Watching the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes reminded me of why Non-Disclosure Agreements or NDAs are often a very bad idea. That’s because an NDA is an attempt to solve a communications problem with a legal solution.
I frequently come across NDAs in my issues management practice and they seldom work to the benefit of my clients. In fact, in three major cases, they hindered my clients from telling their side of the story while details were “leaked” to the media. In one situation, one-sided information was slowly revealed over many weeks as the story gained traction.
Lawyers can threaten court action but no financial settlement will repair the reputational damage done when the other side controls the narrative. I’m not a lawyer but I often wonder why there isn’t a “right to respond” written into NDAs or a clause to make it void if certain details are released. In the cases I’ve worked on, the side trying to “do the right thing” and respect the NDA has taken the greater hit.
One of the reasons NDAs fail is that they try to do too much. Some prohibit each side from even acknowledging their existence. This is not a good communications strategy. And, in a WikiLeaks world, even the deepest of secrets are being fed to journalists.
Before agreeing to an NDA, both sides should consider the public interest and the likelihood that certain information could become public regardless of the agreement. Both sides might agree on a joint public statement which answered any obvious questions. If the issue is of public concern, using a legal document to hide information only heightens the public interest. A better approach would be to release as much information as possible and then explain why other information cannot be released.
And if one side does decide to pursue legal action when an NDA is breached it will mean months, if not years, of court proceedings that will only add further harm to a damaged reputation.
In a world that expects the wit of Jimmy Fallon, the wisdom of a TED talk and the visual stimulation of Snapchat, giving a PowerPoint presentation with complicated graphs and bullet points sheds about as much light as a birthday candle in a coal mine. If you can’t give a straightforward, dynamic and passionate presentation you should stay home because you are wasting your time and turning everyone in the audience against you.
And don’t give me that crap about the need to cite references and give detailed explanations.
A video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing went viral. He did it in 35 seconds. A few days later a university professor said on CBC radio that Trudeau did a pretty good job.
You probably already know the difference between a great and a horrible presentation. It’s the difference between being held hostage for 20 minutes at a boring meeting versus 40 minutes of thoughtful bliss as a speaker paints evocative words and ideas that make you forget about checking your cell phone. It’s passion, not a 20 data point chart that gets you excited.
A presentation is not a peer-reviewed paper. It is not a university thesis. It is not an engineering stress test report. It is not a learned legal opinion. A presentation is a conversation and an exchange of ideas between you and an audience. If the presentation is done well, it will entice the audience to seek out and discover more about the topic.
Most importantly though, a presentation is not a document. If you are printing out your slides to leave behind as a hand-out you’re doing it wrong. Think about this: If people can read the printout (in about five minutes) and get what your point is then why the hell did they spend 20 minutes listening to you?
When you’re speaking, the only thing on a screen behind you should be a visual that supports what you’re saying. If there are words on the screen, the audience will read them and stop listening to you. Several studies have shown that comprehension and retention plummet if you put words on a screen and then read them to your audience.
Professor John Sweller has been studying teaching methods for more than a dozen years and says that when the audience has its attention split between what you say and what they read they are less likely to remember anything. Professor Richard Mayer reached a similar conclusion; that listening to spoken narration without text on a screen increases understanding by 79%.
Stories will always be more compelling than a chart of facts and figures. Just ask any kid at bedtime.
Doing a presentation without thinking of your audience is like starting a love letter with “To whom it may concern”.
Even if you’re trying to convey the same messages to different audiences, you will be much more effective if your presentation is personalized to the people you are trying to engage.
Whenever I’m asked to speak, I ask a lot of questions about the audience; what’s the age range, the gender makeup, experience, background and more. I want to be able to form a mental picture of the people I’ll be speaking to so that I can bring stories and examples they will understand and enjoy.
Then, I start at the end of my presentation. I think about the audience and decide what I want them to be thinking or doing when my talk is over. I set a goal. I imagine their acceptance of a concept or an idea that they hadn’t considered before. Everything in my presentation must lead to that conclusion and the more my material is relevant to my audience, the more persuasive I will be.
If I’m speaking to employees of a specific company or organization I try to understand its work and look for recent examples either directly from the group or from their field of interest. If the company works in aviation for example I will illustrate my points with examples taken from that industry.
Even including recent events of significance to the audience is useful. Right after an election or a major news event, I might make reference to it where appropriate to my audience.
If I can’t find out much about my audience, I will often start my talk by asking them a few short questions. Someone will likely tell me of a key event or situation that I can reference back to throughout my talk.
So to go back to my imaginary love letter, imagine how effective it would be if you waxed on about your partner’s beautiful brown eyes . . . and they were blue.
I’ve been asked to teach a one-day workshop at a local university this fall on Communicating in a Crisis so I’ve been spending hours reviewing my notes and materials from the many high profile events that I’ve worked on over the years. I’ve written in the past about the three things the public expects to hear in a crisis. They are; I’m sorry, I’ve fixed it, it’s never going to happen again. Those refer specifically to the event that has caused the crisis.
Here are three more essential actions that every organization needs to do when a crisis presents itself;
1. Act quickly but not impulsively. The first things you do and say in a crisis will set the tone for everything that follows. The longer you delay in responding, the more you allow someone else to set the agenda. Make sure, however, that your messages are sound. And don’t speculate.
2. Remember internal as well as external audiences. Employees can be your advocates or your enemies in a crisis. Keep them in the loop as much as you can. Also, if you already have a solid reputation among your stakeholders, be prepared to draw on your advocate army to help preserve that reputation.
3. Make every decision defensible. At some point the crisis will be over and you may be judged more on how you handled things than on what really happened. As chaotic and confusing as things may be when the crisis strikes, things will eventually calm down and the rebuilding of your reputation will begin. There may also be regulatory or customer fallout to deal with and decisions made during the crisis will be scrutinized.
My last post was written for journalists, to explain why the head of a company might not be inclined to drop everything to do a media interview (Hey You Reporters, Get off my Lawn). I remember from my days as a journalist thinking that everyone, including the CEO, had an obligation to answer my questions.
I also remember the many calls from cheery-voiced PR flacks who actually did want me to interview their CEO so that they could promote some new product or service. Often I was rude. A journalist’s day is always busy and I felt I needed to get on with the real news.
So, now that I’ve switched sides this is an apology of sorts to those cheery-voiced flacks and a wake-up call for smug journalists who like to torment anyone in public relations. They may have to phone you to pitch a story but that doesn’t mean they have to like you. In fact, here are six reasons why PR people hate reporters;
- Reporters won’t return calls for a good news story but they scream bloody murder if PR people don’t call back immediately during a crisis.
- Reporters never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
- Reporters will interview any crackpot who voices a contrary opinion even if an overwhelming majority is in favour of something.
- A PR person might spend the entire day lining up interviews and the Reporter will cancel at the last minute without so much as an apology. But if something happens a day later, the Reporter expects the PR person to set up the interviews again.
- Reporters never do a follow up story when a problem has been fixed.
- If a PR person tells a Reporter something off the record, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s off the record. Reporters often print the information anyway and might even use the PR person’s name if it will make a better story.
Over to you, my PR colleagues – did I leave anything out? And I’m happy to give equal time to any reporter who wants to make a rebuttal.