Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

You are what you read: The Spectacle of Let by Sam Zamarripa

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shutterstock_389005822It is not often that a new writer appears and causes the more established names on the bookshelf to shift to make room. In recent years, my own bookshelf has been transformed by the writing of Roberto Bolano, Haruki Murakami, Kate Atkinson and Colson Whitehead. To that list, I now add Samuel Zamarripa, with his Scheherazade of a first novel, The Spectacle of Let.

The central theme of the novel is this: God’s first spoken word in the Bible wasn’t “don’t.” It was “Let.” It was a command, an imperative, a directive for how life should be lived, for how its secrets could be unlocked. He asked us to allow life to happen, to accept the light and the dark, to choose to open to the experience of being, to watch in awe as the parade passes, to join the circus and dance with the clowns.

The story is told by the main character, Otto Cristóbal Almeida. Almeida is a middle-aged and someone pedantic author who (shades of Bolano’s 2666) meets Niva Miramontes, a mysterious younger woman, at a writers conference at a luxury resort in Veracruz. Flattered by her attentions, he signs her book with an inscription he feels makes him look particularly smart. They stay in touch and, over time, a relationship develops. Soon, Niva begins telling him a series of parables about the true nature of reality. And before long, the famous writer can think of nothing but Niva’s stories, and Niva herself.

The book is designed as a memoir within a novel — The Voice of the Looking Mountains — written by Almeida from memory years after the relationship ends. One of the problems Almeida has with the story he’s trying to tell is that he’s leaving himself out of it to protect his marriage, since his wife didn’t know about his relationship with Niva. Once he confesses his sins, she urges him to write the whole story as he experienced it. What we read comes from that place of perilous honesty.

Niva’s stories paint a picture of a world in which “Uncommon” people are gifted with “The Voice” and with other “Assignments” with which, if they do things right, they can use their abilities to
patch the holes in reality that God left open at creation. Much of the stories she tells are of the many generations of the Portuondo family, gifted with a musical ability known as “The Blood of Sound.” And it’s in the stories of these family figures that she paints a view of human reality that enters into the realm of magical realism.

Except that the powers and abilities of the Portuondo family feel less like magic and more like a kind of extended reality that makes perfect sense to anyone with a strong sense of intuition. A little like Murakami’s shape-shifting world in 1Q84 or Atkinson’s serial reincarnations in Life After Life, the magic becomes completely plausible, even obvious and utilitarian. Of course our lives transmute like Zamarripa describes. A casual meeting, a new idea, a snip of song and we’re changed forever. And in the way Whitehead’s Underground Railway really ran trains underground, Zamarripa’s art of toying with reality opens us to the idea that, for most of us, our perception of reality is less than perfectly reliable.

When I encountered the authors mentioned above, they were new only to me, of course. But each was a revelation. And Zamarripa is no less a revelation. This is a remarkable novel with which to make a first step on to the literary scene. This is a serious and mature work of literary fiction, all the more remarkable because the second volume of this saga is already complete and waiting for publication a little later.

Truly great literature is meant to have a transformative effect on our psyche. And that’s what The Spectacle of Let offers anyone with a curious heart.

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How to pitch your big, beautiful idea so everyone’s a winner.

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You know you’re smart. You know your idea is brilliant. And you know you’re passionate about what you’re working on. So how come nobody else is buying what you’re selling?

Maybe it’s not the ideas they’re not buying. Maybe it’s you.

To sell your idea is to sell yourself. So, if your ideas aren’t selling, take a look at who you’re being. Do you not understand your idea — and the world — well enough? Are you not credible? Are you trying too hard? Are you out of sync with the moment?

Ideas don’t sell themselves. So while you’re working on perfecting your next big thing, here are four thoughts to make your own.

It’s not the idea that matters. It’s your execution.

A lot of people with start-up plans worry about how to keep other people from stealing their ideas. Forget about it. Nobody’s going to steal your idea because your idea is worthless. The only value of an idea is in its execution. And execution begins with being able to explain what you’re talking about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to share an idea and all I heard out of my mouth was a lot of muddled words. The more I tried the dumber it sounded. I wasn’t stupid, I just hadn’t done the right kind of work.

Take a moment and write down these words from Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Einstein wrote a book for 6th graders that explained The Theory of Relativity. So the first step in the execution of your idea is learning to understand it from all angles, so every time you talk about your idea, you speak with simple clarity.

Here’s another quote, something Einstein probably never said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the answer.” Put another way, understanding the question is the key to getting the right answer. So get your “55 minutes” in before you open your mouth. And if you still can’t explain it simply, go back to work on understanding.

Be someone worth listening to.

Keith Cargill runs Texas Capital Bank and he’s someone worth listening to (the bank is the fastest growing commercial bank in America). “As you get older,” he said in a recent speech to B-School grads, “you’ll find you start dividing people into two groups: Those who do what they say and those who don’t. You’ll find one group is worth listening to and the other isn’t.” Being worth listening to has less to do with your age or experience than you might think. It has to do with your credibility. How do you get credibility? First, by showing you’ve spent your “55 minutes.” I work with teams of college students on their presentations for The Big Pitch, an innovation prize from the Ocean Exchange. They’re college students, so the judges don’t expect them to be famously successful entrepreneurs but they do expect them to be “famously successful” students. The ones who win are the ones who have obviously done more than their share of homework.

What you’re saying in your pitch is only as good as who you’re being. I once watched a young entrepreneur pitch a technology for improving the quality of crude oil. But as soon as he started speaking, something felt wrong. It felt like someone had pushed him on the stage just because he had the most expensive suit. He had the guilty look of someone who just saw the cops waiting for him on the side of the stage. And when, near the end of his presentation, he said “Oh yeah, and the Saudi Crown Prince is interested,” his audience started checking their phones because, clearly, he had no idea how many crown princes there are in Saudi Arabia. He wasn’t someone worth listening to.

Don’t make the same mistake. Do your homework.

You have to care but not too much.

Herb Cohen, author of You Can Negotiate Anything, once told me that the secret to negotiating is, “You gotta care, but not too much.” It’s like being a bad date: if you care too much about what happens, you’ll just make it weird.

Pitching an idea is a negotiation. You’re asking your audience to trade their attention for a future benefit you’re going to deliver. For that trade, your audience is going to expect you to have poise and presence under pressure. That means being OK with failing. That means being willing for this one not to be “the one.”

We get desperate when we want something too bad. So Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to hear your pitch? Don’t go in there wanting it to go well. Go in there not really giving a damn how he responds to you. How do you know he’s the right guy to buy your idea? A yes from the wrong person is ten times worse than a no from anyone else. Relax, be yourself and be interested in what you can learn from the experience. And trust that you’ll make the right connection at the right time.
And that leads, with perfect timing, to the last point.

Be in sync with the moment.

What does it mean to be in sync with the moment? It means you’re intensely interested in what wants to happen next. You’re also intensely interested in what the people in front of you are thinking and experiencing. Not scared or nervous, interested. That kind of focused presence gives you a chance – just a chance – to hear a question about using your solution for something no one’s thought about and think, “She’s pitching me a new way of thinking about my idea.”

In 2009, GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt was listening to some engineers talk about their latest jet engine. The engineers mentioned that the engine was so technologically advanced that it could report all kinds of performance data if there was any place to report it to. At that moment, he could have been thinking about his next meeting or about how long it was going to take GE to pay off the investment costs on the engine and start getting ROI. But he was in sync with the moment and realized the engineers were trying to tell him something very important. He started asking questions and out of that conversation, GE’s Digital Industrial was born.

How do you get connected to the moment? By learning to listen for things your unconscious mind is trying to tell you, if only you could quiet your conscious mind enough to hear them.

This goes back to the beginning: it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution. Because it’s in the on-going execution of your idea, beginning with the initial articulation of it, that you begin your intellectual head and your intuitional head. You start to think about people interacting with your idea and using your solution. That’s not an abstract concept, no matter how many predictive algorithms your tech team is using. It’s a human experience.

To connect is human.

An investor waiting to hear your pitch only wants one thing, and she wants it badly. She wants to connect with something that will make her day. That something is you and your idea. The idea by itself isn’t enough, no matter how good it is. What any investor wants is to go home at the end of the day and say, “I just met the most interesting person today and he’s got this idea…”

The people you’re pitching to want to win as much as you do. Be the one person they’re going to hear today who really gets that.

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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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