Posts Tagged ‘The Communications Curse’

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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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  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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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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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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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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#98– Surviving the communications age, part 4.

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

The curse of having been an editor is that you always have a critical eye for language as it is used in daily life.  You try to explain that misspellings and bad grammar can be impediments to communication.  They cannot always be forgiven.

Take the most common confusion about convergence.  Everyone wants to talk about convergence without understanding if they are using the word correctly.  The easiest way to explain convergence is that you have two trains racing toward a point where the two tracks intersect.  If both trains meet at the point of convergence concurrently, those trains are going to converge.  When they converge, it is most likely that both trains will be derailed by the impact.

But that is not what people mean.  They are actually referring to a confluence.  A confluence is a point where two rivers meet.  At a confluence, the two rivers become a bigger river and continue their journey to the sea.  This is why when people talk about the convergence of technologies, they are referring to the two technologies working together.  They are really talking about a confluence of the technologies.

Probably the largest and most incompetent company in Canada in this regard is Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE).   The company is involved with a number of technologies that are undergoing a technological confluence.  BCE refers to them as their converging technologies.  We can hope that, when BCE’s latest technologies come together, it is a confluence and not a train wreck.

The company has taken control of  Canada’s largest television network: CTV.  The company intends to sell CTV’s content development over the BCE’s wireless cellular network, as well as its satellite television and Internet services.  This is a failure of the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in doing its job.  It means the Harper Conservative government has allowed BCE to completely disregard the public interest in favour of monopoly practices.  It is a complete reversal of what the CRTC was originally intended to do for Canadians.

It means that the CRTC now belongs to the media companies.  It serves their interests and not the interests of Canadians.

In the original model, 40 years ago, the radio and television networks were independent entities that provided content to a national network of independent stations that served their individual communities.  Technology has changed and so has the model.  Today, the national network no longer needs the network affiliates that were its customers.  The network goes directly to the consumer.

The original concern was that then strong newspapers would try to own the networks to utilize the synergy of their news gathering strengths.  The CRTC was supposed to ensure that Canadians had a variety of opinions and no one business interest could create a monopoly situation.  Nobody expected that when the television networks had swallowed their affiliates, they would then start to take control of the country’s print media

The Harper government and its version of the CRTC are a serious failure for Canadians.

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#94– Surviving the communications age, part 2.

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Being an early adaptor of technologies can be its own curse.  You should always wait until the technology is at least out of the initial testing stage.  The early automated teller machines (ATM) were an excellent case in point.  The Bank of Commerce should have paid its customers who were willing to put their trust in the darn things when first tried.

Being much more progressive than its main rival, Royal Bank of Canada, Commerce was always among the first to offer new technologies.  If you were crazy enough to trust these people, banking there was fun.  And you could be the first on your block to have a special card that gave you access to your money both day and night.

Mind you, day and night was not always the case.  Those test machines were never supplied with very much cash.  At that early stage, the machines did not have cathode ray tube advisories.  Instead they used a wheel of prepared responses that appeared in a small window. The most common response was that you had no money.  Annoyed customers gradually learned that what that really meant was that the machine had no money left in its innards to dole out to them or else it had a paper jam caused by old crumpled bills.

Today, it seems that all $20 bills start their life cycle in ATMs, before a short life in circulation, before heading back to the Bank of Canada incinerators.

One of the lessons learned by the bank in those first tests is that all branches had to have them.  One very frustrated customer once went into a branch manager’s office to announce that he would never bank with Commerce again because he could not find the slot to stick his access card.  Since the branch did not have one of the new ATMs, the manager was finally able to deduce that the customer was trying to stick his card into the night deposit.

Today, ATMs are everywhere.  They save banks millions in payroll costs as they replace human tellers.  ATMs have also become a profit centre for companies that prey on the unwary.  These no-name ATM suppliers, who will place their machines in any convenience store or other location, that will take them, have been forced to inform people using their fly-by-night machines of their direct (and outrageous) charges for using their machines.  What they do not tell you is there is an additional charge from the bank that guarantees the ATM company that you have the funds on deposit.

Your bank blames it on the ATM operator and the ATM operator blames it on your bank.  The blame game is annoying but you have found that you have been charged up to $7 for needing less than $100 in cash.  Your bank tells you there is no charge for using their ATMs but they will not help in resolving problems with ATMs belonging to others.

And for goodness sakes, if you go to casinos, never ever play the ATMs there.  They give the poorest return of any slot machines in the house.

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#92– Surviving the communications age, part 1.

Monday, October 18th, 2010

(Early in my career in public relations, I found I had a talent for making complex technologies understandable to a broader audience.  I expect there is a book hidden in the recesses of my mind that can help people deal with the complexity of the communications age in which we are so lucky to live.  Until I sit down and write it, you will have to settle for these scattered blogs to answer your questions.)

There is a corollary to that fictional Chinese curse saying: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It is:May you come to the attention of those in authority.’ And, according to a whimsical contributor to Wikipedia, there is a second corollary: May you find what you are looking for.’ All the sayings seem to come together to focus attention on our concerns with the communication age.  Just think for a minute about cell phones.

Things electronic have always fascinated me.  I have always been an early adaptor of new technologies. I had a car telephone long before they became a nuisance on our highways.  That first telephone was a full sized home phone from Bell Canada that sat on the console of a large four-door Mercury.  The many boxes of equipment that made it work filled the car’s spacious trunk and the whip antenna, rising from the middle of the trunk, was over two metres long.  There were just eight frequencies available in the Greater Toronto Area, for the thousands of people so equipped.  You fought for a line.

Getting a line was only your first problem.  There was no privacy.  I remember repeatedly trying to get a Globe and Mail reporter to stop reading to me to check a story that would be front-page news the next morning.  There could have been hundreds of people on the line getting the inside scoop without us being able to tell.  I thought I was really on to something with that phone until I met a limousine driver who had two lines; one phone was a convenience for his customers.  Analysis of calls on that radio telephone revealed that most calls were to tell people you were stuck in traffic and would be late to a meeting.  I discontinued the phone next time I changed cars.

The first cell phone was another disappointment.  It was built-in and hands-free for convenience but it still took up a third of the trunk of the sporty car that had replaced the larger Mercury.  It was such new technology that the telephone company should have been paying me to find all their dead spots in the city.  At that time, you were best to park if you were going to have a long conversation.   Mind you I really found out who among the people I talked to on the phone were long-winded.  At so much per minute, I started to tire of some of the conversations.

The first truly portable cell phones were awkward beasts that came with a carrying strap to throw over your shoulder.  The first couple arriving at a restaurant put their beast on the table so that their friends could update them on how far they were away.  And then the phones became so small, we were constantly losing them.

With the rise of the Blackberry and iPhone, the multi-media era of the communications age has landed on platforms that can handle the phenomenon.  Someone had already reasoned that cell phones would be even more useful if they sported a digital camera.  That made them useful and ubiquitous.  What surprised everyone about the Blackberry and other texting-ready cell phone devices was the number of adults so willingly typing on tiny Qwerty keyboards with their thumb nails.

Texting has certainly quieted down the incessant noise of cell phones but it is also destroying the use of written language.  Our spelling is becoming atrocious, the grammar appalling and some of the abbreviations leave the communication in doubt.  The sight of people around a meeting table who all look like they are playing with their genitals, is the phenomenon of people texting others while supposedly paying attention.

But, no matter how sophisticated the device, the essential message remains the same as that of Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit: ‘I’m late!  I’m late!  For a very important date.’ Were we always so self-important?    

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#91– The curse of the communications age.

Friday, October 15th, 2010

The supposedly ancient Chinese curse saying: ‘May you live in interesting times’ is starting to make sense.  It turns out that age of communications has become a curse in so many ways.  What started as human progress has become an inexorable trip into our own Hell of perpetual communications problems that dominate our lives.

This thinking was aggravated Thanksgiving weekend when Bell Canada pulled one of its service cut-off tricks.  What Bell does is perform what is called a system audit on long weekends.  It is all done by computer today but the process is the same as going down one of the old central office frames and unplugging customers who are in arrears or have otherwise displeased someone in Bell management.  They did it last Saturday night to this customer’s Internet service.  You find out on Sunday morning when you try to connect with the Internet to update this blog: no sync, no service.

But Bell had no right to do that.  While it might be a Bell Canada line and connected to a digital subscriber line amplitude modulator (called a D-SLAM) in Bell’s local central office, it was not Bell’s to cut off at a whim.  That line and the D-SLAM connection were leased to Yak Communications, a third-party services provider.  The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has very strict rules about how Bell has to handle third-party connections and I could have arranged for a very nasty letter to Bell if I had a little more time available.

The first concern is to get reconnected.  Sunday on a long weekend is not the time to do that.  The people manning call centres on long weekends are not always from the deep-end of the gene pool.  They are, at best, able to read a script (slowly). They are so bureaucratic, they are actually funny.  You are smart not to laugh at them as they tend to hang up on you if they think you are making fun of them.

And never tell them something that might not fit their scripts.  The genius who answered our call (after an appropriate wait on hold) told me that the problem was in my router because it was not the right make.  I could see that there was no DSL signal and he blamed it on the router.  He was going to send me a $10 router for $40 plus shipping.  It would arrive in five days and then he said he could help me re-connect.  I decided not to go that route.

At least this user is smart enough to have his web site located in New Jersey, his Montenegro e-mails based in San Francisco and a book of codes.  There are other computer hook-ups for emergencies.  One option was to go to a new supplier.  That was investigated.

This one was one for the books.  I called Rogers Cable.  I had a benevolent attitude towards Rogers that day because, through a fluke, I called Rogers recently and actually got a sentient human who understood the problem I had with their cable TV billing and struggled to fix it.  Not being a curmudgeon, you appreciate efforts such as that.  An add-on of high speed Internet service would have been an easy sale for Rogers.  I called a Rogers Internet call centre and got a gentleman who was eager to make a sale.  We agreed on what was needed.  The offer was made to connect that same Sunday afternoon.  The only problem was price.  Yak sells 6 Megabit Internet service for less than $25 per month, when you know how to negotiate.  Rogers thinks their equivalent service is worth $47 per month.  The gentleman from Rogers had no power to negotiate.  He lost the sale.

It took until Wednesday to fix the problem through Yak.  Despite the disapproval of my router, it works just fine thank you.  We are up and running.

But we need to talk about this unsavoury slavery to communications.  It is insidious.  We will have more to say.

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