Lee Kuan Yew, His Communication Skills Also Defied Convention


Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, every media outlet in the free and not-so-free world has chronicled his accomplishments.

If you haven’t spent time in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to appreciate the “miracle” of transforming this speck of geography into a world-class economy. It’s not quite Moses parting the Red Sea, but it’s close.

I made my first trip to Singapore in 1994, four years after Mr. Lee had stepped down as prime minister. Still very much a public figure, I saw how his approach to communications deviated from the status quo.

In a region where statesmen strive for vanilla,  Mr. Lee achieved chartreuse … in a neon state.

Americans like bluster; Asians not so much. Years ago in a discussion with the general manager of our Korean office, she explained this Asian dynamic with the Korean phrase, 모단돌이 정맞는다. Loosely translated it means, “The nail that stands out gets hammered.”

Mr. Lee clearly understood that communications that stood out would be more persuasive in rallying a nation and gaining peer status with other countries. If this periodically made him a target for the hammer, so be it. He had a job to get done.

In my studying Mr. Lee’s communications over the past week or so, what emerges is a master storyteller. By storyteller, I don’t only mean the ability to tell a compelling  story with a beginning, an end and twist in between … though he could do this. What’s more impressive was his natural instinct to apply storytelling techniques to how he communicated in general.

With this in mind, I’ve categorized a cross-section of his quotes by storytelling technique:

Conversational Language

“We knew that if we were just like our neighbours, we would die. Because we’ve got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It’s incorrupt. It’s efficient. It’s meritocratic. It works. We are pragmatists. Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamoured with any ideology.”

- The New York Times, August 29, 2007


“The Americans are great missionaries. They have an irrepressible urge to convert others.”

-  The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew,” 1992

The book “Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew - communication skills


“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”

- The New York Times, September 10, 2010


“Let me be frank; if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn’t have got out of our backwardness. We would have been a backward economy with a backward society. But we do not want all of the West. Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it? It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. Singapore does not have that option. What we can do is to pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously … can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America if you did that it, would be an invasion of the individual’s rights and you would be sued.”

- Foreign Policy, March/April 1994

 Conversational Language

“You lose nothing by being polite. The answer is ‘No’, but please say it politely and give the reasons … Explain to me why ‘No.’ Don’t change ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’ Don’t be a fool. If there was a good reason why it is ‘No,’ it must remain ‘No,’ but the man must be told politely.”

- at the Victoria Theatre, September 30 1965

Anecdote (on how Americans perceive Singapore)

“They don’t know where Singapore is, they are not interested. They think of only Michael Fay, then maybe caning, chewing gum … strange odd place this Singapore.”

-  Book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew (March 13, 2013)

Singapore-U.S. map Rev. - communication skills

To see Mr. Lee in action, check out his interview on “Meet the Press” during the 1960s.

He starts off a tad nervous, but hits his stride around 7:41 with this response after getting  peppered with questions on Vietnam:

“ May I say what I mean in my own words. Americans have this friendly habit for helping a person think for himself, and I’d rather do my own composition if I may …”

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, at least jump to 12:39 where after explaining to the clueless journalist the difference between being Singaporean and Chinese, he shares a prophetic narrative on China.

Needless to say, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t concern himself with staying on message.

In closing, I asked three of our senior leaders in our Singapore office to share their thoughts on Mr. Lee:

“Mr. Lee was a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking economic strategist and an astute observer. He kept the government nimble and small, the economy transparent and effective, and regulation simple, which is why Singapore is the success that it is today. He was also a firm believer in meritocracy. But I will always recall his firm, no-holds-barred authoritarian communication style to the electorate as typified by this quote from 1987 to The Straits Times: “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

- Shawn Balakrishnan, General Manager

“Lee Kwan Yew’s style of communication reflects the kind of leader he is. He tells you straight what you need to do in order to lead a better life. It’s paternalistic and direct. Here’s a video of LKY telling a female PhD student to get married before her child bearing years are over. This clip summarises the kind of person he is and how he shoots from the hip.”

- Idran Junadi, Account Director

“I grew up watching Lee Kuan Yew on TV and at political rallies, and to this day, I have not seen another local politician with the same fire and force of conviction that LKY displayed in the earlier years. Few orators can command the audiences the way he could. He was singularly eloquent, fiercely intelligent and equally comfortable using analogies that ranged from Ozymandias to the brawling pit. He pulled no punches. He was always brutally honest and often controversial. If you were the opposition and facing him at a political debate, God help you. Many local correspondents have shared that no global statesmen terrified them more than our very own Lee Kuan Yew.”

- Maureen Tseng, Director of Client Services

It’s true that Mr. Lee was a polarizing figure.

But I think one thing everyone can agree on is that Mr. Lee showed the power of language in leadership.


Should HR Be Telling Stories?

Storytelling in HR

I’m not referring to fiction or fabrication.

The question relates to the role of storytelling techniques in the HR function.

The question also happened to be the thrust of my talk at the Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) conference last week in Hong Kong.

It turns out that one can make an argument for HR more than any other function needing storytelling. After all, the ability to recruit and retain talent often determines the success of a company.

Of course, HR wants to be persuasive in its communications.


In a world in which companies compete for talent with the ferocity of nine-year olds after smashing open the piñata, one would  expect HR to lead the charge in applying storytelling techniques to their communications.

Not so fast.

It’s human nature to resist change, and from my unscientific observations, the language of HR still takes its cues from the mahogany row handbook drafted during the Reagan administration. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but most of today’s HR communications depend on the same uninspired language.

My talk at the AMS conference zeroed in on the job journey captured in the following illustrations:

Job_Journey infographic- storytelling in HR

Every interaction is an opportunity for HR to influence the candidate’s perception of the company and the actual job.

Take something as seemingly simple as the auto-generated email that confirms receipt of a candidate’s resume or application. Here’s an example of how 99 percent of these emails read:

Generic_email- job application confirmation letter- storytelling in HR

Forget differentiation.

Just adding a shard of human warmth would improve the note. Ironically, the above words came from a creative services company.

John Ciancutti, who has hired hundreds of engineers in building world-class teams at Netflix, Facebook and now Coursera reiterated:

“Every touchpoint in every phase of your process should drive toward that result.”

With this in mind, here’s the note we recently implemented for candidates to confirm receipt of their application:

Hoffman Agency job application confirmation letter- storytelling in HR

We don’t expect our auto-confirmation email to prompt the candidate to channel Jim Carrey with a “So they’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeh!!!”

We do believe that allowing our voice to come through the note helps the candidate get to know us a little better.

And the better that candidates know us, the more likely they’ll sign on the dotted line.

Side note: Alexander Mann hired a graphic recorder to capture each of the talks at the conference. Here’s the “picture” from the talk.

Lou Hoffman- Should HR be storytelling

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Visual Storytelling, Online Radio and SEO Media Covers Storytelling

The grab bag post is back.

Here goes.

Visual Storytelling from VentureBeat

VentureBeat publishes stories every day on the latest startups to secure venture funding.

As you might imagine, the visuals that usually accompany these stories might  be called uninspiring (to be kind).

So I enjoyed the double entendre when VentureBeat channeled Breaking Bad in the photo that accompanied the SpareFoot story on fund-raising to expand its storage unit business.

Breaking Bad - visual storytelling venturebeat

Walter brings a certain “je ne sais quoi” to any story. I’ve had a good bit of success working him into our storytelling workshops.

(h/t to Craig Matsumoto who flagged this on Twitter.)

Online Radio on the Rise

When was the last time you pitched online radio?

That’s what I thought.

Check out these numbers:

Online Radio Chart reach consumption

Such an up and to the right growth curve should get our attention. Specifically, 44 percent of Americans age 12 and up listen to online radio on a weekly basis.

As you drill into the numbers beyond the music category, you find that niche programming  — a byproduct of low barriers to entry — is thriving.

It reminds me of the blogging market as a sphere of influence. It’s a quality, not a quantity game, identifying those online radio targets with relevance and influence (or what I call “rinfluence”).

SEO and Storytelling — a Dynamic Duo

I’ve been on the soapbox for some time for PR to expand its game into earned search (organic search).

With Google squeezing the technical gamesmanship out of earned search, it’s all about the content in determining what shows up on the SERP (search engine results page). Variables such as third parties linking to the content, how long visitors stay on the content, etc., constitute signals of worthiness.

I’m noticing that the media properties focused on the SEO community are getting that old time storytelling religion. For example,  Search Engine Journal recently published “Brand Storytelling 101: The Essential Elements.”

Over 1,000 words and not a single mention of how to optimize a Web page for search. Bravo!

On the not-so-good side, this passage caught my attention.

“Not only well-known operations can have motivating stories. The dry cleaners down the street may well have been founded by someone who noticed that people smile more when they feel good and confident in their appearance — and clean, pressed clothes can affect that. This business’ story? They empower people.”

I’d call that a stretch.

The root beer yogurt at Willow Glen Creamery has been known to cause smiles, but “empowerment” doesn’t make its value proposition.

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Hey, Everyone Enjoys a Pat on the Back

BulldogAwardDesignation - Ishmael's Corner winner Best Blog for PR Agency/Consultanc

There are times when it’s just not possible to say what you want to say in a headline and also optimize that headline for SEO.

This is one of those times.

The Bulldog Digital Awards recently named my blog as “Best Blog for PR Agency/Consultancy” with the gold designation.

I’m thankful that the judges didn’t hold the outdated design against me. As I mentioned last week, we’re in the throes of bulldozing the current site with a fresh “look and feel” on the way.

Considering the dowdy design, I’m especially appreciative of the growing number of folks who make the time to read the blog.

To borrow from the Beatles, it’s been a “long and winding road” to establish a readership with critical mass. Part of the blog’s growth has come from stockpiling posts over the years. Looking at traffic over a 12-month period that covered August 2013 thru July 2014, you can see nine of the top 10 posts for this period were published prior to August 2013 with the vast majority of this recent traffic coming from organic search or what we like to term “earned search:”

BlogTrafficChart SEO organic search

I’ve highlighted this point because some folks have questioned the value of corporate blogging. We believe that a company blog makes for one of the most effective thought leadership platforms on the planet.

But it does require work and time.

For those in communications or marketing who prefer a magic wand, you’re right to take a pass on corporate blogging. Pixie dust alone will not bring readers to a blog.

As our client campaigns continue to encompass owned media and even paid media, my blog often acts as a laboratory for experimentation, ideally in a way that benefits the entire industry.

For example, because communicators typically come from an English, mass comms or journalism background dominated by words, the transition to visual storytelling can be a challenge. By striving to create original artwork for over 50 percent of the posts, we’ve come a long way on the visual storytelling front (aided by hiring a powerhouse creative director, Chauncey Hill). This has involved pushing beyond conventional photography into areas such as illustration as reflected in visuals such as the Pope taking a selfie and the misguided wisdom of a startup CEO copying Steve Jobs:


Pope and SteveJobs - visual storytelling


We’ve come to believe that illustration — where literally anything is possible — is the most underutilized form of visual storytelling in communications.

And we continue to explore the concept of Word Visuals like the one that recently played off the Gigaom mast head:


So I appreciate the pat on the back as acknowledgement that the blog serves an industry resource and an advocate for the communications profession.

Given the upheaval in our industry, there’s never been a better time to be in communications.

Or write about it.



PR as the Conscience of a Company

Conscience - PR

Public relations at its best acts as the conscience of a company.

Here’s what I mean. Companies often go through the painstaking exercise of crafting a mission or values statement. For example Starbucks adheres to the following values:

Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.

Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.

Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.

Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.

Companies also spend an inordinate amount of time and money figuring what their brands should represent. This work can go on for weeks — or even months — backed by an unlimited supply of Skittles, Red Bull and focus groups.

Whether it’s values or a mission statement or brand attributes, it’s all theoretical as in this is how we want potential customers to perceive us. If they perceive us this way, there’s a high probability that they’ll buy our products or services.

In my PR Utopia, PR has a seat at the table — yes that table, the one made of thick mahogany where each chair has the trade-in value of a used Volvo — and a voice with the other executives who lead the company. This allows PR to ensure that decisions align with the company’s aspired values/mission/brand. If they don’t, PR has a platform on which to voice concerns and participate in a dialogue that adjusts or reconciles the issues.

This is the opposite of spin, making sure the actions — and the communication of those actions — reflect the inner makings of the company.

Remember, I said “PR Utopia.”

A guy can dream.

I’ve been thinking about this issue since listening to the presentation from Corey duBrowa, who heads global communications for Starbucks, at the Innovation Summit last month. His talk highlighted how social media exposed Starbucks for opening a new store that fell woefully short of Starbucks’ standards.

Starbucks Negative Tweets - Pr consciousness

This goes deeper than PR having a seat at the table. Corey’s coffee mug sits on the same table as Howard Schultz’s. But does Starbucks have the type of culture that allows the PR folks on the front line to speak up? In other words, Corey, Howard and the rest of the Starbucks executive management team aren’t diving into the minutia of every new store. Yet, somewhere along the line someone from the communications team must have noticed the store set the ugly finder howling. Did this person speak up and challenge the status quo (in the company’s value statement)? Is the culture such that PR can challenge the company on an issue — the quality of a new store’s physical structure — that sits outside the conventional realm of PR?

Obviously, I don’t know the answer.

What I can share is that roughly seven months later, Starbucks took the action of renovating the Highlands store.

Starbucks Yelp Review - PR conscious

I suspect Starbucks PR machinery is gearing up to promote the Highlands Opening 2.0.

Sidenote: If you’re interested in how the debacle was covered last July, check out BusinessInsider’s “This Prison-Like Starbucks Is Being Mocked As The Most Depressing In America.”



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