Category: Influence

Pope Francis on Reframing the Conversation

The pontiff, who visits the US this week, has effectively used symbols in his communications to change the dialogue about the Roman Catholic Church. Photo by Tânia Rêgo for Agência Brasil, used under Creative Commons 3.0 Brazil license.
By Mike Kuczkowski

Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical scenario for the 2016 presidential election. After a tough series of primary battles, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire[i], is drafted out of retirement by enthusiastic Democratic supporters into the South Carolina primary and secures a stunning win.

After a run of primary victories, she secures enough delegates to compete for the party nomination. She makes a moving four-minute speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, speaking stirringly of America’s need to recall its origins and find strength in essential truths: freedom, liberty, equality of opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. After five ballots, she wins.

Throughout the fall, the nation watches as she projects a humble yet visionary profile. In two presidential debates, she is sharp, articulate and unruffled. Her ads are upbeat and optimistic. On a cold and expectant November night, she accepts a phone call from her opponent, who concedes. Against all expectations, she has won.

That night, she appears before a massive crowd of supporters in jeans and a t-shirt. They cheer her madly. Beaming generously, she says simply “Thank you,” and wades into the throng shaking hands and embracing supporters. Days after the election, she announces that she will not move into the White House, preferring an apartment in Georgetown. On Inauguration Day, after taking the oath of office, she serves dinner to prisoners — something no sitting American president has ever done.

Just imagine….

That is a rough equivalent of what happened in March 2013 when Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church following the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio hails from a country — and a continent — that has never before produced a pope. He was elected on the fifth ballot of the papal conclave, after giving a four-minute speech about the church’s need to return to its evangelical roots, spreading the good news of Christ.

As Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to America this week, there will be much reflection on his leadership of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. Yet, while the media will talk about the church’s major scandals and the many unresolved debates facing the institution, Francis has stepped aside from the culture wars and advanced a powerful dialogue centered on love, compassion and poverty. For Catholics (disclosure: I’m one) it is as though we are talking about an entirely different church than just a few years ago.

Looking at his 2 1/2 years in office, Pope Francis serves as a powerful example of how leaders can use symbols to reframe the dialogue surrounding their institutions, and how quickly communications can change culture.

Naming conventions: Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is to Catholics what Abraham Lincoln is to Americans — a larger-than-life figure who represents humility, intelligence and a bias toward peace. It is notable that in the 785 years since St. Francis’s canonization, Bergoglio is the first pope to use the name. His first words upon election, “Although I am a sinner, I accept,” signaled a humbler approach.

Stand-up guy: Traditionally, the new pope sits, as if on a throne, and greets the members of the conclave who have just elected him. Pope Francis stood. Mic drop. (Or, perhaps, the opposite.)

Fashion statements: The vestments of priests, cardinals and other religious orders are part of the ritualism of the church, of which the pope’s regalia is the most elaborate. Red slip-on shoes, fur-trimmed velvet capes. Not for Pope Francis. He eschewed those clothes in favor of simpler vestments, wears regular black shoes, and rides the bus. He says morning mass four days a week at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives in a suite rather than occupying the Papal Apostolic Palace. He drives a Ford Focus, rather than the traditional chauffeured Mercedes.

The washing of the feet: There is a tradition in the Catholic faith that on Holy Thursday, as part of the celebration of the Last Supper, a presiding priest will wash the feet of a dozen people, recreating Jesus’s act of washing the feet of his disciples. (I had my feet washed when I was 10 as an altar boy, and trust me, you want to have very clean feet.) For centuries, the pope traditionally washed the feet of a dozen senior priests and clerics. Pope Francis, a month after his election, went to a juvenile detention center and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners. Two of the prisoners were women, at least two were Muslims — also firsts.

Media Savvy: The pope famously does not hold press conferences, but he does give press interviews — often on the papal plane, during state visits. In one of his first interviews, asked about rumors of homosexuality surrounding a priest he had appointed to oversee an internal investigation into the Vatican bank, Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” That response has come to embody the compassion of his papacy and has been widely quoted. His first major interview, granted in September 2013, yielded the following Q and A: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After a pause, he said “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” (The interview itself, at 40,000 words, is an astonishing read.)

Vision Statements: Pope Francis’s symbolism has not been without depth of thinking. He has so far issued two encyclicals, or major public statements on church doctrine. The first was titled “The Light of Faith,” and in keeping with his more positive public agenda, emphasized the elements of love, tolerance, openness and

duty to the poor. The second was a treatise on the environment that spoke broadly of the need for social justice.

The list doesn’t stop there. He has allowed a child who had wandered up to the Pope’s side to remain at his side during a speech at the Vatican. He made headlines around the world for embracing a severely disfigured man. He has taken aim at the curia and the Vatican Bank. And he has personally helped broker a peace agreement between Cuba and the United States.

In their 2003 book “Reframing Organizations,” Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal propose that decades of management theory can be distilled into a four-frame model. The structural frame involves thinking of the organization as a machine, like the early Ford factories. The human resource frame looks at an organization like a family. The political frame looks at the organization as jungle. The symbolic frame considers the organization as theater.

Pope Francis clearly understands this last frame, with its emphasis on culture, rituals and ceremonies. As papal biographer Paul Vallely said last week on NPR’s Fresh Air, “[T]here are lots of little symbolic things, and one of the things about the Church is it’s a place of symbol. So people say, ‘oh it’s just symbolic,’ but it’s not just symbolic in the church. Changing the symbols is changing the substance in some ways.”

Vallely is careful to describe Pope Francis not as a liberal, pointing out that he has been largely consistent with historic church doctrine on issues like contraception and the ordination of women. But, he does consider Francis a radical, and he credits Francis’s symbolic leadership with leading the church forward.

“All those kind of things — they’re not intuitive or spontaneous. This is how he was when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, so he’s bringing that notion with him. Christians must change to respond to the modern world. That’s what he’s saying. And, the change starts with the Pope.”

Just two years in, Pope Francis’s legacy is very much a work in progress. The church still has many deeply troubling issues with which it must grapple. But in his use of symbols and his communications, Pope Francis has shown a remarkable ability to shift the dialogue both within and around the church. Expect to see more of his deft use of symbols in the week ahead, and beyond.


[i] I know nothing of Gov. Gregoire. The fact that she is a female governor and from the state of Washington (unlike any president yet) makes her a unique metaphor for Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit and from the Americas.

Happy Bloomsday!

The inscription page from the first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company in 1922. The book was banned for a decade in the United States on obscenity charges.


By Mike Kuczkowski

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the day on which James Joyce first went strolling around Dublin with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Also, the date on which Joyce imagined a short story taking place that would follow an ad man, Leopold Bloom, around Dublin. Which, Joyce later expanded into the 18-chapter, 768-page epic novel “Ulysses.” Which, according to the Modern Library, is considered the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century. Which, was modeled after Homer’s Odyssey. Which means there will be Bloomsday breakfasts and walking tours around Dublin and dances in Croatia and Irish music in Brazil and dramatic readings, surely more than one enunciating the book’s final poetic words with vigor.

Which, of course, served as the inspiration for the name of our humble communications consultancy last year.

I first read “Ulysses” as a kind of protest. It was 1994, and I was a reporter at the Springfield Union-News. I covered the police beat four nights a week.

The cops in town had been feuding with the newspaper after a series of articles about the shooting of an unarmed black motorist by a white policeman. In particular, a story about a party the police had thrown for the officer, who had been placed on a paid leave of absence while the shooting was being investigated.

The night cop reporter’s job had usually involved checking in at the police station, reviewing the arrest book, following up on any bigger news items, and filing stories before the paper’s midnight deadline. Given the discord between the paper and the police, however, I would often find myself sitting in the dimly lit lobby of the police station for hours at a time, waiting for the arrest log. Often, the police would claim to have forgotten I was waiting.

And so, I purchased “Ulysses,” the thickest book I could lay my hands on.

Did I read it out of literary curiosity? Partly. Did I want to be able to tell people I’d read “Ulysses?” Maybe. Did I hope the cops saw that I was reading a massive book while they tried to freeze me out from doing my job? Unquestionably.

My waits became delightful respites. The novel was not what I had expected. It shifted styles constantly. One chapter would be typically early 20th Century, hard-to-penetrate prose. Another would be a parody. Still another would be an uninterrupted river of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry that seemed to articulate the flow of my very own mind. My thought process, something I of course felt was uniquely mine, was there poured out on the page, thoughtful, painful, at times funny. I laughed out loud, echoes reverberating in the capacious police lobby.

As time wore on the book became less a symbol of my resoluteness and more of a joyful distraction. One night, three months and about three-quarters of the way through, a senior copyeditor spotted me in the newspaper’s break room eating my dinner, the book in hand.

— Have you read the final passage yet?
— No.
He outstretched his hand for the book. I handed it to him and he flipped to the backpages.
— May I?
— Sure.
He stood upright, cleared his throat and proceeded to read six or so lines from the final paragraph, a paragraph that stretches for page after page, ending triumphantly
— “…and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

I was blown away.

* * *

I am often asked why Orangefiery, and I do wish I had a shorter answer. It’s a word that, as far as I know, Joyce invented – one in a lexicon of more than 30,000 words used in “Ulysses.” It appears in a paragraph to do with communication between two characters, in the Cyclops passage, which is close enough to our domain of work. (“Communication was effected through the pituitary body and also by means of the orangefiery and scarlet rays emanating from the sacral region and solar plexus.”) I could have chosen hundreds of other words from the book, or from somewhere else, but I liked this one. It’s familiar, but different. It’s more interesting to me than Kuczkowski Associates or Partners or Group or Consulting. My kids like it. And, happily, the domain name was available.

* * *

I’ve been reading Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” In it, Birmingham chronicles the publication history of Ulysses, which was banned in the United States for obscenity from 1922 to 1934.

It’s an amazing story. Prior to reading Birmingham’s book, I always judged Ulysses by its content. I could see what would have been regarded as obscene, of course, but I never quite grasped why it would ever have been banned, or what was so remarkable about it. So much music, film and literature in our modern world similarly conveys the inner thoughts and vices of its subjects, we’ve come to take it for granted in our art.

As Birmingham argues, the legal case against Ulysses, its success as an underground sensation, and ultimately the legal decision that it was, in fact, art and not pornography — helped reshape literature. It established new boundaries for what modernist literature could be. Or more correctly, what modernist literature could be published.

In the 1920s, vice squads patrolled bookstore shelves, ferreting out lewd publications. Books were banned. The entire attitude about obscenity seems counterintuitive from today’s perspective: If Joyce’s novel today seems descriptive of human thought processes, the fear of the 1920s was that it would inspire lewd thoughts among the innocent.

The institutions that supported censorship were surprising. The U.S. Postal Service did not just deliver the mail; it often sat in judgment of what was acceptable content. (For a decade, while Ulysses was banned in the U.S., the postal service intercepted published copies of the book in the mail and burned them. Unknown numbers of the first thousand copies of Ulysses were turned to ash by postal clerks.)

In 1920, while three New York judges were ruling on obscenity charges brought against the publishers of The Little Review, which had serialized chapters of Ulysses, Joyce was still revising the book. The case was lost, the women were fined $100 and the book was banned, even prior to its publication. A decade later, in a decision that is reprinted in my copy of “Ulysses,” Judge John Woolsey declared that he had read “Ulysses” and “in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.” The book was permitted to be sold openly in the United States.

The mechanics of publishing play a larger role in the history of Ulysses than I’d realized. Literally dozens of printers refused to print the book, because of its reputation. It’s staggering to consider, particularly from the vantage point of our digital age. I will cut and past this blog into a WordPress theme and click on a button that says “Publish.” In the 1920s, it was a far more complex task. Sylvia Beach, the courageous American in Paris and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who ultimately published Joyce’s first edition in 1922 had to scour the French countryside for a printer willing to put Joyce’s words on paper.

And as with so many histories, we can see the antecedents of modernity. Birmingham’s description of Beach’s efforts to market the book bear a remarkable resemblance to a Kickstarter campaign. Beach had flyers drawn up (“ULYSSES suppressed four times during serial publication in ‘The Little Review’ will be published by ‘SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY’ complete as written). Prices were fixed, far above market rates. The first 100 buyers were promised copies signed by the author. A thousand copies were quickly purchased, prior to printing.

Finally, the “influencers” of Ulysses were Joyce’s fellow scribes. WB Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and many others acquired copies of the book. They bought it, read it, talked about it. Many wrote reviews, some glowing, some critical. T.S. Elliot wrote Ulysses was “a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”

Think about that, it’s an immense statement.

And there it is. Ulysses, both personally and historically, is all about change. Change centered on expression. Change that is about communication. And art. And connection.

* * *

This weekend, in anticipation of Bloomsday, The New York Times Book Review published two pieces asking the question “How would Ulysses be received today?”

Charles McGrath, a former editor of the Book Review, said that Ulysses ‘seems pretty tame’ by today’s standards, and that it was remarkable for the range of styles and techniques it employed. Rivka Galchen, a writer unknown to me who holds a number of literary awards, reviews the reviews of Ulysses on Amazon, noting that none of them describe Ulysses as obscene. Ultimately, she suggests reading the book yourself, which I would also recommend.

I’m no literary critic. My experience with Ulysses was and is personal. But, I happen to think The Book Review asked the wrong question. The question we can all learn lessons from is actually about how Ulysses was received in its day.

Ulysses is without question an imperfect book. It’s not for everyone, and even for those who love it, it has its boring parts.

But Ulysses is not best understood as just a book. It is not merely a chronicle of one man’s journey through Dublin. Ulysses, in both its creation and its publication, was an act of courage.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, Ulysses made a dent in the universe.

Do We Really Know Anything About Changing Minds?

A chart from LaCour and Green’s study of voter attitudes before and after they spoke with either a gay or straight canvasser about their views on same-sex marriage. These data are now disputed. (Source: Mike LaCour’s web site, accessed May 27, 2015.)
By Michael Kuczkowski

“… just because the data don’t exist to demonstrate the effectiveness of this method of changing minds, doesn’t mean the hypothesis is false.”

This sounds like a weird riff on a famous line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. But, this isn’t a parody, and it’s not really funny.

The quote is from Columbia University Prof. Donald P. Green, a leading political scientist. He said it while talking to This American Life last week, after revelations that a widely heralded Science magazine article he co-authored with a graduate student from the University of California at Los Angeles may have been based on data fabricated by that graduate student.

If you read our blog, you probably know about the study. In it, gay canvassers spoke to Los Angeles voters who opposed same-sex marriage, asking them about their attitudes on the issue. After a single 20-minute conversation with the canvasser, who revealed his or her sexual orientation in the process, those voters who initially reported being against same-sex marriage said they now supported it. A year later, according to the study, they still did.

The study was a national sensation. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal wrote about it. This American Life devoted an entire episode to the study, and has now posted blogs (here and here) explaining what went wrong.

Last week, Professor Green sent a letter to Science asking that they retract the article; the publisher says the issue is under review. Michael J. LaCour, the graduate student in question, stands by his study, so far. His position appears shaky. He says he will issue single, definitive response by Friday, May 29.

Here’s what happened, according to news reports and a review of a critique of the study published online by a pair of researchers at Berkeley: Those researchers – graduate students Joshua Kalla and David Broockman – were intrigued by LaCour’s results. They tried to duplicate his research methods in a follow-up study, and they failed.

The more questions they asked, the more the study began to collapse like a house of cards. Confronted by his graduate advisor at UCLA, LaCour admitted that he lied about a significant amount of grant money that he claimed he was using to pay research participants. He changed his story about the incentives he used, saying that instead of paying participants $5 per person, he offered them a chance to win an iPad. Then he said he’d accidentally deleted his data set, which had been publicly available (and was accessed by Kalla and Broockman).

Meanwhile, as Kalla and Broockman dug in further, they found a number of statistical anomalies. LaCour’s data seemed almost identical to data from a 2012 national data set – even though his data set was of Los Angeles voters (hardly reflective of the nation). Lacour said he used a kind of sampling technique that would be highly unlikely to replicate any other data set, so the patterns didn’t make sense. His data were too perfect, replicating the other study’s distribution patterns and showing no outliers typical of large-scale quantitative research.

Suddenly the remarkable results seemed remarkable for an entirely different reason: A far-reaching allegation of fraud.

The questions about the study call into question a number of issues about academic research, graduate student supervision, peer-reviewed publications and mainstream reporting. And, they may well cost LaCour his job (he’d recently been appointed to a teaching post at Princeton.)

But, those are not really our concerns. We’re communicators. We want to know, is the science wrong? (And, on a more personal level, was my blog post last month wrong?)

The answer to those questions would appear to be no. But it requires some explaining.

Let’s say, as seems likely, that the piece by LaCour and Green is a fiction. If so, that means LaCour went to tremendous lengths to create a fictional data cohort that created the appearance of a credible study. He duped some pretty impressive folks and sent hundreds of canvassers out on what appears to have been a wild goose chase.

But, some elements of the study were real. The Los Angeles LGBT Center canvassers did go out and interview real Los Angeles voters. The audio clips of interviews that aired in This American Life were also real. And, some of the people, as interviewed, did change their minds as a result of that outreach, at least in the short term.

The statistical correlation between the sexual orientation of the canvassers and the degree and robustness of mind change appears to be completely fabricated. We also don’t know if people’s minds remained changed after that initial conversation.

But, the technique the canvassers used, which is what I focused on in my blog post, was not discredited. We don’t have any data to say whether it was effective or not. Which is a shame. As Green told TAL: “All that effort that went in to confecting the data, you could’ve gotten the data.” But they didn’t.

So what do we know about changing minds?

As the original TAL show said, it’s rare. Hard to predict, harder to control. The research we have on changing minds touches on myriad disparate fields, including mass communications, political science, cognitive behavior, economics, psychology, neuroscience, social networks, linguistics and sociology. There’s no silver bullet, but there are some important patterns.

Here are three sources that provide credible guidance on the subject:

Howard Gardner’s 2004 book Changing Minds offers up insights on what causes people to change their minds in different circumstances and contexts. Gardner, a Harvard psychologist, highlights 7 “R’s” that are relevant to the process of changing minds: reason, research, resonance, representative redescriptions, rewards, real-world events and resistances (that must be overcome). He also highlights how different the process of changing minds is in different contexts: large-scale heterogenous groups versus large-scale homogenous groups; change inspired by art or science; formal, instructional mind change, such as schools; small groups or families; and one’s own mind. These distinct realms call for different approaches.

John Kotter has been talking about change within organizations for decades. His book Leading Change, outlines an eight-step process for leading change, aimed at organizational leaders. While his process is focused on organizational change, communications plays a vital role in most steps. (Interestingly, Kotter’s model is built on his analysis failed organizational change efforts, rather than successful ones.)

Finally, this year the Institute for Public Relations recently launched a Behavioral Communications research program, led by Dr. Terence Flynn and Ogilvy’s Christopher Graves, to examine the role of communications in driving behavioral and attitude change. The results of that team’s extensive literature review are consistent with many of the precepts we’ve touted here: the messenger matters; emotional messages trump analytical ones; the “backfire effect” (in which people harden their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence) is real; and narratives are powerful vehicles for persuasion.

Flynn presented a draft of their model for changing minds at a conference I attended in January, and I think it’s very interesting. Watch that space, I’m a believer in their science.


Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 10.19.55 PM
(Source: Pew Forum)

As for the issue of same-sex marriage, we know that Americans have, in fact, changed their minds. Polls by the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life, for example, show that 52 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage today, up from 35 percent in 2001.

What we don’t have is a large-scale experimental design study that tests the theories above in a “live” environment, which would be great to have, without question.

What’s interesting about this is that LaCour may well benefit from a kind of reverse “backfire effect.” LaCour’s study was really a narrative focused on the connection between the sexual orientation of the canvassers and the lasting effects of changed minds. Same-sex marriage is, for many people, an emotional and deeply personal issue. It all adds up to a remarkable story, even if the data were bogus.

I wonder if, as with the discredited research on a link between autism and vaccines, people who initially found the study compelling will forget it was discredited and continue to believe that gay canvassers were able to change minds in a real and lasting manner.

Still, something about it seemed too easy. It suggested an arms race of mind-changing outreach campaigns: If only we could mobilize the representatives of a disenfranchised group to engage those who supported oppressive policies, we could change the world. Then again, so could our opponents.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to focus on the tools and techniques we know work: credible messengers, strong narratives, emotional connections and an awareness of the environment. It’s not easy, but it’s what makes for very interesting work.

Listening, Gay Marriage and Lessons for Changing Minds

A pro-gay marriage rally in Sacramento in 2008. A recent study showed that engaging opponents to gay marriage in a dialogue about the issue was effective in changing minds. Photo by Kelly B. Huston. Used under Creative Commons license.
By Michael Kuczkowski

Years ago, I was part of a team that was hired to help a pharmaceutical company explain to America why its industry was a good thing.

This was not an easy task, obviously. The pharmaceutical industry has a weak reputation overall, despite delivering many innovations that improve the health of people around the world. A big chunk of the problem is rooted in costs: People believe health care is a right, yet prescription medications cost money, sometimes a lot of money. With ever-changing insurance co-pays, drug classes and deductibles, individuals increasingly bear the brunt of those costs. Which is tough.

It was, however, a fight I could feel good about. The industry was taking a lot of criticism for things that I didn’t think actually were bad things. And there were lots of ways in which the pharmaceutical industry was (and is) hugely valuable. The prescription drugs these companies produced often saved lives, and certainly extended the lives of many, many people. It didn’t make sense to me that the industry was being demonized as much as it was.

The client in question had amassed mountains of compelling economic and policy arguments – all of which I think have merit – about the value of the innovative pharmaceutical industry. (I know this remains a controversial question in many quarters, but that’s an argument for another time.)

What became clear early in the engagement was that the leaders of this company felt strongly that if only they could get people to understand these facts – very credible analysis by respectable academics – then people would come to love the pharmaceutical industry, and the industry’s reputational problems would go away.

Unfortunately, that belief was unrealistic. Few things are as emotionally charged as health care, and it’s the emotional vector of rising health care costs, rooted in very real experiences, that shapes people’s opinion of industry. (There are other factors too, but this is the single biggest driver.)

We came up with a three-part framework for dialogue.

Understanding: You have to start by listening and acknowledging facts that no one can really dispute: health care is expensive, more and more people are bearing the direct costs of health care, people are suffering, the system is maddeningly complex and changing in ways that are painful to the average American. Expressing empathy for what people were going through in their battles with the health care system is critical. And it’s not hard. Listen to people’s stories. Tell them you understand their frustration. And recognize that their frustration is real.

Facts: Use the facts, if you must, to illustrate the value the industry brings to people and the health care system. Innovation saves lives, and no other industry invests as much of their revenue in research and development as pharma does. For example, while new drugs are costly, they also reduce other types of health care spending, often by a significant margin (the linked study showed that new drugs increased pharmaceutical spending by $18 per person, but reduced other types of health care spending by $129 per person. That’s a big-picture “good thing” that most people don’t know about, and could be useful in reframing their thoughts about the value of the industry.)

Future: Focus on a future where more people have access to medicines, medicines cure more diseases and prolong life, and the cost burden borne by individuals is more aligned with the things that support prevention and interventions that delay disease progression. After all, it is possible to change policy around health care financing to support things, like regular doctor visits, disease management and access to medicines, that can keep people healthy and reduce their individual cost burden. We just have to fight for it.

So there it is. U-F-F. UFF. Unlikely to win a Cannes Lion for best mnemonic device, but more effective than trying to give the entire U.S. population an advanced degree in health economics.

UFF didn’t go very far, ultimately. We tried it, and we trained people on it, but a leadership change prompted a shift in the overall approach. None of which, in hindsight, worked out very well.

Still, I was reminded of it recently while listening to a podcast from This American Life titled “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind.”

A big chunk of this program examined the experience of a group of people who canvassed voters last year about California’s Prop 8. You may have read about this based on a study published in February in Science magazine: Researchers studied an effort by canvassers to persuade voters to change their minds from neutral or opposed to gay marriage, to supportive of gay marriage. The canvassers, many of whom were gay, were actually incredibly successful in getting people to change their minds. Follow-up research showed that people’s changed minds stayed changed for up to a year. Both the degree of changed minds and the length of the effects were a surprise to experts.

The reporting on this focused on the aspect of the findings that I just emphasized: Gay canvassers were more effective at changing minds on the issue of gay marriage than straight ones, statistically speaking. In other words, the messenger matters. (And in communications, we know this is true.)

But there was more to it than that. It turns out that the approach the canvassers adopted matters too.

First, they listened. Rather than making some compelling argument about fairness or the rights of individuals, canvassers got the voters they were interviewing to talk about their own personal experiences with gay people or marriage. And, they talked about whether being gay was a choice or a genetic predisposition. Ultimately, the discussions led somewhere. Like, wouldn’t you want the gay people you know to enjoy all the benefits of marriage?

As I’m describing this, the second point is pretty obvious: It’s an emotional conversation. We’re not talking about facts. There were no data points about how many gay people can’t visit their partners in the hospital because they don’t get spousal recognition, or how many people are denied health care because they don’t have coverage from their lover’s health plan. Which would be valid arguments to make, of course. Instead, the conversations focused on what it felt like to know someone who was gay, to feel what they must feel, to miss out on the things a heterosexual married couple naturally enjoy by dint of being married.

The third thing was how artfully the canvassers brought the voters to their own realizations. They would weave in the fact that they were gay at just the right moment. Or, even just wait while the voter connect some key dots. (One interviewee, a widower whom the broadcast named “Mustang Man,” completely flipped his stance in the course of the interview with a canvasser, because he reflected on the powerful love he’d had with his wife: “I would hope that they would find the happiness that I had with my wife. If you could have that kind of relationship with your partner or the other sex, I would say you’re a very lucky person. Because I know I had it. But yeah, that’s what I would wish on them. That they’d be as happy as I was with mine.”) It was subtle but impactful, holding a kind of mirror of reality up to people’s faces.

And that’s how the interactions worked. Canvassers asked voters whether they were likely to vote for gay marriage before and after the discussion, and many of them were more likely at the end of the conversation. By statistically significant margins. And, the opinion change held for a year in many cases.

There are incredibly powerful lessons in here for communicators.

Firstly, if you want to change minds, you have to start by listening. This is huge. It’s almost the opposite of the job, right? I’m a communicator, therefore I should talk all the time. But, we know that understanding where people are is critical to helping them adopt a new opinion or behavior.

Second, you can’t change someone else’s mind for them. This seems obvious, but the process has to be owned by the person who is changing their mind. Facts are not going to help you (oh, how I wish I could travel back in time and tell my mid-30s self and pharma industry clients this truth). In fact, studies show that if people with a certain opinion are confronted with facts that show they are wrong, those people are more likely to become even more entrenched in their mistaken beliefs than before. (This is known as the “backfire effect”) But, you can lead someone to reframe their thinking on an issue, and it can even happen quickly. (This is where I’d go back and change the middle “F” in the UFF framework above to say, try to find ways to help the person you’re talking with connect their own dots about an issue, rather than laying a white paper on them.)

Finally, and most importantly, the emotional aspect of these arguments is incredibly significant. People feel hurt, anger, joy, outrage, frustration, anxiety and all kinds of other emotions about their experiences. Mounting factual arguments against a wall of emotions is a waste of time and energy. It’s not going to change minds.

But minds can be changed. The human mind can learn and evolve and take up new opinions over time.

This has huge implications. It suggests that organizational change efforts should think not just about who occupies the newest boxes on an org chart, but also about the emotional state of people across an organization.

It reinforces the vital importance of research in understanding how people view issues.

It shows how important it is to listen, be flexible and adapt in the face of unanticipated data.

And, it shows that communications can be incredibly effective – but that it’s also very resource intensive. Changing minds on the gay marriage question wasn’t going to happen from exposure to a few 30-second ad spots. It was going to take a dialogue, and an artful one at that.

But that’s okay. Because the issues on which we need to change minds – racism, police brutality, gender equality and even the divisive issue of health care– are important issues. They’re worth the time. Because on those and many other issues, every opinion counts.

What’s Wrong—and Right—With Starbucks’ “Race Together”

By Mike Kuczkowski

Last week, the coffee giant Starbucks launched a campaign encouraging its baristas to engage customers in a dialogue about race. Baristas around the country were encouraged to chat about race with their customers and write “Race Together” on each coffee cup.

It was a bold move, not without risk, and it has drawn both praise and criticism.

How do we evaluate a campaign like “Race Together”? I think it give us an opportunity to think about what we should want from brands and how to think about how brands can authentically lead in areas of social impact.

On the one hand, I want to give Starbucks leadership, particularly CEO Howard Schultz, credit for putting its brand in the middle of a challenging social issue. It takes courage to do that, and the company should be commended for the concept and goal.

On the other hand, I think the backlash shows that the execution of the campaign was not well thought out. The company faced a significant social media backlash against both the campaign and the company. The campaign was criticized for being tone-deaf on several fronts, and the company was criticized for the fact that its executive leadership is almost exclusively white.

So what matters more, intention or execution?

I believe we are living in the Performance Era of Communications. An organization’s marketing and communications efforts only matter insofar as they engage effectively with stakeholders and have an impact.

We have all the tools for this today. Social media provides multiple platforms for real-time engagement with all manner of constituents. Digital technology gives us the ability to create content in an unprecedented number of formats — video, podcast, short-form content, long-form content. Yet, these advantages also raise the bar for brands who want to engage actively with stakeholders.

Personally, I skew toward the strategy side of brand and marketing. Experience has taught me that strategy is incredibly valuable. If an organization fails to understand what its stakeholders truly need, it won’t deliver value to the stakeholder relationship.

But caring about strategy does not mean a bias against execution. The two are linked. As the rules of execution change – less ad-driven, ‘interruption marketing;’ more two-way exchanges – strategy becomes an exercise in execution. In our hyper-transparent communications environment, strategy is on display in every turn of phrase, every response and every action. To perform well, organizations need to build new skills in their marketing and communications operations. They need the ability to create content, master channels, create connections, manage communities and adapt and change based on signals from the environment.

In that context, Starbucks’ Race Together campaign falls short. Here’s why:

  • Content creation: Starbucks created some solid content around the campaign. If you check out their website, you’ll see compelling stories about baristas for whom race is a deeply personal issue. These kinds of stories stand out, and I think they have real substance. Schultz did a video that was distributed to their 200,000 employees via Starbucks’ intranet, another good move. They are publishing a special supplement to USA Today. All good. Still, I think it is unlikely that scrawling “Race Together” on coffee cups, which baristas were being encouraged to do last week, will change any minds. And the fact that the stock imagery for the campaign (used above) shows a pair of white hands holding a “Race Together” cup struck an off note. Which underscores how important it is to think through every symbolic aspect of brand-created content.
  • Channel mastery: On the channel front, I think the campaign scores poorly. The campaign is a multi-channel effort, as described above. But the campaign has performed atrociously in social media. AdWeek argues that the Internet hates “Race Together”, and I think they’re right. Twitter erupted on the issue, attacking the effort and individual executives. Starbucks Communications SVP Corey duBrowa briefly deleted his Twitter account Tuesday after what he described as personal attacks. (He’s back, and in a move demonstrating social media savvy, he wrote a Medium post about why.) That overall Twitter sentiment was harsh should have come as no surprise. The social network has not exactly been known for fostering thoughtful discourse. But duBrowa’s response, and the overall state of the hashtag discussion suggests that Starbucks did not have good rules in place to guide its engagement in its own conversation.
  • Creating connections: Seth Godin, whom I’ve come to admire greatly, talks about the Connection Economy. I’m fascinated by the concept that mass marketing, the kind Starbucks has mastered, is dying and that micro-marketing is on the rise. A real Connection Economy requires courage – like the core idea of having a conversation about race – and the desire to find and engage with people with whom you can have a real dialogue. Schultz did this extremely well with internal town halls last year, with some 2,000 employees. But the very notion of trying to create a dialogue at the cash register with baristas whose primary job is to (quickly) fulfill orders for venti vanilla lattes seems flawed.
  • Community management: Here again, a debate in America on race is going to show a sharply divided community, and rightly so. We’re a fairly divided nation on the issue. Engaging in the campaign is going to require navigating lots of mine fields. What happens if an in-store exchange goes poorly? A barista doesn’t have the ability to shut off the store like a Twitter account. They need to be adept enough to respond to potentially tough questions. Schultz has indicated that baristas have received no special training to equip them for this campaign, and I happen to think that’s a huge mistake. Conversation guides, we’re told, are coming. Perhaps that will help.
  • Adaptation: This is a critical aspect of the Performance Era of Communications. And what I mean by it is: Can you change based on feedback from the environment? This isn’t just about communications activity, it’s also about real substantive issues and actions. And here, while the jury is still out, there are troubling signs. The campaign has not yet articulated a plan for adding more diversity to Starbucks’ executive ranks, or bringing more Starbucks to minority areas where stores themselves are far between. Starbucks has not, to my knowledge, yet pledged to address many of the substantive national issues on race that continue to keep us divided. From a communications perspective, chatting about a heavy-duty issue like race around the espresso machine when people are rushing off to catch a train isn’t practical, but there’s still time. Starbucks can create forums to take the debate away from the cash register and into its lounges. Shutting off a Twitter account isn’t adaptation, it’s surrender – but by coming back, their communications executive has a shot at showing he’s able to weather criticism that doesn’t come remotely close to matching the kind of institutionalized bias, hate and bigotry blacks in America face daily, and throughout their entire lives.

In sum, the campaign’s operations don’t appear to be strong enough to match the campaign’s aspirations. They didn’t think it through, on a number of important fronts. There’s probably still time to address that, but doing so will require a conscious effort and real resources.

Yesterday, Starbucks told its baristas that it was no longer encouraging them to write “Race Together” on cups, a move the company claims it had previously planned. Other aspects of the campaign are still in place. Is this an example of adaptation, or just further evidence that this was always a marketing ploy? Only time will tell.

Honestly, I hope they do turn it around and get it right because Schultz is correct. It’s an important issue, and there’s no reason a for-profit corporation can’t join the debate. Race is the most troubling of American issues, and the events of the past year in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere suggest that our nation still has a lot of progress to make on this issue.

[disclosures: I know lots of people who have worked on the Starbucks account at Edelman, invariably smart folks; I have met duBrowa and Schultz on a couple of occasions; I drink a ton of Starbucks coffee.]

The ‘Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time’ that Wasn’t — and Why

The Kinks’s songs were often inspired by everyday scenes of British life, like this Waterloo Sunset. Photo by Steve Walker, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
By Mike Kuczkowski

In the early 1960s, a band emerged from Great Britain that would change the very face of rock ‘n’ roll.

Led by a dynamic duo, this band started its career by recording covers of songs by American R&B and blues artists. In the mid-1960s, they began penning their own tunes. Their third single was a jolt to the airwaves, producing a sound that had never been heard before and skyrocketing to the top of the charts.

Over time, the band staggeringly produced a rich catalog marked by melodic songs, evocative lyrics and a wide range of styles. They drew on diverse influences: blues, jazz, folk, country, British dance hall music and show tunes. They introduced Indian music to a Western pop music audience. In 1972, Rolling Stone’s Mike Saunders declared them “none other than the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” Decades later, bands like Oasis and Blur would cite them as a major influence.

I’m not talking about The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones. I’m talking about The Kinks.

Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1963 in the Muswell Hill part of North London, when Ray was 19 and Dave was 16 years old. In 1964, after struggling to get a record deal, they released their third song, the distorted three-chord rock single “You Really Got Me.” Dave Davies achieved the sound by slitting the fabric of his amplifier’s speakers with a razor. A legend was born.

They went on to produce a series of hit songs and strong albums over the next eight years, covering an incredibly wide swath of musical territory.

No one is making the claim that The Kinks are the greatest band in rock and roll history, not even me. But, they were very, very goodbetter than they are remembered today, and their case holds important lessons for marketers and brand leaders about the ways in which a great product can fail.

I rediscovered The Kinks last summer, when their back catalog from the 1960s and 1970s quietly appeared in Apple’s iTunes store without fanfare or promotion, marking the band’s 50th anniversary.

Listening to these albums was eye opening. The hits I knew were as good as I’d remembered, but there were dozens of tracks I’d never heard or barely remembered that were simply brilliant. Why was this band not a dominant part of the musical conversation? The Rolling Stones and The Who sell out stadium shows, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kinks, who broke up in 1996, don’t even get an artist’s profile in the iTunes store. If they reunited, they would be a theater show at best – no arenas.

What caused The Kinks to wind up in the dust bin of rock and roll?

In his best-seller “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that social epidemics – a proxy for breakout commercial successes – are driven by a combination of factors he terms “connectors”, “mavens” and “salesmen.” His concept is that a small innovation can go “viral” and become a breakout success if it can cultivate people who are well-connected, people who curate new information, and people who are charismatic advocates for that innovation.

Surely The Kinks lacked one or more of these critical factors. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Mavens: They had well-regarded, “maven-ish” advocates, in the form of musical peers like the Who’s Pete Townsend, who declared that Ray Davies should be Britain’s poet laureate, and David Bowie, who says “I’ve never heard a Kinks song I didn’t like.” John Lennon is also said to have been a fan. Upon hearing The Kinks single “Wonderboy,” Lennon reportedly asked the DJ of a London restaurant to play the song over and over again one night. (Davies was no fan of Lennon’s, regarding Lennon as arrogant.)

Connectors: The Kinks had “connectors” in the form of critics, who largely liked the band and its music. While Saunders’ 1972 quote above, in a mixed review of The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, is a bit of hyperbole, no editor cut it out. Rock critic Robert Christgau described their 1967 song “Waterloo Sunset” as “the most beautiful song in the English language.”

Salesman: They had charismatic “salesman” in Ray Davies himself, who has all the traits one could want in a frontman—hubris, a wild imagination and great stories to tell. Davies was famously truculent with the media, arrogant and irascible at times, but that would only serve to aid the promotion of many other frontmen. Dave Davies, the guitarist and sometimes singer, was also good with a quote. When asked if the band was trying to play heavy metal in the 1980s, the younger Davies replied “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.

What went wrong?

The Kinks had three problems that I would describe as system barriers.

Market Access: During the critical period of 1965 and 1969, when they were making their best music and bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were feeding and feeding on a music-led culture, The Kinks lacked access to the biggest commercial market in the world, and the market that set the pace for the industry.

In 1965, after a brief American tour in which the band fought on stage and destroyed equipment, the American Federation of Musicians banned The Kinks from touring in America. The strike was not resolved for four years.

The American ban hurt. In 1967, when “Waterloo Sunset” was released, it went to #2 in Britain, but failed to chart in America. Today, Rolling Stone ranks that song #42 on its list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time. (“You Really Got Me” is #80.)

Timing: The Kinks were often out of step with their times. While The Beatles were experimenting with psychedelica and absurdist lyrics, and hard rock and heavy metal were emerging as dominant forces, Ray Davies was writing about tea, sunsets and sunny afternoons. This focus on the details of everyday life is at the core of indie rock 25 years later, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not popular. One example: In 1971, while The Kinks’ heavy metal descendants were celebrating excess and drug abuse, The Kinks recorded the remarkable lament “Alcohol,” a swinging, New Orleans-style dirge about a man whose life had fallen apart because of his drinking. Years later, when heavy metal was breaking through, The Kinks released the mediocre “Give the People What They Want,” an uninspired attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the genre they helped create.

Product consistency & availability: The Kinks suffered from two basic “operations” problems. They were often rushed in and out of the studio, and the band often complained that the production quality of its singles was far short of its expectations. You can hear this, particularly in the mid-1960s albums. Kinda Kinks, the band’s second album, was rushed out of the studio in two weeks. (As Ray Davies later said, “a bit more care should have been taken with it… It had better songs on it than the first album, but it wasn’t executed in the right way. It was just far too rushed.”) In 1967, with the release of Something Else by the Kinks, the label rushed out the single “Autumn Almanac” to try to boost flagging sales. It would be the band’s last top 10 single for the next several years. The band also suffered distribution problems. With a series of bad label deals, their back catalog has often not been available. Pye Records – their mid-1960s label – kept few of The Kinks’ original masters, opting to rerecord other artists over their session tapes. When Van Halen hit it big with “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks Greatest Hits was hard to find. One of their most highly regarded albums, 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), still isn’t available for download on iTunes or Amazon in the US.

What lessons do these issues hold for marketers?

First, it’s critical to understand the environment, and have a strategy that is right for that environment. Getting locked out of the US market at the peak of their creativity was a huge blow to The Kinks’ success. In 1970, the UK was an aging market of 55.6 million people. The US, by contrast, was a youth-oriented market of 207 million. When singles began to chart in the UK but not break through in America, it should have been a single that The Kinks’ lack of presence in America was dragging them down. Yet the ban was not resolved until after the release of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. By that time, audiences and promoters weren’t interested in The Kinks anymore. Dates were cancelled. The tour was a flop.

Second, operational excellence plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining a brand’s reputation and its commercial success. When Pye Records rushed out Kinda Kinks, I’m sure it had very good intentions of capitalizing on a strong run of hits. But when the quality of the recording did not hold up, it undermined the band’s long-term legacy. If you compare contemporary recordings by The Beatles, like Help, with Kinda Kinks, there’s simply no comparison.

Finally, marketing strategy must reflect the qualities of the underlying product. When The Kinks were producing more introspective and personal songs, the promotion of the albums remained locked in to boastful claims of the group’s greatness. Notably, a radio spot for Muswell Hillbillies included in this year’s rerelease, quotes critics positive reviews heralding it as, in the words of one reviewer “The Album of the Year.” In fact, the album was completely out of step with its times – in a good way. But this was the year of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, and The Doors’ LA Woman — big, loud albums completely at odds with the intimacy of Muswell Hillbillies. Frankly, they still don’t appear to understand this. The band’s official web site dates to 2011, it celebrates “32 years of greatness,” referring to the band’s 1964 to 1996 span. There are only three albums on the band’s YouTube channel.

It’s not like The Kinks were a complete flop. Four of their records went gold, and they had five top 10 US singles. And they left a fantastic legacy. There is a direct line between the raw three-chord rock of “You Really Got Me” and the pnk movement. “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” sounds like the British New Wave, 10 years too soon. “Lola” was an utterly unique hit single. The distorted sounds of “All Day and All of the Night” and “I Need You” presaged the hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

One thing is clear, the factors that inhibited the success of The Kinks would not have had the same impact today. In an era when U2 can reach 500 million iTunes subscribers with the touch of a button, The Kinks would not have been shut out of America by a touring ban. I think their more narrative-driven albums would have found a larger audience. In today’s music world, I suspect strongly they would have made the charts more often, and with more staying power.

Luckily, it’s not too late. You can still listen to Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies. If you do, you too will wonder why this band isn’t at the top tier of the conversation of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.

On Influence | Appreciating Robin Williams

By Mike Kuczkowski

After Robin Williams’ death last week, many media outlets produced some fine tributes (and some have done some disgraceful things, too.) If you have not listened to Mark Maron’s podcast with Williams, you should.

Having just published a piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman, I didn’t want to write about Williams at first. But, I realized that while people were talking a lot about Williams’ career and his legacy, there was a point to be made about his influence that I thought was important and unsaid.

I think influence is something that we all think about in communications, and Williams had a tremendous and powerful influence, both within comedy and acting, and on the culture at large.

Williams meant a lot of things to people. Some people loved him as “Mork” in the 1970s, though, candidly, I never understood why. Some loved his comedic acting, in movies like “Good Morning Vietnam” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Others loved him in dramatic roles, like the teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society” or the psychologist in “Good Will Hunting.” As an actor, he credibly ranks among the best of his era, though he also starred in some clunkers. (One example of his star status: In The Birdcage, Williams got top billing over Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane. Not too shabby.)

But Williams was more than an actor. As a comedian, he was one of the greatest of all time. I was a huge fan of Williams’ standup comedy. My best friend in grade school looked a bit like Williams and proved adept mimicking Williams’ impressions. We had a lot of fun with it. We did Williams doing Jim Nabors. And Williams doing John Wayne. Williams doing a redneck and a gay hairdresser and an Arab and a Japanese tourist.

Williams was not a master impressionist, like Rich Little. His impressions were good, but not precise. It was as though, as NPR’s Terry Gross described it, he had a coterie of different personalities inside him, and it was never clear which would come out next.

But, his content was brilliant. In 1986, in “A Night at the Met,” he said “I’m Robin Leach, a man with a voice so loud even animals go ‘Who the f*ck are you?’” Where did that come from? I don’t even think Leach was particularly loud. But Leach, the host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” was obnoxious, pretentious and overbearing in a manner best described as loud.

Williams pierced the cultural zeitgeist with his humor. And, whether it was true in the sense of accuracy or not, it did hang together.

As a kid who imitated comics, I could recite the dentist’s chair scene from Bill Cosby’s “Himself.” Or, Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Those were acts; you could deliver those lines. But, Williams’ performances moved so quickly from one persona to another that following them gave you the comedy equivalent of whiplash. You couldn’t recreate him out of context.

This, however, gave his admirers the freedom to invent. We couldn’t recite the lines. Heck, it was hard to understand them, and I still don’t get all the references. But, we could tie together random things that seemed disparate and create something funny, at least part of the time, because he did.

In the tributes of the past week, many observers — particularly critics who had to try to represent his brilliance in print — have said of Williams that ‘you had to be there’ to appreciate his genius. I think it’s because the performance just isn’t that funny if you’re not there to see the free association happen. The brilliance is embedded in the high wire act of seeing him jump from topic to topic and then back again, and in not knowing what’s hiding around the next curve.

We talk about Williams as an improv genius, but I really don’t think that’s right. He was an associative genius. He took us on journeys, with bits that travelled from Walt Disney to Ronald Reagan to Moammar Quadafi, to Colonel Sanders to fast-food workers. (“You want fries with that?”) These are things that did not fit together, except through him.

In fact, this is the thing I think we don’t yet appreciate about Williams. His comedy made the randomness of life, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly random, make sense.

You know, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s was a very confusing time. (I’m sure it’s possible to insert any decade into that sentence, but indulge me for a moment.) We were born into the nuclear era, under the threat of the Cold War. We experienced American hostages in Iran, assassination attempts on the Pope and the president, the rise of Michael Jackson and MTV, the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It all seemed fairly random, if not terrifying.

And here came this guy, Robin Williams. A fast-talking comic who changed topics and personas so quickly you barely had a chance to keep up. He talked about everything. Sometimes in one long, wildly meandering sentence. And, while we never knew where he’d be taking us, the ride often was more sense-making than the evening news. Much as Jon Stewart does today, on a nightly basis.

And the brilliance of it was that, while he was clearly a genius, he didn’t try to seem smarter than us or try to make some grand statement about what it all meant. He had the courage to leave it there and say “yep.” Much like we all had to do on pretty much a daily basis.

That’s what makes me most sad about Williams’ death. Robin Williams could look at the strange, random absurdity in the world, and, tie it together imperfectly but hilariously, and make you laugh until your guts hurt and then —— as he did when he walked off stage at “A Night at the Met” hand-in-hand with his imaginary 3-year-old son —– say ‘f*ck it’ in a three-year-old toddler’s voice. It made you feel like you could laugh it off, too.

Like Walter Cronkite in my parents’ generation, Robin Williams looked at the world and helped us make sense of it. And, his passing makes it make a little less sense overall.


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Robin Williams | Awardscore

Last month, to evaluate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting career, we created a framework called the Awardscore [1]. Here’s a look at where Robin Williams ranks.

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Jack Nicholson 77 71 95 12 3 351
Daniel Day-Lewis 57 35 127 5 3 344
Tom Hanks 58 86 71 5 2 288
Denzel Washington 59 85 73 6 2 281
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Sean Penn 54 63 76 5 2 260
George Clooney 53 92 60 4 1 242
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Robin Williams 63 60 70 4 1 220

Among the peer set of Best Actor nominees for the past 30 years, Williams ranks 10th. He is also arguably the greatest star to cross over from comedy to drama. While one could make the case that Tom Hanks similarly moved from sitcom acting to a serious big screen drama career, none of the actors on this list were standup comedians of note besides Williams.

Which brings us to another unique point. Grammy awards are not included in our acting analysis. (Nor, some have noted, are Tony awards. Or women.) But if the Grammy award is included, and it is rated like an Oscar, Williams moves into elite territory.

Williams was nominated for seven Grammy awards and won five overall, four for best Comedy Album. (His fifth was for best spoken word album, in a collaboration with Ry Cooder.) Applying a similar Awardscore formula to Grammy awards, Williams would rank fifth behind Bill Cosby (7W, 12N), George Carlin (5W, 16N), Richard Pryor (5W, 10N) and Steve Martin (4W, 9N) among comedians.

An impressive career, however you look at it.

It’s worth noting that there are some flaws or distortions in this exercise. As film festivals and awards have proliferated in recent years, the rankings of older actors such as DeNiro, Newman, Pacino and Albert Finney, fall further behind the younger generation. Which, it’s worth noting, makes Jack Nicholson’s status as top dog among the past 30 years of Best Actor nominees all the more impressive.

[1] NOTE: As a reminder, the Awardscore gives actors 10 points for an Oscar win, five points for an Oscar nomination and two and one points, respectively, for overall acting awards and nominations listed in the database. For this ranking, we expanded our set of actors in the analysis to include all nominees for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role dating back to 1984. For the Hoffman piece, we were looking for objective data about the claim that he was “The Greatest Actor of His Generation,” which only took us back to 1997.

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