Leadership Communication

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We Simply Do Not Have the Answer: A Case Study in Ineffective Crisis Communication

“We understand that it has been a difficult time for all the families…We find ourselves in a difficult position. I repeat: the question that the families principally want answered, is the question we simply do not have the answer to – namely, where their loved ones are, and where is MH370.”
-Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysian Minister of Defense,
March 31, 2014[i]

There is no good way to find out a loved one has perished.

It is a problem that every human being will inevitably face in life, and no amount of preparation or awareness of the situation will truly make the sting of grief any easier. However, for nearly a thousand individuals around the world, the wait to find out what happened to their loved ones has lasted for three years. And the way that these individuals found out that their loved ones almost certainly perished came after a prolonged period of confusion, conflicting information, and mistrust, and was delivered in one of the most impersonal ways possible. I am referring to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Three years ago today, on March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) departed from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 am local time and was expected to arrive in Beijing at 6:30 am. However, at approximately 2:40 am, Malaysia Airlines lost contact with the plane. Since that morning, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government, and international search agencies and governments from across the globe were in a frantic search for answers as to what happened to this flight, and the 239 souls onboard.[ii] That is until January of this year, when the investigation into what happened to flight MH370 ended with little to no answers[iii]

The international search for the plane, however, is not what interests me here. Rather, how Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian government communicated to the people most invested in the answer to what happened to flight MH370, the families and friends of those on board, is.

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Like 10,000 Other Days Until It Wasn’t: A Case Study in Being Adaptable, Nimble, and Effective When Things Don’t Go According to Plan

“It was a day like literally 10,000 other days—until it wasn’t. I had been flying airplanes for 42 years, and in all that time I never knew when or even if I would be faced with some ultimate challenge.”

-Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger[i]

Nearly one month ago a movie opened in theaters that is quickly gaining acclaim. The movie would have naturally gained attention given the Hollywood icons who are part of this project – Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart as the stars, and Clint Eastwood as the director. But the film’s early notoriety did not simply come from the Hollywood elite involved in the film, but rather from the story the film portrays – that of Captain Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffery Skiles successfully landing a plane in the Hudson River.

On January 15, 2009, 155 people boarded US Airways Flight 1549 from La Guardia Airport heading to Charlotte, North Carolina.[ii] As the flight climbed into the sky, a flock of birds flew into the engines of the plane, what is known as a “double bird strike.” At about 3,200 feet of altitude, both engines failed.[iii]

Captain Sullenberger had almost no time to make a decision about what to do. He could attempt to fly back towards La Guardia and make an emergency landing on that runway. But if he missed, the plane would crash in a heavily occupied metropolitan area of New York. He could instead attempt to land at a small private airstrip in New Jersey called Teterboro, but again risk landing in a heavily occupied area. Or he could attempt to land somewhere with little to no risk of injuring civilians on the ground, but in a place that could only too easily destroy the plane and everyone on board – the Hudson River. There were no good options, and so Captain Sullenberger picked the least bad option: to ditch the plane in the Hudson River.

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Words When Spoken: The Physicality of Audience Engagement

“This guy was a hack… He had an audience and he didn’t know what to do with it.” So exclaimed Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet, fictional President of the United States in The West Wing television series. He was walking through the White House with his wife, Abbey, arguing about the effectiveness of the reverend’s delivery of a homily at church. He was particularly critical of the reverend’s lack of “panache” when delivering the homily. (Watch clip of this exchange until about 1:21)

“Words – words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timber and volume. These are the properties of music. And music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t,” Jed explained.

The argument ends with no real resolution, but his point is clear. Spoken words have rhythm and pitch and timber and volume. Words can move us. And it is not just the words themselves that do so, but also the way they are spoken.

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Preparing for The Great Debate on September 26th: A Case Study in the Physicality of Audience Engagement

“At the conclusion of our post-mortem, I recognized the basic mistake I had made. I had concentrated on substance and not enough on appearance. I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”

-President Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises

As the United States transitions from the presidential primaries to the general election, the country now eagerly awaits the presidential debates between the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to begin. Presidential debates have become a staple of our election cycle, and regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that with these two candidates the debates will certainly be entertaining, if nothing else. The first of the three scheduled presidential debates is set to occur on Monday, September 26th at Hofstra University, which gives each of the candidates more than a month to prepare for the match up.

But how will each candidate prepare for this debate? Will they memorize talking points and 10-word answers? Will campaign staff be breaking down stump speeches and preparing strong rebuttals and witty retorts? Will the candidate go through mock debates with campaign advisors? Will they work on how to position themselves on camera? How to modulate their voice? How to make-eye contact and gesture at appropriate moments?

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How the Dance is Performed: The Physicality of Audience Engagement

How can you tell the difference between a dancer and someone who is just dancing? Is it the level of steps that are performed? The difficulty of the tricks? The confidence exuded? The emotion conveyed in the movement? The level of performance added to the movement?

You cannot tell the difference between a dancer and someone who is dancing simply from the quantity and complexity of the steps. Rather, the difference lies in the quality of the movement. As I have said before, dancing is not about performing a set of steps. It is not the content that makes the dance. It is the technique, the way in which the movement is performed, that makes a beautiful and powerful dance.

When people learn how to ballroom dance, professional dance teachers start by teaching the basic steps. Seemingly simple movements that are only slightly different than walking. Once students learn the steps, dancers then teach them how to do the steps properly. This is the technique. This is the pointed toes, the hip action, the extension of the lines, the strength of the frame, the connection between the dancers, the rotation of the head, the stretching of the leg, the gliding across the floor, the angle of the knees, the movement of the core. The technique is often far harder to master than the steps. This is what professional dancers twist and break their bodies trying to perfect. And dancers know that there is no end point in their training; they will have to continue to work on and master the technique of a dance throughout their careers. The level of technique is often what makes clear the difference between a dancer and someone who is just dancing.

It is not the steps in a dance that matter, it is how the dance is performed that does.

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Committing to the Movement: Following Right Words with Right Action

What is the difference between a good dancer and a great dancer? There are several possible ways to answer that question. A great dancer has more refined technique. There is an aura about him or her, some unquantifiable X factor at play. A great dancer connects to the music, to the story, and/or to the emotion better. But whichever answer one subscribes to, it often comes down to a sense that a great dancer puts something more into the performance. A great dancer commits to the movement.

I have said before that dancing is not just about doing choreographed steps. When a dancer just goes through the motions—steps in the right places on time with the music—it only goes part of the way towards achieving whatever the goal is of the dance. And while the movement may seem right in most ways, something immediately seems off if the dancers aren’t fully extending their lines, if they are not fully engaging in the technique, if they are not fully connecting to the story, the other dancer(s) or the audience. When dancers don’t commit to the movement, in big or small ways, the judges and the audience notice and disengage from the dance.

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We See You; We Stand with You: A Case Study in Connecting with Your Audience on its Terms

“This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time. It may not be easy – but we will get there together.”

-United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch[i]

This statement from US Attorney General Loretta Lynch closed the press conference on May 9, 2016, when the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it is suing the state of North Carolina, its Governor Pat McCory, its Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina. The DOJ is suing in order to invalidate North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, also known as House Bill 2. The bill, in part, requires transgender people to use public bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms based their biological sex, rather than their gender identity.[ii]

shutterstock_418471252House Bill 2, which was passed the North Carolina General Assembly on March 23, has received stark criticism from across the country and incited boycotts from celebrities and businesses planning to work in the state.[iii] In early May, the DOJ notified state officials that this law violated federal civil rights laws and asked the state to certify that it would not implement the bathroom restriction of the law.[iv] In response, North Carolina sued the Department of Justice, and the Department of Justice sued right back.

The legal arguments are significant in order to understand federal civil rights and how they affect LGBTQ Americans. But the focus of this case study is not the legal arguments, but rather how Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke directly to North Carolinians and transgender Americans in her announcement of the lawsuit. Lynch did not merely announce the DOJ’s legal action against the state, but practiced the principle of connecting with those audiences most directly impacted by this lawsuit on their terms.

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Performing the Dance Clearly and with Inevitability: Learning How to Be Adaptable, Nimble, and Effective When Things Don’t Go According to Plan

“Dance is communication, and so the great challenge is to speak clearly, beautifully, and with inevitability.”

-Martha Graham

In ballroom dancing, the steps are almost always choreographed before a dance is performed. There is a plan in place. And the dancers’ job is to perform the choreography with the proper technique and embody the story though movement to the best of their ability. But sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

Whether on a competition floor or on a showcase stage, there are times when something goes awry. Maybe a dancer forgets a step, or falls out of sync, or gets injured, or has a wardrobe malfunction. It happens to everyone.

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The Story Behind the Curtain: A Case Study in Strategically Planning Communication

“Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”

-John Doe (as reported in The Washington Post)[i]

How would you respond to a message like this? A message like this from someone identifying him or herself as John Doe would probably spark some curiosity, as well as confusion. It certainly peaked the curiosity Bastian Obermayer when he received this message through an encrypted chat in late 2014.

Obermayer, a reporter with the German newspaper Suddeutche Zeitung, responded, “Who are you?” John Doe replied, “I’m nobody. Just a concerned citizen.”[ii]

This exchange began the transfer of 11.5 million documents and the year-long investigation involving more than 370 journalists from around 100 news organizations across more than 70 countries, internally known as Project Prometheus. Or, as we now know it, The Panama Papers.[iii]

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Filling the Empty Space: Strategically Planning Communication to Achieve Your Goals

“The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: Filling this empty space constitutes my identity. I am a dancer and a choreographer.”

-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life[i]

In every type of dancing, movement is choreographed. Whenever formally performing, dancers turn to choreography to create a dance that will most effectively convey the story they wish to tell.

In ballroom dancing, dancers prepare choreographed routines for two different types of settings – either for a competition or for a show. For a competition, the dancer’s goal is to show off his or her abilities, particularly through the quality of his or her technique, timing within the music, connection to his or her partner, and performance value of the routine. Show dance routines are story driven. Dancers tell the story through their movement, the emotion conveyed in the movement, and their connection to the other dancer.

Whether for a competition or a show, all of this movement is choreographed. The goal of the dance, the intention, is the starting point. But having the goal and clear intention is not enough to make a great dance. The choreographer is charged with filling the blank space – coming up with a routine that will guide the dancers and that will leave an impact on the intended audience. The choreography is the plan for how the dancers can achieve their goal – whether it is to impress the judges or tell the audience a story.

To make a great dance, the movement needs to be planned. The choreography, the planning, is integral to dancers achieving their goal.

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