Doesn’t Hurt to Ask by Trey Gowdy

I work in the field of communications and politics has been an interest of mine since high school.  So when I was offered a chance to review Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade by Trey Gowdy I quickly grabbed if for my Kindle from NetGalley.

It was a frustrating read.  I enjoyed it in many ways but in others ways it was hard to get a handle on. As it does so often, it comes down to expectations and how much you enjoy a blending of genres and topics.  There is a lot of good advice about how to argue and communicate, and Gowdy has a light, humorous and engaging style, but the blending of memoir and self-help with a heavy helping of legal and political context undercut the clarity for me.

The publisher’s description was what I had in mind when I started reading:

You do not need to be in a courtroom to advocate for others. You do not need to be in Congress to champion a cause. From the boardroom to the kitchen table, opportunities to make your case abound, and Doesn’t Hurt to Ask shows you how to seize them. By blending gripping case studies from nearly two decades in a courtroom and four terms in national politics with personal stories and practical advice, Trey Gowdy walks you through the tools and the mindset needed to effectively communicate your message.

From this description, and the title and subtitle, it sounds like a book on communication and persuasion. And that is what I was most interested in learning about: “Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade.”

But it might more accurately be titled: “How to argue like a prosecutor.” Most of Gowdy’s approach to communication comes from that perspective; and the book is full of stories of cases he handled and of his experience as a Congressman acting as a prosecutor of sorts.

The connection between persuasion and these cases, however, isn’t always crystal clear or at least wasn’t to me. In other words, translating persuasion from the courtroom and the committee room to the kitchen table isn’t always obvious and intuitive. Perhaps, this is my anti-lawyer bias coming through… Continue reading

To blog or not to blog?

For those of you scoring at home, my last blog post was roughly two and a half months ago. I think I have posted something like 16 times this year (a higher number thanks to a flood of posts in June). Clearly, this blog is a hit or miss type of thing (mostly miss without Jeff). To be fair, it does say “Occasional Bloggers” in the tag line …

So the question I have been mulling for the last couple of months (but not for the first time) is whether to keep blogging or call it quits after 14 years.

I think I want to give at least one more try at making it work. Let me give you some insight into why.

The basic reason I want to give it another try at making it work is that I still love to read and find books and authors fascinating.  I have read 75 books this year so that part hasn’t dropped off.  What I want to see if I can do is combine this love of books and ideas with the discipline and commitment to good writing and regular posting.  This is what I have failed to do for some time.  But I think it remains a skill and habit I can and should redevelop.

So what happened anyways? Why the steep drop off in blogging?  Obviously, a lack of time plays a big part.  My kids are older now and have activities that suck up lots of time and energy.  My wife is working full-time and that means a more complex schedule as well.  Throw in the distractions of social media (more about that in another post) and my interest in sports and it is hard to find time to sit down and write.

The other part is the combination of focus and motivation.  In addition to finding time to write, you need to have the focus to sit down and actually post something (particular if you want quality as opposed to just quantity) but you also need motivation to overcome the inertia of not posting.

And this is where I have been lacking.  I just haven’t felt like posting or that posting was worth the hassle.  To unpack this, allow me to offer Holtsberry’s key to communication: insight, clarity and persuasion.

Insight: you need to have something to say.  Why communicate if you don’t have something interesting, insightful or useful, right?  Insight means you have something worth communicating.

Clarity: you need to be able to clearly and effectively capture the insight.  Having something to say isn’t all that useful if you can’t explain what it is and why it is worthwhile. You may thinks your thoughts are brilliant.  Clarity means you can share your insight with others.

Persuasion: you need to be able to change someone’s mind.  This is the pinnacle of communication to my mind.  If you can share your insight clearly but also in such a way as to actually change the way someone thinks.  This might be through information or it might be through storytelling but changing someone’s mind or getting them to think differently is the ultimate in successful communication.

I had a real hard time getting motivated to blog because I didn’t think I could accomplish any of these three.  I wasn’t sure I had any insight, if I did wasn’t sure I could say it with clarity, and if I posted it I wasn’t sure it would reach anyone let alone change their thinking. Whenever I thought about posting a review, I had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t really worth the effort.

And like so many things, once you get out of the habit of doing it the easier it is to just keep not doing it.  Next thing you know months have gone by and you wonder whether you should hang it up.

So why not just give it up?  Been a good run, but lots of blogs close. Move on, as the saying goes.

I guess I don’t want to go out like this.  One of the reasons I started blogging was to improve my writing skills and engage with people and ideas.  I still want to do those things and I feel like I owe it to myself to do the hard work necessary to do them well. Basically, I want to use blogging as a tool to build focus and discipline and to prove to myself that I can write with insight, clarity and persuasion. [Plus, the free books and access to authors, etc.]

Time will tell if I have what it takes. So stay tuned …

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

Communication is a big part of my career.  Unlike Alan Alda, my focus has been in the world of public policy and politics, but I am nevertheless interested in communication; how it works, what works better, what we might be missing, etc. And like so many, I have a soft spot for Alda given his iconic role in M.A.S.H.

So when offered an ARC of If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, I jumped at it.  And I am glad I did.

It is an interesting exploration of the importance of connection and empathy in communication. How do you describe the style or genre?  It is pop science mixed with memoir; based on Alda’s unique experience as an actor (particularly improvisation), science documentarian, and proponent of better communication surrounding science.

The nugget of truth the book is built on: the theory of the mind, the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, and empathy, connecting with others on an emotional level, leads to increased communication.  In the book Alda unpacks how he grew to explore and understand this insight via improvisation and research.

Alda interviewed hundreds of experts for the PBS television show Scientific American Frontiers which led him to create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009.  The Center “empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside of their own discipline.”

Alda basically takes readers with him as him explores these ideas, poses questions to experts, dives into research, and even uses himself as a guinea pig to test out his theories.

It all comes down to the fact that effective communication happens when people connect; using not just rationality and logic but emotion and storytelling.  We must understand what the other is thinking and feeling and meet them where they are in order to truly communicate. Otherwise we are talking at people or past them.

He fascinatingly relates how improvisational acting games and exercises can help doctors and scientists better relate to their patients and explain their work to the public..  He explores how training yourself to identify and name people’s emotions can make you more empathetic and thus a better communicator.  And he outlines how emotional stories grab people’s attention and help them remember.

Because of Alda’s light touch and personal approach, the book, despite the science involved, is a quick and easy read.  But the nuggets and insights should not be underestimated.  Anyone interested in connecting with others and communicating more effectively will enjoy and benefit from reading this book.

And who among us couldn’t use to improve in this crucial area of life?