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May 2009

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MBC Director’s Memo – 5.09

This week the Opus College of Business hosted New York Times columnist David Brooks, who attracted a full house at Orchestra Hall. In addition, he attended a gathering of Master of Business Communication Program alumni, current students, faculty and friends of the program in Schulze Hall as kick off for the MBC 25th Anniversary. Brooks proved to be an articulate and engaging speaker, who spices his very seriously considered opinions on politics with piercingly funny commentary.
In his topic for the evening “The Age of Obama”, he began by citing a number of characteristics of our current President which he greatly admires as a conservative commentator. These elements of Obama’s personal character seemed to be traits that professional communicators would do well to consider and attempt to emulate.
The first of the five admirable qualities Brooks noted centers on aspects of perceptiveness, specifically as to how the President considers audiences of one or a thousand and speaks directly to the core of their emotions on the topic at hand. As a journalist, Brooks also admires the “intellectual force” of this leader who can discuss heady topics with ease and surrounds himself with an administration of similar caliber. The third trait mentioned recognizes the pervasive calm and self-control of a world leader with multiple reasons to behave otherwise. Brooks followed this accolade promptly by noting that the President exudes a genuine “niceness” and “humanity” that appears to filter through the entire administrative culture. Finally, Brooks noted the supreme self-confidence of the Commander in Chief, although noting that this can also be a liability.
In the role of advisor or that of creator in the practice of communications, whether internal or externally focused, striving to function with similar character to that described above might be an advantage. Clearly, the more perceptive one’s understanding of an audience, the more effect the strategies will be in influencing them. If you don’t see yourself as particularly perceptive, nurturing your “intellectual force” through research can at least assure a better informed planning effort. Further, expanding the breadth of your knowledge (in a liberal arts sense) enhances your sensitivities and in turn provides better perceptions.
Of all the traits President Obama masters, that of self-control represents the one over which an individual may have the most direct control, but also may be most difficult to command. Maybe start with a conscious decision to take a deep, calming breath when things get heated or complicated, and work your way to an air of calm assurance.
When considering the ability to be “nice,” the critical factor becomes being genuine. Most audiences temper their consumption of messages from every source with a jaded perspective built from a lifetime of listening to disingenuous voices. So a truly nice person, once vetted by the audience, sways a great deal of influence.
For communicators, self-confidence begins with the use of active verbs rather than passive ones. Not only does this inherently improve the communication power of the sentence, but it helps streamline and make messages more readable. Actively attempting to write in this way presents constant challenges, but can be done (count the passive verbs in this essay). In theory and personal experience, this assertive approach proves to be worth the effort.
While Mr. Brooks spoke about these characteristics in the context of “The Age of Obama,” for those engaged in communications at any level, the value of these traits in action is timeless.
MCP