I was so close I could almost touch it. Capitol Hill lit up beautifully against the darkening blue sky. Last night I finished delivering an all-day strategy seminar in Washington D.C. and passed by where, two hours later, President Obama would deliver his State of the Union address.
I know this State of the Union address has been analyzed extensively to understand its political implications. But I am not interested in any of that. What interests me is more practical: what can we learn from the speech that can make us more effective today in building whatever it is we are building in the world?
You see, we all have our own State of the Union address we deliver every day, sometimes all day long. When we are pitching investors, motivating employees, seeking support from bosses, we are delivering our own personal State of the Union address, and how effective you are at delivering this determines whether you get funding, excite your employees, or get a promotion.
I’ve gotten to interview hundreds of CEOs, and I’m always listening for how they communicate their strategies. And I believe, regardless of political affiliation, that Obama is a master at this art. I reviewed some of the literature on best practices for communicating a strategy and then studied the opening of Obama's speech.
Here is the anatomy of a master. Follow it and I believe this week more of your conversations will go the way you want them to go. Build a powerful "State of your Life" address.
1. Activate and link to a shared value
Obama opened his speech speaking about soldiers who bravely fought for the country. No one in the United States could disagree that these soldiers represent an ideal that we all share. His opening has us all nodding our heads in unison. We are building on a common foundation. He then links these aspirational figures with values that we all share: "courage, selflessness, and teamwork." He then turns this shared value to his advantage saying, "They don’t obsess over their differences. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example."
Your first step, then, is to activate a character that the person you are speaking to aspires to, then pointing out the shared values that this character personifies.
In my case, this week I will be conducting a number of media pitches to promote my new book. I will open each conversation I have with the persona, the entrepreneur, the innovator, the Outthinker. And I will activate the values of contribution, creativity, and the courage to pursue one's own path.
2. Activate and link to a shared narrative
People do not embrace change immediately. They want to know that what you are asking them to do has been done before. So show them that the strategy you are following has a historical precedent. Link to a successful narrative of the past. Obama does this by saying, "I know we can, because we've done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle-class the world has known." It is important that this past narrative is one that people can personally relate to. This is why Obama talks about his grandfather as a veteran of Patton’s army.
What is the historical narrative that you want to show people we are reliving? For me, I will probably activate the emergence of the personal computer, which gave us Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and ushered in an entirely new and unexpected era in business and organization. I will make it personal by talking about my first experiences with the Texas Instruments computer.
3. Lay out today’s narrative and give them the choice
You now want to write today's narrative, how we got here, in your own words. You want to talk about the past, the recent past, and the possible future. Obama opens this section with, "Let's remember how we got here…" and goes on to lay out his narrative of the past: jobs left, manufacturing left, the house of cards collapsed, mortgages were sold to people who could not afford them.
He then describes the recent past, listing facts that support his view that things have improved over the last 22 months: 3 million more jobs, deficit cuts of $2 trillion, new regulatory rules.
Finally, he lays out the possible future and gives us a choice: we can go back to the old economy that does not work or we can build "an economy that's built to last." Of course, he guides our decision by saying, "We've come too far to turn back now." By giving people a choice, we make them part of the strategy, and we create tension that engages our audience.
For me, the narrative and choices are similar. The PC era is coming to a close and a new era is emerging. You have the choice of being outdated or being the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. The choice is yours, but I know which one you will choose because I know you're smart.
4. List the strategy
Once your audience has made the choice, they want to know how to get there. And Obama provides the path. He says "I want to lay out a blueprint..." he goes on to list four strategic priorities before detailing each one: American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and renewal of American values.
Great CEOs do the same. They inspire people with vision for the future, let them choose that future, and then provide a short set of strategic priorities that will get them there.
I realize I have not decided what action I really want people to take and therefore what strategy to advocate. That is the work that I need to do today.
Now it is your turn. What is your "State of the Union" address? To build it, you need to:
- Pick a character that activates shared values,
- Find an analogy to a past narrative,
- Lay out today's narrative leading to a choice, and
- Provide a strategic blueprint.
It should take you 30 minutes. Do it now. Write it down. Repeat it every day when you meet people. It will be worth it.
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[Image: Flickr user Neelob]