In the second use, it expresses hopelessness.  And a failure to communicate is both.

What some people do not understand is that a lack of communication from a person or organization says a great deal about that person or organization.  It allows others to speculate on their intent, motivation, capabilities, manners and fortitude.  The truth is replaced with rumours.

Some time ago, Babel-on-the-bay received a complaint that something we had written annoyed this individual.  The person told us that they did not have time to read what we write but someone had told him what we had written.  Since he failed to communicate what specific item was not to his liking (or his informant’s), we were left very much in the dark.  All we could do was thank him for his communication.  He had failed to communicate.

This is not to suggest that communicators will always win kudos for what they communicate.  There is still a tendency to shoot the messenger.

While we do not always listen to our own good advice, we do have some tips for the neophyte communicator.

First and foremost, you must always know your audience.  Woe onto him or her who takes the wrong approach with the wrong audience.  If you do not know the audience are you going to speak down to them or accidentally use words they might not understand?   A writers’ tool such as the Gunning fog index can help a writer by ensuring that you are communicating to as broad an audience as possible.

And if the audience does not know you, it is strongly recommended that you refrain from telling jokes.  Joking can get you in trouble.

If you have not been introduced in a way that emphasizes your authority with the subject, try to work in your qualifications (as modestly as possible).

Keep your communications brief.  Keep your sentences short.  Keep your paragraphs short.  Keep your items short.  Keep your speeches, newsletters and letters short. One, two-sided sheet of paper makes a reasonable length, general information newsletter.  Lengthier material will be set aside to be read later and never read.

In addition, stick to the subject.  There always seems to be that urge to stretch a newsletter with material that has nothing to do with why you are communicating.  And when you are done, stop.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Let’s face facts about Canadian politics.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

“I grew so rich that I was sent

By a pocket borough into Parliament

I always voted at my party’s call

And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (1878)

Little seems to have changed since Gilbert and Sullivan twitted the English about their corrupt politics during the Reign of Queen Victoria.  Canada has been mired in the same corrupted political system for almost 150 years.  Sure it has had some band-aids applied over the years but it has never had the thorough housecleaning that it requires.

We now have a Senate that is a permanent joke.  We have a Governor General who does what the leader of the party in power says.  We have created an imperial court surrounding and protecting that leader.  Through the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), we have concentrated the national news media into a tightly controlled and corrupt group of sycophants.

But the voters must share the blame.  Sheep to be shorn show more spunk.  We accept vicious and untruthful attacks on politicians.  We believe scripted and controlled news events that bear so little evidence of truth.  Party leaders used to go out to meet the voters and now they travel to avoid them and we allow it.  We, ignorant and uncaring, vote for the party without questioning the candidates.

In their sweep of more than half of Quebec seats in parliament, there were NDP candidates who did not even need to be in the electoral district to win.  There was one candidate where it was claimed if her constituents had met her, she would not have been able to communicate comfortably in French which is spoken by most voters in the area.

And absentee candidates did not happen just in Quebec.  It was claimed in the Toronto Star that one winning NDP candidate in Toronto was absent during the election campaign, running a campaign for another NDP, in another part of the province.

If we ever needed to point out what is wrong with Canadian politics, this recent election certainly makes the case.  Centralized political parties appointing candidates are preventing and discouraging the involvement of citizens in the political process.  The party hierarchies do no due diligence in terms of the quality of candidates to fill slots in those last throw-away electoral districts.  The quality of MPs elected is in the dumper.  Nobody cares as they vote for nobodies, thinking they are voting for the party leader.  We are willing to pay nerds, nobodies and ne’er-do-wells $157,000 per year with all expenses and a generous pension to sit in our parliament and pick their noses—and nobody cares.

The Canadian news media conglomerates, that are leading us by the nose, are greedy, lazy and uncaring and provide no insight for voters to help them assess local candidates or their leaders.  The news media print and broadcast spurious polls for their shock value as news, not their authenticity.  Media executives curry favour with those campaigns with the most money to spend and the biggest lies to tell.  The Toronto Star editorial board, the supposed last bastion of integrity in the news media, decided to screw the Liberal Party and in the process of their vindictiveness, screwed the Canadian public—giving us a majority Harper government.

There is much wrong with Canadian politics.  We need to do some fixing.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

The news media are not your friends.

Friday, May 6th, 2011

One of the hardest lessons that political candidates eventually learn—the hard way—is that the news media have a job to do.  The media are not there to be helpful.  They are not there to report fairly.  They are definitely not there to be your friend.  They are there to earn their pay from their publisher or station owner or news service.  And you, you poor political postulant, are just another miserable gob of asphalt to be flattened on their road to earning their paycheque.

And every politician we have ever met has made the same mistake.  The only possible exception to that was Pierre Trudeau.  He despised news media people.  Maybe that was based on his experience in founding Cité Libre, the intellectual, left-wing publication created to attack the repressive regime of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec.  Trudeau never met a news reporter whom he considered his intellectual equal.

This was unlike Brian Mulroney who desperately tried to be one of ‘the boys’ with the media.  His uncouth language and risqué jokes made them uncomfortable, while making their jobs more difficult.  Those of us from the time of Diefenbaker and Pearson were used to a far more gentlemanly and respectful relationship.

The most strained relationship for the media is probably the one with Stephen Harper.  There is no relationship as he holds the media reporters in distain and at arms length.  He trots out his wife and children and plays the piano to try to appear human but the media people trying to cover this imperious prime minister know better.  It is the bias of those signing the worker-bees’ paycheques that keeps them in check.

The only problem is that there are fewer and fewer people doing the signing.  It is the greatest risk to Canada’s democracy today, this concentration of the media into fewer and fewer corporate hands.  Bell Canada for example, a body that cannot run a telephone company, now controls the dominant radio and television media in English-speaking Canada.  There is nobody reporting fairly on this worsening situation.

The only hope left to grasp for under these circumstances are the social media.  While you really need hip-high waders to slog through much of the blogs, tweets, posts and commentary of the Internet, there are truths emerging.  There are also scurrilous lies.  There are silly rumours and the compounding of errors.  As much as the social media are out of control, their anarchy is their strength.  Truth is no longer the only defence for slander—belief can become truth.  As many churches will tell you; if enough people believe, then it is true.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

That great speech.

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Some people think of a speech as being an end result.  How often have you said, that this or that person ‘gave a great speech.’  What that really says is that the speech was not successful.  If the speech did not motivate you to do something, it fails.

We were thinking of this when writing recently about political stump speeches.  These speeches have changed over the years as they have moved from the ‘vote for me’ talks delivered from a stump, the back of a train, a stage in a park or in a local arena.  Today these speeches are beating the drum to refresh the effort by already committed workers.

To understand great speeches, you need to analyze speeches such as Shakespeare’s recreation of Marc Anthony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, Winston Churchill’s classic Some chicken; some neck! speech to the Canadian parliament and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s momentous I have a dream. They were not just rich in their use of the English language, nor just adept at alliterative rhetoric.  They were built on what writers refer to as power phrases and are brought to repeated and all-consuming climaxes with an unerring sense of timing.

A great speech is structured.  It is not something that is done off the cuff.  Words have to be carefully placed within the sentence to reach the listeners’ ears in the right sequence.  Words that are weak or weaseled are wasted words.

A great speech is an epic journey that travels from mountain top to mountain top.  It is interrupted repeatedly by planned, anticipated audience reaction.  It is structured for the audience to voice and indicate approval.  The speaker’s pauses are part of the planning.  Each round of applause builds on the previous.  It rises to a crescendo of approval.

And that is all in the timing.  Timing is a critical factor, not in the length of a speech, but in its delivery.  Like the great comedians, great speakers know that the crucial pause is what can make the difference between polite agreement and an ovation.

The hardest thing to teach a person who aspires to be a good, if not great, public speaker is to read the audience.  It can be as simple as; are they looking at their watches?  Are they nodding in agreement?  Are they looking bored?  Are they looking around to see how others are reacting?  Can you see puzzlement and segue in an ad-libbed clarification?  You have to think of a speech as a conversation and always be ready to adjust your remarks to fit the needs of your audience.

There are some darn good speakers today.  President Obama of the U.S. comes immediately to mind.  What is probably missing is great speech writers.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

The new language of the Information Era.

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

It used to just be smiley faces.  Next were abbreviations for the lazy and two-finger keyboarders.  This became a torrent as texting deteriorated to meet the two-thumbnail requirements of texting from tiny cell-phone keyboards.

It is not that we are complaining that it is destroying the English language.  There are many aspects of our English that are archaic and need to be changed.  The Americans have almost reached a point in this of separating into having a language completely of their own making.  And it is not that the English are all that hidebound.  The things Brits do the language can make you wonder.

This comes up because of an abbreviation on a text message the other day that said, ‘btw.’  The message was not from Botswana nor was it about ‘bad-tasting water.’  The translation to ‘by the way’ had to be explained.

This is similar to the more common abbreviation such as ‘lol.’  You see it all the time.  We were under the impression that it meant ‘lots of luck.’  From some people, it was also assumed to mean ‘lots of love.’  Now we find out that it means ‘laughing out loud.’ Who would have guessed?

Thankfully, a kind person sent me a handy primer of the most common abbreviations and further help with reference to a web site called urbandictionary.com.  While this is most helpful, we do not expect to be ‘lmao’ or saying ‘wtf’ too often in print.  There just might be some readers over 21 in the crowd and we want them to be able to understand what is being said.  (And not be offended by unnecessary vulgarity.)

The reason that English language has over a million words today is because we need them.  We use them to help people understand what we are saying.  In our day-to-day language, we use maybe 4000 words that our friends and family understand.  Hundreds of thousands of English words are technical terms that people in different professions use to be clear and communicate effectively with their colleagues.

And that is what using language is all about.  We use it to communicate clearly and concisely what we want to say.  We capitalize words to say we are starting a new sentence or to say these words are a proper name for someone, a place or institution.  We punctuate properly to help ensure clarity.  We eschew bold face in text because we prefer not to shout.  We use long words only when necessary.  Short sentences are easy to read.

Our English language helps us communicate with millions of people around the world.  We should show it the respect it deserves.  And when we have said what we want, stop.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Is this the new style of customer relations?

Monday, March 7th, 2011

It came as a surprise.  It might have been developing for some time but when you get the full impact, it comes as a surprise.  We are talking here about the fine art of customer relations.  This changes with time as do all things in life.  It seems that in this modern age, the handling of customer relations is based on the assumption that the customer is not of sound mind.

There was a time when we knew that we were fully capable of handling customer relations people.  We did until we met one that reminded us of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That was the 1975 movie that starred Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.  Nicholson played the fun-loving lunatic and Fletcher played the chilling psychiatric nurse Miss Ratched.  Nicholson’s character is always playfully ahead of her but the anti-hero, Ratched, wins in the end.

It was a series of conversations with a woman from Bell Canada that left me feeling lobotomized.  We had used the time-honoured approach of taking our complaint to the president of the company.  This woman was one of the guardians of the castle keep at Bell Canada Enterprises’ executive office.  Her approach was not that we were wrong but that we had not considered all the possibilities.  She proved conclusively—to herself—that all the charges in the original bill were correct.  This was the bill that caused the dust up because it was for three times the contracted price.

To give the devil her due, this woman was not only good at her job but she was determined.  She would take the most miniscule items in the bill and make sure they were thoroughly discussed (by her).  She must have spent more than ten minutes just on the charge for 911.  It was affirmed to her many times that there was no disagreement with paying 18 cents per month for 911 emergency service.

We actually got to a point where both parties agreed that a bill of between $140 and $150 for the total period would have been reasonable.  The sticking point was that the company wanted $192.  Somewhere in the long list of charges and credits, Bell Canada must have made a computing error.  It was not one that this woman from the executive office was willing to admit.  The problem, she told us, was that we were not following her in the item by item recap of all the charges.  Being from Quebec, she even insisted that Ontario Retail Tax, Goods and Services Tax and Harmonized Sales Tax should all be paid.  She was not interested in our claim that HST had replaced GST and ORT.

Another problem left unresolved was the matter of the satellite receiver box for which we had paid $111 (including HST).  She dismissed this as though Bell stores where in no way connected with Bell Canada.  Take it to the store again, she advised.

She was generous though.  She said she understood our confusion and concern and was quite willing to cancel the late charges—provided we paid promptly now that we understood the billing.  We are waiting with baited breath for the new billing to arrive and the nasty telephone calls from Bell’s bill collectors to cease.

But I would really like to see her try that argument in front of a judge!

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Writing about ethics does not make it happen.

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

One of the standard exercises for company public relations people is to write a Code of Business Conduct for the company.  This is written in high flown language and tells the world what a wonderful company your company aspires to become.  Sometimes there is a long distance to travel between the reality and the ethical aspirations.

Having written more than a few of these fairy tale documents over the years, the challenge is to be able to show that the policy is achieving reasonable objectives for the company.  The rule is that if you cannot measure it, why do it?

In public relations, this measurement is usually done each year in a communications research project.  You start with an analysis of your company’s publics.  Publics usually encompass various customer groups, employees, shareholders, competitors, suppliers, trade media, community influences, educational institutions and the list can go on.  You might not be able to do every group every year but there are obvious priorities for study.  And do not ignore an unusual group such as competitors.  If the study is done through a reputable research firm, you will be surprised what your competitors can tell you.

It is also important to recognize that communications research is also useful to other departments.  Human resources needs to know how their programs are working with both employees and local educational facilities as these groups can have a major impact on the cost of finding future employees.  Sales and services needs to know where their customers stand on the company and how they might improve.  Suppliers, as a public, can save you a great deal of money in manufacturing operations.  And the list goes on.  Knowing where you stand is a huge part of running a successful company.

That is why you sometimes want to ask the senior executives of large companies why they do not take the time to listen.  It makes no sense that a company such as Bell Canada cannot understand the antipathy towards the company in the marketplace.  This is a company that has misused its size and power for too long.  It is a company with a grandiose Code of Business Conduct that allows its divisions and their departments to do as they wish.  It is a company that writes its own conditions of doing business without advising its customers.

Some apologists try to alibi Bell because of its size.  Why the size is any kind of excuse is ridiculous.  There is a one-size-fits-all to ethics.  Is not the ethics of a company the responsibility of all employees?

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Self-evident truths in the information age.

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The men who framed the American Declaration of Independence understood the self-evident truths of the rights they were claiming.  An American black of the time, labouring under the overseer’s whip in the cotton fields of the American south would have considered them be neither truths nor self-evident. Your perception of truths today still depends on your ABC (awareness, bias and context).

It is like what software developers call ‘user friendly.’  A programmer once noted that user-friendly software is a ghost.  It is something that everyone talks about but nobody has seen.  An even more dangerous word is ‘intuitive.’   Whether something is intuitive or not depends entirely on your ABC.  And we have never seen a programmer with the same ABC as a normal user.

Today’s television is a great example of this problem.  Take your average wide-screen, high-definition, surround sound system with 800 cable or satellite channels from which to choose.  Thank goodness the time on the personal video recorder is down loaded by the cable or satellite company.  It would never do to have those machines always flashing ’12:00’ at you.  And have you ever tried to reduce the steps required to switch from watching an on-air program to watching a DVD to less than 12 individual steps?

If American Idol was not available on 54 of those 800 channels, people would never find the program they want to watch.  Just the mechanics of using the channel guide can leave an adult viewer in a severe hysterical episode.  The manufacturers of these systems are not allowed to provide a 12-year old with each system they deliver.

Mind you, all the 12-year olds are busy programming iPods for their elders who think it is cool to have all their music at their fingertips—as long as they do not care in which order it plays.

And the adult penchant for Blackberries is almost without understanding.  How can any adult want to keyboard with their thumb nails?  We got an e-mail from someone’s Blackberry the other day that read like a very serious and long sneeze.  The only appropriate response was Gesundheit.

With the growing involvement of computer chips in our daily life, you have to live with them.  The alternative is no fun.  An elderly lady once said that the Eskimos had the best idea as they were reported to simply putting their elderly on an ice flow after an appropriate farewell party.  With global warming advancing as it is, this might not be today’s solution.  No doubt the computer people have already come up with something.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

#110 – Newsletters are neither easy nor rocket science.

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Having designed and written many newsletters over the years, they are not the daunting task that they might be to others.  Mind you, there is a need for a newsletter editor to have more skills than just the ability to get your Christmas cards out on time.  Maybe it will be helpful to take a look at what it takes to produce a newsletter.

It is important to understand the difference between a newsletter and a newspaper.  A newspaper is a collection of information of interest to a broad community.  It covers many topics.  In our society, it is usually supported by advertisers who also want to reach consumers among that community. The reader reads those aspects of the newspaper that are of interest and simply ignores the rest.

A newsletter has a much narrower focus.  It is designed for a community of interest.  It can be a community of workers in a company, a union, a medical specialty, an engineering discipline, a health agency, a church, a community organization, a political party, users of a local sports facility or a condominium.  Whatever the group, the newsletter deals specifically with information of interest to these individuals.  Before each issue is prepared, the editor asks the question: What do the readers want and need to know? It is only self-edited in terms of the time people can give to digesting the newsletter content.  That is why you start with the most important information and leave the minor stuff for the back pages.

Most good newsletter editors assemble the background information on what needs to be in an issue and write the articles in a steady flow.  Having different people write various parts of a newsletter actually takes longer as the editor has to meld their input with the rest.  A newsletter can be full tabloid size, a glossy magazine format or as simple as a few photocopied pages.  It all depends on the budget and the amount of material that needs to be distributed to the readers.

There is a long-standing adage among people who write and prepare company and organization newsletters for a living.  (Yes, these are best done by professionals.)  Their maxim is that, when in doubt, you run the president’s picture larger.

Regrettably, newsletters are too often ego trips for those who pay for them.  If the president’s message takes up the entire front page, the organization has a problem.  This is especially serious if the president’s writing never got past a fourth grade level of thinking and nobody edits him or her.

There is no excuse for a newsletter that is full of gross grammatical errors, self aggrandizement, inappropriate wording and inaccurate information.  People who think the spell check on the computer can save them have no idea of the embarrassment their bad spelling can cause.  And as for punctuation, this can sometimes be a lost cause!

In teaching executives to write effective letters over the years, there have always been some basics that apply equally to newsletters: You never say “I.”   You never apologize—unless you include your resignation.  And never get off subject.

A good newsletter makes people proud of the organization.  A bunch of typos, surrounded by blather, can annoy them.

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Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to   peter@lowry.me