Dialogue in the Desert

The desert sun blazes down as I stand in a pen transfixed by a horse running circles around me.

She stops and starts and changes direction on my command, which I reinforce with the flick of a switch.

After five minutes or so, the pace changes. I turn my back and slowly walk away. Calmly, the horse moves toward me, signaling that she is ready to accept me as her leader.

I’m thrilled. With hardly a word from me we have had quite the conversation.

The young mare is acting on instinct, making decisions that have allowed her species to survive for thousands of years. I’m sharpening my communications skills. And while I have only moved a few steps in a tight little circle, it feels like I have worked just as hard as my equine friend.

Learning to take charge of a horse is one of many new experiences I will encounter as a student of Dialogue in the Desert. Dialogue, as veterans call it for short, is a strategic communications thinking and planning workshop designed to give participants the views and tools they need to be influential and persuasive in the workplace. It’s the first of its kind and the longest running in its field.

Another wordle

Joe Williams, an organizational communicator based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, created Dialogue after he went looking for a strategy course for communicators and came up empty. For the past 30 years, he has filled the vacuum, holding his workshops at a guest ranch deep in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. So far he has delivered Dialogue more than 100 times to students who come from all over North America and more distant places such as Bermuda and Australia.

Over five days, Dialoguers divide their time between a classroom where Joe leads fast-paced lessons and discussions, and the ranch and the desert beyond where they put theory into practice. The Dialogue attracts career communicators as well as people from other walks of life who want to learn how to be more strategic in their communications. Each student starts applying Joe’s lessons and tools to their own issues on the spot.

I have come looking for ways to be a more effective speech and presentation advisor, workshop leader and entrepreneur. I want to know answers to questions such as: How can I communicate better with my clients? How can I better help them achieve their goals through the material I craft for them? How can I help them really connect with and influence their audiences? And how can I better use communication to create more success in my own business?

Joe provides plenty of answers and so do my workshop colleagues. It’s a small group, seven in all. When Joe asks us to pick a name, we choose a western theme and declare ourselves the Magnificent Seven. During classroom lessons and hands on sessions, shared meals, trail rides, desert walks, team penning exercises, roping lessons and a few trips to the ranch bar, we learn together and from each other, enjoying lots of laughs along the way.

Wendy at fence with horse

Yet, my most memorable lesson comes from the horse in the ring. Words on their own are not enough I learn. That’s a tough message for a speechwriter. To get a positive response from the horse my body language has to be one with what I say. In other words, my intention has to be plain, undeniable and reflected in every aspect of my communication. If not, nothing happens. That horse knows when someone is just talking the walk, just as human audiences do.

I also do some soul searching as I create a poster-sized map that shows where I am now in my business, the point I want to reach in the future, and what steps I have to take to reach my goal. Months later, the map remains a treasured memento of the Dialogue and a still relevant touchstone. Moreover, it lets me see where I’m making progress and where my efforts are stalled. One of my fellow Dialoguers took her map home and pinned it to the outside of her office door. Be warned all who enter here it seemed to say; things are going to change.

Joe fell in love with the Arizona desert as a kid. On summer vacations, he used to help his granddad work a hobby mine claim amid the jumping cholla and towering saguaro cactus. When he planned his first workshop as a company retreat, heading back to the desert seemed like a good idea. It would take participants out of their comfort zone and plunk them down in an alien environment where everything seems to slither, stick or sting. Students still arrive perplexed by the instructions to pack a comb or pocketknife and carry it everywhere during their stay. They soon find out why: some of them, the hard way.

By the early eighties, Dialogue was a regular event as Joe filled the growing need for a workshop that explored strategy from a communications point of view. In the years since, it has moved three times: always to a ranch in Arizona. Today it’s held at the White Stallion, a family-run operation just outside of Tucson. The White Stallion has occasionally doubled as a movie set. We eat lunch one day in an isolated ramada where George Clooney once shot some scenes. When I return home I rent the movie (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Sure enough, the lopsided saguaro in the frame with George is in some of my pictures too.

Joe Williams

Joe defines strategy as a focus on results or direction. Strategy, he says, answers the question: What are we doing, or going to do? What direction are we going in as an organization and why? It’s the big picture view or what he calls ‘the what’. Planning, on the other hand, answers the question how: how are we going to execute the strategy?

He likes to use Wal-Mart as an example. Wal-Mart’s strategy is to sell goods for less than consumers pay elsewhere. The plan behind the strategy involves buying inventory in volume. I extrapolate his example to my own situation. My strategy, I decide, is to help people excel through speeches and presentations. The challenge now is to come up with a plan to turn strategy into action. I use the tools I learn at Dialogue to hone my focus.

Thinking about strategy is an exercise in cutting through the clutter says Joe. Once again, the desert illustrates his point. Everything living in it is focused on a single task: survival.

Strategy is critical, but Joe stresses that it’s useless without a plan. The opposite scenario is also true. A plan without a strategy is equally adrift. There’s no sense picking a destination unless you’re prepared to row hard to get there, he says. Just like there’s no sense rowing hard until you have a destination in mind.

Dialogue takes place over five days; long enough to get used to the still, stark desert. The alien landscape helps Dialoguers to step out of their usual thinking and recharge. Many leave with a heightened sense of purpose.

Sitting with saguaro cacti

Joe says the quiet of the desert also aids reflection. That’s why he issues journals to students and asks them to keep notes. He helps them get in the mood by punctuating forays into the desert with spiritual readings.

There are grumbles when Joe announces his plan for day two of the workshop. We are expected to get up before dawn and trek into the desert to watch the sun come over the mountains. Joe wants us to see the big picture in a different light. (My pun.) He reminds us that it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of being a doer or a creator of stuff and to lose sight of a larger role we can play; that of advisor. Too often, he says, people are tactical when they should be strategic. And then they wonder why no one invites them to contribute to decisions about the way ahead.

In Joe parlance, putting your head up to scan the horizon is going wide and shallow. But there are also times to go narrow and deep – to focus on a specific issue and ask lots of questions that start with a word Joe imbues with great significance. The word is why. We respond to that word a lot as the Magnificent Seven work together in the classroom to build a strategy map. Although we come from radically different workplaces and backgrounds, the map has relevance to us all. In human affairs, communications is king – no doubt.

Activities outside the classroom not only demonstrate communication principles; they build confidence. If I can take control of a horse within a few minutes, I reason, I can walk into a room with senior executives and make a presentation. Chances are none of the suits are going to jump out of their seats and kick me.

Wendy throwing a lasso

I also learn to throw a lariat – although not from horseback. But I do spend time in the saddle learning to cut cattle and move them into a small enclosure. My horse has lots of experience in team penning and he shows it, ignoring my signals in order to do what he knows has to be done. Another valuable lesson from the Dialogue: humility.

Despite the best of intentions, it’s easy to go home and slip back into old ways. The real test of Dialogue comes six months later when I sit down to think hard about what I took away from the experience. Were Joe’s learning points really relevant to my role as a speech and presentation writer? Do I remember the tools and insights and am I applying them? Am I more strategic now than before?

By and large, the answer to each question is the same: yes. But it helps to refer back to my notes and journal entries. I’m also glad to know that the other members of the Magnificent Seven are a mere e-mail message or phone call away.

Let me share a few of the things I learned that would benefit any speechwriter:

• Aim to be a strategist and not just a craftsperson. Being strategic involves knowing your organization, knowing the market or environment it operates in.

• Communications is a transfer of energy. Today I work harder than ever at making the speeches I write clear, compelling and dynamic. Dull policy speak and easy clichés will not make the grade. Every draft has to pass a critical test: Are the speaker’s thoughts and words pointed and powerful enough to transfer energy to the audience?

• Analysis/paralysis is a pitfall of strategy building. To avoid it start with a clear purpose and use it as a compass to lead you to the research you need to do. I tell my speechwriting students if you are clear on your speaker’s goal in making the speech then you will know when you have gathered enough of the right stuff to start writing drafts.

• Don’t make assumptions too quickly and constantly question those you already hold. This lesson takes a great deal of awareness and self-discipline to execute. As Joe says, to build a strategy you have to show the courage of a revolutionary and start with a clean slate. Do research, rather than basing ideas and decisions on what you think is gospel. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of same old, same old. Speechwriters do it when they make a habit of copying material from one speech and pasting it into another. The eventual result is is a muddled patchwork of stale ideas and messages. Every once in a while start from scratch. You might even begin anew by rewriting your Q&As on a topic. Rethink and reword them in light of what’s happening now. And then transfer that energy into your speeches.

• Structure determines results. This lesson can be applied on many different levels. At a high altitude, it means learning to think of yourself as far more than a speechwriter. Say, you work for a large chemical company. A big part of your job should be to learn about the chemical industry and your company’s place in it. In other words, structure your thinking so that you’re a specialist in the business first, and a communicator second. On a day-to-day plane, structure means ensuring your work reflects a strategic outlook. Tackle assignments with a goal in mind, spend time planning, not just doing, and find ways to measure your results. If you want others to see you as strategic, act strategic.

At the end of every Dialogue session Joe holds a circle ceremony. The centerpiece of the circle is a simple eagle feather. Each participant is invited to speak about their Dialogue experience as they hold the feather. The moment draws out touching insights and, in some cases, strong emotions.

In a sense, those of us who write speeches and presentations hold the eagle feather in proxy for our clients. We have a responsibility then to honour them, and their audiences, by producing work with the clarity and strength of purpose of the desert sun coming over the mountains.