A great solution poorly delivered is a poor solution greatly wasted.
There aren’t many manuals on how to communicate effectively. But there are many manuals that explain how to do other things. Program a computer, repair a car, design something, draw, cook, etc. This imbalance creates a bit of a problem. Some of the best technicians can also be the most abrasive and ineffective people we’ll ever see.
Look no further than Gordon Ramsey. No one doubts his ability as a chef. No one doubts his inability for tact, either. I suppose it makes for fine reality television but no one would ever be allowed to act the way in many other environments. Hell’s Kitchen somehow sounds okay to us but Hell’s Accounting Office is not appealing at all.
If you’re a chef, you can hide behind the idea that you don’t have time to be polite when preparing twenty orders at a time. And car mechanics can say that they just fix cars; they’re not salesmen. But that attitude makes it seem that communication isn’t part of delivering a solution.
Communication is always part of delivering a solution.
What Is Success?
This week’s featured book is Frank Luntz’s Words That Work. This is one of those rare communication texts that actually teaches us how to work with a broader audience. It’s a broad, common, yet seldom addressed area of communication where you, as a speaker, have to share a message with stranges about things they don’t easily understand.
You could be head chef of a kitchen. Or a mechanic explaining problems all day to customers. Or a manager for a team of ten. Or, of course, a politician.
In every instance, you start by having a problem to fix. Sometimes, the problem is obvious: a broken head gasket on a 1994 Ford Bronco. Many times, the problem isn’t even clear. For too often, politicians have to convince the electorate of what the real problem is. Sure, there’s the economy, that’s always a topic, but what’s the actual problem? The same goes for management.
The problem has its own characteristics but the important point is that our job is more than just solving it. As Luntz explains,
It isn’t enough to have the correct stance on an issue or the correct positioning for a product or a service; you must also offer it up in such a way that the listener or the consumer can relate to, understand, and appreciate it.
I know that sounds obvious but we forget this all the time. We get so focused on solving a problem that we fail to pay attention to the way we’ll communicate it to others. It is not enough to have the best solution. It has never been enough. We must also share it in a way that people can receive it.
Until that is done, you have not actually fixed the issue.
You have not actually done your job.
Jimmy Carter And The Great Malaise
Jimmy Carter was a great president. Jimmy Carter was an unsuccessful president.
Jimmy Carter gave a speech in 1979 that was more prescient, more honest, and more courageous than any I’ve heard of since. It is referred to as “the malaise speech”. The actual title is “Crisis of Confidence: Energy and National Goals”. After spending a great deal of time listening to the American public, searching for the problems that the nation needed to solve, Carter identified the root of every problem people shared. He described this underlying problem as follows:
It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
If you read the rest of the speech, you’ll find a beautiful expression of compassion and care and honesty and, eventually, a glimmer of hope. I think the message is even more relevant today.
All the same, this speech is also very self-indulgent.
Did Carter feel America’s pain? Absolutely.
Was Carter right about the crisis of confidence? Yes.
Did the erosion of trust in government and optimism of the future threaten the fabric of society? It did and it still does. Now more than ever.
Again, it is so very relevant today. Consider this line from the speech:
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.
This is correct. This is so very real today. Read Hillbilly Elegy to learn of the erosion of pride in hard work amongst adult males. Read Our Kids to hear about the weakening of our family structures. Or read that author’s earlier book, Bowling Alone, to learn about the loss of close-knit communities. And self-indulgence? Consumption? Go no further than John de Graaf’s Affluenza. His book What’s The Economy For Anyway is also great.
Carter was right then. He is still right today.
Being right about the problem does not solve it.
When we look back, we realize this speech was not the best way of solving the problem. In fact, the speech is deeply misunderstood. Some call it “the malaise speech” even though Carter never used that term. Some remember it as a moment when Carter said he hated America. Yet, there was seldom a more patriotic moment than him speaking such truth to the country he loved. The whole thing is like real-life rendition of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Everyone saw it but no one saw it the same.
Was this speech the best way to start solving these problems? No.
What could have been done differently? A great deal. Everything, actually. First, remember the adage from a previous article: if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you. That comes by way of George Bernard Shaw.
Second, develop a course of action wrapped in hope. This is something Luntz talks about to fantastic detail in his book. Whenever I have to assume a leadership stance, I think about it in a strange but helpful way.
The Pill Pocket
If you see a problem, talk about the problem. But don’t dwell on the problem. Carter dwelled on the problem for the entirety of his 3,200-word speech. This is understandable. He was troubled by it. He wanted to share. He wanted to be transparent. We just weren’t ready for that and maybe never will be.
Instead, dwell on the outcomes you think will occur when you actually address the problem. And then wrap your solution, the actual plan for how you’ll fix things, in that optimism and hope. That optimism and hope is the delicious, satisfying taste that we crave. It is the visionary stuff that gets us to accept the bitter prescription of change that we’ll have to undergo.
In other words, make a pill pocket that helps us take the medicine.
You can’t just tell someone who is out of shape to go for a run. You have to help them see how much happier, healthier, and proud they will be if they go for a run.
In other words, don’t fixate on truth. Just because you found a truth, or a problem, doesn’t mean your job is done.
Also, don’t fixate on the solution. Just because you found a solution doesn’t mean your job is done. On a sidenote, from a product marketing standpoint, I’ll go to my grave arguing that the Microsoft Zune was the best music device ever created. They solved a lot of problems the iPod failed to address. But building a superior device only gets you on the playing field. You still have to play.
The real work occurs when you deliver the pill pocket. Establish the problem, articulate the vision, deliver the solution, then wrap it up with the vision again.
Why? Because we’re all kids. And we need Mary Poppins to deliver that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
For clarity’s sake, think of it this way. This comes straight from Luntz in a presentation from earlier this year. He is so right about this formula:
Spend 50% of your message on the problem.
Spend 20% of your message on the solution.
Spend 30% of your message on the outcomes.
I visualize it as such:
More specific guidance on how to do this will follow but nothing will compare to reading his book. Here’s another link to it.
In closing, I deeply admire President Jimmy Carter and I wish his honesty could have had a better effect on the American people. I wish we could be capable of rising to his level. Sadly, in efforts of change, we cannot. I’ve got two book reviews that already help explain the techniques we must apply. One comes from the Heath Brother’s book Switch. The other is William and Susan Bridges’ Transitions.
In every facet of those books, as well as Luntz’s work here, it is clear that communication is as integral as any other tool we might use. You can’t just be right about it. You can’t just show concern. You can’t simply have the problem. You can’t simply have the solution.
You might work on a machine for your customer, constituent, or client. But what you do for that machine isn’t the same as what you must do for them.