Storyteller-in-Chief

In an interview with CBS News, President Barack Obama says the biggest mistake of his first term as president has been his inability “to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Obama’s presumptive opponent in this fall’s election, Republican Mitt Romney, pounced on his remarks, saying, “Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead.”

This is not a political blog and what I’m about to say is not politically motivated. But Romney couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, being president is about leading, but a big part of leadership is telling stories. Ronald Reagan knew it and that’s why he is still called “The Great Communicator.” The most successful CEOs also know it. I once worked for a company in which the CEO was obsessed with telling stories because he knew their power in helping employees understand his vision for the company. And in business as well as in government, those without a vision are lost.

Carol Kinsey Goman, a consultant and expert in culture change for business, wrote several years ago that “Good stories are more powerful than plain facts. This is not to reject the value in facts, of course, but simply to recognize their limits in influencing people. People make decisions based on what facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. Stories give facts meaning. Stories resonate with adults in ways that can bring them back to a childlike open-mindedness — and make them less resistant to experimentation and change.”

I don’t know many people who would argue that change is not needed in our country. Obama ran and won on that platform, in fact. Perhaps he’s on to something. Those who believe he has failed to bring about the change he promised — and I would think Romney is among them — might consider that the president might be right in his assessment of his first term. Perhaps if he had been a better storyteller, more change might have happened.

 

Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?

3 Ways to Connect Employees to Your Company’s Brand

One of the best purposes of employee communication is to help connect employees of your company to its brand and products, if it makes stuff. People who understand what their company does, what it stands for and what it makes are more likely to be engaged in the business and therefore commit more of their discretionary effort to it.

Besides, employees can be your brand’s best representatives out in the marketplace, in the community and among customers. People who have a deep understanding of their company’s brand are more likely and better able to articulate it to others.

Here are three ways to connect your company’s employees to its brand:

Familiarize employees with your company’s products/services. It’s interesting how many companies never do this. People come to work every day, but sometimes don’t have a clue about what the company really does. I began my corporate career in a plant that manufactured printed circuit boards. Many employees knew a lot about those printed circuit boards, but knew little about how our customers used them — the end-products that the boards went into. Part of the reason might have been that the end-products weren’t all that sexy (power systems for telecommunications equipment, for example). But when one customer used the boards in one of the first “picture phones” (this was the early ’90s), employees became excited and proud of the products they made. Help employees understand your company’s products and services. Depending on what the products/services are, it might be difficult to make them sound exciting, but employees need to know what your company does for customers.

Tell stories about the company and its brand. One of my last gigs as a consultant was to research and write the history of a well-known consumer product made by one of my clients. The idea was to publish a booklet that employees, especially the sales force, could read to help them tell the brand’s story to retail customers and consumers. The project manager, who worked in marketing, said in order to understand where the brand is going, employees needed to understand where the brand had been. That makes a lot of sense. As it turns out, the brand had a rich, colorful history that would generate a lot of pride among its custodians today. I’ve written before about the power of storytelling. People remember stories and it helps connect them to a brand in a way no other form of communication can.

Ask for employees’ ideas on how to build and extend the brand. Most companies that make products have employees in research and development whose full-time jobs are to innovate new products that strengthen and extend the brand. Wise company leaders ask employees at large for their ideas and suggestions. After all, employees likely use their company’s products. With robust employee communications, they understand the products very well and they know where the company’s growth opportunities exist. So they are in a good position to generate new ideas. Who knows where the next great idea will come from?

Employees are too rich a resource to squander when it comes to communicating your company’s brand, products and services. Educate them, then enlist them as brand ambassadors. You might be surprised at how willing they are to play that role.

Here’s All I Can Say About the VCU Rams

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of something profound to say about the VCU Rams’ victories in the NCAA Tournament and what this Final Four team has to say about communication.

It’s difficult because I’m too caught up in the excitement. Not only is VCU my alma mater (Class of ’85, School of Mass Communications), but I’m also on the adjunct faculty there. This is the farthest VCU has ever made it in the Big Dance and — despite what some naysayers will tell you — we’ve had some pretty good teams in the past.

The excitement the Rams’ success has brought to Richmond, Va., is beyond belief. Students poured into the streets after VCU’s victory over No. 1 seed Kansas. (Police reported no incidents or injuries.) Thousands of fans attended a middle-of-the-night rally when the team arrived back on campus. Folks around the country are getting to know what a great city Richmond is (except for Kansas’ Marcus Morris, who doesn’t know where the city is). Applications to attend our 32,000-student school are sure to spike.

This opportunity is too good to pass up. So here’s the best I can do at drawing out relevant points:

  • Be ready for the next crisis, even if it’s a good one. I wonder if VCU Athletics’ public relations office was ready for the onslaught of hundreds of media calls after the team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time. When we think of crisis communication, we usually think about bad things. Good news can also put communicators into crisis mode and the best time to prepare for it is before the good news happens.
  • Remember who you represent. Like it or not, everyday people in your organization can be thrust into the limelight quickly. It’s fortunate for VCU that everyday people like Shaka Smart, Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen take seriously their roles as the face of VCU to millions of basketball fans around the country. The entire team has handled their sudden stardom with grace and humility.
  • Nothing works like teamwork. It’s fascinating to watch the Rams work together during a game. Rodriguez shows true leadership, directing his teammates when he’s supposed to and setting them up for successful plays at the most unexpected times. Rodriguez especially is a selfless player who puts the team’s success above his own. The team’s ability to come together and pool their talents when the chips are down is one reason they’re headed for Houston.
  • The stories you tell can be powerful. Amid all the stories about how VCU didn’t belong in the tournament and how each team they’ve met so far was going to be their last, these guys listened to a different story from their coach. Over and over, Smart has told the story of a team that is capable, confident, prepared and skilled enough to win each game. What story are you telling employees about your organization?

That’s all I’ve got. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the celebrating.

Japan’s Pain is No Laughing Matter

It seems some people just don’t know when to shut up. And in the communication professions, that trait can be treacherous.

Gilbert Gottfried, one of the least funny comedians still getting work, lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck (who knew that was Gottfried all this time?) after he tweeted some decidedly crass comments related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He wasn’t alone. Dan Turner, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Haley Barbour was fired for the same reason.

Both Aflac and Barbour did exactly the right thing. Spend a few minutes watching the horrifying footage coming out of Japan and you quickly realize there’s nothing funny about the catastrophe.

What really bothers me is that anyone would question whether or not the two spokesmen should have been fired. Yet comments on blogs and at communication websites like Ragan.com indicate people — even communicators — push the line between funny and tasteless to the outer limits.

It really makes me wonder what has led us to this point of accepting callousness, especially in the wake of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. Americans were pretty well united in our feeling that there should be a moratorium on wisecracks and gallows humor following 9/11, but the same rules don’t apply for a culture halfway around the world that we really don’t know or understand.

Pondering the reasons why caused me to recall a study I read about recently that found 75 percent of today’s college students report being less empathetic than previous generations and that the trend toward decreased compassion began about 30 years ago.

That sounds about right. I don’t need a study to tell me that people today generally think more of themselves, their needs, their rights, what happens to them than they think about other people. An entire generation (or two?) has been told how special they are, how they are all winners. This mindset yields Gilbert Gottfried making Japan jokes and Charlie Sheen selling out a “show” based on his narcissistic rants following his firing by a TV studio.

My 14-year-old son told me of a classroom discussion at school about the Japan tragedy. He said several guys in the class said they didn’t care what was happening in Japan; it’s half a world away and doesn’t affect them.

The study on students’ lack of empathy suggested that one cause might be the fact that students read less fiction today. Another study finds that reading may be linked to empathy; the number of stories preschoolers read predict their ability to understand others’ emotions. Adults who read less fiction say they are less empathetic.

We corporate communicators might have something to contribute. Perhaps the stories we tell in our organizations help our fellow employees to be more empathetic toward the people with whom they work. It’s certainly worth a shot.

The Weight of Our Words

Two seemingly unrelated events in the news combine to illustrate the significance of choosing carefully the words we use to make our points.

The mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., caused a lot of discussion about the tone of political discourse in the United States today. While I don’t believe the gunman committed his despicable act directly as the result of fiery rhetoric, I’m convinced that the environment in which our discussions take place has contributed to a more hostile society. And I believe politicians, cable TV and radio personalities, people who spew hatred via social media and even some clergymen birthed this toxic condition and feed it with their daily infusions of vitriol.

We consumers of mass communication are complicit, too. The Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world stay in business because of us. We are the reason they’re unlikely to change the tone of their diatribes anytime soon. They’re in a contest to see who can out-zing the other and many of us are on the sidelines, egging them on, all the while boosting their ratings.

A related event in the news is the decision of a publisher to release an update of Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that replaces the offensive word nigger with the supposedly more acceptable slave. The argument goes that a cleaned-up version of the book will free it from banishment in school libraries across the nation and open it up to a new, more sensitive and politically correct audience of students.

Subjecting Twain’s masterpiece to editing 125 years after the fact robs Twain of his creative license as an artist and robs the audience of its freedom to either choose or reject Twain’s message. More than that, it represents a total misunderstanding of Twain’s statement in support of human dignity and the personal growth that can happen in the hearts of even the most ignorant people (Huck, not Jim).

Each event demonstrates the weight of our words. Those who participate in the heated political rhetoric of our day have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t think through the consequences of what they’re saying and they can’t see the destruction their words are causing. Those who would edit Huck Finn also have little to no appreciation for the power of words. They don’t understand that Twain was deliberate in his choice of words as a reflection of the society of his day and a reflection of the prejudice in people’s souls.

Words carry a lot of weight. That weight can either crush us with its impact or it can make us stronger as we lift words to a higher purpose.

RELATED UPDATE: In a CBS News poll, 57 percent of respondents said they don’t believe heated political rhetoric was a factor in the Tucson shooting. Of course they don’t. It’s like asking a drunk, “So, do you think your drinking has anything to do with your life being in a shambles?”

The Soup Strategy

Today is a rainy, cool day in Richmond, Va. and I’m not feeling particularly well. Nothing serious, just out of sorts.

It’s the perfect day to make a pot of soup and that is what I’m doing. Right now my house smells like Italian chicken soup. All those herbs are getting cozy with the chicken stock in a slow cooker. Later I’ll add the diced tomatoes, mustard greens and egg noodles.

I’m following my late mother’s recipe. Whenever I smell or taste Italian chicken soup made from her recipe, I think of her, so the comfort quotient on this particular pot of soup is sky-high.

Food is a powerful communication vehicle. It’s a folk art, bridging one generation to the next.

As I pondered that fact, I thought back to a visit I paid my maternal grandmother not too many years before she died. Visits to my grandmother’s house always included her biscuits and gravy for breakfast. There was something unique about her biscuits. They had a tender shell to them, not quite crunchy and not at all dry. According to my grandmother, she achieved this distinctive trait by running the pre-cooked biscuits through some form of fat — either liquid Crisco or bacon drippings or maybe even lard.

My mom used my grandmother’s biscuit recipe when she baked them for us, but the result was not the same. Mom’s biscuits were great, but they were quite different from my grandmother’s. So on my visit I asked my grandmother to share her biscuit-baking technique with me so that I might achieve the same delicious success when I baked them.

She sat at the kitchen table and talked me through the entire process. Step by step, I did everything she told me to do, exactly as she told me to do it.

My biscuits didn’t turn out anything like my grandmother’s. Nor my mother’s for that matter.

I was disappointed, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the shared experience among my grandmother, my mother and me. What matters are the memories, the connection and, yes, even the values evoked by the experience of using a recipe that was handed down from my grandmother to my mom, and from my mom to me.

In my work as a communicator, I often am called upon to carefully craft messages so that they convey exactly what my client wants to say, whether it’s a marketing piece, a speech or an employee communication. Words are important; they carry a lot of weight. But what the audience will remember most is the shared experience, the connection that you make, the values you emulate through the communication. That’s why a face-to-face event is such a rich communication tool. That’s why branding is defined as the experience a consumer has with a product or service.

Call it the soup strategy or the biscuit factor or something. If we can get our audiences as invested in some organizational goal as I was in wanting to replicate my grandmother’s biscuits, we’re really getting somewhere.