Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Interpersonal Communication

Donna Shalala and The Boom Boom Theory



Donna Shalala spoke at a breakfast meeting at the University of Denver (DU) the other day. She seems to be one of the most connected people on earth. She’s the former president of Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Miami. She also served for eight years as the Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. Perhaps most impressive (to me at least), over ten years at the University of Miami, she raised three billion dollars in voluntary contributions.

Our chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, interviewed Shalala before an audience of some 300 faculty, alumni, and students. The conversation soon turned to inclusive excellence (IE), which is a fundamental initiative at DU. We define IE as, “…the recognition that an … institution’s success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents. … The goal is to make IE a habit that is implemented and practiced consistently throughout …” the university.

Chancellor Chopp asked Shalala what advice she could offer to build an inclusively excellent university. Shalala’s answer reminded me that multi-channel communication is fundamental to multi-cultural success.

In a diverse community, Shalala noted, people have diverse communication styles. They may use the same word for different concepts. Or they may describe the same concept with different words. Further, they may well be tuned in to different channels.

Given the varying communication styles, Shalala argues that leaders of diverse communities need to deliver the same message multiple times, in multiple ways, through multiple channels to make sure it reaches all audiences. Shalala’s staff called this the Boom Boom theory of communication because one message (“Boom”) gets repeated across multiple channels.

It’s a good reminder that we need to repeat ourselves, perhaps more often than we think. I’ve written before that redundancy is not a sin; Shalala argues that we need to actively promote redundancy. Coupled with a concept like the sponsorship spine, the Boom Boom theory can produce effective communications in even the most diverse organization.

And what about those three billion dollars? Shalala says there’s no secret to fundraising. It requires a lot of patience and listening. Find out what your contributors are interested in and deliver it.

But patience and listening only take you so far. Shalala also reminded us of the value of good old-fashioned story telling. At fundraising events, she doesn’t talk about abstract concepts or programs or buildings. She simply tells stories. She admits that some of her stories “leave ‘em weepy” – they’re touching and effective. She wants her contributors to reach for their wallets. So first, she has to reach for their hearts. Combining the Boom Boom strategy with the leave-em-weepy tactics seems to be a killer combo.

Thinking Under Pressure

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard. It’s even harder when you’re under pressure. Stress lowers your IQ. When your boss is yelling at you, and your ears are pinned back, it’s hard to remember to think rationally. It’s hard to think at all – mainly you just react.

So, I always encourage my students to keep several go-to questions in their heads. These are simple, memorable questions that are always available. You can go to them quickly in an emergency. Why would you go to them? Perhaps you want to clarify the situation. Maybe you need more information. Or maybe, just maybe, you need to buy a little time.

In class the other night, I asked my students to write down their best go-to questions. They had been thinking about critical thinking for seven weeks so I assumed that they had some pretty questions on the tips of their tongues. I was right.

I looked over the questions and realized that they fell naturally into five categories. Here are the categories with the most frequently asked questions. You might want to carry some of them around with you.

1) Gaining Self-Control – first things first: you can’t manage a situation if you can’t manage yourself. My students focused first on assessing their own situation, with questions like these:

Am I breathing effectively?

What’s my posture like? How can I change my posture to present myself more effectively?

What am I feeling right now? Are my feelings rational?

How can I engage my thinking function?

What is the other person’s purpose? Why is he behaving this way?

2) Clarifying the facts – once you’ve calmed yourself and cleared your head, you’ll want to establish what’s actually happening, with questions like these:

What are the facts? How do we know they’re facts? How were they verified?

Where did the information come from? Was the source credible?

What are our assumptions? Are they reasonable?

How did we get from the facts to the conclusions? Were there any logical fallacies along the way?

Why is this important? How does it compare in importance to Topic X or Topic Y?

Who wants to know? What is her purpose?

3) Clarifying the other person’s position – the information you have may be accurate but you also need to make sure you understand the other person’s position regarding the information. Here are some useful questions:

What’s your take on this? How do you see this?

Why do you say that? What makes you believe that?

Can you explain it in a different way?

What does “xyz” mean to you? How do you define it?

Can you paint me a picture of what you’re seeing?

Why are you so upset?

4) Clarifying the decision – you now know the “facts” and the other person’s interpretation of the facts, but you still need to figure out what decision you’re trying to make.

What outcome do we want? What’s our goal? Why?

What outcomes are possible? Which one(s) seem most fair?

Is there more than one solution? Are we trapping ourselves in a whether-or-not decision?

What if the outcome we want is not possible? Then what will we do? Is there another outcome that we might aim for?

What’s the timeframe? Are we thinking short-term or long-term?

Who else do we need to include?

How will we know when/if we need to re-visit the decision?

5) Fixing the process – when a problem arises, most organizations aim to fix the problem. They often forget to investigate the process that created the problem. Don’t forget these questions. They may well be the most important. But don’t aim for blame; this is a good time for appreciative inquiry.

How did we get here?

How can we improve our decision-making process to avoid this in the future?

What were the root causes?

How could we make a better decision in the future?



Sex, Food, Smell, and Death

Oh, those pheromones!

Oh, those pheromones!

I’m attracted to the opposite sex. I can’t help it. As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way. Lately, however, I’ve been reading that exposure to the opposite sex can lead to premature death, especially for males. It’s a scary thought.

As reported in the current issue of Science, the phenomenon might be called “female-induced demise” and it’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers have shown that “… female-produced pheromones …can have detrimental effects on longevity and other age-related traits in male[s]….” Further, “It has long been known that having the opposite sex around can reduce fitness….”

You’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t someone warn me about this?” Before you get too upset, let me clarify that, so far, biologists have discovered the phenomenon only in nematode worms and fruit flies. Still, you have to wonder … today the nematode, tomorrow homo sapiens? And how many of us men haven’t been called a worm at some time in our lives?

But wait, it gets worse. Members of the opposite sex don’t even have to be physically present. Merely perceiving the opposite sex is enough to do the trick. And yes, this goes both ways: male-to-female and female-to-male. Our sense of smell seems to play a critical role. You don’t have to interact with the opposite sex to die young; you merely have to inhale their pheromones. As Science points out, “This is sufficient to decrease fat stores, increase mortality, … and decrease an animal’s overall size.”

But wait, it gets even worse. It also happens with food. Let’s say you’re on a low-calorie diet. You maintain your discipline, count your calories, and avoid fatty foods. But even the smell of fatty foods may be enough to limit the benefits of your diet. Science points out that “…just the smell of a rich diet is enough to increase mortality rate and prevent many of the benefits of a low-calorie diet.”

OK, OK … we’re talking about fruit flies and worms. And yet, you have to wonder. Is this why men have shorter life expectancies than women? Do people live longer in cultures that strictly segregate the sexes? Has Woody Allen heard about this? And do we need to amend the old saying to “Cut off your nose to spite your face … and prolong your life.”

I Still Speak Southern

Do I sound like Rhett?

Do I sound like Rhett?

When people ask me where I’m from, I often respond by saying, “I’m from the Air Force”. As a military brat, I bounced around a lot and mainly grew up on or around Air Force bases. I didn’t develop a strong attachment to any one place. I didn’t feel like I was “from” Nebraska – where I was born at Offutt Air Force Base. Nor did I feel like I was from any of the other bases we stopped at along the way.

People sometimes ask me where I’m from because they can’t place my accent. It’s an Air Force accent and, as such, it’s fairly neutral. Since the early 19th century, however, my family has lived in Texas, which certainly has a unique accent and a number of Spanish/Indian/Anglo/Texas regionalisms. You’re probably from Texas if you know who’s in the hoosegow. Or who the original Travis was. Or what a Comanche moon is.

I’ve lived in Colorado since the mid-seventies and I’ve always assumed that my Texan-ness was thoroughly washed away. After all, I never lived in Texas so I must have inherited any Texanisms in my vocabulary from my parents and grandparents. Since they’re long gone, I assumed my Texansims were, too. I thought I spoke more like a Coloradan than a Texan.

It turns out that I was wrong. It’s not my accent that gives me away as a son of the south. Rather, it’s my word choice. Even after all these years, I still use regional words to describe people, things, and activities.

I discovered this by taking a quiz on regional dialects in the New York Times. (You can find it here). The quiz asks 25 questions about the words you use and how you pronounce them. For instance, one question is “What do you call a sweetened carbonated beverage?” Is it a coke, a pop, a soda, etc.? A question on pronunciation is: “How do you pronounce cot and caught?” Do you pronounce them the same way or differently?

I took the quiz and – much to my surprise – found out that I speak more like a person from east Texas or west Louisiana than like a person from Colorado. I was struck by the result and so I passed the quiz along to my online students, who are scattered all over the country. The students who took the quiz said it was spot on and could easily distinguish a Utahn from an Indianan from a Mississippian.

Regional accents may have evolved to help us identify who is like us and who is not. Who’s a friend and who’s a stranger? Who can be trusted and who needs to prove themselves? We’re so mobile in the United States (and we watch so much TV) that I thought most regionalisms had disappeared. It’s interesting to find that they haven’t. I wonder how that affects our politics, communication, and commerce.

It’s a topic worth studying and I hope you’ll take the quiz and let me know the results. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s been a pleasure visiting for a spell and I hope I’ll see y’all again in the by and by.

Social Media Gets Creepy

Yikes! It's Twitter!

Yikes! It’s Twitter!

As we discussed social media in my branding class, one of my students noted that she was inundated with bridal ads when she announced her engagement on Facebook. That seemed a little creepy – an event in your private life fuels a targeted, persistent ad campaign. Still, with the new rules of Facebook, it’s not unexpected.

A few months ago, I wrote a brief article about Twitter‘s ability to identify your location and your relationships. In turn, that information could power an innovative (and free) package delivery service. The delivery service sounds like a good idea, but the fact that Twitter can identify your location with such precision and immediacy seems a little creepy.

On Saturday, I read an article about college admissions officers. They’re now using social media to understand their applicants better. In some cases, they’re using social media to reject applicants who are otherwise qualified. You could be ready to go to the school of your choice when they discover that you’re a bit of a jerk and decide that you’re not the kind of person they want in their school.

If I applied for a job, I would expect the human resources department to check me out online. That’s appropriate due diligence and doesn’t seem creepy. But to check on teenagers as they apply for college? That seems creepy. They’re teenagers; of course they say stupid stuff. It’s creepy to expect them not to.

Then I read an article in Technology Review that assesses how software will soon be able to assess our personalities via our tweets. The goal is “to go below behavioral analysis like Amazon does,” says an IBM researcher. “We want to use social media to derive information about an individual—what is the overall affect of this person? How resilient is this person emotionally? People with different personalities want something different.”

If all goes well (?), the software will review your Twitter feed and assess your Big Five personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. It could also score your values (hedonism, conservatism, etc.) and needs (curiosity, need for harmony, etc.).

And what would they do with all this information? Target ads at you, of course. If advertisers understand your individual psychology, they can tune their messages and their content to your individual needs, emotions, fears, and desires. It’s like food engineering that’s designed to keep you eating, except that this is designed to keep you buying.

It’s creepy enough that advertisers can use your inner self to sell you stuff. But what happens next? Will potential employers assess your personality via Twitter? Will college admissions officers reject you because your Twitter psycho-scan says you’re needy? Now that’s creepy.

So, I’m wondering — as social media becomes creepier, do you feel like you’re being stalked?  At what point do you think social media crosses the line and becomes too intrusive? Will any of this change your social media behavior? Let me know.

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