“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
A brilliant, insightful statement, if there ever was one.
Of course, then there's Led Zeppelin's “Communication Breakdown,” the B-side of their first single back in 1969:
It's always the same
I'm having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!”
OK, one more. It's that famous scene from Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman, as he's being dressed down by the Captain (brilliantly played by character actor Strother Martin):
A failure to communicate.
All three quotes get to the same point – the difficulty of getting our message across, especially given that we're in radio. How many times have you heard it said:
“We're in the communications business. So, why are we having so much trouble communicating?”
These days, companies, radio stations, and personalities are all having trouble communicating their position, their plan, their schtick. You can argue that the fire hose of information and entertainment we have in front of us is at the root of the problem. But that begs the question of whether the problem stems from the quantity of media – or its quality.
I was thinking about that while watching Jon Stewart‘s remarkable speech in front of Congress earlier this week. If you didn't see it, Stewart has long been a supporter of all those heroic 9/11 first responders.
Their emergency valve – the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund – provides a guarantee of health care for these special people, many of whom are suffering from cancer and other maladies related to their efforts in the days, weeks, months, and years following the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
So, what's the problem? Hard as it may be to believe, the fund will expire in 2020, and plans were announced to massively cut payouts by 50%-70%.
The bill on the table was a plan by D-NY Representative Carolyn Maloney who proposed permanent funding of the plan. But like they do on many issues, the bill got stalled in Congress.
And that's where former Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, decided he had enough. From the day after 9/11, Stewart has been a committed supporter of these first responders.
To hammer home his point, Stewart testified in front of the Judiciary Committee earlier this week, flanked by a room full of 9/11 first responders.
If you haven't seen Stewart's statement, it is 9 minutes long and worth your time. In a highly polarized political environment, Stewart's mission was to break through this communication logjam, and get the bill voted on – and passed.
Here's a 3 minute summary that gives you a flavor of what Stewart said. (The full video is at the bottom of this post.)
So, what can we learn about what it takes to get an important message across to a distracted, capricious, jaded, highly partisan audience that would rather be on a golf course somewhere?
There are several qualities to Stewart's speech that can help us with all our communication, whether it's in a board meeting in front of a group of jaded shareholders, or it's in morning drive to a few thousand unhappy commuters. Not only is the speech important and moving; it's a textbook example of how to get your point across.
Here's how Jon Stewart pulled it off:
1. He spoke from the heart – Stewart's association with 9/11 is well-known. But here we are, 18 years later, and he's talking about an issue that is near and dear to him. Like so many others who testify in front of Congress, he wasn't reading copy – he reached deep down inside to deliver his powerful message.
2. He was passionate – All too often, we hear a speech or a morning show bit or a live commercial that sounds – well, like we've heard it all before. There is no substitute for emotion, properly deployed. Stewart's passion for this issue was on display and totally credible. It wasn't just his words, but the fact he delivered it with controlled emotion.
3. He knew his stuff – How often do you hear politicians, managers, and air personalities blather about things they don't really know about or haven't researched? Stewart had his chronology right, his numbers correct, and his perspective in place. Congress couldn't pick his points apart because they were cold, inarguable facts.
4. He showed up – Stewart didn't cut a video the Judiciary Committee might have watched – while checking their phones. He made the trek to D.C. And he brought along “evidence” – scores of 9/11 first responders, many in uniform, who formed an impressive backdrop. As Woody Allen has noted, “80% of success is showing up.” True that.
5. He took his time – Note the pace and cadence of Stewart's words. He wasn't rushing to make sure he hit a time limit. His talk was measured, with strategic pauses to let his points sink in. It's not what you say, it's your pacing and cadence that drive your point home.
6. He talked about people – That's what resonates – not bills or budgets or procedures or vetoes or votes. Stewart kept his words focused on the people – Americans, legislators, and of course, the heroic responders themselves. Many years ago, author Emmanuel Rosen (The Anatomy of Buzz) revealed to a Jacobs Summit crowd the one thing that people talk about the most: other people. When you keep your words focused on people, you are connecting with them.
7. He told stories – Ultimately, we know that whether we're talking about podcasts, sales pitches, benchmark bits, or quarterly investor calls, it's about storytelling. The lack of a narrative is one of the key reasons why communications so often fail. Stewart was not about to make that mistake. He had a great story to work with, of course, but he told it masterfully.
8. Tell the truth – Stewart knew his most powerful argument to legislators of both parties – those who had been in Washington for decades, as well as freshmen Congresspeople – was the pure and simple truth. No fabrication. No exaggeration. Just the cold, hard truth.
9. He asked for the order – It's one thing to make an impressive speech, presentation, or pull off a bit or benchmark. It's another thing to lay out the path to success – that is, getting what you want. In Stewart's case, he made it clear. Don't table this bill, or connect it to other unrelated legislative cul de sacs. Just do your jobs and pass the damn thing – something that can easily be passed in one day.
Applause filled the chamber when Stewart finished his 9 minute speech.
The next day, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill – unanimously.
Political handicappers suggest the bill will easily clear the house (it has 313 co-sponsors). And then it goes to the Senate – the place where bills go to die. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated he “hadn't look at (the fund) lately.” But he added that “We've always dealt with that in the past in a compassionate way, and I assume we will again.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
The last thing Jon Stewart needs is to make another trek to Washington. But to win this one for a cause he dearly cares about, he may have to pick up a few hundred more frequent flyer miles to do this all over again for another group of legislators.
Not to worry. He seems committed to this cause.
Here's the full-length, 9 minute speech:
Thanks to my old friend, Dave Paulus, for the inspiration.