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Blame the Messenger

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A colleague brings you some bad news. As you become upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” Sound familiar?

At a former job, a team leader said this phrase often. He would come back from meetings with reports of new tasks we had to do, new forms we had to fill out, new laws we had to be aware of, and new programs we had to implement. As we became agitated and began to complain, he would use those familiar words. It certainly seemed fair. Why blame the messenger when it was the policy we hated?

Lately, I have started to think differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. For example, I attended a webinar about more effective ways to use video for instructional purposes. I think the message is an important one. New technologies, shifting requirements, and meetings can be all-consuming, and the average L&D professional may not have time to explore new video tech. So someone has to be the messenger and present this new information—and that messenger had better be good.

This brings me back to the webinar. The presenter not only needed high-powered, oral communication skills, but also an understanding that the audience was interrupting their day to learn something that could help them do their jobs better. In other words, they weren’t looking for a product pitch.

However, the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. I was stunned. What’s more, there were no well-designed visual aids to engage attendees. Instead, we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and massive text. (Who wants to see that on the small screen? Or the large screen, for that matter.) And worse, the message was buried in jargon: “CPL can be done through your LMS, but with our GVLS system your content curation is…” Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed.


As readers of Own Any Occasion know, constructing the speech element of a presentation is only half of the speaker’s job. The speech has to be delivered, and poor delivery can make even well-made messages worthless. In person, speakers command attention; during a webinar, the absence of physical, face-to-face interaction often diminishes the attention of listeners. This means the speaker must be exceptional—lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe even humorous. Unfortunately, this webinar speaker was none of those.

Not surprisingly, most attendees logged off before the webinar was over. Do we blame the messenger? After all, he ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using video, right?


Bottom line: we are messengers. No doubt, most of us would benefit by improving our speaking skills. One organization that gets communication right is the Curtis School in Los Angeles. During a recent visit, I was able to examine its progressive communication initiatives and great verbal skills among all staff—by teachers in the classroom, during parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights, when leaders present new initiatives to teachers and parents, and from support staff (the first people parents see when they enter the school). This school realizes that all staff need to be excellent communicators.

Is the same true at your workplace? How many great ideas at your business die because they are presented ineffectively? How many employees become upset because a manager communicates poorly? How many times do you look around a staff meeting and see glazed eyes and clear disinterest? When this happens, it’s easy to blame the messenger. A better idea, though, is to get them some help.

Check out Own Any Occasion for some ideas on how to boost your communication skills.

About the Author

Erik Palmer is an author and consultant from Colorado. In his previous careers, he spent time as a floor trader on a Chicago commodity exchange and managed a commodity trading office for a major Chicago brokerage firm, becoming the company’s national sales leader. Palmer moved into the classroom and became an educator. He was the teacher of the year in one of the nation’s top school districts. Now in his third career, Palmer brings his unique experiences to his work as a consultant, speaker, and author. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences for educators, educational leaders, and training professionals. He has led workshops across the United States and around the world. Palmer focuses on communication skills. He shows adults how to communicate well in business and social situations with an emphasis on teaching leaders how to become more effective speakers.

Palmer’s most recent book is Own Any Occasion: Mastering the Art of Speaking & Presenting. Other book include Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students; Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology; Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking; Researching in a Digital World; and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. Palmer is a program consultant on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Into Reading and Into Literature language arts programs.
You can follow Erik on Twitter (@erik_palmer) or contact him through his website

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