Lesson from Don Hewitt on the Power of Stories

Don Hewitt, the creator of “60 Minutes”, died yesterday.  Of course, he was a television legend who reinvented the way television news is delivered. But at Speechworks we remember him for a story we like to tell to workshop participants.

Hewitt was once at an event where he was answering questions. Someone asked him what he thought accounted for the success of “60 Minutes.”

Hewitt paused and then said, “Four little words that every child knows, ‘Tell me a story.'”

Hewitt’s point was that on “60 Minutes” the emphasis was always on making sure that there was a simple narrative.

We make the same point with our clients.  If you want to hold people’s attention, tell them a story.

By the way, Hewitt went on to name his memoir “Tell me a story.”

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Storytelling Rule Number Two: Make it Personal

The best stories are the ones that happened to you personally. That’s because they’re unique to you and give the audience something that they can’t get anywhere else.

I was working with a businessman once as he prepared for a presentation. He wanted to make a point about the importance of faith. I urged him to tell me a story that illustrated his point.

He thought about it for a moment and then began telling me a story that was from the Bible.

When I told him not to tell a Bible story, he seemed offended.  “The Bible is important to me,” he said.

“That’s fine,”  I said. “I’m not against Bible stories as a general rule. But they’re not original and therefore not that interesting.”

I explained to him that many people in the audience have already heard almost every Bible story. But no one has heard his personal stories.

“If you want to tell a story about faith, that’s fine with me,” I said. “But tell me your own personal story of faith. Tell me about how your own experience. I can’t get that anywhere else but from you.”

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Step One for Telling a Great Story: Make a Big Promise

The first step in telling a good story is to make a promise.  And if you want it to be a great story, it needs to be a big promise.

When you make a big promise, you’re setting an expectation in your listeners’ minds.  There is tension: “will she be able to fulfill the promise?”

That’s how “Law and Order” always starts. With a promise.

At the beginning of every show, someone (it seems to me like it’s always one of two kids playing basketball) finds a corpse.  That corpse is a promise. It’s a promise that says, “If you watch the show, we’re going to tell you everything there is to know about this corpse including who did it and why.”

You pay attention to the rest of the show because you want to experience the delivery of the promise.

In a business story, it’s the same. A good story starts with a big promise. “OK team, I’m here to talk about how we can all double our bonuses next year.” It’s a promise that the listeners are interested in.  The team then pays attention because they want to hear how the promise is fulfilled.

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Communication and Leadership Lessons from Capt. James T. Kirk

“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”


Those are the wise words of James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and hero of “Star Trek,” the latest revival of the space exploration adventure franchise.  Captain Kirk had apparently endured many boring presentations by Federation colleagues.


In honor of his revived fame, here are more Kirk quotations relevant to communication skills, persuasion and leadership.  These quotations are from the 1960s television program.


“Conquest is Easy, control is not.”


Roaming the universe, the Starship Enterprise crew was always dealing with issues of conquest and control.  But this quote also goes to the heart of what great communication is about. It’s about the challenge of exerting influence over others.


Great presenters influence others by focusing on value to the listener. If you want a client to comply with a set of expensive regulations, you’ll have more success if you can show that compliance will increase revenues, reduce costs, or increase competitiveness.


“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”


This quote sounds like an exchange with Mr. Spock over a chessboard.  But it also touches on the idea that one of the true tests of a leader is the ability to make complex things simple.  This is particularly true in business today where the economic and regulatory environment is becoming increasingly complex.  


Here’s a question you can ask yourself before your next speech that will allow you to simplify any topic: “Assuming that my listeners won’t remember everything, what are three things I really want them to remember?”


 “We humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic alone cannot solve.”


Kirk was always teaching Spock, the ever-logical Vulcan, about human emotion. And one of the most important ways to influence an audience is with emotion and passion.  Great communicators don’t rely solely on logic. They show passion to build a personal connection with the listener.

Let’s say that you must pick one of two excellent firms to help your firm navigate a complicated financial transaction.  Both firms have excellent reputations.  How do you decide?  Part of the calculus will simply be who you connect with better on a personal level.


“Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.'”


The same is true with speaking. Becoming a great speaker takes sustained effort over many years. Over time, you develop stories and a style that connects with audiences.


Three years ago, I started working with an executive at a huge Atlanta company. For the first speech we worked on together, he did a nice job.  Since then, he has worked at his speaking skills, seizing opportunities to give presentations.  Just this week, I saw him speak again.


“I’m amazed at your progress,” I told him.


“It’s funny how practice really works,” he said.


“We’ve got to risk implosion. We may explode into the biggest fireball this part of the galaxy has seen, but we’ve got to take that one-in-a-million chance.”


Many people, when they get up to speak, fear that the universe will explode. But if you want to be a leader, you must face that fear.  The key to managing the fear of public speaking is to rehearse your presentations extensively.


“No more blah, blah, blah!”


No explanation needed on that one.

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Humor Lesson from Bob Hope

Today is the birthday of the late Bob Hope, who died a few years ago at the age of 100.  Bob Hope said, “I don’t feel old – I don’t feel anything until noon. Then it’s time for my nap.”

Hope was the master of the one-liner and he was funny.  He understood that humor requires speed.  The best jokes come quickly with little build-up.

I once took a class in stand-up comedy from Atlanta comedian Jeff Justice. He taught us that great jokes have a very short buildup and a quick punch.

He made the point that the audience shouldn’t have to invest too much time in the joke.  A quick buildup and payoff works best.

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The Problem With Sports Analogies and Jargon

I’m going to have to start reconsidering my reliance on sports terms and analogies after my coaching session yesterday with a Banking technologist from Great Britain.

For example, he explained to me that you have to be careful if you use the phrase “We had better just punt on this one.”

For me,  “to punt” is a reference to American football. When a team punts, it’s giving up, turning over the ball to the other team.  You might say,  “Things aren’t going well on this project. I think we need to punt.”

But my British client explained to me that as a Rugby player, he would take the phrase “to punt” to be the complete opposite. In Rugby, he points out,  when you punt, the kicking team has the chance to run down the field and get the ball, unlike in American football.  So even though it’s a risky play, it can result in a long gain.  If Rugby is your frame of reference, then you might use the phrase “to punt” like this: “This project is having trouble but I have an idea that might really help us. I think we should punt and see what happens.”

Take care when you select analogies and jargon. Make sure that your “punt” is the same as your audience’s “punt.”

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Tim Ferris Shows How to Sell and Idea

Here’s a fun, quirky speech from Tim Ferris, the productivity guru who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek.

I like the speech because it shows the power of stories and power of  a plan to sell an idea.  If you give someone  a clear plan for how to accomplish something, then your listeners will get motivated to do that thing.

In this speech, he details simple plans for learning to swim, learning to dance, and learning to speak a language.


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When You Get a Good Story, Practice It

One of the keys to telling a good story is to hone it. And to do that you need to practice saying it out loud over and over again until you get it right.


 I worked with a senior executive recently who told a story about going to visit his uncle and taking a ride in his airplane.  We worked on the story in one session. When he came back a week later for another session, he told the story to me again and it was much tighter. “I had a lot of time the car this week,” he said. “I used that time to practice my story.”


The stories are the best part of any presentation. Practice them.

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What Makes Seth Godin a Great Speaker?

I love speeches by Seth Godin.

Three reasons. He’s incredibly original.  I don’t always agree with him. But I know that I’m going to get some original thought from him that he feels strongly about. And I like that. It’s leadership.

Second, he tells stories. I love stories.  He starts with a thesis and then weaves a bunch of stories around it.

Third. He speaks with passion. It’s irresistible.


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The Slide to Leadership Ratio

I often tell my clients that there is an inverse relationship between the number of slides you have in your presentation and the amount of leadership you display.

The fewer slides you have, the more you look and sound like a leader. And vice versa.

The idea here is that speaking and presenting are about connecting with people, building relationships, and exerting influence. Presenting is not about relaying data and information. Too many slides, and all you’re really doing is transmitting data.  If you want to transmit data, just send a memo. I can read it faster than you can tell it to me. If I have questions, I’ll call you.

Yesterday, Seth Godin wrote an interesting piece about the The Heirarchy of Presentations.  He makes the point that presenting is about influence.

The purpose of a presentation is to change minds. That’s the only reason I can think of to spend the time and resources. If your goal isn’t to change minds, perhaps you should consider a different approach.

Slides don’t change minds. You change minds with the force of simple argument, stories and passion.

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