What Whitney Houston Taught Us About Communications

I had just entered my teenage years when Whitney Houston hit it big in 1985.

Most of my friends were listening to much “cooler” music at the time – Depeche Mode, The Talking Heads, Van Halen. But there was something about Whitney Houston that I found captivating, even if admitting it would have made me the laughingstock of the junior high boy’s locker room.

Watching her obit on the cable news channels tonight, I kept thinking back to her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Specifically, I thought about a comment a disc jockey made on a Tucson radio station the first time I ever heard the song when he introduced it back in 1992. He noted that he couldn’t remember any other artist having the bravery to begin a pop song with 43 seconds of a cappella singing – or having the gravitas to pull it off.

So that’s the first thing Whitney Houston taught us about communications. Just because virtually every other song of the pop era had started with music didn’t mean it had to be that way. She had the confidence to do something different – and, in the process, proved that pop radio would indeed play a song that started with moments of virtual dead air.

I’m also struck that the most powerful moments of Houston’s video for that song featured her sitting down, singing the song directly to the camera. Ms. Houston wasn’t known as a terrific dancer, so she turned her liability into an asset by sitting and delivering a powerful vocal that reached right through the lens to the subject of her song.

That’s the second thing she taught communicators: that we don’t need to be strong in every area to become one of the greats. Great communicators know how to highlight their strengths and deemphasize their weaknesses. A public speaker with a groan-inducing sense of humor, for example, learns to bury the yuks and present a more dramatic speech. A political candidate who isn’t particularly warm turns that into an asset by labeling himself disgusted with the status quo.

Finally, the third thing she reminds communicators is that great storytelling often has a dramatic arc, typically presented in five steps: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. “I Will Always Love You” is far from unique in having all five, but the song’s extreme reaches are atypical for pop music. The song’s crescendo, or climax, remains one of the most torch-worthy moments in pop history.

For readers who didn’t follow Ms. Houston’s music (or were raised after her peak), her 1990 number one smash, “All The Man That I Need” remains my favorite. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s worth a listen.

What are your favorite memories? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.