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Sherman Alexie Sets the Tone

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Guest Post: Nora Ferrell

The Communications Network 2012 conference kicked off this morning with speaker Sherman Alexie, an author named one of the 21st century’s 20 top writers by The New Yorker, and what a way to start the day. Amongst hilarious personal anecdotes, biting political observations and insightful social commentary, Alexie told us (and showed us) some important tips for being good communicators in our day-to-day lives and work.

  • Know your audience. On knowing the Communications Network audience, Alexie shared, “I’m used to making rich people cry but not talking to the people who want me to make rich people cry.”
  • Be vulnerable and authentic in your storytelling. As Alexie said, the key is to narrow the gap between your public and private lives. Fantastic anecdotes from Alexie about his knocked out tooth, a six-foot balloon orca and his three-shower-a-day routine (cut down from six) definitely put the entire room at ease and had people rolling with laughter.
  • Be funny. “I can talk to anyone because I’m funny,” said Alexie. On how to be funny, Alexie made two important points. First, not everyone is funny (know your strengths). Second, you run the risk of being inappropriate when being funny, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s necessary, he said.
  • Be silent. Remember to give your audience time to react to what you’re saying, to make judgments about you and what you’ve presented to them. He also said it’s a great tool to cover up a stutter. It makes you look thoughtful.
  • Be honest. “Honesty in all things,” said Alexie. “Even when you’re lying.”
  • Don’t be shy. Did you know more people are afraid of public speaking than of dying? Get out there, tell your stories, take a drama class. Above all, don’t be shy.

On the eve of a big election and on the morning of my first Communications Network conference, I found Alexie to be so refreshing. I was entertained, riveted and ready to go deeper on the how and why of the communicating we do each day in our jobs at foundations and nonprofits.

Alexie made the observation that the gap between those who have and those who don’t is a measure of how great a society is. Many of us spend our days engaged in work that aims to close that gap, and I’ll be thinking about how communications can help.

There are gaps to close between audiences, bridges to cross between beliefs, and a Grand Canyon-size gulf between those who have money and those who don’t. With great advice from people like Alexie and others over the next two days, I like to think all of us can do our jobs a little better and little smarter to help close those gaps moving forward.

Nora Ferrell is the director of communications at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust



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