Letterman’s Top 10 Tips for Better Communications

David Letterman, The Late Show, 33 years

Letterman keeps it real.

We all know David Letterman just ended his 33 years on late-night TV. You don’t have to be a comedian, or even a Letterman fan, to have picked up some communications tips from him over the years.

In keeping with one of his most cherished bits, here’s my Top 10 Easy Tips for Communicators  from David Letterman.

  1. Be yourself. Letterman was a goofball from the start, cranky, ironic and snarky. He was no Hollywood smoothie like Johnny Carson, and didn’t try too hard to make people like him, as so many do. He always was Dave, the one and only.
  1. Be consistent. Even on two networks and with two names, Letterman’s show was remarkably steady. They’d try new bits, of course, but it all felt of a piece, of one sensibility and in a respectful routine.
  1. Guide the discussion. That cranky side of his personality was a bit much sometimes, but he also knew how to keep bloviating celebrities in check.
  1. Branding, branding, branding. The Top 10 lists, Stupid Human Tricks, The Velcro Suit, Stupid Pet Tricks… What were your favorites? We’ve been talking about them all these years.
  1. Share the Spotlight. Paul Shaffer and the great band. Larry “Bud” Melman. Neighborhood deli owners. Audience members… Letterman was always the center of his show, but he knew that he shines best, and the message is best delivered, when he’s surrounded by a team that complements him.
  1. Share yourself, but not too much. Letterman’s been super-famous for most of my life, but I know almost nothing about him. His adorable, white-haired mother made a series of appearances. He talked about his health troubles and young son from time to time. But the show was about the audience, not the host’s personal life. That’s a nice, difficult balance of message and messenger.
  1. Be real when you need to be. Letterman’s style of “crisis management” was to drop the irony and reticence to be serious – notably in 2009 when he discussed an extortion plot and confessed to having affairs with staff members. The lesson for everyone: Address a crisis promptly, honestly and directly.
  1. Be versatile. Letterman seemed just as comfortable and skilled talking with presidents, movie stars and common folk. All communicators should strive for such a deft touch.
  1. Give good content. In addition to being authentic and consistent, Letterman’s show was funny. Very, very funny — almost all the time, night after night, for 33 years. If we all give our audiences a good product, we’re more than halfway home.

… And the No. 1 Easy Tip for Communicators  from David Letterman is… 

  1. Know when to wrap it up. Could Letterman keep going? Absolutely. But it’s always best to choose your own departure and craft it yourself, instead of being shown the door. Keep that in mind next time you’re writing a speech for a long-winded executive, or going on too long on, say, a blog post about skillful communications.
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