Opening Keynote

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

10:00am – 11:15am

Mike McCurry, Former White House Press Secretary to President Bill Clinton

The best stories draw us in with interesting characters and compelling narratives. But what if you want your story to make people think? Or better yet, to challenge the status-quo? Maybe you need to shift the narrative away from a real-life drama? Mike McCurry, Former Press Secretary to President Clinton, will divulge his secrets of storytelling for change.

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Learning Objectives:

  • How do you strategize the process of storytelling?
  • How do you maintain the message and keep the story consistent over time?
  • How much research is necessary? How to reach multiple audiences?
  • How to make sure that your story is right/relevant? Format: verbal, video, written


Mr. McCurry thanked Sherry for the introduction, then moved on to establish the foundation of his core talk:

The available media channels have changed.

  • There are challenges to effective advocacy communications, but as storytellers, the central challenge we face is to deal with the incoherency that exists broadly across our potential audiences.
  • The disaggregation of what we would now call the traditional media (e.g. television, print, etc.) has changed the landscape.
  • The previous format of media made it easier for your message to get out. Now there is a huge challenge in trying to reach people.

What has social media done to our ability to tell stories?

  • How do you deal with the complexity of a social media landscape? This means you have to be creative.
  • People under the age of 35 get their news from non-traditional sources (particularly not television), now they go to social networks, among other resources, which immediately poses challenges for how you design messages.

The media itself is also changing.

  • In the 1990s it was a fair, balanced media, but that has been changing.
  • The news media has been editorializing. In the past, the media played a role as a referee. Now, the media’s role as referee, to bring balance has begun to slip. They no longer play that role effectively for millions of Americans, which contributes to the incoherency.
  • Now you get different stories from different sources of media, which means that you have different perspective on truth.

Our challenge as advocates: how do you break through that?

  • We’ve had a broad scale of “failure to communicate” the importance of investing and being rigorous requires new discipline
  • Story: Bill Clinton (thought of as effortless, engaging communicator) in 1996 we had a really hard time with him as a story teller and communicator. We had a tough time getting him to establish choice.
  • Campaign staff tried out 10 different slogans with him, but none of them were sticking.
  • Finally, at the RNC, listening to then-candidate, Senator Bob Dole speak, he said that he would “be a bridge to that great generation of the past.” President Bill Clinton then said that Senator Dole had gotten it wrong, and that you cannot be a bridge to the past. You have to be a bridge to the 21st
  • He then used that idea throughout the rest of the campaign, including building a bridge for him to walk on stage across at the DNC, did campaign events at bridges, etc. It became a poignant piece of architecture that allowed him to organize all of the things he wanted to talk about.
  • That story demonstrates the fusing of the message and the messenger, the message matched what the persona was about.
  • Every organization needs to be able to clearly communicate their core belief that really defines what you want people to think about. That is the core of effective storytelling.

The Mike McCurry 5 Cs for Effective Communication.

  • Credibility. Telling the truth is very important. You need to be seen as someone who tells the truth. You need to demonstrate authenticity.
  • You cannot be credible if you are not open about what doesn’t work. You’ve got to be able to say we understand that this didn’t work. Candor is the critical byproduct.
  • Clarity. Clarity is the most important (and often most difficult) element when it comes to storytelling. Clarity is something that means the point connects directly. As you think about your own research and your skills, concentrating on clarity is the most valuable.
    1. “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid) is exactly wrong; most of what we are dealing with is complex. Just need to make things clear and to explain it well.
  • You’ve got to have some empathy for the people in the audiences we are trying to reach. They don’t have time to do all of the research. Put yourself in the shoes of the audience that you are reaching and imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end.
  • This actually is more like perseverance. It’s hard stuff. It is too easy for organizations to drift away from the discipline, or to grab the next shiny thing that comes along. Commitment to the discipline of storytelling and how you work through and plan the way has to be at the heart


Audience Question: With social media, it’s very easy to want to respond to any negative comment that comes along. How do you stay on message and not get into the fray? How do you know when to engage or to just let the circus be the circus?

McCurry Answer: Proportionality is key. Your response needs to be proportional to the way you’ve been aggrieved. This is very hard sometimes for CEOs or executives to get.  They often will just feel the impact of getting criticized, and will want to go nuclear. The question you should ask is: does this really interfere with our ability to share the core message.

Audience Question: Let’s pretend you’re advising Donald Trump, and he may listen to you. How would you advise Donald Trump to get out of the mess that he’s in?

McCurry Answer: This goes back to the 4th C: Compassion.  He needs to listen more carefully to the people he’s engaging with. He’s very good at clarity and at making things simple (note: the vocabulary he uses), but he misses compassion and empathy.

Audience Question: Given the current atmosphere, do you think the major political parties are changed forever? Can America’s political system ever recover, and can the parties be as potent as they once were?

McCurry Answer: The stereotypical roles of the parties have switched, before the Democratic Party was the “diverse coalition party”, flowing out of FDR’s efforts to build the party. The Republican’s used to have a reputation of having very precise and well managed conventions. Overall, these parties are durable institutions of our democracy. We’re not going to go the direction of Europe, we’ve got stability. Both the libertarian and the green party have formidable candidates, and more than half of voters don’t like the major party candidates.

Audience Question: How do you maintain a disciplined approach to storytelling when your opponent is taking an undisciplined approach and doing better?

McCurry Answer: You have to recognize that there is something about why they are winning, and take that into consideration. Example: With Trump, despite being an undisciplined storyteller, there’s something about the way he is connecting with our primary voters that we have to tap into ourselves.

Audience Question: On a daily basis, in the absence of “above the fold/below the fold” or “leading stories”, what do you use to measure the penetration of your message?

McCurry Answer: Part of this is a mindset shift. There is a huge pressure that comes from senior executives and leaders to see their message out there. The key is to design and use metrics that actually show and convince people of real impact. It requires creativity, and certainly the metrics have to be much more sophisticated. Overall, refining how you measure is an important part of good disciplined storytelling.

Audience Question: What constitutes credibility for an organization?

McCurry Answer: Credibility reaches towards truthfulness, enhances trustworthiness. Just find ways to emphasize your core message.  Today, the percentage of the public that trusts the government to get things right most of the time has been decreasing. There has been a fundamental erosion of credibility; we don’t trust our leaders, or our government. So we need to focus in on truth and core message.

Audience Question: Isn’t there value in reducing the credibility of your opponent?

McCurry Answer: You can attack the credibility of your opponent, but at the end of the day the judgment the citizen makes is entirely personal.

Audience Question: Given the current media atmosphere, can you talk about why you think public debates are really effective avenues for candidates or anyone to present a message?

McCurry Answer: The current debate system is no longer in the hands of the media or the candidates; there is now an independent commission. But the reason debates are important are because they generate a moment of clarity. They don’t change a lot of minds, but they confirm choices.

Audience Question: What can we do to engage with the debates?

McCurry Answer: Engage on other social platforms, and host’s platforms. Figure out how you want to crystallize your own messages and what you want specifically to touch on. Ultimately the questions that get asked are up to the moderators.