Occupy Wall Street, Mitt Romney, and the NBA: Three Problems in Search of a Solution

It’s Friday and almost Thanksgiving here in the US, and so it seems like a good time to put my storyteller-speaker coach’s hat on, kick back, and take on a few of the current issues in the news. 

Great stories, like great speeches, present compelling problems to the audience.  The catch is that in the end the audience always wants a solution.  Stories that continue to grab audiences’ attentions generation after generation – like Romeo and Juliet – do both brilliantly.   (SPOILER ALERT) Will the star-crossed lovers find a way to happiness?  That’s the problem.  The answer is a tragic one – in attempting to work out their problem, they kill themselves, dying in each other’s arms.  So the answer to the question is no, and the solution to the problem is an unhappy one – but no less compelling because of that. 

Audiences demand a solution that matches the problem from the speaker – and news audiences ultimately demand the same from their stories.  The Libyan conflict was over for everyone except the Libyans once Gaddafi was caught and killed.  Now it’s on to a new story and a new problem – can the former rebels establish a working government?  That’s much less dramatic and compelling a story (for the rest of the world) so Libya has dropped way down on the global news meter. 

To finish the Penn State abuse scandal, the University or the Governor or somebody needs to conduct a highly visible, rigorous investigation, hang everyone involved out to dry, and clean house.  Otherwise, it will haunt State College for years, in the same way that the Catholic Church has been unable to shake its sex abuse scandal because it has never really come clean about it in a way that matches the problem. 

Occupy Wall Street has presented a compelling problem to the world – economic inequality – but it has gone on long enough that people are asking for a solution.  As long as none is forthcoming, we can’t move through the story.  And because we have limited capacity for juggling news stories in our heads, OWS is risking losing the public’s attention altogether.  Stories that are further down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will take over.   At the base of Maslow’s hierarchy are physiological needs and safety issues, and so sex, disasters and wars always trump people camping out in urban parks.  Unless the OWS folks give us some solutions to debate, we’re going to move on. 

A different kind of issue bedevils the Mitt Romney campaign.  He can’t compete right now with the personal sagas of Caine and Perry self-destructing.  Newt will of course be next – he has self-destruction written all over him – and so Mitt is going to stay out of the news for a while.  Of course, he’s hoping to be the last Republican standing, the only sensible one in the bunch, but as a story and a problem, that’s not very compelling. 

He’ll have better luck once he’s through the primaries, because the story of America’s economic suffering is compelling, especially to voting Americans, and he can ride it a long way.  Nonetheless, ultimately people are going to demand a solution to that one, and if it were an easy one to solve, we would have done it already.  If Romney presents the usual Republican shibboleths – less government regulation, lower taxes, cutting the budget – thoughtful voters are going to realize that those solutions, while fine in themselves, don’t match the problem.  Sure government regulation is irritating, but a recent study found that only a tiny percentage of businesses actually cite it as a real problem.  We’d all like lower taxes, but somehow those Republican plans always end up cutting taxes for the rich, not the middle class and the poor – like 9-9-9.  And cutting the budget, while essential in the long run, is only going to hurt the economy in the short run.  Doesn’t anyone remember that Herbert Hoover tried that at the beginning of the Great Depression and made it worse as a result?  Voters are inattentive, but not stupid.  Politicians should take heed. 

To be evenhanded politically, here’s a few words on President Obama’s rhetorical problems:  no story at all.     

Finally, there’s the NBA.  I personally am a basketball fanatic, and a huge fan of my hometown Celtics, but the problem here – a 50% or a 51% percent split? – is so far from compelling that this story is never going to be more than an afterthought.  At the end of the news day, Penn State sex scandals, economic woes, and mayhem around the world are going to crowd out the woes of “billionaires trying to stick it to millionaires” as someone so aptly put it.  The NBA needs a much better story to tell, and a much more compelling problem. 

Hope you enjoyed the rant.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

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