Two Powerful Mantras of Written and Verbal Communication and the Truth About Stories

I learned long ago that fewer rather than more words tend to help understanding, especially of truth.

These examples have been my guiding thoughts as I write most any document or prepare a speech to an audience:

  1. The Ten Commandments, Exodus Version, has 313 words.
  2. The Gettysburg Address had but 272 words.
  3. John F. Kennedy’s, Going the Moon speech at Rice University, 26 words, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” 
  4. John F. Kennedy, 17 words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
  5. Martin Luther King, 4 words, “I have a dream.” (four words and seven dreams out of a 91-minute presentation in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.)
  • Write less but make it more important and more memorable.
  • Say less but make it interesting, powerful, and important.
  • What makes a story valuable is a moral, or a lesson, or key message or purpose, or a self-evident truth.  
  • Use stories carefully. Most stories are never true.

Crisis Management vs. Readiness
Stop Being the Chicken Little of Your Organization

One of the more disabling pieces of baggage that many public relations practitioners carry is being known behind their backs as the Chicken Little in their organization. Getting management and managers attention by referring to any hiccup as a crisis.

The truth is managers and leaders are problem resolvers and issue managers. In every organization, there are bushels of these events active at any given time. But crises are very rare.

I define crisis as a show-stopping, people-stopping, product-stopping, reputation-redefining event that creates victims and/or explosive visibility. The most important word being victims. Problems can be serious, problems can be debilitating, and problems can be distracting, but true crises in any environment, even the most challenging ones, are extremely rare and always produce victims. No victims, no crisis.  

My advice learned as one of the most important lessons that came out of 9/11. 9/11 actually changed the crisis management vocabulary and security, police work, and preparation work. The operative word became Readiness. Readiness is a management word. Crisis management is the PR word designed to get management’s attention and probably a budget for doing something. Hence, the reputation for being Chicken Little after, “The sky is falling” fable. (There’s a similar fable in every culture I have worked in.)

Readiness is Strategic Management Concept

If everything is a crisis then there are no crises. Readiness is self-explanatory and starts productive conversations, triggers more strategic questions, as well as, holds management’s attention and accountability.

Yes, it’s hard to avoid using crisis as a management attention-getter. Trust me when I tell you that it is one of the biggest turn-offs in the relationship that communicators and public affairs staff functions in the organization have with their bosses.

How to Approach Your Boss About Readiness
A Story with a Big Lesson

Let me also emphasize a lesson I learned very early in my career. I gave a speech in Florida to about 200 top security officers in major corporations. When I returned to my Minneapolis office there were easily a couple dozen messages which clearly came from attendees at this conference. My first thought was that I had messed up and said something that irritated or agitated people in the audience or the host organization. But among the names were two or three people that I knew, so I called them. And was I ever surprised.

 The first person I called, Bill, the Chief Security and Intelligence Officer of a Fortune 50 company answered his phone, as he always did, and rather sheepishly I said, “I have all these messages, you were at the meeting, what did I say that is causing my phone to ring off the hook.” Bill said, “I don’t know about the others, but I think you have revived my career with a single sentence.”, “What was that sentence?” I sort of begged. He responded by telling me that, “When you have a concept, especially a really good concept that could involve the survival of the institution and its leadership, go and see the boss first before you write anything down and talk it over with him or her.”, “That single sentence explained why I felt I was failing at my career as a crucial advisor to my boss.” “He would say no immediately or would simply forget what we were talking about.”

He continued, “Typically if I’m going to propose an idea or want to suggest something, I developed a short paper on the subject with some facts, data, and perhaps a couple of suggestions about how to start, and a timeline of expected events.” “My intention was to answer all the likely questions on the first pass.”

“I thought I was being a good staff person”, he continued, “but the truth is I can now see that it comes across as though I thought of everything necessary, the boss has little room to think it through on his own besides what bosses do for a living is decide things fast.” “Then you said this well-prepared approach is often viewed as evidence that you don’t trust the boss to successfully carry out your ideas.”

“You reminded all of us that bosses exist to make the crucial decisions. On major issues they like to be in on it from the start, even before that first exploratory memo is in their inbox.” And then you said, “What bosses appreciate are action options rather than “solutions”.” The Three Minute Drill.

Suggesting options for their consideration is a powerful way of demonstrating that you are working for them rather than yourself.”

As it turns out, that is exactly why everyone else called. They were surprised to hear me say, “Learn to avoid staff work that gets too far ahead of the person who runs the business.” This is a common error among most staff functions.

Staff tend to think it’s generally smart to show how ready we are, by proposing complete ideas. We fail for reasons including lack of trust in a senior manager “to get it” and follow through. Staff fear, of course, is that the boss will say no. The goal always is to leave the meeting with the request for some preliminary thoughts on what we discussed as opposed to, “I’ll think about it.” Which means, of course, you will never hear about it again. People who run successful organizations routinely make other important decisions quickly. They have no time to let ideas pile up. Trusted Strategic Manifesto Link.

Readiness is a critical management activity. It is also a highly strategic activity. Two things most of us in staff functions need to be associated with.

Problems happen often in large numbers every day in organizations. But, if it’s people-stopping, product-stopping, show-stopping, reputation-redefining, or circumstance that can create victims and/or explosive visibility, that is worth an executive’s attention. Lucky for most of us they rarely happen, but we’re busy getting ready to manage other problems in the meantime.

You might find it useful to review the Trusted Strategic Advisors Manifesto, part of which talks about the six mistakes trusted advisors need to avoid making. Especially error #5, pushing ideas that the boss will never buy.

Reputation vs. Trust

I’ve always thought that the whole notion of reputation was more a Public Relations construct than a management concern. Leaders learn quickly to care about trust from stakeholders and victims.

During my nearly 40 years in reputation, leadership, and organizational recovery, I can’t recall a serious discussion of reputation in a management circumstance by those running the business until just before they were about to lose or see their reputation seriously damaged. In many cases, the reputation issues were raised earlier and forcefully by public affairs, internal communications, and may be later by business operations.

Trust is a powerful management term. I define trust as the absence of fear. I interpret fear to mean the absence of trust. Trust is a management word; trust is a powerful cultural word. Trust is a word that has its counterparts in virtually every culture on the planet, and trust is understood clearly and immediately by just about everybody. Generally, it’s mom who taught us about trust, so we remember.

Trust = Absences of Fear    Fear = Absence of Trust

Chief Executives of troubled organizations don’t lose their jobs because there’s a reputation problem. They lose their jobs because there is a trust problem, a failure to provide the assurance that prevents the fear of serious adverse circumstances. If we’re talking seriously about our relationship with constituents, stakeholders, employees, the public, and anyone who has a stake in our organization for whatever reason, we’re talking about trust.

Trust defines itself. Reputation? We’ll need to call the PR department for the latest definition.

Your mom is watching.

Profiles in Jell-O®:

Cowardly, Crooked, Confused,
Credibility-Busting, Obviously False Communication

Ever notice those defensive, dumb, demeaning phrases that creep or blast into or, heaven forbid, dominate a communications strategy?  What you are seeing is living proof that the organization or its leadership is showing its profile in Jell-O®.  Everyone else notices, too.

These phrases lay the groundwork for credibility-busting communication.  Avoid them if you value your future reputation and the respect of your employees, customers, and key publics.

  1. “A subcontractor to one of our temporary suppliers did it.”
  2. Any phrase with the word “Not.” A lie always precedes or follows.
  3. “He’s not deranged . . . anymore.”
  4. “I am not a crook.”
  5. “I am not a racist.”
  6. “I did not have sex with that woman.”
  7. “It will set a precedent.”
  8. “It’s a merger of equals.”
  9. “It’s a vendetta.”
  10. “It’s a Witch Hunt”
  11. “It’s an isolated incident.”
  12. “It’s company policy.”
  13. “It’s not our fault.”
  14. “It’s not our problem.”
  15. “No comment.”
  16. “Nobody died.”
  17. “Only a few were guilty.  Why punish everyone?”
  18. “Only a few were injured.”
  19. “Restructuring will strengthen our balance sheet.”
  20. “The customer used it wrong.”
  21. “The perfect combination of two great companies.”
  22. “The vast majority are good, decent people.”
  23. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
  24. “They have no credentials.”
  25. “They were careless and didn’t realize what they were doing.”
  26. “They were really young when it happened.”
  27. “They’re just disgruntled employees.”
  28. “We are good corporate citizens.”
  29. “We don’t tolerate that kind of behavior . . .   (anymore)!”
  30. “We’d look silly.”
  31. “We’re not paid to find the weasels.”

If you would like to add additional examples that fit the profiles in Jello description, send them to Jim Lukaszewski at

The Lexicon of Trust Building

The most serious ongoing challenge to building trust and ensuring positive relationships with customers, allies, colleagues, government, employees, and relatives is establishing trust.  It is easier to recognize the patterns of those behaviors and attitudes that damage trust and bring credibility into question. Trust is a fragile magical substance like the lignin in trees, nature’s glue that holds the tree fiber together, Trust is what holds relationships together.  Trust is the most fragile and vulnerable agent in a relationship.

Here is the Lexicon of Trust Building ingredients. The more you use, the greater the trust level.

  • Apology: The atomic energy of empathy. Apologies can stop bad things from starting and start to stop bad things. Even with extraordinary injury and harm, a prompt apology, taking responsibility for some egregious, injuring act or decision, tends to detoxify bad situations. I truly believe that apologies are always on time. However, experience shows that the earlier the apology, the more powerful its effect.
  • Candor: Truth with an attitude delivered right now. Truth plus the facts, truth plus some perspective, truth that reflects the value of other’s observations.
  • Credibility: Always conferred by others on those whose past behavior, track record, and accomplishments warrant it.
  • Empathy: Actions that speak louder than words ever can. (No PR needed)
  • Forgiveness: In those cases where someone has harmed you or those things you care about, often the hardest action to take is moving on and finding ways to help the perpetrator move on as well.
  • Integrity: Uncompromising adherence to a code of values by people, products, and companies, with the attributes of credibility, candor, sincerity, and truth.
  • Sympathy: The ongoing, often continuous, verbalization of regret, embarrassment, or personal humiliation, promptly conveyed, i.e., feeling truly sorry for someone who is experiencing pain, but stopping short of taking on the blame or the pain.
  • Trust: Generally, the absence of fear, the feeling of reliability. The knowledge that adverse situations, pain, or mistakes have less impact or can be pre-empted if a trusting relationship exists or can be built.
  • Add your own. Please.
Whenever there is or can be fear, uncertainty, or doubt, always move towards trust.

The Bosses Most Critical
Roles in Crisis

Effective crisis responses are led by leaders with five specific personal and operational roles in crisis situations.

  1. Assert the moral authority expected of ethical leadership.
    1. Leadership takes appropriate and expected steps to learn from and deal with the issues crises situations raise, very promptly.  
    2. Moral authority consists of:
      1. Candor and disclosure.
      2. Prompt patient explanation.
      3. Commitment to communicate.
      4. Oversite with empathy.
      5. Commitment to zero errors, victimizations, and avoidable mistakes.
      6. Restitution, penance, or at least maintenance while victim issues are resolved.
  2. Take responsibility for the care of victims.
    1. Victims and victimization provide the energy that makes these situations so explosive, highly emotional, and unpredictable.
    2. Taking responsibility for victims moderates and mitigates the emotion of crisis events.
    3. Yes, it can be interpreted as taking responsibility. Just clearly explain the extent and duration of your assistance. Simply ignoring victims creates a raft of new complications and blame shifting towards you.
  3. Set the appropriate tone for the organizational response.
    1. If leadership gripes and groans, everybody gripes and groans.
    2. If leaders whine, everybody whines.
    3. Productive, constructive, instructive, and inspirational tone from the top will move the entire organization towards a more prompt resolution of the crisis, limit the impact, and mitigate reputation damage. An empathetic tone reduces the tension and stress victims feel.
  4. Set the organizations emotional voice.
    1. Be compassionate.
    2. Be helpful.
    3. Be courteous.
    4. Stop taking events, comments, and commentary personally.
    5. Communicate regularly directly with victims, survivors, and survivor families.
  5. Commit random acts of leadership at every level. Teach, encourage, and insist that every level of manager in the organization does the same.
    1. Walk the floor.
    2. Talk the floor.
    3. Encourage people.
    4. Knock down barriers.
    5. Help everyone stay focused on the ultimate response goals of the organization.

Silence is a Toxic Mistake to Your Reputation, and Possibly Your Career.

Above all begin communicating immediately. The most frequent, permanent, and avoidable reputation and career damage comes from remaining silent.

There is no believable or rational reason for saying nothing even for a brief period of time. If the crisis response is technically perfect, the leader will be criticized for doing nothing. Excuses for silence never pass the straight-face test. Whatever you do, it turns out that saying nothing means doing nothing. This becomes the legacy of even timely responses when there is failure to communicate.

The Challenge of Change
(Ugh, Not This Again?)

* This Phrase is used in a high number of CEO letters and management reports every year.

The truth? Bosses seem to love change, but when the subject is change, it scares the pants off of people.

Time to wake up about the destruction caused by “change”. CEO’s listen up. Find another approach. Successors get ready to move up.


The True Challenge of Change…is to Find Another Way to Talk About it,or Suffer the Consequences. 

  1. Change rattles everyone.
  2. Change disturbs community, personal, and organizational values.
    1. It better be good.
    2. It better be worth it.
    3. The tomorrow change promises must be better than the yesterday we know and want to keep.
  3. Change distorts, disturbs, and unsettles cultural norms and expectations.
    1. Creates stress, critics, and angry people who accumulate.
    2. Creates confusion from inadequate explanations, rigid deadlines, and failure to answer questions when those answers are needed.
  4. Cushion the blow, reduce the bad news.
    1. Change always causes bad news that ages badly.
    2. Bad news gets worse before it gets better.
    3. Bad news never ends in the place you expect, plan, or hope for.
  5. You have to meet with your fiercest opposition…because the victim’s change creates will have more power than you.
    1. Your most trusted people expect you to do this promptly.
    2. Delaying this activity forces opponents to lag behind and never catch up. They then resort to talking about yesterday when change is always about tomorrow.
  6. The truth metric is 15% facts and data, 85% emotion and point of reference. (Believe it.)
    1. Excessive reliance on data is defensive and irritates and re-victimizes, then agitates the rest.
    2. Understanding a person’s point of reference will determine if they will accept changes; not care about a change; or work against whatever you propose to change
    3. Emotion and points of reference are what drive people’s actual understanding of events rather than reams of data and facts. In fact, reams and facts simply make everybody else feel stupid barring even the remotest understanding of the changes you’re proposing.
  7. If you must talk about change, prepare for the negative impact.
    1. Even the threat of change will likely be resisted.
    2. Think about getting your successor off the bench and warmed up.
  8. Manage the politics of predictable stakeholder behavior.
    1. Tests to filter new ideas:
      1. Is it simple, sensible, constructive, helpful, or doable?
      2. How many critics and enemies will it create?
      3. How many will feel re-victimized/very inspired, and motivated?
      4. Will it be helpful in achieving management’s goals?
      5. Will it be helpful in achieving the organization’s overall goals?
      6. Even if the answers to 4 and 5 are yes, is it really necessary?
      7. Will it make for a better tomorrow? For whom?
      8. For whom will tomorrow’s change be worse after today?
      9. What will fail to succeed if change is delayed, denied, or significantly modified?
    2. Get your inside game working. So, your outside game can succeed.
  9. Leaders lose their jobs from a predictable series of possible causes:
    1. Failure to perform as expected.
    2. Distracted by questionable projects, programs, or expectations.
    3. People problems caused by new top people failing to help those in place understand the changes being proposed.
    4. AWOL, focusing too much on the new stuff and not what makes your organization succeed day to day.
    5. Actual success in establishing destructive changes.
  10. Ask yourself this question several times each day: Will the changes being proposed create more happier, more productive, satisfied, and constructively motivated people than it will wound or offend?

Communication Imperatives to Help Change, or Whatever you Call it.

  1. Communicate positively with energy and frequently from the start.
  2. Repeat essential concepts constantly.
  3. Repeat what you repeat.
    1. People who feel victimized or confused hardly hear anything but their own voices.
    2. Repetition benefits everyone, but especially those who feel victimized.
  4. Answer every question over and over again. When do you stop? When there are no more questions.
  5. Ask and answer questions people should be asking but may not be.
  6. Please avoid asking, “Do you have any questions?” (Chances are they don’t. Instead, spontaneously repeat things. Frequently supply the questions and answers you know they need to know, when they need to know them.
  7. Remember change was your idea. Take positive, aggressive responsibility for the process.
  8. Frequently repeat reports on progress as specifically as you can. “We’re making great progress; everybody is doing what they are supposed to.” Is a lie and a wandering generality. Be specific. Site names, dates, places, actions, and the impact of those achievements.
  9. Always publish the questions you detest, especially from those you may find detestable. You’re obligated to provide constructive, helpful, and useful answers every time.

Concise Advice #19: Your Mother Was Wrong About One Thing

“Words will never hurt you…,”
Is a Total Lie.

Remember, when you were five years old, and the first time you got beat up and shouted at on the playground by some kid you didn’t even know? Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa said, “There, there…sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you!”. By age nine you knew this was a total lie. Abusive, Demeaning, Uncivil, Unconscionable Language, and Accusations victimize, producing hidden wounds that last a lifetime.

When those words and deeds come back to haunt you, unless you say something, you always suffer alone. That’s because wounds from words are:

  • Bloodless
  • Lifelong
  • Invisible
  • Irreversible
  • Revictimizing
  • Scarless
  • Unhealable
  • * Experiences of Others Can Trigger your Sudden Devastating Reliving of a Prior Experience of Anger, Fear, Terror, and Hurt.

*The last item is the worst, the sudden revictimizing suffered when something outrageous in someone else’s life triggers terrible and painful memories from your own life. The anger, terror, fear, and hurt rush back, you can’t stop it. Whenever I talk about sexual harassment, for example, or assault, I assume that at least 40% of the female members in the audience are reliving something awful from their past life.

In Every Culture:
There are words and behaviors you can never
take back, words that cause lifetime victimization
and suffering of others and yourself.

What I Believe and You Should Too

Appalling, questionable, inappropriate, unethical, unconscionable, immoral, predatory, improper, victim-producing, and criminal behaviors are intentional. Adults choosing to harm, damage, embarrass, or victimize.

I Also Believe

Compassionate, decent, honorable, lawful behaviors, leadership decisions, and moral behaviors are also intentional.

You Already Know This

The choice is always clear and always yours.

Remember and Apply
the Ingredients of Decency First


Keep this list handy near your phone, maybe in your wallet, when you are tempted to say or do something that might be irritating or offensive, choose and ingredient of decency instead.

Avoid These Real Causes
of Permanent Victimization

Assault, physical and verbalLies
Bullying, physical and verbalNeglect/negligence

Then, Even Worse are
Unconscionable Behaviors

All are unethical, and most are also evil because their use is diabolically intended to harm and victimize the innocent.

Unconscionable intentions, behaviors, actions, and decisions are those that:

*VilifyExpress Anger and Irritation, to Cause Harm
DamageDemand or bully
DemeanAre Mean
DismissAre Negative
Cause Intentional PainDisparage

Speak Up

Unconscionable intentions, behaviors, actions, and decisions and their perpetrators need to be called out when you see them or hear of them. It’s the only way we can rid ourselves of these behaviors and the people who intentionally abuse us and others with them.

Concise Advice #18: Benjamin Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues

I Couldn’t Resist

Benjamin Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business
    have its time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary act.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you
    speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you
    think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or
  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness,
    weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

My [B. Franklin] list of virtues contained at first twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list.

B. Franklin Source:

© Copyright 2023, James E. Lukaszewski. America’s Crisis Guru®
Get permission to reproduce or quote. Contact the copyright holder,

Concise Advice #17: Your Manifesto for Communications Success


Every letter, talk, and communication we send to employees or to other places has to flow through a self-imposed emotional and vocabulary filter system that keeps us on an even keel that preempts, deters, and reduces the attacks, provocative, and negative comments that are likely to occur. Here are your preemption, and peace-driving filter elements:

1. Eliminate, remove, and eradicate all negative words, language, and phrases. Each of these is a flash and attack point, viewed as intimidation, pushback, and pressure. These responses are what stir up bad headlines and angry people. They energize and enrage.

2. Avoid the use of the word “I” as much as possible, especially at the beginning of paragraphs. Any piece of copy that begins with the word “I” is about the sender rather than the recipient. When messages are about the sender, they will be misunderstood, negatively reinterpreted, and tossed back at you in a headline.

3. Reflect on the impact of every sentence and thought expressed. Whether we are talking to our friends or those who are attempting to irritate or organize us, plain, declarative, positive language will reduce contention and make it harder to credibly attack or challenge our words and deeds.

4. Bosses and leaders set a positive, peaceful example. Protect the outcome we seek. Employees at all levels, including managers and supervisors, will reflect and behave the way the bosses walk, talk, and behave. Say less but be important and positive.

5. All of our communications and actions must be targeted toward reducing the production of victims, critics, and combatants. These individual circumstances, once created, last essentially forever. In every communications setting, you need to ask this question, “How many critics, victims, or combatants does this approach create?” If even one is possible, fix it.

6. A single victim carries unimaginable explosive power. You are the target.

7. A single public victim tear can destroy millions of data and provable facts.

8. Wage peace everywhere, every day at every opportunity. Victims and casualties live, suffer, and remember forever. Most want to get even. Can you go home and talk about your plans and strategies over the dinner table with your children or grandchildren present or your mother? And they won’t roll their eyes?

9. Be prepared to promptly correct, clarify, and constructively, and productively comment as needed. This approach can have an enormously calming effect on employees and employee concerns, the community and community concerns, and even the victims, survivors, their families, and their concerns.