Everywhere people are lamenting the gap between what President Obama said in the State of the Union and what American actually heard. New York magazine’s headline was “All America Heard Last Night: ‘Salmon’”
On Twitter, Tim O’Reilly comments,”Ouch!”
This is based on a comparison of a “word cloud” of the speech itself (above) and a “word cloud” of how 4,000 NPR viewers thought they heard (below).
In the first place, let’s recognize that even in the word cloud, it’s not correct that in the NPR word cloud “all they heard was salmon.” They also heard “inspiring”, “hopeful” “education” and “future”, which is actually fairly encouraging.
The deeper lesson of the experience is this: the only thing that people remember from speeches is a memorable story.
What made Barack Obama an effective candidate for president was that he was a master storyteller. He had an inspiring set of stories to tell and he told them very effectively. He was elected president.
Then something happened. Inexplicably he turned into a boring professor, and began talking in abstractions. Remember his Inaugural Address? Neither can I.
Let’s make it simpler. Remember one thing from his Inaugural Address? Neither can I.
Apparently he was surrounded with people who were writing boring abstractions. After two years of this, he received—not surprisingly—a shellacking at the polls.
There are signs now of the old Obama reemerging from his long hibernation. First, there were glimpses of it in this speech in Tuczon for Gabrielle Giffords and those who were killed or injured in that horrific shooting.
And now, further glimpses of it in the State of the Union address, particularly the salmon story and some of the education stories. He told other stories in the State of the Union address, but no one can remember because, frankly, they weren't very good stories.
The moral of the salmon story and the education stories is not that America isn’t listening. The moral is that President Obama needs to communicate through memorable stories if he wants people to listen.
To coin a phrase: it’s the story, stupid.
If President Obama wants to be re-elected, he could do worse than read Peter Guber’s new book, Tell to Win (March 2011), or my own book, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, for which a second edition is being published next month.