Recently I saw the special exhibition on Norman Rockwell at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington D.C.  You must see it.  There, until January 2, 2011, you will find 57 of Rockwell’s paintings and drawings as collected by the Hollywood moguls, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  The exhibition gives an object lesson in telling a story in one picture—this is a useful reminder to just about anyone, including business professionals.

Rockwell was a leading American magazine illustrator in the 20th Century.  Not impressionistic or abstract, Rockwell’s style is realistic and precise.  He captured small dramatic moments among people in everyday life, such as a scared kid on the high-diving board; an obstinate woman in a jury room; and a soldier and his family just at the moment of returning home from war.   Rockwell’s special gift was to portray a wide range of emotions in his subjects—and to evoke them in his viewers.  Rockwell makes it easy to see a story.  Each of his paintings is a snapshot of some tableau in motion.  Maybe that’s why the critics haven’t liked him: it’s too easy to envision a story—in contrast with abstract painters and the frozen people in formal portraits.  Critics said that Rockwell’s art was bourgeois kitsch and that it reflected a nostalgic America that never really existed.  Certainly, Rockwell was leaning against the tide of cultural change: modernism, post-modernism, social and political upheavals of all kinds.

Now, the pendulum of critical assessment seems to have turned.  The U.S. is experiencing something of a mini-boom in Rockwell’s art—in addition to this one, two other Rockwell retrospectives have traveled the country recently.  And Rockwell has been the focus of a new biography.  In her catalogue for the Smithsonian’s exhibition, Virginia Mecklenberg wrote,

 “Rockwell was a keen observer of the world who captured the realities of individual lives as well as the mores that society held dear…Rockwell was a master humorist with an infallible sense of the dramatic moment.  Like a movie director, he determined the pose and facial expression of each character, positioned each prop, and lighted his sets for maximum scenic effect. …A magazine cover…had only a spit second to reach its audience. …The most successful covers grabbed the reader through sheer visual impact….Rockwell told stories that Americans wanted, and sometimes needed, to hear.” ((Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. 2010, pages 25-27 and 190.))

Business life is filled with story-telling: selling, persuasion, and influencing.  Leadership, the capacity to enlist others in a cause, asks people to embrace a story.  Teaching of almost any kind involves students in constructing the meaning in a story.  Most entry-level jobs for MBA graduates are to be assistant story-tellers, or just people who gather and assemble the raw material.   

Rockwell sets an extremely high standard for story-telling: do it with just one image.  The way he achieves this is to invite the viewer to co-create the story with around the dramatic moment.  You imagine what happened leading up to this very moment and what is likely to happen next.  To do more would be to dilute or destroy the enormous impression he creates. 

Rockwell’s achievement is consistent with great management communication: keep it simple; stay focused on the headline message; help your audience come to the conclusion on their own rather than bash them with the obvious.  Great business practitioners get this.  Bill Gray, (Darden MBA, 1978) was President of the leading advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather; he told me recently, “Every brand entails one big ideal.  If you want to advance the brand, you must convey that single ideal clearly and consistently.” (For more on Bill’s views, see this.)  Robert Greenleaf, Director of Management Research for AT&T said, “Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.” ((Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.  1977.))  John Johnson, the founder of Ebony magazine, said that he could “sell anybody anything in five minutes or less” by focusing on just three things: grabbing “the client’s attention with a fact or an emotional statement that hits him…find[ing]the vulnerable spot, and emphasiz[ing] the common ground…the values, hopes, and aspirations that bind you together.” ((John J. Johnson, “How to Sell Anybody Anything in Five Minutes or Less,” in Peter Krass, ed., The Book of Business Wisdom , John Wiley & Sons, 1997, pages 233-34.))  And Edward Tufte, the expert in the graphic presentation of quantitative data, offers masterpieces of succinct, but rich, displays. 

Can business schools promote this kind of communication?  Thanks to advances in information technology, we are awash in data and messages.  Each year, I absorb numerous presentations and articles, in the middle of which I yearn for the “Rockwell moment”—that point of significance at which I can begin to make my own meaning of the ideas at hand.  Given the vast size of the field of management education (some 12,000 schools in the world), it is hard to know how well we are doing.  But speaking for one school, I can say that Darden is focused on preparing who are ready and able to get to the point.    The case method of instruction promotes the ability to make your point succinctly.  Our courses in Management Communication are some of the most transformational for our students and beloved among our alumni.  Recruiters tell me that our graduates are excellent communicators.  If our experience is any indication, B-schools can promote the kind of powerful communication that Rockwell perfected.

In a video commentary on the exhibition, George Lucas called Norman Rockwell, “the leading story-teller of the 20th Century.”  Perhaps reality imitates art: our task as educators and business practitioners is to focus on developing communications and messages that reach audiences as effectively as did Rockwell.  We need our Rockwell moments.