A lesson from Dave Cowens about getting it backwards

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Words can illuminate your brain like lightning, changing the way you think forever. Celtics great Dave Cowens did that for me when I interviewed him about “playing in the zone,” that rare but real place where everything goes right.

Cowens’ thoughts immediately went to what some call “the greatest game ever played,” Game 5 of the NBA championships on June 4, 1976. Boston eventually won, 128-126, in triple overtime, but that was not Cowens point. What made that game a legend, he said, is that not just one player or even a whole team played in the zone that night – everybody did.

I really wish I’d been there to see it. But the moment that changed my perspective came when I wondered if the Celtics came out on top because their desire to win was stronger. There was a pause on the other end of the phone. Then, with a note of pity in his voice, Cowens said, “You’ve got that backwards. It’s not about wanting to win. Everybody wants to win. It’s about hating to lose.”

Sports_Illustrated_Magazine_June_7_1976He was so right. But I bring up it up now – on the eve of my second anniversary with MFPC – to illustrate how easy it is to get things backwards, even when you’re trying hard to communicate. Words can be incredibly powerful, as Cowens’ were for me, but they also can fall on deaf ears.

That’s why my first law of communication is to remember that everyone, everywhere (even if they don’t even realize it) is always asking the same question: “Why should I care?” To communicate effectively, you must answer that question in every conversation, story, press release, speech, video, ad, etc. If you can’t answer it, rethink your message.

The second law is: Tell a story, don’t write a report. People are most interested in people, especially their triumphs, their mistakes, their sorrows and their solutions.

MFPC and the Maine TREE Foundation, with financial support from Plum Creek, Irving, Farm Credit East, Certified Professional Logging (CLP) and Professional Logging Contractors (PLC) are just starting production of a short video to encourage young men and women to consider a career in the forest products industry, specifically logging.

This week Sherry Huber, the TREE Foundation’s executive director, and I updated the Maine Logger Education Alliance about our video, which is modeled on “This is my office,” an award-winning video by the Pacific Forest Foundation. I’m excited about the potential of this project and so were the Alliance members, who had lots of ideas about what could be included. But I left the meeting thinking that another way to get communications backwards is to try to tell too much.

In a short video, we can’t tell “Everything you want or need to know about Maine logging.” But we can give our people an opportunity to say, “This is what I like best about being a logger.” That story, as you can see from the Pacific Coast video, is simple, but very compelling. And it just might spark a young person’s interest in the forest products industry.

The third law of communications sounds too simple to be valuable, but it’s the most important thing I learned at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, so I’ll pass it on. Read everything out loud. Speaking the words, even silently in your head, reveals any problems with what you’re trying to say, but more importantly it’s another reminder that communication is not a one-way street.

As you can see from MFPC’s 2014 annual report, we’ve made great progress in telling the story of Maine’s forest economy. Our strategy depends on focusing on our people – the best ambassadors of the forest products industry – keeping our message simple and bringing it to the right audience at the right time in the right way.

Or, as the advertising folks say, if you want to reach fish, don’t use skywriting. It’s only communication if people watch, hear, read and remember. Otherwise, you’re just talking to yourself.

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