Don’t Make a Donkey Out Of You (U) and Me, Or Never Assume You Know Your Audience

This weekend The Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Affluent Seniors are Ready, Willing and Able to Sacrifice for the Country: Just Ask Us.” The article reminded me of something Robert Seigel (yes, THAT Robert Seigel — the one from NPR) once told me.

You see, many (many) years ago when I was young, I had the opportunity to work for National Public Radio. I was a government relations associate, working on telecommunications policy issues. While riding in the elevator one day, I happened upon an older man whom I did not recognize. In radio you often don’t know the “talent,” as we call them, by sight. So we were chatting about me being new to NPR and my role there. The end of our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Well, all-in-all I assume the new leadership will take a long time to get going on their legislative agenda.”

My new friend: “You know the etymology of the word “assume,” right? when you assume, you make an ass out of you (u) and me.”

Me (in a somewhat smart-alecky manner): “Who uses a word like “etymology” in every day conversation?”

My new friend: “I’m Robert Seigel” — just exactly like he says it on Morning Edition.

Needless to say I was a little mortified (he was very gracious), but nevertheless I learned two important things from that conversation: number one, know who the heck you’re talking to and number two, never assume.

If you read the Op-Ed noted above, you’ll see the writer makes the later point. Everyone assumes that all seniors oppose cuts to any programs from which they might benefit. This simply isn’t true. In any influence situation we should never build our strategy based on the supposition that people will respond as we believe they might or should. We need REAL information about our audience, not just what makes the most sense in terms of their direct self-interest. Who knows? They might surprise you.

Oh, and the other lesson from this incident? When you’re in an elevator with someone you don’t know, don’t be a smart-aleck.

Our Influential Furry Friends

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to talk with animal advocates at the Taking Action for Animals conference here in Washington, D.C..  In preparing for the event, I did a lot of thinking about our very, very, VERY influential furry and feathered friends.  The picture here is of a much younger me and one of my earliest teachers in the Influence Game, Xena Warrior Princess Dog.  On a daily basis she understood and implemented several basic keys to effective influence — all without using words.  A few examples…

  • Know What You Want:  While we sometimes think of dogs as somewhat scatter-brained (look! there’s a squirrel), the truth is that when they decide to focus on something they do so with unwavering attention.  For example, if Xena wanted a treat she would stare at the treat jar in our kitchen for HOURS.  In fact, you could feel her using her sheer force of will to extract a biscuit. She knew what she wanted, she focused on it and, frankly, she almost always (OK, always) got it. The lesson for humans? In any influence situation you should know the location of the treat jar. Then focus on it intently until someone comes and gives you what you want.
  • Know Who You’re Talking To: Xena varied her approach depending on her audience.  With me there was a lot of “look how cute I am” stuff going on.  With more “alpha” members of the pack (like her dog walker) she tried groveling.  With newcomers she used intimidation until the aforementioned alpha members of the pack sternly told her to cut it out.  While most humans can’t replicate her unerring ability to immediately get the vibe of her audience and respond accordingly, we can at least research our audience before communicating at them.  Take some time to try to figure out what might work with them.  What gets them up in the morning?  What keeps them up at night?  Will they melt when you ask about their pets?  I will.
  • Deliver Your Messages Effectively:  As noted earlier, if it were a biscuit she wanted, Xena’s delivered that message by staring at the treat jar, staring at the human, staring at the treat jar, staring at the human and so on until the human FINALLY got the point.  If the particular goal was a belly rub, she would run in front of the human wherever he/she was walking and throw herself on the floor belly-up.  For walks she would grab her leash and bring it to you.  I recommend more subtle approaches in human interactions, but it’s hard to beat Xena for effectiveness.
  • Persistence:  Xena was a firm believer in the “everything in the house is up for grabs” theory.  Shoes. Stuffed animals. Snacks. Carpets.  And she never forgot where the coveted items were located. I had a small stuffed bear sitting on my dressing table for four years. It was above dog eye level (I checked once), but she knew it was there. For those four years she sat next to me every morning asking silently for the privilege of tearing the stuffing out of it.  I finally gave in to her persistence. It lasted five minutes.

And here’s a bonus lesson — “always know what it is you’re fighting about”: I remember a time when Xena really want to eat something in the street and SNAP, before I could turn around she had it in her mouth. She was a very hard-jawed, so I had to fight with her for a while.  I pulled and pulled and pulled until I realized that what I was pulling on was the dessicated carcass of a dead squirrel.  Startled by my blood-curdling scream, Xena let go of her quarry and we ran home double-time so I could boil my hand.  Lesson learned? Never fight with a dog in a street over an unidentified object.



Tweeting Independence

In many ways, the Federalist Papers (the set of articles published by Madison, Hamilton and Jay outlining the provisions of the proposed U.S. Constitution) were some of the earliest and most important examples of using media for advocacy. Just imagine if they’d had access to Twitter or Facebook,  Their early posts might have been something like:
  • We’ll have 3 branches of govt. (legislative, executive and judicial) that balance each other out. #Constitution (Jefferson might have RT’d with a “Don’t forget a #billofrights” message);or,
  • The legislative branch will have a democratically-elected House and a Senate, with respect for rights of individuals and states. #Constitution; or,
  • We’ll have an appointed-for-life Supreme Court to interpret whether the legislature and executive are sticking to the #Constitution

As the founding fathers might have discovered, social media approaches offer unprecedented opportunities to get a single message out to a large group of people quickly. Of course, that’s a double-edged sword. Just ask Anthony Weiner.  Following are two basic ways to be sure you’re using these resources for good, not evil — expressed in the spirit of Facebook’s “thumbs up” approach.

Thumbs Down — Aggrandizing the Trivial: Whether using social media for personal or professional reasons (or both) you’ve got to think about both YOUR return on investment (ROI), as well as the ROI for your audience. And by “investment,” I mean time and attention, not money. I can spend hours wading through “I’m eating a plate of french fries” messages before I hit on something I want, need or am amused to know. Let’s all remember that not every thought that comes into our heads will be interesting to everyone — and edit accordingly. Some messages don’t need to be “one-to-many:” they should be “one-to-few.”  That’s what e-mail, texting and gchat are for.

Thumbs Up — Character Limits: I spend more time writing an interesting Tweet than I spend writing a blog entry (or I spent writing a whole tactic in The Influence Game – see how cleverly I worked that in?). As no doubt everyone interacting with either of these sites know, they force us to focus our message. Maybe I’m old (OK, there’s no maybe about it), but my penchant for words like “penchant” and proper punctuation make the twitter-verse super challenging. But because focusing our message increases our influence, those character limits are all worth it.

And speaking of character limits, maybe a 140 character-count version of the Declaration of Independence would go something like this:

Dudes. The King doesn’t get it. Gov’t should secure our inalienable rights, not take them away. We’re bailing to start our own country #DOI

What do you think? I’d totally retweet that.

More Influence Lessons from the Olympic Trials

In the previous post I made reference to a couple influence lessons learned from the recent US Track and Field Championships in Eugene, OR.  In the final days of the event, I learned at least three more, specifically:

  • It’s What You Do AFTER a Loss That Matters: When a loss first hits it’s often intensely disappointing — indeed, sometimes crushing.  Julia Lucas experienced this in the Women’s 5000 meter finals when Kim Conley applied the “take advantage of every opportunity” principle (see previous post) by flying down the last 100 meters to beat Lucas out of a spot on the US Olympic team. But then an interesting thing happened for Lucas. Thousands of messages began pouring through Facebook, Twitter and other outlets expressing both sympathy and encouragement. Her loss spoke to something universal in the human experience — and, should she take advantage of it, there’s not only consolation but opportunity in the coming months.  Through speaking, writing, media appearances and endorsements, it’s possible Lucas could translate this devastation into something positive for the future.
  • Know What Works for You: Andrew Wheating runs the 1,500 meters and he runs it the same way every time.  He sits back in the pack and waits. Even when the leaders move what seems like an uncatchable number of meters ahead, Wheating doesn’t move.  Well, nothing changed for the trials.  Wheating hung back until the last 200 meters and then, in a burst of speed, moved from 6th to 3rd, making the Olympic team. As nerve-wracking as it probably is, he knows that running from behind works for him.
  • Persevere: Anyone who follows track and field knows that Kenyan athletes are very difficult to beat in any running events from 5000 meters up, which makes the rivalry between Bernard Lagat, who is Kenyan, and Galen Rupp , who is Caucasian, so apropos.  Before the trials, Lagat beat Rupp 12 out of 12 times.  But Rupp persevered, and his success over Lagat finally came in what some would argue to be the most important race of the last four years — the trials.  He ran 13.22.67 to win, qualify for the team and join his teammate (and rival) Lagat on the US team.

The final influence principle I’ve learned as I head back to Washington, D.C. is the importance of timing. While I was gone, a massive storm ripped through the mid-atlantic leaving millions of people without power (including my house, apparently).  Thank goodness the power came back on just as I got home. Now THAT’S good timing!

The Influence Game and the Olympic Trials

I’ve been watching the U.S. Track and Field Championships for the last few days (hey, I have interests outside being the Advocacy Guru). Although I’m not as big a fan as SOME people in my family, many of these competitors have been downright inspiring. In fact, they’ve taken many of the principles behind The Influence Game to a whole new level. I’ll be covering several of these examples in the next few blog posts and, of course, exercising every day. There’s nothing like freakishly fit people to motivate one to put aside the french fries and put on the running gear.

Here are the first two principles:

Really Commit to the Win: Lance Brooks lead the men’s discus final for almost the entire competition, but his chances for actually going to the Olympics were slim. That’s because he hadn’t thrown the “A standard” length. Turns out there are two criteria for getting to the games: placing top three at the trials and scoring, at some point in the season, a certain standard associated with your sport. This means that even if he won the trials, he probably wouldn’t go to London. Many of his throws came agonizingly close (211.5′ as opposed to the standard of 213′) – until the last. After a foul in his penultimate effort he threw 213′ 9″ to secure the win, make the standard and head off to London. In the face of near defeat, he committed to the win — and made it.

Take Advantage of any Opportunity You See — Even if It’s a Long Shot: 5000 meters is, in my opinion, a long way to run, especially if you’re running about 5 minute pace. For the metrically-challenged, that’s 3.1 miles at 5 minutes per mile, I, for example, “run” about 12 minute pace. I may as well be walking.

Yesterday 16 women ran this distance and ran it very bunched together for almost the entire race. Then, with three laps to go and knowing that she couldn’t win on a sprint at the end, Julia Lucas went out ahead of the crowd. She gained a significant lead. Unfortunately, by the time she got to the final 200 meters, the leaders had caught her and Lucas struggled. Yet with a still significant lead over the rest of the pack, it seemed a forgone conclusion that she would come in third and make the team– that is until Kim Conley, the runner in fourth, saw an opportunity in Lucas’ struggles. In an absolutely stunning 100 meter final sprint, Conley leaned over the line and beat Lucas by .04 seconds. Perhaps most important, she ran a 5 second personal best (an interminable period of time in the 5000 meters) to gain that elusive A standard. In that one gutsy move, Conley made the team.

Despite her loss, Lucas demonstrates another Influence Game — one that I’ll cover in the next couple days, along with some tidbits from the trials. For now, thank you for joining me in my efforts to eradicate bad influence from the world — and happy influencing!

The Supreme Court Decision on Health Care: Love it or Hate it — It Matters Either Way

In school we learn about the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government (remember social studies and/or government class?) Yet consternation about “what those people do in Washington, D.C.” almost always refers to regulators (i.e., the executive branch) and members of Congress (i.e., legislative). Hardly anyone ever thinks of the Supreme Court (unless they’re debating ‘hanging chads’.) In fact, I’d bet that more people can name the nine entities associated with Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring than the nine Supreme Court justices.

That’s clearly changing this week as the Court plans to hand down its decision on the constitutionality of the “Access to Health Care for All” Act (or the “Job Killing Health Care” Act, depending on your perspective). To me, the whole kerfluffle demonstrates two important Influence principles, specifically 1) asking the ‘and next, and next, and next’ questions and 2) having a plan B, C and D.

Asking the ‘and next’ question promotes effective influence by helping you understand the entire decision-making process. Often you haven’t won The Influence Game after the first ‘yes.’ There may be additional ‘yeses’ (or at least ‘non-no’s) needed to get you were you want to be. The health care reform demonstrates this principle in that the ‘and next’ question ties back to those pesky three branches of government. The passage through Congress was the first step. Supporters knew that the goals behind health care reform would never be achieved without executive and judicial support. Opponents know this as well and have used that fact to their advantage.

Likewise, having a plan B, C and D connects to the ‘and next’ tactic. Clearly, once you know what’s coming next you really need to plan accordingly if subsequent decisions don’t go your way. In the context of the health care debate, both sides were already “lawyering up’ for the coming arguments in the Supreme Court. They knew appeals were coming the minute the bill was passed.

It’s likely that those who employed these two tactics most effectively will win this particular fight. And on Thursday we’ll find out who that is.

If you’re interested in keeping up with the decision, check out the SCOTUS Blog at

You Don’t Always Have to Win Outright: Just Keep the Other Side at Home

I’m often asked “how do I convince an opponent to agree with me?” The short answer is that you can’t – or, rather, it happens so rarely that it’s probably not worth the effort to try. To be clear,  I’m not saying you shouldn’t deliver your message to those who disagree.  In fact, trying to get opponents to respond to your arguments and defend their position can be a good use of time.

That said, it’s not likely that the outcome of such efforts will be a wholesale “seeing of the light” on the part of your adversaries.  Perhaps the best you can hope for is for them to be silent. In the political world, this can translate in to one of two things – either a quiet vote against your position without any fire or brimstone or an active “behind-the-scenes” effort to persuade leadership that forcing a vote against your issue would be a bad idea.  While the latter is obviously preferable, either way you’ve marginalized the competition.

To make the “keeping the other side quiet” tactic even more powerful, effective special interests work at the same time to turn out their base.  You can see this approach in the election day antics known as “Get Out The Vote,” or “GOTV.”  Outreach strategies include sign waving near polling places, hosting tables at public gathering places like grocery stores, television and radio ads and, unfortunately, robo-calls.  The main message in all these cases? “go out and vote.” And, of course, that message is directed toward those audiences most likely to vote the organizer’s way.

So how do you apply these tactics in the real world? Think about your answers to two key questions:

  • First, who in the decision-making process opposes you? This concept moves beyond knowing just your competition and toward a better understanding of those informing and making decisions. For example, if you’re trying to sell a service and one of the purchasing managers doesn’t like your approach, that’s the person you want to try to “keep quiet.”
  • Second, who in the decision-making process support you? Find your base as early as possible and then energize them. Help them understand that they are key to a good decision that will benefit their organization.  Everyone likes to be a hero. Show your supporters how you can help them achieve that goal.