Last Sunday, in the sleepy pre-dawn hour, Meghan Miner and I caught a cab to Boston’s Logan airport to fly home from the one-day communications workshop that COMPASS held for the east coast Switzer Fellows. Though we were groggy and not terribly talkative ourselves, we couldn’t help being drawn into a conversation started by “Dave the tattooed cab driver,” as he called himself.
Turns out, Dave is a photographer and journalist – with a pretty interesting view of things. A former punk rocker, Dave covers the music scene for British lifestyle magazines and takes photographs (mostly portraits), when he is not driving his cab. His last big writing assignment, just two weeks ago, was a piece on the bluesy folk-rock band Alabama Shakes that he wrote after following their tour for several days in South Carolina—something he accomplished only after a truly horrific series of flight cancellations and delays on “US Scareways.”
As I got out of the cab and wrangled my way through the absurdly long security line at Logan (Come on TSA! A Sunday morning at 6:30 am?!), it occurred to me that Dave had effectively aced what could have been a classic COMPASS communication workshop scenario. Through engaging and effective storytelling, he’d packed a lot of punch into that cab ride. He left us with a clear view of himself—his life, his work, his world view—delivered in a conversational and evocative way that remains memorable days later.
In COMPASS communication trainings, we challenge participants to put their bottom lines up top by acting in on-the-spot scenarios with our journalist or policy trainers. The goal is to shake academics out of their comfort zone and give them the opportunity to practice communicating their main points in a realistic, but moderately high stakes context. We hear from participants regularly that this is one of the most valuable parts of the training experience.
One of my favorite scenarios is the one that Dave, unprompted, had just acted out. It goes something like this: You find yourself with a random opportunity to start up a conversation. It could be sitting next to someone on an airplane, waiting for a flight to board, or in a line for drinks at a cocktail party (or, in our case, the driver of a cab with a captive passenger audience!). The details can vary, but the challenge is the same—make a connection with a stranger and deliver your elevator speech. Don’t miss an opportunity to get yourself and your work out there. You never know who might be on the receiving end.
Elizabeth Wilson was fortunate enough to have her real life “airplane moment” come after being put through the paces at a COMPASS training for the Leopold Leadership Program last year. On the way home from the Washington, DC-based portion of the fellowship training, Wilson, a 2011 fellow who studies sustainable energy practices, found herself seated next to North Dakota’s only member of the House of Representatives, Rick Berg. Bolstered by her newly acquired communications skills, she took the opportunity to raise the issue with him of piping the natural gas currently flaring out in the Bakken oil field, instead into the local electricity market (MISO). What made the conversation easier for her was making a connection that had nothing to do with energy issues. She found out that she and Berg were both partial to the intense workout routine P90x, “Instant bond,” she wrote in an email to COMPASS policy director Chad English.
Wilson counted no fewer than four members of the House of Representatives and one Senator on her flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul that night. Though Berg was the only one that she talked with directly, her Friday night flight out of DCA seemed a veritable goldmine of potential conversations to start.
Ephemeral interactions have the potential to change the course of things—to build lasting relationships or create fodder for key follow-ups. This is why it’s a good idea to have your ideas clearly articulated and ready to roll at all times. You never know what might happen when you strike up a conversation with the stranger in the next seat.