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Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

Bill Moyers: Serving “News” like the Butler Serves Tea on Downton Abbey

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Do Not: Do Not Disturb the Master Class

All of us can stand a bit of disruption from time to time.

David Uberti wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review about PBS pulling ads from Harper’s Magazine as retribution for an article critical of PBS. PBS exists as a non-commercial, educational media channel. But the critical Harper’s article by Eugenia Williamson pointed out

…that the idealistic, Great Society-era initiative often behaves more like a corporate or political organism.

And so, a fit of ad-pulling ensued. But it was this candid, PBS-critical quote from the patron saint of public broadcasting that caught my ear:

Our Washington coverage, by design or not, serves up ‘news’ the way the butler serves tea on Downton Abbey, so as not to disturb the master class.

–Bill Moyers

Tea is served at the Pittock Mansion

Tea is served at the Pittock Mansion

Wherever you land in your organization, there is some grand narrative at work that guides all involved. That grand narrative is often a good thing and useful. It is often laden with meaning that helps us do our jobs. But it is not a perfect narrative—never is—and parts call out to be challenged by practitioners.

After all, it is the disruptive conversations that lodge in our brain pans. Those conversations we cannot forget sometimes actually open our clam shell brains to something new. And that is the way of both innovation and truth-telling.

Many of us—especially the people-pleasers among us—are careful to assemble conversations that do not disturb the people around us. I am guilty of this. But truth-telling must necessarily veer from the party line.

If only because sometimes the party line veers from truth.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to Make Your Message Permanent

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A tip from a prehistoric consultant

First: Forget about it. Nothing is permanent—at least not in the way advertising mavens augur.

Second: OK—if you insist—make your message about someone else. Make your message give back more than it takes in. “GE” branded on a rock would never last. Even the Apple logo will be chiseled away by Microsoft rebels. But a man with jointed wings, well, who can resist that story?

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?]

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?

Prehistoric peoples stopped by these ancient rocks to tell their version of the human condition. So they carved/picked/incised/abraded their messages into the exposed Sioux quartzite outside Comfrey, Minnesota long before there was a Comfrey or a Minnesota or a U.S. of A. Maybe before the pyramids and Stonehenge. Ancients left messages here to direct and entertain passers-by.

Why make your message permanent? We understand marketing communications for companies—it’s about keeping the wheels of commerce turning. But you personally—what messages do you have to communicate? And why would you make them permanent? I argue that your take on the human condition comes out in the way you do your work, the way you interact with family, friends, colleagues, and even the way you see/refuse to see the homeless guy at the end of the exit ramp. And all these daily interactions amount to a carving and incising that is far more permanent than any of us imagine.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

Our conversations have an enormous (cumulative) effect on the people around us. An effect that may move through generations.

What exactly is your message, anyway?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Do Not Click on this Pornographic Website

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You may not recover. You have been warned.

“Porn” is a term we reserve for the depiction of erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement.

Everyone knows this.

But does the depiction of erotic behavior ever extend beyond sexual? I say “Yes” and note that it routinely presents as normal life. Lots of advertising aims for this lustful, must-own tone. Bathtubs, kitchens, lake homes. Cars. Bicycles. Camera lenses. Ice cream sandwiches. Apple is the pre-eminent, undisputed master of desire-manipulation designed to cause ownership lust, as witnessed in yesterday’s watch announcement. It’s a winning persuasion technique that bypasses reason as it reduces the unaware to a quivering mass of…longing.


you sexy thing

Really anything can be pornographic—even book ownership. More and more I see piles of books in Tumblrs along with a statement about how reading changes you. Which is true. But so does conversation. So does work. So does life. And so does experience. It’s curious because books seem to be moving to the level of a totem, where we hold them up as having a kind of magic power for wisdom. And all this as more and more of us read less and less. When I teach writing classes, I routinely say that even a paragraph is too much copy (too many words) for many of us.

I’m all for books. And I’m especially fond of reading them. But I’d like to see ads for owning the contents of books. I’d like to see ads that move people toward the deep reading Mortimer Adler defended in How to read a book. Ads that make it sexy to know something and to engage in a conversation about it.

But there’s no money to be made in that.

Maybe book lust is one of the OK-lusts. But I would hope we could grow up to the kind of deep knowing that brings book contents into our daily conversations.


Image credit: Loome Theological Booksellers: “Largest secondhand dealer of theological books in the world.”

Written by kirkistan

September 10, 2014 at 10:29 am

King Corn

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How talk of an acre became talk of an industry

Here’s a story seemingly about not knowin’ nothin’: two friends from Boston decided to figure out why we grew so much corn in the U.S. So, naturally, they went to Iowa and hired an acre of land to grow their own corn.

As anyone would, given a compelling question.08292014-KingCorn

In King Corn, friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis found their grandfathers both came from the small town of Greene, Iowa. In this documentary (a form we know as dedicated to a version of a story rather than seeking objectivity), the two friends plant, fertilize, weed, and then harvest their acre of corn. All with the help of local farmers. But this is not the gotcha-style documentary that Michael Moore practiced. These friends seem genuinely interested in all aspects, ask the dumb questions that any of us (non-farmers) might ask, and make connections with the farmers, families and communities along the way. They let their questions propel them and others join in, though we have a strong hunch where the questions are going.

As they tell their story, they identify Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford. They note how Butz initiated a government policy shift that turned small farmers into big producers (especially of corn) rather than keeping them as small producers (that is, paying them to not produce to keep prices high). The friends also talk with Michael Pollan and a number of other fancy academic big-shots with opinions and research on food and agriculture. What they found turned the conversation.

  • Massive feed lots that have dialed up cattle production by letting them stand and eat corn nearly constantly. So: faster to market. The cattle continue to eat toward an upper physiologic limit and must ingest a constant stream of antibiotics to continue eating. That would be our beef industry.
  • A high fructose corn syrup industry spawned from the great quantities of corn produced. High fructose corn syrup seems incredibly malleable and shows up in a high percentage of the produced foods we buy. And high fructose corn syrup, as we are learning, is just more sugary, empty calories that help contribute to our nations struggle with obesity.

Click for trailer

Click for trailer

What’s odd is that raising corn, on its own, is a money-losing endeavor. But with the subsidies our government kicks in, it becomes profitable for farmers to set aside enormous sections of land to grow it. And the resulting industries and practices have a problematic relationship with our culture and health.

King Corn ends up as an uncomfortable look into an industry we all partake in. And like all documentaries, there is a clear point of view, which was fun to watch. I’m certain the beef and high fructose corn syrup industries have excellent and solid rebuttals for the conclusions any viewer might form from the film.

We’re all happy with cheap food, but the film helps us ask about the long-term cost of our cheap food.

What I appreciated about the tone of the film was just two guys just asking questions (yes, I bought into that portrayal of the friends). And rather than Michael Moore-style bombast, the filmmakers presented a couple sides to the story (though certainly not all sides) through conversation. The result helps me begin to rethink the low-priced, easily available food that surrounds us and for which I am grateful.



Written by kirkistan

August 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

“Good to Know” and a Failure to Communicate (DGtC#23)

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I’ve said too much already.

If you hear this, you’ve said too much. You’ve said more than someone wanted to hear. “Good to know” is a polite way for your listener to indicate, “Please. Shut it.”

Why do we say too much?


Maybe we are excited about a topic. People will often have mercy with this motive. Sometimes the excitement rubs off. Our favorite professors and speakers demonstrated their enthusiasm for a topic by going on. And on.

Maybe it is a nervous tic that flows from fear of awkward silence.

Maybe we are hiding our tracks, like the alcoholic filling up verbal space to avoid the obvious question. Maybe our rush of words is like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, to throw our interrogators off our track.

Maybe we’re signaling dominance. Stringing together buzzwords at a rapid pace is a time-honored tactic in corporate meetings where you have no clue how to respond. The tactic usually ends in promotion because higher-ups read “kindred spirit” in your fast mumbling. Maybe our club or church or group listens for key words to show who is in and who is out, so our rush of words is a frantic attempt to show we are in.

“Good to know” is a proper, dismissive response to much of the advertising done to us: superfluous, out of step with regular life and an obvious pitch for our pocketbook.

But when we hear “Good to know,” it may be worth stepping back and getting momentarily meta, and thinking, “Oops. I might have misjudged this person’s interest. How can I get back to connection?”

Connection is the place to be. Connection gets along well with enthusiasm and does not mind probing into track-hiding. But connection does not abide dominance.



See also: How be a verbal philanthropist (#14)



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why I Don’t Listen To Christian Music

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Short Answer: No One Likes Being Manipulated

On Conversation is an Engine I mostly write about communication and conversation and copywriting and how business interacts because I am fascinated by what happens when people talk. But undergirding this sense of wonder is a faith in God that makes me see much of life in theological hues. The fallout from that theological saturation means I want to approach the work of communication and persuasion from an ethical perspective—as best I can.

Lots of music labeled “Christian” does not do that.

OneTheMove-05122014The college I occasionally teach at has a radio station that spins out Christian music. I stopped listening years ago when I realized my emotions were being manipulated by music that was nearly content-free. It had a veneer of faith, but seemed much more about living a good life and having positive feelings.

Especially positive feelings.

I’m not against positive feelings. Happy is good in my book. Happy makes sense to me. But if happy comes from a sugar-like high that dissipates as quickly as it formed, was it real? And is happy the point of faith in God?

I argue: No.

Happy is good. Joy is better and depending on how you define things, joy lasts longer. And true is best.

And really, what is Christian music? I might argue Tom Waits has a lot more truth to offer than whatever contemporary Christian band is currently famous. The Talking Heads seemed to provide many glimpses of truth—so do many of the folk musicians I listen to. Certainly Mr. Bach and Mr. Mozart and Mr. Telemann and Mr. John Adams and even Philip Glass provide more soaring and more depth and more truth.

Of course, music is a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong. We like what we like and I don’t want to disparage anyone’s choices—really I don’t. But if I sense I’m being manipulated by sentimental lyrics, I move on.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston, in response to on the move

Minnesota Representative Garofalo: “There is not a racist bone in my body.”

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The short, turbulent life of a tweet.

What we say and do demonstrates who we are. We cannot help but draw conclusions based on the actions we see and the comments we hear. In the end, no one of us can know more than that about each other.

That’s how communication works.

Representative Garofalo’s Sunday Tweet landed on ESPN Monday morning. Tweeters were quick to jump on the tweet, denouncing Mr. Garofalo’s latent racism, Republicans and politicians generally. Colleagues lambasted the tweet and national media held it up for examination, which is to say, the typical circus-posse was formed around these 140 characters. Mr. Garofalo denied racist overtones but ultimately apologized for the tweet as the water got hotter.

Mr. Garofalo’s apology was unusual because he is an outspoken Tweeter and communicator who remains unafraid to confidently assert. The apology was also sort of usual: “to those NBA players and other who were unfairly categorized by my comments….” So, typical of public apologies, this one creates distance even as it acknowledges pain and takes responsibility.

I’m interested in what happens in our quick responses. Responding to each other is one of the fun bits of conversation. Our quick responses are often revelatory: sometimes they show us things about ourselves we did not know. I wonder if in Mr. Garofalo’s case—despite his confident, well-reasoned quote on top—his quick tweet peeled away layers to reveal unseemly categories.

I suspect we all have those layers. Maybe we need to tweet and talk all the more rapidly so we can do the work of peeling the layers.

It can be a painful work—all the more so when put it in the form of a tweet that catches the national eye.




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