David Letterman

How you communicate a message has a direct impact on your ability to influence opinions.

Here’s my quick summary of the brilliance and blind spots of David Letterman’s attempt to influence public opinion with the news of his sexual relationships and extortion plot, based on a sequence of 3 habits: Connect, Convey, Convince® from my new book, Talk Less, Say More:

Habit 1 – Connect

Definition: Capture attention – give people what they want and value so they tune in to you.

This is where Letterman excelled because America is clearly engaged by his story. His brilliance at connecting was twofold. 1) He claimed home court advantage by getting out front and defining the story as an extortion case, instead of letting other media define it based primarily on the sexual affairs. 2) He stayed in his comfort zone by delivering the bad news on his own TV show, behind his familiar desk, in front of a devoted (if completely perplexed) audience. Like most performers, the late night comic is more in command, at ease, and less anxious connecting in a studio than anywhere else.

Habit 2 – Convey

Definition: Manage information – get your points across with clarity, not confusion.

Letterman’s attempt to positively influence his audience came to a screeching halt at this step for two reasons. 1.) He withheld the salient details, so we’re all left scratching our heads wondering, “Who? When? Where?” His failure to provide pertinent points has a creep factor to it. Some people are asking, “Isn’t that sexual harassment for the boss to have sex with his staff?” “When did this go on?” “Was he married at the time?” “Was it with interns?” He gave the story legs by not addressing these concerns. Chances are, his lawyers admonished him to “Talk Less.” 2.) He confused the audience by mixing in jokes with his admission. The audience couldn’t discern whether it was a joke or whether it was a serious matter, so they laughed inappropriately at times. I do give Letterman credit, however, for specifically acknowledging that he had sex with women who work for him on the show. At least he didn’t pull a Clinton. He admitted to pulling down his World Wide Pants. (Ironic name for his company, isn’t it?)

Habit 3 – Convince

Definition: Manage Action – win commitment and move people to act or believe now.

Letterman showed a gaping blind spot in his attempt to convince one audience, but he was powerfully effective at influencing a second audience, which was likely his primary concern. Let’s look at them separately:

  • Audience #1: The general public. Letterman failed to convince mainstream America that they should stay committed to him as a genial talk show host. He risked losing the trust of many Americans because he could now be seen as “that guy” – the serial cheater. He also comes across as a hypocrite for denouncing other mens’ affairs in his monologues.
  • Audience #2: the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Letterman scored a home run with this audience. He convinced the D.A. to set up a very quick sting, which lead to the arrest of a fellow CBS employee on charges of attempted grand larceny in the first degree. He got the district attorney’s office to commit to act on the extortion charge and they followed through beautifully.

How will this all play out? It depends upon many factors, including whether Letterman’s sexual partners come forward, what they reveal, whether his wife reacts publicly, and whether the alleged extortionist, “48 Hours” producer Joe Halderman, cops a plea or chooses to go to trial and unearth other facts in the case.

But in the court of early public opinion, winning a mixed judgment on a case as explosive as this is a blessing. Under the circumstances, the approach seems to have worked in Letterman’s favor. At the very least, the talk show host was influential enough to put an alleged blackmailer in the hot seat right next to him.