March 19, 2021 / Esther Choy

Biden used a key leadership storytelling tool

Biden used a key leadership storytelling tool in his prime time address to the nation.

When facing a tough audience, many leaders fail to fully acknowledge that audience’s views. Sure, they might explain the opposing position. But usually they will quickly follow it up by saying “here’s why I respectfully disagree,” and then launching into mountains of data to support their own argument.

That approach always fails.

It was a relief, then, to see President Biden taking a different approach when speaking about the path forward through the pandemic. In his prime time address to the nation this month, he used a persuasive approach that does work. In fact, it’s a key leadership storytelling technique that I share with clients who must make the case for change.

Here’s how this leadership storytelling tool works.

1. Acknowledge your audience’s point of view. 

Say back to them–verbatim–what you are hearing. Don’t even think about shortcutting this process by saying, “I hear you, I know how you feel, I understand.” They won’t believe you until you repeat what they say verbatim.

How Biden did it: 

He accurately described what the past year has felt like.

“Photos and videos from 2019 feel like they were taken in another era: the last vacation, the last birthday with friends, the last holiday with extended family. While it was different from everyone, we all lost something.”

But Biden also acknowledged the strength of all of us who have come through this time, and the sacrifices so many people have made.

Many of us carry, in our minds, either the exact numbers of the daily death toll or a heavy sense of how high it is. Biden made this concrete by taking out an index card with the exact number written on it, stating he carries it around in his pocket each day on the back of his daily schedule.

He acknowledged the economic toll as well by describing how difficult it has been for parents to tell children they’ve lost their jobs. He acknowledges what this was like for his own father.

True, he didn’t acknowledge the toughest skeptics–those who think the virus is a hoax or that measures to combat its spread are overly restrictive. I will acknowledge that it might be different for a policy speech, but normally I highly recommend acknowledging the skeptics.

2. Inspire your audience to work for a solution, together.

Map out the plan you and your audience can follow together.

How Biden did it: After acknowledging the difficulties we’ve been through, Biden mentioned a specific plan for fighting the pandemic: tell the truth, follow the science, and keep wearing masks rather than being divided by them. He outlined the specific roll-out plan for the vaccine, including the date by which all adults will be eligible to get the vaccine.

“I will not relent until we beat this virus,” he said. “…and I need you.

3. Aspire to a different future.

After acknowledging your audience’s viewpoint and inspiring them with a specific plan, aspire to envision the future together anew—a future that’s more just, collaborative, or streamlined.

How Biden did it: He painted a vision of being able to hang out with family and friends on July 4th.

“[I]f we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” he said. “We [will] begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

The “Acknowledge, Inspire, Aspire” model works well for facing a tough, varied audience because it keeps us from mixing up proving vs. persuading. They are not the same thing. Proving can be part of persuading, but just because you prove your points doesn’t mean you will have persuaded anyone. On the other hand, people throughout history have been persuaded to do all sorts of things without much of any proof.

It’s important to find a balance. Do your best to prove your point. Then use the “Acknowledge, Inspire, Aspire” leadership storytelling tool to persuade.

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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