When Your Message Goes Up in Flames

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Sometimes our message misses the mark. And sometimes it goes down in flames.


Over the last few days, my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania (which I dearly love), experienced the latter, as the board of trustees called for the resignation of university President Liz Magill.


Magill, along with far too many university presidents across the country including Harvard and MIT, has faced a lot of criticism for failure to adequately address increasing antisemitic hate speech on campus in recent months. But it was how she answered questions during a recent hearing of the House Committee on Education that lit the match.


When asked whether an act of explicitly “calling for genocide of Jews” (or presumably any population) would constitute a breach of the university’s code of conduct, the answer should have been an unequivocal and resounding “YES.” PERIOD.


Instead, she gave an overly academic response focusing on Constitutional rights to free speech, and set her career – and potentially the reputation of the university – on fire.


As Scott Bok, the chair of the university’s board of trustees (who also resigned), later explained:


“Over prepared and over lawyered given the hostile forum and high stakes, (Magill) provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong. It made for a dreadful 30- second sound bite in what was more than five hours of testimony…”


And, true to typical practices of mass media today, that sound bite — to the exclusion of whatever else might have been said in the rest of those five hours — turned into a raging inferno.


In a video she made shortly thereafter, Magill attempted to apologize and course-correct, but the damage was done. It was too little, too late. The plane was going down in flames.


Bok’s assessment was spot on: it was a legalistic answer to a moral question, and Magill forgot her audience: the world was watching, and that world was far more interested in the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.


Forgetting who your audience is, what matters to them, and what they need from you, can be the kiss of death for anyone no matter how large or small the scale.


That’s a big theme this week: the necessity of remembering who your audience is, and how to speak to them in a way that gives them what they need, so you get the results you want.


For starters, this week on Speaking to Influence podcastDr. Shanil Ebrahim, Partner at Deloitte Canada, tells some all-too-relatable stories about how he learned important lessons about connecting with his audience early on in his consulting career.


He shared how he learned to find the balance between showing expertise and ensuring clarity with his team and his clients after making the mistake of bringing in subject matter experts and using ‘consulting speak’ instead of laying concepts out in terms that made sense to everyone.



Shanil also shared how he learned to

  • stop using layers of technical jargon that were preventing clients from identifying clear, actionable next steps.
  • face his discomfort with the idea of ‘power’
  • speak up on issues that mattered to him, especially in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, when he found himself elevated to a leadership position
  • do a personal SWOT analysis
  • get clear on his own personal brand, and why it is critically important for everyone. (More on this below!)


Listen to the full conversation here or watch it on YouTube here.

But Shanil isn’t the only one who has struggled with communicating to new audiences after major industry career changes.

This week, I was honored to join Anjel B. Hartwell on her terrific Wickedly Smart Women podcast. Among other things, Anjel and I dove right into my own transition from academia to entrepreneurship.



Trust me – after a decade of the “ivy tower,” learning to think, speak, and write like a professor and researcher, making the transition to entrepreneurship and working with corporate clients was a big wakeup call.

I missed the mark with prospective clients A LOT.

Why? Because success with that audience required me to UNLEARN virtually everything that academia had taught me about how to speak and write!

Tune in to understand what executives and entrepreneurs can do to be more effective communicators and ensure YOUR message hits the mark in a way that inspires the audience to act!

And just as exciting, I discovered that (aside from his terrific interview on the Speaking to Influence podcast a few months ago) a conversation I had over the summer with Nathan Beckord at FounderSuite on his podcast “How I Raised This” was just published as an article in Forbes.com:

How to Command a Room: Speak Like a Leader to Build Your Business.

I was so glad to know that my messages in that interview HIT the mark with the intended audience!

I must say, I’m extremely grateful for having amazing guests like Nathan and Shanil on my podcast, and for the opportunity to be on Anjel’s and Nathan’s shows, because one thing I have learned is that, per Shanil’s point above, those kinds of opportunities create social proofwhich is absolutely essential in building a personal brand, no matter what your role, title, or industry may be.

Nevertheless, even though most people are generally aware that they “probably should” start building their own brand awareness, the fact is, most of us simply don’t know where to start, and the prospect seems overwhelming.

That’s why I’m inviting you to join me this Friday for a quick webinar: “8 Keys to Building your Brand as a Go-To Thought Leader.

Think of it this way: when someone says, “Hey, who should we have as our guest speaker for this event?”, the other person instantly says, “I know! We need to get (insert your name here)! I heard him/her talk at X event recently and they were awesome. Our attendees will love him/her.”

That’s the reputation of a go-to thought leader.

Want to know the 8 Simple Keys to making that shift?

Register here.

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