Clear Comm Consulting

How do you get people to understand you? Tell them a story.

Apr 1, 2004

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last month, Tonight Show host Jay Leno answered every question with a small story, example or parallel.

Explaining the appeal of his show? “We’re the mainstream show. What we have to be is good food at sensible prices.”

How he handles political humor? “It’s like spinning plates on the Ed Sullivan ShowÑyou try to keep them moving.”

Political power in the U.S.? “America is a football; it belongs to whoever grabs it. Whoever controls the ball controls the game.”

We all can learn something from stand-up comedians. They know if they’re not communicating clearly, the audience is not paying attentionÉand when the audience is not paying attention to a comedian, they’re out of business.

Here’s the bottom line. You don’t have to be Jay Leno, but you can help yourself immensely by being a good story teller, and I’m not talking about putting together a Tonight Show monologue. Not even close. Here’s an example:

“The number of traffic deaths in Texas is the equivalent of a fully loaded 737 crashing every two weeks, and nearly half of those accidents involve an impaired driver.”

It’s a single sentence that graphically brings home the traffic safety message. It was related to a columnist at the Dallas Morning News, and it’s a story I still remember more than a year after I first read it! Everyone understands the tragedy of a plane crash, yet we often overlook a single fatal auto accident. By drawing a parallel, the point is crystal clear.

Recently in Las Vegas, the Bellagio Resort was without power for the better part of three days. Millions of dollars were lost. When it came time to explain why the power wasn’t coming on quickly, the Bellagio spokesperson said, “It’s not like flipping a switch.” Everyone understands the flipping of a light switch. We do it everyday. It was a much better answer than trying to explain the complicated detailed workings of the system that powered the resort. (By the way, the Bellagio people made several critical errors in handling the blackout. For example, they didn’t communicate with the media for more than 24 hours after the lights first went out, leaving the door open to some pretty wild speculation! More on that in a future Monthly Memo.)

One final point. I often help clients work at being good story tellers and having some fun along the way … they are even more assured of leaving their audience with a positive impression. While this isn’t from a client of mine, my favorite quote of the last few weeks was in a Business Journal article about famed golfer Jack Nicklaus. One of Nicklaus’ partners in his golf projects is developer Lyle Anderson. Anderson said this of Nicklaus; “Jack’s always right, except when I convince him he’s right in a different way.”

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected].

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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