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


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Power of Storytelling: 10 Tips and Tricks from Professional Speakers

StorytellingHere’s an interesting series of comments and informative views that were posted recently to the National Speakers Association (NSA) Facebook Page when a speaker asked “Do you think stories are overrated in presentations and audiences are starting to see through them as manipulation tactics…?” The responses clearly show why professional speakers use stories in their speeches. The comments are filled with useful tips and tricks on the most effective ways to use stories in a speech. The names of the contributors have been removed.

  1. I would say a story is to help connect with the audience…to help them relate to the message…but it would depend on the message and how the story is presented.
  2. It’s like the whole salt metaphor. Any element of a speech if used too much can ultimately spoil a dish, but when used right it actually brings out the best favors of the other elements. I know that’s an overused metaphor, but I think we sometimes focus too much on one element of speaking. Stories… PowerPoint… Hand gestures…. Humor… Music… Etc rather than thinking about how all the ingredients play together and for what purpose.
  3. Stories are the cornerstone to creating a memorable message long after the presentation is over. Presentation is key – if your audience can “feel” your story, you have succeeded.
  4. I think that a speaker who does not use stories will more than likely lose the interest of their audience. Stories done properly are powerful tools. Just look at how much of the Bible is based on stories being told and it is still selling well.
  5. Two things are key: Relevance: Is the story relevant to the present time, historically. Make modifications to make it relevant. Relationship: What is the speaker’s relationship to the story. If there is no meaningful reason to choose to tell a certain story, don’t tell it.
  6. To me the key is authenticity! If it is yours, and it is true and it makes a point integral to the learning experience of the audience then stories can be powerful! Tell someone else’s story as if it is your own … you are asking for trouble!
  7. Stories are the fingerprint to your platform. I can think of no other single element that differentiates you from others. For me, the ability to connect and be authentic is directly attributable to my ability to be conversational through sharing my story. Without stories, I think we run the risk of being viewed as a talking head – full of facts, figures and other researched data. Stories personalize the message. I have always been of the mind that the audience wants conversation. Stories are what most conversations are all about. I don’t believe they are overrated at all. I suppose if they were, TED talks would not be so popular. I do, however, believe the audience can tell the difference between a well-delivered story by a trained professional – versus a poorly delivered story trying to be disguised as something relevant.
  8. One it the founders of NSA often told me it is easier to change audiences than to change speeches. He was one of the best platform speakers I have ever known and he had but one speech. It was all original material and he did it so well the people would come to hear him time and again just because of his manner and the info given. My suggestion is that when you create something, just do two things. First put the time into being as professional as possible and then don’t get tired of your material because you have heard it before. Remember, we are there not to please ourselves, although if we do it right we will, but rather to add value to the lives of those we touch. Second, remember that to a new audience the information you are sharing is the first time they have heard it from you and no matter the number times you have given it, don’t let them down by failing to deliver it with the excitement you gave the first audience that heard it.
  9. The audience connects more with stories than with facts and figures. Tying the two together to create an actionable takeaway makes the tales worthwhile.
  10. People love stories… if you’re a good story teller. If you’re not a good story teller, then it seems like you went off on a tangent and just talking about yourself. When speakers are also great story tellers it enhances the speech. However, there is a type of story that is overdone and that is the “personal struggle to triumph” story. Seems like every speaker wants to start off with this “I was in a horrible situation and got out of it and need to speak now to tell you all about it” approach. Most of these situations aren’t relevant to the audience, and might even seem that bad (i.e. “I was living in a studio apartment…” Yeah, we all did at one point … but I’m here to learn XYZ). Whenever I tell a story or make an analogy I try to tie it in as closly as possible to the point I’m making so people stay with me and it makes sense.

photo credit: digitalrob70 via photopin cc

10 Tips for Becoming a More Effective Corporate Storyteller

Fast Company LogoDavid Lavenda’s August 8 “Leadership Now” column in Fast Company online lists 10 Storytelling Tips from Israeli-based Susan Fisher.

Fisher acknowledges the fear some executives have about telling stories since they might be seen as manipulative and emotional. These are presenters who like to stick to facts. However, she points out:

…the truth is that real emotions always work better, because that is the way to reach hearts and minds, and also people get to see the real you. It’s authentic.

Here’s her 10 tips for becoming an authentic and effective storyteller–with my comments in parens:

  1. Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story. This is the message we want to deliver, and the one that will linger with the audience. (This implies that you also understand what voice coach Kate Peters calls the power of intention.)
  2. Keep your stories short for the workplace. Three to five minutes long is about what people can digest in today’s ADD world. (That said, anyone with a young child knows that a good story can hold the attention of an audience like nothing else.)
  3. Good stories are about challenge or conflict. Without these elements, stories aren’t very interesting. The compelling part of a story is how people deal with conflict–-so start with the people and the conflict. (I’ve read too many case studies in the technology industry where there is no conflict. This despite customers having to choose between multiple solutions and needing to solve real problems. These are the issues that should be highlighted, but are often ignored.)
  4. Think about your story like a movie. Imagine you are screenwriter with a goal to get your message across. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end. (And as all screenwriters know, it’s important to have an inciting incident early in the story. This marks the turning point. In this moment, you answer two questions: What do your characters want? What might prevent them from getting it?)
  5. Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify human interest by adding descriptions of time, place, and people with their emotions. (As world-class public speaking coach Patricia Fripp often says, one the secrets of successful storytelling is to use specific descriptions: specificity builds credibility.)
  6. Be creative. Create a storyboard; draw it out, while listening to music or reading something for inspiration. A good story always has ups and downs, so “arc” the story. Pull people along, and introduce tension, just like in a fairy tale. (“From out of nowhere, the wolf jumps onto the path …”) (Fiction writer and corporate storyteller Justina Chen urges us to lean into the messy, creative process that storytelling involves.)
  7. Intensify the story with vivid language and intonation. Tap into people’s emotions with language. Use metaphors, idioms, and parables that have emotional associations. (Note: For more on this, see Leo Widrich’s article entitled, “Which Words Matter Most When You Talk” and studies on intonation performed by Ingrid Johnsrude at Cambridge University). (The Widrich article touches on the ways the brain processes language. For a more complete discussion of the importance of Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas of the brain and the importance of action verbs in speech, see Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams.)
  8. When using a story in a PowerPoint presentation, use appropriate graphics/pictures to convey your message. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. A single picture interlaced with emotional language will go a long way to convey your message. (As explained in the books of Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte.)
  9. Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since English class in high school. So you will need to practice. Tell your story in front of a friendly audience and get feedback. Gauge your pace, and take note of the story’s length and your use of language. It will be a bit rusty at first, but underneath it all, we are all born storytellers. (Don’t just ask the audience what they thought of your story, ask them what they wanted to hear more about, and what could be cut.)
  10. The most important point is to make the switch within; because once you internalize that today’s “left-brain” communication style doesn’t work very well and you realize that stories are how people really communicate, you will find it a lot easier to proceed…because it’s authentic. And that is what really persuades. (Indeed. The specific techniques of persuasive storytelling have been known in detail since the time of Aristotle and Cicero. Today’s savvy politicians use every trick in the book with stunning results.)

Meeting Report: Nancy Duarte discusses presentation excellence with Silicon Valley Speechwriters

Nancy Duarte was the guest speaker at Monday’s meeting of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable. Duarte is the well-known author of slide:ology and Resonate and the founder and CEO of Duarte, Inc.

Slideology Nancy acknowledged the important role writing her books has had on the growth of her business. A few years ago, while searching for presentation blogs, she came across Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen blog. Garr encouraged her to write a book that covered “everything he left on the table” with his own draft of Presentation Zen. The result was slide:ology. She is grateful that Garr encouraged her to write her first book, since it was instrumental in helping refocus her agency on presentation-specific work.

Garr and Nancy are still good friends and she hosted him at a recent lunchtime talk about presentations at the Silicon Valley headquarters of her company.

Resonate Nancy’s second book, Resonate, was in many ways the prequel to her first. She acknowledges that writing slide:ology made the phone ring for slides, while Resonate made the phone ring for content. She sees a trend with some of her clients where she is being asked to help develop creative content and conversations that don’t need slides. She sometimes arms clients with graphics they can draw on a whiteboard while presenting.

How to work with clients

The concepts in Resonate are one model among many her company uses. When they engage with clients they first host an interactive discovery workshop. They probe for the “one big idea” that the client wishes to communicate. This can be a painful process for some clients, who might not have given their big idea any thought and might, in fact, discover they lack the focus they need to have before they present. The next step for the Duarte team is to break down and rebuild the clients’ idea, wrap it in a story and concepts and then re-propose back to the client what they think they should say. At this stage they use slide maps which match the stages of the presentation to the best supporting images, data or pictures. Once this is approved, the presentation is story-boarded.

Nancy’s advice for speechwriters who have “difficult” clients–who are not be fully invested in the need to prepare for a presentation–is to pick a high stakes presentation to request complete client involvement. Avoid getting caught up in small skirmishes. The higher the stakes, the more involvement an executive should see they need to have. That is the time to pitch the ideas on why it needs to be done right. Speechwriters need to understand most clients are not masters of the spoken word. We are the experts in storytelling who live and breathe this world. It’s advisable to give clients time to acclimate to our ways of thinking.


A Sparkline is an analysis tool Nancy introduced in Resonate that represents a presentation. She jokes that, no, Martin Luther King did not use a Sparkline to plan his “I Have a Dream” speech since she was only two-years old at the time! Indeed, a Sparkline is not something to use in preparing a speech, but in analyzing why a successful speech works.

“If you were to align on the left everything that is what is, and align on the right everything what could be, and you’ve crafted it and you know it’s right, it ends up following the form on its own. It’s a pattern that is persuasive.”

TED Talk

she gives some compelling examples OF Sparklines in her TED talk that has been seen over a million people:

Such eloquence does not come easily. Nancy mentioned that she put over 30 hours rehearsal time into her 18-minute TED talk. The TED format forces people to be concise and has, she believes, changed the presentation industry. It’s the new gold standard and audiences now know what a good presentation looks like. Audiences have low tolerance for lack of presentation and TED has played a part in that.

Among the women speakers Nancy admires are:

What’s Next?

Nancy revealed she has a new book coming in October. She also plans to release a free multimedia version of Resonate. Her team are also developing tools that allow audiences will tap into a second screen for detailed information on a presentation.

If you are interested in attending future virtual meetings of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable, open to anyone, regardless of location, please sign up on our Meetup page and you’ll be notified.

Book Review: The Age Of The Image, by Stephen Apkon

The Age of the Image CoverStephen Apkon’s new book, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens more than lives up to last week’s preview in the Financial Times. This is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read on corporate and political communications.

Images are replacing written communication

Newspaper circulation is down while YouTube views number in the billions. These facts are not unrelated.

Apkon argues that we are on the threshold of a new era where the democratic reach of media can now stretch to a level never before possible in human history. This phenomena is enabled by the ubiquity of screens to consume video; the universal language of the image over the specificity of written communications; the power and reach of the networks of distribution through YouTube and the web; and, finally, our ownership of the means of production via smart phone cameras and inexpensive editing tools. Apkon notes:

What we are now seeing is the gradual ascendance of the moving image as the primary mode of communication around the world: one that transcends languages, cultures, and borders. And what makes this new ear different from the dawn of television is that the means of production–once in the hands of big-time broadcasting companies with their large budgets–is now available to anyone with a camera, a computer, and the will.

The power of images

Akpon details how the human brain is wired for images (the province of 85% of our grey matter) and why we trust the evidence of our eyes above all else. Images are understood in context, which can be manipulated with narrative to hook an audience emotionally. We expect nothing less from Hollywood, we should not deny ourselves this facility.

Every picture tells a story

Images have energized corporate storytelling. Apkon shares examples where the old rules no longer apply: from the low-budget Dorritos Super Bowl ad to Gillette’s instructional video on How to Shave Your Groin, corporate video appeals directly to our ‘reptilian mind’, prior to logic and rationality.

Lawyers and journalists are tapping into the power of the image to bolster reasoned arguments.

Implications for executive communications

For anyone involved with corporate, political or executive communications the implications of Apkon’s thesis, even if he only partly right, are profound. Those who wish to succeed in the corporate world need superior communication skills. Today, these include not only listening, speaking, reading and writing, but also superior visual communications skills.

The days of the copy editor, speech writer, or PR professional who focuses on the language of the press release alone are numbered. We need to relax our obsessive focus on a logical, written narrative. Instead of endless meetings about the nuances of a product announcement, we should look for ways to craft images that will emotionally connect with an audience. Apkon recommends we learn from the black arts of the political advert:

Political images are much less logical that they let on–in fact, they rely on the image makers’ ability to tap into primitive emotional centers that govern adaptive urges such as fear, comfort, and love.

Remember, America is a country where one of the more popular of recent Presidents was a trained actor; California a state where we elected an inarticulate Austrian body builder with an outsized fictional screen presence as Governator. The biggest stumble made by the Republican challenger in the last election was being caught on video talking about “the 47 percent”.

Corporate communications professionals need to grab their Flip cameras (or whatever is available to them), fire up Windows Movie Maker and go stick the lens in the face of customers, partners, employees, and, yes, even executives.

Apkon’s important book challenges us to recognize the importance of the image over the written word, to learn to become literate in this medium, and to be willing to step forward and say “Lights, Camera, Action!”.

The 2012 Presidential Election: Transmedia Storytelling in action

Harvey Dent Campaign PosterToday’s US Election can be seen as the culmination of the most expensive transmedia storytelling campaign in history. Unlike the year-long Why So Serious? campaign that Warner Bros. funded to promote the Dark Knight Batman movie, and was reported to involve 10 million players, the United States Democratic and Republican Political Parties funded a multi-year “election campaign” that has involved hundreds of millions of players.

Multiplatform Storytelling

Unlike political campaigning in the era before ubiquitous digital content, when politicians would appear in person or on radio and television to promote their views, the 2012 US Election was a true transmedia experience.

Candidate messages were re-purposed in political ads, often funded by PAC’s that pretended to have no connection to the politicians themselves, but in fact were staffed by people who, as they say, were most likely in bed with the candidates.

There were extensive, you might say endless, discussions about the candidates and their ads on television, on Twitter and other forms of social media and, in a hang-over from an earlier era, even in bar rooms and coffee shops across the country.

Alternate Reality Game

The political parties encouraged players to display bumper stickers on their cars and signs on their lawns with the goal of stimulating interest in an election game that came to a climax in today’s visit to polling stations, where the ritual of voting was enacted. This whole alternate reality game (ARG) was conducted in terms of a backdrop of “messages” that candidates, their wives, supporters and surrogates communicated to players who then repeated the messages they liked to friends and neighbors.

Lack of participation

Despite the billions of dollars spent on the story, it’s worth noting that participation in the actual voting is minimal among the younger age groups. Many of them exhausted their interest in these games after marching in the street to promote The Dark Knight.

After all, when you’ve got Gotham City to save, who has time to select the leader of the free world?

Interview: Paul M. Wood – Transmedia Storyteller

Transmedia storytelling is a hot topic. It’s a form of storytelling where multiple platforms tie together to tell a common story. It has been heralded as “a new storytelling form that is native to networked digital content and communication channels.”

UCS professor Henry Jenkins coined the term transmedia storytelling, and defines it as representing:

“…a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience…”

There’s many examples of transmedia, with projects around novels, TV shows, videogames, music and movies as well as a few examples in the corporate and executive communications space.

The more elaborate of these can involve the expense of year-long “teaser” campaigns for movies, or mass-participation alternate reality games.

However, transmedia storytelling can be a low-cost re-purposing existing video and audio digital content for multiple distribution channels. This might put your video used at trade show presentation on a massive screen into a format suitable for a laptop or smart phone. But it’s not just changing the aspect ratio and being done. It’s thinking of savvy ways to fracture a coherent story into pieces while keeping a core theme alive in different media. It’s weaving the storytellers magic in the digital age.

I’m just starting to learn about transmedia storytelling, but the impression I’ve got is that it is evolving rapidly and, if it delivers on even a part of the promise, will be a VERY BIG DEAL.

Paul M. Wood: Transmedia Storyteller

AE35 MediaI recently met with one of the more savvy transmedia storytellers in Silicon Valley. Paul M. Wood is a principal in the boutique communications firm AE35 Media.

Paul is a commercial and independent film director who grew up in a creative family. His father was an artist and his mother a musician. He studied at NYU Film School and has knocked around the tech industry.

After a decade making niche-busting films for Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco Systems, Paul is now calling upon his diverse background as both visual artist and technologist to bring storytelling into the twenty-first century by producing tales which cross not only genres but platforms and delivery systems as well.

AE35 Media believe that the days of executive communications managers creating a message and pushing out to the world as a scripted speech for a corporate big-wig to deliver once with the hope that it was clever or engaging enough to be noticed are over.

Things have changed.

We’ve gone from being a world where information is pushed out to the masses, to become one where the information is now pulled in by individuals. The tech industry knows this applies to their products, not too many yet realize it might equally apply to their corporate spokespeople. While information itself is shared, the act of acquiring it is now solitary and intimate.

Appealing to ONE large mass of people is one thing. It’s an auditorium filled will people listening to your CEO deliver a keynote. It’s an event, managed by the event production team. However, appealing to MILLIONS of individuals and having them own your brand or message as much as you do? Well that’s no longer a mere event. That’s a universe and within it the possibilities are limitless — this is the promise of transmedia storytelling.

To hear Paul discuss the potential of transmedia storytelling and how he sees it as a natural extension of his video production skills, click on the podcast icon below.