The State of the Union: A Lesson in Strategic Storytelling

Last night President Barack Obama gave the annual State of the Union address, and I couldn’t help but notice some of the parallels his speech drew from an article I wrote that went live early Tuesday morning on the power stories have to retain top talent.

The premise of the story I wrote was that organizations are seeking innovative ways to retain their talent. While money is a great attractor for talent, the article said, it’s not necessarily a great retention tool. In other words, workers need to feel a greater meaning or purpose in the work they do.

Leaders, my sources for the piece told me, need to use the power of stories to craft an organizational vision that gets employees to buy in.

It was no real surprise Tuesday evening that President Obama took the podium to a joint session of Congress and did just that to get his vision and points across — he told stories.

No matter what line of the political divide you reside on, it’s hard to argue that Obama did not give a well-structured and articulated speech.

As someone who works in the storytelling business, I was particularly impressed with not just the speech’s overall story structure — he bookended his remarks around the official end of the war in Iraq and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, while spending the majority of the middle speaking of domestic issues — but how he used real American anecdotes to convey a political, yet equally compelling, message to his audience.

The Wall Street Journal published a transcript of the entire speech this morning (other media outlets likely did the same), and I would encourage any leader who’s interested in exploring ideas around storytelling further to give it a gander — if not for the content, then for the structure and methods he used to present it.

For leaders still not convinced that stories have a place in business or public office, look no further than the impact and structure of the first words out of Obama’s mouth as he addressed the American public.

Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.  Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought — and several thousand gave their lives.

It reads and sounds like a story because it is. And for an audience mostly concerned with what Obama would have to say on policies that would create jobs and help speed the economic recovery — hard, business metrics — his framing of these items around a story made the impact of what he had to say later on more engaging to the audience, which was, in this case, billions of people all across the country and around the world.

Later, in a segment detailing the potential economic comeback of the auto industry in Detroit, the president used another anecdote from his conversation with the CEO of Master Lock to give greater context and example to the policy choices he was about to present.

What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh. We can’t bring every job back that’s left our shore. But right now, it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. (Applause.)  Today, for the first time in 15 years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity.  (Applause.)

And finally, when he was discussing the lack of skilled workers in relation to job openings, Obama found the best way to convey this message was through a personal story of a single American worker — someone who is likely in the same boat with millions of Americans, but her story helped convey a greater message and power to the audience.

I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that –- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.

Jackie Bray is a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie’s tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant.

Stories have power, and they can convey a leader’s message in a memorable and meaningful way that simple facts just can’t match.