Hot & Bothered at Ryan Field

I had the pleasure of walking in a quite hot and surprisingly disorganized graduation ceremony at Northwestern today.

Beyond the basic cluelessness of the whole crew—who couldn’t figure out what robes corresponded to The Graduate School, then ran out of chairs and kept us waiting in the blistering sun for what felt like 45 minutes—I was most disappointed by the speaker.

Now, let me preface this by saying that I have a huge amount of respect for both my latest alma matter and for the pioneering global-health work of Paul Farmer, who delivered the 2012 commencement address. His life has truly changed the world, and he deserves every accolade awarded him, including the honorary degree Northwestern presented him this year.

All the same, I think he could benefit from a bit of messaging help.

Mr. Farmer, in point of fact, has many of the traits characteristic of an engaging speaker: he’s full of information, just funny enough, and seems perfectly at ease in front of a stadium packed with people. But the content of his presentation lacked a central focus—failed to settle on the type of clear, inspiring point necessary to connect with a largely young and universally overheated crowd.

It has doubtless taken a great deal of stick-to-itiveness—not to mention selflessness and concern for the well being of others—for Mr. Farmer to create a groundbreaking organization like Partners in Health. Sticky content, however, is a different ballgame. In this case, he needed to pick his point and stick to it like teenagers to Facebook.

His speech in fact reminded me of the plight that many small-business clients face in making their brand impactful: he cares too much. Now, it’s probably not possible to care about your business too much. But when it comes to your messaging, you can over care. In marketing, we have to learn how to let things go.

Your audience can’t possibly keep track of all the reasons your business is wonderful. Try to tell your whole story from beginning to end, and they’ll end up remembering nothing at all. That’s what Mr. Farmer did. Lots of detail—lots of names, dates, places, and history…and that’s about all I can tell you. I have no idea what his central message was, and I sat there and sunbaked through the whole darn thing.

It’s a shame, because his story is a great one. And, while it was good to see him honored and hear him speak, if he comes to me for messaging support before his next commencement address, I’ll be more than happy to oblige.

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