• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy Year Four in Review – “The Best Advice I’ve Received”

Four years ago, I had an idea for a series of Q&As with interesting energy and environment leaders. In February 2018, I posted the first of what I hoped would be an ongoing series of useful conversations sharing insight on common sense conversations. Our client Marcene Mitchell set a high bar with that first interview and every person since then has demonstrated that this wasn’t just a good idea, it was an insightful one. The nearly fifty conversations we’ve had since that time have been both inspiring and informative. But don’t just take my word for it: read the insights our twelve participants shared over the past year.


With this post, we’re sharing the first of three sets of highlights of the common sense advice we received over the past twelve months from each of our 12 participants. This series of posts will provide a reminder of the fantastic and free (!) advice we gleaned from our monthly conversations over the past year. I’m particularly proud that our participants this year were our most diverse set ever.


In this post, we’re sharing our participants' answers to the question “What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve received?” In our next post, we’ll share answers to our question about the best advice our participants give to others. We’ll wrap up this Year Four in Review series with our favorite comments from each participant.


Our twelve participants this year represented another fascinating sample of smart thinking, diverse experiences and deep experience from across the country. Our thanks to Annise, Hugh, Judi, Stacey, Torey, Armond, Sheila, Arvind, Richard, Candace, Bob and Jessica for their participation in Year Four of the Common Sense Colloquy. In another year like no other, they shared wisdom and helped us benefit from their experience. We appreciate their participation in the Common Sense Colloquy series!


Question: What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve received?

  • Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Fund: Be nice to reporters. This truly is common sense, but I’m always shocked when candidates don’t understand it. If a journalist has a good relationship with you, you will have a more positive story about you in the end. It is that simple. Treat them with respect, engage in the small talk, be responsive and give them what they need. It pays off. Just remember, though, they have a job to do--they are not friends or allies.

  • Hugh Welsh, DSM North America: Understand your audience

  • Judi Greenwald, Nuclear Innovation Alliance: I learned early on in my career from some communications research that if you talk about the climate problem without talking about climate solutions, people just get depressed and tune you out. So, I always try to talk about both.

  • Stacey Stevenson, Family Equality: Embrace your story, and don’t be afraid to use that story to effect change.

  • Torey Carter-Conneen, American Society of Landscape Architects: The best “common sense” advice I’ve gotten about communications is to understand how best to speak to your audience, whether an audience of one or an audience of 15,000 (the number of members we have at ASLA). I think it was Dr. Stephen Covey who wrote, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you speak or write after first considering the background, experience, and expectations of your audience—and communicate in a way to show you understand them—you will be much more effective in sharing your message and winning their trust.

  • Armond Cohen, Clean Air Task Force: Nearly every “how-to” book on persuasion will tell you: Start with where people are, not where you expect them to be, and be respectful of different views. For a variety of reasons, climate change and energy has become a deeply polarizing issue, tied up with cultural identity. One has to start by understanding why someone may come to the discussion with a different perspective, not all of it fact-based, and try and understand how they might most likely be able to hear an alternative message. Being a left-brained lawyer-type, I admit I continually struggle to hew to this empathic approach.

  • Sheila Hollis, USEA: This relates to my previous answer - but knowing when to keep things short and sweet, and when to speak at length. Some communications do require long or detailed answers, but for most back-and-forth interactions, I know that cutting out extra detail and delivering a concise answer is the most effective method to convey your meaning. Otherwise, you risk losing your subject’s focus and attention, and you risk losing the purpose of your original message. In terms of the current energy landscape -- I have always been impressed by the visionary, and also pragmatic, thought leadership of all of our Board members. One longtime Board member, Daniel Yergin, has written a new book, ‘The New Map’, that offers years of international energy experience and insights into the minds of our world’s most influential leaders. The ‘common sense’ revealed in his book is that we are all human beings examining a global future and what it will look like as a result of globalization, geopolitics, and a changing energy industry. It’s well worth the read.

  • Arvind Manocha, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts: Know your audience. Think about who is on the receiving end of any particular communication and be thoughtful about tailoring your message and your style. And if you are doing a lot of public speaking, do the thing that everyone tells you do but you hate doing: video yourself and watch it back. It feels narcissistic but it’s the most efficient way of learning.

  • Richard Kiy, Institute of the Americas: Probably the best “common sense” advice I have received is to truly know one’s audience. In the end, communications is about imparting or transmitting information to others. Not all communications, however, is effective. Effective communications is an art. It is not always easy to truly discern the best messaging for one’s desired target audience. Also, sometimes our own personal biases or perceptions get in the way. Other times, one can simply get too into the weeds on a given issue and the essence of what truly needs to be communicated can get lost. I’ve learned this from experience. In my role as President & CEO of the Institute of the Americas, our stakeholders -- in business, the public sector, civil society and academia -- are diverse. Additionally, there are other geographical, cultural and linguistical related considerations to take into account given the region that the Institute serves. For a given issue, there can be diverse audiences requiring their own targeted messaging. So, effective communications can, at times, be tricky. For this reason, I have come to appreciate the value of seasoned communications professionals like you, Ben.

  • Candace Hamana, IPPRA: Be confident in your unique talents and abilities - but always be willing to learn new skills.

  • Bob Keefe, E2: Tell the truth. Dedicate the time to prepare in advance. And don’t forget to smile.

  • Jessica Lovering, Good Energy Collective: Communication is a two-way street. Any good strategy around communications needs to have a genuine plan for listening and incorporating feedback. It’s not just about developing the best talking points or one-pager that you send out into the world.



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