Tag Archives: public speaking

Skutnik Stories: Everyman Stories at the State of the Union

SkutnikBy Rivka Willick

When does a story turn into propaganda? I have no doubt that we will get a chance to ponder that question once again during the next State of the Union Address when one or more Skutniks will be woven into the annual speech.

What’s a Skutnik?  I’m glad you asked. A Skutnik is a story about a real person who has done something exceptional or noteworthy and is woven into the US President’s State of the Union.

Ronald Reagan began the tradition in 1982 when he invited  Lenny Skutnik as a personal guest. Just two weeks before, Jan 13, 1982, this everyman witnessed a plane crash into the Washington D.C.’s 14th Street Bridge. He saw a woman lose her grip on a rescue line and fall into the water. Lenny dove into the river and saved her.  Reagan, “The Great Communicator”, used Skutnik as an example of “the spirit of American heroism at it’s finest.” The camera found Lenny seated next to Nancy Reagan, which surprised him.  Americans cheered, after all who doesn’t love a hero?

Two years later Reagan singled out another hero in his 1985 State of the Union, Sergeant Stephen Trujillo who showed heroism during the U.S military action in Grenada. From that point on this storytelling technique became a staple in all the State of the Unions, regardless of political affiliation.

In 1986 13-year-old Trevor Ferell’s efforts to deliver food and blankets to the homeless in Philadelphia became a story about American generosity.

President Bill Clinton made eighth grader Kristin Tanner a symbol of American academic superiority when she brought in high scores in the Third International Math and Science Study.

Geroge W Bush told Hermis Moutardier’s story in 2002. He was one of two flight attendants who stopped shoe bomber Richard Reid from detonating an explosive on a Paris to Miami flight. Houston Rocket’s center, Dikembe Mutombo joined the Skutnik club in 2007 when Bush used his story about raising $29 million to build a hospital in Africa in his State of the Union address.

Barack Obama singled out Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton, parents of Hadiya Pendleton who was gunned down in Chicago just days after singing at his Inauguration.

Last year Trump took the “everyman story” to a new level. He did 16 Skutniks…(Mr. President, maybe less is more.)

So now that you know what a Skutnik is and how it is used, are you ready to tackle the question? Is there a place for these heart tugging personal ‘real people stories’ in the State of the Union?  Are they used unfairly to draw people to one side or are they a manipulative tool ? Do they illustrate ‘American Exceptionalism’ or use individuals accomplishments to promote  a specific political agenda?  Is this storytelling technique used in other countries during policy speeches or is it just an American Institution?

When does inspiration in a story stop and propaganda begin?

Let me know what you think.

 

Rivka works as a storycoach online, in person, and in workshops.  She’s also a storyteller and writer. Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com

 

Toxic Tales – Propaganda (part 1)

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By Rivka Willick

Propaganda-we know the word and most of us would consider it a bad thing, but have you really thought about it? Have you been swayed by propaganda? Do you run into it very often? Do you ever spread propaganda, either knowingly or unknowingly? I decided to take a closer look and discovered that propaganda is woven into the culture from several directions.

Let’s start with the definition.

Merriam-Webster’s Definition: 1. the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause, or person.  2. ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.

Dictionary.com Definition: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. “he was charged with distributing enemy propaganda”

 

Merriam-Webster’s definition focuses on the purposeful and deliberate use of information, ideas, or allegations. Dictionary.com emphasizes the biased or misleading element of propaganda.  I was especially interested in the Dictionary.com’s example sentence and its use of the word enemy.

After reading the first definition, I thought maybe propaganda could be a good thing, but after I read the second, I came to a deeper understanding.  Propaganda divides us-it creates an Us and Them mentality.  Propaganda is designed to make the listener feel superior, be on the right side, be acknowledge as one of the good guys.  Unfortunately, once it becomes a game of us and them, we stop looking for solutions, or examining the flaws inherent on the “good guys” side.

Propaganda is often filled with truth, but often partial truths or the deliberate deletion of negative facts, but it’s wrapped up in pretty pictures and often…compelling stories.

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After I got the general idea, I searched for specifics and came across a classification system on a marketing site. https://marketingwit.com/examples-of-propaganda (yes, propaganda is used a lot in marketing).  Let’s use their basic groups to get a better understanding of propaganda and its many forms.

Stacking the Deck – Leave out certain facts (unpleasant or negative) and include only the positive ones. How often do you do this when you want to look good and push an idea?  Do you include the other side?  crowd-2152653_1920

Mob Mentality – You are inferior unless you behave, buy products, or believe like the rest of us. Anybody who doesn’t is an outcast.

Name Calling – This one is self-explanatory. Using negative words or names to describe someone or something tells the audience who is the bad guy. Now we can take sides. Politicians use this, but historical storytellers can also fall for this trap.

For Your Own Good – Present an opinion as a fact that should be followed.  Presenting something as an absolute truth makes it difficult to bring up or even consider another side.

Rotten Apple Philosophy – Just as one rotten apple canapple-271967_1920 contaminate an entire barrel of apples, a negative trait or idea can taint and dismiss the entire person or idea.  (I fall for this one all the time)

 

When propaganda is woven into our stories, it becomes especially powerful.  If the story is compelling, fun, or emotional, we may not notice or care that we’ve been swayed to one side or the other unfairly.

 

In Propaganda Part 2, I’ll try to tackle political propaganda -specifically when used in “The Presidential People Stories” (Just in time for the US State of the Union)

 

Rivka is available as a story-coach online, in person, and through workshops.  Contact her at Rivka@simplyextraordinarytales.com