Sunday, December 30, 2012

Addicted To Your Own Misery?

Image by Lisa Jacobs via Wikipedia

The gift of a movie is that it lets you live someone else's life. Learn from their experiences, often sorrowful, without having to live them.

"Paradise Now" is out on Netflix. In a very matter-of-fact, wryly sarcastic, but empathetic way, it shows you how two ordinary young Palestinian men wind up drafted as suicide bombers. It's told from the perspective of Hany Abu-Assad, the Dutch-Palestinian writer/director. And it deserved the Academy Award nomination it got in 2006. Because after watching it I understood the culture - something  I could not grasp by reading words on a page.

In the movie the lone character who can see a way out of occupation is a woman, who rejects misery and embraces life. She chases one of the intended bombers...she loves him. The conflict in the movie is very much between her positive vision and the death-embracing terrorist one. The latter addicted to a never ending cycle of shooting, bombing and a sort of negative glory. Of course you can't really understand unless you're there. But the contrast between the two characters was very stark.

You can get a lot from a movie. It teaches you about life in general. One of those things is the insidious cancer that is misery. How it works its way into your brain and just sits there. You get so used to it, it feels like normal.

"Just let it go." A lot of people cannot do that. They don't know anything else.

The Israeli movie Kadosh tells about two women oppressed by ultra-Orthodox Israeli society. Each has to choose: stay or go. But that choice is so hard. Without giving the plot away, it is almost impossible to break free from the misery that feels comfortable, reliable, safe.

One of the characters says to the other, at some point: "We're not fine. Not at all." But you can see the walls of denial have gone up, to the point where the character has mentally turned her own eternal suffering into a mask of personal peace.

Depressing movies about the Middle East conflict and religious extremism don't apply to every person. The movie "This is 40," out now, shows how ordinary, fairly secular Americans confront it too. They're so used to being hassled and harried and stressed out - they don't know how to simply cut loose and be happy.

Life should be happy. That's a fact, not a dream. There are no bonus points for suffering. It's just the opposite, you're a fool if you go through life that way.

Being responsible, doing something good in this world, these are important things and I'm the last one to knock them down. But at the same time, at some point you wake up and realize - hopefully not too late - that it's okay to enjoy yourself a little bit too.

It's why G-d made chocolate chip cookies and ice cream, flowers and trees and grass, and the company of those we love.

This year, I hope you make every moment count - follow your passion - go for it - and LIVE.

Good luck!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

How's That "Make The Customer Angry" Strategy Working For Ya?

I heard the radio ad first.

"Melty cheese...three kinds of cheese...come to Panera."

So - like a tried-and-true lab rat - I did.

"Grown-up grilled cheese, please." (Feeling famished.) "What do I get with that?"

"I can't take your order here." A quick and irritated-sounding response. Finger pointing to the other cash register -- not three feet away. "This cash register is for baked goods only."

Now I was feeling irritated. Sure I bought the greasy thing. It was okay, I guess. But in my head I resolved never to buy that "waste of money" again.

Consider that I have faithfully bought Starbucks' bitter brew for nearly twenty years now. And that they are uniformly willing to take my order, anywhere, anytime, pretty much right away.

How much did that air time cost Panera?

At an otherwise nice hotel, an early-evening request for more of something. A call to the all-purpose "guest careline."

No answer!

Then finally an answer, and this is what I hear:

"Can you call over to (this other number)? Because I don't handle those things."

Hey! It's a hotel! Whoever picks up the phone, should handle everything!

Or, try calling FedEx about FedEx Freight. 

Guess what?

They apparently are not friendly enough to handle each other's phone calls!

Company after company, brand after brand, wasted ad after wasted ad. Cable, wireless, airline, you name it - one call does NOT do it all. 

Verizon Fios. Oh my goodness. A nightmare of phone numbers, customer service representatives, dizzying discussions of services never rendered - because I canceled it before it could go from Point A to Point B.

And this after countless direct mailings and discount offers persuaded me to give it a try. (They even set up a stand handing out fliers.)

Why do big brands waste good ad campaigns by reeling customers in, then spitting them out?

It's really not a mystery: Most think from the inside out rather than the outside in.

If you ask, "why don't you have a single phone number," or "a single web interface" and the like, they will tell you, as if you're an idiot:

"But the inquiries go to different departments!" if stove-piping is natural and it's the customer's problem to figure their byzantine bureaucracies out.

The famous Staples "Easy Button" campaign was a wake-up call. More companies need to wake up.

The businesses I patronize over and over again - the car shop, the pizza place, the doctor and the dentist, the hair salon and the Starbucks - can be big brands but more often are not. Because they know me, I know them, and customer service is never a hassle. (Try Primanti's Pizza in Ft. Lauderdale and you'll see what I mean.)

In the end creativity can take you a long way. But it can't take you away from what business is - a people thing. And when you try to fit people into your internal processes, rather than the other way around, you've just given away your competitive advantage to your competitors.

One living, breathing, instant-gratification-seeking, can't-be-hassled-anymore-than-necessary, just-wants-to-deal-with-a-decent-human-being customer at a time.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Are You Really Suited For Social Media?

Social media is the buzzword nowadays, but honestly not everyone is meant for it. Here are some thoughts that might help you discern whether it will ever be part of your comfort zone -- or not.

I. There are three basic kinds of social media:

A. Primary content - you are the author

* Words
* Photos
* Graphic design
* Video
* Audio
* Applications/games

B. Secondary content - you produce it in a secondhand way

* Commenting on content or news
* Integrating two or more pieces of the same kind of content
* Mashing up one kind of content over another
* Redoing, rethinking, remixing old content - updating it

C. Third hand content - you share

* Any of the above (A or B)
* News
* Opinion (e.g. a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to someone else's more lengthy commentary)
* Coupons, promotions, deals

II. Here's what people who consume social media want:

A. Authenticity - it has to seem real - and you cannot lie
B. Utility - it has to be useful to them in some way, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, artistically
C. Immediate gratification - it has to be useful right away
D. Shareability - they have to be able to tell someone else
E. Mobility - increasingly, they have to be able to use it on their smartphone

III. The world of social media is different than the world of normal people:

A. Extremes are good versus in real life extreme people seem odd
B. Highly intellectual is good versus in real life people are more likable when they're not brain jockeys
C. Introverted is good versus in real life extroverts have the edge
D. Free is good whereas in real life expensive items are more valued
E. Opinionated is good whereas in real life more laid back is more tolerable

The most important thing to know about social media: It's a non-stop, 24/7/365 conversation. You are not supposed to dwell on any particular thing, or sit in a corner and talk to yourself, but rather stay in the flow.

If you can handle this world it's a blast and a half. If not, it's better not to participate. It's not a water faucet - you can't turn it on and off like ads you pay for. It's about being there for the long haul, consistently a part of the party.


When A Culture Fails To Adapt & You Fail To Understand Culture

"I'm sorry if this sounds stupid."

"No, what?"

"What is a hookah?"

"Excuse me?"

"In South Beach they show something called 'hookah' all over the place. It looks illegal."

"Oh, HOOKAH. Pass the peace pipe."

"Come again?"

"Muslims can't drink so they smoke together. Cherry flavor, vanilla..."

"Do they change the tip?"

"Here in the West they do. But authentic hookah, no. They share."

I have been going for years thinking that hookah is marijuana. Not understanding why they don't arrest all those people who sell it and use it.

I thought hookah was like a "bong." Where did I get that?

Don't laugh - from watching "Greg Brady" who had one on "The Brady Bunch."

How I think reflects my upbringing, psychology, class, gender, education, geography, religion, family history, and so on. Everyone's "recipe" is unique.

My perspective is tiny, limited. It is helpful therefore to be purposely "stupid" so that I can learn about others'.

If you don't know and do not ask you assume things wrongly. This makes you handicapped. Unable to relate. Prejudiced. Alone.

In New York ultra-Orthodox Jews are currently struggling to cope with several long-swept-under-the-rug cases of pedophiles protected by the community.

There are cultural forces at play. One is fear of non-Jewish authorities. Another is shame. We are not in Nazi Germany anymore however - and there is increasing social endorsement of honesty over the "smiling and perfect face."

The culture is dysfunctional because its survival mechanisms belong to a different time and place. Understanding that is key to reaching formerly religious Jews who have walked away disengaged and disillusioned.

I am currently watching Season I of "Homeland." It challenges every concept about who is a terrorist and who isn't. Who is mentally ill versus "normal." What family and friendship mean. What is loyalty? Because the characters are authentic, and carefully rooted in multiple cultures--military, national, religious.

Before you say anything about a thing--before you draw conclusions--you have to understand it well. They say that the more you study Torah the more you realize you don't know. That is very true, and it applies to people and culture too.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Your Personal Brand In 2013

What are you going to do differently next year?

Over the holidays my dad sent me a picture from a Chanukah party in upstate New York. It showed an aunt and uncle I hadn't seen in many years. My uncle was wearing one of those t-shirts with a tuxedo painted on the front.

It was a funny shirt. I laughed.

My mother's brother is a pretty no-nonsense kind of person. He is a doctor and takes his work seriously. But never too seriously to be a little humorous. To help the family or community. My aunt is similarly a "mensch."

I saw an old friend around the same time. She too was down to earth, relaxed and happy. It was like time had never passed.

How do you think about your personal brand? Do you draw up strategies? Or do experiences just fill you up like gas, until you exhale and take your life in a different direction?

For me it's usually the latter. I have a vague idea, then interactions and observations wake me up a little.

My plate was a little too full last year. I made it that way, trying to do it all, all the time. Seeing that photo and my friend was like the final shot of helium to burst my balloon of working too hard. Narrowing activities, and kicking back now and then, is good all the way around.

Next year, with G-d's help, I plan to do the following:

1. Professionally, focus on a few key items and execute them consistently and well.

2. Personally, take a little time to relax and breathe.

3. Methodologically, as a life process, avoid naming or pinning down my exact direction - let it be natural and creative and evolve.

Embracing a few realistic key ideas or elements is the core of any good brand strategy, personal or organizational. You cannot and should not try to write a dissertation or to accomplish one.

When you choose your own simple steps - or allow them to choose you - it enables you to achieve concrete and meaningful progress.

Media Consolidation vs. Fragmentation: Action Steps for Government Communicators? (Updated)

Right now we are seeing increasing fragmentation/personalization of the news through the pervasiveness of web-based outlets. At the same time, a few large companies own the vast majority of American media:
1. Fragmented/personalized media
According to the Pew Research Center "State of the News Media 2012" survey:
* Revenue is down for network TV, local TV, magazines and newspapers but increasing for online TV, cable and audio (meaning radio or streaming web audio)
* 54% get news on at least one "digital, web-based device"
* 9% of U.S. adults "get news on any digital device very often through Facebook."
2. Consolidation of mainstream media in the hands of a few
Media Consolidation: six companies own 90% of American media: GE, Disney, News Corp, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS (Infographic here)
How can government communicators turn this data into insight - to deliver information to the public more effectively? What concrete actions should we take? I am reflecting on this and welcome any comments.    

Some of my own thoughts--
To me the data tells a consistent story.
* Many in the public actively mistrust government - there is always tension between the federalists and the anti-federalists. See recent Gallup numbers below.
* Mistrust of government combined with aversion to "corporate owned media"  fuels the development of alternative news, blog, social media, etc. by the public. (Free technology also enables as does culture of self expression through social media.)
* The appropriate response from a communications point of view would be to do things that increase trust in government (obviously) by increasing the quality of information provided to the public. (This from the public's perspective) AND making sure they know about it and can access it.
* Sample areas of focus could include making government data "mashable," customer service as Amazon provides it - email, chat, or phone options; and developing FAQs based on visiting social media sites and then responding both there and at the original government site.
* In general I would move the focus away from the government website and toward the interactive model where the site mainly holds data and repositories of information posted on social media sites.
* I would also form a cadre of virtual information ambassadors who would reach out to the public to provide information.
These are just some ideas, but I hope that others here who are engaged in projects of this nature can add.
Item #1

Item #2
Screenshot sources: Gallup (Annotations by Dannielle Blumenthal)

Monday, December 24, 2012

The 10 Eternal Rules of PR

1. Be who you are.

2. Apologize only for breaking your promise.

3. Go all the way with your message or not at all.

4. Play offense not defense.

5. Respect differing views and others' sensitivity.

6. Admit it when you have a crisis.

7. Know when you are a lightning rod for other issues and respond accordingly.

8. Stick to the facts.

9. Connect emotionally.

10. Trust your gut over opinion polls.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Case You Need To Start A Business: 5 Undervalued Industries To Watch In 2013 (Updated)

Jack of all Trades image via the blog Merlin's World

With a fragile economy upon us and constant talk of cost-cutting, it is prudent to explore alternative means of earning income, even in one's spare time. What follows are five industries that to my mind will only grow. For some of them, I envision them going in a certain direction (e.g. more integrated) but one can certainly explore opportunities as they exist right now. Usually some seal of approval from a third party - licensing, certification, etc. - is recommended or required.  (Of course if you are already employed, especially by the federal government, you will want to make sure to comply with ethics rules before undertaking any part-time work.)
Good luck!

1. Coaching
According to a 2004 article from Harvard Business Review, coaching is a $1 billion per year industry (more statistics here)
This is therapy by another name, and pretty much everyone needs it in one form or another. Due to the stigma associated with reaching out for mental health counseling, and the ability of people to provide advice without obtaining a license, expect the field to prosper. It should grow particularly among the rich - who have time and money to pay for personal services, and who may prefer not to have their status or their privacy compromised with a "diagnosis" and records kept by an insurance company.

2. Personal Assistants
According to one article, rates for personal assistants: $35-50.
With knowledge workers expected to invest more and more time into their jobs, there is a corresponding need for support personnel who can take care of life's issues. This is particularly so for women, who still carry more responsibility when it comes to home and childcare. Expect this field to boom, and eventually for the virtual assistance realm to go mainstream.

3. Wellness Consulting
According to one article, the average cost of a personal physical fitness training session is $56, but most trainers sell packages. One estimate has the wellness industry worth $1 trillion by 2010 (accuracy unknown). Here's an article on how to become a health and wellness consultant.

In the past there were people who could help you lose weight by tracking your diet with you. And there were other people who trained you in the gym. Still others may have provided meditation spaces, spa services, for relaxation and relief from life's stresses. And additional professionals promise nutritional healing for physical diseases so as to avoid the side effects of pharmaceuticals. Going forward, expect an industry to coalesce around the idea of one-on-one personal health trainers to help prevent early aging and recover from disease.

4. Family Centers
According to one estimate, American families visit family entertainment centers 3-5 times per year and pay $22 on average per visit. Another estimate says that the monthly cost of child care in a center is about $972 on average. Another third says that home health care for the elderly costs $16-23 per hour. If you combine elements of all these they would create a "third space" called the "family center."

When I was a kid my mother dropped me off at family home daycare. After work she came home and took care of me. But she did not have to help care for my grandparents, may they rest in peace, till I grew up and left home, and then my aunts and uncles were there to help. Times have changed a lot in a few years and it seems like everybody is either working, looking for work, or going to school. In this environment there is a tremendous need for safe, well-regulated and supervised spaces for family care - of children, the elderly, the disabled, the recovering. These centers would operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and include beds for people who need a temporary place to stay, for whatever reason. The old assumption that "a man's home is his castle" does not hold true anymore nowadays - life is lived together, in more public spaces, and there is an opportunity to create public spaces that are not explicitly commercial (e.g. Starbucks, the mall), yet are paid for and welcoming.
5. Security Guards
According to one fact sheet the average wage for a security guard is $12.42 an hour.
We live in an increasingly networked world, a world where people are increasingly alienated from the ways of the past, and where it is increasingly easy to track people and also to obtain weapons with which to hurt them. In this environment security guards provide not only visual peace of mind but an actual increase in protection. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why Republicans Are Losing The Brand War (Along With The NRA)

You don't have to be a genius to see what's going wrong with a brand or reputation. Or even how to fix it.

But you do have to have the courage to tell the client. 

And because the client can fire you - they have a lot of money, power and yes, ego at stake - there's a lot of incentive for courage to fade away.

Clearly the Republicans are what you would call a "challenger" brand. Similarly the National Rifle Association, in the aftermath of the tragic school massacre in Connecticut, is fighting and losing its very own brand war. 

I put them together because they're ideologically aligned, and they're making similar mistakes.

A very good and classic book about how challenger brands fight to win is called "Eating the Big Fish" by Adam Morgan.  Here are some ideas derived from the book, in my own spin. It's worth reading the original.

  • Redefine Yourself: Whatever you were doing before, is not working. Right now the Republicans look like people Democrats don't like and say mostly negative things that the public does not want to hear. "Break with the past."
  • Connect Emotionally and then Own It: Republicans act like they are selling life insurance, not building a relationship. Where is the feeling? How do they connect? Is gun ownership a positive thing? Why? The heart strings are lacking.
  • Be The Brave Underdog: Go to the movies. See Red Dawn, or Step Up Revolution. Republicans come across rich, retro, wealthier than you and me - unrelatable. Where are the fighters, like the girl in "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" or the one in "The Hunger Games?" Actually a female in the lead, minorities in the lead, anyone but Rich White Males would be useful.
  • Look For Arrogance & Complacency: Inevitably the dominant warrior will grow fat, happy and lazy on the land. That is exactly the time to to pull an Apple out of your hat. (Again, watch and learn - from those great Mac vs. IBM commercials.)
  • Unapologetic Ad Blitz: The Republicans seem afraid of their own shadow. If their ideas are better, why? Mass communication requires advertising of a unique, relevant convincing idea on a mass scale. As far as the NRA goes, they seem to be speaking only to themselves and to allow a ranter and raver speak for them.
It's not all that complicated to see how these ideas could work. But it's easy to see that they would not be easy for the Republicans/NRA to do. One wonders what will happen. But whatever does happen, it's not for lack of well-documented strategy.

* As always, all opinions my own. This post is a branding/PR commentary, not political advocacy, endorsement or non-endorsement of any party.

Instagram, R.I.P.

Image sources: Grave, Wikipedia. Instagram logo: Asbury & Asbury; see their blog on the Instagram PR crisis.

The Instagram brand is dead. Let's stop and accept this.

Why is the Instagram brand dead? If you don't understand this you are missing the point.

Basically they touched on a fear that people have been avoiding. Which is that they are putting too much personal stuff on the web, and that someone will use it in a way they don't like without their permission.

I can't figure out who would have been so incredibly stupid as to change the terms of service in the first place so that people's personal images could be used for advertisers!

I had to read this twice before I believed it: (screenshot via CNNMoney)

"A business or other entity may pay" Instagram to display users' photos and other details "in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you." 

They really thought people were going to sit back and ignore the fact that their photos could be used by sponsors? With no compensation? Minors included? 

Without going into all the obvious reasons why such a policy would have been ridiculous, I do want to point out that the "backtracking" will have absolutely no effect. 

Why is this?

Imagine that you allowed somebody into your home as a guest. They stayed in a spare bedroom, ate dinner with you and your family, watched TV in your living room, and accompanied you on family trips.

That is Instagram. Not a part of your family, but nice enough and you let them in.

Now imagine that this same person waited till you went away, then invited ten of their friends to come over and par-tay. All night. Drinking your drinks, eating your food, sitting all over your furniture.

You come home in mid-vacation and you find your "guest" and their "friends" taking advantage of your hospitality.

Would ANY apology from this person suffice? Would you ever want to see them again?

This is the dilemma that Instagram now finds itself in. They have trespassed on the generosity of their users, who were the basis of the brand, who were the reason that its relatively insignificant benefits became valuable.

Instagram messed with its social network. 

It's the reason no amount of words will help now, and they should shut the doors and start all over again. Avoiding all issues associated with the negative brand equity surrounding the original name.

Scared of Sequestration? Get to Work.

If you're a federal employee and worried about the possibility of losing your job due to spending cuts, you have one of two choices:

  • Continue to worry.
  • Do something about it.
The advantage of continuing to worry is that you don't really have to do anything, and yet the action of worrying makes you feel like something has been accomplished. Of course the downside is that your situation stays the same.

Going for the "do something" category has more upside in my view. For one thing, it might distract you from being scared. For another you may be better situated to get another job or start a business if you have to. A third is that you're mentally prepared in case things turn bad. Finally and perhaps most important, assuming that your job stays the same, you will probably be a more motivated and skill-enhanced employee because of any preparation you've undertaken.

Of course on the downside you may invest time and effort in helping yourself, all to no avail - get fired and there is no job waiting for you anyway. But if you think about it - if you really lay that fear out there - doesn't it seem a bit exaggerated, at least for most?

In any case if you do want to try and help yourself out of a sequestration situation, here's what I would recommend:

  1. Look at your job from the perspective of your boss. If asked would they say that they need you? Don't think about whether your job is objectively necessary, or whether you think you're doing a good job, or even the best you can. Are you what Seth Godin calls a "linchpin" - indispensable? Start asking for feedback and improving your job performance based on what they want, not on what you think they need. 
  2. Look at your skills from the perspective of the private sector. Imagine you had to look for a job. What skills and certifications are required now of someone in your field? Do you have them? If not, are there ways you can obtain them? I remember in the "olden days" (that would be the '80s) when the world was not obsessed with a series of often meaningless trophies like this. Well guess what times have changed folks. Study up. 
  3. Look at your clothes. I will repeat this until I am blue in the face. You must give a damn about your clothes. You do not have to be thin and pretty. You do not have to spend lots of money. Dress to fit in and stand out. In DC the basic color palette is neutrals. Accessories matter: scarf (for women), shoes, bag, belt and coat. Don't like makeup? I don't care. Put some on. Yes, men can wear makeup too, a little concealer under the eyes to look less tired.
  4. Look at your words. Are you a "Negative Nellie?" Start talking positive. Nothing is ever so bad unless you're dying, and even then there are cancer patients who get better because they refuse to fall down. Are you respectful and kind to everyone you meet? Can you talk about work issues, issues affecting the Agency and the government intelligently? Do you speak in a refined way? Practice, practice, practice.
  5. Look at your network. Keep your ear to the ground. What's going on at work? In your field? Network, join a professional group. Do not be isolated. Ask how people are doing, even when you don't want something from them. Read the information products others produce. It's about being part of the conversation, and giving to others when you can, because in the future you may need to get a job and you will want to be a known quantity before anyone ever sees your resume. 
If you believe your livelihood is in danger, don't sit around scared of "Donald Trump" and the like. Instead do something to help yourself, and stop being a victim of your own fear.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Men Do While Their Wives Shop

Smart mall.

If Government Were Run Like A Four Star Hotel

1. Taxpayers would be "guests," and we would fall all over ourselves to win their repeat business.

2. Customer service would be in the first paragraph of everyone's job description.

3. The people who interact with the public would wear name tags.

4. We would ask the public what they need and then deliver it rather than waiting for them to contact us.

5. We would keep our facilities sparkling clean.

6. We would promote high performers and fire poor ones without apologizing or making excuses.

7. We would have multiple guides to Agency-related services easily accessible to customers.

8. We would know who our customers are - it's a segment of the world that cares, not everyone.

9. We would have comment cards and collection boxes everywhere.

10. We would measure performance by the numbers, make the numbers public then adjust accordingly.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"That's Offensive."

Not long into a project my colleague and I were discussing a design that she had made. The colleague somewhat junior.

"I really don't like it," colleague said, referring to an element that someone had insisted on.

"Yeah, that's really bad," I replied. "In fact it makes me want to throw up."

"That's offensive!"

Oh my. I seemed like I had really said something wrong. But wasn't I just agreeing?

When I was little we used to go from New Jersey to Borough Park (an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn) and my dad used to make my mom, me and my sister wear skirts.

"Why can't I wear pants?" I used to ask. "It's so hypocritical the way you act."

My mother tried to explain.

"Women don't wear pants in that neighborhood," she said. "It's offensive."

The other day, at work, someone was lost near my cube. "Is anybody here?"

"I'm here," I said, rather loudly I'm afraid. It was holiday party day.

After some chitchat it was clear she was not going to find who she was looking for.

"Happy Hanukkah," she said, looking at my cube. The lonely blue and white ribbons amid what seemed like endless Christmas decorations.

"Happy Hanukkah," I replied. We got to talking.

"Can I ask you a question?" the woman asked me.


"I don't mean to offend you. But why do Orthodox Jews like junk food so much?"

I started laughing. What?

"I used to have a boss who left early on Fridays, for Sabbath. He always had all this junk food in his drawer."

Religion has nothing to do with junk food. But I had a clue what she was talking about. When I was little we used to visit my ultra-Orthodox family in upstate New York. And they always had a "candy drawer."

Then I had what Oprah calls an "a-ha" moment. "Did your boss used to have Oreos?"

"Uh-huh. Tons of them. Chocolate and vanilla."

So I explained that Orthodox Jews love Oreos because they used to be made with lard, and now they have a hechscher (kosher certification), and we simply cannot get enough.

Someone explained to me that Islam is highly averse to public charitable drives, and so the entire CFC (Combined Federal Campaign), with all its pressure to contribute and the public markers of "targets achieved," is offensive from that perspective.

Another person said that as a relatively low-paid worker with children to support it is not fair to expect the same level of contribution as an executive. In fact, it is sort of offensive.

I understand both of these sentiments!

My favorite blogger in this entire world - Penelope Trunk, the best writer I have ever read bar none - became infamous when she tweeted her miscarriage. Wow did the world go on fire at that. She gives career advice, much of it frankly offensive from a modern feminist point of view.

And some of it seems right.

People sometimes say that federal workers are lazy. Some are, that's true. (Like anywhere else.) But if you admit it - and you call for unproductive people to be fired - get ready.

Because in some quarters, "that's offensive" to say.

No matter how good your intentions, you will always say or do or write things that offend others. You may mean well, but others take it wrong; you may have genuinely held beliefs that are out of step with the crowd.

After the Connecticut shooting I wrote a lot about hysteria and gun control. I warned that we should not trample on the Second Amendment. In fact, I said, we should follow the example of Israel and station armed guards at every school. (Israel has stricter gun control on the individual.)

My friends were livid. A Facebook argument raged.

"What? How can you say that? So offensive!"

This is part of the problem with plain writing in the government. We often write muddled even though we can write plain. Because we don't want to risk offending anybody.

I know I'm sometimes undiplomatic. I'll take that hit.

But the worst kind of offensive, if you want to ask me, is communicating in a way that obfuscates the truth.

This kind of offensive is not the same as tact. As political correctness, which has gotten a bad rap. That is about understanding the limits of public discourse. It's a line you should be sensitive to, and you sometimes won't recognize when it's been crossed.

I think political correctness is frequently good.

But at the end of the day if you want to communicate meaningfully, you will offend.

Honesty is not always accuracy. My aunt is forever offending me with her straight but cutting talk.

But if you have to choose between honest and tactful, choose honesty first. If you are always censoring yourself you will never be able to utter a word.

And then, if someone tells you - hey, that's a little too much - you are free to dial it back. (Or not.)

That's free speech in a free marketplace of ideas, and by and large, it works.

Thank you to the people who take their time to read my blog, and to share their honest feedback.

Brand Opportunity: Make Grocery Shopping Not Feel Like This

Photo credit: Phil and Pam

Monday, December 17, 2012

What Communication Really Is

A lot of people labor under the misconception that communicators write pretty words. Interspersed with pictures and white space.

Not so.

The placement of grammatically correct sentences on a screen or page is only the outcome of a much more fundamental process.

Communication is fundamentally about trust. It is what happens when one human being engages in a dialogue with another. A dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition that others have something worthwhile to say.

Communication is goal-oriented. But the goal is not simply to vomit words at your readers. It is to honor their intelligence and critical faculties with a meaningful piece of information or insight.

Good communication is honest. You can hear somebody speaking, as if to a friend.

It is not about obfuscation. About verbal martial arts.

It's not technology, used as a substitute for substance.

If you want to communicate better start with your heart. Open it and keep it open. If you are lying or hiding from yourself, your heart will tell you.

Good luck.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Preventing School Shootings - An Exchange With A Friend

What follows is my side of an exchange with a friend about yesterday's massacre. I share her grief; despite our differing ways of thinking about social problems, our hearts are broken together. I hope and pray that we as a nation will start to focus on solving problems rather than scoring points.

Having worked in government for almost 10 years and trying to reform what's inefficient I believe very strongly that power should be distributed and not concentrated in any one sector of society. Also that the more you inhibit people in favor of the machine, the more the abuse of power. When you destroy the Second Amendment you destroy freedom.

Enforce the law we already have, keep guns away from criminals, but train law-abiding people to use them responsibly. Put armed guards in every school or have armed, trained volunteer parents patrolling the grounds. The problem is not guns. The problem is that when this guy started shooting, the school was defenseless.

Imagine that it is your child G-d forbid in the school and you are at work. Do you NOT want someone armed and protecting them? Consider that we have armed marshals on planes. And that we are in a horrible budget crisis. How long does it take to call 911?

Think about it. If you are a criminal then you are not really worried about gun control because you are buying guns ILLEGALLY. But if you are law-abiding and can't get a gun, then you cannot protect yourself.

There are guns on planes. There are guns in federal buildings. There are guns in banks. There are guns everywhere you need to protect people. Sitting around and singing kumbaya or running to the closet is not going to work (note - as my friend pointed out, one teacher did save 18 children this way so it did work partially).

But the bigger issue is not guns. It is that we have a terrible attitude toward mental illness in this country. We marginalize people who are different instead of looking after them, and each other.

The time to intervene is WAY BEFORE there is a problem. But we always fix things looking in the rearview mirror.

The bottom line is that quick fix mantras and relying on big government to solve all our problems can only lead to abuse and repression of individual rights. Everything has its place. We should instead take the difficult path of self-responsibility and sticking our necks out for our neighbors. We desperately need to change our culture toward more self-accountability and empowerment.

Just like when the Jewish people bought land in and founded the modern state of Israel post-Holocaust - and now defend it. We did not wait for someone to intervene on our behalf.

We waste so much time debating so-called morality issues that are nobody's business (like gay marriage). We (speaking big picture, mass culture) have completely lost that sense of community that the U.S. was founded on. Where we looked after our neighbors, where we asked questions of how people were doing, etc. That can of course go terribly wrong (e.g. repressive insular communities that refuse to call law enforcement when needed or that try to operate outside it) but what is lacking is that balance.

As far as extremist radical ideology: Please. Lobbying, marketing, propaganda is not the province of one political party or the other which is why people complain that DC is in gridlock. It is, because nobody can seem to get over themselves, shake hands and do business.

Note: As always all opinions are my own.

Why Feds' Morale Is Getting Worse (It's Only Partly Internal Communication)

"Two-thirds of all federal agencies experienced decreasing employee satisfaction." 
- Federal Times, Dec. 13, 2012

The Washington Post article on federal employees' morale led me to reflect on what seems to me like a downward trend. Here are my thoughts on the reasons why:

1 - Increased centralization under the new Administration for greater efficiency - less autonomy for individual agencies, less autonomy for leaders, less autonomy for managers, less autonomy for staff.  
2 - Discomfort with the rapid pace of change and new initiatives. This could be related to the Administration coming from "outside the Beltway" - e.g. traditional Beltway/Washington culture is much slower and more interpersonal vs. this Administration works rapidly and is very techno-centric. (This comment refers to management style not political ideology.)
3 - Increased scrutiny on (blaming of) federal employees due to the bad economy. Impatience with the civil service culture. Endless headlines about wasteful grants for shrimp on a treadmill. This goes back to #2.
4 - Restrictions on spending (like no more "tchotchkes") and budget - leading to lots of ideas but no money to do anything with them.
5 - Pay freeze, government shutdown, threat of sequestration. Generally the perception that we federal employees are constantly under siege.
6 - No money or time for serious training. 

  • #1 is technology - e.g. cloud-based collaboration - we can't seem to get out of the email. We should be out of it. Knowledge management. Data analysis. Visual presentation of information. Not happening. 
  • #2 is project management. Serious deficiency. 
  • #3 is critical thinking, which comes from advanced education, which should be on-site as a regular part of work. Ideally it would be college coursework - so that people can advance themselves as they advance the mission. 
7 - Inefficient or insufficient change management efforts. Lack of attention to organizational development, human capital, internal communication, alternative dispute resolution, meditation rooms, marking important events with ceremonies, culture committees. Times are changing rapidly, organizations are restructuring, and people expect a high level of customer service (like they get when they're not on the job when they go shopping or out to eat.) There is a growing disconnect.
I can think of other things too, such as the proliferation of social media (so that employees can complain and commiserate more easily and more publicly about stuff that has always been problematic - e.g. perceived lack of fairness in decision-making), but these seem like the biggest issues to me in terms of what's different now than before.
A good workplace is one-- 
  • Where people are happy to come to work in the morning
  • Where they are engaged in their work and in the mission
  • Where they are free to innovate
  • Where they can dissent and have their dissent listened to
  • Where they can point out fraud, waste and abuse and not get marginalized or worse. 
These are the kinds of things we should measure, manage and improve. One wonders if we would only put as much effort into employee morale as into annual charity campaigns like the CFC, whether we would see some productivity improvements as a result.

"All the research suggests that the more engaged employees are, the more productive they are." - John Palguta, VP, policy, Partnership for Public Service, quoted in Federal Times

It's not that one is more important than the other, but rather that you can't give back to the community effectively if your workforce is drained.

Note: All opinions are my own.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Plain Language Training Lacks Teeth

My daughter taught me a Taoist saying:

"Beautiful words are not true, and the truth is not beautiful."

There are many reasons why government writing is not plain. Only one of them has to do with skill:

1. Confused thinking

2. Lack of critical thinking

3. Lazy thinking - you pass the buck to the reader to figure it out

4. Jargon has replaced standard style guide - e.g. "writing for ourselves then pretending everyone else should understand"

5. Legalistic approach - "give them all the raw data and that way we're not interpreting it for them" - and can't get in trouble

6. Executive preference

7. Public Affairs type "messaging" replaces substantive information or Public Affairs can censor

8. Unrealistic deadline or insufficient staff

9. Lack of collaboration, stove piping - e.g. "Stay out of my business"

10. Communication is one person's job vs. everyone's

11. Writing not exposed to broad audience for critical review

12 . Insulation from negative feedback

13. Worse consequences for providing bad news clearly than for muddling the information or making it less accessible

14. Clear communication seen as too simple - "Reads like USA Today"

15. Writing for professor of economics not 8th graders

16. Fear of misinterpretation, intentional or not; fear of negative press

17. Fear of getting in trouble or losing one's job for conveying bad news

18. Lack of ability to use visual aids when appropriate

19. Communication staff is operational rather than communication-focused

20. History or context of the information is omitted deliberately so as not to raise further questions

Plain language training is only partly useful to address the above. In fact one could argue it is a panacea used to divert attention from the real issues.

That's why PL is a law.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

You Have Spinach In Your Teeth

A good friend will tell you when something is "off."

Not long ago I had the habit of wearing orthopedic men's shoes to work. They are comfortable, OK?

For years not one colleague would say anything. (Although they did make a comment one day about my mismatched socks.)

Then I worked on a project with someone different. We had never been friendly. But as we worked together I came to appreciate her sharp observations. They made the project better and she had something to say about me, too.

"You might want to rethink the shoes."

I had to laugh. What a statement!

So it is thanks to this colleague that I actually went and broke in a pair of shiny flats.

It is this same colleague who would tell me, without fail,

"Dannielle, do this." indicate that some aspect of lunch was appearing when I smiled.

Do you tell people when a button has popped, they have lipstick on their teeth, or they've got toilet paper on their shoe?

Yesterday I saw another colleague on the coffee line. She had the most beautiful scarf on.

Except for one thing: the tag was sticking out.

I wasn't sure what to do because my hands were full. I couldn't catch it. But she was leaving the shop.

In my mind I imagined people looking at her and saying to themselves,

"What a beautiful scarf. Should I tell her about the tag?"

Impulsively I called out to her.

"What's up?" She looked at me strangely as she made her way through the crowd. Her arms were full too.

I said, "You've got a tag sticking out."

The line of mostly women looked on supportively, waiting for what would come next.

My friend: "Go on. Rip it out!"

Right here?

The person in line behind me became our volunteer.

"Excuse me, please hold this," I said.


You could almost hear the silent clapping on the line.

People relieved that the tag issue wasn't their.

And that if it were, someone might help before it got embarrassing.

Believe me when I tell you that a stray tag or any wardrobe malfunction can literally ruin someone's whole day.

I know this because I spent part of yesterday listening to someone worry aloud about the fuzz dripping off her sweater.

It was a gorgeous sweater and truly, nobody noticed. (The men looked at her strangely.) But she was actually apologizing by the end of the day.

In this holiday season bring someone good cheer: Tell them if they've got a booger.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

When It's You Against The Group

The other day I was taking my daughter to school when a public service announcement came on the radio. It was sponsored by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, an agency I once worked for. The narrator was talking about foreclosure, and how the OCC could be able to help.

I turned to my daughter. "The OCC! I used to work there. Oh my G-d, a radio commercial! That's so cool!" and on and on.

My daughter said, "That's nice, Mom."

What did it mean to her, she wasn't there. But I was.

I remembered that day when Elizabeth Warren came to speak. It was sometime around 2004. She wasn't a senator-elect then. I sat at the back of the room and watched her rail against the exploitation of the consumer through deceptive marketing practices. She urged the OCC to get involved.

It was inspiring to see what Warren was trying to accomplish. She was outside the OCC system looking in. She was using her standing as a third-party wedge to say hey, the world is watching you. And we will hold you, the Agency, responsible.

Warren was standing up for the person against the group. And in July 2012, the Consumer Financial Protection Board, her brainchild, achieved its first enforcement action, together with the OCC - against Capital One. Nearly ten years later, a settlement of $210 million for deceptive marketing.

After the OCC I worked for Customs and Border Protection. One night a Border Patrol agent named Brian Terry fell in the line of duty and attention was drawn to "gunwalking" in a case that came to be known as Fast and Furious. I followed the case closely, in social media primarily. It was clear that whistleblowers in that case were not exactly welcomed with open arms.

I am interested in the ways groups act to silence people when those people threaten its dysfunction. There is organized intimidation. The person who notices or protests is made to seem out of touch, incompetent, crazy, etc. Remedies happen when someone tough enough to withstand it tells someone from the outside, who has no stake in the game and can't be persecuted by the group, who has to step in.

One of the causes adopted governmentwide in recent years is putting an end to human trafficking. This can take a variety of forms but is predominantly the sexual slavery of young women. I helped create an outreach campaign against it at CBP: "Death Is Not The Only Way To Save Your Life." (I think it was my friend and colleague Linda Kane who came up with that tagline.)

One of the reasons human trafficking is so difficult to eradicate is that when a girl is targeted, it's her against an immense machine. They threaten, beat, rape and imprison her. They take away her papers. They threaten her family. This makes it nearly impossible to report or get out.

Organized crime survives by targeting the individual who can't fight back. We saw this at Penn State too, with the needy children drawn into Second Mile, a charity run as a way for a pedophile to lure his victims.

Now in New York a case has just concluded in which a prominent member of the community, Rabbi Nechemya Weberman, was found guilty on 60 counts for sexually assaulting a minor he was supposed to be "counseling."

The fact of her victimization is bad enough. Worse than that - the community machine enabled the abuse by forcing her parents to pay for the "therapy" on pain of having her expelled from school. When the mother questioned his time alone with her, they forced her to apologize to him.

Supporters of the "rabbi" tried everything they could to keep this brave girl quiet. They tried to pay her to get out of town. They shamed her. A thousand men held a fundraiser for Weberman. The Grand Rabbi of the group called her unthinkable names, invoking nothing less than the Bible.

Upon the verdict, Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes even went so far as to say, "They better not fool around with this kid, her husband or her family." (a statement tweeted and retweeted extensively).

For the victim, the tables turned when she had the courage to speak out, and then when third-party institutions snapped into place. Followed and supported by public watchers who battled the insular sickness of this community, the same kind of sickness that saw students rioting in support of Jerry Sandusky.

And the ripple effect is like a rock thrown into a pond. There are statements supporting justice for the victim and posts by rabbis explaining why supporting a pedophile and silencing and shaming a victim is never religiously justified.

It's not easy to stand up against a group and cry foul. But people do it; there are ways. The main thing to remember is that you can't hold back a tsunami with your arms. It takes a village. Not just to raise a child, but to stand up against abuses of the system.

Friday, December 7, 2012

How Will Your Colleagues Remember You?

Today I attended a memorial service at work, for someone I didn't know and probably never would have run into. It's not the first one I've attended for a colleague who lost their lives in the line of duty and it is an awful sight to see.

Know this before I go any further:

--This isn't an excuse to promote my Agency, or any Agency, or the government in general. Although I could. I don't think most people have a clue of the devotion of the average frontline employee serving in dangerous circumstances. Have you ever seen a leader's voice shake, eyes redden as he eulogized a fallen employee? It is horrible. I have seen it happen more than once. In the zeal to find fault with those who shepherd our organizations we quickly overlook what is good.

--It's not about one person. You did not know them and neither did I. It was - moving is not good enough a word. I actually don't have a word that could cover the sight of one colleague describing his everyday interactions with another colleague in such vivid detail. With such obvious liking and respect. And to see that this person suffered drastic physical harm in the same incident that took the life of his peer. That was pretty difficult.

--It's not - not! a preachy post on morality or what defines the "well lived life."

No - it's about something completely different. Capturing a moment in time, when my memory of it is still fresh and, like a camera, I can convey this memory without the Photoshopping of a later recollection.

It's about what really matters to people. What they think about when someone has left, and they reflect on that life, and they take something with them.

You might think: After you pass, what does your reputation matter? You don't have to impress anyone, anymore. You are literally beyond such worries.

But yet you do care. Admit it - you do. Because something in you knows, for whatever reason, that the history book of time applies to you, too. Your actions, the way you affected people, will be etched in stone, and there's not a thing you can do about it once you're gone.

Today, here is what people remembered enough to talk about:

--That you loved someone.

--That you sacrificed something for a greater goal.

--That you believed in trying. Even if you weren't sure you could make a difference.

--That you had joy in life. That you loved a good meal. That you loved being the boss. That you lived!

--That you thought about others in small ways. Went out of your way to make them feel comfortable. Even though you didn't have to.

--That you had passion, so much so that you didn't want to take a break.

--That you saw past superficial differences, like department or nationality or religion. That you didn't think that way.

--That you stood by whatever faith you possessed, even in 100+ degree heat.

--That you had a kind word for everyone.

Most of these things can be encapsulated in a word - in Yiddish we call it being a mensch. A decent human being. The good news is that anyone can accomplish that. 

My great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, had a saying: "Just don't make the world any worse." I always thought that was funny. I never met him, but what a pessimist.

I learned something from my great-grandfather's words. People have pretty low expectations of others, in inverse proportion to how many years they have lived to see people do bad things.

If you want to be remembered well, I would say that the bar is pretty low. So at a minimum try not to hurt people. At the maximum, just be yourself. Your real self. The very best self that you can be.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How to Waste Money Without Even Trying

Do you remember that episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy got a job in the factory and got in trouble because she worked faster than everybody else?
This is exactly how money gets wasted in government or any organization. It's obvious from the outside that an activity has no point, but on the inside there are all these justifications.
Over the years I've heard how these justifications are communicated, directly and indirectly. Given the impending "fiscal cliff" I wonder how much money we could save if we started to examine the ways that we perpetuate wasting it.
Here are 5 mechanisms of waste that we can start with:
  • Narrowly operational focus: Project management is defined as delivering any project on time, on budget and within specification as opposed to stopping an ill-conceived project before it launches. The employee is supposed to follow along transactionally, not critically because the bigger decisions are "above my pay grade" and "outside my scope."
  • Personality-based decision-making: Projects are initiated, promoted and launched based on trusting an individual's thought process or deferring to their institutional stature, rather than objectively evaluating whether the project makes fiscal sense or not.
  • Spend it or lose it: This is the concept of using up all your money so that you get the same amount of money next year. It relates to -
  • Empire-building: Which is when you defend your turf against an aggressor by enlarging the scope of your responsibility.
Finally, my favorite:
  • Nonsense arguments to justify a predetermined outcome: My mother is a very simple person and that's why I run things past her often. If you can't explain the logic behind an idea to my mother in three seconds, then she'll tell you to your face - it's b.s.
This is not at all about blaming government. Rather it's about looking at common dysfunctional mechanisms in all large organizations to see how we might make things better here. Because what's so insidious about these kinds of issues is how taken for granted they are.
In other words, it's not that anyone is trying to waste money, necessarily. Rather, the power politics of the organization, its culture and structure dictate that people behave this way or else risk being marginalized or worse.

The Absolute Funniest Bad Parody of "Gangnam Style" You Can Imagine

Communication at its finest!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

10 Success Traits You Can Adopt In 10 Minutes

Image via Wikipedia

1. Return calls immediately.

2. Treat everyone with the same amount of respect.

3. Dress more formally than you think you need to.

4. Work harder than everybody else.

5. Follow through on the details.

6. Laugh at yourself - lose the ego.

7. Praise someone else - boost them up.

8. Make life easier for your customers, and your #1 customer is your boss.

9. Focus on solving the problem, and that's it.

10. Communicate to people in their preferred manner.

Good Girl, Bad Girl and the Quest for Certainty

Every day we see stories about the abuse of women and children in the media. One of these concerns a young girl raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect called Satmar, in Williamsburg.

This sect is nothing more than a cult. It's a cult that I am familiar with because of my family. They are good people led by what amounts to nothing more than fundamentalist thugs.

The alleged assaults started at the time the young woman was just 12. She had been sent to unlicensed "therapist" Nechemya Weberman, a member of the "modesty committee," for "counseling" for the infraction of asking questions in school.

The story is lurid and I won't repeat the details of the allegations here. But suffice it to say that the victim's testimony reduced the courtroom to tears. One wonders how she survived at all, let alone kept it to herself. (The blog FailedMessiah covers the case extensively.)

The worst part of the whole thing, to my mind, is that the cult's "Grand Rabbi" calls the victim a "whore," completely flipping the Bible on its head (which takes the side of the victim). At a dinner this week he stated:
"A Jewish daughter has descended so low, terrible! ... (Quoting the Bible:) 'Is our sister to be like a whore?'" - Source (scroll down to the comments for translation)
Victims are innocent, attackers are guilty but in the narrative of the sick community, being victimized makes a good girl "bad."

Why should anyone care about this story? Because unfortunately, even non-victims of sexual assault are cast into categories and mistreated accordingly.

Over the past year or so I've spoken to a few women, informally, about their experiences with dating. And to the letter they all seem to be going through the same thing. Which is that they date, have relationships over a long period of time (years), even approaching common-law marriage. But no commitment from their partner is forthcoming.

I talked to my aunt about this - the one who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community that is geographically close to this cult - and she told me that the problem is this: Girls should be religious (in our case, ultra-Orthodox Jewish). Because then they would be treated with respect - they would be seen as "good."

Isn't it ironic? Here we have the case of an allegedly bad man heading up a "modesty squad" intended to keep "good girls" good. And he allegedly victimizes one of these good girls, which automatically turns her "bad." But at the same time, girls who are not part of these ultra-Orthodox communities are automatically "bad," which means they can't get any "worse."

Twisted words - "good girl," "bad girl" - reflecting the logic of twisted thinking.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Making Your Case? Everything Counts

At a high school debate competition, kids barely old enough to drive, drink or vote argue in teams about the finer points of morality and public policy. One of them is my daughter.

It's interesting to see the different ways people justify an argument and how well those are received. It's noteworthy that each type of argument will likely appeal to a different personal mindset or culture. 

  • The logical types avoided judging right and wrong and merely related a possible course of action to its likely outcome. Clearly to the judges - I think they were academics - these kids were the stars. But what scared me as a regular person was the elegance of the argument combined with the completely morally absent nature of its potential conclusions - e.g., "Who am I to say who's a terrorist?" (Think about the Nazis, the Taliban, etc. and their "logic".)
  • The G-d talkers had a very straightforward view of right and wrong. They compared a possible course of action to what G-d would say about it in their estimation and in simple terms. For example, "Greed is not what G-d wants." I found myself uplifted by their faith but not convinced unless my personal conscience said the same thing as theirs. 
  • The practical ones took a straightforward, common-sense approach to issues by presenting what most people would agree with morally ("racism is horrible") and then comparing the cost of action with the likelihood of its having an impact: ("It's really hard to change people's beliefs and ideally we would all want racial bias to go away, we have to do as much as possible to do that, but there's only so much we can do and we have to do that to the best of our ability.") I was not sure what that would translate into in practice, but I found myself simply agreeing - especially since that last one was my daughter (so yes, doesn't personal bias always play a role no matter how hard we try to be objective?)

Another was to take away some communication lessons about argument style.
  • Fluidity of mind matters. It is so important to be skilled in mode of argument - to be able to go from logic, to spirituality, to practicality when it is appropriate. To never let your mind be fixed in one mode.
  • Good talkers are impressive. Even if what they say makes no sense.
  • People also notice when you do your research rather than just pulling straws out of the air. When one kid talked about the origins of the Taliban, and another one talked about the ecosystem in Alaska, it wasn't only the facts they shared but also the fact that they had bothered to research that facts that served as a wow factor.
  • Teamwork is impressive. To see the kids passing notes back and forth and helping each other build on the argument makes you have confidence in the team. Conversely to see one kid interrupt another kid to make a point - even if trying to be helpful - looks rough and uncoordinated. (Also noticeable was how freely the groups agreed with each other and how it was routine for them to genuinely congratulate the other side when the round was completed.)
  • The entertainment factor. Your argument may not be fully "there," but if you are comfortable onstage and make your remarks into a little bit of a show, the audience thinks you know what you are talking about and will give you more credit than they otherwise would. 
  • Symbolism counts. In the example of practical reasoning above, it was my daughter - a white Jewish girl - talking about racism before a competitor team that was entirely African-American. And all of their parents were in the room. Would she be seen as having a right to speak? But I was stunned - as she spoke - three of the competitor team's parents were nodding in agreement. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Sincerity. When you obviously want to do the right thing people know it no matter what differences may seem to separate you.
So there they were this weekend, our kids - different religions, different genders, different cultures, different skin colors and different economic classes. And they were all together. 

To be honest I felt a sense of relief watching them. We "old people" don't have to solve all the world's problems for kids. We just have to know when it's time to get out of the way.