To my ear, tone-deaf communications reached new decibel levels in 2018, with the tech world contributing mightily to the noise. It was a shrieking cacophony of a year, brimming with inept statements, videos, tweets and posts that offended, hurt, angered or baffled the intended audience—inevitably, to the utter amazement of the tone-challenged communicators.
“Tone-deaf” in music is quite literal—it’s the inability to hear nuances in musical pitch. Someone who is tone-deaf is pretty unlikely to be able to carry a tune. Metaphorically, a tone-deaf communicator doesn’t realize the words coming out of their mouth (or their Twitter feed) are profoundly off-key to the audience.
The jarring notes came from seemingly everywhere in 2018…people in the arts, sports, business, and of course politics. That said, I’m not talking about Trump, or the dispiriting trend he embodies of weaponizing intentionally offensive and inflammatory speech (speech that 1/3 of the country, after all, would characterize as pitch-perfect, no matter how off it is to the majority). I’m talking specifically about people who unintentionally, but utterly, muffed communications that they thought would be well-received—or at least understood—by their audience.
Some recent examples and lowlights:
Queen Elizabeth urges “generosity and self-sacrifice”— from the gilded opulence of one of Buckingham Palace’s 775 rooms. This sort of “obliviousness-of-the-privileged” is at the core of many a tone-deaf statement.
Twitter chief Jack Dorsey’s tweets about his lovely vacation to Burma—blithely unaware of the bloody ethnic conflicts raging throughout the country.
And then there was almost anything Elon Musk said. (Seriously, look it up for yourself. You might want to set aside a few hours.)
The tech world was a shining star, sweeping several categories at the “2018 Tone-Deaf Grammys.” And no one quite assaulted our ear drums and offended our sensibilities like Zuckerberg and Sandberg, both of whom seem stuck deep inside a bubble of denial about Facebook’s myriad issues and transgressions. Business Insider ripped Zuck for his “I’m-proud-of-the-progress-we-made” letter to wrap up a year more aptly characterized as riddled with scandal and malfeasance. Walt Mossberg piled on with this tweet:
It’s no wonder Silicon Valley enters 2019 with its reputation in tatters, its popularity roughly on par with Congress or Louis CK. Not that surprising given the offensive noise that keeps coming out of some of the tech world’s biggest mouths.
So, I’ll end the year with the best advice I can give to the tone-deaf billionaires who call Silicon Valley home.
Shut up. I’m trying to be clear, not cute. Yes, your huge net worth might mean that you have a very large microphone and millions of people follow everything you say. But please consider—it’s entirely possible to be worth a billion dollars and also be a tone-deaf communicator. (The former probably makes the latter more likely, actually.)
So, are you contemplating a communication that is truly important? Is it critical to stewarding your business to achieve its goals? Or do you perhaps just want to opine about how exquisite is Saison’s squab-size half quail lacquered with a wildflower honey glaze?
If it’s not critical to the business, put the phone down and walk away.
Listen (starting with employees). Perhaps the simplest and most efficacious solution of all, but very difficult for many an out-of-touch executive with an infallibility delusion. I ran employee comms for a few years at HP, helping the enterprise executives talk to 100K+ employees. The hardest part for many of them was to stop talking, listen to employees and answer their tough questions. Give them half a chance, though, and they can help you get your message right. (Or, maybe you’d prefer they publish an open letter about their disappointment in your leadership, as did Google’s employees?)
Get help. But let’s presume you do have something important to communicate. Yes, you are otherwise the real-life embodiment of Tony Stark and Steve Jobs, and the world is terribly fortunate you made an app for selfies. But when it comes to communication, you need help.
That help might come in the form of a PR person or your CMO, your head of sales, or your significant other. Really what matters most is (1) they are a good communicator themselves (2) they aren’t afraid to tell you when you are wrong (3) they can help you think logically and objectively through what you hope to communicate, to whom, and the best ways to do it.
Simple in theory, much harder in practice. But I think many of us would love to ring in a New Year where Silicon Valley starts to change its tune. If that’s not possible or realistic, how about channel your inner Simon and Garfunkel and treat us to more of the sound of silence in 2019?