Aloha Lessons on a Hawaiian Beach

You can learn a lot relaxing on a Hawaiian beach and reflecting on beach scenes that are parables for making better and smarter decisions.

You can learn a lot relaxing on a Hawaiian beach and reflecting on beach scenes that are parables for making better and smarter decisions.

Hanging out on Hawaiian beaches is refreshing and reflective. It offers moments to escape what you do every day – and to think about how you could do what you do even better. It provides what Hawaiians would call aloha lessons.

It turns out, beach scenes are parables. Paddle boarders who always look down to avoid falling miss the point of paddle boarding. Swimmers without suntan lotion are doomed to burn. Standing on coral rock will ruin the coral and cut your feet as a reward. 


 Personally, I don’t go out on paddle boards. If I did, I would want to see more than the paddle board and my feet. Based on my observations, first-time or timid paddle boarders get so focused on not falling, they forget why they are paddle boarding. They may only glimpse their scenic surroundings and totally miss an oncoming wave or a shark circling under them.

From my beachside vantage point, I reflected that fear of failure, like staring at your feet on a paddle board, can be a blinding obstacle to knowledge, friendship and success. You need to look up to learn, forge friendships and achieve success.

In public affairs, you need a heads-up attitude to spot solutions instead of always looking down at the problems that beset you. Curiosity, openness to fresh thinking and shamelessness to borrow successful ideas are heads-up behaviors that can save the day, even if you fall off your paddle board a few times.


Ignoring sound advice can burn you – on the beach and in the court of public opinion – can make you red in the face, not to mention other places. 

Sunburns are uncomfortable because of the pain and, to a greater extent, the embarrassment. Unless you are a tiny child, you know better. The sunburn, the agony and the humiliation are all avoidable. 

You can reduce your exposure to red-faced embarrassment by paying attention to credible warning signs and accepting wise counsel with courtesy and even some humility. You are never too old to learn.

While submerging yourself in the water won’t necessarily prevent sunburn, a professional style that immerses yourself in a wide range of diverse views with an open mind may prevent gaps in your thinking and flaws in your decision-making.


Knowing something is foolish and doing it anyway – like standing on a coral reef – is irresponsibly destructive and deserves more than a sliced-up foot. Coral reefs are underwater eco-gardens to view and protect, not trounce. 

Foolish things are often done rashly, without thinking. For snorkelers, standing on a reef can be a grandstand for viewing a brightly colored school of fish or finding “high ground” to steer clear of a moray eel. 

Anyone can by guilty of rash behavior, such as over-reacting to an unpleasant event, perceived slight or boorish insult. However, a cooler head takes the time to assess the moment and the consequences of acting. Sometimes, immediate action is appropriate and necessary; other times, it’s not. 

One of the most important lessons taught by experience is the self-confidence to weigh decisions before lurching into action. Some may call this indecision. But wading through the excitement to see the core issue involved can make the course of action much clearer. And you can avoid standing on that coral reef and cutting yourself in the foot.

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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 and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling.jpg

It takes more than facts to tell a complex public affairs story. It takes an insatiable curiosity to find the facts that make the story compelling – and believable.Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

Another story talks about the problem with pictures, such as mammograms and satellite photos. Still another probes how The Pill went off the rail with the Catholic Church, but if explained differently as a medical life-saver for women it might have had a different outcome.

Most of the 19 resurrected New Yorker articles by Gladwell dealt with subjects that people facing public affairs challenges would find familiar. What would be unfamiliar is how Gladwell wove together background information and related data from tangential sources to produce a compelling story, a page-turner. 

Many "experts," including us, urge more storytelling in public affairs campaigns. What we fail to mention is the importance of diligent research to find the facts that will make a story compelling – and believable.

Facts are good, but often not enough to persuade people. You need to make the facts come alive so the target audience for the story can relate to them and ultimately believe them. That's where indefatigable homework plays a huge role. You often need to know more than your own stuff to make your point. There is no greater asset in this quest than an insatiable curiosity.

A profile of Gladwell described him as a "writer of many gifts," with a "nose for the untold back story that will have readers repeatedly muttering, 'Gee, that's interesting!'" That, in a nutshell, is the holy grail of writing in the public affairs space. 

The Gladwell profile added, "He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different." That's hard to do if you haven't done it yourself as the writer.

Gladwell has his flaws. Lack of curiosity isn't one of them.