In Political PR, Visual & Digestible Trump the Complex and Nuanced

In October 2012, On the heels of their first–and last–Vice Presidential debate, I typed “Joe Biden” and “Paul Ryan” into Google.

After each name, Google offered up three words to pair with each individual politician who was on his respective party’s ticket in the U.S. Presidential race.

See if you can guess which one had “marathon” and “shirtless” and “wife” and which one was paired up with “debate” and “gaffes” and “wiki.”

I suspect there’s little doubt that those words, respectively, matched up with Ryan, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, and Biden, then wrapping up his first term as Vice President.

Having covered politics over the years, mostly pre-Google and mostly of the local variety, those words underscore the consistency of what appears to appeal not only to online surfers but to reporters: the simple, the trivial, the visually entertaining.

Why write about complex policy issues, requiring difficult analysis and a depth of reporting, when you can do a light piece on the politician’s dog or passion for Van Halen guitar solos?

Knowing this reality, it behooves any publicist or strategist–for a political campaign on any level–to explore ways to translate the complex and nuanced into digestible, bullet-item format for the media as well as for direct communication with the public.

For example: if someone is running for Oak Park Village Board (my community), a chart showing 10 or 20 key issues or categories, along with the candidate’s stand on each issue, is much more apt to get attention (and retention) than even the most eloquent dissertation that doesn’t hold a candle to the aforementioned chart’s visual appeal.

Once the candidate has captured his or her audience through this easy-to-digest format, then the more in-depth discussion can more readily, and effectively, flow. And if he runs marathons while shirtless and has an attractive wife running alongside him? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.

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A Tribute to Frank Deford, The Rare Hero Who Exceeded Expectations

The high school senior and the dean of sports journalism, Frank Deford, on Nov. 8, 1985.

When our heroes meet, and even exceed, our naively high expectations, it’s a wonderful thing.

In November 1985, as a high school senior in suburban Boston, I had been reading Frank Deford‘s fabulous work at Sports Illustrated for seven years already. No doubt, it played a role in steering me into a journalism career, which I had begun 18 months earlier at the Marshfield (Ma.) Mariner.

So when I learned he was speaking with legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell at Northeastern University in Boston, I made a point of being on hand–and was thrilled to meet him briefly after the event, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society’s Excellence in Sports Journalism Awards ceremony.

From the Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections. (Photo by J.D. Levine)

Eighteen months later, I sent Frank a few clips from my work at The Daily Northwestern. A short time later, he responded, on SI letterhead, with a thoughtful type-written reply, offering feedback that showed he read my stories and encouragement that revealed his stellar character.

Like so many others, I was saddened to learn of Frank’s death on Sunday. RIP to not only one of the most talented journalists of our time, but to a kind human being and outstanding role model.

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We Hear It, We Say It–We Even Believe It–But The `Less is More’ Truism Can Be Lip Service

“Less is more.”

We’ve heard it on countless occasions. We may even have said it more than a few times. And it’s so often the perfect counsel, in any variety of situations. But how often do we blow the opportunity to actually practice it?

Before the (often-overdone) chatter: that's me on the far left, with six other school board candidates.

Before the (often-overdone) chatter: that’s me on the far left, with six other school board candidates.

This comes to mind on the heels of the first candidates’ forum in my campaign for the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School Board.

There are nine of us vying for four spots and even with two absent, that left seven people communicating their background, their motivation for running, the issues that we feel are top priorities, and so forth.

To a person, we all stumbled on occasion in keeping within the time allotted by the moderator. Some were more stumble-prone than others, and I like to think I was among a subset who weren’t quite as long-winded. Even so, at the next forum, and the one after that, and the one after that, I will do my darnedest to heed the words of Brian Burkhart, “Chief Word Guy” at SquarePlanet Presentations + Strategy:

“More information in less time isn’t better. To use an analogy, drinking from a firehose leaves an audience with the message equivalent of feeling disoriented, tortured and still thirsty because nothing actually went where it was supposed to.”

Yep…what he said!

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Zappos Memoriad 2016: Global `Mathletes’ Turn in Jaw-Dropping Performances in Las Vegas

In my first 48 years of life, I had never set foot in Las Vegas.

When I finally did, in early November, it turned out to be at a momentous time—my final night in Sin City featured the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President in U.S. history.

What are the odds that my inaugural trip to Vegas would coincide with not only the U.S. Presidential election but also the third Memory, Mental Calculation & Photographic Reading Olympiad (also known as the Zappos Memoriad)?

Some of the nations represented at the Memoriad.

Some of the nations represented at the Memoriad.

The Western in Las Vegas, site of the Zappos 2016 Memoriad.

The Western in Las Vegas, site of the Zappos 2016 Memoriad.

Does that last paragraph come across as a rhetorical question? If so, then you are not one of the myriad math phenoms who came from more than two dozen countries to compete. For them, questions of that sort are an invitation to put their remarkable minds to mathematical work.

Words do little justice to communicate the scope of these competitors’ abilities. So let me offer a story with more than a few numbers:

Until the 2016 Memoriad, the world record in the “Mental Calendar Dates” category—figuring out the day of the week for randomly assigned dates between 1600 and 2100—was 111. To break down that number, keep in mind that it represents 1.85 dates per second. Most people would be hard-pressed to actually read the month, day and year sequence that quickly, let alone translate it into a Tuesday or a Friday, or whatever day it fell on.

Zappos Memoriad 2016 chairman Scott Flansburg (L to R), yours truly, Memoriad co-founder Melik Duyar & West Wong.

Zappos Memoriad 2016 chairman Scott Flansburg (L to R), yours truly, Memoriad co-founder Melik Duyar & West Wong.

It wasn’t too long ago that doing 60 in one minute—or one per second—was akin to the 4-minute milestone for milers in the mid-1900s. And then Roger Bannister came along in 1954, proving it could be cracked—and then the floodgates opened and it’s now a routine thing for quality distance runners.

The same sequence played out among the world’s top math minds. By 2010, the world record had moved up into the 70s and along the way, Jan van Koningsfeld of Germany frequently broke one record after another. Last year, when Jan got to 96 dates, it blew me away—especially as I had just learned how to compute calendar dates and knew the rapid processing required for me to average a correct date every five seconds or so.

That brings me to this personal aside: in November 2015, I learned a calendar system so that I could incorporate this skill into my Go Figure: Making Numbers Count presentations. Since then, I had computed days of the week based on oral quizzing: someone would state a date (usually from the 1900s, though I also learned the entire 1600-2100 span), and I would compute the day of the week. Typically, I would come up with an answer in five to seven seconds—sometimes in two seconds or less, but other times, especially if it was from the 1700s or even the 2000s, sputtering along at 10 seconds or more.

On the final day of my four-day visit supporting the Memoriad with social-media updates, I asked one of the many youngsters who had come from India if I could take a crack at the Memoriad software that randomly generates dates. How would I fare in a 60-second span?

From my one and only practice round, for Mental Calendar Dates.

From my one and only practice round, for Mental Calendar Dates.

I scored a 9—about what I expected. A few minutes later, as the Mental Calendar Dates competition approached, I asked Memoriad chairman Scott “The Human Calculator” Flansburg if I could take a shot at competing (though my results would be unofficial, as I was not a registered competitor).

After conferring with fellow Memoriad founder Melik Duyar, Scott graciously agreed to let me be among the 42 people—from grade-school age youngsters on up—who had traveled from all around the world to compete.

My goal in the five-round event: to get 10 dates. After scoring an 8, then a 9, I reached 10 in the third round—and repeated it in the final round. (I waged an ill-fated experiment in Round 4, programming the dates to appear, from left to right, as the day of the month, the month, and then the year. The approach threw this decidedly month-day of month-year guy for a loop, and I stumbled to a 5. Starting around the 4-hour mark of this video, you can see the Mental Calendar Dates competition.)

Doing my best to focus during one of the five rounds.

Doing my best to focus during one of the five rounds in the Mental Calendar Dates competition.

I had no illusions that my performance would wow anyone in the room (I finished 33rd–but first among Americans–after all, I was the only American competing!) So the real suspense was whether anyone had shattered the record of 111. That feat had been accomplished by “The Mental Calendar,” Yusnier Viera, an upbeat, personable Cuban who now lives in Miami and, poetically enough, was serving as a referee at the Memoriad.

Fourteen-year-old Jay Baldiya Jain of India--two days before he shattered the Mental Calendar Dates record.

Jay Baldiya Jain of India–two days before he shattered the Mental Calendar Dates record.

When the top three contestants (all from India) were announced, anticipation built: Shashank Jain had computed 83 dates, and Jainam Nayankumar Shah, only 12 years old, had tallied 89.

But those fantastic scores—both of which would have been world records in the not-too-distant past, were easily overshadowed by the off-the-charts (literally) performance of Jay Baldiya Jain. This 14-year-old had not only correctly assigned days of the week for all 125 dates on the screen, but he had done so with 3.18 seconds to spare, meaning he averaged 2.2 dates per second and was on pace to score 132 in a full minute.

And that only offers a brief glimpse of the collective brainpower, from boys and girls as well as men and women, at the Memoriad. The two youngest competitors, both from India, were a mere 5 years old. Among the other competitions were Speed Cards, Binary Digits, Mental Square Roots, Names and Faces, and Speed Reading.

In all, prize money totaled $33,000. But for me, meeting and watching these remarkable “mathletes” and other world-class individuals transcended any dollar amount. It was a truly priceless experience, at once both humbling and inspiring.

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From Déjà Vu Despair to Unhinged Delight: Witnessing the Cubs Win the World Series

A fan at FitzGerald's unfurls the "W" banner signifying the Chicago Cubs' most significant win ever.

Moments after the World Series victory, a fan at FitzGerald’s unfurls the “W” banner signifying the Chicago Cubs’ most significant win ever.

It was a day of distraction and anticipation, followed by a beaming burst of hope, which gave way to stomach-churning optimism, only to have it descend into deja vu despair.

And then, of course, the grounds crew pushed the tarp onto the playing field at rainy Progressive Field in Cleveland.

I nestled into a (relatively) quiet corner of FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn night club, and pulled up my Facebook page: “Whoever sees the four horsemen first… please send us a quick heads-up!!”

I have read Revelation, the last book of the Bible that foretells the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and didn’t recall any mention of the Indians vs. Cubs, or a Jon Lester wild pitch, or even Joe Maddon’s curious handling of the pitching staff. Just the same, this had the feeling of end times.

I had arrived at the place to be for Cubs fans in the near western suburbs of Chicago–FitzGerald’s, along Roosevelt Road just south of Oak Park—in the bottom of the sixth inning. Moments earlier, retiring Cubs catcher David Ross had slugged that redemptive home run over the center field wall to push Chicago’s lead to three, 6-3.

During my drive to FitzGerald’s in the bottom of the fifth inning, I heard Cubs’ play-by-play man Pat Hughes describe the Lester wild pitch that ricocheted off Ross’s mask, and the ensuing frenzy of two Indians coming in to score on the play. Dread crept in, but Ross’s story-book home run kept it at arm’s length.

That’s how I had seen most of these playoffs, extending my arm to watch the action on my smartphone or iPad.

But this denouement—this I had to see in a proper setting, around other Cubs fans, with a humongous screen to take it all in. The same idea had occurred to hundreds of others, spread out among three big screens situated inside the main building, under a tent, and in the parking lot.

Born and raised in the Boston area, I am and forever will be a Red Sox fan first. But having spent 30 years in Chicago, the Cubs (along with the White Sox) have inspired an allegiance sealed by a kindred connection, all three franchises having suffered generations of futility, near-misses, and infamous bad luck.

In 2004, the Red Sox broke through. The next year was the South Side team’s turn. Now it was the Cubs’ turn—at least it sure seemed so with two outs in the 8th inning. Lester, the former Red Sox World Series winner pitching on fumes and two days’ rest, induced a ground ball from Jose Ramirez. Onto the ninth inning!

Only, shortstop Addison Russell couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Moving quickly to his left, he actually over-shot it with his glove. Not an error, but a makeable play that hadn’t been made. In came flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to shut the door.

Only, the Indians kicked it wide open. A double drove home one run, and then noted speedster and light-hitting Rajai Davis came to the plate. He worked the count to 2-and-2, fouling off two pitches as he choked up on his bat like some ballplayer plucked from the game’s dead-ball era more than a century ago.

Before the next pitch, while streaming video via Facebook Live, I helped lead a 17-second chant of “Let’s Go Cubs!” that gradually worked its way through the nervous assembly. The chant halted as Chapman dealt, Davis swung from his heels, and the ball shot toward the left-field corner. Would it be far enough? Would it be fair?

It was eminently unfair. Improbably, impossibly: a two-run home run. A collective groan ascended from the parking lot. A 6-6 tie never felt like such a hole to climb out of.

“Oh my goodness,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Watching Davis circle the bases, right arm raised and thumping his chest, I trekked down another hole—to 13 years ago, when the Cubs self-destructed in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

Back then, on assignment as a journalist, I went to the lobby of the YMCA across the street from my home to capture fans’ reaction to that squad’s clinching of a World Series. Then came the Bartman incident, followed by Alex Gonzalez’s muffed double-play grounder, and a much different story emerged—the Cubs’ infamous meltdown.

And here we were, in the waning moments of November 2, 2016, and as Yogi Berra would say, it felt like déjà vu all over again. Neither team scored in the ninth, though it had more than a little drama. The Cubs failed to get a runner home from third base with one out; the Indians’ Jason Kipnis gave a huge scare with a long drive that initially appeared to be a home run but curved foul.

Onto extra innings. But first came that rain, and the 17-minute delay during which time the Cubs regrouped behind a pep talk from slumping outfielder Jason Heyward.

What happened on the field next has already been exhaustively chronicled and will be re-visited innumerable times for years to come. At FitzGerald’s, we hung on every pitch, rejoiced in the Cubs’ two-run rally, wondered if they would rue not scoring at least three runs, and clung to this newfound hope.

Thirteen minutes before midnight, up now by only one run, the ground ball rolled to Kris Bryant at third base. His throw to Anthony Rizzo was on the money. Déjà vu despair dissolved, fully, finally, mercifully and loudly, among the throng.

Taking its place was a special sort of unhinged delight, the type that has been bottled up for more than a century.

During various late-game segments of the Cubs’ Game 7 World Series victory, including the final out and the ensuing celebration among fellow fans, I shot video of the FitzGerald’s scene. You can find it on my personal Facebook page:

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