Brian Reich

Apr 13

Start Failing… or Get Out Of The Way

The plenary session this morning at the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13NTC) was all about failure – how you define it, what to learn from it, why it’s important, and the critical need for the nonprofit/social good/philanthropy community to do a better job embracing it.  I was privileged to sit on stage with Allyson Burns from the Case Foundation (@allieb37), Erin Shy from Sage Nonprofit (@ErinShy), Megan Kashner from Benevolent (@BenevolentNet)… and our host, moderator and fearless leader, Beth Kanter (@kanter)… and help to focus and drive the conversation.

I think everyone – on stage and in the audience – agrees that a) failing is an inevitable part of the important work required to change the world and address critical issues that challenge our society, b) that it is far more productive to look for ways to learn and adapt when things fall apart then it is to dwell on mistakes or cast blame, and c) that making the most of failing gets easier the more you do it and the more support you have in the process.  That’s a pretty big deal if you think about it – that a seemingly difficult, potentially uncomfortable conversation about people and organizations involved in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy space needing to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better was not met with any obvious disagreement or anger.

But let me be clear: having consensus on the need to fail more, fail smarter, and fail better won’t do anything to change how we think, how we act, or the work we are doing to address serious issues that are challenging our society.  In fact, having agreement on those core points is probably a bad thing.  We will get lazy.  We will assume that our acknowledgement of the fruits of failure will organically result in a noticeably different way of operating. 

It won’t. 

Thinking about, talking about, understanding, even appreciating the value of failure won’t change anything.  We have to push beyond failing as some sort of amusing intellectual discussion and start to do things differently.  We need to force failure.

In my closing comment at the plenary I issued a simple challenge: start failing. Just do it. Just fucking do it.

You can fail big. You can fail small.  You can fail a lot. You can fail a little.  The key is to start failing.  And to keep failing – over and over and over again.  To fail all the time.  To force yourself, your organization, the people you work with, the community of people and groups working to address an issue or cause to fail.  To fail more. To fail smarter. To fail better.

I am challenging you to fail.  And if you aren’t willing – if you aren’t committed – then I want you to get out of the business. Do something else. Work on something different. The issues that we need to address are real.  The big challenges that are facing our society are serious and only growing and become more complex.  We need to be faster, smarter and better if we are going to succeed – and to do that we need to understand the role that failing plays in our work, and use our failing to do something amazing.

I also give you permission to fail.  It won’t be easy.  It can get messy.  Even the people who very confident in their ability to turn failing into awesomeness will tell you how failing can be exhausting and punishing.  But failing is important – necessary in fact – and we are long overdue in the nonprofit/social change/philanthropy community to start getting better at failing.  So, if you need a note from me to pass along to your boss or your board or your funder, I will write one for you.  If you need a pep talk when things get difficult and confusing, I will provide one.  If you need a tutorial on how to really make a mess of things, and come out stronger on the other side, I have plenty of personal and professional experiences to form a curriculum with.  But if you refuse to start failing, and really force things to happen, or you don’t take this challenge seriously, I want you to step aside.  I want you to find a different line of work.  If you aren’t going to enthusiastically use your ticket on the failure train, I want you to give your seat to someone else who is willing to step up and start to make things happen.

I fail all the time. I know it.  And I feel pretty confident in my ability to learn and adapt when I fail.  But I am just one person.  The benefits of my failing are limited – unless I fail in ways that others can benefit from.  I can do more to help others understand my mistakes, and what I learned from them.  We all can.  And when we do, it allows everyone else to focus their energy failing on different things.  To make new mistakes.  To get smarter. 

I challenge you.  I implore you.  I beg of you.  Start failing. Fail on your own.  Fail with others.  Fail in ways that we all will learn and benefit from. Do something. Anything. Just fucking do it.  And don’t look back.

Thank you for failing.

 

 

Mar 10

Why isn’t anyone using the f-word anymore?

One of my favorite activities when attending the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin (SXSW) is to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Don’t look at me like that… I am not trying to invade anyone’s privacy or commit an act of corporate espionage.  Rather, I am curious to learn what people are talking about, and how they talk. You can learn a lot about what is trending and where to focus your attention based on what you overhear someone say in between bites of a breakfast taco. 

With almost 27k people attending just the interactive festival (there are also film and music festivals running somewhat concurrently) there are a lot of conversations to choose from.  And yet, there is a surprising amount of overlap in the topics. The biggest topic of discussion is logistics — how many people there are this year (‘its so big and impersonal… I remember when it was still cool’), the challenges of finding a good panel discussion or party, and, of course, the weather.  Interesting, but not particularly enlightening stuff at the end of the day.  The second most popular topic tends to be which new apps or companies are gaining traction — everyone wants to know, and be connected to, the next big thing.  And there are a lot of new apps and companies trying to gain traction here, including so many variations on the same names that its hard to keep them all straight.

If I get really lucky, I will hear some folks talking about what they do, and what works/doesn’t work in their particular company or project.  In past years, those discussions about how people work have been dominated by one word: failure.  Everyone embraced the idea that failure was valuable, that it was important to learn from mistakes. There were panel discussions devoted to the topic.  There were flyers pasted all over town practically challenging people to fail — and be proud of it.  Hashtags. Laptop stickers. T-shirts.  Failure was everywhere.  People were proud to fail.  But not this year.  I haven’t heard the word failure mentioned yet.  Not by a panelist.  Not in conversation between two people over an organic smoothie.  Nothing.  Its almost like people have become afraid of failing - or even talk about it.

Is that possible?  Is it possible that failure is no longer a hot topic in the world of startups, designers, media and everything else being discussed here at SXSW?  I don’t believe it.  Maybe there a different way of building and managing a successful enterprise that has replaced this concept altogether?  Or a new buzzword that has replaced failure — a way of talking about the same concept but using a new set of vocabulary?

I can appreciate that nobody wants to fail.  It can be awkward, embarrassing, even painful to fail.  But failing is important - necessary in fact.  We learn from failure. Everybody knows that (I think).  And so… my fear is that if people aren’t talking about failure, they aren’t being curious.  They aren’t as interested in learning as they have been in the past.  They aren’t hungry to try new things, no matter the consequences.  If that’s the case, then our ability to create more interesting things, solve more challenging problems, address more complex issues will diminish.  If we don’t talk about failure, and we don’t embrace it as we have in the past we won’t get smarter.

I am sure there are people who are talking about failure… I just haven’t found them yet.  I will keep listening in people’s conversations and see what I can find out.  If you hear anything, let me know.

NOTE: This was originally published at http://www.zennie62blog.com/2013/03/10/sxsw-is-failur…an-reich-65851/

Mar 09

What the f—k are we waiting for?

This post is about the missed opportunity of SXSW.

This is the ninth consecutive year that I have attended the South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin.  And the more it changes… the more it stays the same.

SXSW is a unique gathering of people who work in/around technology, design, media, film, music… and an increasing number of people associated with the worlds of philanthropy and social change/social good. I have attended all these years because SXSW, unlike almost any other big gathering (and by big I mean 25,000+ attendees), offers such a diverse and interesting mix interests and talents.  There is a just a wonderful opportunity to cross-pollinate thinking and partner on efforts related to addressing the serious issues that exist in the world today in meaningful, measurable ways here in Austin than anywhere else I visit/attend.  This is the ultimate playground for people trying to solve complex problems and have a meaningful, measurable impact on the world.

Unfortunately, it isn’t happening. Very little is changing about SXSW - at least in terms of how the people who attend understand, appreciate, and get involved in the discussion about philanthropy and social good/social change. The potential that exists to dramatically change/improve the way we address serious issues simply isn’t being realized.

What happened (or failed to happen)?  I don’t really know.  When I first started attending SXSW, I could count on one hand the number of people — like me — those who were working in/around the philanthropy and social good/social change space who attended. There weren’t very many people who focused on politics and government, media, or really anything beyond the world of tech startups or PR/creative/advertising agencies either.  But as SXSW has grown, others have realized how compelling this gathering could be, and our numbers have swelled.  People who care about and work on serious issues are still the minority, but our presence is recognized.  And at one point, maybe two or three years ago, (and especially when the earthquake/tsunami struck Japan in the middle of SXSW), philanthropy and social good/social change were one of the hottest topics of discussion around the whole event.

And yet, somehow, despite having thousands of attendees from the philanthropy and social good/social change space, as well as substantial interest among people in all other sectors (business, media, etc)… the conversation about how to address serious issues in a connected society hasn’t really evolved.  Interest isn’t enough.  The focus remains largely the same. The promise of these amazing conversations and interactions has not materialized. 

What is happening?  There are some panel discussions about the work of nonprofits and related groups — but they are hosted by people from inside the social change/social good community, and they are being attended by people who are already inside the social change/social good community.  In other words, we are still talking mostly to ourselves. There are some discussions and projects featuring the best digital, creative and other thinkers about how to apply their expertise to addressing serious issues - but the focus is disproportionately trained on raising awareness and money (two things that everyone loves to talk about, though I would argue are neither the solution to a complex problem, nor the most interesting thing to try and achieve).  In other words, the focus of all that intellect and creativity is being misapplied.  And, worst of all, philanthropy and social change/social good efforts are being co-opted by big brands, small startups, and everyone else as part of a social responsibility strategy.  In many ways, the important work of philanthropy and social good/social change has become commoditized, and is being used as a marketing tactic, further undermining the potential for real, meaningful, measurable impact on the world.

Am I being unfair?  I don’t think so. I acknowledge that there are many small, smart, innovative folks who are trying to change how we think about addressing serious issues… and using some new, and very cool ways of collecting and organizing data, deploying technology and more to solve problems.  I do everything I can to support and celebrate them.  Some of them are on display here at SXSW, and I am sure many others are walking around, trying to get noticed, or get help, and just haven’t made it on to the radar yet.  But they are far from top of mind as they should be.  Meanwhile, I look around and I see a lot of the same people, having the same conversations, celebrating the same (false indicators of) success in advancing the causes that we care so deeply about — and by doing so, failing to recognize just how limited their impact really is.  I watch as opportunities to dramatically re-think and re-imagine our approach to serious issues literally walk past each other without making any sort of connection.

A lot of people have criticized SXSW for becoming big and impersonal — for losing its innovative spirit, for becoming so spread out and impersonal that it is hard to find quality panel discussions, make the right connections, or break through with a new idea or company.  I don’t think that is the problem, at least not in this context.  In fact, the bigger SXSW grows, and the more people who attend, with all their different interests, and abilities, the more SXSW becomes an even greater opportunity to change the way we address serious issues. 

But change will only happen if we want it to.  It won’t happen on its own.  The organizers won’t figure out how to properly push a conversation about philanthropy and social good/social change without help.  The technology, design, media, and other communities won’t magically show up and participate in a conversation about changing the world without being invited and challenged and pressed for better answers and ideas.  People will continue to pass in the hallways, fail to connect — and leave events like SXSW without a different lens through which to view the challenges that exist in the world, and without projects and partnerships that have game-changing potential for the future of our society. 

None of the things we know are possible, and desperately want, will happen unless/until the philanthropy and social good/social change community really pushes to see these important topics more thoughtfully integrated. 

SXSW is one of the places where that push can and should be made. The opportunity is here. Gathered in one place.  What the f—k are we waiting for?

Responsibility and Opportunity

Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was quoted in Politico’s Playbook this morning talking about how corporations’ view of D.C. has changed.  He said:

"People have lost kind of faith in the ability of government to provide solutions for their daily concerns. That’s provided both a responsibility and opportunity for businesses and NGOs, to work together to get things done. It’s opened up that space and created demand for it. So, the biggest difference is: You don’t count on Washington to get things done anymore."

Dach knows what he is talking about.

Over the past seven years, he has been responsible for public policy, reputation management, corporate communications, philanthropy, government relations, plus the company’s social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at Wal-Mart.  And over the past seven years, more than any other company on the planet I would argue, Wal-Mart has demonstrated its commitment to addressing serious issues - around climate change and the environment, hunger and obesity, and more. 

I expect that Wal-Mart will continue its commitment to addressing serious issues after Dach departs in June.  But I wonder if/how many businesses and NGOs will accept the responsibility and embrace the opportunity that he is talking about.  That’s something I would like to see. 

Jan 28

War? What is it good for…

In a column for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward quotes Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, saying:

"We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they’ — the military and diplomats — ‘tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for. Afghanistan will be defining for your presidency in the first term,’ Hagel also said, according to his own account, ‘perhaps even for a second term.’ The key was not to get ‘bogged down.’"

As I read the quote, I couldn’t help but think that it applied to every type of organization - not just the military.  Imagine if you swapped the word ‘military’ out for something else - like brand, or nonprofit, educational institution or media company.  You would still need to question everything.  You would still need to avoid being bogged down.  The concept, the strategic approach that Hagel is talking about… it applies just the same to everyone today.

Oct 31

Crisis and Media Discussion (Revisited)

Life is beginning to return to ‘normal’ here in New York City.  I realize that is somewhat easier for me to say given that I live on the Upper West Side (vs. downtown for example).  We never lost power, cable or internet access. Damage in our neighborhood was limited to a few downed trees and the like.  The subway is still closed and my office downtown in inaccessible - both of which are a hassle, but certainly not a tragedy. Overall, the disruption to our school, work and similar schedules is the biggest challenge we have had to address.  I feel very fortunate indeed.

Like many others, I have been tracking Super Storm Sandy closely over the past few days, especially by consuming as much media — traditional and social, real and fake - as I could find.  My interest in disasters is fueled, at least in part, by my curiosity around how our society plans for, deals with, and responds to disasters.  As a part of my work, I think a lot about how technology and the internet impact the ways we get/share information — and especially what happens during crisis.  If anything, my personal connection to this event offered an additional lens through which to analyze everything that has happened.

One thing you realize quickly when you monitor disasters, humanitarian and otherwise, is that the media response to these events varies significantly.  Super Storm Sandy was one of the largest storms ever to hit the United States, so it likely would have received significant coverage regardless.  But, the fact that the storm hit, among other places, New York City - the center of the media universe - guaranteed that coverage was, and will continue to be, more extensive than other similar events.

It begs the question… while every humanitarian crisis/disaster inflicts enormous pain and suffering, why doesn’t the media doesn’t give them similar attention?  And what impact does that have on how we understand, appreciate, prepare and respond when these events unfold?  What would be different about how we prepare for, deal with, and recover/rebuild after a crisis if our media coverage was different?

———-

Almost two years ago, on February 28, 2011, I moderated an event sponsored by CauseShift and Oxfam International.  We gathered leaders from the humanitarian aid sector together with innovators inside and outside the sector for a special two-hour event/discussion about the media’s role during crisis. We challenged those who gathered to create new ways for humanitarian agencies and the media to keep people engaged in real-time and over the longer-term.

The event featured series of one-on-one interviews.  After this ‘conversation gauntlet’ set the tone for the discussion, participants broke into teams and brainstormed solutions based on the following questions:

  1. How do you explain a disaster in real-time?
  2. How do you create a marketplace to more efficiently identify needs and match them with resources?
  3. How do you keep 1 million people interested one year later?
  4. What do we need to STOP doing during disasters?

Below you will find videos/transcripts of the interviews I conducted during the event, as well as notes/details from the solutions session.

Moderator Preparation:
Research Links

Conversation Gauntlet transcripts and videos:
Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality Institute
Kathleen Hessert, Exercise 24
Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
Stephen Cassidy, UNICEF
The Conversation Gauntlet (videos only)

Breakout Team Ideas:
Answers to the Four Main Questions

(You can find more information here: http://rallythecause.com/2011/03/23/feb-28-crisis-and-media-event-the-outcomes-library/).

———-

These conversations should be outdated — two years is an eternity in today’s fast-moving, constantly changing, rapidly evolving, 24-second-news-cycle driven world.  But as you read through the notes, you probably get the feeling, as I did, that not much (or at least not enough) has changed over that time.  I am confident we are getting smarter and adapting our behaviors in preparation for the next major event.  But I also think we can learn a lot more, and more quickly, and move more quickly to update our systems and approaches to dealing with these events.

Let me know what you think.

Sep 19

Talking About Online Organizing With Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans is in the business of creating 21st Century Movements.  As he explained it during his talk at #BIF8 “We organize people around major global issues and try to deploy their collective power using technology in really smart ways.” 

Consider that, you would think that Jeremy’s work, which uses technology to help build and mobilize individuals and communities on a global scale, puts him at odds with the argument that Sherry Turkle is making about the need to re-connect offline, face-to-face.  When I asked Jeremy, he reconciled the two different views this way:

“I totally agree with most of what Sherry Turkle says, and I agree with her general argument about the corrosive effects of digital overload.  But in this case, I don’t think they are as mutually exclusive as they seem.  When we do these large mobilizations online, a smaller sub-section self select to participate in high touch offline activities.  What the online gives you is the ability to get more people doing the offline stuff than would otherwise have done so.  So it gives you scale and the ability to get new people into the system more fluidly.

That’s not to say that every time someone signs an online position they are creating deep connection – but over time you can build brands and organizations that people begin to attach some identify to.  The experience of seeing the $30 you raised going into a television ad that influences the outcome of some legislative battle — that’s actually very reinforcing.  So there is a lot you can do to build community online, that is a different set of things that the offline interaction gives you.  The comparison is not apples to apples.”

Jeremy acknowledged that there are limits to what basic online actions people will take, and how valuable those actions can be when applied in an organizing context.  But is it possible for organizers to create online activities that are equally valuable to the types of offline, high-touch activities that smaller groups are doing, but in larger numbers? Jeremy answered:

“There is certainly a need for more tactical innovation in the online organizing space.  There is also a risk of the space becoming commoditized, when everyone becomes so good at the testing and refining that cynicism creeps into the process.  And I think you are seeing some of that already. That said, I think the key is to continuously find new ways to deploy scale in politically useful ways.

There are some situations where scale really does matter. If you want to coordinate in a very short period of time a large number of simultaneous offline events or a calling campaign at a very critical moment, or to raise a huge amount of money [Jeremy cited a recent project where money was raised to help get a group of gay Iraqis out of Iraq at a speed that a traditional foundation would never be able to handle] – all those things rely on scale, not necessarily on the actions of the small, high-touch groups.

I think you just have to recognize that there is a set of things that scale gets you – among those things is not the deepest forms of community and connection, but you can still conduct a set of activities that are really valuable to movement building and generating political power.”

Finally, I asked Jeremy about how to prevent the commoditization of online organizing.  He replied:

“One risk is things become too sensationalized. You want to appeal to a broad audience, but you don’t want to sensationalize or trivialize.  Sometimes sensationalizing something will lead to a bigger response, but that can also lead to a diminution of the brand.  So I think that’s a big risk.

I also think we need to find new ways to reach people – email is still highly effective, but in the United States people are sick of it, so there is a need to reach people in ways that are potentially different. That’s an area of opportunity.”

I am still not convinced that online organizing will help us to solve the problems facing our society – not as it is currently conceived or executed. But I have known Jeremy for many years and worked with him directly on one occasion (on a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons that launched in late 2007/early 2008) — and if his work proves anything, its that we have the potential to figure this stuff out.  Now we just have to do it.

My Conversation with Sherry Turkle

While Sherry Turkle, an MIT researcher and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, was on stage presenting at #BIF8, I sat huddled behind the screen of my laptop.  That seems fitting given that she was talking about how technology is undermining our ability as human beings to connect and engage with each other.  Here plea to those of us in the audience – and across our society – was to “look up, look at each other… and start a conversation.”

During a break, I took the bait and went to have a one-on-one conversation with Sherry Turkle. 

First, I asked her to contrast the energy and enthusiasm that exists around the idea of movement building, and specifically the use of technology to support collaboration on a global scale, and her argument that technology has undermined our ability to connect and form intimate connections that is necessary to build community. Her response:

“I think we have to separate the hype from the reality. I don’t take away what technology allows us to do in terms of getting people together and organizing them.  But in order to really get the job done we need to not be afraid to face each other, face-to-face, and really have that conversation. I think that we are going to be sorely disappointed if we rely on massive organizing potential and end up somehow phobic about face-to-face. I don’t want to take away from this wonderful potential of what technology can do in terms of mass organizing, but I think we will be somehow disappointed if we trade away our love affair with each other.”

As our conversation continued, I suggested that one of the appealing aspects of technology is that it made it possible for large numbers of people to take a shared set of actions – watch a video, read an article, like an organization or share a view, etc.  Arguably, we have been able to train people to behave in certain prescribed ways, believing, at some level, that when people take those simple actions, we are driving meaningful, measurable changes in how people think or act.  By comparison, we all know that a face-to-face conversation is more fulfilling, and potentially more impactful – but also far more difficult to make happen, and nearly impossible to do at any kind of scale.  So I asked whether/how we could teach people to talk to each other at scale.  She responded:

“I think what’s funny about that question is that we don’t need to teach – we need to remember.  We have gotten out of the habit because we don’t have dinner with our families. We don’t have breakfast with our families.  We don’t take walks with our kids.  I’m not trying to portray a golden age when we just hung around, but we are losing the moments when people did talk.  We first need to go back to the social situations that we value, when people did those things that were conducive to talking (her example is walking with another person on the beach, an activity she has observed over the past two decades being replaced by people walking by themselves while constantly thumb-texting).  To ask, how are we going to teach people to talk to each other on the beach – let’s just put away our phones and see what happens when we spontaneously discovery the please of talking to each other on the beach.

I started to imagine all these conversations taking place – and then going very badly.  What happens if/when we put down our devices and engage in a face-to-face conversation – only to leave the conversation feeling unfulfilled?  If hiding behind technology is, to some extent, a reliable defense against being hurt, what are we supposed to do when that (inevitably) happens?  She responded:

“I’ll take that chance, because I think our image of what that conversation will look like has been flattened out by the experience of texting.  Our idea of conversation is so flattened out that people are willing to call almost anything a conversation – but what are they talking about?  I think we should put down the devices and see what happens.”

Our conversation continued for a few more minutes, and others joined in to offer thoughts and ask questions as well – but by then, Sherry Turkle had asked me to turn off my recording device, so I don’t remember most of what was discussed in enough detail to relay it here.  That makes sense, I guess.

Draw Something… Or Maybe Don’t

You will be hard pressed to find a marketing conference, corporate summit, or innovation-oriented gathering these days that doesn’t include an artist, toiling away behind an oversized canvas, trying to translate the thoughts and ideas being presented on stage into an illustration or makeshift infographic. The idea behind creating these visual summaries is that the core concepts will be more easily remembered, shared, and applied to work that begins after the summit, conference or gathering ends. Does it work? How many people do these wonderful creations actually reach? How do people change their work, or their thinking, when these visual thought products are hanging on their wall (or whatever)?

I attend a lot of conference and events, so I have collected my fair share of visual summaries over the years. But I have never received one without directly participating in an event. Nobody ever forwarded a set of visual notes to me via email. I have never seen visual notes show up in my news feed. If the idea behind creating these visual summaries is that the core concepts expressed at some conference, summit or gathering will be more easily remembered, shared, and applied to work going forward, and they were performing as intended, then I would expect to see the visual summaries everywhere. I would expect that people would reference them more – or at all – in their work, across social media… anywhere. That simply isn’t happening.

I am starting to think that visual summaries are just a form of performance art – potentially interesting and thought-provoking if you happen to be watching it unfold in real-time, but of little value if you aren’t in the right place at the right time. The summits, conferences and gatherings that employ these artists suggest that one of their goals is to promote ideas, drive innovation, and influence how people work and behave with some larger business or social purpose in mind. But for those goals to be realized, the ideas and thoughts must spread, they must be referenced, and they must be absorbed into our work and thinking in ways that influence how we operate – and change our behaviors. If visual summaries aren’t able to produce that kind of reach, we should find another way to capture and communicate out the information we need and want.

Sep 06

Don’t Stop Thinking About… The Issues

Bill Clinton put on a master class in political persuasion last night at the Democratic Convention. His 48-minute opus – half prepared, half-improvised – effectively made the case for President Obama’s re-election to undecided and moderate voters, dismantled many of the key arguments being promoted by the GOP, and re-energized the Democratic base in anticipation of the final push towards election day. 

There is nobody else in politics, or in public life for that matter, who could have delivered that speech – Bill Clinton has magical powers when it comes to communicating with and engaging with people.  Still, there is an important lesson that anyone in the business of communicating, marketing or speechwriting can take away from his performance: substance matters.

“Clinton on Wednesday avoided this kind of Oprah-style mood music in favor a more potent skill — his ability to convey the concrete human dimensions of public policy,” explained John Harris and Jonathan Martin in their analysis of Clinton’s speech.  They added: “repeatedly, Clinton cited a barrage of facts and figures, woven with historical context, sometimes in a highly argumentative way.”

Most politicians avoid talking about substantive issues. Brands, nonprofits, everyone avoids talking about substantive issues.  They focus instead on storytelling and branding. The belief is that if you connect with someone on an emotional level they’ll be motivated to take action. But it’s not true. Storytelling is important, but it is not enough.  People take action, whether its voting, donating, buying, or simply changing their behavior in some small way when they understand and appreciate the impact of those decisions.  Stories alone can’t do that.

Audiences are smart enough to understand complex issues when they are explained effectively.  Clinton understands that – and showed as much in his speech. As Harris and Martin noted “…his emphasis on policy has the effect — and in large measure the reality — of seeming to treat voters as adults who must be reached by reason, rather than Hallmark-card sentimentality.

Bill Clinton connected with the audience – in the room and across the country watching on television – on an emotional level, as well as intellectually. Both are important.  So talk about the substance.  It will change everything.