Explanations Versus Impressions

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Ben Vereen went from one of the hottest entertainers in America to someone who couldn't get his calls returned, even from friends, after making an unintended bad impression in a high-profile setting. What happened to Vereen is a classic case of how an impression outshines an explanation.

Vereen was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural celebration. He chose to pay homage to popular black minstrel star Bert Williams. Vereen performed in black face, as Williams was forced to do when he entertained white audiences.

The response to Vereen's act in blackface was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative. One critic called him a "disgrace to his race." Vereen's attempts to explain his teachable moment fell on deaf ears. People only remembered what they saw, not what he said.

While what you say is important, it is equally important to anticipate how people will hear or see it. If Vereen had anticipated the reaction, which in light of the times and the occasion should not have been unexpected, he might have adapted his performance. Vereen might have entertained as Williams would have, then ended with a provocative note that Williams was forced to perform the same act in blackface. That would have left a strong impression, requiring little explanation.

We live in a world where the impression you make is a key to whether anyone will pay attention to your explanation. Trying to explain your way through a tough issue is a lot like bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Issue managers need to suppress the urge to explain and focus on how to impress. Believing that "if people could just hear the facts, we'd do fine" is regrettably a dangerous fallacy, especially when you are dueling with opponents who color across the lines when they give the "facts."

There is nothing unprincipled about stating your case accurately, fairly and with some oomph. Marketers follow this principle because they know people can only absorb so much information, so you need to claim a toehold of their mind with an indelible impression.

With a toehold in your audience's brain, you create the opportunity to provide some explanation. Without that toehold, your explanations have little chance to penetrate, let alone influence.