• Ben Finzel

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

Every year at this time for the past three years, we highlight the best of the best from our Common Sense Colloquy series: key advice and perspective on communications from a diverse group of energy, environmental and LGBTQ leaders who participated in our monthly Q&A series.


In this, the second post in our three-part series marking the end of the third year of the Common Sense Colloquy, we’re sharing insight from twelve influential Presidents, CEOs, former Members of Congress and agency leaders on the best communications advice they’ve given to others.


As with yesterday’s question on the best communications advice they’ve received, the answers our special guests shared with us reflect both common sense and deep insight from a diverse group of people representing a broad cross-section of business, organization and advocacy sectors.


We are so thankful and appreciative of the time Laura, Russ, Judy, Bob, Paula, Malcolm, Chiqui, Earl, Denise, Tom, Jennifer and Louis took to participate in Year Three of the Common Sense Colloquy. After a year like 2020, their advice and insight provides useful guideposts for us all to consider as we continue to respond to the pandemics of COVID-19, structural racism and an uneven economy.


Question: What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve given to others?


· Laura Taylor, Silverline Communications: As Kenny Rogers sings in The Gambler, “You gotta know when to fold ‘em, know when to hold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” Oh, and….pros like Ben will steer you right every time. We’re proud to be partnered with RENEWPR.

· Russ Carnahan, BuildingAction: Work in a bipartisan way whenever possible. The only thing certain about Washington is that party control of the White House and Congress goes in cycles. Especially in the legislative branch it’s about building coalitions-the bigger and more bipartisan the more powerful. When you have a champion or sponsor for your issue, ask them to identify co-sponsors from the opposite party. Many members have close friendships across the aisle that are helpful in this. One of the more structured ways to do this is for a bill sponsor to only allow co-sponsors if they have a member form the opposite party to join them. This is not only “common sense” it is a practical necessity in the current deeply divided politic landscape we live in today.

· Judy Rader, Exelon: Every good communication must start with the audience in mind. That’s not news to communications professionals. Strategic, data-driven communications are more important now than ever. Deeply understanding your audience – through quantitative and qualitative research – is still the gold standard of effective communications. Knowing your audience – what messages and messengers resonate with them, and when and how they prefer to receive communications – is essential to a communication’s success. Political campaigns mastered audience polling and research long ago, but it’s equally important in corporate campaigns. There’s no substitute for data.

· Bob Witeck, Witeck Communications: When I am offering any advice to young professionals, I think the two most frequent recommendations I make are these: Write every day, read constantly.


I found early in life that I am addicted to words, to writing and to reading. I believe they have given me a lifelong advantage to be nimble with writing everything from editorial pieces to speeches to blurbs to articles and book chapters. The breadth and variety of writing is a marvel, and it takes a lifetime to master even a fraction of it – but truly to appreciate good writing.


Reading is so basic and so personally rewarding. It is a universal window into extraordinary stories and the countless ways other people think, act, and feel. Great story-telling is one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received at a young age – and it has made all the difference to me as a professional too.

· Paula Glover, American Association of Blacks in Energy*: Wait before pushing send, particularly when you’re upset.

· Malcom Woolf, National Hydropower Association: Tell stories. Make them human and relatable. While facts and figures are important, stories resonate. Given that hydropower enriches our communities in more ways than you think, we’re working to tell stories that everyone can relate to. For example, in Washington, Seattle City Light spearheaded a project to remove Mill Pond Dam, which was no longer serving a useful propose, and restore six miles of the Sullivan Creek channel to help protect the future of native fish, including the threatened Bull Trout and native Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Telling stories helps communicate the essential role hydropower plays in communities across the nation.


· Chiqui Cartagena, The Conference Board: Listen to what people have to say, be transparent, honest and true to yourself and you can never fail.

· Earl Fowlkes, Center for Black Equity: 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: Connect with your audience. That may seem daunting, especially when your audience is large or unknown to you (such as a mass email or ad campaign). But if you try and imagine who the audience is and then place yourself if their situation, ask a simple question: So what? In other words, why does this person care about what you’re saying? If you can honestly answer that question, you will have taken a huge step toward effective communication.


· Tom Kiernan, AWEA*: Preparation and Practice! When I started leading groups of people, I know I was a horrible communicator. I was nervous, unclear, and ineffective. But I learned that practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes better. So, after a lifetime of preparation and practice by rehearsing remarks, rewriting speeches, asking advice from friends and experts, you can get a lot better.


· Jennifer Martin, Center for Resource Solutions: Make it shorter.

· Louis Vega, Dow: Be you. To be an effective leader and communicator, you need to be authentically you. As you said above, I’m an openly gay Latino from a small town in New Mexico. For me, that means weaving in my own personal experiences… and reflecting on the communication techniques and tactics that have been most effective for me or when communicating with people like me. People can tell when you’re putting on a front or using corporate speak; just speak from your heart and your belief system.


Everyone has unique experiences that provide value to their organization or company – I know my experiences and background have benefitted me over my career – let your true self shine through in your communications and interactions… the rest, as they say, will follow.


*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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