Deep (Throat) Lessons From Bob Woodward: Strike Up Conversations, Then Listen Up

Do you have the gift of gab?

It’s actually a trick question–because it’s not a gift at all, but a series of choices. The biggest one is to choose to put your focus on others rather than yourself.

Professional, ethical, effective journalists cannot write with long gazes into their navels. They must seek input from other sources.

Public relations professionals seeking to build solid rapport with media members do not merely “smile ‘n’ dial” and hope that some coverage-worthy mud sticks to the wall. PR pros try to figure out how journalists tick, what they are looking for, and in what form they prefer to receive information.

The top-performing salesman poses a few questions, allows the prospect to talk about his or her objections and needs, and then zeroes in on the closing approach that stands the best chance for success.

In all of those cases, the individual seeking to learn more from key contacts is taking a page out of the playbook described in Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Carnegie shares the story of how he met a botanist at a party and sincerely began asking questions about his world. The botanist talked for hours. At the end of the evening, he gushed to the host about Carnegie, whom he described as a “most interesting conversationalist.”

Noting that he “had said hardly anything at all,” Carnegie recalled that the key was that he had “listened intently.”

“I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it,” Carnegie stated. “Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.”

If it’s such a precious commodity, then why is it so rare? Much of the answer boils down to fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of rejection are two biggies.

Those are self-absorbed ills. All of the focus is on our little selves, and worst-case scenarios of what could happen to us if this, that or the other thing ensues. But those are statistically remote illusions, a fervent faith in negative results that hardly ever materialize.

Consider what you can gain by practicing the discipline of focusing on others, of speaking very little and listening very much.

In his account of how he first met W. Mark Felt, the man who would later become his pivotal Deep Throat source, Bob Woodward experienced the powerful impact of looking beyond himself and stepping out of his comfort zone.

In 1970, while he was in the U.S. Navy, Woodward was in the White House waiting to deliver documents to the chief of naval operations. Felt sat down near him. After several minutes of silence, Woodward introduced himself.

For many of us, saying anything to a stranger can push us out of our comfort zone—especially when we are in the company of someone whose stature may intimidate us. (Woodward recalled Felt as “very distinguished looking” with “a studied air of confidence.”)

Woodward went on to share more about himself with Felt. Though the older gentleman initially did not reciprocate, he became more engaged when Woodward hit on common ground. Woodward was taking graduate courses at George Washington University, and Felt replied that he had gone to night law school there before he joined the FBI.

Bingo, a key fact emerges. From there, the two found more common ground and spoke at length as Woodward continued to push through any comfort zone constraints he may have had.

“I peppered him with questions about his job and his world, and as I think back on this accidental but crucial encounter–one of the most important in my life–I see that my patter probably verged on the adolescent. Since he wasn’t saying much about himself, I turned it into a career counseling session. I asked Felt for his phone number and he gave me the direct line to his office. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future.”

While the meeting may have been “accidental,” Woodward’s boldness and persistence transformed what could have been a routine, superficial mutual head-nodding moment into an historical turning point.

Think about your moments, minutes, hours and days ahead.

It’s not a gift, it’s your choice.

What’s the worst that can happen if you say “hello” to someone on the elevator? How uncomfortable is it, really, to introduce yourself to someone in the crowd at the city council meeting? Why don’t you make that contact you’ve been putting off for days?

Better yet, ask this question: What’s the best that can happen?

Matt Baron originally wrote this column in July 2005, and posted it on his PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication blog.

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Stop Talking About All Your Cool Gizmos!

“The problem with most news releases: they mimic other news releases—which fall far short of furthering organizational goals.”

That was my closing remark in an email last week to a senior executive with a company that appears to be kicking butt in business. Alas, it is struggling to communicate its rapid growth–and the reasons behind that growth–in an effective manner.

The corporation’s momentum, which includes a recent “best place to work” recognition and multiple years of “fastest-growing” status, is proof that you don’t always need to have external and media communications savvy to thrive in business.

Of course, there’s no telling how much opportunity has been lost, and will continue to go untapped, as a result of not having a robust communications strategy.

One of the points I conveyed to the exec: rather than use vague cliches like “bring more offerings and values to clients,” use layman’s language and get specific: what are those offerings, and what value does your company add to others?

In short: why should people care, and what difference does it make in end users’ / customers’ lives? Stop talking about all the cool gizmos, and turn the spotlight on the profound impact those gizmos are having on the world.

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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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Part I, 2014 PR & Marketing Resolution: Consume Better Sources of Information

As we look ahead to the next 12 months, much that rattles around is so much white noise—about the same shade as the snowfall that is currently descending on Chicagoland.

We are barraged with stuff like “I am resolved to eat better” and “I am resolved to exercise more,” along with endless tips on how to heighten your likelihood of success. That’s all well and good, particularly in light of our nation’s penchant for packing on pounds and putting regular exercise so far down on our priority list.

But for those of us in the public relations and marketing arena, those common New Year’s resolutions can take on a special significance when translated to our professional efforts. Let’s first examine “I am resolved to eat better” in a PR/marketing context.

Another term for eating is “consuming” and as communicators, we are continually in the mode of consuming information. Some is for our pleasure, some is for our professional use—and all of it has an impact on the clarity, sharpness and creativity in our thinking. And the quality of our thinking has a direct bearing on the quality of our communication.

So when it comes to your sources of input, what resolutions do you believe would be beneficial in the realm of “eating better”? Here are some of mine:

Consume more inspirational and insightful information.

It’s hardly the only game in town, but an excellent resource that fits this bill is http://www.ted.com/.

Today, about five years after first coming across TED, I am amazed when I mention it to knowledgeable, bright people and they give me a blank look. They have never heard of it before.

This reveals more the reality of our fragmented channels of communication than any of these individual’s tastes or information-gathering diligence. In short, there are simply so many outlets available to us that there is no way we can possibly stay on top of it all. However, we can make a concerted effort to increase the proportion of input that inspires and illuminates.

Consume more quality news content.

Let’s expose ourselves to insightful perspectives on the news that go beyond the obvious and offers historical context and that elusive Holy Grail of reporting long referred to as “balance.” Undoubtedly, just what constitutes “quality” and “balance” will vary from one person to the next, so that brings us to the next resolution recommendation.

Consume from a wider variety of sources.

Expanding the range of your concentric circles of “appropriate news sources” is fine, but don’t stop there. Make more regular forays into far-flung sources that might go so far as to be 180 degrees opposite your viewpoint, whether political, intellectual or otherwise.

By keeping an open mind, we are tilling fertile soil for growth, broader understanding and more nuanced refinement of our core views. Besides, we might just learn that we’ve been flat-out wrong about a few things along the way.

What does this all have to do with public relations and marketing?

For starters, it makes us more well-rounded individuals, with a more expansive knowledge base. That wider base, in turn, enables us to relate to a wider spectrum of people (including prospects and clients) and to devise more diverse and creative ways of telling stories. And that, without a doubt, can turbo-charge any PR or marketing endeavor that you launch.

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Northwestern’s Half-Baked Attempt at Connection: A Ham-Handed, Handwritten Thank-You Note

Earlier this month, I received a hand-written thank you note in the mail from an undergraduate at Northwestern University, my alma mater.

That was impressive.

The personally written, but hardly personalized letter from
a Northwestern undergraduate.

Then I read the note – and if it wasn’t a verbatim transcription of a form letter, then I worry for the future of this self-described English major.

How utterly unimpressive.

Why bother with a form of intimate, personal connection when you saddle it with an impersonal form letter? Why go through the motions of making an emotional connection when you handcuff a student to so much sanitized white noise?

C’mon Wildcats: unleash these young adults to communicate from the heart! Or at least save yourself the postage.

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