Running for the President is a long drawn out job interview and we have to use all kinds of communication skills to be effective to get the job. By looking at Nixon as a case study, we can learn to when to use stories and when not to use stories to get our message across. Sometimes stories can hurt more than help since you want people to remember the message supported by a story, not remember the story and not remember the main message.
The mistake that Nixon made in communication is not that he engaged in self-pity but when he did it. He told excellent moving stories during the 1960 campaign but they were just too depressing and it detracted from the upbeat message that people needed to hear so they could still relate to him plus get motivated to support him. Ronald Reagan did not make this mistake and, thus, was considered a great communicator because he always gave an upbeat speech about the future that mattered to people. For example, take a look at this famous TV campaign commercial which was aired in 1984 titled, "It's Morning in America" that kind of speaks to the Reagan brand of focusing on the better future.
I use President Richard Nixon in this blog to show that you can live and die by telling moving stories. You should not just assume that just because you are good at telling a stories that you are going to always succeed. All it means is that you are good at telling stories, but, if overused and in a wrong situation, it could easily trample your main message with too much information and will consume too much time to get your main point across.
When are stories effective?
Nixon should know that it was his story about his dog named Checkers that got him out of a trouble when he was accused of accepting money illegally to cover his expenses. He was a candidate for the vice presidency in 1952 and it hung in balance on how people viewed this whole incident. The televised speech was watched by approximately 60 million (largest TV audience at that time) people and was praised by the majority of the people. Based on the favorable response, Eisenhower kept Nixon on the ticket.
Here is the part of the speech that gets its name as the Checkers speech since he talks about a dog they had received named Checkers and made it appear that his enemies were out to get this innocent dog that their daughters had received. Now who wouldn't fall for this story? It worked like a charm. Here is the famous part of this speech:
"One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something-a gift-after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was.
It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl-Tricia, the 6-year old-named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it."
Nixon's emotional speech saved his career, but will the same skill work eight years later when he is running for the Presidency?
We are always urged by almost all speech experts to tell good stories to connect and get our message across, but this may not be the right thing to do for some situations. Unless the story supports your upbeat message it can even backfire if the story is very emotional. Your story may be too good for your message such that people will remember the story more than the main message. This was the case with Richard Nixon in some of his informal campaign speeches he gave in 1960 where he spoke extemporaneously. I am not going to say that this hurt Nixon winning the Presidency in 1960 (as there is never one thing), but it did paint an indelible narrative of him. Today with social media, 24 hour news and late night comedy shows, Nixon would have been butt of jokes the way Mitt Romney was excoriated with his "Binders Full of Women" story in one of the presidential debates in 2012. Romney probably thought he was telling a very good story that will connect with women, but it failed and went to define him as insensitive to women's needs (especially single women according to polls). It is an example where the story trumped the message. It defined Romney such that he could not recover from.
I will let you be the judge on this one speech that Nixon gave and see what you think of it. He tells a very moving story about his rough upbringing, but I think it was too depressing. How would we react to this today? What can we learn from this when we are interviewing for a job?
This is what Nixon said in the speech he gave at Centralia, Illinois:
"I remember that when we were growing up my older brother for one year very desperately wanted a pony. My father could have bought it for about seventy-five dollars. And my brother, who died when I was quite young, kept saying, 'Oh, I want this pony more than anything in the world.' Now, being the oldest son, he was kind of a favorite, as you can imagine, with my mother and my father, and they wanted more than anything else to give him what he wanted. It would have been easy for them to say, 'Look, you can have the pony.' But you know what happened? My mother and father had a little family council and they came in and they said. 'Now, look, if we buy this pony we're not going to have enough money to pay the grocery bill; we're not going to have enough money to pay the clothing bill; we're not going to be able to get the shoes for your younger brother.' It was an awfully hard decision for my mother and father but it was the right thing."
After listening to couple of these speeches, the media was debating whether the headline next day should lead with "the day the pony died" or "maudlin Friday." (You can see why Nixon didn't get along with the media.) As a story he gets an "A," but for its effectiveness in a campaign, he gets an "F." People don't like someone they are thinking about hiring engage in self-pity; people have their own problems to worry about. They want someone to talk about hope and better future and not dwell on the past. Nixon was not positive; it didn't put people in a good mood the way Reagan, Clinton or Kennedy were known to do in their campaign speeches. They knew their message and stayed on it whether they gave formal speeches or informal speeches.
I think so and it would have been effective without telling a moving story. When you are talking informally, you tend to get carried away so you have to give some thought on what is your main message and weave parts of the story into the message. Nixon was trying to connect with the people by telling them a story that showed that he could relate to their hardship. But you don't want to bring your audience to tears in a political speech, but make them feel good about their future, the country's future if Nixon were the President. He had to weave this into his speech that had a hopeful message.
He could have said the something like the following:
"I know what it's like growing poor; I have been poor. I know how tough parents have it when they can't get things for their children; I saw this with my parents. I know how tough it is when there are few opportunities; I experienced this myself. But it does not have to be this way. All that people are asking is an opportunity to have a shot at the American dream. My government will make sure that you will get that opportunity to make your American Dream come true."
There is no story here but effective in getting the main message of creating opportunities so anyone can achieve the American Dream. The lesson from this is that stories are not always effective if it overpowers the main message; it can easily detract from the main message that you want to convey.
When you are interviewing for a job, you also want to take the similar approach and know what is your main message and refrain from telling a story if it is going to step on the message with the crows and, especially, with the media. Instead, try to connect by being direct and weave the points of the story to talk about what is and what could be the way Nancy Duarte, author, entrepreneur and communications expert, shows in this excellent Ted Talk. By hiring you, you have to show what is and what could be. That is what you have to weave during the interview.
Lastly, I don't want to imply that storytelling should be avoided, but just pointing out that you have to be very careful since a story is a very powerful communication tool and many of us do not know its power on how it will affect people once it is unleashed. I used Richard Nixon as an example in this blog since he was probably one of the most interesting man ever to occupy the Presidency of the United States. He had his ups and downs, but he ended his Presidency on a high note with his farewell speech to his staff and cabinet; it may have been one of his best speeches considering the circumstances under which it was given, and it probably helped resurrect his career as the ex-President. Again I think it was his ability to tell a moving story about his childhood and his rough upbringing. Though it ended bad for him, his farewell speech did leave a good impression of a man who always fought hard and rough, and when he knew it was over, he gracefully exited the stage.