Disaster: Time to Emote

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The past 24 hours have presented a disparate trio of news stories. Mark McGwire admits to steroid use in an interview with Bob Costas. Sarah Palin joins Fox News and emotes to Bill O’Reilly. Bill Clinton responds to the earthquake in Haiti.

What do a sports figure, a budding political pundit and a seasoned leader have in common? They each used emotion effectively. However, I would only label one exemplary.

I was debating a blog post on apologia in regards to McGwire’s tearful admission yesterday when news of the earthquake hit. After this morning’s news consumption, I was pondering Michael Gerson’s opinion on President Obama’s oratory style, described as devoid of inspiration.  I concur that Obama’s style is at a minimum pedantic. So I could present tips for helping your executive deliver a meaningful and moving speech.

As for Sarah Palin? I agree with Peggy Noonan, who said in August 2008 that Palin will either be a spectacular success or a spectacular failure. It’s a political drama that is entertaining to watch. Only time will tell if her success will reach beyond a lucrative gig with Fox News.

Then about 30 minutes ago I listened to Bill Clinton’s interview on NPR regarding the earthquake. He didn’t have any new information to share, per se. However, I stopped what I was doing to listen him. (Unlike this morning’s press conference by President Obama when I was more concerned about selecting warm trouser socks. And now where I’m annoyed by yet another photo of Obama on the phone or in a meeting addressing a crisis. At least he’s not out golfing).

Clinton commands a listener’s or viewer’s attention for a few key reasons.

1) He uses inflection. You don’t feel like he’s reading from a script. Equally important, he knows the “art of the pause” — when to wait — count to three — then sigh just ever so slightly and continue. In this case, Clinton explained why monetary contributions would be most beneficial at this time. There is a clear need to buy medical supplies, food and water.

2) He’s an excellent story teller. Clinton recalled the first time he took Hillary to a cathedral in Port-au-Prince in the 1970s. Regardless of his personal connection to this particular story, Clinton and other skilled orators exhibit the gift of story-telling to personalize the impact of the news or to provide words of comfort in times of crisis.

3) Genuine empathy. It’s admittedly fun to mock Clinton for his “I feel your pain” persona. However, the famous dead Greeks taught that effective rhetoric requires pathos, logos and ethos. It’s a proven speech-making and interview formula. Without demonstrating empathy and sincerity, all the factual information, logical arguments and truthful admissions feel hallow.

You can share these tips with your executives or practice them yourself.  However, it is important to note that some leaders have an innate ability to connect with the public and others don’t. It’s difficult to rehearse. You really have to feel it in your core.

What should be felt among the leadership core in any organization is the imperative of an honest and timely response to crisis. Whether a natural disaster or a self-created crisis, the public response requires honesty and sincerity. Otherwise, credibility is difficult to maintain or establish.


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