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.

  • politics
  • speeches
  • writing