Friday, June 06, 2008

Honk For Peace? A Plea For Traffic Serenity


A regular staple of transportation media coverage is the Most Dangerous Intersection story. The subject is ripe for the reporter’s picking, with official statistics providing a tally on the number of collisions, injuries and fatalities at a given spot.

But today I offer another, more subjective category: Least Peaceful Intersection. In my neighborhood, a top nominee is the heavily traveled crossing at Harlem Avenue and Lake Street that borders Oak Park and River Forest.

This has always been a dicey area in which to maneuver. But on weekends lately, the Least Peaceful needle goes off the charts over there.

The biggest culprit?

Ironically, it’s the anti-war activists urging motorists to “honk for peace.”

All of those horns blaring create an unsettling, cacophonous environment that brings to mind the tale of the boy who falsely cried wolf. With so many toot-tooting and beep-beeping for peace, there’s little assurance that any one honk will be interpreted as a warning to avoid a collision.

Compounding the stress is the ongoing distraction that stems from motorists gazing at the homemade signs—and offering their reactions—to signs castigating President Bush. Meantime, pedestrians play a continual game of dodge-the-distracted driver.

So here’s a two-fold suggestion:

1. Honk-Your-Horn Rabble-Rousers: please step back a bit from the curb—rest assured that you will still get our dutiful attention.

And while you’re at it, change “honk” to “wave” on those signs. “Wave for peace” is more like it, don’t you think?

2. Motorists: please use the horn for its intended purpose. Most of us are blessed to have two hands, so here’s the strategy: keep one hand on the wheel even as you flutter your fingertips toward the well-intentioned peaceniks in our midst.

By taking these steps, we will truly display our commitment to peace, not only on foreign soil but also here at home.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Practice active silence--be a sincere audience
Ask engaging questions--find out what makes people tick
Value all people--everyone has a story to share
Expand your comfort zone--you'll be amazed by what you learn

Thursday, October 13, 2005

First-Aid Tips: Survival in the Freelance Journalism Jungle

In January 2005, Medill magazine, the alumni magazine for the Medill School of Journalism, solicited tips from freelance writers for publication. My suggestions were among those included in the magazine, albeit in edited form due to space constraints. Below are suggestions that may help folks looking to survive in the freelance journalism jungle:

- Be a team player

When contacted by a Tribune staffer or another freelancer for help on a story—even stories for which I’ll get no pay or credit—I go out of my way to be prompt and helpful. It’s simply the right thing to do, and how I’d want to be treated. As interesting tidbits come across my path, I pass on story tips to editors, even when they aren’t in my beat or coverage area. Not only is it the right thing to do, but also editors are more likely to think of me when assigning stories that could go to any number of people.

- Leave your ego at the door

Some folks may lift their nose at “grunt” work, such as covering tedious meetings or inheriting a stressful last-minute deadline because of someone else’s poor planning. But true grunt work is forced manual labor in an oppressive country without clean water. And the most dazzling buildings start with unglamorous-looking foundations. There’s security in being viewed as the guy who helps lay in the foundation.

- When in doubt, communicate:

You can’t be “too” in touch with editors. Call on the phone, e-mail, visit the office to build a rapport. Send a weekly update of stories you’re working on—I started that over a year ago and it helps keep me on track, and keeps my editors in the loop on coming work. Send good, concise pitches. Write good, concise stories.

- Be willing to do work in unusual, inconvenient settings.

When strolling my sleeping twins during their first year, I conducted interviews daily on my cell phone, leaning over on the stroller as I scribbled notes. I’ve done more than a few interviews, dripping wet and in a towel after clambering out of the shower to a ringing phone. If the phone rings and I’m able to talk, then my “office” is open. It’s amazing what a few two-minute conversations can do for a story.

- Regularly plant story seeds with sources.

Especially when covering a beat, plenty of stories have “long legs”—the potential for periodic follow-up articles. Keep in touch with key contacts and reconnect with old contacts to see what’s new.

- Stories are all around us. Pay attention!

A week before our babies were due, my wife and I were returning home from a shopping expedition. About a mile from our home, we saw cops all over the place. I asked an officer what was going on, heard there was an escaped jail prisoner, and contacted the Trib Tower. I filed a breaking story within a few hours, as well as a follow-up story the next day on the prisoner’s capture.

-30-

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication

Practice active silence--be a sincere audience
Ask engaging questions--find out what makes people tick
Value all people--everyone has a story to share
Expand your comfort zone--you'll be amazed by what you learn

Deep (Throat) Lessons From Bob Woodward

July 2005

Forget “gabbing”—strike up conversations, then listen up

By Matt Baron

I’d heard the phrase many times before, but for some reason it grated on me recently when a young lady uttered the words: “I don’t have the gift of gab.”

An aspiring communications professional—she wasn’t sure what realm yet—she had just spewed the verbal version of nails on a chalkboard. I nearly leapt through the phone as I admonished her never to repeat the phrase.

“Even if you think it’s true,” I cautioned, “don’t say it.”

Besides, if she ever wanted to get “the gift,” then it would come only after she stopped treating it as some special possession that descends from the heavens at birth.

The truth is that the “gift of gab” is not a gift at all. It’s a series of choices, and the biggest one is to choose to put your focus on others rather than yourself.

Professional, ethical, effective journalists cannot write with long gazes into their navels. They must seek input from other sources.

Public relations professionals seeking to build solid rapport with media members do not merely “smile ‘n’ dial” and hope that some coverage-worthy mud sticks to the wall. PR pros try to figure out how journalists tick, what they are looking for, and in what form they prefer to receive information.

The top-performing salesman poses a few questions, allows the prospect to talk about his or her objections and needs, and then zeroes in on the closing approach that stands the best chance for success.

In all of those cases, the individual seeking to learn more from key contacts is taking a page out of the playbook described in Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Carnegie shares the story of how he met a botanist at a party and sincerely began asking questions about his world. The botanist talked for hours. At the end of the evening, he gushed to the host about Carnegie, whom he described as a “most interesting conversationalist.”

“An interesting conversationalist? Why, I had said hardly anything at all,” Carnegie went on. “I couldn’t have said anything if I had wanted to without changing the subject, for I didn’t know any more about botany than I knew about the anatomy of a penguin. But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it. Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.”

How cool, you may be thinking. Why is it so rare?

Much of the answer boils down to fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of rejection are two biggies.

Those are self-absorbed ills. All of the focus is on your little self, and worst-case scenarios of what could happen to you. Besides that, they are statistically remote illusions, a fervent faith in negative results that hardly ever materialize.

Consider what you can gain by practicing the discipline of focusing on others, of speaking very little and listening very much.

In his account of how he first met W. Mark Felt, the man who would later become his pivotal Deep Throat source, Bob Woodward experienced the powerful impact of looking beyond himself and stepping out of his comfort zone.

In 1970, while he was in the U.S. Navy, Woodward was in the White House waiting to deliver documents to the chief of naval operations. Felt sat down near him. After several minutes of silence, Woodward introduced himself.

For many of us, saying anything to a stranger can push us out of our comfort zone—especially when we are in the company of someone whose stature may intimidate us. (Woodward recalled Felt as “very distinguished looking” with “a studied air of confidence.”)

Woodward went on to share more about himself with Felt. Though the older gentleman initially did not reciprocate, he became more engaged when Woodward hit on common ground. Woodward was taking graduate courses at George Washington University, and Felt replied that he had gone to night law school there before he joined the FBI.

Bingo, a key fact emerges. From there, the two found more common ground and spoke at length as Woodward continued to push through any comfort zones he may have had.

“I peppered him with questions about his job and his world, and as I think back on this accidental but crucial encounter--one of the most important in my life--I see that my patter probably verged on the adolescent. Since he wasn’t saying much about himself, I turned it into a career counseling session.I asked Felt for his phone number and he gave me the direct line to his office. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future.”

Woodward is being overly modest. This was no “accidental” meeting, for the simple fact that Woodward’s boldness and persistence transformed what could have been a routine, superficial mutual head-nodding moment into an historical turning point.

Think about your moments, minutes, hours and days ahead.

It’s not a gift, it’s your choice.

What’s the worst that can happen if you say “hello” to someone on the elevator? How uncomfortable is it, really, to introduce yourself to someone in the crowd at the city council meeting? Why don’t you make that contact you’ve been putting off for days?

Better yet, ask this question: What’s the best that can happen?

So strike up a conversation. More than likely, you’ll be amazed by what you learn.

BARON BIT: Develop the discipline of remembering folks’ names, and spelling them correctly. Being able to recall a name is the gateway to subsequent conversations. Conversely, don’t assume somebody has remembered your name—reintroduce yourself to spare the person any potential embarrassment or awkwardness

Feedback: Do you seek it to glow or to grow?

By Matt Baron

A few months ago, a friend was a featured guest on a television program. He told me that he got excellent reviews from friends who caught the segment. But, he noted, he wanted to hear my “expert” opinion, too.

Put yourself in his shoes, wiggle out of them, and then try mine on for size. What’s really going on here? Does he sincerely want my opinion? Or does he want me to say how great he did?

We will return to my saga. But, in the meantime, think about a time you’ve asked someone to give you feedback, critique your work, or evaluate your performance.

Whether it was for a blockbuster deal or the choice of a shower curtain,
were you truly seeking input? Or were you angling for affirmation? Did you yearn for constructive feedback, or glowing adulation?

In all honesty, I usually hope that the constructive feedback includes heavy doses of glowing adulation. But I just don’t seem to learn nearly as much when the focus is on stroking my ego. On those occasions when I can keep my insecure, fragile ego in check long enough, I am able to take the constructive feedback to heart and improve.

Isn’t it such a sham when you see some out-of-touch insecure soul surrounded by a phalanx of “yes” men too timid or blinded by their own self-interest to speak the truth? A classic case in point is The Emperor’s New Clothes, the children’s tale (that applies equally to adults) of an emperor hoodwinked into believing he has glorious clothes when he really has nothing on at all.

Make no doubt—on an emotional level, it’s wonderful to be appreciated. But when it comes to striving for personal excellence in any endeavor, we must be open to honest feedback. Olympic champions are not built through superficial “attaboy” and “attagirl” sentiment.

To grow in any endeavor, we need to make constant correction. And that inherently means being corrected. Sometimes, it’s our internal voice that recognizes an adjustment is necessary. Often, however, success hinges on our willingness to hear others’ voices.

When you are faced with a situation where someone seeks your input, here are three tips on how to get your point across with sensitivity and effect:

I. Practice the “Sandwich” Approach

Feedback is especially beneficial when it is part of a “sandwich,” in which an individual begins with praise, follows with the healthy criticism, and then wraps up on a final note of praise.

Don’t be too mechanical about this. Simply keep in mind that another’s mind is more fertile for planting your point when you don’t just plow ahead like a bulldozer.

II. Praise in Public, Criticize in Private

This one ought to be old news to you, particularly if you have ever endured criticism in front of your peers. Praising in public and criticizing in private improves morale and commands respect. Its focus is on improvement, not punishment. Applying this principle reflects disciplined restraint and a long-term outlook on future results, not dwelling on past mistakes.

III. Salt Your Comments

Preface the heart of your feedback with an attention-getting comment. Here are a few samples that will prepare someone not only to hear, but also to take to heart what you have to share:

“If I saw a way to help you improve, would you want me to tell you as clearly and candidly as possible?”

“There’s something about your work that I think could be improved on. Is this a good time to share it?”

On the other side of the equation, we need to be genuinely open to feedback.

Too often, we seek to fight input that is less than gushing. Our ego bruised and battered, we may lash out at those with the candor to tell it as they see it. “Nobody else has told me that” is one classic defensive reply. Then there’s the sarcastic barb, “Well, is there anything you did like about it?”

Comments like these are a sure-fire way to discourage honest feedback in the future. And it’s a breeding ground for the development of blind spots in your character and performance. Pretty soon, folks will just nod their heads in patronizing agreement as you seek the empty warmth of blanket approval. Welcome to The Emperor’s New Clothes Club.

Remember those shoes you tried on at the outset, the ones that my friend and I were wearing as he sought my “expert” opinion?

There were others around when he showed the videotape, so I had nothing but praise and a mild piece of cautionary feedback that he might have made more eye contact with his co-host.

Later, in private, I was more pointed in my comments. Among other things, it was apparent that he held the co-host in disdain. She came across as uncomfortable, and he made no attempt to put her at ease. For the entire show, he fixed his gaze on the camera and barely glanced at her, even when she asked him questions.

He reacted defensively at first. “Is there anything you liked about it?” he asked. Eventually, he expressed appreciation and said that it was a testimony to our friendship that we could be so candid with each other. Next time he is in a similar situation, he said, he would keep my feedback in mind.

As for me, I hope he appreciates this column. But more importantly, I hope that I’ve given him the space to tell me if he doesn’t.

BARON BIT: When extending praise, be specific. “Good going” isn’t nearly as helpful as explaining in detail what you liked about someone’s effort. It also makes clear that you are paying attention, which is a compliment in itself.

Stretching our comfort zone adds voices, enriches stories

April 2003

By Matt Baron

Telling stories is a never-ending series of judgment calls.

What do we put in? What do we leave out? When do we stop? Where on earth do we begin? Is my deadline really three minutes away?

From that long list of self-inquiry, let us focus on one of the most important—and imposing—questions of all: To whom do we give a voice in our story?

I recently had an assignment that challenged me to confront this issue head-on. The story was straightforward enough: Write a business feature on the reopening of a McDonald’s in Hinsdale, Ill. It is located in the backyard of the fast-food titan’s headquarters, about a half-hour outside Chicago, and reflects the corporation’s vision to create more “fresh, bright and inviting” restaurants.

A necessary step, then, was to check the place out. I noted the d├ęcor, chatted with the store manager, and gathered some comments from a few customers. But those patrons were all teen-age guys, and I wanted views from a cross-section of folks.

So I approached a woman who looked to be in her 40s. She was flipping through a magazine, a coffee cup on her table, when I identified myself and asked her what she thought of the new-look restaurant.

She looked up with wide eyes, seemingly in alarm. She gasped for breath and shook her head. Now I was alarmed.

Uh-oh, I thought. She’s about to go berserk on me. That’s just terrific—my editor’s going to get a call from the McMuckety-Mucks over at the corporation demanding that this Baron guy stop bothering their customers.

With that PR fiasco flashing before my eyes, I rushed to reassure the woman: “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. That’s OK—I’ll talk to someone else.”

Uncomfortable and slightly annoyed, I was on the verge of walking away when she finally broke her silence. “I’m deaf,” she said. “I think you are saying you are with a newspaper and working on a story?”

Fascinated, impressed, humbled—and relieved—I took a nearby seat and began speaking with the woman. She had the ability to hear for much of her life, but had gradually lost that sense and now is a proficient lip reader. Her speaking ability is about as good as the next person’s.

She was waiting for her husband. He is also deaf, and had a nearby appointment related to a device he hoped would restore his hearing some day. At my prodding, she told me more about this new technology that held the promise of giving this couple a gift that so many of us take for granted.

Though her drama had no place in this story, I was determined to give her an equal opportunity to make a comment related to my assignment. And despite her doubts that she had anything profound to share, I persisted.

“It’s beautiful,” she said of the new-look McDonald’s. “What a nice place to wait.” As it turned out, her quote concluded the story.

Why did I proceed amid the awkwardness? Because our stories gain depth and character to the extent that we stretch our comfort zone in reaching out to different, and unexpected, sources. Have you gone a long time without some form of discomfort? Beware—you may well be stagnating.

Not only that, but these discoveries often open doors to even more intriguing stories. I found this woman’s situation far more compelling than the assignment at hand, and I may dig into it further some time.

When we keep an open mind, and toss aside the confining influence of our preconceived notions, we are better equipped to capture the heart of a story as we find it—not as we think it should be found.

My restaurant encounter is along the “man on the street” vein, but the benefit of expanding our comfort zone extends to any kind of story. We tend to relate most to people who, at least on the surface, appear to be like us. They look like us, talk like us, dress like us. What a dull—and incomplete—world we depict when we pigeonhole our inquiry in this way.

I had no plans to interview a deaf person when I walked into that restaurant. But when the situation popped up, I would have been a fool to walk away.

A Post-Script: The Sensitivity/Relevance Zone

As previously noted, I decided against mentioning this remarkable woman’s deafness. I did not find it relevant, and I was concerned that it would distract from the story’s main thrust.

After all, this McDonald’s did not have a special feature that catered to deaf people. And if I mention her physical condition, do I also note when someone is obese or has long curly hair or two-day beard growth?

The roots of my descriptive restraint date back to college, when a sensitive and talented instructor properly chided me when I noted a woman’s race in a class assignment about riding on the train. Why, my instructor asked, had I had not remarked upon the race of everyone I described?

Once we break through our comfort zone in approaching people, then we need to enter a new zone—the sensitivity/relevance zone. We must be discerning in how we describe those people who, for whatever reason, stand out to us.

BARON BIT: To delve more into issues of inclusive and sensitive reporting, check out www.maynardije.org, the web site of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Monday, July 04, 2005

PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication

Welcome to PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication!

This site is designed to give you focused tips flowing from my career in journalism, public relations, marketing, training and business development. I lead seminars on a variety of topics for corporations and associations, and for more information about my background, visit www.mattbaron.com and http://numberscount.blogspot.com/.

Here is a brief elaboration on each of the elements of the PAVE acronym:

Practice active silence--be a sincere audience
Ask engaging questions--find out what makes people tick
Value all people--everyone has a story to share
Expand your comfort zone--you'll be amazed by what you learn

For more information about the PAVE principles, or my seminars on this and other topics, e-mail matt@mattbaron.com or call 888.713.5894. Until then, keep on PAVE-ing!