Fear: The most powerful weapon of all

People are motivated by a variety of factors and emotions. Greed, love, financial security, envy, guilt, a sense of obligation… Take your pick.

FearI believe that fear is the most powerful motivator of all because it triggers our innate survival instinct, causing an adrenaline-fueled gut reaction. This is why fear is such a formidable weapon. The reason for heinous acts like the Boston Marathon bombing is because terrorists want us to live in fear for our physical safety.

FDR was certainly correct when he said:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But if we let fear control us, that one thing is more than enough.

Many marketers and lobbyists also use fear as a tactic of persuasion; albeit a much less visceral fear than the “fight or flight” response. For example, ad campaigns frequently play on the fear of being socially outcast or missing out on all the fun. Logic and reason are completely discounted in these imaginary social crises.

Likewise, the Senate’s failure to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment this week appears to stem from fear of something — loss of campaign funds, perhaps, or backlash from a vocal minority. Reason doesn’t even enter into the argument against the amendment; opponents said that it wouldn’t stop all gun crime. By that “logic” one could extrapolate that we don’t need traffic laws because they don’t prevent all traffic accidents.

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Can you hear me now?

Just be quiet. The most essential trait of a good communicator is the ability to be quiet and listen.

Before we can communicate effectively, we need to listen carefully to our audience. What do your customers really want? How is the market responding to the competitors’ messages? Without a true understanding of the question, it’s impossible to craft a compelling response.

Of course, this essential life lesson applies to our relationships with friends and loved ones as well. I think this poignant short film is a beautiful example of the basic human need to be heard; the importance of being there for each other:

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Laughing in the face of disaster

Like many Americans, I watched the State of the Union address and the GOP response with interest last night. And, like many of my fellow communications professionals, I was aghast at the awkward lunge for a swig of water in the middle of the response speech. Within minutes, Twitter was drowning in satire.

water bottle But I have to give props to Marco Rubio (or his image consultants) for quickly deflecting the attacks by laughing along with the joke. He tweeted a photo of the empty bottle last night, and this morning was making the rounds of news shows with water in hand.


As much as we would like to do so, we can’t always control every element of every public appearance. Sh*t happens, as they say. The critical issue is what we do next.

Sometimes the best response to an unfortunate gaffe is a good laugh.

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Speaking of great communicators

You know that moment when your friend or loved one looks at you with a blank stare, as if you’re speaking complete gibberish? I guess we’ve all experienced it.

It’s the look that says: I think you’re trying to communicate with me, but I don’t have a clue what you’re going on about.

Even when two people speak the same language, they aren’t really communicating without a common frame of reference. Maybe it’s a generational gap or cultural differences. Sometimes it’s related to the region where we grew up. And the breakdown in communications over political dogma these days is enough to make some folks go crazy.

As I get older, I seem to be on both the giving and receiving end of that stare a lot. Unfortunately, it’s more often related to poor memory!

“Who was that woman?”

“What woman?”

“You know, that woman with the red hair…  You were talking to her about that charity event the other day at that restaurant.”

“What woman was that? Which charity? At which restaurant?!”

“You know… The one whose husband, whatshisname, works at that place near the school…?”


Martin Luther King, Jr. imageSome people are simply great communicators — they always try to put ideas into a context familiar to their audience.

Of course, it’s fitting to pay tribute to accomplished orators on the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

As for the rest of us, we could really use a thingamajig that can read our, you know, minds.

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“Well honey, you knew it was coming”

holiday lightsThe holidays always sneak up on me. Year after year. One minute I’m basking in the sunshine on a warm summer day, and the next it’s all a blur of twinkling lights, baking and a sprint to the last shopping day.

One year I lamented to my mother-in-law that I couldn’t believe the holidays were almost here and I still had so much to do. She replied, “Well honey, you knew it was coming, didn’t you?”

Yes, of course she was correct. I do indeed have access to a calendar. Yet it’s still the same pandemonium every time.

I’m beginning to think I subconsciously block it out as a form of denial.

If I just ignore the season, maybe we can skip right to January; no muss, no fuss. And the older I get, the less energy I have for all the fuss.

But more and more, I cherish the time spent with family and friends. That is what the holidays are really all about to me. If only I had more time…

Oops, I’ve got to dash now. So much still to do, you know!

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The fiscal cliff looms large

Perhaps the Mayans were right after all. It’s the end of the year 2012 and we are all about to meet our doom by charging off a fiscal cliff. The “greatest nation on earth” is about to take a header into nothingness like Wile E. Coyote.

wile-e-coyoteTo hear the pundits debate the issue, it does sound like the end of the world as we know it. Granted, this is a serious matter. Whichever path Congress decides to follow will have a significant impact on our economy – either in 2013 or for the next generation. But the U.S. has faced more substantial turning points before.

Why is the fiscal cliff such a big deal?

It’s all about the visual imagery. A persuasive argument has been created with little more than descriptive language that conjures up visceral feelings of panic. In our collective imagination, we will soon plunge into the abyss.

Or will we? Language can be used to create positive imagery just as effectively as it can create fear. Perhaps if we framed the argument differently we could see the outcome in a more optimistic light. For example, by shedding some of our national debt we might lighten the load enough to soar off the cliff and fly to the heavens in sheer economic bliss!

No… on second thought, probably not.

But we just might survive anyway. Wile E. Coyote always does.

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The election is over… Can we tone down the political rhetoric?

Is there too much empty rhetoric today?

Hmmm…  Is that a rhetorical question?

With all of the different communications channels available today – social media, TV, newspapers, blogs, radio (terrestrial, satellite and Internet) – it seems like the level of noise and hyperbole has ramped up beyond belief. Do we really need to shout to be heard?

The world of politics offers a prime example. As news cycles get shorter and shorter, and the parties become more partisan, the ratio of substance vs. hot air is shrinking exponentially in today’s public discourse. Sometimes I think our collective train of thought has completely derailed.

Now don’t get me wrong; the sport of political dialogue can be entertaining. In fact, parsing the nonsense can be a fun diversion at times. But speech doesn’t have to be absurd to be effective, and we don’t need to shout to be noticed.

Effective use of clever, straight-forward language and images, targeted to the appropriate audience, can reap a much greater benefit than shouting or muck-raking.

Words can be extremely powerful when applied correctly… Use them wisely.



1.  (in writing or speech) the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast.

2.  the art or science of all specialized literary uses of language in prose or verse, including the figures of speech.

3.  the study of the effective use of language.

4.  the ability to use language effectively.

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