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The Time a Great Storyteller Failed the Crowd

The moment was finally here. The greatly anticipated, prime-time speech during the opening night of the 1988 Democratic Convention was going to be the chance for a promising politician from Arkansas to wow the crowd in Atlanta and the millions listening at home.

And it was a real dud.

As I sat in the press box during that rambling, 33-minute speech, my thoughts on then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s performance were that he hardly could have done worse. It was so bad that when he finally said, “In closing,” the crowd actually stood, cheered and applauded — jubilation for the wrong reason.

The Arkansas Democrat was in no mood to give a home state discount, either, as the newspaper called it “an unmitigated disaster. A gentler, more charitable assessment would be less than honest, considering the reaction of delegates, network commentators and the national press.”

Ouch. Brutal, but totally fair.

It was also incredibly at odds with how Clinton is perceived today. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, no one can deny the former president is a great speaker, so what was the problem in ’88? Jitters?

There was a lack of compelling storytelling.

A key to Clinton’s speaking success is empathizing with his audiences and his ability to effectively share stories that relate to his positions. That night in Atlanta, though, there was little to none of that.

Those skills translate to business storytelling. Biology and endless examples demonstrate that when a story paints the right picture for us, when it resonates with us, when we feel as if we’re a character inside the narrative itself, we drop our defenses and start participating in the story.

That level of immersion and capacity to connect helped Clinton on the campaign trail four years after that crummy night in Atlanta — and they help businesses who are seeking to move hearts and change minds when reaching out to their target audience.

Find more anecdotes from history and WordWrite Chief Storyteller Paul Furiga's experiences in “Finding Your Capital S Story: Why your Story Drives your Brand.”

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