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Hamilton and the Power of Narrative

By Mike Kuczkowski

 

In 2003, I wrote a 367-word biography of Alexander Hamilton for Columbia University as part of the Columbia 250 celebration.

I remember struggling with it and the 30 or so other biographies we had committed to write for the launch of the Columbia 250 web site (an innovative idea back then). How to tell the story in what was supposed to be 250 words of such an accomplished, intelligent, intriguing and comparatively underappreciated figure? So many facts, so little space. Hamilton wasn’t quite Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams, but he was fascinating. I mean, the guy was an orphan from the Caribbean who basically invented the American banking system as we know it. How do you do that story justice?

Thankfully Lin-Manuel Miranda, with help from Ron Chernow, has answered that question. Apparently, it involves 20,520 words, a hip-hop score, a Broadway stage and period dress.

I am, at the moment, obsessed with Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Miranda started working on the musical in 2009 after picking up Chernow’s award-winning 2005 biography of Hamilton on a vacation (Chernow serves as an historical advisor to the show) and recognizing Hamilton’s potential as not just an interesting biographical story but as a human story (an American story) that would resonate broadly.

Hamilton has been lauded for many things: bringing modern beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; and fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers telling the story of our nation’s birth. All of which are remarkable. I find its storytelling to be its most outstanding feature. Here’s why:

  • In “Alexander Hamilton,” we meet a young Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who grows up to join the American Revolution and makes a name for himself as Washington’s right-hand man. Boom, right off the bat, something we are not expecting.
  • He introduces us to Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contemporary, rival and ultimately his killer, as an entirely sympathetic figure. Even if we know Burr from the history books, Miranda endows him with an intriguing point of view and bearing. “Talk less. Smile more,” he advises Hamilton early on. “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
  • We hear, in “My Shot,” how Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry”’ just like his country.

In a recent interview, Miranda described the purposefulness with which he wrote the lyrics for the musical’s first few songs:

“For me, the fun of writing My Shot is, it’s Hamilton’s declaration of purpose and I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So, prior to his arrival and singing “my shot,” the other guys in that bar, right – (John ) Laurens, (Hercules) Mulligan and (Marquis de) Lafayette, are rhyming at the end of the line. It’s:

– I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!

We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton, and suddenly we’re getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming. And not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know.

– I know the action in the streets is exciting, but Jesus between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’

They’re intricately tied together and if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you’re like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so, that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else’s.”

I’m blown away by the care Miranda took with these choices. That’s art. That’s craftsmanship. (It’s worth noting how long that takes. Many days and months.)

The narrative unfolds with beauty, grit and elegance to match its complexity. Miranda introduces us to “The Schuyler Sisters,” who include Angelica Schuyler, the eldest sister to whom Hamilton introduces himself, her younger sister Eliza, whom Hamilton will later marry, and Peggy. None of it is simple.

  • In “Satisfied,” Angelica’s wedding toast to Hamilton and Eliza, we learn how deeply Angelica is drawn to Hamilton. She recounts their meeting, and how she sized him up “too quickly” (but not wrongly) as a penniless suitor and matched him with her sister, to Angelica’s lasting regret
  • In “Wait For It,” we hear Burr lay out his philosophy of life and power: If there are reasons why he is still alive, he’s willing to wait for it. He lays bare his secret. He’s not standing still, he’s lying in wait.
  • In “That Would Be Enough,” which I find to be the musical’s most moving song, Eliza pleads with Hamilton to moderate his ambitions. Hamilton: “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” Eliza: “I relish being your wife. Look around, look around… Just stay alive, that would be enough.”

Hamilton describes the rise of Marquis de Lafayette as Washington’s lead commander, the Colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the challenge of independent self-rule. We see it all through the eyes of Hamilton, a singular figure in the early days of our nation. Miranda makes complex events, like the Constitutional Conventions, the writing of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s early cabinet meetings, and the compromise over Hamilton’s economic plan, accessible.

Along the way, Miranda captures both Hamilton’s strengths (his brilliance and boldness) and weaknesses (ambition and his inability to shut up) in equal measure, humanizing a hard-to-humanize figure.

Miranda is a huge talent with the rare ability to pull it off. He has a MacArthur genius grant to his name, two Tony-award winning plays and a Pulitzer Prize. No slouch.

That said, those of us who manage the narratives of the companies we represent, either in-house or as consultants, should take some lessons from Hamilton, which takes a complex figure and finds a way to turn it into something relatable. That’s a challenge many of us confront with regularity.

Here are some lessons Hamilton holds for communicators:

  1. Start with origins: Miranda’s opening number “Alexander Hamilton” (which he previewed in 2009 at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word) summarizes the most compelling aspects of Hamilton’s biography and foreshadows his ambition and resourcefulness. (Note: I’m fascinated to hear the White House crowd’s laughter in their initial hearing of this song. They had no idea what was coming.)
  2. Declare your purpose: The third number of the show is “My Shot,” which is a big highlight of the show, what Miranda describes as Hamilton’s “Disney Princess” number, Hamilton’s declaration of purpose. We learn what he believes the stakes are for him in the Revolution, and life. The song conveys Hamilton’s self-confidence, self-doubt, ambition and recklessness. And, by using an expression that ultimately foreshadows Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr, Miranda foreshadows a concept with dual meaning that will come back into the narrative in multiple ways over time.
  3. Find the emotional core: Some of the strongest songs in the musical are songs that pause along the path of the narrative to take stock of the emotional aspects of Hamilton’s story. “That Would Be Enough” makes me well up every time, as it highlights the tension between the boundlessness of Hamilton’s ambition and the beautiful life that is being built around him by Eliza.
  4. Embrace complexity: Hamilton is unflinching in its efforts to round out its subject, bad choices, broken promises and ill-chosen battles. He pursues martyrdom, embraces fatherhood, shames his wife with his philandering and ultimately loses his life in an avoidable confrontation. Hero? Hard to say.
  5. Use repetition wisely: There are a number of phrases and expressions throughout Hamilton (“I’m not throwing away my shot”, “The world turns upside down”, “Right-hand man”, “I will never be satisfied”, “History has its eyes on you”, “The room where it happens”) that repeat and recur throughout the musical, often with evolving meanings. This allows a listener to anchor into key elements of the story while hitting them with new developments and concepts. It breeds familiarity while the narrative moves forward.
  6. Dimensionalize tension and conflict: There are multiple conflict vectors throughout Hamilton. The conflict between Hamilton’s intelligence and his social status; Angelica’s desires and her obligations; Burr’s trust-fund-baby status and his desire to be on the winning side; the colonists’ desire for independence and King George III’s sense of divine authority (‘You’re on the own’ he declares, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?’). So often corporate narratives try to offend no one, or present propositions as being without risk. That’s fine, but I’m not sure why anyone would read them.
  7. Break forms: There’s no template for a 2 hour and 45 minute hip-hop musical. The founding fathers did not speak in rhymes. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. But, it works. Who says a master narrative has to be prose on paper? It can be a video, a web site or a speech. A Prezi deck can outline a company’s story as well as any vehicle. As long as it lives in the world, inspires employees, engages stakeholders… it’s doing its job.

Hamilton shows the power of a creative approach to storytelling that can bring dense, difficult-to-absorb subject matter to life. We can definitely do better with our narratives by grappling with the realities and messiness of our characters, finding the tension and emotional core of the story, and bringing it artfully to the page.

If Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose first public performance of “Alexander Hamilton” in front of a political audience was met with anxious laughter, can turn that into a hit play, what have we got to lose?

An Update on Our Business: A Dispatch from Startup Nation

By Mike Kuczkowski

 

It’s been awfully quiet on the Orangefiery blog. Too quiet. Fifteen months since our last post? That’s outrageous!

All we can offer is a typical excuse: We’ve been really busy.

It’s true. Business is good and growing. We’ve got a dozen clients and eight team members. The work we’ve taken on has been challenging and rewarding.

The creation and development of Orangefiery has been an intense and fulfilling journey.  Fifteen years ago, when I joined Edelman, I was a vice president in its 100-or-so-person New York City office; the firm itself was the seventh largest in the world. When I left, after holding the positions of executive vice president, global client relationship manager, president of Edelman Consulting and general manager, the New York office had 800 people in it and the firm was the world’s largest by a significant margin. Having been a part of that evolution, I thought I knew a fair amount about growth. I didn’t realize quite how different life at a startup would be.

My vision for Orangefiery was rooted in a strategic view of communications: research-based, campaign-driven, stakeholder-focused and change-oriented. We know that stuff. We’ve been doing it for years and have a great track record at it. Still, there were lots of questions about how all of that would come to life. The last 15 months have been full of experimentation within that framework, figuring out the right business model, offerings and work structure. I believe in experimentation as a core pillar of business — try things, see what works, see where the marketplace takes you. Here’s what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learned along the way.

What We’ve Done

  1. Consulting: From the beginning, the focus was on creating a consulting model for communications, as opposed to a typical agency model. I’d studied consulting, talked to a lot of very smart business, consulting and communications leaders about it, and started up one (now-shuttered) consulting business at Edelman. I felt like there was still a big gap in the marketplace. Communications is one of the most complex, rich and potentially impactful functions of business, but communications firms generally don’t structure their work like a management consultancy with research and rigorous analytics. This means the communications strategy work is often less empirical and less valued. Consulting firms, on the other hand, often lack a strong theoretical and practical understanding of communications. They view it as linear — aim the message at the target and shoot. We started out working in a consulting orientation, focused on projects: how to build a new market in a therapeutic area, how to create a brand architecture for a non-profit, how to build an advocacy engagement function, and how to quantify the environmental risk around drug pricing decisions. The assignments we landed were unique and exciting, and the work product was extremely fulfilling. But…
  2. Implementation: A funny thing happened along the way. As we completed our projects, many clients asked us to implement our recommendations. Which made sense to us. The consulting projects had given us a clear sense of our clients’ goals. We understood the context in which our clients were operating, and we knew what they wanted to achieve. Our communications orientation, which gave us a unique perspective for consulting deliverables, made us well suited to implement our own recommendations. We could develop and deliver messaging, engage with stakeholders, create communications materials and conduct media relations. It worked! And, it was rewarding. The sense of accomplishment of seeing a project’s recommendations brought to life is incredibly fulfilling.
  3. Health care: We’re bullish on health care. About 75 percent of our clients are biotech and biopharma. (The remainder are corporate and/or crisis/risk clients.) At the start of this venture, I was not sure if we’d wind up focused on health care, tech or corporate communications, so this was something we learned along the way. Why? Health care is a rich field with so much exciting news right now; it’s awesome. It’s also a complex system with lots of interdependencies between payers, patients, physicians and policymakers. We know those worlds, and the dynamics between them, which gives us a competitive advantage. Also, health care leaders oversee businesses marked by uncertainty (like communications) and are accustomed to doing research, evaluating challenges and opportunities, analyzing assumptions and making decisions that they continuously evaluate and recalibrate using metrics — which is our model, so it turns out it’s an excellent fit.
  4. Crisis and risk: Crisis and risk communications is another area where we’ve had much success. We have people on the team with strong backgrounds in this area, and the work can be extremely impactful. As with the health care business, in a crisis or issue context, the future is marked by uncertainty. Being able to develop assumptions about how people will respond to anticipated events and developing scenario plans — these are powerful and effective tools. Plus, it’s an area where experience matters. Having handled high-profile client crises and litigation projects in the past has set us up for success in this arena. The challenge is that it can also be all-consuming. We try to keep our roster to no more than one crisis-oriented client at a time.
  5. Tech: While we’re talking about what has worked, we should be honest about what has not. When I moved to San Francisco from New York in 2012, I anticipated that this hot-bed of innovation would be open to (and embracing of) innovative approaches to technology communications. And, that may be true, particularly as it relates to social media and digital marketing platforms. In my experience, tech public relations in general seems less rigorous and less oriented toward research-driven messaging, campaigns and metrics than I would have hoped. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but my experience is that the technology sector is extremely dependent on a press release machinery that churns out product-focused news, rather than a stakeholder-oriented industry that is trying to have an impact on beliefs and behaviors. This gives me a whole different level of appreciation for some of my former colleagues who advocated for a more story-oriented, campaign-style approach in technology PR years and years ago. I had no idea what they were up against. 
  6. Messaging and Narrative: Partly based on the experiences above, we’ve learned that one of our core capabilities as a firm is messaging and narrative development. We can write a press release with the best of them, but we shine when we’re bringing a brand to life through a narrative and key messages that represent the business or brand at its core. Messaging is a complex art/science. It requires an understanding of where stakeholders are today (attitudinally, behaviorally) and where they are heading in the future. It also requires a deep understanding of an enterprise, what it can do, what it can’t and what it aspires to be in the future. And, it requires creativity, the craft of writing and visualizing a story. Those are things we’re good at and will continue to work on. We’ve been working on projects that focus on what we’re calling “situational narratives” that adapt a traditional master narrative to whatever challenges a brand faces at any time. Look for more on that topic from us in the future. 
  7. Social Media: We’ve done solid work in social media, with strategy work and implementation work that has helped clients generate growth in followers and engagement. Ultimately, success in social media requires an understanding of audiences, storytelling, media and dialogue. These are the same skills communicators had in place (or should have) before the world got digital. There are some discrete aspects of social media that are new, like the ability to self-publish, the speed of transmission, the dynamics of information flow, and the vast search tools, but, for communicators, the goal is to achieve outcomes like creating awareness, increasing understanding, and changing behavior. In many ways, social media is a test for the things we have talked about from a theoretical perspective for decades; now we get to see it (and do it) in practice.  
  8. Research: We do research! All our client assignments involve research — often done by us, sometimes done by partners. Generally, we focus on secondary research and qualitative research. Landscape analyses and interviews with stakeholders in therapeutic areas to help set the context and understand the key issues in a space. We’re very good at mining research and turning it into actionable insights. Doing this sets us up to develop stronger programs for clients and to be able to understand where we can have the greatest impact.
  9. Workshops: We give good workshops. In the past two years, we have led more than a dozen workshops with different teams — leadership teams, communications and marketing teams, sales teams and cross-functional teams — ranging in size from five to 45. Getting great results from a workshop is an exercise in design and we have a good blueprint for these sessions, bringing the outside world into the conference room, framing discussions and break-out sessions around objectives and key questions, and keeping the flow of the overall workshop on track for results. There is a bit of a performance art to these sessions, but at their heart they are incredibly productive — which they should be, given the company’s investment and commitment to making them happen.

Things I’ve Learned

  1. Love your clients: This wasn’t really a new lesson, but it’s something that’s been reinforced at an entirely different and far deeper level as head of my own small business. Our business, by which I mean the communications and public relations consulting/agency business, is a client-first business. Period. Yes, we as practitioners should have a point of view. We should empower our employees. We should care about and reinforce ethical practices. We should advocate for the role and domain of communications and public relations. And, we should speak up about trends and errors that impact perceptions of this industry. Ultimately, though, we’re in this business to serve client needs. We need to devote ourselves to understanding our clients’ priorities and challenges, their opportunities and vulnerabilities. We need to be invested in helping them succeed. Looking at these words, let me just be clear: I know I’ve failed at this in the past, and I probably will again. But I will always strive to keep our clients’ needs as our North Star.
  2. Be practical: I’ve always had a certain affinity for theory, and it’s probably what’s drawn me to more research-oriented, consulting-style work. The most elegant solution, though, is one that will live in the world. I try to discipline our team to ask what the story will look like when it’s written? Thinking of how things will manifest is a solid forcing function as to whether you’re on the right path. Tools like calendars, audience personas, Gantt charts, scenario plans and two-by-two risk frameworks help bring theory to life in actionable ways. We borrow tools from the school of “design thinking” in this area, and the benefits are myriad.
  3. Be true to principles: If you’re going to put your name on the door, you need to believe in things and be willing to take a stand, which at times can put you at odds with the “love your clients” imperative. And, we do. I’ve referenced some of those beliefs above, and we’ve codified some of these beliefs in internal documents. It can seem silly to write down “values” when you are a small consultancy, but it pays dividends down the line and comes through in the work we deliver.
  4. Be generous: When I look back on my career, I think I have at times taken an almost lawyerly approach to advocating for the needs of my clients or teams, which has at times put me in conflict with colleagues. In reviews, it was often said that I did not suffer fools — and that was probably putting it kindly. I regret moments when I sparred with colleagues, rather than seeking out the common ground, and I do not think those episodes reflect the real me or the person I aspired to be. When I went out on my own, I felt like I had a chance to hit a reset button on that. I’ve tried to live the principles of Adam Grant’s Give and Take. When a neighbor told me he was leading a health care nonprofit that was looking for funding, I helped him develop a narrative and pitch deck. When a friend asked me to help her think through a brand positioning statement, I reserved a conference room and we spent the day at it. When a friend asked me to help him pitch a piece of business in Boston, I was on a flight a week later. When people ask me for references or to read a graduate school application, I do it. I’ve fallen behind on this a bit lately, but I’ll catch up. Does this pay off in the way Grant describes? I think it does, but I also think that’s not the point.
  5. Team up: In the past year, we’ve brought on board a range of new team members, and I’ll just say this, in all transparency: I’m conservative, so I always want to ensure I have the resources to bring people on board. On a couple of occasions, I’ve taken a bit of a leap of faith. It has always paid off, both in the quality of work and in the business sense. Always. I’m thrilled with the team we’ve assembled, and consider myself very lucky that these people want to work with me.
  6. Keep the conversation alive: Especially as a small business owner, I find it’s vital to keep talking with people. Find out what they are seeing in the world, what trends concern or excite them. How they’re approaching new opportunities. At a big agency, there was always a chance to engage people in conversation about what was happening and stay abreast of important developments. With a smaller firm, it’s important to keep seeking out those conversations.
  7. Have faith: People have given me this advice, and it’s very much been true. Things happen for a reason. Some business you lose, and it wasn’t the right business for you at that time. Sometimes you win something, and it doesn’t seem like quite the right thing, and it teaches you a valuable lesson. And sometimes when you take on something without knowing how it’s going to turn out, it’s a game changer. Have faith in your business, your people and yourself. It works.

That was our 2016. Our hopes for 2017? More strong client work, more challenging assignments, more growth in our team and our capabilities, and more experimentation and learning.

This time, we won’t go quiet. We have plans for a new web site, new offerings and a more active level of engagement on our blog and social media. There are a lot of things to talk about, without question, on all the topics noted above — and many more. We look forward to seeing you and keeping the conversation alive in the year ahead!