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Tell it like Obama: Lessons from his health-care speeches

Jeffrey D. Porro
Jeffrey Porro writes speeches for corporate and nonprofit executives. He blogs at Tough Talk for Hard Times.

Throughout the year-long debate on health care, President Obama has often been criticized for being too "lawyerly" or "cerebral" when he tries to make his case. As we hurtle toward what looks like the climactic vote on health care this Sunday, he sounds like he's gotten the message. The clearest indicators of this are his speeches leading up to the vote: instead of just trotting out reams of statistics, he's telling stories.

His Monday speech in Ohio focused on the story of a local woman, Natoma Canfield, who struggled to pay her insurance premiums as she battled to survive cancer. The first seven minutes of his speech was almost all about Natoma. and included lots of dramatic details. In a speech in Arlington today he told Natoma's story again and described a single mother trying to pay for her daughter's college education while paying doubled premium rates.

The most effective politicians know how powerful the stories of individuals can be in driving home their point. Business executives, on the other hand, tend to shy away from stories. They are much more comfortable with statistics, chains of logic, quotes from business experts, etc. Those elements are important, of course, but well-chosen stories, offer something more. They are a great way to connect with an audience, humanize issues, and make listeners remember message points.

Strong stories can help business leaders:

1. Make a personal connection with the audience. Superstar CEO Jack Welch was great at this. Even when he was addressing his annual stockholders meetings, where the audiences would have been satisfied just to hear the data, he almost always started with a short story. In each city where the meeting took place, Welch would tell the tale of a local school or community organization that GE was helping. Find compelling stories of people who live in the same city as the audience or have a similar occupation and share them with your audience.

2. Show that you "walk the walk." Every speech contains message points. When an executive tells a personal story that links to those message points, it gives them more credibility and power. Late last year, UPS CEO Scott Davis gave a speech to a conference of small- and medium-sized businesses on how to thrive in an economic downturn. He began with the story of his own struggles and triumphs leading a small technology company in the early 1980s. Finishing the story, he said, "I learned invaluable lessons as an entrepreneur running a small business, and they remain with me today." With that set up, he launched into his advice to the audience, which I'm sure was paying attention. Share a personal story that connects with the audience and topic.

3. Liven up your statistics. CEOs are not going to abandon their love affair with facts and figures, nor should they. But especially when they give a long speech, executives can liven up the statistics by mixing in some real-life stories. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse recently gave a well-received speech to the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society on "How Wireless is Transforming Healthcare." The 30-minute speech included plenty of facts and statistics. But he brought the stats to life with videos and stories: "a nurse had to go on temporary disability because of her chronic obesity;" "a Baltimore woman who is diabetic takes oral medication and checks her blood sugar level several times a day," etc. Find "up close and personal stories" that bring statistics to live.

4. Add drama...in a good way. Lee Iacocca, whose speeches were one of his most important weapons in turning Chrysler around in the 1980s, once wrote, "A good speech, like a good novel, is constructed around conflict." The 21st century master of this is (who else?) Steve Jobs. Communications coach Carmine Gallo, who has written a book on Jobs' keynotes, points out that Jobs always comes up with a villain for Apple to take on. It used to be IBM, now it's Microsoft. "This idea of conquering a shared enemy is a powerful motivator and turns customers into evangelists," Gallo says. Draw contrasts between opposing points of view, describe how your company is struggling with another, how your division is helping your company overcome challenges, etc.

CEOs will never use stories as much as politicians, but business leaders can certainly boost the quality and impact of their presentations by using more well-chosen stories.

By Jeff Porro

 |  March 19, 2010; 2:00 AM ET |  Category:  Communication Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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