Sunday, May 24, 2020

Doug Burgum on Mask-Shaming: How to Be Persuasive in a Conservative State

During his coronavirus press conference yesterday, North Dakota’s Republican Governor Doug Burgum opposed mask-shaming. His simple thesis was that a mask is a health precaution, not a political statement. To make his point, he showed great rhetorical skill by reframing the argument into a medical rather than political issue, while he established emotional appeals by giving examples of people who have medical reasons to wear mass and appealing to North Dakota pride.

In the bizarre world of 21st century American politics, taking simple public health precautions to reduce coronavirus spread has, too often, created political firestorms. President Donald Trump and Vice President Michael Pence do not wear masks in public. President Trump famously referred to coronavirus news reports as “their new hoax.” Vice President Mike Pence's staff required a group of business executives to remove their coronavirus masks before he would meet with them.

North Dakota is a deeply Republican, pro-Trump state with a strong libertarian tradition. Governors, however, need to deal with practical concerns of wise governance that escape Washington’s attention. True to its libertarian tradition, North Dakota does not require citizens to wear masks in public. Nor did Burgum urge citizens to do so. Nor did he wear a mask during his news conference. He did, however, ask North Dakota’s citizens not to shame mask-wearers. Sadly, someone needed to say that. People have shamed me on social media when I suggested wearing masks in public. There have been reports of Trump supporters taunting and assaulting people whose only offense was to wear a mask.

Yet, Burgum wanted to establish an attitude of tolerance for people who wear masks. How did he handle his persuasive challenge?

First, he appealed to unity: “we are all in this together and there’s only one battle we are fighting about, the battle of the virus.” That is, his method was to speak in what persuasion specialist Charles Urban Larson calls a unifying style rather than the more divisive pragmatic style. In that way, Burgum sought to encourage action through unity rather than by dividing us from one another.

Related Link: Reagan or Trump? A Unifying Republican versus a Divisive Republican

Second, Burgum reframed the debate away from politics, denying that wearing a mask was “ideological or political or something.” He explained that, “If someone is wearing a mask, they're not doing it to represent what political party they're in or what candidates they support.”

Also, avoiding a rhetorical mistake that liberal speakers have been known to commit, he ratcheted the value question down to a personal level. Denying that mask-wearing was political, he continued tearfully: “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have COVID and they’re fighting.”

Someone, like all too many liberal speakers, might say boring, abstract things, like: “it is the moral thing to protect other people from being infected.” What Burgum said carried much more power. He talked about a cancer-stricken child or suffering adult. By being concrete, Burgum flung his point out with a punch.

Yes, we can bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals. We do, however, need to speak in a language that other people will understand. As the conservative, libertarian governor of a conservative, libertarian state, Burgum showed us how it can be done.


Dear readers, please stay healthy!

Monday, May 18, 2020

If the "Medium Is the Message," What Message Does a Videoconference Send? A Few Tips for Videoconference Speakers

Marshall McLuhan told us that the “medium is the message.” He talked about hot and cold media. He called radio a hot medium. Since the only channel is sound, radio presenters fill in the imagination and emotion by speaking energetically. My top role model would be the late, great conservative broadcaster Paul Harvey. Television, in contrast, is a cool medium. The viewer both sees and hears, so the speaker has less to fill in and tends to speak in a conversational, living-room style. Watch the CBS Evening News for good examples.

Videoconferencing is turning out to be a cool to lukewarm medium. Videoconference speakers, take note!

The Internet is most often a hot medium. Even though the computer user sees and hears, just like television, Internet video stresses short, intense clips. Successful YouTube personalities, like video gamer and actress Felicia Day or musician Sarah Jeffery, use fast, energetic delivery.

As I said, videoconferencing is working out to be, well, a lukewarm medium. Lukewarm isn’t bad; it just means that it’s in between, and successful delivery styles resemble television more than YouTube. A videoconference tends to be less formal than a live conference. (That doesn’t mean that you should cut loose and be too casual, especially if the boss is listening. Oops.)

Link: How Can You Look Good at a Videoconference?

A videoconference gives people a chance to interact without leaving their homes or offices. In some ways, a video conference participant might feel more relaxed than a live, in-person presenter. We don't need to get on a plane, check into the hotel, get our suits pressed, and run to get to the program that never seems to be scheduled in the room that you expect. At a video conference, we feel that we are talking at home, as if we were Skyping our family. At the same time, the video conference is an organizational effort. It is a more serious event than a private conversation. To be taken seriously, speakers need to sound as if they are taking the conference seriously.

Link: How Can You Sound Good at a Videoconference?


The Internet is still evolving and what works this year might change next year. But, for now, videoconference participants are wise to remember that the medium is the message. A videoconference is wonderful, but it’s not a live conference, and we don’t speak the same way.

Anyway, enjoy your conferences! In the Internet era, we don't have to meet in person to interact with each other. It's different, but still good.

How Can You Sound Good When You Present at a Videoconference?

My last post talked about creating a good visual impression during a videoconference. With the coronavirus pandemic putting the kibosh on live conferences, we’re meeting on the Internet instead. But what about how you speak? Your vocal presentation gives you a chance to shine.

So, point number one is to speak in an energetic but not overwhelming style. A videoconference speaker wants to speak with plenty of vocal variety – especially variations in the rate and pitch of speech – but not with Paul Harvey-level enthusiasm. You’re speaking into someone’s home or office, not in a big auditorium, and you prefer to sound conversational. At the same time, if you are too cool, you can get lost in the Internet shuffle. To judge how people are responding to you, keep an eye on their nonverbal reactions. (That’s why the conference software shows everyone in a little box.)

Second, a videoconference speaker should never speak too fast. That’s because the Internet does not carry audio reliably. Yes, a super-fast Internet connection will help, but no one should ever trust the Internet. I do mean never. Fast speech might sometimes get garbled before people hear it. If there’s a lot going on at the conference, you might not get a second chance to make your point, so you need to make sure people hear you the first time. Slow down a bit!

Third, remember the Internet lag. At a live conference, people will hear the speaker’s voice within milliseconds. Over the Internet, the signal could travel for a second or more before everyone hears it. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that everyone will hear the same speaker at the exact same moment. That’s another reason to avoid fast speech and it’s a good reason to pause briefly to punctuate your points.

Fourth, watch microphone placement. The microphone hanging from your computer is not ideal. That’s because the microphone wants to be six inches or so from your mouth, but the best camera placement will be a bit farther away. We’ve all noticed how awkward it is when an Internet camera peers at a person’s face, emphasizing the nose and every blemish. But if you back the camera off, vocal quality can break down. There’s a physics reason for that, but I’ll spare you the explanation. I purchased a separate web microphone – it wasn’t expensive – and it helps a lot. I can plop the microphone on my desk about 10 inches closer than the camera, making the camera and microphone both happy.

At the same time, don’t put the microphone right against your mouth. No one wants to hear your P’s pop. A few inches away will be best, and the ideal distance varies with the microphone. It’s not a bad idea to test your microphone and camera setup by conferencing with a sympathetic family member ahead of time to make sure that your visual and audio setup is the best.

Fifth, since you aren’t there in person, vocal quality rises in importance. Here are some old announcer’s tricks. One is to breathe from your abdomen, like an opera singer or a baby. Good speakers don’t move their shoulders when they speak. Paul Harvey himself once said that, when he was growing up, his mother liked to dress him in cute sailor vests. She didn’t have enough money to buy him a new vest as he grew, and he learned abdominal breathing to avoid suffocating. He joked that his mother was, without knowing it, preparing him for a career in radio. Another trick is to take a few moments to relax your mouth, throat, and shoulders, breathing deeply and thinking peaceful thoughts. We don’t sound our best when our muscles are tense. What about pitch? To find your ideal pitch range, close your eyes, relax, and hum. You will be humming in your natural pitch range. You’ll probably notice that this is higher or lower than the way you usually speak. Trust me, you will always sound better in your natural range than if you try to force your voice to be higher or lower than it wants to be.

Finally, be sure to project into the microphone. People will neither understand nor believe you if they can’t hear you. Again, checking your microphone setup ahead of time will help you find the correct volume. You probably need to speak a bit more loudly than you would expect, although, of course no one likes yelling.

I hope all that helps! Videoconference speakers usually want to be moderately enthusiastic, project their voices, and sound relaxed and confident. If possible, watch a recording of your presentation afterwards so you can learn from experience. Finally, and this most important, enjoy going to your conference, interacting with colleagues, sharing what you know, and learning from other people. That's what it's all about.


My upcoming post talks about hot and cold media. Is a videoconference a hot medium or a cool one? Or something in between? It makes a difference when we start speaking to one another on line.

How Can You Look Good When You Present at a Videoconference?

I have given dozens of presentations at in-person conferences over the years, but now everything needs to be online. That means, at least for now, no more uninspiring talks in a crowded, musty room with dim lighting. No more trying to show PowerPoint on a conference center projector that doesn’t work. Professional life, however, still requires us to attend conferences, so now we are going on Zoom (or whatever software your organization uses).

I’ll skip the technical stuff – thousands of people know more about that than I do – and just talk about making a good visual impression. I will write about vocal delivery and visual aids sometime later.

First, how should you dress? Suggestion: dress the way you think your boss will dress. How will the top people at the conference dress? Follow their lead. You don’t want to look like an also-ran; you want to look like someone who could lead the conference yourself in a few years. What counts as dressy casual for your group? For men, maybe a nice, long-sleeved dress shirt and a jacket with an open collar. That worked for former President Obama in his May 2020 commencement speech. For women, consider wearing a nice blouse and jacket. Is there a tropical vibe? A tasteful aloha shirt could be fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with full business attire, but, then, I’m a bit old-fashioned.

If you are a main presenter, and not a mere conference attendee, then please dress the part. If you want people to think that you're important, you need to look important.

For everybody, watch out for wrinkles. Avoid stripes and vibrant colors. Cameras love to show every wrinkle and they hate stripes. Solid colors are safest. In pre-pandemic days, I usually wore a white dress shirt at live conferences, but, on-camera, that's risky unless you are a lighting expert. Consider light blue or beige.

Unless this is a hiking and camping conference, absolutely avoid T-shirts, jeans, and anything that a teenager would wear to a picnic

In any case, never underestimate how important it is to project a professional appearance. Should people judge you by how you dress? Of course not. Do they judge you by how you dress? Yes, all the time. Deal with it.

Next, watch your background! Dr. Anthony Fauci set the Internet on fire when he testified online from his book-littered home office. His role was to be an academic expert, and the massive book pile established his ambiance. I’m sure he didn’t think about it for a minute, but it was a terrific look – for him. That same look would not work for a company CEO. Obama gave his graduation speech in front of neutral, neatly-arranged shelving. Most of us will want to keep the background simple.

Please, please, make sure there’s nothing embarrassing behind you. If you’re trying to show people that you're professional, you don’t want to get 10,000 views on YouTube of your overflowing trash can. 

If you're speaking from your home office, use a critical eye to check behind you while you are setting up. Imagine that your worst office enemy will pour over your background looking for a way to criticize you behind your back (so to speak). Or, if you want to invest a few bucks, would you like to use plain photographic background paper (not white)? It's boring, but how can you go wrong? If you wish, you can backlight it softly and gently.

Finally, use a zoom lens, if you have one, to focus on your head and shoulders. If your image is just going to be a tiny square on a computer screen (or, worse, on someone's 6-inch cell phone), you want people to see your face. That makes it easier for you to maintain eye contact with the camera and interact with your audience. And, yes, even if you don’t see them, they can see you! Why a zoom lens? If you get a close-up with a wide-angle lens, your nose and mouth will look too big. Not even Katy Perry can look good that way. Most of us look our best if the camera points directly to the face, and maybe just a tiny, tiny bit to the top and side. A high angle can make you look weak, while a low angle reminds people of Boris Karloff.

In other words, you want people to notice you, but you want them to notice you in a good way. Just because many people are quarantined does not mean that conferences aren’t important. We still need to make that human connection, no matter what profession or walk of life happens to be. We need to learn from other people; we need to stay in touch; we need to share what we know with others. How else can we grow?

We will still need to talk about PowerPoint, vocal presentation, microphone use, and so forth. Maybe later . . . keep an eye on my blog.  

Follow-up Post: How Can You Sound Good at a Video Conference?

P.S. Yes, they do make zoom webcams. They are expensive. I can’t afford one myself but, if you can, good for you. Check any photo or electronics store website.

P.P.S. You are using a computer or tablet with a webcam, aren't you? Surely you're not using a cell phone to attend a professional online conference, are you? Don't all of my readers know better than that?