Knowing Your Audience

“Is THIS your card!!?” The young magician asked the reluctant volunteer that he had coaxed out of the small crowd that surrounded him. My wife and I were visiting the Asbury Park Boardwalk on our visit to New Jersey. It was a beautiful day and as we strolled along people watching, we came across a street performer/magician surrounded by a small crowd of people. I love magic acts (even bad ones like this) so I eagerly stepped up to the “magic rope” that he had laid on the ground and watched as he a rather awkwardly tried to get the crowd on his side. I was having a great time and as he would joke with everyone and stumble loudly to a tricks conclusion, I was supportive by politely clapping and cheering… a bit. Periodically he would spot other people watching from a safe distance and would yell at them to come closer to his rope and his woefully empty tip bucket. Soon he spotted my wife, who hates being the focus of attention. “If you’re going to watch just walk right up here!” Most people will dutifully follow these instructions, for fear of embarrassing the performer or themselves. But not Lori. “No thanks!” She said politely. “It’s easy, just use your feet!” The magician taunted sarcastically. I smiled and thought, Good luck Pal! “Yeah, I know what feet are for!” Lori said and then turned and walked way. The magician had misread his first audience member.

Now, one of the first things that a speaker, entertainer, the chairperson of a board, or a mayor, in my case, figures out is that you need to get to know your audience. Information like their mood, their sense of humor or lack thereof, what their interested in or if they’d rather be somewhere else. Which brings me back to our young magician friend.

As he felt the audience slipping away, he became more aggressive and more than a little obnoxious, grabbing young ladies by the arm and pulling them forward, making people’s money he had “borrowed” disappear and then not giving it back. One young man who obviously couldn’t afford to lose ten dollars was trapped into hanging around just to see if he could get his money back at the end of the show. He was definitely losing me because I instinctively stopped clapping and crossed my arms tight against my chest… the universal sign for “Please don’t mess with me.” Not exactly the kind of body language you want to see as a performer. Unfortunately for him, his attention was drawn to me anyway. “And for my next trick…” he said loudly, wadding up a small blanket, looking straight at me standing there in my obviously unamused state. “Creepy Guy!” he yelled. “Catch this!” And he threw the neatly folded blanket straight at me. In the second that it took the blanket to fly through the air to me, I went from fairly supportive audience member to an unamused critic. My eyes didn’t leave him and I didn’t move an inch as the blanket bounced off my still folded arms like Superman. There was a long silence as I stood there glaring at the ex-magician. He then slowly walked over to pick up the blanket, cleared his throat and tried to regroup, but before he could talk I loudly interrupted. With mock surprise I pointed at my chest. “Oh! I’m sorry… were you talking to me?” We were in New Jersey, so I thought this was the appropriate response. My wife, had seen this look on my face before so she began to move towards the front, feeling that it may be time for us to go. I stepped over the magic rope on the ground and walked towards him talking loudly as I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket. “You know kid, when I came up here, I was on your side and I really wanted you to succeed. But then you started being rude and obnoxious to all these good people and to cap it off, you insulted me, the one audience member that was willing to applaud and support you.” But despite all that, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to show you a magic trick.” I held up the bill in front of his face, then turned and held it up for the crowd to see. “First, I’m going to put this five dollar bill into your little bucket…” Slowly I lowered the bill into the bucket, then did my best magician nothing up the sleeves move. “And now, I’m going to disappear.” And then I turned and walked away, arm in arm with Lori. The over confident mouthy magician and the small crowd totally silent behind me.

Magician or politician, you better know your audience… or you better know actual magic.

The Great Mandel

A couple of years ago, I made a trip to Washington D.C. with some of my fellow elected officials regarding the high flood insurance premiums that were about to wreak havoc on our local economy. Our legislators didn’t seem to understand the ramifications of their actions… but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about our journey home.

Two days into the trip, a blizzard was bearing down on us and flights out of Washington began to cancel. Several of our colleagues were able to leave early but Commissioner Kiker (Larry), Mayor Mandel (Alan), and I were not able to escape early, so we decided that we would meet at 8am the next day and go to the airport together.

At 4am the next morning I woke up and looked outside. The usually busy street had disappeared, the cars parked there buried under several feet of snow and more was still coming down. Being a native Floridian I’d never seen anything like this and apparently neither had the people at the airport, because when I checked my email I found that they had politely informed me and thousands of other people that all flights had been canceled. For a week!

Now, the hotel we were staying at was nice, but the thought of staying there a week completely freaked me out, so I got dressed and went down to the lobby. I found Larry and Alan sitting in the cafe staring intently at their computers. I plopped down at the table. “Well, should I go to the front desk and extend our stay?” As Alan typed away at his computer, Larry said “I don’t know. The only flight I can find is out of New York City today at 4pm.” I yawned and stretched, thinking it was useless. “Well, that might as well be Los Angeles!” “Hey…” Larry said pointing over at our friend Alan, “He says he’s got it all figured out.” Alan looked up from typing. “We just take a train to New York!” Larry and I looked at each other and then started laughing. Alan took off his glasses and looked at us and with a big grin “What?” I started counting down fingers one at a time. “Here’s what! We have to get packed, check out, somehow get to the train station and then to New York City, then somehow get to JFK, and to our gate before our flight leaves!” Then I pointed at the window. “Oh! And there’s a blizzard outside heading straight towards New York too with no planes, cars or even people walking anywhere in Washington D.C.!” Alan was unfazed. “Look, Union Station is just five blocks away. We’ll just walk there, take the train to Penn Station in New York, get tickets on the Long Island Railroad to Queens, transfer to the JFK Shuttle and then take that to the airport!” He leaned back, smiled and put his hands out to his sides like he had just finished a magic trick. “Simple, but Larry has to buy the tickets for the plane and I have to buy these train tickets right now!”
Larry shrugged. “Well, I’ll try anything at this point.” I looked at them like they both had antlers growing out of their heads, then around at the hotel. (7 damn days.) I stood up. “That’s the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard in my life! Let’s do it!”

A half hour later we were trudging uphill in our suits and dress shoes, through the abandoned streets of Washington in windy, snowing, white out conditions, dragging our suitcases in calf deep snow, following Alan to where we hoped the train station was. Somehow we got there alive and then rode the near empty train through the blizzard all the way to New York’s Penn Station. Larry and I ran after Alan through the maze of tunnels and the crowds of people to the right ticket booth, to the right tunnel, to the right train, to the right stop and onto the right shuttle where he got us off at the right stop and the right gate. I was amazed! We made it with three hours to spare. But the storm was bearing down on us again, so we stood in the large crowd watching the flight information waiting for our flight to get canceled, again. All of a sudden Larry said “Hey look! There’s a flight leaving for Fort Myers in 30 minutes!” And then, he and Alan took off on a dead run. I stood there for a stunned second and then took off after them yelling. “Are you guy’s nuts? It’s not a train! They aren’t going to just let you walk onto it!

When we got to the gate they were already boarding and when Larry asked if there were seats available, the stewardess working the counter quickly shook her head no. Alan turned to us and said in a low voice. “We’ll get on. Give me a minute.” Larry and I went over to a couple of chairs about 50 feet away and watched Alan. Larry elbowed me in the ribs. “Watch the master.” I couldn’t hear him, but as Alan talked to the stewardess, he shrugged. He smiled. He laughed. He leaned forward and talked some more. And then… she smiled! Alan waved to us frantically and we followed him right onto the airplane, into our seats and back home! Magic!

I still can’t figure out how he got us home and so far, like any good magician, the Great Mandel won’t share his secret.

A Failure To Communicate

It was just an email meant to convey my sincere thanks. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it was taken. Bill had been helping me with a few projects and I though a quick “thank you” was in order. So I sat down at the computer and typed “Bill, thanks a lot for working on that project. You’ve really been a big help.” I checked it once, hit send and went back about my Saturday chores.
Around noon, I heard Lori yell from inside, “You’d better come in here and take a look at this”. When I found her she was standing in front of the computer pointing at the screen. “What’s up with Bill?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” And then I sat down to read his reply. He was not happy with me. From his 500 word response to my 2 sentence email, I could tell he had taken my comment the wrong way. I read my email again and still couldn’t figure out what had set him off. Then I remembered. He hadn’t replied to my latest request for information a few days ago. I had just figured he was busy and had done the research myself. So my sincere “Thanks a lot!” looked like a sarcastic “Thanks a lot!”
Now, this email exchange could have continued with me being offended by his comments (which were real doozies by the way) and escalated back and forth. It actually happens quite often, in “email world”, with each person trying to punish the other with their keyboards about some problem or insult that never really existed in the first place. To make matters worse, people often seem to feel the need to copy innocent bystanders, essentially inviting them to a “public flogging”.
The real guts of this problem is that email, as a method of communication, does an excellent job of conveying data, but an all together horrible job of expressing subtle and nuanced emotions. Wait…forget about subtle. It’s even hard to tell the difference between sarcasm and sincerity. As readers of email, we are too often tempted to fill in the emotional blanks ourselves, inserting emotional content and unwritten meaning where none was intended.
Although I’ve been as guilty as anyone else in these exchanges, I’ve come to realize that the best way to figure out what someone really means… Is to call them on the phone or go see them in person. I know… that’s pretty “old school”, but it’s effective and ironically a real time saver.
So, instead of emailing Bill, I picked up the phone. “Hey Bill, it’s Ben.” A long pause and then a tense “Yeah… I know.” Ten seconds later Bill was mortified. “Oh my Gosh, I’m so sorry! I wish I could take that email back.” I interrupted. “Bill, I’ve already deleted it. So far as I’m concerned… It never happened.” “Really?” said my relieved friend. “Yep.” I said and then paused. “You didn’t blind copy anyone did you?” Another pause… and then from the phone I heard a quick “I’ll call you right back.” Click

When a Cloud is simply a Cloud

Most everyone has at one time or the other, taken the opportunity to lay on their back in the grass, gaze up at the clouds and pick out the hidden shapes and patterns. Okay, it’s been a while for me too, but my point is that this type of pattern recognition comes naturally to us. We are capable of sorting through vast amounts of information and coming up with extremely complex conclusions or solutions and sometimes… we’re even right! Yet, this talent often leads us astray, because one of the tools that make it possible is our imagination.

This juggling act between our cognitive skills and our imagination is at the heart of every good decision, and every bad one. Unfortunately, an active imagination can make it easy to mentally go the extra mile and create an unnecessarily complex theory when, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is generally the right one and is sitting there patiently, waiting to be discovered. Accepting this basic tenant of logic (see Occam’s Razor) is more often than not extremely difficult for most of us to accept, because of the third side of our thought process, our emotions.

When we have an emotional investment in an issue, and we usually do, whether it’s a political philosophy, a long held prejudice, or attachment to a particular College Football team, the unconscious temptation to construct a conclusion that perfectly matches our preconceived notions can be too much to resist. The resulting conspiracy theory or bogus explanation of how something has occurred, or can be solved, can lead us to a chain of erroneous conclusions and bad decisions.

We don’t seem to have any trouble recognizing this very human trait in others, just in ourselves. It is difficult to accept that we sometimes select information that fits our favored conclusion and if we make decisions as a community based on this formula, the problem is often magnified and can have continued negative unintended consequences. It is the prize that keeps on giving. Fear, mistrust, rumor and false information can snowball and cause a community to react to circumstances that simply do not exist, problems that aren’t there, and cause them to make decisions that ironically fulfill their worst fears.

By applying a little healthy skepticism regarding our own decision making process, checking our preconceived notions at the door, giving someone else the consideration that we would want, or simply walking in the other persons shoes, we can be confident that our decisions are more likely to be fair, rational and just. I know it’s a scary world out there and not everything is always as it seems… but most of the time, a cloud is simply a cloud.

Just Do the Dishes

When my sons were pre teens, one of their chores was to do the dishes.  Apparently this was torture to them, because they would do just about anything to avoid it.  Nick and Neil are identical twins, actual mirror images of each other.  But, being mirror images they often have opposing views… and by often I mean always.  Even though they are inseparable, they have debated and argued for about 34 years now.  Of course like most parents, when the kids were young, I wasn’t really that interested in settling sibling rivalries… I wanted quiet… and for them to do the dishes.  My reasoning was simple.  I provided and cooked the food, so it was only fair that the two of them should do this one simple task.  “Look… I don’t care how you figure it out, or who does what.  It’s your job to come to an understanding and get this done!”  Unfortunately, that would have taken the willingness to compromise, not to mention the ability to recognize that it was in everybody’s best interest that they do so.  Oh, and they would have to shut up long enough to actually do some work. Continue reading

The Consensus

“So… where do you guys want to go to dinner tonight?”  This innocent sounding question can be the beginning of a brutal foray into consensus building.  It only takes two individuals to participate in this tango, but to get the full flavor of how difficult making a simple decision can be, it really takes 3 couples… preferably friends. Continue reading

What Red Wall?

Sometimes we just don’t notice the changes around us; like a wall that’s been painted a different color or things that we had “better notice” like our wife’s hair being styled differently.  Unfortunately, these positive changes often go unnoticed and unappreciated.    Maybe it’s because the changes are so subtle.  (Well… except for that red wall) Continue reading

The Journey

We are all on our own personal journey through life.  Along the way, our experiences have helped craft us into who we are.  When we think back, there have been people we have met, things that have happened to us and places we have been, that have changed us.  Of course, genetics played an important part in our development, creating a strong foundation, doling out traits both wonderful and cursed alike, that have been handed down through generations (without our advice or consent!).  And although we do have a hand in our own development, fate itself has thrown us a few unexpected curves… some wondrous and others tragic.  These forces have combined to chisel away at our raw character and our physical being, a chip here and a hefty piece there… until some of us actually end up looking and acting like completely different people.  But for most of us, somewhere deep down inside, the essence of who we are remains firmly intact. Continue reading

Pause for the Good Times

I don’t know about you, but time seems to pass by faster the older I get.  I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s because, we tend to get busier as we mature.  Our adult lives are full… full of kids, work, relationships, love, conflict, good times and bad.  We’re so distracted by the business of life, each time we allow ourselves to pause and reflect for that rare precious moment, our journey seems to have covered such a long distance, but taken such a short time. Continue reading

Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner

My wife and I were having dinner at our friend’s house, when the subject turned to politics.  (Surprise!)  Our friend “Sue” was angry because her “local representative” had done something that was contrary to her wishes.  Despite the kick under the table from my wife (she knew what was coming) I couldn’t resist.  “So, do you really think that your elected representative should always make decisions that reflect your own opinion?” I asked rubbing my shin. Continue reading