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Good Communicators Ask "Disrespectful" Questions - But They Do It Constructively

It always began the same way.

Sitting in yeshiva. Rows of little desks-and-connected-chairs. 

Open windows, but still hot. Air circulating lightly. Sometimes the smell of chemicals, like from industrial plants, coming through. It smelled like skunk. (My yeshiva was near an industrial area.)

The teacher would call on someone to read.  


A girl's head would perk up from somewhere in the back row, where she was doodling or passing notes back and forth to her friends.

"Read for us Perek Beis Pasuk Gimel." (Chapter 2, Verse 3).

"Shoshana" would scramble to find the page. She would read and then translate from Hebrew to English.

And then the inevitable question. To see how well-prepared "Shoshana" was.

"What does Rashi say? How does it compare with the other meforshim (Rabbinic interpreters of the text)?"

"Shoshana," being a good student, would comply. Dutifully stating the explanation and the comparison. Bright and compliant.

I had some good teachers at that yeshiva. This one, being extremely good, would sense the student's boredom. Her disengagement. She would pull her in.

"Explain a bit further, don't just read it. What is Rashi's real question? The Torah doesn't waste words and the Rabbis don't waste their time on needless questions."

Normally - "Shoshana" would have no answer. Maybe she had her own question, and it came up while she was studying, but she thought it wasn't important. Or she buried it - not going to help with her grades, maybe going to get her in trouble for being "disrespectful." Most importantly she would never want to look like she had lost faith.

And I - watching all this - would normally ask, not always respectfully, what was on my mind. Even though the teacher had asked for a different question - the Rabbi's question - I just couldn't hold in what seemed to me like a glaring lack of logic or an error. I believed deeply in G-d and in the fact that G-d had picked me to be Jewish. But I wasn't intellectually or emotionally invested in following along like a sheep.

Thus opinions were divided on me among the teachers. They wanted you to memorize - for sure. I didn't always do that. And they wanted you to know the questions - some I knew, some I didn't. But more than anything they wanted you to have absolute faith in the tradition. To have that faith, they knew, you had to ask tough questions. You had to struggle. But never at any time could you give up the fundamental beliefs that framed Orthodox Judaism.

Unfortunately, when you ask questions, you risk giving up your faith. So you have to tread carefully.

I had a lot of good teachers in that school. They encouraged me to question, and tried to gently nudge me back to faith. I remember one exchange that left a lasting impression.

Teacher: "...and that is why faith is more important than anything."

Me: "But what if we don't have to do any of this (meaning practice Judaism in the Orthodox way)?"

Teacher: "'re taking a pretty big chance there. If you keep the commandments, you'll definitely be fine (when you die and have to answer to G-d for your deeds), even if you didn't need to. But if you don't keep them, and you were supposed to, what will you say then?"

My Zayde (grandfather) was a better teacher than all of them. I used to ask him everything. The most "disrespectful" questions possible. He never, ever flinched. Because he saw that I was asking them sincerely. He once said to me, in Hebrew:

"Words that come from the heart, go straight to the heart."

Meaning, "I know you are sincere. I'm not troubled or offended by your questions in any way."

Not every teacher was as forgiving. In fact I was called a "troublemaker" more than once. Too often misunderstood. Asking difficult questions, sometimes because I could be a smartass, but usually because I felt kind of angry to have beliefs foisted on me without any choice about whether I adopted them. And wanting to give the teachers a chance to convince me, before I automatically rejected what I was told.

It is unbelievable to me that being an adult communicator in a setting that has nothing to do with high school, often takes me back to high school. In many ways but one in particular: Asking questions can be viewed as an act of disloyalty. 

You still have to ask. If you're good, that is. If you want to be able to live with yourself in the sense that you've done the best job for the client that is possible.

Because whatever questions you fail to ask in the beginning, someone else will ask later on down the road. And then one of two things will happen. Either they will say, "That was such an obvious question, why didn't (communicator) ask us in the beginning and help us prepare?" Or more likely they will say, "Communicators are so stupid. I don't know what we pay her for."

Of course, you had the question. You just didn't want to get into trouble.

There is one difference between high school and grown-up life as a communicator, though. And you can use that difference to assist you.

High school is a place where you have little power and where your presence is only temporary. You obtain your schooling (get stuffed like a sausage with information), spit it back, "do good" on tests, hopefully develop to some extent as a human being, and do not cause "trouble" by questioning the system. They're not set up to handle that.

Communicator life is different because you are invested in an adult relationship between two parties in which the basis of your value is to ask difficult questions so that the communication products that are issued make sense. You can't just "pick up a paycheck". Your value is directly linked with your ability to see into what is going on, pick it apart rationally, and put it back together in a way that makes sense to the audience.

Therefore you cannot avoid questions. Sorry.

What you can do is handle them in a way that reflects maturity, respect, and is appropriate to the culture.

What this means is that you adhere to the following general rules:

1. Do research before asking questions, don't just "spout them off."

2. Ask questions with a constructive goal in mind. For example, "I am asking so that I can make sure you're aware of possible questions from others." You don't say "this makes no sense."

3. You are calm, not emotional.

4. You ask your questions of people who are receptive to them and don't bother people who aren't interested.

5. Last but not least, you know when questions have to be taken to someone else to ask - you know when the messenger should not be you.

It can be scary to be the lone voice in the room. But it is important to your integrity that you do that when necessary. 

Not only that - it's a professional matter too. 

Now more than ever, we live in a world of questions. It's important to your value to the organization that you know how best to ask them.

10 Communication Lessons From The OBL Capture*

I am watching this situation unfold and am fascinated, obviously, on a lot of levels. From a communication perspective here are a few thoughts. Not intended to criticize or endorse. Just trying to learn from the best school of all – life itself.

1. Define the narrative often, and be passionate about it when you do that. In graduate school I studied a lot of crazy ideas, which I appreciated having the opportunity to do, but they were still crazy. One of them was that we live in "postmodern" times where nothing means anything. And that whoever dares to impose a narrative on things is somehow a "colonialist" (read liar). That is ridiculous. Leadership is about taking a course of action, for a reason. Risking it all for the sake of a goal. Yes, like in a great movie or book. That is life.

2. Relate to your audience as adult to adult, not parent to child. The promise of disclosure, and its limits, occur in that vein. You can certainly say "I am sure you understand that I can only share so much." You definitely cannot say, "I know a lot more than you do and you'll just have to trust me." Disclose to the maximum and then say, "That is all I can share and here's why." Then say why. Then stop talking.

3. There are some things you can't say. But for everything else, there's Mastercard. (Forgive me, I couldn't resist.) My point: Put everything before the public that you can. In writing. Let them look at it, dissect it, write their own analyses. If somebody says you can't share it, ask why. If you're not convinced, share it. Trust is based on openness first.

4. Respond to criticism directly and completely but set the rules about how you do that. Example: You choose the place, you choose the time, you keep to a schedule (e.g. we'll respond to the issues from 3-3:30 p.m. daily, in X place). The critics don't control you.

5. Either show the photos and the videos or don't show them. Don't drag it out.

6. Pick messengers who look like your audience. Get out of your comfort zone on this. They should not all resemble you personally either in looks or in manner. This is where corporate culture can really be a bad thing.

7. Create a communications strategy for each audience. You can't sell a computer to an adult by talking as if to a kid. Of course the messages should be related. Designate different messengers appropriately.

8. Match the messenger to the medium. If you put someone on camera, they better be good on camera.

9. Look to Hollywood depictions of leaders in similar situations. It's not low-class. Art frees you to look at life. Great actors who have played presidents include Martin Sheen, Kurt Russell, and Harrison Ford. A great TV show that depicted similar situations as this was "24." Watch, take notes, and adopt what works.

10. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Communicating is hard. There are no answers. Only more questions. What you're looking for are the time-tested principles from the past that you can apply to the future.

Good luck!

* I work for the government, but all opinions are my own.

Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" Campaign: 10 Lifelong Marketing Lessons*

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: First Lady Michelle Obama is a brilliant marketer. Her signature "Let's Move" campaign, which promotes physical fitness particularly among youth, is an exercise in genius. How do we know?

Its' simple: Say "Let's Move" and you think of Michelle Obama. Say "Michelle Obama" and you think of this campaign. The two are inseparable.

I am also a supporter of Jamie Oliver's work in this area, but I think Michelle Obama is succeeding where he cannot - despite all his stunts with schoolbuses filled with sugar, gross food experiments with children and chicken nugget goo, and so on.

Here's why - 10 things the First Lady knows that Oliver seems not to. Lessons that are useful for the rest of us:

1. Permission: The First Lady chose an issue that she is "allowed" to talk about - not by the President but by the audience. This is not actual permission but something your audience finds acceptable for you to address. In general, the public expects the First Spouse to take on a social cause that is important yet non-controversial, non-threatening, and that unites people rather than divides them. Physical fitness fits the bill perfectly.

2. Connecting Herself to Us: She chose to take a leadership position on an issue that is relatable to her own life as well as to others'. Yes people gave her a hard time for talking about her kids' weight. I disagree. It was excellent that she did that. We all know she loves the kids. It wasn't to embarrass or exploit them. It was to say to other people, hey, our family is just like your family. We all have to deal with this. Which brings me to point number three.

3. Personal Passion: She is obviously passionate about this issue - and puts herself out there, physically, to promote it. Look at the video of her with the school kids. She is dancing. How awesome. And she maintains her dignity. She has confidence.

4. Positivity: Jamie Oliver always looks frustrated whenever he talks about how people keep on eating, and pushing, bad food. Michelle Obama is always looking positive and happy. It's "Let's Move" not "Don't Do That." No marketing campaign I can think of has ever succeeded with a negative message.

5. Humility: The First Lady has made the campaign about the issue. Not herself. In the video she says how much she loves Beyonce's music. It's about the issue, the kids, the great song. Most resolutely not her. She seems to have immersed herself so much in the issue that it transcends her. And I appreciate that.

6. "People of Wal-Mart": Hey. You've shopped there. I've shopped there. And so has the First Lady. Michelle Obama understands that marketing and snobbery do not mix. If you're trying to reach the mass market and accomplish large-scale social change, then prepare to roll up your sleeves and go where they are. That would be social media, Wal-Mart, and all the other places where regular people gather. And for G-d's sake talk in plain English that is simple to understand. Or make a video. Do what it takes to get through. The "Let's Move" partnership with Wal-Mart, the mass-market retailer is going to make a real difference in real people's lives.

7. Narrow, Incremental, Laser-Like Focus: The First Lady works incrementally to accomplish appealing, specific, measurable, achievable objectives in line with the overall goal. A great example is the nutritional labeling law that the Food and Drug Administration is implementing. Obama understands that knowing what's in the food we buy is a great help for those who want to make more conscious choices.

8. Quiet Persistence: Do you notice that the First Lady isn't blaring her message from the rooftops, and yet the message she is sending has gotten through? It's not just about her position. It's about the way she unassumingly does what she needs to do, without making it about herself. That lack of ego means that she has staying power in the long term. Her message is lasting and the messenger is not a turnoff.

9. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Marketers have a tendency to want to come up with their brilliant idea, say it once, and then pray that it has such a lasting impression on the world that they never have to say it again - they want to go on to the next great thing. But this is where the marketing craft has to pass the baton to brand-building, and the discipline of selling. The way you brand things is to repeat the message over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over. Till your head spins. When you think you can't say it again, find another way to say the same thing. This leads to selling. The item sells itself. You have pre-sold it in the customer's mind. Marketing without branding - the microphone without the repetition - is useless. Remember that the goal is to change behavior. In the private sector, this means selling product. In social marketing, this means to convince people to live their lives differently.

10. Balance: Michelle Obama always seems to know how to balance things. Balance between strength and softness. Between high fashion and ordinary "just like you" dress and manner. Between going out there and being the face of the brand, and being behind the scenes. By being balanced, she gains credibility.

The First Lady is doing other things right too. Like partnering well. Like leveraging both formal and informal structures of change - from the law to day-to-day practices and behaviors. The sociologist in me is singing.

By creating a multifaceted campaign that incorporates marketing best practices with personal commitment, not to mention partnering with everyone who reinforces the brand message, Michelle Obama has been extraordinarily successful in her effort to make America a healthier place.

I have learned a lot from her as a marketer. And I admire her as a mom. There is so much junk food out there, and it is hard to find affordable, healthy fare that is also convenient. I wish her the best success in this ongoing effort. And hope that the message disseminates and makes a difference around the world.

Starbucks and McDonald's, will you be the First Lady's next partners?

*This is marketing commentary not a political commentary either way. I work for the government, but all opinions, as always, are my own.

Why Leaders Don't Say "We Got The Bastard!"*

Sometimes people wonder why leaders aren't more emotional when they announce victory over an enemy.

The thinking is that if the leader were truly engaged, they would be emotionally spirited rather than calm and rational.

Certainly newspaper headlines don't hesitate to express emotion. On the capture of 9/11 terrorist Osama Bin Ladin the New York papers, at least, were very direct: "Rot In Hell" blasted the New York Daily News; "Vengeance at Last" was the New York Post's version.

When it comes to discussing a conflict, especially one with an enemy who is truly evil, a leader actually has to remain very calm. Or else chaos can break loose.

The leader can be more spirited beforehand - to get the people motivated to go to war for the cause - but afterward they have to be careful. A mob mentality can easily spin out of control into irrational vengeance and an unstable social order.

The U.S. confronted a similar situation in World War II, against the ruthless and evil Nazis.

Here is what U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in an address to the people to motivate them in support of the Allied cause. Notice the strength of the language. You can almost hear his voice full of passion at the cause:

"No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it....a nation can have peace with the Nazis only at the price of total surrender....The proposed "new order" is the very opposite of a United unholy alliance of power and pelf to dominate and enslave the human race....As President of the United States....I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed." (12/29/1940)

After the Germans have surrendered, though, President Truman was careful to keep the language constructive and focused on future positive efforts, not vengeance and hatred:

"The forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations....Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band....We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work—by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is—work, work, and more work....We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world—to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law."

Leaders have a difficult job to do when it comes to confronting evil. They can never please everyone. But the general pattern of "emotional before, rational after" is a useful construct to follow.

* Disclaimer: I work for the U.S. government but do not represent them here. All opinions my own.

Links Referenced

* Coverage of Bin Laden capture
* President Roosevelt's 1940 address
* President Truman's 1945 speech
* Presidential Speech Archive
* Photo: "Prisoners of war at the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, in April 1945, just before American troops liberated the camp."

Why Kris Jenner doesn't understand the Kardashian brand

I watched Khloe and Lamar last night as I was putting away the laundry. I didn't expect to like the show all that much but I did.

Of all the sisters, Khloe is by far the most appealing. She is real. She looks normal. Not starved. Like a regular woman. 

I like that Khloe is upset about her weight but tries to accept herself anyway. That she is conscious about being a role model for other women. 

Khloe is like a good character in a novel or a movie. Complex, and three-dimensional. Strong, but also cries. Knows when to be sensitive, and when to say it straight. Is smart. Is honest. Messes up. Fixes problems. Is in love with her husband, but she knows when to put him and everybody else in their place. (Like when he and brother Rob filth up the house and expect her to clean it up singlehanded.)

In short, I really like Khloe. She is watchable. She is an excellent brand. If you want to sell advertising on a TV show, you would be well-advised to choose hers.

And yet for some reason, Kris Jenner laced into her for not being attentive enough to "the brand." I assume she means Quick Trim, the family's line of diet aids. Which to me sounds like Quack Trim. Something I personally would never buy.

What Kris doesn't understand is that the Kardashians have a brand architecture. If she knew how to leverage it she could help the kids make a lot more money than they already do right now. By exaggerating the characteristics they're known for, and using them to sell related items. 

As follows:

1. Khloe is a distinct brand: the strong but complicated sister. I like her on reality TV. Portraying herself. I would watch her try to raise a kid, run a company, organize for social good, whatever. She is for real but she also knows how to be real in an entertaining way. When to put things on speakerphone, so to speak. I don't think Lamar belongs with her on TV. He is not an entertainer. He's a regular person. Leave him out of it and focus on her. Nothing to do with Quick Trim.

2. Kourtney-and-Scott are another brand: the dysfunctional couple. In contrast to Khloe, I enjoy watching them together. The drama, the fighting, the endless ups and downs. Kourtney has some kind of struggle with self-criticism and self-denial that is literally combustible with Scott's personal struggle between good and evil. The reality show is a little boring. But they could do something where they try to deal with other couples...maybe they could do front-scene where they have a matchmaking service and behind the scenes where they fight and make up all the time. That would be fun. Nothing to do with Quick Trim, at all.

3. Kim is yet a third brand: the beautiful but fragile woman, prone to destructive relationships, for whom looks define her. The woman who is trying to be independent but somehow struggles with a need to be in a relationship constantly. There is something very feminine about Kim, in an old-fashioned way - almost masochistic. She is a good spokesperson for Quick Trim, which really promotes self-denial for the sake of looking beautiful. Kim could also promote pretty much anything based on her looks. She should milk this while she can because the 15 minutes are going to be over within - at most 3-5 years. 

4. Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe together (It is unfortunate that the acronym for this is KKK - maybe they could do K3): A fourth brand that could be outstanding in the realm of destination entertainment - the nightclub scene - anything where there is dancing, drinks, and music involved. No need to involve Quick Trim here.

5. Rob is another good brand: The screwup who is really not such a screwup. An intelligent young man raised by a den of women. Who is trying to figure out his identity as a man, as a human being. Who is sort of good at what he's doing with the girl-band, but still can't quite figure out what he wants out of life. Easily he could be making movies or TV shows about the experience of being young, aimless, unfocused, etc. I can see him starting some sort of promotional effort at colleges...not quite sure but there is a good brand there. No Quick Trim.

6. The other daughter whose name I can't remember: OK, I looked it up. She is Kendall. Right now, a model. Fine. Doesn't need Quick Trim though, she is too young.

7. Last but not least - Kris: A potentially excellent but underdeveloped brand here. The woman who is older and wiser, still beautiful but feels past her peak, pushy and hovering but loving and absolutely instrumental to creating a strong family bond. A woman to be reckoned with. But also one who needs her own identity aside from her family and kids. I can see her creating a spa for women who need to get away for a solo vacation. Or promoting a line of romance novels for women who feel unfulfilled in their relationships. Or being an advice guru, syndicated on TV or in the newspaper, helping women to advance themselves (if she is not doing that already). Stuff like that. But Quick Trim also doesn't work for her - it just seems unhealthy.

All of these strong people - all interesting brands - could be a multi-billion dollar enterprise. (If the Olsen twins can do it...)

But right now they just don't understand where the money is. It seems instead to be falling upon them by accident.

If I could tell Kris anything about what to do, I would say:

1. Develop the person-brands, not the product brands: Take the focus off the diet pills. The perfume. The other stupid products - for example there is absolutely nothing memorable about Dash or the debit card that was such a big flop. The key here is to have personas that are so much bigger than life, that anything they touch will be a success.

2. De-emphasize the issue of unity: It's OK if they go to a movie premiere while having a fight. We like that in fact. It's part of their brand promise. Ease up on the kids a bit.

3. Get a third party to be the brand manager of the overall enterprise: Mom doing the branding is incompatible with the personal role of keeping the family together. It's too much like she's using them, and I don't think she means to nor do I think she wants to appear that way. It is interesting how Kris is like the character of the mother in The Fighter, with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. There, too, the mother loved the many kids she had; was trying to manage Wahlberg's boxing career so that he and the family would be taken care of; and was screwing up royally because she was too enmeshed with the sibling dynamics and couldn't be objective. Not to spoil the movie (don't read ahead if you're concerned about this), but they needed outside help.

Overall I really like the Kardashian family. I know some people put them down as trashy reality stars. But to me, they're just regular folks who are trying to make a living and who have opened up their lives for others to view. If they're well-compensated for that, so what? It's America and they've made their money honestly.

Just also want to say to Khloe specifically, that I do think you are a good role model for women. That you have opened up an important dialogue about weight and how the preoccupation with the scale can ruin a person's life. 

Let's stop weighing people like moo-cows and put the focus back where it belongs - on the health of the human beings inside.

To the Kardashians and all the rest of us person brands out there - 

Good luck!

5 Social Media Guidelines to Protect Your Personal Brand

What are you "allowed" to do using social media*?

It's a question that confronts anyone using the Internet - whether on a smartphone or a desktop - all the time.

To state the obvious, some typical situations:

* Scanning your updates on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter

* Reading an online discussion group or message board you follow or have joined

* Reading the newspaper online, and there is space for comments

* A friend has sent you something marked "inspiring" or "read this"; a newspaper or newsletter you subscribe to has emailed you an alert; a brand you like has emailed you information about a promotion

Of course it is a free country and we have free speech.

But our speech is also limited by certain constraints. For example we can't slander other people. We can't infringe on their intellectual property. Can't plagiarize. Can't reveal information that we're not allowed to reveal. Can't violate any agreements we've made with our employers regarding the bounds of appropriate behavior as long as we work for them. And so on.

So it's a balancing act we all must play, all the time. Between what we want to say, are allowed to say, and what we simply cannot.

For some people the lines are clear. For others the rules can be confusing.

For example, there are things you might forward from a personal email that would not be appropriate to forward from a work account.

It might be tempting, given all this complexity, to avoid thinking about this stuff at all and just do whatever "seems right." However, this can be extremely harmful to you if you make a mistake - putting your financial security at risk by jeopardizing your job and your brand (personal security is another important issue, and worth seeking guidance on elsewhere.)

Here's what I do to help myself navigate this issue. Hope it is helpful to you:

1. I read my organization's policy regarding general rules of behavior as well as information technology rules of behavior. I understand pretty well what I'm supposed to avoid - basically anything that would compromise confidential information; operations; the security of the information technology infrastructure; the confidence of the public in the organization; or that would make it appear that I am endorsing any individual, organization or entity on behalf of the organization. I keep my organization's name out of my posts unless there is a reason to share it, and I clearly state that my opinions are not the opinions of my organization. From a branding perspective, we are two separate entities, but we are also somewhat linked and my behavior on social media reflects that.

2. I represent myself on social media, my opinions only and my experiences, and leave my family and friends out of it. It's a tool for building a professional presence - not for sharing a step-by-step guide to how I decorated my home, prepared for Thanksgiving, etc. The two stay separate.

3. At the same time, I try to be as real as possible - human. I think it's better for your reputation to simply be yourself - normally, appropriately, professionally, and at times humorously too. It's also OK to speak from the heart and admit mistakes, foibles, etc.

4. I try to share what I've learned - helping other people. Not be self-indulgent, self-promotional, etc. To be part of the community of learners.

5. I am careful about what I write. I think about it a lot. I imagine that whatever I put out there is going to be "on the back of a postcard," as someone once said about social media. No matter how many firewalls you think there are, once you put keyboard or touchpad to screen, it is out there.

Last point - whether I'm on the Internet or not - I think to myself that everything I say and do, in real life or online, is subject to being recorded in some way. Even if it's not true or realistic. It helps me to keep in mind, very seriously, that I shouldn't be careless about my image - ever.

So - a little bit of a heavy post, but meant to help others not make mistakes that can easily be made.

That said - have a good rest of the weekend everyone, and as always, good luck!

*This blog is my opinion only, based on my own experiences and observation, and not a substitute for legal advice or the policies of your organization.