Business Class: Neal Conan — Being good is not good enough

By Randall Kenneth Jones

Originally published in the Naples Daily News
Monday, May 5, 2014

Though Neal Conan, the former host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” was never a member of the Boy Scouts, he learned—the hard way—the importance of their legendary motto: Be Prepared.

“As someone who was able to improvise my way through school, I never learned to prepare until I started as a broadcaster,” says Conan. “In particular, I remember a man who called in after a newscast to ask about a story I’d written on a battle in Vietnam. After speaking with me for a few minutes, he concluded, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about.’ On reflection, I decided he was right.”

Conan continues, “Later, I did an interview with the great reporter Neil Sheehan about “The Arnheiter Affair,” one of his books on Vietnam. Afterwards, he asked, ‘When were you there?’ I wasn’t, but took that as a great compliment and a lesson on the value of preparation as a base from which to apply my improvisational skills.”

Neal Conan photo by Gretel EhrlichFor over eleven years, Neal Conan was the host of “Talk of the Nation,” the news-talk show from NPR—a program that reached 3.8 million listeners a week on 425 NPR member stations.

At the time of his departure, Conan had spent more than three decades with the network.

Though some say proper preparation has fallen victim to a current corporate climate chock-full of interruptions, “doing more with less” and/or a do-as-little-as-I-can-get-away-with attitude, Conan’s success provides irrefutable evidence that there truly is no substitute for preparation.

More specifically, to Conan: “The work is in the preparation.”

Of course, broadcasters are not the only ones who benefit from the ability to think on their feet. Everyone from the sales team to customer service, from the CEO to the stay-at-home mom must become skilled at thinking and acting quickly.

To Conan: “Preparation is command of the subject. My favorite moment of the day is when I get to stop worrying and just do it. Plus, if you listen, the guest

[customer] will take you to the next question.”

To help you technophiles understand the importance of “listening,” just think about the last time you asked iPhone’s “Siri” to find the closest gas station and she led you to a florist (carnation), a funeral home (cremation), or an airline (Croatia).

Like so many other career quick thinkers who had to learn to balance extemporization with preparation, the mentally multi-tasking Conan often finds himself speaking 30-seconds behind what he is actually thinking about. He has also earned the right to trust himself: “If I have half an idea, the other half will come.”

Neal Conan

It has often been said: “being good isn’t good enough.” Conan’s commitment to a careful study of the facts is proof positive that he will always be much more than “good enough” at whatever he chooses to do.

Today, Conan remains, in his words, “radio active;” however, he spends much of his time overseeing the operation of his macadamia nut farm in Hawaii.

Neal Conan may be the only man in history to move from an influential, high-profile position—one that assessed the nation’s (sometimes chaotic) political and cultural landscape—to literally having a “nut job.”

Think: irony.

Nonetheless, chances are good the perpetually prepared journalist is also the most informed Nut Jobber on the Island.

Randall Kenneth JonesMarketer, publicist, business humoristprofessional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.

Photos: TOP — Randall Kenneth Jones and Neal Conan; Photos #2 & #3 — Neal Conan (photos by Gretel Ehrlich); BOTTOM: Randall Kenneth Jones.