John Berger: uncompromising visionary

John BergerI was saddened to hear of the death (at 90) of Marxist art historian John Berger.

I vividly recall reading Ways of Seeing as an undergraduate and, later, his sociological writings A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man about migrant workers in Europe, years before the current crisis hit. His essays in the collection Portraits covers 74 artists who worked from 30,000 BC (the Chauvet Cave Painters) to the 20th century.

I was impressed by his collaboration with the Swiss director Alain Tanner. Indeed, the 1976 film Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 is the only movie I’ve ever watched six times in all. It formulated a good part of my world view as a young man.

Even more influential was his 1972 prizewinning novel simply titled ‘G‘. I read it the year it came out, in my second year at University. It’s a novel of sexual adventure and political awakening, heady stuff for any undergraduate. The closing paragraph, describing the sunlight on the ocean waves is a beautiful, trippy way of seeing:

The sun is low in the sky and the sea is calm. Like a mirror as they say. Only it is not like a mirror. The waves which are scarcely waves, for they come and go in many different directions and their rising and falling is barely perceptible, are made up of innumerable tiny surfaces at variegating angles to one another–of these surfaces those which reflect the sunlight straight into one’s eyes, sparkle with a white light during the instant before their angle, relative to oneself and the sun, shifts and they merge again into the blackish blue of the rest of the sea. Each time the light lasts for no longer than a spark stays bright when shot out from a fire. But as the sea recedes towards the sun, the number of sparkling surfaces multiples until the sea indeed looks somewhat like a silver mirror. But unlike a mirror it is not still. Its granular surface is in continual agitation. The further away the ricocheting grains, of which the mass becomes silver and the visibly distinct minority a dark leaden colour, the greater is their apparent speed. Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflections becoming ever faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit. The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.

His BBC series Ways of Seeing on which the book was based is available in multiple parts on YouTube. Here’s the first episode

Berger was an uncompromising visionary who was a major influence on my life.

Book Review: Illuminate, by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

Casting Light on the Dark Arts of Communications

Any book on communications that starts out quoting 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim has my attention. The authors embrace his idea of ‘collective effervescence’ to describe the magic of a group sharing a common purpose.

Illuminate_CoverFor Duarte and Sanchez, the common purpose they champion in the recently published Illuminate is driven by leaders, whom they term ‘Torchbearers’, envisioning new possibilities. They ‘light the path’ as they set out to change the world and bring ’Travelers’ on the journey along with them. If this sounds like the plot to Lord of the Rings, well, in addition to Durkheim, they quote Frodo Baggins, Aragorn and the others as they motivate the hobbits to set out on the quest for the Ring.

However, this book is anything but a fairy tale.

Duarte, Inc is one of the premier communications agencies in Silicon Valley. Since it was founded in 1990, Nancy Duarte has built a stellar reputation as a PowerPoint guru (with her first book, slide:ology) and general communications consultant (cemented by Resonate, her second book). With ‘Illuminate’ she has broadened her scope to include not only presentations and speeches, but stories, ceremonies and symbols. These are all weapons in the ‘torchbearer’s toolkit’ that can be employed to affect what people think, feel and do as they move through what she calls the ‘five stages of a venture’: Dream, Leap, Fight, Climb, and Arrive. If this sounds like the content of a classic 4×5 matrix, well, you’ll find it summarized in a handy-dandy fold-out between pages 58 and 59.

A speech for all seasons

Using this taxonomy allows you to choose the right tool for the job depending which stage an audience is on the journey. While not a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to communications, after reading Illuminate you will know what to deploy if, say, you need to rally the troops. The advice is to deliver a ‘battle speech’ or tell an ‘overcome the enemy story’ or hold a ‘rally the spirits’ ceremony. What I really liked about the classification is that we’re not left with the usual Pollyanna advice that assumes everything is wonderful. Each stage addressees the negative as well as the positive. So if people in an organization are resistant to change we are told what we might hear them say (“I just don’t see how this could work”) and advised on how to craft and deliver a ‘revolution’ speech or ‘neglect the call’ story. By dealing with the dark side of communications Duarte & Sanchez have given leaders a robust set of guidelines well suited to the real world.

Peoplesoft DemiseSome of the most powerful parts of the book deal with how different organizations dealt with total failure: when PeopleSoft was bought by Oracle and the employees made the company sign into a makeshift memorial; how Coke reversed their disastrous decision to abandon Classic Coke; how Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, addressed her employees when they needed to recall faulty ignition switches that had caused deaths.

Rich Case Studies

I was struck by the degree of first-hand knowledge and insight in the case studies that conclude the main chapters. Each one includes an extensive narrative and quotes that make the study come alive. There’s a bonus a multi-point summary of highlights. Showing their Silicon Valley roots, Duarte & Sanchez’s case studies include the usual suspects— tech titans like IBM and Apple. But there’s also a floor-covering company, a non-profit, and a fast-food company. Most appropriately, the concluding study is of Duarte, Inc itself, detailing the transformation the company underwent as it pivoted to overhaul systems and improve operations.

Like her previous books, Illuminate is a beautifully designed, eminently readable, detailed account of the scenarios those of us in corporate communications face on a daily basis. Read it if your job is to enable the Torchbearer’s to ignite change, Frodo would certainly make sure it’s on his bookshelf back in the Shire.

Rap on Trial, Charis Kubrin

2105 Cicero Award WinnerCharis Kubrin, Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, U.C. Irvine, is a renowned specialist in criminology and law. In this TEDx talk she shares with passion and mastery a story of Rap on Trial that elucidates the fundamental issues our society faces in relation to freedom of speech, liberty, equality and justice. This speech was written with the help of Barbara Seymour Giordano and was awarded the 2015 Cicero Speechwriting Award for a controversial or highly politicized topic. The full text follows and a video of the presentation is at the end of this posting. It is reprinted here with express permission.

Rap on Trial, Charis Kubrin

Have you ever been given a set of facts, and based on that evidence, come to a conclusion that made you believe you were absolutely right?

A few years back a defense attorney contacted me to ask if I would be an expert witness in a case involving an aspiring rapper who had been charged with making a terrorist threat. This would be my first official expert witness case — so I jumped at the chance! And as a Professor of Criminology as well as a Rap Music Scholar… I could hardly wait to share my expertise.

So as soon as I received the evidence, I immediately got to work. Now, the entire case came to trial as a result of these 6 short lines of text — and here’s how they read:

glock to the head of
SEND $2 to . . . . paypal account
if this account doesn’t reach $50,000 in the next
7 days then a murderous rampage similar to the
VT shooting will occur at another prestigious
highly populated university. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!

OK, admittedly these words sitting on the page all by their lonesome make it pretty darn easy to jump to a conclusion about what this rapper was up to, right? And I’ve got to admit that when I read these words for the first time, even my gut reaction was — this guy is so guilty!

But I knew from my years of research that you can’t pass judgment until all the evidence has been reviewed.

So I began by trying to figure out how these words had landed in the hands of the Southern Illinois University campus police. One day while on patrol, the campus police spotted an abandoned car, searched it, and found typical college student possessions inside — along with a piece of paper inconspicuously tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console.

On one side of the folded up paper were the 6 lines of threatening text. And when you flipped the paper over, there were line after line of what appeared to be rap lyrics—such as:

let them booty cheeks hop, so
Pop it mami pop it
I’ma do it like this daddy
follow that thang to da ground when she drop it.

(Probably not a song destined for the top 40, right?)

The minute I saw these rhyming rap lyrics on the opposite side of the threatening text — I had a sneaking suspicion that this college student was not a plotting terrorist, but most likely an aspiring gangsta rapper.

However, that’s not how the police saw it … these 6 lines of text were enough evidence to get a search warrant, and comb through the defendant, Olutosin Oduwole’s, campus apartment. Inside they found several other notebooks filled with his violent and misogynistic rap lyrics and… a handgun.

As a result, the police charged Oduwole — a college student with no prior convictions — with attempting to communicate a terrorist threat. While Oduwole admitted to the gun possession charges, he adamantly denied he was a terrorist planning to carry out acts of violence. Oduwole stood by his story that the text was simply notes for a new rap song.

In preparation for testifying, I reviewed hundreds of pages of evidence from Oduwole’s notebooks —

As I painstakingly analyzed the notebook evidence line by line wading through stanza after stanza of misogynistic and violent lyrics, I would land upon an occasional random page — notes from class, a letter to a girl, and the terms of the rap contract Oduwole one day dreamed of landing.

After careful review of these notebooks I came to the conclusion that Oduwole was unequivocally NOT a terrorist. He was just a wanna-be rapper whose offensive and shocking lyrics were — out of a fear of terrorism — being completely misinterpreted.
Trial day arrived and after months of research on this case, I was ready to share my findings — that is, until I entered the courtroom and stood face to face with an all-white, middle-aged jury. It was 2011… I could barely believe my eyes.

But despite the lack of diversity, I was sure the evidence would prevail. So when I took the stand, I spent two hours educating the jury on the finer points of gangsta rap — for example, in the rap world the more violent the lyrics, the more respect you’ll have in the rap community. And the more misogynistic and violent your music? Well, the more songs you’ll sell. Considering the business, it was no surprise that Oduwole’s lyrics portrayed a violent persona and the glorification of guns — both of which are staples of gangsta rap.

I also pointed out that not all lyrics rhyme or flow — and that the 6 lines of text that the prosecution had rested their case on could be what’s referred to in the music business as an “Intro or Outro” — or unrhymed spoken words that either introduce or conclude a song to give it more edge or make it more memorable.
In my professional opinion, the 6 lines of text were most likely ideas or concepts for a song, or… were the Intro or Outro to a song — not a terrorist threat.
When I left the stand I was completely confident that I’d gotten all my points across and compellingly delivered my ideas.

And in just three short hours — the verdict. Guilty.

Oduwole was sentenced to 5 years and immediately whisked away to prison.

I was completely stunned. How was the jury unable see the truth?

For weeks I replayed the case over and over in my mind — how was the prosecution’s argument more persuasive than my highly researched evidence?

And then it dawned on me — while I had presented the cold, hard facts…the prosecuting attorney dialed up the courtroom emotion and played to the jury’s fears. At one point he actually slammed down Oduwole’s gun on the witness stand, leaned in close, stared me dead in the eye, and asked, “Now does THIS GUN change your opinion about what is written in the 6 lines of text?”

It was in that moment it became clear how the prosecution swayed the jury — emotions trump logic every time.

And the power of emotions lead me to this question — would this case be the same if the defendant was white?

I mean think about it —

STUDENT + WHITE MALE + RAP = WANNA BE RAPPER

But if you add GUN to the equation, well… that white student has lost his way, and needs counseling.

On the other hand, if you swap out black male for white it adds up to this:

STUDENT + BLACK MALE + RAP = HEADED FOR TROUBLE.

And if you add GUN, well … then he’s certainly = A THUG, DESTINED FOR PRISON.

It’s been three years since I testified in the Oduwole case — and since then I’ve wondered…is he the only aspiring rapper this has happened to?

Knowing the system failed this young man and sent him to prison for terrorism troubled me to the core — and thankfully, I was not alone.

The verdict drew widespread scrutiny from first amendment rights’ attorneys, journalists, musicians, and academics alike. There were op-eds featuring this case, including several by an assistant professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in rap and hip hop culture.

Within short order this professor and I joined forces and discovered that rap lyrics are showing up with alarming regularity as evidence in courtrooms across the country — in fact, our research has uncovered hundreds of these cases.

And what’s so crazy is that it’s virtually unheard of for musicians outside of rap to have their lyrics introduced as evidence against them in court — not for rock, not for punk, not EVEN for heavy metal.

Over the last year my colleague and I have publicized our research findings — and just last month, we wrote a brief to educate the Justices about gangsta rap for a rap lyrics case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In all our work, we argue that rather than treat rap music as an art form, in these cases prosecutors portray rap lyrics as autobiographical — in other words, they want the jury to believe that these rappers are just sharing the stories of their lives.

The trouble with labeling rap as autobiographical is that the characters being portrayed in rap music are often nothing like the actual artists.
Seriously, if rappers were guilty of even the tiniest fraction of violence they project in their music, well, we’d all be in really big trouble.

And in some cases like Oduwole’s, the lyrics themselves are the crime — being positioned as an imminent danger to the public. But no matter the prosecution’s tactics, introducing lyrics as evidence in court…almost always results in unfair prejudice.

Unfortunately, this fact isn’t always clear to judges and juries —
In case after case, the results have been devastating for the accused — defendants have been found guilty and sent off to prison.

But why?

In an experimental study, a social psychologist presented two groups of diverse subjects with an identical set of violent lyrics.
The first group was told the lyrics came from a rap song, and the second… from a country song.

What was discovered was the first group — who was told they had rap lyrics — found the words to be more threatening and dangerous… compared to the group who was told they had country.

Even though the lyrics on the page were exactly the same, each group likely had preconceived ideas about both types of music — country is made by good-old southern white boys while rap is made by urban black criminals.

So essentially what happens is… by the prosecution playing with the jury’s preconceived notions about rap music, they also tap into race — which ratchets up public fear and reinforces old and new stereotypes about young men of color as inherently dangerous and threatening.

Which leads me to this —

Are these increases in rap trials just another sign that racism in this country is alive and well? And how many more false convictions and acts of violence — against our own people — will it take before we say… enough?

For me the tipping point will arrive when we admit as a country that we’re still playing out old racial stereotypes. Then — and only then — is when we’ll begin to heal from our collective and historical wounds. We have to remember — and never lose sight of the fact — that our nation and its people are one; indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Screenwriting and Storytelling Secrets for Speechwriters

StorytellingMembers of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable joined speechwriter, screenwriter and author Mike Long on a conference call earlier this week. This is the second of two edited highlights of the call. In part one Mike talked about becoming a freelance speechwriter.

In this second edited highlight, Mike talks about how his experience as a screenwriter helps him write better speeches and the core elements essential to any story. To hear what he said, click on the podcast icon below.

Storytelling and presenting explained

Following my recent post about graphic recording videos I’ve been amazed at the variety of entertaining and instructional material that’s out there in this format.

Analytical Storytelling

This video from Harrison Metal summarizes Barbara Minto’s pyramid structure for a talk designed to convince an analytic audience. It shows why presenting your ideas organized as a pyramid under a single point to makes them easy for the audience to grasp.

Storytelling & Presenting 1: Thank You, Barbara Minto from Harrison Metal on Vimeo.

Inspirational Storytelling

This video showcases Hollywood screenwriter Robert McKee’s basic storytelling structure where a protagonist’s life is thrown off balance by an inciting incident. It’s a nice summary of the ideas that are explored in McKee’s well-known book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Storytelling & Presenting 2: Thank You, Robert McKee from Harrison Metal on Vimeo.

Lost tape archives

Blank on BlankMy experience of blogging is that it’s like waiting for a the bus — no material for days on end and then a whole bunch comes along at once.

Following my post yesterday on the Portland State University lost speech tapes, I found an article about the Blank on Blank project that curates lost tapes of interviews with famous people, mostly in the entertainment field.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Larry King’s hilarious story about his late night escapades as a young radio DJ, Janis Joplin on rejection, John Lennon on love, and Pete Seeger on writing ‘We Shall Overcome’.

These tapes are a great source of entertaining stories.

Hollywood Secrets Help Professional Speakers

Over 100 attendees at Saturday’s meeting of Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association heard the benefits of taking a Hollywood approach to writing and delivering presentations in order to elicit emotion in an audience.

FrippHall of Fame keynote speaker and executive speech coach Patricia Fripp joined forces with Hollywood story expert (and Will Smith’s script consultant) Michael Hauge.

Fripp is the founder of our Chapter and a leading authority in the world of professional speaking.

Michael HaugeHauge is a story and script consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.

Michael also works extensively with Hollywood executives, producers, agents and managers, helping them sharpen their story and development skills, and improving their companies’ abilities to recognize powerful material, employ advanced principles of structure, character arc and theme, skillfully communicate a story’s strengths and weaknesses, and work effectively with writers to achieve a commercially successful screenplay. His skills and experience were immediately applicable to the professional speakers and speechwriters in the room on Saturday.

Fripp introduced the program by saying it is difficult to be creative in isolation, hence the collaboration between her and Michael that enables their creativity to flourish. She stated that to ensure your audience remembers your presentation you must present information in a way that it connects with them by following a basic story outline formula: When? Where? Who? What Happened?

Michale Hauge elaborated on this by outlining:

The 10 Essential Elements of Every Great Story

  1. A Hero. The story must have a hero or heroine. This main character drives the story and has the potential to be heroic. The hero’s desire propels the action.
  2. The Setup. A slice of everyday life before anything heroic happens. It shows how the hero is stuck before they begin the “forward movement” of the story. This is where the writer builds sympathy for the hero in the minds of the audience, which leads to:
  3. Empathy. A psychological connection between your audience and the protagonist before you reveal the hero’s flaws. The audience lives through the characters and empathize with them by seeing the highs and lows they deal with in their lives. Hauge shared three ways to create empathy:
    1. Create sympathy. Make them the victim of an undeserved event.
    2. Put the hero in jeopardy. In Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones escapes a host of threats at the start of the movie that have nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but develop empathy for Jones.
    3. Make the character likeable, kind, good-hearted, generous.
  4. Opportunity. When something happens that has never happened before and gets the story moving.
  5. New Situation. To allow the hero to pursue a visible goal they want to accomplish.
  6. Outer motivation. Or the visible goal that the hero wants to accomplish by the end of the story. This goal must be within the hero’s power to accomplish. As a story coach, Hauge asks “What’s this story about?” In the movie, Gravity, the heroine’s goal was, “I want to get home.” This outer motivation should be easily expressed in a single sentence. The clearer you can be about the visible goal of the hero, the better.
  7. Growing Conflict. A great story provides obstacles for the hero to overcome. To elicit emotion, you must amplify conflict. Whatever goal the hero wants to accomplish, you must convince the reader it’s impossible and then find a way to achieve it.
  8. Climax. At this point of the story the hero confronts the biggest obstacle that must resolve their visible goal. But it’s not the end of the story.
  9. Transformation. The hero must transform to achieve their outer motivation. In a character arc, this transformation is the point when they go from living in fear to living courageously. This element reveals the story’s theme and reveals universal meaning, which increases emotion and story depth. The visible goal can only be achieved if the character can overcome the state of being stuck.
  10. Aftermath. The final element shows the hero living a new life after completing the journey.

Hauge gave each of us a bookmark with these elements listed.

Michael Hauge Bookmark

Soundbites

All great presenters speak in easily Tweetable soundbites. Here’s some I noted:

Michael Hauge:

  • Real life is not properly structured
  • Stories must be true, but they don’t have to be factual.
  • Audiences don’t want to hear that you became courageous; they want to hear how it happened.
  • Whatever you want your audience to learn and do, you must have the hero of your story learn and do.
  • Stories give your audience a direct experience of whatever it is you want your speech to convey.

Frippicisms:

  • Freeze your gestures while the audience laughs or applauds.
  • Deliver stories that happened in the past in the past tense.
  • The audience does not see how you feel, only what you project.
  • You are speaking for the audience of your audience.

Resources

Hauge illustrated his concepts with movie references. He started the morning by sharing a clip from the movie “Hitch”. If you’ve never seen this romantic comedy, take a look:

Hauge’s books on the craft of screenwriting and storytelling are best sellers in the genre. I went home with two of his books and an audio CD:

Fripp has launched a Virtual Training website where you can immerse yourself in her speech and sales presentation coaching 24/7.

Same Same … But Different

SameA recent discussion in the National Speaker’s Association Facebook Group addresses the problem of the lack of originality in many speeches. The discussion was prompted by a LinkedIn article by Richard A. Moran which highlights the repetitive use of the same case studies by speakers at business events. The author requests:

Let’s broaden the conversation and stop talking about the same companies – usually Apple, Zappos and Southwest Airlines.

Instead of the same old stuff he wants:

…to be motivated, not sorry I don’t work somewhere else. I want to know how I can improve, not how a brilliant leader did it a few years ago somewhere else. And, I want genuine advice that might include some practical tips about how to be better and what pitfalls to avoid.

Professional speakers and speechwriters are in total agreement. Their comments show they understand the importance of delivering content that is unique, different, and ensures their message will be heard above the noise. (Since the NSA Group is a closed one, the names of the contributors have been removed.)

  1. The problem is a global one – same old stories, same old case studies, same old messages. We need to use our own stories, our own research, and if we must talk about companies, use current news stories.
  2. It’s best to tell stories from our own experience. It’s what I do in my own talks and it’s what I encourage executives to do when I’m helping them with their speeches. Not only are those stories going to be original, the speaker is going to be more connected to them.
  3. Speakers must bring us a very different idea or way of doing something we’ve not heard before. I can honestly say few exist per my life’s experience. The same ingredients in a food processor still yield pretty much the same outcome–no matter what order you add them. Real Thought Leaders make us think long after the book, podcast or event. I believe great speeches have a beginning, a middle and a definitive end. I also know there are three presentations happening simultaneously: the one you planned, the one you executed and (most importantly) the one they take away. Our own stories and the lessons we share keep our content fresh and unique, as long as we continue to study how to connect the dots in a way the audience most relates to.
  4. As a speech writer for others, I want to take their experiences and create a speech based on them, not on what can be found in college business textbooks. Not all case studies are as they seem.
  5. We live in an age where everything changes quickly — we have so many examples to share.

Why corporate storytelling sucks

Andrew HillA provocative article by Andrew Hill in Tuesday’s FT skewers the current focus on storytelling in executive communications blogs (like mine!).

Hill notes that companies like Microsoft and SAP have people on staff with the title “chief storyteller”. He dismisses the interview that Steve Clayton conducted as a walkabout with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as “anodyne”.

Moving on, he highlights the danger that corporations will construct unrealistic myths with a “a coherent plot…no implausible twists, or awkward gaps” to tell the story of their success which leaders then become trapped in. The risk is, he claims, that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories.

I’d argue that while there’s some truth in Hill’s admonitions, he over-eggs the omelet in criticizing the desire of communications professionals to tell stories. To achieve even a modicum of success in this endeavor is something to applaud. As welcome relief from the endless march of PowerPoint slides displayed in meeting rooms worldwide, a real story is a rare treat.

The Heart of Storytelling

In fact, I’ve noted that a previous Microsoft storyteller, Justina Chen, has described in detail the messy, complex and conflictual nature of telling the story of the Xbox team who had to deal with games consoles catching fire and other challenges on the road to success. Chen, a successful author who knows what captures the imagination, recognizes the power of overcoming adversity in telling a good yarn:

Don’t be afraid of discussing failures, the crucible moments in the company history is where we see character emerge. Speechwriters can research the times the company has failed and show the lessons, the backbone, and the spine of the organization…

Of course, no company is going to write the corporate equivalent of a Bleak House, or a Gormenghast. When our daily bread is at risk we prefer tales of success to dystopian failure.

Propaganda

WWI PosterIndeed, I believe Hill’s critique is more appropriate if broadened to encompass the similarities between modern corporations and authoritarian regimes or even Fascist states. There’s the common themes of veneration of the organization over the individual, devotion to a strong leader, perpetual competitive engagement as a key motivator of “the troops”, and a fevered dedication to territorial (or market-share) expansion. Propaganda is employed as a tool of conformism and control.

Hill’s critique of “happy ending” storytelling is a really critique of corporate propaganda. Many specific propaganda techniques are deployed by corporate PR and communications professionals: the tireless repetition of an idea, appeal to fear uncertainty and doubt, jumping on the bandwagon, inevitable victory, black and white choices, the cult of personality, demonizing the competition…and so on.

Transmedia

Hill acknowledges the positive origins of corporate storytelling in the work of Stephen Denning. He also references John Hagel of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge (where U2’s guitarist hangs out?) who has suggested:

…it may be healthier to think of business stories as open-ended narratives in which everyone participates, rather than finite tales told by a single raconteur to a passive audience. But he points out that “narratives cannot be crafted by PR departments [and] existing institutional leaders are generally poorly equipped to take on this opportunity”.

When highlighting the importance of context and narrative, Hagel points to the democratization of the means of production of stories:

Digital technology provides all of us the ability to define and communicate narratives in rich and textured ways. Video and audio tools and platforms supplement conventional text-based forms of communication, and put them in the hands of everyone. Of course, the democratization of communication poses its own challenges. While it helps us to frame and communicate our own personal and institutional narratives, it makes it more challenging to frame social narratives that can unite rather than fragment us as we seek to learn faster by working together.

This is supported by my own experience at companies like Cisco where an internal YouTube-like service allows all employees to tell stories. This “show and share” initiative opens the floodgates to immersive storytelling and transmedia where not only the Führer, or CEO, is the focus of the story.

Authenticity

At the end of the day, Hill admits, it is a question of the authenticity of business leaders’ communications, which face innumerable barriers. With Dilbert filling George Orwell’s role in satirizing authoritarian empty suits, the time for “writing with courage and character and grit” is now. But that’s the focus of the column to the right of Andrew Hill’s on p.8 of the March 18 FT.

The Speechwriting Secrets of Jon Favreau

Obama and FavreauThere’s only 24 hours in a day, which is why President Obama, despite being an accomplished writer and orator, needs help with his speeches. During his first term in office, much of this help came from a young man who is arguably the most famous living speechwriter—Jon Favreau—who began working for then Senator Barack Obama as only his second writing job out of college.

Favreau gave the opening keynote—Words matter: Storytelling with President Obama in an age of sound bites—at the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference. His talk in many ways book-ended the 2009 address by Ted Sorensen, who also wrote speeches for a young Senator who was elected as the first Catholic President of the United States: JFK. Sorensen spoke near the end of a very full life, yet the all-to-few years he wrote for Kennedy defined him. It is quite likely that 33-year-old Favreau will likewise be talking about his time as Obama’s speechwriter for the rest of his days.

His talk was perfect for the Ragan audience—a mix of solid speechwriting advice and unique insight into the creation of some of the major speeches of Obama’s Presidency. It was inside baseball talk from a major league player for the guys and gals in the minor league dug-outs.

Surprisingly, despite attempts to analyze the rhetoric, Favreau claimed neither he nor Obama consciously deployed overt tricks of the trade. Rather, these are the speechwriting secrets he shared:

Develop a strong relationship

Obama reassured Favreau (or “Favs” as he called him) on the eve of sending him home to write his first speech: “I know you’re nervous, but I’m a writer too. And I know that sometimes the muse strikes and sometimes it doesn’t. If you get stuck, just come in tomorrow, and the two of us will work though it together.” Obama exhibited the same level of support and involvement in the writing process throughout the eight years Favreau worked with him.

As Favreau described, the speechwriting process usually began with research and fact checking, then sending Obama a draft which would be returned with extensive mark-ups. If it just had the note “Let’s talk”, Favreau knew he had missed the mark.

Favreau shared three lessons from his time working with Obama.

1. The story is more important than the words

Obama always started with the question: “What story am I trying to tell?” He demanded an outline with a beginning, middle and end and required this sum the speech up in a few sentences before the detailed writing started. He did not, needless to say, design his speeches by juggling PowerPoint slide templates. Absent the simple summary, there is nothing to hang the development of the speech on.

The payoff of this story-centered approach was illustrated in the November 2007 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner primary debate when the opposing Clinton campaign delivered the forgettable tagline Turn up the heat, turn America around. Obama resisted the advice from some on his team that he coin a tagline, instead speaking from the heart about why he was the right person at that moment in history to be elected President:

I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me. I never expected to be here. I always knew this journey was improbable. I’ve never been on a journey that wasn’t. I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.

2. The importance of honesty and authenticity

Decisions on speech topics are too often based on fear (the fear of losing power, of public embarrassment) Obama ignored advice to “play it safe”. For example, when deciding on a response to the Rev. Wright controversy he took the early outline Faverau drafted and made it his own with heartfelt, authentic, honest statements such as:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These are not lines that any speechwriter or strategic adviser would ever write. They came from the heart and soul of the person who spoke. Favreau still has the “Track Changes” version of his draft after Obama worked on it, and there is hardly a line that the President did not re-write.

After the speech Obama called Favreau and confessed:

I don’t know if you can get elected President saying the things I said today. But I also know that I don’t deserve to be President if I’m too scared to say the things I believe.

It’s important that we write with courage and character. Slick writing won’t sway audiences.

3. Never lose your idealism as a writer

We live in cynical times. Our job as writers is to inspire and make audiences believe. Don’t fall into the trap of delivering cynical prose.

For Favreau, his cynicism dissolved when he called 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper to ask permission for the President to tell her life story in his victory speech. His moving conversation with her, hearing of the pride of this formerly disenfranchised black woman who expressed such pride in the first African-American President, brought him to tears.

It’s worth listening to him tell this in this own words. Click on the first audio podcast icon below to hear this moving story that reignited idealism in the young writer.

The importance of face-time with the speaker

Obama always took time to sit down in face-to-face meetings with Favs and review the story he wanted the speech to tell. Favreau reminded us that if the principals we work for ever claim to be too busy to meet about a speech, to let them know the leader of the free world made the time. Indeed, it’s of paramount importance that speechwriters have a direct, unmediated relationship with the person they are writing for. Anything else is a recipe for disaster. My own experience supports this. The writer needs to be in meetings where policy and strategy are discussed. The writer needs to ask the speaker, “What’s on your mind? What do you want to say?” If they are not able to articulate this, then interview them to find out.

Err toward the conversational

When asked how the corporate clients he now writes for can best improve their speech delivery, Favreau advises they avoid jargon and err toward the conversational. Most audiences respond well to a more conversational tone. Avoid using words you would not use at the dinner table with family. Speeches can often come across as too formal and stilted. Conversational stories tap into people’s emotions.

Audience reaction

Following the keynote I asked audience members to share their impressions of Favreau. Click on the second podcast icon below to hear what they had to say.