The advantage of my disadvantage in communicationsNovember 19, 2013
The guy I just media trained is among the smartest people I have ever met. A Harvard-trained physician who is brilliant, and understands medicine and biology at the molecular level. Yet, when it comes to telling his story — simply and succinctly, he struggles.
His challenge is his own intelligence. He knows all the facts and figures behind each of his assertions. He’s grounded on science and datum and small, important matters that make a difference in his world but only confound broader audiences. Like few of us can, he holds many opposing ideas alive in his head. So he balances his language, allowing for the exception instead of asserting the rule. Opening the door to new ideas, instead of following the tedium of a scripted course.
Fortunately, my disadvantage is his advantage. I am nowhere near as smart. He talks, and it is as if I am missing a sense — an odor I can’t smell, a sound to which I am deaf. And so, I must overcompensate. Instead of fact and truth, I have to rely on associations and connotations. I look for the story. My mind pursues a thread, some connection to give meaning. They are missing. But we’ll get there.
It happens when I challenge him to consider what he would say if he had 30 seconds to impress the President of United States. What would be your story? How would you start and what would you leave him with? Certainly, it wasn’t anything we had discussed to this point — all clinical and accurate. Sterile. Utterly forgettable. And then, the light went off. He paused for a moment. Came to his own conclusion. “None of that is important then,” he reasoned. “I would want him to know how we’re transforming cancer care and giving new hope to patients and families.”
So that is where we began. Constructing the hierarchy of his message. Top down with the most important items safe and secure at the opening. The least important notes left for the end where they are most vulnerable to an editor’s pen or the cutting room floor.
In the swirl of media today, all too often we forget that still, behind it all, stories are what matter most, and stories are based on the associations we create so others can quickly absorb meaning. Dale Carnegie once said, the mind is an association machine. To communicate, we have to conjure those associations and draw them as close as possible to our own position, opinion, or message. This breathes life, resuscitates interest. As an editor once told me as a young, ambitious magazine writer, “Show, don’t tell.” You win by painting a portrait rather than constructing an argument.
By the end of the day-long training, the rules were established. New skills shared. I learned again from the smartest among us. While it’s good to be smart, it’s better to live within one’s own limits.