Monthly Archives: April 2012

I am a Downwinder

Luther and Jane Turner (1937)--my great grandparents

I was in Seattle visiting my family recently and someone noted the scar on my neck from a thyroid tumor. She said, “You’re a downwinder, aren’t you?”

Hadn’t heard that word in a long time. I actually grew up in Spokane, on the eastern side of the state, in the path of the prevailing winds north and east of the Hanford nuclear reactor. Hanford was developed in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. Residents and workers alike heard about the true nature of the work going on there with everyone else—on the morning of August 6, 1945. Plutonium from Hanford was used in the bomb that fell on Nagasaki.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the Department of Energy released a 19,000 page report on both routine and accidental leaks of toxic byproducts that spread over 75,000 square miles. In “Atomic Farmgirl”, Teri Hein tells the story of growing up in the rich soil of the Palouse and almost every family’s loss to cancer of one kind or another.

That single word, downwinder, took me back to my childhood and my heritage. I am the great granddaughter of a homesteader, Luther P. Turner—also known as the Wheat King of the Inland Empire. A part of his once vast farm holdings in the state still belongs to my family.

What really struck me was the power of a single word unlocking a slew of associations and vivid memories. It’s what we all try to do as communicators—know our audience well enough to actively draw them into our cause or product with just the right word or phrase.

It is a good communicator’s skill to find that keyhole opening at the top of the pyramid of your offering that literally sucks people in because it resonates so deeply.

Catherine needed a great facilitator

I just finished reading “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie—a favourite author of mine. One of the things that made Catherine a great empress of the vast Russian Empire was her attempt to reform the legal code in 1767.

As a benevolent autocrat, she could have simply declared a new code, but she wanted to hear from the people. She drafted a guiding document and then brought together 564 delegates from every region, religion, rank and social class for a discussion. The delegates were to bring the needs, grievances and hopes of the people they represented to the table in order to craft a more just set of laws for the nation.

Catherine often sat behind a curtain and watched as the delegates argued, strutted, postured—and made no progress at all. There were power issues, of course, and language barriers. General mayhem ensued as everyone began to fight for their rights. These delegates met until early 1769 when a convenient war against Turkey drew Catherine’s attention and she dissolved the assembly.

Catherine’s intent was the right one, but she lacked a process and methodology for effectively gathering the wisdom from all the voices in the room and coming to some conclusions. That’s was a good facilitator or team of facilitators does—craft a careful plan of engagement, set out the questions to be answered, and then guide discussions to points of resolution and action.

I recently worked with a wonderful team of facilitators doing just that with a Canadian cancer taskforce. People from all over the country and world came together to draft a nation-wide treatment protocol and then regional action steps for addressing adolescent and young adult cancers.

With the help of a careful plan and targeted questions, these brilliant and passionate (and opinionated) researchers, doctors, care-givers and survivors left the conference with both clear action plans and enthusiasm for the tasks that lie ahead.

Catherine’s assembly left Moscow for war.

WRT naming: be BOLD

One is often called to make a decision and then live boldly into it. Big life decisions are not often absolutely clear (if ever) and the ramifications are never entirely positive. Once a decision has been made, both life and naming require the determination to live boldly.

Sometimes, despite all the process and creativity and metrics, the right new name is a tie with the runner up. A decision isn’t crystal clear. They both meet all the criteria for a great name: distinct, human and simple; possessing energy, depth and appeal—and no negative connotations.

In addition, one of the most important things a new name has to have is a story—a narrative that brings it to life in the hearts and minds of the people you want it to appeal to the most. It needs a story to live into once you’ve made the difficult decision.

During the transition from the old name to the new name, with proper handling, the broader narrative behind it begins to take hold and grow. It forms new attachments in brain cells and eyeballs. The story helps make sense of the new name to those who hear and see it.

It calls for a bold approach. You are changing perceptions.

You can even change the meaning of an old name with the right compelling narrative. “Obamacare” is a case in point. Supporters of the law in the US protested in favour of it outside the Supreme Court last week and re-minted its meaning on signs in bold letters.

The Republicans originally coined the name to signify big, bad government. Recently, President Obama turned the tables on it. “You want to call it Obamacare? That’s OK, because I do care,” he said.

It’s become a potent new rally call for his supporters. Be bold.