Kakistocracy: My newest vocabulary word will get quite a workout

I learned a new word this week, courtesy of the invaluable Russian-born writer Masha Gessen:


Middle East scholar Amro Ali defined it:

Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power.”
He wrote that shortly after our last election. But surely that was a coincidence.

Looking into the word further, I found two surprises:

  1. It’s been around for a long time. Longer, even, than the president’s comb-over.
  2. It’s derived from two Greek words

I’ll take that second point first: We shouldn’t be surprised to trace words to Ancient Greek words combine to give us "kakistocracy"the original Greek. Especially not words ending in -ocracy. The Greeks invented democracy, after all—government by the demos, the common people.

Clearly—as the tobacco company used to say—we’ve come a long way, baby, from that ideal.

Anyway, “ocracy” yes, but I was surprised to find that the “kak” part of the word also came from the Greek. Once I found out what the word meant, I assumed it derived from kaka, the Hebrew word for shit. (Or caca, which Dictionary.com says also has ancient excrement-related origins, including the ancient Greek kakke.)

But no, it’s from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst.”

A brief history of “kakistocracy”

American Exceptionalism being what it is, many of my fellow citizens  assume that surely ours must be the worst kakistocracy the world has ever seen. (“We’re #1!”)

I don’t know if we can judge that fairly yet, not while events are still unfolding. But I do know that our new kakistocrats have joined a club with a long history. Because the term dates all the way back to 1829 and a British novelist named Thomas Love Peacock.

The word traveled across the pond to America about nine years later, when a U.S. Senator named William Harper used it in a book about slavery.

“Anarchy is not so much the absence of government as the government of the worst—not aristocracy but kakistocracy—a state of things, which to the honor of our nature, has seldom obtained amongst men, and which perhaps was only fully exemplified during the worst times of the French revolution, when that horrid hell burnt with its most horrid flame.”

Harper believed the “honor of our nature” would prevent kakistocrats from taking the reins of government. A noble thought…but then we went and invented Twitter. Note that Harper positioned kakistocrats as the opposite of aristocrats. This would probably offend our Kakistocrat-in-Chief. Then again, Harper advocated for slavery, so they might find some common ground.

Modern kakistocracy

The first mention of a kakistocracy that we might recognize today came from the poet James Russell Lowell in 1876:

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

After Lowell, the word went into hibernation for over a century, until liberal commentators trotted it out to describe the government of Conservative saint Ronald Reagan. But it’s a bipartisan insult. Apparently Glenn Beck used it to describe the Obama Administration.

If the Obama Administration was a kakistocracy, then call me a kakistocrat. To be continued on Monday (it’s too depressing for a Sunday blog).

Who would you be if you believed you could write? Find out: My Writing Unbound course begins February 2nd. More information here.

Do I really need rehearsal? Really? Frequent Questions

Q: Do I really need rehearsal?

A: Do you really need to get your point across?

I get it. Many clients hate “wasting their time” in rehearsal—standing in an empty room for an hour, saying the things they will later say in a full room.

Do you need rehearsal?Here’s my tough-love response: If you don’t want to rehearse, don’t accept the gig. But if you have accepted the gig, if you’re going to stand up in front of a roomful of people and ask for their attention, you owe it to them—and to your reputation—to be prepared.

Think about it: How would you feel if one of your direct reports made an unrehearsed presentation to the Board of Directors? Would you think well of him? “Gee, what a great guy. And clearly so busy with his real work to bother with preparation. Impressive.”

I think not.

I expect you’d be embarrassed that one of your people showed up unprepared. You might even feel that he didn’t respect you or value the Board’s time. (And you’d be right.) Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be that guy when comp time rolls around.

You hate having to sit through an unprepared speaker’s performance. That—not rehearsal—is the true waste of your time.

So why would you even think about inflicting that pain on someone else?

Yes, you need rehearsal

Chris Voss, the former FBI hostage negotiator, might seem an unlikely person to offer advice to speakers. But in his book Never Split the Difference: negotiating as if your life depended on it, he introduces one of the best arguments for rehearsal I’ve ever read: the “7-38-55” rule.

“UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian created the 7-38-55 rule. That is, only 7 percent of a message is based on the words while 38 percent comes from the tone of voice and 55 percent from the speaker’s body language and face.”

Translation: Audiences have many ways to spot a bullsh*tter. So don’t be one.

Oliver Sacks told a story in one of his books—maybe The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, though I don’t have access to check it right now—of some neurology patients watching a televised speech by then-president Ronald Reagan. The sound was turned off, so they could not hear what the president was talking about. But although it was a serious subject, they were laughing their heads off. They registered his insincerity just by looking at him.

A later Republican president remains barely comprehensible when you listen to him speak, but completely indecipherable—and more than a little nutty—when you read the transcripts. In his case, his facial expressions and demeanor work in his advantage. Audiences somehow see him as more substantive than readers do.

People think speeches of speeches as a bunch of words. And words are important. But (and it pains me to write this), words may not be the most important element of a speech. Tone of voice, the expressions on your face, your comfort onstage—these convey your confidence in your message.

So do you need rehearsal? Only if you want people to believe you and your message.

And if you don’t want people to believe you, then—again—why did you accept the gig to begin with?

Trust. Essential for clients…& citizens

Trust, like DNA, is an integral part of our lives. We trust that the little green piece of paper with Alexander Hamilton’s face on it will actually buy us $10 worth of goods. We trust that citizens will obey the law—and that the people who make those laws have our collective best interest at heart.

Trust also plays an essential role in creativity. When I write a speech for a CEO comparing careers to aerosol cans (“contents under pressure” in both cases), I trust that he’ll at least consider the idea. And if he doesn’t like it, he’ll give me another crack at the speech—Draft Two.

But if he does like it (and he did), then maybe somewhere down the road, I’ll come up with an even crazier idea. And he’ll find himself giving a speech that opens with a business school-type case study—taken right from the plot of The Sound of Music.

Without faith in your writers? That’s a recipe for boring communications. You rehash the same old talking points in the same ways. Zzzzzz.

Now, I’m not saying to trust anyone with a laptop and a dream to write you a speech. Ronald Reagan used to love quoting an old Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.” (Remember when Republicans mistrusted Russia?)

Trust and Alice Cooper

And that brings me to “the godfather of shock rock,” Alice Cooper. He gained fame in the 1970s for his outrageous persona; this year, though you may have missed it (I did), he mounted a presidential campaign.

Tim Ferriss interviewed Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon recently. Gordon told some entertaining stories of trying to drum up publicity for Cooper in the early days. At one point, he convinced his client to enter a stadium concert by being shot out of a cannon. Gordon alerted the media and the concert sold out.

Only problem: every rehearsal of the stunt flopped spectacularly,

This man understands trust. (But don't vote for him)
graphic from alicecooper.com

and they were running out of time. The press would be covering the final dress rehearsal, the night before the concert.

Gordon says, “Now this is a time when most managers and artists would be choking each other to death.” But Cooper just asked, “Can you cover it?” And the manager stayed up all night thinking.

At the dress rehearsal, Alice Cooper climbed into the cannon as scheduled. But the cannon exploded, so instead of filming him flying across the stadium, the TV cameras showed him being loaded into an ambulance and sped to the nearest hospital.

A while later they announced that Cooper insisted on doing the concert the next night. Gordon says:

“We did the show with him in a wheelchair. And nurses, doctors, giving him plasma. Nothing happened to him; it was all a setup. But the front page of the paper was how great Alice Cooper was. What other artist in the world would come and do a show for his audience in a wheelchair?”

Gordon concludes: “So out of that failure came even a stronger bond.”

“Failures are almost more important than the successes.”

Failure and success “are tied so closely together in the creative world,” Gordon says. “You need to allow [people] to fail or they’ll never really win.”

Do you have the courage to fail? Don’t worry—not many people do. But you can discover more about it during my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate.” Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Afraid of ghosts

I gotta say one more thing about the Melania Trump plagiarism kerfuffle. Why is everyone so afraid of ghosts? (The writing kind, that is.)

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter. Lots of people do it. Even Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” had writers on staff. We don’t criticize President Obama for having speechwriters—and he has allowed his to be very public about their contributions. People expect the president to be doing more important things—saving us from disaster, leading negotiations, pardoning turkeys, meeting with the winning World Series team (shoulda been my Mets). They don’t expect him to be hunched over a laptop at 3am, sweating out welcoming remarks for the next State Dinner.

Hiring a speechwriter doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. It means you’re smart about how you use your time. People hire ghostwriters for the same reason I hire house painters:

  1. It’s not their core competency
  2. They’d rather spend their time doing other things
  3. They’re afraid of ladders (okay, that one may be unique to my house painter list)

And even people who might make the effort to write their own book or magazine article are smart enough to recognize that a speech is a very different animal indeed. So bring in an expert, talk to the writer about your ideas, and after you get that first draft go back to the writer and adjust. That’s how the process works.

Of course you want to “speak from the heart”—I may need to find a new phrase for authenticity; that one seems to be turning into a euphemism for Donald Trump’s loose cannon oratory. Okay, you want to express your ideas in your own way. Especially if you’re not a practiced speaker, you want to make sure you don’t sound stilted. So you think, Who knows me better than me? And you do it yourself.

Big mistake.

I painted my last house by myself—climbing ladders and everything. Between spackling, sanding, taping, and painting it took me months and for what I spent on post-painting massage and chiropractic I could have hired Michelangelo to do the work. I was in a world of hurt. I suspect Melania Trump feels a similar non-buyer’s remorse.

And it all could have been avoided so easily if they’d just found a writer Melania trusted to work with her. But for some reason, the idea that someone whose previous core competency had been walking and pouting at the same time would need help to write a speech—oh, no, we can’t have people thinking that. I mean, the woman has posed wearing nothing more than a thong and a gun and they think working with a ghostwriter would damage her reputation?

I’m sad to think that the lesson people will take from this is “You can’t hire a ghostwriter if you want to appear sincere.” A good ghost can help concentrate and focus your thoughts so your message resonates more effectively while your true personality shines through. Assuming, that is, that you have thoughts and a personality to begin with. If you don’t…well, that’s scary.

It’s not all in the details

I’ve often talked about how specificity makes communications memorable. I’d like to amend that a bit.

Details that help you paint a picture—yes, fabulous. They capture your audience’s attention. But stacking up details until they’re as thick as a Manhattan phone book (ack! another metaphor destined for the digital trash heap)—not helpful. More often than not, they put your audience to sleep.

Think about the typical presidential campaign speech. Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America,” and through his words we saw the sun glinting off amber waves of grain. Barack Obama’s speech on race relations painted a picture of the past, the present, and the future he wanted to create:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

And then there’s the president’s annual State of the Union address. One of the most highly anticipated speeches of the year, and often one of the most boring. That’s because instead of painting pictures to help unite us in a vision of what their legislation will do for the country, presidents invariably offer a laundry list of bills and regulations they want to change. Very specific, yes. And very boring.

But what if you have to convey a bunch of boring details? you may ask.

Well, do you really? If the president didn’t reel off his (to date, only “his”) laundry list, would that legislation never make it to Congress? No. The mechanics of submitting bills has nothing to do with the ceremonial State of the Union address.

So what’s more important for people to remember? The details of the legislation or the results the president wants to achieve by proposing it?

Here’s Reagan again, in a speech he gave the night before he won the 1980 presidential election:

I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.

As marketers say, sell the benefits, not the features.

Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s second State of the Union. Clinton, arguably one of the best political orators of my lifetime, on foreign policy:

This year we must also do more to support democratic renewal and human rights and sustainable development all around the world. We will ask Congress to ratify the new GATT accord. We will continue standing by South Africa as it works its way through its bold and hopeful and difficult transition to democracy. We will convene a summit of the Western Hemisphere’s democratic leaders from Canada to the tip of South America. And we will continue to press for the restoration of true democracy in Haiti. And as we build a more constructive relationship with China, we must continue to insist on clear signs of improvement in that nation’s human rights record.

Who—other than the president’s foreign policy advisor—will remember this whole laundry list? Or care about it? What’s a GATT accord? Why should we care?

The State of the Union would much more impact if the president used details that get the audience (especially the TV audience, far larger than the folks gathered in the House Chamber) excited about the mission, about where the country will go once his proposals take effect.

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.