The Man Behind the Curtain

Michael Sheehan is the go-to guy for ambitious politicians and nervous CEOs who want to become great communicators. So what are his secrets?

It's a black-and-white shot, the first photograph you see upon entering the small offices of Sheehan Associates. Standing at a lectern is former president Bill Clinton, clad in jeans and sneakers, preparing for one of the 1996 presidential debates. He looks casual, rumpled, relaxed. To his right, an enormous screen projects him from the chest up. Here he looks presidential, forceful, in control. It's proof that image and reality are rarely the same thing, especially when it comes to television.

Keep looking at the picture, though, and you notice that to Clinton's left, at the outer edge of the print, is a slightly built, professorial man with unruly brown hair, his eyes narrowed in concentration. Most people would miss him altogether.

And that's the way Michael Sheehan likes it.

You may not know his face, but you most certainly know his words, expressions, and intonations. In more than two decades of work, Sheehan has become one of the world's top communications specialists, the go-to guy for anyone trying to make a point in public. "Michael is a builder, a shaper of people," says Ron Pressman, president of GE Insurance and a Sheehan client.

At a price tag of as much as $15,000 a day, Sheehan helps CEOs of America's most influential companies deal with everything from hostile reporters to skeptical analysts. Although in the political arena Sheehan works only for Democrats -- Bill and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry among them -- in the corporate world, where he does 80% of his business, ideology takes a backseat. He has worked for everyone from the Tobacco Institute to Tiffany & Co. to the Teamsters. Depending on your point of view, he's either the world's premier message medic or the original spin doctor.

And yet it's remarkable that Sheehan has just returned from a frenzied week training every single one of the prime-time speakers at the Democratic National Convention, or that he's even able to sit and chat about the can of Billy Beer and the political memorabilia that fills his office. Not only does that smooth voice occasionally catch with the hint of what was once a severe stutter, but in August 2003, Sheehan, now 52, suffered a major stroke. For several months, this great communicator sat quietly on the sidelines, spending four hours a day in cognitive therapy to regain full reading comprehension. Only in January 2004 did Sheehan return to work, more attuned than ever to the power of words.

The Actor's Director

For Sheehan, the way people communicate has always been a source of fascination. In part, that's because of his own struggle to be understood. An Irish Catholic New York City kid whose father was a salesman for a moving company, Sheehan grew up defined in many ways by his stutter. People waited impatiently in line behind him at the drugstore as he struggled to get the words out. "The common perception is Porky Pig," he says, "but real stuttering is 'you cccccan't.' You just lock." As a member of his high school debate team, Sheehan discovered that if he slightly changed his tone, he didn't stutter. He later got involved in the theater and fell in love with performing.

While studying at the Yale School of Drama (fellow students included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver), Sheehan went through speech therapy and reduced the stutter to the occasional flare-up. Today he can go several hours without a hitch, but when he's tired or stressed, it slips out again, a gentle reminder that even the message maker wrestles with his own demons.

After graduation, Sheehan moved to Washington, DC, to be associate producer of the Folger Theater Group and, as a lark, moonlighted as a media trainer for a congressman he knew from trying to raise federal funds for the Folger. Soon, Sheehan became known on the Hill as "that drama guy," leading him to open his own shop in 1981. Able to slip into the skins of a TV anchorman, a hard-hitting investigative journalist, or even a political challenger as easily as a socialite putting on couture, he quickly gained a reputation as the first call to make when bad news hit or good news needed to hit.

Sheehan has an uncanny knack for quickly addressing a client's biggest communications problems, whether it's a physical fix, like changing the tilt of someone's head, or something more fundamental. "It was really just stylistic up to this point," he says. "I would sit there almost like a director, saying, 'This scene isn't working. Why?' It could be how the actor is doing it, but also the line, or maybe the plot turn is wrong."

Clients also welcome his soothing approach. "The thing about him that is so spectacular," says Mike McCurry, the former White House spokesman for President Clinton, "is that he really knows how to relate almost instantly to any personality." As he sits, eyes closed, shoulders sagging, listening to a major Democratic leader running through a first draft of his planned convention speech, Sheehan has the calming air of a priest taking confession (although he converted to Judaism three years ago). He interjects substantive comments and suggestions in a way that doesn't offend the massive egos he serves. "That's not bad, not bad," he says. "But you can do the setup lines even slower and quieter. Then it's like a Roman candle, bam!" he shouts, the performer inside making him suddenly look several inches taller. Whatever hint of a stutter there was a few moments ago is gone.

The Medium Is the Massage

Despite Sheehan's passion for words, he understands that words by themselves are meaningless. They need context to become meaningful, and understanding that context is his raison d'?tre. Rushing over to a bookshelf, he pulls out Marshall McLuhan's most famous work and demonstrates that a seminal line in communications theory -- "the medium is the message" -- is, in fact, a misquote. The title of the book is The Medium Is the Massage. "What he means by that is the forum takes the information and shapes it, roughs it up, massages it," says Sheehan. "That's why what you sometimes have to do for public speaking is not what you have to do on television."

Exhibit A: the infamous Howard Dean scream. "Film that from the back of the room, it's not that big a deal," he says. But the pool feed, which was sent out to all the networks, had a tight shot that showed Dean from shoulder to shoulder and from the top of the head to the chest. When Dean's body filled the screen, what was meant to be a rally-the-troops whoop instead became a whoopsie of epic proportions.

Dean's scream is a reminder that you must always know your audience and tailor your message, approach, and gestures. Sheehan calls this salience. Sometimes that means keeping physical movements appropriate to the situation, ? la Dean; other times it's a question of emphasis or clarity. To illustrate, Sheehan pops in a tape of a high-tech CEO on CNBC. The man prattles on excitedly about his company's technology, discussing MSOs, private label, direct channels, and other industry terms. He is so far over the heads of the reporters that they're practically snickering, but the executive is so enthralled by his jargon that he doesn't even notice.

The wrong question is, "What do you want to say?" A better question: "What do you want to accomplish?"

Getting to salience isn't easy. That's why, as Sheehan's reputation has grown, he has come to spend as much time helping clients design the message as deliver it. "After you win the client's trust [comes] the big question," he says. " 'You've helped me on how I say it, but what should I be saying?' " To get there, Sheehan often begins a meeting with what seems to be the simplest request. The wrong question, he says, is, "What do you want to say?" A better question: "What do you want to accomplish?" he says. "With three out of four clients, we've just opened an hour-and-a-half discussion." Once the executives hammer out the goal, Sheehan moves to the brainstorming phase, writing as many themes as the group can think of that might illustrate or convey the goal.

After adding, Sheehan takes away ideas until he's left with either a triangle -- if there are three main supporting themes -- or a box, if there are four. At the center of the shape is the message itself. Rather than making outlines or using bullet points, Sheehan believes that using shapes is the best way to lay out a message. "I think in threes now," says Frederick Hill, EVP for marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase. "I try to boil down my message to three key points and come up with a creative and memorable way of getting those three points across."

The final step is to test the message by throwing as many challenging questions at it as possible. "If we can't easily answer two out of three questions, there's something wrong with the construct," Sheehan says.

Communicating better doesn't always mean sharing more information with the outside world. Sheehan is a master at keeping clients on message, artfully dodging difficult questions while still maintaining the veneer of openness. His influence has contributed to today's sound-bite-heavy, substance-light state of media discourse. "I bear partial responsibility," he admits, deftly deflecting the issue. "I sometimes tell people, 'You know what? I'm going to help change it in my next lifetime. But in this lifetime, I've just got to help people get through.' "

The Master at Work

The voice wends its way sinuously from behind a podium and into the ear of a foreign-embassy spokesman sitting nervously in the white-walled studio. "Welcome back to Morning Watch. This is Michael Sheehan. Earlier today . . ." Sheehan launches into a mock interview about a controversial decision by the spokesman's country. The spokesman, sitting stiffly, hands on thighs, the klieg lights catching his glasses, tries to parry but finds himself on the defensive.

"I did not say that."

"It is a political exercise."

"What I said was . . ."

After what seems like an eternity but is only four-and-a-half minutes, the voice goes silent, the lights dim, and Sheehan steps out of the shadows. "You can breathe," he says. "You did okay. Is there some stuff we can work on? Of course. What you were doing was blocking shots. It's a limited strategy, because at some point they'll put the puck through and hit you in the nose."

Sheehan spends some time going over the basics of dealing with the media, but then he's ready to get his hands dirty. "Now, it would be extraordinarily presumptuous for me to say, 'Here's what I think you ought to be saying,' " he says. "That is not my job. But I can give you a couple of ideas to consider. . . ." As he draws a box on a whiteboard in red marker, the spokesman first looks shocked, then enthusiastically nods. Sheehan has channeled the essence of this country's viewpoint into a few clear sentences.

What makes this lightning-speed connection all the more astounding is that it comes less than a year after the stroke that nearly robbed him of the work he loves so much. Sheehan was reading the papers at the breakfast table one summer Sunday when the upper right-hand quadrant of his vision began to blur and fuzz as if he were adjusting an old TV. He went to an eye doctor who told him it must be a migraine because he was too young to have a stroke.

The doctor was wrong. A significant stroke produced a small blind spot in Sheehan's vision, affected his short-term memory, and even his reading ability and comprehension. "If you wanted to give him the worst possible medical illness, this was it," says Dr. Sheldon Goldberg, a close friend of Sheehan's from college. "He was completely functional, could walk and talk and use his arms and legs, but [it affected] one of the most important skills for his job."

Unable to work, Sheehan threw himself into recovery with the same intensity he reserved for his clients. He practiced words after hearing them spoken on a CD, and even developed sound bites and message triangles to practice his comprehension skills. "I dealt with it the way I dealt with things like my stutter," he says. "I just got pissed at it." Five months later, Sheehan returned to work full time, aided by a computer reading program and a renewed focus. "I have a little more patience, and I listen more closely," he says.

Now Sheehan is running at full speed all over again. A recent week had him in New York, Boston, Chicago; Naples, Florida, and Chicago again. His only restriction is that he takes fewer red-eyes than he once did. And he couldn't be happier. "I looked forward to the convention," Sheehan says. "If I can do this," he told himself, "I'm back." He did it. He's back. We get the message.

Jennifer Reingold is a senior writer at Fast Company.

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