THE FOUR ESSENTIALS OF A GREAT COMMUNICATOR - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)

Chapter 6. THE FOUR ESSENTIALS OF A GREAT COMMUNICATOR

There are only four things people you communicate with won’t forgive you for: not being prepared, comfortable, committed, and interesting. Remember the first time you stood up in class to make a presentation? You might have been in the fifth grade. Your teacher, who was very strict, called your name, and your heart sank. Let’s go back in time and eavesdrop. I don’t mean to poke fun. After all, there but for the grace of God go all of us.

However, there’s fat Henry, with his runny nose and one sneaker untied. When it was his turn, he blushed so red that his face blended in with his freckles. There’s Rhonda, who stood frozen to the spot, afraid to smile because her braces made her mouth look like a barbed-wire fence. Then there’s Mort, the class “brain,” who wore his bow tie for the occasion but spoke with his eyes fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings.

In fifth grade, moments like these can traumatize you. Hopefully, we can all laugh now. But for many of us, it’s still a nervous laugh.

Many people had a mortifying experience the first time they gave a formal speech—and they’ve never gotten over it. In a later chapter, we’re going to examine the problems of stage fright and other anxieties associated with public speaking. But right now, I want to tell you about four things that audiences (no matter how large) won’t forgive in a speaker. If you concentrate on getting these few things right, most, if not all, of your fears about addressing audiences will disappear. And you’ll become an accomplished communicator. Remember, the essentials don’t change because the situation changes. These things work in interpersonal communications as well as in formal speeches.

These four elements—“the four essentials”—are simple. But they’re not necessarily easy. However, if you keep them in mind in every communication situation and practice them, you’ll automatically get better.

THE FIRST ESSENTIAL: BE PREPARED

Preparation is essential because whenever you speak to other people they must have absolute confidence that you know what you’re talking about. That doesn’t mean you have to be the world’s leading authority on the subject. But your listeners should feel that you know more about the subject than they do and that you’ve done some preparation for addressing them—either formally or informally.

A U. S. senator had a man on his staff who was an excellent speechwriter. One day the speechwriter, a rather shy young man, said to the senator, “Sir, I think things have been going quite well. The speeches I’ve written for you have been widely praised for their style and content. So I’d like a raise.” The senator replied in a huff, “Just keep writing the speeches.” And he refused him the raise.

The next day, the senator had a major address on television, and he started reading the first page of the speech. “Today,” he intoned, “I’m going to tell you about the four major problems we face as a nation,” and he went down his list. Then he said, “Now I’m going to tell you what I propose as solutions to these problems.” He turned the page, and it said, “Okay, you SOB, you’re on your own!”

WHERE TO START

The first thing an audience (no matter how small or large) won’t forgive you for is acting like that senator—failing to be prepared. I learned about preparation from my good friend Pearl Bailey. No performer in the world made it look so easy. Pearlie Mae, as she was known, even put on bedroom slippers in the middle of her act and sat in a rocking chair. She’d tell you how tired she was, wander around the stage, and talk to the band and the audience.

A casual observer would think she was absolutely winging it as she went along. But I’ve been at a Pearl Bailey rehearsal. The woman was a consummate professional. She mastered every note of music the band played. She knew the timing of every drumbeat. She measured the stage with her eyes so she knew exactly how far she could move. She knew where the lights hit, where her positioning tape marks were on the floor. She was aware of the sight lines of the audience and she controlled the rhythm of the whole act.

In rehearsal, she was as cool and tough as a Marine Corps drill sergeant. She was always pleasant, but she was also tough. She was so meticulous in rehearsal that she could afford to make it look easy once the show started. And when she performed, she was great.

I often think about her as I coach people to perform. Most people try to avoid the most important part—a little rehearsal. If they would just spend 20 percent of the time Pearl Bailey did getting ready, they’d be a lot better at “show time.” Not only must you be prepared, but you should do at least some of the preparation yourself, even if you’re a busy top-level executive.

Whether you work alone to prepare for a meeting or to give a speech or whether you have some outside help, you should begin by assessing the knowledge, interests, and needs of your listeners. Ask yourself: Why have I been asked to speak? What is expected of me on this occasion? How can I apply my special experience to the concerns of my listeners? Dictate or write your thoughts first without editing them. Then go back and polish the material.

SPEAK THE SPEECH

Another very important point of preparation is going over the speech out loud before you give it, so that you can change any words or phrases that you stumble over. If you do this, you’re almost guaranteed to do well.

Haven’t we all heard speakers who were unprepared? We feel embarrassed for the speaker and angry and frustrated that our time has been wasted.

NO COP-OUTS

Interestingly enough, many people who would not accept excuses from subordinates or coworkers about a poorly thought out and sloppily prepared assignment will cop out themselves in the most amateurish way about giving a speech or preparing a presentation for a business meeting. “Well, I didn’t have time. No, I didn’t rehearse it out loud. No, I didn’t look at it until I was on my way to the event. The speechwriter didn’t write what I wanted.” Well, these excuses are unacceptable. Why didn’t the person delivering the remarks correct these things?

If you find yourself making excuses, ask yourself these questions: What am I afraid of? Do I have performance anxiety? Am I afraid of being judged? Is this speech or appearance important enough to demand some of my time or can I assign it to a subordinate? If I don’t prepare and rehearse, what kind of example does that set for those who look up to me for inspiration or leadership?

A PREPARATION CHECKLIST

Please don’t be intimidated by the length of the following checklist for preparing a speech from an outline—the ideal method. The checklist will save you time in preparing your next speech.

A. Preparing

1. Evaluate your audience. Be aware, in advance, of their special interests, expertise, and desires or aspirations, so you can be sure to address them appropriately.

2. Consider the occasion. Your approach can be influenced by an event celebrated by the group, such as a holiday, anniversary, retirement, or announcement.

3. Determine the length of your talk. Always come in a bit shorter than you’re budgeted, and your audience will be surprised—and grateful.

4. Determine the purpose of your speech:

a. To entertain

b. To inform

c. To inspire

d. To persuade

Good speeches often combine elements of all four.

5. Decide on a central theme that can be written down in a single sentence. If you can’t write your theme on the back of a business card, it’s too complicated.

6. To aid your confidence, develop background knowledge in the speech area. You must do some of your own preparation.

7. Gather facts. Do research. Be sure your remarks are relevant to the interests of the group.

8. Consider the makeup of the audience and its present attitude toward you. For hostile or skeptical audiences, you will need to show that you understand all sides of the issue. For supportive audiences, your job is to reaffirm values.

9. Find a good opening line or story that relates to the speech. If it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest your audience.

10. Possible speech structures include:

Past—Present—Future

Write down three to five questions the audience might ask of you—and answer them as the body of your speech

B. A Sample Speech Outline

Make your speech outline simple: triple-spaced and easy to read.

C. Speech Delivery

1. After the outline is made, develop wording of certain thoughts, including some memorable phrases and quotes. Be interesting!

2. Support statements with facts, examples, analogies, and so forth.

3. Practice the speech out loud into a tape recorder (vital to success).

4. Time the speech. Guesstimate 20 percent longer for actual delivery time to allow for the unexpected.

5. Consider the size of the audience you’ll be speaking to and practice to reach the back row (enough volume, but don’t shout or strain).

6. Take your time to get the audience’s attention before beginning your speech. Pause, then look up to establish eye contact.

7. Listen to your speech on audio or video recorder for voice transitions:

a. Rate or tempo changes

b. Sincerity

c. Intensity

d. Volume

e. Inflection (highs and lows)

f. Pronunciation

g. Drama (silences, shifts in pace)

h. Whether you sound confident

8. Rehearse it again out loud and be sure you have good eye contact. Can you lift your head from the outline without losing your place?

9. The more you rehearse out loud, the better the speech will be.

MAKE IT YOUR OWN

It’s important to make the material your own. President Reagan was a master at that. He’d go through his speechwriter’s material word by word, inserting his own ideas and phrasing. That may not even require a lot of time. Some of my clients can do it in half an hour at most, if they have a rough draft of their remarks. But many senior executives are just afraid they can’t do it, so they stay away from it completely. Whether you’re facing the board of directors or the PTA, your professional reputation is on the line—you must get involved. This is a very important use of your time. Making a good impression for yourself and the organization you represent is part of your job description. Again, essential number one is be prepared.

THE SECOND ESSENTIAL: MAKE OTHERS COMFORTABLE

To make others comfortable, you have to appear comfortable yourself. The best example of speaker comfort I’ve ever seen was a guest we had on “The Mike Douglas Show.” He was, of all things, the complaint manager at a local department store in Cleveland. We were doing a Christmas show, and we thought it would be interesting to have a complaint manager tell about some of the unusual gifts people returned, why they brought them back, and what the complaints were. This particular man was a jovial fellow, totally comfortable with himself, even though he weighed in at about three hundred pounds.

We had an area in the studio where the host and guests sat, and on it there was a small raised platform called a gazebo with four or five chairs. We were doing television live in those days, and inventing the form as we went along.

This huge complaint manager walked in and sat down on one of those chairs on the platform. There were three or four other guests already seated. During the program, he rocked back and forth on the back legs of the chair. I noticed that one of the chair legs kept inching closer and closer to the edge of the platform. We were three or four minutes away from a commercial break. I just prayed that we’d get to the break before the chair got to the edge. I tried to write a cue card to warn Mike what was happening, but I couldn’t get it across to him.

Finally, the inevitable happened. The leg went off the back edge of the platform, the chair tipped over backward, and right in midsentence this three-hundred-pound man rolled over, did a backward somersault, and disappeared out of sight. One instant he and Mike were talking, the next instant he was gone and there was a big hole in this group of people. The studio audience gasped.

Well, this guy was so comfortable with himself that he just picked himself up, picked up the chair, walked around in front, put down the chair, sat down, and without ever missing a beat continued the story he was telling. The audience and the whole television crew gave him a spontaneous standing ovation for coolness under fire. He was so comfortable throughout the whole episode that the audience just loved him. After that, he became somewhat of a regular on the show based on his ability to handle adversity with great comfort and aplomb.

WE’RE ONLY HUMAN

Most people would be so embarrassed by falling off the stage during a television program that they would never go on television again. I learned a lesson from that complaint manager twenty-two years ago and it has always stuck in my mind. We are all human. Accidents can happen. We are not perfect. We may even make fools of ourselves. But if we can smile and keep on going, we can win the audience.

The most successful senior executives I’ve seen are powerful but still able to make other people feel comfortable. John H. Bryan, Jr., chairman of Sara Lee Corporation, for instance, is a man who is deceptively casual in his approach to things. It is clear he has a razor-sharp mind and is capable of making very tough decisions, but he comes across as being very laid-back and relaxed. He can really make others feel at ease. He has a wonderful smile. He looks at you when he speaks to you.

GETTING COMFORTABLE

It’s easy to say, “Be comfortable,” but we have to define it a little bit further. And I’ll help you work toward that goal. People who are comfortable and who also put others at ease don’t overreact to events by getting uptight and causing others to do the same. If somebody comes into your office and tells you that a truck has just backed into your car and totaled it, it’s natural to be upset. It is not natural to rant in front of the person who simply delivered the bad news to you. We often do this to other people: We get upset with them rather than putting their role and our feelings into perspective.

At work, I’ve seen people who are told that a package has been lost in the mail. They get livid. It sets off a chain reaction in the office. It ruins not only that person’s day, but everybody else’s day. In the meantime, someone else with a cool head has contacted the messenger or mail service and has put a tracer on the package. Nine times out of ten, it’s found. If not, there’s not a darned thing you can do about it anyway.

There’s no use ruining the creative atmosphere of the office for the rest of the day. Yet you’d be surprised how many people can’t keep their emotions under control. This makes other people uncomfortable and reduces their ability to communicate effectively. Some people actually believe a wild display of temper makes them appear more important, when in fact it always reduces their stature in others’ eyes.

On the day of a speech, I try to stay clear of bad news and negative people. If I can’t, I simply try to put the problem in context—in fact, I try to laugh at it. If I’m upset when I begin to speak, I’m going to make the audience uncomfortable.

If you’re striving to be more comfortable yourself and to make others comfortable—especially in your interpersonal communications—one place to start is to accept others for who they are. You have two choices: You can act as though you tolerate people, or you can appreciate people. Those who appreciate people are going to make others more comfortable.

I’ve seen many situations in business in which someone comes to the boss with an idea. The idea won’t work and may even be slightly crazy or counterproductive. Some bosses directly dress down the person—making the employee feel stupid. Other bosses just sit there with their arms crossed and a cold look in their eyes, communicating the message that the idea won’t work.

Bosses who are the best communicators let the subordinate explain the idea. The boss first smiles and thanks the person for coming in with a suggestion. Then the boss uses a question-and-answer approach—a dialogue—to help the person think through the implications of the idea until it’s apparent that it needs work. Getting positive reinforcement for the contribution, at least, makes the person comfortable—even motivated—to come up with a better idea. Isn’t that the goal, anyway? If you make others uncomfortable, they may never approach you again. There’s a cost to that—in morale and in the choking off of that one possible great idea in ten.

THE LIGHT TOUCH

A constructive way to make other people comfortable is to lighten up yourself. Take your job seriously but don’t take yourself so seriously. This applies one-on-one or when you’re talking to a larger audience. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a later chapter. But humor is a way to take the sting out of almost anything and is used entirely too infrequently in the world. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are two people recalled for having the most serious job in the world yet being able to lighten it up—for themselves and for others. Here are examples of both the Kennedy and Reagan wits, from various stages of their careers.

QUESTION:

(from a small boy) Senator Kennedy, how did you become a war hero?

SENATOR KENNEDY:

It was involuntary. They sank my boat.7

REPORTER:

Mr. President, have you narrowed your search for a new Postmaster General? Are you seeking a man with a business background or a political background?

PRESIDENT KENNEDY:

The search is narrowing, but there are other fields still to be considered, including even a postal background.8

PRESIDENT REAGAN:

I’ve been getting some flack about ordering the production of the B-1. How did I know it was an airplane? I thought it was a vitamin for the troops.9

PRESIDENT REAGAN:

(to a group of doctors) We’ve made so many advances in my lifetime. For example, I have lived ten years longer than my life expectancy when I was born—a source of great annoyance to many people.10

OTHER POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES

Examples of the Kennedy and Reagan light touch have filled books. But even if you don’t have a good sense of humor, you can still make others comfortable in other ways. You can become known as a person who is trustworthy. You can choose not to engage in gossip or sarcastic remarks about others when they are not present. You can avoid giving phony compliments but, whenever possible, say positive things about others.

You can practice looking more comfortable. Don’t make sharp, jerky moves. At a lectern, don’t rattle your papers. Avoid brushing back or fiddling with your hair, or pulling at your nose. These gestures convey a lack of comfort. Walk casually to the lectern, lay down your papers, place your hands on each side of the lectern, then look at the audience. Maintain your own timetable. If you overreact to the pressure of time, you will appear uncomfortable.

Ronald Reagan’s greatest gift is not his speaking ability but his ability to make others comfortable. One day as we were getting started on his 1984 campaign, a half dozen of us were gathered in an informal meeting at the White House. Our jackets were off, ties askew, sleeves rolled up, coffee cups half empty, and ashtrays full.

Suddenly, without any announcement or fanfare, in strides the President of the United States. Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Leader of the Free World. Well, you never saw a bunch of grown men in repose shoot up faster and attempt to look dignified—with less dignity, I might add. Reagan just smiled, held up his hand as if to say, “Relax, guys,” and breezily said, “Well, I figured as long as you were selling the soap, you might as well get a look at the bar.” He chatted with us for a few minutes about the days when he was in advertising selling Borax and other products.

After fifteen minutes of conversation and banter he announced, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I guess I’d better get out of here before the mystique wears off.” The president shook hands all around and walked out, as casually and self-assuredly as he had come in. The rest of our meeting took on a new sense of energy and purpose, because he had made everyone feel so comfortable.

A HARD CASE

Many of the executives who come to me have the problem of making other people uncomfortable without knowing that they’re doing it, and it’s my job to diagnose the causes and prescribe solutions. The most difficult client I’ve ever worked with was a fellow who simply could not see himself as others did. Everyone disliked him, and he rather liked himself. Actually, that’s not quite true. Some people hated him. Consequently, my job was to explain to him in as diplomatic a manner as possible how people felt about him. This was difficult because I was starting to dislike him myself. I had to show him how and why this was happening, and then help him find some new ways of expressing himself.

His behavior was something like this. If you were talking about something he knew anything at all about, and he disagreed with you, he would curtly cut you off and jump down your throat with “You don’t understand. I’ll have to explain this to you.” Or if you asked him a question that might have been covered in some printed material he’d given you, he would preface his response with “Well, obviously you didn’t read the report I gave you.…” He continually lectured everyone. Even when he thought he was being polite he would begin with “Let me explain this to you.” If he wasn’t interested in what you were saying, he just looked bored and changed the subject. Do you know anyone like that? Have you ever acted like that yourself?

Suddenly it occurred to me to ask him if he’d ever been a teacher. “Yes,” he said, “very early in my career I taught for a couple of semesters.” And then it hit me that this was what was coming out. He was treating everyone as if they were students. The problem was that he was lecturing his peers and other members of the board of directors, who didn’t appreciate being talked to in that manner. I tried to point out to him on videotape how he dealt with his peers and his superiors. Since he always took this lofty attitude, it wasn’t easy to break through to him.

There was more to this man’s problem than the fact that he had been a teacher. Most teachers don’t treat their students in this manner. Psychologists would have a field day discussing his inferiority complex and his need to make himself feel bigger by making other people feel smaller. But my goal was to get him to operate effectively in the workplace. I did suggest that he might talk to a psychologist about why he needed to behave this way. In the meantime, I told him to stop it or, in my opinion, he would be fired. It’s amazing how that statement can get some people’s attention.

I finally said, “You’re either going to have to start your own company, where you can be the supreme boss and behave any way you please, or you’ve got to alter your behavior.”

Ultimately, after many videotape role-playing sessions he was able to change his behavior dramatically. He’s sent me many clients since then, almost all from his senior management.

Once again, the second essential is to make others comfortable. Do you?

THE THIRD ESSENTIAL: BE COMMITTED

Being committed is crucial. Very few people freeze up, unable to speak, when they feel strongly about something. If you come home five nights in a row and your kid’s bike is in the driveway, the first couple of times you mutter under your breath and move the bike. But the fifth time it happens, you say, “All right, that’s it [vocal inflection]. Keep that bike [gesture] out of the driveway or I’m taking it away.” You’re very clear. Everything you may have learned about facial expression, eye contact, body language, and vocal energy come together, and everything clears up automatically with commitment.

That’s why my course for executives avoids the traditional techniques. If you know what you are saying and why you are saying it, and you care about what you are saying, you will say it well! Another important point here is to know when you must do all of this. Know when you have to be good. Whether you’re selling your ideas to the boss, meeting with your peers, or inspiring your troops, you should perform well. Obviously, it’s not necessary 100 percent of the time, but whenever someone else’s opinion of you counts, you’re on. Be yourself—at your best.

Ordinary people become extraordinary communicators when they are fired up with commitment. This happened to Candy Lightner of Fair Oaks, California, after her thirteen-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a hit-and-run driver. The driver had been convicted of drunken driving and related offenses three times in four years—each time getting his license back after a slap on the wrist from the courts. Two days before he killed young Cari, the driver was arrested for another hit-and-run while intoxicated. He was released on bail.

Candy Lightner was told by a hard-bitten cop, “Lady, you’ll be lucky if this guy gets any jail time—much less prison.”

Grief-stricken, angry, and frustrated, Candy Lightner became committed to preventing others from being victimized like her daughter.

Although divorced and supporting two other young children, Lightner quit her job and founded Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or MADD. Completely apolitical until her daughter was killed (“I wasn’t even registered to vote”), Lightner began speaking out—using the force of her commitment—before state and federal lawmakers. She enlisted the support of many political leaders and, in six years, turned a one-woman crusade into a 600,000-member organization in forty-seven states.

Her conviction has garnered national publicity and led to several initiatives, including court monitoring and victim outreach programs in local communities. Lightner says, “There are so many people who are worse off than I am—people who have lost two children or their whole family. Nobody cares for them, so it’s up to us to be the voice of the victims.”

Another person who isn’t afraid to show his commitment is Lee Iacocca. He was so committed to turning Chrysler around that when he appealed to Congress for help, they believed him and provided the necessary guarantees the company needed to remain in business. In effect, Congress gave those loan guarantees to Iacocca himself, because they believed in his total devotion to the project.

To repeat, the third essential is be committed. What are you committed to? Are you good at showing that commitment to others?

THE FOURTH ESSENTIAL: BE INTERESTING

I meet people every day from every walk of life who are interesting. It’s easier than you think to be interesting. It just takes a little imagination and some pluck. For example, a thin, bespectacled, and studious boy went to college, got good grades, and entered the so-called “dismal science” of economics. Today he is one of the most sought-after and interesting speakers on the lecture circuit. He is Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. Although economics has a reputation for being a dry subject, it didn’t make Friedman uninteresting.

At the other end of the spectrum, a mousey girl from a poor family in Tennessee decided that when she grew up she had to be famous. Today, we know her as Dolly Parton. She certainly has a distinctive style—part camp and all “country.” Whatever people say about Dolly, she laughs all the way to the bank and jokes, “You’d be surprised how much money it costs to look cheap.”

It’s difficult to be interesting if you’re not committed and vice versa. So these two rules work closely together. No audience (no matter how small or large) will forgive you if you’re boring. On the other hand, very few people have ever been fired for giving a boring speech. That’s folklore in business. Everybody knows this, so they feel safe in getting up and reading their speeches in a boring way and sitting down. Their audiences are bored, and they all know the speaker is bored. But they feel comfortable with an uninteresting 65 delivery because they know that if everybody’s boring, then nobody will stand out. I call this silent collusion the Brotherhood of Boredom. It’s one organization you should avoid joining.

STYLE VERSUS SUBSTANCE

Some business speakers will do almost anything to find a way not to be interesting. There’s a sense among some people in business that style and substance are mutually exclusive. The perception is that if you have style, you must be a lightweight. The same logic says that if you’re going to demonstrate substance, you’ve got to be boring; then the audience will think you’re one of the really bright persons who know what they’re doing. This is the old way of thinking, and the successful people moving up in the workplace today know it. Don’t join the Brotherhood of Boredom—the dues are too high. In today’s world it can cost you a promotion.

Here’s a perfect example of what I mean. One of my clients was a lawyer in the chemical business. He was a nice guy—one of the smartest I’ve ever met in the industry—and totally committed to cleaning up the environment. But when he talked about battling pollution, his voice was low and flat. His eyes and face showed no life force. He barely moved his head and shoulders, and his arms hung lifelessly by his sides. There was nothing in his physical expression to convince you that there was urgency in what he was saying.

All of this was bad enough because it showed very little commitment. Even though he said he felt it in his heart, he didn’t show it in his body language, or voice, or face. However, even worse, he never said anything interesting about his subject.

I told the client that he was talking much too softly, with too little animation. He needed to raise his energy level. And I asked him what his immediate problems were at work. He said he needed to get a 30 percent increase in the environmental budget from his company, but he didn’t think he had the attention of the senior executives, including the CEO. Frankly, I could understand why he didn’t have their attention—because of his manner of presentation.

THE FIVE-MINUTE MANAGER

We came up with an exercise which was essentially this: You’re going to get five minutes of your chief executive officer’s time. Five minutes to get your 30 percent budget increase. You need to demonstrate commitment and be persuasive and get everyone’s attention in that short time. You need to sell—not just tell—your point of view.

This is how he did it, after our rehearsal. He walked into a conference room, sat down, leaned forward on the desk, and said in a crisp, clear voice with solid eye contact, “Many companies like ours pay lip service to environmental cleanup. If we make that mistake, it will cost this company one billion dollars over the next seven years.” Every executive in that room was riveted. The rest of his presentation was similarly direct. He got the budget increase.

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST

You can have substance in a speech—Winston Churchill did, Franklin Roosevelt did, John Kennedy did—and still have a style of delivery that impresses the audience. It’s just plain wrong to think you can’t perform well without being shallow or slick. Some of the best speakers in the country are also some of the best thinkers. Notable examples include two retired but still active corporate chairmen—Walter Wriston of Citicorp and Fletcher Byrom of Koppers. Other examples are Jack Welch of General Electric, Malcolm Forbes, Jr., of Forbes magazine, and Tina Brown of The New Yorker.

You will be interesting if you do what is called “thinking outside the dots.” We all remember that little game of nine dots on a page and having to connect the lines without ever lifting the pencil off the paper. We find that it’s impossible to do until we begin drawing the lines longer than the dots allow; in other words, drawing a line outside the dots allows us to be successful.

We must do the same thing when communicating. Don’t be limited by the so-called parameters of your subject. Think creatively. Think of analogies from fields that you’re not discussing. Think of putting what you’re talking about into historical perspective, or comparing it to something which is familiar to your listeners. In other words, just because your topic is the corporation’s commitment to environmental safety measures doesn’t mean you can’t talk about movies, history, people, or ideas which you can somehow relate to your topic.

According to that excellent columnist James Brady, “The legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins—who worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe—was known for always wearing a hat in the office on the theory that, when confronted by a bore, he could escape by saying he was on the way out.”11 If 67 people suddenly throw on their hats when you enter their offices, you might want to start thinking outside the dots more.

Joseph J. Melone, president of The Prudential Insurance Company of America, used an outside-the-dots ending in his remarks at the American College Annual forum in Orlando, Florida, on October 12, 1985:

Everything I’ve ever read suggests that those individuals who are most successful in this world—the ones people really look up to—all say the same thing: the greatest joy in life doesn’t come from wealth or praise or high honors. It comes from achieving something worthwhile—something of lasting value.

The ancient Romans were noted for their achievements in construction. Many Roman arches are still standing. They’ve survived for 2,000 years.

The Romans had an interesting practice. When they finished building an arch, the engineer in charge was expected to stand beneath it when the scaffolding was removed.

If the arch didn’t hold, he was the first to know.

Whatever you choose to build with your life, build it so you—and someday your children’s children—can stand beneath it with confidence and pride.12

THE 30 PERCENT SOLUTION

I often tell my clients they should do at least 30 percent of all their reading outside their own field. This will give them perspective and knowledge that will make them more interesting. Another good practice is to stay in touch with popular culture. For example, flip through TV Guide, People, Readers Digest, humourous books or newspaper columns written by people like Russell Baker, Erma Bombeck, and Marvin Kitman, and inflight airline magazines and similar periodicals. Remember or jot down points or stories you can use in conversation and speeches. On an index card you can keep in your wallet, list the key phrases of ten stories that will entertain audiences for the next ten years, because you rarely speak to the same audience twice.