In January of 2005, I had an internship as a journalist in DC, and as luck would have it, my first assignment was to go to one of Senator Obama’s (yes, that same Obama) first press conferences at the Capitol. My assignment was to come back with three quotes on the following: how things were going as a Senator, about his transition from Chicago to Washington, and finally, the big kahuna, whether or not he was going to run in 2008.
I was beside myself with excitement. I had fallen in love with Barack Obama just like most of America when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and I had also read his book “Dreams from my Father”, paying particular attention to his years at Occidental College, my alma matter. I just knew that once I got my chance in the press conference, it would be like no one else was in the room.
As you can guess, the actual story goes a bit differently.
I underestimated the size of a press conference, for one thing. Once I got in the room, I could barely see over the crowd. Undaunted, inching my way forward, I maneuvered into a position where I felt like my hand could be seen when raised. When it came time for questions, I couldn’t keep up. Once one question was asked and Obama gave his answer, it was immediately onto the next question without any warning. I waved my hand in vain, but no one called on me. I heard “no more questions” and dropped my hand, but a couple more questions managed to sneak in (it’s a shame that “Lean In” wasn’t written at this time). Suddenly, the press conference was over, and everyone started quickly dispersing.
I panicked. How could I go back to the office without my story? Gathering all my nerve, I followed Senator Obama and his entourage through the hallways, trying to catch his attention. Once they exited the capitol, it became clear that I had to do something to catch his attention, fast.
“Senator Obama! Senator Obama!”
He turned around, kindly smiled and waved, then began to move on. I made my last-ditch effort.
“Senator Obama! We both went to Occidental College! I just want to ask you a few questions!”
He stopped, beckoned me over, and his people parted to the side. His security wasn’t as strict then.
We talked about Occidental College for a bit, and then, I finally got the nerve to ask him a question. I remembered my three requirements, but when I opened my mouth, a totally different question came out.
“After reading your book, I’m really curious, how has religion played a role in your life?”
I guess I was more interested in his personal story than anything else.
He thought for a moment, and then gave me his answer, noting that I had asked him the most interesting question he had been asked all day. He wished me the best of luck as a journalist and turned to go, when I realized I still hadn’t completed my assignment.
“Senator?” He turned around once again.
“Are you running for President in 2008?” He laughed.
“I have no plans to run.” Liar. My story didn’t satisfy the initial requirements, but in the end, I had gotten a quote that wasn’t in every other newspaper in Washington that day, so my editor was pleased. I had captured a bit of the story behind the politics.
I learned an important lesson that day.
In order to catch the attention of the busiest man in the world, you need a connection and a story, and honestly, the rest of us aren’t that different.
There’s a reason why President Obama references real people and their stories in his speeches, why more and more historical fiction films and books are coming out, and why people are more interested in what’s going on in our prison system after binge-watching Orange is the New Black. People like learning through stories. It may seem lazy, like we need our information spoon-fed to us, but I have another theory.
Stories help us connect emotionally, and without stories to make information stick, we’ll forget it fast.
Imagining the world as that press conference, it’s crucial to find a way to cut through the chaos and connect to your audience. How do you do that? Ask yourself:
- What’s the one point that I really want to get across? (Hint: usually people won’t remember more than one).
- What’s a story that I can use to quickly engage my audience?
- How do I connect that story to the point I want to make?
Above all else, just remember that it all comes back to storytelling, whether you’re an entrepreneur, a teacher, a lawyer, etc. You may not remember anything about my post today except for my story about stopping Barack Obama on the street, and hopefully through that connection, you’ll remember the importance of telling stories.
Now, I would love to hear from you! In the comments, let me know how storytelling has helped you to make your points and get your messages across.