Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

How to pitch like a screenwriter and win more business.

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Whether you’re trying to pitch your start-up business to investors or your new creative campaign to the C-Suite, you’ll improve your chances of winning if you pitch like a screenwriter. Why? Because screenwriters don’t pitch business plans, exit strategies or projections. They pitch stories.

Imagine you’re a screenwriter trying to pitch an idea for a movie.

Let’s say you’ve just read a book about a failed moon voyage and march into a producer’s office. You can say: I just read this book about Apollo 13. A great story about a failed moon shot. I think it would make a super screenplay.

Or you can ask: What if three astronauts on the way to the moon had an explosion on board and you had to figure out how to get them back alive?
See how the second approach immediately involves you in a story? The “what if pitch” is designed to engage your listener in problem solving: “Wow, now that I think about it, how would you get them back?” If he’s a movie producer, he’s suddenly thinking plot, structure and visuals. She’s thinking who could fill the role and be a great box office draw. You want to get their wheels turning, you want them to forget they’re in their office for a moment and imagine problem solving in the Space Center. Once you’ve done that, you can start to walk them through the details of your story.

Pitching a business or technology innovation is no different from pitching a movie.

You want to get people interested and engaged in the solution you’re offering. You also want them to begin to trust you. Why would they trust you? Because you’ve taken the role of a guide, leading them on a journey that they’re enjoying.

Getting listeners involved in the creative problem solving is powerful, but it’s nuanced. You can’t present a complete blank slate. You have to have the idea and core solution well thought out. The assignment for the listener needs to be around polishing the idea and adapting it to fit their needs. A little like an architect, you want to design the structure but leave some of the interior decoration to the client. You want to get their creative juices flowing as they imagine their future within your construction.

That means you want to be more specific than, “What if there was a movie about NASA?” Sure, and what if I wash my hair with cream cheese? That’s not a pitch. That’s maybe the start of a brainstorming session. No one pays a million dollars for that.

Keep the focus on the creative result. And be careful not to turn it into a car salesman’s pitch: What if I could get you into that new Range Rover for the same payments you have on your Honda? That’s not a what-if pitch, that’s a coercion. Your listeners can smell that all over you and they’ll turn off in an instant. And once you lose their trust, that’s the time to show yourself out.

A what-if pitch is in an invitation to dance.

Everyone wants to be involved in a story. The “what if pitch” turns them into co-creators. By framing your pitch as an invitation to imagine a journey, you turn your audience into your partners.

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Are You Writing for Your Better Angels or Your Victims?

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Abraham_Lincoln_by_Byers,_1858_-_cropFor all the praise that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has received over the years, you might be surprised to learn that on the day it was delivered, it was little noted nor long remembered by those who were present at the event. After the two-hour speech that preceded him, most people walked away from the stage when the President stood up to speak. They had pressing business behind the nearest tree and thought they would only miss the first few minutes of his speech. Imagine their astonishment when they returned from the woods, and discovered that the President’s speech was done. It was only a few days later, when editors around the country started pulling the Gettysburg Address off the telegraph and praising it, that they realized how much they’d missed.


You can imagine how a speaker might feel watching his audience walk away: let down, even victimized by an audience who ignored them, “I spent all that time writing on the back of an envelope,” Lincoln might have whined, “and no one stayed to listen!” But Lincoln was a leader, not a victim. He looked at life through a different lens.


This story came to my mind when I read the manuscript of a new book by a “Zen master” friend of mine, Dr. Frank Allen who wrote, “victimization is the cornerstone of the foundation of human experience.” What he and his co-author are saying is that we view our experience in the context of “cause and effect”. You ran over my dog so I am mad. You broke up with me so I am sad. You cheated me in a deal so I did bad. I’m a victim of your actions.


Those are natural responses in human experience – things happen to us and we have a response. But our responses aren’t always accurate, or genuine when looked at more objectively. Did you really run over my dog or did I let my dog out off leash? Did you break up with me before of after I slept with your best friend first? Did you really cheat me in a deal or did I – like you — fail to do enough due diligence? Looked at more broadly, in none of those experiences am I the victim. In each, I am the cause of my experience.


What’s important about this thinking, from a speechwriter’s point of view, is that it’s useful in analyzing two rhetorical trends that have been with us throughout history: writing for our “victims” or, to quote a phrase Lincoln used in his first inaugural address, writing for our “better angels.” Dr. Martin Luther King, who certainly was a victim of a system that was designed to deny members of his race an equal place in society, never spoke of victimization. In speech after speech, he called all Americans to our better angels. He didn’t just fire up his base (although his base was certainly fired up). He called on everyone who could hear his voice to be inspired by an inclusive vision of fairness. On the other hand, Black Panther leaders railed about their victimization at the hands of the pigs. Dr. King is remembered as a great man, the Panther leaders not so much.


Lincoln had a knack for speaking to the better angels of everyone in the crowd, for understanding other peoples’ aspirations and moral yearnings and speaking to their positive, inclusive selves. According to a contemporary, Helen Nicolay, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the young Lincoln would listen for hours at Whig Party caucuses, then stand up and outline what they should do to get the vote based on what he heard them say the Democrats were planning. He was adept at understanding not just the scrappy tactics of politics but what people were thinking and feeling on both sides of an issue. As he laid out a positive plan of action to get the vote, based on thinking for the public good, he outlined “the moves for days ahead; making them all so plain that his listeners wondered why they had not seen it that way themselves.” His intuition for the feelings of others and his empathy for their positive intentions gave him the power to walk into his seven debates with this popular Democratic rival Stephen Douglas and turn a crowd to his side. Admittedly, in with a hostile audience it took him a couple of hours to get the job done. He did it by speaking simply and recalling people to their roots as Americans, presenting a clear and carefully connected call to the moral and philosophical foundations of the Nation.


Hitler_as_young_manThere’s an interesting historical parallel involving Adolf Hitler. Just 56 years after Gettysburg, Hitler began his oratorical career much like Lincoln did, observing rancorous debates in political caucuses. Hitler’s public speaking debut came informally when he attended a rally as an undercover agent. Afraid that he was going to be drummed out of the Army at the end of World War I and unemployed, he volunteered for a unit that was charged with attending and of following fringe political groups. On Friday, September 12, 1919, he attended a routine meeting of the German Worker’s Party in Munich. In a discussion following the speeches, he intervened in a panel argument and essentially took over the meeting, firing up the audience as he spoke about the victimization of the German people. He fed back to them their sense that they had been cheated by outsiders and deserved to be treated better. It was a powerful moment in history that changed the course of the 20th century. From that moment, he was invited to be a featured speaker at rallies, taking the point of view that Communists and Jews had destroyed the country and he alone could save them.


The victimization trope explains the success of Donald Trump as an orator. Trump’s a powerful and compelling speaker who can draw a crowd into a tight circle that feels like it’s just you, him and a few of your buddies down at a table at the coffee shop in town. He’s brilliant at pointing out what we should feel really upset about and who we should blame. Trump’s success in dominating the news for the last 18 months demonstrates the power the doctrine of victimization. It’s a powerful oratorical device because it goes to the heart of how all humans experience life, with victimization as the cornerstone. Things happen out there that affect us and if we don’t think we came out on top, we want to know who to blame.


Shakespeare knew all about victims because it’s at the heart of storytelling. Comedy is about victims who come out on top (usually by toppling a victimizer) and tragedy is about people who decide they’re being victimized. Every one of Shakespeare’s tragedies is based around someone who believes he or she is a victim of someone else’s actions and seeks redress. Tragedy, by definition, ends badly.


And that’s the trouble with playing the victimization card. After early victories, it always comes back to bite you.

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Guess who won the Grand Award at the 2016 Cicero Awards

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Wow! What an unexpected honor. My speech, The Downside of Up: The Outrageous Fortune of Being a Speechwriter, was just named the 2016 Grand Award winner. The Cicero Awards are an international recognition of the speechwriting art and I’m very, very honored to be selected. The speech was delivered at last year’s Global Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association at Georgetown University.

If you have 45 minutes with nothing to do, watch it above. And wait for the standing ovation at the end. And the text is published in Vital Speeches of the Day.

Cicero Awards

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Bookshelf

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You are what you read because what you read changes your mind. Maybe not all at once and maybe not in ways you see clearly without the benefit of time. And then sometimes, yes, all at once, like a screaming celestial body crashing through the roof of your house. The New York Times has been running a series by editor Aaron Hicklin in which he asks people to list the 10 books they’d take if they were marooned on a desert island. Since it may take them a while to get through the 1.374 billion people more influential than I, let me share my own list. While I’m tempted to list ten books with titles like “How to Build a Boat” and “Find Your Way Home with Celestial Navigation,” I’m going to play it straight. Here are 10 books that have most influenced me and to which I am most likely to return, time and time again. And since you can buy e-books for yourself or anyone else right through the Holidays, there’s still time to add something to your stocking.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig

This is a novel of sorts that reads like a memoir but is really a meditation on the nature of quality. What does it mean to create something of quality? What is quality? We think we know it when we see it, but does it really exist? How do we know? Not really about Zen or about motorcycles, it’s a study into what it means to be a real person who does work worth doing. Anything good I’ve ever written was deeply influenced by this book. I read it once a decade.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

In a way a novel, like a dream, is a collection of facets of your self trying to make sense of existence, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. You read it and hope you come out with a better understanding of who you are. Tolstoy begins with this sentence, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As someone who grew up in an unhappy family, I can relate. This book is a journey to the moment when the character Konstantin Levin stands outside his house, looking at the stars and believes he understands what life is all about. You can make a case for this being the best novel yet written.

Master and Commander, the Aubrey-Maturin Series, Patrick O’Brian

Stuck on an island, you want something long to read and this series, which is essentially a single, 5,500 page novel, nicely fits the bill. And it’s about the ocean and men who are lost in so many important ways, so it’s perfect. I resisted reading these books for years until my father bought me the entire set. Thus compelled, I had to read at least the first one. Then I had to ration myself to reading only one a month. And then, when I’d finished all 21, I started again at the beginning. I’ve been through the entire cycle twice; my son and my dad have been through it three times. And my wife has listened to the audiobooks. Might be one of the ten best novels of the 20th Century.

The Lone Samurai, the Life of Miyamoto Musashi, William Scott Wilson

When I was a kid, I travelled to Japan and became obsessed with the Samurai, particularly with Miyamoto Musashi, whose life was portrayed in The Samurai Trilogy, a series of films by Hiroshi Inagaki. The movies were based on the epic Japanese novel, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa. Musashi was the real deal, the greatest samurai who ever lived, but also a poet, painter and Zen philosopher. This book is a deeply researched study of his remarkable life. It also contains a digest of his treatise on strategy, The Book of Five Rings. I spend every day trying to match his path to mastery. (And Yoshikawa’s novel is a good read, too).

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

On page one of this astounding British novel, Ursula Todd is born to a happy and well-off family. On page two, she dies. On the next page, she lives a little longer, but not much. In take after take, life either works out better or it doesn’t, and then she tries again. Sometimes there are parallel tracks. Sometimes she backtracks. Once, she assassinates a young Hitler in a café. As she goes on, she learns more and more about the nature of life and how to live. She also learns how to die. Of any writers working today, she has a way of unfolding characters to reveal their depths. It’s kind of scary how well she does that. And she’s not predictable. Her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, burst on the scene beating out Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis for the Whitbread Book of the Year. Then she wrote four detective novels which are just as good as her “serious” works. Packing for the island, I’d try to sneak all her books in my backpack.

On The Road, Jack Kerouac

I stood outside the ferry building at Circular Quay in Sydney when I was 14 and watched the commuters racing to clock in at their office jobs. That was the day I swore I would never spend my life doing that. Somehow, when I found this book a few years later, it spoke to my rogue self and sent me down many roads with my thumb out. Said to have been written in ten days on a roll of paper, the furious be-bop typing of a mad man who saw America as a beautiful and unfaithful mistress. But oh, what sweet prose,

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

For decades, this was the book that sang me to sleep at night. Just read “Large Red Man Reading” or “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and you’ll see why. Stevens was an insurance company executive in Hartford and sat at his desk most of the day writing poetry. They offered him lots of chairs at prestigious universities but he always turned them down. Always for the same reason: “You know how much poets make?”

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño reminds me of a chef who can look in your cupboard and then cook up the most amazing and surprising meal you’ve ever imagined. It may not all hang together in the traditional sense and you may wonder where it’s going, but you’ll know when you get there. This was the final book this Chilean author gave us, published after his death. When it won the National Book Critics Award, they called it a “work so rich and dazzling that it will surely draw readers and scholars for ages.” (The Savage Detectives is also wonderful).

The Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda

This book hit my like a brick when I was in college and launched me on a life-long journey to the East and to the idea that there might be a higher level of consciousness than the bull-twaddle I was living in when I was a teenager. Yogananda was one of the first to bring yoga and meditation to America and had a nice way of telling a story. Copies of this book were handed out to everyone who attended Steve Jobs’ memorial service, so I guess he had the same relationship to this book that I do.

The Lonely Silver Rain and the Travis McGee series, John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is my hero in so many ways. Armed with a Harvard MBA, he wrote stories about business swindles, usually in the world of Florida real estate development or boat yards. In the 21 book series that begins with The Deep Blue Goodbye and ends with The Lonely Silver Rain, we follow one Travis McGee, who helps those who’ve been swindled recover what they’ve lost. If successful, he takes half and goes fishing. Hardboiled pulp fiction? No, it’s way more than that. Novelists from Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen to Stephen King have praised him as one of our greatest storytellers. Martin Amis said “MacDonald is, by any standards, a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels.” Except that MacDonald’s novels aren’t really about the thrill, they’re about the feeling, about what it feels like to watch people make horrible mistakes from which they can never recover.

And just for grins …

If I was really marooned, I’d be writing another book. If you haven’t read the last one, The Downside of Up, I’m told it makes great airplane reading and, like I said at the top, you can still get the e-book in time for the long weekend.

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Beditation: The New Way to Sleep Your Way to the Top

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Beditation catEverybody loves a good night’s sleep but, done right, the way you sleep can also give you a better day of getting things done. Dr. Amy Cuddy has extendED her research of power poses to sleeping positions and has found that the way you sleep can affect the way you feel about yourself throughout the day. And it can affect the way others see you, too.

It turns out that forty percent of people sleep curled in the fetal position. And more than twice as many women as men sleep that way. Simply sleeping with your arms and legs extended can make you feel and act more powerful. “People who arise with arms and legs extended feel brighter and more optimistic than the 40 percent who start the day in a fetal position,” says Dr. Cuddy.

So here’s a beditation life hack you can use, in two parts.

Part 1: When you go to bed, lie on your back in any variation of an expansive power pose. If you don’t sleep alone, it’s OK to just stretch out one side. Focus your mind on this thought: tomorrow I’m going to feel more powerful.

Part 2: Wake up half an hour before you need to (you can set two alarms with your smartphone). Reset the power pose, and reset the thought that you’re going to wake up more powerful.

Guess what? You’ll start waking up feeling smarter and more in charge and you’ll feel that way throughout the day.

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