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.