Change Agents, Don't Be Fooled

"You will always be on the margins because all you have are these idealistic notions that don't apply." 
That's the fictional CEO in Amazon's Enlightenedchewing out whistleblower Amy, played by Laura Dern.
"Well if caring about something other than money is dopey, I'm a fuckin' moron."
Amy started the series as an angry, ruthless career-climber. She ends it finding inner peace (and not coincidentally a good cup of coffee).
Her mother is proud of her as well.
As we all know, it is very, very hard to make a difference in real life. 
Part of that is because we are just so busy surviving. But conformity is also drilled into us from birth. And those who dare to speak up get subtly and overtly told stop from every angle. (Screenshot: Sign for sale at Ozark Saddle Company.)
It is easy to be fooled by all these naysayers. They do after all take many different forms, are voiced by people both friendly and decidedly not.
The dialogue on Enlightened sounded so eerily like it could have been real life:
  • "You are a mental case for pursuing this."
  • "We are going to crush you like an ant."
  • "How selfish / ungrateful can you be? This company took care of you."
  • "Now who's gonna pay your bills?"
  • "You are destroying your own life."
I hope we get to see more of this character, this show. It reminds me of Daughtry's hopeful and great music video for "What About Now," which already has more than 10,000,000 shares.
We need more clear-eyed thinking about right and wrong in this world. People who do the right thing no matter what the cost to themselves.
The people who put this show together have a firmer grasp on that imperative than most.
Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo credit: Evan Long via Flickr

You Have To Look Beyond The Data

The world is divided into two camps:
  • Those who trumpet the rise of Big Data.
  • Those who want to shoot it dead.
Legitimate opinions of course may vary. But in my own personal observation, the more emphatically you pound your fist on the table, the more your opinion is based in fear.
Here is a primer on the two extremes:
  • The "trust my gut" team: People who suck at math, who want to preserve some arbitrary status quo or who are plain and simple close-minded will always scoff at the merits of Big Data. At the term itself.
  • The "hard data" camp: People who are less naturally talented at reading the tea leaves, who lack the courage of their insight, who have a lot of money and/or power riding on their decisions and need a sound "audit trail" as to why, will always want to point to "hard data" to support.
Consider the Deconstructed Nicoise salad at Whole Foods. (Photo by me)
What led me to take a photo?
Our approach to the answer - not the answer itself, because there are of course different versions - will help shed some light on this debate.
Let's time-travel back to 1976. I'm attending Camp Morasha. 
We are performing on this misty Saturday night. Our show is called "The Man Who Never Returned," in which "Charlie" is stuck in the subways of Boston. (You're not the only one wondering about the needlessly terrifying scenario.)
Each kid gets to ask one hypothetical question about Charlie's dilemma. It is dutifully recorded in the newsletter. Here is me:
"How did he get his breakfast and his supper?"
Four decades later I'm at a salad bar taking pictures of the salad. Interpretations:
  • "Hard data": "Let's begin with a sufficiently narrow research question, look for quantitative evidence where possible and qualitative where necessary, and assess versus a benchmark measure to determine whether the subject is objectively preoccupied with food."
  • "Gut feel": "Oh she's obsessed, all right."
Which of them would be right? How do you decide on methodology, when there is limited time to make a defensible decision?
How about "both and neither?"
  • Look for any numbers available to you, and investigate those as you can. For example, I've been just slightly above normal weight all my life. Consistency says there's a pattern of eating habits that can be examined with minimal concern that any specific life circumstance interfered.
  • Find out anything you can about the uniqueness of the subject's context and background. In my case, being female, Jewish, from a Holocaust family and middle-aged are all well-researched variables with fairly predictable results. 
At the end of the day, you have to do one more thing as well: find and look past your natural bias.
  • Are you a numbers type? Invite a feminist historian to comment.
  • Do you trust only your gut? Do some quantitative research, and write down your responses to critiques that blatantly contradict your point of view. (Don't talk about it with others - you will only feel more defensive when they disagree.)
As in most things, the answer is not to go extreme, but to find a livable place in the middle. It's an attitude that comes with maturity, with getting over yourself. With realizing that you're not the only one to have a point of view in this world. 
Photo by Nina Helmer via Flickr.

If You Have To Ask, You Can't Afford It

"Do you love me?"
"No." After 25 years, my husband gets to say that when I ask a stupid question.
"I have a question to ask. Can I interrupt you for a minute?"
"Why is it that you always call when I'm trying to write?"
"I'm trying to be more collaborative with you. And we're in the store and I want to buy these shoes, but they're $89.99."
"Are they new?"
"Well that's the thing, they're a little bit used. But I checked eBay and we can make a $300 profit for sure."
"Nothing is for sure. Put the shoes back and leave me alone. I'm writing."
"Spoilsport."
* * *
If you have to ask, the answer is no. One time my boss put it this way:
"If you're coming to me, I can guarantee that the plan is a little bit wonky."
Let's play Family Feud, shall we? Where Steve Harvey says:
"What kinds of questions do you ask, where you already know the answer is going to be 'no'?"
  • "So can I have your number?"
  • "What's your timeline on making a hiring decision?"
  • "Do I look fat in this dress?"
Consider how we deal with questions in consensus-building.
Only a doofus walks into the meeting cold and asks, "Hey, what do you all think?" For about ten years, I was that doofus.
As a colleague recently reminded me, highly evolved consensus-builders work the room in advance of the group convening. They approach each person one at a time, soliciting input in such a way that the answer becomes the listener's idea rather than the asker's.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
  • Decide on a goal.
  • Do your homework.
  • Then calculate the risk of jumping.

If you still have to ask another person, you know you've overshot the mark.
Photo credit: Sasvata (Shash) Chatterjee / Flickr

Say Less - Earn More


"That's great! Have a good night!"
That is me, tiptoeing backwards. Because the other person won't stop speaking.
Sure, there's a technique for handling this. But unfortunately not one that I ever mastered.
"Did you say goodbye? I have a great story about goodbyes."
Oh no. Oh no.
"Hang on just a second, I'll walk with you."
It's not that I'm reserved with words. Actually I like to talk, a lot. But not all the time, not with everyone, and generally not at work. I'm there to work.
Executives do not talk a lot.
  • They're busy.
  • They're afraid of saying something wrong.
  • They're immersed in the culture of power.
Powerful people know: The more available you are, the less valuable.
That is why - although communicators bang their heads against the wall trying to get executives to speak - they are normally very restrained. They:
  • Say less.
  • Write shorter emails.
  • Avoid extensive interaction day-to-day.
If you want to actually become a rich executive, you first have to think and act like one.
Hollywood agents know it - now you do too.
Overexposure kills the brand.
Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo credit: Alden Jewell / Flickr

Tell It To Me Like I'm Stupid

"OK, let's get him on the phone." 
That's radio talk show host Kane. It's the 99.5 FM radio segment "War of the Roses," it plays around 8 a.m. on weekdays, and it's really fun to listen to him and Intern John catch cheaters in the act.
In the script, Kane plays a guy who owns a flower shop. 
"Hello, my name is ____, I'm calling from __ Flowers. Is Pete there?"
"This is Pete."
"We're doing a promotion today, just for picking up the phone, you get a bouquet of roses sent to anyone of your choice."
"Who is this?"
"We're your local friendly flower shop, just trying to drum up some local business and compete with the big boys, y'now?"
"How did you get this number?"
"We subscribe to all the local customer lists."
(Sounding confused) "Oh."
"So who should we send them to?"
"Um, let me think about that for a second. Hm. Yeah, you know what? I know. You can send them to Rachel."
"YOU GODDAMN PIG."
That was Pete's actual girlfriend, Karen.
"YOU GODDAMN PIG. HOW COULD YOU? IT IS OVER. I MEAN IT. OVER, PETE. OVER OVER OVER OVER OVER OVER OVER !@#$@#%!@#$."
"What the f****?"
"Hi Pete, let me explain. My name is Kane, and we do a radio show where we catch cheaters in the act. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
"Karen. Hey Karen. I can explain this. It's not what you think."
"OH REALLY. OH REALLY!"
It is at this point that I'm usually doubled over on the steering wheel laughing.
Because Pete will spend about ten minutes trying to tell Karen that she is crazy, he didn't do anything wrong. "Rachel" was just being "helpful," she "comforted" him in a time of need, yada yada, et cetera, and so on.
Intern John will say something like, "That dude was crazy. How did he ever think he would get away with that?"
For the audience it's a funny but useful reminder. 
The truth is usually pretty simple.
When people have to complicate things to make them sound good, a personal agenda is at work.
We all know people with a lot of excuses, people who are windbags, people who make up every bullshit in the book.
Like my mother used to say,
"I'm sorry, I don't understand. Tell it to me like I'm stupid."
It is easy to say this and to nod your head. In real life it gets a lot harder.
You deal with people who mystify the facts, who pump up the action and their role in the action, confuse meetings with results, add jargon where they could use plain English, name-drop and acronym-lay and generally wrap a Ph.D., MBA and JD all in one around information that should be straightforward and basic.
Whether it's your doctor, your lawyer, your kid's school or your own organization, you have to be willing to confront the possibility that the emperor is walking around totally naked.
What you do with that information - if you can find it, because you'll invariably be discouraged - is your business.
At the very least, have the courage to ask. 
Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo credit: Petras Gagilas / Flickr

Why You Can't Take Good Advice

I've been doing branding for a very long time. And one thing sets my best clients apart from the losers: Their ability to take sound advice.
  • One client flat-out refused to pay.
  • Another threw a shit fit at my boss.
  • A third became enraged at me directly.
The things I say aren't rocket science, really. But most people are extremely invested in lying to themselves. 
When it comes to their own delusional lies or the unvarnished truth, they'll take the delusional lies even though it causes them not just pain but financial ruin.
They could be coasting down the hill, but they'd rather ride a broken bike up a mountain. 
Why is that? Why can't smart people take good advice?
There are three possibilities here.
  • Emotional baggage: They've got some screwed-up thing going on in their brains.
  • Personal power: The solution will hurt their position, status or career.
  • Organizational issues: They agree cognitively but the reigning dysfunction is too great to tolerate a real solution. 
I was talking to someone at a conference the other day. And just for the hell of it I said, "I don't work for you but can I give you some free brand advice?"
The person looked down at his business card and then up at me. And said, 
"We thought of that about ten years ago, but office politics killed it before it got off the ground."
Now the company is kind of a brand laughingstock.
Listen - you're not the only one who finds yourself in a pickle, alright?
Everyone's got their problems.
But you don't have forever to wait, or endless money to lose.
Take good advice wherever you can find it, before that sinking ship you hear about on the news turns out to be your own. 
Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo credit: Oiva Eskola / Flickr

Enter the Backstabber


"Say, can I pick your brain for a minute?"
"Sure. I am after all the Director of Things. I'll be happy to help."
"It's just that the boss doesn't seem to like me very much."
"Oh no. That's too bad."
"Well, you seem to have a way of talking to her."
"Me? Little me? Well, thank you very much for saying that. I do consider myself kind of an orator. Actually, maybe 'diplomat' is a better word. I've got a talent, you know? I may be a little bit brilliant actually. And here you are, you recognize that. Flattered, that's what I am. I am just, so, flattered."
"I'm not trying to flatter you. You're a genius, and it shows."
"Oh, stop. Now you're being generous."
"I hate to bother you, you're so important and all. But would you mind teaching me how you do it?"
"Of course not! I mean, it's not like I have any actual work to do. Especially when somebody clearly needs a mentor."
"That is just...I don't know what to say. Kind. You're a very kind human being."
"No, thank you. It's rewarding to be recognized for my greatness."
"So should I get my pen then?"
"Yes, do that. Sit down, and start taking notes."
Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo credit: Zorin Denu / Flickr

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