Monday, April 28, 2014

Deliver a Commencement Address that Gets People to Put their Smart Phones Down

Over the years, I’ve ghostwritten several speeches but only one commencement address.  My client was an accomplished business executive who was invited to provide the commencement address for his Alma Mater.

To prepare for the speech, I relied on my own experience and capabilities as a speechwriter, but I also studied other speeches.  Then, I did what most speakers or speechwriters would do in a similar situation.  I tried to remember the commencement speech from my own graduation.

Remembering the speaker was easy.  My commencement speaker was Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers fame.  I’d be lying if I told you I could remember what he said that day.  I don’t.

I’ve talked to quite a few people over the years and asked them what they remember from their graduation ceremonies, and most have similarly vague recollections of their commencement speeches.

This all leads me to wonder what can reasonably be accomplished with a good commencement address.  Can the speech connect with the new graduates in such a way that it can influence their life direction?  I believe so, but it takes the right combination of speaker, remarks and a very receptive audience.

Can a commencement speaker make a good impression with the graduates and their parents?  I think this is much more doable across the board.  If you’re the speaker, you just have to know that while they may like your speech very much, they may not remember the words.  Graduation ceremonies are a form of information overload for everyone in attendance. 

However, on the content side, the commencement speaker may be able to make a more lasting impression.

Consider one of the greatest speeches ever given, The Gettysburg Address. When President Abraham Lincoln actually delivered the remarks, he was not the keynote speaker and live reaction was mixed, to say the least.  However, the speech itself gained traction in the days, weeks and months to come when the words of the speech were reprinted in newspapers and other publications.

Fast forward to today.  A commencement speech now can gain traction on social media and possibly through traditional media coverage.

In other words, while the targeted audience for the speech – the graduates in their caps and gowns – may not always react the way the speaker wants during remarks, the speech itself has a chance of gaining a second life thanks to technology and the media. 

Ironically, some of those same graduates who may be too busy taking selfies or texting while during the commencement address could find themselves actually paying attention to the speech later when someone tweets to them a link to a YouTube video of the speech.

So, what makes for a great commencement speech?

Based on my experience and research, here are four tips for commencement ceremony speakers: 

Try to avoid clich├ęs.  Do a scan of your draft and question whether any of the following words and terms really belong in the speech: “dreams;” “don’t be afraid to fail;” “don’t be afraid to succeed;” “be yourself;”  etc.  It’s not that this isn’t good advice.  In fact, the concepts are very good. But if you want the audience to listen, the key is to find another way to convey the thought. 

Don’t waste too much time telling them what you’re going to tell them or telling them what you told them.  The first thing we learn in Public Speaking 101 is to “tell them what you’re going to tell them.”  That’s good advice, just not for a commencement address.  Graduation ceremonies are marathon speech events, combined with a tedious diploma ceremony.  If you want to win this audience, get to your point quickly, make your point, and thank everyone who needs to be thanked, and then sit down. 

Tell a story.  Graduation day is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are emotional events.  Nothing can tap that nerve like a good story.  Tell a story that illustrates the point you want to make.  Take your time in telling that story.  It’s better to tell one good story, than to try to fit two or three smaller ones into a longer speech.  Just make sure that the story you tell is one that resonates with you on an emotional level.  If it does, there’s a better chance it will resonate with the audience as well. 

Make it personal.  Perhaps the most important tip to the commencement speaker is to make your speech personal to you.  Tell a story or deliver remarks that only you can deliver with credibility.  Base your remarks on your own personal life story and you stand a much greater chance of getting and holding the audience’s attention.  Even when we write speeches for others, the content should be rooted in the speaker's personal experience and perspectives. 

Dr. Seuss Goes to College 

Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, said this at Lake Forest College on June 4, 1977:

“My uncle ordered popovers from the restaurant’s bill of fare, and, when they were served, he regarded them with a penetrating stare…

“Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom as he sat there on that chair: ‘To eat these things,’ said my uncle, ‘You must exercise great care.  You may swallow down what’s solid, but, you must spit out the air.’

“And, as you partake of the world’s bill of fare, that’s darned good advice to follow. Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.”

A College Dropout Delivers one of the Greatest Commencements Ever

And then there’s this.  A tremendous commencement address given by the late Steve Jobs, Apple founder.  He delivered these remarks at Stanford University on June 12, 2005:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Make Sure Your Twitter Presence is Intentional

There are roughly 230 million active users on Twitter and approximately 500 million tweets per day.  With numbers like this, it’s reasonable to think there are more than a few diverse and equally compelling opinions on what you should and should not tweet.

Over the past several years, I’ve been a very active user of Twitter, applying the basic principles of public relations in the process.  As a user, I’ve also had the chance to see how others develop and implement their own philosophies on how to best use the site.

It’s with this in mind that here I will not tell you what you should or should not tweet. What I will say is that like any and every other form of communication, what you decide to tweet will come to represent both you and your organization.

It’s not uncommon for someone’s profile page on Twitter to include language such as, “My tweets are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.”

I’m not sure how that will hold up legally, but in the minds of most visitors to your page, it will in fact more closely align you with your employer.  Fact is, like it or not, where you work and what you do says a lot about you. And what you say and what you do when you are away from work says a lot about the kind of people your employer hires.  What you say online does indeed provide a reflection on your employer, intentional or not.

That said, a digital native gave advice online recently that reflected his enthusiasm for social media but also his lack of understanding of the discipline of professional communications – the operative word being “discipline.”

His comments did not take into account the intentional nature of strategic communication.  His advice was that our tweets should show all facets of our personalities, whether the Twitter account is for an individual or an organization.  Again, it must show all aspects of the person or organization’s personality.

His assumption is that by showing “all aspects” the visitor will get an accurate and therefore favorable impression of you and/or your organization.

While such advice may sound good on its surface, what it overlooks is that just giving someone an accurate or well-rounded representation does not automatically lead to a favorable impression. That is a great leap of faith and a mistake that is all too easy to make.

Consider this analogy.  Let’s say you’re speed dating.  You tell every person you meet, in five or ten minutes, your whole life story, warts and all. By the time’s up, the other people may know a lot about you, but is it what they really wanted to know?  Is it what they needed to know if you were to have any chance of turning that speed date into a real date?

The same principles apply to Twitter and other social media.  A strategic communications approach would take into consideration who you are trying to target, knowing in advance what they want to know, and knowing what they need to know so that you can begin for forge a lasting relationship that only starts with social media.

This approach requires a good deal of thought on who you want to be on Twitter.  What types of messages you need to deliver to achieve your objectives.  An understanding of the kind of online persona you need to create to achieve your goals.  Once you go through the process to arrive at some reasonable conclusions, chances are, you won’t want to show “all aspects” of your personality, or if the Twitter account is for an organization, all aspects of that organization.

You will need to prioritize and focus.  Your tweets will need to be intentional.  Chances are they won’t show all aspects. They will leave something to the imagination, something yet to be revealed.  Still, they should be accurate and credible.

How often should you tweet?  What types of tweets should you use?  How many should be humorous versus serious?  The answers to these questions must come from you.

But it is safe to say you shouldn’t tweet without a plan, and without knowing what you are trying to achieve and how you will achieve it.  To do so, you must know what to put online and what not to put online.  A good Twitter strategy is an intentional one.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Preparation Helped Save Lives at Franklin Regional

I don’t usually comment on breaking news or crisis situations like yesterday’s Franklin Regional High School stabbings out of deference to all of the people involved and all of the authorities and others still trying to do their jobs.  That said, it’s not too early to point out a couple of things that went right.

What Happened 

Based on news reports from AP and others, 24 people were injured in what has been described as a “mass stabbing,” allegedly by a 16-year-old sophomore at the school who was said to be wielding two large knives.  This took place in the hallway at the school just a little while before classes were set to begin for the day.

According to reports, 21 students were stabbed, a school security guard was stabbed, and two others were injured.  It is not clear how those two were injured or if it was the direct result of the student with the knives.

Five students were said to have been critically wounded, one of whom was a student whose liver was pierced, the knife missing his heart by millimeters.

Reports are that one of the victims is said to be in critical condition, and his prognosis is still uncertain.  Otherwise, the others are expected to survive.

The teenage suspect in the attacks was arrested yesterday and arraigned last night.  He has been charged with attempted homicide and 21 other counts. 

How it Unfolded 

There are roughly 1,222 students who attend the school.  The situation started in a classroom when the attacker reportedly pulled out two knives and started slashing and stabbing fellow students.  Those students, some of them already wounded, ran into the hallway with the suspect in pursuit.

The hallway was lined with students at their lockers and walking to class.  This was around 7:10 a.m.  At that point, the suspect seemed to attack students indiscriminately as he ran down the hallway with two knives in hand.  By 7:13 a.m., a school security guard called in the stabbing.

It’s not quite clear the order of things, but according to all reports, one student who realized what was happening pulled a fire alarm to evacuate the school. That caused students who were in other classrooms to crowd into the hallway.

At this time, Officer William "Buzz" Yakshe of the Murrysville police department, a school resource officer at the district, was in his office, which he shared with Sgt. John Resetar, a school security officer.

When both heard something happening in the hallway, Yakshe went toward the cafeteria and Resetar went down the hallway against the flow of fleeing students.

Resetar saw the suspect with knives in hand, who lunged at Resetar and stabbed him.  Still, Resetar held the suspect while trying to take away the knives.

Yakshe encountered Resetar bleeding from his stomach.

By then, assistant principal Sam King arrived and tackled the suspect.  King and Resetar had wrestled with the suspect when private security guard, Officer Ken Wedge, provided support.  Some news reports indicated that a high school senior named Ian Griffith also joined the melee to subdue the suspect.

At that point, the situation was under control, but the effort to triage the victims had just begun.

Resetar was later treated for a stab wound above the rib cage.  He was released from the hospital later in the day.

According to school district officials, the district had done a good deal of training on how to respond to critical incidents like this, but that the lion’s share of that training centered on gun violence.

Still, school officials said that the training provided protocols that helped security subdue the suspect as quickly as possible while evacuating the school. 

Emergency responders were involved in this training, which made it that much more effective when 911 calls went to dispatchers, ambulances were dispatched, nearby police departments were called in to provide support, medical evacuation helicopters were dispatched to the scene, and nearby emergency rooms and trauma centers were mobilized to prepare for the treatment of incoming victims.

Television news stations aired the audio of the 911 dispatch last night, which reinforced all of the news reports that the response protocols worked like clockwork, and probably saved lives. 

The Wild Card 

Perhaps the biggest wild card in this situation was the student body.  No one could reasonably know in advance how the students would react in a real time of crisis.

Nate Scimio, a student at the school, was the one who pulled the fire alarm.  This alerted students and staff to evacuate.

Other students tended immediately to their wounded classmates.  In one instance, doctors credited student Gracey Evans for saving the life of a classmate and friend by keeping pressure on his wound for roughly ten minutes until emergency responders could come to their aid.

Throughout the whole ordeal, school officials said that everyone – staff and students – followed the protocols that they had learned from training and drills, and it saved lives.

Murrysville Mayor Robert Brooks told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Seeing the activity that went on at the schools, the teachers and the kids that pushed each other's out of harm's way, the kids that stayed with their friends and put compresses on. ... It's just amazing." 


On the communications front, the news media arrived en masse as soon as police scanners lit up in their news rooms.  Law enforcement and emergency responders quickly established a perimeter around the high school and designated areas where reporters could station themselves as the responders did their jobs.  They remained engaged with the media throughout.

It's worth noting that while social media was a factor, it was not a dominant source of information on the incident because law enforcement and the school district were so actively engaged with reporters on the scene.

This allowed the school district to focus on what it needed to do to cooperate with police and other crime scene investigators, and then communicate with staff, students, victims and their families, and the families of all of their students.

Then there are some things you just can’t plan, and that is having individuals around who seem to know instinctively what to do and what to say. Even in situations like this, words like “hero” can be over-used. But here I want to point out one of the students who is being described as a hero.  Not only did Ian Griffith respond to the attacks as we hope we would if placed in a similar situation, but it’s the way he handled the media here that caught my attention.

He handled this impromptu media interview with no media training, no talking points, no plan, and yet he was as professional an interviewee as you could hope for.  He didn’t speculate.  He stuck to the facts.  He didn’t ramble. And he didn’t let reporters put words in his mouth.  And yet the whole time, he gave reporters what they needed and came across very polished, positive and mature. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thirteen Years, One Pack of Staples, A World of Change

I’ve gotten sentimental over some crazy things but never about staples.  I mean literally, staples.  You know, the little metal slivers that hold paper together.

So I must say, even though this blog post is about that very topic, keep in mind, I realize it’s not about the staples.  I’ve not taken that great leap into the deep end of my local big box office supply store.

That said, in the world of office supplies staples are perhaps the most ubiquitous of all.  I just recently bought a package of staples at a price of $2.99 at my local Office Depot and realized that this is the first pack of staples I bought since I started O’Brien Communications in April 2001.  I realized this because I’ve gone back into that seemingly bottomless box for staples many times over the years and wondered each time how long it would be before I would get to a second package.  Now, 13 years later here I am.  Happy anniversary!  Woo hoo!

Of all things.  Staples.

Over the years, I’ve been a big customer of stores that sell things to businesses.  I’ve bought computers, printers and scanners.   I lost count of such things as paper, paper clips, toner, pens, CDs, flash drives, hard-drives, note paper, note pads, and any number of things that enable an office to run.

I’m not sure what it says that I’ve noticed such a thing, or that I’ve only used one box of staples in 13 years.  The box is the “5,000 Count Standard” variation.  That means that over the past 13 years, I’ve used 5,000 staples.  On average that’s about 384 staples per year or 32 per month.  Of course, this doesn’t account for all the staples my work has consumed.  I’ve made more than a few trips to Kinko's and other quick printers. And clients have used more than a few thousand staples over the years, binding documents I created for them.

Normally, I wouldn’t give a thought to pitching an empty staple box into the trash.  So just as I was about to do so, I stopped for a moment and thought about all that has happened since I first opened that box.

When I started my business, I stocked my office supplies in a closet in our old house, the one where we started out and the place where we brought our kids home as newborns.   By the time I started the business, my sons were 12 and 9 respectively.  The office had been our family room up to that time, so the kids had to find somewhere else to play on rainy summer days while Dad worked to get the business started.  I used a fax machine with some regularity that first year, and the largest item on my desk was a huge tube computer monitor.  Soon enough, clients came in and the world moved on.  Here are some of the things of note as I worked through that box of staples.

That first day I probably made a call on my cell phone that was only for talking.

A few months later, two jets hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and one crashed in a field in Somerset, and nothing was ever the same after that.  My memories of that day are as clear as yesterday.

We found a new home a couple of months after that and moved to a place that offered the kids more room to grow, and my office was more of an office, my business was finding its footing.

I used those staples for projects that involved marketing, branding, litigation, bankruptcies, workforce communications, crisis communications, community relations, publicity, mergers and acquisitions.

I stapled hard copies of speeches, annual report drafts, video scripts, crisis plans and press releases for clients that ranged from glass and steel and national defense, to life sciences and energy and professional services firms.

Somewhere in the course of my use of that box of staples, someone figured out that under our feet lay a vast natural gas field that and named it  "Marcellus." 

I cracked open that box before Facebook, Twitter and social media emerged, and eventually used those staples to bind documents that explored the nature, the potential and the risks of social media.

That package of staples saw me through roughly eight years of producing football booster programs for my kids’ high school teams….and then five St. Patrick’s Day Parades.

I helped my parents get their affairs in order, binding documents together that I had hoped never to need. And then I did.  We were sad about that.

Some of those staples traveled along with college applications to schools throughout the Northeast only to help us narrow it all down to schools that were less than 45 minutes from home.  We were happy about that.

Businesses that spend too much time looking backward don’t last very long, so after 13 years I can say I haven’t looked back all that much.  It took an empty box of staples to force the issue, I suppose.

So here sits a full box of 5,000 staples in their clean white package.  I wonder what this box will bring.