It’s not all in the details

I’ve often talked about how specificity makes communications memorable. I’d like to amend that a bit.

Details that help you paint a picture—yes, fabulous. They capture your audience’s attention. But stacking up details until they’re as thick as a Manhattan phone book (ack! another metaphor destined for the digital trash heap)—not helpful. More often than not, they put your audience to sleep.

Think about the typical presidential campaign speech. Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America,” and through his words we saw the sun glinting off amber waves of grain. Barack Obama’s speech on race relations painted a picture of the past, the present, and the future he wanted to create:

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.

And then there’s the president’s annual State of the Union address. One of the most highly anticipated speeches of the year, and often one of the most boring. That’s because instead of painting pictures to help unite us in a vision of what their legislation will do for the country, presidents invariably offer a laundry list of bills and regulations they want to change. Very specific, yes. And very boring.

But what if you have to convey a bunch of boring details? you may ask.

Well, do you really? If the president didn’t reel off his (to date, only “his”) laundry list, would that legislation never make it to Congress? No. The mechanics of submitting bills has nothing to do with the ceremonial State of the Union address.

So what’s more important for people to remember? The details of the legislation or the results the president wants to achieve by proposing it?

Here’s Reagan again, in a speech he gave the night before he won the 1980 presidential election:

I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.

As marketers say, sell the benefits, not the features.

Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s second State of the Union. Clinton, arguably one of the best political orators of my lifetime, on foreign policy:

This year we must also do more to support democratic renewal and human rights and sustainable development all around the world. We will ask Congress to ratify the new GATT accord. We will continue standing by South Africa as it works its way through its bold and hopeful and difficult transition to democracy. We will convene a summit of the Western Hemisphere’s democratic leaders from Canada to the tip of South America. And we will continue to press for the restoration of true democracy in Haiti. And as we build a more constructive relationship with China, we must continue to insist on clear signs of improvement in that nation’s human rights record.

Who—other than the president’s foreign policy advisor—will remember this whole laundry list? Or care about it? What’s a GATT accord? Why should we care?

The State of the Union would much more impact if the president used details that get the audience (especially the TV audience, far larger than the folks gathered in the House Chamber) excited about the mission, about where the country will go once his proposals take effect.

I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

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