Obama Used the Storytelling Technique in his State of the Union Address… But did it Feel Fresh?

stateofunion  The President scored high on my Supercommunicator scale earlier this week with his State of the Union address. But like all presidents in recent memory, Obama uses a storytelling format that is getting stale and predicable. I feel a tweak might be in order.

Not all of you may be happy with the President’s most recent State of the Union Address. Others, however, may be thrilled with his list of accomplishments and plans for the next two years. I have my definite opinions, but let me stay clear of those and focus instead on what I know best… effective communication. So, as helicopters noisily hovered over my Capitol Hill home during the speech, I watched POTUS through the eyes of a supercommunicating critic.

Obama strutted into the House Chamber as a man on a mission. He beamed with confidence as he made his way to the podium greeting well-wishers on his way down the aisle. Once there he delivered an assertive hour-long speech that engaged viewers and tugged at heartstrings. Of course, if you’re a die hard Conservative you may not want to give him credit for any of that… Perhaps you saw his swagger as cocky instead of confident, but I see his attitude-upon-entry as striking the right tone. I could go down the list of things he did right during the speech, which are many, but I would like to focus instead on one specific issue I feel could use some help.

POTUS employed the use of storytelling as he has done in most if not all of his addresses. This age old technique is enjoying a tremendous resurgence in the corporate world and the President uses it with great regularity. Why? because audiences connect with speakers who make content applicable to real life. We only pay attention to information that our brain’s find useful and relevant to our lives. Stories humanize data and make complicated subjects easier to digest. I believe Obama, and all future presidents, should continue telling stories to engage and inspire.

As Obama discussed the hardships America’s middle class endured in recent years, he made a reference to a 36-year-old Minnesota woman, Rebekah Eiler, who was struggling to make ends meet. POTUS noted that she enrolled in community college to study accounting during the peak of the recession because her husband’s construction business was suffering. Instead of simply talking in a general way about how the economy impacted the middle class, the President gave this concrete example of a real person who had to struggle to make ends meet. Obama makes his story about Eiler resonate further by pointing to the woman in the audience sitting next to Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. This further solidifies in the minds of the audience watching form home that this story is real because they can see the actual person. By singling out this individual he is attempting to make the plight of many Americans concrete by telling the story of one.

Humanizing the experiences of many by telling a story about one is a great communication tool. People would rather hear stories about others like them than listen to facts and figures about the recession. Pointing out the person who is sitting there live adds points. So I should be entirely pleased with the President’s use of storytelling here. Right?

Not exactly… White House speechwriters have used this technique for so many administrations that it’s trite. I love storytelling, but I disdain formulaic speeches. The writers probably said something like: the President needs a person in the audience who is representative of the struggling middle class. He or she needs to have benefited from a community college education as that is a major theme of this year’s address.

If you have seen enough State of the Unions, as I have, you know that people are planted in the chamber for this purpose. It’s only a matter of time before the president, whichever one it is, is going to tell a story and refer to them. So while I embrace storytelling, I find this State of the Union tradition tired. Good speeches often feature an element of surprise, this is a great way to keep minds focused… but surprise is always missing for me in these addresses because I expect the stories the presidents will use to drive his points home.   I imagine there are a lot of Americans who aren’t nearly as critical or cynical as I am… but I believe keeping it fresh is essential to any presentation. My opinion will probably not re-shape any future State of the Unions, but I mention this as a precaution to communicators. Storytelling, like any supercommunicator technique, can work wonders for you… just remember to avoid using it formulaically. Keep it fresh.

Podcast with Paul Smith… Explaining the Higgs Boson

When I started researching for Supercommunicator, one of my friends challenged me to explain to him what the Higgs boson was and why he should care about this soon-to-be discovery.  Newspapers at the time, late 2011, ran articles about the Higgs boson, a particle in physics, being very important because it would confirm the Standard Model of Physics.  Many of the articles focused on the excitement about the pending discovery but didn’t offer much more about the meaning of this great quest. It was frustrating… none of the journalists could explain why the Higgs boson was so important.

In this podcast, I discuss with Paul Smith my search for meaning.  I didn’t need to know what exactly the Higgs boson was, I just needed to understand why it was so important and potentially relevant to my life.  Too often communicators rush into details when they explain complicated issues, but fail to deliver meaning.  See how an analogy helped me see the light.


Do you have any similar stories to share?



Writing for Dummies

My neighbor, fellow cemetery dog walker and NYTimes columnist, Gene Weingarten, wrote an interesting piece  in 2003 that was re-run in the Washington Post today on business communication.  A subject near and dear to my heart.


Gene wrote the piece at the seventh grade reading level… the level that the experts tell us to communicate at when writing for general business audiences.  The article is a satire on how stupid writing looks when its dumbed down to this degree.  And, yes, I agree… seventh grade level writing can look infantile and come across as condescending.  The problem is that there are so many poorly educated people out there that using too many big words is off putting and can prevent you from making a sale or informing your audience about your subject.

According to Rusty Burke, a specialist who studies vocabulary and intelligence, at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, you’re likely to do much better in life if you know a lot of big words.  Bigger vocabularies tend to lead to bigger salaries.  But he warns, using too many of these big words with the wrong people can spell disaster.  You’re likely come across as aloof and snobbish… and too many folks just won’t understand what your trying to explain.

Naturally, there needs to be a balance.  Supercommunicators know the importance of audience awareness.  They know they shouldn’t treat all business audiences similarly.  When possible, they take the time to craft their message at the desired grade level of the reader.  You still don’t want to talk to people with advanced degrees at the 15th grade level… that’s too taxing on them.  Try communicating at a more comfortable late high school level but leave out too many of those SAT words that force people to stop and think.  You want them to think about your message, not about your level of intelligence.  The more you know about your audience, the easier it will be for you to find a comfortable grade level to communicate.


What can you learn about Supercommunicating from an opera?


Last night I had the pleasure of attending the final dress rehearsal of the Kennedy Center’s latest production of The Magic Flute.  Before the show, the Ken Cen’s opera director offered remarks about the production to my alumni group.  He talked about their decision to produce this classic Mozart opera in English as opposed to German.  The translation of the libretto  was tweaked a bit to make the story more contemporary and hence more accessible to today’s audiences.  One of the characters, a bird catcher named Papageno, goes as far as to saying he “tweeted” instead of spoke… a reference to Twitter, the social media tool, adding some levity to the opera.  They also used impressive graphic images projected on the stage to draw the audience in.

I’ve never been to an opera that felt so accessible.  The Kennedy Center wants to attract more people and opera can be intimidating.  Making this ages-old art form less intimidating to 21st century denizens is one of their goals.  If they don’t make opera accessible, they will suffer from further dwindling ticket sales.   They believe Mozart would approve their tactics…  Magic Flute was intended to appeal to a broad audience.  I’m not sure if opera purists would approve of this modern interpretation, but I certainly did.

It seems the Ken Cen took a page out of Supercommunicator.  Sure they could be elitist and keep opera limited to a higher-brow audience, but they made a decision to keep the opera true to its origins while making it accessible at the same time.



Wash Post: “Our Reading Skills Look Worse”

Digital communication has changed the way we read.  Not that long ago we were careful, deliberate readers… today we are scanners… information hunters – looking for an immediate data fix.  Michael Rosenwald wrote a great article in today’s Washington Post describing how are brains are being re-wired.  On expert he quotes says we are becoming “Twitter Brains.”

There is no doubt we are not the readers our parents were.  Perhaps we should consider a “slow reading” movement, kind of like the “slow food” trend.  Perhaps we could turn back time and re-learn how to carefully read, appreciating content and not just plowing through it.  As a writer I would like that to happen.  Except it isn’t….

Many of the points Rosenwald makes are covered in “Supercommunicator.”  I explain how are brains are being re-wired but go further and offer communicators solutions on how to adapt to these changing times.  Perhaps the two top tips I can offer people are: 1) be visual – this is the most natural way of us to learn and 2) humanize your content – people want to be in a conversation with a real person.  But there is much more…


Frank to Lead Panel at Convergence in Communication


Communicating clearly and more personably is critical in the digital era.   As trillions of bytes of information wait for us in cyberspace, ready to pulse through our fingertips at the command of a click, our brains are quickly being re-wired.  On March 28th I will be leading a panel to discuss new rules of the game at the Convergence in Communication conference. The event takes place in Arlington, Virginia.


With so many ways to ingest information, we need to do much more to help audiences comprehend content.  “We need to become supercommunicators,”   I’ll be discussing ways to make communication efforts more impactful including both old school techniques and new digital tools.

Joel Machak, executive creative director at Crosby Marketing agrees with me on the importance of delivering meaning but adds that communicators also need to “dig deep and understand readers as much more than a list of demographics.” Putting yourself in your audience’s shoes is more important than ever as our information-saturated audiences get bombarded with content.

Steve Drake of Steven Drake Associates, LLC and RFP Associates stresses the importance of making communication clean and simple.  “Clarity needs to be distilled to the nth degree” he advises.  Drake will discuss a client re-branding that reflects his thinking on the subject.

Additionally, another bit of advice from the panel is to create a more human experience for audiences.  Randal Kelly, a partner at Nixon Peabody, will discuss his firm’s decision to re-brand in an effort to “act less stuffy and help clients more.” In these digital times, people want to get past the fuss and unfriendliness of yesteryears.  “Being human” is a mandate for communicators hoping to make a connection.

Is Writing Passé? Tina Brown Thinks So.

tina-brown1 The former magazine editor/celebrity recently told New York Magazine that our society is “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”  After stints at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Daily Beast, Brown thinks we get more satisfaction “from live conversations.”  Hence she’s moved from magazine publishing to the conference/event business. http://nym.ag/1b7IWeS.  True, man has depended on pictures (cave drawings) and the word of mouth (oral history) much longer than he spent hunkered over books, but was the whole writing thing just a fad that took us off course for a few centuries?

The arrival of multimedia communications – the weaving together of text with audio, video, still images, animations and other digital tools – is clearly changing the way we exchange information.  But does that mean the written word is dying?

In sharp contradiction to Brown, Stanford English professor Andrea Lunsford thinks the written word is entering a golden age.  “We’re in the middle of the biggest literacy revolution the world has ever seen,” she proclaims.  “Young people are writing more than ever in the history of the world.” http://bit.ly/1fc9FsW Lunsford’s argument:  even if you’re just updating your Facebook page or sending a tweet, you’re still writing.  Today there are many ways to communicate, but many of them require writing.  You just don’t think you’re writing.

“Multimodality” is key in the digital age, but that’s nothing new.  Writers have always tried to marry one medium with another.  This concept goes back to the Middle Ages when monks integrated text with gold and silver decorations.  The same thing is happening today, its just more dynamic with all of our new digital toys. The written word is a keystone that’s not likely to be removed from the communication foundation anytime soon.  The written word will play a vital role in uniting all of the components in a multimedia world.

In the digital age we still need to tell stories and figure out ways to express our ideas. That will still be the job of the writer.   What we write may take forms that look different, but its still writing.  The writer will continue to be the person who considers the needs of his audience and figures out how to put information into a context that is relevant.  She may ultimately deliver her message orally to her audience, but chances are she won’t do it with at least a few written words.


Act Less Stuffy

A leading Washington, DC law firm, Nixon Peabody, is in the process of re-branding.  CEO Andrew Glincher told The Washington Post their new strategy is to “act less stuffy and help clients more.”  With the help of London-based brand strategy firm Wolff Olins, Nixon Peabody is in the process of humanizing their practice.

The big-time law firms in this town aren’t known for generating warm and fuzzy relationship with their clients.  Dark suit clad attorneys can emit an aura of iciness in their attempt to project professionalism.  They seemingly all want to blend in with their peers and show no sign of individuality.  Their goal is to come across as serious players. But, as Glincher noted, this philosophy makes one firm indistinguishable from the next.  Nixon Peabody is betting that clients want to work with lawyers who exhibit more humanity.

I caught up with Nixon Peabody partner Randy Kelly to discuss the firm’s re-branding effort.  What are they doing to differentiate themselves in this competitive environment?  Kelly says they revamped their website, to reflect their new philosophy.  Don’t expect to see staid images or read stuffy language at www.nixonpeabody.com.  For one thing, neon green is the site’s primary color… not varying shades of gray.  In the staff photos, attorneys smile brightly and wear cheerful clothing.  And their bios?  They discuss their missions and passions naturally… all in first person.

Randall Kelly

Nixon Peabody’s Randy Kelly is not stuffy.

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs is among those who helped pioneer the move to a more humanistic approach to consumer electronics.  Think about how user-friendly Apple’s products are.  But we’re now seeing different kinds of organizations break away from old school philosophies and embrace a less formal approach to business.   When communicating, offer your audience content that’s friendly and accessible.  Don’t use big words to show off your vocabulary or intimidate them with concepts that are too grand to comprehend.  Make your communication efforts accessible. Remember: be a human.

Read the Post article here…


Whether it’s Digital or Print… Make it Memorable

New digital tools can turn your drab communication effort into something exciting.  But don’t think multimedia creations are the only way to express an idea.  You want to make your communications memorable. This can often be done with multimedia, but don’t discard print just because its old school.

Most years I send family, friends and clients a holiday card.  I know this tradition is dying as snail mail creeps closer and closer to extinction, but people really respond to my print cards.  Mind you my cards are original… not something that’s mass-produced that’s easy to forget.  I work seek to create a memorable visual that will strike a chord with my audience.

For the past eight years my holiday card has featured my Irish Terrier Auggie.  I always have Auggie doing something interesting… like skiing in the Alps (the year I visited Zermatt) to flying a spacecraft on behalf of Santa (one of the years I worked at NASA).  In Western cultures people love dogs… and seeing my puppy in a fantasy scenario brings a smile to their face.  These images are memorable… and people think about them long after the holidays have passed.

This year’s holiday card was naturally linked to the introduction of my book.  I had Rip, a professional costumer, create a “Supercommunicator” costume for Auggie.  I wrote the copy.  Then I brought my beloved canine to a photo shoot with photographer Steve O’Toole. Next I sent the content to graphic designer Michele Russ to turn my vision into reality.

Auggiecard-2             Auggiecard-1

In years past, I’ve seen my holiday cards in clients’ offices well into the spring months.  When I catch up with them they often ask how Auggie is doing.  If I produced an electronic card, my guess is that the imagery wouldn’t be as memorable.  When people receive a tangible card they can hold onto it.  Some may delight with a clever visual they open with a click, but after a few fleeting second they are likely to forget they ever saw it.  Digital communication is great for many purposes, but sometimes something you can hold in your hand is your best option.  As the use of multimedia expands, embrace it… just don’t dismiss print automatically.  They key is to make it memorable.

And if you didn’t get my card in the mail… I’m sure the USPS has misplaced it!