I asked Silicon Valley veteran Dave Kellogg for his OK to republish this post.
I met Dave some 10 years ago when he was CEO of MarkLogic. Here was a CEO who not only understood PR but seemed to enjoy it. Unfortunately, his internal communications team didn’t command the same understanding, and our client relationship came to an inglorious end. Still, I’ve continued to appreciate Dave bringing attention to the communications function.
With the second round of the Democratic debates for presidential hopefuls kicking off this week, it seemed like a good time to revisit how Mayor Pete works a crowd and connects with people.
By Dave Kellogg
Whenever I have the chance to watch a big league politician at work, I always try to study their communications skills in an effort to learn from the best. In a previous post, I presented what I learned watching Congresswoman Jackie Speier work a room, a pretty amazing sight, in The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing.
Yesterday, I had the chance to watch Mayor Pete in action at a gathering in Palo Alto. Political views aside, the man is a simply outstanding public speaker. In this post, I’ll share what I learned from watching him work.
- Don’t be afraid of Q&A. I’d say Pete spent 1/3rd of his time on his stump speech, and left 2/3rds to “make it a conversation.” It works. It engages the crowd. In tech, I feel like many companies — after one too many embarrassing episodes — now avoid Town Hall formats at employee All Hands meetings, Kickoffs, or User Conferences. Yes, I’ve heard of and seen a few disasters in my day, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Town Hall format is simply more engaging than a speech. Moreover, I’d guess that when employees observe leaders who habitually avoid Q&A, they perceive them as afraid to do so.
- Engage the person who asked the question. I’ve gotten this one wrong my whole career and it took a politician to teach me. I’ve always said “answer the question to the audience” (not the person who asked) as a way to avoid getting caught in a bad dialog, but I now realize I was wrong. If you’re a politician you want everyone’s vote, so let’s not dismiss that person/voter too quickly. Pete inserts a step — engage the person. Student: “What are you planning to do if you get bullied by another candidate?” Pete: “Well, what do you do at school when someone tries to bully you?” Student: “Well, I try to walk away, but sometimes I want to yell back.” Pete: “And you seem pretty level-headed to me.”
- Answer the question for the audience, ideally building off the engagement. Pete: “That’s it, isn’t it? You know you should walk away but you want to yell back. That’s why it’s so hard. That’s why it takes discipline. That’s why I’m thankful that during my service in the Armed Forces that I learned the difference between a real emergency and a political emergency. Instead of yelling back at the bully you need to …” Note that when he finishes, he does not look back at the questioner but instead says “next question” and looks to the audience.
- Squat down when addressing children. There were a lot of kids at the event and Pete, somewhat surprisingly, took numerous questions from them. There were two benefits of this: (a) the kids tended to ask simple clear questions (e.g., “why are you going to beat rival X”) and (b) the kids introduced a good bit of humor both in their questions and delivery (e.g., “what are the names and the sizes of your dogs?” or “when will there be a ‘girl’ president?”). I always considered the squat-to-address-children as Princess Diana’s signature move, but this article now credits it to her son, Prince William. Either way, it’s an empathetic move and helps level the playing field between adult and child.
- Embrace humor.
Pete seems to be a naturally funny guy, so perhaps it’s not difficult for him, but adding some humor — and flowing with funny situations when they happen — makes the event more engaging and fun. Child: “Can I have an even bigger bunny?” Pete: “Well how big is your bunny now?” Child: [sticks arms over head]. Pete: “That big. Well. Uh. [Pauses.] Sure. [Applause and laughter.] You know there’s always at least one question that you didn’t see coming.” [More laughter.]
- Use normal diction (i.e., words). Public speaking, especially in politics, is not the time to show off your vocabulary. Pete went to Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I’m sure he has a banging vocabulary. But you’re not trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room at a Town Hall meeting; you’re trying to get people to like you. That means no talking down to people and not using fancy words when simple ones will do. On a few occasions, I heard Pete auto-correcting to a simpler word, after starting a more complex one.
- No free air-time. He generally didn’t say the words Trump or Biden. But he did say things like “we don’t want to go back to the Democratic era of the 1990s just like we don’t want to go back to the current administration’s era of the 1950s. We want to go forward …” He used words like “White House,” “current administration,” or even “current President.” But he didn’t say Trump.
- Make it real. A key part of Pete’s message is that we shouldn’t look at political decisions as some distant, academic, theoretical policy discussion. We should stay focused on how they affect peoples’ lives. Pete: “When we think of climate change, we see imagery of a polar bear or a glacier melting. I want to change the dialog so we think about floods that are only supposed to happen every 100 years happening only 2 years apart.” Ditto for a conversation about healthcare where he talked about its impact on his family. Ditto for a conversion about his marriage that wouldn’t have been possible but for a single supreme court justice’s vote.
- Tell stories. Given all the attention story-telling has gotten of late, this one probably goes without saying, but always remember that human beings love stories and that information communicated within the context of a story is much more likely to be heard, understood and remembered than information simply communicated as a set of facts. Great speakers always communicate and/or reinforce their key messages via a series of stories. Pete is a highly effectively story-teller and communicated many of his key messages through personal stories.
I want to circle back to the point, “use normal diction.”
Talk like a human being. Write like a human being.
Conversational language can often deliver a form of differentiation, particularly in the B2B tech world.