What Data Pros Can Learn from Mr. Rogers

It was 1969. The US was in the middle of the Vietnam war. Money was tight and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications was holding hearings to determine the “value” of public broadcasting.

The main decider (Senator Pastore) had been hearing testimony after testimony and was bored of the same tired arguments.

By the time it was Mr. Rogers turn to give his testimony, he picked up on the social cue that the leader of the panel had basically made up his mind already.

Instead of reading his testimony, he knew he had to do something different. Here is his exact testimony with the lessons for Data Pros

Senator Pastore: Alright Rogers, you've got the floor.

Mr. Rogers: Senator Pastore, this is a philosophical statement and would take about ten minutes to read, so I'll not do that. One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust, and I trust what you have said that you will read this. It's very important to me. I care deeply about children.

Senator Pastore: Will it make you happy if you read it?

Right out of the gate he interrupted the pattern the Senator was used to from the previous testimonies. And in his interrupt, he put the Senator’s integrity on trial, something he couldn’t say no to. Now the Senator was forced to listen otherwise his integrity was on the line.

Mr. Rogers: I'd just like to talk about it, if it's alright. My first children's program was on WQED fifteen years ago, and its budget was $30. Now, with the help of the Sears-Roebuck Foundation and National Educational Television, as well as all of the affiliated stations — each station pays to show our program. It's a unique kind of funding in educational television. With this help, now our program has a budget of $6000. It may sound like quite a difference, but $6000 pays for less than two minutes of cartoons. Two minutes of animated, what I sometimes say, bombardment. I'm very much concerned, as I know you are, about what's being delivered to our children in this country. And I've worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as — as the inner drama of childhood. We don't have to bop somebody over the head to…make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.

Senator Pastore: How long of a program is it?

Mr. Rogers: It's a half hour every day. Most channels schedule it in the noontime as well as in the evening. WETA here has scheduled it in the late afternoon.

Senator Pastore: Could we get a copy of this so that we can see it? Maybe not today, but I'd like to see the program.

Mr. Rogers: I'd like very much for you to see it.

Senator Pastore: I'd like to see the program itself, or any one of them.

Here he’s giving the Senator some solid data and showing a comparison between his program and mainstream television at the time which was a lot of slapstick comedy and cartoons of robots shooting each other – which was a bit sensational for the more conservative generation

Mr. Rogers: We made a hundred programs for EEN, the Eastern Educational Network, and then when the money ran out, people in Boston and Pittsburgh and Chicago all came to the fore and said we've got to have more of this neighborhood expression of care. And this is what — This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it's much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. I'm constantly concerned about what our children are seeing, and for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.

Contrasting with his last statements Mr. Rogers appeals to the Senator’s emotional self and how as a parent we all have a soft spot for the care of children.

Senator Pastore: Do you narrate it?

Mr. Rogers: I'm the host, yes. And I do all the puppets and I write all the music, and I write all the scripts

Senator Pastore: Well, I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I've had goosebumps for the last two days.

Mr. Rogers has the Senator completely open to suggestion now. The journey he’s brought him on has led him to the point where he’s truly open to whatever Mr. Rogers has to say, and is invested deeply in the resolution of his testimony. Likely anything Mr. Rogers asks, for now, he’ll get.

Mr. Rogers: Well, I'm grateful, not only for your goosebumps but for your interest in — in our kind of communication. Could I tell you the words of one of the songs, which I feel is very important?

Senator Pastore: Yes.

Mr. Rogers: This has to do with that good feeling of control which I feel that children need to know is there. And it starts out, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” And that first line came straight from a child. I work with children doing puppets in — in very personal communication with small groups:

What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It's great to be able to stop when you've planned a thing that's wrong. And be able to do something else instead, and think this song —

‘I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime….And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.'

Instead of going in for the sale right away, Mr. Rogers again appeals to the Senator’s emotional side in the most effective way possible. Remember that these hearings were in the middle of an increasingly unpopular war with an unpopular (and later impeached) president.
The senator has no choice but to approve PBS request

Senator Pastore: I think it's wonderful. I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars.

Mr. Rogers saved public broadcasting in the United States in under seven minutes. He did so without even asking for the money or reading his original testimony.

This may seem like a chance encounter or a lucky strike, but have no doubt about it, this was a master communicator at work. It should be no surprise then that Mr. Rogers television show continued aired for over 30 years and shaped generations of children in the US.

As a Data Pro, you’re not likely to achieve this level of skill when it comes to communication, but the same principles can be applied to your work.

Let’s break down Mr. Rogers strategy here –

  • Pattern Interrupt to get the Senator's attention
  • Distilled analytics to set the foundation for a good decision
  • Emotional appeal
  • Emotional appeal
  • Deep emotional connection / Sale

You can use this same strategy, albeit not always in the same order, to communicate to your customers the meaning in your analysis.

  • Start the presentation with a pattern interrupt – Get my attention
  • Give me the absolute most important stats to illustrate your point and zero additional stats
  • Appeal to my emotional side
  • Take me deeper on the emotion behind your findings
  • Close with the grand plan on how me acting on your findings will result in the best possible outcome

In my upcoming course for Data Professionals, we’ll cover all of these methods and more, including how to design your presentations and structure it for maximum impact.


Watch Mr. Rogers testimony that saved PBS below

View the full transcript here

You can watch the 2018 documentary on Mr. Rogers on Amazon Video below, I highly recommend it