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Great content knows no bounds

Don’t confuse telling great stories with their delivery channels

I recently attended a luncheon presentation by Scott Pelley at the Atlanta Press Club.  Scott has enjoyed a distinguished history in broadcast journalism, most recently as the anchor for “The CBS Evening News.”  Although no longer in that chair, he continues to work with CBS on “60 Minutes.”

I attended his presentation because I wanted to hear what he had to say about “60 Minutes” vaunted investigative journalism.  During my tenure at Georgia Tech, I appeared on a “60 Minutes” story and was slack jawed at the powerful bias and lack of objectivity in the story.  

So I showed up cynically curious if they’d changed their ways.  Fortunately, I never had a chance to find out.  

What I heard instead was a stellar illustration of superb content—engaging storytelling—by Mr. Pelley.  Appearing to promote his book, “Truth Worth Telling,” Pelley highlighted important topical subjects.  

But it was his answer to a question someone asked about whether “60 Minutes” plans to change its approach to reporting to attract a larger share of a younger audience with shorter attention spans and smaller viewing screens, that truly resonated with me.  

“No,” he responded, much to my surprise.

His elaboration as to why made considerable sense and serves as an important reminder to all of us in the business of telling stories.

Content remains king, he opined.  Never confuse a great story with how you deliver that content to your audience.  

He then proceeded to deliver 30+ minutes of taut, compelling storytelling.  He began with a riveting recitation of a segment in his book about a 911 call on 9/11 between a woman on the 83rd floor of Tower 2 and a 911 operator, against a backdrop of a NYFD Battalion chief making his way toward that floor in a smoky tower stairwell.  There wasn’t a sound in the room as Pelley dramatically recounted the terrifying narrative of those three people.  Even though we all knew how the story would end, we couldn’t help but cling to every word — or hope for a better ending.

In another segment, he recounted an interview with a survivor of the BP Horizon oil-drilling platform that exploded in a fiery hell of human and environmental catastrophe and a life-saving encounter with a co-worker he had on the bridge of that drilling platform more than 100 feet atop the Gulf.  These two survived as we could see from the interview Pelley conducted after the disaster.  But his ability to punctuate his story with vivid context and dramatic vocals kept all of us edging forward in our dining chairs.

Yes, we should be innovative in how we use technology. Yes, we should take advantage of every channel that allows us to find our audiences where they exist. Yes, we should utilize multiple media to deliver our content in the most appealing fashion possible. But what you write, how you read it and the perspective you bring to that content matters … profoundly.  

A recent article in Storybench, a publication of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, re-enforces Pelley’s point.  “The use of mobile and social media tools for gathering info, distributing stories, and engaging with audiences, that’s just what multimedia journalism is now,” said Anthony Adornato, professor of the “Mobile and Social Media Journalism” course at Ithaca College.  

In other words, use social media to find your audience but do not confuse great content with innovative content delivery.  If stories aren’t compelling, useful or relevant, the greatest delivery systems in the world won’t matter.

  Content counts. Let’s hope that it always does.

Image courtesy of CBS Photo Archive


Being Candid

How politicians understand their audiences better than you think

— unless they’re being taped

Many years ago, I worked in politics.  I interned in the U.S. Senate, was a legislative aide in the Wisconsin State Legislature, ran a congressional campaign, and served as the Chief of Staff to the Wisconsin Attorney General.  I loved what I did.

But I ultimately walked away from a very promising career doing what I loved because I saw so much dishonesty from the people in it. 

What they claimed to stand for often had little or no bearing on how they functioned.  After the rush of being elected for the first time, they almost always yielded to the culture of the industry and became primarily motivated to remain in office and climb the career ladder. 

They soon learned who was truly important to their career ambitions.  I’ll give you a hint, it’s not voters. 

Recently, we saw the Lt. Governor of Georgia lose badly in a Republican primary contest to an opponent who distinguished himself by pointing a shotgun at a young male actor in his commercials and sitting in a pickup truck that he boasted was big enough to round up “illegals.” 

Photo courtesy of Alyssa Poynter, AJC

Shotguns and pickups may have contributed to his defeat.  But what kneecapped Casey Cagle was his candor with someone he believed was one of his key audiences — a colleague.  In a lengthy conversation secretly taped by another primary competitor, Cagle acknowledged that he helped push legislation through the Georgia Legislature that would raise the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships.  He did so, he told his colleague, because he wanted to ensure that another primary opponent would not receive more than $1M from a super PAC that supported it.  “Is it bad public policy?” he said to his colleague, “Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways.”

He got caught being candid to the wrong audience.  He thought it was just between you and me.  Unfortunately for him, his colleague had other plans. 

Unsuspecting political candor isn’t confined to the Peach State.  Recently, California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes was caught on tape speaking to big money donors in western Washington about impeaching Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein.  Responding to a potential donor’s question about where the impeachment effort stands, Nunes was extremely candid to an audience he thought he could trust — Republican donors.

Image courtesy of MSNBC

It would have to wait until after the midterm elections, he confided.  The Senate first had to focus on getting Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Once that was accomplished, their efforts could refocus on Rosenstein’s impeachment.  That’s why the midterms are so important, he told the crowd (with one infidel in the audience taping him).  The Republicans needed to hold onto their majority in the House, he implored them.  If they don’t, there would be no one left to protect the President. 

Both Cagle and Nunes were unaware that they were being taped.  They got caught being candid to two of the most important audiences that truly matter to them, colleagues and contributors.  Throw in polls and you have the political audience trifecta.  Their candor is both refreshing and frightening.  Refreshing because they moved away from their canned, staff-scripted commentary and spoke candidly about what politics is really all about.  Frightening because, as I experienced it many years ago, they offered insight into what politics is really all about — their careers.

The audiences that matter get candor.  Voters get screenplays.

As a communications executive, I applaud their clear understanding of which audiences are most important to them, unless they’re caught on tape.  As a rehabilitated politico and a voter, it’s a disheartening dose of reality.



Are we who we were?

Does culture shape how we communicate with one another?


As my kids’ school year wound to a close, I recently engaged in a little generational juxtaposition.  While I stand 40 years removed from high school, my teen/tween daughters—by contrast—stand at the precipice of life, dangling their toes in the water of freedom and experimentation.  In thinking about our two different stages, I considered how life experiences shape how we relate to other people.  

Experiences impact our psyche and effect how we communicate.  Recently, my kids really enjoyed two musical experiences with their peers—one as a spectator and the other as a participant.  What they gained from each provided a sharp contrast between their current culture and that of my youth.  Neither were/are perfect and mean teens still exist…on campus and in the White House.  

But I see signs of improvement.  

My older daughter attended her high school’s “Coffee House”, showing up to support some friends who were participating in informal, on-stage performances.  I thought little of it as I dropped her off at the Grady steps.  But upon her return home, my nonchalance ceased.  She energetically began scrolling through her phone to give us a taste of her evening.  

Some acts were truly impressive; others not so much.  But what resonated with me was the sizable crowd in attendance.  They were warm, enthusiastic, loud, and respectful.  The teens on stage stood figuratively naked, with little separating them from friends and family.  But they sang, recited poetry, and danced—sharing their talents and their souls with their intimate audience.

I was heartened by what I heard but more so by what I didn’t.  No catcalls, criticisms, slurs, or jeers.  No laughing, no shouts of derision, no boos.  

Forty years ago, an event like that would likely have been an evening of derision that would endure for days and weeks to come.  “Does your voice always crack?”  “You did that instead of getting high with us?” “Nice dancing, faggot.”  

Cue performance #2.

A few days later my younger daughter played trumpet in her middle school band concert.  Three different bands performed, each had their own spot in the Inman gym surrounded by parents, teachers, and siblings seated in the stands and on the floor.

It was a hot and humid Atlanta night.  But they played on, alternating songs among the three bands with more than 500 people craning to see their kids and hear their music.  

Again, what captured my attention that evening was the reaction of the kids.  They were dressed in their black and white best.  The gym was packed for the final show of the season.  With every selection, I fully expected that the noise of the two bands not playing would compete with their playing counterparts amid a rising tide of whispers, chair-shifting, and giggled during each song.

But there was none of that.  When one band played, everyone listened.  The non-performing kids were quiet, engaged, and at the close of every song, enthusiastically applauded their peers.  The sight of a gym full of tweens laughing, clapping, and enjoying the efforts of each other was unexpected.

I kept returning to my own teenage experiences.

These kids are different.  Their culture—like ours—impacts them.  But they applaud when their friends they take a chance.  It matters little to them that boys like boys, whites like blacks, or kids decide that their previous gender doesn’t work well for them.

Don’t get me wrong.  They have baggage like all of us.

We may have cursed those unlike us; beat them up; and shunned them like lepers.

More often than not, these kids don’t.  

Thank God they’re culture is shaping them.  And thank God many of us outgrew what ours once was.  Hope comes slowly to a cynic like me.  But maybe, just maybe, there’s hope yet.  

Their willingness to take risks recalled a scene from one of my favorite movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In it, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is playing cards in the large shower room of a psychiatric hospital.  The leader of a forlorn pack of men in this institution, McMurphy is constantly looking for action and exhorting his downtrodden peers to join him.

At the center of the shower room is a massive marble sink that looks as portable as a 1972 Buick Electra.  McMurphy bets his buddies that he can lift it from its base, toss it through the window, walk downtown, grab a beer, and watch the ball game.   Gradually, he convinces them to wager…against him.  

With his wild eyes and hospital scrubs, he approaches the square pedestal, grasps it on either side, and lifts, pitting old-man strength against an immovable object.  His face reddens, his veins pop, his teeth clench.  


After three strenuous attempts, it doesn’t move a millimeter.  He finally lets go and ambles dejectedly to the door.  But before exiting, he slowly turns, looks back at his motley crew and says, “But I tried didn’t I, goddammit… at least I did that.”

He did.  And like my daughters and their friends, he’s to be applauded…supported.


The value of different perspectives

There’s more than one map to your destination

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 7.40.12 AM

(Map courtesy of WorldMapper)

When it takes roughly 24 hours to travel from hotel to home; you have time to think.  Flying home from the Middle East, the first item on my travel itinerary was sleep, something I hadn’t yet experienced between my 2 a.m. pick up and 6 a.m. take-off.

I awoke somewhere over the North Atlantic.  Rested, I do what I always do, check the tracking map on my video screen.  In the process, I noticed that my seat mate was studiously doing the same.  Curious to learn from him, a professor at another university in Saudi Arabia, I was intrigued by how many different views he summoned to his screen.  

Old dudes like me are accustomed to 2-D maps.  And after more than a dozen trips to and from KAUST, I limited myself to the default flight track perspective.  But after watching my seatmate, I wanted more.  As we approached Newfoundland, St. John’s, and the Gulf of St Lawrence, I realized that I had been watching the world below in a very constrained fashion.  But as I adjusted the views, I found a compelling array of different perspectives.

Every new version caused the world to change before my eyes.  Clicking to 3D, I saw deep ocean pockets in the water and with it, visions of sea creatures, fishermen, Atlantic cod and my Irish roots came to mind.  I pushed the + button repeatedly to see greater granularity and the ocean became something more than simply a great distance to cover.  It became personal.  I could still see my flight path.  But the programmed path was now a secondary concern.  Newly-seen craggy edges and sharp inlets gave me a strong sense of place. Light blue merged into deep purple on the screen, distinguishing beachfront real estate from prime fishing territory.  I thought of families playing in the sand in the light blue and boats netting my dinner out in the deep blue trenches.

I was fascinated, no longer passively watching tracking software on auto pilot.  I was in charge; able to choose how macro or micro my perspective should be; how far east/west/north/south I move on the compass; whether I want left/right side, Cockpit or Wingman perspectives.    

It dawned on me as I switched visuals (this being the thinking part of my journey) that this wasn’t just about my map fetish.  It was about pushing myself to see things with fresh eyes and from different perspectives.  

Inside the cabin, kids were watching movies—the Bee movie and Frozen were top picks—and playing video games.  Adults are tuned into their own channels, sleeping, reading, listening to music. While I tinkered with my views, I multitasked as well, listening to Monks, Miles, The Dead, Chet Baker, Paul Simon, and Peter Tosh on my iPod; reading Wuthering Heights, monitoring my maps…and thinking.  

It was a fresh perspective through fresh eyes and “daring” to see things in different ways.  How I chose to see the world as I flew over it impacted my interpretations of it. Each view I selected was accurate.  But each presented a different reality.  All interesting. 

New ideas emerged.  I broke out my laptop and began writing down ideas about ways to solve problems for my clients.  In the late morning light, I found insight and clarity. 

As marketing executive, the lessons were as obvious as the water below.  Keeping my mind open, my eyes clear, and my perspective ever-fresh is the only way to travel for me and my clients.  

  • How will I choose to see the world and serve my clients?  
  • What’s my marketing map/client map/life map?  
  • Where are the answers I seek for all three?  

Are they east of Moncton?  North of New Glasgow?  Awaiting me in the Atlantic Northeast or on the ground in Washington? 

They could be anywhere.  And if you don’t keep your eyes on the controls and perspectives fresh, at some point you may look up and see that your plane and the world you see on your 9×12 screen has left you behind. 

A flight well-traveled; a lesson well-learned. 


I slaughtered a lamb for you

As the presidential race kicks into a higher gear, the inflammatory silly season is upon us.  Few are more adept at contributing to vitriol, hyperbole and half-truths than those who desire to lead us from the White House or the state house.  They are, sadly, Exhibit A in a society in which pandering at a high volume trumps speaking with humble wisdom.  

But our friends in high places often make mistakes when pumping up the emotional volume and when those mistakes are highlighted, the offenders are maddeningly consistent in their response:  they quickly apologize without actually apologizing.  They tweet out carefully crafted statements shaped by a committee of PR crisis managers.  They go to considerable lengths to express concern but admit no actual fault.  

From Hillary Clinton’s absurd rationalization that it was easier to route the writings of State through a private server in her home than to have to bear the inconvenience of two mobile devices; to Scott Walker’s attempts to eviscerate the venerable Wisconsin idea, and then blame it on a legal drafting error by his staff; to Donald Trump…well, simply refusing to apologize for anything, our wannabe VIP’s have become intellectually and emotionally incapable.

It’s time for us all to take our lumps.  Stop with the “to anyone I may have offended” or “while my words were taken out of context” qualifiers.

If you’re going to apologize, apologize.  

When I was a kid in Wisconsin, I still vividly remember a cloudy winter day when my older cousin annihilated me in one-on-one hockey on a frozen pond in our corn field.  It hurt.  My reaction to his dominance was to pick up my puck and trudge back home tearfully complaining to my grandma about how unfair he and my life were.  

My grandma loved me, but she was no helicopter grandparent.  She would have none of it.  She told me to take my beating like a man and to walk right over to my cousin’s house and apologize for quitting.  I did so with no further protestations.  

I was reminded of that lesson a few weeks ago during dinner with some wonderful clients in the Middle East.  One of my dinner companions told us about a family conundrum the previous night between her teenage son and her husband.  Her husband was a huge fan of a soccer team from his home region, and he invested considerable free time in keeping his fan friends abreast of scores and team developments.  His son, however, had developed loyalties to the team in the city where they now live.  That evening, he tried to explain to his father that they could support different teams without straining their familial bonds.  

His father did not concur, and the ensuing discussion was not pleasant.  Annoyed, my dinner companion retired to her room for the evening and had little to say to her husband the next morning.  With few words exchanged, she departed for work.

He was in trouble and, as a husband myself, I felt his pain.  He needed to apologize.  But unlike Lady Hillary, Sir Scott, or The Donald, he did so in a very clear fashion.   

Not knowing that she would be out for a business dinner that evening, he called her that afternoon to own up to his error and announce that he would be preparing her a home-cooked meal.  He was wrong, he said.  He felt terrible, he said.  But his next statement is what really stood out to us having dinner that night and it ought to become the new hashtag phrase for apologies:  He said, “I slaughtered a lamb for you.” 

Many men in the Middle East still know how to do this.  Unlike me, they don’t have to rely on nose-to-tail butchers at farm-to-table restaurants to prepare prized meals.  This husband had slaughtered a lamb for his wife and promised to reserve the most desired parts thereof as proof of his remorse.  

He was sorry; he was sincere; and his apology was short, sweet and effective.

Authentic apologies know no bounds.  They could be childhood memories in the Midwest or adult experiences in the Middle East.  But sincere people and effective communicators know that they are important.

To those who dominate the mass and social media, be they elected or otherwise, take note.  Don’t tell us what you want us to hear.  Tell us what we actually want to hear.  “I’m sorry.  I made a mistake.  I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

404.625.9583   |   OFFICES: 1432 Lanier Place • Atlanta, GA 30306-3238
© 2014 Cavelle Consulting, LLC