Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Living With the Presidents

By Susan Sarfati, CAE
others who they may compete with, helping to see others in a different setting, [which results] in connections being paved.

Your speaking schedule continues to be very robust. What best practices around program delivery have you observed at the many conferences at which you speak?

I listen to speeches before my own, which I like to do because often it's the president of an association telling the history and of what is going on currently in the organization. It's important to have someone talk to the audience as comrades, about what has gone right and wrong and hopes for the future.

I often think the PowerPoint thing removes you from listening to the speaker. I know audiences love the slides; however, I prefer speakers who talk about challenges in human terms rather than the audience reading along with the slides. I believe that the human being speaking with emotion without the crutch of the slides behind them is better.

I joined two people over dinner last week whose organizations have the majority of the market in an industry. They were kidding about each wanting more of the market, but because of common goals for legislation and concern about the whole picture, they're willing to work together.

The conference environment facilitates open relationships to be forged. The Federal Reserve has a wonderful conference. They have workshops — a group of people are challenged with doing something [in their industry] together; a big mental challenge that they solve together.

Even the big shots do this in the environment of a conference. Mixing up the time you're in a workshop with socializing so that people feel that they're away is key. It seems to me at conferences where people are willing to spend a couple of days away as opposed to the one-day ones have more impact. You're taken away from your work. You see people at coffee breaks and can come up with an innovative solution, and get unstuck like Theodore Roosevelt did when he went sailing [and was] away from Washington.

The question for today is: Does the conference still let you get away [when you consider] all the technological connections people [make] during conferences? That's something for meeting professionals to address. Time for more interaction over a few days without distractions is likely to replenish you more than a shorter meeting and one where people stay connected back to the office during the conference hours.

Speaking of shorter time frames, you have spoken at TED conferences. What do you think of the current trend to present and learn in shorter blocks of time?

I'm so used to a 40-minute timeframe. I found it very challenging to get my thoughts down to 18 minutes. The good thing is that it's like writing a short story or a poem, because you have to take the best of what you would have said. It gets people to have concentrated thought about what they want to communicate and allows more people to present in a day. It works for them. I would rather have time to tell stories, bring in history, and talk about leadership. If I had to talk for only 18 minutes all the time, it would be difficult. But it was a fun experience for the TED conference.

You are master storyteller. Is there a recipe for successful storytelling? How do you tell a memorable story?

The importance of storytelling in the old days is that people passed stories down in their communities and shared wisdom from generation to generation. That's how people learned. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, so people can easily tell it to someone else. When you're writing, you can use the voices of the people you're writing about. That's why I quote stories so often. The best way to bring someone or an idea to life is through the voices of people who experienced it and to [let them] tell their own stories.

In addition to being a speaker at conferences, do you attend conferences as an attendee to learn and keep current? If yes, what do you look for in choosing a particular conference to attend?

While I was working on [my] Lincoln [biography], I noticed that there were tons of Lincoln conferences and meetings. I met a lot of my fellow Lincoln scholars at them. In the very beginning, I was just attending. Completely in line with what you're talking about, I'm thinking about possibly writing my next book on leadership. So instead of another long research book, which can take me seven to 10 years [to complete], instead I may write about the lessons from the White House by using presidential stories to illustrate leadership attributes.

After I finish my book tour, I'll look for leadership conferences, as I'd love to learn at these conferences. So, I have to be compelled to attend based on a high level of interest in a subject and in learning something new.

As a presidential scholar, do you think America is ready for a woman president? What are the leadership qualities you think are essential for our next president?

I do think we're ready for a female president. I think that Hillary [Clinton] could easily have won the last time around, but she was up against another historic figure — the first African American president and a true competitor in the race. The fact that [President Obama] appointed her Secretary of State was really good for her.

Since we live in a democracy, the most important thing a leader has to master is the ability to communicate — to educate the country on what needs to be done. It's harder today to communicate. Now our society is so fragmented, the networks say what they wish, excerpting from what leaders say and then immediately the pundits give their own viewpoint. And then another issue comes up quickly, and the first issue no longer has staying power. We can be talking about gun control and then another issue pops up. It seems like to sustain a conversation to move an issue forward will take someone who really knows how to communicate and to command attention. How do you get people to concentrate? How do we get the country to concentrate so that Congress will act by going across party lines?

Please comment on openness and transparency vs. the political spin and how leaders you studied have developed that balance.

It's a hard balance. Lincoln made many deals in order to pass the 13th Amendment. Transparency can undo the deal. Sometimes for the kind of compromises you need to make, it's necessary to have transparency, but on the other hand, too much transparency begs the question — can you really make deals? So it's all about the balance.

You have talked about psychologist Erik Erikson's concept about the importance of striving for inner balance between work, love, and play. What do you recommend?

What Erikson told us was that we should develop many interests early in life. Find something you're passionate about in addition to work, family, friends, and colleagues. Doing other things is critical so that your work doesn't become everything. Play — whether it's a hobby or a sport that takes you away from yourself— is critical.

The more you develop these interests when you're young, the better your balance will be. There will be times in your life when things are out of balance — like when your children are young or you're starting your career. There are other times, like when you're retired, when you have the time for play and pressure is diminished. Unless you develop the ability to enjoy those three realms [work, love, and play] like I talked about [in my TEDTalk regarding Lyndon Johnson], you'll have difficulties. In his last years on the ranch, [Johnson] didn't have hobbies, or sports he liked to watch. All he wanted to do was to work. We all need other interests to call on as we get older.

Is baseball one of yours?

Without question. Baseball is a passion. I'll be at the World Series tomorrow night when I'm supposed to work on my speeches, but it's fine. When I go to a game, I don't think of anything else for the few hours that I'm in the park. Like when Lincoln would

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