Storytelling Lessons from the US President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Speech

Storytelling from Joe Biden Speech
US President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech in Washington, D.C - Image by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Four years ago, the Politico magazine termed President Trump’s inauguration speech as unapologetically anti-globalist and inward-looking while President Biden has this to say in his inaugural speech which was delivered earlier this week.

But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you do, or worship the way you do, or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.

We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

And further went ahead and said this, We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”

Biden’s speech was one of empathy with conciliatory tone aimed at bringing unity (not surprising that the word unity was mentioned 9 times in his speech), after a period of divisive politics that ended with protestors storming into the hallways of Capitol.

Having said that, the objective of this post is to see how President Biden used storytelling to inspire and what we can learn from it. His speech employed proven rhetorical techniques along with aspects of storytelling, not to mention the clever use of words. For anyone in leadership, his speech has got a heavy dose of takeaways on high stakes communication.

These are the 3 techniques that I found interesting,

Storytelling Lesson 1: The power of contrast – highlighting differences

Storytelling Lesson 2: Shared dreams and common grounds

Storytelling Lesson 3: Rhetoric – the science of persuasion

Storytelling Lesson 1: The power of contrast – highlighting differences

Nancy Duarte the famed TED speaker and speech analysis expert has looked at several great speeches and analysed why those speeches stood out.

Her analysis finds a lot of commonalities between Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I have a dream” speech and Steve Jobs, the Apple iPhone launch speech in 2007. She reveals both these leaders leveraged the power of contrast to depict a picture of how the world is now and what the future could look like if the audience bought into their idea.

I found the use of contrast in multiple places throughout Biden’s speech. Kudos to his speech writer of Indian origin Vinay Reddy, for having embraced this technique very well.

These are my pick,

We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.”

“I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.”

“We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

And finishes off even more powerfully (contrast words are highlighted and they are my own),

“I will give my all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities.

Not of personal interest, but of the public good.

And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.

Of unity, not division.

Of light, not darkness.

An American story of decency and dignity.

Of love and of healing.

Of greatness and of goodness.”

Storytelling Lesson 2: Shared dreams and common ground

One of the important aspects for a leader is to get people to rally behind their (common) cause and great leaders even go to the extent of inspiring followers from the opposite camp.

The challenge before Joe Biden was that the administration that preceded him built their entire narrative on divisive politics while his campaign theme was about unity.

So how did he go about driving home this point?

He eloquently did that with a mix of emotional appeal, pitching for a positive future for all, reminding people about who they are and what was remarkable about them.

How did he execute this in his speech?

Reminding them who they are,

“We look ahead in our uniquely American way — restless, bold, optimistic — and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.”

Again, reminding them who they are and telling them what the need of the hour is,

“But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.

On “We the People” who seek a more perfect Union.

This is a great nation and we are a good people.

Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we have come so far. But we still have far to go.

We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility.”

Connecting on emotions, committing himself and inviting them to commit for the shared dream and common good,

“In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

When he put pen to paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”

My whole soul is in it.

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this:

Bringing America together.

Uniting our people.

And uniting our nation.

I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

Beyond the above points, he was also versatile in his approach to reach a common ground by evoking patriotism (he used, our nation (7 times), America and American (39 times), constitution (3 times), people (9 times)), quoting past leaders (Presidents -George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, activist Martin Luther King Jr.) and highlighting what a common citizen wants.

What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans?

I think I know.

Opportunity.

Security.

Liberty.

Dignity.

Respect.

Honor.

And, yes, the truth.”

Storytelling Lesson 3: Rhetoric – the science of persuasion

As the incoming President, once he established the common ground the next step is to inspire people to follow his vision. Great speakers employ rhetoric to persuade. Of the different methods, Biden employed couple of techniques that I could make sense.

The first technique is repetition of certain words at the beginning of a set of sentences (when same words are used in the beginning of the sentence its called anaphora and if its in the end, its called epiphora) and alliteration (letters or sound that occur at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words).

When used effectively, rhetoric can galvanise the audience. Did Biden arouse the audience with his speech? Oh! boy he did a great job at it.

Sample this anaphora,

“My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we will need each other.

We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.

We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus.

We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.

I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.

We will get through this, together.

The world is watching today.

So here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we have come out stronger for it.

We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.

Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.

We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.

We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

And towards the end once more coupled with the power of contrast,

“And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear.

Of unity, not division.

Of light, not darkness.

An American story of decency and dignity.

Of love and of healing.

Of greatness and of goodness.”

So what was it all about alliteration, a clever play of words that start with or sound like same letter?

He started off splendidly,

“This is democracy’s day.

A day of history and hope.

Of renewal and resolve.”

A healthy dose throughout his speech,

“Lies told for power and for profit.”

And this

“We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

And then,

“The world is watching today.”

Some more,

We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

Not always a political leader’s speech is looked forward to and when you are the President of the United States, it comes with a huge responsibility. I feel Team Joe Biden did a great job in crafting a speech that was well delivered by Joe Biden.

After listening to Biden’s speech and the transcript for more than a few times, I had to say this “Great speeches happen to those who can deliver it” inspired from Ira Glass’s, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

You can be a people manager or a sales leader or an entrepreneur, there is something that you can take away from Biden’s speech to deliver high impact communication.

What is your takeaway?

Whose Narrative Stood Out at the Big Tech’s Antitrust Hearing?

BigTech's Narrative in Antitrust Hearing
Morning Brew by Unsplash

On July 29th, four men who run companies worth $ 4.85 trillion appeared before the US Congress’s members of House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee. It was part of the hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power”, and the chief executives are there to defend their powerful businesses from the hammer of government.

Any guesses – who these gentlemen were?

They were Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sundar Pichai (Alphabet-Google). And they were to argue that their businesses are not powerful! Yes, that is what they did.

Narrative in antitrust hearing

I am not here to argue whether they are powerful or not, I will best leave that to the US Congress and the readers to decide. But I am going to see who among these influential executives did a better job with their defence.

From their written testimony, I am going to analyze their statements from the narrative lens, who articulated their position in an impactful and convincing manner with supporting stories. For this analysis, I have picked the written statements from the website of the US House Committee on the Judiciary and listened to the five hr+ hearing video.

Decoding Jeff Bezos’s (Amazon) Narrative Traits in his Testimony

Jeff Bezos is known for his narrative style as can be observed from his annual letter to shareholders and the famous 6-page narrative structure memo used in meetings in place of PowerPoint presentations.

He puts to good use his narrative memo structure with one deviation – it runs to 8th page and is one of the detailed testimony that I read among the four.

Jeff starts in style with his origin story. He also gets into details, like his mother was 17 years when she got pregnant with Jeff in Albuquerque, New Mexico, how she has to struggle to attend school and the role of his grandfather in getting his daughter educated.

He moves on to share the story of his immigrant father from Cuba, his traits such as grit and determination and packs a punch when he says, “You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.” There are several such powerful statements across the testimony document.

From the way he explains about his grandfather, one gets a feeling that Jeff is more like his grandfather. He recollects incidents to support his narrative of him as a problem solver. Bezos has this to say about his grandfather, “He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.”

And then continues to support that statement with some of his inventions as a teenager. Till here it was more about personal story, detailing about the key stakeholders from his growing up years, humble background and repeatedly affirming that he overcame all odds. This is something that aligns well with the judiciary committee’s objective of supporting the less powerful, small-time businesses against these four big giants.

Jeff Bezos takes us back to the day when he decided to quit his full-time job in an investment firm in New York and how his manager tried to convince him to stay with the job as this business idea (online bookstore) was for someone who didn’t have a good job. Jeff says, he decided to start up and leave the job with his heart and not with his head.

A message he conveys to all aspiring entrepreneurs who talk about risk in starting up. Jeff’s punch statement, “When I’m 80 and reflecting back, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have in my life. And most of our regrets are acts of omission—the things we did not try, the paths untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us. And I decided that if I didn’t at least give it my best shot, I was going to regret not trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a big deal.”

This reminded of the Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech, which was famous for its storytelling aspects, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Over the next few paragraphs, he talks about the risks associated with running a startup in the internet domain and the early day struggles. Even after they grew, he cites that risk-taking and not afraid of failures has been Amazon’s biggest strength. He introduces the concept of, “Day One” mentality that makes Amazon to maintain the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One.

Jeff Bezos then ties how obsessive customer focus is helping them to maintain the Day One mindset. Another punch, “Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.”

He emphasizes building customer trust as a key to Amazon’s success. Jeff details the multiple ways Amazon works to earn customer trust and why it is not very easy, “You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well— delivering on time; offering everyday low prices; making promises and keeping them; making principled decisions, even when they’re unpopular; and giving customers more time to spend with their families by inventing more convenient ways of shopping, reading, and automating their homes.”

And this is where I kind of fell for him. He cites various independent studies on how Americans trust Amazon next only to the US military and the local police. WOW!

At this point, he ups the ante. He gets into the details of his businesses. How online retail helps create jobs in various neighbourhoods by hiring for different skills – the mechanics and plant managers to the computer scientists and MBAs. It is critical to tell the committee that jobs are created locally to serve American consumers, retail being operation intensive, and 80% of their business, they will keep doing this day in and out.

To further drive home this point, he talks about the Career Choice program, which costs them $700 million to train more than 100,000 Amazon employees in various fields and is not always related to their line of business. Jeff Bezos shares about Patricia Soto who utilized this program and is now employed with a medical foundation. Career choice enabled her to pursue a second career which was once seemed out of reach.

Amazon invested $270 billion in the last decade in the US and in addition to direct employment they also helped create 700,000 indirect jobs in construction, hospitality etc,. These jobs were also created in unlikely cities that led to economic activity. He further points to the 175,000 employees hired during COVID with a mandate to hire the laid off.

His speech is nuanced with data leading some arguments supported with narratives and in other places, narrative leading and supported with data.

If you are aware of the Freytag’s pyramid of storytelling, it has the following elements – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

In my view, so for Jeff Bezos sets up the stage for his climax. In the next few paragraphs, he delves deeper into the retail market as a whole and makes the argument why Amazon is not a dominating force. This the key message he wants to send to the committee. Let us see how he unravels it.

Without beating around the bush, in the opening line itself, he states, “Amazon accounts for less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and less than 4% of retail in the US. Unlike winner-take-all industries, there’s room for many winners in retail.

For example, more than 80 retailers in the US alone earn over $1 billion in annual revenue. He pits himself against Walmart which a the largest retailer (primarily offline)and how they are also ramping up their online business (growth of 74% in first quarter of 2020). He also cites online specific competition like Shopify which enable any offline retailer to set up online store easily. He finishes of this argument with, “The range of retail competitors and related services is constantly changing, and the only real constant in retail is customers’ desire for lower prices, better selection, and convenience.”

The next big salvo he fires is against the argument that Amazon is squeezing small retailers. He cites two stories, and both are women-centric– Sherri Yukel (selling handicraft gifts and now employs 80 people catering to a global customer base)  and Christine Krogue (a stay at home mother of five selling baby clothes and Amazon helping her to double her sales and growing her business).

In the following sections he talks about how fulfilment of Amazon helps create a great customer experience,the players who are challenging Amazon in retail space globally and locally, the minimum wages Amazon provides and why it is important to bring this minimum wage benchmarks to the industry as a whole, the parity in benefits, the diversity in Amazon shareholding (80% shares owned by outsiders), how growth of Amazon helps its investors such as pension funds enabling people to retire better ($1 trillion wealth created for outsiders) etc.

All these points are aimed at the anti-stories that the committee members have as part of their enquiry. The message he sends, the financial success of Amazon has helped the common shareholders enormously.

Before he concludes, he gets into the big picture items. Its important being big, as scale enables to do certain things that is not possible when you are small. This is a powerful punch to cement that argument, “I love garage entrepreneurs—I was one. But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage.”

With that statement, he gets onto the big picture like how Amazon is becoming environmentally friendly and commits itself to meet the Paris climate agreement well ahead of time. They are doing this with the adoption of electric delivery vans (supporting Rivian to grow), investing in solar and wind projects, investing in global reforestation projects and the start of climate pledge fund that invests in startups that are building products and services to help companies reduce their carbon impact and operate more sustainably.

And then some social cause projects where Amazon is directly contributing with programs like Amazon Future engineer aimed at underrepresented, underserved communities and minorities to pursue a computer science career, the homeless shelter project in association with non-profit Mary’s place etc.

He signs off by stating that the US is a great nation for companies to start, grow and thrive. Despite all the challenges, people from outside still aspire to be part of this country like his father for the sheer amount of optimism and opportunity this great nation has gifted to the world.

Having read and heard all their written testimonies and their responses to questions, I believe that Jeff Bezos is a natural storyteller and has done a better job in his defence.

Decoding Tim Cook’s Testimony for Narrative Traits

Tim Cook starts with why a company like Apple is possible only in the US, enriching people’s lives is their mission, and they do that by making the best and not the most. So, he straight away knocks off the belief that they are not in the business of selling more. He talks about the Apple promise of building things that makes them proud, and he attributes how Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, defined their purpose – we only make things that we would recommend to our family and friends.

The case against Apple is unique in comparison to the other three.Apple’s app store is not an equitable place, it promotes its apps vs apps developed by other developers and the charges to use app store are anticompetitive.

Tim talks about the famous Apple user experience and how they are focussed on providing customer satisfaction (iPhone enjoys 99% customer satisfaction rating), and that is their best metric to track progress.

He details more about how Apple is not the dominant player in the smartphone market and this market is very competitive with players like Samsung, LG etc.

Tim Cook then details more about the app store, its features, the business model, how they enable others to develop apps and make money, for a vast majority of apps developers keep 100% of the money and that the charges are also vastly lower than the 50-70% the developers paid before app store came into existence. He goes on to state, app store since its debut has evolved with two primary objectives – one to provide better user experience and the other creating compelling business opportunity for developers.

An economic miracle in the making is what Tim Cook defines Apple’s app store. He does this by getting into the specifics like when the app store was launched it had only 500 apps, while today it has more than 1.7 million apps and only 60 of them belong to Apple (this is the norm variance narrative). And makes a point of how much economic activity is created – the app store ecosystem enabled over half a trillion dollars business worldwide and in US alone $138 billion.

Tim signs off with the massive impact created by Apple’s different products such as the first Mac creating opportunity and possibility by disrupting the personal computing market, iPod creating opportunities for musicians with fair pay for their creative work.

To me, it was a testimony loaded with more of numbers, specifics around app store with less of storytelling.

Did Mark Zuckerberg Adopt a Different Narrative Style?

Zuckerberg starts with the problem Facebook is solving – “People use our apps to share videos, photos, livestreams, posts and private messages; to join communities, set up fundraisers for good causes, and even register to give blood. We also help millions of businesses connect with customers. Facebook gives small businesses and individual entrepreneurs access to sophisticated tools that previously only the largest players had. Now any business can use our services to establish an online presence, reach potential customers and grow.”

With the purpose being set clear, he talks about the competition that Facebook faces and how the US is the bedrock of competition and innovation. Due to the competition, several tech companies have failed. At the end of his testimony, he ties this point to another Facebook move. Watch out.

The values that Facebook believes in (democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression) and the ones on which the American economy is built-in are the same is Zuckerberg’s argument. Since it’s the season of China vs the US, he also cites the values of Chinese companies are very different than that of Facebook and the US-based companies.

In his testimony, he goes one step further. He suggests to the US Congress, “I believe it’s important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America’s digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world.”

Zuckerberg delves deeper into Facebook’s genesis, the different entities acquired such as WhatsApp, Instagram and the services they provide, the hardware products and the investment that goes into R&D ($ 10 billion every year) to improve their offerings to stay relevant to their users.

Since the committee is tasked to probe the anti-competitive forces of Facebook and other companies, Zuckerberg makes an argument around FB’s contribution to the open-source community. Also goes on to make a point that FB shares the results coming out of their research to the entire ecosystem so that it helps in developing new products.

Then he gets on to the social cause projects such as crisis response tools (Safety check tool used in 1400 crises and in 2018 alone, used across 80+ countries in 300 crises) which helps to share information, raise money etc. He cites one specific example of how non-profit No Kid Hungry has raised over $5 million from more than 200,000 donors to help feed children across the United States. The next is about commitment to invest in Black and minority community suppliers in the US.

Since there have been accusations on Facebook on their aggressive and anticompetitive M&A practices, he goes on to state WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions has helped the individual entities to leverage Facebook’s technology, infrastructure, funding to develop and launch new features which would have not been possible otherwise. This is in alignment to provide better services that offer more value to people and advertisers.

He tries to crush the argument on the scale being anti-competitive by suggesting a more active role for governments and regulators and updated rules for the internet. He also addresses the concern on data privacy and information security-related aspects – like quoting that there are 35,000 people now in FB working on safety and security, an increase of 3X resources in 3 years.

Among the four companies, Mark Zuckerberg has appeared most no. of times in front of antitrust committees for FB’s controversial actions in the past, hence I believe he goes the extra mile and commits for taking more responsibility to keep people safe on their our platform.

Towards the end, he details, how FB has helped people and businesses since the start of COVID pandemic. There was a jump of 1000%  of cirical communication calls in Italy during early stages of the pandemic, 700 million people doing video calls on WhatsApp and Messenger in April, enabling small businesses to operate online, connecting non-profits to run fundraisers etc.

He is the only CEO who mentions that beyond the talk on antitrust and competition issues, the Congress also has an opportunity to talk about how technology can better serve society as these are the most influential executives in the tech world.

Zuckerberg’s concluding remark, “Several years ago, Facebook moved our headquarters to the campus where Sun Microsystems used to be. We kept their sign out front, on the back of ours, to remind us that things change fast in tech. I’ve long believed that the nature of our industry is that someday a product will replace Facebook. I want us to be the ones that build it, because if we don’t, someone else will.”

Zuckerberg’s testimony is well written to address all the concerns that the committee might have had. But the testimony statement was devoid of narrative elements.

What Narrative Traits did Sundar Pichai (Google) Use in His Testimony?

Sundar Pichai starts by stating his personal value of expanding access to opportunity by using technology and goes on to narrate his story. A story of a boy coming from a technologically disadvantaged place and how the US gave him access to computers. This opportunity enabled him to create many cutting-edge technology products, including Google chrome etc.

From his point, he sees technology should provide access to anyone irrespective of his/her background and the US as a country has done this for him. It closely relates to the subcommittee’s concern for equal opportunities in business. Personal stories are compelling, and he also goes one step further by tying his values to the subcommittee’s objective.

He proceeds further to state how as a company, Google has helped Americans with jobs (out of 120,000 worldwide Google employees – 75,000 are in US alone), investments and how they are creating jobs in different states of US (Google’s offices and data centers are spread across 26 states out of 50 states).

One needs to remember, the end goal of this antitrust committee is to avoid monopolistic powerful businesses that skews opportunities and take away any unfair advantages these big giants have by virtue of their size, money, data and business agreements.

To alleviate this concern, he goes on to share stories of people who have benefited by using Google’s products & services. When people have preconceived notions, it is tough to cut ice with them through facts, slick presentations, or passionate speeches. The best way to counter is by sharing stories with perspective supporting one’s argument. Sundar Pichai leveraged that with the stories of how Fat Witch Bakery of New York, Kettlebell Kings of Austin and Berry Digital of Urbana are using Google Ads, analytics and YouTube to improve their business prospects even during COVID.

Beyond this, he gets more into the data of how much Google is investing in R&D, cites how their investments in technology like AI, self-driving cars and quantum computing are helping other industries such as medicine and battery manufacturers.

He further moves on to citing how Google’s competition is equally powerful, how competition has helped in reducing advertising costs, how they are enabling others to innovate with the freely available Android platform and how it has enabled to launch feature phones at lower prices.

Sundar Pichai started well with the connection story that helped him to connect with the cause of the enquiry, he then moved on to use stories of small businesses who have benefited from Google products but then he veered into data on investments, statements on competition and ended with typical corporate-speak on privacy & security.

I somehow felt that his 2nd half of the statement was typical corporate speak whereas he could have done better by continuing what he did in the 1st half of the statement.

In summary,

These are the most powerful men in the corporate tech world when they speak, the world listens. I think given the nature of the enquiry, had the CEOs been more open about the impact they had created to the community with anecdotes and references to specific cases (which only Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai used), it would have added some heft to their defense.  

Since I also listened to the enquiry, I can see that the enquiry committee members have several points loaded against the anti-competitive practices of all these companies.

I also saw the frustration expressed by one of the members on how they broke ATT in 1984 almost for the same reason for which these 4 companies are being called for hearing. But after 35 yrs, ATT has grown through M&As and is now again back to where it was as the dominant telecom operator of the US.

Given this backdrop, it would be interesting to watch out for the outcome of this enquiry and how it pans out.  

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