• Ben Finzel

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

It’s hard to believe that we’ve now completed our third year of the Common Sense Colloquy, our series of monthly Q&As with influential energy, environmental and LGBTQ leaders. With three dozen interviews now completed, we have an even better archive of compelling, relevant and timely insight on common sense communications.


As we do each year at this time, we’re sharing highlights of the wisdom we received in the year before from all 12 of our participants. This is the first of three posts this week spotlighting the input of the leaders we had the pleasure and privilege of talking with over the past year. Of particular note, we expanded the series last year to include leading LGBTQ influencers as well and we continued to include diverse voices representing a broad spectrum of interests, backgrounds and expertise.


In this post, we’re sharing 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 Three 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 Laura, Russ, Judy, Bob, Paula, Malcolm, Chiqui, Earl, Denise, Tom, Jennifer and Louis for their participation in Year Three of the Common Sense Colloquy. In a year like no other, their insight was more relevant, helpful and hopeful than ever.


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


· Laura Taylor, Silverline Communications: Where there is smoke, there is fire. Plain and simple. Don’t try to say there isn’t something going on, when everyone can see it. Get issues on the table as they happen and know that failures are an opportunity to learn.

· Russ Carnahan, BuildingAction: The late Speaker Tip O’Neill who famously said “all politics is local”. It’s true. The more you can localize and personalize your communication message the more powerful and effective it will be. Members of Congress are often looking for a “local connection” for a national or international issue. Being able to connect the right people and issues is truly the art of politics.

· Judy Rader, Exelon: I’m going old school here. Back at the University of Maryland J-School in the 1990s, I took many classes on writing, reporting and fact-checking. One of my professors told us, “If your mother says she loves you…check it out.” It made us laugh at the time, but the advice has stuck with me because it’s about accuracy – and more importantly – credibility. To gain customers’ and other stakeholders’ trust, we must be committed to open, honest, transparent and accurate communications. The days of “spin” and “PR flacks” are long gone– we operate at a far higher standard now. That’s especially true in an age where anyone can be a “citizen journalist,” and we are constantly faced with misinformation. Our reputation is built on our credibility, so we had better get our facts right.

· Bob Witeck, Witeck Communications: The advice I revere most is my indispensable belief in trust. None of us, no company, no institution, no leader, or communicator can succeed without sustaining trust. Our reputation and credibility are only as good as the trust we foster and grow in public spaces. It can be so easily squandered, and never easily restored.

· Paula Glover, American Association of Blacks in Energy*: Not everything translates well over email. There is nothing wrong with a face to face or phone conversation.

· Malcom Woolf, National Hydropower Association: Keep it simple. Resist the urge to discuss the intricate details of policy proposals or the latest grid technology. After all, most folks just want the lights to come on when they flip the switch and to know that their power is clean. Hydropower has been doing it for over a century, and we’re focused on expanding our reach to ensure that message is received far and wide.


· Chiqui Cartagena, The Conference Board: Listen, Listen, Listen. You can only be a good communicator if you know how people feel and where people are emotionally, but you only accomplish that by listening intently and with empathy. These six months have been the hardest of my career, but I have learned so much from them and believe they have made me a better leader.

· Earl Fowlkes, Center for Black Equity: The next two questions have the same answer for me. Listen without talking. Don’t take every conversation to heart and wait 24 hours before responding to an unpleasant correspondence. Acknowledge and confront your biases and prejudices – we all have them. Communicate with cultural sensitivity and kindness (I still don’t understand why we can’t be kind to one another). Learn how to be a good servant leader and your actions will communicate your intent. I have found that being seen doing the work is more impactful than talking about it.

· Denise Brogan-Kator, Family Equality: Meet people where they are, not where you are. Be honest, in all your communications. That also means admitting when you’re wrong or when you don’t know an answer. That’s hard for most of us, especially me. I like to be in control and when I admit that I don’t know something or, worse, that I was wrong about something, it feels much like ceding control. But the goal of communication must be to learn and to inform. You cannot do that, effectively, or consistently, unless you’ve willing to be honest and meet people where they are.


· Tom Kiernan, AWEA*: No matter the size of the audience, pick a few people that you directly speak to. Look at and talk to them, doing so helps you get comfortable and makes your remarks relatable.


· Jennifer Martin, Center for Resource Solutions: Communications only works if it is seen, noticed, and internalized. The best common sense advice I’ve heard about communications is that to be noticed and remembered, it has to be felt. People are your audience, not algorithms. Make sure your communications appeal to them by talking to their humanity, not just their work face. Think of standing behind the podium speaking to an audience. Authenticity is the basis of trust. What will make them stop scrolling and look up from their phones? It’s always a moment that goes beyond the script and reaches people where they really are. We can’t always do this in the real world—but by keeping in mind the person at the other end we can all improve our chances of really touching others.


You called us “the most important energy non-profit that you’ve never heard of,” and while we’re proud of our significant impact, much of our work is behind the scenes, where we can be the most effective by guiding and supporting good decision making by policymakers, corporate and institutional leaders, and individuals. We’re not always the ones who make the front page, but we’re very often standing just behind the ones who do.

· Louis Vega, Dow: Make it about your audience; hear them, relate to them, make it relevant and bring them along!


Note: Paula Glover is now President of the Alliance to Save Energy, a position she assumed in January 2021. Tom Kiernan is now CEO of American Rivers, a position he assumed in February 2021. Congratulations to both of these impressive leaders on their new roles!




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