Sunday, May 30, 2010

Visual, Evocative Words to Emphasize Something: “Immaculate Calamity”; “Immaculate Infusion” + Other Inspiring / Humorous Examples

Here are some recent examples of highly effective communicators using a vivid, evocative expression to emphasize something--examples which, I hope, will inspire the rest of us into similarly imaginative use of the language, especially when we are trying to break through the clutter.

1. After listening to testimony from former executives of Bear Stearns and other failed financial companies, Phil Angelides--chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission--expressing frustration in his efforts to get to the bottom of the financial crisis and saying: “It appears to be an immaculate calamity where no one was responsible.”

2. In his most recent weekly commentary on NPR, Frank Deford lamenting that it’s hard to find any sport these days that doesn’t have athletes accused of taking performance enhancing drugs, adding: “Athletes accused of taking illegal drugs are invariably just downright flabbergasted to find out what has gotten into their bodies by immaculate infusion.”

3. When asked whether current counterterrorism methods in the U.S. were adequate to interdict the “newly developing class of terrorists” (probably a reference to home-grown terrorists–people such as the Time Square and “The Underwear” bombers and the Fort Hood shooter), anti-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, telling NPR on Saturday, May 8:

“I think many of the measures that we have in place, indeed the national security architecture that we’ve created, is really an inheritance from the 9/11 Commission and from the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001 - in other words, nine years ago. We're talking about now, a very different threat and a very evolutionary and dynamic one. What I see as one of the main challenges and indeed, one of the more salient gaps in our national security architecture is who in the U.S. government is responsible for identifying, for instance, a radicalization process, and then interdicting the recruitment of American citizens to become terrorists. And that seems to be something that we haven't both figured out how to do but even more worrisome, who in fact should do it.”

It is because of Mr. Hoffman’s extraordinary precision and vividness of expression that I have long honored him on the home page of my Web site. Also see blog post of December 27’09 about his interview on the BBC.

4. Talking about the recent Greek and euro zone financial crisis during a PBS interview, Mohamed El-Erian--CEO and co-chief investment officer of PIMCO--using a very humorous analogy to explaining why capital that would have gone to Europe is now being diverted to the U.S., thus lowering U.S. interest rates:

“As somebody once said to me, you always want to wear a clean shirt, but there are times you have to settle for your cleanest dirty shirt. Because we live in a relative world, relative to Europe the U.S. looks attractive to foreign investors.

I am afraid Mr. El-Erian wasn’t quite that effective when, moments earlier in that interview, while explaining why investors were nervous about banks that have an exposure to Greece, he compared the function of banks to that of oil in a car. In my opinion, the analogy was much too simplistic and the overall utterance relatively unappealing: “As you know, banks are like the oil in a car--they connect things. If the oil in your car doesn’t work, your car doesn’t go forward. So, there is increased pressure on European banks.”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Building a Strong Vocabulary: New Edition of “Words of the Month”

The latest edition of “Words of the Month,” my free vocabulary enhancement feature, has been online since the first week of this month. Among the featured words, all of which lie within the conversational vocabulary of America’s most articulate:

1. desiccated – to describe a person or thing that is lacking interest, enthusiasm, animation, or feeling; something that is devoid of intellectual vigor.
comment: I am sure you’ve had to sit through many a presentation or speech that was desiccated.

2. farcical – a term for something that is ludicrous, nonsensical, absurd, or laughably inappropriate.
comment: In my blog post of May 15, about BP’s bad PR, I described some of the analogies used by BP’s CEO to minimize the oil well accident as being farcical.

3. petulant – to describe someone who is ill-tempered without reason, someone who is impatient and irritable over a petty annoyance or something trivial.
comment: My favorite example for petulance is that involving homemaking dive Martha Stewart: During her 2004 trial, we learned that she got angry with her stockbroker over the type of background music being played on the phone while she was on hold.

4. doctrinaire – to describe somebody who inflexibly adheres to an abstract doctrine or theory without regard for practical considerations; somebody who is dogmatic about one’s beliefs, ideas, or theories.
comment: Why do you think we can sometimes predict which justice will rule which way on some of the cases that come up before the U.S. Supreme Court? It’s because most of the 9 justices are either doctrinaire conservatives or doctrinaire liberals.

5. genuflect – a term of disapproval for somebody’s display of servile respectfulness or submissiveness—for somebody’s show of abject obedience.
comment: I am sure you’ve come across superiors or colleagues who are “yes-men.” Put another way, these are employees who show no spine during meetings with senior management. All they do is genuflect.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A One-Sentence Articulation of the Central Issue Raised by the BP Oil Well Disaster

Over the past 4 weeks, we’ve been witness to the offshore oil industry’s “Three Mile Island” (what with the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every 4 or 5 days) and BP’s series of desperate, amateurish, and unsuccessful attempts to get a grip on the situation. Because of the unprecedented nature of the disaster and the catastrophic consequences for both the environment and businesses, I am sure this will be Topic No. 1 during some of your casual conversations with friends and colleagues. Here is one approach to articulating the central issue raised by the calamitous event in just one sentence:

“The state of affairs following the April 20 oil well accident demonstrates unambiguously that while the technology for drilling in very deep water is sophisticated, the technology for remedying some of the possible accidents deep in the ocean is relatively primitive and pathetic!”

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Case of Bad PR, with Inane Analogies; Is BP’s CEO Being Guided by a Misguided PR Department?

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward described the oil gushing from that failed well in the Gulf as “relatively tiny” compared with “the very big ocean.” I reacted with indignation to that statement because, just one day earlier, scientists from Purdue and elsewhere--working independently of one another, and using sophisticated analysis of seafloor video--had rejected BP’s estimate of the leak at 7,000 barrels a day, with some saying that it was at least 10 times larger, implying an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every 4 days since the April 20 accident!

Mr. Hayward made a similarly misplaced and ill-advised statement earlier this week on NPR when, in an interview with “All Things Considered,” he analogized the oil well disaster to the Air France accident last year off the coast of Brazil. As the fast worsening and out-of-control situation in the Gulf has demonstrated unambiguously, an oil well blowout in extremely deep water, howsoever improbable, can have catastrophic consequences for the marine and coastal environment, in addition to wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of a big swath of the population and threatening the safety of seafood from that region for years to come. In comparison, the direct and long-term consequences of the Air France tragedy--as in the case of any other air accident--were infinitesimal and mundane, except for friends and relatives of those killed.

One thing that I stress in my workshop on How to disarm and neutralize one’s critics and detractors without being offensive or disrespectful is that following a high-profile misstep, blunder, or accident, any statement by the company’s execs that flies in the face of clear evidence and thus insults the public’s intelligence will do irreparable harm to the firm’s image. I’m afraid Mr. Hayward’s above comments and farcical analogies will only serve to heighten millions of Americans’ disdain for BP, and make the company even more of a target for scorn and derision, especially among those who attach deep importance to the health of our oceans and marine wildlife.

BP and its PR department would be far more successful in their efforts to disarm and neutralize critics if they pursued the techniques used by such eminent “disarmers” as then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, and then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, all of whom were adept at neutralizing their critics when things were going south.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

For Foreign-born Executives and Other Professionals: Simple Verbal Techniques to Compensate for Accent; My Interview on Houston’s ABC Channel 13

Ideally, every word uttered by the speaker should be intelligible to the audience. And that, of course, poses a problem for foreign-borns—people like me, who speak with an accent.

Foreign-born professionals should constantly employ verbal strategies and tactics that help compensate for the loss of communication that invariably results from having an accent. This is something that I stress in all of my communication seminars and workshops, particularly when there is at least one foreign-born among the audience (as was the case when I presented in recent months at the USDA’s NRCS unit in Ft. Worth; Rice University’s Jones School of Management; Toastmasters District 56 Conference; and the annual day of Shell Oil’s employees of foreign origin).

The use of synonyms, especially when the presenter is trying to emphasize something, is perhaps the easiest and most effective means of ensuring complete understanding by the audience. I use it all the time, often reflexively!

For instance, last week, when I was interviewed spontaneously at Chicago’s O’Hare airport by a television news reporter, and thus “put to the test,” I automatically used synonyms at the points of emphasis in my replies to the reporter’s questions. On Saturday, May 1, just as I was getting ready to board my flight back home, Kevin Quinn of Houston’s ABC Channel 13 approached me and inquired if he could interview me for my take on the upcoming merger between Chicago-based United and Houston-based Continental. I consented, and Quinn promptly thrust the mike toward me with his first question—“What did you think about the merger?” My indignant response, which you can see in the video clip below: “I think this is a reverse step, a backward step, unquestionably. It’s becoming more and more of an oligopoly. And who gets screwed? The customer does, as there’s less and less choice.”

A quick analysis of the above statement: The word backward acted as a synonym to the previous adjective reverse, and helped achieved two purposes: (i) it reinforced the thrust of reverse; the two adjectives in quick succession worked as a boxer’s left hook followed by a right hook, and (ii) it helped ensure that everyone in the audience would understand my sentiment 100% because of the very highly probability that at least one of those two key adjectives in the first sentence would be fully intelligible to every listener.

© Copyright 2010 V.J. Singal

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Communicating For Results: Citing the Mona Lisa, or David, When Justifying the Preservation of an Endangered Bird or Animal Species

“The monarch has the most fantastic migration of any insect in the world,” says Lincoln Brower, the world’s leading expert on that butterfly. So, last month, in a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment about the rapid decline in the monarch’s population (being caused by massive illegal logging within “protected zones” in Mexico), when he was asked how the world would be different without this phenomenal migration, Brower responded: “My answer to that is: What good is the Mona Lisa? What good is Mozart’s music? We could live without it, but we would be diminished as a culture and as a people. There’s nothing like it. It’s unique.”

The moment I heard Brower’s reply, I realized that his is an unusually compelling and effective response to anyone challenging wildlife preservation. In the past, whenever someone has asked me why I care so passionately about conserving wildlife, I have tended to wax eloquent on the morality issue, saying that other animals have the same basic right to exist as does homo sapiens. Of course, this argument does not appeal to many, especially those who take a more egocentric view of man. Well, in future, when talking about the need to save, say, the ocelot and the red wolf--two North American animals that are fast becoming extinct--I will simply resort to the analogy used by Brower, citing things like the Mona Lisa, the Sphinx, and Michelangelo’s David, to make my point.