Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lessons from Lee

[Editor's note: This was originally posted on]
For Today's CEOs, Lessons from Master Speaker Lee Iacocca

By Jeff Porro

The Chrysler chief's speechwriting team shares how today's execs can inspire employees and customers alive with candor and a great narrative.

Lee Iacocca, former head of Chrysler, was certainly the first and arguably the biggest CEO “rock star.”

Yes, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have also gained fame far beyond the business world. But no other corporate leader has scored the pop culture quad-fecta of being a “Jeopardy!” category, guest starring on “Miami Vice,” being the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle, and getting assassinated in “The Watchmen” movie. (OK. It was a lookalike actor playing Iacocca).

Iacocca’s autobiography was a world best-seller. And, in 1988, there was also a strong “draft Iacocca for president” movement.

Iacocca’s business success—saving Chrysler and reinvigorating the American automobile industry in the 1980s—has also become a staple of B-school “case studies.” And most analysts agree a key ingredient—what Iacocca himself called “my most important management tool” —was the spoken word. “I used that tool every day,” Iacocca wrote.

To better understand how he used words, I spoke with two men who wrote speeches and presentations for the former Chrysler head: Mike Morrison and Alex Tsigdinos. Morrison, Chrysler’s vice president of corporate communications from 1984 to 1999, wrote more than 600 of Iacocca’s speeches. Tsigdinos, who worked for Morrison, was part of Iacocca’s and Chrysler’s small speech-writing team during his last few years at the company.

Learning from Lee

Iacocca’s speaking style and his belief in the value of speeches came from his background in sales.

“In the auto industry, sales means talking to dealers,” Morrison says. “At that time, dealers were all independent business people, protected by state franchise laws. You couldn’t force them to do anything. You had to sell to salesmen, sometimes getting them to do things they didn’t want to do.”

Iacocca himself put it this way: “In every speech I give, the object is to motivate. You can deliver information in a letter or tack it on a bulletin board.”

Unfortunately, too many of today’s executives forget the motivation aspect. Most prefer to treat a speech as a spoken white paper or a status report to stockholders rather than as an opportunity to rally the troops. The result is a lot of very boring CEO speeches.

Iacocca, on the other hand, planned out each speech very concisely and with great focus, Tsigdinos says, to be sure he would move his audiences to action.

“He wanted to know what we wanted to accomplish with each particular audience: the point he wanted to make, the behavior he wanted to influence, the actions he wanted them to take,” Tsigdinos explains.

Tsigdinos notes that Iacocca understood how overwhelmingly important it was to persuade and put a huge amount of effort into each speech. “He always spoke from a script, never spoke off the cuff,” Morrison says.

Iacocca was always very nervous before a speech. However, because he put in the hours to rehearse and revise each speech, his delivery was so smooth, natural and relaxed, it could sound ad-libbed.

“I think some executives think all they need to do is review a draft just before they give it, and they can waltz in there and win an audience over,” Tsigdinos says. “Iacocca knew it wasn’t that easy.”

Check out YouTube for proof that too many executives don’t put in the time. You’ll find lots of examples of CEOs who read their speeches instead of delivering them.

As for the substance of the speeches, Morrison sums it up simply: “A good speech is a story.” Iacocca, he says, knew that everything having to do with communication was a story. “Iacocca was a great at telling stories with a beginning, a strong middle, and an end.”

For too many of today’s CEOs, a speech is what Morrison called “just a matter of reciting data, of listing serial events.” That’s a bad mistake that at first bores and then, ultimately, loses an audience.

Iacocca was so devoted to making each speech into a story that he asked Morrison not to add in applause lines. “He didn’t want anything to break up the flow of a story,” Morrison said, “No cute phrases, not a lot of short anecdotes. He would set up the story, tell it, draw his conclusion and leave.”

And he stayed far away from corporate-speak. Says Tsigdinos: “Simple but effective. That’s what we strove for. No convoluted language. He was great at making direct statements that people could remember.”

Taking the initiative 

Iacocca excelled at taking the initiative and getting out front on issues. In 1987, it was discovered that Chrysler had tested a small number of new cars with the odometers disconnected before they were sold.

The story rocketed around the country, and there were reports district attorneys were considering legal action. When Iacocca learned what had happened, he had Morrison draft a speech saying very frankly that Chrysler had made a mistake and would make it right.

When Morrison sent the draft to Chrysler lawyers for clearance, they were furious—fearing that the speech could be an admission of guilt and lead to lawsuits. Iacocca was just as furious that the lawyers tried to stop him.

So when he went before the cameras, he said that Chrysler had done two things that made customers question their faith in the company. In Iacocca’s soon-to-be-famous words: “The first was dumb. … The second reached beyond dumb and went all the way to stupid.”

“He was on every one of the nightly news shows,” Morrison remembers. “They lionized him, and he turned the whole thing into a huge PR victory.”

There’s an obvious contrast to the recent behavior of some CEOs facing crises, most notably BP’s.

“The BP guys should have understood they had a disaster on their hands. They should have worked with their communication experts, not their lawyers,” Morrison says.

As today’s CEOs work to keep their companies growing out of the economic doldrums, they would be wise to learn these lessons from Lee:
  • Use your speeches to motivate, not just deliver information.
  • Put in whatever time it takes to master your speech and make it sound natural.
  • Get out front, be frank, and admit your mistakes.
  • And above all, tell a story.
Speechwriter Jeff Porro ( helps executives prepare effective speeches and presentations. He also discovered and researched the true story of a Jim Crow-era African-American college debate team and helped turn it into the 2007 feature film “The Great Debaters.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Around The Word

Does President Obama need a better editor? Last year, Politico's John F. Harris suggested that Obama and his team won the 2008 election "in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition." Lately, though, the media has been fixated on the president's "'narrative' problem." "Click on cable television or flip to the opinion pages, and you'll discover that whenever things aren't going the president's way, it's because he has lost control of the narrative," writes Samuel P. Jacobs. And who better to turn to in times of narrative crisis than some veteren storytellers?

In The Daily Beast, Jacobs collects strategy advice from a handful of novelists. But while Alex Berenson argues for the intoduction of "an enemy who is not John Boehner" and Sam Lipsyte suggests the Prez reexamine his "first chapters,"  not everyone is convinced Obama's problem is his story-arc. "Truth is," opines thriller writer Joseph Finder, "I actually think the 'narrative' notion is a preoccupation of journalists and political professionals, and not the real engine of political shifts."

We want to know what you think: does "narrative" drive politics or is this fixation on plot a red herring? 

"Patagonian toothfish" was cheap until one very clever importer rechristened it "Chilean sea bass." The life insurance industry avoids "death" by talking about "post retirement." In swinging 1970s London, "discussing the situation in Uganda" meant talking politics until one embarrassed lover used it to mean...something distinctly more amorous. On NPR's Talk of the Nation, Euphemania author Ralph Keyes discusses the history of such coded discourse, arguing that using euphamisms "isn't necessarily lazy or evasive; it can actually be harder to not say what we mean and still get our point across."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Around the Word: Tuesday Styles

Wait at least 72 hours before returning your clients' calls, and never, ever accept weekend assignments after Wednesday...

Well, maybe not all of The Rules apply, but according to communications consultant Lindsey McCaffrey, writers would be well-served to incorporate some basic dating tips into their professional lives. In Ragan, she advises wordsmiths to "order the steak," (remember that people want substance), "avoid 'too much information,'"(don't overwhelm your client--or your reader--by "data dumping"), and "keep your drinks to a minimum" (don't let your writing get sloppy or incoherent). Have you got any good ones to add to McCaffrey's list?

Writing may not be the most physically dangerous profession, but it can take a serious toll on the psyche: just ranked it among "the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer from depression," reports The Guardian. The news is hardly surprising to those of us that are intimately familiar with the "irregular pay and isolation" the job entails, but poet Gwyneth Lewis looks at the grim stats through a different lens. "Given that writers do spend a lot of time on their own, and that the worldly rewards for poetry are minuscule, and given that most of the time you don't know whether what you are doing is any good, it's amazing that writers don't suffer more," she says.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Around the Word

Communication is a tricky balance between "saying it directly," "saying it artfully," and "saying it originally." Today on the BloGG, we're taking lessons on the marriage of style and substance:
  • Certainly, FDR’s speechwriters get to share in the credit for his legendary response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As The Christian Science Monitor points out, though, it was a last-minute presidential edit that helped the speech “define the event for generations.” In an earlier draft, the speech called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in world history”—an opener made infinitely more powerful by Roosevelt’s historic word swap: the rhetorically-savvy prez “scratched ‘world history’ out with his pen, and printed over it in a spidery hand, the single word ‘infamy.’” 
  • Groupon, the ubiquitous deal-a-day phenomenon that’s probably already in a city near you, prides itself on their snappy copy. Thanks to the company’s leaked (and unverified) style guide, you, too, can have access to what Business Insider calls Groupon’s “secret sauce,” says New York Magazine. According to the style guide, the “Groupon Voice” is defined by “absurd images,” “hypothetical worlds/outcomes,” and “mixed metaphors,” suggesting that it may have limited use to, well, anyone not writing for Groupon. On the other hand, some of their guidelines—mainly the ones about avoiding classic marketing clichés—seem like advice well-taken.
    What do you think? Are you tempted to adopt any of Groupon’s “quirky” tips in your own copywriting?
  • In Johnson, The Economist’s language blogger attempts to parse out the “subtle cues and subtext” of “business English.” Cataloging each turn of phrase by usage, source, and subtext, blogger G.L. reveals a rather unflattering (but not unexpected) portrait of the American workplace. Many of the clichés, among them “going forward,” and “to your point” are ways of reassuring their intended audience that progress is being made—whether or not that’s the case. While we at the BloGG try to avoid Businessese, we admit we've been doing an awful lot of "reaching out" these days. What about you? Does Johnson have your number, or have you managed to buck the trend?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Around the Word

  • The Scarlet Letter? A Scarlet Letter? A Letter That Is Scarlet? Red Letter Days? With Lulu Titlescorer, the self publishing company aims to help authors assess their title’s chances of topping the New York Times bestseller list. On GalleyCat, the folks at Lulu explain that their research team analyzed the title of every hardback fiction bestseller between 1955 and 2004, then compared them to a “control group” of not-so-bestselling titles by the same batch of authors. While Titlescorer’s grammatical analyses can’t account for intangibles (musicality, suitability, timeliness), the program is appealingly scientific—at the very least, it gives authors another outside opinion to consider. Give it a whirl and let us know what you think: useful tool or amusing procrastination device?
  • Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is joining the pack of “presidential candidates and wannabes” churning out pre-election inspirational autobiographies, and according to Minneapolis City Pages, his will bring “some smackdown to the ring.” Turns out T-Paw has hired Mark Dagostino to ghostwrite his upcoming book, Courage to Stand—the same Mark Dagostino who ghosted Hulk Hogan’s 2009 memoir, My Life Outside the Ring.
    Clearly, Pawlenty must have impressed with the writer’s hard-hitting (ha!) prose.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Gotham's New Digs

    After much searching, our company has found a new home.  We are now sharing space with Global Strategy Group, one of the country's top political consulting and polling firms, in their beautiful office just north of Union Square.

    Here is our new contact information:
    895 Broadway, 5th Floor
    New York, NY 10003
    212-505-3131 (O)
    212-260-9058 (F)

    If you are in New York, channel your inner Mae West and come up and see us some time.

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Jon Lovett: Obama Speechwriter, Huffington Impersonator

    November 2 was a tough night for the Dems. No matter, though, because exactly one month later, there's victory. Unfortunately, it's not the legislative kind.

    As of last night, Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett is officially “The Funniest Celebrity in Washington,” taking top honors at the annual beltway laugh-in.* He was bolstered, surely, by his speaking savvy, youthful charm, and mostly-funny TSA jokes, but it was his impressive Arianna Huffington impression that brought the house down and secured his victory over runner up Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). Check out Lovett’s winning routine here.

    *actually, we hear the crowd was pretty tough.