Once Upon a Time

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I read my friend Jeffrey Alexander’s newest book, Obama Power, in one rainy Sunday afternoon on Cape Cod. It asserts that although Obama was written off by pundits as a one-term wonder following the Democratic congressional losses of 2010, he won re-election two years later -- by using story-telling techniques we’ve known since humans sat around the fire in caves.

With the State of the Union Address in 2011, writes Alexander, the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale, Obama created a fictional character and drew a plot line that ended in, “This is what change looks like.”

Opponent Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had little difficulty putting points on the board, but he had problems narrating himself heroically. Prof. Alexander quotes Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush: “Mr. Romney couldn’t articulate a way forward, and nobody knew what his presidency would look like.”

“It is story-telling, not policy,” concludes Prof. Alexander, “that defines presidential success.”

Because perception can define performance, story-telling also has become corporate America’s latest buzzword for everything from brand marketing to social media to employment resumes.

Persuasion is the core of commerce. Customers must be sold on a product, employees motivated to buy into a strategy, investors convinced to trust in a stock. But despite the critical importance of persuasion, most executives struggle to communicate, let alone to influence and inspire.

Robert McKee is an award-winning screenwriter and director. In a classic Harvard Business Review article some years ago, he was quoted as saying:

“There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. It's an intellectual process, and in the business world it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation in which you say, ‘Here is our company's biggest challenge, and here is what we need to do to prosper.’ And you build your case by giving statistics and facts and quotes from authorities. But there are two problems with rhetoric. First, the people you're talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences. While you're trying to persuade them, they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you've done so only on an intellectual basis. That's not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.

The other way to persuade people—and ultimately a much more powerful way—is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener's emotions and energy. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”

Persuasion is the centerpiece not only of business activity, but also of much human endeavor. And we’ve struggled forever about how to do it.

As long ago as the fourth century B.C., for example, Aristotle was wondering what makes a speech persuasive. He came up with three principles:  ethical appeal, emotional appeal and logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three, he said, was likely to produce a persuaded audience.

Replace the word rhetorician with politician … or executive … or brand … and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern.

In my next blog, “Cookie-Cutter People”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 12:05:59 -0400