The Art of the Detail-Free Communication

The Trump campaign touted its candidate’s April 27th foreign policy speech—creatively titled, according to Trump’s own website, Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech—as having been written by an actual speechwriter. Trump read it from a teleprompter and stuck very close to the written script. (Compare the Trump website’s text to the transcript published in The New York Times.)

Speaking with the aid of notes, we might reasonably expect the candidate to offer details about his plans. Not the nuts and bolts of $X billion here and $Y billion there—as I wrote yesterday, that level of detail numbs the mind—but the kinds of details that would establish his foreign policy goals by painting a memorable picture in his listeners’ minds.

Or not. According to,

One of the members of Trump’s team, Whaled [sic] Phares, told the Associated Press beforehand that the speech would have “no details.”

And indeed, that proved true. Instead of using his words to paint pictures, Trump offered lists. Speaking of the Arab world:

…We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.

They have benefited so much, so sadly, for us. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy.

The closest Trump came to specific policy declarations included:

“A Trump Administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded.”

“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.”

“…we will look for savings and spend our money wisely.”

Few would argue against any of these sentiments. And that’s something I encounter often in my work with businesspeople. I call it “And then…?” Syndrome.

Client: “We want you to write an op-ed about how important education is.”

Me: “Great! What’s the second sentence?”

Now, I don’t expect my clients to articulate a comprehensive national education policy—that is, assuming they’re not running for president. But for me to do my job effectively, I need specifics. Education is important because: We need smart people to hire. We need a more diverse workforce. We need…what? Details! Preferably the kinds of details that arrange themselves into stories.

Businesspeople often want to “get to the point.” And the point, they think, is the pronouncement: Whether it’s my client’s “education is important” or Trump’s (and every other politician’s) “we’ll look for savings and spend money wisely.”

But pronouncements are easily forgotten; stories stick. Researcher Gary Klein talks about the ire faced when he boiled down a multi-day conference by extracting the stories the presenters told, rather than the recommendations they offered. As Chip and Dan Heath explain it in their book Made to Stick, the presenters “…felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a series of recommendations.” But Klein said,

“We want to explain to them how meaningless these slogans are in contrast to stories, such as the one that showed how they had kept the lines of communication open during a difficult incident in which a plant was shut down.” [emphasis added]

Not only are stories stickier, they often the best answers emerge from a personal story. What’s the client’s relationship to the educational system? They’re the first in the family to go to college? Their parent taught fifth grade? They discovered their calling thanks to an attentive teacher?

How does that personal connection shape their perspective? That’s the value a businessperson—or any of us—can add to the debate on a national issue.

It’s not all in the details

I’ve often talked about how specificity makes communications memorable. I’d like to amend that a bit.

Details that help you paint a picture—yes, fabulous. They capture your audience’s attention. But stacking up details until they’re as thick as a Manhattan phone book (ack! another metaphor destined for the digital trash heap)—not helpful. More often than not, they put your audience to sleep.

Think about the typical presidential campaign speech. Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America,” and through his words we saw the sun glinting off amber waves of grain. Barack Obama’s speech on race relations painted a picture of the past, the present, and the future he wanted to create:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

And then there’s the president’s annual State of the Union address. One of the most highly anticipated speeches of the year, and often one of the most boring. That’s because instead of painting pictures to help unite us in a vision of what their legislation will do for the country, presidents invariably offer a laundry list of bills and regulations they want to change. Very specific, yes. And very boring.

But what if you have to convey a bunch of boring details? you may ask.

Well, do you really? If the president didn’t reel off his (to date, only “his”) laundry list, would that legislation never make it to Congress? No. The mechanics of submitting bills has nothing to do with the ceremonial State of the Union address.

So what’s more important for people to remember? The details of the legislation or the results the president wants to achieve by proposing it?

Here’s Reagan again, in a speech he gave the night before he won the 1980 presidential election:

I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.

As marketers say, sell the benefits, not the features.

Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s second State of the Union. Clinton, arguably one of the best political orators of my lifetime, on foreign policy:

This year we must also do more to support democratic renewal and human rights and sustainable development all around the world. We will ask Congress to ratify the new GATT accord. We will continue standing by South Africa as it works its way through its bold and hopeful and difficult transition to democracy. We will convene a summit of the Western Hemisphere’s democratic leaders from Canada to the tip of South America. And we will continue to press for the restoration of true democracy in Haiti. And as we build a more constructive relationship with China, we must continue to insist on clear signs of improvement in that nation’s human rights record.

Who—other than the president’s foreign policy advisor—will remember this whole laundry list? Or care about it? What’s a GATT accord? Why should we care?

The State of the Union would much more impact if the president used details that get the audience (especially the TV audience, far larger than the folks gathered in the House Chamber) excited about the mission, about where the country will go once his proposals take effect.

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Attention to detials

My friends sometimes make fun of me, but when I’m in a restaurant I refuse to order misspelled menu items. I figure if they can’t spell it, how can I trust they can cook it?

Seth Godin makes the same point today about buying paper and pens at “stationary” stores. (Although, to be fair, those stores probably do stay in the same place day after day.)

Spellcheck only helps if you’ve created a word so garbled it can’t suggest a tr[;svr,rmy (that’s “replacement” if you shift your fingers one key to the right). If it’s close to being an actual word, beware: You might find yourself with a strategy to “purse” rather than “pursue.”

I admit I am sometimes guilty of relying on technology instead of my brain. A few weeks after I moved to my new town I realized that I didn’t know the way to the supermarket because I always let my GPS guide me. I got lost a couple of times after I turned it off, but at least I was thinking for myself.

For the love of grammar, spelling, and sanity it’s time to turn off the technology and take back our personal responsibility for paying attention to (did you catch it in the headline?) details.

Thnak you.

The “Vietnamese Waltz”

I recently found myself listening to a discussion about music. One young woman mentioned a song about a “Vietnamese coachman” and I thought, I listened to the same CD she did. How did I miss that one? Later she spoke of the lilting phrases of the “Vietnamese waltz” and I realized she meant “Viennese.”

I looked around the room – there were about a dozen other people there, all whip-smart college students, and they noticed her verbal misstep as well. But no one corrected her. 

(No, I didn’t either; I’m more of an observer in the group than a participant.)

What is that about? Does accuracy not matter anymore? Or is this the logical consequence of the “everyone participates” ethos of kids’ sports these days: The fact that she said something (she stepped up to the plate) is more important than the words she actually used?

I’m not talking about shaming her publicly. But would a simple “I believe the word you mean is…” do irreparable damage to her ego?

How do we deal with these young people in the business world once they transition from college students to colleagues? Will we all have to become simultaneous translators, correcting ideas and words silently as we go along? Or maybe we crowdsource and decide on a group “truth”: In this room, things from Vienna will be called “Vietnamese.” That’s how Castilian accents were born, right? The king had a lisp, so everyone started lisping right along with him.

Call me old-fashioned, but  I think it’s more compassionate to correct someone than to let her perpetuate her error. I still believe in accuracy. And I love a good Viennese waltz.