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The Great Communicator

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Ronald Reagan was dubbed “” when he was president because of his unique ability to convey facts in meaningful and understandable terms. To do this, he often used anecdotes to make a point or dramatize an event by inviting people who were involved in the event to his presentation.

This technique added a lasting quality to his speeches, for it was easy to recall the message when you associated it with an anecdote or real people. The effectiveness of this straightforward approach to communication is, I believe, borne out by the adoption of this practice by succeeding presidents.

So often we are given facts that have no bearing on the problem at hand. For example, most airlines have a standard message that they deliver to passengers when their aircraft is pulling up to the gate. The message: “Be careful when opening the overhead bins for your personal items may have shifted while we were in flight.” So what! Does that describe the peril? Absolutely not!

Air France, on the other hand, takes a more straightforward approach in their message, which states: “Be careful when you open the overhead bins for your personal items may fall out and hit you.” That is good communication because now you know exactly what the peril is instead of having to infer it from some vague statement.

I believe the country has been well served by President Reagan popularizing this form of communication. In a somewhat similar manner, our own industry has been blessed for more than 50 years with its own “great communicator” who inspired audiences around the world with his always memorable presentations. I refer to Bart Hodges, past president of the National Association of Life Underwriters, who passed away on Jan. 10, 2002, thereby stilling one of our most effective voices.

Bart always presented himself from the platform as just a regular guy from Texas (although he was born in Alabama), but he was a far more complicated person than that. He was a perfectionist and practiced every expression and gesture until it seemed perfectly natural when delivered in a presentation.

Prior to entering the life insurance business, he was a journalist, writing for such publications as Readers Digest and the Washington Post. Bart was also an artist and once considered a career with the Disney Studios.

Combining his artistic eye with his journalistic skill, he was able to paint word pictures one did not soon forget. I can remember speeches Bart made and the messages they conveyed from over 40 years ago. One example immediately comes to mind.

Bart was very popular as a speaker at the “Morning with the Stars” programs that raised millions of dollars for LUPAC. In this particular presentation, Bart was trying to impress upon his audience how important it was to prepare your prospect for the message you wished to deliver.

The only props on the stage with Bart were a stool, a pitcher of water and a couple of water glasses. As Bart paced back and forth across the stage, he stressed the importance of preparation, comparing the salesman with the farmer who tilled and fertilized the soil before planting the seed.

On one trip across the stage he picked up the water pitcher and on the next a water glass, while stressing how important it was for the prospect to be ready to receive your message.

Bart then paused and poured himself a glass of water. But, he was holding the glass upside down and the water spilled all over the stage. The audience roared at Barts mistake. When the laughter subsided, Bart, with a smug look on his face, turned the glass right side up and began to pourthen said, “It wasnt prepared to receive the water.”

The audience realized it had been “had,” but I doubt anyone forgot the message he was trying to convey.

So often you hear a great speech at an industry meeting with dynamic presentation and usually followed by a thunderous standing ovation. Then the next day, you wonder what that was all about, because you cant really remember what the central point was and, in a few days, the memory of it fades like a suntan. Barts presentations were remembered because of the word pictures he painted and relevant anecdotes he used to fix the message in your mind.

Being understood is the essence of good communication, but it is difficult when our messages have to be framed in legalese, computerspeak or other esoteric terms to comply with a company rule or government regulation. I continue to believe that simple is best, and that people understand our products more clearly when we can describe how they work and what they do in language that makes a policy a living document.

By using analogies, Ben Feldmens legendary power phrases also were an attempt to communicate complicated subjects in the simplest terms, thereby making them easily understood. Both Ben and Bart clearly recognized that a picture, even a word picture, was better than a thousand words that someone had to interpret.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, February 25, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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