Punchback: Answering Critics

The Answer Is the Way You Message

by Arch Lustberg

Here they come: All the people with questions about the quality and integrity of the schools. They're the press, parents, teachers, politicians, school board candidates, everyone with a special interest in the schools. And let's face it: Everyone has a special interest in schools.

The press has trained all the other constituencies to design questions that are intended to help you fail in your answer. They ask: “Why are you ruining our schools?” “Why are you spending school dollars on junkets?” “Why are your budgets overseen by amateurs?” “Why is your budget so fat?” “Why are we paying for mismanagement?” “Why are you cheating the children by teaching to the tests?”

In the dozens of administrator and school board training sessions I’ve conducted, the typical answers were always: “We are not ruining the schools.” “We’re not going off on junkets.” “We’re not amateurs.” You can guess the rest.

Cancerous Cells

I call it the architecture of confrontation. Each question has three foundations to hurt you. It’s negative. It accuses. It contains a buzzword. The answers before training are automatic, spontaneous, human. We deny the accusation and repeat the buzzword.

You need to become aware that the buzzword is memorable. When you repeat it, you are reinforcing the bad. You’ve watered a weed when you should have pulled it out by the roots. Who can forget “I am not a crook” or “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?

Your job is to eliminate those cancer cells—the negative, the accusation and the buzzword—and convert your answers into good, positive information that answers the question.

Here’s a simple, practical, nearly magical technique to accomplish that goal. Figure out what the question would have been if it had been asked by a decent human being. When I made that point to the president of Volvo North America, he said to me: “Arch, you’ve just taught me how to play a new game. If this were tennis, I could beat McEnroe.” It works.

He went on the “Today Show.” The first question he fielded was: “Everyone knows today's automobile is a piece of junk. Why are you involved in the manufacture and sale of junk?” After the show, he called me. He chuckled and assured me that before learning the new technique, he’d have spat out, “The Volvo is not junk.” With possibly 8 to 12 million people watching that morning, he said instead: “I’m proud to be able to tell you the average life of the Volvo on the highway in Sweden is 19½ years. Imagine! Driving the car you’re driving today for almost 20 years. And I’m even prouder that Volvo is the standard of safety for the entire automotive industry.”

Wow! I suggest that answer sold more cars than 12 minutes of Super Bowl commercials would have sold.

Positive Positioning

So let's relate that to your schools.

At one board/administrator training meeting, I asked all the earlier questions plus many more like: “Why are the schools failing on your watch?” “Who's to blame for the horrendous dropout rate?” “Why have gangs taken over your schools?”

Before the training the answers were: “Our schools are not failing.” “Our dropout rate is not horrible.” “Gangs have not taken over.” And on and on.

During the training, I stressed the power of stories, anecdotes, examples and figures of speech to defuse the three weeds. Then I asked them to go back over my questions and come up with some answers that might position the schools and school administration more positively. Here is what some of them said after shifting their mind into drive:

• “Come with me into any 5th-grade classroom. You’ll see your 5th grader learning faster, better and more than you and I learned in the 8th grade.”

• “When your daughter leaves home, a school bus picks her up. That’s administration. The driver is sober, drug-free and qualified. Administration. She's dropped off at the cafeteria where there's a warm nourishing breakfast ready. Administration. She goes to the girls room. It’s bright, equipped and sanitary. Administration. Then she goes into the classroom and who's waiting for her? A teacher with no other responsibility than working with your daughter and her classmates. That’s administration at work for you and your children.”

• “I have two children in this system. I assure you I want the best education for my children. And that’s what I want for yours.”

• “Before I became an administrator, I was the music teacher. The day I was promoted I decided I’d run my schools like a symphony orchestra. The children are the musicians. The teacher is the first chair of each section. The principal is the conductor. The superintendent is the general manager and you and the school board are the owners, and I’m proud to say we make beautiful music.”

A Better Messenger

These were just a few of the different directions the answers traveled after some enlightenment. Every school leader has some great stories. Practice getting them to the front of your brain to convert rotten questions into these: Why are you proud of your schools? What have you done for my children? How are you making sure my children receive a good education? Where do your schools excel?

Once you’re learned to handle the aggressor and how to turn a question around, you’ll deliver a positive message and become a far better messenger.

Arch Lustberg is a speaker and consultant on communications and the author of How To Sell Yourself. He can be reached at Arch Lustberg Communications, 1806 S. Hayes St., Arlington, VA 22202. E-mail: lustberg@erols.com