clarity

How Simplicity Teams with Creativity for Public Affairs Results

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

For many it is hard to accept that subtracting details can result in greater results, but that’s the reality of how simplicity teams with creativity to produce easy-to-grasp, compelling storytelling. It even works in the field of public affairs.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then simplicity is the father of creativity. That’s certainly true in the world of public affairs.

Creativity through simplicity in public affairs is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. It involves the thoughtful reduction of details to reach the essence of a subject so it is instantly recognizable and compelling. The end result may be a creative argument, snappy catch-phrase, strategic plan or clever solution to a vexing problem. The result also could be as basic as unraveling the “complexity” manufactured as a smokescreen by opponents.

Representing industrial energy customers several years back, I and others lobbied for an admittedly complex measure to allow manufacturers that use large amounts of electricity to purchase energy from a non-utility provider. Utility opponents managed to scuttle the legislation by calling it too complex.

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When we brought back the bill in the next legislative session, we did two critical things – we simplified how the bill was written and we replaced our fact sheets with a flipchart. We began every meeting with a legislator by saying, “This issue is not really complex. Let us show you why.”

The flipchart walked through how electricity is distributed, explained why large industrial customers were often electricity generators and outlined the specific provisions of the bill. The debate shifted from complicated, confusing details to the merits of the legislation’s key provisions, which included investments in energy conservation and efficiency. The bill passed easily with strong bipartisan support. 

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Infographics are a perfect example of simplicity and creativity working in tandem. The first infographic shows the effect of three pieces of legislation on a wine bottle label. The second debunks the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. Both convey a lot of information in a small amount of visual real estate, leaving no doubt about their key messages.

Conventional wisdom may reject the notion that subtraction is creative. Clients usually want ‘more’ options, more details, more justification rather than ‘less’ complication and confusion. They want to throw mud against the wall to see what sticks. They can’t conceive that simplicity is the creative key to unlock understanding.

The phrase “making ideas take shape” is uncannily on point to describe the path from simplicity to creativity. The “shape” can be an image, a chart or a well-turned phrase, but it has a readily accessible form, something familiar that human brains can digest and file away.

Infographics have earned popularity by saying a lot simply and visually. They can illustrate a key point, sequentially walk a viewer through an issue or show how something works. This “show me” approach to information-sharing is a perfect example of creative simplicity. 

People have complex mental capacities, but they absorb information in relatively simple, elemental ways. Conveying information in an elemental form improves the odds that the intended audience will receive and bank your message.

Creativity can be clever. However, just as often creativity is useful and practical. By focusing on the one thing that is most important, we uncomplicate a subject for an audience. The ability to simplify eliminates the unnecessary so the necessary has space to speak. You create clarity out of chaos.

Your best creative tool is curiosity. Do more than see what is going on around you. Observe it carefully and learn how the simplest things can convey rich meaning creatively. Making something complex seem simple takes hard work. You better get started.

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Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Talking on Your Feet in Impromptu Moments

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you know how funny improvisational humor can be. But when you are forced to make impromptu comments at a company meeting or in a public setting, funny usually isn’t your goal.

“Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech – perhaps even more so,” says speech coach Allison Shapira.

The same rules apply. Don’t meander into your message. Be sensitive to your body language. Make a single, solid point. Know when to stop. 

The same cautionary notes apply, too. Be wary of jokes. Avoid sliding into jargon or gibberish. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Remember brevity is better than boring.

Easier said than done, you say, especially if you are caught off guard by a request to speak. True, but the possibility of being called on should disabuse anyone they are just spectators at a meeting. As Shapira advises, “Be present.” Pay attention. Stay off your iPhone. Engage in the topic.

A trick to keep your mind alert is thinking about a question you could ask. Thinking about a question can get you into an answering-frame-of-mind. Even better, train yourself to think about what you could say, whether asked or not.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

Silent participation can be read by others as disinterest, timidity or lack of anything worth contributing. Those aren’t the traits that lead to job promotions. 

Shapira says speakers can prepare for formal presentations and impromptu opportunities. Leaders, experts or people in the middle of a controversy should definitely develop and practice impromptu speaking skills.

Media training, especially for crisis communications, can prepare speakers to deal with surprise questions and unexpected issues. Think of a request to make an impromptu comment as roughly the same as an ambush interview. You may be caught off guard, but don’t be caught unprepared.

Practice the skill of condensing what you say to a single key message and offering two or three supporting points. This approach requires discipline and focus, which happen to be exactly what you need when speaking without prepared remarks.

Experienced speakers, especially ones who have the scars from previous impromptu boo-boos, may venture into light humor and even storytelling (especially if a story is the request). However, be careful. If someone asks for your opinion, giving them a story may not seem responsive – and may not convey the real point you want to make. Self-deprecating humor has its place, but probably not when responding to a question in business meeting.

Speaking clearly is a requirement for effective communication in writing, presenting or speaking. You can practice clarity when you write emails or memos or when you create a PowerPoint. Clarity requires diligent editing, self-restraint and a genuine concern for your audience. If you want your audience to read or hear what you say, make it easy for them to know what you are saying.

The stakes may be higher than you realize. Your ability to talk on your feet can earn your esteem in the eyes of others, including bosses or critics.

“Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients,” Shapira says. “How you communicate in those impromptu interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.”

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

Framing and Headlines

Framing an issue and writing a headline require the same skill of knowing how to distill your point in a few, catchy words.

They also share an important distinction — how an issue is framed and how a headline is phrased may make the difference of whether anyone pays attention.

Clever framing and headline writing don't guarantee readership, but they sure help. Poor framing or weak headlines are proven attention-killers.

Framing an issue and writing a headline require skill. But more important, they demand focus and a willingness to discard your first idea for a better one.

Some people just have the knack for summing up an issue or story. For others it takes a village. That doesn't matter. Unlike works of arts, well-framed issues and reader-fetching headlines don't carry signatures or bylines. Their value is in their impact on intended audiences.

Common characteristics of framed issues and good headlines include concise description, crisp wording and a memorable twist of phrase.

One of the best current examples of a reframed issue is shifting from "same-sex marriage" to the "freedom to love." It is hard to find a word to hate in the expression "freedom to love." Moreover, it fits well in a sequence of mentioning free speech and freedom of religion. While more opaque than the literally correct "same-sex marriage," freedom to love carries more emotive value and avoids other charged words such as gay, lesbian or transgender.