Sunday, May 31, 2009

Entrepreneur: I Want You to Succeed

By Michael A. Barr

Q: What can you learn from Uncle Sam?
A: How to frame a powerful message.

This famous poster can help you see how to create an immediate sense of urgency – getting instant attention for your message. Intensely, it calls out: our nation is at war; the world is at war. America needs you. Now. We are riveted.

Uncle Sam, one of the symbols of rugged America, appeals directly to YOU. Dressed in red, white and blue and with stars on his hat, he evokes more complex feelings than a military recruiter would – or even a famous general. He is America – its values, its flag, its states, its parades and pride.

He is concerned. The values he – and we - stand for are threatened. His finger is pointing at us, saying “your values are threatened – our values as a nation are challenged. We fought for these values and we will fight for them again – with your service.” He doesn’t actually say all this – we do.

What does he say? I want YOU. We know in a flash what he’s appealing to. This is a message built on three pillars:
  • I, America and what it stands for;
  • Want – not mandate, coerce or threaten – I want. What do I want?
  • YOU. You are in upper case, in red – not I.
Smaller font: for the U.S. Army.

The values of a nation: no weaponry displayed - no specific battle – there would be plenty of those types of messages later on. What this poster does is to use symbolism and economy to great effect.

We ought to study its effect so that you can apply it to your messages.
  • First impression – appeal to common ground - what the US means to us
  • Action – America wants you to enlist in this time of crisis
  • Appeal – serve to preserve
The three-pillar structure creates power economically. I – a mythical figure symbolizing the best in us – want you – the best in you: courage, dedication and contribution. No footnotes needed.

Threes work. Yesterday; today and tomorrow; Challenge, solution, benefits. Introduction, body, conclusion. Threes – Just Do It; I came, I saw. I conquered. Threes are easy to structure, balanced, and memorable. Most ads for over-the-counter pain relievers follow the problem – solution – benefits formula faithfully. It’s instant drama and you can be sure your audience will remember it.

Active vs. Passive

Imagine if the poster said “soldiers are being recruited at City Hall.” This message is perfectly clear but it lacks power. Passive structures are useful when we do not want to attribute something to someone in particular. Attorneys and diplomats use them a lot. A spokesman for the US Government announced in August of 1945 that “an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.” The decision involved several military and political leaders – not just Harry S. Truman. The passive voice was appropriate.

But if you are a leader of a startup, articulating a vision and inspiring your people, remember Uncle Sam. He – and we – want YOU to succeed.

Today’s article is presented by Michael A. Barr, who is a member of our Startup Professionals team. He brings to the table a long list of business and academic credentials, featuring business coaching and communication skills. Contact him via email at

Marty Zwilling



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