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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy Years Five and Six in Review – “The Best Advice I’ve Received”

Somehow, nearly six years have passed since I started The Common Sense Colloquy series of Q&As with energy, environment and other leaders in February 2018. In that time, more than sixty leaders from a variety of backgrounds and organizations have shared their insights on common sense communications and the wisdom of their professional experience. It’s a remarkable collection of commentaries from an inspiring set of people and a reminder that common sense is a useful foundation for communications.


The past two years were no exception: sixteen smart leaders from a variety of diverse backgrounds shared terrific perspective with me. With this post, I’m continuing my annual tradition of highlighting some of the best insight the previous year’s participants shared with me. As usual, I’m starting with a summary of the answers the respondents provided to the question “What’s the best common sense communications advice you’ve received?”  In my next post, I’ll highlight the answers to my question about the best advice our participants give to others. In my third post in this series, I’ll conclude this Years Five and Six in Review with my favorite comments from each participant.


Years Five and Six included another fantastic group of business and community leaders. I’m so grateful to each of them for agreeing to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy. Big thanks to Erin, Lionel, Patrice, Brian, Carmella, Mazen, Lisa, Guido, Tanya, Bryan, Blaine, Shelley, Nathaniel, Elena, Rob and Aidan for sharing their time and talent.


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



“When someone asks what you do for a living, rather than describing your role, begin by framing it through the lens of a problem. For example, I would say, “People who identify as LGBTQ+ are significantly underrepresented in corporate America, especially at senior levels. I run an organization whose mission is to change that by providing a professional network and recruitment opportunities to the LGBTQ+ community so we can see more queer business people succeed at senior levels and enter the C-Suite.”



“For video and in-person communications, it is to smile and try to crack a joke up front. First of all, this stuff can be really boring, and the best way to get people to put their phones down and listen is to make them not want to miss out on the joke at which everyone else is laughing. Also nobody wants to hear boring repetitive talks, so finding the humor engages more people. The smiling part I can’t explain but it probably has to do with projecting confidence. Every individual probably needs some different advice. In my case I’m pretty sure I needed both of those bits of advice years ago when I started doing conference presentations and interviews.”



“My TEDx speaking coach, Jill Davis, taught me something that I teach every single one of my coaching and leadership clients: “Teach from the scar, not the wound.”

“I’m sure she heard it from someone else, it’s been around a long time because it’s powerful advice. Every single one of us takes the stage, the mic, the keyboard, with baggage. We have triggers and trauma. If we teach from the wound, we are using our audience as therapists and that’s not fair to them. Or to our actual therapist. LOL. Teach from the scar, not the wound.”



“‘Don’t drool.’


“The first time I had an on-air TV interview, perhaps 15 years ago, a colleague surprised me with that advice as I was about to go live. On its face, of course, it’s impossible to argue with. But I like it because it also speaks, in the pithiest possible way, to the importance of simple, direct communication. It’s a great way of saying: Don’t overthink this. We can get so tied up in preparing for a good point-by-point response to every possible question that we forget that we need to convey our key points in a way that a broad audience will understand and that will resonate with them.


“As an example, when we talk about the transition to a low-carbon economy it’s easy to get caught up in the policy details or all the transformations that need to take place. But at the same time, we have to be careful also to offer a vision of that net-zero economy that people can plausibly see themselves and their families fitting into. As you said, communicating urgency is important, but businesses still need to make money and build things, and parents still need to drop kids off at soccer practice. So the goal is to paint that picture that it’s not just about a stable climate, but also about progress and modernizing an economy.


“Also, it just means don’t drool because that’s the only thing anyone will remember.”



“‘It’s not creative unless it sells,’ paraphrased from ad man David Ogilvy.”



“Focus. Focus your message down to the most important point(s). You don’t have to fit in all the subpoints and nuances all the time. And – by the way – you can’t. So focus.”



“Start with where people and communities are and find the connections with their values. When it comes to protecting public lands, we see the values are defined by place that no one wants to lose regardless of politics. Whether it’s natural beauty, Indigenous cultural continuity, clean water, access to great places to hunt, fish, camp or a hike with your dog. These are values that most people can agree upon and hold dear.”



“Listen and learn before you reply.”



“Some years ago, a reputable investor who is known for his simple but effective approach to business and leadership was asked to share advice for entrepreneurs; “if you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark – nothing happens; you can have all the brainpower in the world, but you must be able to transmit it; and transmission is communication” he stated. This “common sense” reflection brings light to the fact that the accurate transmission of our questions, conclusions and ideas is crucial for any project or solution to succeed, or even to exist. And the more complex or unique an idea is, the higher the need of communicating it in a clear and accurate way, as you need investors, clients, and any stakeholder of the project to fully understand the scope and processes involved so true collaboration can be attained.”



“Keep it simple! Especially with topics that tend to be rather complex like climate change. Try to tell the story in a way that a teen-ager would understand.”



“Listening. A good listener has the ability to ‘peel the onion’ and get to the core of the matter. When people sense that you distracted and not mindful of the conversation, they refrain from sharing the core truth. By being a good listener, your conversation partner will be aware that they have your full, nonjudgmental attention, enabling better communications.”



“Communicators are the conscience of our companies. The first person I ever heard say this was Linda Rutherford at Southwest Airlines.


“Communications, done right, is a necessary business function comprised of strategic advisors whose counsel is informed, respected and vital to the sustainability of our organizations. We are wordsmiths, and storytellers but words without actions or juxtaposed with contrary actions lose their meaning and therefore nullify the power of communication. We must not only shape the messages but influence and ensure the supporting actions behind them.”



“Be true to your authentic self and to those you are trying to serve. Staying on message is key, especially in the current climate, where opposition messengers are strategically (and, sadly, successfully) sharing harmful and damaging messages, many of which are just entirely untrue. Most critically? Don’t repeat the lie. It’s too easy for others to take our good messages and words—and facts—and twist them to suit their own nefarious purposes; don’t help them. And always listen to your communications team, of course!”



“Tell the truth, honor your commitments and be kind and generous. This is more than just common-sense advice about communications. It’s common-sense advice for living a good life.”



“Be a good listener. Communications entail a mutual exchange of information. Being an attentive listener (or reader) can help bridge communication gaps, avoid miscommunications, and sometimes help move conversations forward to addressing more significant underlying issues at the core.”



“95% of what I know about policy communications has come from two places: Suzy Baker and our comms team at Carbon180. From Suzy, I think one of the most important things I learned was about the intersection of art and policy communications. Typically, when we think about communications in the policy world, it’s in very traditional formats. But Suzy is throwing art gallery parties with advanced nuclear renderings and talking about murals on nuclear reactors, and it really fundamentally shifted how I think about communications. With our Carbon180 team, they do such an amazing job of creating a distinct voice for the organization that really balances our extremely deep, technical knowledge about carbon removal with who we are as people. We have a team that’s so passionate about the work they do and they really bring their whole selves to it and I think that comes across in our products.


“One of the things that I think both Suzy and our team have in common is that they step outside of traditional policy comms tactics and think very deeply about the ways in which people will connect with the ideas and technologies we work on.”




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